Bad tournaments happen, even when you practice, make good choices, feel prepared, and play well.
Two Bad Ones in a Row
Grand Prix Toronto was the worst tournament performance that I’ve ever had. I lost my first 4 matches out of the gate. The poor finish was even more frustrating on the heels of my last big tournament, the Invitational, where I squandered a perfect 4-0 Standard start with a 0-4 Modern collapse.
The tough pill to swallow about these two tournaments in a row was that I practiced smart, made good choices, played well, and got the opposite result of what I wanted. In both formats where I performed poorly in tournaments, I played a great deck I was intimately familiar with and got abysmal results.
Another Bad Beat Story
Disclaimer: I’m going to say some really annoying and boring stuff in the next paragraph, but hang with me because it is leads to a bigger point.
In Modern, I lost all 4 of my die rolls. Losing the play every time is costly when playing Infect. I mulliganed a bunch. I didn’t get particularly favorable matchups: removal-heavy Jund and Jeskai Control decks, and Burn. The games I lost I never really had the opportunity to “win” because I was always playing uphill. In Toronto, I identified and played the best deck, GW Tokens, had a great build, and got lots of practice in beforehand. My losses were pretty much beyond my control as I couldn’t draw lands and spells at the same time in the same game to save my life. Of the 4 rounds that I lost, 7 of those games were a direct result of mana screw or flood. I had 2 games where I kept a 2-lander with an Oath of Nissa and whiffed on my third land drop! Also, to make matters worse, in multiple rounds I wasn’t able to capitalize on my opponents’ mistakes because I could never draw a land or I just kept topdecking air, etc.
If your eyes glazed over while reading that paragraph or got two sentences in and skipped the rest, don’t worry—that was the point.
Why Bother with Bad Beat Stories
The fact of the matter is that nobody in the entire world cares about my (or your) bad beat story. In fact, the more I play and the harder I push myself to improve as a player, the more I realize that these types of stories are actually a detriment to improving as a player.
Disclaimer #2: I almost didn’t write this article because I was embarrassed about looking dumb or bad for admitting certain things out loud. I briefly considered writing it in the “good players like me do X,Y, and never Z” platitude that I personally find frustrating because it makes me feel like: “gee whiz, I wish I had the perfect mental makeup to just be awesome at Magic and never tilt!” So I’ll just go ahead and be honest about stuff and if you want to judge me for it, cool, because in other shocking news: I’m not perfect.
After losing my first 3 matches in a row at the GP, I was complaining about my most recent bad beat loss to BR Vampires when I suddenly had several epiphanies at the same time:
- My story had zero value to the listener.
- Retelling the story made me feel more frustrated and tilted.
- I was basically justifying why I deserved to win.
The bad beat story is as unproductive as it is prohibitive. The first two points are obvious enough reasons for demonstrating it to be a fruitless endeavor, but it is the third point that I think is really at the heart of the problem.
- There is a difference between a “bad beat story” and asking somebody for advice about a game you lost.
- There is a difference between a “bad beat story” and telling somebody about how you got killed in hilarious fashion. For instance, my BR Vampire opponent played Avaricious Dragon on turn 5 and madnessed Fiery Temper. Not a bad beat, but I lost to an awesome combination of cards.
When I say “bad beat story,” I mean a story about losing that serves no productive function other than to complain about how you didn’t deserve to lose.
Many players (myself included) incorrectly assume that we deserved to win after a frustrating loss. I kept a 3-lander and never drew a fourth land. My opponent made so many mistakes! If I would have drawn a land, I would easily have won.
The problem with the statement is that drawing poorly is and always has been part of the fabric of Magic. Yes, you try and minimize it when you can, but it is something that happens that is beyond your control.
Have you ever beaten somebody that was clearly better than you with a superior draw to theirs? It works both ways.
Another myth that I’d like to dispel is that practicing smart and hard, playing well, and choosing a great deck for an event equates to tournament success. You can do everything right to the best of your ability and still lay an egg.
In Toronto, I picked the best deck for the event. I practiced with it. I played it well. But I got tough pairings, I didn’t draw well, and I lost coin flip situations. Magic is hard. You can do the right things and still lose.
Magic culture tends to embrace an ideology that presumes there was something more or better that you could have done in order to influence the outcome of a match. The idea is pervasive to the point where you take it to the extreme by explaining losses by saying “you could have played a different deck,” or “maybe you should have sideboarded differently.”
Yet, is there really any skill I can hone that will help me win games when I don’t draw lands? I get that if I blame all of my losses on bad draws, bad luck, or mana screw that I am not necessarily striving to get better at Magic because I am rationalizing my losses.
Maybe there were other intangibles beyond your skill or ability to perceive, which is where the “always something more” philosophy comes into play. The mana screw and bad draws stand out the most because things obviously could have gone better for me.
Maybe I was tired. Jon Johnson, Seth Manfield, Louis Deltour and I shared a hotel room that would have been comically, uncomfortably small for just two people, let alone four. Maybe I was mentally sluggish? I went to an excellent local restaurant with David Ochoa for brunch and perhaps I ate too much french toast topped with duck in a cranberry glaze. Maybe I missed things that I didn’t even realize I was missing?
We also tend to embrace ideology that supports the notion that if we work hard we will succeed.
The statement is true in the long run but not always so much in the short term. It is actually possible to practice very little, be relatively unprepared, and do well at a tournament, or practice a ton and fail.
Winning with any kind of consistency for any kind of extended period of time is hard and it isn’t a simple formula where you plug in a behavior and get the result you want. Self improvement is about continuing to find new ways to grow and to improve little by little.
Magic is about the long game: learning and improving over time. It’s a big picture thing.
Learn from Failure
It is said that you learn more from failure than from success.
The part that stings the most about not doing well the past two events in a row is that I practiced hard and made good deck choices. I can’t remember ever running into a stretch of events where I put in more effort and performed so poorly.
The lesson for me was that effort doesn’t necessarily equal success. It certainly helps, but there are other factors at play.
I also learned that I don’t need to justify my successes or failures to anybody, not even myself. No more “bad beat stories” about mana screw to make myself feel better and no more presuming I deserved to win when I lost.
Given my last two tournaments, it would be difficult for me to have technically failed harder at Magic, but maybe it was an opportunity to grow and improve as a competitor. The bright side for me is that I made it through two very frustrating, tilting events without smoking, so at least that is something to take away from it.
Magic isn’t just one tournament. It is every tournament you have ever played and will ever play. You learn from your practice, successes, and failure in order to improve in the long term.