Careful Consideration – This Time It’ll Be Different. I Swear!


I’m a pessimist.

Or at the very least, I’m very disappointed in the way 2009 went. There’s just a general sense of malaise and disappointment when I think about the last twelve months of Magic for me, and that’s not fun. But what’s done is done; the only thing I can do is look forward to 2010 and set goals for myself, and do what I can to meet them.

“But Zaiem,” you may be saying to the computer screen, “why the flork should I care what you plan to do next year?”

First of all, watch your language. Second of all, because if you’re a PTQ grinder, if you’re someone who looks at the PTQ schedule and gets excited and can’t wait until you get to battle, if you’re always looking for that edge with the hopes and dreams of getting on the Pro Tour and becoming the next Luis Scott-Vargas or PV, then consider this:

I am really you.

Whoa. I think I just blew my own mind.

That is to say, I’m in a position where I’m not a PT regular (or a PTer at all, thus far), but I’m also working to get there. And along the way, I learn lessons, get better from my mistakes, and tell you about my mistakes so that you don’t repeat them. It’s a way to participate in the community and do something that’s bigger than me, and I love doing it. Sometimes it’s a little scary when I wear my heart on my sleeve, as it provides a sense of vulnerability, but in the end it’s worth it.

One thing I didn’t do last year was set many goals for myself, and the vague goals I did set were really not tied to any specific plan to achieve them. So let’s not do that again.

Goal: Play the best deck.

There’s truth in the adage “play what you know,” but if what you know is a bad deck, then you’re still going to do poorly. I learned this the hard way two Extended seasons ago when I played the living daylights out of Enduring Ideal combo, only to find myself on the losing end because my opponent had too many Indrik Stomphowlers, Vensers, and Ronom Unicorns. That deck was very powerful, but also very vulnerable to hate, and it gave me little room to outplay my opponents. I stuck with the deck, thinking “play what you know,” but it was too linear and the format was ready for it.

Fast forward to Grand Prix: Seattle. I played a lot of Black/White Tokens leading up to that Grand Prix, mostly due to me finally biting the bullet and playing Magic Online seriously for the first time. But in the wake of Cascade Swans winning Grand Prix: Barcelona the week before, Tokens seemed like a bad choice, since the Swans matchup was just horrid.

The deck to play that tournament was Faeries, and I even knew that. But I had never really played that deck before, despite it being the best deck in the format at many points during both Block and Standard, and I didn’t feel comfortable piloting a deck like that at such an important event (hometown Grand Prix, had three byes). I had played an awful lot of Swans leading up to the GP, so I went with what I knew, even though I was pretty certain it was a bad decision.

The results were not surprising, but soul-crushing all the same. My round four opponent knew what I was playing and mulliganed into maindeck Meddling Mage, then boarded in eleven cards against me. Round five I ran into maindeck Thoughtseize, which took all the action out of my hand and he boarded in ten or eleven cards against me, and my round six opponent was maindecking Pithing Needle and had a stacked board against me as well. Tournament over.

Nice deck.

Sure, there’s some luck there, but I had handicapped myself by not wanting to play Faeries at any point because I wasn’t willing to put in the time to be comfortable with it. Instead, I played a worse deck. Sure, by the time I had to make my deck choice for Grand Prix: Seattle, Faeries would have been a poor choice because of my lack of familiarity with the deck, but in the preceding months when I knew it was the best deck and actively avoided it because it didn’t fit my style, it cost me.

If the deck is the consensus best deck in the format, then I’m going to play it and become intimately familiar with it. If we had a Standard PTQ season right now, you better darn believe I’d be sleeving up Jund.

How to achieve the goal: Putting together a large collection on Magic Online has helped me tremendously. This allows me to play dozens, if not hundreds, of games with the deck I want to play, letting me see virtually every situation that’s likely to come up with that deck. There’s no need to be risk-averse.

Goal: Develop a deep understanding of every relevant Constructed format

Even though I didn’t think I played that much Standard last year, by the time the season ended, I really thought I had a very strong handle on the format. My article, Finding Holes in Standard, was an indication of that – and I want to be able to have that same kind of understanding for Extended and Standard this year (the two Constructed PTQ formats). I want to be able to write that same article for every Constructed format, and do so with confidence.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think my high-level understanding or knowledge of the game is lacking; it’s the execution of that high-level understanding that trips me up. Silly errors, mental slips, and the like have been a large contributor to my lack of success.

How to achieve the goal:
This is just a matter of taking time to test matchups, figure out what’s successful, be open-minded about sideways strategies, discuss theory with others, solicit ideas, and doing the little things like going through every card in the format in Gatherer five or six times a season. It’s hard work.

Goal: Consciously develop a structured decision-making model.

Alexander Shearer’s article this week is a fine one and is a must-read, really. He talks about an OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), or a decision-making model. He has a mental checklist of sorts to run through whenever something significant happens:

Your life total
Your opponent’s life total
Your cards in hand
Number of cards in your opponent’s hand
Known cards in your opponent’s hand
Permanents in play and their current state
Spells and effects on the stack
Your graveyard
Your opponent’s graveyard
Exiled cards
Your opponent’s demeanor
Time left in the round

This is excellent advice, and the article is a fine piece of writing. (Folks, if you aren’t reading Shearer every week, you’re missing out. You want to talk about high-level understanding? He’s got it in spades.)

How to achieve the goal: Probably start during playtesting, and get the repetitions down so that it becomes second nature. It feels like taking a bit of a step backwards when you reinvent the way you think about the game on a basic level, but in the end it should help eliminate some of the small, silly errors. I liken that to Tiger Woods reinventing his swing a couple of years ago.

Goal: Be more vigilant about finding out why I’m losing games.

I’m pretty bad at knowing why I lost. If I made some silly on-board mistake where I forget to attack, that’s pretty easy to identify. But if my plan is wrong, or if I didn’t think enough turns ahead, or if I just made some poor decisions, I don’t really see it. This is especially true in paper Magic. With Magic Online, we have the benefit of replays, and that lets me watch games over and over again to find mistakes.

I don’t do that enough. Also, even when I do watch my replays, I’m probably overlooking mistakes. If they were right in my head the time I made them, it’s likely that I will continue to think it’s right after rewatching it. It’s like when you write a paper (or an article) and you proofread your own work. You’ll catch some mistakes, but not all of them. Send it someone else, and they can find the errors in your writing.

Magic is the same way.

How to achieve the goal: Stop being lazy and just do it. Every time I do a draft, record it, and then send it off to various people who are better than me. Every time I play in an eight-man event, record it. Playing a bunch of games of Magic isn’t going to help if I’m not actively looking at what my mistakes are and looking to improve my play. And that means getting help from others if I have to.

Goal: Win a PTQ.

Pretty simple. Okay, so there’s variance, and things beyond your control can get you, but I haven’t even played well enough to win a PTQ. I’ve played well in spots, and I’ve had some PTQs where I’ve won all my good matchups and have hit two bad matchups in a row to knock me out of Top 8 contention, but my not-winning a PTQ is too consistent for it to be variance.

Seeing my good friend Jon Loucks win not one, but two PTQs in 2009 was a real wake-up call. Jon’s always been a better player than me, but for a while, we both thought we were close in skill. Something happened recently and he just took a leap somewhere, and suddenly he’s one of the best players in the area.

Seeing that motivated me more than ever. I want to take down a freaking PTQ. I missed out on San Diego, but San Juan is within my grasp. Having more Magic Online PTQs is going to help that, as it gives me more opportunities to qualify.

How to achieve the goal: Be brutally honest about everything about my game. Am I managing my time well enough? Am I getting the most of out of testing? Am I playing the right deck? Am I actually just horrible?

Goal: Find more efficient ways to improve.

One of the things that I’ve learned recently is that players don’t really have a good understanding of why they’re good. Or more specifically, what we can do to emulate the top pros.

For example, it’s safe to assume that LSV is a better player than you. He’s certainly better than me. But why is he better? What is he doing that we aren’t? Is it just tight technical play? Is it the absence of on-board errors or technical flaws in the game? It’s more than that, but we don’t really have a good way to isolate the factors that make him (or PV, or Finkel, or Kenji) good, and we have even fewer tools to develop those skills once we have isolated them. So we just say, “Play a bunch of Magic.” That is a way to improve, and it’s currently the best way we know, but it cannot possibly be the most efficient way.

Find what makes people good, isolate those attributes, and develop drills or methods to focus in on those attributes and improve them.

This is a really, really big idea and could easily be expanded into multiple articles (which will come in 2010). I’ve had some fascinating discussions with people about this, and there’s a wealth of material to be learned here. Conley Woods and I will be doing a joint article on this sometime soon.

How to achieve the goal: This is a little ambitious, because I honestly don’t know how to go about doing this exactly. I do feel strongly that we don’t play Magic efficiently, and everyone I’ve spoken with agrees. We’re inefficient, but nobody has devised a way to make things more efficient.

Goal: Stop focusing on my failures.
I once wrote an article for TCGPlayer.com titled Sorrow’s Path, which tells a personal tale of just how hard I took losses. I don’t deal with losses quite as poorly now, but it’s still tough.

I went to Pro Tour: Honolulu and Pro Tour: Austin, despite being qualified for neither, and played in the LCQs. I did not qualify for the Pro Tour either time, and to say I was bummed out was an understatement. When you go to a PTQ and don’t qualify and see the PT coverage from a distance, that’s one thing. But when you’re playing in some side event while the Pro Tour is going on next to you, it’s quite another.

See this? See the main event going on? You aren’t there. You tried, and you failed.

It wasn’t just one try, either. How many PTQs did you play in? How many hours did you put into testing? What’s wrong with you?

There is success, and there’s failure. Can you really look at this and say that this is success in any way? No? Guess what the other option is there, buddy.

You. Have. Failed.

And then I wonder why I’m not having any fun at these things.

(No, I’m not going to San Diego to LCQ, no matter how cheap the plane ticket is.)

How to achieve the goal: As I wrote in Sorrow’s Path,

“”¦there is no special button to press. It’s a process.”

I have to just stop thinking about the failure and focus on what I can do to improve. I’ve gotten better at it. I don’t go home and sit in a chair anymore. I can laugh after a PTQ loss. It’s getting better, but there’s still room to go. I wanted to just curl up in a ball and die after Grand Prix: Seattle. I wanted to be alone and move to some god-forsaken place like Siberia or Wyoming. Not really the healthiest of reactions.

Goal: Get a good night’s rest.

I haven’t slept well in months. Maybe years. It took me a long time to realize this, but I’m always tired. Always. At any given point of any given day, I can take a nap for a couple of hours, and wake up and still be tired. Twelve hours of sleep? Fourteen? Doesn’t matter. Focusing on things has been hard for me, and has been for quite some time.

This extends far beyond Magic. There’s just something wrong with my health. I’ve finally booked an appointment with a specialist, although these things have to be done months in advance, so I have to wait a while.

When I initially submitted the headshot I use for the articles, it was the only picture I have on file. Those of you who have met/seen me at events know that I’m quite a bit heavier than that. I have poor eating habits. I don’t exercise. And I have no excuse for that. This falls under the general “I want to get skinny/healthy/trim/fit/bikini-ready” goal that people often have at the start of the year, but one benefit for me is to just be able to focus for a day. Just a day would be nice without this stupid fog that hangs over me.

(Also, I’ve now joined the 19th century and have a camera, so expect a better, more accurate picture, albeit one that accurately reflects that I’m now the size of a small house – not flattering, folks. Not flattering at all.)

How to achieve the goal: Eat less, exercise more, see a doctor. The usual stuff. Not rocket science or anything groundbreaking here. For further information, see every non-retarded weight-loss plan ever.

I want 2010 to be a breakout year for me, but it’s going to require effort, dedication, and commitment. I’ve got a PTQ on the 2nd, so that’ll provide a good opportunity to gauge where I’m at in this Extended format. Maybe I can curb the general feeling of dread I have and try to develop some sense of…what’s the word people use? Hope? Let’s try that.

Yours hopefully,


Yours realistically,

(That’s better.)

zaiemb at gmail dot com
zbeg on Twitter
zbeg on Magic Online

21 thoughts on “Careful Consideration – This Time It’ll Be Different. I Swear!”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Careful Consideration - This Time It’ll Be Different. I Swear! | ChannelFireball.com -- Topsy.com

  2. I can identify with this essay in that I, too, want to set a lot of goals even though my 2009 was a breakthrough of sorts for me, Magic-wise. I want to keep improving and your insights helped me find ways by which I can continue to upgrade my skills. Much obliged!

  3. I attended both GP: Boston and GP: Minneapolis, with the goal of reaching Day 2 of both. My Limited game has always been pretty stellar; I consider myself a skilled drafter, and I pride myself in my ability to discern the correct build in most Sealed pools. However, I make wayy too many play mistakes, especially in pressure situations. As a result, I lost in the ninth round of each, after starting 5-0 in each, to fall short of Day 2 in each.

    I’ve punted more games than I could count, and I want to fix this in 2010. Shearer’s list of items to review each turn seems like an excellent starting point, and I wish you the best in your efforts to improve.

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  5. I have the same issue with sleep, and my doctor has advised me to see a sleep specialist as sleep apnea can cause a number of health problems and sounds like what you’re going through. Or depression.
    Not to sound morbid, just saying because I think it’s the right thing to do to at least mention it.

  6. Poor sleep is as bad for you as a poor diet. I agree with the guy who says go and get checked out. I was diagnosed with and treated for sleep apnoea a couple of years ago and it transformed my life. In the short term though, sleep REGULARLY (same time to bed, same time to rise) – the hours are less important than the routine. And cut down on that energy drink filth. They’re poison. Coffee has all the caffiene you’ll ever need and has the added benefit of being delicious rather than tasting of socks. Stop drinking ANY caffiene after early afternoon.
    Excercise and diet will improve your magic play as well as your health and happiness. When you’re overweight and out of shape you tire quickly and it affects everything you do. Get down to your fighting weight and you’ll be more alert and have more stamina for those long tournaments.

    I’ve had my sleep sorted out and dropped about 40 pounds and I can’t recommend it enough.

  7. If you are trying to proofreed your own paper, they say you need to put at least 6 hours between writing it and reading it so your mind can clear out the old mistakes and look at it fresh. I imagine the same thing would be true with watching replays.

  8. How does this article make you sad? Zaiem is dissatisfied with his performance and is making the strategic calculations necessary for self-improvement. The words I’d attach to this are heartening and admirable, not sad.

  9. This article does remind me of me. Some T8s, GP Day 2, trying to take it seriously, and still not making the tour. That’s why it’s said, IMO.

    Yes, it’s cool that Zaiem is trying again etc. as am I, and I love reading his articles, but I keep reading these things and thinking about how good he is and he’s still stuck at my level. How far is there for a regular player to go to break through? Seems pretty tough.

  10. @Bug, Ed Bradley – I certainly hope the sleep issue can get worked out. My appt isn’t until the 25th of February, so I have to wait. Apparently people have sleep issues. Who knew?

    @The_Engineer – I don’t *think* the gulf between mediocre (me) and multiple PTQ winner (JonLoucks) is that big. Jon made The Leap last year, and I don’t even think he knows how/why. It’s probably a cumulative effect of eliminating small errors and that sort of thing. I have put up more 6-2 finishes in PTQs than I would care to admit, so some improvements here and those can be consistent T8, and more improvements can translate to PTQ wins? That’s the idea, anyway.

    Look at Alexander Shearer. I’m turning into a big fanboy 🙂 but he’s gone from “huh, we have a new writer,” to “huh, that article was pretty good, I wonder who this guy is?” to “whoa, that’s a really good way of putting it,” to “if I miss his writing each week, I’m doing myself a disservice.” But AFAIK he hasn’t been stomping any Pro Tours either. Clearly he’s got a great mind for the game and can impart wisdom to make others around him better, but something is missing – the execution of those concepts is different than understanding/theorizing the concepts in the first place. I imagine it’s just consistency. (And I don’t think Shearer will stay off the PT for long.)

    OTOH, I was talking to a PT ringer and he made an interesting observation about Yuuya Watanabe: The guy makes a lot of silly mistakes. Like just bad attacks, or forgetting that X creature has some damage on it, or forgetting to put his Narcomoeba into play off a dredge. Like indisputably bad plays. But Yuuya’s not a bad player by any means. He does other things well, like having a plan many turns in advance, and to steal a phrase from PV, plays the same game from turn one through turn sixty, where other players play a different game each turn.

    I don’t understand how BIG the difference is between PTQ grinder and PTQ ringer, or PTQ grinder and someone like LSV, but my sense is the difference between them is smaller than what we would initially think. I have a lot more to say on the subject – mostly questions right now, although I’m getting answers slowly as I talk to people, theorize, observe, etc.

    @everyone else – Thank you for the very nice comments. 🙂

  11. Oh please oh please oh please make it your goal to regularly do “finding holes in standard/extended” annually. Your first one was very well done, and what convinced me that my rogue deck actually had the power to go to a PTQ. Everything you wrote was entirely true, and helped me fine tune my sideboard to a respectable first attempt.

  12. It’s pretty awesome to see an article author who is willing to put forth both the time and the openness to write a piece like this. A lot of these articles are about MTG and only MTG, so someone putting it together with real life is a very fresh take on the matter.

    As for the lack of sleep, I’m no specialist but I can tell you that what you’re going through sounds like stress anxiety… stress will totally tear your life apart if you let it, and it’s not just the “big things.” Sometimes a lot of little issues will just conglomerate over time without you even realizing it… I’ve watched my grades and health at college take a massive hit until recently as a result.

    So when you go see this expert, definitely ask about that. And in the mean time, take a look at your life, and especially your thoughts right before/as you go to sleep. If you are concentrating on mistakes, failures, or life issues every time, it won’t do you any good. Don’t think “this is what I did wrong,” but rather, “this is what I’m going to do right tomorrow.”

  13. Hi Zaiem. Nice article. I like that you are being realistic about your ability with the game and in the areas you could improve in. It takes a humble attitude to really look at yourself and realize you aren’t the greatest at Magic. I really appreciate your article and your “putting yourself out there” in a world/game where we are constantly surrounded by rude, cocky players who always think they’re better than you.

    I think the one big thing to remember when it comes to Magic (or any game with a good deal of chance) is that you will lose sometimes. No one can win all the time. I was truly amazed with Watanabe’s win streak last year, but even that had to come to an end. Once you realize this and are okay with it, it puts you into a position where you can finally start analyzing your games and yourself instead of wallowing in anger and despair after the tough losses. After reading your article, it sounds like you have reached that point.

    I wish you good luck and good skill in 2010. Rest well.

  14. Pull Tanya Hardings at every PTQ and you’ve got a chance.

    Then when you get to the Pro Tour there are 300-500 people as good or betetr than you.

    Wow… it sounds so impossible?

    One way of thinking that I have employed since my return to magic in July (hadnt played since 2003 and had 1590 rating.. was never a good player and didnt care either) is:

    “How much can I push the envelope without punting the game or putting me in a terrible position?”

    In a game today versus Mono White tokens / aggro (FNM)

    This is like exactly what i thought in my head when i had 3 life a 4/3 BBE and a Malakir Bloodwitch and he had a Steppe lynx, soul warden, honor of the pure, 12 life and 4 lands and 2 Soul wardens in hand.

    ok swing with the 4/3 BBE, he probably doesn’t block because he doesn’t have to. This leaves me with a malakir Bloodwitch back which blocks his soul warden or steppe lynx, deppending on landfall. I know he rangered for 2 Soul wardens so I will probably end up blocking the Lynx anyway, even if it is 1 more damag to me from warden ( i was at 3 life and he had Honor out) on the next turn because a maelstrom pulse puts me in excellent shape. So if he rips Honor, I’m toast anyway but If Push through some damage now, it leaves me in a better position to win if he doesn’t rip honor or something, even though that puts me at 1 anyway. I know he cant get rid of the Bloodwitch, no matter what, unless he DoJ which i’m 100% sure he isnt running.

    So yeah, let me swing with the BBE and let him make the decision of swingign with 2 and losing 1. He will go to 8 life and i just need SOMETHING to stall out and i can probably finish him off since he has an empty hand (well 2 wardens) and 4 land. I dont have to worry about eldrazi unless he rips 2 cards in a row (land –> eldrazi), and by then, i probably caught up unless i rip 2 lands.

    ok swing with BBE.

    So those were my thoughts on just 1 swing.. Like how can I not punt this game and apply pressure without being too risky? I htink it is so important to think think think even outloud but dont beat yourself up over it, just dont punt games.

    Ironically, he ended up drawing a brave the elements and said Pro Black.. so I died and couldnt block with my Bloodwitch, but that isnt the point.

    I liked your article but hope you can agree with my philosophy when coming back to magic or tryign to find out why you lose games.

    “What can I do to not punt and put me in good position without pushing the envelope too much”

  15. Who is this PV person I keep hearing mentioned? I looked through the articles but I am missing something, I think. Is this a nickname for someone? What is the spelled out version?

  16. @ Zaiem: Nice work, again.
    @ Jack: PV = da Rosa, Paulo Vitor. Magic player from Brasil.


  17. the flork I care (a bit bit) about what you are doing next year, since your articles fills an important role here in CF.

  18. “[playing magic] cannot possibly be the most efficient way.”

    I don’t really understand this view. Here’s why:

    If you want to be good at tennis you play a lot of tennis.
    If you want to be good at running, you run a lot.
    If you want to be good at gold, you play a lot of golf.

    Of course, to help there’s equipment, a trainer to see that you’re actually improving, image training and technical practice (swings, shots, maybe jumping and muscle training for all)l, but at the end of the day you really need to be DOING what you want to do improve in.

    All right, Magic isn’t a sport in that it doesn’t involve sweating (well, not a lot). So let’s take other similar games:

    If you want to be good at chess, YOU PLAY CHESS.
    If you want to be good at go, YOU PLAY GO.

    And yes, here you can learn a lot from books (mtg:articles), problems(mtg:er,drafts?), learning opening theory(mtg:drafting,mulligans), getting lessons, improving your tournament behaviour (time handling, sleeping well the night before, being properly hydrated — these are all present in chess/go/mtg/whatever), and of course you can simply watch and review really good players’ games.

    But honestly, if you get a lesson from a strong player, you will definitely want to PLAY THEM. If you want to learn opening theory, it doesn’t really help if you don’t play games after games to actually know why some opening is good or bad for your play style/skill level/skill set. If you get lessons, you will need to review games played before and play+review games afterwards to see if you’ve learned anything. Tournament behaviour? Really doesn’t help if you’re rusty or off your game. How to get your game back? Play.

    At the end of the day, playing and reviewing is the ONLY way to learn long-term.

    Or you can play a really unfair deck. The current T2 seems to be “Strike well with wheel of elf and you will win”. Does winning with “Bolt your 1drop, leech, thrinax, lottery elf into blightning, bitblast into lottery elf into blightning” really make you a better player? Does winning against that start make you a better player? Hell, I dunno. Does make testing a bit frustrating for one.

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