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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,

…nah.

Yours realistically,

(That’s better.)

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

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