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Compulsive Research – Tropical Lessons from Hawaii

by Zaiem Beg

I’m writing this on my laptop as I sit just off Waikiki Beach under a palm tree. It’s about 80 degrees and there’s a cool breeze coming through as I sip a drink involving pineapple, coconut, and a small paper umbrella. I hear a ukulele playing off somewhere in the distance. From time to time, very attractive people walk by wearing skimpy beachwear. Last night my wife and I went out to an amazing dinner to celebrate our one year anniversary, and then went for a stroll on the beach. Today, we’re going to Hanama Bay to go snorkeling, then we will meet up with friends for dinner. Tomorrow our plans will probably involve some amount of swimming, beaching, and maybe hiking. It will be my seventh full day in Hawaii. I am free of obligation or worry.

And yet I’m not happy.

I set a goal for myself: I wanted to play in PT: Honolulu. I’ve been telling others that my primary reason for coming here was vacation first, Magic second, but that’s a lie. I came here to play in the Pro Tour. I came to Honolulu to win the Last Chance Qualifier, and I fell short.

Even worse, I gave up on myself. I just flat out gave up.

I could have gone PTQing on Saturday, as there was a qualifier for Pro Tour: Austin. B/W Tokens seemed well-positioned for this particular PTQ, as G/B Elves had suddenly surged in popularity after the LCQ, creating a run on Gilt-Leaf Palaces and Chameleon Colossuses (Colossi?), and Swans had taken a serious hit in popularity. I’ve played B/W Tokens more than I have any other deck and I’m very comfortable with my sideboard, my plan for each matchup, and how to adapt to changing situations with the deck.

But I stopped caring. My alarm went off Saturday morning, and I decided to just go back to sleep. Getting up to go to a PTQ felt a lot like getting up to go to work or school. It felt like something I felt like I had to do, not something I wanted to do. Sure, I can make excuses, like I was sick, or that my illness kept me awake for a good portion of the night, but given that I am so far from where I need to be, how could I reasonably excuse that behavior?

I showed up later in the day to play in an Extended tournament, as I have an unhealthy love for turning Tarmogoyf and Kird Ape sideways. I played horribly. Just awful, awful, embarrassingly bad Magic. I lost two mirror matches I should have won and I threw away another game against a Bant deck. I realized I didn’t really care about the outcome of any of the games, and I had completely lost focus as a result, and I wasn’t searching for every little edge I could get.

Don’t let this happen to you.

Would Tiger Woods choose to sleep in the morning of a PTQ? Or Michael Jordan? Or John Elway? Or Jerry Rice?

I am angry with myself for losing the drive and the dedication, even for one morning, to get out of bed and do everything I can to play the best Magic possible.

But I’m also realizing that motivation and hard work aren’t enough. You have to use that energy efficiently, and I’m 100% certain I haven’t done that. I don’t have a clear plan, so I flounder around, trying different things and hoping I improve, because nobody has ever really mapped out what it takes to be one of the best..

For example, let’s say I wanted to set a goal to become a good technical piano player. I could sit down and map out what I would need to do to get there. It would be a long process requiring hundreds, if not thousands of hours of work, but the roadmap is pretty clear. You would start from the beginning – learning how to read music and which notes correspond to which keys on the piano. There are drills and practices you can do to build your skills in these areas. Learn the scales and a set number of music theory concepts. Later as you progress, you take on pieces with a certain degree of complexity. Learn your Bach. Beethoven. Mozart. Build your technical skills through repetition and practice, moving up levels in complexity as you master the previous level.

(The analogy isn’t perfect; being a good musician also involves playing with a certain degree of emotion and expression, which doesn’t translate to Magic play. If you attack with Mistbind Clique, it’s going to do four points of damage whether or not you truly felt the essence of what Mistbind Clique is all about. You can be an excellent technical piano player and not be one of the best, but if you are an excellent technical Magic player, you’re going to be pretty successful.)

You can take other disciplines and apply the same idea to them. A friend of mine has become a fairly successful poker player (enough to make a very comfortable living) and he followed a very specific plan. He read X books and watched Y videos and played online with Z stakes with specific starting hand requirements and used a bankroll management formula to manage his finances as he ground through the microstakes, playing thousands of hands, with the rules changing in specific ways as he moved up each limit.

If I set a goal to run a marathon, there are nutrition and training plans that have very specific instructions on how to achieve that goal.

Why don’t we have a similar path in Magic?

Poker, piano and marathon training regimens have been around for much longer and people have put more thought into becoming better at them, but I see no reason why a roadmap couldn’t be developed for Magic as well.

The advice out there attempts to be helpful, but is also often vague.

“Play against people better than you.”
“Play Magic Online.”
“Play the best deck and learn the mirror.”
“You have to test.”
“Learn from your mistakes.”
“Play as much as possible.”

Beyond that, you might find an article here or there on specific things to improve, but nowhere is there a plan. Magic is a very complex game and there are a lot of elements to it, but nothing is so complex that it’s undocumentable or unmappable. The medical community has documented and developed an instructional plan to learn brain surgery, for crying out loud.

Maybe Patrick Chapin’s upcoming book will solve this problem. I certainly hope so. It sounds like we’ll have to wait a few more months to find out. I saw him wandering around the venue this weekend but I never had a good opportunity to stop him and talk about it. Alas.

Riki asked me what I want to be known for in five years. LSV-level play was the first thing to come to mind, but I also want to contribute more to the community than just strong play. I want to instruct and pass on the lessons I’ve learned. I want a legacy that’s more than “he was a good player.” I want someone to say, “He made me better at this game.”

Initially I had decided that with all the Extended PTQs followed immediately by trials for Grand Prix: Seattle, then the Grand Prix itself and Hawaii the following weekend, that I was a little burnt out. But there’s a PTQ in Boise this weekend and I think I owe it to myself to make the seven-hour drive to get there. Then I can take a break, as there will be no more PTQs in my area until some time in August.

I need to start over and examine my game and find the holes in it. I’m going to start with my own Fearless Magic Inventory, something that was written about by Sam Stoddard a while ago.

1. I put up worse results in person than I do on Magic Online. This is because when I take the extra few seconds to make sure my play is correct in person, my opponent is staring at me, urging me to speed things up. On Magic Online, I have only the pressure of the clock, which I can manage more easily.
2. I need to be in peak condition for my mind to work correctly. If I get a little less sleep or I haven’t eaten in a long time, then my game deteriorates rapidly.
3. I rush through my decisions and don’t think about all the possible plays, leading to mistakes.
4. If I think my opponent is going to play correctly, I don’t give him a chance to make a mistake. For example, if I know they have a burn spell in their hand and there’s no way to keep me out of burn range, I’ll make suboptimal plays because it doesn’t matter what I do. Usually it doesn’t matter, but the percentage of games where it does is greater than 0%.
5. I get bored with Limited formats too easily and don’t draft the second or third sets as much as I should, leaving my Limited game for later sets weak. I did very well in triple Shards of Alara draft, but add Conflux and Alara Reborn to the mix and the results are not good. I had the same problem with Morningtide.
6. I mistap my lands too often.
7. If I know my opponent is better than me, I tend to focus sharply and play better. But on the flip side, if I think my opponent isn’t significantly better than me, I tend to be on the lax side.
8. If I win the game, I often don’t think about the mistakes I made.
9. If I lose a match early on in a tournament, I tend to go on tilt.
10. I have difficulty identifying my own mistakes.
11. I haven’t taken the time to figure out probabilities. If I spent some time doing math drills and figuring out that I have an X% chance of drawing a land, I can have better information when making mulligan decisions or play decisions. For example, I kept a hand that I thought was borderline, but after working out the math it essentially meant roughly an 80% of winning the game by keeping the hand. I’m very good at math and I excelled at it in college, so I should take the time to learn the math that applies to Magic.
12. When I’m confronted with an unfamiliar situation in Constructed, I tend to panic a little.
13. Since MTGO replays were disabled, I don’t go back and analyze my mistakes. I should take the time to get the software that records my games and then watch them, possibly even sending it to others for evaluation. It takes a little more time, but there’s no reason not to do this.
14. I only think two turns ahead most of the time. Sometimes not even that far.
15. If my opponent plays quickly, I tend to speed up as well and make more mistakes.
16. I don’t remember my games well enough to remember all the elements that were part of the board, so it’s harder to figure out what my mistakes were.
17. If I’m X-0 and I just have to “win one more to get into Top Eight,” I tend to play poorly. I’ve missed out on six Top 8s by crashing at the end.
18. I don’t feel comfortable playing certain deck archetypes. I like turning guys sideways or playing combo decks, and have pigeonholed myself as someone who doesn’t play control decks well. This is poor when the best deck in the format is a control deck.
19. I over-prepare with one or two decks, so if the metagame shifts quickly and the decks I play are suddenly poorly-positioned, I’m forced to play a deck that’s in a hostile environment or play a deck I’m not that familiar with.
20. I take too long in building three-color mana bases in Limited.
21. I don’t play enough Limited.
22. Sometimes I don’t have a good plan that helps me win the game. I don’t ask, “How am I going to win this game?” if I’m behind.
23. Sometimes I don’t ask, “What has to happen for me to lose this game?” when I’m ahead and I’ll allow my opponent to get back in via a misplay.

I’m sure there are more. Step one is identifying the mistakes. Step two is much more difficult: fixing my mistakes. I haven’t figured out how I’m going to tackle these yet, and this is the piece that I think is missing from the Magic community as a whole. We need a prescription for our ills, and those have not been quantified or developed properly yet.

I have some solutions in mind to some of my problems, but I don’t know if they are the best or most efficient solutions. On the docket:

1. Get software and record my games on Magic Online. Go back and analyze each game, win or lose, and figure out why I won or lost. Determine if other lines of play would have been better.
2. Develop a drill where I ask myself the same questions over and over again. Make a mental checklist to run down each one of the questions quickly, then make the play appropriately. This may be impractical.
3. Get in better shape. This has merit far beyond Magic-playing, but if I rely so much on physical condition, then I need to better my physical condition. Before I started playing Magic, I was much, much thinner and was (incidentally) in the middle of a strict marathon-training regimen.

More to come as I discover them. Suggestions are welcome and appreciated. I’m a big fan of drills. I like going through the same exercise over and over again to develop a certain skill, be it the Hanon drills for the piano player, or breathing/running drills for the marathoner, drills are a great way to build the foundation of any activity you want to do. Surely one can develop Magic drills as well.

I’m willing to do whatever it takes, but I don’t know what “it” is.

Stories from Hawaii

I’m a big fan of cautionary tales, as they can provide lessons learned without the heartache of having to learn them first hand. I know of two match losses that were awarded over the weekend, so take note and don’t make these mistakes!

Match Loss #1:

A friend of mine was playing in the LCQ and had finished his match and was wandering around, observing other matches. He came across another friend of mine, in the middle of the game. Once the game was finished, my non-playing friend spoke up about what had gone wrong in the game and what mistakes were made.

Except the match wasn’t over. That was the end of game two.

A judge was nearby and awarded the non-playing friend a match loss for outside assistance, knocking him out of contention.

The moral of the story: Be ABSOLUTELY FREAKING SURE THE MATCH IS OVER before you say anything.

Match Loss #2:

I was playing in an Extended event versus a combo Elves player, who was, I believe, from Italy. In game one, he played a [card Summoners Pact]Summoner’s Pact[/card] and was not able to go off, then passed the turn, and almost forgot to pay for his Pact, remembering at the last moment before he drew his card. In game three, he was going off and had just played a Summoner’s Pact when his friend put a piece of paper on top of my opponent’s deck with something in Italian written on it. My opponent moved it from the top of the deck to the side, then back on top of the deck.

I called a judge.

The friend said that the piece of paper had nothing to do with the match and that it was an amusing thing he wrote to himself and wanted to show my opponent the amusing aside. What did the note say, the judge asked?

“PAY FOR PACT”

When was the note put on top of my opponent’s deck? Right after Summoner’s Pact was played. It had nothing to do with the game? Really?

My opponent was awarded a match loss for outside assistance.

The moral of the story: Innocent or not, don’t interfere with your friend’s matches or give them anything while a game is going on. Be quiet, don’t give anyone anything, and make no noises.

It’s my Doppelganger!

One of the more bizarre stories in my Magic life resulted in an even more bizarre situation.

Last summer, my wife was out of town one weekend and I was bored, and I saw that a random card shop called the House of Flying Monkeys in Spanaway, WA (about 30 miles from my home in Seattle) was running an Extended tournament. I love playing Extended, so I sleeved up [card]Enduring Ideal[/card] combo and went to the shop, where I went 4-0-1, unintentionally drawing with this guy Kevin. The event was never reported and it never showed up in my ratings history. Oh well, whatever, no big deal.

Then during the winter on the message board we have for Oregon and Washington Magic on northwestmagic.com, in a thread totally unrelated to what was going on, someone wrote:

“Zaiem Useing other peoples DCI numbers is not cool!!!!!!! make it right”

I replied with a quick “what the heck are you talking about?” The poster was Kevin’s brother, then Kevin, the person whom I drew with at the tournament, himself responded:

“It’s true. It really isn’t a big deal to me, but I did lose 7 points drawing with Zaiem. He was playing under some dudes DCI number named Dominic S. Reiss when he came down to the ‘Hood’ AKA Spanaway. Everyone down south knows about it, but no one cares.”

This was, of course, ludicrous. I was being called a fraud on a public message board, and moreover, this person felt the need to tell “everyone down south about it,” so my good name was being sullied. I have a (well-deserved) reputation as a very honest player, and it bothered me that it was being damaged for something that I didn’t do. I was upset. I would include my reply here, but there was a little bit of profanity and this is a family site.

I contacted a judge and had them look up the number of Dominic S. Reiss, and sure enough – his DCI number is very close to mine; it’s one digit off and displaced. Dominic lives in Honolulu, some place I had never been. And I certainly didn’t know Dominic. After pointing all of these things out, including his and my DCI numbers and showing that the much more logical conclusion was that the tournament organizer merely typoed the DCI number when he entered me into the tournament, I got this response from Kevin:

“It’s possible the TO input the numbers wrong but highly unlikely. As for being concerned with you I’m not, the incident has no weight or baring(sic) on me whatsoever.”

Over the next couple of months, two things happened as a result of this:

1. The greater Seattle Magic community, who knows me as being a person of high integrity, found this situation completely ludicrous and therefore hilarious. Instantly I had a new nickname: Dominic.
2. This Kevin guy was telling everyone and anyone who would listen about this situation. I would go to a card shop and the owner would say, “Some guy was in here talking about how you used a fake DCI number.” Threatening PMs were sent to me from him.

People heard the story of Dominic S. Reiss and found it quite amusing. As if I’d use his DCI number in some sort of “rating for cash” scandal.

So when I came to Hawaii to play here, I knew Dominic also lived in Hawaii from his DCI ratings page, and that there was a good chance he would be at a side event. Alas, I didn’t see him at all on Friday. But on Sunday, my friend Eric said, “Dominic S. Reiss is here! He’s in the same Extended event you’re in!”

I approached Dominic after his match was done and explained to him what was going on, how his name was a very well-known running joke in the Seattle Magic community, and how his DCI number was confused with mine, and if he ever looked at his ratings history, how he gained 30 or so points from an Extended event he never played in. I also rattled off his DCI number (it being so close to mine). I was very, very excited to talk to Dominic, as the amusement factor of this situation went through the roof.

He seemed to be largely okay (though mildly weirded out) by the situation until Riki came up to us and I excitedly told Riki that this was THE Dominic S. Reiss I was talking to! Riki gave a “wow, really??” response, and I think that’s when poor Dominic realized that this was a little bit larger than he thought.

In retrospect, memorizing his DCI number and telling him I was looking for him all weekend and then getting a picture with him might not have been the best approach. He looked mildly uncomfortable with the situation and I’m pretty sure he:

1. Thinks I’m a stalker, and,
2. I followed him all the way to Hawaii.

Also, having us pose for a photo together probably didn’t help things any. He doesn’t look like the most excited person in the world:

 

(Uncanny, isn’t it? It’s like looking at twins!)

All in all though, Dominic was a pretty good sport about the whole thing, even if he does look a little like he’s not really in on the joke. [Dominic was probably even more weirded out when I called him by name on Sunday and asked him if he was a Judge because there is a Judge named Dominick Reisland, and i was running a bit sick and confused that day. -Riki, not quite dead]

Aloha means “one of these people looks more thrilled than the other,”

-Zaiem
zaiemb at gmail dot com

 

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