Fairly Assessing Your Play

Last weekend’s #MTGNJ was an absolute blast! It’s been a few months since I’ve traveled to an event, and it felt great to get back in the saddle at a maximum capacity Limited event.

It occurred to me that the way I play Magic has changed dramatically over the past six months. In the past, almost all of Magic was spread across various paper events and several travel tournaments a month. Now I stream 25 hours a week on Twitch and have been attending fewer paper events. It was nice to put the concepts I’ve been honing online to work at a MagicFest event.

I was also curious to see if a Limited paper event would feel significantly different than playing on Magic Arena. I’ll get to that a little bit later on.

For me, New Jersey was a tale of two tournaments. I had a good Sealed pool on Day 1 and piloted to a solid 7-2 finish but watched in slow motion as my tournament slowly unraveled on Day 2 where I went 1-5 in Draft.

We’ve all been there before. High expectations come crumbling down as the wins start to dry up. I’ve run the table on Day 2 and I’ve been a “maybe I’ll do better Tomorrow, Azami’s Familiar” as well.

Tomorrow, Azami's Familiar

It’s rare we are ever as good or as bad as a result suggests. Even with that seasoned perspective in mind, it doesn’t sting any less when an event gets away from you despite your best effort. There is much to be learned both in victory and defeat, and the more honest you are about the result with yourself, the better the lesson.

Be Honest With Yourself About Weaknesses and Work on Them


My two biggest Magic (and frankly, life) weaknesses are:

  1. Negative attitude.
  2. Poor preparation.

A negative attitude is difficult to defeat. I’ve realized that mine is deeply ingrained in what I do and how I think. It’s even latent in the language I use to talk to myself and with others. The first sentence that popped into my head when I was writing this section was: “I’ve made working on my negative attitude the top priority in life for the past two years and despite all my hard work I’ve still barely made a dent in it.”

The first part is true. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy working on my attitude and disassociating with people and things that enable negativity. The second part is actually categorically false, and when I’m objective I know I’ve made lots of personal and emotional growth over the past few years and have noticed a dramatic change in the quality of my attitude, life, and interactions with others.

In Magic there is an element of “either you won or you didn’t” as the qualifier of success or failure, but change is a process and not merely a result. I know it is an unbalanced mindset to put greater weight on one misstep than a hundred steps forward, but as a gamer I’m not particularly unique in the sense that I’m hard on myself, especially when the results are disappointing.

A big step toward getting my negativity under control was to be objective about my thought process so that the takeaway was useful rather than a hindrance.

Is what I’m thinking fair?

Did I actually do everything poorly today?

Was my play terrible or am I just saying that because I lost?

Your entire tournament and preparation doesn’t boil down to just one play or mistake even if it may feel that way in hindsight. Even the best players on the planet make mistakes. It’s simply not realistic to approach a tournament with the expectation that you will make zero mistakes and play perfectly for 15 rounds, 45 games in a row. Magic, like anything, is about using your skill and knowledge to minimize mistakes and maximize opportunities.

Fixating on the negative is to take a fairly narrow and self-defeating view.

Be Realistic About Your Result

One of the craziest things about the human experience is how our minds are equipped with all kinds of coping mechanisms that allow us to move on from all sorts of wildly traumatic experiences. People experience much worse than 1-5 in a couple of Drafts and manage to lead happy and productive lives.

I don’t want to deal in the extremes of the human condition, but rather in the specifics of thinking about a tournament—in particular, a subpar result. If you do it right, there is much to learn and improve. If you do it wrong, it’s very likely that you’ll dig yourself into an even deeper hole than when you started! Since I just had this exact experience I’ll use myself as an example.

The first thing, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is to be fair with yourself. I think it is a popular view among gamers to be unfair with themselves in both directions:

“I went 2-3 drop. I played awfully and deserved to lose.”

“I went 2-3 drop. I got super unlucky and nothing I did mattered.”

It’s crazy how 99% of 2-3 drops were either 100% our fault or 100% terrible luck, right? The fact is, 2-3 drop is often one play in one game away from being 3-2 and still live for Day 2 contention!

Both outlooks are prohibitive since the outcome is likely a combination of both factors, luck and skill. With better play you might have overcome some of the bad luck you faced and with better luck you might have overcome a misstep. It’s all connected. The higher your skill level the luckier you will be since you are making the most of more opportunities.

One tends to be luckier when they give themselves the most opportunities to get lucky.

It’s a popular take with players to “own their mistakes.” Obviously, it would sound completely delusional for me to say that I played flawlessly and luck was only a factor in my 1-5 finish. In the same vein, it wouldn’t be useful or accurate to assume that luck played no role. All things considered, if I got to replay all six matches with different random starting hands, I probably would have won more than one match.

Assessing My Own Play

I had eight hours at the airport and on the plane to opine about what went wrong and what might have been at #MTGNJ. I’m a believer in goals and I did not meet my goal of a cash finish.

“1-5 in Draft. I failed.”

My default tendency to fixate on the negative was unsurprisingly at the forefront of my reflection. On the other hand, as I’ve discussed in this article, I know better than to trust those default, programmed responses.

I don’t relegate Magic tournaments to pass/fail grades. Each tournament is a learning experience and a stepping stone in a lifelong journey of improvement at a hobby I’m passionate about.

1-5 in Draft wasn’t the only narrative for the weekend. In fact, it wasn’t even the majority of the narrative even though it left the strongest impression.

Let’s deconstruct the negative language. First of all, just because I set a goal to cash and didn’t doesn’t mean that the purpose of the trip to New Jersey was ever a pass/fail binary that hinged on cashing or not.

I have lots of Magic goals and most of them revolve around improving as a player. I mentioned earlier that my two biggest weaknesses have always been bad preparation and a negative attitude. At #MTGNJ neither of these two Achilles heels played much of a factor over the course of a 15-round tournament.

My preparation was great and well beyond what I’ve typically done in the past. I knew the cards and interactions inside and out. I knew the combat tricks and what to play around. There’s typically at least one moment at a Limited event where I think I know what a card does but it does something slightly different and that happened zero times, which is really good for me, especially considering the set just came out.

I built a tricky Sealed pool well. In fact, I only built it two cards off what Platinum Pro Corey Burkhart would have built with my pool. I went 7-2 with a deck that I thought was realistically a 7-2 deck if I played my best. My decision making and play won me games and didn’t cost me games. I played a feature match against Reid Duke.

I also did a great job maintaining a positive, focused, and friendly attitude when I was winning but also when I was losing. I had fun playing the games I won as well as the ones I lost. I made new friends that I intend to keep in touch with on social media, test with on Arena, and hang out with at future events. When things were not going my way I still played to the best of my ability.

These are areas I’ve worked on over the past year and where I saw improvement last weekend. I know that if these traits continue to grow from weaknesses into strengths that it will translate into more fun and more wins down the line.

At the same time I recognize that I also need to be accountable for the areas where I could have been better. While I think my preparation was excellent, I also think my execution in the Draft portion of the tournament was not great. I had a well-reasoned approach to the format that I wrote about last week but when it came time to make picks it all went out the window and I did the opposite of what I planned to do.

I had a solid plan. I wanted to be patient and stay open deep into pack one and then move into either a 3-color Orzhov or Simic combination. I’ve had sustained success doing this on Arena. I ended up picking my rares and force drafting around them instead of staying open like I had planned.

I’m an experienced drafter but I was in a tough situation both pods. I was downwind left from the strongest drafters (Daniel Fournier, Paul Dean, and Reid Duke) in two fairly stacked pods. I feared that with so many strong drafters passing to me that if I waited too long to lock into a combination, I would run light on quality playables and wanted to make sure I could play my solid rares.

I’ll also admit it’s easier to execute a plan in an Arena Draft or at FNM than with Reid Duke sitting directly to your right. Or, is it? Another factor that ran through my mind as I was determining whether to stay on color or go full on House of Pain and “Jump Around” was:

How realistically would I be able to replicate what I’ve been doing on Arena against Reid Duke or Paul Dean?

The answer is that it would have worked much better than what I actually did. I’ll also admit that this was only the second individual Grand Prix/MagicFest for me in about a year and the pressure of the moment got to me a little bit. I really wanted to do well, deviated from my plan, and tried to do too much. I also can’t discount the effect of the travel on my body and mind when I have been out of the grind for about a year. It also takes a toll.

If I had followed my own advice from my Ravnica Allegiance Draft Camp article I would have had better decks in both Drafts. If I’m objective, I don’t think either deck was as bad as the result, but I think I would have performed better overall by staying open longer.

It’s a good reminder to trust your stuff!

Whether I win or lose, I want to make sure that I learn from my mistakes and play even better the next time around. It’s easy to focus on the negative, or bad luck, but the truth is always much more nuanced and complicated. Make sure you give yourself credit for the things you did and executed well and learn from the things that in hindsight you could have done better.

One bad tournament, Draft, match, or game doesn’t mean you need to fix everything. Often, it boils down to very specific aspects of your game that could use fine tuning in the future and would yield a great return on investment.


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