Sometime ago, I wrote an article on certain situations that helped shaping concepts in my head, concepts that I have been applying since then. People seemed to like it, and asked me to do another one of that sort, so I got some more interesting situations and wrote this one in the hopes they can be as useful to you as they were to me. It is hard to do this a lot, though – at some point the morals just keep repeating themselves; I hope this didn’t happen with this one. This is also my last strategy article before I swarm you with tournament reports for a while!
The scenario is a PTQ for PT Philadelphia, by the beginning of 2005 – the format was Extended. At the time, Mind’s Desire, Goblins, Red Deck Wins, Isochron Scepter/Orim’s Chant, The Rock, Affinity, Madness, the Goblin Welder/Sundering Titan reanimator deck (Teen Titans if memory serves) were some of the decks that were played. By this point, I was already pretty much the best player in our store – there were other good people who played, but they weren’t really much into it – if I recall, they didn’t even play the PTQ. I had gone to two Pro Tours, and had top 64ed both – that pretty much overshadowed everyone else’s results.
I really wanted to win that PTQ, and I practiced a lot with the deck I ended up playing – the UW Desire deck based on what Osyp had played at GP Boston (with Sunscape Familiars). I knew all the ins and outs of the deck, I knew how to play against every match – I practiced so much that I even wrote an article about it. That, plus the fact that I was better than everyone else, put the certainty in my mind that I was going to win the PTQ – which would only be fair, after all.
I navigated through the first rounds of the Swiss with an unfortunate loss to Goblins, which was a decent match because of the White board, but I mulliganed to four and whatnot. Then I found myself having to win my last match to Top 8, and that was against the Teen Titans deck, a Goblin Welder/Sundering Titan reanimation thing. In the first game, I kept a reasonable one lander with [card]Brainstorm[/card]. Four turns and a lot of cantripping later, I am stuck on one land and a bunch of spells I can’t cast, and I die to a reanimated fatty.
I open my first hand and it is very decent, but, again, it only has one land. It does not have a Brainstorm, but it does have my one Chain of Vapor. How lucky, I side in only one card and I draw it in my opening hand – a bounce against my Reanimator opponent. It did have one land, though.
I started remembering my first hand. That was a very reasonable keep – I just happened to get very unlucky, one more land and he was dead. It was really not fair, you see, for me to get unlucky AGAIN. My opponent wasn’t even good, he wasn’t prepared – I deserved to win that tournament more than anyone. So, I kept.
Some turns later, I am dead with no lands in play and my tournament is over. He did reanimate a Titan, and I played Chain of Vapor on it, but that killed my one land in the process, and I didn’t draw another before he could discard and reanimate another guy.
Moral of the story: Don’t keep one landers!
Ok, kidding, this is actually not the moral of the story (sort of; you should still not keep one landers). There are two things this story taught me; The first is that it is not because you got unlucky that you aren’t going to get unlucky again – this is like the “oh the coin cannot turn up heads for the third time in a row, can it?”. By the same token, it is not because you got unlucky once that you are going to get unlucky again – you might have kept a hand that was correct to keep, and then fizzled and lost because of that, but if the hand comes up again and the keep really is correct then you cannot mulligan because it didn’t work the first time – you have to make the right decision every time, no matter what happened before.
The real moral of the story, though, is that it doesn’t matter how good you are, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve practiced, you are not going to win because of that – by being good and practicing, you only get the ability to make good decisions that will win you the match – there is still a step in between – you have to apply this power to make those good decisions and then win the match. Think of it as, say, a school test – you know everything about the subject, and you can fill all the answers. Then you don’t do that, and give your teacher a blank test – you are still getting a zero, because how much you know doesn’t matter as opposed to how much you actually do.
In this case, I had everything that I needed to win in my disposal, but I decided not to use it – I thought the fact that I was “deserving” was going to win me the game, but the thing that made me deserving was the exact thing I did NOT do – play better than my opponents. A lot of players have this “sense of entitlement” thing, and while I cannot say I don’t really have it anymore, that match was a very big wake up call for me – it showed me that I was only as good as my plays, and the only thing that would define how deserving I was was the way I played – the practice and the talent were only the means with which I would be able to make the best plays, and then those would win me the game.
In this scenario, I was practicing with a friend for GP Columbus, one of the few Legacy games I played. One deck that seemed appealing to me was the Hive Mind deck, so I decided to try that against the deck I thought (wrongly) was going to be the most popular – UW Counterbalance/Thopter. My friend took a stock list from somewhere, and then we played the first game.
In the first game, I was ready to play Hive Mind and Pact of the Titan to kill him, and then he played a Mountain as his fifth land. I asked him what the Mountain was doing there, and he told me he had no idea, that he had just copied a list he had found somewhere and it probably had some red sideboard cards. Now, there is no reason to play a Mountain in addition to a Red dual – it doesn’t even do anything regarding Blood Moon, and you don’t need a non Wastelandable source of Red. Then on my turn I couldn’t play the Pact of the Titan, because he had 4R to pay because of the Mountain, and I lost the game.
Then, in the next game, we went to the late game and he cracked a fetch and got a Tundra. Then, some turns later, I played Pact of the Titan and he died. Now, I knew there was a Volcanic Island in his deck – if he had just searched for that over the Tundra, he would have won the match, and I knew it.
The point in this is that you have to make sure your testing is useful and realistic. When you are testing decks, the goal is exactly this – to test decks and see how they fare against each other. If I take those games for the way they played, I will be getting the exact opposite result – I believe the Hive Mind deck should have won game 1, and it should have lost game 2.
In game one, the other deck was playing a card it shouldn’t play, and that no one was going to play – it would have been an Island or a Plains, and I would have won. It is very common when we play that our friends add something to spicy their decks a little bit, but when you playtest you have to decide what you are playtesting – if you are playing Dredge and your opponent thinks Relic of Progenitus is a good maineckable card in Goblins and plays it in his deck, he is going to beat you, but you have to make a choice – if you are testing his deck to see if he beats Dredge, that is fine, but if you are testing your Dredge deck to see if it beats Goblins, your playtesting is going to become useless every time he draws a Relic.
In game two, the person would have searched for the Volcanic, and I would have lost. Many times, when we are play testing, we take things too personal. We want to win, we want our decks to be better. If our opponents make a mistake and we notice, we don’t say anything, because we want our deck to win so that we don’t have to search for another deck. This is just fooling yourself – in this situation, I should have told my opponent to just grab the Volcanic, because that would have showed how the match really goes. So, in both cases, the result we got was flawed, and you should adapt to this while you are play testing.
This happened when we were building our sideboard for Nationals 2007. Our deck was the RG aggro deck that Saito had played at his nationals, with Tarmogoyfs, Greater Gargadons and Siege-Gang Commanders, and the debate was between Magus of the Moon and Cryoclasm as a sideboard slot against some decks.
We had arguments for both cards, then my friend said something that made a lot of sense and got stuck in my head – it was something like “I think we should play Cryoclasm, because the deck is so good that we don’t need the power from Magus of the Moon. If the match was terrible, then you would need something like Magus to swing it, but as it is now, if we play something that is a consistent card, we will already be fine and have no need to play something that is either hit or miss”.
I believe that, when you add cards to your deck, you have to know why you are adding them. When you are building a deck, you need to know what you want each card to do, especially in a sideboard. By playing a lot with the deck, we knew we wanted the card to do – and the role was to just be a good card against certain matches, and not to swing it around, because they were already good. It is a little bit of the old power versus consistency thing – the more power you already have, the more you want consistency over power so that you can find a balance, and we thought we had power enough.
There are situations in which you have to recognize weakness and go for the blowout, though. If you are playing Mono Red and are afraid of Life.deck, then just playing some Cryoclasms is not going to cut it – sure enough they are more versatile and more consistent, but adding Cryoclasms is not going to make you beat the terrible match – for that, you need something drastic and very specific, like, say, the new Red Leyline or Everlasting Torment. When boarding against a deck like Dredge, too, you must understand how good or bad your match is – if all you need is a little help, then you might play something that kills the enablers, for example, that you can also board in against other things. If you need more help, you can do with Relics and Crypts. If the match is really dreadful, sometimes you just need to play Black Leylines and hope you have them in your opening hand.
I remember, a long time ago, I read an article by Zvi that talked about the card Ghostway as an answer to Wrath of God. I cannot reproduce the contents of it exactly by memory, but some things of what he said really made me understand why cards such as those were bad. The core of his argument was that Ghostway was just a reactive card in a proactive deck, and not the kind of answer you wanted, and that the card would beat theirs in some situations but would be useless in the others, and therefore it was bad.
One other problem with Ghostway is that it only helps if you have it the turn they are playing Wrath of God – if you have it, you will have to keep mana up every turn you fear a Wrath, and it will hinder your development. If Ghostway was just another creature, you could at least follow with it post-Wrath, but since it is Ghostway, it will just sit in your hand doing nothing if you get Wrathed. By taking a creature out to play Ghostway, you actually make their Wraths more powerful, since you have less guys to replace the ones you lose, and you even make it so that they might not even need to draw Wrath, because all you have is Ghostways!
This is a mistake a lot of people make – they clog their proactive decks with reactive cards, and then the deck is unable to function as it should. When we are playing a combo deck, for example, it is obvious that we cannot take out a lot of combo pieces and tutors for answers, which is why it is so hard to sideboard with combo and transformational sideboards are sometimes considered – but everyone can see that.
When you are playing an aggressive deck, though, the thought is the exact same, except it is not so obvious – an aggressive deck is just like a combo deck, except it has 15 cards that do each of the things it needs done. If you start taking out creatures for reactive cards, that part of the “combo” will fall short – one example is Krosan Grips in Legacy. Sure, they answer some things that need to be answered, but you can never play a lot of them, because they don’t really do what your deck wants to do, and it might happen that your opponent won’t even need the cards you want to destroy, since you now have all those Krosan Grips in your hand instead of the cards he wanted to answer originally!
I was playing the finals of BR Nationals in 2006, with Enduring Ideal against UB control. At the end of my opponent’s turn I Topped and saw both a Boseiju, Who Shelters All and a Zur’s Weirding. I make it so that I draw the Boseiju and I have the four casting cost on top to reveal to the Counterbalance, to counter his potential Annex on my Boseiju and win the game on the next turn. On my turn I draw, play the Boseiju and pass. On my opponent’s turn, he draws and plays Annex.
Everyone is watching the match – it is going to define the national champion. I wanted to show them how I predicted exactly what would happen, and how I played around it. I had plenty of mana, but I would look somewhat foolish to activate Sensei’s Divining Top in response to just leave the same card there – after all, they knew I knew the top card, and I wanted to look professional – at the time, I felt like I had something to prove.
It may sound silly, but I actually spent a while pondering the options in my head – do I top to make sure the card is there and win the game, or do I just show the card I know is there and win the game in a more impressive way? In the end, I decided too much was at stake, and just topped to make sure. The top card was not Zur’s Weirding.
The moral of this story is that winning takes precedence over everything. Nowadays, it does not matter how I think I will look – I will make the play that gives me the best percentage of winning, even if it looks foolish. In this situation, if I do not Top, I lose the game – how did I even consider let anything get in the way of winning the game? Who cares what the other people think? (though imagine what they would think if I had not Topped and then revealed another card…). This goes both ways, too – I will no longer make a play because it is “splashy” or “genius” just because people are watching unless I think it is the correct play, and I will no longer not make a play because I may look dumb to whoever is watching.
Sometimes, “whoever is watching” is just your opponent – for example, at the Legacy GP in Chicago, I had an empty hand and my opponent played a two casting cost card, and I forgot to reveal blindly for Counterbalance. On my turn, I drew a two casting cost card (Dark Confidant or Tarmogoyf), and considered whether to play it or not – by playing it, I will show my opponent that I messed up and might lose because of that, because it will know there was a two in there. In the end, though, I just played it, because my desire to win the game was bigger than my desire to be “laughed at”. A lot of the times we mess up and then we change our plays so that it looks like to our opponent that we didn’t mess up, we just had a plan all along – don’t do that. If you make a mistake, accept it and keep playing your best, do not fuel the mistake to try to disguise it as a good play.
Another lesson in “accept and admit your mistakes” can be gotten from my match with Makihito Mihara at Worlds 2006 quarterfinals. In that match, Mihara started to combo with Rite of Flame and Seething Song, and then found out he was one mana short of 9 for Dragonstorm. Now, he could have just played a Bogardan Hellkite with his 8 mana, and acted like that was what he intended all along – but that would have left him without any rituals, and in a bad position. What he did instead was to Repeal my guy, so that he would keep his second Rite in hand – even if he does not find the third Rite, then there is still the chance that I do not kill him on my turn, and he can just play the Dragonstorm next turn. He didn’t panic when he realized he made a mistake – he simply tried to make the best out of the situation he put himself in, and for that I applaud him. Of course I would have applauded him more if it hadn’t cost me some thousand dollars, but it was still a nice way of handling it.
Well, this is it! I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and see you in Gothenburg!