I’ve found advice in the Magic world a strange beast. It’s one thing to read advice from somebody like PV or LSV, but it’s another to actually carry out that advice. I’ve been playing Magic for roughly eight years, and I feel like only in this last year have I truly started acting on the top advice. Sure I falter here and there, but every once in a while I can feel myself slipping into the correct mindset.
This also means I’ve found myself reflecting on the advice I’ve gotten over the years. Some better than others, I’ve picked the two that stick out to me the most to talk about today. They also happen to be the two pieces of advice that may have helped me the most in real life.
First, Play to Your Outs
Perhaps the best thing I started doing when playing Magic was to always have plan to win the game. When I have a plan it means I’m looking ahead in the game, and when I’m looking ahead in the game I’m playing better now, on this turn. I’ve seen this manifest itself in the Zoo decks I play. When I play regular Zoo, a deck I’m not very familiar with, I tend to make mistakes that only become apparent a few turns down the road when I’m a point or two short. When I’m playing Scapeshift Zoo, however, I’m looking at the end of the game from turn one, so I’m playing for the scenario where I win the game.
One of the easiest ways I started to win more games in my Magic career was by playing to my outs when I’m in a bad position. I’ve already written an article about never (ish) conceding, and along with that philosophy comes the idea that you need to play to your out, no matter how unlikely. On one level that means Charring your opponent (not the Hand of Cruelty) and hoping to draw Lightning Helix (oh my god it’s Lightning Helix). You just do the math – if I do X then draw Y I win the game. If the odds of that happening are better than whatever other play you could make, you do it.
Sometimes you have to go a step further with “if I do X then draw Y I win the game, as long as my opponent doesn’t have Z.” Usually this means “unless my opponent has a counterspell” or “unless my opponent has a removal spell.” I’m still learning when to go for it and when not to. Obviously if you’re still in a good position even if they do have it, you go for it most of the time. But if I have to go all in, I look at my chances of winning the game if I take the safe rout against the chance of them having it. Something I realized while tasting Scapeshift zoo was that I won far more games when I went for it than when I was playing conservatively. It might be a product of the deck, the aggro archetype in general, or something else entirely. I’m still getting a handle on this one.
Another facet of this train of thought is that sometimes you have to play as if your opponent has stone-cold nothing. This often happens in Limited where I can’t possibly win the game if my opponent has any spell, but there’s a chance that I can win if their hand is literally all basic lands and I draw a certain spell. Granted, in Zendikar Limited often you can’t win because their hand is all land, but it’s worth noticing the times where you should keep fighting. Sometimes their Mind Spring for six hits blanks.
There is still one more level, though, and realizing this level existed was a simple way for me to win a few more games. Sometimes you can see your own death, but you should always give your opponent the room to make a mistake. The first thing I ask myself is what can I bluff that would make him act cautiously here? Then I play as if I have that card. Next, figure out what the most likely mistake your opponent could make. On Magic Online this often comes down to a misclick, so I often play as if my opponent is just going to skip his attack step. Find the mistake your opponent is most likely to make that would also cause them not to win the game, and play as if they are going to make that mistake.
I wish I could play like Noah Weil. I feel like he can make me do exactly what I need to do to lose the game just by staring at me. Sometimes his stare makes me lose confidence and throw away a dominating position. Other times his stare causes me to act overconfidently and he can catch me off guard. Somehow, on the surface, all of his stares look the same. Yet, hidden somewhere, perhaps in the beard, lies the power of the force.
Two disclaimers: First, if time is an issue scooping early is often correct. Second, information matters. If I have to show my opponent a combat trick, for example, in order to give myself a chance to win by misclick, I’m probably not going to do it. Additionally, I often make a play that would most likely cause them to reveal information. For example, let’s say you’re dead to a huge attack force no matter what. Sometimes playing one chump blocker and leaving mana open will cause them to reveal a removal spell. If instead you tapped out for two chump blockers they are just going to attack and kill you.
I’ve also found this advice to be extremely helpful when playing many other games. Peggle immediately comes to mind, a somewhat luck-based puzzle game. When things are looking grim you’ve got to find the shot that no matter how unlikely, if it is made you’ll win. (I’m amazing at how much strategy “overlap” is in Peggle. I find myself counting ball efficiency like card advantage.)
In “real life” the place I’ve been most helped has been in school. It’s kind of a hokey example because in “real real life” people aren’t taking bubble tests, but I’ve been in school for nearly the last 18 years of my life, so it feels pretty relevant to me. (Holy moly am I ready to get out.) Taking a bubble test is a lot like playing a game. At least, it feels that way when you haven’t studied as much as you probably should have. I often come out of tests not knowing that I could get an amazing grade if I’m lucky, or a bad grade if I’m unlucky because of how often I narrowed a question down to A or C and had to just pick one.
Tests have a lot of information on them, though, just like your opponent. I know people with “test anxiety,” which just sounds to me like their way of saying they got mana-screwed. Any time somebody can take the blame off of themselves and put it in some outside factor (or condition) it makes them feel better. Instead of reading the first question and giving up when I don’t know it, I leave the question for later and let the rest of the test tell me the answers. Often a question that would stump you in a vacuum can be narrowed down to a few answers just by the way it’s worded or information given in other places on the test. It’s about not giving up and letting your opponent make mistakes.
Speaking of test anxiety
So I’m no doctor, so perhaps test anxiety is a real illness that I wouldn’t understand unless I had it. Still, all I see it doing is making people give up before even beginning. Instead of focusing on what they can control, a person with self-proclaimed test anxiety will let their illness take control. For me, when I sit down to take a test I know that my end grade is entirely on me. I’m usually not nervous when I’m taking a test because I’ve done all I can up to that point, so it’s just time to mark the answers down. Instead of complaining about a bad teacher and bad tests (ok so I still do that) I know that in the end my grade is my own.
In Magic it’s about it’s a sentiment that I’ve seen grow in popularity over the years. Players are still complaining about mana screw, but over the last few years I see more players around me taking responsibility. It might be a product of me getting to know better players, and becoming on myself, but accepting losses as my own fault was one of the biggest steps I made in becoming a better player.
Only when I accept every loss as my own fault can I find my mistakes, and only by finding my mistakes can I figure out how to get better. Some people have said that you can’t take responsibility for every loss, because sometimes you just lose. I know that’s true, but I also know that thinking that way makes me lazy. If I can find anything to blame a loss on outside of myself it immediately stops me from looking for mistakes I did make. It’s why I use sleeves in all of my drafts, even casual ones in my apartment, so that way I can’t blame mana flood on dirty lands.
Instead I look as deep as I have to in order to find the reason why I lost a match. The first thing is to go through every play of the game to try to find the one misstep. Usually this is where the searching stops, but if no deciding play mistakes can be found it’s time to look at the decklist. First, did I choose the right deck for the tournament? Second, did I build the deck I did choose correctly? And finally, did I prepare enough?
Lately I’ve been happy enough with how I’ve been playing. While I still make my fair share of mistakes I know I’m doing a lot of things generally right, so I can work on just making my play tighter. However, where I know I need to focus now, and the factor that most of my losses can now be attributed to, is lack of preparation. Funny thing, when I prepare I tend to do much better. Most of my PTQ top 8s follow actual testing, and my two wins are in the formats I felt most prepared for.
Even with Nayashift doing so well for me, I feel like it’s falling behind in its sideboard. The sideboard isn’t actively bad. It’s got some of the best cards for their jobs. However, I don’t think the overall plan after sideboard is optimized, and that’s where testing comes in.
Speaking of Nayashift
P.S. You Were Right
I woke up bright and early Sunday for a 5:00A.M. PTQ. I felt surprisingly awake after getting less than three hours of sleep. I knew I was going to play Scapeshift Zoo again, but I wasn’t sure what the manabase should be now that Vesuva didn’t actually work. People were telling me to cut Valakut, and I think they were right. Without Vesuva the Mountain and Valakut count is just too low to rely on it as a plan, and without Vesuva the deck really needed to go up to four Flagstones of Trokair.
For a while I had a Stirring Wildwood and a Treetop Village, but I was tired of my lands coming into play tapped. I decided that I would just rather have a super-consistent manabase with a full set of Flagstones of Trokair and more sac lands. The spells haven’t changed, though I’m still considering messing with the fourth Lightning Bolt and the three Tarmogoyfs.
Here is the list I played in the PTQ:
Hopefully you’re not tired of hearing about this deck. I didn’t plan on writing anything about it. Then I surprised myself by going completely undefeated in the eight rounds of Swiss, so I had to say something/brag. I also played against a bunch of Zoo and UB stuff, so that increased my confidence in the deck dramatically, especially now that Vesuva and Valakut are absent. I’m sure the Kyle Boggemes version of Zoo is pretty bad for me because of Blood Moon, but I managed to win that matchup twice, somehow. I felt lucky throughout the day, as my deck was just refusing to lose, and my opponent’s decks were refusing to win.
In the top 8 I ran into a UB Thopter deck that seems to be picking up. It’s running Jace the Mind Sculptor, Damnation, and Creeping Tar Pit, of all things. I beat it in the Wwiss, but in top 8 he just drew as many (or more) removal spells than I drew creatures, so I lost. My hands didn’t develop very well, and I drew a lot of lands after keeping my opening seven. Still, his deck was much better equipped to deal with my deck than normal UB Thopter/Depths decks, so it’s probably not a great matchup. I was still really glad that me deck performed. It’s 13-2 in PTQs for me so far, with my only losses coming in Top 8.
The change I would make immediately is -1 Scalding Tarn and +1 Misty Rainforest. I split them like I did because I really didn’t know any better. However, getting a basic Forest is much more important, especially in a world of Blood Moon.
The sideboard is pretty much the same. I increased the Ancient Grudge count because I was sideboarding them in all the time, but I cut the Damping Matrix. I’m considering putting it back in. Elspeth, Knight-Errant also became Baneslayer Angel, but I never drew it so I can’t say which is better. Probably Baneslayer Angel.
I’m having a problem with the sideboard, though, and it’s that it doesn’t play to the deck’s strengths. Like, it’s a pretty good Zoo sideboard and has pretty much the best cards to do what you want. You’ve got Ranger of Eos against Zoo, Ancient Grudge against Thopter, etc. Oddly enough, however, I found myself not even siding in Temporal Isolation, Baneslayer Angel, or Ranger of Eos when I was on the play against Zoo. I found it better to just leave all my landfall creatures in the deck and go aggro, beating them before they can get their anti-zoo cards online.
So if my Zoo sideboard package wasn’t coming in against Zoo, isn’t there something better I could be doing? I also felt like my sideboard wasn’t accomplishing exactly what I wanted against Thopter/Depths. You really just want as many threats as possible against them, but you’re bringing in Ancient Grudge and Aven Mindcensor, which aren’t really top-notch threats. I’m not sure what to do yet, but I’m sure I’ll let you know if I come up with anything.
The season is coming to a close. I’ve got one PTQ left in Seattle and a few more on Magic Online, so hopefully I can break my top 8 curse there. I’ve finally broken double digits on number of PTQ top 8s, which comes with increased comfort in the PTQ arena altogether. I just need to work on translating these top 8s into wins, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only one holding me back. I think all it’s going to take is frequent and regular testing, and I’m there. Wish me luck.
Thanks for reading,
Loucksj at gmail
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Zygonn on Magic Online