The Dope Show – Why You Aren’t Winning

Truth be told, I didn’t foresee myself returning to the celebrated ranks of the internet Magic community. Then again, I didn’t foresee myself sloughing the pitiful remnants of my ambition and being down to my last 284 dollars either, so I suppose I should stop making assumptions about my future. Financial difficulties aside, I simply couldn’t resist the allure of the glamour and adulation heaped on those who write articles. I have an overwhelming desire to be back in the limelight, and heck, it’s been years since I’ve signed a Pro Player card.

For those familiar with my work, I shouldn’t have to point out that I was being a little sarcastic just now. I don’t plan on over-explaining jokes (or explaining myself at all!) from here on in, but I felt the need to clarify once, as it has been a while since you’ve been exposed to my particular brand of “acerbic wit.”

Who Am I?

For those unfamiliar with my work hi! I am Timothy James Aten of Vermilion, Ohio. I have, at times, been perceived as arrogant, but this ostensible audacity is tempered by spells of depression-induced abject humility. I don’t mince words, and I flaunt my candor. Also, I’m often unfairly pegged as being perpetually negative and a bit of a misanthrope. In actuality, I hold myself and the human race to high standards and am disappointed when we don’t measure up. I give credit where due, but quite frankly, it ain’t due nearly as much as most dole it out.

As for my Magical resume, I won Ohio Valley Regionals in 2001, which qualified me for Pro Tour New Orleans on rating in addition to earning me a Nationals invite. When my success tapered off, I turned to internet writing to bolster my notoriety. (This time, unfortunately, I’m not being sarcastic.) Eventually, I found my rhythm and got good at Magic for-realzies, securing a berth on the train and racking up a few solid finishes, including 17th at PT San Diego 04 and 15th at PT London ’05 (Who got 14th at that one? – LSV). Before long, though, the concept of being on the Pro Tour lost its luster, and I had grown quite weary of international travel; thus, I skipped a bunch of PTs and, as a result, “fell off” the train. Because I had lost interest in playing on the Tour, and because it was difficult coming up with fresh material, my writing dried up as well.

Now, much like the noble Lightning Bolt, I have returned. (As the faithful can see, my knack for timely references remains unscathed.) I never really stopped playing, and even now I probably shan’t be attending any foreign PTs, but I am back to writing.

Also, if we’re being honest, it’s not really fair to compare myself to the decidedly overpowered premium removal spell. I’m more like Serra Angel–not as impressive as people remembered, but still pretty good in draft.

Or whatever. Let’s not dwell on the various holes in that ill-conceived metaphor and instead move right onto today’s magical topic, which is

You’re Not as Good at Magic as You Could Be

You need to practice more, you need to play with good people, you need to watch good people play, you need to own up to your mistakes blah blah blah blah blah. I won’t be talking about these things. Sure, they’re true, but they’re also fairly obvious, and you’ve already been told them by dozens of people. I’m going to try my hardest not to rehash played-out topics; as such, I don’t plan on discussing the M10 rules changes, for instance. (I also hate when someone thinks he’s come up with some life-altering revelation and ends up blathering on about a subject that’s already been covered a billion times but with his own brand new pseudo-intellectual nomenclature.)

My suggested areas of improvement are more in the realm of the psychological. As such, I get to tout my degree in psychology to lend credence to my assertions”¦even though I don’t remember anything I learned in college and never heard anything resembling what I’m going to discuss! Bonus!

The biggest potential problem could be that you don’t actually care about winning that much. It may be your objective, but you have ulterior motives that obscure your path to victory. Specifically, some people seem more interested in glory and/or respect than solid technical play, and this detriment manifests itself in a number of ways.

You may mulligan too frequently, and one possible subconscious reason for this is that it provides you a clean, responsibility-free excuse for losing. If memory serves, Paulo Vitor Dance Dance Revolution mentioned this in his article on mulligans. After a match is over, you know you’ll save face when you lament to your friends, “Yeah I lost”¦but I mulliganed to 5.” Going to 5 is a pretty solid excuse for an individual loss–not that it matters since everyone “should” ultimately double mull the same amount in the long term–but it’s not a reasonable excuse if you’re mulling incorrectly. Besides, no one cares about your pathetic justifications.

In addition, some people have it fixed in their minds that “good players mulligan,” and they use that as a tiebreaker when pondering over borderline hands. Once you have a comfortable working knowledge of which hands are definite mulls–1-landers, hands low on action, hands poor against the deck you’re battling, hands that won’t do much even if you draw the perfect card two turns in a row, and so on–you should actually err on the side of NOT mulling. After all, seven cards are better than six.

Another respect-seeking behavior is boasting to your friends about how you “punted” your last match. Sure, you’re accepting responsibility for your actions, but you’re too preoccupied with hopes that your Magical superiors will be as enamored of your self-awareness as you are. In the most egregious cases, you may not even know where you made the mistake; you’re just content with the knowledge that it happened somewhere. In still other cases, it’s possible that you’re being results-oriented. (I’ve grown tired of this phrase, but since I’m actually using it correctly, I hope you’ll forgive me.) Sometimes you can make the right play and still lose because your opponent drew card X instead of card Y, the latter of which was somewhat more likely. This does not count as an error.

Finally, keep in mind that not every game is winnable. For example, don’t go crazy trying to convince yourself that you lost because you didn’t mulligan if your opening hand was fine in the abstract, but your opponent did something you couldn’t have possibly anticipated to invalidate it.

Oh, and for the love of God, never ever utter the phrase, “Man I’m awful.” Of course you’re awful! Everyone’s awful on the absolute scale except for Luis, Cheon, Japan, and like five other people. Magic players who make this general statement, much like the people who are excited to tell you how they’ve misplayed, are quite pleased with their recognition of their own shortcomings. In itself, this isn’t helpful to them, and it’s annoying to everyone else. Most of the people who say it are above average in Magic prowess, and they even know this, but they think this pseudo-humility will garner acceptance by the professionals.

While I’m on the topic of stuff no one wants to hear you say, might I suggest a moratorium on “justice,” “still had these,” “sick variance,” ” loose,” and whichever ones I’m forgetting? You could also do well to consult a thesaurus before saying that you “punted” one more freaking time.

“¦and now we’ve reached the part of the article where I realize I’ve digressed too far and remain apologetic while pretending to have forgotten what I was talking about before aforementioned digression, preferably with liberal use of the word “aforementioned.”

Anyway. (I was using this as my catchall awkward regrouping transition before I’d even HEARD of Chuck Klosterman, so I have no qualms about its continued use.)

I’m not saying you shouldn’t think critically about where you went wrong during a game. I’m just saying that acknowledging errors is merely the first step in self-improvement.

The next potential roadblock is playing in front of an audience. Some people get nervous if a bunch of people are watching, and this is, again, because of excessive concern for other people’s opinions. (You don’t want to look stupid, do you?) Just ignore them. Heck, they may even be watching the match next to you! If you’re drafting in front of other people in a high-level event, don’t second-guess yourself because you’re afraid you’ll be chastised for passing a certain card. There’s nothing anyone in the audience should be able to do to help or hurt you; just calm down, use your instincts and experience, and don’t go on tilt.

Focusing too much on being charming and “playing to the crowd” could bite you as well. Unless you’re confident that you’re not going to distract yourself, play Magic now and deliver clever verbal jabs later.

The following doesn’t fit in perfectly with the topic, but it seems the best place to put it in this article: when you’re playing against a “name” player, don’t go into “just happy to be here” mode. Obviously it’s awkward if you make mistakes because you’re nervous about having to face THE Owen Turtenwald, or if you’re more prone to playing scared because you assume the pro “always has it.” But don’t give up the match psychologically, and don’t value trying to get this Famous Celebrity to like you over getting the W. Playing against a pro can be tantamount to mulliganing; people sometimes try to use it as a guilt-free excuse for losing.

For the record, “just happy to be here” mode most often occurs when someone is playing in his first PTQ/GP Top 8. Don’t start resting on your laurels before there are laurels to rest on.

A corner case of self-handicapping is something I’ve referred to as the writer’s curse. This states that people whose primary purpose is to write articles–either to build up their notoriety or to craft a pretty-sounding theory that is ultimately meaningless–don’t win as many matches as they could because tight play is not their ultimate goal. I don’t mean that writers make wacky misplays on purpose to make for more interesting anecdotes; my assertion is firmly in the realm of the subconscious. Simply put, if winning isn’t your number one priority, you don’t care as much as you could. If you don’t care as much as you could, you won’t win as frequently.

The remaining two impediments I’ll discuss involve improper allocation of mental resources. These are undue focus on minutiae and procedural compulsions.

One largely asinine detail that some people put too much emphasis on is the artwork of opposing basic land. Until you have the more straightforward, more statistically relevant strategic tactics down, don’t worry about whether the Mountain the opponent just played is the one he fetched with [card]Sylvan Bounty[/card]. If you notice it incidentally, more power to you, but how often will it be relevant to know 1/5 the contents of your opponent’s hand? He’s probably playing it next turn anyway; the edge is not worth the expenditure. Some people probably love to do this because it makes them feel clever.

You SHOULD keep track of when your opponent fetches a Mountain and plays a Plains, but worrying about different pictures on the same basic land type is taking it too far. If you do have the mental capacity to play sound Magic AND keep track of whether the set number on his Plains was 230 or 232, then by all means, do so.

Writing down the cause of each change in life totals, while recommended by some judges, isn’t practical in the real world. It’s more likely that you’ll miss something in the game–or that you’ll either run out of time in a round or forget what your abbreviations meant–than it is that there will be a life total discrepancy you couldn’t figure out without notes. Again, if you have every other detail of the game on lockdown, this could be helpful. Strategic soundness and tactical proficiency are the meat; pressing tiny advantages is the garnish. What good is the lemon zest without the tilapia? Who cares about truffle shavings when the venison is chewy?

Hold on a second. Let me turn off Iron Chef.


I made a comment in a previous article that when my opponent says “Untap. Upkeep. Draw.” every turn, I like my chances of winning. (Often the last part includes the phrase “a card” and is pronounced “drawl.”) People like this are preoccupied by procedure. If they’re new to the competitive scene and are being cautious, fine, but after a while, they have to leave it behind. You don’t need to say every phase out loud, your lands and graveyard don’t have to be perfectly straight, and you certainly don’t need to tilt your head to the side and look at your opponent inquisitively as you announce every spell. Hm. Maybe that last one is just a pet peeve, but it is strongly correlated with being a mediocre barn-piece.

One detestable behavior that, in my opinion, falls under this umbrella of detrimental compulsions is the card-flick. Some Magic players seem to have an overwhelming NEED to snap the cards in their hands rapidly back and forth, almost like they’re acting on some sort of fetish and the fact that they’re also playing a game is incidental.

The scope of this article was probably too ambitious for my grand return, and it probably wasn’t executed as well as it could have been. Hopefully it wasn’t complete gibberish and somehow helped a few of you reflect on some unforeseen weaknesses. I’ll do better next time, Luis! I promise! Don’t fire me! I’m really clutching at straws here. I’m probably one failure away from a spiral into a mental hospital. Do you really want to be the one responsible for that, even if you are incredibly jealous that I have a Pro Player card and you don’t?

Join me next week when I discuss split etiquette, give my first impressions on M10 limited, and use the word “discuss” superfluously because I’m a giant hack.

Timothy James Aten
Easy Target on Modo
[email protected]

Post-Signoff Bonus

I’m a compulsive list-maker, so there will probably be a lot of lists here, usually music-related. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Ravitz chat pastes show up some weeks, either.

My Top 5 Favorite Songs to Play on Rock Band Drums

5. The Fratellis “Creepin’ up the Backstairs”
4. Avenged Sevenfold “Afterlife”
3. The Offspring “Come out and Play”
2. Testament “Souls of Black”
1. Rise Against “Give It All”


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