Winning Under Pressure – #GPSLC Tournament Report *Top 8*

Last weekend I am happy to say that I Top 8’d Grand Prix Salt Lake City. But before we get into the details, I want to touch on a part of my internal process that I’ve been thinking about for the last few weeks. The question I kept asking myself was:

Do I want to win?

There are many reasons to play Magic. When we start out, Magic is just for casual fun, like any other game. But as we get into competitive play, the pressure to win takes precedence. Thoughts like “I will be so embarrassed if I mess up!” or “I will go on tilt if I lose” become commonplace. From the perspective of someone just starting out, these sentiments are a little silly. What more is there to the game than having fun with your friends? Why go through all the trouble of putting yourself in such a high pressure environment?

For me, I enjoy Magic because I enjoy clashing mental swords with my opponent. I cherish meeting my opponent’s desire for victory with my own, and settling the score on a battlefield ruled by cunning. When the stakes are high, so is my enjoyment. Under pressure, my opponent desperately wants to win, and so do I. I have the opportunity to pull out all the stops and achieve a most satisfying victory. Or if I lose, I will experience a crushing defeat. This is the game we play, and it is great.

But, this pressure can be overwhelming. How do we deal with the pressure of high-level play and maintain a will to win?

One way is to shrug it off. “I don’t care if I win or lose, it’s just a game.” Cultivating an attitude of indifference is dangerous, because while you might not suffer as much when you lose, you’ll be less likely to give your best each game. Personally, I know I am just lying if I tell myself I don’t care. Magic is a game, but it’s the best game, and I feel like I’m missing out if I don’t try my hardest.

Another way to deal with pressure is to become very serious, cutting yourself off from enjoyment of the game to become the very best card-slinging R2D2. This can lead to tunnel-vision awareness among competitive players. But is this really helpful? How many rounds do you expect to be able to crack the whip to mold yourself into a perfect Magical robot? Are you having fun? If you are not having fun, do you still want to win?

In my experience, when I get too serious, I lose my will to win. And when I stop wanting to win, I get sloppy. If I notice I’ve made a mistake, it is only natural to for me to get serious in order to prevent more mistakes. But then if I ask myself, “Do I want to win?” the answer is that I do, but more than that, I want to escape from the pressure I’ve placed on myself. By getting serious in the face of my earlier misplay, I may have been successful in sharpening my focus initially, but the end result is burnout, and sloppier play overall.

I think it is important to cultivate ways of dealing with pressure separate from defensive indifference and self-flagellation.

What is the alternative? Perhaps this question has a different answer for every person. It comes down to: “Why do you play Magic?” As I mentioned before, I enjoy the competitive connection between myself and my opponent, so that’s what I try to focus on in high pressure situations. This keeps me on top of my game, and intensifies my desire to win. If under pressure, I encourage you to focus on why you enjoy Magic, and avoid falling into traps that decrease your desire to win.

Day One

Speaking of desire to win, I really wanted to win at Grand Prix Salt Lake City. As I looked over my Sealed pool, I knew I would likely get my wish on Day One:

The only other interesting color was green, but I liked the high quantity of interactive cards in my blue/white deck, combined with numerous bombs. I built the above deck in five minutes and then debated my last card for twenty. My weakest cards were Selfless Cathar and Kapsho Kitefins, and the best card I left in my sideboard was Negate. I ended up playing the Cathar because it combos well with Triplicate Spirits and my other small creatures, and the Kitefins because it’s almost never wrong to load up on finishers in Sealed. That said, I think it might have been right to play Negate over Cathar, because Negate is great defense against Cone of Flame, Spectra Ward, planeswalkers, and other non-creature bombs. I ended up boarding in Negate about 60 percent of the time, but I wasn’t always switching it for Cathar.

This deck looked fantastic and performed just as well. I had a good collection of early critters to deal with my opponent’s small critters, Pillar and Encrust to deal with Souls and other large critters, and plenty of large critters of my own to finish the game.

Everything went smoothly, and I didn’t lose a match! Highlights included putting Soul of Theros into play off Master of Predicaments when I was missing my sixth land (drew it the next turn obviously), beating an opposing Soul of Theros by bouncing it with Jace, and encrusting a Stormtide Leviathan to moat my opponent while killing him with flyers.

After eating more chips than was good for me, and observing pictorial evidence of Josh McClain drinking a “Mini Milkshake” that was larger than his head, I was ready to rest up and battle again.

Day Two (AKA GG Canadians)

My first draft went swimmingly.

Now this was a deck! Yisan, Genesis Hydra, Kalonian Twingrove, Ancient SilverbackSunblade Elf, Seraph of the Masses, and Triplicate Spirits were all super powerful, and with three Elvish Mystics I could easily cast them ahead of curve. Additionally, I had great combos with Roaring Primadox and Invasive Species. Against Shaun McClaren, I assembled Primadox with Kalonian Twingrove. Let’s just say, at the end of the game it looked like I was playing Lorwyn Treefolk tribal.

My last cut was my second Charging Rhino for Razorfoot Griffin. I figured the main way I could lose was getting stalled on mana with a bunch of expensive cards in my hand, so I decided the four-drop was better.

Unfortunately, I immediately picked up my first loss against Allen Sun. Burning Anger and Cone of Flame were too much for my mono-dudes strategy. I was disappointed to lose my first round with such a great deck, but fortunately I won my next round against Ian Robertson. Game two against Ian was very close and interesting. He was beating me down with a Hammerhanded Aeronaut Tinkerer with Sacred Armory in play, while I was trying to gain advantage through Yisan. One turn I tutored up a Sungrace Pegasus and had the choice of chumping with it or my Razorfoot Griffin. I chose to block with the Pegasus to gain the life right away, which ended up working out, because a couple turns later I ended the game at 6 life versus his Glacial Crasher and Amphin Pathmage in hand. Whew, that was close! (GG Canadian)

After Shaun McClaren fell to my Treefolk army I was ready to draft again! (GG Canadian)

Draft Two

This deck’s good cards were great, but the deck contained some filler. I struggled with what filler to include. All the creatures were necessary for convoking, while Ephemeral Shields, Divine Favor, and Haunted Plate Mail were not at their best in this deck. I think I should have included another Soulmender over Ephemeral Shields for convoking purposes. Ephemeral Shields is great with Avacyn, but most of the creatures in my deck were interchangeable. The games that I lost with this deck were to not being able to convoke fast enough, and another Soulmender could have mitigated that problem.

After losing to EFro and beating Shaun McClaren again (GG Canadians), I drew into Top 8!

Top Eight Draft

Unfortunately, this deck was much worse than my other three. I opened Yisan and took Geist of the Moors second pick out of a weak pack. Although I ended up with some undesirable cards like Oppressive Rays and Ranger’s Guile in my deck, I’m not sure what I could have done differently to avoid this. Perhaps I missed some signals, but throughout the draft I didn’t see any convincing reason to switch colors. Also, there were no Canadians in the Top 8, so based on my Day Two experience so far, I knew I didn’t have a chance (GG me).

I lost in the first round of Top 8 to EFro, whose deck was much better than mine. For game two, I boarded out Ranger’s Guile for Congregate to defend against Triplicate Spirits. However, I drew Congregate when all I needed was another creature to beat down, and furthermore if it had been Ranger’s Guile I could have fizzled Efro’s Pillar of Light on my 5/4 Constricting Sliver to win the game on the spot. I think Congregate was a fine card to sideboard in the matchup, but #runbads.

All-in-all a great weekend—qualifying for Pro Tour D.C. in my first individual Grand Prix of the season was great, as well as scoring my first limited Grand Prix Top 8! Getting back to my initial point, I felt like even under the pressure of an undefeated record, I was able to enjoy all of my rounds, which helped my play all weekend. I liked this Magic 2015 Limited format, but I’m not so sad to see it go, because Khans looks fantastic.

See you on Thursday at 8 p.m.!


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