I was sitting along the breakfast bar at Tim Horton's, the pride of Canada, nursing my hot chocolate to fight off the cold. I grew up in New Hampshire, so the weather was hardly unexpected, but after spending the past fourteen years in Atlanta and San Diego, I'd become a bit soft. One of the other patrons recognized me and walked over, asking how my tournament was going. I told him that I'd lost my first round, and he asked me a familiar question.
"How do you deal with losing?"
This is something that I get asked a lot, but this weekend it was more appropriate than any other. While my final results in the Grand Prix were still several rounds away when the question came up, I would go on to win a grand total of zero games in the tournament. And that's games, not matches. Not one, not two, not three. Zero.
Over the course of the weekend, when people asked me how I was doing in the Grand Prix, they looked bewildered when I told them. Many of them commented that I looked remarkably cheerful for someone who had been knocked out of the tournament so quickly. Some offered their condolences, while others seemed genuinely appreciative to hear that pros can have off days too.
The truth is that when you play Magic competitively, you have a lot of off days, even when you're playing well. Last year, I had the honor of leading the US team at the World Magic Cup thanks to earning the most Pro Points of anyone in the country. How many Top 8 finishes did I have all year between Grand Prix and Pro Tours combined? One—Pro Tour Dark Ascension, which I won. That's it. I put up some other solid finishes, but there were quite a few poor showings in there as well. I narrowly made Day 2 of Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, but I barely won a match and dropped before the end of the day.
This year at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, I lost in the last round on Friday to finish 3-5 and miss Day 2. At Grand Prix Worcester, I won only a single match with my sealed deck before bowing out. At Grand Prix San Antonio, I squeaked into Day 2 at 6-3 but did so poorly the second day that I actually finished outside the Top 128 in the final standings. And at Grand Prix Toronto this past weekend, I failed to win a single game. I wish the standings posted on the website actually had the standings posted as far as the second tiebreaker because I wanted to screenshot the results with "Brian Kibler: 00.0% Player Game Winning Percentage."
And you know what? Despite all that, I'm still solidly in the Top 10 of the Player of the Year race. I don't bring this up to brag, but rather to drive home the point that I find that many players focus solely on the times that they get unlucky and completely discount the opposite. How many times have you heard someone talk about how they would have won a tournament if only they hadn't gotten mana screwed in that one crucial game? How many times do you think that player's opponents got mana screwed over the course of the day? How many times have you heard someone complain about how their opponent drew the only card that could save them on the last possible turn? How many times do you think that same person topdecked their way out of a sticky situation and thought nothing of it?
As Mike McDermott quotes in Rounders: "In Confessions of a Winning Poker Player, Jack King said, 'Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career. It seems true to me, 'cause walking in here, I can hardly remember how I built my bankroll, but I can't stop thinking of how I lost it.'" Human beings are inherently loss averse. We feel more strongly the loss of something than we do the gain of that very same thing. That's why we can't tell you how many times our opponents mulliganed to five over the course of the day but can instantly rattle off how many times it happened to us.
In order to succeed in Magic—or really in any field that combines elements of luck and skill, like poker or investing, among many others—it's important to learn to evaluate situations rationally. You have to be able to look at your opening hand—or your pocket cards in hold 'em or your stock portfolio—and make the correct decision based on your knowledge rather than on emotion. How many times have you looked at a weak seven and just refused to mulligan because you'd "already mulliganed so many times today?" I know I have, and I deservedly lost as a result. It's one thing to play by intuition, but it's quite another thing entirely to fly in the face of statistics and reason because of your emotional state.
Learning to deal with losses is about learning to operate rationally, and it's a skill like anything else. Sometimes there are those days when you really do just get unlucky and can't seem to win a match. And frankly, if you're going to pursue Magic competitively, you have to learn to be okay with that. Some days you draw the Whipflare and win the Pro Tour, and other days you can't draw the right colors of mana and don't win a match. That's just something that happens in Magic, no matter who you are and how much you've won in the past.
The most important thing is to look at your losses as opportunities to learn. It's easy to be dismissive and always write things off to terrible misfortune, but in the end that leaves you in the same place you started, except maybe a little more bitter.
What did I learn from my losses in Toronto? Well, my first match was against Birthing Pod. I was playing the same G/W Hate deck with Wilt-Leaf Liege that I'd built for GP Chicago, where I finished in the Top 16. In the first game, I had an aggressive draw and was able to put him on the back foot quickly, but I didn't draw any of my removal or relevant disruption with the exception of a Linvala that he was able to remove with Phantasmal Image. He was able to combo off, and I died in short order. In game 2, I had a similarly aggressive draw, quickly deploying a Qasali Pridemage and Wilt-Leaf Liege to put my opponent under serious pressure. I used a Dismember early to keep him pinned on mana, but he had two more mana creatures to rebuild and eventually was able to combo off after stalling my aggression with a Kitchen Finks.
While that's an accurate depiction of both games, it's not the full story. In game 2, I had a Noble Hierarch, Overgrown Tomb, and Gavony Township in play on turn 3 with a Horizon Canopy and fetchland in my hand. I played the fetchland and got a basic Forest since I already had the colors I needed to cast all of my spells and wanted to avoid taking excess damage. Makes sense, right?
The problem was that one of my white mana sources was Horizon Canopy. After a few turns, I decided to sacrifice the Canopy to dig for more answers since my opponent was getting dangerously close to assembling his combo. And I found an answer: Linvala. Which would have been awesome except I just lost my second white source in order to find it, and now I was unable to cast it so I died to the combo on my opponent's next turn, losing a game that I quite handily could have won if I'd thought a bit further ahead. I actually realized very shortly after I'd made the play that it was a mistake, but I just wasn't focused enough at the time, in no small part due to the fact that I hadn't gotten enough sleep the previous two nights.
My next match was against W/B Tokens. In both games, I had relatively spot removal-heavy hands with Lingering Souls, and in both of them I had mana troubles that kept me from flashing back my Souls while my opponent overran me with Spirit tokens of his own. In game 2, it was actually looking like I might be able to stabilize with a Sword of Light and Shadow, but my opponent had a Temple Garden to destroy it with a splashed Maelstrom Pulse. He told me after the match that his friend had played against me online earlier in the week and I had beaten him with Sword of Light and Shadow, so he knew I'd have it against him and was ready to deal with it.
The takeaway here is mostly that I should probably stop being lazy and testing on "Kibler" on Magic Online. After Grand Prix Anaheim, where a significant portion of the field ended up getting their list from my stream the week before, I resolved not to play any decks I was planning on playing in upcoming tournaments quite so publically. I still practice in the two-player and eight-player Constructed queues on my main account despite having multiple "secret" Magic Online accounts I could test on instead. As a player in the public eye, I'm used to being at something of a disadvantage in terms of information just because people are likely to pay attention to what I'm playing, and I would be better off if I took the small steps necessary to try to reduce that information gap as much as possible. Of course, as I write this, I'm sitting here playing a deck I'm thinking about playing this weekend on my Kibler account, so maybe I'll never learn.
In my last match, I played against Storm. In game 1 (after losing my third consecutive die roll—isn't it funny how many people remember facts like that but probably can't remember when they've won all but one of their die rolls if pressed?), I kept a hand that was solid against creature decks, with a Noble Hierarch into Lingering Souls into Wilt-Leaf Liege with a Path for backup along with the necessary land to cast them all. Of course, my opponent's first turn Gitaxian Probe revealed that it was a horrible hand, and when he Probed me again a few turns later, my hand was full of cards I planned on sideboarding out very soon: a pair of Baneslayer Angels, Linvala, and Sword of Light and Shadow. I died shortly thereafter.
In game 2, I mulliganed a slow hand into a hand with Loxodon Smiter and a pair of Relics plus the mana to cast them, and my opponent promptly made fourteen Goblins on turn 2 with Empty the Warrens. I had the Zealous Persecution that I'd sideboarded in for just such an occasion, but not the black mana to cast it. When my Horizon Canopy sacrifice revealed a Stirring Wildwood on top of my deck, my tournament was at an end.
What could I possibly learn from this? Well, that last draw step was almost poetic. I'd spent a long time debating the night before the tournament whether I wanted to play a sixth fetchland or the single Stirring Wildwood and in the end went with the Wildwood because I felt like I wanted one more action land. Turns out that if it had been a Misty Rainforest, I very well might have won that game, and then who knows how the rest of my day might have turned out. I'm certainly not suggesting that this particular anecdote "proves" that the land should have been a fetch instead of the Wildwood, but it certainly does suggest adding cards that can't be played at all without black mana (unlike the Lingering Souls and Dismembers in my deck before)—particularly ones that might be important to play early—might require some reworking of the mana.
So how do I deal with losing? I think about it. I learn from it. I could very easily have written my experience in Toronto off as a string of bad luck, but instead I can leave with resolutions to ensure that I get enough rest before events to stay focused, to avoid giving away too much tech through public testing, and the data point—albeit a small one—that I might want to revisit the mana base of my Modern deck before I play it again. If you look at every loss as an opportunity to walk away from it a better player, you'll realize that it's not so bad after all.
Until next time,
Bonus Modern Decklist:
- 2 Aven Mindcensor
- 2 Baneslayer Angel
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 2 Qasali Pridemage
- 4 Wilt-Leaf Liege
- 1 Gaddock Teeg
- 2 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
- 2 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben