So I am doing prep for the upcoming SCG Legacy Open in Edison, NJ next weekend. Honestly, I am probably just going to attack with Goblin Guides and cross my fingers that Price of Progress sticks, but I want to try a variety of decks just to make sure I don't miss anything.
For me, I figure the sun has set on my beloved Cephalid Breakfast. It's not that I don't think that a turn 2 kill deck with Force of Will backup and a completely different awesome side plan isn't viable... It's that with the proliferation of maindeck Deathrite Shamans, I don't necessarily want that turn 2 kill to require me to stick a Dread Return.
On that subject, I have been testing Gerry Thompson's old Shoal and Tell deck, which basically offers everything any thinking man could ever want in a decklist:
Based in part on Sam Black's onetime Modern Poison deck, Shoal and Tell is kind of like a Cephalid Breakfast that isn't vulnerable to graveyard hate. It has multiple fast kills with Force of Will (and other) backup / disruption... and Gerry's genius gives us, in Show and Tell, something to do with the odd errant Progenitus (especially when the opponent has a fist full of removal).
Like all combo decks that can steal the turn 2 kill, in addition to everything else, Shoal and Tell can also get lucky.
So there I am, middle of game 2. I had won game 1; if you asked my opponent, I probably topdecked him to win the first, but whatever—I honestly don't remember. He was playing Esper Stoneblade, which seems like all different things can potentially go wrong for him. He has resistance, sure, but I have speed going for me and more discard and counterspells than he has Swords to Plowshares.
I put myself down to eleven and see three Magical Spells and / or Fantastic Creatures:
- Lingering Souls
- Lingering Souls
- Vendilion Clique [#2]
I am certainly not going to take Lingering Souls. There is only one other option. As much as it pains me, I take a relatively dead Vendilion Clique and don't attack (again). I have multiple manlands, but if I am to get through all those x/1 flyers, I am going to need to prioritize over one poison tick and preserve cardboard.
He swings, putting me to eight, and taps all his mana (including a Karakas) to play and flash back a Lingering Souls. His board is then the four tokens, the Clique, and one Stoneforge Mystic with no playmate (Batterskull being an early victim of my many Thoughtseizes).
At this point, I have three copies of Inkmoth Nexus in play and three various Islands. I draw Blazing Shoal, leaving me with a two-card hand of the whole shebang. Show and Tell might have made for an exciting last couple of turns, but that's not what I drew.
Of course, he has 100 dudes back that can all block, so the fact that I have the combo is little consolation. I am thinking about what I am going to sideboard for game 3. Should I try to be faster? I am going to be on the play, after all. Or should I side in Emrakul and try to powerhouse him? He has Jace in his deck, so that plan is weaker if it isn't online immediately.
On his turn, he plays a land, leaving him with just the second Lingering Souls in hand, and makes a predictable play—sending everyone: four tokens (four), the Clique (seven), and the Mystic makes eight. I make the ho-hum response of activating one Nexus and blocking the Clique.
He proves to me that he knows that Vendilion Clique is a legendary creature and picks it up before damage.
The Danger of Cool Things.
I take five, stay alive at three, and keep my wannabe blocker. I am super happy with myself for not taking his Lingering Souls now, knowing that he is going to make the "Vendilion Clique you on your draw" play, and with only a full-sized Lingering Souls in hand (rather than a 2/3 cost one in the bin) he can't play more blockers.
I draw Brainstorm.
Predictably, he replays his Clique and takes my Blazing Shoal.
I move to attack, activate all three of my lands, swing in, and kill him. You know, with the Blazing Shoal he Cliqued me into.
He is going bananas now.
All kinds of words Magic Online is censoring for me.
Yes, I have Skynet-like superpowers over machines and command the Internet...and I choose to express those abilities by defeating you in a 1v1 Magic Online queue. It is all part of my master plan. Also, don't worry about the vase.
Did I get lucky?
Maybe a bit lucky. What is lucky? I had less than a 50% chance of drawing one of my remaining Shoals (really probably around only a 10% chance), but astute readers [and my opponent] should have noticed that I didn't play my Brainstorm. Outs were had. Cards were live.
The reality is that even if you want to say I got lucky, what happened in this game was clear-cut JUSTICE. Good guys won, and bad guys died. My opponent chose left and got bottom-left, JUST LIKE HE DESERVED.
"Better lucky than good."
In my other life, I have had to do a lot of thinking about choices and performance recently, and I came up with this matrix. I try to apply everything I learn to Magic, and most everything good in my life has somehow derived from Magic. They are the same to me. This matrix might be obvious to some of you, but—even though I have kind of thought along these terms for years—having committed it to paper, I find my thoughts much more structured and useful. Perhaps you will too.
This is a pretty simple 2x2. The x-axis tracks our outcomes (the right side being positive results and the left side undesirable ones); the y-axis the quality of our strategies. The measure of a strategy being how predictably repeatable it is.
Oftentimes you will hear gamers say "way to be results focused," or some such poppycock in an arrogant singsong. As far as anything I have studied in the wider world—and for that matter quite a few Pro Tour finals—being results focused is exactly where you want to be! You want to be squarely focused on results. The best performing people in every discipline are... Though in gaming (like Magic), it usually involves driving results with good strategic decisions. But that is not what "they" mean. Regardless, most of the time most people would rather end up on the right-hand side of the matrix, no matter how they got there.
Why do Magic players vilify being "results focused"? I am pretty sure one of them once heard a poker player say it and misassigned it generally such that it became a community meme, because every time I bring up something like "don't you think we should be focused on maximizing our results?" some otherwise wise and successful gamer will leer at me over the top of his glasses and go "you know what I mean."
What he means, probably, is that there is no great pride to be had at landing in the lower right-hand quadrant. You do the "wrong" thing and win anyway. In Magic, we even have language like "oops, I won!" for situations like this. You won...but not by any great skill. WotC has tried (at least in some formats, if inconsistently) to restrict that by disallowing cards like Bitterblossom, where the main decisions were 1) playing Bitterblossom and 2) casting Bitterblossom on the second turn.
Put another way, the things we choose are top-row and bottom-row; when considering the things we actually have under our control, we should strive for top-row. But because the world is a hazy mess of imperfect correlations, we evaluate success by left-column / right-column. Me? I'm not going to look a gift win in the bottom-right mouth, but if you want to grow and perform at your best, over time it is important to understand this divide.
What do we call someone who by no virtue of their own finds themself with the desired outcome?
"There's nothing like showing up for work, putting in your day, and not getting paid."
-David E. Price, Fire God and winner, Pro Tour Los Angeles 1998
So...what about being in the top-left?
You've probably heard a writer like Adrian Sullivan say something like "sometimes the right play screws you," and I think that is observably valid at least some of the time. In the short term, I have a hard time believing that many would rather be in the top-left than the bottom-right—that is, losing nobly instead of winning stupidly—but the top-left is actually where most masters in most disciplines spend most of their time.
If you've heard the "10,000 hours rule"—that wonder making timeline of deep practice shared by The Beatles, Bill Gates, and numerous tennis and soccer stars, popularized by books like Outliers and The Talent Code—many of those 10,000 hours of training up into mastery are spent in the top-left. Striving to do the right thing, constant adjustment and readjustment in the face of less-than-optimal outcomes, but driving towards victory.
"I think the biggest thing is the deep seeded emotional understanding that the right play is the right play regardless of outcomes. The ability to make a decision five straight times, lose five times because of it, and still make it the sixth time if it's the right play. Magic players have been developing that since their teens, and it's just so applicable to poker, gambling, and life in general."
When you are in the top-left in a real trial, you get some special opportunities.
One of them might be...
Remember, the quality of strategy is how repeatable it is. If a play gives you the result you want three times out of four and you happened to have lost the one time you actually had the opportunity to make this right play, it doesn't mean you aren't supposed to make it the next time. Did you do the "right" thing? Well, according to Adrian, sometimes the right play screws you. Other times it just doesn't matter (your opponent played a second-turn uncontested Bitterblossom), and the range of "right" is losing 80% of the time versus losing 95% of the time.
I do think it may be more complicated than this, especially in Magic. Magic is a game of dynamic possibilities. The metagame changes. Sometimes, you are just outgunned at the Pro Tour. Others, you really should have blocked that Wolf token. That is why it is often so silly to hear players try to justify out-teched deck choices after the fact. Are you really saying that if you were given another shot you would play that whatever brew instead of Necropotence / Caw-Blade / Esper Spirits / whatever the awesome deck was? That isn't choosing top-left... That's a failure to learn from your mistakes.
The best place to be, of course, is top-right.
You not only got the result you wanted, but you deserved it.
I don't know what makes you feel pleasant when playing a game of Magic, but my absolute favorite thing is to win a game where I had to make a difficult series of decisions and it all turned out how I drew it up in my head.
The last time I took home a Blue Envelope was in the summer of 2010. My qualifying round was against Jund; I was playing Grixis, and my opponent gave me game 1. He overvalued my (actually Tom Martell's) Jace, the Mind Sculptor. If he had just sent his Bloodbraid Elf and Lightning Bolt at me, he would have won. I saw it at the time, but he didn't so I eked it out.
Game 2 was embarrassing. Have you ever lost a game where you stuck three Cruel Ultimatums? I did. That game 2.
I actually worked out an exceedingly complicated sequence to win game 2 and Bolted his sideboarded Sedraxis Specter (anti-Spreading Seas tech!) when it required me to get hit by the Specter to discard my Specter so I could unearth for the kill. I had five different ways to deal nineteen but screwed up the only way to deal 20.
In game 3, I just drew more Spreading Seas than he drew lands.
Better lucky than good!
Not satisfying at all.
So here's the thing about being top-right... Top-left is an opportunity. But top-right is a challenge.
It's not enough to just win. You might be bottom-right and not know it. The quality of a strategy is measured by how repeatable it is, so if you can't do the same thing over and over and keep producing that result... You might want to rethink congratulating yourself. Good coaches often say things like "it's not how well you can do it, but how well you can do it slowly." Masterful, top-right execution and results are repeatable given similar conditions.
My opponent and his Karakas-Re-Cliqued-Vendilion Clique were clearly bottom-left, and very far to the left indeed.
Luck? He got what he deserved.
If he had just played the Lingering Souls, there were no cards in my deck that would have gotten me out of it. And if he is going to make this "look, I know how Karakas works" play, maybe he should apply a little game theory. Does he expect me not to block his lethal attack? Maybe he should leave back one token anyway! Did I get lucky? A bit. But he also gave me the widest possible opportunity to do so. And I still had a Brainstorm!
How To Be Happy
Some people believe we live in some kind of morally ordered universe. Many of them have problems understanding top-left and bottom-right even though we see these divides every day. The country is such that a lot of smart, educated, and hardworking people are disengaged and out of work. Meanwhile, Steve Sadin has a cousin who won a couple of million in the lottery, blew it all (like you do), and then desperately in need of cash won the lottery again. WON THE LOTTERY. AGAIN.
Clearly, a lot of this is just luck, good and bad. None of us pick our parents or where we were born. Some folks start off on second base but make like they are Steve Jobs-level innovators. One of the things that makes Magic so instructive to other endeavors is that we have a great view to the true workings and machinations of the universe that we can glean from ruthless analysis of this great game.
Better lucky than good!
(At least in the short term.)
Most people "get" bottom-left and top-right. Merit is rewarded. Wonder Woman has her golden lasso wrapped around the top-right. Truth, my brothers and sisters. Incompetence is punished. Batman lurks to brain the cowards of bottom-left. Justice.
If you want to be as happy as you can in the most situations you can—and improve in the things that are important to you—I would recommend focusing on divorcing outcomes (especially those out of your control) from your emotional state as much as you can. The great basketball coach John Wooden said that you should not be able to tell the score of a game by how his team acted after it was over. If they were sad, it was because they put themselves in the bottom row; there was to be no celebration after a bottom-right performance.
Go back and read what the greatest player of all time said about making the right play even when it seems painful. Putting yourself in the top row is what you want to do because doing so consistently is the best path to ending up in the right-hand column. The thing that makes the difference in the bottom-right is luck... And we can control that much less than we can doing the best thing.
Of course sometimes bad luck or other factors out of your control will put you on the left side rather than the right. I would recommend aligning your emotional satisfaction with being in the top-row—whether or not you actually win—rather than the right column (when you will often win through no good work of your own). Elsewise, you might as well stay up all night crying you weren't born the Queen of England.
So... My other deck (actually modified The Rain Maker's deck):
I am not overly enamored with mono-red's ability to sideboard in Legacy, but Ensnaring Bridge has proven to be a pretty solid defensive option. You can drop it on their Show and Tell...and not lose sometimes. Though, to be honest, I feel like I lose to a lot more Emrakuls game 1 and other combo sequences (off of Show and Tell) than in sideboarded games... You know, the ones where I have just slammed a free Ensnaring Bridge. Or you can just cast it, get cards out of your hand, and paralyze many a Tarmogoyf, buying time to burn them out.
I'll probably get some kind of Red Elemental Blasts into my sideboard before Edison. I've been a bit lukewarm on Scepter recently. And, of course, there is Patrick's Guerilla Tactics. Sideboarding, of course, is a pivotal opportunity to put yourself in the top row...or doom yourself to the bottom-left.
Knowledge. Power. Know everything. Do anything. Omniscience. Omnipotence. Dimir.