It's nearly eight o'clock on a Saturday as you sit down for the ninth and final round of Swiss. It is the most important match of Magic you will play today because with a victory you advance to Top 8 and with a loss you go home empty-handed. Are you ready to stake your entire tournament on this one match of Magic against a perfect stranger?
In today's article, I will share the strategies I use to maximize my chances of winning these difficult, late in the day matches. Remember, while you can't control the cards you and your opponent draw, nearly everything else that occurs is within the realm of your influence.
You Are Not Alone
It was game 3 of the finals of a PTQ, and I was playing my Faeries deck against Mono-Red Aggro and was about to win. Despite being at only one life, I had the game soundly in hand and was on board win next turn (after a remarkable come from behind battle) with a counterspell in hand. In the excitement and fatigue of the situation, I made literally the only available play I could make to lose the game.
In my head, I'd figured out the line of play I wanted to make (which put him dead on board with no outs he could draw). Unfortunately, my plan was predicated on attacking with a Mistbind Clique and leaving the other back to block his Figure of Destiny. I attacked with the wrong Clique.
In my mind, I had already made the distinction that the Clique with the Bitterblossom under it needed to attack, but in the fray of information and decisions I simply turned the wrong one sideways. My opponent attacked and pumped his Figure of Destiny, killed my Clique, and I died to my Bitterblossom. Any other play I could have made besides the mistake one I actually made would have won me the game and the invite to the Pro Tour.
No blue envelope for you today. Here's a box. Thanks for playing.
I've had women break my heart, I've had friendships end poorly, and I've even shattered my elbow, but punting the finals of that PTQ was by far the singularly most painful and regrettable moment I've ever experienced.
I had worked so hard practicing and tuning my Fae deck and had put forth a very dedicated effort to grind my way back on to the Pro Tour for several months. My hard work had paid off with a golden opportunity to accomplish exactly what I had set out to do, and I had wasted it away. The worst part was that I didn't get outplayed (I had outplayed my opponent in the match) and didn't lose because I had gotten outdrawn (I had been outdrawn but was about to win despite it), but rather I lost because of my own negligence throwing away a won game.
Unlike other losses I had experienced, friendships and elbows shattered or old lovers gone by the wayside, this particular loss was different because in it there was nothing or nobody to blame but myself.
To compound the misery of the moment, I had just made a comically bad misplay to lose the finals in front of a large crowd of my peers, which was pretty embarrassing. Imagine the worst play you have ever made happening in the most important game you have ever played in front of a crowd of your peers. It sucks.
It is said that individuals often learn more in defeat than in victory, and this loss taught me lessons aplenty. All things considered, the experience itself was a pretty awful one, and yet it is an experience I am lucky to have had. The experience itself was one caused by my own actions (i.e., there was nobody else to blame) the folly of which was too big to ignore (i.e., the wasting of an opportunity I had worked months for). I learned that one cannot take things for granted, a lesson applicable not only to games of Magic but to life in general.
A Tournament Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
The individual who gets the trophy or the blue envelope is rarely a person who got lucky and ran hot for twelve consecutive rounds. It is much more common that the last man or woman standing is the individual who kept their wits about them and minimized small but costly mistakes.
Winning important late round matches in large tournaments such as Grand Prix and PTQs doesn't require exceptional knowledge, skill, or a doctorate in rocket science, but what it certainly does require is mental toughness and focus. Most of the games one plays, even against good opponents at high-level events, will unfold pretty much as expected, and there will be opportunities to influence the game for better or for worse.
The most common mistake that aspiring players make is to overthink a situation and make unnecessarily extreme plays. The three traps that players tend to fall into and thus fall out of Top 8 contention are:
1. A player overestimates how much pressure they are under and starts chump blocking and thus throwing away important material too quickly.
2. A player underestimates their opponent's position and is too aggressive and thus throws away important material (i.e., making attacks into profitable blocks for the opponent to force through negligible damage or overextending into a board sweeper).
3. A player plays too passively and doesn't press noticeable advantages while they are ahead and thus doesn't exploit a vulnerable opponent's weakness (giving them time to draw back into the game). For example, the guy who is busy flashing back Think Twice instead of playing more threats against a stumbling opponent.
4. A player plays in such a way that one would assume them addicted to value. Snapcaster Mage is sweet at creating two and three for ones, but sometimes it is also necessary to flash it down on two to trade with a Lightning Mauler or Burning Tree Emissary. A better example, I was watching a friend play a game 3 at GP Charlotte and his opponent (playing a very good and very aggressive Boros deck) started on Wojek Halberdiers while my friend started on Sunhome Guildmage. His opponent attacked, and he didn't block and attempt to trade with his opponent's worse cards.
Common knowledge says that a Guildmage is a more powerful card than a 3/2 and that trading would be losing some value, hence no trade. However, knowing how fast the opposing deck was also that the Guildmage wasn't going to do any Guildmaging for quite some time, it was certainly correct to trade it off. His opponent slammed Ember Beast into Skyknight Legionnaire, and then my friend really wished he had traded. The game was actually winnable if he had traded off the Guildmage on the second turn.
The best way to perform better in big tournaments is to practice playing better during playtesting with friends and teammates or during smaller weekly tournaments such as FNM. Once you get in the habit of knowing what types of plays are good, playing important, high stress games in big tournaments becomes easier since you can remind yourself, "Just play your game like how you would during play during testing or with your friends at the local shop."
Trying to take your game to the next level in a round 9 win-and-in at a PTQ is pretty treacherous water to be sailing, and more often than not making unfamiliar lines of play in a stressful situation will end in disaster rather than glory. If you practice well and play the way you practice, chances are that you will have some success even against strong competition.
The analogy of a tournament being similar to a marathon and not a sprint is a good one because it stresses the importance of practice, stamina, and sustained toughness over a full day of competition. Sure, over the course of the day the eventual champion might get lucky a couple of times, and yet the occurrence of luck shouldn't undermine the fact that the player was also required to make thousands of good plays too.
Tournaments are like wars of attrition, with the player who screws up the least having the best shot of winning. It isn't completely necessary to make the best or perfect play all the time but rather to avoid making disastrous missteps.
For instance, imagine the following situation: you can attack with all of your creatures to kill your opponent, but if your opponent has a removal spell, you are dead on the swing back. What do you do? Obviously, that decision would depend upon the context and could be influenced by about a trillion different factors. The best play if they don't have the removal spell is to attack because it wins the game. The best play if they have the spell is to not attack and lose the game.
Often, figuring out the actual correct play is a matter of correctly framing the situation. If I have an advantageous board position and am significantly more likely to win the game as it progresses, taking such a risk and going all in is really stupid because it gives your opponent an out (regardless of if they actually have the removal) to win a game they were probably going to lose anyway.
Remember, for every time you guess right and win there will be times that you guess wrong and lose. A big part of sustained tournament success is mitigating unnecessary high-risk situations when possible.
There are times to go for it and there are times to be wary of a possible trap, but the important thing is to understand when it is the correct time to choose one or the other.
A Finely Tuned Machine
Staying focused enough to play well under tournament conditions takes a substantial amount of mental energy. When a person is fatigued, hungry, thirsty, too hot, too cold, or distracted, they are apt to make bad decisions, and as I have already pointed out in the previous section, the champion is usually the person who made the fewest mistakes.
We all know that it is important to be properly rested, to make sure we eat breakfast and stay hydrated. A lot of people like to slam energy drinks in order to wake up and stay alert. The upside to energy drinks is that caffeine provides easy energy, but one of the big downsides is that it can cause dehydration. One tip I can offer any tournament player is to make sure you drink water throughout the day, as it helps keep your mind sharp and your body feeling good. I visit the drinking fountain in between every round.
Also, bringing snacks with you to a long tournament is a really smart idea. Let's face it, 99% of people at a tournament are fitted with gigantic, heavy backpacks full of binders and boxes of cards already, so making room for a couple of granola bars or a bag of trail mix is likely the most valuable thing you will bring with you (at least with regard to winning those late rounds!). Eating something healthy will give you energy, make you feel good and focused, and leave your stomach and wallet nice and full. Springing for expensive convention center junk food will not only cost you an arm and a leg but also leave you feeling sluggish.
I quit smoking on December 1st of last year and haven't had a cigarette since. If you are a smoker, like I was for eight years, I am sure you have already heard a million reasons why you should quit, and here is one more: being a smoker makes you worse at Magic. I have punted more games of Magic because I was rushing so I could go outside to smoke or because I was agitated because of a craving for nicotine than I care to admit. I have sat down to a round completely mentally unprepared to play because I didn't have time to smoke a cigarette because my last round went to time or because I ran outside to smoke and ran back in to play more times than I can remember.
I can tell my tournament game has vastly improved as a result of quitting smoking; after all, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and running a marathon go together about as well as oil and water.
Courage Under Fire
Whenever I write about being a better tournament player, I reference Phil Cape's first PTQ win story. When Phil was trying to get on to the PT for the first time, he had a lot of trouble winning his first PTQ. He kept making Top 8 but was unable to actually win the tournament. He practiced playing Magic by playing in local tournaments during the week and would usually split the Top 4 of these events. Eventually, he made the correlation between not playing out Top 8s during practice and not being able to win in the Top 8 of a PTQ. Phil tried a little experiment and started refusing to split the Top 8 of weekly events, instead choosing to play them out to completion.
Everyone will be shocked to learn he won his first PTQ two weeks later.
There is a difference between making good plays when you are playing for fun and making good plays when you are under pressure.
It is hard to make the right play when it really matters.
You might snap send that 2/2 into my 3/3 blocker, bluffing a pump spell, in a Monday night draft, but are you capable of doing it when it matters the most and the stakes are the highest? If it was the right play on Monday, why is it now the wrong play on Saturday night?
Winning that last round to make Top 8 and playing the finals of a tournament is not the same thing as playing casually during the week. The game is the same, but the stakes are much, much higher.
One thing I have noticed is that most Magic players are significantly better at playing meaningless games of Magic than they are important games of Magic. If you have every wondered why the guys who are in the Hall of Fame are famous, it has a lot to do with their ability to get it done under pressure better than the other 99.9%.
If a person actually cares about winning, then losing has a price and there is something at stake. Playing a game and playing a game with something on the line are two different things, particularly if the thing that is on the line is something a person actually cares about. The only way to become better at winning important games where something is on the line is experience, which is why practicing playing out Top 8 is so important for aspiring PTQ and GP players.
Playing out the Top 8 of a tournament is a fantastic way for aspiring competitors to actually practice playing games of Magic where something is at stake.
With a typical prize structure for a reasonably sized FNM or weekly Constructed event, playing out rounds of Top 8 is essentially the equivalent of playing matches of Magic with $5 on the line. Five bucks is hardly the same thing as competing for a blue envelope or trying to break the bubble at a Grand Prix, but it is something and helps one get a feel for things. Also, playing out the finals of a 30-person weekly event where one person is the champion and the other is not the champion will actually give a person a feel for playing meaningful games of Magic. In a typical tournament, a player might already have played eight rounds, with only one match separating them from being a champion or a runner-up... It matters, just like how being a PTQ champion or runner-up matters.
Winning an event with a single elimination Top 8, even if it is only Monday Night Standard, is an accomplishment—going 3-1-1 and splitting Top 8 every week is not so much. Playing out a Top 8 also gives you the opportunity to test your skills against the other highly skilled players in your area in a match of Magic with something at stake.
I remember when I used to play FNM back in the glory days, we always played out Top 8, and there were serious bragging rights on the line for winning a RIW FNM. Keep in mind that a typical FNM might feature any number of the following characters: Ari Lax, Michael Jacob, Patrick Chapin, Kyle Boggemes, D.J. Kastner, Phil Cape, Eric "Danger" Taylor (EDT), and the list goes on. Our FNM was basically saturated with pros and ringers practicing and trying to get better; another local store advertised their Friday Night Magic tournament with a sign that said: "Tired of getting crushed by pros at FNM? Play here instead!"
When you get to the end of the road and there's only one obstacle standing between you and your goal, it is everything you have done in preparation for the moment that will hopefully help you over the hurdle and into the Promised Land. One comforting thought to remember as you are shuffling up to start that win-and-in or the finals of that PTQ or whatever the challenge is: the other person sitting in front of you is the end boss, but for him you are his end boss. Both players are in the same situation and are risking the same thing; if you have done the things I suggest in this article and are up to the challenge of playing your game and being mentally tough in the face of pressure, then your opponent, not you, actually faces the greater challenge.
Thanks for reading.