"We're up all night to get lucky." -Pharrell Williams
Getting lucky is a highly underrated phenomenon in Magic. Quite frankly, it's pretty underrated in life, in general. Getting lucky is great! Yet, so many people use "he just got lucky" as an insult. Like so many things, if we look at getting lucky as a bad thing and we won't get lucky as much.
Advantages of getting lucky:
— Unlikely things happen that you really want to have happen, which can be pretty sweet.
— It feels really good. Think about what it feels like to topdeck the land or a burn spell you need the turn before you were going to die.
— It's really attractive. People like lucky people; they praise them, they want to be near them.
Sure, I guess technically, you could argue that it is not without some disadvantages:
— Risk of "cheapening" the experience that you got really lucky in.
— Increase risk of overestimating your own ability, leading you to take bigger risks than would be wise in the future.
Well, jealousy is a byproduct of success, regardless of how lucky you were. The risk of overestimating your own ability is a greater challenge, to be sure. I've known several guys that won a million or more dollars in a Poker tournament that go on to spend over a million dollars learning that as good as they are, they did get a little lucky on that fateful day. Here's the thing: if you get unlucky, maybe you drop out of a field you were going to succeed in? Generally speaking, getting lucky gives you more good options, and if Zvi has taught us anything, it's that more good options are Good Things.
As far as cheapening one's accomplishment, well I have played in 44 Pro Tours, and I might have never run as good as I did in Atlanta. I definitely got more than a little lucky, but that doesn't detract from the hard work, the preparation, the decisions I made to get into that spot. I also capitalized on my good fortune this time around, which is in stark contrast to the other half a dozen PT Top 8s I could have had if I didn't punt enough matches to knock me out of contention.
When I play in PTs, I like to critically analyze each match I lost and determine if I would have won, or had better chances of winning; if I had taken a different line, made a different play, avoided a blunder. In my experience, maybe 25% of the time I missed top 8, I punted enough matches to cost me the spot. Additionally, there are many more matches where mistakes cost me a 5% chance here, a 10% chance there, of winning a game (possibly forcing a third game). All those little percentage points add up.
Of course, one different match changes the whole tournament. All your pairings are different, your mindset is different; there is a cascade of changes that make it impossible to predict what "would have happened." Still, if we punt two matches and miss top 8 by two matches, how much can we really complain about the two matches we lost due to horrible manascrew?
Luck is when opportunity knocks and you answer.
I finished 9th at Pro Tour Dublin last year. In the second to last round, I was playing for top 8 against eventual champion Jeremy Dezani. In the deciding game, I Read the Bones keeping both cards. Dezani then casts a Nightveil Specter. Over the course of the next six turns, I draw land every turn, while he Specters a spell each turn.
Pretty unlucky, huh?
Of course, in retrospect, one of those two spells I kept, Soldier of the Pantheon, was a clear scry to the bottom. I was already a little flooded from keeping a mana heavy opener, that I stand by the keeping of, but which I also have to live with the risks associated. When I saw Soldier of the Pantheon and Precinct Captain, I was thinking, "oh good, spells. I need those."
The thing is, Precinct Captain already accomplished most of what Soldier of the Pantheon would. The extra two damage a turn had so little chance of changing the outcome of the match compared to increasing my chances of drawing a removal spell or a big threat or more card draw. Looking back, there is zero doubt that I should have scryed the Soldier to the bottom.
If I had, I would have drawn spell after spell, while Dezani hit land after land. Now, before you jump in and just say it could have just as easily been the other day, let's look at that for a moment. Is it really 50/50? Is it really just as likely to have helped the other way?
Of course not. Scrying the Soldier to the bottom means I will draw more Hero's Downfalls. In this game where I didn't, I ended up drawing less Hero's Downfalls than I would have. There are a lot of possible scenarios that involve me drawing less Hero's Downfalls after scrying and keeping, and this is one of them. Yes, it is a particularly curious-looking one, but it is still just one of the many games that fall under the umbrella of why that play was a mistake. There are more of these where it costs me than where it pays me for making the mistake.
That's why it was a mistake.
So, how unlucky was I? You generally have to get a little lucky to even be in that spot in the first place, and here I had a chance to top 8 Dublin, but I blew it. I don't care if I made ninety-nine decisions right; I could have made one hundred.
"It's hard to detect good luck - it looks so much like something you've earned." -Frank A. Clark
In 2008, I was deep in the thick of playing what I wanted to play, regardless of whether or not it gave me the best chances to win. In Pro Tour Berlin, I played a Gifts Mid-Range deck, while Luis Scott-Vargas played Elf-Combo. Already, it's hard to say that any amount of "luck" that follows is really to blame, when I could have just played the same deck as Luis. I even tested with Wafo-tapa and could have played Mono-Blue Faeries three months before it was mainstream!
The Gifts deck was good though, so all is not lost. However, let me share with you three of my losses:
— Against Zoo, I didn't Spell Snare a Dark Confidant when my opponent was at 6. I guess I kind of thought I was so far ahead that Jitte was the only way I could lose, but in retrospect, it's pretty obvious that Confidant could potentially give him enough cards to turn the tides against me.
— Against Elf combo, I had seven cards in hand and complete control over the game. I couldn't even imagine how I could lose. I used a Firespout to kill a random creature, because why not? Of course, when my opponent proceeds to Chord of Calling Gaddock Teeg out of his Mono-Green deck, leaving me with Engineered Explosives, Chalice of the Void, Wrath of God, Slice and Dice, Gifts Ungiven, Worm Harvest, and Life from the Loam… Yeah, maybe shouldn't have used the Firespout in that spot…
— In the final round of the tournament, playing against Zoo, I mostly have control facing a Kird Ape, while at eight, against a player with two cards. I Academy Ruins my Vedalken Shackles, play it, and use it to steal the Ape--tapping out--while I have Spell Snare in hand. If I had gotten back Engineered Explosives, I would probably be fine. If I just took the one hit from the Ape and held up Spell Snare, I would probably be fine, but I just got a little hasty, a little greedy, and I wanted to end it a little faster. What two cards could he be holding besides Tribal Flames and Lightning Helix?
Two of my other losses were against Elf combo decks that killed me on Turn 2. My other loss was against Faeries in a match where I got manascrewed. Pretty unlucky, right? Of course, if I had just avoided the first two punts, I could have drawn into the top eight and not even had to avoid the final punt. Hell, Luis had four losses in Swiss, himself!
"Those who have succeeded at anything and don't mention luck are kidding themselves." -Larry King
Playing against Wrapter in the semifinals, it was incredibly lucky to draw an untapped green, then an untapped white, after keeping a one-land hand with no green mana. The thing is, getting lucky isn't purely random. We make decisions all the time that impact our chances of getting lucky.
Looking at the GP Manchester Block decklists, four-of Mana Confluence decks are everywhere. Makes sense, but remember, this wasn't the case two weeks ago at the PT. Most people that played Mana Confluence played one or two. Making the decision to play four definitely changed my chances of drawing an untapped land on turns two and three.
The one land I kept was a temple. Not everyone played the full twelve temples. Imagine if the one land I had kept was not a temple! First of all, I would have gotten Time Walked, since I did need the scry to the bottom. Of course, it never would have come to that since I would have had to mulligan the hand, giving me much lower chances of winning.
I only had eight lands I could draw that would let me cast Fleecemane Lion on turn two. Still, I did have eight sources of untapped green. Part of that was having four Mana Confluences, but part of it was also having twenty-five land in my aggressive midrange deck when many other teams were playing twenty-four in decks featuring Doomwake Giant or Prognostic Sphinx.
Wrapter got manascrewed that same game, but it is worth noting that he had two Swamps with two Sylvan Caryatids in hand. What if he had more than one Mana Confluence in his deck? What if he had a twenty-fifth land instead of one of those Kioras? These are just small percentage questions, but they are relevant. And to be clear, Wrapter is clearly a stronger player than me. He might be the best player in the world, and is probably the strongest player of the decade. However, there are always edges to be gained somewhere. Obviously, I had to get some amount of lucky to beat him. He's the best player! Giving myself the most and best chances of getting lucky is about all I can do beyond giving 100%.
"Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known." - Garrison Keillor
People that complain about luck are pretty curious beings, indeed. It seems there are basically two goals when one complains about luck:
1. Convince others you are good enough.
2. Convince yourself you are good enough.
However things are is just how they are. Obviously, there are many things you can change and taking action to change them is not "complaining." Sometimes, the best we can affect change is to raise awareness. While sometimes people conflate this with complaining, they are actually radically different experiences. One is useful, the other isn't.
If someone cheats to win tournaments, bringing it up, raising awareness of it, can help lead to action. By contrast, when you get manascrewed and complain to anyone that will listen, generally the only action you are looking for is the sweet, sweet opiate of sympathy.
Everyone can be in pain at times, and it does not serve us to judge too quickly those that find some relief in the drug. However, very quickly the drug addict may appear to lose touch with reality to those around him or her.
What do you do to convince others you are good enough?
First of all, actions speak louder than words. Besides, lucky people are attractive, and unlucky people are repulsive. Every single time you tell someone you got unlucky, you are subtly lowering their perception of you. Yes, everyone gets unlucky sometimes, but that you are focused on the unlucky events reveals a fundamental blindness, a confusion that does much the opposite of convince others you are "good enough," whatever that means.
I used to spend an unfortunate amount of energy trying to convince others of whatever it is I thought was right. It wasn't that I wanted to be right, it wasn't that I wanted to win, it was that I didn't know how to best handle people disagreeing with me. There is a time and a place for discussion, for debate, for argument, but there's also a time and place for different strategies, different approaches, different perspectives. Someone disagreeing with you doesn't mean they don't respect you or that you aren't good enough.
In preparing for Pro Tour Dublin, as well as Pro Tour Atlanta, I ended up playing a different deck than most of my teammates. In the past, I would have expended so much energy arguing, trying to make them see what I saw. Instead, I shared everything I saw and let them be the judge of what it meant to them. Yes, I would have loved more people to talk last minute sideboarding ideas with, but if you don't get to that place the right way, you might find you've dragged a bunch of people down with you somewhere you don't want to be.
There is certainly a time and place for emphatically demanding people take a closer look, that you are so sure they are wrong, that there is a serious misunderstanding distorting your preparation. In Pro Tour Dublin, we had the Mono-Blue Devotion deck. In Pro Tour Atlanta, we had BUG Control. At both events, teammates asked me if they were making a serious mistake playing the team deck instead of mine. At both events, I knew the team deck was also very good and that if my deck was better, it wasn't by much (and certainly not a for sure thing). Obviously, I thought mine was better, which is why I was on it, but the other choice was also a good one, one I would be happy with.
By contrast, five years ago, I was testing with Gabriel Nassif, Mark Herberholz, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, Manuel Bucher, and the Ruels. The US side of our playtesting had given up on 5CC, determining that it just lost to Faeries. And sure enough, at the Pro Tour, most Faeries players beat most 5CC players. However, I knew how to beat Faeries with 5CC and believed we were making a serious mistake to discard it.
We had a serious failure to agree on reality. I believed 5CC was clearly favored. Gab and Mark believed Faeries was clearly favored. In order to move forward, a challenge was proposed: I would play fifty games of 5CC vs Gab and Mark playing Faeries. If 5CC had a winning record, we would focus on tuning it. If Faeries had a winning record, we would abandon 5CC.
The end result?
5CC came out ahead the rest is history, as they say, with Nassif going on to win the Pro Tour with it.
Now, this certainly isn't to suggest that all disagreements should be resolved with fifty-game sets. The point though, is that you have to pick your battles. If we had another deck that was also really good, I would not have been so emphatic about showing them the strength of 5CC. As it was, however, we had exactly one good deck, making it more important that we didn't let it slip away without further review.
Were we lucky that 5CC won the playtest session? Perhaps the real luck was having time to test fifty games rather than just ten. Perhaps the luck was Nassif and Herberholz being open-minded enough to accept the results they were getting from testing rather than just slavishly adhering to preconceived notions.
Actions speak louder than words.
"I believe in luck: how else can you explain the success of those you dislike?" -Jean Cocteau
What do you do to convince yourself that you're already good enough?
Why? So, you can stop pushing yourself to get better? So you can stop improving?
Would you rather believe you were already there? Or take the steps to actually get there? The suffering we experience from our losses is the suffering of attachment. I can't even tell you how many people I have seen that complained about getting unlucky that didn't even consider how they could have played the game differently to give themselves better chances. They don't want to face that though, as they are far too attached to the feeling of already being "good enough."
Besides, what is it about the sort of unlucky fortune you encountered that makes it a travesty, while your luck is justice?
Not drawing the right cards is a form of luck you deserve to have had go better for you?
What about the luck of being born predisposed to higher intelligence?
What about the luck of being born in a time and place where Magic exists in the first place?
What about the luck of being able to travel to the event in the first place?
Most people are not so lucky. And you want to complain that you didn't draw one of your ten outs over the course of six turns?
The worst is when one complains to their opponent to undermine any possible sense of accomplishment in that person. How unbelievably selfish! Do you think Wrapter complained when I got lucky and drew the perfect land while he sat manascrewed? Hell no. Wrapter is a champion. He smiled, laughed, shook my hand, and wished me luck in the finals. Wrapter hoped to draw land, hoped I didn't, but did not allow his attitude to be a slave to drawing the exact sequence of land he needed. He was not attached to a specific outcome, allowing him to better face the reality he was in. He has gotten lucky before, and this time it was not to be. Why would he want to take anything away from me?
The unluckiest any of my opponents got all weekend was Yuuya Watanabe. He was manascrewed three games in a row! He even won one! Still, there wasn't even a hint of negativity. He smiled, laughed, shook my hand, and wished me luck. Yuuya Watanabe is a champion.
Jamie Parke had mana issues in one of our games. Nam Sung Wook stumbled on mana briefly in one of our games. We're playing Magic. That's part of the game. What do they gain by trying to remove any agency from the game we played?
Your opponent may not have played perfect. They may not have played the best. They might not have had the best chances of winning.
That's not what determines if someone deserves to win a game.
If I roll a ten-sided die and you roll a six-sided die, and you beat me six to three, you deserved to win. We each gave ourselves exactly the chances we did, and then we allowed a random number generator to pay out the results from each of our respective gambles. Even if we think one is strictly better than the other, we are talking about games with variance. We picked the dice we picked and agreed to roll them.
When someone beats you in a tournament, there is no profit in discrediting their experience. Maybe they made ten mistakes and you made just one, but that one you made was your fault. Owning it, learning from it, is how you improve; not from focusing on the ten they made and telling yourself that you "deserved to win." I don't care if you made ten unbelievable plays against someone that missed onboard wins ten turns in a row. You can't win every game, but every game you could have played better is an opportunity to grow. After every single loss, we are well-served to ask ourselves as brutally honestly as we possibly can bare, "What could I have done to give myself better chances to win? Was that the right play, not just the right play because of the way the cards fell?"
Ever notice how the best players talk about making tons of mistakes? It's not that they are making more, it's that they are more aware of the ones they are making and are facing them fearlessly. Magic is an impossibly hard game. That's part of what makes it so replayable! There is always room to improve. Perfection is tough to reach and tougher still to hold onto. Scouring our games for anything we could possibly have done to give ourselves better chances is one of the greatest shortcuts of world class players ever devised.
"Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready." -Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
We get lucky over and over and over. Life provides us with no shortage of opportunity, and often, the real question is what we're going to do with opportunity when it knocks. Will we be ready?
Getting really lucky to win a tournament is great! Not only did you win the tournament, you capitalized on your good luck when it came. You know how often people get incredibly lucky, only to fall a little short due to a mistake? Capitalizing fully on your good luck is actually extremely difficult. We've all had the experience of being so far ahead, we can't even imagine how we could lose… only to discover there really is a path we could stumble onto.
Besides, we're going to get unlucky sometimes. Learning from those experiences, rather than just trying to dismiss them as "unlucky" increases the chances of us "getting lucky" in the future.
When we do get lucky, being thankful for it, being appreciative of all that went into it, increases the chances of getting lucky in the future. Appreciating your teachers, your teammates, the obstacles in your life that made things harder, that forced you to become stronger, that breeds luck.
It may seem obvious that we want to be lucky, but are we giving ourselves the best chances to get lucky? Eight years ago, I wrote an article about getting lucky. There are countless ways to cultivate our luck, to improve our chances of getting lucky, but here are some of the surface level ideas. They are just as true today as they were then, and just thinking about these subjects leads us to make better decisions:
— Playing stronger cards gives us more chances to get lucky and have our cards match up positively against some random opponent.
— Playing cards that work together gives us more chances to get lucky and draw combinations of cards more powerful than the most powerful cards on their own.
— Playing cards or strategies people aren't familiar with gives us more chances to get lucky and face someone that makes a mistake from lack of experience.
— Playing cards or strategies that are good against the metagame gives us more chances to get lucky and face a good matchup.
— Playing a consistent deck gives us more chances to have our mana work out, to curve out, to have our game plan come together.
— Playing with integrity and sportsmanship, and generally cultivating positive relationships and networking increases the chances that we'll be in the right place at the right time, that we'll have more opportunities.
— Playing as though you'll draw the card you need, if that's your only way to win, gives you better chances of actually winning, rather than just losing slower.
If I could add just one to the list, it would be to embrace variance. Embrace when you are lucky and be thankful for it. Embrace when you are unlucky and look for ways in which you could have changed your fate. It's amazing how fast our mindset can change a situation from feeling "unlucky" into feeling "very lucky."
Do you suppose some people are just luckier than others--like some unseen gift--while some are just plagued with some unlucky curse, and that there's nothing we can do? If you're feeling unlucky, change your perspective and start looking for the ways in which you are lucky. That will breed more of them!
We can't always know what life will steer in our direction, and sometimes stuff just sort of seems to happen. Sometimes accidents can overpower whatever plans we had laid out. Those that adapt with the flow of life get lucky more often.
"Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered." -William Shakespeare