We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for this important announcement:
I've made it to prime time. Thursday! That's when the major television networks air their best programming so I can only assume the pattern holds true for Magic strategy content, right?
And if that wasn't exciting enough, you will find me here every week. That's right, twice as much Ross. It looks like Ceddy Claus had one last belated Christmas present in his sack. I am beyond excited to share my thoughts and adventures with you all on a more frequent basis and cannot thank Cedric enough for this opportunity. 2015 is already looking great [CEDitor's Note: 2015 is going to look a lot worse if you ever call me Ceddy Claus again, Ross.]
We now return to your regularly scheduled program, already in progress.
I've had a strange few weeks. Wishing to return to normalcy after my month long trip for the Season Four Invitational and Players' Championship, I played a few local events over the last two weeks. Unprepared and unmotivated, I did not perform very well and was left disheartened.
Fortunately, I was met with many well-wishers who congratulated me on my performance in the Players' Championship. Knowing that I have so many people rooting for me is always gratifying. But here's the thing:
I was not proud of my performance at the Players' Championship.
Looking back on it, I think both of my decks were poor. Elves especially. Sure, I could not have foreseen the Reanimator deck that Joe Lossett and Kent Ketter played. I still had Jim Davis, Chris VanMeter, Brad Nelson, and Logan Mize on combo decks and thought there would be three Miracles players between Brian Braun-Duin, Reid Duke, and Joe. That is a horrible field for Elves, and I really did try hard to play something else. But in the end I was drawn to the familiar, as I always am.
Why did I not put in more effort to learn a new deck for such an important event? Well, my excuse was I spent too much time trying to figure out Standard. I had no failsafe similar to Elves in Standard, and winning my first pod was so valuable that I correctly weighted Standard more heavily in my testing than Legacy.
But in the end I did not come up with anything particularly good for Standard either. I had a rather stock list of Jeskai Tokens with a sideboard I was not sure about. Hushwing Gryff seemed to work out well for Dylan Donegan, and he confirmed as much when I talked to him, but I actually have not cast the card. Even now I have very little opinion of whether or not it is good.
I was very fortunate to win my first pod with a 2-1 record, and expectedly fizzled out in Legacy the next day in spite of dodging all of my worst matchups in the field. The most disappointing moment of the tournament was unfortunately the most memorable for the audience: Game 2 of my match against Reid Duke.
I have heard a lot about how well-played that game was, and that is certainly true for Reid. But for me, I punted that match. Three times. With a deck I have played for over a year. The sole reason I played Elves was my facility with the deck and even that failed me. I was disgusted with myself after re-watching that match.
For years I have espoused the idea that metagaming is incredibly overrated within the Magic community and that the real edge comes from familiarity and facility with your chosen deck. It was certainly true in my case. I had a good year in 2012 playing nothing but U/W Delver and Maverick on the Open Series, spent 2013 bouncing around to different decks and had nothing to show for it, and got back on track in 2014 playing the decks I am now known for: Elves and Mono-Blue Devotion. It made perfect sense to me. The masses were myopically looking for the easy victory. Dreaming of a tournament where their deck would simply carry them to the trophy. I knew better. Nothing comes easy. You had to know all the matchups and be able to see all the angles. There is no substitute for expertise and that takes time.
My theory was solid, with one puzzling, bearded exception: Brad Nelson.
What secrets lay behind that beard? The secret to solving any Standard format? Or a killer recipe for mango salsa?
Brad has seen success in every Standard format playing different decks every week. By his own admission, Brad is not the most talented technical player and gains his edge via metagaming. This was unfathomable to me. It flew in the face of one of my most deeply held truths about a game I thought I was pretty good at. For the most part. I arrogantly ignored Brad while toting around the same 150 cards every week at the Open Series.
Come December, it was no longer possible to ignore Brad, mainly because he was sleeping upstairs from me in a house in Tacoma, WA. That week of testing for the Invitational was my chance to gain some insight into Brad's process. What I learned was so obvious that I am still shaking my head for not seeing it.
Brad knows all the decks already. All of them. All the weird variants. All the fringe sideboard cards. Everything. It's a bit frightening to be honest.
But that just leads to another question: How can he possibly be so comfortable with such a wide swath of decks?
Simple, he plays a lot more Magic than you or I. The man has a borderline unhealthy number of hours logged on Magic Online. He might even play Daily Events in his sleep. In a community known for sloth, Brad is constantly honing his craft. Every week he is not picking up a deck cold, but with knowledge he has gained from playing with and against it weeks or even months before.
He may not have quite the level of expertise on any given deck as someone who plays it exclusively, but he is closer than you think and more than makes up the difference by never having a week where the field is prepared for him. He is always a step ahead.
There's a saying for this phenomenon. It's about having cake, I think. Hopefully a free cheesecake.
The most startling realization was that there is nothing special about what Brad does. I just need to practice more. I don't want to abandon my own approach, but finding a balance between the two makes complete sense. Maybe after surveying the format, I find a small set of decks that will cover any metagame, and I work to learn them all. The correct approach is almost always nuanced, and I am sure I will discover wrinkles along the way, but the basic principle is sound.
There are plenty of ways to gain an edge at a Magic tournament whether through deckbuilding, deck choice, mulligan decisions, sideboarding decisions, technical play, or even physical health. The goal should not be to maximize whatever edges you find to be most important at the expense of all the others, as I have been doing. The goal is to maximize the sum total of all these edges. How to do this is an endlessly complex question and one I will certainly wrestle with many times over the coming years. How much time you have to prepare, as well as the structure and size of the tournament, are but a few of the myriad variables to consider when balancing how much emphasis to place on each edge. Some of the edges (notably technical play and physical health) are not tournament specific, but they're skills that must be constantly improved and/or maintained.
What is special about Brad is that he has the motivation to put in such a large amount of work. If I am being honest with myself, I have not put nearly enough time into improving my fundamental skills, which is why I was able to miss the winning lines against Reid with a deck I have supposedly mastered. I have never been the guy that loves nothing more than to test for next week's tournaments. My greatest passion is not for Magic but for winning. Because of this I spend far too much time imagining what winning would be like and not nearly enough time working to realize those dreams. The irony is not lost on me.
I remember when I first started playing Magic and I looked forward to taking the rubber band off my 80 card un-sleeved pile at lunch time. When each new pack brought new cards and ideas to life. There is no going back to that seemingly idyllic time, but Magic is so much more fulfilling to me now than it was then, so I have no desire to. What I need is to regain some of that little boy's wonderment. Hard work is impossible without passion. Eventually you reach a point where the juice isn't worth the squeeze and short-term happiness wins out over long-term goals. You have to love more than the idea of being great. You have to love the process. I have lost sight of that.
It also means that I need to reduce the pressure I put on myself to be perfect. The stress that each mistake generates is truly crippling. That does not mean excusing these mistakes or not aiming to reduce their numbers, but to merely accept that over time, some amount of them are unavoidable. Placing sixth in the inaugural Players' Championship is something to be proud of, regardless of whether I feel I could have done better, and admitting as much does not hinder my ability to improve on that result this year.
Magic tournaments are designed to create disappointment. Only one person wins. Hundreds or thousands of players leave with their last memory being a loss. Such disappointment is natural, but too often I allow it to define my experience, which is toxic.
Removing that stress should be liberating in that it frees me from the paralyzing fear of failure. It is this fear that stops me from taking the necessary risks to succeed at the highest level and locks me inside the familiar bubble of my pet decks and straightforward play patterns.
I know all of these things are easier said than done, and it is certainly possible that I quickly return to my old ways. That being said, I am a firm believer in the crucial role that environmental structure plays in our behavior. It could be simple like moving your alarm clock across the room so you cannot turn it off without getting out of bed or hanging a motivational poster on the wall. For anything competitive, it is incredibly important to surround yourself with those who have similar goals and drive.
So imagine my surprise when I recently received the following text message from Anthony Lowry:
"I wanted to talk to you about working together more often… I wanna get better. I wanna get pushed. You're basically the only person I trust to do that…"
Life has a funny way of providing. Anthony (or Lowry as I frequently call him although I'm not exactly sure why) takes a lot of undue criticism for his lack of high-profile results. As a result, he also puts a lot of undue pressure on himself to succeed. Does that last part sound familiar?
In spite of this, you will find few who are more excited to play a game of Magic than he is. It is really quite remarkable and obviously commendable. I have also seen a shift in his attitude over the last year. This dude wants to improve and he wants it badly.
He is the exact kind of person I should be working with. I need someone to push me while also lifting me from the rut of complacency I so frequently find myself in. Look back at the beginning of this article. I admit to being unprepared and unmotivated. Lowry is the exact opposite, and I am excited to see the change that being around him can make.
Ultimately, I am hoping Lowry's drive and the joy he takes in playing are highly contagious because I do not have much time to waste. In two weeks I have dropped from first to fourth on the Open Series Leaderboard, and I have a Pro Tour to play in a month. Balancing the two circuits is proving to be incredibly difficult, as I am also preparing for Modern, Legacy, Standard post-Fate Reforged and both Fate Reforged Draft and Team Sealed.
Magic being in such a great place right now means the competitive players are put to the test every weekend with no reprieve, and I wouldn't have it any other way. It's time to get to work.