When it comes to Magic tournaments, mistakes are as abundant as oxygen, chairs, and overpriced convention center food.
The big thing about mistakes in Magic is that there's a huge level of variance in both the scale of mistakes and the actual effect they end up having on the game. Forgetting to attack with a Noble Hierarch on Turn 3 may end up leaving you a single point short at the end of a close game, or it may completely not matter as you streamroll your opponent for eleven damage on your lethal attack or they Storm combo-kill you on Turn 4.
Because of this, mistakes often only get noticed when they end up directly deciding the outcome of a game. Most other mistakes, ones that didn't affect the outcome of the game or that happen way before the game ends, go completely unnoticed. Not only are these mistakes forgotten, they are also usually never learned from.
This, of course, is the biggest tragedy for anyone looking to improve their game.
With this thought in mind, I'd like to look back at three of my bigger mistakes from #SCGDFW last weekend. I'm sure I made many more, but these stood out to me after the event as worth remembering and worth talking about.
I had a solid top 16 finish in the event, and in a field of over 800 players, that sounds like a good finish from someone who played well. While I think I played well for good portions of the tournament, the mistakes were still there and I'm sure I made a bunch more that went unnoticed. It's rare for even the best players in the world to play a match of Magic sans mistakes, let alone a day, which is part of what makes Magic so great. You can never stop improving!
Round 14 vs. Andrew Wolbers (G/R Land Destruction)
After a disastrous Game 1 where I mulliganed to four and a Game 2 where a Turn 4 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar ran away with the game unopposed, we were off to a deciding Game 3 where a win likely locks me for Top 8.
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 2 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Bloodbraid Elf
- 3 Inferno Titan
- 4 Tireless Tracker
- 1 Courser of Kruphix
- 2 Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Andrew's G/R Land Destruction deck, which would go on to win the tournament, is frankly terrifying to play against when you are on the draw and the threat of Turn 2 Blood Moon looms. While I have access to a few basic lands and a few answers to Blood Moon in Celestial Purge and Wear // Tear as well as counterspells, on the draw they may not be fast enough, nor may I be able to fetch my Snow-Covered Plains in time for them to matter.
I got off to an okay start, as Andrew didn't have a Turn 1 play and I was able to fetch a Snow-Covered Island by Turn 2 to go with the one in my hand, but on Andrew's Turn 3, down came Blood Moon. Going into my Turn 3, this was the game state:
With Blood Moon on the battlefield and no Snow-Covered Plains in sight, I basically have to commit to playing the rest of the game with only blue and red spells. Andrew has no threats on the battlefield, which is obviously good for me, and I have a good one of my own in Vendilion Clique. I won a match earlier in the day the same way, acting as a sort of pseudo-Delver of Secrets deck and clocking my G/R Land Destruction opponent with Lightning Bolt, Snapcaster Mage and Vendilion Clique to overcome a Blood Moon.
At this point my play is fairly obvious: play a land and cast Vendilion Clique in Andrew's draw step because I have no other answer to his plays. I do so, and he shows me this hand:
I select Bloodbraid Elf. Andrew plays Chandra, Torch of Defiance and uses the -3 to kill my Vendilion Clique. I untap, kill Chandra with Lightning Bolt, and die turns later with a hand full of uncastable spells.
My Thinking at the Time:
My thought process was that Bloodbraid Elf is a much better card in the current situation than Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Bloodbraid Elf is a threat that can race my Vendilion Clique and is likely to turn up another threat along with it. While I would lose my Vendilion Clique to Chandra, Torch of Defiance, I had the answer for her in hand in Lightning Bolt and I had a handful of new cards coming from the looming Ancestral Vision. I would leave my opponent threatless and eventually bury him in card advantage.
Why It Was Wrong:
That all sounds nice and is pretty textbook control strategy. There's just one glaring problem:
I can't cast most of the cards in my deck!
There's no guarantee that I naturally find my Snow-Covered Plains or another Snow-Covered Island, and there's a pile of uncastable cards left in my deck given the current game state. Given that Andrew also has a Molten Rain to fire off on my Snow-Covered Island the following turn, that cuts off even more of the castable cards in my deck. I'm drawing four new cards soon, but they're unlikely to ever matter.
While it feels bad, the correct play here is to just take the Chandra, Torch of Defiance and hope to ride Vendilion Clique to victory. Bloodbraid Elf is not guaranteed to hit something powerful, as there are plenty of misses in Andrew's deck, like Arbor Elf, Utopia Sprawl, Blood Moon, and the Stone Rain effects. Vendilion Clique is one of my few actual threats and I needed to lean on it, perhaps drawing some copies of Lightning Bolt and Snapcaster Mage along the way.
Instead I ended the game with a hand that looked something like this:
Round 10 vs. Jonathan Job (Colorless Eldrazi)
Oh boy, what a ridiculous game.
My Game 1 against Jonathan Job, which took almost 45 minutes and ended with me having about six cards left in my deck, was one of the most absurd games of Magic I've played in recent memory.
Jonathan cast Eternal Scourge over twenty times, had a Chalice of the Void on one on the battlefield almost the entire game, and had more Ghost Quarters than I had win conditions. I spent much of the game trying to stay alive and finally reached a relatively stable game state where I was planning to win with a Jace, the Mind Sculptor ultimate.
Given the constraints of the clock, I was trying to play very quickly and made a few little sloppy mistakes along the way (the Spell Snare was definitely a "Chalice of the Void check" where I was hoping Jonathan would miss his trigger, while the Serum Visions a few turns prior was just me forgetting about Chalice of the Void myself), but the big issue was on one particular turn:
After finally starting to stem the tide against the never ending waves of Eternal Scourge, I had begun turning the corner and sought a way to win. The previous turn I had dealt with a Thought-Knot Seer with Cryptic Command, and all that was left over was a lone Eldrazi Mimic. The Jace, the Mind Sculptor +2 activations had begun, and I was working towards an ultimate while trying to make sure Jonathan did not draw the one card I was afraid of:
Having used my Cryptic Command on Thought-Knot Seer and the counterspell shields not available, Reality Smasher was not only a huge problem in and of itself but would also present lethal damage when combined with the Eldrazi Mimic on the battlefield.
I started the turn by activating Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, for reasons I can't even really remember. I followed up with a +2 of Jace, the Mind Sculptor which would bottom a Reality Smasher, and then simply passed the turn without playing the Supreme Verdict in my hand.
My Thinking at the Time:
With the clock dwindling and my ways of actually winning the game limited, I was very worried about being able to close the game out in the face of my rapidly diminishing library and another possible Ghost Quarter or Dismember for my last Celestial Colonnade. The Jace ultimate seemed to be the easiest way to put it away and also allowed me the opportunity to use my Celestial Colonnades on defense.
Why It Was Wrong:
Having gone back and watched the game, I think I actually played the last eight or so turns of the game very poorly, despite playing the first twenty or so very well to overcome a majorly disadvantaged game state.
Sculpting out how the game is going to end is a crucial skill for any control player, and I clearly floundered back and forth in the last dozen turns between firing burn spells at my opponent in conjunction with Celestial Colonnade and trying to go for the Jace, the Mind Sculptor ultimate.
On the turn in question, activating Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin on my main phase seems very foolish, as the turn should have started with a Jace, the Mind Sculptor +2 to see if we were clear from a future Reality Smasher.
Once we have that information, we can then decide how we want to use our mana. We could fire up both Celestial Colonnades to deal some damage through the single Ghost Quarter, we could activate Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin... but it all hinges on knowing what is going to happen next turn.
Once we see a Reality Smasher on top of Jonathan's deck and are force to bottom it, the uncertainly means we need to play much more cautiously. At this point we should just fire off the Supreme Verdict, which is unlikely to get much better in the face of a possible Reality Smasher / Thought-Knot Seer / Matter Reshaper / creature-lands. There's no reason to leave ourselves dead to our opponent's best topdeck, even if unlikely.
The sloppy decision-making of the remaining turns could probably be an article in and of itself, but the important point here is to never leave your opponent outs to kill you when you have the game mostly in hand.
Round 15 vs. Jadine Klomparens (Jund)
After a back-and-forth early game that saw me and Jadine trading resources, we hit the mid-game with my pile of lands and a Celestial Colonnade against her Scavenging Ooze. With no immediate answer to Scavenging Ooze in sight and a freshly drawn Snapcaster Mage worthlessly at the ready, I decided to go on the offensive with Celestial Colonnade. The hope is that Jadine, having seen my hand recently and not having seen Snapcaster Mage, would use her last green mana on my end step to use Scavenging Ooze, and I could use Snapcaster Mage to Lightning Bolt it in response when she would be unable to exile the Lightning Bolt with Scavenging Ooze.
She didn't fall for it and played a Tarmogoyf instead. We ended up in this game state after her turn:
Now we are in a rough spot. Our two extra lands obviously aren't doing anything for us, and our Snapcaster Mage is only going to be useful if Jadine lets her shields down, which she's clearly shown an unwillingness to do.
I fire up Celestial Colonnade and go for an attack, and when Jadine goes for the attack the following turn, I declare no blockers in what is essentially a bluff, rather than just playing Snapcaster Mage to chump block for zero value.
Jadine shoves all-in on Scavenging Ooze and I die. (More details on this game's ending at the end of the article.)
My Thinking at the Time:
With Jadine playing so cautiously with her Scavenging Ooze the prior two turns, I felt like, with three cards in my hand, I could feign strength by firing up Celestial Colonnade for an attack and hopefully draw some sort of an answer next turn. However, the effect of applying more pressure with Celestial Colonnade has the exact opposite effect, further pushing Jadine to action, as she has to be afraid of dying.
I could have simply cast the Snapcaster Mage as a 2/1 chump blocker that would stop one Scavenging Ooze activation to survive, but declined to, thinking Jadine would not go for it. I didn't put a huge amount of thought into this or the fact that she had exactly enough damage because I wanted to sell my indifference to the attack, so I made my choice rather quickly.
Why It Was Wrong:
This, of course, was foolish, as Jadine smelled blood and killed me.
With a ton of great draws in my deck and a Celestial Colonnade still available, throwing away my useless Snapcaster Mage is much preferable to a likely death. And while this is mostly just a blunder of me misevaluating both the state of the game and how cautious Jadine was going to be with her Scavenging Ooze, the more interesting mistake actually happens a turn prior.
In this spot, Jadine had just cast her Scavenging Ooze, and I of course had just drawn a now-worthless Snapcaster Mage to join the two lands in my hand. I elected to fire up Celestial Colonnade, hoping to both race and maybe induce Jadine to feel pressured enough to use her Scavenging Ooze on my end step after she had just seen my hand of two lands.
However, that trap is far too easy to avoid.
With many powerful draws left in my deck, a perhaps better line is to simply play a land and pass the turn, with the intention of leaving Celestial Colonnade back to block. Assuming Jadine still won't activate her Scavenging Ooze at the end step, she will untap and now be pressed with the issue of deciding to attack with Scavenging Ooze or not into my Celestial Colonnade.
She would need to pump three times to defeat the Colonnade in combat, and on the third pump Snapcaster Mage would be free to flash back an Electrolyze to finish off the Scavenging Ooze and draw me a fresh card. If she draws another green source, this plan is no longer effective, but in that case she has effectively drawn a blank and I get another draw step as well.
While not foolproof, this trap overall looks weaker (and therefore has a higher probability of success) than the previous play of just firing up Celestial Colonnade and attacking. She knows I have two lands in my hand and the card I just drew, and maybe I look weak enough to attack into.
When in trouble, the instinct is often to just try to get into a racing situation so we can draw some copies of Lightning Helix or Cryptic Command to try to steal the game, but racing against a Scavenging Ooze is not a great proposition. We also aren't that far behind, with many great draws in our deck.
Even after deliberation, I'm not sure what play is right.
I'll Have the Humble Pie
One thing is for sure: going back to watch your matches is an extremely useful and humbling exercise.
While you may not get the chance to get on camera on the SCG Tour® that often, Magic Online does automatically record every single match you play, and going back to watch them is an extremely valuable tool for improving your game. I had one mistake in mind for each of these games when sitting down to write this article, but after going back to watch the ones that were on camera, I quickly discovered many more. Magic is hard!
Finding your mistakes is difficult enough, but actually coming up with the correct solutions can be even harder. Things aren't always clear-cut in Magic, and it can be very hard to figure out how your opponent is going to play as well. All you can do is use the information at your disposal to try and understand each situation as best you can.
Round 15, Game 1: Clarification
For those who were watching at home, there was a lot of confusion about what happened at the end of Round 15, Game 1 against Jadine Klomparens. Initially it looked like I had won because Jadine had miscounted the damage she was dealing and I got to end-step Snapcaster Mage on Lightning Bolt and follow up with a Celestial Colonnade attack for exactly lethal. I "win" at one life, lucky break, and Jadine, seeing this, conceded the game after her attack put me to one life.
However, there was a problem. As we were sideboarding for Game 2, coverage sent a message to the table judge who relayed the problem to us.
Somewhere during her attack, one of the +1/+1 counters on Scavenging Ooze got lost in the mix. I'm not exactly sure where we missed it, but when all was said and done, she had a 2/2 Scavenging Ooze with three +1/+1 counters on it after exiling three creatures from her graveyard that turn and my Snapcaster Mage the turn prior. The cards were exiled, the life was gained, and every part of the ability was resolved except for that lone missing +1/+1 counter.
This is not a missed trigger or something that you can miss because it is part of the resolution of an ability that has already been acknowledged. The Scavenging Ooze should have been a 6/6, and the Tarmogoyf was still a 5/6, as there was one creature left in the graveyard when all was said and done. As such, I was very dead on her attack and would not have been alive to cast an end-step Snapcaster Mage to Lightning Bolt her and win the game on my turn.
This was obviously an extremely awkward situation in such an important spot in the tournament, and after going over the details and both confirming that this was the case, the head judge was called. The head judge correctly ruled that even though we had caught this error after the fact, there was no way to back up and fix it because the game had already been decided by Jadine's error. We would both get warnings for a game rule violation, but it was too late for any sort of a fix; it is impossible to back a game up that has already been conceded by a player and literally isn't there anymore.
However, I knew a backup wasn't actually necessary because literally nothing had happened between when the error occurred and when I should have been dead. I had already declared no blockers, and with only five mana up and Lightning Bolt and Electrolyze available to me as cards to flash back with Snapcaster Mage, I had zero ways to not die. There were no cards to be drawn, no "maybes" at all –
I should have been dead but we made an error.
After some deliberation, I decided to ask the judge if I could concede the game after the fact. He said yes and that was what I decided to do. It seemed pretty cut-and-dried, and winning a game on a technicality that was half my fault for not noticing just didn't seem palatable. I wonder what 23-year-old me would have done, but it's the choice 33-year-old me made.
I've been quiet about this on social media and stuff because I'm not really interested in making a big deal about it, but I wanted to set the record straight because, after rewatching the coverage, it was obvious there was a ton of confusion. I did what I thought was right, and while it sucked to lose a tough Game 2 and ultimately lose two win-and-ins in a row and come in 13th, I don't have any regrets.