Why I Suck At Pro Tours
I've wanted to write this article for a long time now. I was being held back because I had plenty of other things to write about, but also because I was doing pretty well at Pro Tours. For the most part, I had gotten over many of the things that I'm going to talk about in my article. However, Pro Tour Avacyn Restored was possibly my worst Pro Tour performance of my entire career, and something like that really puts things into perspective.
For me, comfort is a huge thing. When I'm playing Magic, I don't want people watching me if I think they are going to judge me or my lines of play. Usually this doesn't matter in feature matches since everything is gated off, and I normally don't pay any attention to the crowd.
However, if someone sits down right next to me and I respect their opinion, I would probably be better off if they left. I don't want to play Magic thinking, "What would MJ do here?" as it's detrimental to whatever I was working towards the entire game.
My general comfort level is also very important. At smaller events, like PTQs and the StarCityGames.com Open Series, sometimes space is a little cramped. In a somewhat unfortunate turn of events, I've grown used to players rolling out playmats that creep into my area or having beefier gentlemen rubbing up against me. There's not much you can do about that except make the situation the best it can be.
You may have seen me at tournaments with the hoodie, scarf, and beanie combo. While my fashion sense may, in fact, be that out of touch with reality, it's mostly because I'd rather be warm than cold. I'm just more comfortable that way, and because of that, being warm makes it easier to think.
Part of being able to play Magic at a higher level includes caring less about what other people think of you. If you're stressing about how you play under a camera, what your friends are going to think about your lines of play, or how stupid you look dressed for winter when it's actually 80 degrees outside, your performance is going to suffer.
This is an easy one. After doing so well in some local events, it's easy to see how one could feel like that translates well on the big stage. We can't all be Josh Cho, and not at all of us will Top 8 our first Pro Tour. It ain't that easy.
Even once you've been around the block a few times, you can't just do whatever you want and get away with it. Usually there are repercussions to your actions. Have you ever sat down across from someone who was worse than you so you kept a sketchy hand? You figured that he's so bad you could keep anything and it won't matter, but that's never the case.
The quality of your opponent, or rather, what level he's on, should determine your play to some degree. That doesn't mean you get a bye or a free pass or whatever it is you're thinking just because he's going to make some suboptimal plays. Magic is a game of inches, and while he's giving you some wiggle room, that doesn't mean you should give 'em right back.
Being overconfident affects possibly the most important aspect of the tournament, and that's your deck selection process. There are players like Paul Rietzl, Patrick Chapin, and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa who play largely the same archetype in every tournament, regardless of how good it is. Part of that is because they know (and knowing is different than thinking) they will do better with the archetype they know best. The flip side of that is thinking they can beat everyone regardless of what their deck choice is, and that's dangerous.
At Pro Tour San Juan, I could have played the U/G deck Ben Hayes 10-0ed with. I also had access to the MJ/CFB RUG deck that put Wrapter and PV in Top 8. I'm not sure if I could have finagled my way into the Mono-Green Zvi deck, but we'll never know because I never tried.
At that tournament, I showed up with no idea what to play. Boros, the deck I was playing at the time, had some new bad matchups thanks to Rise of the Eldrazi, so I didn't want to play that one. Instead, I pulled the list of a U/R Control deck off Magic Online and brewed a Vampires list.
Now, Vampires wasn't exactly a great deck. Everyone thought it was worse than it was because it attracted mostly incompetent pilots on Magic Online. Whenever your opponent opened on white-bordered Swamp, Vampire Lacerator, you knew they weren't very good. The game would go on, and they'd beat the crap out of you all the while playing horribly and throwing creatures away. They'd snap kill anything.
Despite that, sometimes you could never win.
Both of those decks sound awesome, right? How could I possibly decide between two equally stellar decks?
I flipped a coin.
Yes, boys and girls, that is sometimes how the professionals do it.
So I made a list of my Vampire deck and went about collecting cards for it. In a stack I saw a Sorin Markov, which I forgot existed, and added it to my deck. I had already worked tirelessly for thirty whole minutes, my list was perfect as is, and I refused to cut anything. 61 it was.
My mindset going into that tournament was interesting. I was taking a break from Magic but found myself without a job. After a couple days playing Magic Online PTQs, I found myself with an invite to the next Pro Tour, another writing gig, and some fire.
What I didn't have was the illusion that Pro Tours were something special. I had been at those tournaments before; sometimes I won, sometimes I didn't, but this time I couldn't care less about my result. I wasn't living tournament to tournament anymore, hoping to min-cash so that I could buy that next flight.
Despite my life being basically in shambles, it was one of the happiest times in my life. If you think that doesn't translate into tournament success, you are sadly mistaken. How can you be focused on the game in front of you if you're worried about your job, how you're going to pay rent next month, or whether your girlfriend will be there when you get back?
At that point in my life, and I can remember another stretch, I was completely carefree. The tournament meant nothing to me, but making the best decisions every single turn did; that's the perfect mindset.
Honestly, I would have been much better off had I gotten completely annihilated in San Juan. Instead, I played a pretty bad deck and started 4-0. That gave me a lot of confidence in areas where I shouldn't have had it, which quickly turned into arrogance. I continued on that arrogance train in Barcelona, but I finally got punished.
Nearly everything that happens to me in life is a learning experience, and that includes Barcelona. I guarantee I will not make that same mistake again. We had a Naya deck that I didn't want to play, especially once I knew everyone else found the Naya deck. I utilized that information to build a U/B Control deck, and the rest of the team tuned their deck for the mirror.
What I should have done was start from scratch. I probably would have realized the Bant Hexproof deck that Todd Anderson built week one of testing would have been perfect for the tournament. I didn't want to conform in Barcelona, and Invisible Stalker would have given me the illusion that I was clever.
I think that, at certain points in our careers, in order to be confident in our deck choice we need to feel like we're cleverer than we actually are. It's what drives people like Cedric Phillips to play decks that no one else respects, simply because it gives him more confidence. He'd rather be the guy you hate losing to or complain about losing to than be the same as every other dude jamming Delver of Secrets.
For deck selection it's a huge handicap, but sometimes that doesn't matter as much as we think it does. As long as you're playing something that isn't much worse than the rest of the field, it shouldn't matter. What does matter is your attitude and how you're able to approach the game.
Microsoft Word is telling me that "underconfidence" isn't a word, but it definitely should be. "Unconfidence" doesn't quite explain what I'm getting at.
When I first started playing Pro Tours, I was overconfident. It felt just like every other tournament. As my confidence to compete at that level waned slightly (due to my mediocre performances), I started to put Pro Tours, and some of the players on them, on a pedestal.
Sitting down for round 1 of those events were some of the oddest feelings in my life. I wasn't exactly nervous with sweaty hands or anything, but it just didn't feel right. I could tell my brain wasn't functioning like it normally should, but I couldn't tell exactly what it was. In the end, I think I was just plagued by self-doubt, and that caused me to make suboptimal decisions.
Again, I was stuck playing how I felt others would want me to play, and I wasn't thinking for myself.
At the end of the day, it's tough to gauge exactly where your mindset should be. You need to be confident in your ability, but you can't let that confidence hinder any of your decision making.
I don't treat all my opponents the same. I'm also fairly self-destructive, which I could write an article on by itself, but somehow those two things go hand in hand where Magic is concerned. When I was a blissfully ignorant child, my goal was to crush everyone in the tournament. I didn't care if they got mana screwed, mulliganed into oblivion, outplayed me and I topdecked them. I was going to win. If I got paired against my friend, it was the same as playing a nameless, faceless person. We might be close, but I wasn't going to show them any mercy.
As I've gotten a little older, and I daresay a lot wiser, I've lightened up a bit. I've also had a modest amount of success, almost to the point of feeling like there isn't much left to accomplish in Magic. Now when I sit down across from my friend I'm thinking about how much more the win would impact them than me, and I start to self-destruct.
For the most part, I'm much happier seeing my friends do well (and my enemies do poorly, heh) than do well myself. I don't need the money, the fame, the trophy, and it probably won't help me sleep better at night. So what's the point of it all? Basically I'm in it to help my friends and make their paths easier.
I go through phases where I'm conceding to anyone I'm vaguely familiar with, some of which I end up regretting (because those people end up being terrible people) but most of which I don't. The truth of the matter is that I'm gaming the system. If I can concede rather than playing a match I know I'll lose, then it's a net positive for both of us.
Everyone likes to say that I'm so nice or so helpful in reference to me helping my friends level up and achieve greatness, but that's only part of it. On the other hand, I'm so incredibly weak that I can't bring myself to defeat a friend in what's mostly a meaningless game.
For a different reason, I found a way to put more people above me. At that point, I would second guess myself, give them more credit than they deserve (when trying to deduce whether or not they had something), make lazy or hasty decisions, and ultimately sacrifice myself.
It was infuriating to come to that realization. If I spend nearly every waking moment thinking about Magic and preparing for these events, why do I self-destruct? What's the point?
Sometimes I think it would be easier to be on the outside looking in. I could help my friends prepare, give them advice, and steer them in the right direction as only someone who has been around for over ten years could. I could be on the coverage team, I could be sitting at home watching coverage, or I could be working for R&D.
I know in my heart of hearts that it would be an empty existence. I crave the competition and the puzzle of figuring out that last sideboard slot. When I come home from a tournament and reflect on my decisions, whether it be during game play or deck construction, I want to feel something. It could be frustration from getting something simple wrong or I could get that warm, content feeling from knowing I did a good job.
Hell, the other day I was doing a TPF draft, and my opponent attacked with a 2/2 and a morph. I had a lone Saltfield Recluse back to block. I feel like most players wouldn't block and simply shrink a 2/2's power, but I blocked the morph and Reclused it.
It gives me the smallest edge if I'm right and his morph is a Gathan Raiders or Whip-Spine Drake. If it was a Drake and he wanted to deal me the damage, he should flip it before blockers, but he didn't. It could still be Gathan Raiders, and then I could save a point of damage if he wanted to flip it.
As it turned out it was a Drake, and I have no idea if he just misclicked or what, but he flipped it, I shrank it, and we moved on with our lives. However, that exchange was a simple play and left me feeling incredibly satisfied. That's what Magic is about for me!
There are things you can't control. For example, you give me a metagame and I'll crush it. I think someone like Patrick Chapin or Sam Black is much better at getting reads on those metagames and putting together a shell of something that will crush it. Having me with Sam is a dangerous combination because we have the best of both worlds, and given a day, we're going to have a shell and then fine tune it.
However, I don't have anyone close to Sam Black's skillset. Instead I'm left to my own devices, and sometimes, due to bad habits I've picked up, I end up playing a mostly unplayable deck. Aside from all the mental stuff, the fact that I've had basically the third worst deck in most of the Pro Tours I've played in is what causes me to do poorly. Sure, I could probably not lose edges here and there, but with decks that bad, I'm doomed from the get go.
Pro Tours tend to spotlight the new cards following a release, and that really puts a damper on my success. However, I can't focus on the way I feel things should be; I should instead focus on the way things are.
I've got plenty of things holding me back. Some of which I can change, and some that I can't. Rather than dwell on what I can't change, I deal with the way things are. On the bright side, every new tournament is a chance to change the things I can. Hopefully in time I can find a happy medium and put up the finishes I know I'm capable of, at least on a good day.
Next week: Grand Prix Minneapolis.