The Butterfly Effect & 19 More Lessons
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
1. The Quality of Mercy...
2. If you can't beat 'em join 'em.
3. "The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success."
4. Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better
5. Cause and Effect
7. Today I will do what others won't so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can't.
8. If you've got it flaunt it.
9. Talent is nothing more than a willingness to work hard.
10. The Butterfly Effect
11. Never Give Up
12. The Opposite / Even Steven
13. Chumps don't play around Wing Shards.
14. "I forgot they were unlimited."
15. The Danger of Cool Things
16. The Physical Reality of Magical Spells
17. I love it when a plan comes together.
18. "Common sense is not so common."
19. Success Leaves Clues
20. The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.
The Quality of Mercy...
I would like to fancy myself as the kind of person who was last merciful (in a Magic match) during his very first PTQ.
What can I say? It was my first PTQ. Mercifully I let him off the hook.
Let this be a lesson: five rounds later he knocked my roommate out of Top 8 contention.
If you can't beat 'em join 'em.
Earlier this week my bud Brad Nelson asked me to appear on his inaugural Train Wreck Tuesday stream; the topic? Why we should focus on having fun in Magic rather than just attacking the game as savage tournament Spikes.
The reality is in order to win my very first PTQ I threw away the quality most of you probably most closely associate with me.
I couldn't get any U/W decks to consistently beat Necropotence. So f___ it! Once I went black I never looked back. Best decision probably I've ever made in this game.
Remember: anything worthwhile anyone shares with you in a Magic article is only a tool. Just because something worked once doesn't mean that you should jam that technique in every time. Even if you fancy yourself a contrarian rogue that doesn't mean that the right decision—even for you—isn't to jam a net deck (on occasion).
"The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success."
Astute readers will notice that this lesson occurred 24 hours after the previous.
Basically I stormed my way into the Top 4 of a two-slot PTQ. I won the first game against a U/W deck...and though I couldn't get my U/W deck to beat Necropotence apparently my opponent in that Top 4 had a better plan.
He locked me good with Circle of Protection: Black taking game 2.
Going into game 3 I knew that I was making quite a gamble. Many of you aren't comfortable with gambles calculated or no; I would guess that most of you are certainty junkies. Certainty can be powerful! But sometimes you find yourself in a situation you didn't prep for; ergo you can't draw on certainty.
I figured one Circle of Protection: Black could lock down however many of my creatures...so I cut most of them. Instead I jammed in every possible card that could mess with him—every Pyroblast every Dystopia every single "land death" three.
I knew I was either going to get lucky or walk away with egg on my face.
You already know that I won the PTQ.
Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better
Extremely careful readers will notice that this lesson has the exact same date as the previous.
Now when I said that I "won" the PTQ... Well that wasn't 100% accurate. I did obtain my first Blue Envelope but the tournament itself was won by the immortal Erik Lauer who bested me in a one-game Necropotence pseudo-mirror (luckily a two-slotter).
Remember what I said about gambling one sub-head ago?
No gambling not this match.
Gray Matter Conventions had some kind of crazy prize structure at the time (Erik won not only the PTQ but a Juzam Djinn and an extra $1000 if memory serves). In terms of the PTQ booty we split and played just for bragging rights and a single pack of Italian The Dark.
Sometimes Patrick talks about "Next Level" such-and-such. You be the judge.
No really. I am reasonably sure you don't know what some of those cards do. Hover over the little link-y things.
SEE WHAT I MEAN? So not only did he probably get the only Swampwalk on the day in the finals but he dinged me for one while mana screwing me.
Lim-Dul's High Guard
Hover again. Seriously!
This was easily the most miserable game of Magic I have ever played while being thoroughly overjoyed at what was at that point the pinnacle of my Magic career.
Cause and Effect
Especially for the deck designers the non-conformists the rogues the wannabe brewers out there: if there is one thing that I can teach you it is that if you want to be successful you can't just play the cards you want to play just because you like them.
Take Regionals 1997.
I was on one of my highs having just won another PTQ the week before or something.
I had a fair amount of fanfare earlier that year with a no-Crusade White Weenie-ish deck called Pile of B*tches. I tried very hard to port the deck to Regionals Standard (there was a fair amount of crossover even though I lost Swords to Plowshares pump Orders and most of the Restricted List).
Poor Jon Finkel was testing with me. I have no idea if his U/W deck was good but man was it terrible against my terrible deck. I beat Jon like 7-0 the morning of Regionals so he made a bunch of changes like moving Amber Prison (kept getting Disenchanted) reworking his sideboard etc.
Or at least he tried.
Somewhere circa round 7 I remember BDM handing Jon a decklist and asking "Can you confirm that this is your sideboard?"
Turns out it was blank!
Despite starting 6-0 or so Jon had to play the rest of the tournament sans sideboard and not even he could recover.
... So of course at Nationals that year Jon won the first Grinder and made Top 8. I mean obviously. This is Jon Finkel we are talking about.
There is an "adult lifestyle" brand that prides itself on glamour models with glasses tattoos etc. You have probably heard of them as they have Showtime specials comic books and so on. Anyway early on in their existence the aforementioned
porno site adult lifestyle brand used to have a banner that said something like:
You know that cute girl with the glasses who works at the local coffee shop? We have pictures of her... Naked!
... Something like that.
Well the local comic book shop I frequented back in 1998 (i.e. played 50 hours of Magic per week at while buying approximately $20 worth of merchandise per week) had one of those. Alex had the look of a perfect SuicideGirl actually. Her other excellent quality was letting me and my friends (who spent even less) take up their tables 50 hours per week.
So by 5/15/1998 it was "Yes" Week.
If you don't know what "Yes" Week is you haven't had your last week of college as a senior before your (probably) last summer break your last moments of life with next to no consequences or responsibility.
Friday night of "Yes" Week. My last Friday as a college student.
"Hey" says Alex. "I thought I'd bring you back these."
I had forgotten I had loaned her my complete run of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Chicks dig Sandman.
"Um do you want to hang out or something?"
"Sorry but I am testing the Sligh v. G/R matchup. Got Regionals tomorrow."
I went 0-1 against Sligh the next day for your information.
This was not an isolated incident. Please take this opportunity to learn from your elders.
Today I will do what others won't so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can't.
1/16/1999 and 4/3/1999
By 1999 I was living back at home with my parents in Ohio and attending law school. Thanks to Mark Rosewater I had my first professional writing gig at The Duelistbut I wasn't really sure what the future had in store for me Magic-wise.
For especially the adventure on 1/16/1999 I have Chris Pikula to thank.
The Ohio Valley had been hammered by blizzards that year. Chris convinced me to brave the snow and road trip up to faraway Detroit Michigan the night before the PTQ. Won.
And a few months later I made the same trip on Easter eve. Won again sure but it was a costly trip. Sheryl Crow's "Crash and Burn" was playing on my tape deck when I spun out.
For some grinders my efforts probably seem minor but they were important to me especially at the time especially when my resources were so much more limited. Would I have won either of those PTQs if I hadn't been willing to travel (people were much less apt to travel for a PTQ back then)? And for a PTQ? What would you sacrifice ultimately for a Blue Envelope? My answer involved some combination of bodywork and a new transmission. I would have probably done it again.
If you've got it flaunt it.
So there I was playing for my first Premiere Event Top 8.
He had a Powder Keg and two mana open.
I paid sixteen life into my Dauthi Horror with Hatred and that was that.
Sean McKeown has maintained for the past thirteen years that my opponent had the Diabolic Edict. But playing for Top 8 he just couldn't wrap his head around sacrificing the Powder Keg first letting that resolve and then playing the Edict for my Horror. I can tell you he stared the eff out of the table before packing it in.
So then I made my first Top 8!
I easily ran the tables of decks I had beaten up all Day 2 and was the 1999 National Champion!
Actually that's not what happened at all.
I got jumped on breakers by two different players and finished ninth. But there is still quite a positive lesson buried in that twelfth round match: sometimes you will hear to "go for it" because they don't always have the answer.
You know what is crazy? Sometimes they have the answer but refuse to execute! There are games you can win and games that you are really not supposed to win. But sometimes you draw perfect perfect or they stumble or they just give it to you and you get to win even when you aren't "supposed" to. The difference between who you might be today and who you can be is the willingness to access the tools or luck that win the games you aren't supposed to.
Talent is nothing more than a willingness to work hard.
Or "Blastoderms and Banishings."
I qualified for Pro Tour Los Angeles 2000 on rating.
I missed Day 2 by two matches; at that rating level missing Day 2 meant missing the next Limited Pro Tour (at least if you planned to qualify on rating).
It just so happened that the Pro Tour was held concurrently with the Nemesis Prerelease. I won that then won every side draft they let me play in. You try reassembling a Top 25 rating exclusively on side drafts. In a 48-hour period.
I don't play very much Limited anymore but I have been very good at a handful of Limited formats. I am a big fan of inflexible drafting. I think the notion of "reading" a draft is colossally overrated. Reading a draft and going with the flow of how other people want to release cards to you just means they get to play the cards you want and you get to play their sloppy seconds.
I am a big fan of "formula drafting" which is to draft a particular archetype regardless of the complexion of the draft. Brian Hacker—the granddaddy of Limited theory—actually taught me that you want to be drafting the same color as the guy ahead of you if you are better than he is because he protects your color two players down while taking the wrong card half the time.
Another if controversial tool and lesson: cooperative drafting is overrated.
The Butterfly Effect
A few years ago my onetime Pro Tour roommate Theron Martin was implicated in a ratings-fixing scandal that ended up the lone blemish on Bob Maher's record. Bob was the whistleblower on the scam so he only got six months. Theron remained adamant about his innocence throughout refused to plea and got five years. Theron was a columnist for The Dojo and later Mindripper; the public just wasn't willing to accept that a jacked in pro like him didn't log in to his Wizards account and check his rating every day.
Personally during this era I didn't even know you could do that!
People who have been reading me for a long time know that the summer of 2000 was when I made besties forever with Paul Jordan and Josh Ravitz road tripping every PTQ between Virginia and Boston making Top 8 almost every weekend with Mageta the Lion.
Had I actually known my rating after my second PTQ Top 8 of the season I would never have played another tournament until the Pro Tour! Do you know what "making a Top 8 of a PTQ" equates to at an in-contention rating? Minus ten points.
On 7/16/2000 I had a Constructed rating of about 1978. I played in a Sunday Neutral Ground tournament and went 2-2. Whatever. Nope I never checked my rating online the whole season.
Some months later the very last pass-down ratings invite was acquired by a player with a 1955 rating. A good friend of mine it turns out.
Brian Kibler's 1955 rating—23 points lower than mine two weeks into the PTQ season—bought him not just a PT invitation but his first PT Top 8 with The Red Zone. What would have happened not just to me but to the destiny of all Magic: The Gathering if I just didn't play that Sunday tournament? Or make those next three PTQ Top 8s?
The truth is Brian probably did a lot more with that invite than I would have and I don't know that I would trade the summer I spent with Paul Josh and Tony "the Shark" Tsai for a measly PT invite. I was best man at one of their weddings and plan to be best man at one more this coming year.
Never Give Up
I have never seriously considered quitting Magic but after a failed US Open qualifier in July of 2001 I came pretty close. Basically I had a broken Sealed deck with not just tons of Flametongue Kavu and Hunting Drake action but perfect mana with both Urborg Volcano and Salt Marsh. I was exactly two games from qualifying for US Nationals...
... And then I missed my round.
You would figure that the fact that this was the one round where they didn't announce the round on the loudspeaker and the bloke I was talking to happened to be the tournament organizer might be a pass or so.
I had quite the emotional swing there.
In an IHOP working on Day 2 decks with Scott McCord I said something foolish like I still loved Magic and everything... But I would probably never play on the Pro Tour or at the Nationals level again. I mean qualifying is hard!
Scott—who never had a very strong opinion of my game—nodded.
So obviously I won the PTQ the next day. Never give up!
The Opposite / Even Steven
There is an episode of Seinfeld where George—a lifelong screw up—decides to do the opposite of his natural instincts and impulses at every turn. He has a great day lands his job at the Yankees etc.
I was a superb Onslaught drafter but there was probably a reason my buddy Scott had a dim confidence in my game play. So I decided to draft normally but pull a George and do the opposite of everything I was inclined to in game.
The result was a Day 2 with a terrible Sealed deck and 3-0 / 6-0 in my first draft. I needed 2-1 for Top 8.
The "Even Steven" part is that at that point I was so full of myself I forgot to do the opposite of what I wanted to do and made about three important mistakes... Exactly enough to land myself one point out of Top 8 at Grand Prix Boston (Kibler won).
Chumps don't play around Wing Shards.
Same year different Boston.
I scrubbed out of the Pro Tour but ended up deep in the last PTQ of the season. I took an early loss to Tiago Chan (the eventual Snapcaster Mage would actually eventually win the PTQ) but I didn't have the breakers to draw into Top 8.
I asked my friend Patrick Sullivan—who had basically locked up Top 8 with a draw—to play.
Me: Can you play?
PSulli: Sorry can't.
Me: Why? Goblins is a good matchup for you.
PSulli: Can't. My opponent is a chump and chumps don't play around Wing Shards.
Me: Isn't that good?
PSulli: Not when you aren't playing Wing Shards.
Not that it matters but I think I finished 12th.
"I forgot they were unlimited."
The PT Boston trip was not a total loss as the way back to New York gave Magic one of its all-time greatest road trip stories. Seth Burn was driving me BDM and a mysterious K____ A_ back to New York.
As is common on long Magic road trips we "had" to stop for dinner. We came upon a plaza that had all the road trip favorites...Cracker Barrel Outback Applebee's etc. I voted for Cracker Barrel; Seth as driver asserted he would make the final determination.
"Just as long as it isn't Applebee's!" proclaimed K____.
"What's wrong with Applebee's?"
"I don't like their ribs."
"So don't get the ribs."
"We're going to Applebee's" Seth eventually proclaimed; they had TV at the bar so he could watch the Steelers game.
"Do you think the steak here is good?" I asked.
"Yes Mike" BDM answered. "I think they actually won an award for the best roadside overcooked terrible cut of cow steak last year!"
I ordered the steak.
So we all ordered and K____ went last.
"I'll have the ribs."
All of us glared at him. What gives?
"I forgot they were unlimited."
Wow. Such levels.
He got at least three baskets.
The Danger of Cool Things
This isn't a story of my own but rather one Bob Maher told me at Worlds 2007 in New York. Bob as a Hall of Famer made the trek. He didn't make Top 8 or anything but his 4-1 run in Legacy was pretty impressive.
It should have been 3-2 at least.
Bob was playing Belcher.
"How do you play that?" I asked.
"You basically look at your hand" said Bob. "If it doesn't win on the first or second turn you mulligan."
Bob kept a turn 2 ten Goblins Empty the Warrens hand.
His opponent was on the play and had the choice between Gaddock Teeg and Dark Confidant. It's only turn two his foolish opponent thought. What he really thought though would be how cool it would be to hit Bob Maher with Bob Maher.
He played the Dark Confidant.
Should have played the Gaddock Teeg.
I enjoy an enjoyable play as much as the next cat but if we think of Magic strategies as a series of tools... I don't know when the cool play over the tight one is ever right.
The Physical Reality of Magical Spells
At this point I was losing a lot of win-and-in rounds in PTQs.
Earlier in my Magic career I could road trip to a faraway state with less than four hours of sleep and win the PTQ through multiple mana screws. What was going on? Was age creeping up?
I would play adequately (read: good enough to beat PTQ opponents) for half a dozen rounds but then make a catastrophic mistake in the win-and-in... And then you know not make Top 8.
My solution at this point was to play simple aggressive decks regardless of what I thought the best deck was.
I knew I wouldn't have the maximum chances of winning the tournament but it was like formula drafting... I would control my worst shots.
I love it when a plan comes together.
So Patrick Chapin and I were hanging out hashing out a secret plan on a street corner in New York City after eating Bon Chon chicken.
It turns out this particular corner is about one block from Jon Finkel's house.
Jon walks by with his mom.
"You guys coming up to draft?"
Hmmm... Guess we were coming up to draft! (I went 0-3.)
Part of what Patrick and I were hashing out was where "How to Make a Mashup" was going to land that week. Patrick Evan Erwin Steve Sadin and of course millionaire playboy Pete Hoefling were really pouring it on thick for me.
By 1/7/2011 the greatest lineup of Magic writing headliners ever had been assembled. I wouldn't mind a Conley Woods at Power Forward but you really can't argue with Patrick Chapin Gerry Thompson Brian Kibler and Brad Nelson as your teammates.
But just getting me back on Premium wasn't even remotely the extent of the plan any more than moving Gerry and Brad to Roanoke was about text content.
"Common sense is not so common."
Of the disastrous exit of LeBron James from the Cleveland Cavaliers going into the 2011 season there was a single bright spot. The Cavs were playing the Knicks the weekend of SCG Open Series: Edison; BDM Steve and I long-balled that game for a night out with a visiting Patrick Sullivan.
PSulli had gone riding mechanical bulls with Steve the night before and felt too wrecked to go to Cavs / Knicks; AJ Sacher filled in.
We went out late ate Bon Chon got no sleep etc.
Even worse (for me) was that my ride to Edison was Josh Ravitz (who made Top 8 of Standard on Saturday). Even though I scrubbed out of Standard that didn't mean that much to me at the time; I really wanted to prove how good my Cephalid Breakfast deck was.
I got a total of two hours of sleep prior to Sunday and ended up leaving two different wins on the table. I am not saying I was certain to make Top 8 but I certainly left two wins on the table.
Patrick as you know did a much better job of managing his age and—with the extra rest from not going out with us—won the SCG Standard Open. AJ also made Top 8 though so I have no idea if this is "science" or not. Counterpoint: AJ is still knee high to a grasshopper.
Success Leaves Clues
I decided to take note from PSulli's temperance and rest up the night before a $5K in New York two months later.
So not only did I not go out with friends I got my deck together ahead of time (other than not buying exorbitant Spellskites on site) and actually made sure to get a full night's sleep.
Not only did I make Top 8 but when I was staring down the then-most-feared player on the SCG Open Series in the finals at 11:30 PM I was completely fresh.
The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.
Patrick Chapin is my favorite professional Magic player. You might find that surprising (or maybe he is also your favorite professional Magic player). Patrick is better at mindset and imagining the shape of his universe and destiny in game and elsewhere than almost anyone else I have ever met.
In that sense he is completely forthright and uncompromising. And why compromise when you can imagine whatever future you want?
Well Patrick really is "The Innovator."
Next Level Magic was a hit not just for him but for this site. A big part of what StarCityGames.com sold me on a year and a half ago was the chance to do my own Next Level Magic like projects.
My first comes out today.
The Official Miser's Guide is as sprawling as this article imperfect as I am wonderful as my best recollections deeply instructive as my best mentors. I am a little frightened for the first time in 23 years but proud at the same time of an effort that is like nothing else ever in Magic.
The support that StarCityGames.com has put behind The Official Miser's Guide and the quality of the testimonials from some of Magic's biggest superstars has been humbling.
I hope you like it as much as I liked slaving over it.