Lessons Learned In Defeat At Pro Tour Return To Ravnica
I'm finally back to my fine home state of Michigan in my garage spinning records the blank computer screen in front of me ready to recollect and reflect upon what can only be said to have been a missed opportunity for me. All things considered my experience at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica can ultimately be summed up as a disappointing learning experience.
In this week's installment I am going to recount my experiences at the Pro Tour and use them to provide perspective for what I believe can be learned from them. Hopefully even though the result wasn't what I had aimed for the lessons I learned will ultimately help to make me a better player writer and competitor. They say that there's more to be learned in defeat than in victory and hopefully that's true.
Lesson Learned in Defeat #1: Poor Preparation Incurs Opportunities to Fail
The first major mistake that I made at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica was committed a month before I ever set foot upon the airplane to Seattle. My preparation for this event was poor as it was admittedly closed-minded and incomplete. While I put in a lot of effort that effort was misdirected.
I was predisposed to the type of strategy I wanted to play at the Pro Tour coming into my testing instead of approaching my playtesting with a completely open mind. In the months since Grand Prix Columbus (where I took ninth playing Modern Bant) I had simply made up my mind that I would play Bant at the Pro Tour. Unfortunately weeks before the event took place the card Valakut the Molten Pinnacle was unbanned in Modern which drastically shook the lay of the land.
I followed the shifting online Modern metagame with interest and watched the format become more and more hostile for the deck that I wanted to play. As I talked with other players who were also preparing for the Modern Pro Tour they kept telling me "The Bant deck loses to everything."
It may have been true of the list as it was but rather than continuing to tune the Bant deck I became discouraged and simply accepted that it was an issue of matchups being implicitly bad. In hindsight I know there was a version of Bant that would have been well suited for me to play but hindsight is always 20/20.
Instead I as many others did latched onto Jund and I spent the majority of my time practicing with Cedric Phillips' Jund list against what I was likely to face at the event. I believe this to have been a smart tactic as the Jund deck was very good and turned out to be a fantastic choice for the event. However as the days quickly ticked down to the event I got the wrong impression that everybody was on Jund for the Pro Tour. Remembering how miserable the Jund mirror match was I audibled from the deck and began testing U/W lists that were tuned to attack Jund and Scapeshift decks.
D.J. Kastner—a friend of mine from Michigan who tends to like to play the same kind of blue decks I do (and puts up good showings with well-tailored lists)—turned me onto a variation of U/W that I ended up playing at the event.
I played quite a lot with this deck leading up to the event and in general I liked a lot of what the deck was doing and could do against the most popular decks in the format. In particular I believe that one of the big strengths of this deck is that it has a good Jund and good Scapeshift matchup.
I ended up spending quite a bit of time the night before chatting and tuning the deck with Gerard Fabiano who made some good innovations and suggestions in particular the sideboard. Thanks for the help!
Unfortunately while the deck seemed very good against what may have been the decks to beat one of the big problems with this deck is that it is decidedly fair in its game plan. The thing that I liked about Bant was that while it was mostly fair it still had a nut draw that was difficult for most decks to defeat.
"On the play this qualifies as a lot of pressure."
U/W really has no such draw. All of U/W's threats cost three mana or more which means the deck will always be in a defensive and thus reactive position until one establishes control and is able to flip the script.
Accepting the defensive stance is fine if you can accurately predict the field and there is advantage to taking up such a position. However at a Pro Tour where there is bound to be a wide variety of decks to play against I'm not sure that playing defensively—and especially playing fair—is a very smart positional choice to make.
One regret that I have is that I spent a lot of time talking to Ari Lax about the Infect deck but never really considered the deck to be something I might like to play in the event. Call it arrogance. Call it weariness of taking big risks etc. But going into the event I had it in my head that Affinity and Infect were both powerful decks but not good choices for me to play. However after the event's conclusion I am now of the attitude that decks like Affinity and Infect may well be among the best possible types of decks to play in a tournament like a Pro Tour. While they have inherent risks by virtue of their narrowness they also pack a very strong punch and get a lot of free wins.
Lesson Learned in Defeat #2: (Don't Fear) the Mirror Match
However this logic is just awful and poorly derived. It is based on an irrational fear of the unknown. I should have played Jund at this event and I ultimately talked myself out of it for poor and irrational reasons.
Four Ways to Better Prepare for a Big Tournament:
- Don't accept matchups as good or bad before tuning and changing the deck.
- Don't overcompensate for the best two decks in the format.
- Avoid playing fair decks at Pro Tours and other large events.
- Not liking to play the mirror is a poor reason to avoid playing a deck.
Lesson Learned in Defeat #3: When It Rains It Pours So Weather the Storm
One thing I noticed was that my tournament was literally defined by two three-game losing skids where I simply couldn't win matches of Magic despite my best efforts. When you're winning Magic seems easy and when you're losing Magic seems very hard as though much is out of one's control. However I know all games are equally winnable or losable depending upon our decisions. So why is it that when we are playing well we continue to play well but when we are playing badly it's hard to snap out of it?
After starting off modestly with a 2-1 record I fell into a losing streak. I played against Soul Sisters and Merfolk both pretty unwinnable matchups. This is the problem with playing a fair deck. My attitude towards those decks in testing didn't help.
"These are not real decks…right?"
As I was sitting there in rounds 5 and 6 getting curb stomped by these 'not real decks' it became clear to me that they felt very real from my vantage point. Unsurprisingly I didn't spend much time testing against Merfolk or Soul Sisters because I didn't really believe anybody would play these decks. If I believed they were bad and everybody I talked to believed they were bad then what person would opt to play it?
Perhaps they played against the deck and realized it was pretty good at beating all of the people who underestimated it. I watched a lot of good players get badly beaten by Soul Sisters; in fact the Soul Sisters player who defeated me also beat David Williams playing Jund (a 'good' deck) and Matt Sperling playing Affinity (also a 'good' deck).
Soul Sisters at least from what I observed at the event performed pretty well especially against many of the popular and fair decks in the format.
After a mediocre Constructed performance of 2-3 I set out to draft. I believe that my preparation for Limited was very good and my 4-2 record in Limited reflects that assertion.
I drafted a deck that I believed to be absolutely bonkers and it was.
- 1 Armory Guard
- 1 Gatecreeper Vine
- 2 Hover Barrier
- 1 Isperia's Skywatch
- 1 New Prahv Guildmage
- 1 Skymark Roc
- 2 Towering Indrik
- 1 Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage
It had been my plan going into the event to try and force Bant Control if possible in both drafts and it worked out for me.
Unfortunately in the first round I played against a bad matchup for me in the draft: a Walls deck with multiple Lobber Crew and Doorkeepers. In the head to head neither player can attack but his Walls had the ability to force through damage or deck me.
When it rains it pours right?
A lot of things compounded at that point. I was frustrated by the bad pairing yet again. To add insult to injury my opponent repeatedly did things like untap all of his lands when I ended my turn then remembered that he had an on-board ability he wanted to use tapped them again and after being warned not to do that repeatedly by judges consistently was able to back up with no penalty. All of this frustration ended with me absolutely punting our match.
We ended up in a combat where he Chemister's Tricked all of my creatures to attack and after a long and complicated combat where many tricks were played many creatures were put into graveyards (one of which was my opponent's Runewing that I had stolen with Conjured Currency) I said "I'm all done after that and I draw a card for Runewing" in the wrong order as we were marking changes to life totals.
Since the new rules indicate that if triggers are not put onto the stack they are missed I ended up not getting to draw for the Runewing but had I gotten to I actually would have peeled the nut perfect off the top of my deck to win the important game 3 and take the match.
So despite how bad everything appears to be going it's important to remember to keep one's composure and simply play the game the right way. Obviously in hindsight it is pretty painful to lose a match where it was very clear that I tilted and punted because of it.
For what it's worth I recognized what was going on after the match and did what was necessary to get my head back in the right place. I let the frustration go and focused upon the task at hand winning my last two rounds to make Day 2.
My good momentum from Day 1 followed me into Day 2; my goal was to 3-0 the draft and the deck I ended up with was another very strong Bant deck. After winning my first two rounds and feeling like I was playing really well the rain started up again.
I ended up mulliganing to five against a good player. The first game with five cards was close but the card disadvantage was too much to overcome. Game 2 was more of the same mulliganing and ending up flooded in another close game.
He played the Batterskull forgot to trigger the "make a token" then passed the turn. After he had passed the turn he realized had forgotten and tried to make a token. Ultimately I didn't argue my case very well; he ended up with the token; and I lost.
For those of you who do not know the rules for competitive events have changed so that in order to get a trigger you actually have to announce that you are doing it. So if you attack with a Geist of Saint Traft and don't say "Trigger make an Angel" and your opponent blocks you simply miss getting to make an Angel token (and don't get one). The same is true for making a Germ token with Batterskull getting exalted bonuses and drawing with Dark Confidant.
I would like to say that I am really uncomfortable with these new rules and that I don't actually enjoy having to call a judge on my opponent to say "He didn't trigger his Batterskull." It feels wrong. Yet these are the rules of the game which explicitly put the responsibility of announcing triggers on the person getting the ability.
So the call that had gone against me earlier in the tournament once again went against me and I lost a close one to Jund.
After winning four in a row I lost two tough matches in a row. The wind was right out of my sails. I played against Gerry Thompson next mulliganed into oblivion and promptly died again.
The feeling of complete irritation flooded over me as I walked outside to think. I was now after battling so hard to 6-4 at a miserable 6-7 record and eliminated from finishing in the money. I decided at that point that I was going to salvage my Pro Tour and that I wasn't going to finish sub .500. "Enough is enough—I need to play much better."
The bad luck didn't necessarily stop after that but the way that I handled it changed. I mulliganed every single hand in the next two rounds but simply refused to lose my games. I bluffed I battled I took dangerous lines of play that prompted my opponent to play around cards I didn't have at the time (which was the only conceivable way that I could imagine winning my games) and I refused to give up. It paid off—I didn't lose a game for the rest of the day.
In the last round I was paired against Ben Friedman who I have played against before. I sat down and asked "So neither one of us can finish in Top 100. What do you say we intentionally draw so we can both say we had winning records at the PT?" (8-7-1). He chuckled and said "Sounds good to me!"
The thing that is important or fundamental about this section is that going on losing streaks isn't random bad luck.
Five Strategies to Stop the Bleeding Before You Bleed to Death:
- Be better prepared to begin with.
- Recognize tilt and squelch it before it causes you to make bad decisions.
- Take responsibility for your play. Don't blame fortune; don't blame luck—the only one who can make you win is you.
- When you are losing make a conscious effort to play better try harder and not give up. If you are losing it is safe to say that among other contributing factors it is likely you are not playing as well as you could be. Remember you can't change things that are beyond your control: the pairings the mulligans the cards you draw the cards they draw. All you can change is what you do with whatever opportunities that you are presented with.
- Make a conscious effort to acknowledge that you are not playing your best and rather than let that fact become consuming do what it takes to put yourself into the best possible frame of mind to play your best.
Lesson Learned in Defeat #4: It Is Yours and Yours Alone So Own it
Ultimately I understand that I was responsible for every single match of Magic that I lost at this PT. I picked the deck that I played. I had bad matchups and didn't have a realistic contingency plan for them except to lose. Ultimately I deserved to lose because I didn't do anything to prevent these circumstances from arising.
There is always an opportunity to make adjustments or take preventative measures.
Remember you are the only one who can make you do better just like I am the only one who can make me play better. I know that I will ultimately learn from the things I didn't do well at the PT and it is my hope that by opening up and sharing what I learned that others can learn from the mistakes that I made.
For what it's worth I sideboarded in Baneslayer Angel and Supreme Verdict in every single one of my matches at the Pro Tour so maybe that could actually be a deck! They are both overtly POWERFUL effects to say the least which is why I think they were really good for me throughout the event.
If I were given the opportunity to play the PT again but had to play a U/W deck here is how my deck would look:
- 2 Baneslayer Angel
- 2 Kitchen Finks
- 3 Restoration Angel
- 4 Snapcaster Mage
- 1 Wall of Omens
- 1 Vendilion Clique
I really liked what Supreme Verdict and Baneslayer offered me as options after sideboard to simply control the board and have a threat that was unbeatable if I could protect it against other creature decks. I was actually able to win a very long and drawn out game 2 against Soul Sisters by casting Supreme Verdict four times and protecting a Baneslayer Angel (which attacked alongside a Restoration Angel for 71 points of damage).
With that being said I feel that there could actually be room for a Wrath of God style control deck in Modern. Not only is such a deck powerful but it seems to be at least decently positioned in a format full of creature decks. The biggest fault I had with the U/W deck I played was that I thought Geist was not a good card for the deck.
I let myself be talked into the idea of playing it because it is such a powerful card and is capable of ending games on its own. The problem with the card is that if I had to give the card a rating on a game by game basis it was almost always either an A+ or an F. There are so many Magic cards available that in a deck like U/W I'd rather have cards that are more consistently good rather than ones that sometimes are great and other times don't do enough to warrant playing.
Anyway thanks for reading the article and I hope that it was useful to listen to somebody talk about how and why they didn't do well. Believe me I'd rather be writing to you all saying "I won and this is what I did to win!" rather than having to take the vantage point of "I lost; this is why so don't do what I did!" However as I stated earlier in the article there is often more to be learned from defeat than from victory so with that being said I believe that I will learn from my shortcomings at this event. If others can learn from it as well then at least having had this experience can have some value.
A few notes and thanks are also in order here at the end of the article.
As always thank you for reading! And let's hope we all make great choices at our next events!