Realizing How Bad You Are
One thing that causes me to shake my head in disbelief on a regular basis is listening to friends and teammates who complain about losing to bad beats while maintaining that they have not themselves made any mistakes. Though I obviously maintain some level of respect - in some cases very high levels - for these individuals, I cannot help but totally disregard their complaints. The thing is, in most cases, most players are unqualified to say whether or not they've even made any mistakes, so complaining about late game bad beats or opponent top-decks is fairly irrelevant and tends to obviate their positions when whining in this girlish manner.
Qualification of Understanding: Not Knowing What a Mistake Is
I like to say that I learned more in working with Jon Finkel (and Steve OMS) for one month prior to US Nationals 2000 than I did in the entire sum of the rest of my experience as a Magic player. We did almost no Constructed practice, because our deck choice was made from the outset... For constructed we mostly tuned against the expected Nationals metagame rather than the Regionals one. Instead, we focused on draft.
That draft practice taught me better card valuations than I previously had for Masques Block Limited, but served Jon maximally. He came off of a long dry spell to a perfect 6-0 record on Day One, and took one of the Wild Card berths to the first Masters event. As we all know, he dominated Day Two almost as well as Day One (besides a lone loss to a mono-Green Trinity deck), capped off by a win against Rich Frangiosa's unique Rebel deck that stands even today as one of Brian Kibler's favorite matches. It was time to get settled for Top 8 testing.
Tom Guevin and Andrew Johnson were invaluable in Constructed testing. Up until this point - going into the Top 8 of the National Championship - we had done very little Constructed testing, as I said. We devoted essentially one night at Neutral Ground to Constructed, and it involved my bashing Jon's gauntlet all night such that we selected Napster because it beat everything but mono-Blue without missing a beat. Aaron Forsythe's Angry Hermit, though, was something we didn't prepare for or anticipate, not to mention the breakout deck of that tournament and Jon's quarterfinal matchup.
Tom ended up being particularly astute in his understanding of the Napster / Angry Hermit matchup, explaining that winning was all about board development and that Napster's hand destruction was only minimally effective. Tom pointed out how great Arc Lightning was against Jon's build, and that his silver bullets were a little tarnished against a two-color deck with a lot of utility. Engineered Plague, Perish, and Persecute didn't have quite the oomph they did against straight Trinity, and Blastoderm generally demanded a Perish all by itself because of the danger presented by Angry Hermit's Red reach.
From a strategic standpoint, Tom taught Jon that this was a matchup of time. He needed to win before Angry Hermit could set up. He needed to kill Aaron before Aaron had the mana for his bombs. Failing that, he had to erase any advantage Aaron had on the board as quickly as possible; it was on the board that Aaron was going to play his game. Aaron's deck was a glorious top-deck machine, and in the actual tournament, he took Jon to five games by ripping exactly the card he needed one turn from death more than once. Andrew was helpful in that he was rooming with both Aaron and fellow Top 8 competitor Mike Turian, and he lent us a copy of their Angry Hermit deck for testing.
Now even though Tom was the genius of this testing session, as Napster's mommy, I constantly voiced my opinion as to what I thought would be right. Jon kept telling me that he was trying to concentrate on testing with Tom, and at one point, even said"Mike, you make, on average, one mistake per turn! Please let me test with Tom!"
At that point, I did not understand what a mistake was, so I necessarily disagreed. The next game, Jon opened up with a strong anti-Angry Hermit draw of Dark Ritual, Skittering Horror, and was presented with any number of options for turn 2. I said"Why don't you play Skittering Skirge to make this a three-turn clock [instead of a five-turn clock]?"
Jon glared at me. I bent down to read Skittering Horror - which happened to be one of my unique signature cards at the time, embarrassingly enough - and realized that even if I didn't then understand exactly what making a mistake in Magic meant, my suggested play would surely have been one.
Definition Time: Mistake
Ken Krouner wrote a great article on mistakes (or"errors" as he calls them), here. This article opened my eyes, not in the sense that I learned something new, but by giving names to things that I found (and still find) myself doing in real games. Ken's article basically outlines the methodology of making a mistake, describes how these occur during a game, and under what circumstances. What Ken does not do is tell you what a mistake is. Its definition is actually quite simple:
"A mistake is any play that is not the optimal play."
There are no spectacular plays. There are no"good" plays. There are no plays for which you should pat yourself on the back. There is only the right play and a huge number of other plays, none of which are the particular right play, and therefore what we call"mistakes." You may not know what the right play is and therefore make a mistake; the great thing about mistakes is that you have the opportunity to make them almost constantly in Magic: you can err with every stack, step, and phase, and sometimes with plays not on the stack, like playing land, tapping a Talisman, or morphing up a creature (and I mean"great" in terms of volume, not in the sense of quality to you, the player, obviously).
Now this is a hard thing to get your head around, and especially for players who have a hard time with patriarchal explanations of the universe, probably a controversial definition. Despite the fact that I was working with none other than Jon Finkel, I resisted this definition myself (likely, in hindsight, because I was making so many mistakes and didn't want to own up to them).
On every stack of every turn, there is one exact right thing that you should do. One. There is a particular land that you should play. There is a particular order in which you should cast your spells. There are hands that you should mulligan, even when you have lands and spells, and there are times that you should go out on a limb, praying that you draw mana. Any time you deviate from the exact right play, you are making a mistake. That is not to say that there are not varying degrees of mistakes; some are fairly harmless (tapping a Coastal Tower when you have a large number of both Islands and Plains in play), some are more relevant, such that they may or may not cost you games (tapping a Salt Marsh for generic mana when you may later have to tap an Underground River for colored mana), and there are some fairly lethal ones (whatever you just did that cost you the game that you didn't think would cost you the game at the time, but ended up costing you the game what a bad beat). Keep in mind that even the mildest mistakes, like that first Coastal Tower example, are bad in the sense that making them will lead to a pattern in your play that will eventually catch up with your W/L column.
Negative Reinforcement: Inspiration for the Master
A related topic to the self-analysis of mistakes is Negative Reinforcement. In my experience, Magic players tend not to recognize their mistakes when they win. Often they will not recognize their mistakes when they lose, but when they win, players generally assume they do everything right and win because they execute so well on their well-oiled machines, etc., ad infinitum.
This is a silly notion, especially at the amateur level, and following this kind of thought will keep you at that amateur level. The fact of the matter is that making the right play will sometimes lead to loss, due to factors related or not, and making the wrong play will lead to victory a dizzying amount of the time, in such a way that you may never even notice that you are making mistakes at all (i.e. the point of this article).
Chris Pikula, one of the biggest influences on my game (and probably the number one (practical) reason that I got onto the Pro Tour and started working with top-level pros at any point), has always been particularly critical of this aspect of my game. He said that I often didn't win because I played well; I won at the PTQ level especially because of two factors: my Constructed decks were leagues better than my opponents' on average, which allowed me to make mistakes that did not ultimately cost me games (until, say, the critical single-elimination trials of the Top 8 against more highly skilled players on average), and that even if I played badly, my opponents would often play worse, canceling out the fact that I would sometimes throw away games (just something to think about).
Probably the best recent example of the Negative Reinforcement in my own play was an article by Zvi Mowshowitz describing my round one victory over a Psychatog player at a recent Extended PTQ (you can read my own report and analysis here). Zvi contends that I made a mistake in not declaring a mulligan when presented with the hand of
The problem is that I destroyed this opponent. I didn't win cleanly, and I didn't just win... I annihilated him. The only damage I took in either game of the match I did to myself, and I was up several cards against the deck with the Intuition / Accumulated Knowledge engine. He was basically never in either game. Whatever tactical missteps I made in either of the above decisions was dwarfed dramatically by my understanding of the matchup, my ability to resolve key spells due to my opponent's lack of same understanding, and the raw card advantage of Genesis and Deep Analysis.
Given my keen understanding of the matchup, the fact that everything that I wanted to happen happened because I was able to dictate the battlefield using this superior understanding. Ultimately, the fact that I won the match 2-0, meant I bounced glibly to the scoring table with my belief that"my deck beats Psychatog" confirmed in the best possible fashion: by triumphant victory. If Zvi hadn't been there to critique my decisions, I probably wouldn't even be thinking about these particular issues today.
Just because what you wanted to happen happened, doesn't mean you didn't make a mistake. My opponent wanted Smother, he got Smother, and he still lost. I played Genesis against his whole deck, he let me, and so I won. That doesn't mean that I shouldn't have not given him Smother (forcing him to waste time on Accumulated Knowledge), or that I shouldn't have declared a mulligan in that first game (come on, this is Mental Note... not even Careful Study, which can fix my hand).
Addressing Negative Reinforcement is probably the most difficult aspect of improving your game. It is hard to catch because we tend not to analyze games where we win. We therefore make the same mistakes over and over again. We keep hands we should mulligan and give our opponents the wrong cards when they Intuition.
One way is to improve is to have players who are much better than you watching your games, and telling you what you did wrong. Though it is often difficult to own up to the fact that anything wrong occurred, try to remember that your incorrect play might have won this time, but if you had made a different play, you might have won two turns earlier. Which leads us to...
Mistakes and Time
I was playing in the last qualifier (not counting the Last Chance Qualifier) for last year's PT Houston. The format was Odyssey Block Constructed, and, not surprisingly, I was running a U/G Threshold developed with Brian David-Marshall. I didn't like having to play in this PTQ at all because I was technically qualified on rating, except that there was a reporting mistake on the K value of a tournament I had won earlier in the summer, meaning that I needed some small number of points in order to make the ratings qualification cutoff. But I wanted to be qualified, so there I was gaming in the PTQ.
U/G was not actually my first choice. I really liked the mono-black Pirates! deck, but due to horrible things on Day Two of the Pro Tour, Stalking Tiger, Hidden Gibbons somehow dropped from their first place position to a nowhere land of non-qualification, meaning that Paul Jordan, the owner of my planned Pirates! deck, would be making Top 8 with it himself, and I was stuck with my previous week's weapon of choice.
So with Pirates! on my mind, there I was, three rounds deep.
My third round opponent won the Game One roll and played first. On his turn, he played Swamp.
On my first turn, I played Island (I had Mental Note in hand), and passed the turn back.
My opponent followed up with another Swamp, and played Mesmeric Fiend. With the following hand, I chose to let the Fiend resolve:
I could have played Mental Note in response, but I didn't think that would be a particularly good play. My opponent may have taken the Mental Note rather than one of the potentially more relevant cards, or I could have randomly put a more juicy card into my hand (say, Phantom Centaur), that I would rather not have hiding under my opponent's Fiend.
To my thinking, Swamp, Swamp, Mesmeric Fiend could represent for the opponent one of three known deck archetypes: a B/u Braids/tempo deck, the mono-Black Pirates! deck, or a hybridized mono-Black control/Pirates! blend. The obvious choice would be for the opponent to take Werebear (my best enabler), and the other possible choice would be to take Breakthrough (card advantage, and synergistic with Aquamoeba, Werebear, and Wild Mongrel all).
So you can imagine my surprise when the opponent instead chose Aquamoeba.
Why would he do that? I even had another Aquamoeba!
I decided that he wanted me to play Werebear. The only reason he would want me to play Werebear, potentially a 4/4 attacker in short order given the Blue cards in my hand, as well as a powerful mana accelerator, would be because he had an answer in his hand that could tackle Werebear, but would not be good against Aquamoeba.
That smelled like Slithery Stalker to me.
So on my second turn (after a Mental Note at the end of his turn, of course), I decided to say"Screw you, opponent," and play Forest, Aquamoeba.
My opponent untapped, tapped three lands, and...
Sent my Forest to the graveyard with Rancid Earth.
I untapped, played an Island (putting me back to two lands) and sent Aquamoeba for three. Luckily for me, somewhere between my Mental Note and the ensuing draws, I had plucked Basking Rootwalla and Wonder. Obviously I used Wonder for the Aquamoeba pump.
Down to seventeen.
On his turn, my opponent decided to respond to my aggression by counterstriking with his Mesmeric Fiend. The Basking Rootwalla jumped out of my hand and met his Mesmeric Fiend. I would have preferred to pump and save it, but alas, that was impossible with UU open. Nevertheless, I was able to recover my Aquamoeba.
Unfortunately for me, the opponent followed up his attack with one of the worst possible cards for me at this point: Braids, Cabal Minion.
I untapped and lost one of my Islands. I ripped a land, but unfortunately it was yet another Island, rather than the Forest that would have allowed me to play Werebear. With Wonder in the 'yard, I sent Aquamoeba for another three and played the other Aquamoeba, leaving me with two Islands and two Aquamoebas in play.
Got him to fourteen.
My opponent did something, but it didn't involve killing an Aquamoeba or an Island, so on my turn, I lost an Island, and then tossed two cards from my hand to put my opponent to 8.
On my sixth turn, I had a really tough decision. I was down to just an Island and my Aquamoebas. I could either lose an Aquamoeba and send the other with Wonder, or I could lose my Island. If I didn't draw land (specifically Island), I would end up losing Wonder potential next turn even if I saved the Island this turn, and if I kept both Aquamoebas, my opponent would have to block with Braids or take six, meaning that I could win the game the next turn any number of different ways.
So I made a hard choice and lost the Island. Of course I didn't draw a land.
I send the Aquamoebas. Both had cards pitched to them. One put my opponent to five, and the other traded yet another card to get rid of Braids. If I had been able to save it, I would, but out of cards, I was at least able to get that dangerous permanent off the board.
As it happens, my opponent didn't draw anything to block an Aquamoeba or any of the zillions of ways he must have had in his deck to kill a creature in time, and my little Blue Beast did him in, winning me the game with no cards in hand and no non-Aquamoeba cards in play.
He revealed his top card, which was, of course, Chainer's Edict.
That was some good Magic. I won the game with no cards in hand and no non-Aquamoeba permanents in play, while my opponent had both cards in hand and lots of lands. In fact, if I had played any less precisely, sacrificed a man instead of an Island, been less all-in with my attacking, I would almost certainly have ended up on the wrong end of that Chainer's Edict. I played so fast and hard that I denied my opponent the opportunity to draw his out. This was probably the best game of Magic I had ever played.
I liked this game so much that I immediately told my friends the Pro Tour Champions.
"And to think, you used to be good at telling stories." - Bob Maher
I of course didn't understand why Bob was shaking his head. This was the best game I had ever played! I had my back against the wall the entire time. I had no cards in hand and only an Aquamoeba when my opponent lost. I never broke out of Braids lock, but I never gave up, either.
Dave Price pointed out something very obvious (which was why Bob was so disappointed). Even assuming my opponent had the Slithery Stalker (which he didn't), and it was right to hold the Werebear on the second turn (which it wasn't), I should have played the first Aquamoeba with double Island.
Imagine how different that game would have been if I had just held the Forest. I would not have lost it on the third turn to his Rancid Earth. When I played the Basking Rootwalla to get back my second Aquamoeba, I would have been able to pump it rather than just trading with the Mesmeric Fiend. Turns later (especially given the fact that he didn't have the Slithery Stalker) I would have been able to play a sizable Werebear, rather than just tossing it to Aquamoeba for an ephemeral two damage.
It might be reasonable to say that I played really good Magic from turn 3 forward, that I played out of one or more mistakes made in the first turns, but the fact of the matter is that I was a little lucky, just lucky enough, and at the right moments, to counteract all the horrible luck I had that game. This wasn't the beautiful game of Magic that I thought it was, and the fact that I thought that I played so well punctuates the idea that players who win tend not to see their own mistakes, however horrible.
The next time your lucksack opponent top-decks the one crappy card that he needs to in order to win the game on the last turn, you know, the turn that you were about to win, deserved to win, but ultimately didn't, damn that lucky lucksack top-decker, think for a moment. You might have made a crucial error in the first couple of turns of the game whereby your opponent was gifted with the two life that postponed the end of the game by a turn or more. You may have given him the opportunity to stabilize the board, make a crucial chump-block, or top-deck the card that beat you when the opponent should never have had the chance.
In the PTQ I attended a couple of weeks ago, with a different U/G Threshold deck, I lost 0-2 to an Enchantress deck in, I believe, a pair of five turn games. He declared a mulligan in game one and took both it and game two at two life. I had cards in my hand at the end of both games and resolved Intuition in both games. While it is an easy thing to say that Enchantress is U/G Threshold's worst matchup, and that both games were close - certainly a lone turn from winning each - it is a much more difficult thing to say that two points of opponent life and at least two cards in hand at the end of the game seem to indicate that there was some different play I could have made (probably in the first couple of turns of the game) that might have helped me reach a different result.
No, it doesn't help that we were playing for Top 8.
Bonus Section: Learning the Tech
You can shuffle all the cards you want and read as many articles you like and subscribe to Premium services and / or purchase variant cards and tokens over the Internet, but the surest way to Magically improve yourself is to eat at Katz's* deli.
Katz's deli, on Houston Street and Ludlow in Manhattan, NY, is a place spoken of with reverence by the select cadre of Magicians who frequent it. Sure, MikeyP may insist on getting his sandwich with lettuce on it, but that doesn't mean that you have to. Katz's is the home of the finest corned beef and pastrami sandwiches anywhere on the planet earth, and these sandwiches have the ability to increase not only your waist size, but improve your success at Magical cards.
Take the case of Aaron Forsythe. I took Aaron Forsythe to Katz's deli one night. He was a weakling and was unable to finish his sandwich (probably Gary Wise finished it for him... I don't recall). With even only half a Katz's sandwich powering up his play, Aaron found himself mizing his way into Day Three of the Pro Tour the very next day!
A recent development known as"finding out that they deliver" has allowed New York area players to make Neutral Ground PTQs even more enjoyable. Porn star and Star City writer Adam Rubens was getting his clock cleaned in the Top 8 of New York States this year, but it was all good... He was simultaneously winning the fight against his sandwich, and hating his opponent out by eating that delicious pile of pastrami and rye right there at the Top 8 table. With a little help from Katz's, getting smashed by Plow Under doesn't feel nearly as bad.
John Shuler: Inventor of the Tournament Report...
... and a happy Katz's customer.
That there sandwich is very good, and young Meg is about to get very excited, believe me.
If there's one thing I can teach you other than"Who's the Beatdown," I hope that it's to drown your troubles in brisket... and to drown your brisket in a bowl of complimentary gravy.
* In case you are wondering, Katz's deli is a wholly different Katz than LA98 Top 8 competitor Adam.