GP Amsterdam is in the books, and I'd have loved to come back with a tale of great victory, captured treasure, and eternal glory. What I'll give you instead is a tale of failure, hubris, self-doubt, and defeat: the truth. May it serve as a warning and an example as to the pressures deciding a tournament.
But let's start in the beginning, when the DCI announced those faithful words: Mental Misstep is banned.
As soon as it was clear that the metagame for the GP would be wildly different from the one I had been playing in for the last few months, I was somewhat stymied. I had been running Caw Cartel to good effect, clocking in ridiculous win rates in tournament and testing, but I wasn't sure how well the deck would hold up without another set of free counters to slow down the game (turns out it holds up well—foreshadowing). I essentially would have to turn the clock back by a few months and run my pre-NPH version if I stuck with the same deck. At least experience would still serve me well, but some matchups would suddenly play out quite differently.
These musings went out of the window when I saw Past in Flames in the Innistrad spoiler. They essentially reprinted Yawgmoth's Will? Really? I was instantly convinced that that card just had to be breakable (I still am, by the way) and tried to find the right kind of shell.
Long? Not “better enough” than other Tendrils decks, especially because floating the correct colors during the combo-turn proved complicated. Gifts? Too slow. High Tide? No reason to make the manabase Wasteable when there are perfectly good Time Spirals to go off with. Brain Freezing yourself? Neither as fast nor as stable as I would have hoped for (though I missed the idea of going down to just U/R there).
In the end, nothing I found proved powerful enough to straight up make that deck the right choice over something I had a ton of experience with, aka Caw Cartel. So I abandoned the quest for the perfect Past in Flames deck about two weeks before the GP (when I judged I wouldn't have the time to find an optimal list and learn to play it any more) to fine tune the post-Misstep list for Caw Cartel:
The deck is still essentially the same I talked about here so I'll spare you the history lesson this time. I basically replaced the four Missteps with other countermagic and found room for a few Snapcasters. The sixty-first card was a Path to Exile after having tested a little too vigorously against one-drop Zoo—I don't think it's needed with the way the metagame looks and would just drop down to sixty next time. The only real complaint I had with the deck was how hard Choke was to deal with (made worse by the fact that I never managed to find a Force in those games it was involved in); otherwise the deck delivered what it was supposed to: a deck that would allow me to have incredible control over my draws and win almost every game with correct decision-making.
So if the deck was that good, I won the GP right? As much as I'd like to claim the official coverage was lying, no I didn't. Actually, I played the worst tournament I have in years. Sure, I made it to day two on the strength of three byes (yay for winning trials) but essentially only by delivering a mediocre 4-2 record in matches. Once in day two, I ended up winning three more rounds before falling into a hard-to-accept four-loss streak to end up 10–6 on the weekend, with a soul-crushing actual match record of 7-6.
Does that mean the deck sucked? I wish! No, the deck performed exactly like it was meant to, I sucked. You see, the biggest problem with a deck that allows you maximum control over how the game progresses is exactly that: it allows you to control how the game goes. If you play well, you win. If you play badly, you lose. And I was playing very bad Magic in Amsterdam. Want some details? Here we go:
After three supposedly refreshing rounds of byes, I finally get to play. I find it a little tough to actually get my head into the game after sitting around for this long, and it shows.
Round 4 against Canadian Thresh
I side out Moat. Now, I have a lot of experience with this matchup, and I know it usually all comes down to both of us having a ton of mana, me having a dominating position other than being beaten down by Mongeese I can't actually deal with. Moat is close to the best card the deck has in this matchup. It's the kind of card I'd bring in more of if I had them in the board. Yet I cut them. I really don't know what was going on in my mind when I decided to board the way I did, and I've been doing better than that for months. But why would I do what I know wins me the match if I can try out a different plan and lose, right? I really don't know what was going on in my mind, and I still don't.
Shaken by the loss, I tell myself to stop fooling around and not be an idiot. This works out pretty well other than a loss against ANT in which I play reasonably well but keep a mediocre hand game 1 (blind matches against combo are hard) and mull to five game two and never find a second land (likely misplaying a Ponder that showed more countermagic but no additional mana). That's the one match the deck lost; in all the others I had the tools necessary to win.
I finish day one on 7-2, reasonably happy with the deck though a little bummed out due to how I played during round four. Can't stay sad when you make day 2 though!
I rise bright and early after a solid six hours of sleep (day two starts at 8 am!) and start the day by being gloriously freaked out by the Dutch metro system. You see, in Berlin the public transport system is open every day from at least 6 am to 1 am. When I arrive at the metro station to get to the site, I learn that the Dutch don't believe in getting up early on Sundays, apparently. I'm half an hour early, and the first metro running will deliver me to the site without a minute to spare. Great. Thirty minutes to worry about being late. Luckily the train is at least on time, and I make it.
Aside from an avoidable hiccup in round 2 against Reanimator* I play pretty well, and the deck delivers the Ws that go with that. I rattle off three straight wins against Ad Nauseam, Reanimator, and Snapcaster BUG until I feel pretty good about my chances, bad play from day one forgotten.
*A pretty unhappy situation involving Flusterstorm. What transpired was as follows: My opponent has Blazing Archon in play in game two (yes, I have no idea why that was still in his deck, either), and I move to Swords it. He answers with Force of Will; I Counterspell, and he Flusterstorms. Here is where things become sticky. I wait for him to declare targets, but, as has been the case all game (with reanimation-effects usually), he doesn't say anything. After waiting for what seems like at least half a minute to me, I state, “Okay, then I'll Force your Force, pitching Preordain.” At this point, my opponent says, “Wait, I wasn't done announcing targets. I wanted to target the Swords with the Storm copies.” Awkward.
We call a judge, and it is ruled that when no specific targets are announced, any new spell being cast targets the topmost object on the stack, so he is in fact targeting my Counterspell as I presumed after getting no comments on the targeting. I hate this kind of situation because so much depends on non-game factors (time sense, correct communication, etc.). At the same time, I'm clearly not going out of my way to remind him that he can play around countermagic with Flusterstorm by asking for targets.
What sucked about the whole situation is that my opponent clearly didn't feel as if I had waited for half a minute but rather just a few seconds before answering with the Force. (If you're reading this, sorry for the awkward situation once again. It definitely wasn't my intention to misrepresent what happened.) It certainly didn't feel like a short time to me, though, and the whole mess could have been avoided had he just been announcing targets clearly.
After three successful rounds, I'm feeling good about my chances on the Sunday stage, and that's promptly when the wheels fall off.
Round 14 against Maverick with Punishing Fire/Grove
I start off by playing game one horribly, trying to mana-screw my opponent by swordsing his Noble Hierarchs (clearly a brilliant strategy in a deck without an actual clock) and ending up without answers to his real creatures later other than a Moat that's locked out by a Gaddock Teeg. Did I mention I had a Karakas in play? I then promptly repeat my round-four mistake and board out one of my most important cards in the matchup (Oblivion Ring) and end up dying to Choke (the one card I actually lose to playing well).
This time, I don't recover from bad play syndrome like I did on day one, though.
The fourth round of day two turned out to be the pivotal round of my tournament, as I could literally feel the part of my mind that knows how to play Magic shutting off. My level of concentration, awareness of game details, and decision-making dropped by an order of magnitude.
Consequently I failed to win another match all day. It was really sickening to feel every game slide out of my control slowly but inevitably, realizing my choices were actively giving the game away. It is hard to believe how bad it feels to be keenly aware that your play is bad, but not to have the slightest idea why or, more importantly, what to do about it. Trust me, if you haven't had this feeling yet, you don't want to know. Just imagine you could see yourself slowly descending into idiocy while being totally aware, and you can imagine the horror I felt.
I left the site shocked, disgusted, and dispirited. Not because I had lost—okay, okay, in part, obviously—I've lost other tournaments before (well, smaller ones) and wouldn't have allowed for that to plunge me into doubting depression. What got to me was how I lost. The one thing about me I've always valued above everything else is my brain. It knows how to do so many cool things and hands out brilliant solutions to my problems. (You see, I don't usually consciously think much. I tell my brain what I want to know, feed it information for as long as necessary, and the answer comes out of the black box nicely gift-wrapped.) For my brain to suddenly stop working and abandon me profoundly shook me and left me feeling quite useless. Thank god for the telephone and my girlfriend, as the correct application of one to reach the other helped me get over the first shock at least.
Still I've been asking myself what happened repeatedly over the last week, and I suspect a lot of it has to do with the way I play Magic. To play well, I need to be hopped up on adrenaline, feel the pressure and tension of a hard-fought match. Usually I manage to stay in this state of adrenaline high for as long as a tournament is running, but this time it was different. First there was the psychological impact of waiting three rounds while others are already playing and losing. You become complacent, expect to win, and the adrenaline doesn't flow; your focus is lost. I was lucky that first loss on day one worked like a bucket of ice water and brought me right back out of the slump. Sadly day two was a different story.
I felt on the spot from the word go because I started out from X-2 and played with energy and excitement, winning my matches quite easily. Maybe I should even thank the Dutch public transport system for starting the rush in the morning, who knows. At that point, the effect of me caring a lot about this tournament kicked in. I felt like I wanted to prove something to everybody, prove that I can win in the big leagues. I knew I was prepared and could play on the necessary level. In short I felt as if the world owed me one this time. Bad plan.
Once I started to feel like things were falling into place, I started to play like crap again but couldn't drum up the fear necessary to motivate me. That happy feeling of being destined to win big time divorced me from reality. While I could clearly see that the only way to actually win would be to play my heart out, my emotions didn't cooperate. I looked on calm and unbelieving, as that stranger with my hands and deck threw away game after game. Bad boarding, missing obvious onboard options, playing perfectly to my deck's weaknesses, and allowing my opponents totally unnecessary openings are only the tip of the iceberg. If you guys had seen me play that Sunday, you'd be asking yourselves why the hell you'd ever read anything I've written. Why would you want to listen to ideas from someone who couldn't win a match at FNM with people helping him figure out the right plays?
For the moment, there seems to be a simple explanation for this, really. Clearly confidence kills my game. When I feel like things are going well, my brain, which in spite of all my admiration for it is clearly at least as lazy as I am, just decides that this is a good time to take a break. Not any kind of break, mind you, the whole I'm-going-to-throw-away-my-technological-crap-and-disappear-into-the-jungle kind of break. Yeah, my brain is a jerk sometimes.
I might not have earned money in Amsterdam, and I definitely feel bad about my performance, yet there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I've learned something very important about myself—I'm bad when I'm ahead and worse when I'm winning—and in the future I'll take care to make sure I always feel as if it's the abyss looming behind me (if you guys have suggestions how to get that done, I'm all ears).
I think that one thing is something we should all take more care of. Which emotional state helps our game? Which one disrupts it? Try to consciously analyze how you feel while playing. When are you playing best? When are you playing worst? Are you coldly rational while playing, do you need to feel the thrill of a hard-fought duel, or are you doing best when easily cruising to victory? Whichever it is, you need to find a way to instill this feeling during every single turn of every single game of every single round of every single tournament. As long as you can't switch off your C game first, you'll never be bringing your A game. As to how to do that, I'll let you know once I've figured out what works for me.
Thanks for reading this rather self-centered piece, I hope it prevented someone somewhere from falling into the same trap. Next time we're back to strategic content, promised. Until then, make sure your brain stays with you at all times.