The Swinging Pendulum: Controlling Your Luck
Picture this. It's FNM and you're playing your well-tuned control deck and your first round matchup is some grubby kid playing what looks to be at least 65 cards. Game 1 you crush him and his White Weenie "stars" like Vulshok Morningstar and Boros Recruit. "Easy win" you think, as you start looking forward to the next round. Game 2 you just can't find that third land to Compulsive Research, while his Guardian Magemarks get past your Pyroclasms. "A fluke" you reassure yourself, chalking it up to bad luck. Game 3 he draws the one Umezawa's Jitte and Shining Shoal in his deck and beats you, moving you straight to the 0-1 bracket and sending your chances at that nice foily card right down the tubes.
Has something like this ever happened to you? I bet it has. We've all been there at one point or another.
The fact of the matter is that there is no way to completely beat luck. Sometimes you'll play a Dark Confidant on turn 2 and not have a third land when the game ends on turn 7. That's just how Magic is. However, what you can do is something I have to teach people all too often: you have to decrease your chances at losing to luck. I started realizing this last year at the Junior Super Series championships in Baltimore.
It was two days before the Championships and I was playing in some Grinders trying to grind into Nationals. My friend, Sameer Merchant of Elf and Nail fame, were both running slightly modified versions of the mono-Green deck we had both piloted to a Top 8 at Regionals, and I was going to use it in the Championship. It was then that he told me one of the most important things I have ever learned in Magic (To give credit where credit is due, it was Mike McGee who first informed him of this theory).
He told me that we both knew I was going to be better than the vast majority of the players at the Championships, so I needed to avoid losing to opponents getting lucky. If I could steal the pendulum of luck that was slowing swinging toward my opponent, pulling it away from him, I would be able to win. My deck would be better tuned, and I could outplay them.
What was, and still is, the number one culprit of lucky game winners in the aggro mirror? Umezawa's Jitte, of course. Thus, we agreed that running some copies of Naturalize in the sideboard would reduce the games that were swung by not only Umezawa's Jitte, but other potent cards like Sword of Fire and Ice, as well as destroying key artifacts against the mono-Blue Tron deck.
The same thing applies to every single format you will ever play in any card game. Let's flash forward to a few weeks ago, when I was preparing for Regionals.
As you may have read a few weeks ago, my Sizzetron deck placed third and I qualified for Nationals. The card choices that went in there were hard to make, but many were there to reduce the ability to lose to luck. For example, Pyroclasm is mainly good against B/W and R/W. The deck crushed B/W in testing, and R/W was usually good for us. Pyroclasm was out of the deck until mere days before the event, when I realized the same lesson I had learned last year. You want to minimize losing to luck.
You see, even though I beat the matchups I wanted Pyroclasm for, I wanted to make it so that if B/W or R/W got the perfect draw I would be able to beat the stroke of luck they had. Why take the risk? If I can win on the playing fields of playskill and deck choice, why risk losing on the playing field of luck?
If you can identify which decks can get a quick explosive start, then you can figure out what you need to avoid losing to a great draw. Control decks rarely have explosive starts you need to combat, with the exception of Urzatron based decks, since they play mainly reactive cards. Thus, you need to be able to combat fast starts in aggro decks, and ways to get rid of creatures are obviously on the top of the combating aggro list. In Standard, for example, the decks that can get the most explosive and luck-based starts are Gruul, Zoo, B/W Husk, Magnivore and R/W. By finding ways to defeat lucky draws these decks may get, you further your chance to win.
Also, another thing to factor in is that more difficult the deck you pilot (usually control or combo), the more control you have over your destiny. By giving yourself more ways to make a good play that will get the full potential out of your playskill, and more importantly give your opponents more opportunities to make mistakes, the more likely you are to win the game. Michigan based player and awesome card slinger Michael Jacob has stated several times that the more opportunities you give your opponent to mess up, the more likely it is that they will make a mistake, which in return gives you a advantage. This doesn't mean good players have to play control decks, but even the simplest of aggro decks can be tweaked to include important decisions.
The converse is true if you're a weaker player. You can't win a playskill-against-playskill war against better players, so you have to choose your deck and cards accordingly. By constructing your deck to run smoothly, you give yourself fewer decisions to make, which in return means you've less chance to make a mistake. The deck you should play needs to not only have few opportunities to make mistakes, but also needs to maximize the chances for you to get a amazing draw. The more likely it is that you can get a quick, aggressive start, the higher the chance that you can beat better players by optimizing your luck.
Simply put, the more decisions you give yourself or your opponent, the higher chance there is that player will make a mistake. Better players will make fewer mistakes, and therefore can afford running more complicated cards and decks.
Another way to attempt to control your luck is to make more mulligan decisions based on what you know about your skill level and your opponents skill level. I won't go into it too much, because there are several great articles on mulliganing out there, but if you know you have a advantage in skill and deck, ship those risky hands. Sure, that one-land double-Signet Remand hand looks great if you draw another land, but what if you don't? You just lost because you didn't control your luck properly. Once again, the opposite is true for weaker players. You need to maximize your chances of getting lucky and steamrolling your opponent by keeping risky hands.
Lands are also a large part of losing to luck. If you know you are better than the other players at a given tournament, then modify your manabase. Add an extra land. Especially in Constructed, where your decks are consistent and can win given enough mana: make sure that's not why you lose.
When you enter the realm of Limited, suddenly the luck theories enter a much more complex realm because of your on-the-spot deck building decisions. In general, especially in this format where people are constantly trying to cheat on lands, don't risk low land counts if you're better than most of the field. Be safe and play that extra land. Don't stretch your manabase to accommodate that extra color. If you're a less skilled player, you need to cheat on lands and play enough colors to be able to draw your more powerful spells. You may lose some games to your manabase, but you would likely lose more by being outplayed and not drawing enough spells to consistently deal damage. The same applies to your spells... however, spells are much trickier to work out.
By playing spells in Limited that will consistently work and do what you need, as well as pull you out of hard situations and cause less risks, you'll avoid losing to your opponent having a good card at the right time. A good example is a card like Avatar of Discord or Jagged Poppet. If you are better than the majority of the players in the field, you might not want to play them. Playing one of them on turn 3, only to meet a Fiery Conclusion or other removal, hurts you a lot. However, if you are weaker than most of the field, once again, you need the lucky edge that these cards provide.
One last thing. Shuffle! If you've ever watched the pros play, one thing you'd notice is that they shuffle. A lot. And then, just when you think they're done shuffling, they shuffle some more. Take the full time you're given to shuffle your deck. Make sure you shuffle in different ways. Riffle shuffle, pile shuffle, side shuffle, and more. The more randomized your deck, the more comfortable you'll feel, and the more confident you'll be that you've avoided the dreaded mana-clump.
Also, I'd just like to say that when I make references to "stronger" and "weaker" players in this article, I mean stronger and weaker relative to the tournament. For example, at a tournament like States, there are going to be a lot of new, untested decks and quite a few players who are new to the tournament scene. For somebody like me - I consider myself to have above average playskill - you are the stronger player in these events, and should modify your choices and decisions accordingly. At a tournament like Nationals, probably half of the field or so are better, more experienced and seasoned players than I am, so when I go I will have to modify my choices because in many cases I am the weaker player and have to hope things go my way because I can't win in a playskill dual.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this article,