Flow of Ideas - The Impalpable Aspects of Magic
Ring Ring. Ring Ring.
Gavin: Hey Max did you win your last round?
Max: Yeah I’m facing Jonathon Loucks’s stupid Kiki-Jiki deck in the quarterfinals. I’m not losing to that deck twice today do you have any advice?
Gavin: Hmm… I think you probably know everything he has. You played against him in round 2 right? Pretty much what you see is what you get. Just save Path to Exile for his Reveillarks and keep Slide active so he can’t Kiki-Jiki-Pestermite you. Remember that you can stack Slide triggers so that he never has Kiki-Jiki and Pestermite in play at the same time.
Max: Right right. Seems pretty straightforward. I should have him beat I only lost to him before because he had the Pact and the combo at the right time.
Gavin: Yeah be careful. Jon has the aura today.
Gavin: People have been calling me all day about how absurdly well Jon is doing how insane his draws have been and how terrible his opponent’s draws have been. He even told me on the phone when I talked to him that he’s surprised. He has the aura. It’s hard to explain and doesn’t completely make sense but he is ALWAYS going to have whatever he needs today. Play accordingly.
Max: I don’t care if he’s running hot so am I. I had to runner runner to win a couple of rounds too.
Gavin: This is different. Jon’s been more than a little lucky once or twice today. Seriously be careful.
There is an undeniable aspect of Magic which never gets much press. Beneath the sea of matchup percentages decklists and card interactions there is a less binary element of the game. Not just merely getting lucky but something else entirely. Something a little harder to describe. Something that must be shown not told to be understood.
It’s round 9 of Grand Prix: Los Angeles and I’m paired against Robert Doughtery. The winner walks out with a undefeated 9-0 record while the loser receives a blemish on the standings. I had been watching Robert play all day his matches had been next to me multiple times on the way to our eventual collision at the 8-0 table and he had received extraordinary good fortune all day. There was no doubt in my mind that Rob was a good player and good players often play in a way which makes them deceivingly look lucky but he was playing All-In Red: a deck that has more variance than the weather in the rainforest. Yet seemingly every game I would glance over and see a turn 1 Deus or Demigod staring Rob’s opponent in the face and worse their opponent had aggressively mulliganed and still lacked any of the cards they had counted on to help.
As Rob sat down to our match I felt something different from all of my other matches that day –something that signaled for the hairs on my body to stand on edge and a for shiver to run down my spine. Perhaps it was the hint of undeniable victory and confidence in the tone of his usually mellow voice maybe it was simply the way he presented himself or perhaps it was something else all together. But whatever it was I could feel it.
Game 1 he hits a turn 1 threat and rolls over my Spellstutter Sprites with ease. Game 2 is a more drawn-out affair. The crucial juncture comes when I’ve begun to stabilize after dealing with two Demigods three if you include when the second one resurrected the first one. I decide that I need to stop playing conservatively and move on the aggressive so I make a sequence of plays which will give me an insurmountable position in about two turns at the risk of opening myself up to losing if he draws another Demigod on his turn…
Which he promptly does. I knew Rob had been very fortunate with his draws all day and the little voice in the back of my head was telling me to hold back in case he drew another. Yet I ignored my instincts and told myself that some kind of “luck run” wasn’t a part of Magic that I could look at and analyze. The scientists out there might say that this was a coincidence. That I would have been crazy if I factored in my opponent’s predominant lucky aura into my choices. That hindsight is 20/20. That I shouldn’t be results-oriented. Yet I don’t feel think that’s the case. Sometimes there are just things that logic doesn’t apply to – things that you just have to feel.
In another story told by Paul Cheon at Worlds last year Luis Scott-Vargas a player that is on an incredible roll drew Swans and then Chain of Plasma with an empty hand against a Blue deck… twice in the same match. What is the lesson here? When you are playing against somebody who is on a hot streak I feel like you need to respect that they are running hot and play conservatively. I don’t know if his opponent had countermagic and tapped out because there was seemingly no way Luis could have that happen twice but if I was Luis’s opponent today I would have certainly kept mana for countermagic open. He was on such a streak that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume Luis is going to draw what he needs and prevent yourself from losing that way.
But how about harnessing this power for yourself? In my article “How to Prepare for an Extended PTQ” I began with a quote from Tim Aten:
Basically there are two ways to win a PTQ:
1) It's just "your day"... you're an at least reasonable player and you just happen to bring you’re A-Game that day little bit of luck etc.
2) You just outpower the field by so much between your playskill and deck choice that it'd be hard for you to lose.
I went on to talk about the second route and how to reach the skill and deck choice necessary to win but the reality is that many more PTQs are won in the first way than the second. A lot of PTQs are won when it happens to be a day when the X axis of skill and the Y axis of luck intersect and result in victory. The day is uncontrollable but it’s important you play as tight as you can so that when it comes you’re ready to bask in its glory. Here is Jonathon Loucks’s “stupid Kiki-Jiki deck” which beat Max in the quarters and ended up winning the PTQ despite what anybody including Jon could have expected at the start of the day:
Kiki-Jiki gets Friki-Diki Played by Jonathon Loucks to 1st place at a PTQ in Seattle on March 21st
4 Flooded Strand
1 Windswept Heath
1 Wooded Foothills
1 Polluted Delta
2 Sacred Foundry
2 Steam Vents
1 Hallowed Fountain
3 Rugged Prairie
2 Cascade Bluffs
1 Ancient Den
1 Great Furnace
1 Academy Ruins
1 Tolaria West
4 Mana Leak
3 Thirst for Knowledge
3 Gifts Ungiven
1 Wrath of God
1 Pyrite Spellbomb
1 Sunbeam Spellbomb
1 Pithing Needle
1 Chalice of the Void
2 Engineered Explosives
1 Chrome Mox
1 Kataki War’s Wage
1 Hurkyl’s Recall
1 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Volcanic Fallout
1 Wrath of God
1 Pact of Negation
1 Sower of Temptation
1 Ethersworn Canonist
1 Rule of Law
1 Duergar Hedge-Mage
1 Gilded Light
How did this happen? Jon is a good friend of mine and an upcoming player in his own right but with all due respect to him this deck is probably not what you would expect to win an 8-round PTQ. The deck had not exactly been off the charts in playtesting and the previous week he managed a meager 1-2 drop in Portland. By his own admission he did not expect his deck to win the PTQ. So what happened? He played well and used his incredibly good fortune that day to convert his playskill into a PTQ victory. He played well and the fortune coupled with skill to lead him to the top.
But what exactly is the source of his mysterious good fortune? When Jon called me on the phone after he drew into Top 8 I could just feel something difference in his voice. It’s hard to describe but I would call it subconscious confidence with a relaxed undertone. In the Top 8 he kept his demeanor and everything continued to bend towards him as he drew the right cards at the right time his opponents didn’t and that was history.
I actually feel it has to do with relaxed confidence. I have had my fair share of events where I’ve held the unbeatable aura and thinking back at each one of them I was incredibly relaxed and confident. In a play I would endlessly chide my past self for today I kept hands with one land Isamaru and a glut of two-drops on the play multiple times at U.S. Nationals 2006… And I always got there with my second land drop. I remember playing on the second day of the JSS Championships 2005 with Mono-Green Aggro and always having exactly what I needed to draw or happen exactly when I needed it. Rip one-outers to seal the game? Check. Have a Jedi mind trick which should have never worked be successful? Check. Having my opponent inadvertently give himself a game loss when he was about to beat me? Check. The first PTQ that I won I tapped out and discarded my whole hand to cast Devastating Dreams against a player with both Force Spike and Spell Snare; I drew one of my two basic Forests to beat Blood Moon; Rashad Miller whiffed on killing me in two different games with Heartbeat after successfully Mind’s Desiring Fact or Fictioning and Gifts Ungivening; and my finals opponent who was playing a terrible matchup for me mulliganed into oblivion. Oh and I had turn 1 Birds or turn 2 Dark Confidant almost every game.
In each of these events I was totally relaxed. I have never seen an arrogant or rowdy person hold the unbeatable aura. I didn’t feel like a lot was on the line as I was planning to drop from U.S. Nationals to play in the JSS Championships unless I was undefeated didn’t think I could make Top 8 any longer on Day 2 of the 2005 JSS Championships and I wasn’t planning on going to the Pro Tour for the PTQ I won but I played just because wanted to playtest for Grand Prix: Dallas – a Grand Prix that I notably performed terribly at despite playing almost the same 75 as the week before. Once the pressure was on and I was thrown into the ocean once I lost my relaxed confidence I no longer felt unbeatable. As a result it turns out that I was very beatable and I didn’t even make Day 2 despite having three byes. So what does all of this mean for you? Don’t stress out as much; the untroubled mind is focused. To quote Zvi Mowshowitz “Caring is an EV tragedy.”
The other thing about relaxed minds is that they tend to react to your gut instinct better. How many times have you had that feeling in the back of your mind the little voice in your head telling you that your opponent has the Cryptic Command third Lightning Helix or that he’s going to go off next turn despite only holding two cards and you make the play that’s worse against those anyway only to find that your initial instinct was right? In my case it happens all the time. I’m not alone. In a recent interview on Magicthegathering.com Luis Scott-Vargas said that he had learned to trust his initial reactions because if he had seen a position so many times in playtesting that his initial reaction would be based off what had happened to him while playtesting.
How about all of those times when a card in your deck suddenly pops into your mind out of nowhere you realize it’s the one you want and then you draw your card for the turn only to find that it’s waiting there for you? Is it some psychological principle of naturally being results-oriented and only remembering the times this actually happens compared to all of the times that it doesn’t? I don’t think so. It’s more than just thinking “man it would be so insane if I drew this card right now.” It’s just sitting there surveying the game state and then you realize that you really want to draw card X as a picture of it pops into your mind. And most of the time I eerily find myself drawing card X. To quote Mike Flores who also noticed this occurrence and mentioned it in one of his podcasts “I don’t think you’re bending the universe or anything but the card is just… there.” I can’t explain how or why this ability occurs; all I know is that it happens – and that you should usually trust it when it does.
There are some parts of life which are simply unexplainable. In over eight years of playing Magic and almost nineteen years of living I have encountered numerous mysteries and struggled to understand them then ignored them when I couldn’t. I’ve come to learn that sometimes you need to look less at why something is happening and more at that it is happening. Even if there isn’t necessarily a concrete explanation behind the tactics in this article they have led me to victory numerous times despite sounding completely off the wall. You can choose to ignore them forget about this article and join me next week when I talk about something much more tangible. Or you can apply them to your game and maybe just maybe the next time you face someone who simply can’t seem to lose you’ll notice something unique – something impalpable – about them. When you do be ready to play around anything.
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic online Lesurgo everywhere else