The Tao of Silent Bob: Ten Things You Are Doing Wrong
Everybody makes mistakes; in Magic, the person who wins is usually the person who makes the fewest of them. Even the smallest error can provide a tactical advantage to your opponent and cost you a match.
Some mistakes are obvious, like not remembering to discard a card to upkeep your Masticore. Other mistakes are subtler, and can be easily overlooked. You might not even know you are making them.
What follows is my own personal top ten list of mistakes that I see other players make. They aren't all play mistakes. Some of them are mistakes that you might make even before you sit down to play your first match. The play mistakes are easier to focus on and correct - it's easy to look back and see that you should have chump-blocked that Psychatog - but other, less tangible mistakes can still just as easily cause one to lose.
Most of us are, or have been, guilty of these mistakes to some degree. Of course, the first part of solving any problem is to recognize that it exists.
1. Not shuffling enough/properly
Magic is a game with a strong element of luck, right? Well, some would say that we make our own luck. Certainly, Kai Budde's phenomenal success this last year has shown that this is so.
Still, a lot of it comes down to what we draw. It's hard to win a game when you draw too many or too few lands, for instance. Sometimes you just get mana screwed. While some may simply complain and curse the gods of luck, the simple fact is that how you shuffle your deck affects what you draw. You really do make your own luck, at least in this area.
A few months back I had the pleasure of attending Pro Tour: San Diego as an observer. I spent a lot of time playing in side events and hanging out with my friends, but I also managed to spend some time watching PT matches. The one aspect of the pro game that really struck me the most was shuffling. Most players I know (myself included) might pile shuffle once, followed by seven or ten riffle or mash shuffles. If we shuffle our opponent's library, then we probably do so with five to seven riffle shuffles. (Which reminds me: you can count"not shuffling your opponent's library" as mistake number 1.5.) This makes sense, as seven riffle shuffles has generally been held as a rule of thumb among judges for determining whether or not a deck is"sufficiently randomized" under the DCI floor rules.
However, the pros I saw shuffled much more than that. They weren't happy with the bare minimum, it seems. Most of them started with a pile shuffle, followed by five to seven riffle shuffles, followed by another pile shuffle and another seven to ten riffle shuffles. Then, they gave their opponent's library the exact same treatment.
Most of us don't shuffle anywhere near this much. This is one aspect of our game where it is easy to get lazy and cut corners. After all, we just want to get our match started. Still, this is one area where most of us could use improvement, and it most certainly does cost us games and matches.
So what's the right shuffling method? Well, there is a lot of personal taste involved in the matter. Some would say superstition plays a role as well. You need to find a method that works for you. Simply doing a couple of riffles and then presenting most certainly isn't sufficient though. I'm willing to bet that this is one aspect of the game that you could do better on, and I'll be it's one that you haven't even given all that much thought to.
2. Not keeping your play area more organized
Magic is a game that requires a lot of thought. Why make that process more difficult by having a cluttered play area? If your creatures and lands are all intermixed and you have some permanents tapped at 90 degrees and others at 45 degrees, it is going to be very easy to overlook something. You might tap the wrong land, leaving yourself without a color of mana when you vitally need it... Or you might overlook the ability of some creature on the board.
Strive to keep your play area neat. Stack your lands in like types. Tile them; that is, stack them on top of each other so that the name of each card is visible. This will enable you to clearly see how many of each there are, but they will also take up less space. Keep all your permanents of like types in the same area of the board. When you tap a permanent, do so distinctly and uniformly. (If you tap your lands at 45 degrees, tap your attacking creatures the same way.) Keep all your untapped permanents perfectly vertical so there is no confusion.
Believe it or not, this really helps. By keeping your side of the board free of clutter, you can quickly sum up your board position and make faster decisions.
This is one area that I have recently been trying to improve. One way that I have found really helps involved a Sharpie (a.k.a."vacation stick"). No, I didn't sniff it! I used a permanent magic marker to deface my playmat, dividing it into proper areas. There is a space for my library, graveyard, removed from game zone, lands, creatures, enchantments and artifacts, and even a"red zone" area for my attacking or blocking creatures.
It isn't all that pretty (well, it was an old playmat anyway), but it has helped me an awful lot. By forcing myself to play within the boundaries of the markings on the playmat, I am forced to keep things tidy.
Now if I could just get all my opponents to do the same.
3. Not tiling your graveyard
This is closely related to number two, above. Tiling your graveyard is an absolute must - especially these days. In the past, you could often simply ignore the graveyard unless you were playing a deck that featured a lot of recursion. That certainly isn't true anymore.
Odyssey block's Flashback and Threshold mechanics have made the graveyard an important resource, and it has made it extremely important to keep track of the contents of your graveyard. By tiling the graveyard, it is easy to see at a glance whether or not you have reached Threshold or whether or not you have a spell that can be played from the graveyard.
The disadvantage? It takes a lot of extra room. Players playing certain decks, especially control decks that cycle deep into their libraries, can easily find that their graveyard is growing to insane proportions.
Well, when you run out of room, start a new row. As long as you clearly communicate to your opponent which row of tiled cards is"on top" of the graveyard, there is no problem with this. If needed, you can even overlap tiled rows.
Again, keeping your resources neatly and easily visible helps you manage them even better and avoid mistakes. The graveyard deserves as much attention as any other area of the board.
4. Not using pen and paper to track your life total
Okay, I know; dice are convenient, especially spin-down counters. But, they have one inherent problem: Inevitably, they get knocked over, and that just won't do. I don't know how many times I have seen some player pound his fist in frustration on a table (maybe he didn't draw the land he needed to cast the important spell he needed to stay alive) and end up knocking over not only his life dice, but the dice of his opponent and the player(s) next to him at the table as well.
Commercially available life counters (such as those available from Flying Tricycle) are another cool option: They are certainly better than dice, since they can't be knocked over (short of overturning the table anyway)... But they still come up short.
Pen and paper is really the absolute best way to keep your life total, and it is really the only method that you ought to consider using at high-level tournaments. That's because it presents a record of what is going on in the game.
This is especially useful if there is some dispute over life totals during the game. Having a written record from a player can help a judge more accurately recreate what has taken place during the game, making an accurate ruling easier to accomplish.
Even if there isn't a dispute, a written record of life totals (combined with other short notes, since note taking is completely legal now) allows you to better reconstruct the game afterwards. Being able to go over a game critically after the fact and look for mistakes in your play is extremely useful in helping yourself to improve. It also makes it easier to write tournament reports, if you so choose.
For casual play, dice or other life counters are convenient and absolutely fine. However, for serious tournament play nothing beats a piece of paper and a writing implement.
5. Not keeping your opponent's life total
Mistakes number two and three were closely related, and four and five are as well. Once again, this is a mistake of omission. You're already keeping track of your own life total: You are required to, after all.
So why aren't you also keeping track of your opponent's life as well?
This is both utilitarian and precautionary. Keeping a record of your opponent's life total is just another way that you can keep up to date on the game state. Again, having more accurate information helps you to make better choices. Will your creatures be able to win the damage race against his? Do you have enough threats on the board to win against Rice Snack before your opponent can conceivably"go off?"
Then there is the human factor. Sometimes people make mistakes keeping their life total. They might miss something as simple as a point of damage from a painland. This might or might not be the point of life that wins you the game. Hell, some people cheat savagely. That kind of person might misrecord damage several times during the course of a game, resulting in a life swing of five or more points.
Either one of those possibilities can be neutralized by simply keeping track of both your own and your opponent's life. Just like your own life total, the best method to do this is with a pen and paper, since it will also provide the same kind of written record.
6. Not announcing spells before you tap mana
Sometimes you are going to make mistakes. However, there are ways to minimize the effect that these mistakes have on the game.
One of the most common mistakes that players can make in a game is announcing a spell and not being able to pay the cost for it; for some reason, you think that Flametongue Kavu only costs 2R instead of 3R. Or maybe you really meant to keep that Mossfire Valley untapped, but you accidentally used it to pay for a Wild Mongrel. Either way, you tap a few lands and put down a card, only to realize that you really can't pay the mana cost.
What happens in this situation? Well, you wind up with the card in your hand and the mana in your pool. Usually, this equates to taking a few points of mana burn. Sadly, this mana burn is avoidable, even if you mistakenly announce the spell.
To understand why, you have to look at the steps that go into playing a spell. To summarize section 409 of the Magic comprehensive rules, playing a spell goes a little something like this:
1. The player announces that he or she is playing the spell or ability
2. If the spell or ability is modal, the player announces the mode choice.
3. If the spell or ability has a variable cost, the player announces the value of that variable at this time.
4. If the spell or ability has alternative, additional, or other special costs (such as buyback or kicker costs), the player announces his or her intentions to pay any or all of those costs.
5. If the spell or ability requires any targets, the player first announces how many targets he or she will choose (if the spell or ability has a variable number of targets), then announces the targets themselves.
6. The player determines the total cost of the spell or ability. Costs may include paying mana, tapping cards, sacrificing permanents, discarding cards, etc. The player then pays all costs in any order.
Did you catch that? According to the comprehensive rules, you announce the spell before you pay that costs (including mana costs). Most players, though, tap their lands before announcing a spell.
Why does it matter? Well, section 422 of the comprehensive rules says that"If a player realizes that he or she can't legally take an action after starting to do so, the entire action is reversed and any payments already made are canceled. The player may reverse any legal mana abilities played while making the illegal play."
If you tap your land before you announce the spell, you are essentially adding mana to your mana pool (a legal play). If you then announce a spell that you cannot pay for, the game will back up to the last legal play you made - which was adding mana to your mana pool.
On the other hand, if you announce the spell, tap your lands, and then realize that you can't legally pay the cost, then you get to untap your lands and you won't have to worry about mana burn.
This is why it pays to know the rules. Always, always, always announce the spell or effect before you pay the mana cost.
7. Underestimating or overestimating your opponent
The psychological aspect of Magic is a lot larger part of the game than some would like to believe. Combine this with the fact that people often make bad assumptions about their opponents based on how they look or what they know about them, and you have a recipe for disaster.
As an example, at the 2000 California State Championships, I got paired against Truc Bui in the first round. (Getting paired against Pro or former Pro Tour players in the first round of large tournaments has become something of a pattern with me for some strange reason.) I was relatively new to tournament Magic at the time, and honestly, I had no idea who he was.
I was playing U/W Prison and he was playing B/R MachineHead. I wasn't intimidated by his reputation (because I didn't know who he was), and I played a very careful, well thought-out match, which I won. As I recall, Alan Comer even wound up watching the last few moments of that match after finishing his own.
On the other hand, I had the exact opposite thing happen to me, and have seen other players make similar mistakes. I lost a match to Brian Hacker in the first round of the Invasion prerelease because my head wasn't at all in the game. There were several turns during that match that I had perfectly valid plays and did not make them simply because I was too intimidated and wasn't really thinking about the game.
Granted, Brian is a very good player and would likely have beaten me anyway, but I didn't even give myself a chance to win.
If you sit down across the table from someone thinking that there is no way you can possibly beat him, your prophecy will come true. On the other hand, if you sit down for a match thinking that it is a virtual bye, then you are asking to loose. You should never underestimate an opponent because they are a little kid, woman, old man, or just looks like a"scrub." Hell, you shouldn't even allow yourself to underestimate them because they play Eager Cadets. For all you know, they might be a mad genius deckbuilder or the luckiest player in the world.
8. Playing too fast
Sometimes you just get ahead of yourself. This often causes mistakes. Games can be decided on this kind of thing. How often do folks just forget to feed a card to their Masticore, going straight from their untap step to their draw phase, because they aren't thinking about what they are doing?
Obviously, I'm not talking about stalling: I am talking about playing methodically. I'm talking about thinking about proper responses to your opponent's threats, and thinking through how best to deploy your own threats. There is no reason why you shouldn't be able to do this in a reasonable amount of time and play at a reasonable pace.
As an example, the way that this kind of thing manifests itself in my own game is kind of amusing, but also frustrating. I say"sure" too much. Generally, in Magic slang"sure" has come to mean,"I have no response to that"; it has become a shorthand way of passing priority. However, I often say,"sure" when what I really should say is,"Let me think for a second." If I would slow down and play more carefully, then the following exchanges might not take place:
Him: Upheaval, float a blue and a black.
Him: [Scoops up his lands.]
Me: [Stare at the Counterspell in my hand and the two untapped Islands on the board. Sigh and scoop up my own permanents.]
Him: Island. Psychatog.
Me: Oh, crap.
Obviously, playing on autopilot is a bad thing. One needs to keep one's head in the game in order to play well.
9. Not calling a judge
As a judge, I can't emphasize what a problem this really is. Judges can't be everywhere at once. It would be nice if there were enough competent judges to have a table judge watching each match of a tournament to make sure that everything is legal. That just isn't reality, though.
The vast majority of matches are played without the benefit of a table judge. Judges only know of a problem or a potential problem when a player or spectator informs them of it. They rely on others to be their eyes and ears in most situations.
It is my opinion that if you even suspect that something odd is going on, you should call a judge and inform them. Let them sort it out. If nothing is wrong, then no big deal. At worst, you were being overly cautious.
If more people called for judges, then we might be able to get some of the players with habitual problems out of the game. For instance, let's say your opponent takes a Paris mulligan at the beginning of a match. However, he accidentally draws seven cards. What do you do? A lot of players would just simply let him put the seventh card back on top of his library. Most others would just point out the mistake, and make the player mulligan down to five cards (which is the appropriate penalty under the floor rules). But how many folks would actually call a judge in that case?
What if during the course of a tournament, that player does the same thing repeatedly,"accidentally" forgetting to draw one less card when he takes a mulligan? Well, I dare say that as a judge seeing the same player make this kind of mistake repeatedly causes me to have some doubt as to the accidental nature of it. At some point, the judge has to consider actually upgrading the penalty.
Making sure that these kinds of penalties get applied and that they become part of the offending player's permanent record is very important to weeding out the folks that abuse the system and push the rules to gain an advantage. However, judges can't do that without some help from you.
10. Not playtesting
Ever show up to a tournament without a deck to play? Or throw a deck together at the last minute? How well did you do? While Magic folklore is full or stories of great players blowing through high-level tournaments on throw-together decks, unfortunately these kinds of instances are the exception and definitely not the rule.
For most of us, doing well requires testing beforehand, and the more testing the better. One of the best ways to do this is to create a"gauntlet." That is, a list of decks which will likely show up in significant numbers. You can then proxy up copies of each of these decks and play them against your pet decks and against each other. This will give you a good idea of which decks can beat which other decks, and will also help you identify weak or situation cards and help you choose a sideboard strategy.
For instance, prior to Regionals, a"gauntlet" for Standard might have consisted of R/G beats, B/W Braids, B/R Braids, Psychatog, mono Black control, G/U madness, G/U threshold, Rice Snack, and Goblin Trenches control. Testing against all these decks would have given you a pretty fair idea of how your deck would hold up in the standard environment.
Of course, the trick is to not only pick the right decks to test against, but also to guess what percentage of the field those decks will make up, and you are therefore more likely to face.
It isn't an exact science, of course. There is a lot of detective and guesswork involved. But, it is certainly better than leaving it to the fates. If you're anything like me, you've found that the gods of luck are not on your side.
Conclusion, and another shameless plug
In Magic, like in many things in life, mistakes add up. Even small mistakes can be fatal if you make enough of them. Most folks can easily identify the large mistakes that they make, and identify those areas that they need to improve on. Not everyone can as easily identify the smaller, subtler mistakes, some of which are made before they even sit down to play. Hopefully, my own personal laundry list will get a lot of other folks thinking about some of these aspects of their own game and ways that they can improve.
That's all for this week, kids. I will be back next week with more Type 1.5 tech. I've been really pleased with the response to my past articles on the Type 1.5 format. It really seems that there are more 1.5 players out there than one would think.
If you are in Southern California and you would like to give Type 1.5 play a try I do run a Type 1.5 tournament every Sunday afternoon in the city of Placentia (North Orange County). If you would like more information, just e-mail email@example.com and I will get back to you.