Constructed Criticism - An Excuse to Ramble
This won't be the best article you've ever read, nor will it be the most significant. That's not my goal. What is my goal is to share some of the more important things I've learned from playing Magic and sharing some of my thoughts with you. If you take anything away from this article, I hope it is that I'm still learning as much (if not more) than you, and I'm doing everything in my power to improve. If you're taking the time to read an article about Magic, I hope that this is your goal as well.
I've never been much of a Limited master (or master of anything at that), but I've always loved drafting. I've never felt terrible at any draft format I've ever played, though I'll admit that I used my home store as a control group for most of that period (which wasn't full of the strongest players in the world). What I have done is play consistently for a decent period of time, which has given me a small amount of knowledge about the general anatomy of Magic, which I use to apply to the various formats I encounter, whether they be Limited or Constructed. While some may argue that some of my views don't matter, since I don't focus entirely on one format, I'd retort that Magic's engine remains the same, and figuring out which moving parts assemble to create the greatest winning outcome should be the goal of every Magic player. Seeing these parts is something I usually do fairly well, though my inexperience occasionally leads me to put them together in the incorrect order. The best players in the game struggle with this on a constant basis, but they do so with an open mind and open ear.
Putting pieces together to form something larger is the essence of drafting. In your first draft of a new set, you're presented with a vast number of unfamiliar parts, and you must use these parts to assemble the strongest machine possible. In this process, you make so many tough choices, evaluate a constant stream of decision trees, and ultimately create what you think to be the best deck from the choices given to you, aside from a few errors you manage to see in hindsight. Drafting is the most skill-intensive Magic format and for good reason. There's a chance to make a mistake at almost every stage of the draft, from your first pick, to your last attack step. These chances to minimize (or maximize) your mistakes often take tragic turns where you fail to figure out the correct direction to follow, or even make the mistake to take the uncommon or rare, even though the common is just more efficient. When there's more room for error, there's less room for variance.
These mistakes we constantly make help shape who we are as Magic players, separating the worst players from the good players from the best players. This constant stream of mistakes that we make and learn from is what keeps us coming back. Man is a strange creature, yearning to learn more, and those of us that play Magic know that the most you can learn from a match is when you lose, no matter what the circumstance. When you're presented with a victory, you're rewarded with a prize. You see nothing wrong with your play or your deck, and you feel justified in all of your decision-making, even if you made countless mistakes along the way. Sure, you notice a small error here and there, but what does it matter? You won the match, right? When you lose, each mistake stares back at you, menacingly, and you immediately seek out and decipher each instance of the mistakes you can recognize. Some of these errors can be avoided, but making those mistakes in the first place is what begins your drive to eliminate them from your game. This is what makes you a better player.
As you continue down the road of making mistakes and learning from them, you gather and piece together information. This information in turn helps you to keep from making these mistakes again. The problem with this is that absorbing all of the information can be difficult, and we as people can only hold so much information before our brain begins to turn to mush. This is the point where you need to develop good mechanics with your game, as decision-making isn't easy and helping to eliminate all of the minor decisions through instinctual play will save you a lot of time and effort. In turn, you'll play much of your games through "feel" or "instinct," keeping you from having to labor through each and every small decision. While some may argue that this instinct can be harmful to your game, I disagree. There are times where you have to sit and think for just a second, turning off that instinctual play, but most decision trees aren't incredibly difficult to unravel if you take just a few seconds to ponder them. There are plenty of situations that require a much longer thought process, but having those instincts saves you enough time in the match so that you can take a second to think about these situations.
Limited games tend to take much longer than Constructed games due to the fact that there are so many more difficult decision trees, due to the relative randomness in decks. With Constructed, there are plenty of games that play out similarly: You play a creature, followed by a removal spell, followed by another creature and kill your opponent. You play many more copies of a card so you see them much more often. In Limited, you'll rarely have more than two of any given card, so that makes it much less likely your cards will interact with your opponent's cards in the same exact way.
These games of Constructed tend to take much less time because there aren't a lot of decision trees to follow that you have not already played out before. However, when you play control decks, you have to play to your strengths, whether it be winning the long game or the short game. Trading removal spells for creatures early on might be the correct play if your goal is just to survive until you hit six mana. The same can be said for sandbagging removal so that your Day of Judgment wrecks your opponent's entire board, leaving you with a few removal spells in hand while your opponent recoups.
Each deck and each game has different lines of play, but having strong instincts helps you in your decision-making process. You've made this decision tree before, and it failed, so you move on to the next tree. You made this one before, and you succeeded, so this one is probably good for this game too. While you'll occasionally be presented with a route you haven't taken before, you can deduce the outcome much faster because your instincts kick in and help guide you through the process. You can even occasionally build a brand new decision tree that you've never thought of before, using a card in a way you didn't realize it could be used. An example would be to use Jace, the Mind Sculptor to bounce your own Baneslayer Angel after you attack with it, effectively giving it vigilance to withstand the onslaught of creatures from your opponent. While Jace has many powerful abilities, this line of play was the only one that kept you alive, and being able to eliminate the incorrect lines of play through instinctual decision-making helped you arrive at this line of play much faster, giving you victory when you didn't think it was possible.
Losing is something we all deal with fairly regularly, but something you should never grow accustomed to. If you lose, you shouldn't just take it in stride. You should use that experience to figure out what you did wrong and try to correct that mistake. Losing shouldn't be easy, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that competitive people hate losing. You'll rarely see someone who just lost with a genuine smile across their face, and that's because winning is pretty much the only thing that matters in competitive games (though there are plenty of other aspects to take pride in). When you're preparing for a tournament, you must take into consideration every aspect that could prevent you from winning and try your best to eliminate those problems.
With each loss comes a sense of pain, an inner demon that awakens to strip you of some small part of your soul. Each time this happens you vow to never make that mistake again, yet with time you occasionally forget the pain and slip up. This causes the demon to return, only to leave you feeling the same misery you felt before, except this time it stings just a little more because you should've known better. This feeling is better known as "tilt," and everyone experiences it when they lose, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. The most emotional of people will wear this demon on their sleeve, jabbing at their opponents with harsh words so that the pain of the loss will feel less severe, but this isn't the way you should handle your demons. It should be your goal to constantly keep your anger in check, as composure and calm are signs of true strength and will help keep these demons off your shoulder when you do lose. And you will lose. Often. And it should always hurt.
Now, if there ever comes a time when there's no pain from a loss, then you have either reached enlightenment or you should quit playing Magic. Either way, good for you. But the rest of us have to deal with bad-beat topdeck stories, painful cases of the run-bads, and the consequences for choosing incorrectly on our 50-50 decision. These painful beats only show that we are, in fact, human. They show that we care, and that's the part of us where the fire burns brightest, and where we have the strongest drive to succeed. The best players in any game or sport are those that have the most emotion, the most passion, and the most drive to better themselves. Each loss is a significant blow to your confidence, and that should never change. What should change is your outlook on dealing with all of this, in that you should use each encounter with defeat to better yourself as a player and as a person.
Scars of Mirrodin has made me feel everything I've described to you and more. This format, while seemingly balanced in many ways, can give you a sense of misery that you've never felt before. While most of the set is well designed, there are so many cards that just obliterate you when you come in contact with them. Carnifex Demon, Sunblast Angel, planeswalkers, Wurmcoil Engine, and many more just leave you with a sense of disbelief. How did they have that card? That was their only out in the entire format! Well, I'm going to tell you about the worst culprit of them all: Contagion Engine.
I wanted to take just a moment to talk about Contagion Engine and why that card should've been a mythic rare. Contagion Engine is possibly the most one-sided beating I've ever had the misfortune to play against, and I'm sure most of you who've drafted enough can concur that losing to Contagion Engine is not something someone should have to experience. The card is absolutely mind-blowing in how it's designed, but it can change the entire game without even needing colored mana. The fact that it only affects opposing creatures and has the ability to eat away anything it puts counters on, on top of being able to double poison you every turn is absolutely ridiculous.
Didn't they know how many creatures they printed with one point of toughness? We all know how good Contagion Clasp is, and Contagion Engine is the Popeye version that just ate a can of spinach, providing you with a massive beating that any deck can abuse. The counterspells we're presented with in this format to fight it are mediocre at best, so there's virtually no real way to fight it if your deck contains creatures. While there are plenty of spells that are backbreaking at six mana, most of them can be held in check with an Arrest or even a Revoke Existence. Most are fairly difficult to cast. Contagion Engine is the most unfair card in Scars Limited, and that probably won't change for quite some time.
Contagion Engine tilted me a lot today, but I couldn't quite put my finger on why. There were two different matches where that card won the game singlehandedly for my opponent, and it made me miserable.
That's when it hit me: Contagion Engine is a card that makes it very difficult for you to figure out exactly what you did wrong to lose, because rares that are this unfair make you begin to question words like "luck" and "variance." Cards that do this shouldn't be simple rares, because they tend to show up more frequently than is healthy for the game, providing players with an experience they can't put into words. Playing against Contagion Engine is like riding into battle on a horse, only to find out that your opponent somehow conjured a mountain above you and drops it directly onto your head. How do you compete without also opening a Contagion Engine? Even then, how do you compete when they draw theirs, and you don't draw yours? Long story short, Contagion Engine should've been a mythic rare.
Constructed Magic is a very different animal from Limited, giving you the ability to beat your opponent before you even sit down to play the match. While you still play the games out, you know that your opponent has no chance because you built your deck better, gave yourself a better chance to win, and you have a much better understanding of what's important and what isn't in that particular matchup. Constructed not only challenges you to build something better than your opponent from the same set of cards, it gives you a sense of satisfaction when you discover something no one else has thought of. This experience is called: technology (or tech).
Technology comes about when you discover, either accidentally or through extensive testing, some card or strategy that completely dominates another strategy. Such cards include Damping Matrix against Dark Depths-Thopter Foundry in last year's Extended season; Firespout against Zoo, Merfolk, and Goblins in Legacy; and Ranger of Eos for Zoo mirrors during last year's Extended season. These cards completely dominate the opposing strategies in a way that they aren't normally used to fighting. Goblins used to consider Countertop a bye, since they didn't have an easy way to kill your creatures, but Firespout helps sway that percentage to be much more even. While most instances of technology are sideboard-only, many can be implemented into the maindeck if you need a weapon badly enough. Firespout is good against multiple strategies that all gave Countertop problems, so maindecking became the norm in Legacy.
While tech comes and goes with the flux in deck popularity, people will always remember how good Gather Specimens was against Primeval Titan and Avenger of Zendikar. Seeing these weaknesses in strategies and learning to exploit them is a fine trait to have as a Magic player, since it will allow you to find these flaws in different strategies in the future. Some cards and decks are only good for a single tournament, which is fine because you can find new ways to attack the format that's presented to you. Other times you take what you've learned, implement it in another situation, and start the process all over.
With access to information at an all-time high, metagames and decks change constantly, and you need to be able to adapt before you and everyone else reads about it in Gerry Thompson's latest article: Chandra Ablaze and So Can You. Once you read it online, you know about it, but everyone else knows about it too.
I'm an advocate of building your own deck as long as you feel it gives you the best chance to win. I play a lot of tournaments and feel like I do best when I'm able to innovate whatever deck I'm currently enveloped with. I rarely do well with "stock" lists from week-old tournaments, because everyone is coming prepared to beat you. Everyone already knows your entire deck, and that eliminates any advantage you may have gained from taking a surprise-factor approach. While there are plenty of reasons to play the "best" deck, you don't always need to play the exact same list as the week before. If an aspect of the deck feels weak to you, you should have the courage to make a change and test it. If it doesn't feel correct, why continue playing it just because someone else thinks it's good?
Trust your instincts. Above everything, trust in yourself. While we all of the potential to make terrible mistakes, we all have the ability to create something wonderful. So get out there and build. Innovate. Take your pet deck, and make it competitive. You might be the next Dan Jordan.
Thanks for reading.
strong sad on MOL