Thirst for Knowledge: Challenge the Sky
By Chris Jobin on July 9th, 2009 · Filed in Thirst for Knowledge, General Magic · Comments not available just now
It is not all that often that we, as a Magic-playing collective, embrace a single and universal concept. There are countless articles about theory, deck-building, drafting, sideboarding, or technical play, but in the end they are always the same thing: opinion. It is, on principle, exceptionally difficult to craft a piece of Magic writing that can be considered "truth." There will always be those who will disagree, even if that means going against the masses. But, of course, isn't that the purpose behind reading articles about this game, anyway? To take varying opinions on a specific subject and apply them to your own games? If you're new to the Legacy format and you decide you want to play Merfolk, it isn't very difficult to look up a decklist. However, how often do you stop there, at the first list you find? You're going to look up more. You might even read a few articles from different authors to get an idea on different ways to approach the deck. To get different opinions. No writer, player, or even plain forum-goer can present results, ideas, or concepts as fact. It just doesn't exist in Magic. And, naturally, this is how it should be.
By Chris Jobin on July 9th, 2009 · Filed in Thirst for Knowledge, General Magic · Comments not available just now
Sometimes, however, we find a piece of writing that hits the nail on the head and lends itself to the community as a single, unifying truth. Michael J. Flores has long been considered the master of such articles, contributing game theories such as The Philosophy of Fire. His work, along with that of many others, has contributed for years to the Grand Unified Theory (Zvi's legendary series of articles), and these types of writings have resonated with the playerbase to a point where they are taken as fact. True, to-the-point, and utter fact. I believe there will always be room for criticism, but overall I think we've all accepted that Zvi and Flores (as well as a select few others) understand completely what it is that makes this game tick. That comes from years and years of data mining, number crunching, playing, and intense observation. Say what you will about their thoughts on Standard, their analysis of a new card, or their performance at a recent tournament, but people like those gentlemen have made their mark on the game. They contributed to a greater well of knowledge. They helped to create a hivemind, an ever-growing sense of understanding on the game that we all have access to and can share thanks to the Internet. This system is responsible for making players of today leagues better than their counterparts from the past, and also for the intuitive and continually-evolving global metagame. Magic has, for all intents and purposes, moved into an era of total comprehensiveness. In terms of game theory, there is very little left for us to know. There are few roads not traveled down, and even fewer concepts left to wrap our heads around. Thanks to the efforts of men like Flores, we can spend less time as writers (and players) seeking ways to understand card advantage and tempo, and more time focusing.
Yes, I realize that focusing is what you've been reading about a lot lately. But the fact is, focus is the last piece of the puzzle. It's the most dynamic (and arguably most important) part of the game. I know I personally have spent a good deal of time in the past four years teaching myself the ins and outs of every facet of game theory, as I was hellbent on ensuring that I could make the most profitable plays at any point in the game. And, as a whole, this has improved my play considerably. The "think tank" is something that I use more often now than I ever have (even more than when I was still in high school!), and a large chunk of the activity in said think tank is rooted deeply in theory. It's about weighing the pros and cons of any given play. It's about maximizing spell effectiveness and deciding if your Bloodbraid Elf is worth his two Kithkin tokens. It's about the mental game - you know, wondering what he could have in his hand that will undoubtedly thwart your plan. But most importantly, it's about technical play. But that statement sounds familiar, doesn't it? If you've been keeping up, it definitely should.
Last week, Zac Hill wrote an article on Star City called "What Matters." It you've not read it yet, I suggest you do so. It's easily the best piece of Magic literature that I've read in what I would wager is years, and what I'm about to discuss will make a lot more sense if you're already read his masterpiece. It can be found here.
So just what is it that makes Zac's latest article such a hit with me? Well, to be frank, I think it ultimately summed up what I had been missing all along. Everyone always says that tightening up your play is what will make you better, but Zac really took that idea to a whole new level. Scouring the Internet for technology, calling friends all over the country looking for new ideas, and meta-gaming a decklist are all ways to have an edge at a tournament, but nothing can ever prepare you better than just playing better than your opponent. Technical play wins you games, not pre-game strategizing. It's very much like a sports game in that way: no matter how many plays you go over in the huddle, none of it will matter if you can't follow through. None of it matters at all if you can't go out onto the field and actually make the plays. If you can't follow through with your plans, you're no better than the guy who just sleeved up his first tournament-worthy deck. In order to be better, you have to acknowledge that winning comes from dedication to focus, not strategizing. Creating the best deck and having the correct sideboard plan will take you far, but none of it compares to being able to play well.
To better illustrate why this has hit me so suddenly, I'd like to share a few things. First and foremost, I'd like to talk about me (surprise, right?). I started playing competitively around Ravnica, but I actually started playing the game back when Mercadian Masques was released. I started out like most players (bad decks at FNM), but after Future Sight was released I started to take things seriously and within a year I was destroying people at PTQs. I'm what they call a "natural," though I think a lot of it had to do with my eagerness to seek information (which I used the Internet to do). I am, above all, a vain person by nature. But believe it or not, I am also capable of great humility. In fact, in the presence of those I truly respect, I can be quite humble. The catch is, though, that I tend to have high standards for those that seek my respect. It is difficult to earn my respect, certainly, but traditionally those that do have to bend over backwards to lose it. I often come off as a jerk on the forums (and to a certain extend, in person), but I, like most looking to climb the ranks of the Magic world, value knowledge and understanding above vanity and superiority. That is to say, I've given considerable effort recently to try and listen more to what others say, regardless of whether or not I have respect for them. A good idea is a good idea, after all.
My point, though, is a bit off the beaten path. See, despite my crusade for understanding, I still tend to give myself too much credit. While it's true that I believe I'm a good player, I have begun to see myself in a different light in recent months. I don't think I'm bad or anything, but I think I may have thought too highly of myself, and that may have caused me to have false confidence. I believed that I was better than I actually was. I knew then (and still know now) that I have what it takes to win a PTQ, but I think I was foolishly assuming that I deserved to win. That isn't to say that I wanted to think that way, but rather that I was merely inclined to do so because of how I viewed myself as a player. When I first started writing, I set out with the goal to just make a name for myself in some way. I wanted to help others do well, even if I myself could not. That wasn't because I felt like I couldn't, but because I thought that maybe I just wouldn't. That maybe I really wasn't as good as I thought I was.
It was actually Josh Wludkya that made me realize it for the first time (others said it, but he was the first that I respected that had said it). After he pointed it out to me, it was easy for me to see. I had built up an overwhelming sense of arrogance over the years. I took what I had been taught by others for granted, and I had lost the humility that I had had for so long. Josh didn't call me a bad player or anything, nor did he say I was arrogant. He said that I was adopting a new mindset because I was now a writer. He mentioned that I was focusing too much on who I knew rather than what I knew. But what I took away from that, I didn't realize until after a game at FNM this past week. That's right, folks: the greatest lesson I've learned about this game I learned at an FNM.
So here is the story, in its entirety:
It's Friday night, as one would expect, and I'm in game three of round three where I am piloting UW Reveillark against the Warp World deck. We are in turns, and it is my turn. After this turn, I will have only one more combat phase to kill my opponent. My life total is eight, and he is at only six. I have just put him at six with a Paladin en-Vec, and it is my second main phase. My hand has some useless cards and four Reveillarks. I have no counterspell in my hand, but I know he has Warp World (he had returned it to his hand the previous turn with Nucklavee). I count his on-board damage, and I find that I can survive to my next turn with the board state as it is. However, there is no way that I can actually deal him lethal damage with only a single combat phase remaining. The way I see it, I can make a number of plays, but one stands out as the correct play: cast one of my Reveillarks and pray that his Warp World gets me there (I have three Mulldrifters in my graveyard).
I play a Reveillark, and pass the turn. He untaps, and plays Warp World. We both had around twelve permanents or so, and so we shuffle them in and lay out our new boards. I hit a Paladin en-Vec, some other men (I don't remember them all), five lands, and a Mind Stone. His two relevant cards were both Murderous Redcaps, which he used to drop me to four. Afterward, he passed the turn and I drew my card, which was a Cryptic Command.
Let me say that again. He hit me for four with his comes-into-play triggers, and then I took my next turn.
Yes, I had completely disregarded my Reveillark trigger (to get the two Mulldrifters that he had no answer or blockers for). Had I not neglected it, I would have had the means to deal the last six damage to him, exactly. I set a plan into motion, and totally failed to see it through. I made the correct play in every sense, and still managed to lose a game I had guaranteed to myself. It was, in Internet terms, an epic fail. When I realized my mistake, I was actually speechless. My opponent actually had no idea what was wrong with me, because he apparently didn't see where I went wrong. When I pointed out what had happened, he merely said "oh, cool." At that point I was pretty sure he was just being an ass, since the last thing you should say to your opponent when he makes a mistake that causes him to lose the game is "oh cool." However, he assured me that he'd have said something had he remembered the trigger. The truth, though, is that anyone standing around us should have called a judge, since the new rules allow onlookers to stop a match when something was wrong. I'd have understood if there were only a few people watching, but in this case literally the entire store was watching us play (no joke, either). I missed a mandatory trigger, and no one said anything. The better players said that they didn't know it was a mandatory trigger, and the others said that they didn't know the new floor rules were in effect. Regardless of the semantics, I had already conceded. I had lost a game that was clearly mine to win.
And then, all at once, it hit me: I wasn't focusing. Well, actually, maybe that's wrong. I was focusing, but it was on something else. I had been focusing on my plan, but only when I decided to start it. I knew that in order to give myself a chance, I had to play a Reveillark. I did so, because my years of playing and testing had trained me to make plays like that, but then I dropped the ball. I lost my focus. I played his turn as usual, and did not follow through with the plan that I myself crafted to win me the game. It was possibly the biggest blunder I've ever made in a game of Magic, and I'm quite sure I'll never forget it.
Now, to be fair, this was a match at FNM. This was not the finals of a PTQ, or in the ninth round at a Grand Prix. Nothing important was hanging in the balance. I was, realistically, no worse off losing than I was had I won that game. But for me, that misplay changed everything. And although it's been nearly a week since that night, I still think about it all the time. Why didn't I see it? Why did I not play the trigger? How could I possibly have failed to execute a strategy that allowed me to win the game? If the goal is always to win, how could I have lost my focus?
So now, friends, I will tie this to what Mr. Hill said. Zac said that most players don't focus on what matters. His opinion is that what truly matters is focusing on what you're doing at any given point in the game. After my match that night and after everything I've seen and experienced with Magic for the past ten years, I must say that I completely agree with him. What matters isn't match-ups, percentages, sideboards, or metagames. What matters is only what is happening at that exact moment in the game. I know that now, and I doubt it'll ever leave me. In that game, I had failed to focus on what mattered. My goal is to win games. My goal, above all, is to do whatever it takes to win. In order to win, you must focus, and that focus must be on the current game state in order to ensure that you do eventually win. Everything else in the game still factors in, of course, but ultimately if you can't figure out the right play at each stage in the game you won't be able to come out on top. Period.
I thank my lucky stars that the game in question didn't happen in a PTQ. I'm also thankful that it happened sooner rather than later, and that I actually learned the lesson rather than just dismissing it. I made a huge mistake, and it was a wake-up call for me. I'm not as good as I thought I was. I lack focus. I believe in luck, despite writing about how I don't. I can be a real jerk to people who just want to help, and I can really put people off who only want to learn from me. I tend to name drop a lot and use it as a crutch (one that I don't need). I sometimes miss obvious plays. Heck, I even walk into painfully clear traps with combat math. I need improvement, and lots of it. I sincerely believe that I write about Magic better than I play it. I feel like I give good advice and understand deck-building and metagaming incredibly well, but I sometimes fall short when it comes to actual technical play. It seems like I've actually gotten worse in the last few months, and I think it has a lot to do with the facade that I've created for myself. I'm more than infallible, and I feel like I needed this humbling. When I wrote about my last PTQ in Canada, a lot of people told me that I needed to just learn my lesson and accept that it wasn't "bad luck" and such. They were right.
I think part of the reason that I got the way I did was because I know that I have little time left for Magic. I'm currently a student at Grand Valley State here in Michigan majoring in biomedical studies. I plan to go to medical school after I get my undergrad, and once I do I'm quite sure that that will be where Magic and I part ways. What started off as a way for a father and son to bond will eventually end as a game that I have come to know and love. It has played a crucial role in my life since I was ten years old, and it has been my dream all along to be on the Pro Tour. I took up writing primarily because I wanted to leave something behind when it was all said and done. I wanted, in the end, to have something to show for all the time and hard work I put in. The next three years of this column will, undoubtedly, be my legacy.
The timeframe that is left for me is probably what has pushed me to this point. I have an intense eagerness to get better, arguably more than anyone else I've ever known. In the past, it has been hard for me to truly improve because I wasn't able to honestly learn from my mistakes. But now, I think that I can. From now on, I will go to PTQs and simply play because I want to win, not because I deserve to. I will put in even more time playtesting, because I want to be better. I want to win, now more than ever. I want to focus, and I want it to be on what matters. I want to do justice to Team RIW, and wear the shirt with pride. I will never make the mistake that I made that night ever again. I will always focus on what I'm doing. Like Zac said, "focus on what you are doing right now." It's truly the best advice I've ever been given.
So now I ask you, the reader: are you as good as you think you are? Are you willing to step back and reevaluate yourself not only as a player, but also as a contributor to the community and as a person? It takes a certain type of person to reach the top of the game. It takes hard work, dedication, humility, a little luck, a lot of skill, a desire for learning, and a great level of focus. Do you have what it takes? Take the time to stop and think about it. Think back on your mistakes. Learn from them. Accept your wins for what they are, but don't ride them. Take your losses in stride, but don't bury them. Let experience make you better, not worse. Trust in your strengths, but learn from your weaknesses.
I know that this article was long-winded, but I hope it was worth your read. It's actually been a pretty rough week for me, but I've tried my best to focus (see, it comes up all the time!) it all to drive at my true point: no matter how good you think you are, you can be better. You can learn even more. It's all about focus: focus on what you're doing. I wanted to win, and my focus was to win. However, I failed to win even though I was focusing on it. I focused on the ends, not the means. I started this article off by saying that some Magic literature becomes known as fact. I think the concept that Zac introduced (and that I have expanded on) is another such truth: in order to win, you must focus on what you are doing at any given time. You must also be prepared to understand when you fail to do this, and be willing to find ways to improve yourself (and, in turn, have better and tighter technical play). That, friends, is a universal truth. And from now on, I will do what Zac did and write on the back of my hand "FOWDRN" ("focus on what you are doing right now") whenever I play in a tournament. And, hopefully, the day will come when I won't have to. Hopefully my expertise will eventually manifest itself in such a way that I will be able to always see clearly when I play and not lose sight of what it is that I am trying to do: win. And, maybe, one day, I will make it to the Pro Tour. But until then, I will be here, each and every week. I will write not only on what I think about the current format, but also about the game. About Magic, the game that has taught me more about myself than anything or anyone else ever could. A game that I love, and a game that will always be part of my life in some way, shape, or form. I doubt I will ever be fondly named alongside Flores or Zvi, but I want my legacy to be worth something to someone. And so, moving forward, I want this column to be written by someone who has the humility to accept his losses and better himself because of his mistakes. And that, dear reader, I do solemnly swear to do.
Thanks for reading, everyone, and good luck out there.
This article brought to you by:
Artist: The Fray
Album: How To Save A Life
Featured Song: "Over My Head"
Until next time,
Chris "Shinjutsei" Jobin