At the Gathering: Best of Lucky (Part 1)

This may surprise some of you, but I like to win. Yeah, I know, I was shocked too. Now here's the kicker. When I started playing again, I decided I wasn't going to be competitive. I was going to play for fun, hang out, teach people to play (one of my assignments from Wizards, at the time). But as I played, I found out exactly what I said earlier: I like to win. I was having a lot of fun, but I was coming home from tournaments and games frustrated because I was losing games I felt I should have won. At that time, I started following tournaments online and looking for ways to improve my game. I read some articles (just like this one!) and some tournament coverage and even a players report or two. In doing so, I read a few hints and discovered a few on my own.

The first thing I found, rule 0, is to stop blaming luck or other factors that you think are out of your control. The number of games truly lost to luck are startlingly slim. One of my favorite quotes, and one that's very applicable here, is the following:

"Luck is probability taken personally"
~ Penn Jillette

The fact of the matter is, you probably lost for a very valid and real reason. So, let's get rule 0 out there right away.

Rule 0. You do not lose very many matches to luck.

This is probably the first step to improving your game. You start looking beyond the easy answer of bad luck on your part or good luck on your opponent's part. You need to be able to take an objective, reasoned look at your losses and why you lost. Does this mean you will never lose to luck? No, luck is an inherent factor to the game of Magic. But it's not nearly as big a factor as many players believe. Furthermore, sometimes you put yourself in a position where it may look like bad luck, but it isn't. As we examine the five lessons I'm presenting, I'll put forth some examples of how one view might think luck was the reason, while another perspective can see how skill and some specific choices that were made were the real deciding factors.

Now that we have Rule 0 out of the way, allow me to share some of my acquired knowledge with you in this elegant, bulleted list.

    Red Sucks, Blue rules
Wait, that's not right. That's the wrong list. Stupid Rooster Teeth guys, messing with my lists. Ah, here we go, much better. My apologies, it's a numbered list, not a bulleted list. Will I get a chance to edit this? Ow, stop hitting me.

Without further ado, my five lessons to winning that may appear as luck, but are actually forms of skill.

1. Play with the best cards possible.

I know what you're thinking. "Gee Jeff, way to really put yourself out there. This is revolutionary! [/sarcasm]" Yeah, this seems like a no-brainer, but really, it's an important step in your progress. What you have to do is make a commitment to Magic in this step. Running a singleton Bitterblossom isn't going to cut it, competitively. Neither is a single Chameleon Colossus. In fact, you can pick any good card, and you need to do your best to have four of them if it's a card you need. Demigod of Revenge? Playset. Cryptic Command? Playset. Tarmogoyf? Playset. Can you win without the best cards? Yes, of course you can. Is it that much harder? Yes, it is. It makes you have to play better; but sometimes, it is an insurmountable advantage. Let's apply this anywhere else. The Olympics just finished up, so let's use them as a reference. I'm assuming you're all familiar with Michael Phelps. If you're not, the rest of us will wait while you go look him up on Google.

Go ahead.

Okay, you are all read up now? Good. Wow, he did some phenomenal things. Now, let's imagine he spotted all of his opponents two seconds. Would he still have won? Yeah, he would have won a few races, at least. But would he have won all eight? Nope, some of those were wicked close. Can you play Magic so well that you can afford to give up an advantage to another player before you even sit down? Probably not. Now if you enjoy playing without the best cards, good for you. This is a game, after all, and the purpose is to have fun. But you have to weigh that enjoyment versus the enjoyment of winning. Or you could be suffering from a block of sorts. We'll be covering those in the second part of this article.

Let's get to that example I mentioned. Which of these two decklists do you think is better?

Uncommon RockMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
10 Forest
10 Swamp
4 Terramorphic Expanse

4 Civic Wayfinder
3 Kitchen Finks
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Wren's Rung Vanquisher
4 Imperious Perfect
2 Shriekmaw

Other Spells
3 Eyeblight's Ending
3 Nameless Inversion
3 Distress
4 Harmonize
2 Terror

B/G Elves: Shuuhei Nakamura, GP: Copenhagen '08Magic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Forest
4 Gilt-Leaf Palace
3 Llanowar Wastes
3 Mutavault
2 Pendelhaven
3 Swamp
4 Treetop Village
1 Twilight Mire

3 Chameleon Colossus
3 Civic Wayfinder
3 Kitchen Finks
4 Llanowar Elves
3 Murderous Redcap
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wren's Run Vanquisher

Other Spells
3 Eyeblight's Ending
1 Nameless Inversion
4 Profane Command
4 Thoughtseize

I think it's plain to see that the second deck is better. And it should be, as it uses better cards. However, I'm not saying you must play with rares. There are plenty of uncommons that can fill in better. But face it, some of the best cards are rares. Does that mean that a player using the first set of cards couldn't win? No, they definitely could win, but they would need to make up for the disadvantage somehow. Let's imagine I am playing Nakamura's list, and Patrick Chapin is playing the uncommon list. Who would win? Well, while I might in some of them (perhaps even as many as half), Patrick would win his fair share through pure skill. Now, imagine the roles were reversed. I might win two out of ten games, if I'm lucky. Thus we can see the power of having better cards.

2. Play with your meta-game in mind.

The next lesson is to learn to be observant of the players around you. You can learn a lot from the various articles online and the message boards as well. However, none of it means anything if you can't properly apply it to your local meta-game. A lesser player may chalk it up to luck, but if you've got the answers to what he's playing, that's not luck, that's skill. It's not luck when you have Cloudthresher for the faeries matchup. That's knowing what is good and what a good answer is.

One other thing to look for is consistency. Most players play the same deck almost every week. In constructed formats, most players don't have the resources to put together multiple viable decks or the time to properly test them and know them well enough to play strongly. Furthermore, your local meta-game may be drastically different than others. My local scene had exactly one Faeries player, and that was me. So, when I gave up playing Faeries and moved on to something else, I never had to worry about someone else playing Faeries. That slice of the meta-game pie was vacant. So when I was making my sideboard options out, I didn't have to worry about planning for that contingency. Now I have a player who's putting Faeries together. How do I know this? He's trading for the pieces every week. His current Standard deck of choice, Red Green Snow Ramp, is rotating out in a month, and he's putting the pieces together for his new Standard deck for the next year or more. That's another way to read your meta-game. What is each player trading for? Is that teenager at the other table trading for Lord of Atlantis and Sygg? Expect a fish deck. The guy behind you is trading for Chameleon Colossus and Talara's Battalion? There's an elf player for you. Scion of Oona and Mistbind Clique going fast? Be on the lookout for Faeries. So now I know that for the next year or so, I'm going to have to meta-game against Faeries in Standard. I, on the other hand, like to generally keep a large array of Standard decks ready to play. Standard is my favorite format, and on a local level, the most often played (specifically, for Friday Night Magic). So I know what he's going to play and have planned for it, while he has to guess what I'm playing. I have the advantage in game 1, and then I have an even bigger advantage in game 2, because I have the sideboard to handle it. Knowledge is power, my friends. And every percent you can gain may be the difference between going X-1 and making top-8, or going X-2 and missing on tiebreakers.

3. Innovate: Be the rogue, Daniel San.

Let's extrapolate on that last point I made, expectations. I'm going to make reference to the Hollywood PTQ's from earlier this year. If you'd like, you can go read my PTQ report here, but I'll be quoting and referring to it.

As far as my metagame expectations, I figured I would see a large contingent of Goblins, Domain Aggro, and Dredge. I figured some Urza Tron would also show up.
[Round one of that tournament, vs. Reveillark Combo]
I didn’t get to test against this match up, so I’m a little shell-shocked. I just didn’t think it would show up much.

As you can see here, I had some expectations on what would show up. However, I didn't expect a Reveillark matchup and didn't know exactly how or what to play against it. Given a hundred games in this matchup, I feel confident I could have done far better. However, I was playing off my back foot for both of these games, unsure of both his decklist and his key pieces. How much of an advantage is that for my opponent? I'll answer that for you: it's huge.

Look at recent innovations. Gerry Thompson's winning decklist for GP: Denver was something new and fresh. Rogue, if you want to use one term, or Innovative, considering the source. How much of that went into his success? I can assure it played a key part. If those matches were to be played again, today, I would bet that GerryT would have a much harder time fighting his way through the field. He might still be able to pull it off, but it would be more difficult for sure. Some of the players he played against were probably also playing off their back feet as well. Does this mean I'm insulting GerryT's play skills? Not at all. In fact, I'm doing the exact opposite and complimenting his ability to read the meta-game and stay ahead of it. Hopefully, you can see the advantages of playing a rogue strategy. Keep in mind, though, that while this will give you an advantage, you have to make sure that your deck can go the distance. It's not worth it to play a bad deck or a deck you don't know very well just for the sake of being rogue. Familiarity with your deck and the actual power of the deck, are also important factors. So being rogue can help, but it's only one piece of the equation.

4. Be consistent.

Slow and steady wins the race, right? Yes, except versus "average and steady" and "fast and steady." But the one factor that all of them have in common is steady. So, let's look at a few ways to improve your consistency.

A. Use your lands wisely: On a local level, I'm considered a weird trader, because I like to trade for rare lands and I never trade them away. Despite my consistent finishes in the top 4 of almost all of our local tournaments, the other local players still think it's my Chameleon Colossus that wins games for me, not my full suite of various multi-color lands. But there's no way I can go turn one Thoughtseize, turn two Bitterblossom, turn three Kitchen Finks, turn four Colossus unless I have some crazy good lands backing me up. Look at the 5 color control variants out there. Chapin's latest creation runs the best cards of every color because he has the crazy manabase to do it. Color is one of the built-in limitations to power, and if you can overcome that limitation through your lands, then you can increase your power without sacrificing consistency. Or, more importantly, you can increase consistency without sacrificing power. This option becomes even more powerful once Magus of the Moon rotates out of standard.

B. Playtest a lot: This is the best way to determine exactly what you need in your deck. You need to have consistent answers, but it doesn't help if you don't know what you're going to be answering. If half the field is going to be Mono-Black, Terror is probably a bad play for you. If you expect a lot of non-basics, I would bet Magus of the Moon and Fulminator Mage would sit nicely.

C. Don't let the fireworks blind you: I really wanted to play a Devoted Druid/Quillspike combo deck in Standard. I even started an article and told everyone how much I loved it. An infinite P/T creature as early as turn 3. And I was told, "It's not good enough." I played some solitaire with it, and it looked like it could go big. Then I played it competitively and went 2-2. When I won, yeah, it was awesome. But it was too fragile, too inconsistent. Could I upset some top players with it if I had the "Crazy Go Nuts" Draw? Sure, but just as likely, I would get stomped when it went sour on me. I let the big pizzazz, the "fireworks" if you will, blind me to the weakness of the deck. You want a deck that will not only win but will do so on a regular basis. And in my book (The Book of Awesome Sauce), 50% win rates against subpar competition do not count as regular.

5. Play to win.

I know, this seems like one of those obvious points. To quote an angry football coach (American football, for those across either one of the ponds), "It's why we play the game." Except it's not, sometimes. We may think it is, but in reality, we're playing for a different reason. We may think we're playing to win, but maybe we're playing to complete that combo, or get rid of that Tarmogoyf, or any other number of reasons. And the problem is, that's not always the quickest or best way to win. You get so focused on doing one thing, which was your original plan to win, that you fail to notice that either A) that option is no longer available, or B) there is a better option. Let me give you an example.

At my local store, we're having a No-Rares tournament, with the first prize being a copy of "From the Vault: Dragons." I've been testing like crazy for this, mostly leaning Mono-Red, but I'm trying just about anything. Elves has already been thrown out, and I've gone back to an old favorite, Combo. I decided to put two "Arbitrarily Large" combos together. One was an old favorite of mine, Quillspike/Druid. The other combo I put in there was the 418.05 combo. Take one part Juniper Order Ranger, one part persist creatures (in this case, Murderous Redcap and Kitchen Finks) and one sack outlet (Nantuko Husk) and voila! Repeatable combo for arbitrarily large damage or life. Plus, the persist critters work well with Quillspike, making some cross-combo synergy. So I'm testing the matchup against Mono-Red, and I'm not doing so well. Expected, but after about the first round of games, I realize I've just assumed I need the combo to win, and I was just waiting for it to come around. I lost a few games I shouldn't have because I wasn't looking at the whole game. I wasn't playing to win, I was playing to Combo, even though I thought I was playing to win. I hadn't even been looking at that synergy. I have a repeatable Shock effect if I have Quillspike instead of the Ranger, except it costs G or B instead of R. After that, my win percentage went up, and I found I had previously lost some games I could have won. Now my win percentage didn't eclipse 50%, but it's still early in testing. I'll be looking closely for some tweaks, as well as a few other deck options, to see what might take me to victory.

A second way to ensure you are playing to win, besides being mindful of the game state, is doing what it takes to win. Let's say it's your opponent's endstep. You know they are going to win on their next turn if they get it. You can win on your upcoming turn, but you have to expend all your resources right now and then topdeck the right card to win. What do you do?

You expend those resources right now, and pray for the Topdeck! You have to give yourself the chance to win. this seems simple as well, but a lot of players overlook this lesson. It's things like this that make Kenji slap himself so he doesn't miss giving himself the chance to win. Oddly enough, when you hit that Topdeck, your opponent will say, "You got lucky." But we both know the truth, don't we? You did everything you could to give yourself a win. And while some luck played into it, overall, there was a lot more skill involved.

Conversation kickstarter: If you were playing in a Standard No-Rares tournament, what would you play, and why?

Bonus video section!

Look around the 1:26 section, and you'll suddenly understand my list fetish.


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