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Bitter or Better

Written by Billy Mitchell on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Magic Culture

Bitter or Better

Billy Mitchell

Billy Mitchell is an L1 judge and competitive player from the Philadelphia area. Outside of Magic, Billy is a high school math and science teacher. He can be found on Twitter @badluckbandit.

The road to improvement is not an attractive one. Success is not found victory by victory but rather defeat after defeat. In my quest to make it to my first Pro Tour (which hopefully will conclude in a few weeks), I have suffered numerous defeats at the hands of faceless opponents. By now, I understand that the defeats matter more to me than the names of my enemies. Likewise, my success is attributed less to my victories and more to the lessons I learned in my losses.

As we play Magic, many players focus on the “bad beats.” That top deck, that slow roll, that savage misplay that somehow worked out in our opponent’s favor. We all have one. I have two notable mistakes from the past week alone. Earlier in my Magic career, I would often dwell on these mistakes and define myself by them. After many years, I have found this to be nonsense.

We should not define ourselves by our past. We are constantly crafting our legacy. When we make mistakes, it only as power for as long as we allow it. Every misstep provides us with two choices: we can become bitter or we can become better. We don’t have to decide right away. In fact, I believe embracing bitterness is healthy in the short-term. However, if we seek to become the best Magic players we can, we need to use these painful moments to become better.

Like I said, I have two moments from the past week that stand out to me. For reference, I played in a 1K Modern event and Standard PPTQ this past weekend, went a combined 7-3-2, and top 8’d both events. By no metric do I consider my weekend unsuccessful; in fact, I learned a lot about my two decks that I may play for the upcoming SCG Baltimore Team Open. After this weekend, with more knowledge about my decks and the willingness to become better rather than bitter, I feel more confident than ever going into this critical three week stretch.

To give a little perspective about these moments, I will give you the bitter and the better. Like the gothic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, bitter and better exist in every failure we suffer. The challenge is striking a balance between the two extremes.

Situation 1

I’m playing against a friend with an Abzan Eldritch Evolution deck. On the draw with my Vizier Knightfall deck, I cast a turn 1 Noble Hierarch into a turn 2 Devoted Druid, leaving a fetchland uncracked and am looking forward to casting one of the three Collected Companys in my hand.. On turn 3, my friend casts an Eldritch Evolution, sacrificing his Noble Hierarch. I think “What can punish me here?” I allow it to resolve, he produces an Aven Mindcensor, and casts Path to Exile and I find myself unable to cast any spells for the remainder of the game.

My bitter reaction is stupidity. What other card could he possibly even search for? Aven Mindcensor is the only card that even makes sense in that situation. Something like Knight of the Reliquary, Voice of Resurgence, or Renegade Rallier are not very imposing on that board so he obviously would get Aven Mindcensor. I basically threw away a game because I didn’t consider the most obvious play available to my opponent.

My better reaction is that I’m lacking context whiling analyzing my decision. My thoughts went to why would he cast Eldritch Evolution in that spot. His deck has powerful cards such as Siege Rhino, Gaddock Teeg, and Orzhov Pontiff. None of them seem particularly great in that spot. Siege Rhino is not attainable after sacrificing a Noble Hierarch. Orzhov Pontiff kills a Noble Hierarch but he still leaves my Devoted Druid, the more dangerous creature, alive so that makes little sense. Gaddock Teeg would be defensible if he knew the contents of my hand. I would have almost lost on the spot since I had three Collected Companys in my hand. However, I have done nothing to assert that claim.

Past these options, we start getting into the silver bullets. If he were land light, I could imagine my opponent searching for Courser of Kruphix. This would be great in a situation where life total matters like Burn or Zoo, but versus my creature combo deck, he really needs some interaction if he wants to make this play, specifically one-mana interaction. In the Abzan color scheme, that likely means Path to Exile or Fatal Push. Aven Mindcensor is the next most likely silver bullet here and has excellent synergy (or anti-synergy) with Path to Exile. The Aven Mindcensor gets even better considering my uncracked fetchland on the battlefield.

Through thoughtful reflection, we find some logic out of a deck that could produce a variety of creatures. This exercise was a bit tedious but provided a lot of insight into the thought process of my opponent. My immediate self-destructive behavior was soon overcome by an analytical insight into the problem at hand.While I lost that game (and eventually match), I did learn something that will help in future situations.

Situation 2

I am playing the Temur Energy mirror in a Standard PPTQ. This may have been the quarterfinals but that’s not important. This may also have been game 3 but that’s also not important. My opponent kept an opening hand with no creatures and is slowing dying to a Rogue Refiner and a freshly cast Bristling Hydra. On the current board, my opponent will die in two turns.

With an Abrade and two Essence Scatter in hand, my goal is to never allow my opponent to have a creature resolve unless it won’t effect the game in any observable way. For instance, a Servant of the Conduit would be allowed to resolve and then be subsequently Abraded but an opposing Rogue Refiner or Whirler Virtuoso would be countered. I have 11 energy and two untapped mana when my opponent casts a Baral’s Expertise, targeting my two creatures and my opponent has one card in hand.

Like previously stated, my plan is to keep the battlefield clear so I can kill him over two turns. My first action is to activate my Bristling Hydra, which resolves without incident. Now comes the mistake. For the sake of this dive into insanity, I will provide you internal dialogue. Warning: the next paragraph is not intended for the faint of heart.

“Okay, so my Hydra is safe. Right now, he’s just bouncing my Rogue Refiner. I can just recast it next turn and be up a card. If I pump my Bristling Hydra one more time, both of my creatures are lethal next turn. That’s not bad.

“I wonder what that card is in his hand. If it’s a creature, he just gets to put it into play. Then this Essence Scatter is useless. I could Abrade whatever he plays but what if he puts in a Whirler Virtuoso or a Bristling Hydra? He has a lot of energy over there. Well, if I Abrade my Rogue Refiner, then the Baral’s Expertise is countered and he can’t just put in a free creature. Then I just have to fade one turn and I can continue my plan to keep the board clear with Essence Scatter. Perfect!”

I’m sure that was tough to read. For those not in the know, you still have to cast the card after Baral’s Expertise. If he has a creature, I still have the same window to Abrade or Essence Scatter it as appropriate. If he has almost any other card there, it would like not affect the outcome of the game. As it turns out, he had a Longtusk Cub which he was able to hardcast. The Cub traded with my Bristling Hydra and I eventually lost to a Carnage Tyrant and Vizier of Many Faces.

The bitter was sickening here. In such an important position, I threw away the game and match. I would later find out that my opponent would go on to win the PPTQ. Going into a stretch where my next couple weekends with dictate much of my competitive future, it is easy to find yourself not worthy of the next tier of competition. If I am making such horrid mistakes at a local PPTQ, what chance do I have an RPTQ or an SCG Open? Am I just wasting my time thinking I’m capable of winning anything if I’m making such boneheaded plays under pressure?

In times like these, the better is hard to find. I realized during my quiet 50 minute drive home that I never read Baral’s Expertise. I have played the card in multiple events and just assumed I knew what it did. I made a play because my established game plan had no effect against my imaginary text for a card that was written in English and was easily accessible to me. I could have asked a judge for Oracle text. I could have asked that judge how the card would work. I could have simply picked up the card and read it myself. Instead I made an assumption about how the card functioned and lost a game because of it.

This a constant theme when we consider if something if something will make us bitter or better. We make assumptions about the experience at hand. We tell ourselves a narrative that soothes our ego but provides very little substance. The next time you get mana screwed, reflect on whether your opening hand put you into a position to be successful. If you keep losing your “good matchup,” consider what others are doing different from you. Stop trying to make yourself feel better and start making yourself better.

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