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Coming to Terms With Luck

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic

My name is Big Tears. I earned this moniker from local friends because, frankly, I can get pretty upset after losing games of Magic. Winning in Magic is fun! Losing, however, is an exercise in frustration.

For a while, I wasn’t quite sure why I took losing so hard, but I know it has always been due to horrible luck (i.e., entitled crying) and not my own misgivings. Recently though, I stumbled upon a different way to view the game and its variance, and to hopefully shed some of the “Big Tears” burden. It hit me very suddenly, and yet it has probably been right under my nose for a long time.

Two months ago, I attended Grand Prix Pittsburgh with a group of friends, and fun times were had by all. Like any big tournament, there were tons of familiar faces and many games of Magic to get soul-crushingly unlucky in. (I am, of course being a bit facetious, but sometimes, this game just gets to you.) I went 5-3 in the main event, getting knocked out by Matt Nass in a game where we both played eight to nine lands, while I died to his only flying threat. Whee!

To win any tournament you have to have a little bit of divine providence on your side. I did not have any that weekend, as I mulliganed multiple times, mana-flooded a bunch, and never really drew the right cards. Big Tears got angry and drowned his sorrows that night. The next day, while feeling “amazing,” I tackled the Super Sunday Series Standard event. It was there that I found a little bit of clarity about the game.

Leveling Up

I consider myself an above-average player. I have accumulated various Top 8s, 16s, and 32s while also cashing in some events since returning to the game during Mirrodin block. I manage to sustain my hobby by doing well in local events. The Magic scene in Columbus really has some impressive players, and I have been forced to step up my game. I have pushed myself to get better at understanding games, board states, and thinking in levels.

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of leveled thinking in card games I highly suggest reading this article.  To summarize, there is a theory developed by poker player David Sklansky that can be applied to many other games and situations. It suggests that all players operate on various levels. The levels are as follows:

Level 0 — What do I have?
Level 1 — What could my opponent have?
Level 2 — What does my opponent think I have?
Level 3 — What does my opponent think I think he has?
Level 4 — What does my opponent think that I think that he thinks I have?

I have striven recently to play at Levels 3 and 4; back in my casual days, this would not have been the case.  I am lucky enough to have found a group of high-caliber players to test and cube with, and that has allowed me to get better at comprehending all of these elements. I pride myself on now being able to play to the correct outs and to know my opponent’s line of play well in advance. I am obviously not the best in the world at this; otherwise, you might have already seen my chubby face smiling behind a GP trophy. However, it has allowed me to play Magic at a higher level, beat a few pros in matches, and make more money than I was before.

This should be the end, though … right?

Wrong.

You see, the more I tried to understand game states and to play correctly, the angrier I would get when my opponent got lucky. Not just angry, but literally enraged and upset. I have a tendency to whine about certain draws and games for a long time. It had to only be luck that got me, right? I knew what they had and what they were going to play, so how dare they draw well?

They don’t call me Big Tears for nothing.

Back to the GP. Now that you know my plight, let me explain my moment of clarity.  While playing a fairly standard version of UWR Flash, I was paired against an opponent playing Junk Rites. We were both X-1 in a tournament where two losses meant you were out of the running.

I got an easy Game 1 on the back of his mulligan to four. During Game 2, we were playing the attrition game, and I had two Sphinx’s Revelations in hand. I knew I just had to get to the point where I could chain those Revelations to turn the corner and take the match. He was low on cards and had two Avacyn’s Pilgrims in play. He played a Cavern of Souls naming “beast,” and I knew the Craterhoof Behemoth was coming.

One of his Pilgrims was needed to help cast the Behemoth. I had the Snapcaster Mage, getting an Azorius Charm for the beast to survive at four life. I also had a Restoration Angel and the two Revelations. I drew, played a land, and passed the turn. My intention was to flash in the angel, flickering the Snapcaster Mage to cast Izzet Charm on the Avacyn’s Pilgrim that could attack in response to the trigger. I could then block with the Angel and go to one.

This all went according to plan. I drew for the turn and hit a Pillar of Flame. I Pillar-ed the other Pilgrim and passed the turn with this board state:

Me — Seven lands (six untapped), one Snapcaster Mage in play, two Sphinx’s Revelations in hand.

Him — Seven lands, one Craterhoof Behemoth, no cards in hand, no action in his graveyard.

What was I dead to? Restoration Angel. Only one card could kill me off the top, and that is exactly what he drew. Cue Big Tears.

For Game 3, I mulliganed to four and was dispatched before playing my second spell. Such bad luck.

I had played to my outs, and I had put myself in a position to fulfill my plan of chaining Sphinx’s Revelations. Still, I went from stabilization to out of the tournament with one card off of the top of my opponent’s library. So much for leveled thinking … I might as well not even try, right? And of course I had to mulligan to four to ensure that I had no way to come back in the third game. This is the worst luck in the world.

Hushing Big Tears

This is where my thought process changed. First off, did you notice how Game 1 went? He mulliganed to four and I won. Bad luck? No. Variance is never going away. It doesn’t matter how much better we get at the game. Despite skill, the best player will not always win. We want to believe that they will, but the greatest GIF in the world shows us how luck can kill us all:

Logically, if the better player always won, then Magic would never grow. Sometimes, players need that moment of pure variance to be engrossed for a lifetime. I have written about hating the miracle mechanic, and while I am still not a fan, I have come to realize those moments can connect players forever. The real key for the losing player is to take it in stride.

I know this sounds like a “No … really?” moment, but also know I am not alone in feeling frustrated and enraged after being on the losing side of the table. It truly seems like the other key to getting better may be recognizing this fact: No matter how good you are, how much you think you know, or what level you are operating on, you will lose to luck and variance — and it is OK.

Let’s reexamine my opponent’s “miracle draw” of Restoration Angel. Big Tears would say his opponent drew the one card that could win him the game. He would then go on to complain about his rotten luck to anyone and everyone who would listen. In all reality, however, it wasn’t really that improbable. My opponent played four copies of Restoration Angel, and he was at least 20 cards deep into his deck. Four copies left among 40 cards gives him a 10 percent chance to draw that card off of the top. Big Tears would say he had a 90 percent chance to win the game. But are 1-in-10 odds that bad? Many Magic players would say yes, but they would also play the lottery a lot more if chances were that high.

I had a good plan in the game, but I certainly wasn’t going to win in the next two or three turns. This means that his odds only got better, so there was inevitability here that Big Tears would have ignored (and I did for at least a little while).  In all reality, my opponent was in the winning position with no cards in hand, and all of my leveled thinking didn’t matter. It bothers me to think about how many board states I have complained and cried about while failing to learn from them. So much for being a better player.

Checking Your Emotions

Learn to check your emotions. This is the advice I offer, while still being very new to the idea myself. This will be tough for any Magic player; half of the fun of being a geek and having a hobby like this is the fanatical devotion we share. You enjoy playing the game because of the emotional connection and satisfaction it brings, so winning a heated match or tournament is a feeling unlike anything else. But so is losing, and this is especially true when you lose in such a brutal way.

The Magic community is great, and one of the reasons why is that we can share in each other’s victories. The Twitterverse went crazy after Tom Martell won Pro Tour Gatecrash, but 95 percent of those congratulating him didn’t even know him. I personally congratulated him at the Pittsburgh GP. I really had no reason to, but again, the community is awesome. If we can collectively cheer on someone we have no real ties to, how is it that most of us can’t even congratulate our opponent — and mean it — after a Friday Night Magic match?

It is never easy to think calmly and rationally after losses, but it is absolutely critical. Playing Magic — especially competitive Magic — is much more fun when everyone is discussing an awesome play, instead of getting down on their own play or deriding another player’s skill by calling it luck.

It bothers me that I have played so blindly while thinking I was getting so much better. Missing the key component of recognizing and accepting variance is rough. I know a lot of players like myself, who literally spend more time complaining about individual losses than actually playing Magic. I will not always be able to silence Big Tears, and that sometimes there will be that mind-blowingly frustrating topdeck that kills my tournament run.

But the thought process has to change, and it has to change now.

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