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Improving your Play Through Losing

Written by Tim Bachmann on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

Improving your Play Through Losing

Tim Bachmann

Hailing from northeast Pennsylvania, Tim has been playing since Mirrodin, and has been playing competitively since Dragons of Tarkir. With aspirations of playing on the Pro Tour, Tim plays in as many PPTQs and GPs as he can.

This past weekend, I broke form in my quest to achieve an invitation to an SCG Invitational. Being a father of a toddler now, I was unable to play in an IQ on Saturday because of Halloween, and our first time trick or treating as a family. Our son was Curious George, I was the Man in the Yellow Hat, my wife was Dr. Wiseman, and our infant daughter was Herbert Nenninger, the latter two being characters from the tv show, and Herbert Nenninger is the name of a rabbit on the show. We ended up having a blast, which was a greater experience than the Friday night IQ I played in at the famed TOGIT in Somerville, New Jersey.

I figured that playing at my local shop’s FNM and beating up on little kids while hanging out with my friends was fun, sure, but over the past few weeks, I realized that a lot of my friends have “retired”, and aren’t really playing on a level that I consider to be what I want to be playing at in order to be competitive enough to win the events that I want to win.

Now, for those of you who haven’t been following high level Magic since forever ago, either because you’re newer to Magic, or you weren’t even born yet (youngins!), TOGIT is a pretty famous store, or at least the name is.

Based in Northern New Jersey, it’s where players with such names as Osyp Lebedowicz, Craig Krempels, Jon Sonne, Gerard Fabiano, and Patrick Sullivan called home while they were grooming their all-­star Pro Tour resumes. Since I’ve been in the game, I’ve known about the store, but it’s about 90 minutes from my home now, and about the same distance from where I grew up, so it was a bit out of reach for me to get to for Friday Nights.

That is, until now.

I decided since it was a new store for me, I wanted to play a deck I considered to be more linear, and a bit easier to play than Dark Jeskai, also because I have a weird thing in my brain that happens that I’ll talk about later after an event (last week’s article). So I sleeved up the Abzan Aggro deck, and gave TOGIT a shot.

22 players, about the size of the average FNM at my local store, and that meant 5 rounds cut to top 8. I’ve done this a ton of times at my local shop, so fatigue shouldn’t really be an issue until we get to top 8, but gee whiz, just looking around, the level of play is astronomically higher than the shop I regularly play at in Newton, New Jersey. Just from facial recognition, I notice Gerard Fabiano, Mike Derczo, Ted Felicetti, and Ryan Phraner, players who do well on the SCG Open series, and are high level grinders in my local area. And of course, round 1, I get…

Ted Felicetti on GR Ramp.

I played against Ted at my second ever IQ about a year ago, and lost to him in three. I put him on Dark Jeskai, just because he is a grinder, and I assume plays the “best” deck, and the last time that I played him, he was on Jeskai in Fate Reforged Standard.

I keep on seven, but might as well have been five with two dead Silkwraps in my hand. I’m able to build toward a board that has a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Hangarback Walker with three counters, and an Anafenza the Foremost, and I’m able to get Ted down to eight with lethal on board, but he’s able to chain multiple Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hungers thanks to Sanctum of Ugin, and that puts the game far out of reach.

I punted really hard here, because I think he was at eight when he turned the corner, and I had a Hangarback Walker with 4 counters. The turn previous, I Dromoka’s Commanded a counter onto the walker just to push for more damage. I should have used it later to add a counter and fight an Ulamog to break my Walker, and continue to race.

In game 2, I see a ton of sideboard cards, and pick his hand apart with a Duress and Transgress the Mind. I am able to just curve out while having bigger and better Hangarback Walkers than he is thanks to all of the +1/+1 counter shenanigans I’m able to perform with Anafenza, the Foremost, Dromoka’s Command, and Abzan Charm, and end up taking game 2.

In game 3, I make a lot more mistakes, he floods the board with Hangarback Walkers, and I spend a few turns fighting over them with Abzan Charms while trying to get in for damage with a Hangarback Walker and Anafenza. However, he starts playing his cards that actually matter in Dragonlord Atarka and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and at that point I can’t win.

0-­1, not a great start to the night. But I do have a chat with Ted after the match, and I’ll talk about that after the report.

Round 2, Jason on Dark Jeskai.

The one thing that I pride myself at is playing against control decks. I really understand control matchups, just because of how much I’ve played them in the past. Not to sound immodest, but I do like to think I can outplay most control players unless poor draws are concerned.

In game 1, I just play around the cards Jason is signaling. I’m able to answer his Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy with a Silkwrap immediately, and from there, I just jam cards against his. A lot of end of turn drawing 2 cards off of Abzan Charm allows me to get ahead on cards, having a Hangarback Walker as big as my other threats plays around his Crackling Doom, and playing Wingmate Roc with raid when he taps low so he is unable to cast Ojutai’s Command seals the game.

In game 2, things play out similarly since he’s playing the deck more like a midrange deck other than a control deck, so he ends up jamming Tasigur, the Golden Fang onto the board while he should have kept mana up for his other spells, and I punish him for it.

1-­1, alright, we in this. Three more rounds, I can win my next three, no problem.

Round 3, Nate on Jund Aristocrats.

I’ve never played against this deck, and half of his cards weren’t in English, so I had a fun time with the judge. Really, Nate was a nice guy. Game 1, I stumble on mana, and he’s able to pretty much goldfish me. My Siege Rhinos came too late to be able to make any difference.

In game 2, I get ahead of him on board, and my junky threats are just better than his in general. I’m able to navigate around his Nantuko Husk, but his deck is just shut off when he can’t answer my Anafenza the Foremost.

In game 3, it’s much the same as game 1, but now I am just drawing lands. He’s able to contain me, and leaves me with dead Dromoka’s Commands. His Fleshbags are able to handle my one threat per turn, and he has a Murderous Cut for my Anafenza, the Foremost.

1­-2 drop, go home, sleep, mull over things that happened.

Now, the real point of this article was to go over a few of the revelations I had this past weekend, stemming from this event on Friday. The first thing I want to talk about:

1) Improving through self­criticism.

I think that this is a basic skill that any Magic player that is looking to improve needs to be able to do. Telling yourself that you lost because of flooding or poor draws is most likely not correct. More often than not, there was some single or there were multiple decisions that you made that caused you to lose the game.

I think that what I learned on Friday was that it is easier to spot these mistakes with a more linear deck than one with many lines of play each turn. For instance, above, in one of my games against Ted, I should have held the Dromoka’s Command instead of using it to push an extra point of damage. I realized this after realizing that that one point of damage didn’t change the amount of turns it would take me to kill him. Next time that scenario comes up, I know what to look for, and probably won’t make that mistake again.

There was another situation, in my round three match, where I had a Warden of the First Tree leveled up one time, so he was a 3/3. Now, on my opponent’s end step, he’s holding one card, and I’ve seen him holding one card for a while. He’s on Jund colors, so what standard card should I be expecting? Probably Murderous Cut. So at the end of my opponent’s turn, with a 3/3 Warden, and three Dromoka’s Commands in hand, and three untapped mana, I decide that I should Dromoka’s Command to fight one of his creatures.

What a blow out when he just kills my man. We knew about this card forever, there was no reason to cast Dromoka’s Command into his Murderous Cut THAT I KNEW ABOUT. If we’re going to Command there, we want to do it during our turn with all of our mana available so that we can trade one Dromoka’s Command with his Murderous Cut, and another Dromoka’s Command with one of his creatures. Ugh, #kickself.

These are the kinds of disgusting plays that one needs to look at and not make again if he or she is going to improve.

2) Just play the same deck.

Almost all of the mistakes I made Friday would not have been made if I was more familiar with the deck. Period. I think that I did well in the Jeskai matchup, simply because of my familiarity with the Jeskai deck. And to be honest, that’s the deck that I should have played. I gamed myself, and that happens a lot. You see, I top 8’d last weeks IQ, but I wasn’t happy with my performance, and instead of saying that I could have improved my play, I shelved the deck because I didn’t follow my previous advice of just playing better through self-­criticism, and thinking to myself that I’m not smart or good enough to play blue cards, even though I want to.

There’s only one way to improve, and that’s practice practice practice. And that doesn’t happen if you’re hopping onto different decks each week. One thing I noticed at TOGIT on Friday, was that the players that are doing well, like the Gerard Fabianos and Mike Derczos of the world, along with the players I recognized from the IQ last weekend were playing the same deck. I think this is something I need to do in the future, even for standard, where the metagame is usually more fluid than other formats. Just play the same deck forever.

3) Play more Magic.

This is where I think I had my biggest revelation. Obviously, part of practice, practice, practice, is to play more. Being the family man I am now, I can’t play with my friends as much as I’d like to during the week, and I also mentioned before that a lot of my friends are on a different level of competitiveness than I am. So the revelation I made was I have to invest on Magic Online. I think that playing against people outside of my play group on a regular schedule or even whenever I want during the week will expose me to more interactions. I’ll be spinning up a Twitch channel as well when I invest in a deck, so that you people can yell at me in real time!

I think even though I didn’t do well at this event, the $30 I paid for entry gave me more value than playing at my FNM. I’ll be going back to that store this next Friday, and I’ll be on either Dark Jeskai or Abzan. I know that I’m not going to be on a deck I have zero experience with, so really it depends on which deck I’m more comfortable with, and that’ll probably be Jeskai.

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