What Matters

Written by Zach Cramer on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Magic Culture

What Matters

Zach Cramer

Zach is a Northeastern Magic grinder who specializes in eternal formats. When building decks, he has a strong preference to Blue cards, toolboxes and combo decks. With a recent RPTQ finish just short of an invitation, Zach hopes to take his skills to the next level and play on the Pro Tour.

Today, I’m going to break down a topic that has been at the absolute center of my mental game for about three years now—how Magic players look at their game and the road to their goals. Truthfully, it’s been a huge barrier to my success and has almost singlehandedly been the cause of every moment of self-doubt in my competitive career. Anyone who wants to succeed in Magic should be thinking about setting goals that build them up, while not requiring them to tear people down. Let’s examine four major shortcomings in my game and how to work on fixing them.


Entitlement

Magic is, at its core, a social game. Players must communicate with each other constantly to properly understand the board state. Because of this innately social element, Magic players invest a lot of themselves in the game they play. This involves understanding how other players within their community view them and how they view themselves within that community. I personally struggled with—and still struggle with today—equating my own personal value to how successful I am in events. It’s easy to get an unhealthy dose of hubris when you’re on a “heater.” Winning a lot of games in a row or being considered a strong player in a certain area makes it more likely for a sense of entitlement to catch up to you. When you’re seen as you’re a store’s PPTQ end boss; a region’s RPTQ gatekeeper; or the game’s expert of a specific archetype, it’s easy to feel like you’ve earned the right to win more than someone else. That’s not confidence or respect, but entitlement, and it’s a slippery slope.

Entitlement leads to expecting a win before you sit down at the table.

Entitlement leads to disrespecting your opponents.

Entitlement leads to feeling compelled to make excuses and to tear down other players.

Entitlement seeks to explain your own blindness to the shortcomings in your game at the expense of others. As a competitive game, Magic’s grinder crowd will find that the major hallmark is failure—you aren’t going to win most of the tournaments you play. Most of the time, you’re going to lose and it’s important that you maintain focus on what matters. Last year, I started playing Magic full-time because I thought I was great. I was winning all the time on a local level and I thought it was time for me to cash in on that success. I held a lot of personal pride in feeling capable enough to compete every weekend at a big tournament and expected success. I’ve never lost more matches. I’d sit down at the table an expect to win because I had done something before that match that made me feel like I deserved the result before I earned it. I looked down on people, I assumed a higher status and I suffered for it.

When we play with entitlement, we rarely think about the real factors that play into how you lost in the first place. When you look at your opponent’s shortcomings as excuses for losses that are within your control, you’re not going to improve. This is to say that when you simplify a game to “an unwinnable matchup”, “my opponent drew the nuts” or they “just got lucky” you’re often placing blame where it doesn’t belong in order to shield yourself. In fact, you’re going to regress. That entitlement requires us to protect our ego, rather than scrutinize our game to get to where we need to be. Next time, instead of scrutinizing your opponent’s plays, think about why you’re doing that and what value is there in that decision. Players tend to feel entitled when they focus on the results, rather than the process. We beat entitlement by focusing on how to properly prepare and play, rather than by equating results to perfect preparation. Thinking instead: “How could I have taken turns off my opponent’s opportunity to draw the perfect card?” Or, “What plays might my opponent have made that telegraphed they might have been setting up for this game-winning plan?” There’s a lot to learn about this game and we all have a lot of learning yet to do. Finding solace in being a scholar or the game and making the most logical plays will often be more productive to the way you view yourself, because, as I’ve said before, most Magic tournaments are not going to end with you winning the whole thing. Being able to utilize logic, reason, and move away from emotional thinking (or lack thereof) will also lead to, what I find to be, more fun tournaments full of people who actually want to spend time near you.

Tournament Prep

So, what does the process look like? There are many great articles on this already—Top Tim Tournament Training Tips, The Importance of Preparation in Competitive Magic: The Gathering, and Tournament Preparation Tips—and I’m not about to present an entirely original approach. Rather, I’m going to focus on two problems that I’ve had with my game and how you avoid them.

First, don’t change netdecks before you play with them! Many people will take the right first step and pick up a deck that just won a tournament, but they then make the mistake of changing it before they even play a game. They will trim mainboard cards and add some different elements to the sideboard, then they will put the deck down because it’s suddenly losing to a deck that it was advertised to consistently beat. For example, I used to take the best deck, substitute pet cards, cheaper cards, or sideboard cards that had done well for me in the past into GP winning decks and the experiences were never good for me. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. When someone succeeds with a deck, it’s often because all the pieces of that deck are working harmoniously, and each specific element has a role that can only be fully discovered when you play the deck as originally intended. Only after that should you start adjusting and changing, because you will understand the nuanced purpose of the cards you want to cut. It is only after all these steps have been taken that I encourage folks to build a 75 that works for them. Looking at successful plans helps us figure out what works best for our tastes and trying something that might be cast off as “bad” might lead to learning something good. The best preparation is trying to learn where a format is going, by exploring why last week’s format panned out the way it did. Uncovering those clues, those exploitations, and understanding a deck’s holistic plan is the best tool to get you ahead on where everyone else was and build on that information.

Second, don’t give me match-up percentages or expect one deck to be favored! Instead, focus on key interactions, proper sequencing, and what each deck needs to win. So many times, players point to match-ups as “unwinnable” or “un-losable.” Hyperbole aside, the sad truth is that positive matchups are often only 60% winnable, while the silver lining is that negative match-ups are only 40% winnable. Everything else is in that middling 45-55% territory, which means that, the majority of the time, a match-up is going to be within reach for you. As a Faeries player, I often describe my deck as having a field of 45% matchups. Leveraging my knowledge, my tactics, and my pilot skill is the best cure for bad matchups. Knowing what you should exploit in unfavorable matchups and what you should cover in favorable matchups should be paramount when preparing for tournaments. Planning these things more deliberately will often be more impactful than adding narrow sideboard cards, to fight an “unwinnable” match-up, or cutting cards from “unlosable” matchups. Every time you sit down at the table, you’re going to need to play your best to win and feeling like there’s a percentage for error, is the quickest way to lose slightly favorable matchups. Moreover, defeatism when your opponent plays their first land doesn’t improve your matchup, so keep your head in the game.

Setting Goals: Take Every Chance You Can

Judging from personal experience, Magic players often have big goals, but don’t always know where those goals are headed. It’s important to quantify how we’re getting to where we want to be. Setting goals, parameters, and objectives help us make the most of our experiences and the opportunities in front of us. For example, I am primarily committed to qualifying for the Pro Tour, so I need to prioritize Grand Prix, MTGO Pro Tour Qualifiers, and Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers over local 2Ks or StarCityGames events. Similarly, I need to invest in Limited and Standard more than Legacy or Commander—Dakkon Blackblade isn’t going to qualify me for the Pro Tour, after all. What matters is understanding those goals and maximizing your chances, not winning Friday Night Magic or StarCityGames Opens.

People—myself included—tend to complain about not reaching their goals while holding up arbitrary markers of unrelated success as reasons they deserve to get where they want to go. If you’re not fully committing yourself to playing in a way that reaches your goals, though, why would you expect to get there in the first place? In 2016, I dedicated a year to play Magic full time, setting goals like qualifying for the Pro Tour and qualifying for day two of most StarCityGames Opens. In hindsight, those goals were incongruent, and I put myself at a disadvantage by trying attending a large tournament that didn’t help meet my goals. Sure, driving to a Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier doesn’t feel as good as crushing a local 2K, but it does give me another shot at getting one step closer to the Pro Tour. In a lot of ways, Magic is a numbers game. Anyone who’s ever won a Grand Prix explains the cascading luck that gets them to the winner’s table. You’re going to experience that luck too, and the best way to get lucky is to play more, to give you even more chances to get lucky. Once you’ve put in the preparation and the mental awareness to be in the right frame of mind for a tournament, you need to keep doing that every single time to be ready for the tournament where luck is on your side. ““You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” – Wayne Gretzky” – Michael Scott”

On Variance

Variance is assuredly the most problematic, most discussed, and most misunderstood element of Magic. The word variance has objective meaning—experiencing different outcomes due to the randomness built into the game. More often, though, variance is used as code for a lot of things and substitutes itself loudly over many more important parts of Magic. There’s two kinds of stories when it comes to variance. There’s the random luck element (for example trying to set up a Storm kill without tutors and surfing through cantrips to try and find a win) and then there’s faux variance which is complaining your opponent killed you with a topdecked Hazoret while you only drew Magma Sprays, leaving out the fact you wasted a Vraska’s Contempt on an Ahn-Crop Crasher only turns before. Let’s face it, Magic players love to complain about what they can’t control rather than focusing on what they can, and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s easier that way. Pointing to a situation or misfortune, rather than reflecting on your own faults, saves yourself embarrassment and blame in the immediate future, but you spurn your own development each time that happens.

Looking at Magic as a holistic process is integral to succeeding. When players complain about facing a rogue match-up, ask, should they have come with a broader sideboard? When players complain about a rogue deck—like Hollow One or Bogles—not performing to expectation, ask, have you adequately considered the fail rate inherent in your deck choice? When players complain about missing their third land or about a mulligan to five, ask, what blind spots exist in that evaluation? Each of these problems are more in your own control than you may want to believe. The fact of the matter is that variance is an element of this game, but you’re consciously making the decision to play a game with variance, so it doesn’t make sense to complain about it when it hurts you if you aren’t willing to acknowledge it when it helps you.

What Does This All Mean?

Magic is a challenging game with lots of intricacy and lots of decisions. The good part is, you have control over a lot of those decisions, but you are also responsible for the outcomes of those decisions. If you truly take charge of that responsibility and focus on getting better rather than focusing on these pitfalls, you’re one step closer to reaching your goals.

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