Wednesday, December 16, 2009

All Losses Happen for a Reason (TCGPlayer 5K Philly)

The night before a large tournament is a tough one. Especially if that tournament is opening its doors at 9 AM in a town two hours away by sketchy, Chinatown bus. And especially if you're used to going to bed late. In any case, I got maybe an hour or two of sleep that night. I woke up abnormally early, gave up trying to go back to sleep around 4 AM, and couldn't sleep on the bus to Philly. This is a poor way to start out any tournament.

I didn't feel that tired, though. So that is a plus. I just felt very shitty at the end of the day. Nonetheless, I did poorly and dropped out early. As a consolation prize, I won a draft I entered. And met lots of people. And had a good time overall... so, okay, it was still a day well spent in Philadelphia. I'm willing to lose sleep over less. :)

I kept tabs on a number of people's performances. As people started dropping out, I tracked the pattern. There were a finite number of reasons people were losing. And these were:

1) Mana screw 
The easiest to identify and attribute losses to. Often the result of single or double-mulliganing. Sometimes the result of not mulliganing. Most common among anyone playing three colors or more. Spreading Seas, Ruinblaster, Ajani Vengeant, and various land denial decks only exacerbated the problem.
2) Play mistake
Sometimes hard to identify, but when it IS identified, it's easy to see that the results were disasterous and game-changing. If games are close, and in Jund mirrors they often are, these will make the biggest difference. Many of the mistakes I noted revolved around: Sprouting Thrinax, Garruk, and tapping out for any reason (in other words, a false sense of security). 
3) Inferior card quality/quantity
This is the awkward one. But if you have every chance of beating a certain matchup, and the above things didn't happen, this one probably did, somewhere down the line. It's most obvious when aggro plays against creatureless control or Turbofog. In control mirrors, it often happens game one, also. 
4) Very poor matchup
Some decks just suck against other decks. Jund sucks against Spreading Seas. Eldrazi Elves sucks against Turbofog. Dredge sucks against mono-red (I think, anyway - am I wrong?). This kind of goes with number 3, since a lot of the reason certain matchups are bad is because one deck blanks the other's cards and somehow makes them irrelevant. But sometimes it is more than just that. 

There are a few other reasons that matter: mulligans, sideboard, and deck choice. Mulligans are basically included in numbers 1 and 3. Sideboard could also be included in number 3. Deck choice I will not discuss since that's set in stone before the tournament begins.

Oh, you want results, now? Okay, I will leave them here for you. Jund won, by the way. Moving on...

In the middle of competition, only winning and losing matter. But when the tournament is over, you have to look deeper into your game. There is no point in telling you how I won a game or what happened when I lost a game. After shedding useless information, there is only the reason why. And what to do to avoid losing in the future.

This match report will revolve around the mistakes I and other players have made. Some of those mistakes were excusable, as in, it didn't lose the game for that player, but a few of them were not.

Match One vs John Walton, Jund
John was new at playing Jund. He got the deck from a friend. I am curious as to how many people at the tournament had never picked up this deck before. Anyway, he made a lot of mistakes but still took the match from me. I guess I made worse mistakes.

Probably the most common mistake a new Jund player makes is playing the wrong lands initially. You have to jump through weird hoops sometimes to get BG by turn two in order to play your Leech. Sometimes there is no hoop. John attempted to play his Leech off a Mountain and Dragonskull Summit. Awkward.

This mistake was not too bad, however. My mistakes were. I played too defensively and stopped dealing damage to my opponent. You cannot effectively control a Jund opponent with Jund cards. I learned this the hard way. The Jund player that never stops dealing damage to his opponent wins. That's Lesson #1 for the Jund Mirror.

In game 3, John made another mistake, although it was so insignificant given the situation that he probably wouldn't have made it if the game were any closer. He was at 19 life, and I was at 1. Given my hand and the board position, I could only hope for some kind of miracle. He had 4 creatures and Garruk. I had a Stag. I thought for quite a while. And then I swung with my Stag into his Garruk.

This is what Magic face-to-face is all about. You can do things, that when stated on paper or viewed on a screen, look totally stupid. Against good players, this rarely works, but when you have no way out but a bluff or a a "Jedi Mind Trick," that's your out.

John went into the tank. Which means "he pondered the situation." There was only one thing I was really hoping he would do -- that is, double or triple block the Stag with his Saproling tokens. But he just chumped with one. I played the only thing I had, Broodmate Dragon. Two blockers to his three attackers. I should've died the following turn. But he didn't swing because he was too worried about the situation I had previously presented him with, which made it seem like I had something awesome or game-breaking but didn't. Even though I was tapped out and everything, he didn't swing, and I bought myself a turn, kind of. Not that it mattered in the end. In a closer game, though, who knows.

1-2 / 0-1

Match Two vs MWC, Dave Gress
My opponent had a Sigil of the Empty Throne on the board. I had a Bloodbraid Elf. There were no other permanents. I probably had removal in hand. My opponent played an Oblivion Ring, and guess what? I let it target my Elf. There was a split second where I paused, and my brain almost reached the conclusion that there was a PLAY there. Then the second passed.

The human brain is a fascinating thing that I will never fully comprehend. Whether what I did was correct or not, I really wish I had taken at least one FULL minute to think out all plays and their consequences.

To fully spell it out, if I had removed my Elf before the O-Ring entered the field, it would have had to target either the Sigil or the Angel it popped out. But going back, I remember that I was holding a Bit Blast. So I should've realized first of all, that an Angel was on the field before O-Ring was done resolving. I could have Bit Blasted the Angel, and I could've cascaded into a number of other spells, which would have further complicated the situation but would have probably been good for me.

Somewhere in there, my opponent might have called a judge to top it all off. But you don't get presented with this kind of situation every day; I should have exploited it. I ended up just Bit Blasting the Angel afterwards. How dull.

I won anyway. Now I'll just never know.

2-0 / 1-1

Match Three vs Jund, John Skinner
Game one, he mulled to five and got stuck on mana. Game two, I won with three Great Sable Stags. And that's all she wrote.

2-0 / 2-1

Match Four vs Jund, Mark Evaldi
I could've turned this game around completely on its tail end. Game two, I made the dumb mistake of swinging with my Thrinax instead of my Ruinblaster. He had one card in hand, and for some reason I couldn't figure it out. He had been holding it for a while. It was a Bit Blast. I was at one life. He cascaded into a Leech. I died after he removed my only, tenuous blocker.

I was actually considering swinging out with both creatures. He was at 10. If the card in his hand were truly dead or a land or whatever, I would kill him in two swings with both my guys, given he didn't draw relevant spells. But no, I couldn't really take that risk. So I would swing with one creature. But Thrinax was definitely the completely wrong choice.

1-2 / 2-2 Drop

I can only assume getting one hour of sleep the night before hurt me. It's the same before taking a final exam. Even if I feel totally awake, my brain is not functioning at maximum capacity. But in order to avoid such mistakes in the future, mistakes have to be made. Just gotta live and learn; try not to make the same mistake twice; it's all about ingraining experience into memory.

You can also imagine yourself in similar situations, complex situations where mistakes are easily made, visualize the cards and your opponent, feel the cards in your hands, and just picture yourself in these scenarios. Go over them in your mind a few times. Develop an emotional tie to the situation. Your brain reacts more strongly to an emotional event than a rational or logical explanation. In order to stop making mistakes, do not believe that being more "aware" or "conscious" of your position is the key. The key is, in fact, simply developing a strong intuition about given situations and letting your intuition accurately steer you. That means having the correct split-second reaction in any given scenario. It's something you have to train yourself to do. Usually by playtesting a lot, but sometimes you can cut corners and use your imagination, your focus, and your will.

And then just rinse and repeat until it's stuck in your head like a catchy song. Use the Force!

Let me go over a few other memorable mistakes.

Tapping out for Mind Spring and getting hit for exactly lethal 14 damage against a mono-red player. (Zektar Shrine (7), fresh Hell's Thunder (4), and a Bolt (3))

Tapping out for Ajani Vengeant against a mana-screwed Jund player, tapping one of his three lands. Jund player rips a land, plays it, then Blightnings. Control player loses the last two cards, one of which was a counter spell. Jund player continues ripping lands with a grip full of cards.

Tapping out for Baneslayer against anyone. (I can't think of anything specific. I'm sure you have your own examples to put here.) It may not always be a mistake, though, sometimes it's the right thing to do.

Blocking and killing a Thrinax when you're an Eldrazi Green player. This tends to go against your goal to have more creatures on the board and makes it hard to swing back. Situation dependent, again, but often you are ok with taking 3 over giving them a bunch of tokens.

The following is not a mistake. Just something that amused me.

Anthony Loman piloted this MWC deck to a 3rd or 4th place finish. I watched him as he beat a Bant player by attacking with his 2/2 Devout Lightcasters which were in the mainboard. Go, go Grey Ogre.

The draft I did after the main event was also quite interesting. I was in the finals against a 4-color control deck who always seemed to have good mana; he had a lot of dual lands. He almost beat me with Pillarfield Oxes and Sky Ruin Drakes and Narrow Escapes. As it turns out, with enough removal, you can make a control deck that works. All three games were pretty close. But my deck got there by a hair.

Game one I played into his Marsh Casualties, though, by playing a Vampire Lacerator that I needn't have.

Game two my own Eldrazi Monument kind of killed me when I couldn't draw into more creatures. That card is kind of awkward. It did win me Game three, though, basically. The last point of damage would have been impossible to get in, however, if not for my topdecked Hellfire Mongrel.