Every so often I get the itch to do a mailbag article. For those who haven't read one of these mailbag pieces I've done before, I asked on social media what questions people wanted answered, and what topics people were curious about that aren't generally covered in traditional MTG articles. The topics can and will cover anything possible in Magic, from community issues, to decks, to formats, to theory and gameplay. They might even cover areas outside of Magic or about me or my personal life. I'm writing this introduction before I even choose which questions I'm going to answer, so in reality, I don't even know what's going to be in this piece. We'll discover it, together, hand-in-hand, as it was prophesied centuries ago.
I enjoy writing articles like this, because it challenges me to answer questions I don't normally answer, but I also find them valuable to read when others do them because I get to see opinions and insight on topics that I wouldn't find in a traditional article and learn more about the person writing it. It's often a win-win.
You'd think I'd lob myself an easy softball to start, as I do control this process, but I am a bit of a masochist, I guess. We'll start with a tough one.
"If you had fallen a few points short of the MPL instead of making it in, assuming your 2019 tournaments results were the same (PT Top 8, etc.) what would your plan be for the second half of 2019?"
First of all, this is an excellent question and also incredibly difficult to answer, but I shall try my best. I also want to be clear that I have no insider information about any of this stuff by virtue of being in the Magic Pro League (MPL), so I wouldn't take anything I say at more than face value. I don't know what Wizards of the Coast's plans are for the future of the MPL or competitive Magic.
I got a Mythic Championship or MC (Formerly called a Pro Tour or PT) Top 8 last month, which is definitely the second best result I've ever had playing professional Magic. It was the first time I've ever Top 8'd a Pro Tour/Mythic Championship, which has been a dream of mine for a decade. The way competitive Magic works, you're rewarded more for spiking events (winning or making the Top 8) than you are for consistent results. One Top 8 is generally worth more than two Top 16s in the long run.
I write that out to make a point of saying that in a normal year, making Top 8 of a Pro Tour or Mythic Championship would basically be "good enough" to carry me professionally for an entire season. I would almost assuredly get Gold status from it (at the very least), which would qualify me for all the Pro Tours in the season, and it would jump-start me toward Platinum and a qualification for the World Championship. Excluding financial considerations, I'd basically be qualified for everything as a result of that.
Nowadays, that isn't really the case. You Top 8 a Mythic Championship and it's unclear exactly what that means. I'll admit I'm not exactly sure exactly how long you can chain qualifications for anymore, but I guess that's kind of the point. Nobody really knows what's going to happen in the future.
There isn't really a framework of what one should be doing in Magic right now, competitively speaking. There is no information about how to qualify for the MPL in 2020, which would immediately be my priority if I Top 8'd a Mythic Championship, as the points from the Top 8 would give me a leg up on other people vying for the spot. But without that information, I don't know what I should be doing to try to qualify for the MPL or if it is even a viable aspiration. If 28 of the 32 MPL players qualify again for the 2020 MPL with only four new slots opening up, it's probably not worth it to try for something so exclusive. If something instead like 8-16 players fall out of the MPL, then maybe it would be worth it to make a go at it.
I can only hope we get more information soon.
These are the options as I see it for how I would most likely personally approach the second half of 2019, if I had to guess.
Option 1: Make a go at trying to put myself in a position to succeed at getting into the 2020 MPL, despite not knowing what that might entail or if it's even possible.
This is also known as the leap of faith method. At this point, based off the small amount of information we know, this means that I would be trying to qualify for every Arena Mythic Championship I can.
The information we have so far is that the top four challengers (non-MPL players) at the end of this year qualify for the World Championships, and that there are Mythic Points that are awarded at Mythic Championships and MPL Weekly league play that will presumably matter for something at the end of the year. I would guess that if I'm one of the top four challengers at the end of the year and qualified for the World Championships that I'm a solid bet to make it into next year's MPL, but that's purely speculation.
Since the Arena Mythic Championships are small tournaments (68 players) and award a lot of Mythic points, simply being a part of those events gives you a massive leg up on other challengers this year, since there will only be 36 total non-MPL players in each of these events. I would treat qualifying for those events incredibly seriously. That means I'd prioritize hitting Top 1000 Mythic each season to be eligible for the playoff and I would be preparing for and prioritizing that playoff. I'd treat it like an important tournament and get a good night's rest and avoid distractions the days I play it.
One thing that seems pretty clear to me is that Grand Prix events do not matter at all anymore for professional level play outside of being a great place to go and qualify for a paper Mythic Championship, either by making Top 8 of the GP or by winning the associated MCQ events. They cut GP coverage and GPs award no Mythic points. The writing is on the wall. I would not prioritize these events at all for anything other than using them to qualify for paper Mythic Championships.
I will add that I think this is a good thing, as traveling around to GPs every weekend, spewing lots of money on flights, hotels, and long car rides for extremely small prize purses was not a good competitive structure for professional Magic. I think it's actually a great change for Magic that GPs are now a place for people to qualify for Mythic Championships but aren't a place where people have to invest weekend after weekend trying to grind as hard as possible to keep pace with the other people also trying to grind as hard as possible to earn their 1-2 Pro Points just like you.
Grinding-based incentive structures don't promote healthy life choices and aren't often even very fun for the people caught up in the grind. Grand Prix events are fun and a good social atmosphere, but not when you feel obligated to attend 10+ a year and have to travel far and wide to do so. Then they become a slog. They were not a great backbone for a competitive structure. They also rewarded people who lived in North America and, to some extent, Europe significantly more than Magic players in the rest of the world.
Option 2: Jump ship from Pro Magic and make a go at playing Magic via an alternative series, like the SCG Tour. I want to say that I think the SCG Tour is a great tournament series, and I enjoy playing in the events when I have the opportunity, but I don't think I could do this, personally. I care too much about making it on the Pro circuit (whatever that may look like) that I don't think I'd be happy doing this instead.
Option 3: Jump ship from Pro Magic and focus full-time on being a content creator. I already have a leg up in this regard, as I've been writing articles for a long time now and I already have an established "brand" and audience. This route would involve me streaming regularly and putting out regular content. Right now I'm already doing this anyway, and this is my current plan for what I'll do if I don't qualify for the MPL in 2020. With that said, if I had never made it into the MPL in the first place, I'm not sure that I would have ever started streaming, despite my best laid plans, so who really knows if I would have ever considered this a serious option in this hypothetical.
Option 4: Quit playing Magic and get a job somewhere else. This was originally my plan for 2019, but the MPL threw a wrench in that and now Magic has hooked me and sunk its claws into me again. I'm probably not going anywhere for a long time.
I know who I am as a person and I know that I would be doing #1. I'd be trying to set myself up to best succeed at qualifying for the 2020 MPL, even if it seemed like long-shot odds or a pipe dream and even though I wouldn't even know how to do it, since we don't even have that information. That's what I would want to be doing and that's what I would try to accomplish.
I will say that my philosophy in life is to just try to roll with whatever life dishes at me. I know that I would almost certainly be trying to qualify for the 2020 MPL, but if it didn't work out, I would move on. If I deemed it too herculean of a task to qualify for the MPL and felt that I had no more avenues to exhaust in trying to make it as a competitive Magic player then I would either have to change how I approached Magic or I would choose to quit and move on with my life. Change is not inherently bad and one of the biggest mistakes I think people make, in life and in Magic, is to fail to adapt and adjust to new changes.
The MPL is a huge shift in the landscape of competitive play. Regardless of whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, the options as a Magic player are to adapt to it and the changes it brings or to move on. I'm holding out hope that it isn't too much longer till we get the information on how to adapt.
"Starter Pokémon: Charmander, Squirtle, or Bulbasaur?"
I'm a bad nerd as I don't really know that much about Pokémon, but whenever I played a Pokémon game I would typically start with Bulbasaur or Squirtle. I was like a Pokémon hipster in that I felt that Charmander was too mainstream to be cool and I wanted to be different. I also like a challenge and just always assumed that Bulbasaur probably wasn't as powerful as Charmander for obvious reasons. One is a fire-breathing dragon creature and the other is a random plant thing.
"What are your thoughts on the MPL Weekly broadcast? Things they did well? Areas for improvement?"
I've watched both MPL Weekly broadcasts now and I enjoyed both, although I am biased. I also think they have some serious room for improvement, too. I think this is an exciting time for Magic coverage. Arena changes the game for coverage and I hope they figure out how to maximize and perfect that, as both a viewer and as someone attached to the success of the MPL.
The best part of the broadcast by far was the segments with Maria, Meghan, Corbin, and Rich where they recapped the events of each division over the previous week. Those were well done, entertaining and informative. That's exactly the kind of stuff I'm interested in when it comes to recapping information or gameplay.
Areas for improvement:
1. People care most about gameplay. Minimize the amount of dead time where you aren't showing gameplay.
2. Utilize MPL players for interviews or to talk about their decks and how they sideboarded for their match and why, or even just show trash-talking segments or what have you. Not utilizing the players or making people care about the players involved is a waste. One of the best parts of the broadcast is the players in the chat talking during the games. Stream in for a live interview with one of those players in the chat and talk about their recent match or the match we just saw, etc. Make people care about the players and get expert commentary on the decks/choices that were made from the source.
3. Ten-second highlights don't really work in Magic. You can't just show a clip from a game and then go back to the booth and later tell us who won or lost. People won't understand the clip without the prior context of how the game built up to that point, and people then want to see how the game breaks down from that point afterward. Show a full game or don't show it at all. At the very least, show most of a game, I think it would be ok to cut away from a game once it's clear someone has locked it up but you're just waiting for them to ultimate their Teferi first.
4. Make it clear what the stakes are for these matches, why they are being played, and what's on the line. Show the standings often and explain why two 3-0 players battling each other is a match that matters. Right now when I see a match being played, I'm not sure why I should care about that match or what it would mean to either player to win that match. That's not compelling coverage unless the match itself is exciting. They show the standings like three to four times total across the entire broadcast. I would like to be reminded of them more often and in more interactive ways. Show us the standings alongside the week's matchups. Show us stats—and not lifetime stats, I mean relevant current stats. Give us the breakdown on who is doing well and what they need to happen to win their division.
"You haven't shied away from the fact that, at times, life has gotten to be a bit much for you, and in those times we've seen you step away for a while and then you come back with a clearer head. Is it just time away itself that helps or do you have certain steps that refocus you?"
I wish I had specific steps that refocus me, but in reality the key is I use the time to gain perspective or force myself to gain it via omission. When I'm plugged in 24/7 on social media like Twitter, where I follow almost exclusively Magic players, the arguments, disagreements, controversy and whatever topics people are currently mad about can start to take on larger-than-life proportions. Sometimes it takes stepping away for a bit to get the big picture and see that some of those things maybe don't matter quite as much as they seem to in the moment.
I use my time away to think about what aspects of Magic, the community, social media, etc. are currently a negative force in my life and then I figure out how to fix that. This usually involves a change, but it's a change in myself. You can't really change other people or how they act, but you can change how you consume things or interact with things or people. Oftentimes, when you're caught up in things or living in the moment it can be tough to realize that you need to make that change yourself. Sometimes it can seem impossible, or that something is too important to get rid of in your life even if it only brings you negativity.
Stepping away shows you that your life will go on without those things in it, and when you step away and you enjoy your time away, it can provide clarity about what's worth prioritizing. I learned this lesson many years ago in college where I "quit" World of Warcraft because my computer broke, leaving me unable to play it anymore. That led to an incredibly productive and enjoyable three-month period without WoW dominating ten hours a day of my time. When I could finally afford to fix my computer, I realized WoW wasn't actually worth it, and didn't go back to playing it again. I learned how to play Magic during that period of my life. Now that I think about it, Magic dominated the next 13 years of my life...trapping me even more than WoW ever did, so I guess in hindsight that might have been a mistake. Ignore my advice. Run from it.
I've had to relearn that lesson a million times in my life, including recently.
A few weeks back, I took a week-long break from social media after realizing that it was only a negative force in my life. I didn't like that people were treating me differently on social media as a result of the MPL and I saw comments I probably wasn't supposed to see about me by people I considered friends that cut really deeply. I was furious and I was incredibly sad in equal parts.
The week I took off was wonderful. I enjoyed myself, even without indulging my social media addiction. I knew all along that something had to give when it came to how I was engaging in social media, but I was trying to change the culture of how other people interacted with me, without realizing that I could never win that fight. I thought it would be too much of a loss to give up how I wanted to use social media, that it was too important for me to let go of, and it took stepping away to realize that wasn't the case. I eventually changed myself, how I choose to use and interact with social media, and how much time I invest in it, and I've been so much happier since.
"What's the skill in magic you've taken the longest time working and why?"
I think the hardest skill it took me to learn in Magic was when to throw away value.
To give an example of throwing away value, sometimes it's right to make an attack where you lose two creatures and your opponent loses no creatures, but you deal them 5 damage in the attack. Those kinds of plays did not come intuitively to me, because when I learned how to play Magic everything was taught to me in terms of card advantage and getting ahead on cards. The player who was winning was the one who was ahead on cards. Back when I started playing Magic, that often was true. These days? Not necessarily.
If I throw away two creatures and deal my opponent 5 damage, I'm down two cards, effectively, on them. Those trades always seemed bad to me, but sometimes they are the lines of play that you should take to win the game.
There are also times where your opponent attacks you with a 5/5 and a 2/2 and you have a 2/2 on defense and it's right to use your 2/2 to chump block the 5/5, even though you could trade with their 2/2 and maintain equality on the card advantage front.
Of course, I would make these kinds of plays when they were lethal attacks or forced blocks, but learning how and when to make these kinds of plays when it wasn't lethal or when the game might still go on for another few turns was incredibly difficult for me.
Even beyond combat, there are times where you should play your Kaya's Wrath as a spot removal spell to kill one creature instead of holding it to kill multiple creatures later or times where you have four mana in play and should cast your Untamed Kavu as a 2/2 instead of waiting and playing it as a 5/5 the next turn. I had a really hard time accepting a loss of value in situations like this and would typically not make these plays unless they were incredibly obvious.
Generally speaking, these aren't the right plays to make in Magic in most games, but in some games they are. It took me seeing high level players willing to make these kinds of high-upside, risky, low-value plays for me to realize that they should become a part of my repertoire.
Learning when you should make these kinds of plays is incredibly difficult and I'm not sure I can explain how, but learning to even consider that it can be correct to make those plays in the first place was a big step for me. My best advice to figure out when to make these kinds of plays is to always have a game plan, always try to envision how the game is going to play out, and if taking risks and losing value is going to give you a better chance of winning than going toe-to-toe with your opponent on value, it's probably worth doing.
"In which non-Magic area (e.g. cooking, drawing etc.) do you consider yourself to be outperforming many other good Magic players?"
Sleeping. I think I am excellent at sleeping. I can sleep in public places, on airplanes, on uncomfortable benches. I've slept standing up before. I don't snore, I don't flail around at night, and I wake up in the same spot that I fell asleep in. It usually doesn't take me that long to fall asleep and I usually sleep through the night when I do.
With that said, I don't feel like I am functioning at full capacity unless I get ten-plus hours of sleep each night, which seems to be higher than most other people, so I guess I fail at that sleep-related arena.
"Your take on playing against your opponent vs. their deck in some situations—I think a lot of us feel it is a low EV move most of the time."
In other words: should you make plays based on what you expect of your opponent or make "the right" plays regardless of who you are playing against?
Personally, I agree that it is generally an extremely low EV move to try to make plays based on assumptions you make about your opponent. Assumptions are often wrong and assuming your opponent is "too dumb" to figure something out or "too good" to ever make a mistake is not a good way to get far in Magic. I tend to always just assume the best about my opponent unless I'm given a reason to believe otherwise. If I think that the only way for me to win is for my opponent to mess up, I'll give them that chance, even if they are Jon Finkel.
With that said, if you know your opponent well, you can begin to learn about them and how they play Magic. In that case, it's totally worth making plays based on what information you are picking up from your opponent or what you know about them. This famously comes up a lot when two high level players play each other. They will make plays like not blocking a creature that can pump itself to become lethal because they know that their opponent probably won't pump it and risk being blown out by a removal spell. Against a random opponent, those plays are riskier because you don't know what your opponent will do.
Brad Nelson and I have played so much against each other that we have learned each other's tricks and mannerisms. We both use that knowledge when we play against each other. I don't fall for the same tricks against Brad that I see other people fall for and vice versa. I'm not going to pretend I don't have that information if I play against Brad. Nay. I will use it. As will he.
Also, as the game goes on, you will pick up tells from your opponent about what cards they have based on a combination of body language and game information. You should 100% use that information to inform your decisions. I wouldn't use any outside-the-game information like "My opponent is wearing a polo shirt so they probably have ten counterspells in their deck" to inform decision making, but information gleaned over the game is incredibly important.
"What's your take on metagaming vs. deck-mastery?"
This was the most commonly asked question, so I will conclude with it. People want to know whether they should learn a deck and stick with it or change decks based on how the metagame shifts. This is especially relevant in Modern.
The best answer is that you should metagame and also learn whatever deck you swap to incredibly well. The best way to be successful is to change your deck to play something that is genuinely good in the format, but then also become an expert at that archetype. The best players who have a lot of time to invest in Magic are all trying to do this.
That said, not everyone has the time to learn new decks, and not everyone can afford to change decks all the time. My philosophy on this stuff is to do what makes you happy in Modern and Magic in general. If you love casting Cryptic Command then become the best W/U/x player you can be, or Grixis or whatever your preferred flavor is, even if control is bad in the current metagame. There are always ways to retool decks to improve them against the current metagame even if they won't necessarily be tier 1.
There is a misconception about Modern that it's a format where deck mastery is everything. You shouldn't metagame in Modern, you should just learn and master your archetype, whatever it may be, and you will experience the most success that way. Or so conventional wisdom goes.
That's not entirely true. Metagaming does exist in Modern. The format does change and shift as decks become more popular and other decks get pushed out of the format. Metagaming exists far less in Modern than a lot of other formats, because so many more decks are viable, but it still exists and it should still inform deck choice or at the very least, card choice.
It doesn't matter if you're the best player in the world of your archetype if that archetype is no longer good enough to win matches in Modern. At that point, you should probably find a new deck. Being an archetype master only matters if that archetype is worth mastering.
The value of deck mastery in Modern comes from Modern being a fast format. Games are often over very early, therefore you have to play those early turns as tight as possible to give yourself the best chance to win, and that takes skill and experience with a deck. Some of those edges are tiny edges and hard to find unless you're a master of the archetype. Modern is also a format that rewards knowing your game plan against your opponent's deck and since a lot of decks in Modern are fairly non-traditional decks that aren't just nuts and bolts Magic, those game plans come more with familiarity and repetition and experience than intuition.
I tend to lean on deck mastery over metagaming, personally, across all formats. Brad Nelson, on the other hand, tends to lean more on metagaming than deck mastery. I don't think either of us is right or wrong here; it's a preference and comfort thing. However, the one thing we can agree on is that mastery and metagaming together, in unison, is by far the best place to be.
I would recommend that whichever side of the fence you fall on for this debate, you should probably try out the other side some. If you think deck mastery is the be-all and end-all for Modern, try playing with tier 1 decks you wouldn't normally play. You might be surprised that your win rate will increase. If you think metagaming is all that matters, try picking a strong deck and mastering it for a few weeks and see if you can't start to figure out how to win more with it.
Being versatile is incredibly useful and important in Magic.
There were a ton of other great questions that I wasn't able to get to. Fortunately, I intend on writing a follow-up piece at some point to tackle more of those. I'm always floored when I do one of these how many people have thoughtful and interesting questions to ask and I always run out of space to answer them all.
This is the part where all the English teachers I've ever had show up as floating heads to remind me of their lessons about the flaws of being needlessly verbose and I completely ignore their advice, like I always have.
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