Thursday night I found myself standing on the dance floor of a rented out, fancy nightclub, surrounded by nothing but Magic players. Images splayed out across the wall behind the DJ as music blasted. I caught a brief glimpse of something Rakdos on the walls transform into the Orzhov guild insignia as someone offered me an avocado tostada. No, thank you. Did they not realize I was a millennial? I gave those up a long time ago to try to save up to buy a house. I had a few drinks, but not too many. Tomorrow was one of the most important days of my professional career. Getting drunk the night before would be one of the dumbest decisions I could make. I make plenty of those already. No need to exacerbate matters.
This party was awesome, and one of the first moments that truly represented a departure from how things were done before when it comes to professional Magic. A metaphorical changing of the guard, you could call it. I've played in a lot of premier level events over the years, and one of the key things I'd noticed time and again was that the player experience was always an afterthought for those organizing the event. The players were just an accessory to the tournament they were playing in, and not actually something valued. It was clear the entire week that this was not the case for the Mythic Invitational, and I found myself pleased to see how much work and effort was put into making sure that the competitors were accommodated well.
Despite how impressed I was with the venue and party, I found myself unable to enjoy it as much as I wanted to. Nightclubs aren't exactly my speed, but that wasn't why I found myself unable to focus on the moment.
I had just spent the day watching coverage of day one of the Mythic Invitational, and I didn't begin playing myself until the next morning. I had been testing for a month, furiously, religiously for this event. I had lived and breathed Best of One gameplay nonstop for as long as I could remember, and I just wanted to finally get out there and play. I was incredibly hyped to battle in this event and I couldn't stop thinking about it. I just wanted the wait to be over.
Earlier in the day, Brad Nelson and I legitimately spent time practicing our entrance moves for the tournament. Players who were feature matches were announced by Day and would walk out of a runway onto the stage to play their match. I found myself disappointed all Thursday by the lack of excitement and gusto shown by the players called for features and I resolved that if I were to be featured, I would make a spectacle of it. How often do you get this opportunity? Never, for me, in all the years I have played Magic. There's no way I was blowing it. I was going to roll out there, ham it up for the coverage, and make my 15 seconds of "fame" worth it. If they wanted esports, I'd give them esports.
I didn't end up being called for a feature match. Their loss.
In the days, hours, and even minutes leading up to me battling in this tournament I had no nerves. That may be weird, but all I felt was excited and pumped. It was some real pump and circumstance. I also felt determination to make the weeks of testing pay off, as well as the confidence that comes with having played a near-infinite number of games with my decks. I knew my decks and all the matchups, and it was just time to sit down and play them.
Well, I sat down. And I played them. And I lost. Badly. 0-2, and just like that I was dead and gone from the Mythic Invitational. Two matches, slightly over an hour of game time, and I was done playing Magic for the week. All the testing, travel, and preparation was down the drain in mere moments.
Was I crushed in the moment? Yeah. It stung. It stung because I felt like I had little control over my outcome. The format of the event was Duo Standard, which meant that each competitor came with two best-of-one decks that would be randomly paired against each other. If it went to a third game, the competitors got to select which deck they played in that third game.
I played White Aggro and Esper Control. Both of my first opponents, Shota Yasooka and Gabriel Nassif, brought decks which meant that my White deck had one good matchup and one bad matchup, and my Esper deck had the reverse matchups. In other words, based on the random pairings they gave us, I would either get two good matchups against both opponents or two bad matchups—no in-between.
Against both opponents, I got two bad matchups. I went 4/4 on bad matchups, a highly unfortunate rolling of the dice. I did manage to push to a game three against both opponents, but I didn't draw well enough to take those down.
And just like that I was out. I questioned why I bothered testing so much, why I spent hours agonizing over my 15th sideboard card so I had the maximum number of options when I cast Mastermind's Acquisition, why I spent hours theorizing on what deck to pick in game three in various Duo Standard scenarios. It all felt like a waste of time afterward.
Ultimately, though, I just had to listen to the immortal words of T. Swift and shake it off. I knew going in to have no expectations. This was a highly volatile format, and while it stung to get slapped in the face by the variance, it was something that I knew quite well would be a possible outcome. What can I do about it except move on and begin preparing for the next one?
Expectations are the killer in Magic. Magic is a game with a high level of variance. Even the best players in the world only win 60-70% of their matches. To succeed in Magic is to look at the game over the long term, and not fret the individual results. To go into any one event and expect a good finish is setting yourself up for long-term failure.
It's not worth fretting over things that are outside our control. I can't control my pairings, my draws, and in many cases, my results. But what I can control is my testing process, my mentality, and how I choose to deal with failure or success. Focus on what you can control. Worry about the process, not the results. With a good process, good results will eventually follow.
My takeaway from this tournament is simple. It didn't go well, and all that's left to do is move on and begin preparation for the next one and hope that goes better. And so on and so forth. There are individual lessons to learn from events, but the overarching lesson is always the same: they can't all be winners.
Duo Standard is not a format I expect to see again. The Mythic Invitational was, by all counts, a massive success. There were over 100,000 concurrent viewers at various points, a huge mark for Magic, and MTG Arena looked great on coverage, as did the stage itself. Commentary was excellent and professional. This was an order of magnitude better than trying to squint and make out paper Magic cards on a table as the commentators fumble around trying to guess what is in each player's hand. I enjoyed watching this event and I am someone who doesn't find watching Magic to be enjoyable in general. I basically never watch streams or tournament coverage because I don't like it, but I did watch most of this one.
What was not a success was the format. Too many matches in Duo Standard came down to naught more than a dice roll. Who got to be on the play in the key matchups, or which matchups were even chosen to be played in the first place—the randomness that did me in—were both the defining moments of this format.
We found that there was no way to exploit Duo Standard. There was no way to break the format and give yourself an extra edge over the other competitors. However, there definitely was a way to allow yourself to be exploited if you messed it up yourself.
If you picked two linear aggro strategies, you would get exploited by someone who picked a deck that crushes linear aggro. They would beat one of your decks with their anti-aggro deck and then even if they lost the other match, they could pick the anti-aggro deck every time in the third game and just win that one. If their anti-aggro deck was 100% against aggro (which of course is ridiculous), they would win 100% of their matches against you in Duo Standard. That's an exploitable strategy.
The same was true for picking two control decks. You would get exploited by an anti-control strategy.
As we saw it, there were basically two strategies that were most reasonable to select, and most competitors adopted one of these two strategies.
#1: The Well-Rounded Approach
This was the strategy that I and the rest of the players I tested with all played. The Well-Rounded Approach is picking one control strategy to pair with one aggressive strategy such that you aren't exploitable by any one deck. Also, Esper Control and Mono-White, which were the most popular choices and also the pairing I played, are two decks that have game against any deck, even though they have their set of traditionally good and bad matchups. So this pairing leaves you unexploitable and capable of winning any matchup.
#2: The Exploitative Approach
I highly considered playing this second strategy, but eventually I was talked out of it. The Exploitative Approach is to pick one deck that smashes aggro decks but gets destroyed by control, and one deck that smashes midrange and control decks but gets annihilated by aggro. If someone brings double aggro you have the trump to them. If someone brings double control, you have the trump to them as well. Against a well-rounded opponent, you're either going to get two good matchups or two bad matchups, depending on if your anti-aggro deck lines up vs their aggro deck and your anti-control deck lines up vs their control deck or if the reverse happens.
Gabriel Nassif, my first round opponent, utilized The Exploitative Approach by bringing Temur Reclamation to beat up on Midrange and Control and Esper Acuity to beat up on aggressive decks. Temur Reclamation was laughably bad against White Aggro and while their Acuity list was built to brawl with control decks, it was still behind in the matchup.
Ultimately, I think that the Well-Rounded Approach is the best approach one can take, and in fact, most of the top performing players played Esper Control paired with White or Esper paired with Red. I like the Well-Rounded over The Exploitative because even if you get bad matchups you can still win with the Well-Rounded, since your decks are just generically good decks capable of winning any matchup depending on how things go.
The problem with The Exploitative Approach is that decks that are built to exploit specific decks are generally just less powerful decks than the best decks, and thus they tend to lose to themselves more often. Another flaw is that your opponent gets an advantage in mulligan decisions. For example, I knew playing against Nassif that my removal spells in Esper were dead cards against both of his decks, so I could mulligan hands with a bunch of Cast Downs. However, he didn't know in the first or third game if he was playing against Esper Control or Mono-White, so he didn't know if he should keep hands with lots of countermagic and get exploited by White, or hands with a lot of removal and get exploited by Esper.
The Esper list I played was tuned specifically to beat White Aggro, and have enough cards to not be too bad in the mirror, as those were the two decks I (correctly) expected to be most played. My Esper deck is a little weaker than normal against decks like Gruul, but I didn't expect a lot of it at the event. Here are my lists:
We were allowed to submit a sideboard for all of our decks, thanks to the presence of Mastermind's Acquisition as well as cards that could interact with it, like Expansion // Explosion. I submitted the Dovin's Acuity deck as the sideboard for my White deck, as it's my favorite deck in the format, and the white deck can't interact with the sideboard.
I got asked a lot why I didn't play the Esper Dovin's Acuity deck in this tournament, colloquially known on my stream as Heinous/Anus. My answer is I didn't think it was good enough in a field full of Esper Control, which turned out to be crucial when the metagame breakdown revealed that Esper Control was the most-played strategy.
I felt like I was betraying the people rooting for me by not playing this deck, but I didn't think it gave me the best chance to win. Despite that, I found it pretty cool that a lot of other people in the event played this deck. It's a sweet feeling to develop a deck that becomes a dominant strategy in the format and sees play at the biggest Magic event of all time.
This deck originally started out as a joke deck with no win condition that a member of my stream community, Kanaxai, built. We used it to troll Brad Nelson during the streamer showdown before Ravnica Allegiance was even out yet, and somehow it ended up being an actual force in the metagame months later. The original deck looked nothing like the current deck, except that it was Esper colors and held true to the idea of "no win condition." This deck was iterated on and tuned over the course of weeks on my stream to the point where we started tracking the version of the deck we were on until we surpassed our own version tracker. A joke deck, based around the premise of trolling your opponent until they concede actually became a tier 1 strategy thanks to me playing over and over again on stream and iterating on the process of tuning it. If that's not what makes Magic great, then what is?
So what's next for me? It's been a little weird. Best-of-one gameplay and the Mythic Invitational have dominated my life for the last month that I feel a little unsure of how to proceed without them. What am I supposed to test now? Should I take a break from Magic or continue to play? Surely I don't play more best-of-one, right? I've had enough of that for a lifetime, I think. But I do kind of like it, so maybe it wouldn't be weird to play more of it. These thoughts and more are constantly rushing through my mind.
The next big event for me is the Mythic Championship in London, which is Modern. Smart play would be to start testing Modern now in preparation for that. And in due time I will. But for now I've decided that I need a break, and I've decided that I will take a break (the two aren't always one and the same). I just spent a month of my life preparing for a tournament. I spent an entire week in Boston for that tournament. And that tournament lasted about an hour for me. I played two quick games and then I was done.
All that testing, for two hours. All of it to roll the dice, see it flip two ones, and then be on my way out the door. Weirdly enough, this hasn't affected my passion for Magic. If anything, it has made me hungry to come back for more and play another event with the same level of preparation and gusto that I played this one. It's fired me up. You would think this would deflate me, but it hasn't. I have this burning desire to get back out there and dominate a tournament on the level that people cower in fear of.
However, everything else has deflated me. The nonstop grind has worn me out. My addiction to social media and the rampant negativity and negative voices that it pushes to the top has left me feeling depressed and unhappy. So while I'm still fired up about Magic (the game), I will be taking a break from streaming, from social media, and from playing as often for the next week. I'm doing it for my sanity, my mental health, and to right myself. I love the Magic community in the abstract, but in practice sometimes you just need to step away from it to appreciate it again.
When I come back, you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll be busting my heinous/anus to prepare for that next event. And I'll tell you right now. I won't be dropping from that one at 0-2. It won't be a repeat of the Mythic Invitational. No way in hell.
...because it takes 5 losses in a Mythic Championship to be eliminated on day one. I'll still have another 3 losses to give at that point. And give them, I shall.
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