This past weekend I played in Grand Prix Atlanta. On the seven hour drive there, Melissa and I did our best to psyche ourselves up at the potential that we could make day two and possibly win the entire thing; this is a thought that everyone playing in an event has to have at one point or another, otherwise the number of participants in a given event would be much, much lower.
I started the event at 3-0 and I had a really good feeling. I knew I could win two and lose one, then win two more and lose one more to make day two. Realistic, right? It sounds so easy. I broke down the event into tiny segments; I compartmentalized it. I told myself all I had to do was go 2-1 in two "mini tournaments" and I would sail into day two.
To clarify almost all Grand Prix are nine rounds. Unless they happen to be really small, in which case they're eight rounds, but those are becoming less and less common. At nine rounds, anyone with 21 points will make day two. This means that you have to go something like 7-2 or better. This also includes 6-0-3, for those curious.
While my deck seemed average, Melissa's deck looked really good when I first saw it. In fact I thought it was "insane" and I couldn't imagine her not making day two. After she came off of her three byes, she managed to take a few losses and was out after the sixth round. This was really surprising to me because I thought her deck was much better than mine. I wasn't sure what about it I was seeing incorrectly, but eventually we realized that her deck was synergistic, but it didn't really have ways to deal with specific things.
After she was knocked out of the event, I said to her, "ah, don't worry, we'll get out of here in another round or two." I was of course referring to the fact that I had already lost two rounds having won only one more since my 3-0 start and would quickly lose a third, knocking me out of contention as well. She told me not to talk like that, and that she hoped I won the next three rounds and made day two. I knew she wanted me to - we both wanted me to - but I knew how Magic tournaments often went for me.
In a nutshell, I'm not a closer.
I know this sounds like negativity, and it might be, but I know my own history. I have found myself in countless PTQ Top 8s and have yet to win a single one. This is actually a difficult admission to make for me as I do feel like it should have happened by now, and the fault is solely my own (aside from a little variance of course). I have only played in a handful of Grand Prix to be quite honest, and the reason is that they're exhausting: financially, mentally, and physically. So while my sample size is small, I do not expect to make day two when I go to an event. That is not to say I don't want to, or hope to. I simply do not expect it. I have been playing Magic for nearly 20 years now and realistic expectations are something I have tried to pick up.
For this very reason, for the longest time, when people would come up to me at events, or play against me, and refer to me as a "pro" - "You're the first pro I've played against!" or "You're one of my favorite pros!" - I had a hard time accepting it. Just yesterday someone I sat down to play against asked me, "Aren't you a pro or something?" I responded with a very coy, "I don't know about all that." (She then promptly defeated me, asked for some advice on her Chromanticore deck in Block - which looked pretty sweet, actually - before asking me to sign her notepad. But I digress.)
I mean, where were my finishes? What results had I ever put up competitively? I was never lumped in with the likes of the Brian Kiblers and the Luis Scott-Vargas' of Magic. I was in a completely different class; I was more of an entertainer than a player. When people think of "pro players" the aforementioned names are often the ones that are thought of. But from a literal standpoint, a "professional" is someone who makes a living off the subject in question...and I do. I make my living playing and working with Magic. But this was something I had a hard time coming to terms with.
After taking my third loss of the event, I was done. I knew the exact mistake I made and when I made it. I'll explain.
I was playing against an opponent and I had a Wingsteed Rider in play. It was a 4/4 from having a Mortal Obstinacy on it. My opponent had a lone Chorus of the Tides in play and he had already bounced the Rider once with Hubris after going to fifteen when the Wingsteed Rider was a 5/5 (I cast Time to Feed killing his Triton Fortune Hunter, then cast Mortal Obstinacy to swing to five). Now, I had Mortal's Resolve in hand...against the blue/black deck. All I had to do was keep Mortal's Resolve up and I would have most likely won the game on the back of the 4/4 flier, let alone the Resolve would have made it a 5/5 after I cast it. But instead I cast a Noble Quarry on my turn with my lone green mana. The next turn my opponent ended up casting Spiteful Blow on not only my Wingsteed Rider but also my single Forest. I died a few turns later with nothing but three Plains on the board. Needless to say (alright, "needless" is my cynicism talking; it's needed) I drew three Forests in all of game two and died with a handful of white cards and cards that cost more than four mana.
So why did I cast the Noble Quarry? The psychological problem here was that I was stuck on four lands for about three turns. This put me in the mindset that I was "falling behind" even though I was way ahead on the board. I played the 1/1 do-nothing Unicorn because I felt like I needed to keep committing things to the board or else I would be overwhelmed somehow. This was so unequivocally wrong that I didn't even want to forgive myself for a good two hours after the match. (We'll get into this more later.)
The main thing I learned strategically from this - which I know I have learned before, multiple times even - is that Magic has no specific game plans or strategies that you should follow every single game. I remember growing up with Magic and the lessons our favorite authors would teach us, lessons about card advantage and tempo and...I think the times have changed.
Let's go back to Melissa's third loss. She was facing down a Master of the Feast, with a Hopeful Eidolon attached to it, and a Grisly Transformation on it. She was drawing two cards a turn from this lifeloss-less Phyrexian Arena, but it didn't matter. No matter how much card advantage she accumulated, she couldn't outrace the demon. After all, it was a 6/6 lifelinker. It was a makeshift Baneslayer Angel.
You see, I'm not saying card advantage isn't important. In fact if that were the case cards like Sphinx's Revelation wouldn't be so backbreaking and demoralizing to play against. What I'm saying is that there is a time when card advantage isn't valuable. Ever since I started playing Magic it was etched into my brain that the more two-for-ones I could accumulate, the better I was doing. While I believe this was true when it was told me to, I don't believe I'm playing the same game as that 18 year old was. Card advantage was more important back then because the answers were not required to be as specific as they are now. Back then, if they had a creature, you would draw a removal spell. But now they're creature has hexproof, or it's an enchantment, or it's a Planeswalker, or your removal spells only kills tapped creatures, or creatures whose power and toughness add up to an odd number. Creatures are not only deadlier, but the answers are much more specific. Because of this we need not be so focused on card advantage so much as card selection perhaps.
But this isn't meant to be an article on the merits or lack thereof of card advantage. The point I'm making is that the reason we love Magic is because it constantly changes, and I think one of the best ways to hinder ourselves as players (and I use the term "best" loosely) is to not change with it. I committed the Noble Quarry to the board because I felt like that was what I needed to do, to keep up with my opponent's six lands. After all, that was another card he would have to deal with, right? Completely wrong. While this specific example might be obvious to a lot of you, there are numerous examples you could probably use from your own games. I knew I could potentially win the game with solely the Wingsteed Rider. I knew it, which was why I kept buffing it and attacking. But I let my guard down and deviated from a solid plan to do what I thought I was "supposed to do." To do something that Magic had taught me was the correct thing to do: advance my board state.
After that match I was upset. For a while. Melissa and I walked to the car and I cursed everything Magic. I wondered why it was so hard for me to make day twos, or win PTQs, or...you name it. I felt entitled, sure, but I also wondered why it was so difficult for me. In each of my losses, I noted a major misplay by an opponent that could have cost him a game:
- My opponent used the activated ability of Fearsome Temper that was enchanted onto his tapped Hopeful Eidolon on my Sightless Brawler, then attacked with a different creature, thinking that Fearsome Temple said "target creature can't block this turn." What it actually says is, "target creature can't block this creature this turn," referring to the creature it is cast on. His attack was an attempt to deal combat damage to me and kill my tapped Swarmborn Giant, but I was able to block it just fine.
- My opponent cast a Brain Maggot and stole a card. I played Sightless Brawler. He then attacked me with Brain Maggot thinking Sightless Brawler was Mogg Flunkies and couldn't block alone. It could.
And I'm not saying that either player was bad, don't think that for a second; they both made excellent plays in our matches as well. I'm simply saying they made misplays that gained me a card or two in both games.
I also noted some of my own misplays as well, which were numerous I'm sure. This is something I'm pretty good about doing. I never feel like I just got "so unlucky" and my opponent "just drew so well." Well, sometimes I do, but don't we all? Because it does happen from time to time. But I usually make a good effort to note where I messed up in my games.
The thing that was getting to me this time was that I kept wondering why my misplays cost me games while my opponents were constantly able to recover. Both of the aforementioned opponents made days two at 7-2 records. Now, I'm not complaining really. I'm just inquisitive. As someone who has played Magic for most of his life, yet lacks any sort of notable finish, this question weighed heavily on me as we walked to the car.
This is "tilt," ladies and gentlemen.
It was a terrible feeling and I feel bad for every person who has to deal with someone on tilt. It's kind of like babysitting, especially if you're trying to cheer them up. The thing I realized - with a little help, mind you - is that when you're distressed by outside factors, you're going to take your losses harder than you normally would. When everything is going great and life is super, what's a match loss in a Magic event? It's when the other things in life are somewhat stressful when it can seep into the game, or rather the results of your games.
I was literally kicking myself all the way to the car after dropping from the event.
...and the entire ride to the hotel.
...and at the hotel.
Finally we went and got dinner and I started to feel a little bit better. Let me tell you, not doing well at most of the recent events you've travelled to can really wear on a guy. It can make you question what you're doing or why you're doing it. It was this weird combination of looking at being a "professional Magic player" through my own lens, but by doing so, also seeing it as work. When I didn't do well at events, I felt like I was failing at my job. And there are few things more disheartening than that as I'm sure many of you can attest.
But I was looking at it the wrong way. I should have realized this when the umpteenth stranger came up to me and asked me to sign his Grand Prix Atlanta playmat and told me he loved my videos. As much as I wanted to do so, my job wasn't to win these matches of Magic. But by not doing so, I felt like a let down. Like I let, most likely you, the reader of this very article, down. It's difficult to go 4-3 at a Grand Prix because people will ask how you're doing in the event, and you have to tell them, over and over. And over. I felt as if I were a carpenter, and I just miscut this huge piece of wood in some irreparable manner. And multiple people kept coming up me and asking how the table was coming. All I could do was look over at the sad excuse for a table I had built and shake my head solemnly. But what I kept forgetting what that I wasn't really a table-maker. What I seemed to be good at was making night stands. And people kept coming up to me at the Grand Prix and telling me how much they enjoyed my night stands, and all I could focus on was the fact that I wasn't the best table-maker in the room.
Losing can be blinding. As human beings we often strive to be the best at everything we do. It's why we do things most of the time. Rarely do people do things with the mindset that they're going to do them poorly. I imagine it does happen from time to time, but it can't be very often. So when we fail at those things we set out to do, we get frustrated. We feel like failures at everything in that very moment. But we aren't.
I was questioning myself for not winning as many games of Magic as I felt like I should have been, but I didn't get where I am today by "winning games of Magic." Sure, I like to consider myself better than your average player, but "winning games of Magic" was not my area of expertise. It was the side effect of what I did. I played rogue decks. I made videos. I provided entertaining commentary. I brewed decks. Winning games of Magic was the byproduct as I tried to accomplish all of those things. Which, honestly, I feel like I have. Very much so!
I recommend all of you do the same. If you're losing your games and suffering from tilt (as we all have), think of what you are good at. It might be Magic, but there always has to be something that comes higher on the list. And if there isn't, then there has to be a reason for that. What I mean by that is for Magic to be so high up there, you actually have to be pretty good...so shake it off. Either way, enjoy the game and don't let the losses dictate your emotions so heavily.
Because in the end, it literally does nothing. That's what I had to remember. Nothing is gained from that miserable feeling, and while it's a difficult one to overcome, we all have reasons to do so.
For those of you that come up to me at events and ask me to sign pig tokens or playmats or obscure cards that I've brewed with before, thank you. You are the reason I do this. It means a ton to me, and while you may not see me making the Top 8 of Grand Prix or Pro Tours with any kind of regularity, that was never why I started doing this in the first place. Thank you for reminding me of that from time to time.
Frank Lepore@FrankLepore on TwitterFrankLepore on TwitchTV