I’m BAD at this game, and so are you

“I can’t believe I scrubbed out and someone that bad is still doing well. Look at all those mistakes!”
“I can’t believe that guy won the PTQ! You’ve got to be kidding me. He’s so bad!”

Those statements are usually followed with something along the lines of, “yeah, this format is skill intensive” in the most sarcastic way. Or, my personal favorite, “I can’t wait until next PTQ season; as if anything’s going to change,heh.
Well, actually, two things could change between the current season where there is ‘no skill involved’ and the next season. First, the format will be different and new cards will be present. Second, you could change the way you think about the game. Now I know that second statement seems very broad so let me explain.

Everybody is bad at Magic. There, I said it. Whether you like it or not, it’s true. Well, mostly true. I’m bad at Magic, you’re bad at magic, and most pros are bad at Magic. Now, I said ‘mostly true’ because there are some people in the world (very few mind you) that are not that bad. It doesn’t mean they aren’t bad; they are just bad less often. When you’re at a PTQ and you watch other people’s matches and you sit there and constantly belittle them for bad play, whether out loud or just in your head, what does that prove? It proves you watched somebody play a game of Magic. That is all. When you see a player make a mistake and berate them for it, that’s okay. People need criticism and to understand what they did wrong in order to understand their mistakes. However, when you go tell all your buddies that they’re so bad and you think to yourself how you would have never in a million years made that mistake, do yourself a favor and SHUT THE HELL UP! Nobody plays perfectly. No, not even you.

Now I know this seems like a very bold article to write, especially being my first. However, I write what I feel and I feel most competitive magic players need a little reality check. Some people get too big for their britches, if you know what I’m sayin’.
Magic is a difficult game with many intricate plays and decisions every turn. I mean, seriously, most people make mistakes before the tournament even starts with their deck choice. Everybody builds his or her deck improperly. Just because your deck seemed like the right choice, and just because you didn’t see the play mistakes you made during the game doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.

How you build your deck wrong

There is a perfect deck for each and every single person on the planet for any given tournament.
Spoiler alert-You will never in a million years build this deck.
When I hear people say they had the perfect deck for a tournament, I understand that they probably really think their deck is perfect. Don’t believe it. To create the perfect deck you would have to know, beforehand, the exact metagame, and all the other players deck lists. Then you would have to run the numbers of the odds of playing against each deck, what to do on the play and draw in every single match up, and play an infinite of play test games, literally. Now, while all that seems like it would be impossible to do,(which it is) what’s almost as impossible and even more important to any tournament success you wish to achieve, is knowing yourself.
Most people think they know themselves better than any other, and it’s true. However, there are many things other people can observe and understand about you that you may have not even considered. This is because, as a first person narrator to our own story, we would love to believe things about ourselves that aren’t true which make us seem more perfect.
I’m sure you’ve heard the philosophical phrase ‘People believe what they want to believe’. That is one hundred percent truth. We are bias toward our own play skill and ourselves. This goes beyond just Magic, (as do most things involving Magic) but that’s for a different time. You would have to know your exact play style and skill level in order to build a deck you could pilot to the literal best of your abilities. It is possible to build this deck. However, it is quite impossible to understand why all the card choices were perfect whilst you were building the deck because there are just too many variables to know.
I know it would seem fitting to say “But Jeremey, don’t the people who win the tournament have the best deck for that day?” Well that’s not even necessarily true. Nobody’s deck will be perfect. However, there will be one deck in the room that was the best for that tournament, though that person probably doesn’t realize it. That person also isn’t guaranteed anything. A player who isn’t quite as good at the game as, say, half the field playing mono red may have had the best deck for that tournament given all the variables. That same player might have played against two of the five guys in the room playing with a bunch of Baneslayers and Kor Firewalkers in their board and just get rolled and 0-2 drop. Perhaps the best deck is the room was some five-color control deck that had very bad draws or played a couple of the few bad match ups he had in the room. Magic is a game of high variance. The sooner you realize that the sooner you’ll be able to come to terms with only worrying about what you can control, i.e. your deck choice and the number of mistakes you make. Which brings me to my next point.

How you make play mistakes

Now this one is much more widely understood across the magic community as a whole, so I’ll do my best to try to give you some out of the box ways of thinking about play mistakes. The common rule of play mistakes is that everybody makes them. Nobody is perfect, Blah, blah, blah. We’ve all heard this before, though most of us don’t quite understand just how many mistakes we make. I’ve already explained the deck building mistakes, so I’ll stay focused on actual in-game mistakes.
Let’s imagine there was a robot built with the ability to play every game of Magic perfectly. (And no, Wrapter and Web don’t count as robots, despite the common misconception) Let’s throw the factor of variance out the window for the sake of argument here, because even a robot would get mana screw or flooded, and most likely blow a gasket, some mono red player would light his fuse, or any other clever pun you can think of to add there. : P So if we watched this robot make every play correctly based on every bit of knowledge he could possibly have and knowing all the percentages down to the decimal, he would win more than any other person on the planet, even Kai in his prime. But that’s not what’s important. What’s important is the most important thing you can learn from said robot. It’s not that you can improve your game a tremendous amount by playing with, or against, or just watching the masterful robot at work. That’s just obvious though, as we all know playing with better players is the only way to get better. It’s not that you can learn different ways to approach certain match ups and whatnot. The most important thing you could learn from this robot is…drum roll…that you will never be a perfect Magic player! Just like with deck building, it is possible to make every correct play in a game of Magic, though there are too many variables for you to actually understand why each and every play is, in fact, correct. If you hear someone’s thought process while playing a game of Magic, you’ll hear a constant stream of ‘I think’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘what if’. Even if you sit and think after a match about every single line of play that was made and consider all the options you had in every specific situation, you will never know for sure whether every play you made was correct or not. We are always just using our best-estimated guessing skills. Just because you won the game doesn’t mean you played perfect. Just because you win more than somebody else doesn’t mean you’re necessarily better. Some people actually do better at more tournaments because they choose better decks more often and have positive variance at more opportune times.
I beat LSV in the finals of an SGC 5k when I mulled to five in game three and was fortunate enough to have a good draw. But what’s important isn’t that I had variance on my side, I made the correct decision to mulligan my first two hands and he, didn’t mulligan when I think he clearly should have. But that’s for another day. The point is you have to make the best of your situation, so variance has as small a chance of biting you in the rear end, by making the most correct play you can make. LSV is a much better player than I am, but even he makes mistakes, and is punished for them.
The thing with Magic is it’s an almost identical, yet disguised very cleverly, game of chess. Though Magic has variance where chess does not isn’t important to this fact. Every play you could make, which would be the perfect play, is based on what your opponent does. You can’t put every play in every board state with the same cards in hand in a vacuum. Say you were in the middle of a game of Magic and you’re playing against player A. The correct plays over the rest of the game would be different, ( if even the slightest) with the exact same deck and the exact same draws, than they would be if another one of players B-Z came and played out the games. Magic has a very extraordinary element; much like in poker, playing the player is necessary. I’ve heard someone, who is well respected in his magic community, tell players to not worry about playing the player to just play the cards. I think this is false and that kind of approach will only get you so far. Yes we should, first and foremost, be the best technical players we can be, but don’t discount or even underestimate the power of the mind game. Numerous other writers have touched on this before so I won’t delve too deep into something you’ve all heard before.I don’t even know if I could explain the art of the mind game well enough to do it justice. I would recommend reading Patrick Chapin’s ‘Next Level Magic’ for more insight on that topic.
Anyway, the point is we all want to strive to be the very best we can possibly be and play the best we can possibly play. While it’s impossible to become perfect at magic, it isn’t impossible to do everything in your power to make the best plays and best deck choices.

A common misconception is that coal turns into diamonds. What actually happens is coal is miles and miles under the earths crust and, over millions of years, turns to graphite. Millions of more years pass, a bunch of (add scientific jargon here*) crap happens, and the diamond is formed. Thousands more years pass and the diamond finally reaches the earths crust where it is mined and cut and sold. You see, while it’s impossible to actually witness the process of coal going from its original form to a luxurious and, quite expensive, (Damn you women!) diamond. It does happen. While it is impossible to knowingly play a perfect game of Magic, (because of the infinite variables and the fact that our brains can’t process and utilize that much information that quickly) or to make that diamond, it’s not something that doesn’t occur.
-Here is where the metaphorical example breaks off and I catch myself before I begin to speak gibberish only fitting for a Neanderthal, or become completely belligerent and black out with a stripper and a bottle of…never mind. I caught myself, so everything’s okay.J

Going back to what I said at the top o’ the hour, stop belittling people for making play mistakes. In the famous words of one Miley Cyrus, “everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has those days.” Not only will being a d-bag when you see a person make a mistake NOT help you get better at Magic, it can actually make you worse. There’s a reason you see the same people grinding PTQ’s, playing for years, and never actually stepping their game up past a certain level. It’s because they think, just because they do well at certain tournaments and see people make play mistakes that they themselves would ‘never in a million years make’, that they’re actually good at this game. No matter how good you think you are, you make tons and ton of mistakes all the time.
As soon as you attain that infamous ego and sense of entitlement you’ll start to get worse at Magic. I see this happen all the time and it’s like torture to me. But you know what the worst, and most ironic part of this whole article is? It’s the simple FACT that I know I do this. I have felt entitled to win because I know I’m better than a certain player. I’ve called somebody a ‘sac’ before, without it being good natured and playful. I’ve actually thought that I played a perfect game of magic before. Now you can call me a hypocrite, an idiot or whatever other clever insult you may find gracing the tip of your tongue. But the fact of the matter is, this is something that comes natural to us as human beings.
The fact I realize and understand what I’ve done means I can change, just like you can change, for the better. We have to fight the urge to entitlement in order to improve. We have to learn in order to know. You have to be mentally strong in order to change. Magic is like life in more ways than people realize. The three sentiments I just stated are as true in magic as they are in the real world. The sooner you learn the sooner you can change and begin to increase the level in which you play and get that much closer to the holy grail, the player you seek out to be, the perfect magic player.

-I had mounds of fun writing this article, as I do with most things I do! if any of this seemed to be too obvious to you let me know. I tried to be out-of-the-box with what I wrote because I know many writers have touched on the subject and I would like to feel I contributed something mind opening and maybe a little unique. If you have any suggestions about how I could improve my writing feel free to share. I enjoy criticism and feel like it’s necessary in any aspect of your life in order to improve. 😀

P.S. I’d like to thank the wonderful folks at Redsitewins for giving me this opportunity to write for them. Thanks Amanda!

P.S.S. If you would like me to write about anything specific, let me know via e-mail and I’ll make sure to turn your suggestions into considerations. I write for ya’ll, after all!

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About theblackcowboy

I've been playing Magic for nearly a decade now. Or in other words, the entirety of my teenage and young adult life. Spending half your life playing a card game can allow you to meet many different kinds of people and go to many places, and I've had the benefit of doing both. I am, at my core, an MTG grinder. Now, Don't get me wrong, I love me some cube draft as much as the next guy. However, nothing gets my heart pumping and mind racing like a large tournament. You can find me at PTQ's as often as my schedule allows me, and have even found moderate success at tournaments. I've qualified for nationals multiple times and even managed to win an SCG 5k in 2010. Athough I'm proud of my accomplishments, thusfar, I have a long way to go. I hope I can share my growth as a player with you while, hopefully, helping you grow as players as well. Writing is a passion of mine and you will enjoy the content I present for your viewing eyes and inquiring minds. Expect to hear some Magic strategy, Magic theory, tournament reports, and sweet stories.

Posted on April 4, 2011, in Articles and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Seems like a lot of good psychology brought out by the game and the fact that you have a more fluid belief of learning (as opposed to a fixed belief of learning) though “bad” is a relative word and yes we are all “bad” in that sense but at the same time, it’s not just what you do but how you handle it. I like how you explain the “right play” is more than just a play but always contextual in a certain game, and yes fighting the person does give you an edge but only if you keep tight. I hope to see more articles from you.

  2. Pretty good article. I definitely know a lot of people that are unjustifiably arrogant about their playskill (myself included, sometimes).

  3. First of all – nice website, which in fact I found by recommendation of Ertai’s Lament.

    On the article … thanks a lot for taking out the stress of perfectionism in casual play. I guess, every one of us had his moments, where a brilliant play was accomplished and other moments, where you asked yourself how you could play so inferiorly bad. Yes, that is what makes us human, giving away an advantageous situation to the opponent is something none of us is immune to. And this possibility greatly contributes to the fun and flavor of the game. If there were a perfect deck for each and every situation and if there were the one and only perfect move … I guess we’d all find ourselves playing chess rather than tweaking our decks. If there was no room for improvement, why would we strive to build better decks, to play more wisely?

    Thanks again for stressing out the human and psychological factor.

  4. Great article. This is absolutely true! I always have to remind myself when watching others play that I know both players’ hands, the players don’t have that luxury, so I try to critique as if I don’t know that much. Also, I’ve stopped telling myself “if I had just…” when I lose. Instead I simply try to talk with observers and ask where I made bad calls. I know some of them usually, but it helps to get as much critique as possible.

  5. I am getting back to magic after a 10 year hiatus and a Loy of mechanics are taking some getting used to. I played in a PTQ last weekend thinking I was too outdated with my deck build but actually ended up 1-5! My matches were all close though and I picked up some great tips. I agree with thus article that sometimes we overthink a tourney deck when simple can catch someone off guard. Everyone preps for complex decks too much.

  6. I certainly agree. As a player who is much more tournament-savvy and generally more knowledgeable than his friends, I have often made the mistake of overestimating my advantage in experience… only to be beaten mercilessly by the person I was teaching to play. You have to acknowledge your mistakes to get better.

  7. I’ve enjoyed these recent articles on the mentality behind Magic the Gathering and identifying the strengths and weaknesses of my own strategy. I’ve quickly come to the realization that I don’t spend enough time analyzing the effectiveness of the cards nor do I pay enough attention to the way I play and how I could have done things differently. I’m glad I’m learning these lessons now since they’ll make me a better player instead of years from now when I wish I could have been a better player. On that note, I’m not good enough to have ever thought myself better than others. Really, I’m not that good. But now if I ever get better, I’ll be sure to remember my humble roots.

  8. “Don’t fall in love with your cards” is a recommendation given out by MaRo … I catch myself acting against this rule when wanting to include a singleton rare into a deck …

    As simple the “If a card doesn’t fit, put it out”-approach is, the hard it can be to follow, especially on a casual basis.

    So much for being “bad” at brewing …

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