Saturday mornings in Summer 2017, almost invariably, included coffee, breakfast sandwiches, and a long car ride to a Magic tournament somewhere in Maine with my friend, Charlie. I loved Magic as a kid, came back to it in 2016, and felt ready to test my skills in a larger setting after playing FNM for a year. Magic, for the second time in my life, was my primary hobby and focus of all my free time. I imagined myself competing at Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers, then Pro Tour Qualifiers, then the Pro Tour, and then we’ll see. Competitive Magic was very much in my short-term plans and I was open to it being a large part of my life moving forward.
Now married with two children, a third on the way, and a small menagerie that I care for, it’s safe to say that my long-term gameplan has changed. Don’t get me wrong – I still love competing. I prepared for the 2020 Eternal Draft Championship and will certainly do so again in 2021 – but I can’t keep up with much more than that. As someone who truly excelled in the “Mistakes You Can Make in Your 20s” quadrant, this is by no means a sad story. My life has turned out far better than I deserve. But playing Eternal competitively, as great as it is, will remain a wonderful but relatively small part of my life for the foreseeable future.
Evaluating myself honestly, I think I’m pretty good at games like Eternal and Magic. I might even be very good or great when I really dedicate myself to a format. But I’m not excellent. I’m far from excellent. Even potentially great seems like a stretch given how poorly I play sometimes. There’s a chasm between players like me and the elites that I’ll probably never even come close to closing. That is totally, completely fine with me now. I’m aware that I don’t have the time (or energy) that becoming excellent would require. I do, however, think I have a pretty decent understanding of what it would take to become excellent. I definitely know some of the traps that players can fall in to because I had to climb out of them. If you’re like I was in Summer 2017, ready to dedicate time and energy towards these games, I think I can help you avoid some mistakes. Don’t make the same mistakes I made. Be better than me. Let’s talk limited.
Tournament Report!!! (From three years ago)
“Play your bombs.”
^ This is the conventional wisdom when it comes to sealed. It seems so obvious. Of course you play your bombs. But then you find yourself staring at a pile of hot primal garbage with Eilyn, Fearless as your top-end and suddenly playing your bomb doesn’t only seem incorrect, it seems downright risky. So what’s correct?
My Amonkhet sealed pool had two bombs: Glorybringer and Regal Caracal. My white cards weren’t great but the Caracal is, so I followed conventional wisdom and played a Red/White deck with some suboptimal cards. I played five or six rounds, so probably 10-15 games, and never saw the cat. Wasn’t stuck in my hand, didn’t draw it a turn too late. I literally never put it on the stack. “Play your bombs. Great Advice! Fun game. So cool. Glad I prepared so much. Must be nice to draw your rares. Muuuuuust be nice” were undoubtedly some of my thoughts while I watched Charlie draft in the Top 8.
What a horrendous piece of writing this would be if it were a sob story about a time I didn’t draw a card in a tournament three years ago, so let’s get to some conclusions.
These days, it’s easy for me to look back on that tournament, consider everything I know about limited, and decide that I’ll take the same approach the next time I’m in a sealed tournament. I’d build Red/White again given the chance and think it would be correct, but it wasn’t easy for me to see it that way at the time. On the ride home, Charlie probably listened to me say things like this “I’m not sure building my deck that way was correct. Yeah, I had bombs, but I never drew one of them and played terrible cards.” I never drew the Regal Caracal. Only drew Glorybringer sometimes. Woe is me.
True for Me
This is the line of thinking I want you to be aware of because I’m sure I fell prey to it for a while after that tournament: Maybe the conventional wisdom isn’t true for me. Playing bombs in sealed might be correct for most, but maybe not for me. Playing 17 lands in a limited deck might be conventionally correct, but I keep getting flooded in my games, so maybe it’s not correct for me. Yeah, I identify the open colors, but then I never get passed good cards in those colors, so maybe drafting the hard way isn’t correct for me.
I am not special. You are not special (in the probability sense – you’re fantastic as a person). The conventional wisdom is conventional for a reason. It is true regardless of our personal experience. You could flood out every single game for three weeks in a row at FNM…. 17 lands would still be correct. You could put great rares in your sealed deck and never draw them for an entire tournament….. playing your rares would still be correct. We’re dealing with sample sizes that are far too small for us to see the bigger picture in the moment.
This isn’t exclusive to Magic. Do you find yourself saying things like this? “I don’t like to activate Valley-Clan Sage because it always mills my good cards.” Or “My imbue units always get silenced the turn after I play them.” Maybe “I never hit my revenge cards but my opponent always hits them right away.” Really? Always? Helloooooo confirmation bias. Math disagrees.
Refuting Conventional Wisdom
Okay, so we’re in the summer of 2017, I didn’t make the top 8 of this tournament and I’m incredibly unhappy about it. I’m convinced that conventional Magic wisdom is wrong. My recent experience and the very strong emotions I’m feeling are both telling me I’m correct. Human beings are wildly unreasonable creatures when we’re emotional. I’m convinced that playing bombs in sealed isn’t correct for me.
Now let’s imagine I go straight from this tournament to presenting my new findings at a conference:
“Welcome, distinguished guests. Thank you for being here. Good to see you, Mr. Finkel. Dr. Karsten, how are ya? Kai, nice of you to make the trip. So I know math and your collective knowledge spanning generations says that you should always play your bombs in sealed, but I just got back from a tournament and I never drew this Big Cat soooooooo conventional wisdom refuted. Not true for me. Thanks for coming!”
Ridiculous, of course. Let’s have some fun with another trap I fell in to after that tournament: I couldn’t have done anything differently. Couldn’t make myself draw that cat, could I? Just bad luck. Sure must be nice to draw your bombs. Suuuuure must be nice.
It became a running joke over the summer that I would consistently make the top 8 of these tournaments but never win. When that happens, it’s easy to blame luck. I was probably playing moderately above average Magic at the time. It was within the normal range of variance for me to win one of those tournaments based on how I was playing, and that’s what I focused on, but the idea that I couldn’t have done anything differently is comical.
Back then, I would have said that I played really well but got unlucky that day. Sure, maybe I did get unlucky. Fair enough. But not making glaring mistakes and playing perfectly are two very different things. Let’s make it easy to see why this focus is incorrect. Do I really, truly believe, given the exact same set of circumstances, that Ben Stark and I end that tournament with the same record? Really? Seth Manfield couldn’t have figured out how to win one or two of those games without the Big Cat? Luis Salvatto would have been complaining about his bad luck on the car ride home? Reid Duke couldn’t have penetrated the variance of the Southern Maine PPTQ circuit? Come on. Come onnnnnnn.
Imagine it a different way. Now I’m rewatching all of my games with Jon Finkel behind me. Decision after decision, match after match, am I really turning to Finkel and saying “See? Perfect play. I’ve been doing this for a whole year now, Jon. I think I know what I’m doing.” It seems silly when viewed this way, but we are all so comfortable saying “I did everything right” or “I couldn’t have done anything differently.” Really? Martin Juza wouldn’t disagree with some of your choices? LSV would’ve built the exact same deck? Time and again, CCG players revert to “well, I did everything right” or “I couldn’t have done anything differently” Of course we think so. No one intentionally makes bad plays. We don’t know what we don’t know.
Probability (and a visual)
Here’s how I look at that Amonkhet sealed tournament now: If we simulated that tournament 10,000 times, there would be outcomes like the one I experienced – never drawing the cat. There would also be results with the opposite outcome, I drew the cat in every game. And every other possibility in between. On that one day, in that one tournament, I caught the bad end of variance and never drew it. Maybe I make the top 8 of that tournament 70% of the time and just happened to hit the 30% that day. Unlucky, sure. But the idea that I couldn’t have done anything differently, that Huey Jensen would have had the same results sitting in my seat, or that conventional wisdom doesn’t apply to me because of my one tournament experience is beyond absurd.
I wouldn’t deprive y’all of the high-quality images you’ve come to expect, so here’s a visual approximation of me sideboarding in Magic in 2017.
Just handing that win percentage over to my opponent for free. Sideboarding was one of my many major areas of improvement at the time (and still is).
Not drawing that cat was unlucky and probably 99% of what I focused on that day. I didn’t focus on the cards I splashed, the choices I made, or the aspects of the game I had control over. I focused on the fact that I got unlucky. Worse, I thought that maybe conventional wisdom didn’t apply to me. Somehow, someway, I’m special. My Magic experience is different from everyone else in the world. In Eternal, in my worst moments, this turns in to “Maybe the shuffler is broken?” because that’s easier to focus on than mistakes I might be making.
You’ve probably gotten unlucky in tournaments. Play these games long enough and we all experience the bad end of variance. It’s going to happen if it hasn’t already. You have to accept this and focus on your own choices, even if you really, truly did get unlucky.
- Conventional Wisdom is conventional for a reason. For example, you can put 16 lands in your MTG limited decks and win at FNM sometimes, but math will prove you wrong in the end. You’ll mulligan more hands, struggle to hit your land drops, and you’ll lose more games. It won’t be obvious, and most of us would blame luck, but detracting from conventional wisdom will hurt in the long-run. Math and probability will be sure of it. I’m so guilty of blaming horrible luck when all I’m experiencing is the bad end of normal variance (e.g. dying with a splashed card in hand even though I had decent fixing).
- The odds that you’re playing perfectly are miniscule. I didn’t play perfectly then and I certainly don’t play perfectly now. It’s hard for me to see my incorrect decisions – I obviously think they’re correct while I’m making them. Luck, variance, whatever you want to call it, is part of what we signed up for. If you want to be excellent, it’s essential that you focus on your own decisions and not the variance.
I’ll probably never be excellent at these games and that’s fine. But if you want to be, focusing on luck and variance won’t help you get there. You might as well get mad at the weather. It’s there and you can’t change it.
My goal, always, is to help people get better at limited. I fell in to these traps – don’t do the same. I cared so much about those tournaments and desperately wanted to do well. Such strong emotions clouded my judgment. Don’t let it cloud yours. Be better than me. Focus on your choices, grow from good to great to excellent, and when you reach that point – do your pal, Schaab, a favor and help others do the same. Until then, I hope you have an excellent Saturday. Happy Drafting!
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