Learning From Losses

Whether you’re the educator or the student, the process of teaching and learning is unique for every individual. Your approach to education should vary based on who you’re teaching. While my writing is always intended for newer players, I’m aware that players of all skill levels see my work so I try to keep that in mind as well. Regardless of background, skill level, learning style, luck, and all other factors, there’s one aspect of CCGs that all teachers and students of the game will experience: Losing.

Reading it back, my Message to World’s Competitors seemed a little harsh. I wrote three sections, two of them were about how they were probably going to lose and the other reminded them to complete an automatic bodily function (breathing). Truly inspiring stuff. Obviously, if I had some great advice for the World’s Competitors I probably would’ve been in the actual tournament. My intention certainly wasn’t to dishearten anyone. Personally, I play much worse when I put pressure on myself. Games are much easier for me to play when I don’t feel like I have to win them. I meant to write something that sounded like this: Best of luck and don’t put too much pressure on yourself!  Ended up writing this: Congratulations! You’re gonna lose. Like, yeah maybe you’ll win but probably not. But you might! But probably not. But good luck though!

This time around, I have some tiered messaging for the readers. The best CCG players in the world lose 30-40% of their matches when they play against other elite players. That’s a lot of losing when you’re one of the best in the world at something. I’m not sure what you’re like, reader, so I have a few messages for you.

If you benefit from someone supportive, here’s Mr. Rogers:

“Being the best loser takes talent, just as being the best winner does. Whether you’re first or middle or last, what’s important is that you’re you. And people can like you just the way you are.”

Maybe it helps to hear someone calm and rational like Captain Jean-Luc Picard:

“It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

For those who prefer a more authoritarian approach, here’s New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick looking disappointed in you and wishing you’d be better:

Jul 30, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick listens to a question during a news conference before training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Ok, so losing is inevitable. We are going to lose games. What now?

Three Types of Losing

Before we get in to specifics about learning from losses, I want to take a quick moment to identify three common scenarios after a loss.

  •  (A) Lost, able to think back on it and learn something
  • (B) No feeling at all. Forget it almost immediately. On to the next game.
  • (C) Frustration/Annoyance/Anger

Let’s be honest. We all experience (C) sometimes. How often we experience it varies greatly among individuals. If you find yourself frustrated or angry after most of your losses, then the thing you need to learn is how to get to scenario (B) and then (A) after a loss. That’s it. That’s your focus. If you’re carrying those negative feelings in to your next game, I can pretty much guarantee you’re playing worse. You can still win games while you’re angry. You won’t win against the best. 

Most days, I’m in (B) mode. I fly through my drafts and games far quicker than I should. I most definitely feel (C) sometimes but it’s an area I’ve worked on for a long time and being aware of it helps a lot. When I’m preparing for a tournament, I play in (A) mode, which is what we’ll be talking about today.

One other thing. If you’re a person who finds themselves annoyed or angry after a loss, you’re not some rage monster – you’re a human being. You’re allowed to feel things. Mr. Rogers taught us that too. If you’re angry about a loss, be angry. Be furious if you want. Let yourself be irate for a minute – then let it go. As a person existing in the world, you’re going to get angry. It’s how you handle it that matters. If you’re in (C) mode after your losses, you’re just a human person, so you shouldn’t feel like you’re doing something wrong. But you have to recognize it. Acknowledge it, feel it, let it go before the next game starts. I can’t tell you how to do that for yourself. You’re on your own for that part.

What’s Your Goal?

It’s important to determine your goal before you start playing. Eternal’s gameplay is far too deep to play games with the broad goal of improving. In Listen, I advocate for approaching the game with deliberate practice (i.e. focus on smaller aspects of the game and work to perfect those instead of working on the whole). My goal is different every time I play Eternal. When a new draft set comes out, my goal is to enjoy it. When a set has been out for a while, my goal is to figure it out which archetypes are best. When I feel like I’ve figured out the basics of a set, my goal is to try new things to find small edges.

While my goal is different each time I sit down to play Eternal, I also have long-term goals or areas of my game that I’m constantly trying to improve. Examples of current broad goals that will last for weeks/months: Slow down, work on my endgame (last 2-3 turns of a long game), don’t concede when I still have a chance to win, build better aggro decks, etc. Examples of past broad goals: Use all my power each turn, make better mulligan decisions, don’t put cards in my opponents’ hands and lose to them.

So when I sit down to play next week, my goals will probably look something like this:

Short-term: Look for trends in Draft/Gameplay now that the bot packs are done. Start to identify most common/best archetypes.

When I first played with Jekk in Gauntlet, I had to actively remind myself that his ability cost 1 and required a sigil. Sometimes I forgot the cost. Sometimes I forgot that it specifically had to be a sigil. So every time I drew Jekk I’d say something like “Jekk, costs 1 and needs a sigil. Costs 1 and needs a sigil.”

Long-term: Slow down. Focus on endgame if you find yourself in a long game. Don’t concede if I still have a chance to win. Pay extra attention when I play against aggro decks.

Prior to writing, I posted in the Farming Eternal Discord asking for specific questions about this topic. @Alabazoo asked “How active is learning from losses during your gameplay?” – I usually have something broad in mind that I’m trying to learn (e.g. what archetypes are good in a format) and focus on specific interactions (e.g. looting) or gamestates when they occur. I actively try to learn from my losses while preparing for tournaments to look for trends.

“Do you try and remember 1-2 key moments?” Again, it’s impossible to improve in all areas at once, so I strongly encourage you to determine which areas you want to focus on before you play your games. I probably only remember a couple things about my games but they relate to the specific area I’m trying to improve. I can remember more if I try but it takes effort so I usually don’t.

“Form a hypothesis and see how that plays out?” – I do this while I draft. Not sure about gameplay. If I’m unsure between two cards while I deckbuild, I might keep track of that. For example, maybe I’d play Envelop instead of Teleport. Then every time I draw Envelop, I ask myself if I would rather have Teleport instead.   

“It seems impossible to remember every card drawn, board state and hand state during the game: How do you remember all the details of the game? What key moments DO you remember (pay attention to) to clone that one-side feedback loop?”

I remember very little about most games I play I think. Maybe because I play so quickly sometimes. Having played so much, I can play Eternal without making egregious mistakes most of the time. Playing optimally takes a lot of effort though. When looting was an area of deliberate practice for me, I’d try to remember everything I could about particularly hard choices so I could ask people I trusted about it later. That doesn’t happen naturally though.  I have to actively commit it to memory. Otherwise most games just leave my brain. These days I’d take a screenshot and ask others.

Evaluating Losses

We’ll group losses in to three categories: gameplay, deckbuilding, and draft. You are allowed to blame variance if you’ve checked the other three categories, but only then. For example, you can blame variance if you keep a two power hand and never draw a third in a deck with 19 power sources. You can’t blame variance if you never draw a third with 17 power sources in your deck. That’s on deckbuilding. That’s not variance. I hesitate to even include variance as a category because people attribute their losses to luck faaarrrrrrrr more often than they should in my opinion. Losses due to luck happen though and it’s important to recognize that for both your sanity and process.  

  1. Gameplay

@TempestDragonKing “What detail in a loss do you look for the most?”

Answer: Can I attribute this loss to one of my decisions?

A better way would probably be “which of my decisions contributed to this outcome?” but I usually try to identify one choice I made that affected the outcome of a loss. After some games, my focus will be on a specific interaction: Should I have blocked differently? Maybe I should’ve spent my power differently one turn.

Ben Stark describes Magic as following heuristics 90% of the time and finding the 10% of the time when it would be correct to go against the heuristic. Hall of Famers like himself identify those 10% scenarios more frequently than a player like me, and the elite of the elite (PVDDR, LSV) identify that 10% more often than Ben Stark. When it comes to gameplay, I’m constantly asking myself if I missed a 10% scenario.

Given where I am in my development as a player, I find myself attributing more losses to improperly evaluating the gamestate rather than a single interaction. Playing against Stonescar a couple months back, the low-cost cards that my opponent played led me to believe they were a very focused aggro deck. That being the case, I made some unfavorable exchanges to reach parity with the idea that my average draw would be better than my opponent’s for the rest of the game. Then they continued to draw and play 4-5 power units and eventually won the game.

Two possibilities I considered:

  1. Did I misevaluate this game based on the information I had (e.g. the cards I’d seen my opponent play)?
  2. Did I get unlucky? Did I have a good plan but my opponent just so happened to draw more of their top end in those turns?

I still don’t have an answer.

Often, one of the hardest decisions you’ll face is whether or not you should use your removal spell on an opponent’s creature. What if they play a bigger creature later? Is that likely based on what they’ve done the last few turns? Is it likely based on how the rest of their deck is constructed? Can I beat this other creature without using my removal spell on it somehow? To answer this question effectively, you have to imagine how the rest of the game might play out with each choice.

If you’re a newer player, you should look more at your individual gameplay decisions (e.g. attacking and blocking optimally). Get that stuff perfected first, then worry about losing due to bad theorycrafting.  

After a loss, the detail I look for most is which of my decisions contributed to that outcome. Sometimes my decision occurred during the game, other times I cost myself the game during the draft or deckbuilding.

2. Deckbuilding

Did I give myself opportunities to get unlucky? This is the question you should be asking yourself over and over again. Couldn’t cast my splash cards! So unlucky! Did you have enough sources for your splashes? Does your fixing justify it? Does your deck need those splash cards or do you just really want to play them? Are they really even splashes or are you playing three colors?

Couldn’t cast my Smogwing Tinker! So unlucky! Dude, you have eight justice sources. Are you planning to cast it on turn 20? Be Boring.

Here’s an actionable step you can take after a loss: Look at the cards in your hand. Why are they still there? An incomplete list:

1. Too expensive. Do you have too many expensive cards in your deck? Do you have enough power in your deck overall? What does your curve look like?

2. Splash cards: Follow the rule of 3 when you build your decks. You need at least three sources of a color for every card you splash. Something I’m still working on – Drawing your splash card without drawing a source is completely within the normal range of variance. It’s unlucky but it’s not unusual, and it’s not even that unlucky. Every time you splash, you give yourself an opportunity to get unlucky – so it’s on you when *not if* it happens.

3. Conditional cards: How’s that Precision Plunge looking? If you couldn’t cast your conditional cards, yes, you got unlucky. But you gave yourself the opportunity to get unlucky. And I’m here to tell ya that’s totally fine if you recognize that’s the risk you’re taking on. If you recognize that a conditional card might be dead a percentage of the time but are willing to put it in your deck anyway, then you just have to accept the times when it’s rotting in your hand at the end of a game.

4. Not enough power: Start with 18-19, look for good reasons to stray from there. If you go down to 17, you’ve earned all your power problems. I always encourage newer players to err on the side of more power rather than too few. Not only does it help guarantee you can cast all your spells, it also makes a lot more of your hands keepable. When I keep a two-power hand while playing Feln Control, I whisper “this is why you play 19 power” to myself like a verbal security blanket before I click the “keep” button.

5. Cards you chose not to cast: This is a tough one and really should go under Gameplay.  There are a variety of reasons someone might not cast their cards but I’ll address one specific one that I often fell prey to as a beginner and worry that I still occasionally do: waiting to get full/extra value out of my cards.

Let’s start with a fairly big creature, Minotaur Lighthoof:

This effect is pretty unique, is perfect with infiltrate or berserk, and honestly just feels great when used effectively.  There were definitely points in my playing career where I would’ve held this card in my hand on turn four because I didn’t want to waste the effect on something like an acolyte. Now? Here’s my 4/4. Go. All experienced players will say you should try to get full value out of your cards, and that’s true, but in this case it conflicts with another heuristic: spend all your power every turn. This is especially true in the developing phase of the game. You can find a heuristic or piece of gameplay wisdom for almost any play you want to make – the key is figuring out which heuristic or simple principle applies to a given situation.

Okay, so maybe you wouldn’t consider holding a 4/4 in your hand, so let’s go lower.

How many turns are you waiting to ambush a 2/2 instead of just playing this card? One? Two? How much potential damage did you miss? Are you holding up power every single turn now?

Sure, you’d obviously play a 3/3 and attack for 3, but what about Sand Tornado? How much damage are you missing there waiting to get extra value? Two damage? Four? Six? These things add up over time.

Are you holding your premium uncommon just in case your opponent plays something huge and you have to ambush it? Are you holding it even though you have no reason to believe this is going to happen? Even though the board state says your opponent isn’t attacking you anytime soon? Are you not attacking for two per turn and plundering a power because you’re waiting for a scenario that’s very unlikely to occur?

Of course, as always, there are exceptions. Sometimes it’s correct to play your Sand Tornado on turn 3. Sometimes it’s not. Personally, I’ve definitely held cards in my hand for far too long waiting to get that little extra bit of value. By waiting so long for extra value, I missed the regular value I could’ve gained. If you lose with cards in your hand that you had opportunities to cast earlier in the game, you should think long and hard about whether that decision was correct based on the information you had at the time.

3. Draft

Drafting and deckbuilding clearly go hand in hand. If your deck is a three-color pile, you need to work on your drafting skills before you worry about deckbuilding. Attributing losses to your draft is difficult – the draft process is incredibly complex and it’s hard to draw a straight line from any one draft choice you made to any specific loss. If your overall deck seems below-average though, you probably didn’t draft the open colors. Maybe you forced the draft based on your first few picks. Maybe a personal favorite of yours (hello, from below) led you astray in pack 2. Here’s a real example of how it might play out.

I forced a Feln deck after opening From Below in Pack 2. The curve was fine, it had win conditions, and it had card draw. Not the best Feln deck but it looked pretty ok to me considering I forced it during the draft.

Game 1 opponent: Stonescar

Turn two: Flameheart Patroller

Turn three: Vorpal Cutter

Turn four: Hired Gun and chemical rounds

Schaab’s Feln deck:

Turn two: Terrazon Echo, plundering for fixing.

Turn three: Hired Gun

Turn four: Tears

By the end of turn four, they had three creatures on the board – I had a terrazon echo that couldn’t effectively block any of their units. I lost that game.

Now, it’s super easy to look at that loss and come to these conclusions: 1. My opponent’s Stonescar ran beautifully (it did) 2. Given how well my opponent’s deck functioned, there was nothing I could do. Both of those conclusions are true. There was nothing I could do with the cards I drafted and put in my deck. I forced that Feln deck. I knew that while I was doing it. Ya know what I don’t really want in my Feln deck? Terrazon Echo. Hired Gun. Terrazon Echo was a fine inclusion because it’s a two-drop and helped fix my power but it’s definitely below average in a Feln deck.

If Feln were actually open during the draft, I would’ve been playing lightning strike, valley-clan sage, cheerful shephard, or a Shadow removal spell on turn two. Instead, I played Terrazon Echo which couldn’t block anything. My opponent’s deck looked great, but that game is winnable with a good Feln deck. I played suboptimal cards because I forced my draft and got punished for it. That’s the real reason I lost that game.

*Variance/Bombs

 You will lose to bombs. You will lose to variance. It’s okay to acknowledge when that happens. But make sure that was the actual reason. Did you get unlucky or were you too greedy during deckbuilding? Was your opponent’s deck really that good or was your deck lackluster because the draft didn’t go well? Should you have saved that removal spell or was it correct to use it given the information you had at the time?

Focus on what you can control. The good news is that you can control a lot in draft. You make so many decisions before you even cast your first card. I’m an imperfect person, so my first reaction after a loss is usually to blame it on something my opponent did. You can always find a reason to blame a loss on your opponent. Preventing you from winning is kinda their whole goal. Your job is to determine your role in the loss. Maybe you really couldn’t have done anything against your opponent’s deck, but did you draft perfectly? Deckbuild perfectly? Unless you’re drafting, deckbuilding, and playing 100% perfectly (you’re not. No one is), there will always be something you did incorrectly that you can learn from in the future.

Questions From Discord

@Cotillion “What’s the most effective tool you use when analyzing a loss? Something the software provides to us? Something you keep track of yourself? Just thinking back on the game for a minute?”

I don’t track my results, so we can get that one out of the way. The Sometimes-Schaab-Draft thread in the Farming Eternal Discord is the closest I’ve ever come to cataloging my drafts. I wish I were the type of person who tracks his results but I don’t.

Sometimes I review my match history after a loss. Typically, I do this to see if I got as unlucky as it felt. If I look back and see that five of my first seven draws were power or something like that, then okay my draws were just bad. Sometimes when I look I find that my draw was kinda normal and I didn’t get all that unlucky. Occasionally, and I hate when I do this but I’ll admit it, I will look at match history when I’m tilting just to see how unlucky I was. I don’t need to check the match history to know there are only three power left in my 20 cards but I’ll do it anyway.   

After a deck does poorly, I usually take a look at my match history to see which decks I lost to. Then I think about why I lost each game and look for trends.

When I’m preparing for a big tournament, I write thoughts down in a notebook. I don’t trust myself to remember everything, nor do I want to place that cognitive demand on my brain unnecessarily, so I write some stuff down.

“How do you separate could I have won from should I have won? Sometimes the wrong line would have worked out when the right line didn’t.”

Great opportunity to talk about a very important point: Don’t trust your results. You can make mistakes and win. You can play perfectly and lose.

DO NOT REACH THESE CONCLUSIONS

I won = My decisions were correct.

I lost = My decisions were wrong.

Thinking of the game in terms of percentages helps me immensely. I really try not to think in terms of “I should have won that game” because no one is entitled to wins. Instead, I try to frame it as winning a certain percentage of the time. Let’s say you paused all of my games at turn 10 and asked how it was going. My response wouldn’t be “I think I’ll win/lose,” it would be “I think I win this game 70% of the time” or “I’m really behind. I probably win this game 20% of the time.” Turn after turn, decision after decision, all you’re doing is trying to increase the probability that you win the game. You’re not trying to win the game on any particular turn – you’re trying to increase the probability that you win. If you can make a play that increases your chances of winning from 20-25%, sweet! Still not a great chance, but 1 out of 4 isn’t all that bad.

When I’m at my best, I very rarely think of winning and losing. All I do is ask if I gave myself the best chance I could to win the game. Losing is inevitable. It’s going to happen. Did I give myself the best chance I could to prevent it? If yes, cool. On to the next game. If not, how can I be better next time. Of course, I’m usually not at my best, so most of the time I lose and think “THIS GAME IS STUPID AND SO IS MIGHTWEAVER!”

@Patomaru “How do you learn from losses if you have the memory of a goldfish?”

Answer: Take screenshots and ask others for their opinions like this fine fella did.

@Collecter making his own rules by providing a comment instead of a question: “Sometimes you got your loss on the mulligan or deck building, which I feel like people miss the most. A lot easier to say ‘oh I should have charred the trail maker.’”

One of these days I’ll get to write about how wrong @Collecter is, but today is not that day. He’s right for a couple reasons. It’s definitely easier to see your gameplay mistakes than your draft mistakes so most people miss them. Also, some games are won or lost when you decide to keep or mulligan a hand. For more thoughts of his, I highly recommend this episode of the Friends of Eternal Podcast.

@Alabazoo “There’s the tactical; ‘How well did I play my deck that game?” but also “was my deck structured to beat that deck? What could I do differently next draft to beat a deck like that?”

I want to approach this question two ways. Instead of asking “was my deck structured to beat that deck?”, let’s talk about separating “how well did I play my deck that game” from “Is this deck good?” because that’s far more important to determine.

Let’s imagine you’ve heard of a hammer and what it does but have never seen one. One day, you’re given a hammer and some nails for some clever reason I’m too tired to come up with right now. You pick it up by the wrong end, think “this must be so you can hold it a special way” and then start whacking nails with the handle. You’ll bend some nails and make slow progress but eventually you might come to some conclusions.

Conclusion 1: I am very bad at using hammers.

Conclusion 2: Hammers are terrible tools

Conclusion 3: Hammers are terrible and I’m bad at using them

Based on your experience, all three of these conclusions are correct. At the very least, you’re sure about Conclusion 1: you’re very bad at using hammers. But of course, we all know that Conclusion 2 is incorrect. Hammers are very effective tools. That also invalidates Conclusion 3, which leaves us with Conclusion 1: You are very bad at using hammers. So far, yes. You’re holding it the wrong way. But once that’s corrected, maybe you’re actually really good at using hammers. We won’t know until then. So all three of your initial conclusions would’ve been incorrect even though they felt correct based on your personal experience.

If you handed me a random tool and told me to use it, I would probably try to use it incorrectly 80% of the time. I’m not very handy. But once I saw someone else do it, it would be easy for me to see my mistakes. If I showed you a video of someone using a hammer, you’d recognize and correct your mistake pretty quickly.

In Listen, I advocated for using models while learning. How can you tell if you’re piloting Rakano decks correctly if you’re not building your decks the right way? You can’t. You’ll reach incorrect conclusions based on your experience. You’re not using those tools the way they’re meant to be used if you’re not drafting them well. If you want to get better at playing Feln decks, you better make sure you’re drafting good Feln decks. Otherwise your conclusions about Feln and your playskill with it will all be based on bad information.

So now let’s look at the second part of the question: “was my deck structured to beat that deck? What could I do differently next draft to beat a deck like that?”

Sometimes you encounter bad matchups for your limited deck. I had a very solid Combrei midrange deck meant to play a long game and queued up against an Elysian flyers deck. I had a good plan – clog the ground until I played my win conditions – but that plan was bad now. Flyers don’t care about Caravan Guards and DuneDivers. I had answers to flyers but not nearly enough to handle the quantity of flyers in my opponents deck. It was a bad matchup, maybe I win it 35% of the time, and I lost that game.

That’s a data point. I wouldn’t draft any differently next time. If I continued to see Elysian Flyers, or a lot of flyers in general, then I’d start to draft my decks differently. So bad matchups happen sometimes but I don’t typically change anything about my draft process unless it starts to look like a trend.”

Also from @Alabazoo “When do you ignore this process? i.e. what are the situations you can safely ignore as variance? (Drawing 8 power back to back in an 18 power deck).”

First I’ll look for any clear indicators of why I lost a game. If you finish a game with 10 power and your opponent finishes with 6, they drew four more cards than you did. It’s hard to win games when you’re down four resources. It’s tough to overcome that type of normal, but unlucky, variance. I forget those games almost immediately.

Let’s talk for a second about flood because people love to be greedy with their power bases and will find any excuse to cut corners. Like losing, you’re going to draw too many power sometimes. That’s the normal range of variance. Two games isn’t enough to tell if a deck is built correctly. Ten games isn’t enough. Our sample sizes aren’t big enough. If 18 power was correct when you built your deck, it’s correct even after you flood horribly two games in a row. Concluding otherwise is being results-oriented. And if you draw seven power in a row, only one of those was the extra power you so desperately want to cut. The rest was just bad variance. But people draw four power in a row and suddenly “THAT’S IT! I’M PUTTING 12 POWER IN MY DECK!” Ignore your results. Check your fundamentals.

Should you learn from your wins too? Of course, but “Learning from Wins” doesn’t sound nearly as catchy, so here we are. Winning feels great, but losing well is essential if you want to become elite. All of the greats handle their losses well. If you want to be great, you’ll have to lose well too. Don’t worry – Mr. Rogers believes in you – and so do I.

Happy Drafting and Learning (Losing)!

-Schaab

Let’s Talk Limited Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/LetsTalkLimited?fan_landing=true

You can find me in the LetsTalkLimited section of the Farming Eternal Discord https://discord.gg/YfQVbjZ

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: