Recently, I wrote about NIX TIX drafts over New Year’s weekend. I did quite well in some draft formats; less well in others. I thought about that a lot, and I think the difference comes down to some simple principles. While you can expound and extrapolate, I think most Magic strategy boils down to three basic rules: the rules to win in any format. You’ve probably heard this before, but they bear repeating.
I think this is why I did so well in 9E drafts (fifteen 4-3-3-2 drafts so far, off the three draft sets I started with), and why I suck at Time Spiral (five drafts off three draft sets.) In 9E, I follow the rules. In other formats, like Time Spiral, I’m pretty weak in at least the last two, and occasionally violate the first.
Rule #1: Don’t Tilt:
As a judge, I know the comprehensive rules pretty well, including section 102 (winning and losing the game) and section 420 (state based effects). I’ve also reviewed them carefully. Swearing, pounding the table and cursing the shuffler are not – repeat not – ways to win the game.
You can win the game by decking your opponent, by reducing thier life total to zero, or by a bunch of special win conditions (e.g. Coalition Victory.) You can’t win by getting mad – no matter how much you whine about it.
I’ve also reviewed section 102.3 (losing the game.) Although getting pissed is not listed, although you certainly can lose the game as a result. (That’s “pissed” as in mad, although getting drunk can lose you games as well.)
Craig Jones, and other English-type gents, call getting angry about the last game or match “going on tilt.” I like the term. Going on tilt is a problem, because if you are worked up about the last match, you are not paying full attention to the current match. That means you will probably lose this match.
At one local store, one player gets really worked up when he loses to mana screw, or lucky opponents, or his deck not behaving. I always have mixed emotions when I play him the next round. I know he will be on tilt, and I know I will win. I also know he will be even more pissed off as a result – and since I like the guy, I don’t want that.
To win a game, you have to be focused on how you will win that game. Not how you would be winning if you weren’t land screwed, or how the odds said you should have drawn one of your six removal spells by now, or how the opponent is a total lucksack. That sort of stuff is totally irrelevant.
What you need to concentrate on is staying alive until you draw the land, or the removal spell, or playing around the bombs the opponent drafter, drew and played – and on how you will win after you have done that.
I can do well is 9E drafts because I don’t go on tilt. I have been mana screwed and mana flooded, but I have rarely typed in complaints – about the only one is “drawing 12 lands was not part of the plan” when I concede. I do, occasionally, type “sorry about the mana screw.” Mainly, that’s because I do feel bad about my opponent being unable to play the game (and maybe, subconsciously, because I want him to go on tilt about mana screw.)
I also do well because I don’t stress out about 9E drafts. I don’t really care about the results. I’m in drafts to get the rest of my playsets of Wrath of God, painlands, Savannah Lions, Paladin en-Vec and Hypnotic Specter, but that only affects me during drafting. I like winning packs, but that’s not all that important. Plus, when I draft online, I have my dogs lying at my feet or resting their heads in my lap, and I have nothing much to worry about. I don’t stress enough to tilt, so I do well.
Rule number one: Magic is like pinball. If you tilt, you lose.
Rule # 2: Know Your Deck:
The first rule of tournament magic is to know your deck. You need to know what it is capable of, and how to make that happen. That is true of both draft and constructed decks.
The simplest example is a combo deck, like Dragonstorm. The deck’s most obvious win happens when it gets the storm count to four or more, casts Dragonstorm, searches out four Bogardan Hellkites and smashes the opponent in the head for lethal damage. To pilot that deck, you have to be able to make that happen, in all circumstances. You have to know when to play card drawing – whether that is on the turn you want to go off, or beforehand to dig for combo pieces.
It’s the same for control or aggro decks. You have to know how to find your win conditions, and/or the control cards you need, and to use them appropriately.
It’s no different in draft. You need to know what the deck your are drafting is trying to do, and how to assemble it. You need to know whether Kami of Old Stone or Glory Seeker is better in this particular deck. You have to know what the cards do. At least every other draft in which I have a Puppeteer, I catch some opponent by surprise when I untap one of my blockers, or ping twice with an (Anhaba Shaman). That’s the sort of trick you need to know cold if you are drafting / playing that card or archetype.
Even if your deck is not the “best” deck, knowing your deck is often enough. In fact, being very experienced and comfortable with a tier two deck, and unfamiliar with the “best deck in the format” may mean that, for you, the best deck may be the tier two deck you know. Actually, no “may be” about it: the deck you know best is the best deck to play. I have been playing and judging at PTQ and higher events for almost a decade, and for every person I have seen grab a brand-new tech deck and do well, I have seen a hundred grab a new deck and scrub out.
Know your deck. If you don’t, consider finding a better use for your tournament entry fee. Personally, I could suggest any number of charities.
Rule # 3: Know the Format:
Another rule that everyone has written about and preached for years, but which is still true: know what may happen. You need to know how other decks can beat you. You need to know what to play around. It’s as simple as knowing that Holy Strength is bad in a format with as much common removal and bounce as 9E, and knowing that Puppeteer also untaps blockers. In Extended, it’s knowing that TEPS or Sunny Side Up go off on turn four if you don’t stop them, and that Boros is blazingly fast.
It’s more than that, however. If you seriously want to play a format, you need to know what the other decks are doing, what answers they have to what you are doing, and what the odds are that they will draw that answer. For example, if your opponent is heavily red in Time Spiral drafts, you probably don’t have to worry too much about Bogardan Hellkite (unless you saw one earlier), but you probably should play around Rift Bolt and Lightning Axe . Etc.
Practically everyone knows these three rules. The problem is that people don’t follow them – and I win a lot of matches that I really shouldn’t as a result.
“one million words” and “judge n bailiff” on MODO