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By: CalmLittleBuddy, Christopher M. Dansereau
Jan 07 2015 12:00pm
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Hello, losers!

I mean that in the nicest way. This week we're discussing losing. Not just losing games but things getting lost.

If you read last week’s article you may be wondering “What the hell happened?” Turns out the second half of my article went POOF! It’s no one’s fault. I hear the site is haunted and that words, articles, and sometimes people disappear with no rational explanation. Yikes!

Sudden Disappearance
“And like that, poof! He's gone!”

 

It was a bit discouraging. But in all things we have lessons to learn.

Lesson Number 0 of Tournament Preparation: Always have a backup of your article in plain text.

So what did you miss? Just a bit more information on deck building, card choices and sideboarding. Oh and a nifty little intro for this week’s article. No spoilers until you read everything else first. After all, this part is still last week’s article. No new business until we finish old business!

Quick note: If you read these articles and feel like I'm explaining concepts that don't need explaining, bear with me. I have a few readers who haven't played the game in ages. Some stopped playing before there were concepts like mana curve, beat down vs. control, etc. There weren't even guidelines for how many lands should be in a deck. Back then, you stuffed your favorite cards in a deck and flipped them until someone won (and sometimes took your best card because of the random ante). So, if it seems like I'm over explaining, keep in mind there was a time for all of us when we didn't know even the basic things. Plus it's always good to review basic concepts!

Where were we? Oh, right. Here’s the dirt on what you should never sideboard out of your deck. Or almost never:

Engines and Cores:

I tend to use these two words when I talk to my cat about how a deck is structured. I didn’t come up with these ideas. They’re pretty commonly used. But what are they?

Almost every deck has a way of getting its best cards in hand. This is the deck’s engine. Card draw allows players to pull more than one card a turn. Scry allows players to look at the top card of their library and choose to put it on the bottom of the deck if it's not what they want, or leave it on the top to be drawn next. Tutoring effects allow players to search their deck for a specific card and put in on top of the deck, into their hand or even onto the battlefield.

 

Demonic Tutor
We all know this guy

Some cards combine a few of the effects, such as Read the Bones, or Dig Through Time. Getting your best cards into your hand faster than your opponent can is a huge advantage. Having more cards is also a huge advantage. Choosing which cards to draw off the top is powerful as well. If you don't have some combination of these effects in your deck, you are going to find yourself at the mercy of the top of your deck. You can bet most high level players have some sort of card engine or pseudo-engine built into their deck. You have to have one too.

Think of it this way. How much would one of those professional poker players on TV give to look at the top card on the dealer's deck and decide to take it or get the next card instead? How much would they pay to take the top 3 cards and use the one they want? That would be an insane advantage in poker. Yet average Magic players (like me) still would rather keep that 4th win condition in their deck than add that draw card. Granted if all you draw is draw cards, you can't win. You need those 'core' cards that allow you the best chance to win.

The core of a deck is the set of cards that are essential to the deck's viability. The core is not 100% static, but it's important to know what the core of your deck is and to only mess with it when you know beyond a doubt there's a good reason to do so. Big Green decks, including the 3 color clan decks we've been looking at, tend to run 4 copies of Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix in the main deck. These cards are too good in a green deck to pass up. Plus they work together perfectly, like cheese 'n cookies.

White Heroic Decks run Favored Hoplite and some combination of Heliod's Pilgrim/Hero of Iroas.

Favored Hoplite

 

The Hoplite is an obvious choice. It's a Heroic deck after all. The other two have effects that help to find and cast Enchantment/Aura cards like Ordeal of Heliod. With four lands on turn 4 you could, in theory, have a Favored Hoplite and Hero of Iroas in play, cast Heliod's Pilgrim, find Ordeal of Heliod and cast it for 1 White mana on either Hero. When you attack with that Hero, it gains the +1/1 from attacking and probably can trigger the 10 lifegain of off of the Ordeal (assuming you cast something else of the Hero in previous turns, which I know you are smart enough to have done). That's pretty good stuff.

At the moment, Gods Willing is probably a core card in Heroic decks because of its low cost and huge benefits for evasion and stopping removal. While other buffing cards may be great additions to any heroic deck, I would think that Heroic Decks without Gods Willing probably don't win many games these days. The same can't be said of Defiant Strike. It's a great, but not having it doesn't cripple the deck. The same thing with Ordeal of Heliod and Ordeal of Thassa. You probably need to run at least one set of four of these cards, but I've seen folks get away with not running 4 copies of both.

You need to be aware of what the core of your deck is, and what its engine is in order to know how to sideboard.

I’ll give a (not so) quick example of card draw engines and cores. Here’s a deck that took me by surprise two weeks ago. Most players have seen this Jeskai Combo concept before, but maybe not quite this set up.

 

I named this one Jeskai PITA: Pain In The Abzan. The guy playing it got mad when I insisted he show me the entire combo. I was excited to see it. I was so sick of playing against Tokens and Whip over and over that this little interaction made me laugh. Dude thought I was trolling because, as he said, “This deck generates a lot of hate.” I finally did manage to convince him to give me a little Deck Tech on it. Basically there’s a ton of early card draw options. His deck list had Taigam's Scheming in addition to everything listed here. He wouldn’t share his exact 75, so I’m willing to bet his deck was slightly better than the example shown above.

How’s this work? Basically, you draw as many cards as possible in turns 1 through 4 in order to find and cast Sylvan Caryatid or Rattleclaw Mystic, Retraction Helix, and Jeskai Ascendancy. The Caryatid is better than the Mystic, because it’s way tougher to get rid of it. Then it gets complicated, so I’ve designed this crappy flow chart to help us along!

Jeskai Ascendancy Retraction Helix Sylvan Caryatid
With this in play cast this on this.
Briber's Purse Jeskai Ascendancy Sylvan Caryatid
Cast this for zero triggering this which uptaps this.
Sylvan Caryatid Retraction Helix Briber's Purse
Now tap this to use this to pick up this.
Briber's Purse Jeskai Ascendancy Altar of the Brood
Cast this for zero triggering this to dig for this..

 

Unlike most Jeskai combo decks, this one doesn’t need to attack or even do damage to win, so Sylvan Caryatid works just fine without any Fling effects. You can keep casting Briber's Purse and looting with Jeskai Ascendancy to find whatever you need. In this example it's Altar of the Brood. Once you have the Altar, you can cast it with Sylvan Caryatid or whatever mana creature you have. That untaps all your creatures again, so you can use the one with the Helix to pick up Briber's Purse. Now you can keep casting it and picking it up. Each time the Purse comes into play, Altar of the Brood dumps your opponent’s top card off the deck until they have no cards. Oops! When their turn comes and they can’t draw a card, by rules they lose. The one catch is you have to do all this in the same turn, or else Retraction Helix goes bye-bye.

Point is I lost Game 1 on Turn 4 and Game 3 on Turn 5. Even though I knew how to stop it, I couldn’t. By then he’d drawn a ton of cards. He stuck Jeskai Ascendancy and a mana creature. He had Retraction Helix and mana to cast it. At that point any one mana spell gets him a loot, and any zero mana spell effectively lets him go through his entire library. Once the entire combo was assembled, he could just turn off the loot from the Ascendancy to not deck himself, and mill all my cards with the Altar. Vicious.

This doesn’t even take into account that all of his creatures became super huge for one turn because of all the +1/1 from the Jeskai triggers. He could even use Retraction Helix to remove any blockers if he had to.

In this deck Jeskai Ascendancy is the card draw engine. He has additional card draw spells as well, but that’s the big daddy. The core of the deck would be that very same Jeskai Ascendancy, the Sylvan Caryatids/mana creatures, some number of one mana and zero mana permanents and Altar of the Brood for the win condition. The trick is balancing the number of ‘extra’ mana creatures, artifacts, draw spells and one mana spells needed to give the best chance against various match-ups. He could never board out the Ascendancies, or all the Caryatids and artifacts. He couldn’t even board out too many of the card draw spells.

This is why it’s important to be certain what your core is and what your engine is. With creature decks it’s pretty cut and dry. With combo decks without a good plan B, it can get dicey.

My opponent had a good draw in games one and three. I had the better draw in game two. We both played relatively clean games. So, is that all winning and losing comes down to? Luck of the draw? When you play your best and still keep losing, it can sure feel that way. Looks like it’s time for another lesson.

The Ninth Lesson of Tournament Preparation: Roll with the Punches.

In case you're wondering, we're now into this week's topic. Let us begin, shall we?

One of the best parts about Magic the Gathering is losing. Yup. I said that.

Pete Jahn wrote a Nice Article last week on winning and losing. I had no idea when I drafted this article that someone else would have the same topic in mind. I guess it goes to show that winning/losing are an integral part of the Magic the Gathering experience.

My take on it focuses more on the 'you and me' of winning and losing, but it’s a huge topic and no once writer could ever write the definitive article on that dynamic. Here's the question I've been asking myself lately. Is losing at Magic the Gathering a good thing?

I hate losing. I suppose most players do. I've read articles about the joy of playing the game, win or lose. I agree that it is a fun game, but I'm not able to enjoy the 'fun' parts as much when I lose. It's how I'm wired. I can see the fun. I can even appreciate the fun that a well played loss should, in theory, generate. I still can't feel that fun without the win.

 

Lose Hope
Fun card. Not so fun experience.

That may sound sad. It's not. I can move on to the next game and do my best to win that one. If I lose, then I have the next game. Then the next. The promise of another game keeps me going. The great thing about MTGO is there is always another game available, always another match, another event. My hatred of losing fuels my desire to play again. So I'm always one game away from being back to having fun.

Thankfully, I'm not that guy that who blows up in chat or punches his laptop when he loses... anymore. As I've said, I came back to the game after a long break. I forgot how often losing happened out of the blue in Magic the Gathering. It took a while to get used to losing again. Plus the level of competition online is way better than at my old kitchen table.

When I started up again I didn't have many cards. I didn't even know what cards were good. I did the best I could with what I could afford. I didn't want to invest a ton of money yet. I'd just gotten back into the game and wasn't sure how much had changed, or if I would still enjoy it as much as I used to. So, I had this miserable Blue/Green deck with enough counter magic to get me to a win in the 'Just for Fun' room. I won enough games to stay hooked, but could easily tell my cards were totally outclassed.

 

Trained Condor Advocate of the Beast Rumbling Baloth
Seriously. My win condition. Impressed?

 

I've played a lot of online games and MMOs before so I had enough social grace and wisdom to not completely lose my cool most of the time. I'd slip up sometimes. Some of my nicer quotes:

"Nice deck. Bet your best card is a Visa."

"Does dad know you borrowed his account?"

"You've got more foils than I have cards. Seems fair."

"Your deck is good enough to win a daily event if you learn to play it right."

You didn't just go off to check your old chat logs from last Spring, did you? Good.

I'd even win without grace some games, making sure my opponent knew I'd only spent $20 on the game and had zero experience, but could still beat their Blue White Sphinx's Revelation deck.

After a month, I remembered that Magic was like hitting a baseball. You're going to fail more often than succeed. Players were starting to recognize me. I wanted to stick around and be known for my play, not my temper. So, I made a rule.

RULE 1: No chat except positive chat.

Even when the opponent initiates the bad ju-ju, stick to mild comments like "Let's be nice. We're both playing a game here. No need for insults." Granted, I've altered that rule to allow nonsense when an opponent gets a bit too frisky. Nothing takes the lid off of their anger jar like saying "I'm winning because I added biscuits. That's why my deck is fancy!"

Tormenting Voice
I picture this reaction.

Anyway, back to the concept of losing. I've been on a pretty hard losing streak over the last 3 weeks. I'm losing almost all the matches against Top Tier decks. Sometimes it's a mistake, like playing a removal spell and clicking my Sylvan Caryatid thinking I'm tapping mana when I'm actually declaring a target (who knew Hexproof doesn't apply to your own spells and abilities?). Sometimes it's loose play, like not playing around a well timed Disdainful Stroke or calling a bluff attack when there's nothing to be gained. Sometimes it's dumb luck. The opponent has all the answers on time as if he was allowed to play any card from his library on demand and all my deck seems to have is lands. Sometimes its bad match-ups that no amount of side boarding would ever make favorable.

I'd almost sworn off of Abzan at least 20 times in the past 3 weeks. The only wins I've been getting were against horribly constructed decks, seriously inexperienced opponents, or off of unintended clicks or F6'd attack phases by my opponent. It's been downright discouraging. What am I doing wrong?

Nothing. Losing is part of Magic the Gathering. Losing also begets more losing, because you start to press. You make unnecessary changes. You start taking too many chances. You get tired, insecure, lost and especially adorable. Hey, what can I say? I'm cute when I lose. How do we eliminate our mistakes?

T.I.L.T.
Tired. Insecure. Lost. Tense.

Find the cause and eliminate the cause.

Nine times out of nine (sic), when we lose a game we could have won, it comes down to one thing: focus. That's what makes the second day of a tournament so tough. Playing a lot of Magic the Gathering takes a toll on your brain, and your body to a lesser degree. There are more distractions on the second day as well. There's also more at stake, which can ramp up emotions. Learning to focus under adverse conditions is an invaluable skill for anything you do. In magic, I find that maintaining focus requires constantly reminding myself to knuckle down. I can focus like a laser when I'm of a mind to. My problem is the longer I sit at a task, the less I remember to stay focused. I only snap out of it when I make a bad play I normally wouldn't make, like keeping a hand with lands that can't cast the spells in it. By then it's probably too late to begin focusing. A good opponent won't make a mistake and let us back in the game. Like in chess, the loser in a game of Magic is usually the player who made the last mistake.

To increase our winning chances, we need a plan. Here's some ideas to help pull you out of a long losing streak.

Take an intensive crash course in how and when to mulligan. Even if you think you know enough, you need to know more. Plus each deck mulligans differently. The more specific information on your deck you can get in regards to mulligans, the better. Does your deck always want three land hands even without a turn 1 or 2 play? Can your deck mulligan to 5 and still compete? What are the chances of your deck winning with a random 5 card hand? A 4 card hand? If you don't know, better find out. Do some more research or hand testing.

To overcome issues with bad initial draws, see if you can add more card draw effects into your deck without neutering it. If you never have a turn one, turn two or turn three play, see if your curve is too top heavy. If you get land flooded too often, try one less land. If you get mana screwed too often, play one additional land. Personally, I'd rather have one too many lands than one too few. So if it's close, I say go with more.

For bad match ups, put additional 'answer cards' in the sideboard. How many? Depends on how popular the deck you're weak against is in your current meta. Know why the match up is bad for you and look for cards that can give you a better chance in games 2 and 3. If the meta is really warped to those bad match ups, main deck those answers.

This may go without saying, but know every configuration of 7, 6 and (possibly) 5 card hands that are crazy good for your deck. They won't always win, but they're snap keeps and your should know them like cardboard best friends. It goes without saying you should know why they are keeps and how to play them as well.

If you have superior game prep, and can tighten down and focus for long periods of time, you've only got 2 things to worry about. Your opponent and Lady Luck.

You only need 2 out of 3 games to take a match. That's 66%. If you can win 2/3rds of your games consistently, you're in great shape. If you can win half of your games over a long stretch, you're still in the safe zone. Remember, a tournament is such a small sample size that luck is going to play a major role in who makes the top 8. You need to win the matches you're favored in, and get lucky enough to steal a few 50/50 matches and unfavorable matches. You need to be on your game and lucky for two days. It's going to happen to somebody. Put yourself in the best spot for it to happen to you.

So, back to my long losing streak. Is that normal? From what I've heard and read, it happens. Cascading failure and random luck can combine and leave you in the lurch. Sometimes, there's nothing you can do. Other times, there's things you can do, but it's only worth a few wins.

It's not all bad. The information you can gain from losing is invaluable. Information on the metagame. Information about opponents. Information about your own deck. Most importantly, information on your habits and flaws.

This is where MTGO outshines paper magic in a huge way. All practice games can be replayed within the client. Last I checked, I couldn't replay my Event games, but that's easily solved. You can record your computer screen and microphone with a number of free software programs. I use BB Flashback Express. You can record your matches, even your commentary to help remember what you were thinking at the time. If you want, you can even edit and share your videos to YouTube and MtG sites. If you've ever wondered if you're tech savvy enough to make one of those Deck Tech or Event Replay videos, I can guarantee you are because I made one!

Granted, it's about replaying/recording/sharing your matches, not amazing Magic strategies, but it shows even average Joe Gathering can do it.

Watching your losses back gives you everything you need to correct flaws in your game. I've found it to be essential to my growth as player.

Go back and watch your games. Especially the losses. I find that I always know the correct play instantly when watching my games again. I want to scream, "How could I have missed that play? It's so obvious!" When you're busy clicking, biting your nails, and keeping an eye on everything possible play, it's much harder to see the right line to choose. The tension of the moment alone impairs your judgment.

Frequent losing also desensitizes you to the anger and self blame losses bring with them. If you go through it enough, losing becomes less of a worry. Learning to handle losing without falling apart is just as valuable as learning why you lost.

Losing can be more than just a bad outcome. It can be a powerful learning tool if you take it in and grow from it. That's why I say losing is one of the best parts of Magic the Gathering. If we won all the time, we'd get bored. We'd learn nothing. We'd stop growing as a player. First comes losing. Then growth. Then winning. Next time you pick up a new deck, pay attention to the process you automatically use to get better at playing it. You'll lose some games you should easily win. Then, you'll start seeing the winning lines and pulling games out of your... library. Eventually, you stabilize and get comfortable.

Speaking of new decks, did I mention I'm ditching Abzan? Yeah, seems a hell of a lot easier than watching all my games again and developing 'good habits'. Ha!

Lesson Ten of Tournament Preparation: Be Prepared to Start from Scratch.

Luckily, starting from scratch doesn't always mean buying 75 new cards. I guess I could, like I did when I realized Jeskai Tempo was not nearly as awesome as Paul Cheon swore to me (okay, to everyone who watches his videos) it was, but it's probably better to see what can be re-used from the old card pile. You can keep what's good and replace what's not working with better, more competitive cards for the current Metagame. Be forewarned. This isn't simple sideboard adjustments or moving a few cards.

For philosophical and budgetary reasons, I looked at the core of my Abzan Midrange deck and asked "What else can this become?" I like what the deck is about. I like the colors, the mana ramping, the big threats. I love Siege Rhino. I think when this whole thing is all over, Siege Rhino and I should get an apartment and live together. I think I should stop typing now.

So I tinkered, adjusted, played around until I found the thing that I do best: Copy a list off of some famous dude.

 

(Courtesy of CalebD at that other site)

If three colors is good, four must be better right? The key to this deck is Soul of Theros. Whether you hard cast it, or mill it into the graveyard using Sidisi, Brood Tyrant/Satyr Wayfinder, it's got a 6 mana ability from out of nowhere that is a losing streak ender.

Soul of Theros

 

This is the stock list of the deck. I've played it and have a few changes I'm going to make that take advantage of synergies I see that could be brought in. Look at it again. Notice something?

No Whip of Erebos! And no, I am not adding one. A graveyard deck with no Whip in today's Standard? Think about it. What's the first card type folks will want to sideboard in against a deck they think has Whip of Erebos? Something like Erase, a cheap enchantment/artifact removal spell. While there are some enchantments in this deck that we certainly have to be careful with (picture your Suspension Field being erased pre-combat and freeing their Butcher of the Horde), most times the card is going to sit dead in their hands or trade with Courser of Kruphix. Some decks board in 6 cards to fight the Whip. That's six almost dead draws.

I've even toyed with putting the Whip in the main deck just to let opponents see it game one, only to board it out for games 2 and 3. But that may alter the deck too much. There's a lot of testing to do. Plus, we are on the verge of the release of Fate Reforged which is bound to shake things to the core.

Next week's article may be a little thin. There's some family stuff I have to attend to. I'll do the usual. Present a few decks I encounter and maybe discuss any preview cards Wizards releases. An important part of this journey to the Big Tournament will be adapting to Fate Reforged. Any of you who are preparing for tournament or event will surely need to take into account the powerful new cards that emerge. Let's see what the week brings!

Until next time.

CLB

10 Comments

Are you from Rhode Island? I by Joe Fiorini at Wed, 01/07/2015 - 12:14
Joe Fiorini's picture

Are you from Rhode Island? I had a feeling you might be from New England, because of your last name. I'm from Vermont, and there are a lot of people with French last names like yours.

Funny, but no... by CalmLittleBuddy at Wed, 01/07/2015 - 12:42
CalmLittleBuddy's picture

When I listened to it back it sounded very Rhode Island "Com Little Buddy". I am from Southern Mass right near Rhode Island. Even I was thrown off by my accent in that vid. I'm usually much more conscious about using my CNN voice.

Couldn't be bothered to rerecord. Was tired. Yes, tons for French Canadians around these parts. Crazy Cannucks.

I want to start recording by Joe Fiorini at Wed, 01/07/2015 - 12:20
Joe Fiorini's picture
5

I want to start recording some games for an article.II've experimented a little, but haven't got far.
I have to play magic late at night whrn everyone is asleep, so I'm wary of waking people up by appearing to talk to myself while doing commentary

Same here by CalmLittleBuddy at Wed, 01/07/2015 - 12:43
CalmLittleBuddy's picture

My wife gets particularly annoyed and keeps asking "What did you say?" Then I have to scrap the recording. An hour later she forgets and does the same thing. lol

Too Familiar by Plainswalker83 at Wed, 01/07/2015 - 17:59
Plainswalker83's picture

That is why I have to record during my daughter's nap and before my son gets home from school, gives me maybe an 1 1/2. so daily events are out of the question. Great article and if you ever want to do a standard vs video, I have UW heroic, RW aggro, and Jeskai tokens built. (among some brews)

derp by CalmLittleBuddy at Thu, 01/08/2015 - 19:53
CalmLittleBuddy's picture

Meant to reply in that lst message. lol it was for you

Hey, sorry I missed you by CalmLittleBuddy at Thu, 01/08/2015 - 19:53
CalmLittleBuddy's picture

I got your notification but closed it before I knew it was you. Thought it was my opponent. Then I saw it was you on playback. had a great recording session today. 4 and 0, no losses at all. Of course, it wasn't a daily... that would have been sweet. But I think I have the right deck for right now. It won't be good in 2 weeks, but whammo.

No worries :) by Plainswalker83 at Fri, 01/09/2015 - 08:06
Plainswalker83's picture

No big deal I know it can be hard to record so when you have the time you just have to go for it ha. I am always around just shoot me a message sometime.

I most certainly will by CalmLittleBuddy at Fri, 01/09/2015 - 08:12
CalmLittleBuddy's picture

And we could record our matches. Would be kinda cool to see both sides of the equation. Or if you're not able to record we'd at least have the one video we both could post. Once it's on YouTube, it's easy enough to embed.

Let's do it. by Plainswalker83 at Fri, 01/09/2015 - 10:34
Plainswalker83's picture

Sounds good. We just need to set up a time.