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By: CalmLittleBuddy, Christopher M. Dansereau
Jan 20 2015 12:00pm
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"A goal without a plan is a wish."

-Some Clown

Have you ever played a sport? Did you learn a musical instrument? Do you draw, paint or write creatively? Make crafts? Sculpt? Build spaceships? Somewhere in your life there’s an activity or skill that took a lot of practice to develop.

Playing Magic the Gathering is a skill. I’m sure many of our parents/loved ones/significant others would disagree, but we all know they are liars! LIARS!

False Prophet
FALSE! TRICKSIE!

As with most skills, there are some folks with a natural aptitude for card games and strategy games. Just as in sports there are natural athletes an in art or music there are naturally creative artists, in Magic for some folks it comes easier than for others.

But just as in sports or art or music, natural talent alone isn’t nearly enough. There’s the drive to be better, there’s the ability to visualize the goal, and there’s preparation. One major part of preparation is practice. I’ve used the phrase ‘Smart Practice’ before. Stripped down to its most basic level, Smart Practice is using the time you have available to practice in the most efficient and effective manner. If you’re ready to be bored, read on!

Smart Practice

"To give yourself the best possible chance of playing to your potential, you must prepare for every eventuality. That means practice."

-Seve Ballesteros

Good ol' whatshisname is right. Preparation is key, and preparation means practice. Is it enough to grab a top decklist and play game after game? Can we become a top level player by doing that?

Some decks are easier to learn and to play than others. I wouldn’t say any deck is ‘easy’, but more that some are very difficult to learn to play. Some you can’t learn to play on your own. Here’s what I’ve found.

I can practice for hours on end and not get any better at playing certain decks. I can read article after article on those decks. I can even watch hundreds of videos of high level players playing those decks and still will not get any better at playing them. Why?

Because the more complex a deck is, the less likely I am to find every bit of information I need to play it well. I can catch some tips from articles and videos, and learn some basic competency with the deck from practice. But when I play it, I do what I think is right, and I still lose. It’s hard to tell if I’m hitting bad draws, keeping the wrong hands, playing my lands wrong, sideboarding wrong, or misunderstanding the function of certain cards and synergies. Maybe the deck isn’t well positioned in the meta right now. All I know at that time is I’m losing and don’t like it. Without some idea of what I am specifically doing wrong, I don't know what to do differently.

There are obvious mistakes, like playing your protection card before your opponent plays their removal card. Or playing your removal before your opponent plays their protection spell. The way the stack sequences the spells cast seems obvious, but if you're used to playing opponents who don't have answers to your spells, you may forget that the last spell cast triggers first. LIFO: Last In, First Out.

Fleecemane Lion

 

I used to hate playing against this card. Hexproof and Indestructible once it's made Monstrous. I didn't know that all I had to do was wait for my opponent to tap out to Monstrous it, then play my removal with the Monstrous ability trigger on the stack. I thought I had to race to remove it before my opponent got to 5 mana. Then I started playing this card. I tried to Monstrous it. My opponent played Hero's Downfall. I chuckled, thinking 'Ha! My Lion is monstrous! Nice try!' But, because the Hero's Downfall went on the stack last, it resolved first and my Lion was removed before the Monstrous ability trigger. And I got blown out.

That's the type of mistake I like. You make it once, and know what not to do next time. And it’s applicable to a lot of different cards and effects. It’s a great mistake to make because it instantly makes you better by teaching you what not to do.

But what about the mistakes I'm making that I don't realize I'm making, like playing lands out of sequence? It’s not obvious when to play that tri-colored land versus the 2 color scry land in certain situations, and when it does cost you the game, it’s not often obvious why it did. That’s a mistake you’d almost have to have someone point out to you in game, or on a video review of your match.

What about sideboarding in cards that seem good in certain matchups, but are actually bad? If they look right, and do what they are supposed to do, but deprive me of options in my game, how would I even know without someone telling me?

Sylvan Caryatid End Hostilities

 

I know End Hostilities kills my own Sylvan Caryatid. I'm even fine when it does. But I didn't always know that Caryatid is bad against late game creature decks. I figured I’d get my creatures out faster with the Caryatid, so it's always worth having around. I didn't think of all those games where drawing Sylvan Caryatid on turn 10 cost me the game. I considered it the cost of running Caryatid. Hey, we’re not always going to draw the card we need when we need it, right?

It never occurred to me that there were many match ups where I would never need Sylvan Caryatid. That’s because when I started playing again, I played a lot of aggro lists that hated seeing Caryatid. Then I played Green ramp decks that always wanted Caryatid. Now, with the format slowing down considerably, Sylvan Caryatid is not as impressive as it used to be.

Basically, it’s a place holder in game one while you see what you’re up against. It's not just that I want to board in End Hostilities versus decks like Sidisi Whip, I also want to have a better chance of drawing it, or my other specific answers for late creature games instead of Sylvan Caryatid. Plus I don't need the Caryatid that much early in those match ups because I'll have more time to get my mana set up.

The mistake was I was looking at what to board in, and not thinking about what to board out. I assumed Caryatid was good in every game, every match up. Remember the idea of the core of your deck? Caryatid is part of the core for Green creature decks. In a fast meta, it blocks 1 and 2 mana drops your opponent plays. It generates any color mana. It's Hexproof. And we never board out our core cards unless there's a damn good reason, right? Caryatid taking up a valuable slot in match ups where we don’t even need it is a damn good reason to board it out.

No amount of practice could tell me that. I can practice until the cows come home, and would not know why I kept falling short late in the game without having someone point it out, or having a huge epiphany.

Temple of Epiphany
Jeskai Epiphany? YUCK!

I was practicing, but I wasn’t practicing smart. I was changing cards and plans without first trying to understand why I was losing. I tried figuring it out. I kept plodding. Meanwhile I wasted two weeks of practice learning to lose with a card I was inflexible about. Smart Practice would have been to stop practicing altogether until I found the issue, not practice bad habits while guessing at what I was doing wrong, or hoping it would come to me.

Most of us do not have a ton of available time to practice. If you’re really looking to compete, you need to make every bit of practice count.

So, knowing I was on a long losing streak and was nowhere near recognizing my issue with the Abzan Midrange deck, I decided to mess around with a few other decks that were close enough to Abzan Midrange. This got my mind away from the current deck, got me some needed practice with other decks I may decide to play in competition, and restored my confidence. I’m not a great player, but I’m a damn good player. I needed to be reminded of that.

My time outside of practice was spent looking for solutions to my mid-range problems. Some players were saying AMR was poorly positioned. It wasn’t enough control to beat Blue Black Control, wasn’t strong enough late to beat Whip decks, and not fast enough to beat aggro. I refused to buy that a deck with that many powerful options was a second tier deck, even after GP Denver got invaded by the aggro version of the Abzan.

I didn’t sell my cards. I didn’t delete my mid range lists. I didn’t slap my mammie and call her goldfish legs. I dug deeper.

Research the Deep
Deep Thoughts: I once met a man with a Caryatid.
I wish I didn't have to meet people.

I watched more videos, anything AMR I could get. Some professional players were having a hard time winning with the deck as well, which made me feel a little better about my failings. Then, I found a tight sideboarding guide for the deck (not sure about the rules for linking to a competitor’s website, but you could easily Googs it). Then, three great videos. All of these sources repeated the Sylvan Caryatid lesson over and over.

Turns out one of my "best" cards, part of the core of my deck, was not critical to the deck functioning in the current environment. I even heard a prominent professional player say "Caryatid is great because you board it out for better cards in games 2 and 3 most of the time." Not exactly a ringing endorsement. It's great in game 1 in case you run into Mono Red/ Mono Black/ Mono Blue agro decks, or are playing against a deck that can't go over the top of your game. So, it stays in the main deck. But against Control, Whip, Abzan Mirror, Abzan Aggro, Blue White Heroic, Jeskai Combo, Mardu decks, even Jeskai Tokens is not great because it doesn't block their creatures well and is a terrible draw late game. Plus, you don't need the mana early if the game slows down.

I had fallen into a bad routine. I was practicing versus all those decks with Caryatid still in my post board deck games 2 and 3. Essentially, except for developing good habits, I was practicing how to lose. That's the opposite of 'Smart Practice'. And it took a long time to correct the mistake, because I couldn't see the mistake. That's a mistake in and of itself.

What's a 'Smart Practice' session look like? Oh no. He didn’t record one of his practice sessions and post it t YouTube, did he? Tell me he didn’t.’ Actually, I did. Lucky for all y'all I ran into some technical issues with the rendering of the videos. Unlucky for all y'all, I rerecorded some less than phenomenal practice sessions and matches to replace them! But before I put you to sleep with my dulcet tones, let me bore you to death with my own Smart Practice list.

Thirteenth Lesson of Tournament Preparation: Have a Practice Routine.

We saw this lesson last week, but it's always good to review. So, here's some of my routine.

1. Set a practice schedule.

Done. For national security reasons, I can’t divulge the actual schedule.

1.a. Set goals for each practice session.

Today's goal was to fit an entire 'Fun Pack' of Cheetos in my mouth at one time.

2. Remember to renew focus every time we notice it slipping.

Focus on my voice... you are getting sleepy... you will give CalmLittleBuddy all of your tickets...

3. No reviewing games during practice

Lucky you.

4. List mistakes and look for the cause of the mistakes.

Mistakes? haven't made them in years.

5. Find a way to eliminate the cause of those mistakes.

You mean like "Quit playing Magic the Gathering"? Solves everything!

6. Incorporate new information learned during our research throughout the week.

New information: Sir Patrick Stewart loves sticky rice. Now, to work that into my game!

7. Review the practice session in general and make notes for future research/planning.

Nope. Too tired by now.

Brain Maggot
This has nothing to do with anything.
I just like the art.

If we are planning on competing at a high level, we need to treat practice like, well, practice! The same way athletes practice, or chess players practice, we need to make our Magic the Gathering time into a growth experience. Again, I enjoy practicing, so for me I don't lose the fun aspect while doing this, but even if the fun wasn't there from time to time, hey it's my choice to compete. If I end up hating the preparation for competition, I can always decide to go back to casual. If I'm going to compete, it's not enough to log in, play some games, log out and watch MtG videos while my wife watches "Real Housewives of Cleveland". Like any other competitive activity, I have to log some serious practice hours.

The following were not those serious hours:

I've officially broken out of my losing streak. During the practice session I recorded, I won 2 matches and should have won the first one as well, but was too busy showboating for the crowds. I had a blast recording these, though, so please excuse some of the loose play. I just wanted something to show after losing the first batch of vids. Deck tech is on the other side of the deck list.

Match 1 is a silly rip vs Mardu agro. This was recorded spur of the moment when I realized my replacement videos didn't have a deck tech or intro or any practice routine stuff in them. Oh my! It's slightly instructive, and a match loss for me so it's probably fun for you!

 

Match 2 was recorded on an earlier day than match 1, but didn't have a deck tech or intro or the cute practice suggestions. It's a long sloppy match against Blue Black Control. I play poorly, but my opponent plays worse.

 

Match 3 starts out interesting, with my opponent winning handily in game one, but dropping out after I win game 2. He's on RG Monsters or Temur. I keep expecting Temur, but upon review it's almost 100% RG Monsters.

The two main reasons for including the videos was 1.), to demonstrate how much I can learn from reviewing the matches. There's a ton of mistakes on both sides to learn from! 2.), to fatten the calf so to speak because this article was written with the intention of showing some videos, and without them would be too light to submit in good conscience. At worst, watch them, laugh and learn what not to do.

Here’s the deck list I worked with:

 

Typical AMR stuff in here. No Wingmate Roc, no Drown in Sorrow out of the sideboard. Extra card draw with Read the Bones. An extra Liliana Vess. She's just so powerful right now, I had to have her in the main deck and another copy to side in. How's this work? Maybe I've never really explained the deck in its mid-range format. If you look at the list, you only have 7 realistic threats that can win the game: 4 Siege Rhinos and 3 Elspeth, Sun's Champion. It doesn't look like there's a ton of angles to win from. This deck is about attrition. If you manage to cast 2 Siege Rhinos and never get a chance to attack with them, you've already swung the game 12 life points. Each gains you 3 life and costs them 3 life (be aware it's life drain and cannot hit their Planeswalkers). Think about it. You are two 4 mana spells from being up 12 life points.

Everything else in this deck is designed to force the opponent to use their mana inefficiently. 6 Planeswalkers need to be answered. Courser of Kruphix needs to be answered. Siege Rhino has to be removed in a turn or less. They can't play threats if they are answering your cards. Keep that in mind. If they get a chance to lay down Goblin Rabblemaster for instance, we have to spend 3 mana on average to remove it or die quickly. The most efficient answer to cards like Rabblemaster is to not allow your opponent to play them. That's tough to do, with very few scary 2 and 3 drops in our deck. That's one of the main concepts to learn with this deck. How are we going to gain advantage in the first 3 turns?

If you don't draw Thoughtseize, you're looking at Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix being your only playable cards for the first 2 turns. If you are lucky, you can play turn 1 any land, turn 2 untapped land into Sylvan Caryatid then turn 3 untapped land into Siege Rhino if you have the right mana and there's nothing on their end too scary to ignore. On the play, this ends up being pretty good. On the draw, you won't usually get the break to play turn 3 Rhino because too many decks have multiple killer 2 and 3 drops, including the agro version of Abzan.

This means most matchups, you're the control deck. You've probably heard the concept that in Magic, it's important to know if you are the Beat Down or the Control.

Fourteenth Lesson of Tournament Preparation: Determine if you're the Control of the Beatdown.

Mike Flores wrote the legendary manifesto on this, and states it far more eloquently than I. A quick Googs will turn up that article. I highly recommend reading or rereading it, because even long time players drift away from this concept as the games pile up. Fact is, I read it a month after my return to Magic and only thought I understood what he meant. In the simplest terms I can come up with is that when two similar decks face off, one is going to be a half turn ahead playing its threats, and as such will have the ability to do damage faster. The other deck is a half turn behind and will need to answer ALL of the other guy's threats first before going on the offensive. One is the 'Beatdown', the other is the 'Control'. Most times, failing to recognize which one you are will cost you the game.

In most matchups, you have to be one or the other. Knowing which one gives you the best chance to win. Knowing which one is so much more than assuming what you are based on your deck, and you usually won't know until the first few turns have played out. The most important thing to know playing Abzan or any other Mid-Range deck is that you have to figure out which role you are as quickly as possible.

Consider this actual situation from a previous practice session. Turn three, I'm on the play. My board state looks like this:

Sylvan Caryatid
Temple of MaladyPlains

My opponent is playing an aggressive Mardu deck. His board state is:

Nomad OutpostTemple of Triumph
Seeker of the Way

I have a Llanowar Wastes, Siege Rhino, Hero's Downfall and a Temple of Plenty in hand.

Llanowar Wastes, Siege Rhino, Hero's Downfall Temple of Plenty

 

My opponent has 5 cards in hand. What should I play? Normally my gut says snap off the Rhino and make him shiver. But he has his threat down first. His threat will be able to attack next turn. If I tap out for Rhino, he will have the ability to attack with his Seeker. So what, right? Siege Rhino can block! Well, no... Play it out with me in your mind. I drop Siege Rhino and pass. I gain 3 life he loses 3 life. His turn, he untaps, drops a Plains for his land. He plays:

Crackling Doom

 

My Rhino is now dead. I take 2 damage. His Seeker of the Way becomes a 3/3 with Lifelink and attacks. I have no available mana to destroy his Seeker and lose my Caryatid if I block. Either way he's gaining 3 life back and probably hitting me for 3. Now we're back where we started except I no longer have the Rhino to play, and I'm down a net 2 life. I can kill the Seeker next turn, or maybe I draw something, but next turn he's free to drop another threat.

But if I recognize that he played the first threat and that my job is not to try to play bigger threats but to go on the control plan, let's see what happens. If I play Hero's Downfall and kill his Seeker, he has no target for Crackling Doom. He also has no Seeker of the Way to attack me with next turn. I get to keep my Siege Rhino in hand to play later. Essentially I'm stalling him for a turn and giving myself the chance to draw more cards. I want to force him to play all of his threats before I drop the Rhino. That's what being the Control is about.

My job now is to keep my mana up to remove any threats he plays. I'm not going to go into the exact timing of when to play removal spells, but in general, you want to remove his threats on his turn. That means, instead of playing any spell on my turn, I should pass the turn and wait for the best time during his turn to play my Hero's Downfall. If I spend that mana on my turn, he gets to attack with his threat and use his mana at the same time. If I remove his Seeker of the Way on his turn he has to spend his mana playing another threat or stopping my removal. It's counter intuitive at first, but playing Siege Rhino nets him a free turn, essentially, because his threat is already out and ready to stomp. Mine is summoning sick, and makes a great target for my opponents free turn mana.

I know my deck is removal heavy and his deck has a lot of cheap hard hitting threats. I have to keep resetting the board state if I want to keep pace. If I can keep the board empty by removing all of his threats on time, eventually he will run out of threats to play. Once that happens, I will have equalized. Then I get to drop the threats, turn the corner and begin my beat down while he tries to top deck.

Of course, the opposite is also true. If I am the player who gets the first threat out, I'm the Beatdown and my opponent becomes the Control. That's a great place for Abzan midrange to be. If I get a Siege Rhino down before he can play a threat, now he has to remove that Rhino, which leaves me free to play my Planeswalkers or my Read the Bones, or whatever else I have handy. Let's look at the what if scenario. What if I had Siege Rhino down before his Seeker of the Way.

If he plays Seeker of the Way, all of his mana is tapped and I can attack Siege Rhino right into it on my turn with my mana still up to add another threat, or leave up for removing his Seeker of the Way on his turn, etc. If he blocks with Seeker, I trample for 2 more damage and kill the Seeker, essentially he's wasted a threat and mana to play that threat. He needs to play Crackling Doom and hope I run out of threats to play.

Like any other concept, it is not an absolute. A burn deck facing a combo deck falls way outside of this topic, for instance. Mirror matches have special circumstances that could mess this up as well. And of course, some threats are better than others. Creatures with Haste obviously throw off the equation. Creatures with special abilities or powerful effects are important as well.

Nekrataal

Imagine this guy in Current Standard? Any threat you can play that does something powerful in addition to being menacing (removal, serious life gain, huge damage, creatures with flash) is like playing 2 cards at once, and might be good enough to ignore the old adage. As always, play smart.

So, what did I learn from all my practice this week, videoed and not?

CalmLittleBuddy's Analysis of the Current Standard for the Next Two Weeks

Hooray for us! Blue Black Control won GP Denver and now everyone is playing it! I haven't seen much Abzan Aggro, but expect that to be on the rise as well. Whip decks seem to have gone out of fashion. I've seen more Mono red than you'd expect as well.

I played against close to 5 Bant decks (Blue White Green) over the last 2 weeks. I went searching but didn't find any splashy article or even tournament or event results for this. I guess folks suddenly remembered that they can play colors besides the ones in Tri-Land Town.

There's a lot of enchantment hate in people's main decks. I played a dude with 4 main deck Erases. When I asked him why, he replied "For your Whip of Erebos". I wasn't playing one, so he had 4 dead cards. He never boarded them out either. he was that convinced I had the Whip. This was also the guy who tried to guess every card I was tapping for... "Here comes the Rhino!" Nope. "Here comes Anafenza then!" Nope. "Abzan Charm?" No. It was Read the Bones. Some folks are far too clever for their own good.

In two weeks, Fate Reforged comes in, so in essence I don't see much changing right now. I think folks will gravitate back to their pet decks, which means Jeskai will be coming back again. I think a few people will take these last two weeks to play something fun, like giant green decks, burn decks, black agro decks. Control and Midrange are great and all, but we're all going to be stuck playing them for a long time after Fate Reforged goes live.

If I had to play a Big Tournament tomorrow and could pick any deck I wanted just for these two weeks, I'd play......

How's this work? Nothing fancy. Slam creatures, Stoke the Tokens, Count Less Battles, and Chain everything to them Rocks. There isn't a ton of interactions besides Stoke the Flames and using the tokens to convoke. Some versions of this deck go bigger with Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker and Stormbreath Dragon, but then we're looking at some pretty expensive stuff. I wouldn't call this a 'Budget Deck' per se, but it won't break the bank like some decks would if you substitute for the lands.

Why this deck? Two colors are faster than three. It could give Control decks fits. It might be able to slip past the midrange decks. It's low on enchantments. Plus, no one is really prepared for it. Players probably haven't had much practice against it either. You could take it into an 8 man and win, I think.

Next week I'm going to attempt to get into one event and play to win. Not that I play to lose normally, but I don't go in feeling like I can or will win. That's part of another lesson I need to learn that is vital to success in any endeavor.

Lesson Fifteen of Tournament Preparation: Visualize Winning.

Is this some optimistic beach ball headed hokum about thinking good thoughts and sunshine and chocolate chip rainbows? Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh... If I say yes will you still like me? It sort of is like that, but funny enough it does work if you do it right. The hard part is being able to do it right. You really do have to picture it in your mind. The hands you'll get, the plays you'll make, even the prizes you'll win and the feeling of winning. Many players who are of average skill but don't know enough to be scared of how outclassed they are can win in spite of themselves. Some very talented players who turtle when they spotlight goes on them know too much about how difficult winning is, and they lose. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don't believe it can work?

Me neither. But at this point I'll try anything.

Until next time.

CLB

4 Comments

Good work. by Plainswalker83 at Tue, 01/20/2015 - 16:48
Plainswalker83's picture
4

I think it is also important when you practice to not always just hit the Tournament Practice room. There are times where you need to up your game and play for higher stakes to "make" yourself play better. Even if it is just a 2 man or something. The quality of people you play against also make a big impact. You could win every week at FNM then head to a Grand Prix and feel pretty silly. No matter how well you know your deck it helps to know how other competition plays and thinks.

Indeed by CalmLittleBuddy at Wed, 01/21/2015 - 17:16
CalmLittleBuddy's picture

And I do, but I don't record those sessions. Too much to manage and pay attention. I play at all levels I can as often as I can. Adding a financial aspect also helps prepare for the stress. Soon enough I'll be thick enough to 'waste' a few tickets playing a daily or 8 man and record it as well.

I never let my natural lack by Paul Leicht at Tue, 01/20/2015 - 18:31
Paul Leicht's picture
5

I never let my natural lack of talent in anything get in my way of drawing, painting, singing, writing songs, writing prose, playing guitar, playing chess, or playing any game really. Practice is definitely not overrated.

I will say I don't agree with your analysis of Sylvan Caryatid. Yes it isn't a kill card in itself but it is highly versatile and with decks that have greedy mana bases (because this IS a slower format now) caryatid makes a big difference. I would strongly suggest thinking hard about replacing it as a sideboard out.

That said if you are siding in Anger of the Gods or the like, and you know your opponent might then it becomes less good. That still doesn't make it bad. Just less good and the practice bears on knowing how often it is not good enough to keep.

My problem by CalmLittleBuddy at Wed, 01/21/2015 - 17:29
CalmLittleBuddy's picture

My problem was not that I think Sylvan Caryatid is bad, but that I thought it was too good to remove. Ever. I would never suggest taking it out of the main in game 1, but in my experience and according to many of the pros I've watched and read, there's a ton of match ups it can and probably should be boarded out in Abzan Midrange.

In my RG Monsters deck, I never took it out because I always needed extra mana turn 3.

And of course, my knack for overstating card value is more to make a point than to evaluate a card. I may have said 'bad' (although I don't remember typing that it is bad, except in certain situations), I may have implied it's bad, but it's exactly because it's so good that I overstate the point.

It's no coincidence that my win % went way up once I learned when to sideboard it out. I had to let go of my stubborn streak and go with what gets results. And again this is just as it relates to Abzan Midrange especially as it gets closer to control.

Now, of course, the format is about to shift again and who knows, Caryatid might become as great as it was before Khans. And that's saying a lot because it's already great. You don't have to sell me on it! :)