Everything I Know About Life I Learned from Magic

Well, not exactly.  For instance, I know how to change the brakes on a 1996 Chrysler Concorde.  I know a thing or two about the Age of Sail.  I know the exact noise Daisy makes when she’s decided to throw up.  I learned none of those things from playing Magic: The Gathering.

There are, however, some big, overarching life lessons I’ve learned since allowing the game back into my life almost exactly a year ago today.  There’s a certain structure to life that’s best understood through the rubric of games or gaming.  Few games are more massively, breathtakingly infuriating and addictive than Magic, what with its near-infinite configurations of dumb luck, crushed plans, bad beats, and triumphant topdecks.  I haven’t taken all of the lessons to heart yet, but I’ve begun to apply them.

1.  There’s always another day.

The Monday after the Journey Into Nyx prerelease my buddy got into my car and the first thing I said to him was, “19-11-2.”  He seemed a bit confused, so I clarified that my record in prereleases since coming back to Magic was 19-11-2 and he was to remind me of those numbers whenever I got too pissed about playing Limited.[1]  I played in two Journey Into Nyx prereleases.  On Saturday I went 2-2 with a card pool I thought should have been a complete and total winner.  After my frustrations with Theros/Born of the Gods Limited I was all, “Fuck this, man, I’m not going through that again.”  I declared that I’d go to the prerelease at Dean’s the next day but after that I was done with Limited forever.

I went 4-0-1[2] at Dean’s and finished in second.

2.  It’s good that there’s always another day, since some days just ain’t yours.

I went to a $1K[3] last weekend with a deck I feel is exactly positioned to kick all the ass in the current metagame.  I went 1-4.  That win is misleading, though, since it was off of a bye.  I just couldn’t get the right card at the right time to save my life.

3.  Ascribing failure to simple bad luck might be tempting, but it’s best to go with honest self-assessment.

The $1K in question was my first real test following the release of Journey and the new cards.  One card in particular that I was worried about was Athreos, God of Passage.  I, of course, got to face off against Athreos round 1 and the deck in question was a rather unexpected build of an Athreos deck.  Game 1 he took me by surprise and I sat there waiting for the one and only thing I thought of as an out card while not seeing that I was giving him all the tools he needed to win.  I then became so obsessed with preventing a repeat of game 1 that I totally forgot that I’d seen Blood Baron of Vizkopa, also known as the primary win condition of a lot of white-black decks since it’s a real pain in the ass to deal with once it hits the table.  I keep two cards in my sideboard almost specifically for Blood Baron.  I did not side them in.  I won game 2 fairly easily, then a Blood Baron hit the table turn 5 of game 3 and I was done.

4.  Lack of foresight means that you can lose before you’ve even gotten into the room.

I occasionally dipped my toes into the pool of competitive Magic back during Invasion/Odyssey/Onslaught blocks.  I went 4-4 at States in 2002 and 2-4 at Regionals that same year.  I mostly remember hating the experience every time.  Since starting back in I’ve decided to try to play at more competitive events.  I went 4-3 at States last fall and felt I could have gone 5-2 or even 6-1.  I caught the competitive bug and decided to try for more.

Grand Prix Chicago is coming up next month.  I saw that GP Cincinnati was coming up at the end of March and figured it would be a good preparation, so my buddy Dave and I decided to go.  I took an updated version of my deck from States, since it was awesome against the control decks in the format and at least 50-50 against the Mono-Black and Mono-Blue decks I was expecting to see most of the rest of the time.  It was lousy against Red-White Burn, Red-White-Green Hexproof, and Red-Green-Black Monsters, but I figured that I could just take my chances at not seeing those particular decks.

I ended up going 2-7.  I won the two matchups I was supposed to win and didn’t see another favorable matchup the rest of the day.  Dave, meanwhile, made a last-minute decision to switch to Esper Control and went 5-3-1.  GP Cincinnati was pretty much the Esper Control tournament, which makes me hit my head against the wall every time, since if I had just made it to Day 2 I probably would have kicked a lot of ass.  You can’t win it all if you can’t win a round, though.

5.  Get back up on the damn horse.

Two weeks after GP Cincinnati I took a different deck to the StarCity Games Open in Milwaukee.  I went 5-3 before deciding that skipping the last two rounds and going home was better than sticking around since I was out of the money anyway.  My final place was 208 out of 636, which was a damn sight better than my 1352 of 1733 finish at Cincinnati.

The following day I took the same deck with a slight tweak to a $1K.  I went 2-3 and ended up, like, 19th of 23 or something.

6.  If you focus on how you’re going to lose, you’ll most likely lose.

I switched back to a fairly major revision of my GP Cincinnati deck[4] and went to yet another $1K.  My first round opponent was running Esper Control, which was once again my best matchup.  The previous build of the deck tended to end with me losing game 1 in a squeaker and then winning games 2 and 3 rather decisively.  I’d discovered that my changes actually made the deck better in game 1 and I still had the same massive post-sideboard advantage.

Game 1 I had the win on the board and I managed to talk myself out of making the obvious play.  Why?  Because I got scared that I’d lose.[5]  I did.

7.  Sometimes you’ve just got to flunge.

I’ve stolen flunge from the Loading Ready Run crew.  They, in turn, stole it from fencing.  It means turning all your stuff sideways and letting your opponent try to figure out if they’re still alive at the end of combat.

So what does any of this have to do with real life?  I’ve spent my entire life obsessing about the past while worrying about the future and trying to control every variable of the present.  Magic is a beautiful microcosm of life in that way.  If you let your past losses eat at you you’ll never start thinking about winning.  If you start to list off all of the cards your opponent could play that will win the game you’ll psyche yourself out and start jumping at shadows.[6]

Lt Col Robert Bateman used a quote from Ulysses S. Grant in his most recent Civil War column.  During the Battle of the Wilderness a few rebel brigades almost managed to cut off the Union river crossing.  For most of the previous two years of war this would have signaled that Robert E. Lee had, once again, outmaneuvered the Army of the Potomac and it was time to run like hell for home.  It was Grant’s first battle in the East, so his subordinates attempted to inform him of their history.  Grant responded thusly:

Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think that he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.

“Try to think what we are going to do ourselves.”  That pretty much sums up the lesson.  It works in war, it works in games, it works in life.


The other big lesson came at the tail-end of the Saturday Journey Into Nyx prerelease where I went 2-2.  Dave listened to my bitching for a moment and then said, “You’ve either got to hate losing less or enjoy winning more.  I don’t care which one, just pick an extreme.”

I’ve spent my entire life terrified of failure.  Whenever I’d succeed I’d remain braced for the inevitable failure.  I couldn’t enjoy victory and every defeat seemed like the worst thing ever because I’d been expecting to fail.  That’s a lesson I’ve decided to take to heart.  I can’t win if I’m always expecting a loss.  I can’t enjoy winning if I’m expecting to lose.  That, ultimately, is the thing that gets in my way the most.  I need to start seeing the wins now, rather than looking for the ways that I’ll lose down the road.


[1]Limited is a format where you either build your own deck from 6 booster packs (known as sealed) or draft one card at a time from three booster packs in pods of 8 (known as draft).  I don’t play a lot of Limited, but I loved Theros sealed and draft, going so far as to take second at one of the prereleases I attended.  I hated Theros/Born of the Gods Limited because it always seemed like whatever course I took was firmly and utterly wrong.

[2]Placement at Magic tournaments is based on points.  You get 0 points for a loss, 1 point for a draw, and 3 points for a win.  This means that there’s an (somewhat perverse, I’d argue) incentive to avoid playing the last round.  In the case of the prerelease in question there were two of us who were 4-0 going into the final round, which meant we both had 12 points and the best anyone else had was 9.  If we played the round out one of us would end up with 15 and the other with 12, so there would be a guaranteed first place but the other person could end up dropping fairly low due to tiebreakers.  By taking the draw, then, both players have 13 points, can’t end up lower than 2nd, and will generally play a round just to see who actually gets first.

This gets more complicated if there’s an odd number of players.  I was playing my usual FNM at Dean’s once and three of us were 4-0 going into the last round with prizes for the top 4.  I got paired down, so I was a 4-0 playing against a 3-1.  The two guys on the first table were guaranteed nothing worse than third, so they took the draw.  I won my round and won the entire thing.  It was silly.

Interestingly, both prereleases where I got second I officially won.  I had the best tiebreakers, but I lost the informal playoff.  I was okay with that in both cases, since I at the Theros one I was utterly convinced that I had the second best deck in the room and my only goal was to not face the guy with the best deck until the final round.  That’s exactly how it worked out.  At the Journey Into Nyx prerelease I was less convinced that I had a deck that was on top of the world but I did know who had best deck in the room and we didn’t get matched up until the final round.

[3]TCGPlayer is one of the two big non-Wizards entities that sponsors tournaments.  They name their bigger events by the amount of the payout, so a $1K has $1,000 worth of prizes.

[4]There are two basic types of competitive Magic players: deck builders and net deckers.  Net deckers will just play whatever is winning.  Deck builders want to play their own deck.  I’ve always been a deck builder and I’ve always been utterly convinced that I’m going to break the metagame.  That’s why I went to GP Cincinnati with a Red-Black Midrange deck I affectionately called NeoMachinehead, after my all-time favorite deck archetype (my next two favorite archetypes being Sligh and Red Deck Wins, which are really practically the same thing now, since the constraints that forced Sligh basically don’t exist.  In a world where Legion Loyalist and Rakdos Cackler are red one-drops and Satyr Firedrinker is an upgrade over Jackal Pup there’s no reason to play Raging Goblin and Goblin Raider).  My deck at SCG Milwaukee was Red-Black Aggro, but Black-red Devotion was starting to hit at that point.  I finally broke down and took the best Black-red Devotion list, then swapped in some NeoMachinehead stuff that was just plain better.

[5]I’m going to put the situation down here, since it’s long, drawn-out, and most people probably won’t care.

My opponent was at 4 life with an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion who was at either 6 or 7 loyalty.  He had 4 cards in hand and, crucially, I knew what all but one of those cards were.  I, in fact, still have the notes, so I can tell you they were Supreme Verdict, Temple of Deceit, another Elspeth, and ?

I was still up at 17 life and I had a Stormbreath Dragon, which is my primary win condition against Esper control decks.  I also had at least 7 land, one of which was a Mutavault.  Anyone who knows anything about the current state of affairs in Magic should immediately recognize that this is a situation I should not have lost.  All I had to do was attack and, boom, game most likely over.  I convinced myself that the one card I couldn’t account for was a Hero’s Downfall, however, so I started trying to figure out how I was going to win the game after my opponent killed my Stormbreath Dragon.  It was pretty grim, what with him having an Elspeth on the table and another in hand and all.  I knew I needed to buy time and make sure Elspeth didn’t go Ultimate.  So I cast Anger of the Gods to clear out the tokens and attacked Elspeth with the Mutavault and swung for lethal with the Stormbreath Dragon, all the while expecting to see the kill spell.  I figured that it ultimately wouldn’t matter, since I can’t lose to Esper post-sideboard.

My opponent didn’t have a Hero’s Downfall.  My opponent did, however, have a Sphinx’s Revelation, which he proceeded to cast for 7.  If I’d just attacked without getting cute I would have had the mana to make my Stormbreath Monstrous and won the damn game.

I went on to lose game 1.  Then I lost game 2 really, really badly.

[6]I had that problem with NeoMachinehead and Desecration Demon.  I started to just assume that if I played one my opponent would have the exact card they needed to stop it and began siding them out pretty much every game.  I’ve since figured out that usually meant I was playing the damn things wrong.

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