The Art of Losing

This was supposed to be the second entry in a new series. Something went wrong with the publishing schedule last Tuesday and nothing posted. I’m actually okay with that, as I really struggled to write that post and, in retrospect, it was pretty unnecessary. I can handle everything that post said in five pages in approximately one paragraph. Focus is key.

Either way, I started playing Magic: the Gathering again about two years ago. I played way back in 1995/96ish, then again from 1999-2003. Since coming back I’ve actually been something of a competitive player (although not a particularly successful one). I consider myself a grinder, basically. I doubt you’ll see me on the Pro Tour at any point in the near future, but, hey, who knows?

Since then I’ve made some interesting observations about how playing games feeds into understanding life. I’ve been thinking of writing a post called, “Everything I Know About Life I Learned from Magic.” I’ve decided, instead, to write a (probably infrequent) series. Because generating content is hard.

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Magic is a game that creates losers. (Almost) every game creates a loser. (Almost) every round creates a loser. Every tournament creates a whole bunch of losers. If you’re like me and you play a lot of Magic that means that you have a whole lot of opportunities to lose. I’ve lost a shitload of Magic over the last two years.[1]

When I first got back into Magic I got pretty salty whenever I lost. I lost a lot, which meant that I spent a lot of time feeling salty. Eventually I started winning again and decided that, hey, I never had to be salty again. That just meant that whenever I thought I was going on a run and lost I just felt worse.

My absolute nadir came last March at Grand Prix Cincinnati. I decided I had a deck that broke the format. It didn’t matter that I’d been playing variations of that deck to extremely pedestrian results for the last several months. It absolutely crushed the control decks in the format and had decent results against Mono-Black Devotion and Mono-Blue Devotion, which were the other two pillars of the format. It was absolutely atrocious against RG Monsters and RW Burn, not to mention the new Naya Hexproof deck that was on the rise at that time. I got a steady diet of RG Monsters, RW Burn, and Naya Hexproof that day, leading to an overall record of 2-7, the exact opposite of what I needed for Day 2.

Why did I keep playing all day? I had nothing better to do with my time. I had decided that my deck was so fucking good that I didn’t bring a backup. I didn’t own a Modern deck. I hated Theros/Born of the Gods Limited. So I started the day 2-1 and lost 6 rounds in a row. It became a mental exercise in seeing just how much I could take.

Two weeks later I went to the Starcity Games Open in Milwaukee with a different deck. I went 5-3 and dropped with 2 rounds to go because I was out of the money and it was fucking late and I’d just played Magic for many hours in a row and I still had to drive back to the Chicago suburbs. Also I was out of dog food, so I had to stop and buy a bag on the way home and it was almost 10 o’clock as it was and, dammit, Daisy dog gets one type of food and they don’t sell that shit at Wal-Mart. Daisy is spoiled rotten. Left to her own devices Daisy eats frozen rabbit poop even when I yell at her. So…yeah.

In June I went to GP Chicago and finished 5-4 playing yet another deck. In August I went to the World Magic Cup Qualifier in Indianapolis and went 5-4 playing a variation of that same deck.[2] In between I got in the habit of making Top 8 at smaller events and even got enough prize money at a $1k the week before GP Chicago that I basically played for free that weekend.[3]

So what happened between Cincinnati and Chicago? More accurately, what started at Cincinnati that I carried through to Milwaukee and Chicago and beyond? I learned how to lose.

More accurately, I learned that since losing is part of the game you have to accept it. Sometimes you can minimize the chance of losing right off the bat by choosing a different deck as I should have done at GP Cincinnati and subsequently did at the Milwaukee Open and GP Chicago and whatnot. Even so I still managed to lose games. My attitude shifted by then, though.

Sometime between GP Chicago and the WMCQ I was at an IQ down in the southern suburbs. I was playing Rabble Red for the second time ever[4]. My day started well and I was 2-0 and feeling good going into the third round of a 6 round event. I lost round 3. I righted the ship round 4 but then lost round 5. There was little chance that someone with a 4-2 record could make the Top 8, but I’d been paying attention and knew that I had an outside shot. So I sat down for the sixth round against an opponent who knew I was on Rabble Red and basically said, “Well, I guess I’ve already lost this one.” I obliged him. I then went on to make the Top 8. The trick there, though, was that my round 5 opponent could have drawn into the Top 8 but he elected to play out the last round and won, making him the top qualifier and raising my tiebreakers to the absolute top of the 4-2s.

Some days it’s better to be lucky than good. Of course since I was the last guy into the top 8 and my round 5 opponent was the top qualifier I had to play him again in the quarterfinals and promptly lost. But he was a really nice guy and we had a hell of a lot of fun.

——————-

As someone who generally avoids getting salty after losing these days it’s fascinating for me to see another player totally fly off the rails.

The moment Goblin Rabblemaster was spoiled in M15 I knew that I’d be playing it. I lurves me some red aggro and my love of gobbos is such that I have a print of the Jeff Miracola Raging Goblin on my mantle.[5] I came up with a slightly goofy red/blue Goblin aggro list that was just too cute by half and found a playset of Goblin Rabblemasters the first week that M15 was out. I got them all out of packs and by pre-ordering when they were, like, a buck. It was also the buy-a-box promo, so I sourced a playset at 5 bucks apiece and went to town. The deck was…streaky. But holy crap was Rabblemaster a powerhouse.

One of the rounds that I won with the deck my opponent sat there for a couple minutes telling me how shocked he was that he’d lost to a brew. This was, to him, utterly incomprehensible. Brews are, after all, terrible by definition.[6] I pointed out that all of the decks that were pillars of the format were brews at one point, too. I also quickly gave up on my Goblin deck and went back to RW Burn. A week or so later came Pro Tour M15 and the celebrated deck was Rabble Red, which basically took the philosophy I had with my Goblin Rabblemaster deck and said, “Hey, let’s surround this guy with all the amazing cheap red creatures, add Stoke the Flames, and win all the games.” Over the next few weeks Goblin Rabblemaster’s price went up to $20. I felt vindicated. I also played Rabble Red exactly 3 times.

A couple of weeks back I was at a Pre-TQ. I’d been experimenting with a RB aggro/midrange hybrid that had a lot of totally bizarre and unexpected interactions. The night before I’d taken the deck to FNM and gotten curb stomped by Ascendancy Tokens. On the way home I’d decided that there was one perfect card to deal with that situation and added 4 Doomwake Giants to the sideboard. My round 1 opponent was playing RG Aggro. He won game 1 easily and I knew I was in trouble. I sided in the Doomwakes because I literally had nothing better to do and several dead cards, so a 4/6 body certainly wasn’t bad. I won game 2. Game 3 he mulliganed, then kept a 1 land hand with a bunch of mana dorks and proceeded to not draw more lands. Turn 5 I played Doomwake and cleared his board[7] then went on to win.

He spent the next five minutes telling me that I didn’t deserve to win the game. His deck was just better than mine. I actually agree with that assessment from a numbers perspective, but, Christ, what an asshole. It put me in an awkward position, since I totally agreed that I got lucky but that’s why you play the goddamn game and by the time he got done with his tirade I was pretty sure that I was supposed to feel bad for winning.[8] So I was talking to someone else a couple minutes later and said, “My round 1 opponent is feeling super salty right now.”

His response was, “Oh, you played [guy]? What else did you expect?”

I made Top 8 that day. I actually went 3-0, then lost the next 2 and had to squeak into the Top 8 as the sole 4-2 and play the top qualifier. It was the third time I’ve played that particular guy and my record going into the quarterfinals against him was 0-2. My record against him after the quarterfinals was 0-3. I saw him the next day at a PTQ and asked how he’d done. He hadn’t won the Pre-TQ. At the PTQ I had a disappointing finish but he made Top 8 and I walked over and congratulated him because he’s a damn good player and I wanted him to do well.

——————–

Magic is a community. I know a lot of the local players. Some I know because we hang out at the same stores. Some I know because I’m apparently a grinder now and grinders know their own.

I’d rather be the guy that gets congratulated for winning than be the guy that gets the, “Oh, you played Geds? He’s an asshole,” treatment. The first step in that process is in learning how to lose. I like to think I’m well on my way.

———————-

In life overall I’ve also come to realize that there’s a major lesson. I’ve spent my life minimizing my opportunities to lose. I’ve been terrified of taking the loss.

But if you’re truly in the game that means that sometimes you’re going to lose. There’s no avoiding the possibility if you want to win. Sometimes everything just aligns and the sure loss becomes a crazy, unexpected win.

I’ve decided to start looking for the wins.

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[1]I’m an above average player. My Constructed win percentage hangs out in the 60% range with occasional slumps and streaks. My Limited win percentage is actually better, which continually baffles me, since I mostly hate Limited. 60% isn’t bad when you think that it means I consistently win more than I lose. The guys who win Grands Prix and get invites to Pro Tours tend to have 70-75% win rates. The difference between 40% and 60% is so much closer than the difference between 60% and 70% that I honestly don’t know how they do it.

Let’s put it this way: Say I want to make Day 2 at a Grand Prix. Under the current rules if you want to make Day 2 you need a 7-2 record Day 1. That’s a 77.7777777777777778% win percentage. If you want to make Day 2 with any chance of actually making Top 8 you need an 8-1 or even 9-0 record. My record at GP Chicago was 5-4. With an average win percentage of 60% you’d expect me to finish the day either 5-4 or 6-3. That’s just not good enough. The really good players almost always make Day 2 at Grands Prix.

[2]Chicago and the WMCQ were both disappointing in their own way, though. At Chicago I was actually in the running for Day 2 until round 7 where I lost to Mono-Black playing RW Burn. I’d come to absolutely love that matchup because I knew the exact path to victory. Unfortunately the path basically came down to “win game 1 because that’s basically automatic, then hope that if he gets running Desecration Demons and Gray Merchants it’s game 2 because game 3 is still better than 50% on the play.” My opponent won game 1. So…fuck. At the WMCQ, meanwhile, I started the day 3-0 and then went 2-2 through the middle rounds and had to win my last round to stay above average.

[3]The $1k was at Pastimes, which also organized GP Chicago, so it was fun to say that I was paying Pastimes with their own money.

[4]Technically, but we’ll get to that later.

[5]I also have an autographed can of Frank Thomas’s Big Hurt Beer and the novelization of Beverly Hills Cop II up there. No, I don’t get laid much, why do you ask?

[6]I’m a deckbuilder. My roots in the game still come from a time when netdecking was difficult and netdeckers were looked down on. Looking back my most successful decks were still basically my versions of popular archetypes, as I jammed Suicide Black, Angry Dogs, Sligh, Machinehead, and TurboStasis with the best of ‘em. So…take that for what it’s worth.

[7]Doomwake Giant gives all of your opponent’s creatures -1/-1 whenever you play it or another enchantment. All of his mana generating creatures had 1 toughness, so Doomwake = instant death.

[8]I didn’t. Winning feels pretty damn good.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Losing

  1. What that Geds said!

    I’m generally a pretty middling sort of player at most games, and I wouldn’t keep playing if I didn’t enjoy a good game that ends with a loss for me nearly as much as one that ends with a win. But I do want it to be a good game, one in which all players are enjoying themselves.

    I hate the “tournament mentality”; I’m a simulationist, and if a question comes up I try to answer it with “what would those people in that situation really do” rather than “what do the rules say”. As a wargamer, in particular, I think it’s very important not to lose sight of the fact that those llittle lead mean represent actual, if fictional, people.

    One difficulty is people saying “it’s only a game”, which implies that bad behaviour would be OK if it weren’t a game. Bad behaviour is not OK whatever the stakes. If you went in agreeing to a conflict, you have to accept the outcome of the conflict too.

    On the other hand I’ve been getting into X-Wing Miniatures recently, helped by a friend who was getting out of the game and selling off his collection at a discount. I seem to be reasonably good at it, both the force building and the actual play (one of the things I like is that both aspects are important). I’ve signed up for a local-ish tournament in March. I have no idea what the local X-Wing crowd is like…

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