When Things Go Wrong

Posted in Feature on May 9, 2007

By Frank Karsten

I own exactly one computer: my trustworthy laptop. It has been a good pal; it has accompanied me in many journeys, allowing me to write articles even when I'm away to participate in a Magic tournament somewhere in the far side of the world. But that all changed when I arrived in Stockholm last Friday. Happy with the free wireless Internet, I opened up my laptop and pressed the 'on' button. Nothing happened. I tried again, but once again to no avail. I didn't even get a strange error message on the screen. Not even a single one of the indicator lights blinked. My laptop was dead as a stone. Not the best start for the weekend.

On Saturday, I received a weak Sealed Deck pool and went 1-3 drop. I also made a couple play mistakes that didn't help my record. And now it's Sunday. Right now I am typing this on Ruud Warmenhoven's laptop. After tossing out my roommate Roel van Heeswijk's laptop, which didn't have Excel and couldn't run Magic Online for some reason (as if I hadn't already had enough setbacks this weekend), Ruud offered some hope. Thanks man!

Cyclopean_SnareRuud told me on the way to his room about his 0-3 record in his first draft pod. He obviously was disappointed with that. But the interesting part about his story was that he didn't attribute his losses to bad luck or mulligans or something like that. He just stated up front that he played badly and threw away games, and was pretty upset about that. I would like to talk about this for a bit. Strangely enough, I tend to hear that explanation from "good" players more frequently than from "bad" players. I don't mean to sound demeaning with that distinction, I will just use it to illustrate a point, which might help people to step up to the next level. So I just said that good players admit to making mistakes more often than bad players. Does that mean that they actually make more mistakes than the bad players and that they just win because they're infinitely lucky? No, I think the correct conclusion is that good players simply notice that they are making mistakes more often. They can spot mistakes more quickly because they're better at the game and therefore have better insight in what the optimal play could be.

Good players have often adopted the stance that they are bad at the game and that they make mistakes now and then. However, they will spot them, learn from them, and handle them well. On the other hand, from my experience and observations, bad players often don't even notice that they make mistakes. Bad players just point at their mana screw or mulligans, and say they lost because they were unlucky, without considering whether they could have made different plays that may have improved their chances of winning. I never hear a bad player saying "I lost because I played the wrong creature on turn three" or "I lost because I was going for the wrong game plan; I shouldn't have been damage racing." Without first recognizing that you are bad at the game and admitting that you make mistakes, you can never see mistakes, learn from them, and improve.

Sure, sometimes you really lose because you got an awful draw and there was nothing you could've done. Luck is part of the game; you cannot influence it, there is nothing to learn from it, and you have to accept that. But the part of the game that you do have influence on is what plays you make. Good players win more than bad players because they make better choices and make fewer mistakes. They still make mistakes—I do, Ruud does, and even top players like Kenji occasionally screw up—but they just don't do it as often as the bad players. Furthermore, good players recognize their mistakes and are still constantly learning and improving. That's why they win more. In fact, I often consider players who say they played perfectly but lost to bad luck to be bad players, whereas I often consider players who say they made mistakes and lost because of that to be good players. That might be controversial, as it is a complete reversal of the popular view, but I think there definitely is some truth in my words. If you want to get better, first let go of your ego and admit that you are awful at the game. It's what I have done and I still believe it. Then stop saying you lost to mana screw or lucky topdecks from your opponent. It might be true sometimes, but there is nothing to learn from it. Just shrug, move on, and keep on trying to find the optimal play all the time.

Furthermore, handling your mistakes well is also important. For example, I made the rare mistake of missing an on-board trick in the Grand Prix. What happened was that I attacked with Ironclaw Buzzardiers (as I said, my Sealed pool was quite bad) and I just blatantly forgot about my opponent's Primal Forcemage when he played Crookclaw Transmuter and blocked. I had Ghostfire in hand and should have used it to kill his flyer in response to Primal Forcemage's trigger. But I didn't and felt like an idiot when my opponent pointed out that my creature died. I felt that I was even playing better in Yokohama when I was hanging over a bucket the entire day. Usually when I make a mistake I just make a bad judgement call or I am on the wrong game plan, or something very subtle like that. Missing on-board tricks is very rare, but it can still happen occasionally. But the worst you can do is to tilt or to try and hide your mistake from your opponent. If you do that, you just make another mistake. Instead, I think that the best way to handle these situations is to take a deep breath and take some time to get yourself together and shake it off. Then view the game state from a fresh standpoint. I did that and actually decided that in the current game state my correct play would be to play Ghostfire on the Crookclaw Transmuter after all. It feels rather stupid, but whatever crazy stuff happened before the current game state is irrelevant. Economists would refer to this as 'sunk costs.'

So much for today's aside on mistakes. I'd better hurry and start working on the online Standard metagame update, as I have to finish this article sometime today. After all, I fly back tomorrow and won't have a working computer at home. To make matters even worse, I also have exams next week and was actually planning to study tonight. Let's go.

Deck namePopularityChange since last week
1. Dragonstorm■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■ (18%)0%
2. R/G Aggro■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■ (14%)-1%
3. Dralnu du Louvre■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■ (14%)+10% (!!!)
4. Solar Flare■■■■■ ■■■■■ (10%)-2%
5. Izzetron■■■■■ ■■■ (8%)-1%
6. Angelfire■■■■ (4%)0%
7. G/B Dredge/Reanimate■■■■ (4%)+3% (!!!)
8. Mono Green Aggro■■■ (3%)1%
9. Mono Blue Pickles■■■ (3%)-5% (!!!)
U/B/R Control■■ (2%)2%
11. Panda Connection■■ (2%)1%
12. U/W Tron■■ (2%)2%
13. KarstenBotBabyKiller■■ (2%)2%
14. W/B Arena Control■■ (2%)1%
15. R/W/B Arena Control■ (1%)1%
16. Zoo■ (1%)1%
17. U/G PickleTron■ (1%)0%
18. U/G Aggro■ (1%)1%
19. Black Rack Discard■ (1%)-1%
20. Satanic Sligh■ (1%)1%

The big shift is that Dralnu du Louvre is back in force, most likely because it can beat Dragonstorm, which still holds the #1 slot. I was actually planning to write a feature on matchups in Standard this week. I had already finished an Excel sheet that used Top 8 playoff data and match results from the recent 4x Standard event to calculate what deck beats what. Unfortunately, it was obviously stored on my laptop that broke down, so there is no way to access it. From the top of my head, the main conclusions were that (I just hope my memory serves me well here, although these conclusions make sense logically) Dragonstorm loses to Dralnu du Louvre and Solar Flare. Dragonstorm goes fairly even against Red-Green Aggro, although sideboard cards like Cryoclasm can tip the scale for the Red-Green Aggro deck. Dragonstorm tends to beat Izzetron and most of the other decks. Now why is that? Let's take a look at what cards and strategies are good against the top tier decks.

Versus Dragonstorm: Discard spells like Persecute or Riptide Pilferer can take out the combo pieces from their hand. If they can't collect Rite of Flames and Seething Songs in their hand, they will have a hard time pulling off a big Dragonstorm. Other plans involve effectively countering Dragonstorm with Trickbind, Shadow of Doubt, or Circle of Protection: Red. This strategy, however, still cannot beat a storage-land-powered Gigadrowse that taps down all your lands the turn before they go off. But a Rewind that counters the last Gigadrowse copy, Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir to prevent them from playing it at the end of your turn, or maybe even Annex against the storage lands can fight back. These cards, in tandem with stuff like Shadow of Doubt, can potentially beat Dragonstorm. However, Dragonstorm players haven't been standing still and are responding to these strategies with answers of their own. Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, Empty the Warrens, or Riptide Pilferer are occasionally showing up in the sideboard of Dragonstorm and are quite good for control matchups or the mirror match.

Tendrils of Corruption
Versus Red-Green Aggro: Their deck has lots of creatures, so Damnation and Wrath of God are naturally very good. But then you still have to deal with the array of burn spells. The best cards against them answer their creatures and double as answers against their burn cards. Faith's Fetters, Loxodon Hierarch, and even Bottle Gnomes or Tendrils of Corruption (if it works in Block Constructed, why wouldn't it work in Standard?) are the best for that reason. These cards stop a creature threat and counter a burn spell in advance, basically. It's like having Last Gasp and Counterspell in one card, so in a sense they feel like card advantage and tempo advantage. Cheap, efficient answer to the creatures and a plan against the mid-to-late game burn spells will work.

Versus Dralnu du Louvre: Their deck is full of countermagic, so cards that circumvent counterspells are good. This includes the suspend creatures (Detritivore and Aeon Chronicler), but also cards that are hard to counter, like Nightmare Void or Demonfire. Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir is also very good against them. Lastly, cheap cards that have big effects on the game are also potent. For example, Riptide Pilferer, Shadowmage Infiltrator, and Dark Confidant. Because of their cheap cost, they can slip under countermagic. And they really have to answer them right away, or the incremental card advantage that they pose will be victorious.

Looking at all this, a Blue-Black-Red Control deck seems like it would perform very well against these decks. These colors appear to hold most cards that can beat the top tier strategies. With access to Detritivore and Aeon Chronicler, Persecute, Damnation, Shadowmage Infiltrator, Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, Shadow of Doubt, Tendrils of Corruption and Bottle Gnomes it looks like you can make a potent deck. It could take the shape of Dralnu du Louvre splashing red, or maybe a B/R/u control deck like the one I played in Block Constructed and talked about last week. I'm not sure what the best build of such a deck would be—there are so many cards to choose from in Standard now, and without proper testing first I can't give a list—but I think that if you want to look for a way to break the format and position yourself correctly in the metagame, these cards are the ones you should start out with. In fact, I have already seen a couple blue-red-black control decks that are similar to my thoughts around in the Top 8s, and I think those players are on to something.

That's all on Standard for now. Next time—in two weeks—I will go over the Future Sight additions.

Standard with Vanguard 4x Open

Vanguard is a Constructed format that grants abilities to the Magic Online avatars for use in game play. Standard with Vanguard uses the same card pool as regular Standard, with one difference: it requires a minimum 61-card deck that includes exactly one Vanguard card. When you start a Vanguard game, each person's Vanguard card is pulled out and put in a special Vanguard zone. Each avatar will affect a player's hand size and starting life total, in addition to having its own in-game ability. You can find a list of the Vanguard avatars and their abilities here. A Standard with Vanguard 4x Premier Event took place last weekend, so let's see what the Top 8 consisted of.

1-2. VivisProdigal Sorcerer avatarDragonstorm combo
1-2. Millennium9999Prodigal Sorcerer avatarDragonstorm combo
3-4. BigdaddytrunklebucksOni of Wild Places avatarOni Deck Wins
3-4. Paososo99Momir Vig avatarG/B Dredge
5-8. Dr.CaithLoxodon Hierarch avatarW/B/U Control
5-8. FlughundRumbling Slum avatarMono Red Burn
5-8. Go michigan2Prodigal Sorcerer avatarDragonstorm
5-8. ZsoltsyProdigal Sorcerer avatarDralnu du Louvre

It is kind of disappointing to see two direct copies of Standard decks, with just a basic avatar tossed in to improve their performance, rise to the top. Dragonstorm is apparently not only the best deck in Standard, but also in Standard with Vanguard. I would have liked to see a deck with the Mirri the Cursed avatar and lots of cheap creatures make it to the playoffs, but Bogardan Hellkite said no.

Fortunately most Top 8 players were online today and were willing to share their decklists with me. How about we take a look?

Vanguard Dragonstorm

Download Arena Decklist

This deck, without the avatar, could fool everyone as a Standard deck. The only choice that could raise eyebrows is that there are only 3 Sleight of Hands. This is because the avatar (which reads "at the beginning of your upkeep, look at the top card of your library. You may put that card into your graveyard") helps every turn to find the combo more consistently, so there is less need for Sleight of Hand. I also got to see the version of go michigan2, which looked very similar. It ran a couple maindeck Compulsive Research, and the sideboard Trickbind for the mirror and Pyroclasm instead of Repeal.

Mono Red Burn Vanguard

Download Arena Decklist

This deck is as straightforward as it can be. Burn, burn, burn, and when it seems that the burn supply has been depleted, it spits out some more flames. The burn is not there to target opposing creatures; it will go to the head. This deck would probably not work well in regular Standard, because drawing 20 damage worth of burn spells in time is hard. But it can work in Vanguard, where the Rumbling Slum avatar deals one damage to the opponent every turn at the beginning of your upkeep. That can add up to a lot of free damage, which will easily make the difference between a win and a loss.

Oni Deck Wins

Download Arena Decklist

The power of this deck lies in abusing both the advantage of the avatar (your creatures have haste), as well as its disadvantage (in your upkeep you have to return a creature to your hand). Haste works very well with mana creatures since they can produce mana right away, as well as with Primal Forcemage for obvious reasons. Returning a creature to your hand in your upkeep is an amazing way to circumvent the cumulative upkeep of Phyrexian Soulgorger. Don't pay; instead bounce it and rock again! This deck looks like an evolution of the Oni Deck Wins deck that I made a while ago. Planar Chaos has updated the deck with Essence Warden, Stingscourger, and Keldon Marauders, which all have great synergy with the avatar.

U/B/W Hierarch avatar Control

Download Arena Decklist

Now this is certainly the most innovative and synergetic deck in the Top 8. It truly makes good use of the avatar. First of all, the Loxodon Hierarch avatar puts your starting life at 32. That alone makes the deck very good against Dragonstorm, since it allows you to survive a Dragonstorm for four or five, and then you can use Wrath of God or Worship to take over the game. The amount of life also works very well with Dark Confidant. The in-game ability of the Loxodon Hierarch avatar reads "Sacrifice a permanent: Regenerate each creature you control." That turns Hatching Plans into "Draw three cards, no questions asked." Furthermore, it allows you to sacrifice Mindslicer at will, thereby allowing for a lockdown with Adarkar Valkyrie. You can sacrifice Mindslicer every turn in your opponent's draw step after he drew his card and then get it back with Adarkar Valkyrie to take out every card he draws (except instants that he can play in response). And then there's the Magus of the Disk every turn. You can regenerate the Magus with the avatar, so that he survives to blow up the board another time. This is positively a deck that I like!

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