Stepping Up: There is No Luck
Normally my articles are all about deck tech, but this time I'm going to try something different. Not many people know this, but before my breakout performance at Nationals last year I was quite the terror on the JSS circuit. I played in JSS tournaments for three years, qualifying for JSS championships each year as well as winning the JSS eastern division championship in '99 and being the top challenge winner in '01. I got my first taste of the thrill of travelling to a big event, the intense rush of playing a match with lots on the line, and the fun of making plenty of friends. The experiences were invaluable, and the $8,000 in scholarships on the side didn't hurt either.
But this isn't about the money I won, it's about the lessons I've learned. This will about looking at the ideas that are crucial to making the jump from the JSS to the Pro Tour. While this information is especially relevant to JSS'ers, it is beneficial to anyone involved in competitive play that is looking to make that crucial step up. With that in mind, it's time to jump in. For our first lesson, I'd like to start with a quote:
"In my experience, there is no such thing as luck." - Obi-Wan Kenobi
That's right, luck does not exist. When you lose a game, it was because you made a mistake, and you should try to figure out what it was. Keep getting bad draws? Maybe you built your deck wrong, or aren't shuffling thoroughly enough. Losing to "lucky" topdecks? Maybe the odds were with your opponent, and you should have been more prepared.
I'm sure many of you are saying that's ridiculous by now, but don't stop reading yet, there is an explanation. Magic IS a somewhat random game. After all, the decks ARE randomized. You don't choose your draws. The problem is that this makes it very easy to blame losses on luck, and any time you do this, it diverts your attention away from any possible mistakes you may have made.
The thing to remember here is that there is a difference between random chance and luck. Luck implies superstition, meaning that someone can be more or less "lucky" in general than someone else. This is a huge misconception. Magic is a game of random chance. In a short-term situation, it may seem like you got incredibly "unlucky" by mulliganing several times and still drawing no land, but the correct way to view the situation is that chance worked against you this time, but will be in your favor another time. No one is simply "luckier" than someone else. Die rolls are a perfect example of this. You may lose every die roll in a nine round tournament, but it doesn't mean you are unlucky. Die rolls (that aren't skewed by cheating) WILL eventually even out to 50/50. Better players may get manahosed in specific games, but in the long run the better player WILL win more than the one who isn't as talented. Lets look at an example from an article by Gary Wise:
This is all from Gary Wise's side of the story, and he obviously realized that he had made multiple mistakes, something that is very key to becoming a better player. It would not be so clear-cut had you heard it from someone who was more inclined to blame the loss on luck. He or she could easily say "my opponent topdecked Dirge of Dread and Inspirit in sequence and beat me," which on the surface seems very lucky. But not only does this lead you to miss the play of Shocking the opponent instead of a creature (which would have virtually the same effect on the game without the Inspirit or some other trick), it also leads you to miss the less obvious play of also attacking with the Tephraderm and possibly more creatures to force chump-blocking to a point where a topdecked Dirge (or anything aside from Akroma's Vengeance) would no longer lose you the game. In this case, not knowing the cards is not a good excuse for losing, but a place to improve.
I also have a more personal example to share. It was round three of Pro Tour Houston this last year. I was playing Psychatog, while my opponent was playing Aluren. A simple explanation of how the matchup works is that the Aluren player tries to force through his or her combo elements with Duress and Cabal Therapy, and looks for a window to "go off." The Psychatog player needs to stop the opposing combo elements and gain card advantage to seal the win with a lethal tog. I felt that the matchup was heavily in my favor, noting that I had plenty of counters and even Annul and my own Duresses to stop his threats. I was playing against a Japanese player whose sleeves were marked (I don't think intentionally) and had to re-sleeve after a lot of explanation to a judge and a Japanese interpreter.
We ended up in game three, and by this point I thought I had gotten over the language barrier and we were communicating fine. Apparently that meant I was just too relaxed. I felt fine the entire game, being in a winning position the entire time with a Tog on the board and Wonder in my graveyard. He had an Aluren that slipped through, but had few to no cards in hand and was trying to recur Gigapede fast enough to kill me.
What essentially happened was that he ripped a few cards off the top in perfect order. This included a Cabal Therapy which took away my Fact or Fiction and Gush while I was stuck on one Island and two Swamps. But because of his painlands, the Tog was in very close range. It got to a point where he had a Gigapede in play to my Tog and I was at 4 life. He didn't attack with the Gigapede, his only creature, most likely forgetting about the Wonder in my graveyard.
I untapped, and attacked with the now-lethal Psychatog. He placed his Gigapede in front of it and signaled a block. He had one card in hand that he had just drawn. I said no, flying, and pointed to the Wonder in my graveyard. He looked a little taken back, then looked at the card in his hand, calmly smiled, and put a Birds of Paradise into play with Aluren which took the Gigapede's place. I had no answer to the insect and would die on his turn. I threw up my arms in frustration at another incredible topdeck, quickly signed the match slip, and stormed off.
Did you catch that? Well, it hit me within seconds after walking off. He had already tried to assign a blocker, meaning we had clearly moved into the declare blockers phase. You can't play spells during the declare blockers phase! I could have simply called over the interpreter to inform him that he had messed up and lost, but because I was so annoyed with how "lucky" he was getting, I blew the match.
This goes to show that no matter how "lucky" someone gets, there are often still windows of opportunity to seize back the advantage. These windows will not always lead to victory, since some deficits are impossible to recover from, but it is always worth looking for them and making the most of them. This example also shows that not all mistakes have to do with play skill, but also rules knowledge as well as other areas.
Take this as a lesson. Don't get upset when your opponent plays Silvos out of nowhere. Think about the possibility that you should have held your Pacifism longer. When your opponent topdecks Wrath of God and destroys your board, consider that you may have overextended. The correct thing to do in these situations is evaluate them in a risk/reward fashion. Maybe looking back, you find that the threat of the creature you Pacified was far greater than the risk of a Silvos, maybe not. But one thing is for sure: if you write it off to luck, you'll never know.
There are a few questions with this way of thinking. What about the situation where someone misplays and still wins? If luck doesn't exist, then wouldn't I be saying that he or she was a good player and won because of his or her superior play skill? Not exactly. In fact, this kind of reasoning can be very dangerous. If someone misplays and wins it only reinforces the bad play and causes it to continue. The player will have a small short term reward (the win) but it will hurt his or her game overall, which is far worse. This is why it is still important to try and find your mistakes in games that you win, as well as ones you lose. This is much harder to do, so it might be a good idea to start with the games you lose, and once you are good at evaluating those, you will have a keener eye at noticing mistakes in games you win. If you can manage this, your game will gradually improve.
Magic Online is actually incredibly useful for learning to cope with the random chance factor in Magic, because the shuffler and die roller are completely random. I find it highly amusing whenever I hear someone complaining about how the shuffler "sucks" or some other such word because they drew too many or too few lands. It happens. If you shuffle "better" than the Magic Online shuffler, it means you're cheating (looking at cards while you shuffle or stacking your deck in other ways).
Discussing luck is a great place to start, because if you can keep your cool when you lose, it will help you greatly not only in becoming a better player, but you won't be nearly as annoying to your friends. No matter how "screwed" you got, no one really wants to hear about it. Do yourself a favor. When you lose, practice not going up to your friends and explaining how lucky your opponent got. Instead, try discussing the game with any who saw it and see if they noticed anything you should have done differently. If someone asks why you lost, try explaining the situation objectively ("He Wrathed my team and gained control" instead of "He drew his third Wrath off the top the turn before he was dead!"). If someone you know is constantly coming up to you and complaining about being manascrewed, don't sympathize with them. Tell them there was probably something they could have done differently. Or do what some people do and just laugh at them. It may annoy them, but they might just come up to you in the future and thank you for putting them on the right track.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Many ideas in this article lead into other areas of interest and aspects of making the jump from a JSS or casual tournament player to becoming a pro, and in the coming weeks, I hope to cover more things I learned along the way that will hopefully help you in your quest to improve.
- Eric Franz