Three Lies Magic Players Tell Themselves
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he wasn't real. The second greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people who figured out the first trick that there weren't any more tricks after that. Sturdy minds that resisted falling victim to either of the first two tricks eventually pieced together the third trick the devil ever pulled. That was coaxing his opponent into suboptimal lines of play by convincing them to mentally give up before the match even began, believing they could never beat him. The devil's bag of tricks wasn't particularly deep.
Trick quality went way downhill after the first two. It was honestly quite disappointing for scholars, some of whom had dedicated their entire lives to this pursuit. Like the many who had gone before them by digging into the dark and arcane mysteries of the world, they regretted ever probing into it in the first place, though not for the same reasons as others. They had not unleashed some monstrous eldritch horror loose upon the world or brought about armageddon. They had, however, found a potentially even more terrifying horror. They exposed how truly mundane life's mysteries often turn out to be. For an inquisitive mind, not much could be worse.
2020 offers us a chance for change. Is there any major difference between December 31st 2019 and January 1st 2020? Not particularly. But it's an event that triggers in us a desire for forward thinking and betterment. Any excuse to improve ourselves or the world around us is welcome, regardless of the arbitrary nature of its cause.
In that spirit, let's journey through some lies we tell ourselves as Magic players and contemplate committing to lie less to ourselves in the new year.
“Contemplate” being the key word. Who's got time to actually follow through?
#1: I Got Unlucky
Our natural intuition is generally quite good. It is, after all, built up from years of practice. Our intuition turns things we have learned over time into something our subconscious mind automatically retrieves when applicable.
Our intuitions are not without blind spots, though. Statistics are one area where our gut calls on what seems right are often horribly inaccurate. Humans just suck at naturally understanding statistics. We struggle to separate our personal bias from seeping into what should be an objective measurement, and since intuition is a product of learned information, that gets messed up too.
Luck falls under this same umbrella. We are terrible at understanding luck. Sometimes the things we consider unlucky in Magic are a function of something else entirely. Are you missing a color of mana because you're unlucky, or because your deck is misbuilt? Perhaps your deck is built properly, but it's just one that lends itself to less consistent draws. Having an inconsistent draw isn't unlucky. It's expected.
We might consider our third mulligan to five in the tournament to be incredibly unlucky and bemoan our misfortune to any souls within earshot (the truly misfortunate). However, the reality might be that for our deck, an average number of mulligan to fives at this point would be four, and we're actually drawing fairly well to have done it fewer times.
Sometimes our poor luck is a function of our own mistakes. One infamous example from my own career is a game I played against Brad Nelson in the semifinals of an SCG Invitational. Some math by people much smarter than me put me well over 99% to win the game at various points, but I went on to lose.
I don't like that game. It's not because I lost, or because I got quite unlucky. It's because I don't get to complain about how unlucky I got! At one point in the game I missed a line of play that would have 100% won the game. No matter how unlucky I got after that point, the loss was entirely my fault. My takeaway from that game can never be that I got unlucky, because through my own mistakes I put myself in a position to get unlucky. Turns out if you continually make mistakes to give your opponents a chance to luckily win the game, it will happen some amount of the time. It's like rolling a 20-sided die 1,000 times. It's not unlucky when that dice rolls one some amount of the time. It would be incredibly lucky if it never did. If, instead, through great gameplay we reduced it down to only 10 rolls, not 1,000, we're gonna see a lot less ones popping up in our results.
Our minds also tend to focus on negatives instead of positives. Social media is a great backdrop to demonstrate how a natural tendency is to complain about bad things a lot more than we celebrate good ones. Negative events tend to stick with us more. That one person who said something mean to us replays through our minds while the ten who said nice things get drowned out.
It's the same with luck. We vividly remember when we got unlucky but not when we got lucky. It might be easy to think luck is against us when we don't win yet another event, while it is entirely possible that we are actually luckier than the average Magic player, and our losses are factors of other things. We forget the times when we keep a two-land hand and hit the appropriate amount of land drops and remember the times we missed on land three, even if they happen less often.
Because we are naturally so poorly calibrated to attributing what is the result of luck and what is the result of other factors when it comes to Magic, we're better off just not bothering to focus on luck at all. Over the long term, results will begin to balance out with luck. If our results don't match our expectations over a long enough period of time, it's way more likely that our skill isn't at the level we think it is than we are somehow an extreme outlier. It's way more useful to believe that too.
#2: My Deck Beats Caw Blade
One constant in Magic is there being a best deck and people believing that their personal deck choice has a good matchup against that best deck. Some people genuinely do have a good matchup against the best deck, of course, but it can't be true for very many who make that claim.
If everyone beat the best deck like they claim, then it couldn't actually be the best deck. It would be the worst deck! It loses to everyone, after all.
There are a number of subtle ways people can fall into this trap. Even great players fall victim to it quite often.
The easiest way is to not realize that the best deck isn't immutable. The best deck isn't just the exact 75 that won the last event, unchanged forevermore. As you adjust your deck to beat that particular list, pilots of the best deck will also be adjusting their lists to beat the ways people are evolving to combat it. You may show up to the tournament thinking you beat the best deck, when actually what you beat is last week's version of the best deck. That's not helpful this week when people aren't playing the same thing anymore.
An example of this is the Urza Modern deck that I played at Mythic Championship IV. I had a favorable matchup against Hogaak and it played out that way in the tournament itself.
A few weeks later I played Urza at another tournament. I believed I was still favored against Hogaak, but when I got to the event, that was not the case. Hogaak decks had adapted to the presence of Urza with lots of Force of Vigor in the sideboard, and my matchup and plan were no longer great against them. I thought I beat the best deck, but I didn't, and I reaped the “rewards” of my belief.
Another easy way to mess this up is to not account for player skill. If you test against your buddy on the best deck and your buddy has no experience playing it, they may not pilot it optimally. This can skew results.
Even online play can create this effect. Sometimes you'll play against someone online and they are just trying the deck out and don't have skill with it yet, or they aren't giving the match their full attention. But when you get to the tournament, it's likely that people who are playing the best deck there will have practiced with it and might pilot it way differently than your testing opponents. The plans or gameplay patterns you believed were successful might not work anymore.
An example of this was a Sultai midrange deck that I played in a Grand Prix a few years ago. I thought it beat Selesnya Tokens, the best deck at the time. In testing it did. At the tournament it did not. My testing partner wasn't playing or sideboarding Selesnya Tokens correctly, as we later discovered. I wasn't just unfavored against Selesnya Tokens played correctly, the matchup was actually incredibly bad. To think I walked into the event believing my deck beat the best deck…
#3: I Can't Win
It's easy to convince ourselves of the lie that we can't win a particular match or against a particular player. Maybe we sit down across from someone who always beats us and we think that we're destined to lose once again. Maybe we've lost three times already to a particular deck and we sit down for the fourth time against that strategy and think we're doomed. We can't win.
This lie is nefarious because it can serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we don't think we can win we stop looking for ways to win. When we stop looking for ways to win we miss all the lines of play that could lead us to one. Then, when we inevitably lose, it creates a feedback loop where we tell ourselves that we were correct for believing we had no chance.
Sitting down against a player who is better than us can be daunting. Likewise, sitting down against someone who seems to always have our number can feel futile. Chances are we aren't favored to win, but not being favored is a far cry from “can't,” and adopting a defeatist mindset is not only harmful—it's illogical.
I have lost countless matches to players who don't have the same pedigree that I do. Sometimes this involved a lot of variance, but more frequently they just beat me. We just played a normal, generic game of Magic and I lost. Maybe they had a slight matchup edge that played out in their favor, or natural gameplay exchanges left them slightly ahead at the end. You name it.
There's no logical reason to psych yourself out or think that winning against a great player can't happen outside of divine intervention. It happens all the time, and sometimes in the most mundane possible ways. It's even possible to outplay great players. Everyone makes mistakes, and I punt matches all the time. You could be one of those lucky beneficiaries of a punt-infused victory. Only, as we learned before, maybe we don't understand luck as well as we think, and it stops being lucky to benefit from my punts when they happen every match. Gotta keep the right perspective.
Can't beat a certain matchup? Come up with the best plan your deck can muster and try your best to execute it. It can be a fun sub game to play in a way you wouldn't normally to try to win a bad matchup, and it's exciting when it succeeds. It happens more often than one would think, but it will never happen if you go into a match thinking you can't win and not even bothering to try in the first place.
Instead of stepping into a match thinking “I can't win,” step in wondering “how can I win?” It has a higher success rate and it feels a lot better too, even when it doesn't end up panning out.
Brian Braun-Duin is a professional Magic player, member of the 2020 Magic Pro League and recurring special guest on the Bash Bros Podcast.