By Austin Baker
There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.
There’s no need to sugar coat it. Grand Prix Oklahoma City was an ass whooping for me. It was an utter defeat in every way I could imagine as far as the main event goes. Every aspiration I had, every goal I had set, fell away from me quicker than I could have possibly imagined. In my head, the worse case scenario was I would be fighting among those trying to just limp over the line for day two. Of course, things went a different direction. Since then though, I’ve sat down and really evaluated what happened, and what my feelings are afterward, and how to apply what I took away going forward.
For some context, let’s look at my preparation. I took esper gifts ungiven (my decklist is in a previous article), a deck I had been playing for the past couple weeks to great success…at local Monday/Wednesday/Friday night Magic events. These aren’t always worthwhile data points, as beating “mono red cards I own” piloted by a young man who discovered Magic within the past 4 months isn’t going to help much in preparing for a Grand Prix. That said, my local meta contains good players too, including those from the famed Dead On Board Podcast and our local testing team, and they were all playing real decks, so my testing for this event wasn’t completely worthless. That said, my deck looked to have a pretty good matchup against most of the top decks, so I felt really confident in my choice (like I said, I was really ready to day two).
Looking back now, my deck had several problems that I didn’t really account for, but I don’t really think that they were necessarily the fatal flaw; not playing a tiered deck probably was. Playing a reactive deck definitely felt like a mistake, and to paraphrase Sam Black in a recent article, modern is a format where you just need to fuck ‘em, and to be honest, I wasn’t doing that. I don’t want to go into a lot of specifics, but I’ll give a really quick rundown of what my day was like
Round 1: Ponza, L
Round 2: Death and Taxes, W
Round 3: UW Control, L
Round 4: Suicide Zoo, L (thought she was Naya zoo after game one and sideboarded incorrectly)
Round 5: Mardu Tokens (?), L (Bedlam Reveler deck, but a topdeck Thoughtseize and Blood Moon actually ended the match)
Round 6: Living End, W
Round 7: Grixis Shadow, L (should be a pretty good matchup, unlucky)
Round 8: Budget Mono Red Burn, L (I still don’t know how, but he killed me with Shrine of Burning Rage for 10 damage)
Round 9: TitanShift, W (Could have lost but I don’t think she knew she could target Sphinx of the Steel Wind with Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle triggers)
So yeah, I went 3-6 instead of 6-3 like I planned. Truth be told, in the hours and days following the event, I was pretty upset, and down on myself. I thought about what went wrong, and what I was willing to do to change it, and if there were any real lesson to be learned that I can apply to my game in general. After much deliberation and time to think about what had transpired, I think I am now confidently a different and better player than I was before. I think that a lot of players can maybe learn from what lessons I had to learn the hard way, so I decided to write about my findings here, for anyone to hopefully learn from.
Lesson 1: Make Decisions That Align With Your Goals
So this basically boiled down to deck choice for the event. I definitely assumed my deck was better than it was. That, and there is a definite difference between a local meta, and a GP meta. I think, in general, unless you’re testing with a pro team, the best chance you can give yourself to day two a GP is to play an established deck of some sort. Don’t go rogue, unless you’re fairly certain that the selected deck can attack the meta appropriately, or is just busted a la eldrazi winter. Those types of decks come around so rarely though, that it’s fairly negligible. Here’s the thing: I brought a homebrew. I brought a deck I had tested very limitedly and thought that it could withstand the modern gauntlet. I am firmly under the impression now that to compete in a modern event, or perhaps any event, you need to give yourself the best chance you can to win, and that means playing the best deck you can. There is something to be said about playing the deck that you know best, or the deck that you are the most comfortable with, but with that, it needs to be understood that if your deck does not have the raw power to compete with the decks in modern, then you will always be a step behind. One way to increase your own frustration will be to have a disconnect between deck choice and expected overall performance. If you bring a rogue home brew to a GP, maybe setting your sights on top 8 is a little ambitious. But if you go in with the mindset that you just want to have fun and maybe crush some people while you’re there, things should go better for you. I think perhaps my expected performance, meta analysis, and matchup analysis led me to believe that this deck was well positioned, but in fact there was probably a lot of confirmation bias on my part. Speaking of confirmation bias…
Lesson 2: Be Able to Admit When You’re Wrong
Okay so here’s the thing, we all as Magic players have opinions, and by God do we make them heard at almost every opportunity. I mean, you’re reading exhibit A. Here’s the thing, I have played a lot of GBx. I mean a lot. Hundreds, no, maybe thousands of matches. I have a lot of experience and have tried a ton of different cards. When Grim Flayer was spoiled, most people (correctly) assumed it was not great. I thought it should come nowhere near a modern GBx deck. And then Willy Edel and competitors at The World Championships said that I was wrong and the card was actually great. From there on, it’s been a staple in Abzan decks throughout the format. I didn’t get it. Willy was an idiot. I had one of, if not the best build of Abzan in the format, hell I just won a 20 man PPTQ with it, only dropping one game so my build was better, Grim Flayer was trash. I think having opinions is good, even necessary, as there isn’t time to test everything, but that said, convictions to the point of backing yourself in a corner is not a way to improve as a player. I was convinced that Grim Flayer was bad, so I never played it. Instead, I gave up Abzan completely. I was convinced that Jund Shadow was just shitty Jund, so I never played it (traverse sucks, amirite?). I somehow never tried Tireless Tracker in anything (until just recently!). Not because I thought it was bad, but I just don’t usually get very excited over new cards. I like my jund with huntmaster and olivia, my jeskai with Ajani V, and my zoo decks with Knight of the Reliquary and Elspeth. Thing is, modern evolves, new cards do new things and winning doesn’t care about how much you like a card, or if you thought it was good upon release. Winning is a separate issue, and if you want to win, you’ll need to set your pride aside occasionally and know that you cannot be right about everything. I’ll refer back to Brian Braun Duin’s article on “Being Correct Vs. Being Right” (http://magic.tcgplayer.com/db/article.asp?ID=13758&writer=Brian+Braun-Duin&articledate=1-26-2017) as an example of what I’m talking about. The best players aren’t the best players because they think they’re always correct, but because they’re willing to try things and take the advice of other players who might know something they don’t. Sure, Brad told BBD what deck to play, but it was BBD who got all the credit and winnings at that GP. I think at this point, I’ve let go of all my personal feelings about certain cards. They’re just cardboard, and if you make an initial judgement on them and are wrong, that’s not a reflection on you as a player or person, which is what I was turning it into when I was wrong about certain cards. I dug in and refused to play with them out of some idea that if I didn’t prove I was right, then i wasn’t a good player.
Interestingly enough, before the GP, I had a “list”. I feel like several players have lists like mine, which is essentially a “no play” list. I would never play tron, Collected Company, Death and Taxes (to be fair, that deck is terrible with a little bit of a “gotcha” factor and only suited to some metagames), or the aforementioned Grim Flayer. As of right now, I have no “no play” list. The Monday after the GP I played Gb Tron at a local. The following Wednesday, I played Bant Company and cast Birds of Paradise and Collected Company for the first times in my life. I also came to the realization that Spell Queller is a hell of a card, especially in the right matchups. I had been doggin that card a little bit using the age old “dies to removal” logic, so being proven wrong was an interesting experience. Maybe you could call me a sellout, or someone who only cares about winning above all else, which may have a negative connotation, which could be fair. That said, I don’t care only about winning, but I do want to win every match I play, and want to give myself the best chance to win that I can. In the end though, the lesson that I took away is to be less rigid when it comes to my beliefs, and not to take anything personally.
On that note, I think it’s way too easy to take things personally in Magic. I don’t know if it has something to do with the fact that people see their deck as an extension of themselves, or some other factor, but defending things sort of blindly without taking all information in is silly.. I think it’s important to never be too attached to an idea or a deck that it would be offensive to you if someone thought it bad. If your deck is bad, that’s okay, it’s not a reflection on you, and shouldn’t be taken as such. Also, people come from all different angles and think in different ways. That doesn’t mean they’re smarter than you or better than you, but if someone thinks of something you don’t, you owe it to yourself to consider it.
Lesson 3: The Big Event Is Just A Bunch of Small Events
Well, it looks like the the pressure got to me more than I’d care to admit. Grand Prixes are huge, let’s not mince words. I think it’s easy for any player to show up and be intimidated to some extent. Honestly though, my advice at a GP is just to win your next round. Sit down, play Magic, try to win, and then shake off whatever happens, win or lose. Every round is completely and totally independent of every other round, so try not to carry baggage from one round into another round. If you lose, no worries, if you win, great, go win the next one. I think so many people focus on making day two and going at least 6-3, that they forget the little things in game. If you just focus on playing Magic, and only focus on what’s in front of you, the rest will work itself out.
Lesson 4: Be Proactive in Modern
This one isn’t always going to hold true I think, but until they get rid of some of the ridiculous things in modern, or give players better answers (particularly stack based answers if you know what I mean *cough*better counterspells*cough*), I think the only way to really do well in modern is to be proactive and present threats over answers. Sure, Jeskai Control might be pretty good at the moment, but I think you have to be doing more, and if you can’t realistically have a game somewhat sealed up by turn 5, then welcome to getting tron-ed or valakut-ed 101, class is now in session.
Maybe the modern metagame isn’t as dire as I make it sound, but midrange and control that can’t beat the big mana decks is just not a place to be right now, which, coincidentally are the types of decks I love. Which brings me to my last lesson…
Lesson 5: You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Jund. Jund is what I want. But you’d have to be absolutely mad to play that with a meta that looks like it does right now. Tron, Valakut, UWR, and other nonsense running around means that Jund is just not favored against the top of the field. True, you can build your deck to beat these things, that’s definitely an option. But then you’re weak to the things you should be good against, like affinity, burn, and creature decks like Counters Company; but I digress. I think it’s important for any player who desires to play competitively to be able to pivot to what the meta calls for. Being the best midrange player in the world does you no good if midrange decks are atrocious to play because hard control and aggro can both beat you. Like I said earlier, I dropped all my morals to play Gb Tron this past week. Why? Because it’s one of the best decks in the format. But I also tested Bant Company to some success (although I played against infect twice for whatever that’s worth; local metas are weird). I think exploring other archetypes and pushing your boundaries as a player are key ways to grow as a player. We don’t all have the ability to pivot onto any deck we see fit, but having a couple options will go a long way to helping you be able to get an edge before an event even begins.
To conclude, I Grand Prix Oklahoma City taught me many painful lessons that can hopefully help me, and maybe other players, be able to navigate through our magical journeys together. I’m not going to claim that every assertion in this article is 100% true always, but I think for at least right now, it feels like this is the way things are and how one must approach a modern Magic event. I’ve already seen returns on these lessons learned, and feel as though not only have I leveled up as a player, but also leveled up as a person, able to keep a more open mind when thinking about all sorts of problem solving, Magic related or not. I hope that at least a couple people can benefit from these lessons as much as I have, and use my experiences as a study in how to better approach Magic the Gathering.