Yesterday, I did not spike the first PPTQ of the Kaladesh Standard season. It spiked me… hard. After signing the result slip at the end of round 3, I somberly sat at a depressing 0-3 record, and while I was frustrated with my record, I more so dreaded the idea of having to write the tournament report that I said I would in my last article. I was disappointed with my result and my lack of success despite all of the testing on MTGO I’d done the past week, but mostly I was embarrassed about the notion of having to detail my many losses. Luckily for me, there was an important reason I started writing on Spellsnare: to hold myself accountable and to get better at this game I love so much. Why talk about how much I lost and what I did poorly? Because I said I would, and honesty and transparency will force me to acknowledge the mistakes I’ve made and hopefully make me a better player.
Anyone who knows me in any capacity knows I am a man of extremes. In most aspects of my life I operate in a realm of black and white. If I commit to something or decide I want something, I go for it. But at the same time, if I’m disinterested or lukewarm on something I often shrug it off or half-ass it. I like to cook and when I do so it’s generally a full on production. If I’m going to put in the effort to prepare a meal, I’m going to do it right. My wife often mocks me because I’ll claim I want to relax at home and have cocktails after a long workday, but I’ll then wind up spending an hour making fresh homemade sour mix because I want to do it ‘right’. With me, it’s always been all or nothing. So what does my polarizing self have to do with Magic?
Coincidently, my results seem to match my personality. Out of everyone on my testing team, I have easily the most polarizing results. I will either spike an event and smash the Swiss and cruise into victory, or I’ll start off poorly (and quickly) crash and burn into a disappointing 0-2 drop. Even my day 1 performance at Pro Tour Eldritch Moon was like this. I started off miserably with a 0-3 start in the first draft but then got into the zone and 5-0’d standard. There is no middle ground with me. When I’m in the zone and things are going well, they go real well for me. I’m not entirely sure what those results represent. Maybe I’m the kind of player that needs to be in the right headspace and environment to play well. Maybe I just get real lucky some days. Maybe I make good metagame choices occasionally and reap the benefits, while other times I make bad ones and consequently lose (a lot) on those days.
It’s something I think we can learn from though. What are the common denominators on those days when I spike? What are the reoccurring factors when I crash and burn? How can I nurture or avoid the things that positively or negatively affect my game? These are the things I’m looking for and if you have similar results hopefully we can learn together. Don’t just blame variance; be mindful of the things that you can change.
Pro Tour Eldrtich Moon was my first Pro Tour appearance and I put a lot of internal pressure on myself. I focused too much on doing well and proving that I “deserved” to be there, rather than just focusing on playing the best Magic I could. Once I was 0-3 and I thought I was surely dead for day 2, that stress melted away. I figured I would just have a good time playing Magic and enjoy my free trip to Australia. But when I didn’t put that pressure on myself and I stopped thinking about how badly I wanted to win? I started playing better Magic. I started focusing on what was in front of me, instead of all the pressure I had put on me. I need to remember that, to do my best and play impartially, focus on just one game at a time. Unfortunately, yesterday I did not do that.
Temurge was still feeling solid and it was the thing I felt most comfortable with, so I registered it as my weapon of choice. I’d been tuning and tweaking my 75 over the past week, while I battled away in league after league after league on MTGO. It felt powerful and consistent for all the reasons I had mentioned in my previous article, but I still hadn’t managed a 5-0 trophy yet. 4-1’s were the norm with the scattered 3-2 every now and then. The metagame felt wide open and it was a little hard to properly tune my board when I might play 5 different archetypes in one league, then 5 different ones in the next. I would start off strong and then get smashed by a terrible matchup like Temur Aetherworks or RG Pummeler.
The fast, un-interactive combo decks could avoid Kozilek’s Return and we didn’t have the early pressure to punish them for spending a few turns setting up their combo. Sometimes, they stumbled due to inconsistency issues (whiffing on Aetherworks Marvel is never a true miss, because it always comes with a very large side of salt), but for the most part those matchups felt bad. Other than those few though, I felt like I had a shot against anything. So what’s wrong with a bunch of 4-1 records?
Temurge is good, but I don’t think its great. The first mistake I made on Sunday was actually made 3 days earlier when I never moved onto testing R/W Vehicles like I had planned on. I fell for the trap of latching onto one thing too early, instead of exploring my options. I figured if I was consistently winning with this, why should I give up on it and move onto the next thing? I framed exploring different decks as meaning ‘giving up’ on Temurge and that was a flawed approach from the get-go. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one deck or archetype. Deck fluidity is a skill most pros present for a reason.
Temurge has an incredible amount of catch-up cards as I highlighted in my article last week. Kozilek’s Return, Elder Deep-Fiend, and Ishkanah, Grafwidow give you a lot of ways to catch back up and come from behind. Most games play out in similar ways. Turns 1 and 2 are spent using Traverse the Ulvenwald, Vessel of Nascency or Grapple with the Past to set up turns 2, 3, and 4. These find additional lands if needed or dig for emerge fodder or emerge threats depending on what is missing from your hand. Turn 2 and 3 is spent casting Primal Druid, Pilgrim’s Eye, or Filigree Familiar to set up the emerge Eldrazi you’ll be casting on turn 4 or 5. Then, you can stall with Ishkanah, or go way over the top with Emrakul, and find them with the several pieces of search in your deck. You have no targeted spot removal or early way to interact in the first couple turns so if you don’t have the time to cast a Kozilek’s Return in hand, or mill one over with Grapple with the Past or Vessel of Nascency, you can just get ran over. You can play from behind and catch up, but a lot of wins feel hard fought and earned, often stabilizing at a low life total. It’s fun and very rewarding, and while it might be doing a big powerful thing, I don’t think that’s good enough. Stalling the wide range of game plans opponents present while setting up your own is perhaps just too difficult in this diverse of a field.
Yesterday I got ran over a lot. I lost to Bant Aggro tempo-ing me with Reflector Mage and Spell Queller and pressuring me with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. I never had the time to play emerge fodder, consciously choose not to block, and then emerge. I lost to G/W Aggro pressuring me with Smuggler’s Copter while exiling my emerge fodder with Fairground Warden. I died with Wretched Gryff in hand and a Kozilek’s Return in the graveyard with nothing to emerge. I lost to B/R aggro after answering their small threats with a Kozilek’s Return and an Elder Deep-Fiend, but died to the reach their deck provided with Key to the City and burn spells. I lost to decks that were being proactive while I was interested in set up.
When a field is as wide and open as it is right now, there is a benefit to asking the questions, not trying to answer them. Frustrated with Temurge, I got home (just in time for the PT top 8 to begin, the best benefit of losing early) and fired up my computer looking for something else to try. Down but not out (you can’t win if you just quit), I turned to Lee Shi Tian’s Mardu Vehicles deck from the Pro Tour top 8. I built it and immediately 5-0’d my first league with it. I lost a narrow game 3 to miss 5-0’ing my second. My games were not close, and my wins were not hard fought.
Oh. So this is what it’s like to cast turn 2 Smuggler’s Copter? I’m still sore from kicking myself.
I took a list that had some proven results, that was built and tuned by a better player than me, and I quickly found myself winning both more frequently, but also much more easily, which is literally the exact thing I advocated for in my first article. With only one SCG Open to pull results from and the fact that most pros weren’t advocating for anything in particular because they were trying to keep their Pro Tour testing hidden, I didn’t have a clear picture of what the best decks in the format were. This allowed me the excuse to latch onto something fine, but not spectacular. I didn’t know what the best were playing, so I stuck to what I thought was good. Well now, I know what they were playing and what put up the results, so it’s time to get to work. You might catch me drag racing in Providence this weekend.