You win some, you lose some. It’s a simple enough concept, but it’s hard as hell to really grasp. I’ve been grinding the competitive Magic scene for years now, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. I’ve cared too much, I’ve gotten lucky, and I’ve lost when I had a 99% chance of winning (we literally did the math). Whenever you see a winner’s interview at a Grand Prix or a SCG Open, you usually hear the same thing: “I got lucky a few times.” All of my best Magic results have come with at least some good luck at one point or another. Sure, I played well (for most of them), but Lady Luck was on my side at a time or two too.
When I made top 8 of the Legacy Open in New Jersey in 2014, I got really lucky. I was playing Merfolk, a deck I borrowed because I didn’t have a Legacy deck of my own at that point. I built the deck horribly (no, seriously, go search “Jonah Gaynor Merfolk” on Google). I had never even played the deck before, I didn’t know how to play any matchups, I hardly knew Legacy, but I ran hot.
I intentionally drew with my round 10 (final round) opponent at 8-1, and ended up losing a tight 3 game match to him in the quarterfinals. I’ll get into that match a bit later. Out of my 9 rounds, I played blue-based midrange decks 7 times. That’s a dream day for Merfolk. Islandwalk is incredibly powerful against decks who aim to control the board and play blue lands. I played horribly and still top 8’d. Here are 2 big mistakes in the swiss rounds that stick with me.
Mistake #1: Look at your opponent’s lands, you dummy!
I was playing against regional grinder Rob Vaughan on Esper Deathblade (a big deck back then). I had a Cursecatcher and 2 copies of Lord of Atlantis in play. Rob had a Stoneforge Mystic in play and a Germ token on a Batterskull. Fortunately for me, he had an Underground Sea in play, so I could bash for 9 and not have to worry about his Germ blocking, killing a creature, and nullifying most of my attack. Sweet! Bash for 9! I felt really good about myself until Rob activated Wasteland on his Underground Sea. Whoops.
I won that game. I can’t tell you how, but I was running hot, and I was destined to win some.
Mistake #2: Don’t play into the sweeper you know your opponent has!
I was again playing against a Stoneforge Mystic deck in one of the later rounds, this time it was U/W in the hands of Rudy Briksza. I didn’t know much about Legacy, but I knew that if you were playing U/W Stoneblade over Esper Deathblade at this time, you were playing Supreme Verdict, the arch nemesis of Merfolk. I had two copies of Lord of Atlantis in my hand and I could present close to lethal if I played both and attacked, so I did without thinking. Bad move.
Does the extra damage really matter if Rudy draws a Supreme Verdict? The answer is no, but having two creatures to play after a sweeper does. To my dismay, Rudy, of course, had the Supreme Verdict in hand. He’s now at 3 life with a hand full of cards and I have no hand and no board. I tick up Aether Vial and draw…True-Name Nemesis. Rudy had no answer and I won again. Rudy will come up a bit later, as well.
Once again, I was lucky. I was destined to win some.
Having felt like I had destiny on my side, I drew into top 8, and ended up as the 5 seed. I was definitely winning some. Before I get into how I punted my way out of top 8, let’s look at the other side of the saying: you lose some.
This weekend I lost some. I played Mardu Vehicles at Grand Prix New Jersey. You can read my article discussing my list here. I finished 4-4-1 (the 1 draw coming in the last round when my opponent and I were just having fun, joking around, and weren’t reasonably going to find a conclusion to our game 3). That’s a pretty miserable record. It was the first Grand Prix I hadn’t day 2’d since November, 2014. That’s over 2 years of day 2-ing in a row, and I felt proud of my consistency. This was not my weekend, though: I was destined to lose some.
Out of the approximately 20 games of Magic that I played over the course of the day, I had turn 1 Toolcraft Exemplar only twice. The hands I kept were reasonable, but not great, throughout the day. Sometimes I was in a commanding lead and my opponent’s freshly-drawn Baral’s Expertise was able to win him the game out of nowhere. Sometimes I kept a 2-land hand with Thraben Inspector, Heart of Kiran, Thalia, Heretic Cathar, and two copies of Unlicensed Disintegration against 4-Color Copycat and never drew a third land. It happens.
Sometimes you’re destined to lose some. I feel that I played well, my preparation was solid enough (but I wasn’t thrilled with it), and I thought my deck selection was fantastic. I’m certainly disappointed with how the Grand Prix this weekend turned out, but I’m not upset or feel hard done by. On another day I day 2. Heck, on another day maybe I top 8 or win the whole thing.
So what was the difference between my top 8 with Merfolk and my bad result this past weekend? The rub of the green, to be honest. However, there’s a big lesson to be learned from both of these experiences, especially when I contrast them. I played better this past weekend than I did with Merfolk, there’s no doubt in my mind. The rub of the green was the big difference. The logical question has to be asked, though: why didn’t you win the top 8 with Merfolk? That leads us to the third big mistake I made.
Mistake #3: Play tight, don’t get cheeky
Like I mentioned earlier, I ended up facing the player who I intentionally drew with in the last round of the swiss in the quarterfinals. The top 8 as a whole was very favorable to me, but this matchup could be very rough. My opponent was playing Painter, a deck with no islands that presented a faster clock than I did. My interaction was meaningful, but my opponent was playing 6 Red Elemental Blast effects in his 75. I needed a fast clock and to get a little lucky (like I had been all day). My opponent won a fast game 1, I won a very tight game 2 where my opponent didn’t have an answer to my Force of Will on his Grindstone. Game 3 is where the mistake comes.
I had a decent clock on the board. My opponent had Painter’s Servant in play. I had an Echoing Truth and a Force of Will in hand. I draw a Mutavault for turn. I attack and decide to not play the Mutavault, so that I can Echoing Truth and then represent Force of Will + a blue card. This was a dumb play in the context of the game.
My opponent will have his fourth mana source in play next turn. This will let him cast Grindstone and activate, but nothing more. If he tries to combo off, I will Echoing Truth his Painter’s Servant, thus stranding the Force of Will and Mutavault in my hand. Then, next turn he’ll be able to play a fifth mana source, cast Painter’s Servant and activate Grindstone. Keeping the Mutavault in my hand meant nothing in the context of the game. My opponent was never going to play around my Force of Will + blue card in that situation, he just had to go for it.
This exact play played out, and I then drew a Silvergill Adept for turn. I put it in off of Aether Vial, as even if I didn’t draw another blue card for Force of Will I could play Mutavault as my fifth land and hard-cast Force. I drew a Lord of Atlantis off of Silvergill Adept. I counted up damage if I played the Lord. Damn. 3 damage short. I ended up holding the Lord of Atlantis for Force of Will. I attacked and passed the turn. My opponent replayed his Painter’s Servant. I cast Force of Will. He cast a Red Elemental Blast, and then exiled a Simian Spirit Guide and activated Grindstone.
It was only pointed out to me after the game by Rudy, who was watching over my shoulder, that if I had played the Mutavault I would have had lethal, and I would have won the match. My poor play finally caught up to me. I had luck on my side all throughout the tournament, but my failure to progress out of the quarterfinals came down to my own sloppy play, which felt justified in the end. My opponent played better than me and he won, something that hadn’t happened frequently over the day.
I definitely look back on that play with a lot of regret. My matchup in the semifinals would have been Jeskai Delver, which I consider to be a good matchup for Merfolk, and then Shardless Sultai in the finals, which is one of the most favored matchups in the entire format for the little blue people. I was that close to a trophy, which would mean that Charlie Rinehart-Jones and I would have taken the trophies on the weekend, at just 16 and 17 years of age respectively. My play didn’t deserve it, however.
Enough ranting, what’s the big takeaway?
The Big Takeaway
Over the course of time, luck will even itself out. Sometimes you’ll be the luckiest person in the room and have the perfect opening hands and draws every single game. Statistically it will happen to you every once in a while. On the flip side, there will be times that no matter how well you play you’ll mulligan a lot, or never draw your third land, or your opponents’ hands are miles better than yours throughout the tournament.
With Merfolk, I was very lucky, but my quality of play ended up catching up to me and preventing me from getting the trophy. There’s no doubt in my mind if I had played better I would have won the whole thing. But, I didn’t, and my best opportunity at a trophy slipped away. With Mardu Ballista this past weekend, I wasn’t very lucky. I wasn’t necessarily the most unlucky I’ve ever been in a Magic tournament, but I certainly didn’t have the rub of the green on my side.
You never know when you’ll catch the wind at your back and coast through the tournament or when you’ll never get your feet firmly planted beneath you. It’s a guessing game, and all you can do is prepare the best you can, play tight, and see how the tournament ends up for you. Luck will even itself out over time. You never know when you’ll get your “Merfolk tournament,” but you should be ready for it whenever it may hit you. Don’t let it slip away.
You win some, you lose some.
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