As you may have inferred from the title of this article, I did not get past the highly competitive second step of The Great Designer Search 3. Over 3,000 applicants were lowered down to just 94, just about 3% of the aspiring designers. It was always going to be a tough ask, but needing at least a 73 out of 75 on the multiple choice section left very little room for error for test-takers. Not making it past this stage was disappointing for sure, but there are some valuable lessons to be learned, not just for myself, but for people in general about examining failure and working towards a different outcome in your next endeavor.
As a disclaimer: I’ve failed a lot. That being said, I’m not the world’s foremost expert on life, and everything you’ll find in this article are simply my opinions.
Locating the Point of Failure
Failing isn’t fun, especially when it’s in something that you really cared about or wanted. It could be a job interview, a RPTQ, a relationship, or a personal endeavor. Failure can come in all shapes and sizes, but just as it is important as it is to bask in glory when you succeed, it’s important to examine failure rather than mindlessly put it behind you. You failed for a reason, and knowing why will help you not do it again, whether it be in a similar area or a completely different one. The best way to start on this is to track back your failure as far as it will take you, to the point where something went wrong that led to the failure.
For me, in GDS3, I failed for a couple of reasons. In order to pass Stage 2, a test-taker needed to get 73 of the 75 questions correct. Looking at what the consensus appears to be about the correct answers from the test, I believe that I got 70 of the 75 correct, leaving me only 3 questions short. Of the 5 total that I missed, they can be broken down like this:
- I misread the question and thus gave an incorrect answer (1)
- I picked what I believed was the best answer, but wasn’t (4)
These represent two different types of failure. For me at least, the former is the one that stings more, but it’s also one that is easy to solve in the future. The latter of these two bullet points is a more interesting option, which we’ll get into in a later section.
Turning this to physical Magic play a little more, I’ll present the most recent failure I experienced. A few weeks ago, I lost in the semifinals of a local Standard PPTQ. It was my 20th PPTQ top 8, and I only have 1 win. It’s a rather frustrating streak, but alas. For this specific top 8, I was playing U/W Approach, a deck I had played for a while both in real life and on MtGO. I had breezed through the Swiss rounds, only losing 1 game before doubling drawing into top 8. In the quarterfinals, I beat Mono-Black Aggro, which after a playing only one match I can only assume is one of Approach’s best matchups in the entire format.
In the semifinals, I got matched up against U/W God-Pharaoh’s Gift, a matchup that I was fairly familiar with and not entirely excited about playing. The way that Approach is set up in this matchup is quite awkward. On one hand, it needs to constantly keep up counterspells for GPG’s important cards, and on the other hand, it needs to make sure that it doesn’t die to usually inconsequential beaters like Champion of Wits and Minister of Inquiries.
Nearly every part of Approach is taxed in this matchup. It’s gotten better since the addition of Baffling End in Rivals of Ixalan, but I’ll end my Approach-GPG analysis there. Back to the story! I lost a close game 1, and won a close game 2 by remaining patient and running my opponent out of anything with power/toughness until they drew their entire library. In game 3, I lost after I stumbled on lands, didn’t have much to play, and desperately needed a Fumigate to resolve. It didn’t, and I went home without anything to show for my efforts yet again.
Why did I fail here? Part of me wants to say that it was a subpar matchup (which is true) and those are just the breaks of competitive Magic. Part of me wants to say that I got unlucky after keeping 3 lands on the draw and missing my 4th land drop for a turn (which is also true). This is the more big-picture view of why I lost:
- I could have been more familiar with the matchup and I could have executed my game plan better.
Examining the System
Each mistake I’ve identified above is a part of a system that my failure was a part of. Once you’ve identified failure, it’s not enough to say “I won’t fail again”. You must examine the system to not only better understand the conditions that caused you to fail, but also to know how to attack the system the next time around. For GDS3, the system is fairly simple: answer the question correctly. There’s several different elements that go into a multiple choice question, including phrasing and the intention of the question, phrasing and the intention of answer options, and the interplay between the answers. In this specific test, there were numerous questions where there were multiple correct answers, but the real challenge came with identifying the answer that the test-maker wanted from you. These can be frustrating (and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t, at least a little), but it’s simply a different sort of challenge that this system poses.
Once you’ve identified failure, it’s not enough to say “I won’t fail again”. You must examine the system to not only better understand the conditions that caused you to fail, but also to know how to attack the system the next time around.
In any given match of Magic, there are a nearly countless number of elements that go into the system that defines winning or losing. Listing all of them would take forever, but in the specific example I mentioned above, and assuming that both myself and my opponent are at a certain level of technical play, there are a couple to focus in on. From the U/W Approach angle, these are the most important elements:
- Matching the opponent’s important cards with the correct answers
- Limiting the efficacy of the opponent’s Negates
- Maintaining card advantage
- Ending the game quickly
Each of these are critical elements to U/W Approach’s game plan against U/W God-Pharaoh’s Gift, and faltering on any one of them could easily cause you to lose. This is, to boil it down, why the matchup was never favorable. In this system example here, a lot of elements have to be in concert to make U/W Approach victorious.
Examining the Failure Point within the System
Now that we’ve looked at the system as a whole, we can take a look at where failure occurred within the system, and if anything could have been done to prevent that failure.
Looking at my GDS3 example, one of my failures was pretty clear. I misread one of the questions and thus gave an objectively incorrect answer. What could have been done to prevent this? First of all, I could have read the question more. I read each question at least twice before answering it and then checked my answers another two times before submitting. Perhaps, that wasn’t enough.
My second GDS3 example is a little more complicated. For all of those questions that I got wrong, I could make a convincing argument for why I still believe my answer is correct. However, I wasn’t giving the answer that the test-maker necessarily wanted. This I believe was a serious flaw in my GDS3 game plan. I was more concerned with my answers to questions, rather than the answers that the question was looking for. Here’s an example:
The top two answers are both correct. 8 damage is definitely too much for 4 mana, and because of that, it veers more into black territory than anything. From a design philosophy standpoint, red has a difficult time dealing with high toughness creatures, but black does not. My thought process on picking what I did was that I felt that by reducing the damage the card would deal, it would no longer blur the line between the two colors, solving both issues, and that the way that the first answer was phrased felt like it was suggesting the card should be removed altogether. The correct answer was “It blurs the line between black and red.” There are a couple others like these that I missed in the test, as well. So what could have been done to prevent this?
Firstly, I should have thought about each of the answers in terms of what message they were sending to the test-maker. Does my answer show I have a good grasp of design philosophies? Or does it show that I have a somewhat simplistic view of Magic design. If it’s the latter, it’s probably not the correct answer. Secondly, I should have put more thought into how the questions were designed. Is one answer put in there as a way to trip people up who didn’t put sufficient thought into each question? Was an answer or question put in the test as a way of making people overthink?
For my Magic example, it’s clear that I was an underdog from the get-go, but that doesn’t mean that losing wasn’t a failure. I have quite a bit of experience in the matchup, so my knowledge of the matchup was solid. However, I stumbled in game 1 when a certain line I took didn’t end up as I thought it was going to, and I lost in game 3 when my hand was too susceptible to Negate, one of what I believe to be the core tension points in the matchup. Both of these are strong failure points.
For game 1, I may have thought I was experienced in the matchup, but I certainly wasn’t experienced enough. I thought that I had seen my U/W GPG opponents take this exact line before and I thought I knew how to counter it. I was wrong. This is frustrating, to be sure. But it’s mostly frustrating because it was preventable. If I had played another half-dozen, dozen, or two dozen games of the matchup, I likely would have known that my line was too aggressive, and that I needed to sit back on my heels more.
In game 3, I was well aware that my opening hand was a little clunky on the draw and that the singular copy of Fumigate I was sitting on might need to resolve for me to win the game. I kept regardless, knowing that I wasn’t taxing Negate and I had very little response to any early play from my opponent. This comes down to a discipline issue, rather than a work ethic and practice issue. Had I taken the extra couple of seconds to rethink my hand, it’s possible I would have mulliganed, even though my hand was a strong mix of lands and spells that most players in most matchups would take in a heartbeat. I knew the matchup, saw this issue potentially arising before the first turn of the game was taken, and yet still kept. While it may be easy to look back on this match and chalk the loss up to a poor matchup against a good opponent, both game losses were preventable, and the failure can be tracked back to me, not matchups or luck.
Going through this sort of exercise with each failure you come across helps massively to help prevent similar (and even different) failures in the future. Am I ever going to get another shot at GDS3? Nope! Am I ever going to get another shot at that exact PPTQ top 4? Nope! But the lessons I learned from my failures in both of these examples will help me in future endeavors, Magic-related or not. Hopefully this process of examining and attacking failure can be useful for you as well, and you start to think of your failures as opportunities to examine what went wrong, the systems you’re competing in, and how to prevent similar situations in the future.
This weekend is the Pro Tour, and it will be underway by the time this article is published. I have some strong feelings about competitive Magic and Pro Tour formats, which you’ll just have to wait until next week to hear.
Until next time,
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