Everybody Scrubs or: How I learned to stop worrying and love be alright with losing.
We’ve had the new PPTQ system for over a year now, and it seems they’re here to stay for a while, for good and for bad. However, for some of the more competitive amongst you, you may have had the misery that is losing multiple Top 8s, even final battles to try and grab a spot at the RPTQ, and for that you have my condolences. I’ve happened to notice a trend in recent months. People feeling like when they lose repeatedly after having shown the consistency and skill of a good player “deserve” the finish. I’m afraid that those people are lying to themselves. Let’s try and start this with a hypothetical scenario, everyone’s favourite writing device...
The table you sit down at in this convention hall is much the same as every other one you’ve sat at – just a little too small to be really comfortable but just big enough that you can’t really complain about it. You open your bag and take out your deckbox covered in pictures of cats and your numerous assorted dice. As your opponent comes over and shakes your hand and asks how your day is going, you notice something odd about them. They’re you. Not just look a bit like you, but you. And as you begin playing, you realise they are playing exactly as you would, and in fact are playing not only the same main deck but the same sideboard as well.
“Dude! What does Mine say?”
What’s your win percentage in this matchup?
Although you can have a philosophical debate about whether you can outsmart yourself, I’m going to put our odds at 50%. In other words – this is a match of Magic: The Gathering that will be determined entirely by the way the cards fall, you’re essentially flipping a coin as to whether you win or lose. So why on earth do we play this game if that’s the case? Fortunately for the state of the game, this situation doesn’t come up all too often (that I’m aware of). In a normal game of Magic, you have two major factors that you can influence to increase your chances of winning;
the decisions that you make in the game, and the deck that you choose to play in a tournament, whether it’s what you build from a pool or what you register as your 75.
How much does being a world class pro give you an edge on the competition? It’s a number that is hard to pin down because a lot of the world class players will identify the best decks to be playing and that is a reasonably large part of their success.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that although a pro player will play to a higher standard than your average player, in recent years there has been a proliferation of articles on the internet. These discuss literally every single aspect of Magic and there are thousands of decklists available at your fingertips, which means that the gap isn’t as a wide as it used to be, and it’s harder to find spots to leverage a skill advantage.
A number I’ve heard colloquially used for the amount a pro player has an edge is 60%, which I think sounds like a reasonable amount, if maybe a little off. It sounds like a relatively large percentage, but if this was the only metric by which Grand Prix results were determined your average finish would come to a staggering 9-6 or so. Which nowadays doesn’t even get you a Pro Point.
Deck selection is the one that has the biggest tangible impact – the difference between bringing a deck that is well tuned for the field at a tournament and bringing one that isn’t is huge. Probably the best example of this in recent memory is UW flash at Pro Tour Kaladesh. Despite there being only six people playing the deck in the day two portion, they all performed way above average in the constructed portion of the tournament. Why? The deck had a good matchup against the Aetherworks decks that were a huge portion of the field, and their weak matchup, GB Delirium, was beaten out by Aetherworks itself. Not only that, but seeing as the deck was an unknown factor it was hard for opponents to predict and play around everything the UW flash player could have, something not really the case with the deck now.
Remember when this used to be a little known rogue deck? The good ol’ days.
Although I think that tuning a main deck and a sideboard to a tournament is amongst the most important skills as a competitive player, I believe it is worth noting that when a deck is dominant and considered very popular, it will normally be represented by about 15-20% of the field. That’s… not that many. In a ten round tournament you’ll play against it twice on average. It doesn’t play out exactly like that. If you have a good record and the average record of the deck is good then you’ll play against it more often and vice versa.
Just to be clear here – Magic is as skill based a game as it’s ever been. The big names continue to put up great results time and time again. Some recent examples which come to mind are Matt Severa with back to back GPs, LSV and Shaun McLaren with back to back Pro Tour Top8s.These sort of results come down to not just luck but also good play and good metagame analysis, which leads to good deck choice and card selection. But to use LSV as my scapegoat (I’m sorry) it was just a few Pro Tours ago he left the tournament 0-5! That’s absurd that this could happen to one of the best players in the world!
But it’s all just the standard ebb and flow of variance, and I think that one of the ways that aspiring players can improve both their game and their mentality is to accept that magic does not owe you anything, no matter how much love and care you put into it.
You’ll win and lose a lot of the time down to rolls of the cosmic dice – and that’s ok. What can you do about it? Other than the million mental tips and tricks that have been covered a hundred times over, to some extent the only thing you can do is analyse and discuss your decisions and then just… accept them. If you keep doing everything to the absolute pinnacle of correctness you’ll improve over time and the results will show. I do think that you can still disagree with PPTQs in that it is unfortunate that a downswing of variance can result in a miserable grind with no end in sight, but if you want to qualify that’s the system we currently have. As I’ve often heard and told people, if we didn’t want variance in our game we’d play chess. And if you feel you want more variance, Hearthstone is starting to get pretty popular.
If you ever need to get that bit luckier I hear goblin thumbs are very affordable this time of year.
About Sean Knowelden:
At his first prerelease, a young Sean thought how great infect could be if he opened a Sword of Feast and Famine to pump the power of his creatures. He opened a foil, went 0-5 and immediately traded off the sword for some other Mythics, something that may not have panned out in the long run. Since then he spent a few years attempting to learn how to play limited, and then he won a PTQ and displayed a solid 9-7 results with GW hatebears of all things. Nowadays he plays every GP and PPTQ that he can just about justify to himself, and has earned several solid top 64 GP results and 21st at GP Barcelona.