“Two magi could trade spells all day and never crown a victor. The real battle is not one of power but of will. If your confidence breaks, so too shall you.” – Venser

This article is about how I play Magic. This is really, I think, what most magic strategy articles are actually about. I would like to read a strategy article about how to be both confident about my skills and have skill, but I can’t find any, so instead I’m writing one. Unlike a lot of other articles, this doesn’t contain any sort of tricks or formulas or shortcuts you can memorize or maximize in order to improve your play. I’m not saying that the way I play Magic is correct or even “optimal”. In fact, a large part of this article is dedicated to attempting to undermine the importance of those very terms. What I am saying, however, is that there is something to be gained from overcoming tilt, being confident, and ‘feeling it out’ – not just taking fail-safe shortcuts.

The majority of theory articles that I read basically fall into one of two categories, either:
A) everything you know is wrong, but that’s okay, because here is a trick or shortcut that will make you better (ie: never keep a one-lander on the play, play Cryptic Command in every deck);
B) You are a bad Magic player (and I’m not) and if you could only accept and understand that, you would be better.

My problem with these approaches to theory are that they both undermine something which I believe to be at the core of every good Magic player whether they want to admit it or not: confidence. I believe that mastering your confidence is the most important skill a Magic player can have. If you aren’t confident enough you’ll play scared and won’t seize victory when you have the chance. If you’re overconfident, you’ll overplay your hand and make reckless decisions. Both will lead to your demise.

Accepting your shortcomings and misplays will no doubt make you a better Magic player. However, if you play Magic on planet Earth you won’t play in a single tournament without running into people who can’t do this. You may not even be able to do this yourself. There’s a reason why, and it has to do with confidence. The players who can’t admit that they made a misplay or that they’re playing the wrong deck or that they sideboarded improperly aren’t doing so because they’re overconfident. People do these things because they’re scared – scared of losing, scared of looking dumb, and scared of accepting that if they want to be really good at something they’ll have to do a lot of work.

Recently, I played in a Pro Tour Qualifier. I was 4-1 and going into my last technical round before I could most likely draw into Top 8. My deck was okay – it was sealed deck Scars of Mirrodin and I had a slightly above average infect pool with some powerful interactions, but no real bombs. At this point, the rest of my friends were out of contention and it was up to me to put the team on my back and take home the ticket to Paris (or at least lose in the quarters of Top 8 to someone else from Calgary). I was ready – I had a good sleep the night before, I felt alert and calm, and most of all I believed I could win the whole thing if given the chance. However, my bracket was full of sharks and I was nervous about having to punch slightly above my weight. As I looked at my pairing, I saw a name I didn’t recognize. I sat down at table 3 and waited.

My opponent was in his mid 40s, bald, overweight, and sported a thick handlebar moustache. He had brought his wife and children along for the PTQ festivities and they fluttered annoyingly in the background as my opponent poorly and nervously shuffled his un-sleeved deck. I looked on in complete delight. I was going to crush the dreams of this poor man and his family, and send him back to whatever slum from Red Deer he had crawled out of with 10 poison counters and some penny sleeves. I presented my deck to be cut and drew my opening hand.

It wasn’t the best. Two land, some cheap equipment and a bunch of 4 drops; something that happens to infect often. This is risky I thought…I’m on the play. Oh well, my opponent is obviously a complete durdle and I’m just going to outplay him, it doesn’t matter if this hand is a little light on mana, I shouldn’t need it. Do I need to tell you what happened? I never saw a third land and my opponent curved out perfectly and crushed me in about five minutes with a solid R/W Tempered Steel deck.

Jared Maguire pouts over his 12 packs

I bounced back and won the second game handily, but after a long and grinding third game, I died with my opponent at 9 poison counters with a tapped Contagion Clasp on the table. I was out of contention for Paris. My opponent went on to lose in the quarters to the eventual tournament winner, and I went on to a 5-2 finish after winning my next round. Sweet: 12 packs. I’d rather be enjoying some Parisian hash.

This is the part of this short tournament report where I tell you the lessons I learned and what you can take away from my loss in order to be a better player. But I shouldn’t have to tell you anything. You know why I lost: I was overconfident. That third game should never have happened, but it did because I threw the first one away. I saw my opponent’s lack of technical skill and stupid moustache and decided I had already won. I was on the opposite of tilt, and it was just as bad.

Recently I played in a Grand-Prix Trial where I lost a match because I was playing scared. My opponent Spellstutter Sprite-ed my turn two play and I had nothing on the board. I didn’t have a play for turn 3 besides a Lightning Bolt, so I shipped it back. He played a land and did the same. Now it’s my turn again – I have 4 mana, a Stillmoon Cavalier and the bolt. I like Stillmoon Cavalier because he’s good against Faeries and Jund and those decks are pretty big in my meta. I try to cast the 3 drop and he activates his Mutavault and prepares to cast another Spellstutter. Blowout. Now I have a choice to make, I can use my bolt to kill my opponent’s Mutavault and force the Cavalier through, or I can hold my bolt for an actual threat, something like a Scion of Oona or a Vendilion Clique. My Cavalier can’t really race my opponent, but it prevents him from attacking me profitably for a few turns until he plays a bigger guy. The problem is that I will have no cards in hand after this play, my mana will be tied up activating my Cavalier, and my only guy will be standing alone surrounded by a bunch scantily clad flying men. Chances are, I think, my opponent has some good cards in hand and if I don’t hold my bolt they’ll kill me. Jace, the Mind Sculptor blows me out, Cryptic Command blows me out, Vendilion Clique blows me out and I bet he has all of them. I let my guy get countered and end up having my bolt forced meekly onto Clique a few turns later. Later my opponent told me that if I had forced the 3 drop through I would have won – he was holding a hand full of land and blanks. The part in my brain that says “I suck” was making a lot of noise.

I was afraid of having no cards in my hand and one guy on the board against a deck with Jace and Cryptic Command. While that fear might be somewhat reasonable, it cost me the match. In this case, I wasn’t confident enough in my own top-decking skills (which are admittedly pretty good) and I gave my opponent too much credit. Now, there are a lot of people who will want to analyze the EV of both plays and then transcribe me an exact answer to what is the best play. Feel free to do this, but my point is that the EV of either play doesn’t matter if you aren’t confident enough to pick the right one anyway. I think a lot of people replace confident and cool-headed Magic playing with an over-analytical approach that focuses on EV and statistics and shortcuts – not because EV is a bad approach, but because they never develop the skill of mastering their confidence. I am a long, long ways away from this myself but I think that it is one of the things that separates the pros like Kai from the average clever nerd. We’re all clever nerds, but we need to learn how to be confident, clever nerds.

As a small teaser and because every good article needs to ship a decklist, I’ll include the extended list I’m currently running. I recently Top 8’d a PTQ here in Calgary with this – I didn’t quite get there but I think it could go all the way (just don’t mull to 3 in the Quarters like I did). I’ll include a sideboarding guide and my post-Paris changes in my next full article, which will be a user’s guide to the deck and the archetype in general, as well as a small matchup analysis of my PTQ performance.