A Return to Competitive Play
The Store Championships at my Local Game Store (LGS) this past weekend was the first time I've played Modern competitively since before the pandemic. Going into the event, I was short City of Solitudes, or Ragavan, Nimble Pilferers to play either of my first two deck choices, Control or Grixis Death's Shadow. After an evening of testing to dust off the cobwebs, and with encouragement from friends, I opted to play Burn. I have past experience piloting the deck, and the full 75 sleeved and ready to go in my gauntlet of Modern decks.
I started 2-0 in the event, beating Hammertime and Temur Rhinos without dropping a game. Things fell apart the next two rounds though. With a quick loss to Grixis Death's Shadow in Round Three and an agonizing loss in Game Three of Round Four, I ended up 2-2 going into the last round of Swiss. The higher tables all intentionally drew, mathematically eliminating me from Top 8, so I didn't even stick around to play out the round.
At the casino with my wife that night, I quietly stewed in my anger and disappointment through a concert, and through dinner. It wasn't until watching her methodically crush the house at Caribbean stud poker, and cover a good portion of our expenses for the evening, that I realized my problem. It was not a single play mistake, though there were several, which I'll get to. Instead, it was my entire mental state going into, and throughout the event that sunk my tournament.
Stud Poker and Magic
Doing well at poker of any kind requires discipline and a solid mindset. Magic is no different in this regard. Caribbean stud takes a special kind of discipline, as you're not playing the others at the table. In Caribbean stud, you're only trying to beat the house. Players buy in with a minimum ante to see a five-card hand, with an option to buy into a progressive jackpot.
Each player and the dealer receive five cards, and the dealer turns one of their cards face up and reveals it to the table. After seeing the dealer's card, players have the option to raise or fold. To raise, a player bets twice their ante and loses their ante if they fold. After bets are made, the dealer reveals their cards. For players to play their hands, the dealer must make a minimum hand of Ace & King or better. Most of the strategy is determined by the card revealed by the dealer. You can read the complete rules and strategy of Caribbean stud here.
I've only ever played Texas hold'em. Watching my wife play Caribbean stud, and her approach to the game, made me realize some of the weaknesses in my approach to Magic that contributed to my losses.
Have Confidence in Your Game Plan
Because Caribbean stud is played against the house, the goal of the player is to assess their hand vs. the dealer's revealed card, and decide whether to play or not. With that in mind, my wife's game plan was relatively straightforward. Play the hands she thought the odds were good of beating the dealer and folding the rest.
A game plan in Magic, on the other hand, varies widely depending on format, deck choice, and matchup. Let's look at playing Burn in Modern. The goal of Burn is to deal 20 points of damage to your opponent before they can execute their own game plan. With the exception of Skullcrack and Searing Blaze, there is very little in Burn's main deck that you'd consider interaction. If you're pointing Lightning Bolts at your opponent's creatures and not at their face, you're not sticking to your game plan.
I'm a control player at heart. Even when playing a more proactive deck, my confidence is boosted when I have ways to interact with my opponent and their threats. This preference for interaction, I realize in retrospect, caused me to lack faith in the game plan of my deck. To have a better chance of winning, I either needed the mental awareness to set aside my preferences or have played a deck that suited me better. Confidence in my game plan would have started me out on a better foot, which leads to my next realization.
Have Confidence in Your Abilities
Only one hand at the poker table caused my wife a moment of hesitation. It was an Ace-King hand, with a Jack or Queen as well. It would beat any hand the dealer made that wasn't a pair or better, but the odds were not good. She elected not to play the hand, which turned out to be the right call, as the dealer made a low pair. At the tournament, I lacked the confidence in my own ability that she displayed here at the poker table. This was especially true in Round Three.
My Round Three opponent was Jacob Bard. Jake and I have been friends for nearly 15 years. He's a great guy, and one of the toughest opponents you're likely to find facing you in a tournament. I don't know what my record is against him in constructed, but I know it's not close. Jake was on Grixis Death's Shadow. We knew each other's decks going into the match because he was one of the people I tested with.
I could be wrong, but I feel like Death's Shadow is an even match for Burn. It might even favor the Burn player. Death's Shadow has better interaction, but their game plan also involves getting to a low life total to power out their primary threats. This plays into Burn's plan of killing them through damage.
Knowing the matchup, you'd think I'd have felt good about my chances. Instead, I lost before I even sat down. Why? Because in my head I'd already chalked up the match as a loss. I lacked confidence in my ability to beat Jake in constructed. Would I have felt the same if I were playing a different deck, or if this were a Limited event? Unless my Limited deck was a trainwreck, probably not. I feel good about my Limited game most of the time, though that varies with the format. As for a different constructed deck, I can't say. Having already lost the match mentally though, it was easy for me to walk into the misplays that followed.
In Game One, I decided not to chump block a 4/4 Death's Shadow and a delirious A-Dragon's Rage Channeler while at 14 life. I died to a flashed in Dressed Down for exactly lethal. In Game Two I took a more reserved approach. I fired off an early spell or two but was top-decking nothing but land. I had four burn spells totaling 13 damage, and a Path to Exile in hand. Jake was at 14, as we played draw-go. I needed to either draw another burn spell or have him damage himself to have enough to burn him out. Instead, he played Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger. This leads us to my next breakthrough.
Stop and Assess the Situation Before Deviating From Your Plan
As we discussed, the point of Burn is to chain your cards together to deal lethal damage to your opponent before their game plan comes online. I was at 16 life. Did I care about that Kroxa? I shouldn't have. Sure, the Kroxa was going to take one of the five cards in my hand, but this was its first cast. It would still need to be escaped for me to worry about it on the battlefield.
I went into panic mode though. With Kroxa's enters the battlefield triggers on the stack, I Pathed it and pitched a Lightning Bolt to its discard effect. In retrospect, what I should have done was calmly pitch my Path, and take this as my cue to start pointing all my spells at his face. With five mana I could cast two spells on his end step, and two more on my next turn. Had I taken a deep breath and assessed the situation, I might not have panicked. I might not have won, but at least by executing my game plan I'd have put myself in a position to do so.
When The Dealin's Done
I used to think it was a cliche that attitude meant everything. I'm slowly realizing just how much the right mindset can steer one towards better decision making, and by extension better results. How has a change in mindset improved your game? What changed? What's the biggest obstacle to improving your mindset when it comes to Magic? Let me know in the comments.
Big shout out to my buddy Jake for going on to take down the whole event, and my wife for inspiring this article. If she ever decides to take up competitive Magic, we're all in trouble.