Training Grounds #2 featuring Tom Martell

ImageWelcome to Training Grounds, a series where a regular Magic player streams while the audience discusses strategic commentary live with a more experienced player. What distinguishes Training Grounds from a regular situation with feedback is that the streamer is cut off from the more experienced player and the audience, so doesn’t get the feedback in real-time, only later. We think this is a rather novel way to approach streaming. Have we broken the format? Is there a reason no one else does it this way? Let us know what you think in the comments below. In this episode Nelson is coached by Pro Tour Champion Tom Martell.

DiversityWhen Trevor and I brainstormed this format together I thought it might be kind of neat, but actually re-watching the stream has convinced me we’ve concocted a winner. Admittedly it’s a fair amount of work to put together, but you don’t necessarily need a pro upstream from you to learn a lot about your plays. I’m hoping the format catches on in the twitchniverse and more players level up faster using this cool learning technique.

I was really happy to have the opportunity to interact with Tom during this project. Not only one of the best players, he was also a really great guy. Be sure to check out his take on diversity in the magic scene at 1:10 of the video. Tom makes the point that given many gamers know what it’s like to be marginalised, it’s surprising that our community can sometimes be the worst at it. We’ve come a long way but there is still much to do. We can’t tolerate any type of divisive behaviour and we must make our communities acceptance of anyone other than white heterosexual males, or lack thereof, a talking point rather than ignoring it.

Into the Void

ShortcutterGetting to hear Tom’s straightforward criticism of my draft picks was really helpful in learning about the M14 format. For instance, Tom spoke about the format being marked by a lack of toughness in some creatures. Creatures like Child of Night and Goblin Shortcutter won’t be able to trade with the number of toughness 3 creatures in the set. They also fall to cards like Wring Flesh. One black is easier to keep open for the Wring than two for a Doomblade, and there’s no need to make my opponent’s job easier for them. This toughness issue was demonstrated in the draft with Goblin Shortcutter spending time in the sideboard since it just wasn’t cutting it. While I did get some kudos for making some decent picks for the archetype I was aiming for, I missed the best window to get into blue (Opportunity pack2 at 12:10) and I got to watch just how much better my blue deck would have been.

OpportunityAs I listen to difference in the tone of Tom’s voice between when his comments are muted and when we’re having a normal conversation where we can both hear each other, I notice how much information gets filtered out. Tom knows all the mistakes I’ve made during the draft but will only mention a few and will also feel inclined to offer me praise for any good decisions I’ve made. While I return to the sensory deprivation tank, I get a really honest, no-nonsense appraisal of my decisions and my understanding of the game. This led me to grasp that I was way too in love with being in the black/red sac deck and not open enough to jumping into the obviously open blue when I saw an Opportunity in pack2 at 12:10 in the stream. As it was the sac deck didn’t really come together since I had a lack of sac outlets and I ended up with a more black/red midrange deck.

Through the Breach

Many of my plays were acceptable to Tom but I did get the benefit of hearing which lines he didn’t like and why.

One such play was in outraging a Xathrid Necromacer in Game 1 at 28:10 into the stream. I thought I was dealing with an important creature that would potentially win the game for my opponent, but Tom could see that the Necromancer wasn’t Xathridgoing to be a threat long term and I was already winning on board even if my opponent got a few zombies. It would have been much safer if I had held onto the burn spell in case my opponent dropped a Sengir Vampire or something else I couldn’t otherwise deal with.

Another piece of advice was for the black/red mirror match. Black/red was popular in this draft, and incidentally, it also made an appearance in the previous Isolation Cell article being the deck played. Tom explained that the black/red mirror match was a game of attrition. As such, advancing your board position and ensuring you don’t fall behind is crucial. Mind Rot is a relatively cheap spell in black, easily splashable, that erodes the opponents card advantage. Keeping the opponent behind us on cards in a war of attrition is excellent, and Mind Rot does just that.

We didn’t win this draft but I learned something about the format and had a lot of fun.

Thanks for reading and please, be excellent to each other.

Training Grounds #1 featuring TheBoyks

Welcome to Training Grounds, a new series where a regular Magic player streams while the audience discusses strategic commentary live with a more experienced player. What distinguishes Training Grounds from a regular situation with feedback is that the streamer is cut off from the more experienced player and the audience, so doesn’t get the feedback in real-time, only later. We think this is a rather novel way to approach streaming. Have we broken the format? Is there a reason no one else does it this way? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

As the streamer whose play was up for analysis, I can say that doing things this way did in fact have a major effect on me. I have drafted since and this experience was a real “level up” for me in terms of skill level – giving me awareness of a bad habit that had been holding me back. It didn’t even require making a bunch of embarrassing plays. In fact, I managed to 3-0 the draft without dropping a game. However, this unique format still exposed an overarching pattern to misplays and less-than-optimal-plays. What I learned is very particular to me individually but I think that walking through it will be helpful to others. I’m not going to recap the draft and the games here, you can watch the stream if you like. Instead of a walk through, I’m going to jump right in to my level-up lesson, and then explain it with some examples.

The Level-Up

The I lesson learned by having Derek Boyko and the stream commentate my draft and play live was that I value options too highly. Actually, a strength of mine as a Magic player is that I am good at seeing and taking lines of play that keep my options open. But I tend to let options trump consistency more than I should. I don’t think I would have ever figured this out on my own, but it sticks out like a sore thumb upon reviewing the draft. I was a little shocked at first because I know that I actually value consistency extremely highly. To the point in fact that I have to consciously force myself to look at higher variance cards more seriously than my natural inclination. As an aside, I love Dragon’s Maze block draft more than pretty much everyone I know and maybe it’s because it forces me to take cards in a third and occasionally even fourth colour based on power level, while still allowing me to punish opponents who are too undisciplined to stick mostly to two colours. The format rewards my keeping-options-open tendencies where I take gates over mediocre cards early in case I get a late bomb worth splashing. My very first Dragon’s Maze block draft, however, was Pick 1 Pack 1 Unflinching Courage followed by infinite Kraul Warriors, Greenside Watchers, and Keening Apparitions. I had the most consistent deck in the room and quickly got overpowered by opponents with “bad manabases” and “conditionally good cards” like Nivix Cyclops &  Jelenn Sphinx. The point is, I’m in love with consistency, and knew that, but obsessed with keeping options open – and didn’t realize quite how much.

Keeping options open instead of winning

Let’s start with the game play scenarios that hammer this lesson home first because these examples are more concrete than how keeping options open nearly sabotaged the draft itself.

UntitledFirst, around 1:26 in the video when my opponent attacked with Advocate of the Beast, I decided to block with Academy Raider. Umm, what? Blocking a 2/3 with a 1/1? Well, I had Shock in hand and Bubbling Cauldron in play, and two mana open so just think of all the options! I thought by blocking and casting Shock on Advocate, I would draw out a pump spell if my opponent had one. Being able to sac Raider just in case  made me more willing to take this line but in retrospect there is actual nothing in the format for that to make sense short of Pay No Heed. I even commented that 2-for-1-ing myself felt terrible but it “gives me the option” of trying to determine if my opponent has a pump spell. I could have saved the Shock to burn out the opponent, which combined with two attacks from the Spirit would have been lethal. Instead, after 3 turns of sub-optimal plays, I was still dead to the non-existent Fortify I had been playing around, I had 1 less creature around to sac to Cauldron for 4 life, and had no Shock. An unhealthy addiction to keeping your options open can actually shut down your options later it turns out.

Untitled2In the second example, at 1:46 in the video, I had Mutavault, Accursed Spirit and Academy Raider on the board. My opponent had a Rumbling Baloth and a 2/2 zombie. I had Doom Blade and Minotaur Abomination in hand. I decided to kill the Baloth and attack with the Mutavault in addition to the Raider to tempt my opponent into trading. Yes, I was actually hoping my opponent would trade a zombie for my land. In fact I kind of felt like I suckered my opponent into it.  I justified this line where because I was trying (too hard) to get the option of having evasion back online with the Spirit, and I was way ahead on life. But my opponent was playing black so I shouldn’t have been trying to hard to get rid of the zombie. I used up premium removal and postponed getting my 4/6 on the board by a turn just to make a trade that was not really in my favour. There was an argument for using the removal to get damage in and press the life total advantage but then if I didn’t have options-blinders on, I would have seen that in that case I should obviously also swung with the Spirit.

Finally, shortly after the play above, a power outage caused me to lose internet. Be sure to check out the incredible story Boyks tells while wondering what happened. I managed to message him about finishing the match for me. Boyks took over just before Game 1 of the finals ended in my favour. As he started Game 2, the opponent passed without making a land drop (or any play yet in the game) on Turn 3. We also hadn’t played anything yet but had a choice between Sliver Construct or Academy Raider on 3 with a stacked hand. I would have played out the Raider without even considering anything else. Because: looting. In the name of keeping options open, not only would I have not thought of the better play here, but I wouldn’t have even stopped to consider that there was something to think about. A looter to me is like a shiny diamond to a bird. But, when your opponent is missing land drops and you have nothing in your hand you want to loot away, getting more power on the board a turn earlier could be the kind of incremental advantage that sometimes wins games.

Committing too late

Looking into how valuing options too highly influenced my draft requires a little more in depth pyschoanalysis. But it is the prescribed cure for the disease, so let’s dive in shall we?Image (1)

Pick 1 Pack 1 was Battle Sliver, which I took because even though I am very skeptical about slivers and would not try to force it, this is one of the few that is reasonable even without other slivers at all and bonkers if you are in the sliver seat. After taking Volcanic Geyser next, I decided on a speculative Act of Treason over Pitchburn Devils. This was one of those “consciously taking a higher upside card” choices. If I’m the RB deck I want as many Acts as possible. Boyks knew I was hoping for that archetype and says “by taking the Act here he wants to be the sac deck, so he needs to really prioritize his next few picks to solidify that deck.” And sure enough, in the next four picks I was disciplined about picks for the RB deck  kept as open as possible to either slivers, the sac deck, or whatever I thought looked open. Oh, whoooops. The picks were: Steelform Silver over Undead Minoatur, Sliver Construct over Giant Growth and Auramancer, Bubbling Cauldron over Vampire Warlord (in case I was the sac deck splashing white for Angelic Accord), and 7th pick Divination over Undead Minotaur. Then I had a pack with both Accursed Spirit and Mark of the Vampire which told me black was open. Next, Blood Bairn wheeled from the pack I opened (in which the only black card was Dark Prophecy). Now surely I knew I succeeded in the RB sac deck I speculated on the Act of Treason for? Not so much.

Pack 2 Pick 1 was Wild Ricochet vs, Blood Bairn. This is no contest if I was settled on RB. Which I was when the Blood Bairn wheeled… right? Well, due to a combination of hoping this one will wheel since the last one did (ambitious considering the only other black card in the pack was Shrivel) and just hours earlier I read an M14 article that suggested decks running Wild Ricochet had a high win percentage so I guess that was stuck in my head. I convinced myself to take what seemed like a higher upside card over the more consistent card, which is still something I know I need to do. But needing to take a second Blood Bairn was not about consistency but also about making sure I stayed in RB sac and kept others out of it. Ricochet gives an ability that you can’t really get from any other card but the price I paid for having this option was to risk abandoning the deck I was trying to draft. At this point, the chat was pleading with the Boyks to interrupt and stop me from taking the wrong card, but he stayed true to our Isolation Cell format. The next pick is where I really went off the rails before coming to my senses: Thorncaster Sliver over Volcanic Geyser (and Deathgaze Cockatrice). This was yet another “just in case RB falls apart” pick since the card would be so great with Hive Stirrings and Battle Sliver, something I should have not remotely been thinking about by this point. In the next pick, I had a choice between Tenacious Dead, Quag Sickness, and Predatory Sliver along with a sudden realization that I had been giving up on cards for my RB sac deck by hedging my bets and was now at the point where I was going to have to actually take Tenacious Dead over the removal to salvage my plan. These last two picks are totally inconsistent with each other. The Thorncaster says “I’m ignoring the fact that Blood Bairn wheeled and trying to draft slivers”. The Dead says that I have no interest in slivers and am so interested in RB sac that I’m actually passing removal. This is not a healthy way of keeping options open, this is how someone who has keeping-options-open disease waffles and sabotages their own deck. The very next pick was Act of Treason over Sliver Construct but I took a long time considering it and even said taking the Act might have been wrong, that I maybe should have tried to have my cake and eat it too my attempting to wheel Act. It wasn’t until I got a pick 5 Blood Bairn that I actually abandoned the sliver deck. Actually. As in enough to hatedraft Ranger’s Guile with a Sentinel Sliver in the pack.

Who cares?

What this experience taught me was actually a pretty major realization. Playing Magic requires making a large number of decisions in a short space of time on a regular basis. Sometimes arguments can be made for different either choices, but in many cases – like the examples provided above – there is something approximating a “best” decision. If you listen to the commentary, you will hear that in every single one of these situations I am actually considering the “best” decision but choose to do something else anyway. The “right” answer is staring Boyks and the chat in the face because they are not afflicted with option-itis. Awareness of your own biases is crucial to adjusting the importance you give to different factors when you are making decisions. The only way out of bad habits is consciously following a different decision-making path enough times that you end up developing a new, better, habit. I know this is possible because I have done it in terms of valuing consistency in general, in terms of manabases, reliable curves, etc. But know I know that the next layer to the onion for me is to value consistency more highly in a specific type of instance: when making decisions that represent a trade-off with one of my absolute favourite thing: options.

What do you think?

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