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Playing in Good Faith

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Sometimes a month of preparation, thousands of games of playtesting, and three days of grueling competition can come down to two words - "Mirari it". As many of you have read by now in Gary Wise's "Sitting in Singapore" column, in my round seventeen Feature Match against not-yet-World-Champion Carlos Romao, I made a huge mistake in game one, failing to Mirari my Haunting Echoes when Romao had Bearscape in play and a stocked graveyard. Romao Enveloped my Echoes and was able to produce a string of blockers to keep my enormous Nantuko Shade at bay, while killing me with those same Bears two turns later. If I'd simply Mirari'd my Echoes, his graveyard would've been stripped completely except for three basic lands, and my Shade would've been lethal within two turns.


A fork in the road.

There was no reason not to Mirari it. I had two Cabal Coffers and seven swamps, if my memory serves me correctly, and the excess mana from the Coffers just went to pumping my Shade. I hadn't planned out some incredibly complex series of plays that required all of the mana I had access to that turn to accomplish. The only reasoning for not Mirari-ing the Echoes that I can come up with is that I wanted my Shade to be lethal that turn rather than next, but Romao had the ability to chump block with a Bearscape token regardless, so even if that had been my rationale, it certainly wouldn't have made any sense.

What I'm saying - in more or less words - is that I messed up, and it may very well have cost me a Top 8 berth in the most prestigious tournament of the year. If I'd won that game - which I almost certainly would have - I only had to win one of the next two and then draw my last round to secure myself a Top 8 slot, which could translate into so much more. Of course, I can try to comfort myself by saying that there's no way I would've won game two with Romao playing first, given identical draws on both of our parts, but comforting myself isn't what this is about. I'm not writing this trying to make excuses or to gather sympathy. I'm writing this to make clear a point that I spent much of the night on Saturday discussing with the Dutch - at least those of whom would listen.

I'm a philosophy major, so I'm going to make a philosophical analogy to this point, so bear with me. Jean Paul Sartre, a French existentialist whose ideas I find to be some of the most compelling in Western philosophy, presents in his work "Transcendence of the Ego" what he believes are the primary tactics individuals employ in what he calls "choosing in bad faith". Sartre believes that human beings are, ultimately and irreducibly, beings of choice - that in every moment we are free to act as we will, regardless of our history or circumstances.

Sartre suggests, however, that most people are blind to this freedom, or rather choose to ignore it, instead attributing their actions to any number of causes except their own independent will. These he refers to as "inner facticity", "outer facticity", and "transcendence". Inner facticity is the appeal to personality or kind - that is, when one claims to do something because of one's own intrinsic characteristics. "I hit him because I'm an angry person" and the like. Outer facticity is the appeal to circumstances - "I had to do it because if I didn't I'd lose my job", and the like, and transcendence is the denial of there being a choice entirely, "I didn't kiss her, she kissed me". What all this boils down to is the argument that since one is ultimately responsible for all of one's own actions, one is ultimately and irreducibly responsible for everything that happens in one's life.

Got that? If so, good. If not, try thinking about it a bit more. I'm obviously giving a seriously pared down version of Sartre's actual theory, so don't grill me for missing a few things, but it's enough for what I want to discuss. I could make all kinds of excuses for missing Top 8 at Worlds this past weekend. I could blame my tiebreakers, placing responsibility on the shoulders of my opponents over the course of the weekend. I could blame my health, since I was so sick I could hardly sleep over the course of the entire tournament, waking up around 5 AM every morning, unable to sleep and blowing my nose and coughing up phlegm the whole time. I could blame any number of things, but in the end, I didn't say "Mirari it" and lost because of it. The truth of the matter is, it just slipped my mind completely, for no reason whatsoever that I can comprehend. I was sick, I was exhausted, and I was probably playing too quickly for such an important game, and when it came down to it I made a mistake and lost.

Why am I going on about all of this? Because over the course of this weekend, I saw more players make mistakes that decided important games and matches than I can remember seeing at a premiere event in quite some time. Some you've heard about, some you haven't. Anton Jonsson didn't target the same cards with both of his Spurnmage Advocates. Eugene Harvey didn't play a fourth land before attacking with both of his Basking Rootwallas. Mark Ziegner tried to deck Dave Humpherys after Lobotomizing his Psychatogs, rather than simply Upheaval'ing and playing a 'Tog of his own, and fell to Dave's Cephalid Coliseums. Peter Szigeti played his Arcane Teachings on a black creature when I had Pilgim of Virtue on the board and he needed to ping and kill my Torturer that turn. And, of course, I didn't Mirari my Echoes.

My conversation with the Dutch on Saturday night was about all of this. Sartre never came up, but his ideas did, as we discussed the penchant Magic players have for making excuses for their own failures. Those excuses tend to fall into every category but "I made a mistake". They drew no land or all land, or their opponents were incredibly lucky, or they had their "only" bad matchup, etc, etc. Of course, sometimes people truly do get manascrewed and the like, but maybe they should've mulliganed a hand they didn't, or kept a hand they mulliganed. Maybe even though they were manascrewed they could've won anyway, like Anton Jonsson in his round 18 match against Ken Krouner. Anton almost certainly would've won with a land on turn four to cast Battle Screech, and he could come away from the match saying "I got manascrewed", but the truth of the matter is that he could've played differently and won.

I'm certainly not saying that games and matches of Magic don't ever come down to the luck of the draw. I've drawn consecutive no land hands enough times to know that suggesting Magic is a game of pure skill is simply foolish, but I've also watched Dave Humpherys win a game in which his only damage sources got Lobotomized and he had fourteen fewer cards in his deck than his opponent. Two years ago I finished in the Top 4 of Chicago and I was on top of the world. I had a string of poor finishes to follow that up, and at the time I bemoaned my poor fortune. Now, however, I have enough perspective to recognize that I wasn't as good as I thought I was at the time, and that - in the words of Mike McDermott in Rounders - "It wasn't a bad beat - I got outplayed".

It wasn't until I nearly fell off the Pro Tour that I realized something was wrong.

It wasn't until I nearly fell off the Pro Tour that I realized something was wrong. Coming into PT-New Orleans last year, I needed to put up a Top 64 finish or I'd fall off the gravy train. I worked hard testing for the tournament and it paid off - I finished in the Top 16, and I was qualified again for the next year. Rather than simply rest on my laurels, however, as I had the previous season, I decided to make the most of my time on the train, and I started seriously practicing for Limited formats, something I'd taken for granted in the past. Most of my success had come in Constructed, as I played (and still play) more Standard and Block than draft, but with the introduction of Magic Online I've been able to step up my Limited game significantly. I made Top 8 in Tampa and went 5-1 in Limited at both Nationals and Worlds this year - quite the improvement from previous years.

I'm not saying all of this to brag. In fact, bragging couldn't be farther from what I'm trying to do here. What I'm saying is that - not long ago - I wasn't actually very good at Magic. After my semifinal finish in Chicago, I made Day 2 at every Pro Tour that season, but only made money in one of them. Even with a Top 4 finish on my resume, I couldn't manage to crack the barrier of the Masters series that season, but this season - despite not having a single Top 8 finish - I've managed to accumulate enough points that I should be making my first Masters appearance in Houston. I couldn't have accomplished that until I'd humbled myself enough - been honest enough with myself - to realize that I wasn't as good as I thought I was, and that I needed to get better.

Now, it would seem, I've gotten good - but not quite good enough. I made a mistake that likely cost me a Top 8 finish and maybe even the World Championship title. I'm not going to beat myself up over it, however - I did that enough already. What I am going to do, though, is use it as an opportunity to realize that even though I'm leagues better than I used to be, there's still room for me to improve my game. Even though maybe now I can honestly be considered among the best in the game, I can still get better - and you can too. But not until you start being honest with yourself - "playing in good faith", perhaps - and recognize that sometimes you, too, make mistakes. Only then can you improve.

I'm writing this just before leaving for my flight back to the U.S. from Australia, and I must apologize for failing to send in a final pre-Worlds Mini-Colony report. I was too busy with last-minute playtesting and checking out Sydney to have much time left for writing, but I'll have my Worlds tourney report, along with my concluding thoughts on the whole experience, coming soon enough when I return to the States. I start classes not long after I get back, so I can't promise to have things done immediately, but I'll try not to make you wait. As always, feel free to email me at with your thoughts and questions about this article, and I'll try to get back to you as soon as I can.

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