Embracing Certainty

This is a post about mindset.

I hope it will improve your mental game.

Recently I watched a video about negotiations. The expert negotiator (you would know his name) talked about how he went from making $38,000 per year to $1,000,000 per year in one year. This involved hunting down really successful businesspeople and convincing them to buy expensive training that would make them even more successful… A daunting task for a twenty-something with little formal education. What he said was that in these negotiations, the person who is more certain [certain of victory] will invariably come out successful. He credits his ascent to pure, unwavering certainty.

I have been thinking about this a lot.

There have been times in my life when I was playing Magic as well as anyone ever played.

I made the tightest reads, knocked off top players like tenpins, bit my lip until my mouth filled with copper in order to break myself of bad habits. The stretch of time between about Pro Tour Charleston until I won the New York State Championship, I was playing like I had never played before (or sadly, since).

I played so much MTGO in between those two tournaments. One of the things I am very proud of was the discovery of Skred as the best card in Standard (it would take almost two years for everyone else to figure out I was right). During this stretch I got really good at beating Solar Flare-type decks. My strategy revolved around attacking my opponent with Ohran Viper and drawing attention to Ohran Viper, manipulating with Scrying Sheets and Sensei’s Divining Top, and generally being a nuisance to my vastly more powerful opponent. I got him to worry about all these little cards and little things, devote his mana to my Viper; meanwhile I was concentrating on hitting my land drops.

A few turns later, the game would end. 

Always the same way.

Lethal Demonfire.

At the time, I thought that I was good at deception. I thought that the keys to victory were in misdirection, “tricking” my opponent into dealing with what was “beating them” right now, managing the battle but invariably losing the war (when they would only be able to win by racing).

I carried the same mindset to the New York State Championship, but with Brian Kowal’s This Girl deck. The path was similar: incremental card advantage. I bluffed Remands that I didn’t have all day. Lethal Demonfire. Over and over, Blue deck after Blue deck: lethal Demonfire.

But now I understand (or at least can concretely contextualize) that I was winning on account of superior certainty. I was certain of victory because I knew the path to victory. My opponents, for the most part, played improvisation-ally. They saw something, assumed it was going to kill them, and utilized their cards and mana to deal with that thing, not realizing the games were always going to end the same way. 

First of all I have to thank reader kschreve for Mistveil Plains. This card has given the MWC deck a new layer of capability it didn’t have before. For example against Faeries in a long game…

The starry eyed Faeries player might think that he is eventually going to gain inevitability with Vendilion Clique. However the addition of two Mistveil Plains (might even go to three over the second Urza’s Factory… a suggestion by Bill Stark) allows the MWC deck to push the game to the exact same position almost every game.

It is the kind of game where only unwavering certainty can lift the MWC deck… but if it is there, victory is certain.

The power of this strategy is that Faeries is also certain of victory, and invests a tremendous amount of psychic energy into a recursive long game plan… while MWC chips away at its certainty until eventually winning with damage. Consider the decline…

  1. I’m winning! I have more cards! Plus, I’m Blue.
  2. That was annoying.
  3. I can use Riptide Laboratory to get out of this.
  4. Wasn’t I winning a minute ago?
  5. Okay, new plan: I have to use Riptide Laboratory and Academy Ruins to stay in this, eventually I am going to win with…
  6. I didn’t care about those permanents anyway.
  7. Okay, new plan: play for the draw. Come on Engineered Explosives!
  8. How much time is left on the clock again?
  9. FAIL

It is a lapse in certainty that will often cause us to err. There are matchups where we can see the light — the exact light — at the end of the tunnel; we need to get to that light. We know if we get to that light, that victory is certain… But the opponent presents us with a bump, another bump, in the road. Sometimes I say things like “Their cards only matter if you let them.” This is what I am talking about: When you start bleeding certainty, you make uncertain — often strategically ill-advised — moves. 

Do you ever find yourself varying your plays because of something the opponent did? Suddenly you feel like something else is the right course of action. You get distracted and two LEGO pieces come un-hitched in your mind. You stray from the plan. 

Brain fart? You made a move because you were — however momentarily — uncertain of the way to win. 

I remember when I won 28-of-34 matches over three tournaments with The Rock (GPT win, undefeated in game wins; 6-2 GP finish; PTQ win). One of the things that I held like iron in my mind was that Trix could not win if I had Pernicious Deed in play and I had four mana untapped. Sometimes I missed a land drop and desperately wanted to play Yavimaya Elder. Sometimes I was frightened of all the cards that the opponent drew and had to dig half-moons into the palms of my hands to stop myself from casting Duress. Do you know how hard it is to ignore a Morphling on the board?

Those cards in hand…

Those missed land drops…

That Morphling…

What could he have?

Any or all were potential chinks in my certainty. I won because I never let them penetrate. Once you pass the turn with less than four mana in play… That is when you can lose to their combo. 

Will certainty win you every game of Magic?

Obviously not.

But there are some games, some matchups that go for a long time and settle into the same card sets each and every time. They are won by the same deck every time, without variation, provided that that player holds true. When the opponent wins, it is because the other guy was mana screwed, well before Stage Three; that, or when the favored player gave up too much certainty and spent too much time and mana on things that had no bearing on the outcome of the game.

Sorry if this seems a little vague right now… I will flesh it out as the PTQ season progresses.


Be Sociable, Share!

facebook comments:


#1 ascensionblade on 01.10.09 at 1:03 am

You should check out The Week That Was for a White Control deck very similar to yours that splashes for some interesting stuff.

#2 ReeceP on 01.10.09 at 7:47 am

Firstly, I agree with the above poster. Have you read Brian’s articles? They’re very good.


Secondly, I am sure this “article”, whatever you want to call it has had a profound effect on me, but I won’t realise it for weeks until I find myself living the experience.

I just want to exclude myself from the “everyone” that took two years to catch up on Skred – I was playing with Skred two weeks before you podcast about the RG snow deck, and I will go to my grave saying that my Skred deck from between Coldsnap and Time Spiral was better than yours.

#3 ReeceP on 01.10.09 at 7:55 am

I’m going to have to retract that last part, because my decklist has been lost to the ages and I wouldn’t be able to prove it. That’s unfortunate, I loved that deck.

#4 GavinV on 01.11.09 at 12:50 am

This was a really good and enlightening post. I feel like this is the kind of thing I should read over twenty times and absorb the strategy by osmosis.

#5 ReeceP on 01.11.09 at 6:35 am

If I may say something without the cocky attempt to call you out:

The Mistveil Plains addition to the white deck – you add good cards to your deck, then reshuffle with Eternal Dragon, drawing lands out and giving you a chance to draw better cards, specifically the cards you put on the bottom of your deck…this strikes me as an Extended applicaton of the “artificial intelligence” strategy Adrian Sullivan was talking about with Gaea’s Blessing in his Teachings deck of that era.

Would you consider this an accurate way to describe how Mistveil Plains fits into the strategy of the MWC deck?

Also, I lost to the blue deck on Modo due to an unopposed jitte. Would you be able to post your strategy on how to beat it? I won game 1 with superior mana development into Crovax (which he couldn’t stop in any way) but I wasn’t able to establish that board in game 2, and I double mulled in game 3 and wasn’t quite able to come back. I think the way I played game 1 was pretty good, so I’m looking for sideboarding advice and post-board plan (if it differs at all)


#6 admin on 01.11.09 at 8:22 am

Thanks for the praise. I intend to be able to flesh this out throughout the season. This is the “Stages” of 2009, I think… Something I touched on when I was playing at my best, but now more concrete. Josh and I talked about it on Friday and he said “There’s nothing wrong with having to have something spelled out for you.”

On the one hand, Mistveil Plains is, in fact, a more reliable version of that strategy (it is truly infinite, can’t be countered, &c.). However the really powerful aspect is when you go into a super long game against certain strategies. Multiple Plains in play allows you to completely escape interaction with Vendilion Clique AND script your draws — while drawing multiple threats — every turn.

If you don’t mind, can you post the list you were playing?

I simply can’t imagine losing to a Jitte with this deck (keep in mind I am _ALSO_ not trying to cock-ily call YOU out)… Just not the kind of card you lose to with Martyrs and Akroma’s Vengeance.

I’ve never lost a match to the Blue Fae deck on MTGO. Most of the time they don’t realize what is happening and time out. Sounds more like you lost to the double mull than the Jitte.

#7 orazey on 01.11.09 at 9:18 am

i was recently playing chess against some of the regulars at the local pub (being the designated driver) and decided to try something new.

when i comes to both MTG and chess im usually a reactive defensive player who might take a bit of time to to consider any moves and possible outcomes, but after (years of) loosing i have found a rather strange trait in most of my opponents.

as they make a move thats not that dangerous, if i respond with a move (one i though of while they were considering or just a random nonimportant move) i rapid succession to theirs, they start to lose it after a few turns (thus making mistakes), whereas if i took my time they tend to get rather cocky and selfconfident. Five of the my six opponents that night lost and i have then tried to apply the same strategy to MTG, but have found some difficulties as i oftent react to what is put into play (having played too much contol), but having mused over the problem i have found some ways to get myself by the problem.

plan your next turn course of action, as you pass your turn to your opponent

if in dout, dont think, but stick to your plan

know your win condition (in the before mentioned control deck it was, tap blockers, dammage and if possible getting more turn through the sacrifice of merfolk to Wanderwine Prophets) and focus on it if possible

keep your turns short and overwhelming while never tapping out all lands as this will force your opponent to consider a nonexisting threat in your hand

hope anyone could benefit from this and i would appreciate any imput or lessons learned on the subject


#8 ReeceP on 01.11.09 at 3:09 pm

I can’t remember precisely how it happened, just that he had Jitte/V-Clique going. Maybe I kept a bad hand, maybe I blew my load too early on Vengeance and played into Mana Leak.

As for my list, it’s the same as the one you posted a couple posts ago:

4 Martyr of Sands
4 Eternal Dragon
2 Crovax

3 Chalice
4 Mana Tithe
4 Wrath of God
4 Akroma’s Vengeance
4 Proclamation of Rebirth
2 Decree of Justice
3 Oblivion Ring

2 Urza’s Factory
2 Desert
4 Temple of the False God
18 Plains

1 Boseiju
1 Chalice
1 Crovax
4 Condemn
4 Unmake
4 Kataki

The only difference is I added two Deserts – and that was because I didn’t have enough Plains in my account.

#9 jcaldwell84 on 01.11.09 at 7:25 pm

So my teammate and good freind Joshua Scott Honigmann just won the Louisville KY PTQ with MWC version that we had been testing, I had talked to you online about it (cardplayer77) Here is his PTQ winning deck list!!! GRATS TO SCOTT AND TEAM http://www.TheManaScrew.com for having a very good showing
4 E Dragon
4 Wrath
4 Runed Halo
4 Martyr
4 O-Ring
3 Decree
2 Proclamation
2 Ak’s Vengeance
3 Condemn
2 Crovax
3 Chalice

16 Plains
2 Godless Shrine
2 Sacred Foundry
1 Mistveil Plains
4 Temple of the False God

3 Disenchant
2 Exhalted Angel
2 Angels Grace
2 Gilded Light
3 Boil
3 Extirpate

#10 jcaldwell84 on 01.11.09 at 7:30 pm

Top 8 was
3 Mono U
1 Lightning bolt deck
1 affinity
1 zoo
1 cloud varient

Scott was undeafeated through the swiss with a 5-0-2 record (drawing last 2 rnds to get in) T8 he beat zoo, affinity and mono blue in the finals! The kid didn’t know what to do when he tapped out and got a boil EOT…. He just scooped it up after Crovax hit the board with 4 soldiers on deck….

#11 jcaldwell84 on 01.11.09 at 7:43 pm

oops I was wrong about the other lists in Top 8 here is a link to them http://bluegrassmagic.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=2766
but i was off it was 1 MWC 1 Cloud 2 LBW 1 TEPS 2 mono blue 1 zoo

#12 admin on 01.12.09 at 9:59 am

Is there any way Joshua Scott would be available to chat / answer some questions before, um, tonight / tomorrow? I’d like to get this in for this week’s Top Decks if at all possible. Thanks in advance and muchos congratulations.

#13 Gifts Ungiven on 01.13.09 at 1:16 am

You may want to redact that phone number there, Mike, lest Scott start getting random calls from friendly people at odd hours.

#14 Five With Flores » Bill Stark on Mike Flores on 01.14.09 at 6:50 am

[...] saves the day! (Top 8 Magic) PTQ Seattle 1-10-09 (TheStarkingtonPost.com) Embracing Certainty (ye olde Five With Flores) Mono-White Control in Extended (also right here, baby!) Show, [...]

You must log in to post a comment.