Ronald Reagan famously asked the American voters during the 1980 presidential election, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” It was a question that resonated with people, because most people didn’t keep up with the nuances and daily happenings in Washington to be able to measure Jimmy Carter’s presidency against. What they did know was how they were doing relative to four years ago. Was it harder to buy milk or a gallon of gas? These were things the people were highly sensitive to in their everyday life. Reagan then asked for their vote if they were worse off than they were four years. As 2015 comes to a close, I want to ask you a similar question. How do you compare as a player to where you were exactly one year ago?
Have you significantly improved your game? If so, what aspects have you improved? Have you reached a plateau? What are the underlying reasons for becoming stagnant? How might you seek to overcome that in the coming year? What do you hope to accomplish within the game in 2016? This week I’m going to give an example of what this end of the year review looks like by reviewing my personal performance throughout the year. I encourage you to do this for yourself following the example I put forth. I also encourage you to learn from the mistakes I made throughout the year so that you don’t have to make them yourself to learn from them.
This Time Last Year
The natural starting point for a comparison between yourself this year and last year would be to honestly evaluate where you actually were last year. Don’t use subjective phrases like, “I was decent at deckbuilding.” What does decent mean? If I say it’s cold, you might think it’s 30 and I might think it’s 50. Subjective evaluations are narrow in scope. It’s much more useful to use things you can actually measure, such as tournament performance.
This time last year I was at the absolute pinnacle of my game. I had 12 premier event tops within a single year, which was the most tops ever in a single year. The previous record within a year was Adam with 10 in 2008. I attended 25 events that year giving me just under 50% top ratio. I ended the year on a 3 event in a row topping streak, 2 of which were back-to-back wins. This made me the fourth person to win back-to-back. The first three were Ryan Hayakawa in Goat format, Billy Brake in Plant format, and Sehabi Kheireddine that same year as me. These 2 back-to-back wins made up part of my 5 total wins in 2014. Before this year the most wins anybody had ever gotten in their entire time playing the game had been 4. I had more wins in a single year than they had over their entire time playing the game.
Most of my success in 2014 came from successfully innovating decks and creating more powerful and consistent decks than the ones that existed at the time. In the beginning of the year, everybody thought Fire Fist was the best deck, but I reinvented Mermails by focusing on looping Gunde to gain advantage instead of throwing my hand on the board for one huge push. After that I realized that decks should be built to abuse Soul Charge, not simply make it an addition to the deck you already had. This manifested itself in the Dragon deck I used to win Virginia, which was designed to dump monsters quickly into the grave and dig for Soul Charge as quickly as possible. This was different from the other people who obviously knew Soul Charge was good, but just added it into whatever deck they were playing at the time and didn’t take full advantage of it. Next came a Sylvan deck that I just barely missed qualifying for the World Championship with. After that was the release of Shaddolls. Most builds played subpar and inconsistent cards like Eclipse Wyvern that had no real synergy with the deck. This also didn’t make good use of Soul Charge, which was still at three. I added a Lightsworn engine to the fix consistency and provide powerful Soul Charges. I also realized the impact of Super Polymerization and maxed out on it, where the overwhelming majority of people were only using one on the assumption it was bad in the mirror and that it had a heavy cost. This let me go undefeated at YCS Toronto. When the next pack was released and more Burning Abyss monsters came out, I came up with my final innovation of the year; Big BA. Everybody was using Mathematician and playing lots of slow trap cards. I replaced the Mathematician with the newly released BA that everyone was quick to dismiss, because I realized the extra names would allow me to pump out double Dante almost every game. This was so much more powerful than the other decks in the meta that it allowed me to win back-to-back and then make top 16 in Chicago to finish out a great year of innovation.
So where do I stack up this year to myself from last year? To be honest, my performance paled in comparison. I finished the year with just 5 tops, which was the amount of wins I had last year. I snuck in a single win at the final event of the year and came close losing in the finals of Charleston at the beginning of the year. I attended 22 events this year giving me only a 22.7% top ratio, less than half of what it was last year.
This year did not prove to be as innovative as the previous year, but I still had a couple of major hits. The biggest of which was the deck that Chris used to win the 25k and was the deck that would go on to define the next format. It was characterized by the addition of Performages into Nekroz. The idea was it allowed us to get around the need to main MST to deal with floodgates, because it allowed us to make rank 4s more readily to out them. Then when playing the mirror it would allow access to Masquerade to punish an opponent not leaving a field to play around Trishula. The other hit I had was the discovery of Brilliant Fusion as a splashable card. This was a card that went completely under the radar upon its release, but once I played it as three additional ways to Foolish Performages it quickly caught on as one of the most valuable assets in almost every deck. While these were good innovations, the shear number of them pale in comparison to the number of contributions to the game I was able to make in 2014.
Analysis of Performance
One question, why?
Why was my 2015 so much worse than my 2014? It’s possible that 2014 was an outlier, as I could not have asked for a better 2014. While it might be expected to do somewhat worse, I’m not satisfied with this superficial answer and want to look further.
I think perhaps the biggest reason was that I set myself up to have a subpar year by comparison by self-limiting myself with goals. As long as I can remember I’ve wanted to pass Adam Corn to have the most tops of any player. Perhaps it was nothing more than an arbitrary target I set some years ago, but it was one I stuck with and placed as my highest aim. Adam has 23 tops. Which event was my 24th? The very last event I played in 2014. I got there and came into 2015 like, “now what?” I had accomplished my highest goal and without a new one to push me even further I lost quite a bit of motivation. It’s also difficult to set arbitrarily higher numbers like 25 or 30, because what do they really mean at that point? The game to me is about competition. Competition by definition needs people to compete with, but after having passed Adam I was already ahead. I tried to be motivated by the desire to compete against myself, but found it less motivating than the desire to compete against other people. This year also taught me that long term goals can be at odds with growth. If I hadn’t yet accomplished my highest goal, I’d have had no reason to slow down. It was because I did that I was allowed to feel complacent.
In terms of innovation I don’t think I got worse at catching interactions. If anything I would say that I now have better filters and deckbuilding rules than I did at the end of 2014, because I have an extra year’s worth of experience seeing what works and what doesn’t work. I think that one thing that heavily stifled the ability to innovate was the persistent presence of Nekroz of Unicore the majority of the year. He crushed innovation as he took away the importance of our extra deck for most of the year. Sure we still had an extra deck, but it wasn’t the same. The extra deck didn’t have nearly as much of an impact this year because it couldn’t. That is 15 of your 70 cards that greatly devalued for most of the year. Every new idea I had was so cool until I came back to reality and realized that it didn’t come with a way of getting Unicore off the board. Evidence of the truth of this was that I won the very first event I attended after Nekroz were hit to unplayable. It allowed me to have access to my extra deck again and innovate once more.
While they no longer do draft in the top cut of events, I came to realize in the later part of this year that Barrett Keys had a better approach to YCSs than I did, due to the incorporation of draft. Before draft existed the only way to reliably win an event was to have a better deck than everybody else in the room. Draft changed this, because you no longer had to go through 16 rounds without being able to lose passed round 11, you had to go 12 rounds and you could lose 2 of them. Then you would draft the rest of the tournament. We went for grand slam strategies that often did not work. When they did we weren’t winning the tournament like we were without draft, we were sitting down to draft in top 16 just like everyone else was. Therefore I think Barrett’s strategy of playing a more standard build and not relying as heavily on innovation was better for the draft era, because it allowed him to consistently go x-2 and survive swiss and make it to draft.
Up until recently I had found it difficult to theory with the same people I test with. They were great at testing, but talking theory was a little one sided and it’d usually just be me talking about whatever idea I was entertaining at the time. I still needed an outlet to talk theory so I sought other people who were good at theory. I would usually work with one or two people per event that were outside of my core play testing group.
I recently read Steve Job’s biography and it talked about how Jobs emphasized the need for hardware and software to be designed by the same people, so that they would work with each other more effectively than if one group had designed the hardware to operate the software another group had designed. It wouldn’t flow as well, Jobs argued. Jobs strongly preferred a closed system when it came to technology. After reading this I realized I should have been applying this to my team. I should have been using the same people to play test with that I used to talk theory with. It might have been a little slow at first since they couldn’t talk theory as well as I or the other people I had been going to could, but that would be only initially. The short term cost of teaching the guys I test with to also talk theory would mean that over the long run we would be coming up with better decks. I intend on applying this starting in 2016.
While my 2015 may have been comparatively worse than my 2014, I can happily say that I have found my drive again. Winning the last event of 2015 gives me the perfect momentum I need to lead into a great 2016. I also plan on releasing my book within the early part of the year, so stay tuned for more details about that. I encourage you to do an honest self evaluation of yourself. Be sure to not look to make yourself feel better and instead be self-critical. You’ll be doing yourself a favor. Also try to learn from my mistakes so that you can avoid making them yourself, but still learn the same lessons I did. I look forward to kicking off the first tournament of 2016 this weekend at the ARG Circuit Series in Orlando Florida! I hope to see you all there for what will surely be the start to a great year! Until next time, play hard or go home!