Improving: What It Means to You

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This article started as a tentative answer to KYT’s following question on Facebook: “Why do you play Magic?” I felt morally obliged to share some of my insights with him. While the question is quite personal, hopefully I can shed some light on your own introspective journey. This discussion may not be as useful for an avid tournament player looking for the latest tech, but it could have the advantage of offering a perspective on how you can learn and become a more efficient player.

Why do we play?

So, let us go back to KYT’s Facebook query: Why do we play Magic? The question itself refers to one’s inner motivations, which are not always that transparent to one’s self. Despite this, I will try to answer in a way that will shed some light as to why I love the game. Coming from somebody that used to love playing Dungeons and Dragons and chess, Magic was only a new hobby at first. Challenging of course, but not an activity that I thought would occupy me for long. At the time, I used to play in chess tournaments, and despite what could seem like a slow, unexciting game to outsiders, I was very passionate about it, enjoying the resolution of tactical positioning problems, loving the analyses of chess game masterpieces and being a local “king of the hill” in that department. Creative, outside-the-box moves in chess were powerful aesthetic experiences–a clever sacrifice of the material advantage for a checkmate attack would overwhelm me with admiration and I would find it simply sublime.

I found similar feelings in Magic, but the beauty of the game was not its only selling point. The competitive aspect was, like in chess, a huge pull as well. Every round you sit in front of somebody new, and you have to make magic happen in order to win. A single mistake and you can punt a carefully crafted game strategy and get eliminated after hours of mental effort. Your performance is not evaluated by your peers, but by your results in serious tournaments. These results are an objective evaluation of how well you are doing, and as such, are not dependent on the whims of some jury. When I performed well and played uber-tight, I could be satisfied with myself; when I did not, I could check back and try to see what I did wrong.

What I also find interesting is the fact that Magic is a game where your understanding can, following intense studying and practicing, go through what could be called a “paradigm shift”. A paradigm shift would occur when I would suddenly become aware of new and fundamental concepts that radically changed the way I understood and played the game. There would be some sort of turning point–an epiphany–where I would come to the realization that the basic concepts that I considered were at the center of the game were, in fact, just a small part of the big picture–and there were additional, previously unnoticed concepts that were fundamental as well. For example, when I started playing during Ice Age, and I saw the Sligh deck for the first time, I understood how important a deck’s mana curve is. At the time, a lot of players in my area did not really have a clue about this central concept and the single fact that my deck had a proper mana curve was often enough to assure me victory. The idea that using most of your mana every turn would translate into a board advantage was a powerful strategic concept, and is still the cornerstone of all aggro strategies.

Another basic principle I learned early on–and maybe the most basic and recognized one–was card advantage. If one of your cards can deal with two of your opponent’s cards, you should, at one point, have more cards and more resources, which should allow you to claim victory. At the time, I understood why Enchant Creature spells (Auras) were usually bad, because of the two-for-one danger, and why cards like Hymn to Tourach and Wrath of God were great. My first real deck, and the one with which I managed to win my first tournament (of 65 competitors), was a White Weenie list relying on cards like Land Tax, Balance, Zuran Orb and Armageddon. These cards together allowed me to generate amazing card advantage.

Some other concepts, like revealing the minimum amount of information possible, are a bit more refined, but nevertheless important. When you are losing, instead of scooping up straight (if you still have plenty of time in the match), you should try to get as much information on the opponent’s deck as possible. Let them play as many cards as they have to before you lose–while you, on your side, try to reveal the least amount possible. The information war, which can start with idle chats at the beginning of the round, is a very important part of the game and can make a radical difference when it comes time to sideboard.

These examples are here to show that whenever you figure out a new fundamental concept of the game, your whole perspective changes and you can play the game at a superior level. When I feel I am stagnating, I often think that there are some essential ideas that I have not yet grasped and I tend to be critical of myself. By staying open to reconsidering some of my previous knowledge, I could–thanks to a new and suddenly realized intuition–reach a turning point where new strategic concepts can be added to my current understanding of the game. Then, I would start to improve again.

A lot of players already feel they have reached a sufficient understanding of the game and consider that they play almost perfectly, believing the problem is not with their own understanding of the game, but with variance. That could be so, but I tend to believe that these players are not as good as they think they are, and their misguided perception of themselves as excellent players hinders their development. A certain humility is necessary to put themselves in question and improve their comprehension of the game. If you feel you understand it already, how can you improve any further?

The intellectual aspect of improvement is very stimulating. The game is complex, skill-intensive, challenging, and rewards hard work and creativity. If you have the time, your options for preparing for an event can be almost endless. For constructed, you could learn how to play all the main archetypes, learn all your match-ups, follow the evolution of the metagame on MODO and in real life tournaments, and even test new tech and rogue decks that could, because of their surprise factor, allow you to win a few more games. In Limited, you can draft non-stop online, try different draft archetypes, study the deck lists of big event winners, check MODO replays, and read countless articles on common draft pick orders–the learning opportunities are endless. Dedication can pay off, and when it does, its fruits are even more delicious. Coming second at Nationals in 2010 was the result of a few weeks’ intense preparation, and succeeding, in the end, was as sweet as it could ever be.

Community

There is another factor that keeps me going: the community itself.

The Magic community consists of several groups of players: some are more local, like in Montreal, in Quebec, or even across Canada. Then there is the global community: the one you meet at the Pro Tour and on popular websites and forums. What reinforces the community aspect for a lot of Magic players is meeting the same people at local tournaments–especially at the top tables-. And the tournaments last hours and hours, which give you plenty of time to socialize.

In any community, there is some form of hierarchy: there are status symbols allowing its members to evaluate somebody’s place. The symbols that are important in other communities are not necessarily relevant here. The standing of someone in the Magic community is usually determined by their skills and results, and not, like in other groups, by the price of their watch, the importance of the job they hold, or their general look and social class. People that play well are admired; the ones doing poorly are qualified as beginners, or sometimes, noobs. In that way the community can be more forgiving of people with few social skills, as their insight in the game is useful to their friends.

While playing the game you get the opportunity to meet somebody with whom you’ll have a social interaction. You are going to be adversaries, obviously, but you will also share the same love for the game. If your opponent plays well, he will gain your respect. If he makes countless mistakes, you are going to be left sighing, not quite enjoying your victory. Winning against an amateur is not very rewarding, or, even worse, resenting your loss as you feel you were entitled to win but could not get there for whatever reason. You get to meet people, and then you spend sometimes 10 hours in the same tournament with them, having a conversation here or there between rounds, instantly having something to say that is not mere small talk but that is about a passion you share. The sheer amount of time spent together, and sometimes the intensity of it, is ideal for bonding and can provide a good start for a friendship. In addition, if you get to be in a team, you can share insights about the metagame and its strategies, hoping to achieve that glorious honour of being the tournament winner–or even better, the long sought-after Pro Tour invite, the proof that you really are a member of the elite. Then your status is assured in your local community, and you have become one of its big fish.

Then you get to the big stage and feel that you have really reached the next level. Opponents are a lot tougher, usually the best in their countries. They are determined and full of willpower. You meet some new people, some at the peak of their game, and you make friends, enlarging your concept of the Magic community. Working towards these big events in a team can be very motivating, and you learn and get to know the best players of your area, this time, not as opponents, but instead as allies determined towards the same goal.

In the end, the beauty of the game, its complexity, the progress you can make while playing it, as well as the community–all these are sufficient reasons to love the game. The adrenaline rush that you get when the stakes are high and the super-techy out-of-the-box plays you can manage to pull at times are another big incentive and source of joy in a life that can, at times, lack in excitement and entertainment. True, the game can be utterly frustrating, and not winning for a while can lead you to question what you used to consider your cunning skills, but when you work hard towards cracking the metagame, and you get there, the success is so pleasant that all those hours spent focusing on this simple game seems suddenly worth it.

May your understanding of the game go through a revolutionary shift, and may you achieve a higher status in any community you get into.

Bonus: Innistrad Block Constructed thoughts

Here is a list of what was the most popular archetype on MODO pre-Dark Ascension, RU Delver.

This deck can be extremely brutal, playing a few one and two-drop creatures, enchanting them with cheap auras and then burning the opponent straight to the head. Delver and Noble are amongst the most exciting one-mana broken creatures and the deck can, if not impeded, kill in 4 turns. Some versions play with Furor of the Bitten, but in this version vagoster decided not to use them, preferring Blasphemous Act maindeck, which is a metagame call in response to all the aggro decks in the current metagame, with GW tokens and RW boros decks being quite popular and relatively cheap to build. Also, as the opponent may not suspect that you play the Act maindeck, you can steal a win or two on its back. Nice deck to play, with insane starts, but if you choose it brace yourself for a lot of mirror matches.

So what could be the new weapons that this archetype may acquire in Dark Ascension? Dungeon Geist, with its recent success at the Pro Tour Honolulu, could be considered. Spot removal on a creature body is usually quite solid, but without playing the Drogskol Captain to protect it, it does not seem half as good. It would increase the mana curve of a deck that intends to be brutal as early as possible. It does not seem to fit the archetype too much. It remains, however, a solid card and will probably be tried, at least in sideboards, in that archetype.

Torch Fiend could replace Ancient Grudge in the sideboard. It is able to deal with the annoying Witchbane Orb or the stalemate breaker Butcher’s Cleaver.

Wrack with Madness could be a sideboard bullet versus creatures with more than 3 of toughness, like the Havengul Lich, which has obviously a lot of potential and has combo written all over it.

Another trend with the deck is to add white for the above-the-curve, multi-format Legend Geist of Saint Traft. Here is a decklist from the same daily event :

Geist of Saint Traft is obviously broken with auras, and once Spectral Flight is on it, the beating is pretty hard to stop. Moment of Heroism and Urgent Exorcism seems cute, but do not really warrant the inclusion of white. Sudden Disappearance could also be an interesting side tech, dealing a deadly blow to decks relying on tokens, and allowing you to go for the kill despite an army of Spirits or Spiders. At 6 mana, though, it may be in fact too slow and may not fit the deck’s plan.

Dark Ascension has finally arrived on MODO and brings with it new toys. That will, undoubtedly, allow creative grinders to come up with new, and wacky, decks. I just cannot wait to see what will become the new tier 1 decks.

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