So let’s reflect together on what we could do to improve as a Magic player. I will share with you deep and meaningful insights, as well as wild speculations, on what a player can work on if they want to succeed in the harsh and cruel environment that is competitive Magic. This meditation will as well help me to prepare for the next tournaments where I could get an invite for the big league, the coming World Magic Cup Qualifier and the Regional Pro Tour Qualifier. Forcing oneself to put in writing what are sometimes vague intuitions is a good way to clear the mind and see what is really important.
Disclaimer: This article is for competitive players or aspiring competitive players. If you are a casual and your main goal while playing Magic is to have a fun social experience (and not to win), please, I beg you, stop reading, turn off your computer, close the curtains and go back to your kitchen table and your cute Commander decks. However, if you get a rush when you win, and get angry at yourself when you punt, you could find something here that could help you to increase slightly your win percentage and at the same time your general happiness.
How can I become a better player? That is the question most wannabe Pro Tour aspirants are asking themselves and their friends. That is the question seasoned pros are wondering about when they feel they have reached stagnation. That is the question older players are pondering about late at night when they want to be competitive against the new, and at times brighter, generation of players.
How do you get an edge? First of all you need to be ready to spend time preparing for tournaments. The way you organize the time you spend playing and thinking about Magic will define if you will improve, or get worse or stay the same. A lot of players, after a period of growth, reach a point where they feel they have understood the game, and they stop improving. They then blame their losses on bad luck, variance, their busy timetable or even their difficult childhood. Do not be that guy. Be like a hungry wolf that is not totally happy as long as he does not win all the time.
Let’s say you have ten hours to prepare for a big event. You could play games online or in real life, read articles, brainstorm with friends, write down some notes and observations on the format, make a list of important cards to keep in mind, make practice Sealed decks, analyze games and discuss play, etc. Like any training, what you do in these ten hours could be more or less efficient. By choosing wisely, you could get better at a format faster than if you just randomly do what you feel like doing at the moment without any planning or clear direction. If you want to be good, efficient time management is an essential skill.
Which brings us to a reflection related to skills in general. Let’s say you could identify all the skills required to be a competitive Magic Player. Once this is done, you could find different exercises to train each skill set, becoming a better, more well-rounded player as well as developing your abilities in a more efficient manner. Like gym enthusiasts who train differently for each muscle they want to develop, Magic players could train differently for each skill needed to be excellent.
Let’s look at that question using a fun metaphor drawing on role-playing games. Like any old RPG, we could imagine that you have your own character sheet with numbers next to different characteristics. For example, if you are, let’s say, Brian Kibler, or his Swedish version, Joel Larsson, we could say that your charisma is 18, which, according to old Advanced D&D, is very high. How could charisma translate into an advantage at a tournament? Maybe your opponents are more likely to allow you to take back some moves, or even remind you of your triggers or share with you his post-game analysis. They could get jealous or intimidated by your good looks, or feel an inferiority complex, which in turn affects their gameplay. What I am saying is not necessary to work on your charisma, which obviously could help you a lot, but to adopt a mindset derivative of RPG when you look at what you could do to improve. Work deliberately on some of the skills required to be a good Magic player and your win percentage will never be the same.
The question now is: what are the skills required to be a great player? Logical reasoning is one, as well as lateral thinking, which is thinking out of the box, bluffing, mind gaming, psychological sensitivity, endurance, knowledge of a format, knowledge of match-ups, creativity in deck building and sideboard strategy, memory, will to win and probably countless others.
We could, theoretically, rank the players according to these different attributes. Some attributes concern (1) core abilities, and others are about (2) learned knowledge. You may have some dispositions that may make you more of a natural, but it is through hard work that most successful players manage to win. So instead of mindlessly playing non-stop a format to prepare, we could ask ourselves “What can I do to get additional points for some of my Magic skills?” Let’s look at some of these skills together.
Core Abilities Developed through Experimentation
Logical reasoning: This is the most basic and important skill. Most games are won on good technical plays. In that sense, Magic is like a puzzle where you have to determine the best way to fit the pieces together. Your analytical capacity has to be as sharp as possible, and in that sense, Magic is very similar to chess.
For example, do you understand complicated board states? Do you sometimes miss a kill on the board? Can you figure out how your opponent will most likely block? Can you know who will win the race (who has the fastest clock) if you keep on attacking your opponent? Are you the beatdown, meaning, according to this famous theory from Mike Flores, that you are the player who wants to kill as fast as he can? Or are you not the beatdown, meaning you want to block and trade your creatures and play for the long game? Should you overcommit to the board or should you play around mass removal? Should you, for example, play a Forest or a Mountain first turn, considering that you have creatures casting two green or two red in your deck? Can you make an educated guess, according to how the opponent is playing, about what he has in his hand? At last, should I mulligan this hand and why not?
All these questions are important and you can get better at answering them through practice, reading Magic theory, listening to podcasts and post-game analysis. Playing Magic Online while sharing your screen with a friend or an audience can also be a great and fun way to improve, as you have to justify your plays and it forces you to have clear reasons explaining what you are doing.
Lateral thinking: Can you use cards in a way that was not intended at first? Seeing the solid technical play is one thing, but some games are won on plays that are weird and unexpected. Too many players, after a period of growth and learning, start to play on auto-pilot in which they make the usual good and solid play. The problem is that, once in a while, in a given and very specific situation, an out of ordinary play would give you a massive advantage. Are your eyes OPEN to that possibility? Do you always play in a more or less predictable and correct way? When you read a spoiler, or look at a decklist, ask yourself, what play is unusual but possible with these cards?
Here are a few examples of lateral thinking: you Thoughtseize yourself to grow your Tarmogoyf to go for lethal. You play Act of Treason to untap a creature under Claustrophobia so you can block next turn. Or you play Act of Treason to give haste to a creature you just played. You could also play Bile Blight on your own Sylvan Caryatid to remove two Caryatids of your opponent. These plays are not common, but when they occur they can give you an additional victory and it could mean the difference between top 8 or top 16.
Think about Stratus Walk: What could you do with it?
At first glance, it is an aura-cantrip that gives flying to one of your creatures and as a drawback limits its capacity to block. However, it can be used effectively on the opponent’s creatures so they cannot block your ground guys. You could also use it with Aerial Volley to kill an annoying ground critter.
Memory: A good memory and attention to details is also very important. You have to know all the rules and the tricky stuff. You obviously need to remember your triggers (like Slaughter Pact) and can use mnemonic tricks like putting a dice on your deck so you do not forget upkeep, like for Aether Vial. While drafting, remembering the content of the packs which can also give you information about what people are drafting and what the guy to your left should be playing. Also, you may notice some cards that you should play around later. When you play Limited, it is useful to remember the spot removals and the combat tricks you saw, so you can play around if needed game 2 and 3. Memory can also help you to keep in mind draft pick order of each color and archetype early in the season, helping you drafting higher quality cards and better decks, relying on the wisdom and experience of better players like Frank Karsten or LSV.
Your memory is as well very important when you play Constructed. You should know the content of each major archetype as well as their typical sideboard plans. When the opponent has mana up, you should know what instants they could be holding, so you do not walk into a trap. So, my advice to you: do not forget, memory is important.
Psychological insight: It is the capacity to read the opponent, to perceive tells, patterns and signs of emotions like nervousness, fear or confidence. You obviously have to be careful with better players, as they are good at dissimulating or even simulating some emotions and will not be like an open book. This brings me to a somewhat related skill, drawing on psychological insight, which I will call mind gaming.
Mind gaming: Mind games are an integral part of Magic and separates it from chess, where everything you need to know is pretty much on the board. You play the cards, but you can also play your opponent. How far you go in that aspect of the game is up to you, but rest assured that some players are taking that part of the game very seriously. Obviously there is a line not to cross where it could be considered unsportsmanlike conduct, but there is still a lot you could do. Here are some common tactics to keep in mind.
From the time you sit down in front of your opponent, an information war begins. You should try to get as much information as you can and give almost none, or misleading ones. They may even show you some of their cards when they are shuffling their decks. Asking questions about their previous matches and small talk can give you a clearer idea who and what you are dealing with. Be very critical though, some players will also act in a way that their opponent could underestimate or overestimate them. For example, they act slightly stupider than usual and you may be tempted not to play as tight as you should against them. Some local Montreal grinders, when they draft, always complain that their decks are really bad when in fact they tend to win very often.
Some will even go further and use some light emotional manipulation. They try to induce the opponent to think a certain way about you by making themselves intentionally feel micro-emotions that they are not really feeling. For example, you just drew exactly what you wanted, your only out, but you let yourself feel for half a second a tinge of disappointment. Your opponent can believe you unwillingly gave some information before your manage to get back to your poker face, and he may act on it, going for the alpha strike when you have, in reality, the removal needed. Or again, you are dead on board if the opponent attacks with all their creatures but you show confidence and contained joy, glancing “discretely” at the non-existent rule-text of your basic land. You could also let go a sigh when the opponent casts a creature that does not really bother you. What could be construed as slight emotional manipulation is considered by many to be acceptable in the context of a competitive Magic match. After all, deceiving your opponent and pushing them towards the wrong play is an integral part of the competition.
Other tactics that are more controversial and morally questionable are about making your opponent forget their triggers or abilities by distracting them or even acting in a way that may push them towards, like they call it in poker, tilt. Or ask them trick questions so they get confused and mess up.
For example, during Canadian Nationals in 2010, where I managed to finish second, one of my only losses was against a local grinder that beat me in a way that pushed me to pay more attention to mind games. We were playing a very tense and close match of Limited Magic 2011 on Day 2. At some points, smiling triumphantly, beaming with joy and confidence, he slammed, literally, Mind Control, starting from way up high, picking up speed on the way down and BANG! on my creature. I was taken aback, stunned, feeling crushed inside and I muttered, almost inaudibly, okay. Then I went to my draw step, suddenly realising that I had a Bloodthrone Vampire in play, a sacrifice outlet. I had been outplayed, not on the board, but in my MIND. The showmanship, the loud bang, the fact that I was destabilized, all that was impressive. I lost the match but learnt a valuable lesson and I would, at some points, use similar tactics to steal victories.
Creativity: Being creative allows you to innovate and brew. You can tune decks or come up with interesting or surprising SB plans. It is especially useful when a new set enters standard or when there is a big rotation. If you can harness the power of your imagination and let it run wild, you could even break the metagame!
Social skills: Being sociable and having good manners can make your tournament experience more enjoyable, as you can relax with like-minded people in between rounds. Be nice to your opponents, especially the ones in your community as it could pay off later with them sharing secret techs and support. Being a decent human being helps, or at least adopting that persona. This skill will help you to get lifts to far-away tournaments and you will find people more than willing to lend you cards. As well, if you can communicate really well, who knows, you could become a popular streamer on twitch.com and have crowds of fanboys and fangirls listening to your every word.
Time management: Playing technically well is important, but you have to keep your eyes on the clock to make sure you do not get into unwanted draws. Do not hesitate to warn your opponent if he plays too slow and explain that a draw would hurt both of you when it is the case. Some players have the infamous reputation for being slow, make sure you insist that they play at a good pace early on.
If you are in a losing position, should you give up right now? Well, it depends of many factors, including the time left on the clock. If you are not pressured by time, get as much information as you can on the content of their decks, without giving too much in return. If you have one out, play for it if the time allows it. Your opponent can still punt and miracles do happen.
Also, make sure you are ready to start the match at the beginning of the clock. Make mulligan decisions before the round starts can save you a few minutes. Cut time off where you can by learning to shuffle efficiently and quickly. Do not wasting time on obvious moves. When you get the pairing, find your seat first so you can choose the best seat where you can see the clock and feel comfy. If you finish a round early, don’t waste too much time chatting if you need to get some food, as keeping your energy level up is fundamental during long tournaments. Have food already on you in case you cannot manage to get some, like nuts and fruits. You can also use your contacts to get you some healthy food.
Use the time between rounds to prepare yourself mentally for the next round. Avoid people that are too hyper or that can annoy you. You do not have to be social if you do not want to be. Know in general your sideboard plans in advance, especially for Constructed, but also for Limited. For Sealed tournaments, bring plenty of sleeves and sleeve already what you could side in, even if it is a totally different deck (for example, side in a very aggro deck with a lot of 2 and 3 drops versus a deck that has high-end bombs.)
Learning to use your time more efficiently is an essential skill and can easily increase your win percentage.
Knowledge Developed through Studying
At last, let’s talk very briefly about how you could increase your knowledge of the game. I divided this section in two categories, Limited and Constructed. Reading and thinking about the game can help you to progress in your understanding and you start to see patterns that can apply in general, across formats. Playing, reading, watching videos and listening to quality podcasts as well as discussing between spikes help in both formats.
Limited: You need to understand the importance of your mana curve so you can curve out. You need to be able to read signals when you draft and know about pick orders of uncommons and commons as well as common archetypes found in many formats. You should know the importance of removal and bombs, how to build a solid mana base, how many mana sources do you need to support a splash and what kind of cards you can splash. Also, what are the sweet combos that you can draft (like Shockmaw Dragon and Coat with Venom)?
Constructed: You should know some fundamental theory, like what are aggro, control, combo, aggro-control or combo control decks. Keep in mind the importance of card advantage and what are the most powerful cards of the format, the main archetypes and their strengths and weaknesses. What is the expected metagame for your next tournament, what decks are well-positioned and which ones are not, what cards and strategies are unplayable and why? As with anything, proper study will help you pass the test, the test being the Magic arena, where hopes and dreams are crushed or fulfilled.
There would be a lot more to say about the fundamental notions of these two formats, but I will let the reader for the time being ponder about it and do his own research. I will come back to it in a future article. To summarize, to become a better Magic player, you have to develop aptitudes that will make you a better human being. Pay attention to details if you think you deserve to win. Have the ability to work on yourself and the humility to see your flaws. Just do it!