I’ve recently been struggling with what to write about. With Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty’s release I’ve been greatly enjoying the Limited format, but with starting a new job I’ve had less time to play Constructed. With the majority of competitive Magic being played online nowadays I’ve moved away from Constructed in favor of playing more Limited in paper. I personally don’t enjoy playing Magic events from my apartment and don’t have the ability to travel from Los Angeles to the East Coast SCG Con events (fingers crossed for Dallas though).
However, with the most recent organized play announcement my competitive spark was reignited. In only three months’ time local qualifier events will be back with a clear path to the Pro Tour. With this newfound spark I thought about what to write about next. With the new tournament system coming soon I knew I wanted to write about Magic theory.
After scrolling Magic Twitter I came across this simple question:
While there isn’t a guide set in stone about how to get better at Magic, there are a lot of general principles to follow that can help. After scrolling through the replies I started to think of the five best lessons that I learned that shaped me into the player I am today. Looking back, there’s no way high school Roman who had just learned what the Pro Tour was would’ve ever thought I’d get to where I am today in this game. It’s been one wild ride so far, and while I still have a lot to learn here are my five ways to get better Magic.
1. Positivity Goes a Long Way
I know that sounds a bit vague but, hear me out. One of the best things you can do as a competitive player and member of your local or regional community is to be a beacon of positivity. I’m not saying you always have to be a beaming ray of sunshine 24/7 but keeping a positive mindset and professional manner will benefit you in multiple ways.
When I first moved to Los Angeles in the Summer of 2018 I knew zero Magic players. I didn’t have a car and I made my way to various PPTQ events by taking Ubers or public transportation. I remember at one event in particular I talked to a player I had seen at a few events, Justin Porchas. Justin seemed like a cool guy and I forget how it happened, but we realized we knew some mutual competitive players that I traveled with back when I was living in NYC. At that PPTQ I ended up getting knocked out in the last round, missing my opportunity to make top 8. While I was frustrated with the end result, Justin offered me a ride to the PPTQ in Anaheim the next day.
Funny enough, I won that PPTQ. I remember getting up and immediately hugging Justin after the final match. That event led me to meet the majority of my close LA Magic friends. Honestly being friendly to people and having an upbeat attitude can really go a long way. While I’ve never been the most extroverted person I’ve still found it possible to make friends through Magic no matter where I end up.
Positivity can also help better your tournament mindset. For example, if you have a negative outlook on an event you’re more likely to focus on your mistakes and annoyances rather than the things that really matter. No one likes to lost to mana screw. But rather than focus on what’s completely out of your control try and think about the things that you could’ve done better. Trust me, none of your friends are interested in hearing your bad beat story about how you missed your third land drop. What they might be more interested in talking to you about, however, are things like if you sequenced correctly, kept the right hand, or made the right sideboard decisions. Having a positive learning-focused mindset instead of a negative mindset that focuses on the things out of your control will greatly benefit your Magic tournament playing experience.
Lastly, positivity can help you manifest your goals. One of my favorite pieces of Mike Flores advice from “How to Win a PTQ” is about squashing the idea that you should be content making top 8. If your goal is to top 8 a tournament, you’re going to top 16. If your goal is to top 4, you’ll top 8, and so on and so forth. You have to put your focus on the next steps after the tournament. If you can visualize the reality in which you win a Regional Qualifier and qualify for the Pro Tour, you’re going to have a much easier winning a qualifier event than someone who’s goal is just to top 8 their local event and call it a day.
At the end of the day positivity goes a long way. Keeping upbeat and being cordial will present yourself as a distinguished member of the community and help manifest your ultimate goals. There are a lot of nice people in the community and also a lot of really good players. Some of my favorite players in this community are both, and I’ve found that me improving at this game has coincided with my goal to be like them.
2. Play with People Better than You
While I attribute my Limited success at MTG Las Vegas to spending a good chunk of the pandemic drafting on Arena I really blossomed as a Limited player during my time in New York City. During my time in college I spent a lot of my time drafting at my LGS or as a part of the NYC Team Draft League – NYC’s premier group of Limited players. I played against the likes of Andrew Longo (GP Providence Team Limited Champion) and other players who had qualified for the Pro Tour solely off of Limited. During the team drafts we did, our teammates wouldn’t be able to give us help during the game. This put a lot of pressure on me to support my teammates and pull my weight. I sometimes received an earful from Longo if I had played poorly or drafted a subpar deck, but he would always give me tips on how to improve my game. Just having someone watch my matches gave me so much more insight than if I had been playing alone.
Furthermore, when I got really into playing Modern Boros Burn at events, my sensei Mike Flores would make sure to point out any mistakes I’d make in my matches. In one in particular I cast a Lava Spike on turn one on the play in game one. Flores shook his head after I walked away from that match without a match slip in my hands. “I just KNEW he was on Death’s Shadow.” I never cast a Spike on the blind turn one, game one after that match.
Playing with players better than you is one of the best things you can do to jumpstart your Magic career. Better players will see lines more easily than you.
When it comes to Limited especially, veteran players can see patterns in cards that are similar to their predecessors. One of my favorite things to do during spoiler season for new sets is watch Michael Jacob’s (Darkest_Mage on Twitch) ratings stream. Every set he gives an initial rating for how good each individual card might be in Sealed. Due to his mastery of Sealed and Limited in general, he’s able to shortcut faster than the average player when comparing new cards to past iterations. As someone who only has been playing high level Limited the last few years or so it’s incredibly helpful to get an early perspective on a set from someone with so many years of experience under their belt.
While better players won’t always have the one up on you, the majority of the time they’ll be seeing things you wouldn’t even be thinking about. With how accessible Magic is these days it’s probably a good idea to have that one good friend you know watch some of your MTGA or MTGO matches over Discord. One thing I will say is be proactive when asking questions, even if you think they’re dumb ones. Asking questions, getting feedback, and observing better players than you will help you tighten your skill set.
3. Keep up with Your Mental and Physical Health
This is something I’ve talked about before in previous articles, but it will always hold true no matter if you’re a paper or online player. Magic is an incredibly mentally and physically draining game, especially if you’re playing in multiple day events you have to travel to. It’s not only important to keep up your general mental and physical health, but to make sure you’re getting the energy you need during events.
We’ve all been at an event where we’ve only had barely a snack and a few sips of water to last us for a whole day. Simple things like not drinking enough water or eating enough throughout the day can take a serious toll on your performance. Seriously, what’s the point of traveling for hours and spending $50+ on a tournament buy-in if you’re going to throw away your performance to dehydration and hunger.
In regards to mental health, it’s always key to check in with your mental health from time to time. There have been multiple times in my career where I’ve been on a losing streak. At times I’d see some of my best friends win a qualification to the next Pro Tour while I’d come up short. As someone aiming to make a big finish at an event this killed me. I focused too much at times on trying to reach a goal without paying attention to what really mattered: how I was going to achieve it. Know when to take a break and re-assess your situation if you’re not achieving the goals you want. It’s sometimes much better to take a few weeks off from playing to avoid burn out than forcing yourself to keep playing a game that’s giving you frustration.
Magic, especially competitive Magic, is a tricky world of results-oriented thinking. Even if you are improving as a player, it’s sometimes hard to focus on your successes when other players are reaching greater heights. Everyone’s journey is different. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself but also keep yourself honest with your goals and training.
4. Know the Basics
It’s sometimes hard for me to believe, but one dinner with Mike Flores at Outback Steakhouse changed my life. I don’t know how we got on the topic of this conversation (something to do with the poor quality of food we ordered) but Flores was baffled to learn that I had never read some of the most classic Magic theory articles. Sure, I had heard of “Who’s the Beatdown,” but I had never even heard of “The Philosophy of Fire” “How to Win a PTQ” or X. Studying these articles led to my eventual win at SCG Regionals in early 2017 which inevitably launched the Ancestral Recall podcast.
No matter if you’re a veteran or brand new to the game, there’s something to be gained from Magic’s rich history and over 25 years of strategy content. Magic as a game has evolved tremendously from its inception back in 1993, but simple heuristics that originated back in the 90’s are still very relevant to today. One of the first things I recommend to players who ask how to improve at Limited is to read “Who’s the Beatdown.” While this article is common knowledge amongst seasoned players, some of the most educational Magic content pieces have been lost in the new era of streaming. I can’t tell you how many times I win matches at my draft FNM to players just making a simple bad attack or block – games that would be much closer if they hadn’t made this obvious error. Knowing your role in a given matchup is crucial to understanding when to make some of the most important attacks and blocks of the game.
Who’s the Beatdown is just one of many important Magic lessons that helped me and so many other players level up. It’s not just big overarching lessons but smaller ones too that can help you improve. Things like always sideboarding just to psych your opponent out, when to pick a certain card in a draft based on your deck’s identity, when to be on the draw, how to sequence your lands in a given Constructed format – the list goes on and on and on. It can definitely be a little daunting, especially if you’re newer to the game and your only exposure to Magic is via Arena. It definitely takes some time, but one of the best ways you can get better at Magic is understanding some of the most basic theory principles of the game.
Not sure where to start? Try this.
5. No one Ever Plays a Perfect Game of Magic
While I’d like to believe I play 100% correctly in all of my matches, this is far from the truth. Being the humans that we are, we are prone to making constant (sometimes embarrassing) mistakes. Magic is a game filled with intricate decision making. Even the best players at the peak of their careers make mistakes. Magic isn’t always about playing the best possible game you can, but rather making less mistakes than your opponent.
I recently won a chaos draft at my local store, piloting a four-color Green-based pile of good cards. During game three of the finals against a Boros aggro deck I had a really interesting interaction come up. My opponent had shown me Lucky Offering in game two, and in game three I played a Mirrorshell Crab. On my opponent’s turn he quickly tapped a Plains, thought for a second, and then untapped. “Does he have Lucky Offering?” I thought to myself.
Later in the game when we were on a board stall I had a Burdened Aerialist in play and a Treasure token. Our board states were pretty stalled, and I was chipping away in the air with a Chillbringer. I had two turns to sacrifice my Treasure for no value to chip in three damage with my Aerialist before my opponent decided to pull the trigger and Lucky Offering the token on his turn.
I couldn’t have imagined making a worse mistake. I lost game one of that match to my opponent overcrowding the board and going wide with cards like Heroes of the Revel. In game three I needed to be the beatdown with my flying creatures in order to kill my opponent before they could assemble a combination of cards to go over the top of my board. Missing three damage with Aerialist was a pretty awful mistake. It luckily didn’t cost me the game, but I would’ve been kicking myself if I had lost the game with my opponent at three life.
Regardless if you win or lose a match of Magic it’s always important to take your mistakes into account. In that example I could’ve easily lost the game to that mistake. I remember my friends sitting next to me teasing me when all I could think about was my punts rather than being happy I had won the match. From watching players better than me and thinking about my own journey on improving at this game it’s hard to ignore when I make a mistake.
There have been so many times I’ve been angry or frustrated with the result of the match and blamed it on luck or a bad matchup. In reality I wasn’t taking into consideration the mistakes I had made in the match, or other outlying factors such as deck choice or my mental and physical health. Talking about your mistakes isn’t about beating yourself up, but there’s a balance to be struck between patting yourself on the back when you play well and focusing on what you did incorrectly regardless of the match result.
There are many ways you can go about getting better at Magic. At the end of the day, Magic is a tough game. Everyone experiences growth in their own way and not everyone’s path will be the same. While it took me years of struggling and gradually getting better, I’m finally at a place where I feel at more confident with my play and role as a community member.
When thinking about what you should do to improve I find it best to take a step back from it all and think critically about what your strengths and weaknesses are. Take things one step at a time and as long as you’re consistent I’m sure you’ll reach the goals you’re looking to reach.
Here’s to the future.