10 Ways to Get Better at Magic (in the key of Inquest Magazine)

Not a true story: One time a guy was watching another guy play. The dude playing was a Hollywood producer and liked the look of the observer, so he cast him in a bunch of commercials and everyone made millions, except the guy’s twin brother, who thought he was too good at Magic to watch other people, and was possibly getting high.

What does this have to do with becoming better at Magic? Enquiring minds want to know!

Hallo Freunde, it’s been a while since I rapped at ya. Magic’s taken a back seat to Real Life for a while. It’s still not the tip-top priority, but with San Diego qualifiers coming up, now seemed as good as time as any to dust this off and say”ado.” So without further ado:

10 Ways to Get Better at Magic (in the key of Inquest Magazine)

#10 Study and Grow Strong

What it means: There is a wealth of data on the internet. Articles are constantly being published that contain the next killer deck. There might be something released tomorrow that can raise your understanding of the game to near-omniscient levels. Whatever knowledge you’re looking for, it’s probably out there and ripe for ingestion.

Why it’s #10: Well those omniscience-inducing articles may be out there, but 90% of what’s published is, at best, utter crap. You try to apply everything you read, you going to be mighty confused. There’s contradictory stuff, confusing stuff, not to mention what’s incoherent and what’s just plain wrong. There is lots of useful info out there (cough, cough), but take everything with a big grain of salt. If you read something you like, Try It Out, and then decide if it’s worthy.

#9 Have Good Players Watch You

What it means: Pretty simple. Find a player (or players) that constantly win and have them watch you play. If it’s a tournament, talk to them about why you won or lost, and if it’s a practice game, have them stop the action when you make a move they don’t agree with. Listen to what they say.

Why it’s #9: Like #10, a lot of the info a better player gives you can be faulty or irrelevant. Context is also important. For example, if a player observing you indicated a mistake based on information you didn’t know (“that guy doesn’t run Wing Shards, so you should have attacked there”) it’s not exactly a mistake.

Furthermore, it’s pretty hard to get a quality player to sit down and watch and stay focused on you, not to mention being communicative after. This technique can certainly help a player, but a lot of factors have to come into play for this to be consistently useful.

#8 Learn From Losses

What is means: Lose to mana screw a lot? Maybe you should play more lands. Keep poor hands? Learn to mulligan. Simply outplayed? What can you do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

Why it’s #8: Some people blame all their losses on luck and some never do. The truth is somewhere in between. Sometimes you lose on turn 15, but the reason why you lost occurred on turn 2. The best advice for this one is to look for trends, like bluffing too much, or color screwed a lot. This, plus the similarity to #1, plus it’s hard to be critical and objective right after a loss, keeps this at 8.

#7 Build Decks

What it means: Build Constructed decks. 5Color, Type 2, Extended, it’s all good. Not necessarily even real decks. Deck lists, apprentice lists, just get some ideas from your head into reality. If building lists is not your thing, tweak something popular. Manipulate numbers, change a color, add a card, whatever.

True Story: The first Psychatog decklist, for MN states, was written on a napkin in a Denny’s after a Nebraska PTQ.

Why it’s #7: First the good stuff. Figuring out mana ratios is gigantic part of being a strong Limited player. Build enough decks and mana balance will become second nature, especially if you play what you build often enough. Statistically speaking, if you build enough decks, you’ll stumble onto something good and fun someday.

However, strictly speaking, decklists alone won’t do much for you. In reality, writing up decklists at random locales is a good way to keep your mind on the game when you’re not involved in something else more important (see #2). It is helpful enough, and it is certainly fun to win with a personal creation, but building decks to improve is basically a way to enhance what you learn with other techniques. It’s lack of independent appeal keeps it at #7.

#6 Stay Focused A.K.A. Don’t Get Cocky in Your Moment of Victory A.K.A. Hubris

What it means: In Magic there are two kinds of plays, the correct ones and the mistakes. While it’s true sometimes you don’t know which is which until after a game, often you do. And people will never play worse then when they think they’re going to win.

It’s uncanny really. People are a little land-shy and their opponents start forgetting to attack, making weak plays, even mana burning! It makes a guy almost want to purposefully forget a land drop just to get an easier match.

True Story: I was playing an Ice Age/Alliances sealed PTQ once upon a time. I had been dominating this fellow all throughout game 2, after humiliating him game 1. At the end of (what I believe to be) his last turn, he has one guy out to my five. He’s at two life and he attacks! Well, since I have the game so far in hand, I’ll just block it with everything. I really can’t comprehend my thought process at the time, something along the lines of”Why can’t he just concede? For deigning to attack me, I will utterly destroy his creature!” or something similarly inane. So I block with everything, he casts V-e-n-o-m-o-u-s B-r-e-a-t-h (Look it up) and crushes my arrogance, and then me. The story has a happy ending, as I win game 3. But I mean, come on! There should not have been a game 3 at all.

I think the reason this occurs so often is that people do win often enough against a mana screwed opponent, despite playing bad, to reinforce their arrogance. But do it once too often and you’ll get a painful loss at the worst possible time. So here’s how it works. You play exactly as well and as ruthlessly at all stages of the game. Your opponent is mana screwed, why give him time to recover? If you’d play hard when there was an active opponent, surely you can do the same when he or she is floundering.

Why it’s #6: Maybe it should be higher and maybe it should be lower. Perhaps I’m not giving my audience enough credit. If so, I apologize. But I’ve seen this a lot, and people do lose games because of it. If it’s a hole, plug it.

#5 Learn the Rules

What it means: I’ve got authors I like and topics I enjoy, but the two articles I read every time they’re released is Saturday School and Ask the Judge. Magic is a complex game, and those rules interactions can get pretty hairy. Knowing what you’re doing, and perhaps more importantly, what your opponent is doing is critical to good play. In fact, for those sincerely interested in getting better, as well those who want to give back to the community, I would recommend becoming a certified judge. You should also pick up the relevant points in the DCI Floor Rules. Many items in there are relevant for the average tourney goer. It’s good stuff.

Probably a true story: Someone once lost a qualifier because they didn’t know the rules.

Definitely a true story: Terry Borer lost thousands of dollars because he didn’t know the rules.

Why it’s #5: It’s really more supplementary than the essence of getting better, but it is critical if you plan on hitting the tourney scene. Knowing the rules and being terrible at Magic won’t get you anywhere, but there certainly should be no reason to lose a game other than being outplayed or poor luck. Besides, sometimes reading those technical articles gives you ideas for new decks!

#4 Observe Good Players

What it means: There’s only so far you can go by yourself. To achieve maximum improvement, you need other players, preferably good ones. Watching these skilled players may give you insights and ideas that you simply could not have discovered on your own. Try to follow along behind a player, watching their hand and plays. If they do something unexpected, try to figure out why. After the game, talk to him or her and ask them about it. Most people will share their thought processes, especially if you admit ignorance and curiosity.

Not a true story: One time a guy was watching another guy play. The dude playing was a Hollywood producer and liked the look of the observer, so he cast him in a bunch of commercials and everyone made millions, except the guy’s twin brother, who thought he was too good at Magic to watch other people, and was possibly getting high.

Why it’s #4: There’s a gigantic amount of potential benefit here. Watching a strong player can give someone different ideas about cards, as well as brand new ways of looking at a situation. Furthermore, you get to see these ideas in an actual game setting, as opposed to general abstract theory one reads about.

You don’t have to be passive here. If you see something interesting, ask him or her about it (after a game!). Most people will talk after a match, especially if he or she won.

The quality of this instruction is directly proportionate to the quality of both players. This means that at a Pro Tour or Grand Prix, the potential for gain is way higher than at a local PTQ or FNM. I would sincerely recommend, if you are interested in reaching the next level, to attend a Grand Prix or Pro Tour sometimes. Watching those feature matches can be extremely enlightening.

#3 Despise Losing

What is means: Every loss is an opportunity, learn and get better, blah blah blah. Why do you want to get better? So you can lose less. Why do you want to lose less? Because you hate losing.

Now I admit I’ve been known to take this idea a bit too far. In my life, I’ve occasionally been more than a touch annoyed at certain defeats. Perhaps. So I’m not suggesting an obsession (see #2). But you need to genuinely feel something unpleasant when you take a loss. It’s conditioning, pure and simple, and it works.

Why it’s #3: I guess I could say”love winning” here and it’d be the same net result. However, suggesting someone enjoy a win isn’t exactly insightful. I firmly believe there needs to be a primal response to the tension of a game. Get a visceral reaction and get those synapses firing. Everything before this on the list is intellectually based, which has its flaws. Number’s 3-1 are a tad more deep seated.

#2 Balance

What it means: Not the card, although playing it will certainly cause you to win more. It simply means doing non-Magic stuff sometimes, hanging with non-Magical people sometimes, and so on. Again, perhaps I insult my readership, but I don’t think so. I’ve certainly been on the wrong end of doing too much of one thing, and I have to assume some people reading this are too. I’m not being protective here, you can do whatever you want with your time. But I will say with a little balance in your life, you’ll play better. Not playtesting as often to hit the gym, or spend time with your girl (or boy) will simply give you a happier, more productive time at the tournament. A little balance goes along way. Believe it or not, a happier player is a better player. If you do lose (horror!), you’ve got something else to fall back on.

Why it’s #2: Well #1 will always have my heart for making a person better at Magic, but this one is pretty solid nonetheless. A tactic to make a better player and a happier person gets the silver medal today.

#1 Play

What it is: Play! Play Play Play Play Play Play Play. You want to get better at Magic? Play Magic! Not just Extended during Extended season, but Extended during any season. Or Standard. Or pack war. Or a 5c Melee game. If you only play Constructed, crack a sealed. If you’re only found surrounded by seven other guys, make a happy-fun elf deck or something. Magic is a deep game, but if you play enough, a lot of scenarios start looking familiar. It doesn’t take too many screw-ups with any card to get better at it. You’ll also start intuiting situations and reading opponents and all kinds of useful tournament skills. There’s simply no other way to learn these skills then to just, well, you know. [Play? – Knut]

Why it’s #1: I think my reasoning was pretty clear in the preceding paragraph, but I’ll try to break it down. Everything else on this list depends on you actually getting out there and shuffling cards against an opponent. Strategy articles give you a lot, but only through constant interaction can you get down the texture of the game, how things play out. If that’s too vague, well, all I can recommend is playing until it makes sense.

By the by, if anyone has any other tips to become a better player, I urge you to leave a message in the forums. Good luck!

Questions, comments I can be reached at:

[email protected]

Noastic on MODO

P.S. I’ll be at GP Oakland next week if anyone wants to say hi. And of course, a report detailing the fun of another sealed deck.