Arcane Teachings – Three Ways to Think Faster

The majority of the time you spend playing Magic is occupied by thought. Tom, in his first strategy article for StarCityGames.com, shows us three ways to think faster inside the game, and explains why doing that will make you play better and win more often.

The majority of the time you spend while you play Magic is spent thinking. Tournament Magic is played on a clock, so a serious player has a strong incentive to learn how to think efficiently. This may mean that he can think about the same amount of things in less time so that he can avoid unintentionally drawing; it may also mean that he spends the same amount of time but gets to think about more things. Magic is overwhelmingly complex, and any given game can challenge you in ways you don’t expect. When you encounter a strange situation, you may need to spend some time to figure out how to handle it correctly. Thinking quickly will allow you to play quickly in situations that aren’t strange, which gives you the time that you will need to handle really tricky situations.

1. Think ahead.

A large category of decisions in any given game of Magic can be anticipated and dealt with before they come up. When you make these decisions before a tournament starts, you gain time that you can spend on the decisions you can’t anticipate.

In Limited, thinking ahead means knowing your card evaluations. You should know the best commons in each color, what uncommons and rares should force you into a color, and how to adjust your picks once you’re committed to certain archetypes. You should also know what good commons are opened together, and what to do when you see those groups of cards. An unprepared player might open a first pack with no standout uncommons or rares and spend his full minute deciding between Mulldrifter and Silvergill Douser. A prepared player in the same spot will just take the one he likes more, and spend that minute figuring out what cards his neighbors will take and what cards are likely to come back, which are things that the unprepared player doesn’t get to think about. When your card evaluations are rock solid, you’ll be able to make your draft choices quickly and have time to think about more complicated issues.

In Constructed, you choose all of the seventy-five cards you play with, so you have no excuse if you don’t do a lot of thinking ahead. Before you go to a tournament that you intend on winning, you should already have the answers to all of the following questions. Do you know how to play against every deck in the format? Do you know what hands you should keep? Do you know how to adjust your hand keeping criteria against different decks? Do you know exactly how to sideboard against every deck? Any time spent thinking about these questions is time that could have been spent thinking about something that came up during the game.

You should also have the answers to any common questions that your deck can pose to you. If you are playing Goblins in legacy, you need to know which of Goblin Lackey, Mogg Fanatic, or Aether Vial you should play on turn 1 against each opponent. If you are playing Pickles in Time Spiral Block Constructed, you should know when to play a morph on turn 3 and when to hold back, and which morphs to play first. If you are playing only a small number of counterspells, you should know what spells you should counter with them. Time spent thinking about these kinds of issues inside a game is wasted, since you should have known that they were going to come up.

As a side note, one very quick way to tell how much of a threat a player is to you is to watch how quickly and how smoothly they play. If they play quickly without appearing stressed, they’re probably good. If they play slowly in situations that you know are common, then they haven’t practiced. If you have other reasons to take them seriously then you probably should, but if they have to think about too many of their plays then it’s likely that they will eventually make some errors. Very few players can play flawlessly for long if they have to constantly make decisions on the fly.

2. Think generally.

Magic is an extremely complex game that does not lend itself well to calculation. When I say calculation, what I mean is thinking through plays step-by-step as opposed to thinking in general strategic terms. The amount of hidden information in Magic is huge, since you can’t know what’s in their hand, let alone in their deck; furthermore, each player draws a new card every turn. Increasing the amount of lands and cards available to each player exponentially increases the amount of available options. The effect of all of this is that the information you base decisions on can change very rapidly, so calculation is often a waste of time. Thinking in general terms as much as possible will help you spend your thinking time well.

Experienced players internalize mental shortcuts that allow them to play quickly but accurately without calculating. These shortcuts are developed over years of play, but you can cheat by copying them from other players who have been around the block even if you haven’t. For example, when playing a Red deck in Constructed, you should almost always kill an opposing first turn Birds of Paradise if you can. Also, it’s correct to trade creatures in Limited when you want to slow the game down, unless trading would simplify the board in a way that would speed up your opponent’s attack. These unsupported platitudes have good reasoning behind them, but a seasoned player is able to execute on them without having to go through the reasoning while an inexperienced player spends more time to get to the same conclusion. Learning shortcuts that are based on general principles will keep you from wasting time thinking about the same things over and over again.

Even if you have internalized general principles, you can get bogged down in a situation that you don’t understand and feel like you have to calculate to figure out what is going on. When this happens to me, I mentally step back from the problem and try to understand the big picture of the game. What is going on right in the game at this moment? How do I need to change that to turn the game to my favor? What is my long-term plan? Identifying my long-term strategic goals almost always directs me to the correct play much faster than calculation would.

This is not to say that you should never calculate. However, you really want to calculate only when you know you actually have to or you are unlikely to get any new information. For example, you shouldn’t try to go off with a storm combination deck if you don’t know exactly what will happen that turn before you start. You also shouldn’t send your creatures on an attack into a complicated board before you know exactly what your opponent’s potential blocks do. Long-term calculation should only happen when the state of the game is unlikely to change significantly over the time horizon of the calculation. For example, if you and your opponent are near empty-handed in a Limited game that has degenerated into a race situation, it makes sense to spend a good few minutes thinking about how to make sure you win that race. If you each have five cards in hand, it makes a lot less sense because things are probably going to change enough in a turn that most of that calculating time was wasted.

3. Think at the right time.

Another way to save time is to think at the right time. The best time to think may be your opponent’s turn, since it doesn’t cost you any of your own time. This is a great time to think about the big picture. Where is the game going? What needs to happen for you to win? What needs to happen for your opponent to win? What is your plan? If you need to draw something to win, then what are you going to do if you draw that thing? Knowing the answers to these questions going into your turn will save you time once you actually draw your card and need to decide on specific plays.

A very bad time to think is before you have all the information that relates to your decision that you could have. If you have some creatures and you don’t know which of two creatures in your hand you want to play this turn, just attack first. Your opponent might block in a way you don’t expect or play a trick that will clarify your decision. Similarly, if you have a Ponder in your hand and you have plenty of mana, you should just cast the Ponder before you do any other kinds of pondering. You’ll see new cards that will inform all the thinking you do after that. Time spent thinking before doing something that gives you more information can be wasted, which we want to avoid.

Think fast to think deeper.

The real goal behind striving to play quickly is to make time for the really hard decisions. Your opponents are presumably doing as much thinking as you are, and they’re going to present you with all kinds of problems that are going to be much harder than the questions that your deck will ask of you. Sometimes, situations will get so complex that you can’t possibly have anticipated them, and when that happens you aren’t going to need to do some thinking. If you can quickly move through most situations, you’ll have the time you need to give the truly interesting decisions the time they deserve. If no such situations come up in a particular game, playing quickly will still help make sure that you don’t get stuck with unintentional draws. Either way, it will make you win more often.

Thinking efficiently will save you time in matches. Thinking ahead gives you a large class of decisions that you don’t have to think about at all inside a match, thinking in general terms helps you come to conclusions faster than you could by calculating, and thinking at the right time makes sure that you don’t waste mental effort. The time that you save can let you spend time thinking about complex situations that you can’t think your way out of quickly, or it could make the difference between a draw and a win. Improving your technical play can be difficult, but adjusting your non-technical play is fairly painless in comparison and can make a big difference in your results.

Happy fishing,

Tom LaPille