At the Gathering – Eighteen Tips

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Wednesday, June 10th – The topic of this week’s article: Eighteen tips to follow to make you a better Magic player. Eighteen little things that I have done to improve my game, and which can probably improve your game, whatever level you are at.

As some of you may know, I started playing Magic way back in the days of Ice Age. However, I stopped playing after about a year, because of rampant thievery in my local area that caused almost all of the game stores in town to go out of business. The only surviving store didn’t allow Magic to be played in the building. With these restrictions in place, I moved on to D&D, happily being a role-player for 10 years. From there, I added on D&D Minis, to satiate my competitive urge. I played a large amount of Board games, even playing in a Formula De league (If you’ve never played Formula De, you are incomplete. Find a copy and up to 9 friends, and run a few races. It is fantastic.) [Agreed — Craig]

The kicker is, this whole time, I scoffed at Magic players, laughing at their simplistic card game and exorbitant expenditures. Keep in mind, when I left the game, the entire rules set was in a small booklet with the starter decks. Of course, I was blissfully ignorant of my own exorbitant expenditures on $40 books and $15 D&D Minis booster packs.

Enter 2005, and in the back of a Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine, there was a call for Wizards of the Coast volunteers to join a local representative program. I submitted, having excellent recommendations from my game store owner, and a vast knowledge of every Wizards of the Coast product… Except of course, Magic: the Gathering. Sure, I knew the quick and dirty parts: play land, cast spells. Seems pretty simple. After I was accepted to the program, I had to learn how to teach new players every game Wizards of the Coast makes, including Magic. So, with some product by my side, I read a few Scrye Magazines (forgive me, I knew not of SCG at the time) and I started teaching new players. In the interest of retention, I started hosting weekly tournaments at the comic shop, getting both old and new players into the game. I picked up some cards here and there from the program, and started playing with them.

I was doing okay, going 2-2 or 3-1, beating a lot of players, and losing to a few consistently. It was after working the Learn-to-Play area at Worlds 2007 in New York City that I decided to really devote myself to playing Magic better. Since then, I’ve top-16’d 2 PTQ’s, top-16’d States, and went 6-3 at a Grand Prix. Not the best performances, but obvious improvement from a starting point of nowhere.

Which brings us to the topic of this week’s article: Eighteen tips to follow to make you a better Magic player. Eighteen little things that I have done to improve my game, and which can probably improve your game, whatever level you are at.

1 – Do it. Play. Yes, actually playing the game will make you better. Not only will you gain experience, but you gain pattern recognition. Play two decks against each other once, and you’ve learned a little bit. Play the same matchup 100 times, and you will have a strong understanding of how the duel plays out each time, what cards are key, and what you need to do from each end to be victorious.

2 – Read as much and as often as you can. If you’re reading this, you are at a very good starting point. Every piece written about Magic has some value to it. Even if it’s just one sentence hidden amongst a stream of horrible garbage, then you have gained. So search out as much content as you can, and read it all.

3 – Keep a journal or notebook handy at all times so you can jot down all of your brilliant ideas. Yes, a lot of your ideas will be crap anyway. But there will also be some that are valid. When Cascade was announced, I made a mental note to see if I could use it as a tutor with careful deck construction. I tried it out in Limited, running the three mana cascade cards into only 4 Terminates and 2 Crystallizations. Guaranteed removal when cast. I then promptly forgot about it, because I forgot to write it down. I’m not saying I would have discovered Cascade Swans had I written it down, but I never had the chance to find out because I forgot my notebook. I’ve made more than a few personal tweaks to existing decks based on having a notebook around, and randomly thinking of some card that works well in my meta-game, and then writing it down.

4 – Be observant. The people and activities that surround you will provide you with great knowledge. Is Ben trading for 2 Reveillarks two tables down? Probably going to have to put Snakeform back into my sideboard. James is unloading his Broodmate Dragons? I would bet he’s done playing Nassif 5CC for a while. On top of that, actively scouting and watching matches will make you better. If Jon has a new deck, watching how it wins as he demolishes his first round opponent means you won’t be caught off guard in the third round when you have to play him. Finally, paying attention allows you to analyze the metagame around you, from external sources. Knowing about Cascade Swans from Barcelona allows you to be prepared for it if any of your local players comes to battle with it.
5 – Invest. I hear a lament from many players who don’t win about how “this is just a hobby” and “I don’t really spend money on my hobby.” I understand that, but most hobbies usually require some sort of monetary investment. Hunters don’t get to point at an Elk and say “Man, if I had the money for a gun, that Elk would be soooo dead.” Similarly, Magic players don’t get to make excuses for not winning because they don’t have certain cards. Invest wisely (including buying singles you need instead of cracking packs and praying) and you will find it’s actually a rather minimal investment. Once you get running, you can continue to maintain your quality collection for very little upkeep (pun intended).

6 – Comprehensive Rules: Learn the rules and then learn how to break them, figuratively. Many players don’t understand the rules, and don’t grasp the best ways to wield them to their advantage. Even those that do still make rules mistakes. For instance, at Regionals this year, I attacked my Mutavault pumped by Glorious Anthem into my opponent. He blocked with Qasali Pridemage, then immediately sacrificed him to destroy the enchantment. After combat, he looked at me and said, “I did something wrong there, didn’t I?” Of course, he should have waited to stack damage. There are quite a few areas of your game that can be solidified by merely learning the rules.

7 – Stop procrastinating. Turn off the TV, tune out the rest of the world, sit down, and play. Too many players are distracted by too many wasteful activities, and procrastinate actually playing. I’m guilty of this one too, often choosing to read the paper or do a Sudoku puzzle instead of doing a little testing or deck building. Sure, some activities are important (I wouldn’t trade wrestling with my kids for playtesting) but you also have to remember that becoming a better Magic player requires some time for testing. Get a group, get a time, and get playing.

8 – Read works by highly successful players to learn what works and why. One major hurdle I see other players encounter is not bothering to understand the why behind a deck. They shuffle up 60 cards, and then go about playing them perfectly wrong. I’ve seen Five-Color Control players run Cruel Ultimatum directly into counters, not knowing when the right time to try and resolve it is. I’ve seen players piloting Faeries play Mistbind Clique during their own main phase, because they didn’t understand its utility as a Time Walk. These are extreme examples, but not necessarily rare ones. Learn not only what is good, but how and why it is good. Understand the game, don’t copy a deck-list blindly.

9 – Join a play group (live or virtual) so you can gain support from the community and enjoy camaraderie in your craft. It is very important to be able to enjoy playing Magic. Sure, winning is fun, especially for the spikes in the audience, but even Spike enjoys having people to visit with in between wins. No one likes to sit alone, even if it is with a large collection of FNM foils and a handful of pro points. Look at every Pro Tour, and you see players testing in teams. Information sharing aside, there’s also the benefit of having fun. Things like the Hawaii beach house, Pro Tour Basketball and Futbol matches, and suiting up are all made possible because of the personal relationships developed playing Magic. Because, after all, it is a game, and you should have fun.

10 – Create a space in your home especially for Magic. Once you develop an area in your home (or room) just for Magic, even if it’s a small corner, you’ll find yourself taking the game more seriously, devoting the time you need. Furthermore, it’s easier to escape distraction and interruption if you have a devoted area in which you can focus on Magic.

11 – Play-test everything at least three separate sessions before taking it to a serious battle. This is probably one of the harder rules to follow, as it’s difficult to come up with enough time to play-test everything three times before going to battle. However, I consider your friendly FNM as casual, not serious competition. For some of you, FNM May be your serious battles, but I think the majority of the readers will consider things like Regionals, States, Grand Prix and 5Ks to be serious battles. This makes it a bit easier to accomplish. The overall goal here is to make sure that you go into your duels armed with a deck that will give you a chance to win. Some days, you feel like you could win with the seven of spades and a draw two from Uno in your hand. But not that day may not be the day you are actually playing competitively, and you want to give yourself every edge you can to win. Playing a deck you know, and that you know to be competent, is key to that edge.

12 – Play every single day. This is a very basic tenet. You have Magic skills, of some variety. In order to keep those skills sharp, and develop new skills, you must consistently use them. The best way to accomplish this is to play every day, even if it’s just a little bit. It will keep your mind sharp, and allow you to at least keep the skills you have developed. Besides, practice makes perfect, or so I’ve been told by every coach in every competitive endeavor I’ve ever participated in.

13 – Start a journal. Yes, this sounds weird, and a little bit like an after school special for teenage girls, but it’s helpful. Keeping a journal allows you a few key advantages. One, it functions as another, longer lasting notebook for your brilliant ideas, but also allows you to remember and learn from history. Write down a card you saw work well at one time, and you have a record of it, allowing you to re-innovate it later, when the meta-game turns back towards it. Allow me to quote from Patrick Chapin: “What to do? Manuel B came up with the same answer he has twice before. Plumeveil. Plumeveil is a pet card of his that he likes to ‘innovate’ every couple of months.” Keeping a journal will allow you to remember what has worked in the past, and learn from that.

14 – Subscribe to the top websites on the Internet. Read them, participate, and enjoy! Obviously, Craig would love it if every Magic player had a Premium Subscription. While that’s obviously a good idea, This is a melding of point 8 and point 9. Do what the best do, and have a group of close friends to play with. But also become at least somewhat active within the websites wherein the best players are. Join the forums here and at least become familiar with the discussions. Ask questions when you need to, and become a known entity within the forums.

15 – Use play-testing and criticism to improve your skills, increase your talent, and explore different styles and techniques. The biggest word to take out of this tip is criticism. Accept criticism, learn from it, and make the changes you need to improve. Too many players either cannot or will not receive criticism, and that is a very fatal flaw. Too many players hold on to terrible pet decks, continue making play mistakes, and in general make poor decisions. In and of itself, this is fine. However, if you hold on to a terrible pet deck, realize you have no logical reason to expect to win in any sort of competitive environment.

16 – Allow yourself to play poorly, design poorly, and make mistakes. You learn best from failure, not success. The key here is to learn. You will learn best when you fail, as now you have a hurdle to overcome. I played for about 4 months, dominating my local scene, and I didn’t grow as a player at all during that time. I became complacent and sedentary, and only upon being beaten did I give myself a Saito Slap, batten down the hatches and then continued improving. However, far too many players make bad excuses for losing or failing and do not learn from it. Do not be these people. If you do not learn from failing, then you are just a failure.

17 – Make it your business to understand Magic. Magic cards have value, and it should be a priority of yours to ensure that you are aware of that. Far too many players trade away good cards before they know they will be good, simply because of ignorance. Know the value of your collection, and do not trade it away frivolously. Furthermore, Magic tournaments have prizes, and if you want to obtain those prizes, you will need to play better than almost all of the other players there. I pay my $3 every week for FNM, and walk out with 3 packs, typically. That’s a good business deal, from my perspective. Extrapolate those numbers out, and I am paying $36 for a box of Magic boosters. I don’t know any Magic player who wouldn’t want that deal every day of the week.

18 – Play, play, play, and then play some more. Forget everything else and just play.

Until next time, this is Jeff Phillips, reminding you: Don’t make the Loser Choice.