Little-known Mark fact: I completed the requirements for an education degree with the belief that I was going to become a teacher.
Why am I not a teacher today?
Little-known Mark fact #2: I detest the fact that some people refuse to be taught. When others refuse to learn from their mistakes or alter their frame of mind regarding any subject, my first inclination is to want to strangle them.
Does that explain why I’m not a teacher today?
There are two kinds of Magic players in the world.
1. Those who learn, are willing to learn, and continue to improve.
2. Those who refuse to learn, can’t be taught, and never get better.
Which one are you?
You’re reading this, so I’m assuming you fall under the first category. You probably want to get better, and I’m hopeful that you enjoy the process of digesting new information.
Then there’s the other person. You read this and think, "That’s not me," but your friends, opponents, and local shop know you as the player who detests advice, always thinks they made the right play, and constantly complains when things don’t go their way. You will never get better. You will always stare at the brick wall in front of you. You will never think outside the box because you’ll be too busy being pissed off at the box. The box didn’t do this to you—you did this to you.
Today I’m going to be your teacher.
This article is going to be my classroom.
You are going to be my student.
Raise your hand in the comment section if you have a question.
Lesson #1: Do Your Reading
If you read what I write, you know that I call perusing articles "doing your homework." At no other time in a virgin format is this more important, and you should be devouring every single thing you can.
SCG has been ridiculous in the last few weeks nailing down what decks are going to be good and pretty much laying it out for you before the tournaments even started.
- Brad Nelson called G/R being a force, and his build from the Pro Tour helped define what you saw at Grand Prix Louisville this past weekend.
- I called Master of Waves. The U/W build I posted had three big PT finishes, and the Mono-Blue and U/B Master decks I shared with various PT players turned out to be the real deal. Go figure, although their lists were much better than mine.
- Patrick Chapin developed a gorgeous B/W Midrange deck and wrote a fantastic article on it last week. He just missed out on Top 8 at the PT, and Paul Rietzl made Top 8 with it? Were you surprised when it almost won the last Open and put two copies in the Top 16?
- Todd Anderson wrote about how insane he thought Mono-Black Devotion was, saying it might be the best deck in the format. His work along with Brad Nelson and Brian Braun-Duin put all three of them in the Top 8 of Louisville, with BBD taking the victory home for SCG.
In the modern era of Magic, the last bulletin is freakish. That kind of dominance doesn’t just happen, and it’s a testament to what these three players can do. When they write, you have no excuse for not reading because it’s clear that what they are saying is going to be very, very important.
I don’t joke around when I say that I wait up every single night until midnight Eastern to read each article that I can. Being a student isn’t something that stops when you graduate high school, and it should extend into the multiple avenues of your life. Magic shouldn’t be excluded from those categories if it’s something you’re remotely serious about.
Lesson #2: Be A Good Audience
I love streaming.
I love my audience and love answering the questions of my chat. I love taking their suggestions, playing the decks they want to see, and doing my best to entertain everyone.
The stream is my classroom.
It’s a sad state of affairs though when some people do their best to be backseat drivers and constantly complain about each and every play you make regardless of if they are correct or not. That doesn’t really bother me, but it does mean that they fall under that earlier-mentioned category of people who refuse to see things a different way.
I like to sum up how I feel about streaming with a quote from one of my favorite movies, Kill Bill: "As your leader, I encourage you from time to time but always in a respectful manner to question my logic. If you’re unconvinced a particular plan of action I’ve chosen is the wisest, tell me so. But allow me to convince you. And I promise you right here and now no subject will ever be taboo."
If you’ve seen the rest of the movie, you probably know what she says afterward.
Being a good audience means allowing the person who you are investing your time in to play out a game of Magic and teach you how they win. Here’s an example from a game I streamed a few nights ago.
I was in game 2 at the start of my stream playing against B/W Midrange while I piloted Mono-Black Devotion. After a turn 1 Thoughtseize, I saw that my opponent’s hand was extremely light in the removal department while heavy in the threat density. Turn 3 saw me deploy the first of two Lifebane Zombies to the board, the first exiling an important Blood Baron of Vizkopa and the second hitting nothing. My hand had removal, so in my mind my best course of action was to turn my creatures sideways and start taking out chunks of his life, making sure he wouldn’t have time to possibly draw into another Blood Baron.
Several players in my chat thought my line of play was incorrect, but I did my best to explain to them why I felt it was right. Still, they argued that it was bad and that I was wrong for defending it. I won the game right on time by turn 7, just as I planned it to happen given that I had perfect information for four turns. I told them again that I played that way to avoid a topdecked Thoughtseize or removal spell and that it was what worked that game given that I also had double Mutavault to apply additional pressure. More complaining.
Do I always make the right play? Hell no.
Do I sometimes make the right play? You’d be surprised!
Streams are a great way to learn new things from other players and an even better tool for exploring different styles of play. I used to spend hours in Paul Cheon and Cedric Phillips‘ streams, and I did my best to develop an etiquette built on respecting the person who was taking time out of their day to educate and help me become a better player. I realized that I didn’t know everything. They’d make plays that I thought were poor at first, but then I’d see how the game unfolded in the wake of them. I came to understand that they were just playing at a level I didn’t fully understand and that if I kept my mouth shut and absorbed their knowledge that someday I would get it.
As an audience you must comprehend that it is immensely easier to watch and comment than it is to play, watch, comment, read, moderate, and entertain hundreds of people at a time. Being a good student sometimes means letting the teacher teach.
That being said, I believe AJ Sacher said it best on his stream. When a person commented that he was annoyed after a loss, AJ very calmly said, "Of course I am. Don’t forget that I’m also human." That sentiment sticks with me to this day. Yes, the person you are watching might get upset after a loss, but it stems from a lot of different things:
1. Losing sucks.
2. You just lost in front of hundreds of people.
3. Trolls will ridicule your loss in unison.
4. Mild embarrassment.
5. When you try to explain yourself, people just say, "Your attitude sucks."
These things aren’t helpful, so be an empathetic student. We can learn a lot from defeat, but kicking a person when they’re down shouldn’t make you feel better.
Do streamers always make the right choices? No. Would your play have been better? Sometimes yes!
I’m glad we got that out of the way. I feel blessed because I have such a tremendous audience and 99% of them are about as awesome as it gets.
Lesson #3: Group Work
I am a huge advocate of group work because I believe one of the best ways to get better is to become a part of a team. When you were in school, how much did you hate being put into groups?
If you’re anything like me, you were the guy who got stuck doing the lion’s share of work while the rest of your group slacked off and tried to leech off of your grade. That’s what makes Magic groups so awesome though—you get to pick the people that you work with!
If Pro Tours have taught you anything, it should be that a finely tuned team is the key to success. Surrounding yourself with likeminded people that have the same dedication to the game that you do is a fantastic way to learn different aspects of Magic as long as you all bring something different to the table. In any given group it’s a good idea to have people that not only get along but also challenge each other.
My group has very technical players, those that are always experimenting and trying new things, and those that give excellent observations on a game state. Each person brings a unique talent to our playtesting and allows our sessions to be productive and interesting. That’s what you want.
Lesson #4: Implement
Working well with others, learning from your teacher, and doing your homework are all well and good, but they mean very little unless you actually implement your lessons.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when people are given all the tools to succeed and do their best to ignore them, continuing down a path that usually leads to a brick wall and stagnant results. Doing all of these things—especially with a hobby—makes a lot of people uncomfortable. When you prioritize aspects of your game, it can make it feel like a job, and that’s the one thing that you should never view Magic as . . . unless you’re someone like me . . . then Magic is a job.
Putting all these lessons to use can make the game far more enjoyable for you if it’s something that you’re having trouble with. Often I’m asked how to become a better player, and while I don’t think I’m even close to the right person to be asking that question, I usually give the same answer to everyone:
Two simple words, but they speak volumes about what is necessary to get better at Magic. Results are only ever obtained through hard work and dedication, and those things don’t come from just hoping. When your thought process keeps leading you into a rut, it’s time to change things up. That’s why implementation is so important.
It won’t be easy, and I won’t lie to you—you won’t feel like yourself at first. As I’ve talked about before, I used to be a very volatile loser when I got beat. I was so entitled that I fell right into the category I used earlier of the person who refuses advice, gets angry, and believes they did everything right and were somehow screwed over. That needed to change.
When I made a mental effort to let that part of me go, it felt strange at first. That old anger would well up in my chest, and I’d struggle to say something as simple as good game. I wasn’t being even remotely true to myself, but the fact was myself sucked and needed to be fixed. Eventually the congratulations to my opponent became more sincere, and I genuinely wanted their opinion of where I went wrong. I started getting great feedback from the people that beat me and noticed their advice resonating in my future matches. I started getting better, and in doing so I realized how much time I wasted being stubborn.
The key is just doing it. Just being a better student.
. . .
. . .
. . .
This week I took a step back from Magic to reflect on where I’m at in my game. I streamed a bit, but for the most part I stayed away from my usual routine. No PTQ. No FNM. It was refreshing. Sometimes a little break can make all the difference.
I found myself still watching the coverage. To be remotely associated with the names that rose to the top of the GP Louisville rankings is an honor I can’t even describe. My heartfelt congratulations go out to Todd, Brad, and especially Brian.
For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure of talking to Brian, the guy you see in the Versus videos is the real deal—he’s really that pleasant and nice.
The night before GP Miami a few months back I was stuck in a quandary of what to play. I made a nonsensical Facebook update about feeling lost at around three in the morning. Sure enough, without fail, Good Guy BBD sent me a list that he’d been working on with some other SCG fellows. I didn’t even ask—he shipped it to me without hesitation, gave me the entire breakdown, and wished me good luck. Of course I did reasonably well with the deck, finishing just outside Top 64 because I scooped my opponent in as his chances were better than mine since he was paired down. With the list he gave me I could have done better—a lack of testing with it hurt me a little—but the point is that it was a selfless act on his part. I was so grateful.
Seeing him win a Grand Prix this past weekend was awesome. I haven’t even met Brian yet, but I was pulling for him the minute I saw his name in the Top 8, though I’d have been equally as happy to see Brad or Todd take it down.
It also ignited the passion that I’ve been lacking for a few months. All of a sudden not going to that PTQ seemed like a huge misplay. I could have gone. I could have won. I was thinking of skipping the Invitational in December. That’s no longer an option. I have to play. I want it. I want to hold one of those trophies so badly I can taste it. I’m sick of plaques. I want hardware.
His win signified the end of my time screwing around. I’d be lying if I said writing this wasn’t cathartic for me because it’s something I need to do as well. The teacher sometimes needs to sit back and become the student again.
It’s time to start implementing.
Catch ya on the flip-