Blog Fanatic: Seven Ways to Become a Better Player

Today’s column is advice to those of you who are looking to improve your game and become better players. I’d like to think it’s good advice. I’ve played the game for over a decade now, and I’ve come to learn many a lesson in my time. Some were learned early on, and some have come to me with age and maturity. What’s my motivation for passing on these pieces of advice? I’d like to make a positive difference in people’s lives, and I wholeheartedly stand behind the seven tips I’m about to post as ways to improve both your game and yourselves. Without further ado, here are my seven tips to become a better player.

“Charles Manson wants to be free. Tech doesn’t want anything. Tech is to be distilled in basements and stored in sun-proof bottles and traded for diamonds, missiles, and real estate. Tech is to be guarded for months, and then unleashed upon scores of hapless players in a scourge like a biochemical bomb. If tech was free, it wouldn’t damn well be tech. And tournament Magic wouldn’t be nearly as intense.”

Aaron Forsythe,”Good Beats: Players and Writers at GP Boston

Hello everyone! I hope you had a great weekend – mine was spent shuttling back and forth between Charlottesville (to see They Might Be Giants in concert – they rocked as always!), Baltimore (for Henry’s bachelor party – Henry is our Store Manager), and Roanoke (where I helped Pete work on the new shopping cart). I’ve read the responses to my last articles regarding players who play to play versus players who play to win, and the responses on both sides of the fence were terrific! Thank you to everyone who has participated in this discussion so far. Because of the overwhelming response, both on the forums and through my e-mail, I will be revisiting this topic and making some observations and clarifications in a column later this week.

The quote on the top comes from Aaron Forsythe, during his pre-Wizards R&D days as a top pro player. In essence, he’s saying that good advice, really good advice, doesn’t come for free. Many players have a vested interest in keeping their best decks under wraps until after they have been played in tournaments. Why should Kai Budde – just to pull a name out of a hat – post the contents of his current Champions of Kamigawa legal Extended deck before Pro Tour: Columbus? He risks considerable financial gains both for himself and his teammates by posting his best deck in an article before the Pro Tour. Would he write about the same deck after the Pro Tour? Sure, and he would probably have a great insight into the deck – but by then, it’s too late – the deck is already public.

There are a few reasons why players will discuss tech openly. Some players do not have good test groups, so openly posting decklists allows them to bring the community into playtesting. Other players have an insatiable need to feed their egos and feel the need to”prove” to themselves that they are more in the know than the other players. A small handful of players intentionally post bad decklists and advice to make life easier for themselves – note that these players are quickly weeded out of the community as they are easily spotted. There are other reasons as well, but these are the major motivations for open tech discussion.

Advice, on the other hand, comes more freely. Mentoring comes easily to some, as it’s a way to pass the knowledge of the past onto the generation of the future. Unlike tech, which is a look into the unknown, advice is a lesson of yesterday. Today’s column is advice to those of you who are looking to improve your game and become better players. I’d like to think it’s good advice. I’ve played the game for over a decade now, and I’ve come to learn many a lesson in my time. Some were learned early on, and some have come to me with age and maturity. What’s my motivation for passing on these pieces of advice? I’d like to make a positive difference in people’s lives, and I wholeheartedly stand behind the seven tips I’m about to post as ways to improve both your game and yourselves. Without further ado, here are my seven tips to become a better player.

Tip #1: Play against people who are better at Magic than you.

Time and time again I’ve seen players who are king of the hill in their local playgroups get demolished when they make the leap into a larger pond. It happened to me when I moved from New Orleans to New York! I went from being the best player in the city to low man on the totem pole in an environment featuring several to-be Pro Tour winners. Repeatedly being beaten by the likes of Steve and Dan O’Mahoney-Schwartz, Jon Finkel, Hashim Bello, Dave Bachmann, Eric Phillips, Matt Wang, Cary Newburger, Ross Scarfani, and other good players, allowed me to learn the game. We discussed what worked and what didn’t work. We gave each other advice. As I brought my game up to the next level, it forced the other players to strengthen their games. Depending on the season, sometimes I was better than some of the above players, and sometimes they were better than me – but that constant drive to improve kept the level of play rising instead of falling.

Tip #2: Don’t be afraid to ask for advice.

When you’re practicing, it’s a perfect time to ask for advice. Have one of your friends watch your play from over your shoulder, and have them take notes about your play. Ask your opponents how you could have played the game differently. Write down notes while playing.

I have a couple of techniques that really helped players learn to draft better at Tulane. Some new players would do a couple of drafts and fare poorly. They’d say that they were confused and didn’t know what to pick. I’d run them through one of the following two drills:

The face up draft: We’d get together the better players of the group, and run a four-to-six-man booster draft, except with the packs face up. We’d go around the table one at a time and explain our picks. This would give the newer player an idea of why certain cards were being picked by players, and how colors were being cut off. The entire draft would be displayed in this manner, and it usually helped the newer player to understand the mechanics of drafting.

The write down draft: Each player would sit at the table, and write down the contents of their first pack. The draft would proceed in order. At the beginning of the second pack, each player wrote down their packs again. This continued for the third pack, until all the cards had been drafted. Each player then displayed their decks, and explained why they had drafted in that fashion. After explanations, the packs were returned to normal, and the draft was re-run face up, in identical fashion, except with explanations with every pick of how the newer player could have drafted differently to influence the cards around him. This method would allow the player to see how their picks had long-term ramifications for the draft through signaling and pack strength. It would also show him when he was valuing certain cards too highly or lightly.

For those who are the better players in your playgroup, please don’t shut out newer players because they are worse than you. It only serves to discourage people from the game, and you never know who has the drive and talent to become the next best player in the woods. Work with them, and it nurtures your entire Magic community and personal playgroup.

Tip #3: Be a good winner and a better loser.

Attitude matters. Nobody likes to play with somebody who has a bad attitude. If you lose, don’t be a sore loser. Suck up the loss and learn from it. Everybody gets mana screwed or flooded and has a bad match or day. You are not privileged over other players. It’s okay to be upset after a loss, but keep it to yourself. Don’t take it out on the people around you – they will take note of this and begin to shun you. You will lose friends, and nobody can play Magic with just themselves.

I once traveled with my friend Joel Tempas to Grand Prix: Austin. We did a practice two on two Invasion block draft the first night there, and we lost because Joel made some obvious mistakes in both of his matches. After he lost his second match, I angrily pointed out his mistakes to him. Someone came by (it might have been Tony Tsai) and said to me,”Ben, it might be better if you weren’t, you know, yelling at your teammate.” I apologized to Joel, but he didn’t feel like drafting with me the rest of the weekend. What I should have done was pulled him aside and calmly explained to him his mistakes. Nobody likes to be yelled at or talked down to, and it only served to alienate a friend and teammate.

Towards the end of my days at Neutral Ground, there was one Pro Player who was known for having a horrible temper. Even in casual games, he would get angry and yell when people made mistakes or beat him. Many players quickly learned to avoid him. This player had a lot of natural talent, but his status as virtual pariah kept him from bringing his game to the next level – people simply refused to practice with him, because he would lose his temper something fierce over having to mulligan in practice games!

Tip #4: Practice, then practice again, then practice some more.

Jon Finkel and I sat down to play with some new decks. He was running Blue/White control, and I was testing a weird Red/Green/Blue contraption. The format was Type 2, back around 1995 or 1996. I had Erhnam Djinn, Deadly Insects, Sylvan Library, Lightning Bolt, Incinerate, Fellwar Stones, Arcane Denial, Diminishing Returns, Earthquake, and the appropriate lands for the deck. I beat Jon seven games in a row. The first few were absolute trouncings. The next few were closer. After the seventh game, Jon looked at me and said,”Okay, I have it now.” I proceeded to lose the next ten in a row, and I hung up the deck for good. What was the difference between the first seven and the last ten games? Practice.

At first, Jon didn’t know which spells in my deck to counter. He held onto his Counterspells until he was low on life, opting to go for the”only counter what is going to kill you” strategy. He allowed me to resolve Erhnam Djinns, but I would have Arcane Denials to keep the Djinn on the board versus Swords to Plowshares. He figured the Diminishing Returns helped us both, but I would empty my hand with burn and refill it with seven new cards each time. Slowly, Jon learned which spells in my deck were the real threats, and which he could safely ignore. Once he began stopping my Diminishing Returns, started countering my creatures, and bided him time until he hit a Zuran Orb to deal with my burn, I had no chance. It was through repetition again and again that he figured out how to play his deck against mine.

The same practice and repetition applies to Magic today. Don’t just pick up a decklist you see online, practice with it. Build two decks, and have your friend play one of them. Play dozens of games. Switch decks. Get a feel for how the decks play on the other side. Learn which cards give you the biggest problems, which can be ignored, and which cards are your biggest threats. Build a sideboard that is relevant to fill the weaknesses of your deck.

If you’re building a deck from scratch, play it against the best established decks in the field. Figure out why it wins when it wins, and why it loses when it loses. Know your deck so well that no situations will surprise you once you bring the deck to a tournament. Know in advance how you’re going to sideboard, and know what variations exist in your opponent’s decks.

If you’re playing draft, practice even more! If you buy boxes to crack for singles, draft those boxes instead – that way you’re getting double use out of the packs. If you win packs in a tournament, draft with those packs. Get friends together to draft. If you’re out of packs, either get more packs or make your own. Learn the entire set through repetition. Even if you don’t memorize a pack run, you’ll be able to recognize them after you’ve drafted dozens of times. Learn which cards work for each color and strategy and which don’t. Experiment with new cards, so that you know how to play with and against them. Learn which color combinations work and which don’t – and if some only work part of the time, learn what cards lead to a winning configuration. Play a ton of Magic Online.

There is no such thing as practicing too much. This works on any level in life, whether you’re a Magic player, a piano concerto, or a sports athlete – practice and repetition allow you to hone your skills past those of your competitors. Every little edge counts in competition.

Tip #5: Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Everybody has a deck or a strategy that they really love. I was a huge fan of my Deathlace deck, which later morphed into my Zur’s Weirding deck. Word came out of Pro Tour One that the LA build of the Necropotence deck was the breakout deck of the tournament. The first public Pro Tour Qualifier was scheduled a few weeks after PT1 at Neutral Ground. I knew my Weirding deck inside and out, and had modest successes with the deck. However, Brian David-Marshal really sold me on the power of the Necro deck, and I was willing to give up a pet deck to test a deck which supposedly had more raw power. The new deck was a million times better than my old one, and after weeks of practice I rode the deck to victory at the PTQ.

Jon Finkel loved playing control decks. His pet color was Blue, and he refused to play anything other than Counterspell-based control decks. Sean Fleischman and I had built an amazing version of Prosp-Bloom for Pro Tour: Paris, which we playtested for weeks. Though Sean and I were not qualified, we had nearly a dozen players who were going overseas to play. We taught all of them to play the deck, and these players flew over with identical builds of the deck. Sean and I found out that only John Chinnok finished well at PT: Paris, so we felt badly that we had let down the team. As it turned out, Jon Finkel had talked literally every player into playing a”Finkel” deck – one that featured heavy Blue control elements – the night before the tournament. Only Happy John Chinnok had stuck with Prosp-Bloom, as he was the only player willing to deviate from the norm (control to combo) of the time. Only Happy John had a good finish at that tournament.

My friend Eric Lewandowski loved playing Stasis decks. He won several tournaments in Baton Rouge with Stasis, but could not translate the success to New Orleans once he began attending Tulane. The deck was well past its prime, but Eric insisted on playing his pet deck. When Urza’s Saga was released, Eric spearheaded an attempt to build a Howling Mine/Tolarian Academy Stasis deck. It was after much convincing and reluctance that he began playing a more traditional Academy deck. He had much more success with the new deck (capable of second and third turn kills) than his old standby.

If you see a new deck that you like, be it online or at your local shop, build it and practice with it – always be open to trying something new. This doesn’t mean you should change your well-tested deck the night before a tournament – calling that sort of audible is always a bad idea. It does mean that you should be open to new developments in tech as they become available, and you should keep an open mind when approaching new decks – let the decks prove themselves good or bad to you.

Tip #6: You can beat anybody.

Nobody wins 100% of the time in Magic. Some players are better than others, but nobody is invincible. Regardless of who is playing any given deck, the cards will show up in the same way. It could be you or it could be Kai Budde – fate and randomness make no allowances for your given name. Magic games often are decided by the player who makes the fewest number of mistakes. Tighten your game, and never play scared.

Jon Becker has a great example of this in his article, Tomfidence. From his article:

“Maybe one of the best lessons I got in this regard was from fellow Tongo Nation member and Pro Tour: Paris champ Mike Long. I was at my first Pro Tour and it was on the Boat – the first Rochester Draft Pro Tour ever. I had what would retrospectively turn out to have been a brutal table, including Preston Poulter, Rob Dougherty, Scott Johns, and at least two fringe pros (though this was Rob’s first Pro Tour as well).

Second round I had to play Scott, who was about as big a name as there was at the time – he was on Pacific Coast Legends, our rival team, and was very intimidating because of his pedigree. There had been maybe a dozen pro tours, and he had won PT: Dallas while making the Top 8 something like four other times. Looking at the pairings, I said”S**t. Scott f***ing Johns. Nice.” Mike asked me what the problem was, and I told him.

He said,”Look, you play me all the time, right?”


“And how often do you win?”


“Right, regularly. And are you scared to play me?”

“No, not really.”

“Do you think Scott is better than me?”


“Well then, what is the problem?”

He was right. I played and I was still a little intimidated. But thinking about the situation in the way Mike described it really helped my confidence a lot. These days, whenever I might feel a little intimidated (which by this point is almost never), I just ask myself,”Is this guy better than Mike was?” and the problem usually takes care of itself from there.

That is, of course, a rather unique experience. Most people don’t have that sort of confidence builder to work from, but trust me, we are almost all terrible, there are always a lot of people at a given event more terrible than you, and you are probably better than you think (relative to your competition). If you play someone better than you – the fringe pro, the local star or whomever – what do you have to lose? If you win, you just took down a Big Player, which will certainly give you a boost. If you lose, you will almost inevitably learn something, and regardless of what happens, you have to buckle down and focus on winning your next match.”

You might not have a Mike Long or Jon Finkel or Kai Budde in your area to play against, but chances are you’re living near somebody who has Pro experience. This tip ties into tip #1 (Play against people who are better at Magic than you) – playing with those players will keep you from feeling intimidated against players who have more skill than you. Just remember, they got to that skill level through practice and talent. If you have the drive and determination, chances are you can become a better player than anyone else in your area.

I’ve seen people give up countless times at Friday Night Magic or early rounds of Pro Tour Qualifiers in our area when they are faced with a player of a higher skill level. The worse of the two players plays scared, and almost always ends up throwing away a match they had every right to win, because they are belittling their own skill. Play your best regardless of your opponent, and it will work wonders for your game.

Tip #7: Play to Win!

My good friend Whitney Saunders was one of the regular drafters at Tulane University. He wasn’t quite Pro caliber, but he could hold his own in any given draft. However, he hit a hump in his improvement that was quite frustrated him.”Ben, I just don’t seem to be getting any better,” he said, downcast at his perceived shortcoming.”Whitney, I know exactly why you’re not playing well,” I replied.”You’re not playing to win.” He looked at me like I was crazy.”What are you talking about? I’m always trying to win!” He seemed hurt by my accusation.”No, I don’t mean you aren’t trying to win. I mean you aren’t playing to win.””What do you mean?””Let me explain.”

I set up the board.”Okay Whitney, imagine this. You’re playing Green/Blue and you have Pendrell Drake and Pouncing Jaguar on the board. You’re at ten life. Your opponent has Vigilant Drake and Cave Tiger and is at twelve life. Your hand is Symbiosis and Acridian. It’s your turn, and your opponent is tapped out. How do you play this hand?”

Whitney thought for a second.”I’d cast the Acridian and let my opponent attack into my creatures on his turn – then I’d cast Symbiosis and clear the board.” I shook my head no.”See, that’s not playing to win – that’s playing not to lose. You’re behind on life, so you’re playing not to die instead of playing to beat your opponent. Let’s say that you hold everything back – your opponent could have some sort of bounce or larger creature they could drop next turn and you’d have no chance of winning. If you attack now, though, you’re at the advantage. You either hit him for four, and have your Acridian to block – or you kill at least one of his blocking creatures and get through for four. Best case scenario – your opponent blocks with both and now you’ve got three creatures on the board to his none. Either way, you’re racing him on damage, and making him play defense instead of offense.” Whitney’s eyes lit up.

Playing to win is the biggest obstacle facing the newer player. The newer player wants to get off their combos, or show off their decks – I had one player in a recent Magic Online draft who did not Terror my Fangren Pathcutter for several turns, while I sat back getting beaten by his flyers. With the life totals fourteen to two in his favor, I cast Cranial Plating. For fun, he cast Condescend, tapping himself out – the only way he would be able to Condescend, as we had near equal mana. I let the Condescend resolve, and then dropped Arcbound Ravager, which gave me just enough power (thanks to several sacrificed artifacts) to come in for the win with trample damage. Had my opponent held back his mana or cast Terror instead of trying to showboat, he would have easily won – but instead he was playing to show off instead of playing to win, and it cost him the game.

Against another opponent, I took an early lead. However, he came back strong with Tyrranax and Tangle Golem. I stood on eleven life, and he was at four. My board consisted of Vulshok Morningstar, a one-power creature equipped by said Morningstar, and a pair of two-power, two-toughness creatures.

My opponent untapped, and swung with both of his creatures. I faced a dilemma. I had watched his previous match on Magic Online, and had not seen any pump spells. In addition, he had not cast a pump spell in our first or second games. The safe play would be to block the Tangle Golem with two of my creatures, and take Tyrranax. I would still be able to equip the remaining two-power creature with the Morningstar and attack for the win – unless he killed the creature, killed the Morningstar, or dropped a blocker. In addition, if he had a pump spell, he would be able to wreck my blockers and put my board into an unwinnable position. I mulled my options, and figured the best choice was to take the ten, and risk going to one life. If my opponent had a creature pumping spell, I would lose my whole team and still be facing down the same creatures. If he did not have the pump spell, I would be at one life, but he would be facing down seven points of damage against an empty board with only two cards in hand.

Since blocking would lead to a losing board position, I decided to play to win. My opponent couldn’t believe I was letting the damage through! His hand – Deconstruct to kill the Morningstar, but he had no way of dealing with the rest of the creatures, and was forced to scoop his cards.

Conversely, my opponent was also playing to win! He knew that his swing would be near lethal, and that he was well behind in the damage race. I had shown him several removal spells from my deck in the first couple of games, and so he knew he needed to win quickly. He figured his best bet was to bring in his entire team, which would force me to block. It was a bluff, but one based on principals of winning – he knew that he could not win a long game, and that all I needed was a single extra creature to hit the board and he would be in a position where he needed to top deck a creature or die. With both of his guys coming in, I’d need to double block one (losing two of my guys) which would allow him toe Deconstruct the Morningstar safely (he had Darksteel Ingot as the second card in his hand).

I hope that these tips were helpful to everyone, and I hope that you use them to improve your game and to become better players! See you all on Wednesday!

Ben can be reached at [email protected].