Chatter of the Squirrel – This is… The Beginning… The Beginning of Our Story… The Beginning

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My boy Kevin McCormack recently jumped the “casual player” hurdle and is hurling himself headlong into the realm of competitive events. We’ve got a PTQ this very week in St. Louis, in fact, and I’m expecting him to make a decent showing. But one of the questions he asked me when he first decided he wanted to “get good” was: what articles do I need to read?

First of all, for those of you who caught the Animaniacs reference in the title, free milk and cookies for life at all Pro Tour events. Well, Oreo cookies – but who are we to complain. Please don’t actually hold me to this, as New York is a big city, and I’m not all about bankruptcy at this point in my life.

My boy Kevin McCormack recently jumped the “casual player” hurdle and is hurling himself headlong into the realm of competitive events. We’ve got a PTQ this very week in St. Louis, in fact, and I’m expecting him to make a decent showing. But one of the questions he asked me when he first decided he wanted to “get good” was: what articles do I need to read?

I did a fair bit of research and handed him a list, but as I was combing the web I realized there was an even more fundamental question that needed to be answered. Before you can digest and process an article that’s ostensibly going to make you a better player, you need to understand what it is you’re trying to improve. More precisely, if you’re new to the tournament scene, it’s important to realize exactly what kind of edge the rest of the field is going to have on you – at least, the upper end of the field – and how you can go about getting up to speed. What this article aims to do, then, is outline some of the broad arenas of play a beginning tournament player needs to understand exist before he can go about searching for ways to improve them. Before you can start aiming for the bullseye, you first need a target to hit.

First, though, it’s essential to understand what you can’t improve by poring through the archives and studying. You can read a million words and at the end of the day forget about the Ghost Warden on your opponent’s side of the table. Mike Flores probably understands the theoretical structure of Magic better than 99% of players, but he’s talked at length about how he’ll activate Serrated Arrows at the wrong time or cast too many spells on the main phase or let general theory get in the way of a properly-played turn (I need to optimize my mana so I’ll cast this Wrath of God AND this Akroma). This isn’t a bag on Mike; rather, it’s exactly the opposite. You can comprehend Magic on its most fundamental level, but without a whole lot of games under your belt and absolutely ironclad focus and mental discipline, you’ll find yourself misplaying a turn. You’ll punt games. I have watched my man Richard Feldman throw away a chance at Day 2 of a Grand Prix by making a play he had explicitly thrown out as terrible the turn before. As he cast the Echoing Truth on the wrong target I saw him wince and know it was wrong. I myself have blocked an Aquamoeba with a Meddling Mage and tapped my Mother of Runes to give the Mage protection from Green. Oops. The bottom line is that just because you know what is correct doesn’t mean you’re going to execute it, and there’s no way to be sure you’ll execute properly until you’ve played hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of games.

Okay. So you’re new, you’re reading articles. What are you looking for?

The most important thing a Magic article can teach you is what you need to be thinking about on any given turn of the game. This is very different from allowing you to actually play that turn correctly, but it’s impossible to play out an entire game properly without a vision of what your entire game is going to look like. Even more simply than that, articles can teach you “algorithms” (for lack of a better term) that give you broadly-defined principles for types of plays that are generally correct barring no unique exceptions. For example, you can learn why it is that most of the time you want to make use of all your mana on any given turn of the game. You can learn why it’s usually right to trade a two-mana guy for a three-mana guy, or why you want to create opportunities for card advantage as much as is humanly possible. On an even more fundamental level, you can learn what card advantage is, why you want to get it, and how gaining it tends to win games. Conversely, you can learn about the concept of tempo, and how to evaluate when tempo considerations cause you to make plays that go against all of the principles I’ve just spelled out. Once you can piece together each of these individual factors it all of the sudden becomes possible to treat a game of Magic as a sequence of means to an end, rather than simply an amalgam of individual plays or independent, isolated decisions. Once you can do that, I’d go so far as to say you’re good.

The reason, incidentally, that I think this is “the most important thing a Magic article can teach you” is that too often – especially in Constructed environments – we tend to get entirely too preoccupied about our choice of deck. I’m guilty of this, but oftentimes at Pro-level events I recognize that if I’m going to get an edge it’s probably going to be because of my deck and not my own personal playing ability. I feel I’m better at deckbuilding than most of the people at a given Pro Tour, but I’m probably rooted firmly in the middle when it comes to how well I can play a game. At a PTQ, though, assuming your deck isn’t just sheer garbage, it’s very likely that you’ll earn most of your wins because of how you play your cards. So it’s a bad idea to sit around and stress endlessly over your seventy-five at the expense of sitting down and actually playing games. This is incidentally why I don’t understand the people who get really agitated when people “netdeck.” At least 85-90% of the people at a given PTQ are going to play an officially-recognized deck, and yet they don’t automatically win games because they lift their lists off the internet. I’d go so far as to say that only about 20% of them have a reasonable chance of winning the PTQ at all. This is particularly true when the deck they lift is from what Tom LaPille refers to as an article that “hands out fish.” Rather than going into why the deck works the way it does and why exactly it’s effective – to “teach the reader how to fish” – the authors of these types of articles simply put a list onto the table before leaning back to bask in the admiration of their adoring fans. When this happens, most of the time a given player running the list at a tournament has no idea how to actually play the deck to peak efficiency.

That is not to say, however, that articles aren’t useful for getting decks. In fact, if you’re interested in becoming a better deck designer (or even more importantly, if you’re interested in how to properly tune a list) there’s nothing more informative than a primer from a knowledgeable player. These give you insight into the thought process of that player and spell out the systems of thought that you can in turn apply to other decks in the future. Even articles that “hand out fish” have their place when they help you understand an environment or give you a starting point for a deck you feel is interesting. Truly, one of the most common mistakes beginning players make is that they feel the need to haphazardly change perfectly good lists because they want to “improve” the deck or “make it unique.” Now, sometimes even the perfect deck for a given tournament will need to be changed for a season because the environment is different, but more often than not a truly well-constructed list doesn’t need a major overhaul. Herberholz’s PT-winning list from Honolulu remained competitive for the rest of the season. So another major way Magic articles can be useful is as a resource for the decks you choose before a tournament even takes place – if and why they are good, how to play them, how to sideboard with them, and what their given weaknesses in a format are.

This type of analysis also applies to Limited Magic – what cards to draft, what order in which to pick them, etc – though I am very skeptical about card evaluations in general. I actually find set reviews made after the author has run a few drafts fairly useful because I am terrible at evaluating anything outside the context of a given format. Archetype discussions, however, don’t do all that much for me because I can’t remember very many situations outside of Urza’s Saga draft where forcing a particular color or archetype was correct. There are some very good pieces out there, though, by Gary Wise and Quentin Martin about how Booster Draft works structurally, and these I would highly recommend.

Finally, Magic articles are extremely useful as far as helping you think about non-gameplay elements of tournaments. Even a tournament report written for entertainment value contains a heap of good lessons. Of course, part of reading reports is having fun, but a lot of the time it’s refreshing to hear about how good of a time people can have playing this game we all love. Perhaps more importantly, though, every bad beat story about how someone’s slept through a Pro Tour draft, had to sleep on a park bench, or commandeer a taxi for six hundred miles serves as a reminder: book your hotels and flights early, and get some sleep! Moreover, articles like LaPille’s recent “Pre-Tournament Checklist” and Bill Stark “Five Ways to Get Better at Magic, Guaranteed!” remind me constantly that winning a tournament is about a whole lot more than playing your cards correctly. Rob Hahn’s classic “Mind Over Magic” drives home this point. Put simply, you’ve got to believe you’re going to win – and be prepared enough to have that belief be legitimate – if you want to take your game seriously. You can’t just show up and play the cards in your hand. Similarly, is it really right of you to believe you deserve to win if you aren’t properly hydrated, you haven’t playtested, you’ve scrambled to get all the cards for your deck, you don’t have a clearly-defined sideboarding strategy, and you’re spending your time asking the guy next to you for dice to use as tokens instead of devoting yourself fully to playing the game?

A lot of people don’t necessarily think about what they’re trying to get out of an article when they read it. Hopefully, after reading this, you’ll have a better sense of how they can and cannot be useful, and what kind of value an author is actually capable of giving you. Until next time!