Down And Dirty – How To Win By Breaking Bad Habits

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Wednesday, December 16th – Kyle Sanchez is in an uncommonly reflective mood. Spurred on by his recent game loss for mis-registering his States deck, Kyle discusses the detrimental effect of bad habits, and how to remove them from our game. If you’re looking to improve the quality of your out-of-game habits, let Kyle lead the way!

Every morning at seven, the alarm on my iPhone goes off and, naturally, I lazily silence it. Ten minutes later it starts barking at me again, and again I silence it while keeping a shut eye. Another ten minutes pass, the barking continues, and I silence it once more. Then it stops barking, I drift off to sleep for another thirty minutes until eight o’ clock comes, and I know I’ve got to get to business, so I put on some tunes (usually rap; fires me up, y’know?), take a big gulp of Ozarka’s finest to filter the phlegm from my throat, and roll out of bed after listening to a few songs to get my mind going. I then hop into the shower, to wash the vomit from the previous night out of my curly locks.

As Aristotle once said, many centuries ago…

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

One might say that scenario I presented isn’t so excellent. After all, drunken vomit is comparable to the strongest adhesives, and it takes many rinse cycles to separate the sticky clumps from the scalp. But I’d argue that excellence is all a matter of perspective. I didn’t find Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure all that exciting, and far from excellent. However, it did serve as a good starting point for the world to hate Keanu Reeves. Of course, the vast majority of our population on the planet probably doesn’t perceive slinging spells in the sweaty stenches of PTQ play as “excellent,” but hey, from our perspective it’s the first step in a long line of hurdles to achieve what is, in our perspective, the grandest of excellences.

Since I’m in the mood for quotations, here’s some more to inspire you…

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

You can start right where you stand and apply the habit of going the extra mile by rendering more service and better service than you are now being paid for.
Napoleon Hill

A nail is driven out by another nail; habit is overcome by habit.
Latin Proverb

Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.
Albert Einstein

So if we’re going to get to that prestigious level, we’ve got to make a conscious decision to establish good habits in Magic, and there’s literal crap-ton to take note of. Many of these you learned when you first started to play tournament Magic, like playing with 60 cards*, using pen and paper to keep life totals, playing with all the same land art, and doing that pointlessly annoying shuffling every time you pick up the cards in your hand.

(This is one of the hardest habits to break in all of Magic. It really amuses me, but EVERYONE does the flip-flip-flipping of their hand. Why? Who started it? Both questions we’ll never know, but its spread across the Magic populous like the plague, except it’s much quicker and far more virulent.)

One of the first and most important habits you need to get into is counting the number of cards in your deck. I know, I know, it’s stupid, right? If you registered your deck, you obviously aren’t stupid, and you put the right cards down. Well, what if you didn’t? I lost an incidentally irrelevant game of Magic at States because I forgot to put Archive Trap in my deck. Freaking Archive Trap! It’s the second most important card in the deck, next to Hedron Crab, yet I omitted it from the list. And on top of that, the judge even had everyone in the room count their decks before they submitted them! Being the cocky idiot I am, I was thinking: “look at all these stupids having to double-check their lists… it’s going to be an easy ride to the top this year.” That hasn’t happened to me in many years. In fact, the last time it happened was during the first draft pod at Grand Prix: Toronto. I completely forgot to register any of the Guildpact or Dissension cards I played. I still placed third there, but that hardly makes it a good habit. My point is this: like Einstein says, get those lazy habits out of your life! And like Nike says… “Just Do It!”

I had to get that humiliating example off my chest to let you know it happens to everyone, and calling it a “brain fart,” as most do, is really just a cop out, while the real reason is that you established a lazy habit. However, all is not lost! Taking a step back, correcting yourself, finding your inner chi, and moving on without those lazy habits is the key to rising to the next level. This is also known in the pro community as “playing tight,” or “tightening it up.”

One of the sloppiest habits in all of Magic involves procedure, a.k.a. “Da Stack.” Whether it be from your very first action when you mulligan ahead of your opponent out of frustration, or at the very end of the game when you scoop ‘em up before damage is dealt, forgetting that lifelink now happens at the same time as damage. Operating outside the stack to save time is a death penalty in Tournament Magic; however, you shouldn’t stop “doing things right” to save time when battling on FNM or Arena playgrounds. I’m very guilty of skipping steps to save time, but in the long run it hurts you whenever you want to take something substantial away from the game you’re playing.

What a lot of people in the Magic community don’t realize is that playing this game doesn’t last for one tournament, one PTQ season, or even one year. If you’re playing/trying to play high level competitive Magic, it’s a lifestyle to which you have to appropriately adjust. If you want to play with the best players, you’re probably in it for the long haul, which means establishing lazy habits early will eventually catch up with you. Maybe not this tournament, or next tournament, but just like my sloppy deck registration loss from States, it’s bound to catch up with you unless you isolate the problem and correct it as if it was a virus or deadly bacteria. There are few things more disheartening in Magic than being taken out of the game without actually battling.

How many times have you had a very complicated turn, cleared the attack phase, went to your second main phase, and completely forgot if you’ve played a land for the turn? One good habit that I haven’t actually thought about before was mentioned by @cmb_master on Twitter: keep the land you played for your turn separate from the lands already in play! I’ve certainly heard of similar ideas to stop land confusion, but it’s not something I’ve even thought about implementing in my game before. Although that situation is rare, if it happens once and you get screwed out of a land, that’s all it takes to have a need to use this tactic. Another way to remember your turns more accurately is to keep your lands in order in which you played them; this will help you remember long term details of the game if some kind of discrepancy ever comes up.

It’s all about the small habits and edges you can get over your opponent that will lead to long term success. We’re in a very different Magic age than when I started playing, when natural skill was enough to win tournaments. Nowadays, all you “youngsters” are much better read, more knowledgeable, and overall stronger Magic players than the ol’ days when our ancestors were laying the foundation of theory. Now we’ve got ample resources, courtesy of StarCityGames.com and similar sites, along with an uncountable number of forums related to Magic to get our “tech.” Long gone are the days where a deck will sneak up out of nowhere and become the best deck. Last time it happened was Mono-Red Dragonstorm at Worlds, but even that deck was known to some degree. It was just dismissed, and it hardly became the best deck. Before that it was Ichorid from GP: Charlotte ’05. My point is that any little edge you can gain on your opponent will relate to more wins if you can forge them into steady habits. If you’re in it for the long haul, you’re cheating yourself if you’re not considering all the small fundamentals of the game.

One of the most monumental habits for me, one that I feel gives me a drastic edge over the majority of players that sit across the table, is being able to think turns in advance to make better decisions in the present. Magic is extremely complicated, but you can’t get overwhelmed by all the different permutations of the game. At its heart, it’s very simple. Each deck has a way of attacking and creating a clock. All you’ve got to do is determine how much time you’ve got left, which of course is easier said than done. Like I mentioned earlier, we’re in an age where there isn’t much new stuff going on. Decks are streamlined, and card counts are decisive and precise. That’s the edge you’ve got to play on, and it’s your fault if you get blown out by Brave the Elements against that White Weenie deck. It’s your fault if you didn’t calculate Jund could have Bituminous Blast into another removal spell. However, in those situations, there honestly isn’t much you can do about it, but being surprised only makes you ignorant. Basically, knowledge is power, and establishing the habit of knowing the decks in the metagame is a crucial building block to becoming a better player. But that’s only the beginning…

From there, you’ve got to establish the habit of finding ways to maneuver around popular trends, to find your deck’s place in the giant filthy cesspool that is modern Magic formats. Keep in mind this also applies toward Limited. You saw those Hedron Crabs, that Trapmaker’s Snare, and Archive Trap go around the draft table. What’s your out in your low removal R/W deck? Perhaps picking up a few inconsequential late pick Seismic Shudders, or maybe splashing a Quest for Ancient Secrets is your out if the opportunity presents itself.

How many times have you sat there watching your opponent go into the tank, taking an absurdly long turn, and started to drift off into the T-Shirt of the guy standing behind him? Instead, make it a habit to think about what you’re going to do on your turn while he’s still deliberating on his turn. If this is Constructed – or hell, even Limited – you should have a good feeling of what he’s capable of, what kind of decision he’s making, and you should already have a rough plan of what your attack/response is going to be during the next few turns. Instead of wasting more time on the clock for an obviously slow player to get his “out” of a potential draw, think during his turn and play fast during yours. Often, the change of pace is enough to lure the opponent who might need more time to think into a faster decision himself, leading to mistakes on his end, which in turn yields an advantage. This is actually the line of attack frequently used against the notoriously slower players in the circuit, which was first heralded in my mind by Japanese players like Yasooka and Mori, who used to play at lightning fast speeds to entice the opponent to match their pace, which would cause mistakes.

One habit I learned from the esteemed Rising Star Timothy Aten (of Pro Player Card Series One fame) is, whenever he wasn’t playing a spell, he put his cards in a neat pile off to the left or right. This serves several purposes. Primarily, your opponent is less cautious about what you might have in your hand when you aren’t flipping them around like flattened fritters. Another aspect is you can really concentrate on what your opponent is doing, and his posture, to pick up a good strong/weak read. If they ask you how many cards you have in you’re hand, its usually just to get you to move, so knowing the number and telling them without actually counting or picking up the pile somewhat throws them off. I’m not exactly sure why, but a fair portion of the time they even ask you to count them out in front of them, as if you were lying. When you do this, you can also trick your opponent into thinking you’re weak or strong, and it’s a technique that can even cause play errors.

The most important habit that you’ll ever learn, in Magic as well as life, is to never stop questioning yourself. Asking questions and obtaining answers is the reason we aren’t still climbing trees, eating berries, and picking fleas off each other as our form of entertainment. Magic is so dynamic that there’s an endless checklist of profitable habits and tendencies to learn, and approaching it with a pompous know-it-all attitude is an easy way to make enemies in this community, as well as being very detrimental to your outlook for the game.

So what are some of your profitable habits that you’d like to share? Hit me up in the forums!

Just remember, virtually everyone you’ll encounter on this website and others like it, or in the forums across the entirety of the internet dedicated to the game, have made the decision to incorporate Magic as a long-term means of entertainment and self gratification in their lives. Everyone you’ll deal with is like-minded to yourself, and should be looking to grow. Not one person has mastered the game of Magic in its entirety, and that alone is reason to aspire and keep learning. That’s why we keep shelling out the thirty bucks a year for a premium subscription that provides unparalleled content. That’s why we connect with others, network, and playtest rigorously to seek that hidden edge. That’s why we drive long miles, fly above the clouds, and take that cab to ever-changing venues that are all the same. We are a uniquely evolved breed, we Magicians. One new habit you might like to pick up is to stop taking that for granted.

Thanks for reading…


* Of course, even the most concrete habits are broken from time to time…