Feature Article – Seven Habits of Highly Effective Gamers

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Thursday, May 21st – Magic Elder Statesman Brian Kibler, back on the tour for PT Honolulu, is no stranger to high-level play. At the deep end of competitive Magic, the premier players all share a number of qualities and habits that set them aside from the rest of us. In this enlightening Feature Article, Brian takes us through the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Gamers…

If you read my last article, you know that I’m back on the Pro Tour, at least for Honolulu. You also know that the story of my qualification wasn’t the “Old pro shows up and wins after borrowing a deck he’d never played the night before.” That kind of story may make for a better headline, such as when Jon Finkel winning the first Pro Tour after his induction into the Hall of Fame, but that’s all it typically is — a story. There’s a lot more to winning at Magic than showing up, no matter how talented you may be.

It’s been a long time since I was at the top of the game, but I remember how I got there. Success in Magic, like anything in life, isn’t just a matter of some simple formula. There’s no perfect deck that will win every tournament, nor is there a nugget of wisdom that you could rip from the brain of Kai Budde that will turn you into an unstoppable juggernaut. But there are things you can do to give yourself an edge, many of them before you ever sit down for a match. These are what I’m going to call today the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Gamers.

#1 — Study, study, study

Were you one of those kids in school who never had to study for a test? You’d show up in class and never take notes and yet still ace every exam. You never really had to work hard to succeed at anything. Well, you know what? The same is true of lots of Magic players, and you’re going to have to beat them to win a PTQ. Magic is a game that attracts very intelligent people, and the fact that you’re successful in other parts of your life without putting in much effort as others doesn’t mean you’ll find that same success when you’re competing against them.

Do you know what my notebooks were full of throughout school? Deck lists. Page after page of deck lists. I didn’t study my school books, but I read every last article about Magic I could get my hands on each day. I devoured information about Magic. I sifted through deck lists looking for any little tidbit that could spark a new idea. There’s a lot of noise, and it takes practice to find the signal in it, but it’s out there. I got the idea for Armadillo Cloak for my PT: Chicago 2000 sideboard from then-unknown Jon Sonne’s deck from the New Jersey State Championships, which was tucked away in an obscure sidebar of the old Sideboard.com site. With the decklists posted for all the Magic Online Premiere Events nowadays, who knows how many hidden gems there are to uncover?

Information is a powerful tool in Magic. There’s a reason people pay to subscribe to this site. But even beyond the premium side of StarCityGames or the columns on Magicthegathering.com, there’s a plethora of information out there. Just because you don’t recognize an author’s name doesn’t mean they can’t have great ideas. It’s up to you find them.

#2 — Prepare for the tournament you’re playing in

This may seem glaringly obvious, but it’s something many players miss. You study the results of last week’s PTQs across the country and come prepared with a deck perfectly suited to beat the field — except you’re not playing in last week’s PTQ, you’re playing in this week’s. Often players look at tournament results and see what the popular decks were and prepare to beat those decks. As I said before, you have to recognize that you’re up against other smart, thinking players who are seeing much the same information.

I fell prey to this bad habit myself at this year’s GP: Los Angeles, where I played Death Cloud Loam. The deck had performed well at early PTQs, so I just made a few tweaks that I felt would improve certain matchups and played the deck, only to find that about half my opponents in the tournament had pretty much the same idea. Michael Jacob, on the other hand, took the Life from the Loam engine and rebuilt the rest of the deck into something more suited to fight against the field at that tournament. LSV did one better and saw a field skewed away from combo preparedness, and took down the title with Mind’s Desire. And Tomohiro Saito upstaged the both of them when he rode his Zoo deck to victory in Singapore and then in Kobe, precisely tuning it each time to the field he anticipated.

The takeaway from this is that it’s important to not only keep up with what’s gone on in the format you’re preparing for, but to stay one step ahead of your competition. Don’t think you’re the only one studying what’s been winning, because you’re not. You need to go the extra mile to get an edge.

#3 — Playtest!

And how do you get that edge? By playtesting, of course. But when I say playtesting, I mean something very different from what it seems most people mean by it. When I see most PTQ players “playtest,” they pull out two relatively stock decks and bash them against each other a few times. Maybe they keep a running tally of the record between those two decks to see “what wins,” and then they’ll use that record to decide which of their various potential decks they’re going to play.

While there’s some value in this, playtesting is much more effective when it’s done with a more critical eye. The key is really to ask the right questions while you’re testing. What are your best cards in the matchup? What cards do you have to watch out for? What cards aren’t pulling their weight on both sides? Playtesting is when you learn what cards to cut when you sideboard and, if you’re paying close enough attention, will give you an idea of what cards that might give you an edge that aren’t already in your deck or sideboard.

This kind of playtesting, of course, is how good decks are initially made — cutting and adding cards and tweaking numbers. Good deckbuilders are constantly questioning card choices. They find problems in playtesting and look for solutions. They identify underperformers and standouts alike and make changes as a result. They learn from their playtesting and apply what they find to give them an edge in the future. And that’s what you have to do too. Ask the right questions when you play, and worry more about what you’re learning than what deck is winning. “What wins” is much less important than why it wins. Pay attention to what matters.

#4 – Sideboarding

This is related to playtesting, but important enough to warrant its own section. When you playtest for an event, in what percentage of your games do you use sideboard cards? If you’re like the average PTQ player, probably less than ten percent. When you play in a tournament, what percentage of your games are played sideboarded? At a bare minimum it’s fifty percent, and in reality probably close to sixty percent. When so many more games are played with sideboards, why do players pay so little attention to them?

The issue of sideboarding goes well beyond just playing more sideboarded games in testing. Often players pay so little attention to their sideboards that they don’t have a plan for how to sideboard for most matchups, and even worse their sideboards aren’t even built with a plan in mind. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a sideboard just packed with hate cards for a particular deck and when I ask the player what they take out to fit all of it they have no answer.

The fifteen cards in your sideboard should be designed as carefully as the rest of your deck. You should know what cards you bring in and take out against each of the major decks in the format, and optimally you should have varying plans for when you’re on the play or draw depending on how the matchup changes. You should know how your deck plays against other decks while both of you are sideboarded. Are there ways you can take advantage of the way you expect your opponents to sideboard against you? In the quarterfinals of PT: Chicago against Zvi with Red Zone against his Fires deck, I anticipated that he would bring in his 4 Earthquakes to give him extra direct damage and to help punch through my regenerating River Boa blockers. As a result, I cut Ancient Hydras from my deck after sideboarding, to avoid having too many creatures that he could easily Earthquake away, despite Hydras being otherwise excellent in the matchup to block Blastoderms and kill mana creatures. Thinking ahead and analyzing how my opponent would sideboard helped me minimize the impact of cards that might otherwise have been much more powerful.

So pay attention to sideboards — yours and your opponents. A well thought out, well tuned sideboard can make can easily be the difference between a PTQ Top 8 and a PTQ win. Play a few less games with your starting sixty and warm up your bench once in a while.

#5 – Don’t blame luck

Almost seven years ago after I punted a match playing for Top 8 at Worlds in Sydney, I wrote this article about how important it is for Magic players to take responsibility for their mistakes. If you listen to the stories between rounds at a PTQ, you’ll hear countless tales of mana screw and bad matchups and how lucky peoples’ opponents were. What you will hear much less often is “I made a mistake so I lost.”

As is the case for almost anyone who engages in activities that are part skill and part luck, Magic players are often blinded by agency fallacy. That is to say that we tend to believe that our success is due to our skilled play, while our failures are due to luck. Although luck certainly plays a role, I would argue that more games are decided by mistakes than by misfortune. When you’re looking for something to blame, luck is easier.

Here’s an example. Playing in the Top 8 of a Lorwyn Block PTQ this past summer, I was in game 3 with my Doran deck against Kithkin. I had a reasonable start with a few fast creatures that my opponent was able to deal with, but stalled on three lands. I had two Soul Snuffers and a Profane Command in my hand, so if I could draw out of my mana screw I would be in great shape to win the game. My opponent had a land-heavy draw himself and I was able to use Shriekmaws and Nameless Inversions to remove most of his creatures, with an active Scarblade Elite playing backup. My opponent played Spectral Procession and I again failed to draw a land. On his turn, he attacked me with his three Spectral Procession tokens and flipped up two Cloudgoat Rangers from Windbrisk Heights. I failed to draw another land and lost in short order.

After the match, onlookers tried to console me about my misfortune, but I would have none of it. I lost that game because I let my opponent attack me with three creatures with two Windbrisk Heights in play when I could have prevented it by killing one pre-combat with Scarblade Elite. Was I mana screwed? Yes. But I did not do everything I could to put myself in a position to win, and that was my fault.

The only way you will ever improve is if you admit that you’re wrong, and you’ll never be able to do that if you’re always blaming something else for your loss. After any match I lose, I go over in my head everything I could have done differently. Sometimes it’s glaringly obvious, like “Don’t let your opponent attack you with three creatures when he has two Windbrisk Heights in play,” and the lesson is only to play more deliberately and pay better attention. Sometimes the lesson isn’t so clear, and you need to discuss the game with other players to figure out if there’s something you could’ve done that you missed. But it all starts with admitting that you made a mistake.

#6 – Take care of yourself

Writers of Magic tournament reports love to regale their readers with tales of debauchery. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve read about how little sleep a player got because he was out drinking and cavorting the night before the event, I would be able to play against Stephen Menendian without proxies. Even players who avoid the bottle seem to make a habit of staying up until all hours gaming the night before, as if they’ll have some sudden epiphany at 4am that will invalidate all of their previous testing. A few hours later maybe they blearily sleeve up the same 75 they were playing before their all-night gaming session, or maybe swap decks in a sleep-deprived haze because they kept losing, but either way they’ve already hurt their odds of doing well in the tournament.

A PTQ is an absolutely grueling ordeal, starting early in the morning and lasting late into the night. To win, you need to keep yourself mentally focused for that entire time. A typical seven-round PTQ plus Top 8 takes upwards of ten hours with few (if any) real breaks. That’s a long time to keep your mind sharp, especially if you’re running on little sleep. Why not give yourself the best opportunity to win by taking better care of yourself?

I’m certainly not one to tell people that they shouldn’t enjoy themselves when they travel to a tournament, but keep in mind the consequences of your actions. Remember that story above about when I didn’t kill my opponent’s Spectral Procession token and let him activate Windbrisk Heights? I had been out late the night before and was operating on very little sleep. The tournament was at Gen Con and started in the afternoon, so the Top 8 didn’t start until after midnight. I was playing incredibly fatigued and just spaced out when my opponent declared his attack and said “Okay.” I have similar stories from my other PTQ Top 8s that season, all of which included crucial mistakes I made in the quarterfinals that were certainly influenced by fatigue.

Taking care of yourself in this sense isn’t limited to just getting sleep before the event. Keeping yourself in shape can have a positive effect on your performance as well. It may sound absurd to suggest that you should hit the gym to do better at Magic, but our bodies have an impact on the sound operation of our minds over extended periods. You’re less likely to be physically tired at the end of a long tournament if you’re in good shape, which means you’re less likely to be distracted by fatigue. My best strings of tournament finishes have always been during periods I’ve been working out regularly. And hey, you’ve gotta look good for the feature match pictures when you make it to the PT too!

Last, but certainly not least, is nutrition. Just like staying in shape, keeping yourself well fed and hydrated during an event helps keep your mind focused on what you’re actually there for. Loading yourself up with caffeine or energy drinks in the morning to wake you up will just make you crash in the late rounds when you really need to concentrate. Most PTQs don’t have lunch breaks these days, and few are in locations with good, easily accessible food, which can leave you hungry and distracted. I try to bring snack bars and bottled water with me to tournaments to stay fed all day. Bill Stark wrote in a recent tournament report about putting his uneaten sandwich on the table during a match to distract his hungry opponent, and I don’t doubt for a second that it impacted — at least slightly — his opponent’s focus. Don’t let that happen to you!

And finally…

#7 – Add additional numbers to your lists to make them seem more impressive and synch up with popular book titles.

Until next time…