Fixing Bad Habits

Nobody gets to two Pro Tour finals by accident. Shaun McLaren knows that improving your game is about repairing bad habits and adjusting your attitude. Here, he shares his wisdom on the fundamental realities of getting better at Magic..

What do you do when your computer is lagging and encountering errors?

You reset it, or you run a virus scan. You try to remove what’s making it not work correctly.

“Have you tried turning it off and on again?”

These are words of wisdom to live by.

It’s natural for a computer to start generating some error messages as time passes. It will pick up unwanted malware and just slows down over time without
proper maintenance. Sometimes a simple flicker effect is enough to fix a problem, sometimes it takes some digging and an understanding of the root cause of
the issue. Everything needs a tune up now and again. Sometimes you’ll need a complete overhaul.

It goes the same way when your Magic game is suffering. Only you can’t simply run a virus scan or reboot yourself (that method does not work for a human).

But there are still ways you can improve your game and your mindset. The difference is noticeable once you’ve completed a sweep for bad habits and your
mind and game is unobstructed by the gunk of bad habits. It’s hard to not be drawn towards victory.

You don’t always just destroy a bad habit, you often replace it with a good one. So not only will I try to lay out some of the common bad habits, I’ll also
try and provide some potential solutions and what it would look like when you’re doing things the right way.

Bad Habit: Deflecting Responsibility

There is an incredibly simple hack to becoming a better player that not everyone knows about. It’s easy: the next time you lose a game of Magic, simply
blame luck. Blaming luck is a wonderful skill to have. Sure it won’t make you win more games, but you will be absolved of all your losses and look like an
incredible player no matter what.

Isn’t it lovely getting to take all the credit for your victories due to your incredible wit and skill while simultaneously getting luck to take all the
responsibility for your losses?

If only that’s how it really worked.

Why can’t we just let luck shoulder the burden of all of our losses?

It’s a cover to hide mistakes.

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

It’s okay though. We all do. It’s painful looking at your mistakes and easy to ignore them.

The truth is the only one responsible for your loss is you, since you’re the only one who can change what matters, which are the decisions you make. It’s
much better to ignore luck completely rather than treat it as something important.


Frame it in the right way. You can’t control everything, so focus on what you can control.

Entering a tournament should come with a waiver:

I sign away my right to complain. I know variance is a part of the game of Magic. Sometimes I will miss my third land drop and never cast a spell. It
hurts, but that is what I’m signing up for. I take responsibility not only for my tournament but my lot in life. I will play with my allotment of luck,
ride the waves of good fortune, and try to overcome the pull of currents against me. I understand that everyone is biased to perceive themselves as
unlucky, and even though I may get angry, start to complain, and think I’m unlucky in the moment, I realize that in the long run everyone’s fortune
will approach the average, and there is no mystical “lucky” or “unlucky” attribute attached to anyone that will have any measurable effect on the
future or reality. I am the only one capable of changing what matters.



Please sign the screen you’re reading this on in permanent marker now to show your commitment.

Be willing to accept that you are in denial of reality. The cards don’t care how much you whine, and honestly, no one else does either.

Bad Habit: Playtesting Without Purpose

The perfect deck for the format won’t just fall into your lap. While playtesting, you need to gain an understanding of the format, find the right
archetype, find the right cards for that deck, and then master it. You should be working towards these goals.


Try building around powerful cards in the format or hidden synergies that are potentially powerful against the top decks.

Knowing your opponents’ decklists can actually be a great playtesting tool. Reviewing decklists beforehand can be a huge help for identifying which
specific cards are important for playing around and sideboarding. Having all the information laid out in front of you and going over it slowly with another
person can be very helpful.

Once you pick a deck, test specific matchups and test specific cards. Play more sideboarded games. Jot down notes or points of interest on a pad of paper
and review them afterwards.

Once you have a good gameplan and sideboard for common matchups in a controlled environment, it’s best to get practice in a tournament setting against
unknown decks. Respect your deck and its ability to win. Don’t keep bad hands.

Bad Habit: No Clear Focus

What are your goals? What obstacles are stopping you from achieving your goals and how can you overcome them?

That’s a pretty simplified way to do whatever you want in life.

Defining what you want is the first step to getting it.


Breakdown what you want into chunks and set goals for how to get it.

Measurable goals are best, which can be difficult in Magic since you don’t have complete control on how you’ll do at a specific tournament.

But you can set goals for how much you want to play and when.

Examples of measurable Magic goals might be:

  • Playing every nearby PPTQ for a season.
  • Earn 15 Qualifier Points on MTGO.
  • Attend Open Series events until you qualify for an Invitational.
  • Having a good understanding of how to sideboard with your deck against all the common matchups before your tournament.

Bad Habit: Ignoring the Postgame

It’s easy to spend very little time reviewing played games or watching tournaments to learn from others. There are plenty of resources to help you learn
beyond just playing.


Review your matches.

Take some time and actually go back and look at matchups and games you’ve played based on having the information from playing. This can give you insights
on how to play specific matchups or might spark ideas for cards that would be good in the matchup. It also gives you a second chance to rethink important
decisions, talk through plays, and catch mistakes you made.

Ask yourself at the end of each match one takeaway or improvement you implement to be better in the future.

Bad Habit: Negativity

Do you ever make one misplay or take one bad beat and before you know it your whole tournament has unraveled? It’s easy to let doubt and frustration creep

This is known as tilt.

Magic tournaments are marathons, not sprints. You are going to make mistakes. Letting your whole tournament collapse like a house of cards based on one
mistake is unacceptable. Magic tournaments are long and scrappy, and you need to be resilient.

Tilt is an absolute killer and will derail anyone if you let it in.



Mindet is important.

Once you’ve been infected with tilt, a complete mental reset is necessary.


You have my permission to make a mistake and let it not get to you. Everyone makes them. Take a moment to breathe and just appreciate that you even get to
make a gut-wrenching mistake. You are a tiny speck in the universe, and your mistake is tremendously unimportant to the rotation of the earth. Yet somehow
we think it’s the end of the world.

The truth is, we want mistakes to not exist. Mistakes shouldn’t be swept under the rug. Mistakes displayed fully and confidently are badges of honor.

If you do just want to forget them, that’s okay too.

Mistakes aren’t that bad. You’re playing to win from this point onward. The past isn’t important towards that goal.

If your goal is to win, keep that goal in mind with every action you take. Prepare to win. Strike with intention to win the tournament. Play with passion,
confidence, and ferocity. Keep your goal in mind. Don’t let a speed bump end your entire journey.

Bad Habit: Asking the Wrong Questions

It’s easy to get caught up in a routine of bad habits without looking at the big picture. Make sure you take the time to orient yourself on a path that’s
going to actually help you get better.


Identifying problems in your game is the first step to solving them.

No two people’s bad habits are going to overlap completely. My issues aren’t going to be the same as yours. You need to be able to recognize the areas you
need to improve the most in. Sometimes it’s a matter of polishing an already sharp blade, sometimes you need to discover a completely new skill.

What problems have you been encountering lately?

Think over your past three events. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Were there any critical moments that you could’ve improved upon?
  • Did you let a high pressure situation get you?
  • Did you play too slow or too fast?
  • Did you underprepare for an important matchup?
  • What mistakes are you consistently making?
  • Are you losing most of your pre-board or sideboard games?
  • Did you run out of energy late in the day?
  • Did you end up mana-screwed too often from keeping risky hands?

You can’t fix everything, and this is just scratching the surface of potential holes to fix, but it’s a good start.

You need to be vigilant and pay the upkeep cost on making sure your game is tight. Ask for advice from friends on areas you might be able to tighten up
your game. Do so in a state of openness where you actually want advice. Be willing to accept it.

Bad Habit: Not Having a Plan

It’s easy to play loose when you don’t have a plan.

Sometimes I’ll ignore my opponent’s hand size when they pass the turn with a bunch of mana up. This is a prime example of when you should be thinking about
what they could have. Your opponent is always up to something. Their hand could be all lands, but it probably isn’t; and if it is, that’s very good for you
anyways. Knowing what could possibly go wrong and acting based on what might happen based on the cards your opponent is holding or could draw is better
than just blindly charging forward.


Playing tight at every stage.

Give it your all, no matter what.

There are many stages of a game, and you should have general guidelines for what your deck should be doing at each stage.

Should you mulligan aggressively for sideboard cards in certain matchups? Risk overcommitting to the battlefield in the earlygame? Do you get complacent
when you’re ahead? What do you know about the matchup you’re up against? What cards does your opponent likely have right now?

Having any plan is better than no plan. If you haven’t practiced, come up with a theory for what should work and run with it.

Having a strategy can help in high pressure situations where you might otherwise get distracted. I find myself lost in a game of Magic not noticing
anything around me when I have plenty to think about in a matchup.

Bad Habit: Too Much at Once

It can be overwhelming trying to change too much at once. Implementing multiple types of advice at once and having it stick is usually unrealistic. Change
and improvements happen slowly.

Magic is a game that has variance. You could win the next tournament. You could lose the next five and still be doing a bunch of things right while
improving rapidly. It can be frustrating, and it might make you question whether you’re getting better and all, which makes you want an even faster
solution. There is no instantaneous way to become unstoppable.


Go slow and enjoy where you are.

Focus on one thing at a time. Make sure you have it down cold and then move onto the next thing.

You’re going to be improving the more you play, so don’t try to take on more than you can handle. Taking away one thing from this article and actually
consciously getting better at it would be a great start.

If you’re not a master yet, just be happy where you are while you’re improving. Don’t beat yourself up or set unrealistic goals. You can do all that while
having fun and keeping your integrity.

Relax. This is it. You aren’t perfect and never will be. There isn’t a perfect Magic player. Everyone is full of flaws and has plenty of room to get
better. Don’t take yourself or your results seriously.