Flow of Ideas – Improving at Magic Through Commitment

Read Gavin Verhey every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, September 17th – The commitment behind our choices drives us forward in all of our pursuits, and crafts the spinning clay that is our pliable future. When you decide to do something – really, truly, decide to follow it – you gain the ability to influence your future.

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

The commitment behind our choices drives us forward in all of our pursuits, and crafts the spinning clay that is our pliable future. When you decide to do something — really, truly, decide to follow it — you gain the ability to influence your future. One of my favorite quotes is when hockey phenom Wayne Gretsky says, “You can’t make the shots you don’t take.” Gretsky’s words are powerful, and for the past year or so I’ve been trying to live my life by his maxim. If you don’t take the opportunity while you can, you lose the chance to reap whatever fruit it bared — for better, or for worse. But, not unlike the farmer sowing a field or a Hockey player taking a shot at the goal net, when you put matters into your own hands — when you take the shot — you have the ability to alter its outcome based on your skill. If you let the moment flow past, then you no longer have that opportunity.

Why do I bring this up? This past week, I made the decision to attend Pro Tour: Austin, Grand Prix: Tampa, and Grand Prix: Minneapolis. I’m not sure how I’m going to balance everything fiscally yet, but through a combination of selling cards and writing, I’m going to figure out how to make all of these trips work out, and do so soon enough that I plan on buying my tickets this week or next. (On that note, if there is anybody out there with space in their room for any of those three events who wouldn’t mind having me, please let me know.) I am going to test Zendikar Sealed and Standard as much as I can, and I hope that my hard work and preparation will show in how I do at the events. I’m going to try hard, see how many Pro Points I can pick up, and make sure to enjoy myself along the way. But mostly, I wanted to commit myself to doing the best I can at Magic, and to see how far I can take it for the rest of the year. Do to so, I needed a push: I needed to line up for the shot, fire it, and see what happens.

Commitment doesn’t just happen at the higher levels of the game, though. Every player who wants to get better at Magic has to commit themselves at one point or another. But rather than get ahead of myself, let me start at the beginning.

The First Step – Committing Yourself To Become A Better Magic Player

It all starts with that pivotal step. Some of you might have already experienced this, but some of you probably haven’t. It’s the point, the moment-of-truth realization, that Magic means more to you than just slinging spells at FNM or bringing your homebrew to a PTQ. It’s the point where you’re tired of going 1-2 at PTQs while the same couple of people make Top 8 week after week. Most fundamentally, it’s the point where you realize that you actually want to become good at Magic. Everybody has one of these moments. For me, I know it was when I listened to Antoine Ruel talk about winning Pro Tour: Los Angeles.

When I heard Antoine talk about his experience and how he felt, and I wanted to be there. Not necessarily in his shoes — not winning a Pro Tour (although that would certainly be nice) — but I wanted to play at the highest level against the best in the World. I wanted to play on the Pro Tour, and I was going to do whatever it took to get there. Keep in mind that at this point I already had one PTQ Top 8, so I wasn’t just some rubbish FNM player (although I certainly had a long way to improve — one PTQ Top 8 isn’t much of an accomplishment by my standards today!), but rather I just did not have the drive; that elusive “fire” that so many players say they are moved by; the willingness to spend day after day playtesting. In other words, after I heard all of that, my course was forever changed as I committed myself to win at the highest levels of Magic competition.

The result? Five PTQ Top 8s in the next season, out of seven attempts. My commitment drove me in my goals, and I worked hard for each and every one of those Top 8 berths. While, once again, a PTQ Top 8 by my standards today is just another drop in the bucket, at the time it was a visible marker of success: I had essentially gone from a zero to someone showing consistent success over the course of just a few months.

There are three pieces in this improvement process that are the most important once you realize you really want to win and commit yourself to doing so. They are each very important:

1. Realize that you are terrible at Magic

This is the hardest part for almost everybody, and I should probably warn you that I’m going to be brutally honest in this section. Please don’t take offense to any of it. After all, few people want to admit to themselves that they suck. It’s easier to chalk lost games up to luck. But, in reality, a large number of people just play bad Magic. Of course, it’s all a matter of comparison — some FNM schlep is terrible in comparison to me, and I’m terrible in comparison to somebody like Jon Finkel — but if you can’t even match the average skill of a PTQ player, you’re going to have a tough time making it in the Magic world. The absolute worst is when a terrible player stumbles into a Top 8 with some mindless deck like Kithkin, and then thinks he’s hot stuff for doing so. One success does not make you as a Magic player. Mike Gurney calls it one of the many plateaus of Magic: “You can’t get better until you realize you’re terrible.”

It’s not hard to figure out that you’re terrible if you just look at everything objectively. Look at your records in tournaments. Look at the kind of decks you play in relation to the best players in your area. Heck, look at how people treat you. If you’re terrible, people are either going to ignore you or, ironically, completely placate you. Just because people are being nice to you when you play or talk to them does not mean you are good. I’m always nice to everybody because I like to be courteous, but that doesn’t mean I think that I think they’re good at Magic. In fact, that’s the kind of player that needs the most work: the player who has “that guy” disease.

Symptoms of “that guy” disease include, but are not limited to: always showing and/or telling others about your “ridiculous” draft decks, spouting off absolutely incorrect facts about a matchup solely based off the match you just played, telling other people in excruciating detail about how you absolutely crushed a good matchup, making sure everybody hears your boring and predictable bad beat stories about how you mulliganed to five and then lost, always defending your plays to the death when somebody else tells you they would have played differently, and complaining about losing because you didn’t draw one of your four-of sideboard cards while your opponent did. (I’d love to have people add on to this list of symptoms in the forums.) If I had a dollar for every time I had to sit through someone telling me about how they did something “awesome” like draft a deck with (OMG!) three Tendrils of Corruption, I could probably go to Austin for free. Please, don’t be “that guy.”

In short: stop being so high on yourself, realize you are going to have to get a lot better to succeed, and then proceed to step two.

2. Ask for help

If the first step is admitting you have a problem, the second step is asking for help with your problem. It’s very simple: if you want to improve, you need to work with better players. Numerous players who were once terrible that I now consider Magic players on par with myself have worked up the ranks in this way. Playing solely at your FNM week after week, or with your buddies that would rather play a Planechase game of EDH than playtest for the PTQ, isn’t going to cut it. You need to seek out the better players and work your way into their circle. The truth is that, in reality, most players you want to look up to in your local area are actually very nice people that would love to help you. All it takes is asking. Explain that you want to become a better player, and see if you can get invited to some of their more exclusive drafts or playtesting sessions. You will probably end up losing a lot, but don’t be discouraged. See how they think while playing. See how they act while playing. Ask them for advice at every opportunity. Play with them whenever you can. By being forced to come up to their level to win, you become better. (Additionally, Magic Online is a great tool for finding people to talk to and high level opponents to play against.)

3. Listen

A lot of fortunate players make it through the arduous step one, and then find step two and get through that. However, far too many miss out on step three: listen. The better players will undoubtedly tell you a lot of things, and it’s important that you actually listen to what they are telling you. If other people seem to come to a consensus that you made the wrong play, please do not defend it forever. You made the wrong play. It happens. There are a few players I know who will come up to me, ask me my opinion on their play, I’ll tell them what I think, and then, every time without fail, they’ll tell me they made the opposite play and begin to defend it. I make my same points again. They restate why they think it was the correct play. Buh? What was the point of even asking me to help you if you’re not going to even listen to my suggestion? If you ask for advice but don’t actually follow it, you are unlikely to improve any further.

At the starting level, those three pieces are by far the most important to becoming better. After that, though, is the next step.

The Second Step – Committing Yourself To Find Success At Tournaments

If you want to be successful, you need to take every opportunity you have to find success. I find it appalling when somebody says they want to play on the Pro Tour, yet won’t drive three hours for a PTQ or go to a Grand Prix within a couple state radius. If you want to be successful, you have to take every opportunity to achieve it. Yes, it is a long way to go, but you have to go to as many high-level tournaments as you can in a world where only one player ends up with a qualification at the end of the day. Magic can have a lot of variance, and you don’t want to bank on only one or two PTQs per season. Additionally, few things can improve your skill like playing against your competition weekend after weekend.

When you begin to succeed at the local PTQ level, you need to up your competition to continually remind you that there is still room to improve. It’s going to require an investment, but you need to be flying out to Grand Prix. If you honestly want to commit to becoming better, then you need to play in high level tournaments. If you find yourself playing on the Pro Tour, you want to be ready to play at that level of competition. Grand Prix and Magic Online are the two best ways to prepare, because you play against the kind of players you are going to have to face at the Pro Tour. If you can’t beat them there, how do you think you’re going to fare when the chips are down at the highest level of play?

Once again, you might do a lot of losing in this step. That’s okay. With losing comes an understanding of how you lost, and what you can do to improve.

The Third Step — Committing Yourself To Fix Holes In Your Game

After steps one and two, you should have an idea of where your strengths are, and where your weaknesses lie. One of the most influential phrases to me in Magic was something Jon Sonne said after he won Grand Prix: Philadelphia: “Every time you lose, you have to figure out why you lost, and not complain about it.” If you have been looking at how you keep losing or being outplayed, whether it’s in mulliganing, deck choice, or straight-up technical play, you should be able to figure out what to improve. You want to pull your strengths to your advantage, while simultaneously finding ways to improve your weaknesses.

Just because you’re bad with creature combat doesn’t mean you’re relegated to only playing control decks. Try playing a lot of Limited to try and become better at attacking and blocking. If you find yourself countering the wrong spells in control strategies, identify which resolved spells caused you to eventually lose and focus on those a little more. At the same time, try and use your strengths to your advantage in tournaments, until your weaknesses are hammered out. If you’re bad at attacking and blocking, don’t bring a deck like Elves to a Standard PTQ. If you’re bad at bluffing, don’t make a worse play in favor of trying to trick your opponent. In general, I recommend playing a lot of Limited, since it tests several important aspects of your game simultaneously. This is also where you playgroup comes in handy. Ask them for their opinions, and see where they think you went wrong.

When you figure out how you lose and begin to close those gaps, then your overall play begins to tighten up. Once you’re there, where your play feels significantly tightened, you are at the last step.

The Fourth Step — Committing Yourself To Do Whatever It Takes

Once you reach this step, you should have people you can work with, a network of people you can contact about anything, some success, and reasonable playskill. At this point, all you can try to do is continue to improve. Remember that you are still terrible in comparison to the best in the game, and that you can still become better. It might seem like you are at a plateau, but eventually, you will move upwards.

What do you have to do here? Much like in step three, you have to do whatever it takes and go to as many events as you can. Play as much online as possible, play within your group as much as possible, playtest as much as possible, and then go out to every Grand Prix or PTQ you can with the full intention of winning. You just have to keep trying, improving, and preparing, and eventually you will break through. A lot of things have to go right to win a PTQ, and the same is true for doing well at a Grand Prix. Don’t let losses or cold streaks keep you down. If your feel yourself slipping, review your play and see if you’re doing things differently than you used to.

This is where I am right now, and the reason why I am flying out to three more events at the end of the season. I want to try as hard as I can to qualify for San Diego, whether by winning a slot, Pro Points, or rating, and, well, I’m not likely to accomplish my goal by sitting at home. While my ultimate goal is to work for Wizards of the Coast as a game designer, until they hire me I want to enjoy playing in Magic tournaments as much as possible, and to take playing Magic as far as I possibly can. Hopefully many of you out there share similar aspirations about the Pro Tour, and can take what I have said today to heart. I’d love to receive any feedback you have in the forums, or via e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. I look forward to talking with you soon!

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else