Getting The Elusive Win

If you’ve ever wondered to yourself how people just seem to “get there” but never seem to “get there” yourself, this article is for you. What are the steps to understanding yourself, Magic, and winning? How do you accomplish your goals?

Do you ever find yourself wondering why you never get the big win? Do you ever want to just give up because it seems every time you travel to a larger tournament you never “get there?” Do you ever wonder how the big names such as Brad Nelson, LSV, Gabriel Nassif, Paulo, or even Kai Budde have been so successful? Well, these may not be all of the answers, but this article should be able to give you a better perspective on these questions and more.

I am a small-town Iowa guy who just qualified for the Pro Tour. I had to do a lot of things to realize what I had to do to finally get to the big time. Now I have my shot. As I just did qualify, I have been thinking about a lot of things, and this has caused me to backpedal in my mind to really understand how I have gotten here today. The big things that stand out are the topics I will be talking about.

1. Know the type of player you are and know yourself

My number one motto for myself is to never play in a tournament you don’t think you can win. Well that kind of describes the type of player I am.

I am, for all intents and purposes, classified as a “Spike,” but there is more to it than just that. I love this game. I have devoted more time, blood, sweat, and hard work into this game than most people do at their actual job. By doing all of this, I have come to understand myself more than I could ever realize.

I know now that I am more of a methodical player; sometimes I may even be more cautious because of it. That even carries over into my everyday life. Just like in everyday life, you want to think about your moves before you do them, and you want to plan out your turn before you cast your first spell.

Sometimes people overthink these things, and that is human nature. Once we do start using our brains, we tend to use them all the time. You just have to think hard and try to figure out what kind of player you are, and then you can realize how you can make yourself better—not just in Magic, but in everyday life as well.

We all learn in a different way. I am more of a hands-on kind of person. I learn by seeing things done and having them showed to me. I am sure many of you are the same, and many of you are different when it does come to learning things. When you know how you learn in your own way, you can seek things to increase your knowledge.

I know that people say that if you work hard at something, you can accomplish it, and it is true. The main hurdle to overcome for any goal is yourself. This is what the big pros of the Magic world have done. They are still learning though, and if you walk up to them today and ask them if they think they have nothing left to learn, they would laugh and say they have a lot to learn. That also goes along with the next topic.

2. Be honest with yourself

The title of this subject basically explains it all. You have to be honest with yourself to improve yourself. You have to figure out and understand what is holding you back. Some people are in denial about this and think that it is all variance or blame a major part of their losses on this; hell, sometimes I do this a little too much. This is something to avoid as much as possible. I see so many people in tournaments I have played just randomly go off on their opponent after they lose. They belittle them by making fun of a deck choice or a card choice or a play that may have been incorrect at the time and the opponent won because of it.

Here is a news flash for anyone who does that: You are to blame for your loss! The choices you made going into the tournament, match, or whatever has caused your loss. You just have to be honest with yourself about your loss, learn from it, and play tight next round.

3. You control the outcome

As Jean Roqua said to Jake Tyler in the movie Never Back Down: “You control the outcome.” Whether it be deck selection, mulligans, or even attacking with a 2/2 into a 3/3, you always have a chance to X-0 any tournament. But you must recognize your mistakes and learn from them. Be open to learning from every game you play, every draft pick you make, and every sealed pool you have viewed on your friends’ Facebook pictures. Just make sure you do not learn the wrong lesson.

If you play in such a way that gives you a 95% chance of winning, but your opponent drew his one outer, then you should go back and look to see if there was a way that you could have played around that possibility and given yourself a 98-100% chance to win—it’s not that you should always play scared just because your opponent has a Fireball in his draft deck.

Never try to convince yourself that there was absolutely nothing you could do because there is always something you can do. Once you realize what you could have done differently, whether during a game, after a game, or even after a tournament, you can learn from whatever you made a mistake on and increase your win percentage later on if put in the same situation.

4. Know thy enemy

Knowing your own thought process helps in a lot of ways, which goes along with knowing yourself. Figuring out how your brain works is a big step to improving yourself as a MTG player and as a person. Once you do this, you can figure out how others think and do something better. This is also known by many as “the curve.” The biggest thing about this game we all play is if we can stay ahead of the curve, we can be successful. A fine example of this is when I played at the SCG Open in Indy last year. I was emailed a couple Bant lists from my friends Gabriel Stoffa and Brandon Scheel. Here is the list for reference:

The big thing about the list is that it had a great matchup versus Jund, which was the king at the time. While other players wanted to play Spreading Seas versus the G/B/R bandit, the Bant deck had a ton of value cards and cards that could capitalize on Jund’s spot removal. The best card in the deck was by far Vines of Vastwood. It just won games essentially by itself; yeah, yeah, it had to have 1 of the 19 “good” creatures. When you played a Knight of the Reliquary and they tapped out on their turn to play Maelstrom Pulse, playing a Vines tended to mean they just lost. That deck was ahead of the curve that day, and it led me to an 8-1-1 record and a tenth place finish out of 669 people. 

This concept can also be used for drafts as well. To do well at drafting takes more than just knowing your pick orders; it’s knowing your opponent’s pick orders, whether you see a rare or a common missing from the pack. You can usually map out what the other people in your draft pod are playing and sometimes even predict what was taken out of the pack. Nobody is perfect, and you cannot always remember every card that you passed, but you can think about what others will take after you. You just have to try to understand how they think.

5. Figure out what you want to do in this game and figure out how to get there

Here is a question I want you all to ask yourselves: ”What do I want to accomplish in this game?” Now think about your answer, then try to envision yourself doing it.

I am sure some of you had answered that you want to go to the Pro Tour and win it. We all have different goals and dreams about what we want to do in this game and in our lives. You just have to be able to realistically accomplish this. If you want to win a Pro Tour, let alone Top 8 one, it takes a lot more than most can give to this game. You basically have to live, breathe, and sweat cardboard—or digital cardboard—for a long time. Things don’t just happen overnight.

Last year, I played online eight or more hours a day, almost seven days a week. The days I didn’t play online, I was probably traveling with friends to a PTQ, SCG Open, or some sort of tournament of bigger than FNM caliber. Magic was my life, and I hated every minute of it.

When I asked myself the question of what I wanted to accomplish, I said the obvious answer any Spike would … win a PT. Well that was just unrealistic. Yes, I tested like a madman, but honestly I wasn’t even on the Tour, so how the hell was I suppose to win one?

You have to think about your goal in different steps. To win a tournament, you have to play one round at a time, but you should only focus on winning one round at a time, and don’t start counting your chickens before they hatch. You have to win a slot to make it, so make it your goal to win a PTQ.

Once you attain that goal, you should make it your goal to play the best deck possible at that particular Pro Tour. And “best deck” might mean playing the same thing everyone else is, so don’t let your opening appearance be crippled by thinking you need to be an innovator to win. Then, when you think you have attained competence with the best deck, just play it one round at a time; never get too caught up with what could be, and think about what you can realistically make happen at the moment.

6. Take advantage of all the resources you can

We are lucky today to be in a world connected by the constant updates of the Internet. We have a lot of resources at our disposal. Whether it is reading articles, watching videos, or just networking, it all matters; even the small things. Just read as much as possible and soak up all the info you can. Take notes if you have to, but never leave a stone unturned for resources.

This includes reading through comments from what many would call noobs or casual players. Though much of what is said are just pats on the back for the article or some version of their decklist with a couple cards you already tested, read on. Occasionally some players will offer ideas that might have missed your initial evaluations or pose a situation in a light you had not contemplated. Either way, their questions or suggestions can allow you to hone your skills and be prepared for some strange situations, or aim a lightning strike to the brain, helping you discover how amazing a card might be in this or that week’s metagame—look back to the Vines of Vastwood in Bant.

Whether you’re a natural at this game, or someone who isn’t, you can do what you set your mind to.

These steps are just some of the things that you can do to be the best you can be at this game. The pros of this game have worked hard to make a name for themselves. Some of us may never have a shot at becoming the next breakout star, and some of us have the potential for it. You have to work hard, and you will give yourself a better chance at your goal. Never give up on yourself; never allow yourself to listen to the haters:, and you can do it.

Here is a checklist that I like to go through in my head before every tournament.

  1. Do I have the basic essentials? Pen/Paper/Playmat/Dice
  2. Do I know the metagame for this week?
  3. What do I think others will play in this meta?
  4. Am I familiar with the deck enough to play it well for 7+ rounds?
  5. Did I listen to Eye of the Tiger more than ten times? (Motivational music, or other things that get you motivated can help a lot.)
  6. Make sure to have fun!

That’s all for now, I hope this article helps a few people out there. So good luck, keep practicing, and play tight, but most importantly HAVE FUN!