Goal Orientation

AJ Kerrigan returns with some advice about goals and how you can use them to achieve more success in Magic tournaments.

It’s been quite a while.

With the ever-increasing workload that school presents me with, I’m finding it harder and harder to put as much focus on Magic lately. When I do put out content, I at least try to say things that have some amount of substance, but I’m unable to do that if I can’t focus on the state of the game. Top it off with the decreasing appeal to play Magic Online thanks to the removal of Daily Events and you have a perfect lack of information flowing through my head. This past weekend I took a few decks into the eight-man events, but nothing particularly impressed me other than the Mono-Black Devotion deck that I and half of the other Standard players have been playing for a while now.

My original plan for today was to find a bunch of interesting decklists online and present them to you in my typical fashion. I went into the tank and came out with a startling revelation.

Decklists are pretty boring.

I love cool and interesting decklists as much as the next guy, but I can only look at so many before I just want to look up old Caw-Blade lists. This week I’m going to try something a little different. I want to diverge from my typical style and talk about something that in my opinion does not get nearly enough focus.

On this very website, you can find hundreds of articles on the fundamentals of gameplay and tournament preparation. Cliches such as eating a good breakfast and getting a lot of sleep are incredibly important, but I like to think that we all know that already. They are cliches for a reason after all. Unfortunately, some of the more complex ideas are swept under the rug. The lack of time in the spotlight may be because of the complexity or that there is no one real answer. It’s easy to set guidelines for getting a good amount of sleep before an event, but ask about the best ways to go about testing a new deck and even the most seasoned veterans will agree that there is no right answer.

Today I want to focus on some of the obstacles that I face in the game we all love and some of the general ways that I try to overcome them. Everyone has a goal when it comes to Magic, some vague and some specific. For some players, having fun is the vaguest but also the most rewarding goal imaginable. For others, mastering the lines of play for their deck and then using it to win a PTQ is what matters. Some players take their goals so far to the extreme that they become very linear in their thought processes. I certainly know some people who can’t understand why winning a StarCityGames.com Open is not the top goal for everyone.

My favorite part about goals is the obstacles. Given enough time at a constant temperature and pressure, anyone can get from point A to point Z if you don’t consider what is in between. The real challenge is to overcome every bump along the way without steering too far off track. The fun part is when these obstacles are ever changing, which was what makes Magic and similar games like chess enjoyable from my perspective. You know where you start and where you need to get, but you can’t really know what obstacles you will meet along the way. Thinking on the fly and adapting to change are incredibly desirable skills in our generation, not just in Magic but in society.

What follows are the obstacles that so many people face yet so few overcome in no particular order. Keep in mind that everything is based on my experience and as such your mileage may vary.

Broad Goals

Everyone has a goal when they do something, whether it is readily available or subconscious. Sometimes they are simple goals, such as eating food to get rid of your hunger. Sometimes they reach amazing complexity, like trying to win a PTQ or even a Pro Tour. When you finally sit down and decide that you want to win a PTQ, you have to ask yourself what that means.

When you’re hungry and tell yourself that you want food, you will typically break down the goal subconsciously into steps that are plausible. You can’t always make food appear out of thin air, but you can go to the kitchen, find something you want to eat, cook it, and then ingest it.

With more complex goals, this process is no longer subconscious, and that’s where my solution comes in. So you want to win a PTQ. Well, how do you do that? Break it into steps that you can actually complete. For the average player, you can’t just show up and win a PTQ. But you can do small things such as picking a deck you like, learning its lines of play, seeing how it plays versus other decks, and so on. If you stick to this plan, in no time you’ll improve immensely.

The best part about tiny goals is that while you may not always reach point Z on the first try you don’t lose all of your progress. If you just show up to a PTQ and lose without any real preparation, where are you now? The answer unfortunately is back to square one. Think of mini-goals as progress saves in video games. If I learned my deck’s line of play but at the PTQ I messed up during sideboarding, which likely cost me my Top 8 match, I don’t fall back to point A. Now I don’t have to waste time learning my deck’s lines of play again; I can just refine it and instead put time into learning how to sideboard. Eventually, you keep building on and refining these skills until everything you do are just minor refinements along the way.

The coolest part is when you do these things enough they become natural and subconscious. You no longer have to think about the motions that go into winning a PTQ; you just do them. If you reach that point without proper practice, though, you’ll naturally be doing it in the incorrect way, which creates many more problems than it solves.


This is what I consider to be the beast that I struggle with the most. Life is full of amazing opportunities, but when your brain refuses to let you taste the fruits in front of you, things quickly spoil. Procrastination is often synonymous with laziness, but speaking as somebody who often suffers from both, they are very different. Laziness is when you do not even want to do something to begin with. Procrastination is when you really want to do something but another part of your brain keeps pushing it aside.

For many, procrastination is painful because you really want to do the thing that you’re procrastinating, whether it’s to actually do that activity or for the amazing feeling of weightlessness that you get after you’ve completed something that took a heavy time investment. On top of that, procrastination is rarely beaten through simple will power. For the real sufferer, it is only defeated by panic, such as the sight of a deadline.

At this point, I imagine you’d like me to cut to the chase. You’re here for Magic after all. Well, let’s go back to that player who really wants to win a PTQ. They’ve created their plausible goals, and they’re now ready to start practicing to win. Unfortunately, actually planning out these goals is only half of the battle. You now actually have to reach them. You know that right now you want to figure out the different lines of play in your deck, but that little monkey in your brain refuses to let you. You can always just do it tomorrow. Why not have a false and unearned relaxation session right now?

For most people, the biggest hurdle is actually getting started—once you’ve started, the rest feels natural. So how do we get started? Well, it took me a while, but I finally found a way that works for me so I recommend you give it a try.

The first step is to create a clear and concise schedule. Don’t just say that you want to start testing your deck in November. Set as close to an exact date and time as you can. The more specific, the better. The second step is that once that deadline rolls around you force yourself to put everything down and get started. A common theme for procrastinators is that you don’t properly stick to the schedule. You tell yourself that you’ll exercise at 8 PM, but when the time rolls around, you find yourself in the middle of a Rubik’s Cube. You can always go jog once you’re done.

As I said, the key is to drop everything immediately. As soon as you create overhang, the monkey goes crazy again, and he drags that overhang out as far as possible. At 8 PM, you put that cube down and get to work. At first it’ll be difficult, but in the end you’ll be much happier for it. If any of you have a solution for procrastination that you’ve found effective, let everyone know in the comments. You never know what will work until you give it a try.

Confidence & Patience

One of the biggest plagues in the Magic community is the idea of being results oriented. What that means is that you base your opinion of something, whether it is a card, a player, a deck, or anything else, on a single event or a single set of events. I won a game with Pyxis of Pandemonium last week, so I’m going to play that card in all of my Limited decks. It may seem dumb, but it’s actually natural for our minds to do things like this. The brain likes to find patterns even when they aren’t there, and coincidences or outliers are often not an immediate consideration.

A lot of people expect to see immediate results in what they do. If they employ good testing techniques but then do not make Top 8 of the first two PTQs they play in, it can become demoralizing. The key here is to just be patient, confident, and always look to improve.

First of all, you need to give change time. If change happened immediately, more people would do it, but it is often a time-intensive process. Don’t look to see if you have met your goal yet. Look to see if you are getting closer. Maybe you missed Top 8 of the PTQ but did better than you normally do, which means that you are closer to reaching your goal. It’s a process that often needs time to simmer, so don’t always expect the trophies and money to roll in right away.

Second, don’t lose confidence in yourself. Mistakes are only failures if you learn nothing from them. Look at mistakes as an opportunity to learn, not just as a reflection on your skill or character.

Lastly, always look for opportunities to improve and grow. Just because you met all of your small goals does not mean that they cannot be improved. Sure, you know how to sideboard in a matchup, but maybe you can now consider how your opponent is sideboarding versus you. Or maybe you want to sideboard differently on the play versus the draw. Always look for opportunities where you can fine tune your skills. No one is perfect; there is always something to be learned.

Anyway, those are my ramblings for this week. I know this isn’t my typical style, but I like to try new things from time to time. Let me know what you thought about this article. Did you like it or did you hate it? Do you have any of your own views on the subject? If there is a particular idea that gives you trouble or if you have found your own solutions to some of these problems, I’d love to hear them. I’d like to close with this:

Magic strategy isn’t always about the sweet new decklist. Sometimes you need to take a step back and look at the fundamentals in how you approach the game and what it means to you. Oftentimes you’ll find these simple topics can make or break your success much more than any fifteenth sideboard card ever could.