High-Level Learning

If you want to become an expert at something, it’s said you need to practice it for 10,000 hours. Jeremy Neeman, winner of GP Brisbane, has three useful tips for achieving mastery at Magic, or anything.

Hey everyone!

I was pondering what I should write about this week. It occurred to me that many writers have talked at length about being a good Magic player, whereas relatively little column space has discussed exactly what it takes to become one. I’ve been tutoring/coaching students for almost eight years now and have been a student myself during that time, and all of that has given me a great interest in the process of learning.

Of course, the process of learning Magic is quite similar to learning a skill or a language or a subject at university—it’s a process both of theory and practice. You can read all the Magic articles you like, but without practice playing the game itself, many of the more interesting points of theory will be lost. Similarly, grinding thousands of games won’t make you better all by itself without some grounding in theory to help you process and understand the vast quantities of data. In this respect, Magic is exactly like everything else. Learning Spanish is accomplished by both learning rules of grammar and by talking frequently to Spanish speakers, not just one or the other.

For anything worth learning, assimilation is a long process. Our brains can absorb, understand, and assimilate new information only so fast. In his bestseller Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell coined the “10,000-hour rule.” This states that complete mastery of a subject can occur only after 10,000 hours of practice, a number which recurs throughout the literature of studies on exceptional people. Basically, you are not going to become Luis Scott-Vargas overnight. But through rigorous learning, correct practice, and hard work, you could be anything you want in five years’ time. Studies have shown that human happiness is not related to success itself but to the derivative of success. Here’s how to make the derivative of your Magic success positive:

1. Have a positive attitude.

Imagine two players, Bill and Bob, both go 0-2 at a local PTQ. Bill is incredibly frustrated—it’s the third straight PTQ he’s bombed out of. Overall he blames bad luck, waving aside his misplays with an “Oh, but that didn’t matter. I would have lost anyway.” Bill knows he’s better than many of the players around him, but results lately haven’t reflected that. That isn’t fair, and it’s that more than anything else that leaves him angry and depressed. He’s certain it wasn’t his own fault—the deck was good, and he played it well. Probably he will not re-evaluate the metagame before the next PTQ; he’ll keep trying to ram the same 75 home.

Bob, on the other hand, leaves in a more thoughtful mood. It’s true that if he’d drawn a land in the last four turns of the game, he would’ve won, so in that sense, he did get unlucky. But what about the Forbidden Alchemy he played the turn before? If he’d taken a land off that instead of the Consecrated Sphinx, he would’ve been able to cast Day of Judgment on time and take seven less damage. That would’ve made the difference, but did he screw up? After all, he didn’t know he was going to draw two more Consecrated Sphinxes off the top; that was quite unlikely. He’ll ask his friends about that later. As for his deck choice, Blue Sun’s Zenith underperformed. He thought he needed the raw card advantage, but Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy provide that without being nearly so clunky. He’d also like a Timely Reinforcements or two main to help with the aggro matchup; he definitely didn’t expect red to be so well represented.

Which of these players do you think is more likely to be playing on the Pro Tour next year? Bill might be a better player just now. But it’s clear from this transcription of their thought processes that Bob is rapidly improving, whereas Bill is not—if anything, doing the opposite. Bill is frustrated where Bob is contemplative; he’s judging where Bob is reacting. He’s thinking about himself where Bob is thinking about the game. Bill’s energy is going towards worrying about whether he won or lost; he brushes aside his misplays as irrelevant. In doing so, he betrays his attitude—that his play is already great, better than his opponents’. There’s no need to improve in that area. It’s only Lady Luck he has to worry about, and unfortunately, she’s a harsh mistress.

Notice this sentence in particular: “Bill knows he’s better than many of the players around him.” For all we know, Bill might be right. But ego-driven behavior like that will rarely help you improve. Importantly, whether Bill is better than the players around him is completely beside the point. All that matters is whether Bill is the best that Bill can be. If he’s not, comparisons to other players are irrelevant, and if he is, comparisons to other players are still irrelevant.

Bob doesn’t care in the slightest whether Bill’s better than he is. He knows “better than” comparisons are mostly useless, and even to the extent that they mean something, they fluctuate over time, so why worry? He might ask Bill about that Forbidden Alchemy play later, but what he’ll be looking for in Bill’s answer is the reasoning behind the play, not confirmation that he was right.

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Everyone makes trivial misplays now and again. Plays like tapping the wrong mana for your Stoneforge Mystic, leaving you unable to cast Mana Leak in the same turn, or handing your Arcbound Ravager over to your opponent when he casts Sower of Temptation on it. I call these “trivial” misplays not because they’re irrelevant, but because there’s really no debate about whether or not they’re wrong. They’re just brain farts. This goes for the slightly more subtle category as well, which far more people do far more often—for example, not casting Think Twice to possibly draw a Mana Leak, rather than letting their spell resolve (assuming you’re going to cast Think Twice in their end step anyway).

Many players hold themselves to an unrealistically high standard and expect to one day be forever free of brain farts. Guess what? You’re not. In a feature match at Pro Tour Nagoya, LSV tried to Turn to Slag a 4/6 Flameborn Viron that he’d just Twisted Imaged. Several top pros (including LSV) have run the classic turn 1 tapped land, turn 2 Inquisition of Kozilek, tank on the decision, accidentally pass turn without playing a land. Martin Juza told me a story about how he once tapped four of his five mana for Jace, the Mind Sculptor and fatesealed his opponent, seeing a Primeval Titan. Knowing that he had land and Mana Leak in hand, he left it on top and promptly shipped the turn, without playing his land(!). His opponent drew the Titan, gave Martin a strange look, and resolved it against his one open mana.

I’m only picking on LSV and Martin Juza because these happen to be the stories that I’ve heard. Every top pro has at least one hilariously embarrassing story in any given year. I probably have one for any given tournament. In round eight of GP San Diego, I was at four life, being attacked by a Pitchburn Devils and a Voiceless Spirit. I had a Kessig Cagebreakers that was about to attack for the win next turn, so all I needed to do was chump the Devils with my Civilized Scholar and untap. Instead I decided to loot with my Scholar, drew a creature to go with my hand of three creatures, realized what I’d just done, discarded a creature, and died :(

You’ll never be perfect. Kai Budde, at the height of his powers, got a match loss because he thought Whipgrass Entangler was Daru Sanctifiers and tried to morph it. The thing is that once you start playing on a higher level, plays on the level below start to sort themselves out. You shouldn’t constantly concentrate only on silly errors. Not only will you miss more elaborate plays and fail to consider how to play around combinations of spells, you will actually make more brain farts than if you hadn’t worried about them to start with!

People who play music will understand what I mean. If you constantly play the same piece, the same notes, over and over again, to try and get it perfect, you will make more mistakes than if you’d concentrated instead on flow and rhythm. Similarly, in Magic, when your focus is on how to play precisely around Mana Leak, you will most often just play the right lands unconsciously.

I’m not quite sure why this happens, but it probably has something to do with how our brains assimilate things subconsciously. When we perform a task so often it becomes effortless, we’re ingraining it into our muscle memory—we don’t have to think about it anymore. In fact, thinking becomes dangerous, the culprit. Have you ever stopped to try and actually remember what the combination is for your gym locker, or your bike lock, or your garage door, and drawn a blank? If you ever find yourself in this situation, the trick is to try and forget what you were thinking about and just go and open your garage door. Your subconscious will fill you in when you get there. This happens a ton in music as well, if you’re playing a piece you know well (but haven’t played in a while) and you stop to think about what comes next. More often than not, you’ll have no idea—but if you go back a few measures, move your brain out of the way, and just play, your fingers will know what to do.

Basically: don’t beat yourself up about misplays. If you want to play at a higher level, think at a higher level, and let your intuition do the rest.

3. Don’t be afraid to be wrong.

It’s been my experience that the people who are most convinced that they’re right are the people who are most likely to not be. This is actually not that surprising because when someone is convinced that they are right, they filter out new information and only listen to what already confirms their point of view. It’s a psychological phenomenon called “confirmation bias.” If you start out under a misapprehension, the worst thing you can do is cling to it.

Those who try and convince others they’re right all the time are also trying to demonstrate intellectual superiority. It’s normal to assume being right is good and being wrong is bad. Actually, being wrong in the right places and at the right times is just as important as being right because you have to be wrong before you can be right. When preparing for a tournament, I usually have strong opinions about how good a deck is/what deck I’m playing/the importance of various cards, and I’ll argue tenaciously for my point of view—but I have no problem changing my mind and siding with the person I was arguing against, if they can convincingly demonstrate their point (usually with results). Being wrong while playtesting for an event doesn’t cost you, so get that out of the way, and be right at the actual event.

I could probably cite hundreds of examples. One of the biggest successes for our team—the Storm deck we built for Pro Tour Philly, that took me to 9-1 and got Rite of Flame banned—was at a tournament I wanted to play Affinity. Affinity was putting up the numbers against most of the decks we had in our gauntlet—Zoo, 12Post, attempts at Merfolk, Bant, and Jund—but it was inconsistent and mulliganed way more than I was comfortable with. Still, it would’ve been easy for me to dismiss our initial attempts at Storm because the list we had was highly untuned. We started, like everyone else, with Swath/Grapeshot, instead of Empty/Bushwhacker, and no card drawing spells. That iteration of the deck was much more vulnerable to mulliganing and disruption, particularly the widely played Qasali Pridemage. Luckily, other people saw that the deck had potential, pushed for it, tuned it, and as it turned out we had probably the best deck in the field. I’ll take that over being right.

As a corollary, don’t be afraid to express opinions. A lot of people won’t act on their own impressions out of fear of being wrong. One of the people I test with (whose name I won’t mention, but he knows who he is :P) will often casually mention that he thinks card X is good but won’t do anything about it. Then a week later when we all decide that the deck should be playing four of card X, he’ll be all outrage: “I told you so!” Of course, if he argued more strongly for his opinions or just acted on them without worrying about what the rest of us said, we’d all be better off. Either he’d be right and we’d move on, or he’d be wrong and we’d move on, and in both cases we’d get results a lot faster, which are of course the only thing anyone should be worried about.

Until next time,