I don’t know anyone who wants to be good at Magic for just one event. I don’t know anyone who thinks, “If I win this one Grand Prix,
and then never win another match in my life, I’d die happy.”
We want not only to win, we want to keep winning. Everyone wants to constantly get better â€”Â but if you tie that goal strictly to
the act of winning a high-level event, then you’ll probably be waiting a long time. Magic is a game of skill… but there’s also a lot
of chance built in, and unless you can learn to accept that element, your progress in the game will always be hindered by the roll of the dice.
This isn’t about luck, though. “Luck,” as most Magic players use it, is a bad word. It’s generally used in terms like
“lucksack” or “lucked out” to describe the times when your opponent drew better than you did. Players never get lucky; only
their opponents do.
There is a Chinese proverb that luck is when preparation meets opportunity, and I believe that. People love to brag about the times they played to
their one out, and drew it â€”Â but it somehow seems less just when their opponent does the same thing. If they were to look at all of their
games from an outsider’s perspective, they’d generally see that they get lucky just as often as their opponents.
It’s just hard to notice because of how our brains are set up.Â Humans are very good at finding patterns, but not very good at understanding
statistics. It’s an adaption that probably helped us out greatly when we were trying to not get eaten by predators â€”Â after all, that
weird shape in the corner of our eye probably isn’t a leopard, but it’s better to react like it is every time than risk getting eaten
â€”Â but it also leads us to difficulties in the modern, mostly leopard-free, world.
We have this vestigial code in our brains that likes to fit every piece of data we get into a nice neat pattern. It tries to make sense out of any
random signal, and generally helps us lie to ourselves even when the higher functions in our brain know that it’s wrong. It creates shapes in
clouds, faces on Mars, voices in the static between radio stations.
Our brains just don’t handle random chance well. We have to build a narrative around it. This is why when you win a tournament, you think
“I played so well!” or when you lose, you think “I did something wrong,” even when neither of those are necessarily true.
It’s important to build in a buffer in your mind between the act of winning and losing from the notions of “good” and
“bad.” Try and take some of the emotional responses out of the equation, and take a good hard look at where you are.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that I rank “introspection” as the most important tool for players to utilize when they
are looking to improve at Magic. In my mind, it’s one of the few things that all players can use (regardless of what level they are currently at)
to constantly improve their edge. Knowing yourself and understanding your own thought processes helps to bring out a certain self-awareness of what you
are doing (and why you’re doing it) that helps you to identify the areas where you need improvement, and the areas where you are the strongest.
After all, the moment when you recognize that your autopilot is aimed straight at the ground is the first step in changing that
One of the hardest parts of this introspection is taking the black-and-white results of a game, match, or tournament, and turning that into a
full-color analysis of your own decisions. While there’s almost always something you could have done better in a match you lost, it’s
important to also see what you could have done better in the matches you won, and what you did right in the games you lost.
When you simply evaluate the level of your play to the number of matches you win, you end up taking way too much information from the random variance
that’s present in all games of Magic.
In each event I play in, my goal is to play better Magic than the week before, and learn more about myself and the game at large. I take a great deal
personal satisfaction out of making the correct play, even if it doesn’t result in me winning the match. After all, there is a point
where you have to accept that Magic has a great deal of randomness in it. You can do everything perfectly and lose. That’s part of what makes
Magic exciting, and what can make it difficult to learn from.
To be sure, playing perfectly has a strong correlation to winning â€”Â but it’s not a one-to-one correlation. The best you can do is play
in a way that best pushes the odds as far in your favor and hope that the cards fall your way.
Some of the best games of Magic I’ve played in my life ended with my opponent easily beating me, knocking me out of a tournament. On the other
hand, I’ve bumbled my way through more match wins than I can count, relying on my opponent drawing brick after brick for turns in a row. I
don’t feel bad about winning a tournament that way â€”Â but I also can’t ignore the mistakes that I made simply because I won.
There isn’t much worse than learning the wrong lesson from a play just because it turned out well once. It’s easy to get stuck into a rut
and to keep making the same mistakes over and over again, each time hoping that it will produce the same anomalous result as the first time. It’s
easy to let your own wins drag you down.
At the end of the day, only so much of a tournament’s outcome comes down to your own actions before or during that tournament. Making all of the
right decisions will help you â€”Â but that isn’t to say that you can’t do a good deal wrong and still win. I once gave my friend
Amos a copy of the U/W Salvagers deck mere minutes before a Mirrodin Block PTQ. If you don’t remember the deck (and I won’t fault you if
you don’t), it had positive matchups against everything in the format â€”Â except for Affinity, where it won about 20% of the time. I
might also mention that the field was about half Affinity.
So what did he do? He dodged the bogeyman for six of the seven Swiss rounds, then managed to not play it once in the top 8. He won that PTQ. He had the
exact wrong deck for the tournament, but was rewarded for it through great pairings. Sometimes, even bad bets pay off.
What’s important, though, is that you take home the right lesson from that experience, and not let your success bias you towards playing that
exact same type of deck in the future.
Putting too much weight on the results of every individual match also ends up weighing heavily on you emotionally when you do inevitably pick up loses
during an event. It’s easy to bemoan your luck when you lose to a match where you are on the high end of the 65/35 matchup â€”Â but you
have to understand that the 35% means something. Just because the matchup is in your favor doesn’t mean you should be crestfallen if you
don’t win every time. After all, 35% of the time you shouldn’t be winning.
If you were to play it a hundred times in the 1v1 queues on Magic Online, you’d quickly get over the fact that sometimes you just brick for
multiple turns in a row, and appreciate the statistics. I don’t know a lot of people who are able to do that, though. Instead, we are forced to
take very small pieces of data and extrapolate them into huge overarching truths. That’s the reason why trying to learn based on simply winning
and losing can often be detrimental.
One of the frustrating things about tournament Magic is that you just can’t personally play enough times to let the odds really even themselves
out well. Playtesting a matchup can take thirty minutes, if you want to play best of three with sideboarding. Better players will win more in the long
run â€”Â but there’s a reason it’s called “the long run.” It takes time for variance to work itself out of the
equation, and most people are simply unwilling (or unable) to factor that into the equation. They see themselves (or others) only as good as their last
finish, and tend to believe that someone can improve dramatically overnight, going from a “bad” 4-3 player, to a “great” PTQ
It just isn’t that simple. While you can go from one result to the other, it doesn’t mean that much by itself. I’ve known terrible
players who won PTQs, and good players who got stuck making top 8 after top 8 for years before they finally racked up a win.
A game like Blackjack is helpful to look at when thinking about how play skill and chance are related. A person off the street with a basic
understanding of the game can probably get around a 40-45% win percentage with a little bit of coaching. But if you were to study the game, figuring
out the mathematically correct play for each hand (heck, most casinos will even let you keep the cheat sheet next to you to reference), then you can
get your win percentage up to 49% Â â€”Â the closest to a fair bet you’ll find in any casino.
(This is without card counting, or any of the other tricks that make books like Bringing Down the House or Jonny Magic and the Cardshark Kids such
entertaining reads. This near-evenness is just straight-up math.)
Bolstered with your new-found knowledge, you sit down at the casino with your barely competent friend, and each of you are dealt hands equaling sixteen
points against the dealer’s face-up seven. You know from your training that the correct play is to hit, so you do and bust. Your friend,
concerned that he will bust too, chooses to stand. Of course the dealer reveals a five, then flips over a ten and busts.
Your friend is relieved in his good play, since not only did he win the hand, but if he had taken the hit, he would have got the ten and
busted as well. Still confident in your strategy, you and your friend are dealt the same hand again. You stand on a fifteen against the dealer’s
six. Your friend takes the hit, gets a five and wins when the dealer reveals another five, then an eight.
All of a sudden you are down two bets, and contemplating throwing your strategy out the window. You’re left questioning if you were making the
right plays and your friend, infused with confidence with how well he is playing, is starting to write the opening paragraph on his book called
“How To Beat Blackjack.”
The thing is that nobody in their right mind plays one hand of Blackjack and leaves the table. If you’re there to play, you’re going to
play hundreds (and probably thousands) of hands. If you and your friend end up playing that thousand hands, chances are very good that you will end up
doing better than him in the long run. After a few hours, you’ll probably see where making the correct plays pays off over time for you, and
making the wrong ones punishes him. Theoretically, you’ll both be down money â€”Â but you will be down less.
You just can’t get those thousands of games in a row with Magic. Trying to take your results from a few tournaments and extrapolate a view of how
well you are doing solely off of those is folly. You get back binary results that don’t tell you much. If, in your mind, there is no difference
between losing a game that you threw away, and losing one where you gave yourself several chances to win, then you’ll have a hard time learning
from either. You have to be able to weigh all of those differently in your mind. Those results are part of the larger picture â€”Â not the
The best we can do in Magic is to examine the individual plays and progression of the game, then look for ways to improve them. That means knowing how
likely you are to draw a land in the next two turns, so you can decide to discard either two lands, or a land and a spell, to Blightning. That means
doing the math for combat a turn or two ahead, so you know when you need to hold back extra creatures to block, and when they need to march to their
doom to force an extra point of damage or two through. It means doing the math on mulligans (even if it is after the game), and knowing when
it’s right to keep a one-lander on the draw, and when it isn’t.
Simply saying “It worked out, so it was good” or “I missed a land for three turns, so I shouldn’t ever do it again”
won’t work. You need real data to make informed decisions in the future.
The more you can learn the odds (and learn to accept them) the more you’ll find that “luck” plays a smaller and smaller part in
Magic. There’ll still be chanceÂ â€”Â but you’ll be able to make informed decisions around it. The better these decisions, the
more likely you are to win the game.
And when you make good blocks, and good attacks, but still lose to your opponent’s “lucky” top-decked burn spell, you’ll know
it wasn’t fate laughing at you, but just a part of the game.
Remember that proverb about luck being preparation and opportunity? Well, you can’t control your opponent’s preparation â€”Â but
you can affect their opportunity. The tighter you play, the fewer opportunities your opponent will have to get lucky. Instead of moping, you can begin
to learn from the game, playing back the turns in your head, and figuring out if you could have set yourself up to win at one more life.
…Or you can look back, and decide that you did everything right, and you were “lucky” just to be in the position you were at. In
either case, you’ll be in a better position to make informed decisions in the future, and a better player for it.