Magic: How It Is Done

Friday, December 3rd – A while ago, somebody asked me how I felt about working on the Pro Tour, but not getting to play. I thought I had a good answer ready…

Whenever people ask me how magic is done, I simply point in the other direction and run away. It’s the best answer that I can give. 

I first learned how to play Magic having stumbled across it while looking for new card tricks. Yes, I can shuffle a pack of cards leaving it in the same order that it started in. No, I don’t do so at Magic events. I like not knowing what card is coming next, and I can only hope for your sake that your opponents feel the same way. Magic and magic (capitalization here used to devastating effect – in future paragraphs I’ll refer to magic tricks as conjuring) have only fleeting amounts in common, considering that they both involve little rectangles of cardboard, and earnest young men who would rather play than strike up a conversation with the girl in the corner who knows for damn sure exactly how fit she is.

The most striking similarity between conjuring and Magic is that overwhelming desire to know how things are done, when frequently this knowledge doesn’t unlock anything like the sorts of doors that we might hope. Did you enjoy the trick more when the coin materialized behind your ear, or when you realized that it was concealed in your uncle’s hand until just the right moment? I could tell you how Copperfield flies; it isn’t because he’s lighter than his own air of self-importance, though that is my favorite suggestion. In finding out, you wouldn’t then be able to do it, and it would be that much less fun to watch him do it too. 

So it is with tech. Having a great decklist will only take you so far in Magic. Reading articles and acquiring pick orders is no panacea. Scarier still, tech that has been unleashed on the internet gets decreasingly helpful the more people have read it. At this point I should probably point out that I have no revelations as to card choices in this article whatsoever. Whatever revelations I have about decklists or draft strategies will stay under my tinfoil hat, keeping my head warm, and perhaps winning me the odd game. That isn’t to say that I don’t have some advice that will make you better though. To find it, you’ll have to keep on reading. 

The best conjurers don’t mystify us with tricks that are necessarily all that much more convoluted or clever than those performed by the worst kind of awkward hack. In some cases, the awkward hacks will be attempting to perform the very same tricks as the masters. The difference is, the masters do it very, very well. A performance art, conjuring requires a certain finesse, bringing together both the rudimentaries of a technique along with something a little more esoteric – the sort of aura that sells something as really being magical. 

If I give LSV your decklist and let him practice with it some, he’ll likely get better results than you. Some of this will be down to his making less mistakes. Some of it might be down to his alarming propensity to get away with fantastically greedy mulligan decisions. It may be that he spots that some cards in the deck are virtual mulligans anyway, which he would remove given the opportunity, but without such a chance, he simply shuffles away more opening hands than you. On top of this, he might squeak an extra win here and there from opponents being a bit intimidated to play against him. He may spot a few occasions where opponents are not playing their cards correctly, and point them out, changing the course of the game and ultimately getting a win that you might not. LSV might spot that his opponent, having drawn their hand, picked out three cards and placed them at one end of their hand, signaling a three-land keep. The pace of play that LSV takes might set his opponents into a rhythm whereby they’re either making decisions too fast, or too slow, causing them to make more mistakes. His bluffs might be better sold than yours, while his reads might be more accurate. 

LSV could be one of many really good players in the game. Ultimately, I chose his name because it’s faster to type than Turian’s. The point is that there are only so many of the elements above that you’ll ever pick up from reading an article. It turns out that the best way to get to Carnegie Hall really is to practice, practice, practice. When the best players in the game are firing on all cylinders, they have more time to think about the difficult decisions, because they’ll already have made the easy ones more or less subconsciously. The brain is a wonder at finding patterns given half a chance, and by having played a lot of games, the best players will simply have already got lines of play ready for many situations where you or I have not. 

If all you got out of this article is that practicing will make you better, I’d be fine with that. There is, of course, more though. Having done a great deal of coverage at the top level in the game, and having watched the best players at their best, there seem to be some patterns that fall among the top players that don’t even necessarily come from those whose raw skill level is high enough that they’re regulars on tour. 

PTQs to me are almost exactly the level of competition I least want to compete at. The hunger and aggression to be found at many PTQs is something that you don’t see amongst players playing for Top 8 of a Pro Tour. Why is this? The prize is that much bigger, and achieving it is more or less the pinnacle of most Magic careers. True, prize support for those that miss Top 8 is a little more exciting for Pro Tour players than PTQers, but I think that there’s more to it than this. Why are Pro Tour players more fun? Because they’re having a good time. Magic is a fun game, and if you’re playing it and not enjoying playing it for any length of time, then you have to wonder why that might be. The Pro Tour is more than just a place with the biggest prizes in Magic. It’s more than a shot at glory. The Pro Tour is a chance to see fun people in a new city a few times a year, who you might not otherwise get to hang out with at all. 

Playing in a Pro Tour Top 8 is serious business. There’s a lot of money riding on not screwing up. It’s also bloody cool though. The best players seem to be at home with the pressure of the game. They’ve played enough that while mana screw happens, it can be seen in perspective. One bad tournament can be learned from. A bad run of events is just part of what might still be a successful season, or career. By celebrating the good bits when they happen, the best players ride the variance wave with just a little bit more style than many of their contemporaries. 

Being part of a team is more helpful than just having a ready source of decklists. At the risk of sounding like a John Hughes screenplay, being part of a team means that some of the validation that players are chasing at the Pro Tour has already been achieved. Results are shared, and losses don’t sting quite so much when you know that you were instrumental in the successes going on across the other side of the room. Hell, if you’re having a good time with good people, the fact that you can’t win them all no longer seems like such a big deal. 

A while ago, somebody asked me how I felt about working on the Pro Tour, but not getting to play. I thought I had a good answer ready, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that my answer then was not a great one. At the time, my response was to point at the final standings. My flights and hotels had been paid for, and I had earned more money than Oliver Ruel at that particular event. In practice though, the money was not the reason that I was there. I was there to see my friends, to try new foods, and to live vicariously through people I like doing well for themselves. At the same time I’d get to let others live vicariously through that same success by writing about it. It kind of helps that I like to write and don’t like heading to an event and losing, but really, I was making the most of the best way I knew to get on Tour and have a good time. True, I don’t get to play more than the odd draft, but drafting is more or less just the icing on an already tempting cake.

While it’s quite out of character for me, I’m going to tell you how magic is done. There are rules about this sort of thing, and I’m basically breaking them, but I don’t really mind. Magic is done in the minds of those people watching. Whatever the technique is that’s being used, it’s misdirection that makes it work. The technique will just be whatever needs to happen to make the effect happen. Misdirection is what gets people started on one line of thought, only for the carpet of reality to be pulled out from underneath them. 

Sometimes misdirection will be something as simple as a look – right in the eye, which distracts for a second while a key move happens. Sometimes, it will be a case of leading and following, where a pattern is set up, only to be later broken. Sometimes, you’ll point in one direction, then run away. Misdirection is hard to teach but easy to learn, once you start thinking not about the moves, but how you interact with those around you, and practice it every day. 

When it comes to Magic, the misdirection has been there since the very beginning. It’s artfully placed on every single card. That so many people miss that it happens means that the misdirection must be good. That so many people play means that it must have worked. 

Take a card and turn it over. 

In truth, it’s not about the Magic at all. This game is all about the Gathering.

Tim Willoughby