Magic & Learning

Six-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor Sam Black tells you about a few different methods you can use to become a better Magic player and the valuable skills you’ll learn from it.

I used to plan to go back to school someday to learn to teach, specifically fourth grade. Since then I’ve decided very firmly against that plan because I don’t really believe in the whole system anymore. I don’t want to go through school myself, and I hope that the idea of a fourth-grade teacher will be entirely obsolete as soon as possible.

The Internet means that learning pieces of knowledge is much less valuable than it used to be; education now should focus on teaching people how to think, how to figure out what they want to accomplish, and how to accomplish it.

I believe that Magic is the best tool I know of to teach people how to think better among a wealth of other skills. I see myself as something of a teacher of Magic and as such essentially consider my current position to be more valuable as an educator than I could be as a teacher of a single class of nine year olds.

I’m still open to finding a job that deals more directly with working toward radical reform in the education of children and particularly in finding spaces to use games as teaching tools (though certainly not to the exclusion of other things). For now I’m just interested in playing myself, learning as much as I can from doing so, and finding ways to pass that information on to others.

In short, I’m potentially a little crazy, passionate about education, and strongly believe in Magic having value beyond its surface-level charm as a good (the best) game.

Of course, on this site, I write about Magic strategy and becoming a better player, not about figuring out how best to teach future generations, so my focus here is on what you should try to learn from Magic in order to be a better Magic player and how to do that.

A few times people have approached me at events to ask what they can do to become a better player, and I’ve asked where they currently are and what their goals are and then launched into a long list of things they can do. Regardless of what they got out of my answer, I’ve generally felt pretty happy about my ability to usefully answer the question, and I’ve wished someone had been recording it so that I could share it with others. Of course, no one had, but fortunately I already have a platform to share that kind of advice. I just have to remember it all.

A father and his son approached me once. The son was shy, but the father thought that it would be good for him to approach pros at the Grand Prix and ask them for advice on what he should do to become a better player. So I think with some urging from his father the son asked for my thoughts.

Given his age and that he’d just started playing, I figured my advice should be for the long term—not how to win a tournament next week but how to learn to be among the best in several years. Also, with kids I assume cost might be a larger issue. I know I didn’t have a lot of money to buy cards when I was twelve. I always imagined that if my dad played he’d probably buy lots of cards and I could play anything, but I didn’t want to presume that the father there wanted me to tell his kid that he has to spend lots of money to get better, especially when I don’t really believe that.

My advice focused on learning cards, interactions, fundamentals, and most importantly creativity.

The fastest way to learn to play the game (not the basic rules of the game—for that you should probably play Duels of the Planeswalkers—but rather how to really play the game) and especially to learn to win quickly is to pick up a tournament-winning Constructed deck that appeals to you and play with it until you get pretty familiar with the interactions. Then try to read more about the deck and have conversations with others about how they play it, particularly in matchups you’ve found challenging, and continue practicing until you feel you know it inside and out.

This is a great way to proceed to addressing relatively complex strategy fairly quickly, and choosing a single specialty allows you to get more competitive faster, which can certainly help you get to play against better players sooner and helps a lot. My concern is that it fosters an overly "Spike-ish" focus on winning, potentially stifling creativity and missing out on a lot that the game has to offer.

Another approach would be to try to develop a better breadth of understanding of a format rather than depth—try to put every deck together and play at least a little with each of them in every matchup. This is potentially more expensive and more time consuming, but it’s a great way to see a bigger picture, to not get stuck on a single strategy, and to expose yourself to more things you might really like. It also helps when playing against someone if you’ve played with their deck or a deck like it before, so this foundation can be very useful.

The breadth approach and depth approach are each viable ways to learn a Constructed format and to learn how to play Magic well, but I personally prefer a different approach. I’ve always liked building my own decks, and when someone comes to me for advice, I have to think there’s a pretty good chance that they’re asking me rather than asking someone else because they also value deckbuilding rather than simply in-game mechanics as a skill they’re looking for.

As such, I personally always recommend trying new things as much as possible. This is something like the breadth approach, except I wouldn’t bother putting all the established decks together because I wouldn’t bother playing a lot with them. I like just jumping straight into building new decks as soon as possible.

There are several ways to go about building a deck that I would recommend. One of the easiest is to draft or play in a Sealed Deck event, at the end of the event isolate the primary thing that deck was trying to do or mechanic that it was built around, and then try to build a Constructed deck that pushes that theme or game plan to the limit.

Try playing that deck against people, and expect to lose most of your games. When you lose to someone, try to develop your deck to be a little better against the deck you lost to, and then try again.

I’m a big fan of this "results oriented" tuning. Others, especially Gerry Thompson, have written about the dangers of being "results oriented," but I think there’s a real place for it. I mean, by one interpretation of course we’re all oriented on results—results are what we’re trying to get! More to the point, I think of being "results oriented" as simply being scientific. Yes, it’s great if you can think abstractly about a problem and realize that the specific results you’ve seen are anomalous and build a deck based on sound theories, but realistically you’re not going to know every deck you’re weak against for example. Playing until you lose something and then hedging against that thing is a reasonable way to make progress. You just have to iterate a lot.

Another method is to choose a deck you want to beat and then build a new deck that’s only trying to beat that deck. Don’t worry about how good you are against anything else; just try to find something that never loses to that particular deck. If this is your friend’s deck and you build a deck just to beat them, they might get mad because playing against you won’t be any fun, so I’d be sure to tell them about the project in advance. Say something like, "I want to see if I can build a deck to beat you. The games probably won’t be very fun if I succeed and we don’t have to play a lot, but I’m trying to get better at deckbuilding, so just let me see if I can do this."

Of course, really all you need is any way to get a kernel of inspiration, and there are any number of acceptable ways to do it—maybe there’s a mechanic you like, or a card, or a particular interaction. I built a deck I really liked that qualified a friend for the Pro Tour just because I heard that Tamiyo, the Moon Sage and Gideon Jura played well together and built a deck around that interaction.

The primary reasons that I recommend trying to build decks for new players rather than just learning to play existing decks are:

1. I think it’s more fun to succeed or fail with something you have more artistic/creative ownership of. This is a huge part of what Magic is about and what makes it so fun for me.

2. It’s a great way to learn what cards are available. While building a deck, if you don’t know all the cards, you’ll find yourself doing a lot of searches in various card databases to find cards to fill various roles.

3. You’ll ideally learn a lot about how to look for and exploit vulnerabilities in other decks and how to try to protect against those weaknesses in your own decks. I’ve definitely built a few decks only to test against some certain card, realized the deck simply could never beat it, and scrapped the deck all together (I remember playing against Olivia Voldaren with a Prime Speaker Zegana deck and having this reaction for example), but that kind of experience can lead to a better understanding of when to use the card you’re losing to and what kinds of traps to avoid in the future.

I think I’ve gotten a little sidetracked here—let me try to boil down my advice for how to get better into some essential components.

First, assess where you are and what your goals are for the game.

Where are you? Are you just getting into the game? Are you already among the best in your area? Are you better at Constructed or Limited? What are your strengths and weaknesses as a player? What are your assets? (How much time do you have? How big is your collection? How much are you looking to spend? Who do you know and how can they help you?)

And what are your goals? If you’re just trying to have fun at home playing with friends, you should question whether you even want to get better. If you’re already better than your friends and you progress, they might not enjoy playing with you anymore, and your work might be extremely counterproductive to your goals. If you’re worse than they are, it still might be best to just take it easy and learn from them. On the other hand, if you’re goal is to not only beat your friends but to win tournaments, you’ll probably want a more comprehensive plan for success.

The general strategy for anyone to get better is something along the lines of play as much as you can, pay attention to what’s happening, and figure out as much as you can. At some point, realize you’ve hit a wall, and then seek out new sources of information—read more articles, talk to more players, and find better competition. Repeat the process of playing games and attempt to integrate what you’ve learned from outside the game. Obviously, you don’t need to actually hit a wall to seek outside inspiration; it’s perfectly helpful to do lots of both at the same time. The point is that you probably need to go through the process of playing games to use and internalize and practice new ideas along with seeking new ideas from others by watching them play, reading, and talking to them.

The methods above—breadth, depth, building—are all just ways to go about playing these games that should fit into the above prescription.

If you’re working on Limited, it’s extremely helpful to draft in person, especially in team drafts, so that you can easily watch other matches, talk to other people about your deck and theirs, and get new ideas since if it’s a team draft others will be directly incentivized to try to help you. I strongly recommend going out of your way to take a breadth strategy in Limited—try to draft colors and strategies you haven’t drafted much, even and perhaps especially when you believe there is a single best strategy and that is where you’ve focused your efforts. You’ll generally learn a lot more by trying to explore everything a format is capable of.

Now, I’m writing this list and feel like it should have a conclusion, a final step, or sentence like, "after you’ve done this, you’ll have accomplished your goal," but there’s really no endgame state for Magic—at least not that I’ve found. You just keep iterating and finding new ways to improve.

While you’re at it, you should find that you’ve accidentally learned a tremendous number of valuable skills outside of Magic—not just the basic understanding of math and vocabulary Magic is more famous for teaching but that you could easily learn elsewhere. What Magic is best at is teaching creative problem solving, when and how to challenge your assumptions and preconceived notions, how to discuss your conclusions with others in a structure that can actually lead somewhere, how to reduce what you’re looking for into key components to search for a solution (especially useful in database searches for cards to build a deck), and to some extent more broadly how to do real science.


@samuelhblack on Twitter