Friendship ended with 2018. Now 2019 is my best friend.
If you’re at all like me, you love the opportunity for new beginnings. The New Year is an exciting time and a great excuse to do that thing you’ve been putting off or have always wanted to accomplish. I’m a huge proponent of setting goals early and often so you can have some idea of what you’re working towards, big or small, however resolving to do something is about more than setting a goal. There are some classic cliche resolutions everyone makes at some point in their life that never come to fruition; whether that’s hitting the gym or getting better at Magic, improvement is difficult to get in the habit of.
Personally, I’ve been guilty of coming up short on both of those resolutions in the past and I’m sure that I will in the future too. Does that mean I don’t want to be better in either regard? Absolutely not. Sometimes you just struggle knowing where to start or how to achieve your goals.
Odds are that you probably already try your best at things you care about, so it’s natural to not know where to begin, feel stuck when it comes to improving, or simply have so many things in front of you that might get you where you want to be that it’s all overwhelming. Anyone who’s tried to reach new heights for themselves has felt these ways, often in combination with each other, before putting it off until an explosion of confetti in New York City or a personal epiphany reignites the spark to achieve.
The good news is I have been making improvement in Magic a pursuit of mine for years, and I have learned a lot about the common blind spots people have through illuminating them for myself. The bad news is that, just like everything, it can take time and practice to start seeing the results you’re looking for.
Before I start breaking down some of the best ways you can get a head start on a successful 2019, I want everyone reading this article to repeat after me.
This is by far the most important piece of advice I can give anyone looking to follow through on their self-improvement in Magic or elsewhere. It can be very easy to become content and feel validated when you see your first results, but as soon as you let yourself start easing up, it becomes more and more likely you’ll lose momentum. Having a good mentality goes a long way if improving is the journey you’re on.
This is just a small taste of how I try to foster my own mentality, but look at the difference in the following two resolutions:
- In 2019 I’m going to make it my goal to qualify for the Players’ Championship.
- In 2019 I’m going to make it my goal to maintain the caliber of play I expect to need to qualify for the Players’ Championship.
These are approximately the same statement, but ask yourself: Which one of these goals leaves me happier to miss? Which one of these goals leaves me better off having pursued it? And which one of these goals is going to be more helpful to reference when I’m faced with a decision?
To me, it’s a no-brainer: the latter resolution is a commitment to improvement rather than results. I’m not going to say this works for everyone, as people are different, but small shifts like this in the goals I set for myself make a world of difference in my ability to follow through with them, and if you try it, maybe it will work for you too.
This brings us nicely to the first thing everyone should do if they want to improve…
Before you sink yourself into hundreds of hours of Magic Online, Magic Arena, or weeknights at your local game store, take the time to reflect and consider what you’re setting out to learn, what you need to be better at, and why what you’re going to do will help you get there. In general, just start getting used to honestly answering your own internal monologue. Don’t be afraid of being accountable for your mistakes even if it’s uncomfortable sometimes. If you need some help getting in the spirit of introspection, I suggest you read what is quite possibly the best article ever published on this site for motivation.
The end goal here should be that any time you feel like you don’t understand something, you’re comfortable approaching the question with intent to learn. I’m sure a lot of us can relate to playing a match or a game that felt within our reach, but we made a mistake that was unexpected or uncharacteristic. In these moments it’s crucial to start asking yourself why you made the mistake you did, what was the full process of the decision, and where did things go wrong so you can make a point of seeing a bigger picture.
Sometimes it’s silly the things you’ll find about yourself and your thought processes that trip you up. In 2018 some of the biggest errors I identified were some of the simplest and funniest to think about after the fact. One of them was a moment on camera at SCG Charlotte late in the year against my good friend Zan Syed that nobody but me knew about.
You can see me in a pretty commanding position in our second game where, prior to my draw step, I had a plan to put the game away with the Reflector Mage in my hand that got a little bit muddled in my thought process.
Zan had my Phantasmal Image exiled by his Spell Queller and was tapped out, meaning my Reflector Mage could free up the Phantasmal Image, allowing me to return an additional creature to his hand and attack Zan down to one life with no creatures on the battlefield.
The problem came with my draw step.
I drew a copy of Champion of the Parish, which to my unconscious autopilot could let me play two spells this turn with the Phantasmal Image in my hand that would totally blow Zan out, right?
I immediately green-lighted the idea in my head, cast Champion of the Parish, and was unpleasantly surprised there was no Reflector Mage on the battlefield for my Phantasmal Image to copy to free up my other Image and bring down the house of cards.
It’s written all over my face that this isn’t what I wanted, and an awkward attack is my punishment that turn. Fortunately for me, it’s legal to make a wrong play and still win the match, but not every time do you get so lucky.
Sure, you could say that I just played badly, which I did, but there was no question to me why I made the mistake I did and it was because of the silly coincidence of the way the cards were that made me have that lapse in judgement.
Identifying things like this properly and not being afraid to discuss them and their causes with others is imperative to growth as a thinker and a player. Take the time to get yourself and your brain on the same page when it comes to the decisions you’re making.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
Once you establish a baseline of self-understanding, it becomes infinitely easier to set smaller goals for yourself to build towards your ultimate one. As much as it may seem like every problem you face can be solved with a few more Leagues, it’s important to think about the possibility that there could be a better, more efficient way.
Something that had a drastic impact on my preparation for tournaments over the last year or so was taking the time to simply read more decklists. I found that I frequently fell behind the information curve of formats, and making a conscious effort to keep up with all the little things going on opened my eyes to more than just the changes in the metagame.
My sideboarding improved drastically because I took the time to understand how my opponent would sideboard. I started to get in the heads of successful deckbuilders on Magic Online, and the things that were defining the context of various formats began to be more apparent to me.
This isn’t to say that you should replace playing games of Magic entirely with research, but if you’re thinking of playing during dinner, taking a break to watch your favorite TV show, or just tired of playing Magic for the day, looking over the decklist posts could go a long way toward doing more with less.
Take More Risks!
Especially in testing for tournaments, I need to tell myself this more often. When you find yourself churning through stock deck after stock deck in Leagues online, it can be easy to lose sight of the purpose of your testing. It’s not to win the most matches you can during the week, but to be the most prepared for the weekend.
You don’t want to learn too late that your sick tech you thought of but never found time to try because you were playing three different sideboard cards that League instead was actually the answer the whole time. It’s a bittersweet feeling when the deck that nobody seemed to be building or playing, the one you thought could be good after you got your footing in a format, actually was really good that weekend.
The reason you practice things and play beforehand is to learn. Don’t spend your whole week playing brews, but spend the time exploring your hunches so that you don’t have to feel a pang of doubt or regret about what you’re set on when Saturday comes around.
Work with Others You Respect
I have been very fortunate to have several opportunities to work with great players I respect, not only as players but as people, who have helped get me to where I am today. Sometimes it can be easy to take that for granted, but it is easier than ever to assemble a group of like-minded individuals that you value and whose opinions you respect to take the plunge with.
I’m at a point where all my best friends are people I’ve met through Magic who I came to appreciate and respect after countless hours of ridiculous conversations about things like how good or bad Insatiable Harpy was in Theros Limited, how Koth of the Hammer is the perfect answer to Blood Moon decks in Modern, the best strategies in Mental Magic, and other less funny but more practical things.
Working with people you can trust to be on the same page as you not only makes your life easier when it comes to preparing for events, it gives you a great sounding board for any ideas you may have and can hold you accountable for the things you said you’d get done during any given week. Setting up a good structured process for anything is a big first step to success, so don’t be afraid of reaching out or getting to know new people to assemble a crew.
Improvement in general is by far one of my favorite topics to discuss in Magic and in life. Everyone’s road is different, but one of the best parts of writing is getting to share what I’ve found along my way with all of you in hopes it helps you figure out where you’re going. 2019, just like any other year, can really be whatever you make of it, and I’m hoping to make the most of it myself starting at SCG Columbus this weekend.
Happy New Year, everyone. Let’s make it the best one yet!