Perfect Practice

Pro Tour Dark Ascension Top 8 competitor Matt Costa presents some techniques to help you learn as much as you can from your losses as well as your wins. Check them out!

Practice makes perfect.
No, perfect practice makes perfect.

If you grew up playing sports, you’ve probably heard these old adages a thousand times. In recent weeks we’ve seen some great players write about the intersection of Magic and teaching, which can be found here and here.

These articles really got me thinking about what methods of learning are valuable for Magic. How can we get the most out of practice? Naturally, the idea of "perfect" isn’t attainable when it comes to playing games of Magic; even the best players in the world make mistakes—however subtle—in every game they play. That said, I think it’s also possible to play hundreds of games and not really improve or learn anything.

The quotes about practice really emphasize the idea of muscle memory in sports—training your reflexes to do something correctly on an almost automatic level. This same type of approach is exceptionally valuable in competitive Magic. Sometimes it won’t be realistic to think through all of the possibilities, but a well-trained Magic intuition will have shortcuts for this, analyzing situations based on their similarities to ones that you may have experienced previously.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve also probably had to play tournaments with little time to prepare. Hopefully the techniques presented today will help you get the most out of that time, whether it’s a week, a few hours, or just a couple matches.

When it comes to preparation, sample size is a pretty big concern for Magic players. I know plenty of players who think the results of ten or twenty games in a matchup are meaningful—they aren’t. However, I think a small sample size like that is still enough to get a "feel" for a particular matchup. Ideas like "this feels good for the aggro deck since the other side doesn’t have enough early interaction" are much more valuable than "I won 8-2."

Learning From Losses & Mistakes

Magic is a game of intense focus, and therefore it can be really difficult to notice subtle mistakes during gameplay or have time to analyze them even when you do. One thing that practice really helps achieve is eliminating systematic mistakes. Systematic mistakes are errors that I don’t consider to be strategic: missing a Dark Confidant trigger, attacking your 2/2 into their 3/3 by accident, forgetting about a card in their hand. These types of errors aren’t necessarily decisions that were made incorrectly but rather mental slips or brief lapses of focus. Over time these mistakes will become fewer and more automatic. The less mental energy you use on basic actions, the more you’ll have leftover to use toward making crucial gameplay decisions.

One of the best ways to learn from your mistakes is having friends watch you play—it can be at a tournament, in testing, or even over your shoulder on Magic Online. They don’t necessarily have to be a better player or even as good as you because any fresh perspective on a game can be really valuable.

It’s very easy to get tunnel vision in game, so what you’ll find is most people will have a hard time "getting in your head" and understanding exactly the lines you decided to take. That said, they may also notice a completely different path that you didn’t consider because you were so focused on executing the one you chose.

In my mind there are two primary types of gameplay: strategic (determining your position and choosing lines) and technical (executing those lines). Generally, most players are very good at noticing and correcting technical mistakes by themselves. However, they similarly struggle to identify strategic errors. This is where getting the perspectives of other players is most valuable.

A common pitfall to avoid is overanalyzing your losses. You might be able (in retrospect) to find a series of that would’ve won a given game. That doesn’t mean that those plays were necessarily correct or reasonable to take in context.

A classic example of this situation occurred at the World Championship this past year in game 1 of the semifinals between Shahar Shenhar and Ben Stark. Shahar managed to steal the game from out of Ben’s hands by drawing all four copies of Lightning Bolt. Looking back, Ben could probably construct a series of plays to beat this situation, but they would most likely be worse than the lines he took against any other draw from Shahar. This wasn’t a strategic mistake on Ben’s part—it would only be wrong if he could find lines that were just as good in the abstract and beat four Lightning Bolts. Despite Ben knowing that Shahar is typically very lucky, there is no way he should overanalyze that loss.

Learning From Wins

Learning from the games you win is probably even harder than the ones you lose. When you’re winning, Magic is easy. The perfect card is always on top of your library, and your lines play out smoothly and as intended. Most players probably make a similar number of mistakes in the games they win as the ones they lose—they just aren’t punished for them and are less likely to notice. Just as with overanalyzing, the thought process of "it worked, so it must’ve been correct" is a dangerous fallacy to fall into.

The most valuable thing to take away from victories is understanding what a win "looks like." If you have an understanding of what types of exchanges take place in the games you win (in a particular matchup), then that should serve as a starting point for future games. Trying to recreate a winning board state is a great shortcut to help you win a matchup. Take Legacy for example. One of the easiest ways to win a control mirror is to untap with a Jace in play. If you put your resources into navigating the game to that point, you are very likely to win.

To expand a little bit on this idea, let’s take the U/W/R Delver vs. Elves matchup in Legacy. The reason I’ve chosen this is because the matchup contains a pretty common subgame where the U/W/R player tries to connect with Umezawa’s Jitte. Very often two counters on Jitte will be enough to snowball out of control and lock up the game. In this case, the U/W/R player is trying to recreate a winning board state, while the Elves player tries to avoid a losing one.

The next step from here for U/W/R is to identify what might prevent that game state from happening. In this case, Wirewood Symbiote and Qasali Pridemage are the two most common answers. The U/W/R player now knows that in order to achieve the desired game state they must prioritize evasion creatures to get around Symbiote and removal spells to deal with either creature.

The final step of the process is to lock up the game once you’ve achieved the desired board state. One of the most important skills in Magic (though it may seem trivial) is winning the games that you’re supposed to win. The ability to take a game from 90% to 100% is what separates the best from other good players. The reason this is so difficult is because it involves doing all the little things right while knowing that the majority of the time they won’t matter. When a win is in sight, players rush toward it, and every once in a while the game slips away. When it does, it’s a devastating feeling.

Looking back at the U/W/R vs. Elves example, it’s important to recognize what things can go wrong once you’re in a winning position. Natural Order is a particular problem that comes to mind out of the Elves deck, which could dump a serious threat on the table if left with a single creature and enough mana. Perhaps the U/W/R player in this situation should reevaluate the ideal game state from "get counters on Jitte" to "get counters on Jitte with an answer to Natural Order."

To recap:

1. Identify a winning game state.
2. Acknowledge the roadblocks that prevent you from achieving it.
3. Recreate that game state.
4. Lock up the game (what can go horribly wrong?).

Take a minute and try to do this with a game you won recently. You might sit back and think, "Wow, if he had Polukranos on that one turn, I would’ve lost." Could you have won through it? How?

I personally have a very conservative style of play, but I understand the desire to end games quickly. Uncertainty in Magic is scary, so denying your opponent turns really cuts down on that fear. Sometimes that can be bad—we leave ourselves open to a blowout in the short term because we’re afraid of what the future may hold.

My last piece of advice is to find a future as close to certain victory is possible and then navigate to that spot. You may find yourself making plays that seem inefficient or weird, and watching those plays coalesce to fit your cohesive endgame is a sure sign that you’re improving.