I’d like to kick things off with a little story from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles.
The ceramics teacher announced he was dividing his class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right graded solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an A, 40 pounds a B, and
so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot
–albeit a perfect one
–to get an A.
Well, come grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity!
It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work
–and learning from their mistakes
–the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile
of dead clay.
Imagine a similar story instead featuring a course that teaches you how to play Magic. One group of players is graded based on their ability to play one
perfect match of Magic and complete one perfect draft, the other group is graded based entirely on volume. It makes sense that by the end of the course all
the best drafters and players would be the ones who put the most time in.
Well sure, obviously the more Magic you play the better you get, but how can we use that to get better other than by just playing more Magic? While every
game of Magic you play might make you a better Magic player, the most important games to win are going to be the ones at Grand Prix, PTQs, Opens,
Invitationals, and Pro Tours, and the best forms of practice will be the games you played with the deck you end up playing at the tournament.
Modern has been heralded as a format where you pick a deck and master it. I think many people take a similar approach towards Legacy, perhaps even more-so.
Was Standard this season so different? How about when Delver was the best deck? Or Caw-Blade? Who fared better, the people in on the ground floor of the
best deck, or the ones desperately trying to beat them while still having a respectable game against the rest of the format?
A format can probably never be completely stagnant since even the tiniest shift in a decklist should cause at least some small ripples throughout the
metagame. Still, formats are very difficult to break wide open nowadays, and it seems like a best deck that is resistant to hate will usually emerge.
Tournament Magic might be a “victim” of its own success. With so many good competitive players constantly playing in competitive tournaments, it’s hard to
imagine a format that isn’t carefully scrutinized and churned through countless gauntlets until it comes out the other side relatively clean and solved. I
imagine the average skill level of tournament level Magic players is the highest it’s ever been, and all the excellent resources and information online
keeps everyone on the cutting edge.
While some formats might encourage more brewing thanks to less oppressive Über decks, there is no going back to the way things were in the Good Ol’ Days.
Back when the tournament scene was young and unexplored, if you discovered a nutty combo deck that no one else had you could more or less win the
tournament with your eyes closed. The last time a completely busted deck was discovered was when Stoneforge Mystic got paired up with Sword of Feast and
Famine at Pro Tour Paris. Teams are breaking formats less often, and they even removed the Block Pro Tour, which was basically the least explored format.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing or cause for concern, it just means things are different now.
So if the grinders who are masters of their archetypes are benefiting, who is suffering? The rogue deckbuilders. The brewers. The metagamers hopping from
deck to deck. The window of time where it’s worth it to try and find a new breakout deck is narrow. That time is probably better spent practicing with your
archetype of choice and understanding how it interacts with the format. Not to say there isn’t room for innovation and big gains for people willing to
pioneer new strategies, but that skill seems to be on the decline.
Magic is already a game with chance baked into its core. This is a good thing. New cards are constantly being added, and there are a lot of Magic cards in
existence. They all interact with each other for nearly limitless possibilities. You must be a rock, stoic and unafraid, with a studious understanding of
your format of choice, weathering the RNG. It is rare you’ll lose a match where you couldn’t have played just a little better, if you had some key piece of
understanding that you missed, to turn things around.
Pack Rats Makes Perfect
What’s so special about Pack Rat? Well it has a lot going for it, but for one thing, it’s a consistent card. It turns every other card you have into Pack
Rat. Lands become Pack Rats, removal becomes Pack Rat, you can completely change the way any game is played into a Pack Rat game.
Usually the “best” deck in a format is very consistent. What makes a consistent deck? Consistent decks will often be able to follow similar gameplans each
game and have redundant cards. Think Affinity in Modern, many of the cards serve similar roles, or Birthing Pod, tutor effects are very consistent.
Cantrips smooth draws. Thoughtseize is good against most decks no matter what cards they have. Burn runs lots of burn spells. Mono-color decks rarely get
mana screwed since they only need one color source. Temples can help you find what you need. These are all tools that keep your deck consistent,
streamlined, able to accomplish what they’re trying to do. Consistent decks win more. Consistent players win more.
Theros block is the poster child for a consistent block. Devotion encourages mono-colored decks. Scry keeps decks humming and reduces flood or screw. Toss
in Mutavault as a split land/creature card and you have an idea what kind of decks are going to show up without even looking.
What’s the takeaway? Sometimes it’s best to go with the flow. Keep it simple! Sometimes you should just get really good with
Mono-Red/Black/Blue/Green/White because that’s the correct strategy, and trying to break Maze’s End isn’t going to work out.
Sometimes you get into a rut. If feels like you’re banging your head against the wall, and nothing you do works. It’s natural for there to be downswings
and upswings, and it’s apparently natural to take these things personally based on almost every chat box on Magic Online.
You can’t win them all. Well, technically you probably can win them all; you know what, in some statistically insignificant corner of the infinite
multiverse you are winning them all. But it’s very, very unlikely you will win them all, much harder than catching them all. Let’s just say you won’t win
If you want to win very badly enough, you might be frozen by inaction or nervous it won’t be perfect and that will hurt your game. Recognize that you will
make mistakes and just try to minimize the amount of mistakes you will make by being familiar with your deck. You will learn from your mistakes even if you
aren’t consciously trying to. People who win tend to keep winning. They are used to winning and know how it goes. They are practiced winners.
Keep learning, practicing, searching for the best strategy, and once you’ve found it, keep doing what you know to be right even if it isn’t paying off in
results just yet. It will eventually.
When you are in a losing cycle, abandoning ship from your deck of choice too soon and too often will mean you’re starting to play…
Ping Pong Magic
Let’s say you’re not winning as much as you want, because you have ridiculously high standards and expect to win the vast majority of games. You could even
have the best deck in the format and be winning 55% of the time, but the losses still feel bad and are what stick out in your mind. You might think that
you should be winning 80% of the time, absolutely crushing! Winning should be a breeze!
Well that isn’t usually how things work. It might cause you to abandon your deck and pick up something else which also ends up falling short of your
standards. What you end up missing is that you can only start squeezing out more percentage points from your deck by mastering it. You can only unlock a
deck’s full potential once you are familiar with the format and start piloting your deck really tight, especially in the tricky matches.
Don’t end up good with many decks but masterful with no deck.
Once you have the fundamental interactions and matchups etched onto the surface of your brain, making creative plays becomes much easier.
Card interactions are often complicated and unintuitive, but once you’ve seen a situation a couple times, it becomes easy to build on that play with more
cards and interactions.
Take Yuuki Ichikawa’s masterful Golgari Charm play seen here at 45:20
He made that play instantly. Golgari Charm is a complicated card; it has multiple modes and Yuuki used it to trump another Charm which also has three
modes. I expect Yuuki has cast Golgari Charm hundreds of times and is very aware of what it can do. Maybe he drew on knowledge from a similar but different
situation, like shrinking an Aetherlings power to avoid an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion minus ability. That sort of intimate knowledge of how your card can
potentially interact with other cards, even complicated cards that you don’t even know are in your opponents hand, is great creative play that comes from a
solid foundation of having seen the card cast many times.
The foundation of skills you build through practice is also very helpful when your brain is tired. You might not be in any condition to make excellent
plays and are just clinging to what mental strength you have left to get through your match. It’s hard to make the same mistake twice, even harder to make
the same mistake for a fifth time, no matter how tired you are. Put in the reps to prevent dumb mistakes we all make, and you’ll be able to kick butt in
Explore the format with an open mind, testing new decks, eliminating ones you aren’t interested in, circling in on ones you want to play. Once you are
fairly confident, begin to focus on that deck against the major matchups. Continue playing and tweaking as much as you can. Learn which cards are essential
in each matchup. Learn how most games play out and what to watch out for from your opponent’s decks.
To a certain extent you must grind. Putting in the hours just works, and there is no real replacement for it. This is why you’ll find many pros started
playing Magic when they were younger; they had a great foundation of play skill built up. Don’t grind until your eyes bleed, but recognize that you need to
put some time in to be top tier, this will remind and encourage you to find time to play.
What happens if you need to audible? Changing decks a week before a tournament isn’t usually a big issue, but doing it the night before usually is. Some
decks have a lower barrier to gain competency with. Less interactive and proactive strategies are generally easier to pick up and play although any deck
will still benefit quite a bit from mastery. These are the type of decks that would be best to pick up the night before a tournament.
I remember years ago, it was right before a Modern PTQ, and I saw G/R Tron posted online in a Daily Event. It had just been made, and I knew barely anyone
would know about it. Jund was running rampant and the deck seemed fantastic. So naturally I scrambled to borrow cards and get it together to play at the
PTQ. Well the deck seemed simple enough, but it still required mechanical skill. I ended up facing Delver with maindeck Molten Rain in round 1 and
sideboarding out my Emrakul for the loss in round 2. I didn’t have the practice I needed to become competent with the deck. Perhaps it was still the right
decision to play Tron, since the deck was powerful and unexpected, but I would have greatly benefited from some practice.
Khans of Tarkir might change things since multi-color sets are usually fertile brewers paradises, and Magic follows a cyclical path, changing the
strategies that work from set to set. Still, practicing and finding a consistent deck will always be an important part of preparing for any Magic
What are some takeaways you can apply to improve your game?
Not exactly new advice or reinventing the wheel, but we don’t have to! The hard part is often just following the correct path.
You can apply some of these ideas to almost any aspect of life. Hopefully, what you choose to do corresponds with what you love to do. Makes things much
easier. Having a deck you love to play or a job you love to do means you’ll do it more, and thus, get better at it. If you want to write great Magic
articles, keep writing them, even if it involves writing an article suggesting people practice more to get better. Want to be a Chef? Cook. Artist? Draw.
Wine Taster? Taste some wine.
You are what you eat. You become what you do.
Expect results to come eventually, based on the quantity of games and effort you put in. Allow them to come to you by eliminating your resistance to the
wins. This is the tricky part because we want the good stuff before we put in the work, and the good stuff always comes after the work. If you want to win,
you have the tools. Lady Luck might have it out for you, and you won’t end up winning despite giving it your all. You can and will win. With the attitude
that there is no rush, and that it’s more important to keep making pots than to struggle and fret about making the perfect one.
The only thing that can stop you is if you stop playing. Be consistent with your practice.
Now go and play some more games!