Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

Are you forever losing, despite the hours of practice you throw into the game each week? Do you play and play, only to fall at the final hurdle? Today, Paul Jordan examimes some of the reasons why the practice you’re doing may not be the road to success that you’re promised. This is an excellent article, unmissable for anyone serious about improving their game.

During my childhood years and throughout high school I was involved in karate (before you ask, Isshin-Ryu style). I became a black belt, and at the time was the youngest in my dojo to do so. My sensei helped guide me through some of my more formative years with endless advice. It all sounded corny and canned back then… after all, I was a teenager… what adult sounds reasonable? Yet I’ve clung to some of those Wise Words (does anyone else miss J. Gary?) ever since. One of my favorites is, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Just doing something frequently will not make you better at it unless you are actively participating — physically as well as mentally. Simply swinging a bat at a ball 1,000 times a day for a month will not improve your Major League chances unless you are concentrating on actually hitting the ball. To the contrary, practice where one is not immersed in their craft will actually make you worse.

The concept of practice enhancing one’s ability stems from the body’s ability to remember — muscle memory, short-term, long-term and otherwise. The idea being that if your are rehearsing the same movements, drills, reactions and so forth that your body will begin to remember these movements, drills, reactions and so forth so that in the future it can implement these memories and put them into action on your behalf, reducing the need for your interaction at the moment when time is more of the essence. It is accepted that when one is not fully engaged in an action, that the action is not being performed at its highest level. Therefore if one is not practicing at one’s highest level then the memories formed from said practice will be of how to execute these movements, drills, reactions and so forth poorly, which is a staunch contrast to the intended function of the practice.

This is true of any action you may be conditioning yourself to do. Say for instance that your goal is to minimize Internet usage at work and be more productive (with a supposed end state of getting promoted). You may set up a road-map for yourself where each day you are allowed progressively less Internet time, from 2 hours to 1:45 and so on down to only 30 minutes per day. The mere fact that you are taking these proactive steps speaks volumes about you as a person. However, the adage holds true and your actions will speak more loudly that your words (or in this case, your plans). So now that you have your action plan, you are working towards training yourself to cope at work without the Internet. If you come into work and immediately surf for the first hour of the day on day 1 of your quest, you are left with only 1 hour left for the duration of the day. So you cut the corners a little, or lie to yourself and say you were only on for half an hour. You may think that it is of little consequence because you just haven’t started training yourself yet. The painful truth, however, is that the training is already taking place, and that you are enforcing your existing knowledge-set of how to over-utilize the Internet at work — the exact opposite of your proposed result. In this case, your body is becoming more comfortable with bad work habits, which is making it harder for you to affect change.

Hopefully by now you can see the idea of how this will apply to playing Magic: The Gathering. There are a number of aspects where alleged tournament players will slack off or cut corners while playtesting, in a casual draft, or the worst offender being when playing online. This behavior is fostered by the false rationale that you are not in a real game, and that you can “turn on” the proper behaviors when necessary. This line of reasoning is inherently flawed though, as every game of Magic you have ever played — real or not — is recalled by your mind as a benchmark for how to conduct yourself in playing the current game.

There are several key game-play areas where most players relax their standards when involved in Magic games outside of tournaments (either a friendly draft, playtesting, or online). Let us take a look at five of them.

Life Totals
How do you keep track of your totals when you are playtesting? Do you use dice? Stacks of cards? Pen and paper? Do you track your opponent’s life total changes, or just your own? And how do you keep track of life totals in a tournament? It is very common in more casual settings to alter your methodology, usually out of laziness. By nurturing this mindset outside of tournaments you are subtracting from how much mental energy you can commit to in-game decisions. You enter the tournament with the handicap of having to segregate out some of your mental capacity simply to alter habits you have formed while playtesting.

So you are now in a tournament. While playtesting you kept track of only your life totals, and used a pile of cards facing different directions to count as one and five life points each. In the tournament you are tracking both yours and your opponent’s life with a pen and piece of paper. Your control deck is very good, but a little on the slow side. A couple of times you’ve had to ask your opponent their life total and their answer has not matched what your paper said. Each time, her answer was correct and your paper was wrong. Each time took about a minute to discuss, maybe a little more.

“Time! Active player finish your turn, you have five extra turns.”

Oh boy, you have assumed a relative positional advantage on the board, but probably need another five turns or so to finish off your opponent. Sure enough, you got a draw. This isn’t how you wanted to start a tournament. You lost two points, and on top of that you are now in the draw bracket and playing various other forms of control. No longer are you sitting across the table from various creature decks, against which your deck is very strong. You finish the tournament with a 2-2-1 record, losing twice to more controlling decks than yours. The Top 8 featured six beatdown decks, all of which would have been a good pairing for you.

It seems extreme, but it isn’t impossible.

At the conclusion of a game, the general geography of cards is such that like card-types are positioned near each other. This holds true to some extent for creatures, spells, and artifacts, but is far more prevalent when viewed as lands and non-lands. Varied and thorough shuffling is the most effective way to combat this within the DCI floor rules.

How often do you pile shuffle while playtesting? How many riffles do you use? Do you shuffle your opponent’s deck? It may sound extreme, but taking the time to do these things every time you play, regardless of the setting will help you in the long run. You are conditioning yourself to routinely ensure that you have as random a deck as time and rules permit. Look at it this way. If you riffle a couple of times in between play-test games, two things are going wrong for you.

First, you are invalidating your test results. You may have to mulligan more often in testing, which would lead you to false conclusions regarding the format. Scott McCord once argued that more great, new decks died before they ever saw tournament play because of insufficient randomization during playtesting than any other reason*. Second, you are making yourself more comfortable with an abbreviated shuffling session. More importantly, you are making yourself more uncomfortable with a sufficient shuffling session. This discomfort can divert your attention in between games at a tournament. Instead of channeling your energy and thoughts towards what to expect in the next game, your inner monologue is now holding court on whether or not the deck you just presented is sufficiently random.

Likewise, you should be shuffling your opponent’s deck during playtesting, as you would in a tournament. I’ve seen a number of players in tournaments get warnings and other disciplinary action taken against them by the judging staff for revealing cards from their opposition’s deck while shuffling it. This is a result of being uncomfortable with how to shuffle their deck. Many people do not have a high level of comfort with handling others’ cards, and as such pay closer attention while shuffling. While your eyes may just be supervising your hands to ensure you do not break a sleeve, or drop the deck outright, it could be seen as trying to catch a glimpse of your opponent’s deck’s contents. Developing a shuffling technique that works for you and removes suspicion, and then implementing it in your standard routine — for both real and non-real games — will lower this effect and open your mind to concentrate on other aspects of the game.

It is all just more mental energy wasted on something that could be made second nature.

What TV show do you like to watch while playing Magic Online? Do you watch sports? Grey’s Anatomy? Whatever NetFlix just sent you? American Idol?

Have you tried it without the TV on?

How many times have you made an error in play as a result of being distracted by something outside of the game? Have you clicked past an attack step because you wanted to see how Jack Bauer managed to stop the bomb? Have you blocked poorly while laughing at Michael Scott and his talking computer? Maybe you didn’t fully plan your turns because you just can’t get enough of the ladies on Wisteria Lane.

I am persecuting television here because for me it is the most pervasive distraction. I’ve recently self-imposed a rule that disallows TV viewing while playing Magic. My MTGO rating went up forty points that day. While I am certain TV is the biggest distraction for online Magic users, there are countless other distractions that should be noted. Friends, family, music, poker, and Internet all come rapidly to mind. Granting attention to these things only revokes attention from your Magic game, which leads to mistakes. While the human mind may have limitless possibilities, each of us has a finite amount of attention that can be awarded at a single time.

Nobody watches TV at tournaments. People are more actively engrossed in all aspects of the game they are playing when they are playing “real” games. By cultivating your skills while distracted, you are encouraging poor decision-making. Repeated game-play with divided focus elevates your mind’s perception of this behavior, causing an improved likelihood that future in-game decisions will be met with similar partial analysis and could lead to increased game losses.

We have all had it happen. In a casual draft with friends, you attacked with a flier and your opponent blocked, much to your surprise. You obviously were not fully focused on the game at hand and as a result did not have a full understanding of the board position. You made a mistake.

What happens frequently though, is your friend laughs at you, and then says that you can take it back. This has obvious immediate implications in the result of that particular game, but also has a darker hidden undertone signifying your future demise. Your mind just interpreted the sequence of events as such:

I made a mistake because I did not pay full attention to the game’s landscape.
It did not matter, I got to take it back.
Therefore, I can afford to continue playing Magic without giving it my full consideration.

The situation above illustrates a classic question of short-term versus long-term. If you accept your friend’s offer of the take-back, you have a better chance at winning now but will hurt yourself in future games. The opposite is true if you decline the offer and accept that your flier is not for this world. The weight carried by a single game is far outweighed by that of every game played going forward, so this decision is clear. The reason you are able to benefit from the peril of your winged minion is that you have now negatively reinforced your actions. Your mind is now viewing the events as such:

I made a mistake because I did not pay full attention to the game’s landscape.
My game position worsened.
Therefore, should offer my full consideration to every game.

The higher frequency with which your brain receives this message correlates inversely with the number of errors you are bound to commit. Or to say it more simply, “fewer take-backs = fewer mistakes.”

Unfortunately, sometimes it is to the benefit of playtesting that you allow take-backs. Frequently in testing, particularly with a new deck or in a new format, wrong plays are made. The purpose of the playtesting session is to determine strengths and weaknesses of a deck or decks, with a secondary purpose of improving your personal gamesmanship. In these instances it is probably of greater benefit to the playtest session to allow the take-backs that it would be to you to disallow them. This should only apply in the first few weeks of testing. After that point, player errors should have dropped drastically and you should be at the point where you are preparing not just your deck, but yourself for a tournament.

MTGO Shortcuts
Have you ever not noticed a continuous effect in a non-online game, and reacted by saying, “I would have noticed that on MTGO,” to yourself? Or maybe you didn’t take advantage of a non-required triggered ability such as gaining life from a Firemane Angel?

Magic Online is a wonderful tool that has been wildly successful. People can play far more frequently than previously. It helps tremendously with rules understanding. Nothing is perfect though, and Magic Online can become a crutch.

I remember in grade school having a math teacher who would not allow the class to use calculators for tests until they had proven they know how to perform a calculation without the device. She was terribly worried that my generation was losing its ability to carry out simple mathematic operations without technological assistance. Since then I have paid some attention to this, and I think she was right. I have noticed on countless occasions someone reverting to calculator use for painfully simple calculations, even including addition. Calculators made people dependant on them, to the point of making them unable to operate without them.

Magic Online can do the same to you, if you are not careful. While playing online, if you fail to identify proper game state conditions on your own, you will not be able to do so when you are playing in a live tournament. More accurately, you may still be able to make those identifications in a tournament, but doing so will deplete from your available mental power, weakening other areas of your game.

There are actions you can initiate to lower your required mental investment in remembering triggered events. Some people place visual cues out, such as putting a freshly played echo creature right near or on top of the lands required to pay the echo cost the next turn. For any triggered upkeep effect, you could put an object (pen, coin, or otherwise unrelated to the game-state) in the hand you use to draw a card from your deck. This will force you to physically put the object down prior to drawing a card, which will act as a proverbial string around your finger that something else needs to be done.

These are just a few of the ways you can condition your mind to remember these events. In order to effectively affect change within yourself though, you must be consistent in the measures you implement. Keep the pen in your card-drawing hand even when you practice. Otherwise you are simply wasting more mental muscle on remembering to pick up the pen each turn.

It is very possible that no single one of these areas will have a negative impact on your game great enough to change the result. These are all subsections of a greater architecture that is your ability to play Magic. If you improve all of these pain points in how you practice, your net tournament result should have a positive delta.

An important nugget to remember through all of this is that, assuming you are not currently utilizing all of these recommendations; the way you practice is having a negative impact on some aspect of your game. Your body and mind are keeping track of every short-cut, take-back, and rushed play and logging it in your psyche along with every other game you have played under the heading “How to play Magic: The Gathering.”

Mike Flores favorite type of deck will not overwhelm you quickly, nor will it be broken. It will slowly attack you from diverse approaches and cripple each avenue until it is victorious. It will gain what Mike likes to call “incremental advantages” repeatedly, until those smaller advantages add up to a winning board position.

Every Magic player who wants to succeed needs to practice. If you practice in a manner consistent with how you want to play in tournaments, you will be earning incremental advantages over your opponent. Good luck, and remember what my sensei taught me.


*Thanks Mike Flores for reminding me of Scott’s argument.