I have been playing Magic for a very long time, and in that time I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about the game both through my own insights and from getting great advice from fantastic players. In today’s article, I will be passing along some of the best advice that I have gotten over the years in regard to becoming a better Magic player.
I. The Tournament Isn’t Over Until You Are Eliminated
At Pro Tour Theros, I had a conversation with Craig Wescoe, Ari Lax, and a few others, in which I picked up a tidbit of advice from Craig that really resonated with me and that I have since taken to heart.
I can’t remember the exact context in which it arose, but the meaning is poignant regardless of the exact details of the conversation. Basically, somebody had been eliminated from Top 8 contention and referred to their situation as being dead. Craig quickly interjected that that kind of thinking is extremely dangerous to a proper mindset for playing Magic. Even though the player couldn’t make Top 8 anymore, there was still plenty on the line, including extra prize money and Pro Points.
Do the money and the Pro Points matter? If yes, then you still have a tournament to play in, and what you are doing matters. Therefore, nothing but your best attitude, mindset, and play is acceptable moving forward.
Craig said that until you are eliminated from playing for anything relevant that the tournament is still a work in progress and that nothing about your mindset, approach, or attitude ought to change. Craig’s point was that while it might be true that you can no longer make Top 8 of the tournament, there is still plenty at stake to play for and that when you flips a mental switch and begins thinking "the tournament is over" when it really isn’t, only bad things can happen.
In the end, every round counts.
Craig Wescoe is a true competitor, and his game is always at the same A+ level regardless of whether he is in the 10-0 bracket or the 6-4 bracket. That is an extremely admirable quality that we all should strive to emulate.
For a lot of players, all too often it is easy to get disappointed, tilted, or discouraged when we fall short of the ultimate goal. Playing your best and aspiring to do better no matter what the situation will only benefit you in the long run. Instilling within yourself good habits, mental toughness, and strong resolve to always play well no matter the situation can only lead to better play and results down the road in the long term.
When you are playing in a Magic tournament, an observer should not be able to tell by your play or your demeanor whether you’re in the X-0 bracket or the X-3 bracket. The key is that you should always be playing your best and your hardest all the time.
II. Don’t Dog Other People’s Plays
The second piece of sage advice comes directly from me and is a reaction to a nasty habit I have observed a lot in the past year or so, which is that many players feel inclined to pick on other players’ play.
"I don’t know why I even bother to watch video coverage because everybody is horrible."
"My opponent was an idiot and played terribly but won anyway."
"I watched your game, and you made so many mistakes."
The joke is that most of the people who say these sorts of things tend to be very far from playing fantastically in their own games. Ripping on others tends to be a way for people to feel better about themselves by putting other people down.
Don’t be the person who looks for opportunities to dog others.
Another thing that people tend to forget is that Magic is a complex game and that there is a lot of room for human error. Human error is an important part of the game. We are not infallible Magic-playing robots, and in games all sorts of crazy things happen.
To make an analogy, think about some of the tremendous mistakes that happen in sports and how those mistakes end up affecting the outcome. In the NCAA Championship game years ago, Chris Webber called a time out when his team had zero time outs left and lost the game on the spot. Think about all of the offside penalties that NFL players take over the course of a season, all of the too many men on the ice penalties that occur in hockey, and then tell me that mistakes are not part of the game when the game is being played at the highest level.
If the elite can make silly mistakes, you should understand that sometimes mistakes just happen and that they are part of doing business.
People tend to forget that figuring out the correct play in Magic is a lot different when you are watching on your laptop from home and can see both players’ hands than when you are the one on camera trying to make the plays. Pressure does funny things to people, and Magic has so many opportunities for players to make mistakes that they are bound to happen all the time.
I had a situation come up at the Grand Prix where I was playing against G/W Aggro and tapped out for a Blood Baron of Vizkopa. My opponent then attacked me with a monstrous Fleecemane Lion and a 2/2 Elemental token when I was at 6 life. I blocked the Fleecemane Lion. A group of people I know were watching from my opponent’s side and knew that my opponent was making an unprofitable attack that had no hope of going anywhere since he had no tricks or game plan.
After the match somebody was like "yeah, that was a pretty lousy attack from him, and your block was pretty terrible as well." I asked him why he felt that way, as I felt that the two hit points in this situation were more valuable than his Elemental token. What if he had a Boon Satyr, Selesnya Charm, Advent of the Wurm, or Brave the Elements or drew an Ajani, Caller of the Pride? My thought process was that his expectation would be that I would block the Elemental and that might be setting up the rest of his hand, but if I blocked the Lion, I would force him to act in order to not be making an attack in which basically gained two life.
The guy thought for a second and said something like "oh, I didn’t think about that." My point is that it’s fine to question why people make plays, discuss plays, and to try to learn from the experience. The problem is that when you are dismissive and derogatory about people’s plays, you usually miss the opportunity to learn and to gain a better understanding of what’s going on. Obviously from the vantage point of knowing that my opponent was suicide attacking, I could have safely blocked, and it would have been better. When a person is actually playing the game, things are a lot different, and understanding why people make plays is much more useful than standing on the sidelines thinking "Webber sucks, I would have done it so much better."
It’s like how the armchair quarterback who says that everybody in the NFL sucks likely isn’t as good as the people they are criticizing. If you want to be in the game and be successful, moving away from this kind of behavior is extremely beneficial.
It’s possible to recognize that somebody has made a costly mistake in a game without getting all self-righteous about it and saying that so-and-so is the worst player on the planet because they made a mistake that only an idiot would make. I have seen truly great players make very obvious mistakes many times. Mistakes are part of the game, and one of the best markers of great players is how they learn from those mistakes and move forward.
"Finkel should have blocked, and therefore Finkel sucks."
This kind of reaction to watching Magic is not the kind of thoughtful "let’s think it through and learn something" rationale that is for the sake of self-betterment. It comes from the kind of people who want to feel better about themselves by putting other people down. Be honest with yourself when you’re talking about other people’s play, especially with the person who made the mistake. Is your motivation to learn and help or is it to feel better about yourself at somebody’s expense?
If ever you suspect that it might be the latter, please consider that the best way to feel better about your play is to improve your abilities. Focusing on why everybody else is bad will not make you good.
Stay positive, stay constructive, and work hard.
III. Misdirection Is A Step In The Right Direction
Section II made a point of stating that human error and mistakes are part of the very fabric of games of Magic. Sometimes it pays off to help the mistake-making process along.
When I was coming up in Magic, Mark Herberholz was a larger than life pro figure that had accomplished a ton in the game and was a very good player. Needless to say, whenever he had advice to hand out, I was more than willing to hear it and do my best to apply it.
Time to order up the Heezy special.
Mark was a very skilled technical player (as one needs to be to win a Pro Tour), but his psychological game was basically second to none. Gerard Fabiano also has a pretty tremendous psychological game, but nobody I have ever seen play the game has been better at psyching an opponent out than Heezy.
One time on a trip to Grand Prix Richmond during Ravnica Limited, I got to talking with Mark about some of the things a player might do in order to use misdirection to their advantage in a game of Magic. Heezy told me:
"Always get your opponent to focus on what doesn’t actually matter. If the graveyard is irrelevant, start looking through your graveyard or ask to look at their graveyard. Move your lands around into patterns that represent spells you don’t have but that they might play around. Act like you’re counting up damage that you can’t produce to make them reconsider their attacks. Any time that you can get your opponent to play around something that you don’t have, they are not using their resources to their best ability."
It makes sense. If your opponent is focusing on the wrong things, it will clearly make your life easier.
Similarly, playing against Gerard Fabiano is an exercise in sifting through an endless stream of misinformation. Every time I’ve played against Gerard, it seems like not a turn has gone by where he didn’t say, "If I do X, will you do Y?"
It’s taxing to play against somebody who is constantly adding a lot of information to the game. Most people don’t actually know what to say or do in these situations, and I must admit it was difficult for me to play against him in a high-pressure match. Am I supposed to answer his questions? If I say the opposite of what I will do, will he assume I am saying the opposite? If I say the truth, will he assume it is the opposite?
Do you know what the key is?
The key is that it doesn’t actually matter what I say because Gerard is going to make the plays that he thinks are best. If I’m thinking about how to disguise my responses to Gerard’s questions then I am focusing on something outside of what my plays ought to be. I am being misdirected into thinking about things that are not what I am supposed to be thinking about.
A few tricky misdirection comments can go a long way in a game of Magic. Most people don’t use these kinds of tactics as much as they could.
Do you ever find yourself in one of those exceedingly tricky board states with multiple options and simply don’t know what to do?
Two lines of play diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one I thought Mike Jacob would take—and it has made all the difference.
When I was coming up in Magic, Michael Jacob was the best Magic player that I knew by a wide margin. In fact, he is still probably the best Magic player I have ever known. Much of what I have learned about playing Magic I learned from getting to watch him play and talking to him about why he makes the plays that he does.
Everybody has that Magic player in their history. The person who was simply better than you were and from whom you learned to build your own game. I find that it often helps to try to channel these players in situations when you don’t actually know what the correct play is.
Should I block or not? If my opponent doesn’t have a trick, I’m going to be sitting pretty here. Hmm . . . what would MJ do?
Well, he would probably raise his eyebrows, say, "That block was psychotic," and go back to playing his handheld video game.
"No blocks! No blocks!"
Ari Lax is another one of those players whose game I’ve come to admire, but unfortunately every time I try to do what Ari would do, I promptly get punished for it. So I think it’s also important to choose somebody with a style that meshes with your own. If you’re playing a Landstill deck in Legacy, you might not want to try to channel Patrick Sullivan if you come upon some unknown ground:
"Patrick Sullivan is always aggressive. What are you at? Nineteen? Bolt you twice. Go."
Clearly, this is not what a great player like Patrick would actually do if he were playing a grindy control deck. You have to be careful to apply the right advice to the right situations obviously.
A lot of times thinking about what somebody better than you would do in a similar situation will allow you to think critically about what is actually going on in the game in a way you hadn’t considered before. I have a feeling that a player who is better than I am would not block here, so now I am going to think about why they would not block. Well, if they have some combination of cards that they are likely to have, I will be giving up so much position that I will be too far behind to ever come back.
It helps to think about things that your role models have told you in the past regarding similar situations and then try to apply these pieces of advice to whatever the new situation you are encountering is.
V. When In Doubt Take, The Rare
This little nugget comes to you courtesy of drafting at Kyle Dembinski’s house with the old Ann Arbor crew:
When you’re drafting and you’re not sure about picking a common, uncommon, or rare, you should always take the rare.
I’m not even talking about the monetary value of the cards since in most of the drafts I do we play for the cards.
Pass me all the mediocre rares. I’ll play them.
There is a lot of upside to taking a rare in a situation where you think the pick is close. The biggest one is that you get an opportunity to play with a rare that you will have fewer opportunities to play with over time. It is pretty cool to get a chance to play with all of the cards in a set in one way or another. You may never get a chance to cast Ember Swallower or Hythonia the Cruel in Constructed, so here is your chance to do it!
The other reason I say to pick the rare is that when you are drafting at the game store, online, or for practice with friends, by picking the rare and getting a chance to play with it, you are able to form an opinion of how good that card is or is not in a draft that may actually matter, such as day 2 of a GP, a PTQ Top 8, or a PT.
People pass messed-up rares all the time because they don’t actually know how to evaluate them. Hunter’s Prowess or Retraction Helix? I have gotten to play with Hunter’s Prowess several times, and there are not many cards I would consider taking over it. However, it gets passed around (sometimes late in the pack) because people just do not know how good it is or is not and make the safe pick.
VI. A Bad Plan Is Better Than No Plan
Without a plan, there can be no victory.
One of the biggest things that up and coming Magic players struggle with is formulating an actual game plan for how they are going to win the game. It is pretty easy to identify things that need to be done or are obviously advantageous. For instance, if your opponent taps out for Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and you are holding a Negate, everybody knows this is probably a good time to use the counterspell.
Easy plays are easy.
What I am talking about here is the how and why of what players do in the critical middle and late turns of a game when there are lots of different options available to them. Oftentimes there are a few critical points in the game upon which the rest of the play will hinge, and making a good play in these situations is often the difference between seizing an opportunity to win and punting to lose.
It no longer surprises me, but I’m sure it might surprise many other players how often people make plays and don’t have a clear idea of what they’re trying to accomplish moving forward.
I run a playtesting group on Wednesdays at my local game store, and I get a chance to watch and comment on a metric ton of games of Magic. One thing that I like to do when I see a play that I particularly don’t like is to stop the player and ask them what their plan is.
Here are a few things to consider when you are formulating a plan:
What cards do you think your opponent is likely to have?
Are there any cards that will really cripple what you are doing if they have them?
Are there ways to play around their best possible cards?
Can we make a plan that takes away their best weapons?
Are we racing favorably?
What are we going to do next turn?
Do we maximize our mana efficiency?
Are we taking unnecessary risks?
These are all important questions to be asking when you are making plays upon which the rest of the game will hinge.
For instance, I see a lot of games with newer players in which they engage in a race where they cannot possibly win, even if the opponent doesn’t draw a single relevant card for the rest of the game.
I would equate a situation like this to having "no plan."
A lot of times people respond to these situations by saying, "Well, I’m probably just dead." Well, if you continue down this path, you are certainly just dead and with no outs.
Playing to your outs is important because sometimes those one-outers actually show up and take the day. When you find yourself playing in a game where you are losing, you have two choices: accept your fate and give up or figure out what series of events could occur where you could win the game and then play to those outs.
It’s also possible to use some of the other strategies we have discussed to aid us when the odds are stacked against us. Remember, human error is a real thing that is often helped by our own ability to misdirect our opponent’s plays.
If one starts making wildly hopeless plays, the opponent is going to be very likely to seize the opportunity to win, but if we stay calm and represent a card that would blow them out, oftentimes we can halt their attack or get them to play around something that we don’t actually have. If your best way to win is to convince your opponent not to attack, then that is probably what needs to happen.
A lot of people expect you to concede when you’re dead. It says something if you’re not conceding, and usually the opponent will take that into consideration and play around cards you don’t have.
Having a plan is important and better than casting a bunch of spells and hoping that they’re good enough when the game is done. A good plan is also relatable to the first tip of this article about playing your best Magic no matter what else is going on in the tournament. You should have a plan for your game regardless of whether or not you are winning or losing, no matter if you are playing for Top 8 or playing for three booster packs.
I have noticed that people tend to play their best Magic in close games and that people tend to play their worst Magic in games where somebody is either losing or winning by a large amount.
People who are winning tend to get into the mindset of "I’m ahead and probably going to win, so whatever I do will be fine."
People who are losing tend to get into the mindset of "I’m probably going to lose, so I’m not going to get too invested in this game, but if I rip perfectly, we’ll see what happens."
Being ahead, behind, or at parity is irrelevant because you should always have a plan and be making the strategically best plays possible. If you’ve gotten ahead, why wouldn’t you spend the effort to give your opponent the least amount of opportunities to claw back into the game? If you’re losing, it’s unlikely that anything but absolute perfect planning, decision making, and plays will be able to recapture the game.
Great players always have a plan, and they don’t give up on games. If you were to ask any Hall of Famer why they played one card in their hand instead of the other, they could talk for five minutes about the pros and cons of playing either card and specifically tell you what process they went through in deciding which road to walk down.
Remember, WWMJD? WWLSVD?
Can you imagine asking Luis Scott-Vargas why he made a play in a tournament and him saying, "Meh, I don’t know," or asking Ben Stark why he picked card X over card Y in a draft and him saying, "Who knows?" Players who are playing at a high level have a plan in mind that motivates their actions and their plays.
In the spirit of giving and taking good advice about how to become a better Magic player, I strongly encourage readers to share their advice with me and each other. Let’s hear what you’ve got!