Teaching Yourself to Win: A Top 10 List

I’ve always had a burning desire to win and an equal, no less fiery desire to improve. The culmination of almost ten years of heartburn has finally started to pay off, with some top 8’s, a trip to the Pro Tour, and a near-miss at Regionals with yet another deck that no one believed in but me. These are some of the things that I’ve learned over those ten years while continually striving to improve.

As everyone who’s played this game at all can immediately tell, there’s more to it than luck. Those who have played the game for a long time know that while luck is a factor, it’s arguably the least important factor. Even if you get bad draws in Tournament X, blow your metagame predictions in Tournament Y, and make mistakes at Tournament Z, if you keep trying to improve your game you will get better.

I’ve been playing Magic since 1995, in the Ice Age / Alliances block, if they even called them blocks back then. Since I made the first leap from playing casually in my living room to playing Arena at Richmond Comix (man I miss Arena…), I’ve always had a burning desire to win and an equal, no less fiery desire to improve. The culmination of almost ten years of heartburn has finally started to pay off, with some top 8’s, a trip to the Pro Tour, and a near-miss at Regionals with yet another deck that no one believed in but me (you can read about it here and here). These are some of the things that I’ve learned over those ten years while continually striving to improve. Some of these may have been covered before, but it never hurts to reiterate, and there’s some new stuff in here too.

1. Always up the ante.

If you are a casual player, take your pet deck to FNM. Even if you get destroyed, you will gain new insights into what would make it better, helping your pet deck to grow some big pointy teeth (cue Monty Python music). When you’re having an all-night playtesting session with five of your buds, have everyone bring a pack, with best-overall-record takes all; create a situation where everyone wants to win because they will play better and your testing will have greater value. If you play FNM, go to a PTQ or a Pre-release. If you think you’re a big shot, try a 2v2 money draft against Jon Finkel and Zvi Moshowitz. Talk a lot of smack. Just kidding on that last one, but the point is to always try and take things to the next level. If you get into this mindset it will become second nature to the point where you’re learning all the time.

2. Never be satisfied.

Got second place at FNM? Sure, you won some packs. But the winner got twice as many and he busted a Chrome Mox. Made top 8? Cool and all… but you’re not taking home the plaque. While I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy your successes (I certainly do, and I unabashedly reference them all the time. Did I mention I have a Cloudpost and a Duplicant with Pro Tour stamps?), just that you shouldn’t let them take your eye off the real prize: complete and utter domination.* If you let wins take your eyes off the mistakes you made, they will cease to be something that helps you to get better.

3. Listen to yourself, but take advice.

If you there’s a card that everyone thinks is bad but you know you can break – by all means, do so. I’ve done it myself on several occasions and doing well with your abominable creation is totally rewarding. But if it the damn thing won’t break (it’s a sheaf of cardboard less than a millimeter thick, you girly man) then listen to what your friends have been telling you. What they may be pointing out without explicitly saying so is that some of your valuations are completely wrong. For example, you might think that the environment is a turn slower than it is, or that there’s little to no splash damage on your deck and you keep getting hated out by chance. When you get to a place like this in your testing of a deck or a card, maybe it’s time to play the netdecks for a week and then re-evaluate what you were trying to do in the first place.

4. Believe in yourself and believe in your deck.

If you think your deck sucks and you’re going to lose, then why the hell did you bring it? Why did you pay the exorbitant fee I’ve read being charged at some Regionals if you don’t think you have a chance?** Why did you go through the agony of playtesting and tweaking the damn thing (as well as taking your friends’ advice)? As mentioned in a recent Ask Ken, you have to have a positive mindset. Thinking you’re going to lose before a tourney even starts will make it a self-fulfilling prophecy, and those are usually the bad kind.

Furthermore, if you know you deck is the shiznit but everyone else thinks it’s trash, you’ll take that much more glee in crushing an Affinity deck with Goblin Replica and Skeleton Shard (yes, I really did this once – but to his credit, it was in the pre-Ravager days when Standard was normal).

5. Know the environment.

This is something that’s very simple and also often overlooked. It’s not enough to say,”in the coming tournament I will face 40% Ravager, 25% Goblins, 15% Tooth and Nail, 10% W/x Control and 10% Cemetery/Mono-Black/Rogue.” Not nearly enough. Try this exercise. If you are planning on taking a serious deck to a competitive tournament, you should be able to name every card and their quantities as well as the sideboard off the top of your head. If you can do that in a reasonable amount of time without staring at the ceiling as you try to remember what that last one-of was, try this. Name every card and their quantities in each of the tier one decks you’ll be facing that day, as well as probable sideboards.

Now that you know the decks, you have to understand each of the matchups, which are the key cards not just for yourself but for the other player. That way you can read them well ahead of time, understand how your opponent will manipulate them, and put yourself in a position where you won’t walk into their traps with unthinking glee. For example, when I was testing my States deck against Goblins, one time I lost to Goblin Sharpshooter because I sacrificed some Bottle Gnomes at the end of turn and in response he pinged me to death. You can trust I never made that mistake again.

6. Use all of the information given to you.

This one is an absolutely crucial skill for you to develop as a player if you want to succeed. You know what the skeleton of a Ravager deck looks like and can name all the cards in it. Can you tell what makes the one you’re playing against different from the other builds? Is this going to change your sideboarding plans? For example, one of my friends had talked about playing a version of Ravager that included Goblin Sharpshooters. How would this change your overall gameplan?

This step goes a lot deeper than just the cards on the table, however; a Siege-Gang is a Siege-Gang is a Siege-Gang, my old pal Krak Hed used to say,”See one, you’ve seen em all.” There is another valuable source of information during your match – your opponent.

Reading your opponent encompasses a variety of things. Some of them are easy to pick up: if he’s in White and keeping five mana untapped in a draft match, he’s telegraphing a Soul Nova. What I’m talking about here are the more subtle things; if you already know all the cards in his deck, more or less, you need to find out what’s in his hand right now. These are things you should check to see if you can find extra information.

First off, watch his face when he picks up his seven cards. Does he hesitate when he makes his decision to keep? Maybe he’s short on lands, or has too many. Consider Oxidize-ing that Seat of the Synod. Look at the way he holds and arranges his cards. If he always plays lands from the left side of his hand, watch where he puts a card when he draws it – if it goes to the left side it’s probably a mana source. Watch for patterns in the way he acts or plays so that you can recognize them later.

Is your opponent nervous? If his hands get shaky, he might have drawn the last combo piece or a spectacularly good bomb. As you play, continually reassess your adversary; you will become more sure of what they’re doing and thinking. Sometimes, your opponent will straight up offer you information – my eight round opponent at Regionals mentioned early in our first game that he was playing a control version of Tooth and Nail with four Wrath of God and four Akroma’s Vengeance, which led me to avoid siding in Worship against him, which I had been considering doing. Feign curiosity and admiration in their unique build, then politely query them as to how many Mindslavers they run. What? You don’t run any? Whew, I’m glad to know that.

7. Learn to sideboard correctly.

I’m sure that everyone who comes to this here site here to read strategy articles perused [author name="Mike Flores"]Mike Flores’s[/author] article Splish Splash.*** It was a great article on an important subject. However, I don’t feel like people actually took the message contained therein to heart – not because they weren’t trying to, but because they couldn’t think outside of the box. This week, I’ve been cruising around to all kinds of strategy sites and reading Regionals reports. I’ve been most interested in the control decks, since that’s what I took to a 14th place finish; I was hoping to glean some useful tidbits and improve my deck that much more. In every account I read, all I found was apparently competent players making sideboard mistakes.

For example, many of the U/W control decks ran three Weathered Wayfarers in the side. When I read their match results, there was only one matchup where they sided them in – vs. G/R Land Destruction. That is, in my opinion, a terrible mistake. Granted, though you never expect to hear”splash damage on Weathered Wayfarer,” he’s great in multiple matchups. Versus control he assures you don’t lose the mana race and improves card quality by thinning your deck. What about vs. Tooth and Nail? They’re going to Reap and Sow with entwine, so of course you want the Nomad Cleric. This goes back to step 6 above – look creatively at the information that’s been given to you, and then sideboard accordingly. Playtest with sideboards so you can see what works and what doesn’t.

8. Provide false information.

This one is one of the most difficult to learn but can help you steal wins. Other players, whether they do so consciously or not, follow step #6. They will read the way you are playing. Hence, you can use their own methods of data collection against them. Here’s a trick that one of my opponents used against me on the Pro Tour. He telegraphed a spell for a few turns that would have hurt me pretty bad (I can’t remember specifically what it was – sorry). I was playing around it. A few turns later, he made a play, then immediately smacked his forehead and mumbled something about tapping his mana wrong – he’d tapped it so that he couldn’t afford the spell he’d been telegraphing. On my turn, I gleefully attempted an Alpha Strike, just to find that my double-blocked fatty was Irradiated and killed by combat damage without taking down a single opposing creature. My opponent had used false information to cajole me into doing exactly what he wanted, and won the game.

This is also called the Jedi Mind trick. Mike Flores‘ recently described a similar play in an important match, where he tricked an opponent into using Necropotence for seven cards instead of the original four; the extra three points of life loss put him in a position to win the game from a very bad position.

9. Play Magic Online.

If you think you know the stack, play Magic Online. I guarantee that it will teach you some things that you never knew, as well as cement what you did know into a solid foundation. Magic Online is a great learning tool because, simply put, it lays all your mistakes bare. It won’t allow you to do anything against the rules, and when you screw up you know it right away. It’s frustrating in the beginning, but it’s well worth the time to give it a shot; it improved my game immediately, and it’s fun to boot.

10. Cheat.****

Before you go straight to the forums and blast me for advocating cheating, let me explain myself. I’m not telling people to cheat in sanctioned matches, or any match for that matter, as I detest cheaters, and would never in a million years stoop to their level.

What I am advocating is a separate step during your playtesting. At the end of each session, play five or six matches where both players can and do cheat, using as many methods as they can think of and doing as many sneaky things as they can. If you get caught, you have to replace the card on top of your library, or otherwise reverse the advantage you’d briefly obtained by trying to cheat. The purpose of this is to learn to recognize types of cheating so that you can call a judge immediately should it occur during one of your matches. By becoming familiar with shady behavior during non-serious play, you can help prevent getting bamboozled when it counts.

Thanks for reading guys. A final thought on this subject: continually striving to get better at Magic will be rewarding for more reasons than just whomping your FNM opponents. Eventually this attitude will bleed into other aspects of your life – to where you are constantly bettering yourself at everything you do. That, in my opinion, is the real reward.

John Matthew Upton

I like back, feed me!

jmumoo AT yahoo DOT com

*Just remember – win graciously, be a gentleman.

**Belated Special Thanks to StarCityGames / Dreamwizards for running a great Regionals event at normal prices – I should have mentioned this in my Regionals report – you guys do a perfect job time in, and time out.

***You know you’re a good writer when people take up your terminology and immediately sling it around the ‘net like they’d had it forever. Keep up the good work, Mike.

****This idea was originally presented (this is where I saw it anyway) by a forum poster on Brainburst.com. I liked the idea so much I included it in here – but credit goes out to that long-ago poster.