The Long & Winding Road – Remembrances and the Competitive Path

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Monday, January 4th – I played my first game of Magic in 1993. I was thirteen years old. I’ve realized, sadly, that many of my memories from that time period have faded away. Too many, if I’m being honest with myself. Despite this fact, many memories regarding Magic remain.

This week’s article is different than most of what I’ve written so far for this website.

I played my first game of Magic in 1993. I was thirteen years old. I’ve realized, sadly, that many of my memories from that time period have faded away. Too many, if I’m being honest with myself. Despite this fact, many memories regarding Magic remain.

I remember my first deck, made up of two Unlimited starters and two boosters of Arabian Nights. We all had much too few land in our decks. The store where we bought the cards ran out of Unlimited but had plenty of Arabian Nights for a while, so we really had too little land. Desert Walk was actually relevant. We didn’t realize that damage went away at the end of the turn, and used counters to track creature damage (much like how damage is handled in WoW). I remember that I had a Black Vice in my deck, and basically won every game where I drew it to the point that we banned the card for a time.

I remember my first tournament, at the Reclining Dragon in Lansdale. I thought my deck was pretty hot stuff. It was mono-black and probably 70 cards, but it did have four copies of Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specter, and Mind Twist. I made it to the finals, and lost to a guy playing land destruction. His deck had moxen, dual lands, Birds of Paradise, Sol Ring, Black Lotus, Sinkhole, Ice Storm, Strip Mine, Stone Rain, Lightning Bolt, Black Vice, and won with Shivan Dragon if the Black Vice didn’t do the job — which it usually did. That match showed me what competitive Magic could be, and how off the mark I’d been in my card evaluations to that point.

I remember the first booster draft I played. It was Pro Tour 2 on the Queen Mary. I didn’t win a match in the main event but cleaned up in the side events. I saw Zak Dolan and asked him to play, but he was completely disinterested. His friend offered to play a cash game, $20. I agreed. He was playing The Deck. I was playing a deck that transformed through the sideboard to be anti-The Deck. I lost; I suggested we play a full match. He agreed provided we play for $100. I bought myself a nice meal and most of a Standard deck with the $100 I won from Zak Dolan friend.

I remember packing up my stuff when I moved out of my parents’ house after college, and going through my notebooks from high school. They were covered in Magic decks up through my senior year, when I stopped playing. Page after page, I found sparse notes from a subject in school covered from top to bottom in outlines of different decks.

I remember the first time I ever net-decked a Magic deck, from the Magic Dojo. A friend told me about a $1K Standard tournament in southern NJ that we didn’t think the NY guys knew about, but I had no idea what deck to play. Without any testing, I built mono-green Senor Stompy, and won the tournament, splitting in the finals with my friend, who played a blue/white Counterpost deck I sketched out in the car on the way there.

I remember playing Prison Control in Standard, and one Jon Finkel telling me to cut some win conditions for Pendrell Mists. Smart guy, that Jon Finkel.

I remember splitting in the finals of a cash tournament with Paul Ferker. I played Necropotence, specifically a black/red aggro version with a lot of burn designed to beat the mirror and white weenie decks. My main deck had one Throne of Bone, to offset the life loss from the pain lands and set up some kind of engine with Necropotence. Not the best idea I ever came up with, but Zuran Orb had just been restricted and I still thought the life gain was relevant.

And I remember seeing Greg Weiss at Worlds in NY in 2007. He remembered me even though I hadn’t seen him in 10 years. He said that he remembered me, and that the guys I played with used to come to Showcase Comics in Bryn Mawr, and we helped him transition from casual player to competitive player. I thought that was pretty awesome — it’s one of those moments that remind a person that our actions don’t occur in a vacuum, without consequence, for good and for bad.

Magic has a way of ingraining itself into people’s lives. I suppose to some extent this is true of anything to which one devotes a lot of time and energy, especially when that time and energy is expended with friends. Still, I’m amazed at some of the obscure and random things I remember from playing Magic over a decade ago, and the friends I have that still play the game, or similar games, today.

It makes me very thankful that someone talked me into buying those Starter decks so long ago — and further that the guy that crushed me with the land destruction deck in my first-ever tournament took the time to explain why and how he crushed me. It changed the way I played Magic forever, and also the way I approached talking to people about competitive Magic.

That should set the stage for the rest of this article.

Everything you need to know about competitive Magic, you can learn from Booster Draft

I consider booster drafting to be the most skill-intensive format of Magic. This isn’t to say that it taxes all of the skills involved in Magic at their highest degree, but I consider the skills encompassed in a booster draft to be the most diverse of any Magic format. I also consider it to be the best format for teaching casual players — by which I mean players familiar with the rules of the game, but not familiar with higher level strategy – the “correct” way to understand Magic in competitive terms.

Before going any further, I want to explain a few things. I’m going to state some generalizations about casual players. Please understand that these aren’t meant to be all-encompassing, nor are they meant as slights. On the contrary, establishing an understanding of what it means to be a casual player is important. There are people who read this site regularly — or read my column for Vintage information — who will no doubt find very little in this article that they think applies to them.

So why write it?

There are two goals I hope to accomplish here. One is to help competitive players understand the mindset of a typical casual player. Another is to help casual players understand the mindset of the typical casual player. The purpose here is to help players on both sides when a casual player is interested in entering the world of competitive Magic. Finally, I hope to show the ways in which booster drafting can “retrain” a casual player to understand the game from the competitive player’s mindset. I realize that this is a topic that has been covered in the past, but as with many topics, it is probably one that deserves a repeat look so that there is a more recent reference point for newer players.

Competitive, Casual, In-between

I have traveled between the competitive and casual Magic worlds for a long time. Several of my long-term friends played Magic casually in the 1990s and continue to do so today. When I briefly got back into Magic again in 2002-2003, I started because some of my friends at school (sophomores new to my fraternity my senior year) brought casual decks with them. One of the things that I did, and continue to do, is to build and retain Block Constructed decks for the purposes of playing casually, or to keep together favorite Standard decks from formats long-rotated (such as Senor Stompy from 1997). I’ve found that many block decks will be at a fair power level compared to people playing “casual Vintage” type decks — that is, decks built in a casual frame of mind that will often include power cards like dual lands, Gaea’s Cradle, or Memory Jar. That said, playing Mirage Block Constructed against a casual Black-Red deck with Lightning Bolt and Sedge Troll and Badlands can’t really be considered competitive Magic.

I have occasionally had a chance during these types of interaction to help people understand the competitive frame of mind as it applies to whatever deck I happen to be playing: the deck construction rules involved, why certain cards are included or omitted (introducing the idea of a metagame), and so on. Sometimes this sparks a player’s interest, and sometimes it doesn’t. Perhaps you’ve had this experience. When you do, where do you go next, and what can you do to help this person develop as a competitive player?

I should also define what I consider “competitive” Magic. I’m not speaking about the Pro Circuit, per se. Baby steps, and all that. I’m referring to the kitchen table player that wants to start drafting at a local store, or begin playing FNM and having some expectation of winning matches (or at least not absorb constant, incessant losing).

Keep in mind that the majority of casual Magic players have no interest in learning to play in what competitive Magic players would consider the “right” or “correct” way. Magic is a game, and for most people, it is played to have fun. Cut-throat, competitive play is not necessarily the “right” way to play — this is an issue that comes up repeatedly when discussing and playing formats like EDH (where casual players and competitive players will interact).

However, with the recent boom in the number of Magic players, there are a lot of people out there who want to learn to play the game well enough to compete in local tournaments. There are certainly players that bypass this state completely — if you are mentored from the start by competitive players, you may never even enter the casual state of mind. I suspect that this happens a lot more now than it did “back in my day” when nearly every Magic player started out playing in a small, local playgroup, unaware of the strategic riches the game could offer.

Then again, there are better resources now for making the transition from casual to competitive. Releases like the “Duel” decks (Elves vs. Goblins or Jace vs. Chandra) are a great way for casual players to interact on even footing (in deck construction terms) with competitive players with a goal of learning to play in a way that will foster positive results in a tournament structure.

I feel that tournament players, by and large, treat casual players with disrespect because of the way that they play: they build decks incorrectly, evaluate cards incorrectly, don’t know the rules, don’t understand the basics of strategy (such as when to play lands or what to cast before, after, and during combat), and worst of all, don’t even realize they’re playing “incorrectly.”

Similarly, many casual players just think that “competitive” players don’t “get it” — Magic is a game and as such is meant to be played for fun, and fun is the measurement by which a game can be considered a success. People who play cut-throat Magic, who chastise others for playing incorrectly, endlessly debate things like draft-pick orders, treat pre-releases like the top 8 of a Pro Tour, and generally speaking look miserable when they play Magic, just don’t get it.

What is the best way to bridge that gap — if you’re a casual player and you want to understand what makes competitive players so much “better” at winning games, where do you start?

I believe the answer is, and has always been, booster draft.

The Gap

There are a lot of people playing Magic that are casual players who have at least some interest in competitive Magic, but have no clear path into what is a completely different world. The most difficult part of the transition from casual player to competitive player is that most of what a casual player “knows” is incorrect from the standpoint of competitive play.

The most basic level involves the rules. Many casual players have only a cursory understanding of the finer points of timing rules (such as the stack), and many casual playgroups have “house rules” in effect to resolve scenarios they do not understand (or to make the game more “fun” in some cases). Although this is certainly less true than it was early in the game’s history, it still persists to a degree. Further, many casual players engage in multi-player games and have learned skills (such as diplomacy) that don’t really translate to the one-on-one structure of normal competitive Magic formats.

Looking beyond this, from a competitive perspective, most casual players have a fundamentally flawed understanding of tempo and card evaluation, because the games they usually play will tend to underemphasize the speed at which competitive Magic is played. By this, I mean that many casual games take many turns to exit Phase 1 (or the early game or whatever term you want to apply); multiplayer games in particular will often allow a player time to recover from a slow start. Consider the fact that resource denial is considered “bad form” by most casual players.

Further, casual games are by their nature not designed to be cut-throat, leading to card evaluations that seem “off” to competitive players (see the value on cards like Doubling Season, Lord of the Undead, and Akroma’s Memorial, for example). Over-costed spells aren’t as much of an issue when you’re playing in a format that isn’t racing toward Phase 3 (or an end-game or whatever term you want to apply). Because casual game players have a different expectation of how much time can be allotted to developing board position and how much mana one can reasonably expect to reach in any given game, tempo cards tend to be undervalued as a general rule. Why play a “bounce” effects like Repeal when Plague Wind just destroys every creature? Why use a utility card like Fire/Ice when Banefire is so much better at winning games?

To convert a casual player’s world view to that of a competitive player’s, you need to rewrite everything that player knows about Magic: deck construction, card evaluation, basic play techniques, common rules interactions. You want to teach them what matters, and why.

Booster draft is ideal for this.

Why Booster Draft?

Booster drafting requires a deep set of skills:

• During the actual drafting portion, card evaluation and a general understanding of deck construction are required. Casual players will tend to undervalue removal, mana fixing, and not draft a workable curve or set of colors, and will overemphasize life-gain effects, over-costed creatures, and splashy effects or combos. Further, one could reasonably argue that an understanding of card values can and should come into play during booster draft, so that a casual player doesn’t pick Halo Hunter over a foil Misty Rainforest.*

• Once the draft is completed, deck construction skills come into play (again, paired with card evaluation). In particular, one needs to understand mana proportions (both in raw amount of mana to play in the deck and having an understanding of color requirements and how they relate to a mana base) and the concept of building on a curve, as well as building a deck with a reasonable ratio of spells to creatures (and, the inclusion of creatures and/or spells that can actually win the game). Casual players will tend to include unnecessary splash colors, will play too few mana producers, and will exclude lower-curve creatures at the expense of expensive fatties. They also tend to over-value life-gain effects or cards that a competitive player would consider to be do-nothing cards.

• Finally, the actual playing of competitive Magic can occur once these other portions are completed. As a general rule, limited Magic is quite good at teaching players common timing interactions, and probably does the best job of teaching the whens, whys, and hows of combat than any other Magic format.

* There are obviously additional skills that come into play when drafting, such as reading and giving signals, formulating pick orders, remembering the cards you’ve seen, understanding the metagame of a given booster draft format, and so on, but I want to keep things at a more basic level.

There are two other huge benefits to booster drafting as a method of teaching competitive Magic:

• Repetitive booster drafting in a given set (such as Shards block or triple M10 or Zendikar) helps a player learn the card pool for that set, particularly the commons and uncommons. Repeated interactions with cards help players associate the picture with the text.

• Booster drafting helps casual players build up a collection of relevant cards for block constructed and standard play, as well as giving them trade fodder to help acquire the cards to make a competitive deck.

We’ve established some of the skills that are required to booster draft; I’ll list them and expand:

• Card evaluation, including in-game and market value

• Deck construction, including: the idea of building on a curve, the importance of removal, managing creature/spell ratios, including threats than can actually “win the game”, and building a functional manabase.

• Playing competitive Limited Magic, including: when to play land and what lands to play when, the finer points of combat and combat timing, when to mulligan and why, what to play pre-combat, when to “chump” block, and when to play removal spells.

Again, this is just touching the surface of an immensely deep game, but most competitive Magic players are constantly tweaking and improving these skills.

How can someone hope to absorb so many diverse skills at once?

I don’t think anyone can. It takes practice and patience, and hopefully, positive reinforcement and guidance.

Crossing the Bridge

Getting better at Magic requires the assistance and input of those who know the competitive game better than you do. Thankfully, if you’re a beginner or a casual player, you should be able to find people that are playing at a higher level (competitively speaking) than you are.

However, not everyone is going to want to help you. The fact is this: some people are just jerks. They’re not going to tell you that foil Misty Rainforest is worth more than Halo Hunter. They’re not going to let you take back rookie mistakes, even at a prerelease. They’re not going to help you make your deck better after a match because they’re just glad they got the win.

Some people legitimately don’t posses the set of attributes that makes them want to help a stranger get better, and other people are purposefully disinterested in doing so. There are a lot of people like this, but thankfully in my experience there are many more that are the exact opposite.

If you want to get into competitive Magic, the best thing to do at first is to watch, listen, and read. One of the best resources available is the “Drafting with…” series here on StarCityGames.com. There are other options out there including various draft simulators and viewers that can help you get a handle on card evaluation and get a general idea of pick order for a given set. Conversations in the forums of the “Drafting with Oli” series often have some intriguing back-and-forth explaining why people value certain cards over others, and may help your understanding as well.

Another great way to proceed is to watch a few drafts live at your local store. You’ll often be able to identify the better players through conversation with the players present or with the store employees. Most people have no problem letting you watch the draft if you’re not involved and don’t have anything at stake.

Your first few drafts, expect to lose. You might also find that you’re not having a lot of fun — but you’re exponentially increasing your knowledge of competitive play with each game. Seek out those same players you watched and ask them for deck-building advice after the draft. Talk about the decisions that were tough for you and see which way they would’ve gone. Ask about cards that you’re not playing that you think you should be playing, or areas in your deck that seemed lacking and what cards might be ones to watch out for to address this weakness.

A lot of people will be happy to go through your card pool and evaluate your deck, and offer suggestions about how to make it better. Take these suggestions with a grain of salt and look for common themes and comments — many people will over-represent how good they are at the game. If a comment comes up repeatedly, there’s a better chance that it is accurate. As a general rule, err on the side of more lands and more mana fixing. 16-18 land is the general standard for most draft decks in most draft formats (although there are exceptions to every rule). Always put a high value on removal spells, and put a low value as a general rule on life-gain effects (such as the Wurm’s Tooth / Dragon’s Claw cycle) and auras.

I touched earlier on two byproducts of drafting: learning the card pool of a block and building a collection of currently-relevant cards. While draft is an excellent way to play Magic, draft itself can be a gateway to Constructed Magic.

As a personal example, I got back into competitive Magic in March 2007, and started out by drafting once a week. Obviously I had the benefit of playing competitively 10 years prior, but that’s a lot of rust to shake off (and a decent amount of casual tendencies to lose), and there were a lot of subtle changes to the rules and to competitive Magic in general (and note that nearly three years later, I still don’t feel like I’m half the Magic player I was in 1996-1997, when I was playing the game almost every day).

Once I got a handle on Time Spiral Draft, I was able to start playing Block Constructed, and ended up 5-1-2 in my first Constructed PTQ in over a decade. As corollary to this, I think Wizards has a made a big mistake in cutting back or eliminating the role of Block Constructed tournaments. For me, Block Constructed functioned as a way to get back into constructed without getting full-on into Standard. The card pool is easier to learn and the decks tend to be easier to grasp. Then again, I’ve always loved Block so it could be my personal preference (and many would argue that not having a Shards block qualifying season was a good thing).

My point is that draft sets a player new to competitive Magic on the right path by teaching card evaluation, card values, the card pool, and the correct rules and way to play basic scenarios. There are a great number of tools now (such as the Duel decks mentioned earlier) that can also help a draft player get into constructed play.

If you’re a casual player considering getting into FNM with the goal of moving up through the chain to States, Regionals, and PTQs, I hope that this article helped explain the mindset of competitive players as well as outlining a path that can lead you to future success.

If you’re a competitive player, I hope that I helped explain the casual perspective, or reminded you of your casual days, and explained some ways to guide people along as they develop into competitive players.

Magic is a game that many people will play for years, even decades, and there’s a very good chance that early interactions, for good or bad, will shape someone’s level of involvement with the game. I hope that you choose to help the game grow by fostering positive interactions among casual and new players, instead of cementing negative stereotypes of competitive play among the casual players with whom you interact. Remember, someone might remember you, even a decade later.

In other words: Stay classy, Magic players.

Matt Elias
[email protected]
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