There’s an old saying…
The more you play, the better you become.
This implies that it does not matter what you do when you are playing. As long as you are playing, you’re improving.
I do not agree with that statement.
A while ago, I began exploring such things in an article discussing Reflex versus Automatism. I mentioned that you tend to repeat what you’re used to in practice games when it comes to playing tournament games. Unfortunately, there’s no magic spell that tells you what you have done thus far in any given game was the correct play every time. Sure, you can figure out that some plays have worked out better for you over your training period than others. But in order to optimize your plays, you need to find the BEST play.
There is a chance you could figure out the best plays in given situation by playing more games, trying out more things. If you had a crazy amount of time to practise and try every combination, that could work, even though I doubt anyone has such resources. But once again, playing Magic at a high level is not about repeating the plays you have already seen. It is about reacting with correct reflexes and finding the right solutions using the tools your brain has developed.
When I tell people about Magic, I present it as a mix between Poker and Chess. They do not understand what I am saying most of the time, but it becomes very clear when referencing the following section.
Magic is a strategy game, just like Chess, where you have to win a game using your mind and your resources. The calculations are different (of course), since you do not know what your opponent is holding in his hand, what he is drawing, and what you are going to draw, unlike in Chess where you know exactly what is going on. The hidden information part of the game is what Poker has that Chess doesn’t have. Poker is all about finding out and taking advantage of the information you do not have.
The reason I present Magic that way here is to make sure you understand where your skills have to come from, and what you have to do to improve in order to become a better Magic player. You have to master the skills of both the Chess and the Poker players.
1— The Chess Player Skills
A good Chess player recognizes the patterns of openings and in-game settings and plays accordingly.
He knows when the autopilot is going to make him run into his opponent’s traps, and he knows when to switch gears.
He has a game plan that he figures out as soon as possible, and knows the alternatives if it fails.
Take, for example, a Chess game at a high level competition. The first 10+ moves will be totally automatic for both players. Both players have seen all the possible openings over and over again. However, once a player makes a move that is not part of the classic openings, or one that’s not found in the books… that is when their mastery comes into play. From then on, the players will have to start figuring out the consequences of all the moves they make. And they cannot figure out all the possible scenarios, since there are so many. The clock reminds them that they don’t have the time to do it even if they could. So they have to find a way to think faster.
So… you are playing a Standard White Weenie deck against a U/W Control deck (with Wrath of God, draw spells, late game control, and kill conditions).
The first couple of turns will be played like the games in the books. You will play your fastest beaters while he fixes his mana and sets up his late-game plan, by drawing cards and maybe countering some of your threats.
As soon as he reaches turn 4 and has four mana for Wrath of God, that is when you may have to switch gears. Should you play more creatures and put even more pressure on the board? Should you hold them back so you don’t get wrecked by a potential sweeper?
There is no definite answer to that question. You could play your creatures at once and lose them all to a Wrath, or hold them and give your opponent time to set up his long-term plan and still eventually lose.
To solve this situation the best way possible, you have to use what you have learnt. Everything your opponent has done so far should make some sense. The reason why he countered your second threat with his Remove Soul, for example… That might mean he is not holding the Wrath of God. Or maybe he is, and is just buying some time, or even trying to make you think he is not holding it, to make you play all your creatures and kill them all with Wrath. With the information you have, you should be able to make the best play. Everything your opponent did so far should trigger something in your head to help you analyze the situation.
Your opponent is moving one of his knights, and some of your pieces might be directly or indirectly attacked in the process. The knight is now protecting eight new squares. All these thoughts are triggered by just one move. You can visualize everything mentioned above in just a second (when you are a trained Chess player). Then your thoughts have to focus on what you opponent tried to do, what the right answer to that is, and how to continue your offensive line of play.
And that is exactly the kind of skill a Magic player should have. You recognize a pattern, understand what it implies, and from there react accordingly. It might sound absolutely ridiculous, but in most cases, the second step is skipped. You recognize a pattern and play what you think is correct, according to what you think is correct, without understanding everything that it implies.
“He moved his knight, uncovering his bishop. I am now attacking the bishop.” In reality, your opponent has visualized a dangerous plan and you are just falling into his trap.
You have to make every play your opponent makes trigger something in your head, to help you think the situation through. That trigger is not something that comes very naturally, and it is hard to develop by yourself. The best way to develop this rare skill and make it your own is by watching others play. Whatever your level is, watching someone else play is often very interesting. If you are watching a bad player, think of yourself in that player’s shoes. Consider what you would have done if you were in his shoes. When he makes a mistake, understand where it came from. Lack of focus? Bad situation analysis? That will help you understand how your own triggers work. Now check out how pros are playing. I am not saying all the pros’ games are flawless, but you will most likely learn a lot more from them. Do exactly what you did with the bad player. In this case, you will most likely think of inferior plays. You will sometimes be surprised by a play you would never have thought of. This is exactly where you should close the gap. Why didn’t you think of that play? What made the pro think of that play? Understand what triggered in their minds, and try to make it your own. What did he see that you didn’t?
This is a complicated concept, but it is key if you want to improve your game. Pros are players who understand some things that you don’t. Try to find out what. Don’t hesitate to discuss with the people you play, or with the people who made the plays. They might be great help.
2- The Poker Player Skills
The Poker players knows the game by heart. He knows his odds and plays accordingly.
He manages to read his opponent and take advantage of information that is not supposed to known.
Everyone knows about the bluffing and “reading people” in Poker. In Magic, these skills are very hard to use, if not totally useless (especially in a game of Magic Online). The main skill that all pro Poker players have is the notion of risk. By notion of risk, I talk about the scientific meaning behind it. For example, let’s take the following statement: “If I call, there’s a 25% chance I hit my flush and win the pot.” In Magic, that equates to: “If I play this, I have a 45% chance to draw a land and win the game right away.” That was a very simple example, and you will be facing odds such as these in most of your games… and sometimes you will be facing much harder equations to solve.
In most moves you make, you are taking a risk. A risk that the move you make is a mistake. Sometimes there is no risk at all. In that case, you don’t have to be a good player to make it. When the move has a chance to be a mistake, you have to evaluate the risk. It would be very easy to think “there’s 50% chance for my move to be a mistake: he has the answer to it, or he doesn’t.” That way, you leave all the responsibility of your play to “Mother Nature,” or “Luck.” In reality, there are probably a thousand ways to make your math more accurate. You have to integrate all the data into one big equation, one that you will have to solve in order to make the best play. “He hasn’t bet the turn; what are the chances he’s trapping me? What are the chances he has nothing?” This pretty much translates into: “He has two cards, and he hasn’t played a land this turn when he would have benefited from it… What are the chance he has one counterspell or a removal spell? What are the chances he has two? Or are they just cards he can’t play?”
To give the most accurate answers to these questions, you need to gather as much information available as possible. That means knowing the format, and what your opponent could be running (basically doing your homework). You have to guess what he is holding, using your knowledge in relation to his previous plays. Just like when you are using your Chess skills, everything your opponent did should trigger something in your mind and warn you about the potential cards he could be holding. You could use your reading skills, stare at your opponent, or talk to him to discover more about things, but I would not trust the information you get this way too much. Trust your deduction skills more.
Once you have gathered all the information, you can start solving the equation. Sometimes, it can boil down to: “If he has it, I’m dead anyway,” and you have to go for you initial plan which is not necessarily a bad thing (“All in,” and pray…). But when it matters, you have to do things right.
The most common situation where you will have to think the odds thoroughly is during Limited games, during damage races. You don’t know whether or not you should keep one of your creatures to defend next turn, or if you should send everything in (or nothing at all). How much risk are you taking by sending in one extra creature? It could be the risk of losing the game, plain and simple. You only keep one creature back, he takes care of it, and swings for the kill. How much the extra damage dealt by the creature would affect the game? How many draws do you leave your opponent to find a way to take a decisive advantage by not attacking with that creature, or by not sending any creature at all and creating a stalemate? This is not easy math at all. Each point of damage matters in the equation – each card in your opponent’s deck too – and you might not know them all.
Poker players have the skill to be very close to the actual solution without walking through all the steps. But like most things, you have to be aware of what you’re looking for in order to actually search correctly. You will considerably change the way you are playing if you change the way you are thinking in such situations. Instead of thinking “he has it or he doesn’t have it,” think “what’s the risk I am taking if I do this?” That will come with practice. Of course, you can lay down the numbers and try to solve everything on paper, and this would be a very good way to understand where you stand in the game, but I am not sure you will be able to do that in a tournament game.
In a nutshell, use the Chess Player skills to understand the game state, use the Poker Player skills to evaluate the risks, and then make your decision.
I will go through more detailed examples and situations in later articles. I am only going through the basics for now. In the meantime, feel free to think about all the material I gave you. Hopefully you will start seeing the game a bit differently.