Tightening the Screws

What I am offering up is a list of points that you should think about if you ever want to improve your game. While I realize this type of thing has been done many times before, I think I have a number of things to hit on that many people haven’t covered, and that I find very important to anyone looking to get better at Magic, especially Limited. These are things that changed me from a mediocre player into a pro player years ago, and they are general enough that they can work for everyone.

Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it a thousand times, right?

In large, bold print..

Reading This Article Will Make You A Great Magic Player.”

Well, okay, maybe nobody ever really comes out and says it, but you know by their tone that it’s implied.

Unfortunately, I can’t promise it, and I’m not even going to begin to try.

What I am offering up though, is a list of points that you should think about if you ever want to improve your game.

While I realize this type of thing has been done many times before, I think I have a number of things to hit on that many people haven’t covered and that I find very important to anyone looking to get better at Magic, especially Limited. These are things that changed me from a mediocre player into a pro player years ago, and they are general enough that they can work for everyone.

I also felt like doing something different this week instead of the usual draft coverage, pick orders, and card evaluations that make up the bulk of the writing in the community.

Having tougher competition makes the game more interesting and fun to play, instead of constantly beating down on people that don’t even know the meaning of the word mana curve. Nobody out there should be opposed to helping people improve their game, and I’ll gladly offer my opinion to anyone who has a question about a Limited situation.

I know people who have been playing for almost as long as I have (about eight or nine years), that have remained at the same level of play for the past six or seven years, because they don’t have any ambition in terms of taking their play to the next level. The worst thing that can happen to a player is a plateau like that, as it makes it very difficult to get back on the learning curve if and when the guy finally realizes that he hasn’t picked up anything new in the past five years!

I’ll try to relate these points as closely as I can with Mirrodin Limited, as we are talking about getting better at Limited after all, and not just Magic in general.

What Can You Do?

Slow Down.

Yes, I mean it literally.

The number one reason people make mistakes at Magic is because they are playing too fast and don’t consider all of the options. The correct play is often staring someone right in the face and they miss it by playing too fast and not stopping to evaluate the game state.

In a game of baseball, nothing can happen until the pitcher throws the ball. The same is true for Magic to a certain extent, because as long as you have priority, the game cannot proceed. While you certainly shouldn’t sit and agonize over every decision, you also shouldn’t be rushing yourself to the point where you start making mistakes.

Every turn, you only have a finite number of possible plays, attacks, and spells you can cast. Take them all into consideration whenever you are unsure of the best way to carry out your turn. Magic is also like Chess in that you should be planning out not only the current turn, but also your plays for the next few turns. Combat math in particular should be calculated ahead of time so that you know whether you should be the aggressor or stay back and block.

The correct play is always waiting right in front of you, you just have to assess the board properly and most of the time you will find the best path of progression. It’s true that Magic also has a lot of judgment calls, but you can only begin to concentrate on those once you’re making the basic plays correctly from turn to turn.

If the situation is complicated, just slow down and take it all in. More often than not you’ll arrive at the best solution if you just take your time. Remember, the game isn’t going anywhere until you throw that first pitch.

Think Ahead

While I talked a little about this in the section above in terms of planning future turns, it applies in more ways than that. Go back to the initial draft before you even start playing.

Let’s say you open a pack with Crystal Shard and Spikeshot Goblin as the two top picks. You’ve read all the rants about the power of Crystal Shard, and already know that it’s leagues above the Spikeshot. You correctly take the uncommon and now receive a booster containing Electrostatic Bolt and Tel-Jilad Archers as the two best cards. While you can certainly argue for taking the Bolt in this spot, since all you shipped was a Spikeshot, you can make an even heavier argument for the Archer. By taking the Archer, you’ve effectively locked the guy downstream into Red, which could pay huge dividends in pack two.

While I’m not saying you should always do something like this, even if you take that Bolt out of the pack, you should always keep in mind the cards you have passed, and decide the best possible route for your deck based on the information you have. This is just an example of how you should be focusing on every little aspect of a draft if you want to key in on the best strategy for your particular seat.

Each draft is dynamic, and it could possibly be correct to take cards in four different colors in one draft while your first four picks would all be Blue in another. What you need to learn is how to best exploit every situation you are presented with. By taking cards in four different colors, you keep your options open and also have possible splashes in mind, whereas when you’re cutting one color hard, you may be giving up some card quality in hopes of forcing your neighbor into a color and getting paid off later. Everything you do should have an underlying justification.

After you’ve just played a marathon game one where the board stalled out forever and someone actually got decked without drawing lots of extra cards, you want to immediately scour your sideboard for any card that can break up such a stalemate and give you a way to victory. Being a step ahead of the game here is crucial, and you can take it even farther when you understand how certain matchups work and sideboard in a card that is perfect for the situation, despite being worthless 95% of the time.

Good players always develop a game plan in the early turns of the game, and alter it accordingly whenever something significant happens (a key creature dies, an opponent casts a Wrath of God effect, etc). It’s also helpful to know the key cards in your opponents deck (bombs especially), and play around them after you’ve seen them in earlier games.

While it may sound obvious, Magic is like a puzzle where you have to do everything possible to give yourself the best chance of winning. It may be that siding in that Molten Rain to manascrew the”God” deck is the only possible path to victory. If you leave it on the sidelines, then you’re not even giving yourself a chance to draw it and are essentially giving up before you even begin to play.

Have A Mentor

This could likely be the most important factor in improving your game. I know I probably would’ve taken much longer to understand the game if I hadn’t had great Magic minds like Randy Buehler, Mike Turian, Erik Lauer, and eventually Eugene Harvey around to yell at me whenever I made a mistake and give me constructive criticism on a Draft or Constructed game.

It’s so helpful to have someone to run a pick order by, or answer a question about a particular draft. Personally, I always had one of these guys as an opponent or watching over my back, and they’d give me constructive criticism whenever I made a mistake. At first this made me nervous whenever they’d watch, but I gradually got used to it and began to take a lot away from their observations. While I can’t exactly watch over all of your shoulders, I can offer my email as a source for input on a play or pick, or anything Limited related.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to play with players better than you, and absorb everything they have to tell you. If you’re confused as to why they made a certain pick or play, just ask and most of them will be happy to tell you.

Win the Battle with Your Ego

Magic players are cocky.

It’s really a shame too, since most of the ones who think they are infallible are the ones who could actually stand to make a number of improvements in their play.

This is another form of plateau that people can get stuck on. They get to a point where they think they know everything, and they stop looking back on each game with reflective insights. When this happens, not only will they stop improving, but they will also fail to recognize that they could have possibly screwed up and cost themselves a win.

What all this means is that you need to constantly be looking back on key plays where you could have made an error and learning from what you did wrong. Magic Online is a great tool for this since you can watch replays of your matches and see exactly where you cost yourself the game. Next time maybe you’ll be more thoughtful to the same type of situation when it pops up.

I’m guilty of this one as well, as I’ve stated many things publicly which I’ve later on regretted. I wrote an entire article about how Spikeshot Goblin was going to be more powerful than Sparksmith, and as it turns out, I was completely wrong. But the good thing is that I know I was wrong and I’m able to admit it without feeling like it’s the end of the world or something.

I see so many players who make a mistake and then refuse to acknowledge that it was actually a mistake, and therefore fail to learn from it. Honestly guys, it’s okay. Everyone makes errors sometimes, it’s the way that you deal with them and learn from them that really matters in the long run. You’ve gotta fall a lot of times before you’re able to learn to walk, and the same is true for Magic, as you’ll never become a great player if you can’t pick yourself up and learn from your mistakes.

All I’m asking here is that when you lose a game, don’t complain about a lucky topdeck or getting manascrewed. Yes, those things happen, and there’s just nothing you can do sometimes. But the brutal truth is that in most of the games of Magic you will play, you can put yourself in a winning position simply by playing correctly. When you make a bad call that ends up costing you the game, you need to look back on it with 20/20 hindsight vision and ask yourself what you could have done to turn it around.


Nobody ever got anywhere by wanting to be second best.

The same is true for Magic, and while you can’t expect to get good overnight, you should constantly be striving to improve your game and learn as much as possible by absorbing as much information as possible. Magic is a game of wits where anyone can become a great player. It’s not a battle of muscles and brute strength, but rather one of confidence and preparation. Make sure you’re mentally ready.

Just like anything else in life, you’ve gotta put in the effort if you want results.

Are You Ready?

I realize I didn’t really hit on much strategy in this article, but that wasn’t the point. The fact of the matter is that I see people who have been playing forever and have never improved. I’ve received lots of emails over the period of time I’ve been writing requesting a set of guidelines for what someone can do to get better at Magic, so I finally decided to just get it out there.

Magic should be looked at in a long-term approach for the most part, as if you consistently make the best plays, you’ll be winning off of your opponents mistakes and only losing when the cards don’t come your way. The only way to reach this level of comprehension is to constantly reflect back on your play and the decisions you made, and find areas that need improvement.

Remember, don’t rush yourself, and try to find a mentor with whom you can discuss Magic related issues and who can watch you play and offer constructive criticism. And always be striving for improvement in any way you can find it.

My mailbox is always open for any questions, so feel free to fling an email my way.

Nick Eisel

[email protected]

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