Vintage Avant-Garde – Better Tournament Performance

Brian DeMars’ tournament performances have gotten much better recently, and it has to do with being a good Tournament Magic player, over just a good Magic player. Read how to improve your competitive game.

Normally, my column is specifically geared towards Vintage and/or Legacy, but I thought that for this week I would change things up a little bit and talk about Tournament Magic. Specifically, I would like to focus upon ways in which an individual might improve their game, tournament performance, and become a better Tournament Magic player in general.  

Once we as Magic fans make the jump from the kitchen table to playing in tournaments, there is one underlying fact that tends to unify many of our experiences: we want to win. The desire to win, or specifically to compete in a battle of wits against other likeminded individuals, is a major contributor that makes tournament Magic such an appealing and popular option for many gamers. Unfortunately, not everybody can win all the time, and the cold hard facts of life dictate that the better players are going to beat the weaker players with a much higher frequency.

Which raises the question: How can we become better players so that we might improve our chances of winning more in the tournaments we play in?

I recently had an epiphany of sorts while reflecting upon a particularly disappointing six-month long string of consecutive deep PTQ runs and round 9 GP losses; it became clear to me that there is difference between being a good Magic player and a good Tournament Magic player. Possessing the ability to be generally or abstractly knowledgeable or good at playing Magic or building decks is not the same skill set as being good at playing cards in a tournament for hours on end.

An extended period of underachieving made it apparent to me that my tournament game was lacking in a number of identifiable ways. Once I figured out why my tournament game was subpar, I was able to set about making adjustments, and unsurprisingly I quickly began to see a direct correlation between advancing my tournament game and realizing the goals I had set for myself.

After a yearlong stint of near misses, frustrating losses, and disappointing finishes, I decided to spend a month focusing on elements of my tournament game, and the boons of this kind of training were quickly realized.

One month after I began to focus on my “Tournament Game,” I have managed to qualify for the Pro Tour, finish twice in the money at Grand Prix, and finish in the money at the SCG Invitational.

Please don’t misunderstand me—I’m not bringing this up as some great brag about how great I think I am—the point is that focusing on “Magic” may not specifically help you accomplish your goal of winning more tournaments. While it may seem counter-counterintuitive, I think it is possible to get better at Magic while spending less time directly focusing on the game and more time on aspects of life that improve a player’s ability to compete at a high level for an extended period of time.

It is certainly true that “Magic” specific knowledge and practice is central to tournament success, but I believe that once a player has a solid understanding of the game that focusing on becoming a better tournament player becomes as important—possibly even more important—than fine-tuning specific “Magic” knowledge and/or skills.

An example of this dichotomy is the difference between an individual trying to memorize every obscure interaction between cards in a format and simply having a strong enough general understanding of the rules that one can figure out how unfamiliar interactions will play out during game play.

While there are probably a seemingly infinite number of factors, skill sets, or features of tournament play that a player might sharpen to improve their game, I am going to share and discuss five areas in my tournament game that I was able to identify as unsatisfactory and how I was able to work to remedy and improve them.

I. Learn the Rules

The quickest way to improve your tournament game is to simply learn the rules of the game that you are playing, in this case Magic: The Gathering.

Almost everybody who isn’t a first-time player in attendance at a PTQ or Grand Prix has a general understanding of the rules of Magic; however, very few players actually have a solid grasp of all of the rules.

While the prevalence of Magic Online has drastically increased the percentage of players who have an improved understanding of the technical elements of Magic, there are still a lot of players who are trying to play at a higher level than their understanding of the rules would suggest they were capable of playing.

In general, the more intricately you know and comprehend the rules of Magic, the better you will be able to apply that holistic understanding of how the game works to your in-game decisions—meaning that understanding the game helps you make better decisions and fewer mistakes.

At the very least, every player who is seriously trying to win a PTQ should already know the following things, and if they don’t, would be well served to learn them:

  1. The Penalty Guidelines for the different infractions.
  2. All of the basic phases and priority passes in a turn.
  3. All of the parts, priority passes, and the intricacies of every phase of combat and why.
  4. How Layers work.

Basically, any time a situation arises where there is an interaction between two cards where “I just know it works because a judge told me so” comes into play—it would be wise to have somebody explain to you why it works.

For instance, I have known for a long time that if a player activates a Mishra’s Factory with a Humility in play that the Assembly Worker will be a 2/2 and not a 1/1, but I never understood or really cared to take the time to understand why; but now I do. Any time some rules-based situation occurs, I take the time to understand why things happen the way they do.

II. Differentiate Between “Practicing” and “Competing”

One aspect of Magic that can really get to a player is the fact that they can play often and practice a lot; that quantity and frequency of practice doesn’t directly correlate to tournament success.

In fact, with regard to tournament performance there is a night and day difference between the “quantity” and “quality” of the time a player spends practicing playing Magic. Particularly, if a player practices loose, they are far more likely to compete loose as well.

One of the biggest offenses that the vast majority of players suffer from in testing is not properly practicing how to mulligan. Players keep weak hands (a five-land hand with a three-drop and a six-drop on the play?) where if they were in a tournament and actually competing they would require more thought as to whether they should be kept or mulled away.

Since there is nothing at stake in “playtesting” we often make decisions with the mindset of “let’s see what happens,” rather than thinking through difficult decisions and trying to logically decide what the best play is.

Certainly, practicing is the perfect place to test out ideas or hypotheses regarding in-game decision-making. I would certainly rather use a casual draft to figure out which card I’d rather first pick in a Scars of Mirrodin block draft—Sheoldred, the Whispering One or Act of Aggression—than encounter such a situation on day two of a Grand Prix.

The purpose of testing is to accumulate a wealth of knowledge regarding how Magic works, so that when a difficult decision comes up in a tournament, we have some background in our memory about how we might approach solving the problem and coming up with a play that will help us win.

Specifically, if during testing we are always in “Let’s see what happens” mode, rather than “Pat, I’d like to solve the puzzle” mode, it is going to make it very difficult for us to transition from testing mode into competitive mode during a tournament.

Another big offense that I have completely eliminated from my practice repertoire is the cheater’s mulligan. When testing, by not taking a mulligan the way that you would in an event, a player does themselves a tremendous disservice. Making difficult mulligan decisions is one of the hardest decisions that players make in a tournament; any dummy can keep a hand with perfect mana and a perfect curve and play it relatively well. It is much more difficult to decide whether or not a borderline hand should be kept or thrown back.

In testing there is certainly value to be gained by seeing what happens keeping a borderline hand—but if you always keep it to see what happens and sometimes you get there and sometimes you don’t, then what did you really learn? You should be practicing the way that you think you would compete.

If you have to mulligan to five, then take five cards. If you’ve got to go to four, go to four. It is bound to happen in a tournament, so become familiar with what hands at four/five are better than weak hands of six. Many people test in such a way that if they mulligan to six and can’t keep, they just take another six, instead of going to five. My advice is always try to practice the way you would compete in a tournament—it really does help to discourage/correct many sloppy/bad habits.

The other big mistake players make is allowing “take-backs” of poor plays during testing.

“It’s a trap.”

Don’t do it.

If you practice allowing “take-backsies,” it is more than plausible that you will also compete with the same mindset. If a player practices with the mindset that they can undo mistakes as they come up, they are more likely to develop bad habits like playing too fast or not thinking lines of play through all the way before they are made. Both of these practices lead to game losses directly in tournaments.

No take backs, ever, under any circumstances.

You will lose more in practicing, but you will win more in tournaments. It is that simple.

When I am playtesting I assume that if I am winning more than 50% of my games, I am probably doing it wrong and likely wasting my time.

Here is why if a player tests for an extended period of time and has a 75% win record that they are undoubtedly doing it wrong:

  1. The person you are testing with is substantially worse at Magic than you, which means they are making mistakes, and your testing is flawed.
  2. The matchup is at least 75-25%, which means it is terrible; why are you wasting your time testing it for hours on end?

In my experience, I have found that switching decks every other game is helpful and that I tend to learn the most when I am winning 40% of my games because it means my test partner is better at playing the matchup than I am, and his/her advice and insights are likely to help me understand/improve my skills in that matchup more.

Keep this in mind:

Do you want to be a “playtesting” champion, or a tournament champion?

From experience I can honestly say that two hours a week of good habit-building Magic practice is easily more effective than mindlessly, sloppily testing for two hours every day. Remember, if you are not actually learning anything, then you probably are not doing it right.

For reference:

If a reasonable onlooker would describe one’s Magic playtesting/practicing session as “screwing around,” it probably is.

III. Did You Come Here to Trade, or to Win the Tournament?

It is a serious question that everybody makes before they even leave home in the morning to attend a Magic tournament.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to trade Magic cards, bling-out a Commander deck, or grow the value of a trade binder. There are a lot of different aspects of Magic that players can enjoy and many motivations to collect and play the game; however, this article is about becoming a better tournament player, and I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I didn’t point out the cold, hard reality that if you are thinking about trading cards in between rounds, 110% of your attention cannot be focused on winning the round you are playing and mentally preparing yourself for the grueling rounds ahead.

If you need further convincing on this subject, I would advise you to watch what players at a Pro Tour or day two of a Grand Prix do in between rounds: do you think it is more likely that the majority

  1. Grab their giant backpack filled with trade binders and run over to the trading tables and try to get in a few trades before the next round?
  2. Focus on attaining necessities such as water to stay properly hydrated, food for energy, and try to stay focused on the task at hand, the next round?

Personally, my goal is always to do well in the event that I am playing in—so, I have literally stopped bringing my cards, trades, etc. with me to an event when I am supposed to be playing because they are first and foremost a distraction. When I am playing in an event, I have realized I perform better when I am focused on the event itself, rather than having multiple other activities I am simultaneously engaged with.

I am sure that plenty of people will have excuses or reasons for why trading in between rounds is a fine practice, or good value, or whatever it is the kids say these days—but honestly, everybody knows that the guy with no distractions, who is only focused on winning the tournament, has an advantage over the exact same guy who is lugging around a backpack trying to grind trades in between rounds.

The article is about things that will help a player become a better tournament player; there is a reason the article isn’t titled “Easy, no-effort miracle fix, guide to better tournament performance.”

Speaking of Easy, No-Effort Miracle Fixes…

IV. Discipline, Discipline, and More Discipline

To be completely honest, I could have titled this article “Better Tournament Magic,” and the entire body of text for the article could have been “Discipline, Discipline, and More Discipline.”

When I was reflecting on my previous tournament disappointments and trying to articulate to myself what I meant by being a poor “tournament player,” it ultimately occurred to me that what I really meant was that I lacked the physical and mental discipline to play Magic at a high level for an extended period of time.

Nine rounds of Swiss (a relatively common number of rounds for a large PTQ or Grand Prix day one) equates to at least ten hours of being in the tournament if you want to get to the Top 8 or next day. I assume that most people have the goal of wanting to get to the next stage of the tournament when they enter, but only a small percentage of the players who enter can actually achieve this goal.

In a 150-player Pro Tour Qualifier, only eight get to the elimination round.

In a 1500-player Grand Prix, only 124 get to play on day two.

In order to get to the next stage of these events, a player needs to be in at least the top 10% of the players in the room (if not better) in order to advance; which means that in order to even have a shot of winning, a player needs to play Magic at a very high level for ten straight hours. If a player wishes to do this with any kind of frequency, they must be disciplined.

Nobody wants to admit that they lack discipline or that they are weak. However, making excuses, allowances, and justifications for why the status quo is acceptable will only put a person on the fast track bound for more of the same.

For me, I knew that smoking cigarettes, staying out all night, and being generally inactive was causing me feel lazy and rundown.

I’m not going to lie and say that Magic was the motivation for me to quit smoking cigarettes, start running and working out regularly, or maintaining the hours that a reasonable human being should; however, I will admit that my Magic game has drastically benefitted from my adopting a more disciplined lifestyle.

Being able to train oneself to be more disciplined directly translates to becoming a better tournament player. Especially in the later rounds of an event, many games essentially boil down to who is going to put in the effort to find the better plays versus who is going to employ the popular tactic of being lazy and hoping to topdeck. In this sense, tournament Magic is no different from anything else—should I sit on the couch or go for a run? Should I smoke because I want a cigarette or be disciplined and suffer through the fact that quitting sucks? Should I stay out until 5 am and sleep until noon or should I stay in, get some work done, and get up early the following morning?

It’s a lot easier to do well at a Magic tournament when every time a difficult situation arises late in a round, the first instinctual thought that runs through my head isn’t for a cigarette. It is a lot easier to stay sharp and focused deep into a tournament when I am not feeling fatigued from being rundown and out of shape.

Basically, the best thing I have done to improve my Magic tournament game in the past decade is getting back into shape and quitting smoking—and it’s not even close.

V. A Methodical, Patient Approach and a Fearless Killer Instinct

Magic, like poker, is a game of controlled aggression; there are times when it pays to act passively or reactively, and there are times where taking the offensive will pay dividends.

Tournament Magic rewards players who can utilize both aspects of the game when they are appropriate and assess when they should be adopting one role over the other.

I don’t just mean knowing “who is the beatdown?” in a game or matchup, but am referring to a more holistic understanding of playing in a tournament.

For instance, understanding when one can afford to play around a card or when they can’t play around a card.

For me, one of my big weaknesses in tournament Magic was that I always tend to play “too safe” or play around cards that I didn’t need to. Essentially, I always gave my opponent’s cards “too much respect.”

For instance, consider a situation where you have out a Spellstutter Sprite and four untapped mana in play during the opponent’s upkeep with a Mistbind Clique in hand. It is risky to upkeep the Clique because if they have a removal spell, you are going to lose both—however, assuming you should never do it simply because it’s risky can’t be correct either. There are more elements in play that should go into the decision-making process to determine whether to make the high-risk / high-reward play or not.

Finding a sense of balance between erring on the side of caution and pushing the envelope with aggressive plays is important—good tournament players need to feel comfortable adopting whichever line of play is most in their best interest, at a specific moment in time, depending upon the context of the game.

Here is one microcosm of what I am talking about with regard to a preference for the aggression or control role.

Imagine that two players are playing with the pre-constructed Commander decks. After each game, the players switch decks with one another, and the player who lost has preference for whether he/she would like to be on the play or draw. Player A always elects to be on the play and tries to force the issue and be the beatdown while player B always elects to be on the draw and play the control role, and each player tends to adopt their respective role regardless of which deck they are playing. Now, imagine that player B is winning roughly two-thirds of the games over a significantly large sample size.

It is pretty clear that given the context of the decks, that player A (who wants to be on the play and be aggressive) is being punished in a statistically significant way because of his/her preference of one play style over another.

Maybe it doesn’t matter all that much if one player is advantaged in casual Commander Pre-con battles if play style costs a player 16.6% from their game win percentage, since after all the most important thing in this scenario is that the two players have fun; player A has fun bashing and player B has fun blocking, so mission accomplished, right?

My point is that in a tournament where the primary objective is winning the tournament, not being able to be patient when it is necessary or being gun-shy when it is time to strike is going to be costly.


It is hard to train oneself to do what is necessary rather than what is easy or comfortable. It is hard to be disciplined.

Contrary to popular belief:

Jamming last week’s SCG Invitational Top 8 lists with no mods against one another with two pals, while drinking four Mountain Dews, while eating half a pizza, while chain-smoking half a pack of cigarettes, while watching Family Guy DVDs in the background, while looking up funny clips of cats doing people things on YouTube, while running take backs three times per game, and never having to mulligan is not the recipe for success.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, Magic—like basically everything else in life—is something that requires actual hard work, legitimate practice, and discipline to improve at.

Shocking, right?

Brian DeMars