Win Before You Begin

Pro Tour Born of the Gods winner Shaun McLaren focuses on the improvements you can make to your mindset that will translate to more winning in future tournaments.

Budde, Finkel, Potter, Baldwin, Lannister, Sheen.

Winners. Closers. Destroyers.

The two big contributing factors that will make you a successful Magic player in no particular order are:

1. Be good at Magic.
2. Play lots of Magic.

That’s all there is to it. You’re welcome . . .

Hmm? What’s that you say? Not very good advice? Fine, you’re right—knowing that probably won’t help anyone get much better. Still, that’s essentially a very broad and blurry container for everything you can do to be awesome at Magic.

There are many excellent resources on ways to play and tips and tricks for specific decks, but before you can absorb them fully, your mind and body must be ready. Today I’m going to focus on the improvements you can make to your mindset and the actions you can take before you even begin that will translate to more winning in future tournaments.

Don’t just accept my words—pick and choose which ideas sound right for you and implement a few at a time. Different things work for different people. You have also probably heard some of these before and may already be practicing them. Many of these ideas can be applied to other aspects of life as well.

What makes a winner? First things first.


“First!” –Anonymous

You should be more focused on finishing in exactly first place. No competitive Magic player worth their salt is satisfied with any finish below first.

To the victor goes the spoils. Magic tournaments have a top-heavy structure. You may be somewhat happy with reaching the threshold of winning packs, min cashing, or making Top 8, but the benefits to achieving first will often vastly outweigh anything else. With Pro Tour Qualifiers, it’s ridiculously skewed. The invite to the Pro Tour is why most people in the room got out of bed and sleeved up their cards that morning. There are also hidden benefits such as notoriety and the ability to chain more wins, and it just feels better when you win it all.

Your first big milestone as a Magic player will likely be making Top 8 of a PTQ. Eighth is usually a very solid bump from ninth. Making Top 8 is often the carrot on the stick and base camp before reaching the summit. This can lead to a “Top 8 mentality,” where players become complacent with only doing well. Let me tell you now—being good is crap. You were there to win the tournament, and you didn’t.

First breakthroughs are also the hardest to achieve and naturally boost you up in many areas on this list.

The first PTQ that I made Top 8 of I was fortunate enough to win. This set the stage for future victories. Past success predicts future success. The first one is the hardest, the most awkward, and the most important.

My journey followed the natural progression of FNM hero to PTQ hero to irregular Pro Tour competitor to Pro Tour winner. Looking back at results in semi-important tournaments, it seems to me like I have a higher than average number of first=place finishes. I can only recall three relevant second places (second at Canadian Nationals, second in a PTQ, and second at Two-Headed Giant Champs.) I also have a handful of fourth- and eighth-place finishes and of course countless “did not place” and “participant.”

What happens when you’re trying to break through to the next level but haven’t yet? Ask yourself “what separates me from the others who are achieving the finishes that I want to be having?”

The indicator that you’re close is when your honest answer is “not a whole lot—my time will come if I continue improving down this path.” That means you’re close to a breakthrough.

If your answer is “I don’t know,” then try to figure out what the differences are or ask the person directly. If your answer is “I am more unlucky than them” or “ugggh,” then read on.

Some people aren’t so Spikey and mostly focused on the win or need a specific finish to secure Silver in the Pro Players Club for the next year, which are also completely fine. Just know what your goals are beforehand since knowing the destination will help define the path.

Now that we know specifically what we’re going for (first place, duh), let’s delve into some advice that goes beyond the norm and will squeeze those last percentage points out of your soul required to close.


 “Luck is statistics taken personally.” –Penn Jillette

Let’s address this elephant in the room.

“How can you consistently win with so much luck involved?”

“Get offa yer high horse sonny. You got lucky, and now yer preaching yer narrow-minded results-based viewpoint back to us. Spitoo! Ting.”

To all the naysayers and disgruntled old-timey prospectors, I say “how has that mindset been working out for you so far?”

The more luck involved, the more it matters how you deal with luck. This applies everywhere and especially when it comes to Magic since the luck is on full display. Maybe Garry Kasparov didn’t get his sheets tucked in right and someone spit in his face for no reason on his way to face off against Deep Blue. It’s just harder to see that luck than a topdecked Bonfire of the Damned.

The truth is that variance exists and the universe doesn’t give a hoot whether good or bad things happen to you.

A useful way of looking at things is taking responsibility for the outcome of the tournament. Magic is a very skill-intensive game. Maybe you get mana screwed in the first two rounds. You can’t control variance, but you could have made a different play or built a different deck. You can also control the way you interpret what happens to you. Accept that success and change is your responsibility and outside results matter less than your interpretation of them.

The next time you take a bad beat, look at the bigger picture. You are playing Magic, which is awesome. You have a StarCityGames.com Premium subscription, which is also awesome. Take a moment to just savor the good things in your life and soon you’ll be able to frame even “bad luck” as “good luck.”

It’s just not useful to blame luck. You are responsible for your situation. Who else could be?


“I wanna be the very best
Like no one ever was.”

–Pokemon Theme Song

Get in shape is always the big piece of advice and usually the hardest. As someone who has struggled with weight loss, I can say it is the best advice. If you only do one thing, it should be this. Start small by researching nutrition a little and modifying your breakfast. Work out seven minutes a day. Small changes will add up quickly over time. Lifestyle changes don’t have to be big; they shouldn’t be if it means you’re likely to drop them. This focus on the importance of health is slowly starting to happen in the Magic community

Focus less on your 75th card and more on factors outside the game. Fretting about the exact list or staying up late testing will usually be detrimental compared to relaxing and getting enough rest. I recommend having your deck mostly locked in the day before the tourney so you don’t have to worry last minute. Have your cards, your sleeves, your ride prepared in advance. Then you are somewhat ahead of the curve, relaxed and ready.

Tournaments will deplete your energy meter. Intense, stressful, or long matches will deplete it faster. Throughout the day your meter will slowly be burnt, and how much you start with depends on how much sleep you got, how in shape you are, if you’re hydrated, if you’re not hungry, and any number of other factors. Listen to your body—being constipated or itchy is a drain on your energy meter. It’s often not a matter of who plays better but who punts less.

Surround yourself with excellence. If you want to get better at Magic, find people better than you and learn what you can from them. This doesn’t just apply to people. If you are looking nice with a smile on your face, you will feel better and play better. Fake it til you make it.

Be more generous with your ideas. Local PTQs, where your biggest ally may also your biggest opponent, may cause you to shy away from sharing information with other competitors. Always focus more on your gain than your opponent’s loss. Your opponent will likely find enough ways to screw up, and you have many opponents.

This is the reason Magic writers can share their best ideas with a lot of people and get away with it. They will learn by writing and thinking about their ideas even when they give up info to potential opponents. Many people are also focused on themselves and will immediately reject outside ideas that could potentially help them. Don’t go around waving your decklist for all to see just to be open and honest; instead use your discretion and err on the side of openness when possible.

Are there any common occurrences in the successful finishes you’ve had? A style of deck, a tournament location, or even a shirt you wore? I’m not saying be superstitious, but you might feel more comfortable and relaxed wearing your favorite shirt. Note these things and use them to your advantage. Take a holistic approach—getting stronger in any area of your life will help your Magic game as well.


“I’m confident I can get away without a real quote here.” –Shaun McLaren

Lack of confidence is the killer that will keep you from applying any good advice you receive. Fear will stop you dead before you even begin if you let it. Everyone has doubts. Doubting your own abilities is never useful.

We all know someone who always punts it away somehow, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Don’t be that person. There is no reason you can’t be a winner.

You deserve the win as much as anyone else. It is your right to win as much as anyone else.

Believe that you are good, if not the best, even if you’re the only one who believes it. Even if rationally you know you aren’t. Don’t be attached to your results or your plays, but also don’t feel bad when you make a mistake; it’s all part of the learning process.

Discussion with others can help you see things in a different light or learn new plays, but at the end of the day you’re the one controlling your cards and need to be able to make the plays you believe are correct. All is decided on the battlefield in the heat of the moment, and you will be the one in charge making the hard decisions.

Once you learn to believe in yourself and the plays you want to make are ingrained in your mind and muscles, you will be able to sometimes enter flow state while you play, where you will feel like you can’t lose or make incorrect decisions.

If you strut into the tournament without a care in the world, head held high, and ready to battle, you’ve already won.

Desire, Effort, Results

“You are my fire
The one desire
Believe when I say
I want it that way”

–Backstreet Boys, “I Want It That Way”

If you want something bad enough, you’ll eventually grind through anything to get it. It might not be fast, pretty, or turn out the way you wanted, but it will happen.

This desire is an essential part of anything worth having.

Imagine you’re trapped in quicksand, trying to make it to dry land and desperately struggling to make it. Undisciplined action can actually temporarily hinder you attaining your goals.

Can you have the fire and also be detached from the outcome?

Do you care more about making a big splash and signaling what you want or actually want to get what you want calmly and efficiently?

The ideal state of mind is one where you’re thirsting for the win, planning for the win, and expecting to win but also just enjoying the moment and feeling perfectly content with your life even if you don’t win. It’s almost paradoxical. The best way to look at it is as if you have a Magic compartment in your brain that is hungry but you can simply switch to one of the many other parts of you if things don’t go well at a tournament.

When it comes to Magic, perfect results will not manifest instantly. You can get what you want if you put the effort in; you just won’t see the results for a while, which is usually enough to ensure no one ever does anything. Focus on making the correct moves, not getting results, as you have to be doing the right things for potentially quite some time.

Don’t give up if you want to win.

Know Your Opponent, Love Your Opponent

“It is a man’s own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.” –Buddha

Respect your opponents. It’s easier to beat an opposing strategy once you understand it.

You will face the same opponents many times in Magic. At Friday Night Magic, you’ll likely be paired against a local player that always brings his Maze’s End deck. Make sure you can beat him. At a Pro Tour Qualifier, you’ll probably be up against a local ringer who usually plays Mono-Red Aggro. Take that into account. At a Pro Tour, you’ll be paired against players on mega teams. Take a while to think about what they might be playing.

You are not the center of the universe. You may be the center of your universe, but so is everyone else.

There is a rare state that can be attained where you don’t actually mind losing. If you feel love for your opponent even as you’re losing, you’ll know you’re reaching it. I’ve only felt it a few times because, let’s face it, it’s hard to be happy for your opponent as you lose. It’s just not something you’re programmed to do. But it feels amazing.

Remember what your goal is—look out for number one—but that doesn’t have to conflict with being a decent human being.

Something we don’t talk about is the jealously we may sometimes feel when we a see a friend do well at a tournament. We are rooting for them, but it’s just the feeling of “hey, I want what they have.” No need to be ashamed; we all feel it. People can be jealous even as they support you, and you can feel the same for them.

Be happy, friendly, and smile. You’ll play better and feel better.

What’s Your Edge?

“You were born to win, but to be a winner you must plan to win, prepare to win, and expect to win.” –Zig Ziglar

If you’re the same as everyone else, how are you going to win more than everyone else?

What can you do better than everyone else?

Emphasize your special talent and be the undisputed best at that thing. If you don’t know what your talent is, just imagine the part of Magic you enjoy the most. That’s where your talent is.

If you feel you might be at a skill disadvantage, take risks with your decks and make metagame calls. If you feel you are at a skill advantage, play the consistent best deck in the format.

Maximize your strengths. Eliminate your weaknesses.

Oldies But Goodies

I’ll round things out with a list of some of my favorite Magic advice.

  • Play more sideboarded games.
  • Pick your deck early.
  • Don’t audible. On the spectrum of “find the best deck” versus “know your deck,” I firmly lean toward the know camp.
  • Play important tournaments. They are the best practice and most likely to lead to more important tournaments.
  • Be in the moment.
  • Learn from your mistakes and fix them.
  • Don’t rush your plays.
  • Play the best deck.

Never-Ending Story

“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” –Tyrell, Blade Runner

Your relationship with Magic ends when you want it to end. It seems like the easiest way out is in a casket.

I was an FNM hero.

I was a PTQ hero.

Now I’m a Pro Tour winner.

There’s always another Pro Tour to win, Platinum to maintain, or high to reattain. If your feelings are determined by outside events, you’ll never be satisfied for more than a fleeting moment.

Magic will be what you want it to be.

It can be a casual social release from time to time, an ever evolving puzzle, or an escape to an eternal struggle requiring you to produce results and live up to your expectations.

The same can be said of life.

If you aren’t careful, the grind will eventually grind you up.

Enjoy the journey.