Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #291 – Ten Steps to Get Better at Magic

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Thursday, September 3rd – I spent some time on the drive in thinking about why I’m nowhere near as good at Magic as I used to be. The short answer is time – time I haven’t got. However, I still remember what you need to do to qualify and make the tour. That hasn’t changed. What’s changed is my ability to work at it hard enough.

I spent some time on the drive in thinking about why I’m nowhere near as good at Magic as I used to be. The short answer is time — time I haven’t got. However, I still remember what you need to do to qualify and make the tour. That hasn’t changed. What’s changed is my ability to work at it hard enough.

I should say that I am still plenty good enough to win FNM drafts and so forth, but it has been a couple years since I Top 8ed a PTQ. I went from almost on the tour to top 25% in the state, and I’m hovering there. The big reason is that I don’t have the time or connections anymore. I don’t so some of these — starting with the first.

Have Friends

Magic is not a solo occupation. You want to have friends. You want to network with other players. You want to be involved with a group.

It is, theoretically, possible to do everything yourself. You could read and learn every card, design a ton of decks, play them against each other and the major metagame archetypes, develop sideboards and sideboard strategies and so forth — assuming you have infinite time to do so. In practice, no one will ever have the time to do so.

Years ago, I developed decks and wrote about them. Now, I rarely do so. I simply cannot spend 100 hours tuning a deck, and don’t have a group of friends with the time to spend a couple evenings a week working on qualifying.

If you are trying to qualify, though, that’s what you need. You need friends that can help. Those friends provide both playtest and logistical support.

Here’s a simple example. Assume you want to practice for the next Extended PTQ season. That involves learning about the metagame (off the Internet, etc.), putting together a gauntlet of decks, actually building those decks, then playtesting various matchups until you understand what is critical.

You could try to do that yourself. Having a group is massively easier. Back in the day, I worked with a team of a half dozen or more. Having each player put together a couple decks, then assigning basic matchup analysis to various pairs of players, meant we could get the time done in a fraction of the time, leaving more time for actually innovating and developing our own metagame choices.

Just like any effort, having a lot of hands makes Magic work go faster.

Learn the Rules

Magic is a very complex game, and a lot of game situations involve synergistic effects. The game, and the synergies, are all created by the rules. The better you know the rules, the better your play will be.

Some of this is obvious. Knowing how the stack works, and what actions can, and cannot, be responded to, can have a huge impact. So can knowing simple things, like how to counter an aura with a removal spell. These are all pretty trivial, but you can find the same sorts of things for any level of rules knowledge. Knowing how layers work can tell you whether casting a Giant Growth with Humility in play does any good.

I tell trainee judges that, if you know five things, you can answer 90 % of all questions you will be asked during the day. These five are:

1) The parts of the turn, include each step in the combat phase.
2) How the stack works.
3) The steps in casting a spell, including things like whether the spells goes on the stack before or after costs, and how extra costs and stuff like kicker works.
4) How much time is left in the round, and…
5) Where the bathrooms are.

Knowing the first three is a great place to start.

Playing on MTGO does really help. I know that the number of rules questions we get at tournaments is much, much lower now than it used to be before MTGO. MTGO is not enough, however — and sometimes it can be a problem. I know that I have often had to explain that “we are playing Paper Magic here. The difference is that, in paper, all the rules actually work correctly.” It also helps to know not just that something works on MTGO, but why it works that way.

The best way to learn the rules is to download the current comprehensive rules and read them. No, it is not exciting, but they are really quite readable at present. For that matter, actually reading the rules inserts in M10 packs is helpful. Someone put some time and effort into those.

Whatever process you choose, learn the rules.

Make No Excuses

A number of good writers have written articles about mistakes. We all make them. Bad players ignore them. Good players learn from them.

Richard Feldman wrote a couple great articles in which he showed that a game that looked like it was lost because of mana screw, or mana flood, or bad draws, was actually lost because of a small mistake early on. I have tried to apply this same analysis to my own games, and it is almost always true that, in games I lose, I can spot errors when replaying the games. I suspect that in games where I cannot spot mistakes, that the reason is that I can’t see them, not that I made no mistakes.

Mistakes happen. You need to learn from them. You can only learn from them, however, if you admit to yourself that they happen. Do not say, even to yourself, that you lost because of mana screw, or flood, or bad draws. Those all hide the mistakes — the lessons — from which you need to learn.

I almost wrote, when coming up with the examples two paragraphs above, that “sometimes you mulligan to five, and your opponent drops a Baneslayer Angel on turn 4, and nothing you can do will save the day.” However, that is not true. I know, because I was in exactly that situation. I knew the odds of getting out of it were really, really slim, but I didn’t let myself think about how bad my luck was, and I figured out exactly what would have to happen to salvage the game.

Nearly every amazing play — Craig Jones topdecked burn spell, Nassif’s Cruel Ultimatum, etc., all only occurred because they rejected the excuses of bad draws / flood / opponents drawing too well, and simply played the only way they could to win the match. Which they did.

Excuses are like having ice cream sundaes for breakfast. They may make you feel good at the moment, but they are ultimately destructive.

Play Many Formats

Some players specialize in just one type of Magic — just draft, just Vintage, just Emperor, etc. If you really want to improve, this is probably a mistake. It may be possible to specialize in drafts and not suffer too badly, but for any form of Constructed play, experience in other formats helps.

Over time, Constructed metagames change. One method of winning in Constructed is to be able to play the best deck better than anyone else. Another method is to be one step ahead of the metagame, and be the first to play the deck that will be at the top of the metagame next week, or just to have the tech no one else does.

The first is hard — there are a ton of good Magic players around. Personally, I have never been able to manage it. I have, however, had the tech a week before everyone else. Once that tech took me to the Top 8 of a PTQ, and once to the finals.

Getting that tech is not really that hard. You simply follow a three-step process.

1) Understand the deck (or at least archetype) you want to play.
2) Identify the problem that you have to overcome — the weak point in the deck.
3) Find the card that lets you overcome that weakness.

That’s oversimplified, of course, but the concept is valid. You are looking for a card, interaction or synergy that gets around a particular shortfall. It is probably out there; you just have to find it. By playing a lot of formats, you are exposed to many, many cards and synergies, and that greatly increases your chances of finding it.

Know the Cards

You need to know the cards. This does not just mean knowing what the cards are or do, although that certainly helps. That also means knowing the cards themselves. You want to be able to recognize them. I remember one tournament in which Jason Lemahieu took a bunch of random draft leftovers and used the paper cutter to hack off the names and the bottom half. All that was left was the art. We judges and players then tried to identify the cards.

The point was that the ability to name the cards correlated very highly with the judge or players rating. It wasn’t that knowing the art was important, it was that knowing the cards well enough to recognize the art gives you an advantage.

Human brains excel in pattern recognition. We see shapes and patterns, and associate them. Humans evolved to see patterns. The humans that could not see the leopard crouching on a branch in a nearby tree got eaten, while those that could lived to reproduce. As a result, humans see patterns, even when they are not there. We humans look at a coat thrown over a chair in the dark, and see a person. We see figures in the clouds. We can read the twisted words and numbers used on websites — words and patterns computers cannot identify.

Human brains recognize patterns.

That also works in Magic. When you playtest, your brain remembers not only wins and losses, but patterns in the game. Some are obvious — when the control player leaves UU (now UU1) up during your turn, you play around counterspells, or a stupid attack with W up smells of Harm’s Way. Identifying decks by cards played is also a function of pattern recognition. A first turn play of Windbrisk Heights, Secluded Glenn, Vivid land, or Rootbound Crag all provide clues about what deck the opponent has brought to the fight. Our brains also recognize patterns subconsciously. Our brains see things in a game state and identify a pattern. The more often this happens, the better your chances of winning.

The more you play, the more patterns you see, and the more patterns your brain will recognize. In this respect, playing with the actual cards helps. Proxies are okay, but when you are playing with proxies, your brain is learning visual patterns involving card backs and writing in Sharpie. That does not always translate. When possible, play with real cards. If you cannot play real cards, use a scanner and color printer to make proxies that look like the real thing.

Track your Mistakes

Years ago, Jamie Wakefield used to play with a “mistake die.” This was a d6, and each time he made a mistake during practice games, he advanced the die one. When the die read six, he counted the game as a loss — whether he actually won the game or not. The point was that mistakes were unacceptable in practice.

This is important. You can play practice games with “take-backs” — the ability to reverse bad plays. Taking back bad plays does improve the accuracy of match-up data: none of the games in your ten set match will be decided by stupid plays, so the data will be better. One the flip side, having take-backs is a luxury you will never see in serious play in a PTQ or higher. If you use them in playtest sessions, you may come to rely on them. That’s bad,

Tracking and paying attention to your mistakes can teach you another lesson — which fundamentals you need to concentrate on. Mistakes happen — but if they keep happening in a particular situation, then you need to know that. Tracking and paying attention to mistakes can help you learn what needs work.

Don’t Go on Tilt

Going on tilt is a British phrase (Craig, am I right about that?) for losing your cool. I love it. [Unsure if it’s British… it probably came from pinball rather than from “full tilt,” which DID have its roots in Medieval Jousting tournaments — Craig.]

I also love the fact that I am getting a lot better about not tilting, myself.

I know a lot of players who get worked up about the mistake they made last round, the bad judge call, or the amazingly lucky topdecks that saved their opponent last game. They rant and complain — and they are thinking about that match, not this one. As a result, they wander into traps that they would have seen, had they been paying attention.

I’ve written about this before. So have a lot of other good players. The advice is simple.

You don’t have a time machine.

You cannot change the past.

You cannot play your best when your attention is split, so…

Pay attention to the present!

Play against the Best

This is a corollary of the first point — you need to connect with friends. However, you need to play against better players if you want to improve.

A decade ago, I just played Magic with friends. I sucked.

A little after that, I found a local game store, and started playing there. I played against world class players, like Bob Maher Jr., Mike Hron and a bunch of other pro tour veterans. I got my butt kicked hard, but I got better.

I could write a couple thousand words about this, but that’s hardly necessary. The point is that improvement is not a function of winning — it is a function of the challenge you face.

That’s why the Green Bay Packers don’t spend their preseason scrimmaging against the 7th Street middle school JV team.

Think about it.

Play More Magic

The final point is also something that I could write a novel — or at least a novella — about, but that’s hardly necessary.

You don’t learn to ski by reading a skiing magazine.

You don’t learn to ride a bike by talking about bikes.

You don’t learn to fly airplanes by arguing wing designs in a chat room.

You learn to do things by doing them.

The same thing is true with Magic.

So stop reading and play some Magic!


“one million words” on MTGO, if I can ever find time to play.