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One Word

As I see it, there are three kinds of Magic player:

A. Those who want to get better at Magic.

B. Those who don’t really care and just want to have fun playing Magic.

C.  Those who think and say they want to get better at Magic but don’t actually care that much and just want to have fun playing Magic.

Sadly, the most populated demographic is category C.

I see it all the time. Players say they want to get better—that they want to win that PTQ, that they want to sharpen up and cash that GP. Hell, maybe they just want to finally make Top 8 at FNM. Yet they never take the necessary steps to achieve these goals—they often never even solidify their goals. I think that very often they do genuinely want to get better, but they have no idea how to go about it and lack the fire and drive to figure it out for themselves.

Today, I am going to show you how to get better with one simple word.

Maybe you spend hours getting ready for a PTQ/SCG Open. You and your friends, who are of a similar skill level, build your decks and play a bunch of games. You think you have a good idea of what’s going on, head out to the event, and finish 5-3. Maybe this is a very consistent occurrence.

The definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again and expecting a different result.

What’s the word? Is it “sleep?” Everyone knows you play your best when you are well rested. Is it “determination?” You have to be dedicated to practice as much as you can, right? Is it “sideboarding?” You play over half your matches with a sideboard, so if you don’t practice sideboarding, how are you ever going to get better?

While all of these things are important, they are almost irrelevant to the fundamental idea of improving as a player. If you have a pitcher who needs to learn how to throw a curveball in order to compete at the college level, do you tell him to make sure he is eating right? Do you tell him to get back in the weight room and work out more? Do you tell him to make sure he practices in both warm and cold weather because he will have to pitch in the cold during the playoffs?

No—because while these things are important, they are not relevant to making him a better pitcher.

You need to understand how to make yourself a better player. The way to do that is by understanding why you are doing the things you are doing in a game and why your opponent is doing the things they are doing. You must be actively thinking about the game.

Did you catch it?

The word is “why.”

Planning: Why are we doing what we are doing?

You should ask yourself “why?” for everything you do during a game. You should not just be making plays without knowing why you are making them. If you can’t answer why you just made a play, what are you even doing? Are you actually trying to win? Or are you just going through the motions to play a game?

If you make a play and can’t answer why you just made it, you are not actively thinking about the game—it’s better to have a wrong reason than to have no reason at all.

Let me say this again because it is really important.

It is better to have a wrong reason than to have no reason at all for why you made a particular play.

Okay, let’s get simple. Really simple:

Why 1

We have a Flinthoof Boar, a Stomping Ground, and two Mountains in play.

Our opponent has a Loxodon Smiter, two tapped Plains, and a tapped Forest.

Do we attack? Why or why not?

Clearly, this is an elementary-level question. We have a 3/3; our opponent has a 4/4. If we attack, our opponent will block, and our creature will die. Therefore, don’t attack. This is a simple scenario that any Magic player will be able to deduce without much thought. Easy: no attack.

Okay, let’s add a variable.

Now we have a Ghor-Clan Rampager in our hand. Do we attack? Why or why not?

Again, fairly simple. Now we have a combat trick. If we attack our 3/3 into their 4/4 and they block, we can use our Ghor-Clan Rampager to save our Flinthoof Boar, kill their Loxodon Smiter, and deal them three trample damage. If they don’t block? Cool. Easy attack.

Why 3

Let’s add another variable. Now, in addition to our Ghor-Clan Rampager, we also have a Boros Reckoner, a Mogg Flunkies, and a Mountain in our hand. Do we attack? Why or why not?

This is where things get a little tricky. A lot of players wouldn’t think twice here. I have an attacker and a trick that can get past my opponent’s blocker; therefore, I should attack. But why? What is our current goal? If we do this, he blocks, we pump, and we kill his Loxodon Smiter and deal him the trample damage.

However, look at what this has done to our overall plan of winning the game. We are now completely off curve. We have no other play this turn, are stuck playing a three-drop on our turn 4, and have a Mogg Flunkies that won’t come down til turn 5. Is now the best time to attack with our guy? If we just cast Boros Reckoner this turn, then on turn 4 we can use all of our mana effectively by using the Ghor-Clan Rampager and casting the Mogg Flunkies. You have to ask yourself what is more important to my overall plan—why am I doing what I am doing?

For a more experienced player, this scenario is also rather simple. Of course, many of these choices can become very complicated decision trees, which will require you to plan out your next few turns. The basis of this idea is planning, but the real power of asking “why?” comes from looking at your opponent.

Deduction: Why is the opponent doing what they’re doing?

This is where the true beauty of the game lies.

A simple scenario for anyone who has played Standard in the last year or so:

You lose the die roll, and your opponent pays two life, plays an untapped Hallowed Fountain, and says go.

Why did they do this?

I’d imagine most of you will snap answer: they have an end of turn Thought Scour.

Wow, are you psychic? How could you know exactly what card is in their hand before they even played it? It’s pretty simple, actually—you observed what your opponent did, asked yourself why they did it, and used deduction to come up with a very logical and reasonable answer.

Why 5

This one was so simple because there was only one reasonable answer. In Standard, there is only really one playable instant that costs a white or blue mana. If this was Cube Draft, you could assume your opponent has something, but it could be anything from Force Spike to Swords to Plowshares to Mystical Tutor; there is not enough information.

But information is the one thing that is constantly flowing in a game of Magic. It is everywhere, just waiting for you to pick it up and use it to your advantage. The key to finding it is asking “why?”

Another seemingly simple scenario:

Why 6

It’s round 4 of a Modern PTQ; it doesn’t matter what deck you are playing or what you are doing. Your opponent wins the die roll and plays first. They play a Scalding Tarn turn 1, sacrifice it, pay two life to fetch an untapped Steam Vents, and cast Serum Visions. They draw a card, scry two cards to the bottom, and pass the turn. On their turn 2, they play a Desolate Lighthouse and pass the turn.

Okay, Jim, so what? They’re probably playing Splinter Twin, and they’re doing what they do; let’s take our turn and see what we draw!

Whoa buddy, hold up. What have I been saying all this time? Ask yourself “why?” Why did they scry both cards to the bottom with Serum Visions? Why did they play a Desolate Lighthouse on turn 2 as their second land? Wouldn’t it be best to play all of your colored sources first and to conceal having the Lighthouse? It seems reasonable to conclude that our opponent kept a two lander with Serum Visions and did not see a land in the top two cards so they sent them to the bottom.

Okay, yeah, so they kept a two lander and whiffed on Serum Visions—awesome. Now it’s our turn, let’s see what…

Slow down—we’re not done yet. Yes, say it again: “Why?” We’ve deduced that our opponent kept a two-land hand with a cantrip—but why did our opponent keep this somewhat risky two lander? And why did they have no play on turn 2? Our opponent has six cards in their hand, they have played one spell, and at this point in the game, we can have a pretty good idea of what those six cards are.

They’re most likely not lands, as presumably they would have played any land over a Desolate Lighthouse.

They’re most likely not additional cantrips (Serum Visions, Sleight of Hand, or Gitaxian Probe), as they would have cast one to dig for additional lands before playing the Lighthouse.

It’s possible they have a few reactionary cards in their hand like Flame Slash or Izzet Charm, but we don’t have enough information to know that yet.

So, again, why did they keep this hand? It seems pretty clear to me that they probably already have the combo in their hand (Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin). This makes a lot of sense—they have six nonland/non-cantrip cards in their hand and chose to keep this somewhat risky two lander based on those cards.

The only card that throws a bit of a wrench into this discussion is Remand. They could have played the Desolate Lighthouse on turn 2 instead of a Steam Vents so that they wouldn’t take damage because they plan on casting Remand. They also could have forgone casting a cantrip to cast Remand instead. While Remand has been seeing less play in Splinter Twin lately, this is a reasonable assumption.

We can conclude that our opponent likely has a hand full of combo pieces, no additional lands, and might have a Remand. If our opponent does not Remand our turn 2 spell, their hand is essentially face up on the table. If they do, we will have to reevaluate a little bit based on their next land drop and turn, but we have a good idea.

The amazing part is that we have done this all from two land drops and a single cantrip played. Are you playing your games critically enough? Are you picking up all the information that is out there? Are you asking yourself “why?” enough? The information is there—are you going to pick it up and use it to your advantage?

Wrapping Up

This rabbit hole goes very deep, and I’m going to write a follow up article at some point in the future that delves further into these two concepts.

Another important thing that I will get to in a future article is the concept of “autopilot.” Many of these “whys?” are ones you answer intuitively without deep thought because of what your experience has shown you. This is why practice and playtesting is important—because it allows you to focus on the choices that are actually difficult. For example, you should not enter a tournament without knowing if you should cast Ponder or Preordain turn 1 in your combo deck or if you should lead with Wild Nacatl or Kird Ape in your Zoo deck. However, autopilot also has its dangers and disadvantages.

Thanks for reading, and tune in next time for the first episode of “So You Think You Can Brew?” featuring Yogi Brown and Gary Fingers!

Jim Davis

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