Danation – Top 8 Tips for Top 8 Nationals by Daniel Harborne

Danation – Top 8 Tips for Top 8 Nationals by Daniel Harborne


As the numerous coverage articles keep pointing out, this year’s GB Nationals top 8 was full of many no-namers, me being one of them, so perhaps some background is in order. If you want to get straight to the meat of this article skip to paragraph 3.

I’ve been playing Magic casually since Onslaught but competitively for a couple of years, currently playing for Bazaar Game‘s team: Team Win and Nin (Win for Bazaar, Nin for Nintronics the Hi-fi and home cinema company I work for).

This year was the first time I had a job where I wasn’t working weekends. This allowed me to grind the National qualifiers as well as picking up two Game Day wins (ultra competitive victories!!) and a GPT win for Singapore. Please don’t ask how Singapore went I will laugh awkwardly and change the subject! So apart from that you could say the title of No-namer would be pretty apt.

And with that said now to the purpose of this article…

When I decided to write this article I decided against the usual tournament report describing each match… firstly because I have an awful memory and secondly because they never seem to be the most fruitful of articles. Instead I’ve looked at what helped me get to where I did in both Nationals and the other events I’ve had success in.

Long term tips:

  • Play lots (Der!)
  • Analyse!
  • Read, Watch, Listen
  • Chase

These four tips are based on improving ones Magic as a whole… by no means do I mean to say I’m at the peak of Magic ability… but these steps have helped me improve ten fold and helped me get to a stage where top-8ing Nationals was a possibility. Some people may already be there in which case the short term tips are where to start but for those who feel that they aren’t playing at the level they need/want to, these things should help.

Firstly playing lots is an obvious one and it is very important. If you don’t have a Magic Online account this is the first step. The constant ability to play Magic against decent(ish) players allows for much improvement. Then find yourself a play testing group in real life. There’s plenty of MTG clubs around the UK and plenty of websites to find them (mtgUK and Demonic Tutor to name a few)

*As an aside, those in the Watford area we (Bazaar Games) have a club starting up that runs weekly Modern constructed events as well as a weekly EDH evening so head down! *

Although playing a lot is the basis of improving, it is far less effective without the next step, which is to analyse your games, decks and plays. Playing games without thinking of why you won or lost is meaningless.I know this has been said before but is worth reiterating (with buy back!). Don’t be satisfied with wining a game as proof you played correctly. I know I’ve won games even through really bad lines of play and recognising this is very important. Also analysis other people’s choices is key. People will make different decisions to you, in deck construction, draft picks and plays. Thinking about why they do this allows for you to find out who is correct (if either!), discussing the choice with someone also is a good idea… funnily enough if you analyse your decision by yourself… you might just end up at the same conclusion without seeing what you missed.

This leads me nicely to another method of obtaining new ideas, concepts and thought processes: Following event coverage and articles. This is a great way to improve… I’ve spent many hours (even during the days where Wirewood Channeller was clearly the best card in Magic!) watching the Pro Tour coverage, making sure I’d seen all the deck techs and analysed every match. At first you may not spot all the subtleties going on (even now I scratch my head sometimes only to realise 5-10 turns later the reason behind certain decisions)… but it’s certainty easier spotting them when you’re watching a game rather than playing in it. One of my groups past times is ordering in pizza when the Pro Tour is on and watching the web cast. I would certainly attribute this, in part, to my step up from kitchen table to Nationals top 8 table.

There’s plenty of great coverage out there on Youtube to watch and a whole host of articles to read. Again, analyse it all… I’ve read some stuff that clearly was there just to fill the quota of articles for the week but there’s many talented players who also have a talent for writing so look around and find someone you enjoy reading (PV from Channel Fireball is personally one of my favourite writers and LSV’s draft videos often come in handy).

The last of the long term steps you can take to success is to chase it. What I mean by this is if you only have one weekend to qualify for Nationals… i.e you either make the top 4 of one event of the season or you don’t go to Nats… chances are you aren’t going. Magic is a game of luck and skill and the best players making zero errors can still loose to mana flood, screw and lucky top decks. Secondly– and this was especially true for me –turning up to a qualifier knowing that if it all goes wrong you have another 4 chances planned down the line really takes some pressure off. As someone who tended to get very nervous faced with competitive level events when I first started, this was key. For the Nationals qualifier season I had 6 chances to qualify, not only were the odds with me but I was settled. Each of the 4 qualifiers I went to I made it to either a “win and in” scenario or I qualified. Now obviously for some people planning to go to 6 events isn’t possible… due to work or schedules or whatever… but where possible, when a season is announced, be it NQ, PTQ or GPT find all the ones you can realistically head tofind other people who are going and make arrangements to go to all you can.

This plan obviously doesn’t carry over well to events that only take place once per year, sadly there is only one Nationals… but if you’ve made it this far you’re doing well… and although you can’t do much about the odds side of things (bar walking a very dodgy line) you CAN do something about the nerves, confidence and preparation.

…and like a boss of segue I lead us to the short term tips… which are:

  • Test the format
  • Set your goals
  • Drink and rest well
  • Focus on the moment

These things are something to consider when leading up to a tournament rather than things to do in order to improve your general Magic ability. They are also probably something alot of very good players are missing in order to get to the next level.

Firstly testing the format is key to any success. Get a group together, if it’s constructed get the guy who works at an office to print every deck (this guy + designated driver guy are awesome!) and then everyone should play every deck. This not only allows for people to find the deck they want to play but also gives everyone a feel for what makes each deck tick. It’d also allow you to have at least some idea of what the guy sat across from you has in hand, why he might be making a certain line of play and what it will take to beat him. If it’s a limited event, MTGO is your best friend but don’t forget to discuss the format with real people… I learnt alot for M12 just opening 3 packs in the hotel room on the Wednesday before Nats and talking with the team about why we’d take the cards we’d take from each pack.

I think it was Dan Barrett who wrote an article I read about the state of English Magic in which he said no one really talked about what they discovered. I definitely get this feeling and would say that it is a big reason for alot of people’s failure. As touched on previously if you never get someone else’s perspective you may miss key aspects of a deck,a match up or a draft format that for whatever reason you’d overlooked. Testing and sharing your results with other testers is key.

Secondly in my event specific tips… setting a goal. This is something that I also believe really helped me in keeping my cool at Nationals. The first thing to do is realise who you are… now this doesn’t mean you should wonder off into the desert and come back with a strange animal spirit companion… just be realistic about what is a good achievement for you. When I considered what I would be happy with coming out of Nationals, I decided as it was my first Nationals a target of top 64 seemed both achievable and an achievement. I hear so many people whine when they don’t win a tournament or they instantly go on tilt when they lose one match… maybe for some people the come first or you suck mentality helps but my guess is for most people it’s just getting in the way. If it’s your first anything… be happy with a positive record (more wins than losses). As you play in more events you should start aiming higher.

Now this is person specific, don’t give yourself an unattainably high bar to clear but also don’t set yourself a target that requires you to not play some of the best magic you can. This really helps me to feel at ease and also gives a greater chance of me coming away from a tournament happy rather than feeling I wasted a day… as you attain higher results your goals will always increase and previous ones will be so far behind that you’ll have no problems achieving them. I have no doubt I’ll be at Nationals next year, where as at the beginning of the NQ season this year all my goal started at was achieving a positive record at an NQ. #upgrades

The third tip is something I see ignored so much but is definitely a requirement to success. Drink, eat and sleep well. Carry a bottle of water with you or at least some drink. Make sure your journey time to the event includes breakfast and you ask the guy playing Mono-red to go get the team lunch while they finish up their control mirrors. Lastly for this point please please please don’t stay up the night before a tournament to test, all of your testing should be done by that point anyway and even if there’s creases in your list that need ironing out or a match up you feel you don’t know… lack of sleep will severely diminish your chances of winning the match ups you do know.

This is definitely a short point but something that’s so easy and so necessary. Don’t let yourself feel rubbish through out the day, it’s only wasting all the time and effort you put in leading up to the tournament.

The final tip, focusing on the moment, is something that is certainly easier to say than to do but I shall try to at least to explain what helps me. Firstly what I mean by focusing on the moment is concentrating on the key things in the game you’re in and nothing that is irrelevant to it.

The key things to be thinking about are:

  • What’s in your hand.
  • What’s in play.
  • What your opponent could have in their hand.
  • What you need to happen to win.
  • What could happen to make you lose.

These things, which I have adopted from articles I’ve read (…and we’ve gone full circle), are key to orchestrating a victory and should be reassessed often in order to make sure you are still making the correct plays. What I tend to do before finding focus (which I still do loose on occasion) was think about what it means to win the game/match I’m playing. Another common cause for lack of focus is thinking through a miss play over and over… while this might be a worth while exercise to find out why you made the mistake and if it truly was one… the time and place for this is not inside the game. Everyone has their own things that they fall into thinking about, so it’s going to be a case by case basis.  The key is to stop your mind from wandering as soon as you feel a lack of concentration.

Also never snap yourself back into the room and pass priority. As I say I’m not a jedi yet and awkwardly I made this mistake in round 2 of Nationals. Coming out of some thought (it may have even been to do with the game) I allowed a Sword of War and Peace to attach to a Mirran Crusader while I had a Burst Lightning in hand and my opponent was tapped. More awkwardly still, I would have gone on to win this game, winning me the match. Instead however I lost the game, and the match. It gets worse… Most awkwardly, my opponent was Jamie Hannah… the guy that is off to Worlds instead of me from my top 8 quarter finals match. I guess that was what it meant to lose that game .

So there you have it my top 8 tips for reaching top 8. There’s certainly more here for some than others and I hope everyone can take something away from them.

As I hope to write more articles in the future, so please comment with your thoughts and opinions, and if you like the article, FB Like it down below.

See you at the top tables!

Dan Harborne




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