Beginners guide to avoiding mental traps in MTG with Paul Mclachlan

Paul Mclachlan banner


There is a certain class of player – often labelled as casual -, who doesn’t really care about their skill level at the game. They’re content to have a laugh with their friends, making infinite mistakes without noticing or caring, play with whatever cards they can scrounge together and never being concerned with being competitive. This article is not for them. This article is for the rung just above them. The players that want to get better at the game, but struggle to make headway.

These players make me think of a parable in The Simpsons, the episode title of which I never bothered to learn. In this particular jaundiced adventure, it was discovered that Homer had a crayon lodged in his brain, and that is the cause of his sub-par intelligence. Once it was removed he gained a substantial boost in brain power, but ultimately goes all “Flowers for Algernon” and has Moe hammer the crayon back into his skull. (This is one of my favourite episodes and the reason that I know that the capital of North Dakota is Bismark.)

I’m not comparing my target audience to Homer Simpson, so don’t get all indignant. There’s a speech that Homer gives to the elementary school, where he states (and I’m paraphrasing): “We all have a crayon up our nose. It might not be one made of wax. It may be made of ignorance. Or prejudice.”

You need to change your thought processes to approach competitive Magic correctly. Very few people have the kind of mind that takes to the game at first brush. In some cases there will be a disconnect between your understanding of the game, and what the game really is. I realised that I could have made this point with talking about the Simpsons for a couple of paragraphs, but I really, really like talking about the Simpsons. The tricky part is to work out what your particular disconnect is. I’m going to discuss some of the barriers that I’ve witnessed or experienced. There will be more out there.

“It Doesn’t Matter”

This was one that I’ve been guilty of in the past. This particular case often manifests itself when the player is tapping their mana. They won’t tap to leave upon the most varied coloured sources of mana that are available to them, or they’ll tap everything but a colourless land. When asked about this behaviour they will reply: “It doesn’t matter.”

It always matters.

Human beings are creatures of habit. We use mental shortcuts all the time, and once we get into the habit of doing something we will function on auto-pilot. For example; I bite my nails. Sometimes I only realise I’m doing it when I’ve got a finger stuffed in my mouth. What’s true for bad habits is also true for good habits. Make an active effort to ensure that you are tapping your lands in a fashion that you can still represent the widest variety of tricks while still casting your spell. Colourless sources should be the first things you tap, not the last.

If you and I are playing Standard, and you leave a single colourless land untapped I can reduce the cards that I need to play around down to Dismember. If you leave a Rootbound Crag open, I have to think about a greater number of instant speed effects. Don’t make life easy for your opponent.

“My Precious Life Total!”

Your life total is a resource. You only need to protect that last point. All too often inexperienced players will throw away creatures or cards trying to keep their life total at what they consider to be a healthy level. This is not the way to win games of Magic. You will have to get used to taking hits from creatures in order to expand your board presence or make gains.

Comparing your life total to your opponent’s is not how you gauge who is winning or losing in a game of Magic. Stop playing like it does.

There are certain situations when you should be protecting your life total – against a red burn deck in constructed, for example -, but these are the exception, rather than the rule.

“I’ve Just Got No Luck!”

This is fairly typical. Everyone knows a player who fixates on luck. Certainly, there is an element of luck built into the game, but the skill in Magic comes in minimising this variance. If you are truly better than your opponent, and not just exaggerating, you will win the majority of the games you play over the course of time. You cannot fixate on such a small sample size.

Variance (or luck) cuts both ways. It’s the fairest thing in Magic. If your opponents are consistently getting more “lucky” than you consider what decisions they are making that you are not. Magic can be a very subtle game at times. It’s extremely hard to gauge if someone has truly been lucky or whether they have made a sequence of correct decisions that have snowballed to give them this opportunity to win.

A classic example of this would be Craig Jones‘ Lightning Helix against Olivier Ruel at the first Pro Tour: Honolulu. Jones plays in such as way as to maximise his chances of winning. He points burn spells at Ruel rather than trying to protect his own life total by killing Ruel’s creatures. If he didn’t play in this manner Olivier Ruel would have faced Mark Herberholtz in the finals. Go and watch that game. I believe it’s match five of their semi-final.


This is an odd one, and something I’ve only started to consider recently. There are a couple of local players who want to improve, but can’t seem to for some reason. The root cause of this was playing on my mind, so I started to think about what they have in common. There wasn’t much there besides one thing: they both love the flavour of the game. I’ve had the Magic graphic novels (awful, by the way) foisted onto me by one of them, and they both often post on Facebook regarding the source material of Magic. They both expressed concern that Wizards have spoiled the ending of Innistrad Block by confirming the final set’s name (I can’t remember what it is off hand… it’s like Avacyn something. Reborn? Returns?).

This is just a theory, and I could well be wrong, but I believe that this is getting in the way of their progression as players. When I think about Magic and any particular board state, it’s as if I’m looking at a spreadsheet or a mathematical formula. I’m not thinking about whatever nonsense trappings Wizards has woven around the game to make it appealing to their target demographic. The art on the cards – which I do enjoy – is nothing more than an aid to my memory. The flavour text of cards is a constant source of irritation, but that’s just me showing my frustrated writer side.

I doubt I would have gotten into Magic without the little monsters on the cards, but it’s not what keeps me playing. I’d keep playing this game if they just threw away the fantasy elements one day and started to print cards the way I think about them: Runclaw Bears would become Green Bear. Elder Cathar would become Grey Ogre that does stuff when it dies. Infernal Plunge would become <BLANK>.

I don’t need to know anything about the story behind these cards to play the game. In fact, it may be actively harmful. If whenever I drew a creature my mind was clunked up with thoughts about it’s context within the particular plane, and how it accurately represents the traits of that race, I would be missing out on what’s really important. It’s a 2/2 for two mana. It only has text if it’s not in italics. You can forget everything else.

Another behaviour I’ve noticed is getting excited about rubbish cards because they are X. This could be a dragon, an angel, a planeswalker, a horse (OMG HORSES!), or whatever. You don’t have to take this card in draft just because it’s your favourite type of fantasy beastie. Be objective. Be cold. Pass all the horses. Individual cards are just tools to beat your opponent with. Some of them are crowbars. Some are machine guns. Others are that foam insulating tubing that you’ve had a dummy fight in Homebase with. You know you have. Don’t lie to me ¬_¬


Mana screw and mana flood are parts of Magic. You’re just going to have to accept this. It will happen to your opponent as much as it will happen to you over a large enough sample. If you are finding yourself in this situation often, don’t get frustrated. Instead, consider your mulligan decisions.

Are you making greedy keeps where you need to draw two land off the top of your deck to even play the game? You have to objectively assess your opening hand and consider what will happen if you don’t draw land. Will be you be ran over by a quick start? Do you have removal spell in hand that will buy you time if a land isn’t immediately on top of your deck?

If you can’t come up with a rational answer for the question “Should I mulligan this hand?” then it’s time to get your shuffle on. I mulligan so often that everyday I’m shuffling. Those guys wrote that song about me. Seriously. There’s absolutely zero led in my zeppelin (Just an aside – within an aside (Asideption!) -, but isn’t this a poor implication to make about yourself?).

“I Can’t Beat This Guy”

I’ve been on the positive side of this phenomena more than the negative. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m a pretty big wheel down at the Cracker Factory. Local players will groan when they’re paired against me and complain that they’re going to start out a draft down a match and so on and so forth. I don’t know why this happened. I’m no great shakes at Magic. I’m alright. Nothing special. But I know that the players who complain about getting paired against me have already lost, because I’ve been there myself.

Story Time: I was 4-3 on day one of Pro Tour: Berlin, looking up my pairings for a win-and-in final round. I was playing an either extremely techy or obnoxiously horrible Zoo list. In our testing we have no idea that the dominant deck in the format (Combo Elves) even existed and I’d metagamed for the mirror and Storm decks. I’d beaten my first round Elves opponent and gotten smashed in the fourth round by a Russian Pro toting little green dudes. I was not confident in the match-up and I was dreading getting paired against the deck.

Guess what happened?… Yeah, it was worse than that. I was playing Olivier Ruel, who had just been announced as part of the Hall of Fame class for that year. My mighty heart was breaking. I couldn’t beat this guy… and I didn’t. I made some screw ups in game two because of nerves and ended up getting eaten alive by a huge critter in game three. I congratulated him on making the Hall of Fame and left. I didn’t have a chance, because I didn’t give myself a chance.

Not enough evidence? Do you want another? I somehow qualified for Pro Tour: Berlin despite being demonstrably awful at Magic: The Gathering at the time. The tournament was held in Geneva and was Time Spiral/Planar Chaos booster draft. I’ll save my tales of having to flee across the border, getting helped out by nice French people and the horrors of being sick and alone in a foreign country for another time – what’s important here is my first round.

I’d drafted what I felt was a decent blue/white deck at a table featuring the present World Champion. Guess who I got paired against round one? Yep. And he crushed me. How was I going to beat this guy? He was the reigning World Champion and he had those cool looking casino dice. I made so many mistakes in this match, missing a ton of onboard tricks and no doubt becoming the butt of various between round jokes. At my skill level at that time there was only a very slim chance I would be able to beat my opponent. I didn’t even give myself that.

Don’t give up before the game has even started.


An Attempt at a Conclusion.

There are other examples of disconnects out there that I haven’t covered or haven’t encountered. You will have your own that will take you time to uncover if you want to improve at this game – at anything. Hopefully you have recognised some of the examples I’ve provided and they can help you out in the future.

Before I finish up, a brief note on skill progression within Magic. What I’ve found is that I don’t constantly increase in ability the more I play this game. I tend to improve, then plateau for a while. The indicator that tells me that I’m improving is that I notice all the mistakes I’m making and feel that I’m terrible. This isn’t a bad thing. It just means that I was still making these mistakes before, but I wasn’t noticing them. If I don’t notice a problem, how am I going to be able to correct it?

Don’t worry if you feel you’re terrible at Magic. As long as you can identify your errors and correct them you’re heading in the right direction. Magic, like life, is just a prolonged process of trial and error. Often you’ll have to find out what doesn’t work to understand what does.

Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing.

Paul Mclachlan



Please let us know what you think below...

Visit our Manaleak online store for the latest Magic: the Gathering singles, spoilers, exclusive reader offers, sales, freebies and more!

Magic The Gatherig Freebies Giveaways