6 Great Ways To Get Better At Magic: The Gathering And Win More Tournaments, by Tom Harle

What do you think is the biggest mistake that new players make, and how can this be fixed?

GP Manchester 2014 Banner Players 3
Image by Anna Przywecka

6 Great Ways To Get Better At Magic: The Gathering And Win More Tournaments

This week I want to leave Modern behind and talk about a subject that has come up more than a few times between me and my Magic friends – getting better at Magic: The Gathering. If you play in tournaments (and since you’re reading Magic: The Gathering articles on the internet then I assume that you do) then chances are you want to get better. I’m not exactly a professional, but I’ve been playing this game a long time and hopefully have picked up a few pearls of wisdom that I can share with you all.

So without much further ado, lets jump straight into it. Here are 6 great ways


6. Practice, Practice, Practice

This is a pretty obvious one I hear you cry, but I think people underestimate exactly how much time and effort some people are putting into Magic: The Gathering. A good friend of mine sold his collection on Magic Online a while ago so was back down to literally 0 digital cards. 2 years later he has over 65,000 cards in his collection.

Lets just break that down shall we:

Assuming half the cards came from 45 card events and half from 90 card events that’s: 65,000/2/45 + 65,000/2/90 = 1084 events in 2 years. That’s 1.5 events every day.

If you meet him in the top 8 draft of a PPTQ who do you think is going to be favourite to win?

Before the Cambridge PPTQ I had put in at least 50 matches with the UW Tron deck on Magic: The Gartering Online and I still hadn’t faced all the decks in the metagame enough that I was completely comfortable playing and sideboarding all my matches at the PPTQ. Bottom line is if you want to get better, you need to play more.


5. Play On Magic Online, And Whenever You Can

This is tied in to practising more and there’s nothing better than Magic Online for being able to pick up a constructed game or draft any time of the day or night. If you’re drafting once a week with the same guys who are generally all at about the same skill level, and then one of them starts drafting on Magic: The Gathering Online two or three times a week more than the rest, then you’ve got to bet that his skill level will increase much more rapidly that the rest of the group.

Magic Online Championship wallpaper

Magic Online also does two pretty important things:

Firstly it teaches you the way things trigger and interact correctly. Having to respond to your opponent’s Delver of Secrets ability with Geistflame before they reveal isn’t the most intuitive thing in Magic but if you get that wrong when you’re playing for top 8 at a PPTQ you’ll be kicking yourself for days.

Secondly it allows you to watch your replays – every round I lose on Magic Online I look back over the games and see what I could have done differently; Was the hand a keeper or should I have mulliganed? If I didn’t cast the removal spell on his guy could I have used it to deal with his bomb? Was he telegraphing the pump spell he had that I walked right into?

It’s very easy to make excuses after a game of Magic; That you got screwed or flooded, or he topdecked his only out or whatever the reason may be, but generally there’s something different you could have done in every game that may have changed the outcome and Magic: The Gathering Online allows you the tools to assess these perfectly.


4. Test Properly, With Sideboards!

This has been said before in many places and it’s so important that it worth repeating – test with sideboards! Magic is a best of 3 game of 75 cards and you should test it as such. In Modern UW Tron vs Splinter Twin is a pretty bad matchup game 1, but I’ve won enough games 2-1 to say that overall in the matchup you’re probably the favourite. If you’ve not testing those sideboard cards then what’s the point of even having them?

Also approach the games properly: take turns going first not just loser chooses, swap decks every 5-10 games so you get to see the matchup from both sides of the table, no mulligans back to 7 cards, no takebacks if you make a mistake. If you’re doing a lot of serious testing with the same group then grab a stack of junk rares and play each game for ante or make a bet that whoever loses the testing session buys lunch – in the long term things will even out so no one really finishes up or down but by having something to play for people will take the games more seriously.


3. Choose The Correct Deck, One That Suits Your Playstyle

Now Magic: The Gathering is a game of percentages. In my opinion people give themselves the best chance to win if they pick a deck early on in the season and test it fully. Sure sometimes you can gain an edge by swapping your deck mid-season to something that is performing better but are you really gaining more of an edge then you already had due to how well you knew your deck? If you’ve got time to test the new deck as much as the old one then great, go for it, but generally you’re better off sticking to what you know best and adapting it to what you think the metagame has shifted to, than picking up a brand new deck for the new metagame. Also pick something that suits your play style.

Ideally you’d have time to test every deck in the metagame and make your deck choice based upon those results but realistically that’s not going to be an option, so pick something that suits how you like to play Magic and that you’re going to enjoy. Some people prefer a fast aggro deck that punishes poor draws and gets them free wins, some people prefer a more controlling deck that has the ability to draw themselves out of a bad situation much later in the game and some people prefer a combo deck that is capable of doing very powerful things, usually as the expense of consistency.

All of those viewpoints are valid and, in my opinion, none of them take more or less skill than any other – it’s just boils down to personal preference. Also bear in mind that if you always play aggro then some of the Red Deck Wins tricks that you learnt last year will be applicable to this years Zombie deck, obviously it’s not as good as real practice but it’s definitely a shortcut that works in your favour if you haven’t had enough time to test.


2. Keep Your Head In The Game, And Play Towards Your Outs

I’m probably as guilty as anyone of doing this but you need to concentrate on the game you’re playing and how you’re going to win. Sometimes you’re going to draw too many lands, sometimes too few or in the wrong colour. Or they’re going to topdeck their one out the turn before you would have won in game 2. All of these things happen and all of them are frustrating, but if you’re letting them get to you and affect your thinking in future games then you’re just making things worse.

Think about your outs and play to them, if you need to draw Divination into Tragic Slip and Geistflame to win the game then play as if you’re going to do that and the very small percentage of the time when you do, you’ll win. If you’re too busy complaining about the 13th land you’ve drawn to notice that you need to trade with his guy now so that Tragic Slip and Geistflame is going to be an answer then no matter what you draw you’re going to lose. Anyone can win the games where they draw well, it’s winning the really close games that could have gone either way that really matter.


1. Slow Down, Give Yourself Time To Think

Now obviously there’s a limit to this as you have to play at a reasonable pace in paper Magic and you have a personal clock in Magic online. That said, most people play too fast – if you’ve got any time left between rounds and you just lost then maybe you should rethink how quickly you’re playing and take a little more time over your decisions – how are you going to spot the correct play if you don’t give yourself time to think everything through?

I remember a game I played online where my opponent was complaining that I was playing slowly and said there was “no reason” for me to take so long over my decisions. I took my time, found the correct play and less than 2 minutes later he was defeated and probably sitting around waiting for the next round to start, complaining that everyone else was taking too long too.


Final Thoughts

Obviously that’s not an exhaustive list of all the ways that you could improve your game, but hopefully there’s something there that makes you think, “Yeah, maybe I could do that a little better”, just so long as you don’t use your new found skills to beat me in the next PPTQ, good luck!

Community Question: What do you think is the biggest mistake that new players make, and how can this be fixed?

Thanks for reading,

Tom Harle

6 Great Ways To Get Better At Magic: The Gathering And Win More Tournaments, by Tom Harle
6 Great Ways To Get Better At Magic: The Gathering And Win More Tournaments, by Tom Harle
If you play tournaments, and since you're reading Magic: The Gathering articles on the internet then I assume you do, then chances are you want to get better.

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