Top 25 Mistakes You’ve Probably Made While Playing Magic: The Gathering, by Graeme McIntyre

Top 25 Mistakes You've Probably Made While Playing Magic: The Gathering, by Graeme McIntyre

Top 25 Mistakes You’ve Probably Made While Playing Magic: The Gathering – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge by Graeme McIntyre

I’ve not written in a while because I’ve been thinking about this article and the best way to come at it. While the content is mostly aimed at people who have been playing for a bit but have hit a stumbling block in their advancement, the article will focus on issues which are often present in the play of new players, too.

When you first begin to play Magic: The Gathering, the opportunities to improve are everywhere simply because the game is complicated and you will be making loads of blatant errors. As time progresses however, it becomes harder to spot what you’re doing wrong, to the extent that you might begin to think that you play close to perfectly, at which point frustration will become a major issue, as you fail to meet the next goal, be that 3-0ing drafts more, winning your FNM or Game day, top 8’ing your first PPTQ or day 2’ing your first GP or winning your first PPTQ.

I’ve often found that the times when I am mostly likely to get a little better at the game are the times in which I despair most at how badly I play. When you think you’re playing well, you’re less open to your mistakes because you become over confident. I consider myself seasoned and reasonable at the game, but I flashed a Think Twice back when I was on 3 and the other guy had an Ash Zealot in play during testing the other day. So with that in mind, here are 25 ways you might be playing badly; try not to feel smug because you don’t do 22 of them, because the relevant part of this is the 3 you do!


25. Worrying too much about representing spells. Not playing land, playing round things too much

There is only so much you can do, for the most part. Don’t hold back 3 land to bluff, and then fail to kill them with your fireball because it puts them on 2. Also don’t play round innocuous tricks when you can’t afford to.


24. Not shuffling enough/properly

About 3 years after I started playing big tournaments, I was paired against Eddie Ross at nationals. He said to me “your shuffle doesn’t actually change the order of the cards much, by the way” as I mulled to 5. He explained after that the way I shuffled simply moved about discrete groups of cards rather than actually breaking the pattern up. I learned to shuffle cards on the train that year at college. It’s easy to think of this stuff as largely unimportant but the reality is that you need to do this properly. If you mulligan, barely shuffle then mulligan the next hand on a similar basis to the first a lot, consider revising the way you shuffle your cards.


23. Trying to draw conclusions from tiny samples

This one is a bugbear of mine, but I’ll try and keep it short. You can’t conclude much from a really small number of games because they could so easily be unrepresentative of the real nature of the match up. It’s also pretty pointless to try and draw conclusions really early unless you have massive time constraints, in which case I think you need to just take other people’s results and assume they’re correct (e.g. your time would be best spent becoming familiar enough with your own deck to avoid missing things and the rest reading articles concerning your deck and how it interacts with the field because you don’t have the time to establish this yourself). If you’re going to test the format yourself though, there is no value in saying “oh this is a really bad match up” after 5 games, because you just don’t have the information. The R/G deck in standard is a good example of this. It’s got 20 land and some very explosive draws; it will often win or lose due to variance rather than anything to do with the other deck.


22. Telling bad beats stories

These are boring, cause their tellers to become more angry, and take away from time which could be spent reflecting on what might have been done differently in the game. I used to rage after I lost and thought it was best simply to get it out of my system… I’m pretty sure I just tilted myself now.


21. Caring that people are better/worse than you

I remember playing against Jerome Remie at my second Pro Tour. At one point I asked “how many cards in your hand, sorry?” and he looked up, smiled and said “5, but you don’t need to apologize for asking how many cards in my hand.” Presumably I had been apologizing for everything throughout the game. I’ve also failed to take opponents seriously because I thought they were terrible and then lost. The thing is that it doesn’t really matter if someone is better than or worse than you are in a single game.  Sure, the better player normally wins, but not a ridiculous amount of the time, unless the difference in skill is ridiculous and it matters less and less the better you get (e.g. if you’ve been playing magic a month, a guy who has top 8’ed a couple of PTQs will almost certainly smash you, but if he plays someone who has won a few PTQs, it will still be pretty close). Just make the best plays you can, and don’t worry about the other guy, all the while remembering that everyone can teach you something, so keep an open mind.


20. Trying to think about the game in absolute terms

Questions like “would you always mulligan a 1 land hand in zoo?” aren’t doing anyone any favours. I mean probably it is good advice to mulligan those sorts of hands, but what if you know it’s a bad match up and you’re on the draw? The game just isn’t as simple as learning a bunch of plays and then using the “correct” one in each situation; if you want to be good you will need to be able to accurately evaluate these issues for yourself, and work it out.


19. Over/under valuing signalling in draft

On one hand a lot of intermediate players learn that signalling is important and results in more reasonable decks than just taking good cards and not worrying about what you’re passing. This is largely true, but at the same time if you happen to get passed a good rare in a colour you you’ve passed a couple of good cards in already 3rd pick, you can still switch and you probably should. You must remember to cut that colour very hard for the rest of the pack now though. If you overvalue signalling, you might pass here. If you *undervalue* signalling, you will have spent the last year in draft with 3 colour decks sharing two colours with the guy you were passing, and  he probably didn’t send you a Christmas card. You’re probably not doing very well at draft, either.


18. Thinking too many cards are playable, and as such good

If you think that it’s ok to be in black because you got a late Mind Rot you’re probably kidding yourself. This card is playable, but you definitely don’t want multiples, and you can’t support a large number of cards like it in your deck. You need to think about what is realistically going to happen in your games a result of drafting particular cards; if you have loads of cards which are neither removal nor creatures, what’s going to happen is you won’t make enough creatures, and you’ll get rolled by a decent curve.


17. Never learning to attack and block properly

Loads of people think they’re good at this and take it for granted. I sort of understand why, because it’s a fundamental part of the game, but it’s also very complicated. I remember feeling really good about the Birthing Pod deck in standard last year because it was so good at developing difficult board states which is a situation I feel reasonably comfortable in against most people. A lot of people who think they attack and block well also write off working out what to do in these situations and wait for a breaker…it seems to me that if you need to be able to work it out.


16. Failing to call a judge

Judges are there to make sure the game is played to the rules. They are the good guys. There is nothing wrong with calling them, but people get all awkward and squeamish about it; if in doubt call a judge. Blame me if you feel like you need to blame someone.


15. Pet cards justified by winning a game or two

People like their pet cards. They’ll even be ok a lot of the time. The problem is that they occupy a space in the deck which could be taken by another card. A lot of people will justify playing their pet card because it won a game in a “*see*!?” sort of fashion, but the reality is that cards have text; even the really bad ones will occasionally do something relevant. As such, you need a better justification either theoretically or empirically.


14. Arguing without listening

Often people argue their position and don’t really listen to what the other person is saying, simply waiting for their turn to speak. If you find yourself doing this, consider why you think the other person’s argument is worth dismissing without even hearing it, and given that this is so, why are you wasting your time arguing with them about it? You learn a lot more when your mouth is closed and your mind is open. This is more of a life skill, but very relevant to magic.


13. Bad sequencing

Playing a second land then casting a Duress is an example of this; There is no reason to play the land first so why not wait? Similarly casting a spell with two mana up, getting it Mana Leaked, *then* playing a land is pretty bad too. Here, there is a reason to play your land first. Take care of the order you do the little things in , they do matter, and it will add up.


12. Not asking people to play faster

If someone is playing too slowly, they’re breaking the rules. Playing by the rules isn’t optional and you should have the confidence to ask them to play faster. Similarly if you don’t like the way they’re shuffling your cards, ask them to change it, or if their playmat is smothering you, ask them to move it.


11. Failing to draft a curve

This is just insanely important and overlooked by so many people; while you’re drafting, organize your cards and make *sure* you have a curve during the draft. Likely as not this will be the most important thing you do in the draft. You’ll get so many free games out of a good curve, from people who don’t have one.


10. Tapping mana incorrectly

Make sure you actually have the mana untapped to cast your spells; you can’t cast Dissipate off two Godless Shrine and a Watery Grave.


9. Make big concessions for a bad match up rather than just accepting it

Sometimes you’ll have a bad match up, and you can fix it at the cost of 8 sideboard cards. This will rarely be correct to do. It is often better to simply write off a match up than make these sorts of sacrifices.


8. Not watching their opponent’s mana

There is a guy I play with who Ross Jenkins thinks has “fog of war” when he plays. He seems to not really know what’s going on at the other side of the board often. There is probably a guy like this in most gaming groups who will ask you “so what happen there then?” when they have just cast a 7 casting cost spell and you had two of the same basic in play all game. Elementary, my dear Watson!


7. Letting their decks become too based around their own gauntlet

It’s hard to avoid this, especially if you’re playing a control deck, but you need to remember that your gauntlet will be less wide than the tournament in all likelihood. People will play the other sideboard plan against you – the one you thought wasn’t as good as the one you built – and you will need to be prepared to beat them.


6. Not playing enough

“Practice makes perfect”, and all that. Seriously, if you want to be better at magic, consider playing twice as much as you do now.


5. Bottling it under pressure

This is a difficult one to overcome as it’s largely about experience. If you want to be good, you need to get used to winning games when everything is on the line and when both your peers and random people you don’t know are watching.


4. Becoming embarrassed about mistakes

Remember that everyone makes mistakes; getting embarrassed about them during a game and playing badly is pretty stupid. What matters is self-improvement.


3. Taking things personally

If your opponent calls a judge, don’t worry about it. If someone says you misplayed, don’t worry about it. If you fall for a blowout trick, don’t worry about it. Just try and fix it – don’t get upset about it.


2. Building sideboards then not knowing how they work

When you build your sideboard, it is important to know what comes in and out of the deck and under what circumstances. Ever felt like you couldn’t get all the cards in? this sort of redundancy is a big deal, and avoidable.


1. Saying “It doesn’t matter”

Often people will make a mistake, and it will happen not to cost them the game, at which point they’ll shrug and say “it doesn’t matter”. “I got lucky this time” would be more appropriate. Not only is this stupid and short sighted, it breeds a tendency to dismiss mistakes because of an irrelevant variable. Maybe it doesn’t matter this time that you forgot to activate Grim Lavamancer but at the PPTQ, when you get blown out of your win and in round by a top deck on the last possible turn with them at 2? If you’re serious about the game, these things should really bother you – it always matters because you’re trying to get better, not randomly win games.


So, there you go – 25 things you maybe do wrong. That’s it for this week, and good luck in this weekends PPTQ!

Thanks for reading,


Top 25 Mistakes You've Probably Made While Playing Magic: The Gathering, by Graeme McIntyre
Here are 25 ways you might be playing badly; try not to feel smug because you don’t do 22 of them, because the relevant part of this is the 3 you do!

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Graeme McIntyre
I've been playing magic since the end of Rath Block, and I've been a tournament regular since Invasion Block. I started studying for a PhD in Sociology at University of Leicester in 2017. I was born In Scotland, but moved to Nottingham three years ago, seeking new oppertunities both academic and magical. I play regularly with David Inglis, Alastair Rees and Neil Rigby. I've been on 5 Pro Tours the 2016 English World Cup Team, and Scottish 2003 European Championship Team, but what I really bring to the table is experience. I've played 136 Pro Tour Qualifiers, 18 Grand Prixs, 11 National Championships, 13 World Magic Cup Qualifers, 51 Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers and more little tournaments than I can remember. More than anything else, my articles are intended to convey the lessons of this lived experience. Likes - robust decks, be they control, midrange, beatdown or combo. Cryptic Commands, Kird Apes and Abzan Charms. Dislikes - decks that draw hot and cold. Urza's Tower, Life From the Loam and Taigam's Scheming.