How to get back into Magic: Get fit or die trying!
There’s a well-known trope in heroic fiction, wherein the audience revisits a beloved action hero years after their heyday, as a new challenge emerges.
At first, the main character attempts to rise to meet whatever menace the writers have dreamed up, but is cruelly exposed as having lost their edge through years of inactivity.
Then, through sheer force of will and a dramatic training montage, our hero claws their way back to the mountaintop, defying all the depredations of advancing age to become once again the irresistible force we know and love.
Fellow planeswalkers, I find myself at the start of just such a journey.
In all fairness, I was more of an Irving Forbush than a Bruce Wayne at my peak; nonetheless, I remember the feeling of turning up to a tournament, confident that I would do well and ultimately living up to my expectations.
This weekend, I played a paper Magic tournament for the first time in a long time. I went 1-4. That’s one win, four losses – a truly ignomnious record.
I’m not going to spend this article moaning about a bad event, however. Instead, I’m going to use it to identify exactly where I’ve grown rusty or lost my way – and propose a plan to repair my skills and tournament reflexes. Think of it as a guide to building your own Rocky Montage.
Where did it all go wrong?
I had three major problems this weekend.
I took the wrong deck
Intrigued by an article Mark Nestico had written on Starcity Games, about a mid-range hybrid of Blue Devotion and UW Control, I decided (in light of having the cards) to try it out.
Here’s what I shuffled up:
My rationale was that the deck could ably play more than one role, whilst sporting a solid manabase which didn’t have an inherent vulnerability to Burning Earth. I figured I’d control most matchups, building up valuable permanents like Thassa and Jace, before launching a Master of Waves into the fray to close out the game in a couple of turns.
In reality, I should just have played Esper. I say this because, in a world filled with Devotion decks which are broadly invulnerable to Burning Earth, no-one is playing the card; that being the case, there is very little drawback to playing black as an extra colour.
In fact, there is a significant benefit! Gaining eight scry-lands, Thoughtseize and Hero’s Downfall is a very big deal indeed, something which was confirmed in my final round when I was crushed by an Esper deck making great use of these advantages.
If I want to play control, I need to build and learn the best control deck. Innovation can come once I’ve become truly familiar with the strategy.
I made crucial mistakes
Over the course of the five rounds, I made three serious mistakes.
The first certainly cost me a match; the second a game, which meant that when I double-mulliganed in the second game I had no buffer to take us to a decider; the third cost me a chance to stay in a game in which I felt I was the underdog.
I won’t bore you with exhaustive detail, but to summarise: they were all failures of awareness. I did not think my plays through correctly; I missed tricks which I had already seen, scryed incorrectly and read opponents for the wrong spells when it would have cost me very little to play around the right ones.
I was rusty and out of shape
There’s a lot to be said for playing Magic Online, but when one doesn’t play in real life for long enough, one’s reflexes are dulled.
I missed Planeswalker activations. At times, I didn’t pay close enough attention to my opponent’s board. I lost track of a board state and misplayed as a result.
None of these are mistakes that I’m accustomed to making online. Some of that is a result of the program presenting triggers and suchlike so that I don’t have to remember them; some of it is an issue of habit and comfort, wherein I’m very used to the online environment now and find myself more able to think clearly.
I also made mistakes of pure slackness: I kept two hands that I should have mulliganed, for instance, although only one was punished. I believe that I allowed looseness to creep into my game simply because I was out of my comfort zone and didn’t have the rock-solid certainty that comes with lots of practice.
What am I getting right?
In the midst of harsh self-criticism, it’s important to try and isolate positives about one’s game too.
If we don’t do this, we risk tilting ourselves into a downward spiral of negativity and defeatism, wherein we start to believe that the gap between where we are and want to be is too big ever to be bridged.
It’s not – and it will be easier to build that bridge if we don’t flush away our good habits with the bad ones.
My ‘Theory’ is as good as it has ever been
The fact that I mis-selected my deck for this event notwithstanding, I understand how Magic works better than I ever have.
When I take time to reflect, I can come to better conclusions than I ever did before; I now need to find a way to achieve my most productive mindset in ‘live’ situations again.
I manage tilt better than ever
If I found myself on a losing streak in days gone by, I would usually be consumed by a dark and self-destructive rage. This time around, I didn’t; I kept my emotional balance on a pretty even keel until the end of the day, perhaps allowing exasperation to tinge my last match, if anything.
I take responsibility for my mistakes
Young Dave would all-too-often look for someone or something else to blame. Old Dave knows that there is no point worrying about luck; we make our own luck. When I play badly, the fault is attributable to me and me alone.
What the Doctor orders
I need to tackle these things head on if I’m to achieve my goals, which are:
A point to note
If it were easy to win events and make Top 8 at PTQs and the like, everyone would be doing it.
There are no guarantees that I will be successful.
But if I set a safe, mediocre set of goals for self-improvement I am contributing to my own problem – because I’m refusing to hold myself to a high standard.
My Magic fitness checklist:
I’m going to play in a live Magic event once per fortnight at least, but preferably weekly. Match sharpness comes from playing matches.
I’m going to build an established deck and play it consistently. I am not going to self-sabotage by playing brews; there is a place for brewing, but it is not smack-bang in the middle of my fitness regime.
This is the biggest challenge on the list, but it’s really important. I know my own preferences – I work best in teams, with other people who can talk things through with me, or bounce ideas around.
To really progress, I want to find a team who are better than me and are prepared to help get me back to my fighting weight; but at the same time, I recognise that better, sharper players owe me nothing and may have other priorities.
A huge part of success in human endeavours is belief.
When we believe a thing is possible, when we truly believe it, that certainty radiates out from the core of our bones, through our thought processes, through our demeanour and behaviour… and it sends a signal to ourselves and everyone around us that the thing is going to be a reality.
Going into this weekend, I was aware of the fact that I was relatively unprepared. That sent its own signals to me and my opponents; it allowed my subconscious to be more accepting of defeat, to subtly excuse itself for bad decisions, etc.
I need to eliminate that mindset, first by removing the excuses for unpreparedness (see steps 1 to 3), then by actively using mental techniques to build a positive, winning mindset. I’ve found in other parts of life that learning to deploy my most productive frames of mind is an extremely powerful tool in creating success… there’s no reason I shouldn’t bring that to Magic, too.
This isn’t so much a step as an overriding principle.
I love Magic. I play and write about Magic… and I want to play more Magic to be better at Magic.
However, I also have a family and a career. They are my priorities – and I’m sure many people reading this article will understand and empathise with that fact.
The principle I’m setting is that much as I love Magic, I won’t let it overshadow my relationship with my partner and son; I won’t let it distract me from progressing in my career; but neither will I use those things as an excuse for worse performances than I am capable of.
All these things are important to me. Step 5 is a commitment to give my best at all of them – and not to excuse defeat before I’ve even started.
Getting with the programme
I’ve got a plan; now I have to get on with the plan. I’ll write periodically to let you know how I’m progressing – and you have my commitment, I will not mince words.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear the thoughts and observations of the community on this issue.
- How do you prepare yourself to play at your best?
- What tips and tricks do you have for self-improvement?
- How do you build testing groups from which everyone involved can benefit?
Sound off in the comments.