Top 10 Ways to Become a Better Magic: The Gathering Player
“If a man bets you £20 he can make a monkey jump out of a pack of cards and piss in your ear, never take the bet… unless you want an ear full of piss.” – Douglas Murray McIntyre.
(A lot of anecdotes coming up, but I do actually speak about Magic: The Gathering after a bit. Hopefully the first bit helps me make my point, or is at least entertaining!)
When I was about 10 years old, my father said to me that he had only been envious once in his life. He was driving down the road when he saw a gang of bikers (think Easy Rider, not Sons of Anarchy), and he was envious of their freedom, his own life having been largely dictated by his father. He made the point that envy requires you to want to take what another has; it’s an act of aggression.
I don’t really think I had felt that way before that point, but future situations were certainly marked by it. It’s an ugly thing to want what someone else has to their disadvantage, but it’s fair enough to want to have that thing as well.
While I’m not sure about his definition (that’s certainly not how it is commonly used), the principle has always stuck with me. I’m a difficult person to impress, but three occasions stick out in my mind. The first was meeting my friend and mentor Aquel at our World of Warcraft guild meet in London 4 years ago.
We were sitting in a Japanese place waiting for a few of the remaining guys to turn up, when I looked round and saw this 6 foot 5 juggernaut of flesh and muscle stagger through the door. I’m not a little guy, but Aquel’s arms were bigger than my thighs. Definitely not what I was expecting from the High Warlord of the Horde (earning that title required some absolutely insane amount of time investment over a 3 month period – I was expecting an skinny, pale guy, with bags under his eyes…).
The second was the first time I really spoke to Stuart Shinkins at Pro Tour LA. He was just chatting about his life, which included learning a couple of languages, living in 3-4 different countries, a near death experience, a very impressive Magic career, working as a chef and a Ti Chi instructor without ever going to university and without coming from a background of privilege. He was 24, and I was 21. I had a higher in English, and a part time job in a card shop.
The third was during a lecture in second year when Harvie Ferguson. He was lecturing on a Sociology course but had gone off at a tangent, as he often did, about philosophy. It occurred to me that he could just as easily have been doing one of my first year philosophy lectures. His mind was as powerful as Aquel’s body.
In each case I thought “I’d like to be like that”. The thing is though, that each of these people invested massive amounts into having what they have. Aquel trains extensively and is conscious of what he eats to a far greater extent than I am. Stuart opted out of a conventional life – I suppose that’s a similar thing to my father and those bikers. Professor Ferguson put his whole life into the appropriation of knowledge, and genuinely loves to learn, read and research.
Am I willing to make the investment required to have what they have? I’ve probably missed the boat on becoming a nomad like Shinkins, but I would like to learn to cook and pick up a language… no real moves made on that though. I bought a weight bench, and have been talking to a bunch of people about what I might do regarding my fitness, so while I’m unlikely to ever look like Aquel (I’m 5 foot 4, he actually needed to bend down a bit to hear me, with the language barrier and all!), I could be in shape realistically. That lecture was the beginning of my desire to become an academic, which is obviously still a work in progress, but it’s relatively on course…. so maybe.
So, do you “Want to be better at Magic” or do you “Want to get better at Magic”? Just like I’m never going to accomplish what those three did without loads of work, you’re not going to suddenly become really good at cards because “That would be nice”. It’s as active a process as leaving your home to travel the world, or bench pressing 320lbs, or reading 5% of all books ever written (or whatever epic feet Professor Ferguson preformed). It’s not a thing that happens, it’s a thing you do.
Here are some things you can do (or read and think “Oh yeah, not bad” then forget about if you’re not that fussed…) which will help you improve.
1. Stop asking for opinions simply to confirm what you already think
When you ask someone “What do you think of this deck in Modern?” or “Here’s my sealed pool, what do you think?” you should be doing so on the basis that they might say something which conflicts with what you already think, and that you can gain from, as well as potentially confirming what you think. Be prepared to change what you think in light of new evidence – as Chapin says in Next Level Magic (and other people say, because it’s a phrase, but whatever…) “Nothing is sacred”.
2. Listen to people when they speak
Don’t just wait for your turn to say speak. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, partly because people don’t listen even when something is written down for them, but also because it’s really important. How are you going to learn if you don’t absorb information? If you don’t listen to the other side of the argument, you won’t get one of the most valuable learning experiences there is; the opportunity to be wrong.
3. Accept that some people are better than you at a given time, or even a specific format
Not all opinions are equal. If someone is better informed than you, then you should take on the role of a student, not a teacher. I’ve never really understood why it is that people are so reluctant to do this in Magic. If you played golf, and Tiger Woods said to you “You’re holding the club the wrong way round, buddy!”,you’d almost certainly just accept it, thank him, and hold it the right way up. Cooking, playing an instrument, welding, driving, languages… with almost anything, in fact, most people wouldn’t find it a problem to receive instruction.
You might argue that Magic is different because it’s partially creative, but you could argue the same about life drawing or playing the violin; good luck working that out on your own!
4. Stop schooling people, big fish!
Teaching people for their benefit is a good thing, that’s totally fine. What I mean here is rubbing people’s nose in their mistakes to make you feel better about your own ability. This is just damaging to both sides. I’ve often seen this done in a way where I’ve thought the person doing it was mimicking the way they were taught without even realizing it, thus perpetuating a cycle of shaming and admonishment. On the flip side, it’s unhelpful to establish your own progress relative to others because other people’s development is not directly related to your own.
5. Support the people around you
Other people’s development is indirectly related to your own though, because their input is more likely to be useful to you if they’re better. They’ll draft better decks, won’t play bad constructed cards and will offer better insights if they get better. This is a pretty good incentive if you weren’t sold on it just being a decent thing to do.
6. Stop arguing corner cases for the sake of it
It’s helpful for discussion to generalise at times, even if this means what we say is technically less accurate. If someone says “[card]Lightning Bolt[/card] is better than [card]Shock[/card]” there is basically no value in saying “What if they have [card]Runed Halo[/card] naming [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]?”. A real life example a bit like this I remember was someone saying “I don’t know why everyone is making such a fuss out of [card]Tarmagoyf[/card] when [card]Force Spike[/card] is in!”. Genius.
7. Avoid Hyperbole
One of the reasons I think people argue corner cases so pedantically is because they get frustrated by more confident (arrogant) players who tend towards hyperbole. Honestly, if both parties could just say what they meant, and not argue disingenuous points, Magic discussions would be so much more fruitful, instead of the lame ego-fest that they often are.
8. Stop getting defensive and making excuses
People take criticism in Magic: The Gathering really badly and often get really defensive, so they start stalling and misdirecting the flow of the conversation, as well as becoming irascible. They also make excuses like “Well I never had time to read about this because I had to pick up the kids from school” or “Works been really demanding”. As a combination this becomes pretty distasteful and is expressed more like “F**k you, must be nice not having a kid and a job!” as if they’re some sort of ailment.
The thing is, you’re not going to get a special invite to the Pro Tour because you’ve got a toddler and a 9-5… it’s also going to impact on your chances of having herculean body, a razor sharp mind at 70+ and your chances of travelling the world, cooking and teaching Ti Chi. Them’s the breaks.
9. Don’t argue, discuss
Do your best to be dispassionate. This is difficult to do when something is important to you, but it’s for the best. If you find yourself getting angry, stop and think why you’re becoming angry, and why this is the case. Normally it won’t be justified, because there just aren’t that many times when it’s reasonable to become angry over something someone is saying about the best deck in Standard, for instance. This being the case it will also generally be better to chill out. If it turns out that they’re doing or saying something extraneous to the subject matter which is bothering you, it’s worth addressing this later when neither party is annoyed.
10. Think about your time and prioritise the things that you care about
When I stopped playing Warcraft it was because I had come to the conclusion that I could only do two out of three of university, Magic and WoW well, and I cared about WoW least. Perhaps you think your life is more complicated than mine (maybe because you had a toddler and a 9-5…), and maybe it is. In fact, it probably is. You can still make a spreadsheet, break things down into time slots, and see if you can make some sacrifices to prioritise Magic: The Gathering, though.
If it turns out you can’t realistically do that, then maybe you need to look at how you spend your time in Magic. If you can only play 12 hours a week, but you spend 4 of them playing EDH, and 8 on the PPTQ format, then perhaps you need to think about what you want out of the game. If you’re becoming frustrated with how you do at PPTQs, then maybe EDH gets cut. Or maybe you’re not willing to cut EDH because you really enjoy it, in which case maybe you’re probably not going to progress much with PPTQs (given all of the above), so perhaps you could just stop playing the PPTQs? The point is to always have a realistic plan for getting the things you want.
One final consideration is that improving at Magic is a long road. The game is really complicated and demanding, and you probably won’t get any sort of tangible reward for pushing harder in the short term. In fact, you’ll be lucky to see an observable intangible in the short term. Often the times you learn most are the times when you think you’re playing poorly, as these are the times when you’re actually noticing mistakes; the rest of the time you simply don’t notice how badly you’re playing. Be patient, work hard and you’ll see results in time, though.
Did I leave anything out? What are your top tips to new Magic players who want to improve? Please let me know in the comments below!
That’s it for this week. Sorry if the anecdotes at the beginning seemed indulgent, the idea was that they would drive home the point about actively pursuing goals.
If you are a new player then you may find the following Magic: The Gathering groups very helpful. I would strongly recommend joining both and taking part.
If you are looking to improve your Magic: The Gathering tournament games then you should read my other article “Top 5 Things New Magic: The Gathering Players Need To Think About At MTG Tournaments”
You may find these relevant YouTube videos helpful.
6 Ways To Become A Better Magic Player
The Complete Casual, A Guide To Better and More Enjoyable Casual Magic: The Gathering Play
All the best,
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