How good are you at Magic? A decent player? The best amongst your friends? Perhaps you are the one who gets to top 8s at the PTQ. Or are you the guy who perpetually struggles with a X-3 record? Perhaps you are a very new player, and week after week you get beat up by all the other players at your FMN.
Wherever you are on this scale, you must know that there is always room for improvement. There is always room for the next level up.
Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of RPG’s know how you level up, right? You go for the XP, the old experience points. In a real life situation you won’t be able to battle an ancient Necromancer and then reap all the glorious XP when he is despatched. Nope. But in Magic you can level up by putting in the work. Simply put, the more you play the better understanding you will have of this game.
Most of us start right at the bottom, the lowest of the low. We turn up to FNM with our kitchen table mill brew and get trounced. It’s a defeat but you still gain valuable experience. If you are lucky a better player will talk you through some of the decisions you made during deck building and point out where you might have made mistakes.
I think one of my first levels ups was when I understood the tactic of consistency. I had been acquiring better cards through trading in my first few weeks at FNM but I had been grabbing ones or twos at the most and jamming them in my deck. People who might have been introduced to magic through Duels of the Planeswalkers are very susceptible to this, sometimes running more than 60 cards.
Another one of the earliest lessons you should learn is about your life. If you have already learnt this it should be the thing you pass on the most regularly to new players at FNM (perhaps after you beat them?) Life totals are not a score! The only point of life that matters is the 1 that kills you. Until that point you’re still in the game.
Perhaps now is a good time to add the adage about making your opponent beat you. You will win more games if you play them out than if you quit, I guarantee it! In poker they call it ‘a chip and a chair’; if you have those you’re still in with a chance of winning. Well the same goes for Magic. You have to be still in the game.
I can’t remember who gave me the advice but someone told me about the ‘Rule of 9’. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s this: pick 9 cards for your deck, run 4 of each and add lands. It seems obvious but a lot of new players just want to run all their bombs in ones and twos. More than once I’ve been blown out in game 1 by a newish player who played his bomb and then, because he’s only running a one of, they never see it in games 2 and 3. To all the seasoned players out there, shaking their heads whilst reading this, sure there are cards that you only want to run in singles but you know that because you have levelled up beyond the ‘Rule of 9’.
Another lesson is wins doesn’t always mean you are gaining XP. Some of the best learning experiences you will have will be from your losses. This goes hand in hand with another route to levelling up: play against the best players you can find. The value in watching better players beat you can work wonders for your XP. I repeatedly play as much as I can against good players, players who I consider to be better than me, and bug them about decisions they made when they were building their decks. Get in some extra games, talk about lines you took or misplays you might have made. Then one day you will beat them. At first you might only get to take a match off them but it will get easier.
I want to be better at this game so I treat it like I would any other subject. I study. I watch pros streaming and I read about their card evaluations whenever a set comes out. I try to figure out the cards and what I think about them and then, as is the way of a Magic addict, I will talk endlessly about the merits or drawbacks of that card.
I’m not saying everyone has to cram for their finals for days before their FNM , I’m just pointing out that understanding the game will improve your play. I was considered quite bright a school and so I slacked off and never studied. Exams were stressful because I had goofed off all year and I had to wing it. Once I realised what I had to do to change that I studied very hard and revised, revised, revised. I remember one exam where one of the questions they asked was exactly the same as one of my revision questions, word for word. Revision made me feel like I had a superpower. Ask me any question and I knew it. I was like Dr Manhattan. It’s a rather convoluted way of trying say that this stuff works. Play, learn, repeat. Eventually it will stick.
There are those players who are naturally talented. You’ve probably played against a few. You might even be one. It might be tempting to say that these players are just going to get an easy ride because there is something about the game that they see a lot clearer than the rest of us, but perhaps it’s just that they can assimilate the information faster. They are hitting the same points we are, they are probably just picking it up quicker.
When the uncommon Slivers in M15 were spoiled I was discussing it with my son, as he had played an FNM competitive Slivers deck back when M14 was only few weeks old. He said
“I could play a three colour deck splashing for the Black Sliver and the Blue Sliver.”
“A five colour deck then?” I replied.
“You don’t really get this game do you Dad?”
Now I’m sure there are people who don’t get that joke. I didn’t. He had reached a level beyond where I was. He understood that the off colour Slivers were ‘free’ if he built his deck right with creatures that tap for any colour and the Sliver Hive in there as well.
Levelling up isn’t the exclusive territory of the Spike player, the tournament goers and that crowd. No, leveling up applies to all of us. It’s part of the enjoyment we get from playing games. We want to do well in them. Nobody wants to spend their Friday losing all their matches, and improving in anything is fun and rewarding. And it’s not like there is an end point. There is no final form, an ultimate goal where we reach the zen mastery of Magic. There is always something new to be garnered from this game.
Even the pro’s don’t know it all. Sometimes a set is spoiled and I read all their card evaluations, but come Friday night I’m a little short of playable cards in my sealed pool so I have to run with one that every pro trashed. I’m quietly ashamed of this card being in my deck, and hoping nobody will notice. Except that by the end of the game, this card has done some real work for me. Maybe the card they were comparing it to was no good, but this new version in my deck is a keeper, for now at least. And there it is: I’ve levelled up.