10 Great Ways to Improve at Magic: the Gathering Immediately by Changing Your Outlook and Approach – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge
“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.” – Albert Einstein
I have often found that I make the most progress right after I have been struggling, not just in Magic: The Gathering but with life in general. These are the times in which it’s possible to be self-critical and to be aware of the mistakes which our success would otherwise blind us to.
I’ve written before about ways to improve one’s Magic game, but there has been call for something similar recently so I have endeavoured to address the topic again. This time I’m going to focus particularly on ways in which you can improve that don’t require a massive investment of time, instead relying mostly on a change in outlook and approach.
10. Stop becoming defensive in your discussions
It is often difficult to intellectually separate yourself from your own ideas, meaning that when people tell are critical of a thing you’ve said, or a play you’ve made, or the deck you’ve chosen, it is easy to interpret this as an attack on you, as a person. Naturally this leads to some conflict, or a series of excuses.
The problem with all this is that it is time consuming to work through a series of excuses or in some cases actual lies (people are very reluctant to admit that they are wrong), and bogs the discussion down. This is often added to by peripheral characters throwing their two cents in (because people feel massively compelled to have an opinion, on everything, all the time, and to have it heard), which drags the conversation out even further.
This sort of thing can result in a 25 minute conversation which is ostensibly about which land to fetch on Turn 2, but is, in practice, just a clash of personalities.
I expect that most people reading this will have been in a situation like this, from one perspective or another, at some point. These exchanges are childish, and I’m normally a little embarrassed by the end of them, even though I’m normally not the defensive party.
What it comes down to is the need to mentally separate your actions from your perception of yourself as a person. The game is difficult and it is important to be able to discuss when a person makes a mistake.
9. And discuss, don’t argue!
It’s really easy to get into massive arguments about Magic: The Gathering because we care about it, and because it is in many respects a problem solving exercise. Once we have done the groundwork to solve a particular problem, it is irritating to be forced to re-examine that work, and from there is it easy to become defensive – as discussed above – or simply to work from the position that we are correct, and that the other party is wrong, without doubt.
At this point the discussion becomes an argument, and the objectives of the encounter shift towards persuasion rather than furthering knowledge. This is pretty unfortunate, as there is the potential for growth in a discussion, while an argument is little more than an exercise in self-promotion.
In Baldur’s Gate 2 there is a random encounter on the streets of Trademeet in which two philosophers – one a ragged old beggar and the other a nobleman with a bodyguard – are arguing. Ultimately the nobleman sets the bodyguard on the beggar, and the party can either intercede, or not. This encounter is comic relief, and has no further impact on the development of the game in anyway.
The humour lies in how inappropriate it is to become violent over the subject matter. Similarly, those who have played Dungeons & Dragons understand how such encounters can tend towards violent resolutions.
When it comes down to it, getting really angry and shouting at each other about whether Rally or Mardu Green wins a matchup is just about as absurd as the example above. We should ask ourselves why we are becoming angry, and in all likelihood find that it is either because of something internal, in which case we should do our best to calm down and resolve the issue internally (or ask for help, if this is appropriate), or because of something external, but not directly related, e.g. that the person we are arguing with is annoying us. If the latter is the case, it becomes a question of whether it can be addressed effectively at that point in time, or if it would be best to wait.
Getting this stuff sorted out is instrumental to accomplishing things in Magic. It can sometimes feel ridiculous and childish, while other times it feels like a discussion with one’s partner about where the relationship is going. I think that’s ok as long as you’re making some sort of progress towards working as a group more effectively. Besides, it likely strengthens friendships over time anyway. The squeamishness I feel about these issues is likely a product of the way masculinity is constructed, rather than it just being petty. That’s the hope, anyway.
8. Don’t draw hard conclusions from soft data, that’s just lazy
Ideally, it would be possible to play a million games of each possible match up before and after side boarding before making conclusions about the match up, because this would be an excellent sample size. In reality, we will always be working with a much smaller number, and have to draw a conclusion more quickly. Even worse, we want to draw a conclusion as quickly as possible regardless of the amount of data available.
For instance, this week I have been looking at Esper Dragons and Grixis Control as possible choices for Standard going forward, and I played around four hours with each deck, getting in between 20-25 games each. Rob Catton has suggested Dark Jeskai to me, and I’d like to have also played a bit with that, and I actually still quite like the Mardu Green deck, especially now that they’re playing Sylvan Advocate over Soulfire Grandmaster.
I’m going to play tomorrow for a bit as well, and I’m skipping the weekend’s events so that I have sufficient time to work out what I want to be doing. Even with all that in mind and already having playing quite a bit, I won’t be able to fully test each deck this week, and will be working on a fairly impressionistic basis going into next week.
None of this justifies playing 4 games, going 3-1 in a fashion one might expect based on the sorts of decks involved, and then concluding that the match up is really good, or really bad. All this can really do is serve as a basis for further enquiry. For instance, I played 7 games with Esper Dragons against GR Ramp, and found them very comfortable (mostly because I cast Dragonlord Ojutai on Turn 5 a lot), and that’s in the plus column for choosing the deck to play on the weekend of the 12th and 13th, but I will certainly try to revisit the match up before then.
“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” – George Bernard Shaw
7. Don’t worry about who is better, let go of your ego and everyone will make progress faster
Magic: The Gathering is a game of skill, and the best player usually wins. At the same time, anyone can beat anyone – I’ve got a 100% record against Sam Black, and there are people who I think are woefully bad at Magic who are 100% against me.
If you look at Matt Light’s second and third PPTQ seasons in which he made the Top 8 at 20+ events but didn’t win one, or to a lesser extent my own third and fourth seasons, it is obvious that either we’re both quite bad (although our frequent Top 8s imply the opposite) or that we have routinely been beaten by people who aren’t as good as us.
Don’t worry about losing to people who you have heard are PPTQ ringers, or pros at Grand Prix. You’ll have less chance than you will against the guys you play against locally, sure, but it’s completely realistic to think you’ll win any given game of Magic: The Gathering against them, all other things being equal.
It’s important to play the sideboarded games. Every article of this nature will mention this, and you should manage your time playing such that it gets done, but if you don’t, you need to at least build your sideboard in a way that makes sense.
Think about what needs to come in, and how much you can take out. If you end up in a situation where you’re taking out cards you don’t really want to from the sideboard then perhaps you have too many cards for that match up. I tend to write a sideboarding guide for myself to make sure that it adds up, but change it depending on what I see. Utter End comes in more often than I plan for it to because people play weird cards in their decks, and having a catch-all is good in these spots.
6. Absolutely do not think about the game in absolutes
It’s a hindrance to think things like “always play this land first and the other land second” or “cast least versatile removal spell first” because things change. Perhaps it’s right to make lands in a particular sequence based on last year’s Standard, but now with difficult four colour mana bases you basically need to think it through every time, or you might well end up unable to cast your spells. Similarly, while it might be – all things being equal – correct to cast the worst removal spell first, it’s also normally the case that versatility and higher converted mana cost correlate, so you might find that you keep all the premium removal in your hand, and cast all the cheap stuff, only to find you need to cast two spells in one turn and can’t.
The game is complicated, and attempting to mentally shortcut in this way reinforces a mental rigidity which will help you make the right play more often than the wrong play, but will stifle your growth. It is important to be able to think about the complicated plays as without this you’re going to lose games you could otherwise win.
5. Attacking and blocking, sounds obvious, but it isn’t always
Loads of people think they’re good at this, but they’re not. Attacking and blocking well is one of the most difficult things in the game despite being one of the bread and butter components. There is a tendency to take this for granted because you’ve been doing it since you played your first games, and while it is understandable to think you must have mastered it by now, it is still probably not true.
Think thoroughly about your attacks and blocks. See if there is something better you could be doing. Go through all the lines. This will take time in games, but it is worth it.
If you’ve got the time to play a bit of Limited, especially something like Battlebox, then this will teach you loads about attacking and blocking if you approach it with that in mind.
4. Optimal sequencing, get the most out of your cards, do it right
Many people cast their spells in the wrong order. For instance, playing a land before casting Duress is normally incorrect, unless there is a particular reason to do so (perhaps to pay for Clash of Wills).
Jace, Vyrn’s Prodigy is another problem card for sequencing. With the loot ability, it will sometimes be correct to loot first to get the information about which spell to cast (if it’s not clear which spell would be best) while other times it will be right to loot after (if the spell you’re going to cast is the best one it could be in that situation anyway).
This is all further impacted by the fact that the lands are awkward, and you’ll often need an untapped land if they react in one way, but could do with getting a tapped land if they react differently.
It’s important to think about how they are likely to interact with you while you play, and get the best out of your cards. This sort of thing will add up over the course of a day.
3. Plan ahead and tap your lands correctly
This one is especially true in current Standard. Take a deck like Mardu Green, which requires RBW for Crackling Doom, GWB for Abzan Charm, double red for Goblin Dark-Dwellers and double black for Ob Nixilis Reignited, without even considering the frequent times when you will want two spells in one turn. Many of the lands also come into play tapped.
If you tap the wrong lands to cast your spells, this will jam up the rest of your plays, and you’ll end up needing to wait a turn when you didn’t otherwise have to or cast spells in your main phase. Don’t do this to yourself.
I keep my land in an orderly way so that I know what’s going on with them. For me it’s basics, duals + manlands, and tri-lands organised from left to right, but any system that allows you to tell what mana you have at a glance is fine. A random mash up is asking for problems.
2. Sideboarded games, playtest them!
This is a really common piece of advice, but here goes: Always make sure to play the sideboarded games!
This is actually quite difficult to do – especially if you change decks in the middle of a season, and it is a weakness in my own game. One thing I’m planning to do from next season onwards which might help with this is to make sure that I at least build the sideboards when I put the decks together at the start of the season. This way at least it is there, so it’s less of a bother to impliment it.
1. “Meh, it doesn’t matter…”, actually, it does matter.
I could see someone saying that about any of the points I’ve made in this article. They’re all pretty innocuous, and will only make a marginal amount of difference. Everyone makes mistakes, right?
Yes, that is correct. Everyone does make mistakes. This is an article about how to make less of them! The truth is that Magic: The Gathering is a game of inches, not miles, and I would be very surprised if you found an article out there which taught you how to be 20% better overnight if you’ve been playing for a while and understand the basics of what you’re doing.
If you find such an article, let me know, because I want to read it too.
Until then, look after the fractions, and the whole %’s will look after themselves.
Time for this week’s fable!
The Ghoul and the Idealistic Wizard
Once upon a time in the faraway land of Waspford, there was a ghoul called Danny. It’s an odd thing for a ghoul to live anywhere other than a graveyard or similar location, but the nature of Waspford was such that it drew in quite an eclectic population.
One of the primary activities of the misbegotten people of Waspford was Variance Chess. This game was favoured by the people because the game allowed for the best of both worlds; when you win, you can say it’s a skill game like chess, and when you lose you can say it was because of “variance”.
Danny the ghoul loved Variance Chess, and he was pretty good at it but not quite as good as he thought he was. Tiring of the low calibre of opponent in Waspford, Danny wanted to seek new places to play, and so he sought out the other townsfolk he knew who also travelled to events elsewhere, to learn from them and travel to other places.
First, he spoke to the troll, and he tried to help him a bit. But while Danny the Ghoul respected the troll, he didn’t really listen properly, and didn’t follow the advice, so the troll gave up.
Then he spoke to the gnome juggler, who was a pretty easy going guy and willing to help. Time passed, and Danny was too opinionated and at times thought he was better than the gnome anyway, so the gnome gave up.
Then he went to the angry mage with the top hat, who had watched the troll and the gnome try to teach Danny. The angry mage didn’t even let Danny finish asking before he assailed him with scorn and bluster.
Danny didn’t know what to do – how would he ever improve, and travel to other places to play Variance Chess if no one would teach him play better or teach him the mystical ways of #Nationalrailenquiries and #Googlemaps?
Then one day, Danny heard of another experienced Variance Chess player who lived on the other side of town called the Idealistic Wizard. The wizard, being more of a sucker than the angry mage, agreed to help Danny.
The wizard had a plan, though. He had watched Danny with the others, and realized the truth; Danny wasn’t capable of following instructions, and would always do the opposite of what he was asked!
So the wizard said, “Don’t move your pawn,” and of course, Danny moved his pawn.
“Ok, don’t move your knight,” said the wizard, and sure enough Danny moved his knight.
On and on it went like this until Danny had done a bunch of things which ought to have taught him a great deal about Variance Chess.
Pleased, the wizard asked, “Do you not see now, Danny, how you could be playing better?”
“No, I think that was just variance…” said Danny.
“Variance!?” said the wizard, enraged. “Fine. Sure, whatever. Don’t go outside, turn left, and keep walking for the rest of your life!”
So Danny walked and walked, and saw many places. From time to time he would see people playing Variance Chess, but because of his inherently stubborn nature, had to continue being contrary to what the wizard had said, and so never stopped walking again.
The moral of the story is: if you lose, blame it on variance.
That’s it for this week! I’m going to get the 3rd and final part of my Memoirs of a Grinder article series done for next week, the on to some articles about Magic jargon in the weeks to come.
Community Question: So did I miss anything out? What would your top tip be to someone who wants to improve at Magic: The Gathering quickly?
Please let me know below in the comments.
Thanks for reading,
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