Getting Good at Modern: Learning and Winning, by Katie Roberts

Getting Good at Modern: Learning and Winning, by Katie Roberts
Image credit: Chen Wei,

Tales from Llanowar: An Amateur’s Thoughts on Learning and Winning

Going Green

Last time in this series I wrote about what to consider when choosing a Modern deck. At the time, I thought the personal journey to find my perfect deck would involve millions of scribbled-out proxy cards, pained deliberation, and making lists of the relative advantages of Red Deck Wins vs Free Win Red.

The reality was a little different. A friend kindly lent me Elves to take to FNM. I cast Heritage Druid with a Nettle Sentinel on board and made a ton of mana. My pupils dilated. A beam of light shone down on the ridiculous, green, battlefield. Celine Dion started playing in my head. I completely fell for this hilarious deck and set my sights on building it, making the process of choosing a deck less elongated courtship, more spontaneous Vegas wedding.

Fortunately, there is a good amount of rationale behind my mono-green infatuation that makes the choice a sensible one. The deck seems well-positioned in the meta, being strong against decks that can’t keep up with the swarm of creatures. Elves is powerful and explosive, conforming to the playstyle that I have come to prefer. It gives the player a lot of learning opportunities and demands a lot of quick maths – a skill that I am keen to learn. It is relatively inexpensive for Modern, with the notable exception of Cavern of Souls.

Due to the healthy position of Elves right now, there are a lot of excellent resources describing the ins and outs of the deck in detail. I found the articles on Channel Fireball, MTG Salvation and SCG extremely helpful when learning about the deck. I would highly encourage you to read these articles if you want to join me on the 13:01 Express to Llanowar.

Judging from the observation that Elves occupies 3% of the meta right now, the vast majority of my readership will be interested in less pointy-eared decks. The purpose of this article is not to be a primer for Elves. Instead it aims to provide an overview of what to think about when learning a new deck, using Elves as an example.

Getting better under time pressure

So we’ve built a new deck. How do we get the most from it? It occurs to me that there are two main ways to “get the most from” a deck:

  1. Maximising our chance to learn – by identifying what the deck demands of you and knowing the skills you need to refine to play it to the best effect.
  2. Maximising our chance to win – by understanding specific interactions, matchups, and how to get the most value from each card.

I think it is useful to think of these as separate concepts; they represent different but equally valid goals when playing Magic. We may put more focus on one skill set than the other for a week, a month or longer. They are linked, of course – learning the necessary skills will make us better at piloting the deck and lead to a higher win rate.

Developing these skills takes time, effort, and the will to change our approach to the game. In a perfect learning environment, we’d all test Magic ten hours a day and take as many lessons from each game as possible. Sadly, most of us have other commitments, and even during our Magic time, studying every game as if revising for an exam is exhausting.

If we have a busy schedule or a tendency to collect hobbies like a jet-propelled magpie collects foil – but a desire to get better at Magic: the Gathering – how do we maximise our learning potential and win rate with the time available to us? A great way to do this is to be systematic. We can think about each factor that will influence your ability to learn and to win, and try to optimise them.

So, how can we do this?

Maximising our chance to learn

What is our deck teaching us?

The charm of Magic: the Gathering is its diversity. We can play an aggressive deck – one that demands we resist the temptation to hold back our cards. We can play a controlling deck, learning the value of assigning your counterspells to specific cards that your opponent has not played yet. We can play decks that require perfect sequencing, a good read on our opponent, the list goes on. Each deck that we play teaches us a lesson to add to our repertoire of Magic skills.

It’s easy to skip this step, but taking a minute to think about what our deck is teaching us can provide some excellent teaching goals.

A great Modern Elves player will be adept at quick calculations, often without letting their opponent know that there’s some serious number crunching going on behind their eyes as they add up a lethal attack. I don’t consider myself good at quick maths or maintaining a poker face, but want to improve.

When I play Elves, I try to keep these skills in mind and try to perform as many hidden calculations as possible, even when they are not strictly necessary (often by counting on my fingers under the table – it works, but probably isn’t a habit I should rely on too much). I try to avoid reflecting my thought process in my face, which has gotten easier over time. Sometimes I forget, but I try to make it a habit.

It’s incredibly satisfying to give yourself clear goals, and to see them pay off when you focus on them. The skills that we focus on will be transferable across decks, formats, and time – making your testing about far more than maximising your win rate for a tournament. As we learn the ins and outs of a deck we may realise less obvious skills that we need to refine. Getting the most value requires an open-minded approach, keeping our learning process focused yet flexible. We might find new things we never realised could be improved.

Testing with the right people

Another major part of maximising learning potential is testing in the best environment. For me, this is provided by testing with people who can give me constructive advice on my plays. Helpfully, I was introduced to Elves by a friend who has since given me a lot of excellent first-hand advice.

I suffer from a lack of technical self-confidence in Magic, which makes me reluctant to offer advice to friends when we test, for fear of being incorrect. There’s no reason for me to think I’m in some way less worthy than those around me, and I could offer technical advice with a little more confidence. Realising how much I benefit from other people’s guidance has motivated me to be bolder in my assertions in the hope to help friends improve as much as they help me, but I am not in the habit of doing this. It would be interesting to know how prevalent this feeling is among Magic players; if common, we may be able to help each other improve a lot more.

My ideal learning environment may be different to yours. Maybe you learn best by playing Magic Online, talking yourself through plays and setting stops to remind you to play Vendillion Clique in your opponent’s draw step. Whatever helps you learn the best, it could be helpful to identify it and go with it as much as possible.

Finding the best information

I couldn’t work out whether this one should fit into the “learning” or “winning” section of this article; there’s a good argument for both. If you want to learn, know where to find great information about your deck and absorb it.

The most obvious sources of information are deck primers. I have already touched on the importance of primers, but an article about “how to understand your deck” would be incomplete without it. If your deck has been doing well in tournaments recently, there’s a good chance that somebody will have written about it. Watching streamers can also be a great way to learn, especially if the player explains their decisions and can reply to questions in real time.

Your best way to learn may depend on whether you prefer to read articles on your way to work, whether you sit down and interact with a streamer playing your deck, or something else entirely. Finding what works for you is a challenge; I have not figured this out for myself yet.

Understand the limitations of our deck

I’m a big fan of the “we’re only testing, let’s see if this works” mentality. Pushing the boundaries of your opening hands can be a great learning tool. Thanks to a series of terrible mulligan decisions with Elves, I can strongly assert that an opening hand without a creature that generates mana is awful.

Time spent making mistakes is a worthwhile investment. It allows us to understand how the deck works, even if we have read the theory from primers. And hey, then we lost the game and can move on to the next one, meaning more time for making even more mistakes!

Maybe my perspective will shift in a more nuanced way as I continue testing and find situations in which we shouldn’t take big risks with opening hands, but I use testing to understand how greedy I can be with my choices. For now, I’ll keep casting “this is terrible but let’s try it” effects.

Maximising our chance to win

Know our matchups

Modern is highly matchup-dependent, a common criticism of the format at large. Knowing where we are favoured/disfavoured can help us understand why we won/lost a game, possibly helping with the ol’ tournament psychology depending on our perspective. Understanding why a matchup is good/bad helps us decide on a playstyle that maximises the advantage over an opponent or minimise the advantage that an opponent has above us.

Elves can have an advantage against Death’s Shadow decks that have recently emerged in the Modern metagame, and gains this advantage by going wide with creatures. Being informed of this after reading the Deck of the Day on Channel Fireball, I am likely happily spam the board with as many elves as possible, knowing that my opponent may not keep up with creatures and removal.

Being uninteractive, Elves can completely fold to combo decks. I played against Storm at an FNM a while back, and set up for turn four and five kills in the games that we played. My opponent was forced to attempt to kill me before I could get there, and achieved it in both games while my Elves stood around awkwardly kicking their heels.

I’ve never considered matchups in depth before, and I think devoting a little more time to this could be a quick win. Maybe the best way to do this is to keep a mental track of games, maybe it is to absorb a lot of information from deck primers.

Know our “outs”

You know what’s a great tool for understanding the role of each card in your deck? Chord of Calling. When I first picked up Elves, casting a Chord would usually be followed by a “searching for, uh, I dunno, um… *flicks through deck* Shaman of the Pack?” Having played it for a while, I’m much more likely to boldly announce “Chord of Calling, X equals 1″ searching for a Nettle Sentinel* before I start looking through my deck for the card.

*Edit: There is no need to tell your opponent what you are fetching when you cast Chord, saying “Chord, X=1” is fine

Chord and other tutor effects allow you to draw a specific card from your deck, which is, of course, extremely powerful. They let you play single, “silver bullet” cards that will be your saving grace in specific situations.

The first thing that Chord of Calling taught me was the value of knowing your “outs”, the specific cards that you need to draw to win the game if you are ahead or stabilise if you are behind. Choosing the correct card with Chord is pivotal to playing the deck correctly; to maximise its value you need to know the situational strengths of each card.

Most Modern decks do not play Chord of Calling or other tutor effects, and do not allow you to draw a specific card from your deck. But it got me thinking about the value of understanding every single card in the 75. No matter what deck we are playing, a useful thought experiment can be to look at each card in our deck and think “in which situations do I need this?”

These situations may start at the generic, i.e. “I need my Nettle Sentinel to combo with my Heritage Druid as a mana-generating engine”, but move to the specific as we gather specific interactions from games, such as “If my opponent casts a Electrolyze on my Dwynen’s Elite, I need to cast Chord of Calling for an Elvish Archdruid to prevent the Elite from dying”.

This thought process may be more suitable to combo decks than any other type; the role of each card is more obvious because it exists to interact with another card in your deck, rather than a card that may or may not be in your opponent’s deck. This thought process has helped me to understand Elves, at least, so it may help you too.

We need to be flexible, we don’t have enough grey matter to understand every possible interaction. Helpfully, I find that a specific interaction committed to memory can be called upon to help us make a similar line of play, and want to focus on this more.


Some situations call for obvious cards to come in from your sideboard, I will always bring in my Fracturing Gust against Affinity. Some situations are less obvious.

At a recent FNM I played against Tooth and Nail for the first time, and I didn’t know the deck well. My opponent cast two copies of a Utopia Sprawl and an Oath of Nissa in the first game, leading me to think that the deck relied heavily on enchantments. I windmill slammed Fracturing Gust x 2 out of my sideboard and into my deck. At some point in the game, my opponent had a couple of enchantments out and I fired off my sideboard card. This gave me the edge – I managed to mess up his mana enough to develop a board and win the game.

I spoke to my boyfriend later that night; he was surprised about my sideboard decision and thought it was an unusual decision knowing the deck, but correct given my knowledge. Had I understood Tooth and Nail better, I probably would not have brought in this card either, but the card still won me the game. Maybe it was a stroke of luck, maybe my naivety led me to discover a good sideboard decision that I would not have made had I done more research.

In contrast, I remember entering my first tournament after playing Magic for a month. I went in with a little list telling me what to sideboard in/out for each likely matchup. I would bring in cards according to the namesake of the deck that I was playing against (if I could identify it), with no flexibility.

A better way to sideboard is somewhere between these two extremes. Having a pre-conceived plan is helpful, but the ability to react to the actual cards that we see in our opponent’s deck is important. My plan for levelling up in Modern: do the research, understand as much as possible, but understand that I may never draw the cards that I correctly chose to sideboard in, and a card that could be classed as a bad decision in hindsight may win me the game.

Have a plan

This article is not a comprehensive account of my testing strategy; it instead serves as a plan. These are the things that I can envision being helpful as we try to get better at the game, and these might change. The act of writing this article has been so helpful for understanding my approach to the game; I would recommend that you write your own plan of attack if you think it would help – it really gets the thoughts lined up.

Until next time, happy and productive testing!

Katie Roberts

Getting Good at Modern: Learning and Winning, by Katie Roberts
This article is not a comprehensive account of my testing strategy; it instead serves as a plan. These are the things that I can envision being helpful as we try to get better at the game, and these might change.

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