Getting Good at Modern, Psychology Edition: 4 Things I Learned From Playing MTG More Competitively
I’ve played Magic in loads of different ways, and chances are you have too. You can play around the kitchen table with fun cards that you threw together five minutes ago, or play at an international tournament with a highly-optimised, top-tier deck.
You can play it intensely, critiquing every decision to the best of your ability, concentrating until your brain feels like a Primordial Ooze in a cement mixer. You can play it in the background while you chat about the political landscape or recipes for cheese scones, not really sure which opponent has the biggest threat but enjoying the company.
I’m starting to sound a little like I stepped out of a Dr Seuss novel, but you get my point. Magic is versatile – it offers you lots of different ways to engage with it, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so popular.
Casual, competitive, or somewhere in between
Many of us categorise ourselves, and others, by how we play Magic. The concepts of “casual and competitive” roughly translate to what we want from the game, reflecting the ways that Magic can be played. Those who consider themselves competitive will be more likely to put a lot of effort in to winning tournaments because they value the results. People who play casually will view tournament success as a lower priority, with the pure enjoyment of Magic being a more likely motivator.
Casual and competitive play both involve the desire to learn and understand the game, it’s the purpose of learning that takes a slightly different form. As someone who considers herself more of a casual than competitive player, my main motivations for playing MTG are to have fun learning the nuances of an extremely deep game (because I find this stuff fascinating) and to engage with other people who share this interest, because I tend to get on with those people. Those who consider themselves more competitive than me may share these traits, but may also be more inclined to learn in order to win.
That said, Magic doesn’t even require that you have a thirst for knowledge. You can unpack your cards when friends come over, play the same decks that you built years ago, and have a blast without knowing Amonkhet from Kaladesh. Keeping up with the meta or a draft format will require us to learn new things, but there’s no pressure to do this if you don’t feel the need.
I think everyone exists on a spectrum between casual and competitive. We can glide along this spectrum over time; some people will enter the game competitive and want to absorb as much information as possible in order to win, and remain this way for the whole time they play Magic. Others will play competitively for a long time and then shift to more casual play. Some will always play casually but enjoy the occasional Grand Prix, with the primary goal to have fun rather than win. Engaging with people who have very different goals for Magic is something that I personally love about the community, and the game.
Although I consider myself a casual Magic player, I’ve recently developed a more competitive streak and am rolling with it to see what happens. It’s an incredibly fun shift in mind-set, but I think I’ll always be happiest when laughing hysterically over improbable combos in kitchen table cube draft.
I think it’s interesting how we can take on casual and competitive approaches in different situations. Right now I’m trying to get good at Modern with the goal of placing as highly at tournaments as possible, just to see if I can. As this happened, I started to view booster draft with more enjoyment and less pressure, with a desire to learn about the set purely for the sake of interest. I tried my hardest to make the best plays possible, but was not too fussed if I don’t do well. Edit after coming back to this article after some time between writing and editing it: I signed up for a Limited GP and now I’m getting in as much practice as possible for that too with a desire to get good. Send help, coffee, and cat tokens.
So, there’s a multitude of ways to play Magic and we can adopt them for different situations depending on our goals. In the last few weeks I’ve shuffled further towards the “competitive” side of the scale than I ever have before, inspired by a desire to play my heart out at Grand Prix Birmingham.
In this series I have aimed to document my journey, as an average Magic player with a job, responsibilities, no exceptional talent for the game, and an annoying need for boring biological distractions like “sleep” and “food”. The transition to a more competitive mindset is an interesting aspect of the journey, and I hope my experiences can benefit others in a similar situation.
What have I learned from a desire to be more competitive?
1. Forming habits takes time
I’ve listened to Limited Resources for about a year and a half now, and it adds a lot to my day. I fire it up and stick on my headphones as I walk to work and get absorbed by the chat and ways to improve at Magic.
It seems easy now because I have formed the habit, but it wasn’t always this way. I’d misplace my headphones, forget to even put them on, or spend too long scraping the remnants of peanut butter out of the jar* and have to jog to work.
*Peanut butter is always worth it. No regrets.
A more recent challenge was finding time to read up on Modern. Reading at lunch in my office kitchen doesn’t work because people want to talk to me about topics other than what combos best with Isocron Scepter. I always envied my grandfather’s ability to read when walking and to arrive at his destination unscathed – I tend to crash into things (and apologise on reflex to the inanimate object in my collision path).
Now I try to spend at least one lunch break per week reading about Modern outside, and browse content over breakfast some days. This works for me, but it’s surprising how long it can take to form a habit like this.
2. It might boost your confidence
I’ve always felt terrible at talking about Magic. I have a dreadful memory for card names (although remembering effects is much easier), and I constantly worry about saying something silly. In conversation about Magic I often shy away, get anxious and worry that others will notice my lack of participation. Seems odd for someone who spends her free time writing about Magic for the critique of the internet, but the mind works in mysterious ways.
This lack of confidence has prevented me from actually learning more about Magic, if I tried, and then failed, I’d be convinced that I’m just bad at it. I’m pretty sure this is a common thought process, and far from solely applicable to the game.
If this resonates with you, you are not alone, and I hope you can find your own way to break through the confidence barrier with time. I’m always happy to talk these things through with similar-minded Magic players, so get in contact if you are also trying to defeat confidence woes.
For me, taking a leap of faith helped with the old headgame, so I’ll endorse it as a strategy, and I encourage you to find time to read or watch just a little more content and see if it improves your confidence when talking about the game.
Once I’d got into the habit of reading about the meta leading up to the Team Modern tournament at Manaleak earlier this summer, I found myself jumping in to conversation a lot more and surprised myself by doing so. It’s not that I knew everything, far from it – most of my friends were still more clued up on the format than me, but it was a reminder that I was on the right track to get better.
Tournament success also helps, of course. It was a pretty great feeling making my first ever top 4 after putting in more effort than ever. It may have been luck, it may have been my teammates (I’m pretty sure they both had better individual scores than me), but it still feels great to beat your goals after putting in more hours.
Magic is a game driven by the community. When members of the community feel better about themselves, more constructive things happen. At Hour of Devastation pre-release I helped somebody re-build his Sealed deck – a format that I had never felt knowledgeable enough to offer advice on before. Paying forward the confidence helps better things happen!
3. It can increase your appreciation for the silly side of Magic
When reading articles about how to play Elves to the best of my Elfin’ ability, I picked cards that I thought most likely to win games and no intention to include options that were off the beaten track. I couldn’t help but make mental notes (and Manaleak.com orders) for the cards that my heart wanted to play so, so much, but to which my head said no.
Then FNM happened. Heart 1: Head 0. GGWP.
I maindecked four copies of Throne of the God Pharaoh, alongside a Selfless Spirit (purely for in-jokes with my friend and Team Modern teammate Chris) and nobody could stop me. I saw the Thrones as a potential option from the MTG Salvation article on Modern Elves (which is a great resource, by the way, if you’re into the deck!)
I didn’t do any particularly clever deck tech – I took out some Elvish Visionarys and slammed in the Thrones. Definitely should have spent more time considering this if I wanted to win more games, but I have no regrets.
One of my friends who played the Team Modern event also had a desire to play something silly. He went further than me and built an entire new deck, and we had a Throne of The God Pharaoh mirror match (though sadly I never got to play mine).
Going deeper within Magic involves reading up on the format and variants of your deck. Mostly we pick up sensible, informative bites of advice that allow us to increase our competitive game. Occasionally we pick up beautiful, frivolous ideas that we just want to try for the fun of it. If these ideas end up being good, that’s even better – but that’s not really why we’re trying them.
This observation solidified my viewpoint that we all exist somewhere on a spectrum of casual and competitive, and how different formats, games and tournament structures can bring out different sides of us.
In short, the most brilliant and surprising thing I’ve observed through this journey: as a result of becoming more competitive, I embrace my casual side even more.
4. The Mantle Effect remains
A term coined (as far as I know) by The Girlfriend Bracket, and brought to my attention by Emma Handy, the Mantle Effect occurs when you belong to a minority demographic and feel that your performance will affect other people’s perceptions of that demographic.
For me, that demographic is being a woman who plays Magic. There aren’t many of us, and we often stand out. When I do badly in a tournament, I worry that people will notice my gender, that this will affirm any assumption they might have that women are bad at Magic, and that I have let down other female Magic players.
Even though my experience tells me that the vast majority of Magic players are excellent people and give me no reason to believe that they doubt my performance based on my gender, the occasional negative interaction has been enough to show me that some people still assume that gender influences your ability to know your Cryptic Command from your Crypt Rats.
My reaction when I do well in a tournament reminds me that this effect may not go away with success. When the results are in my favour, I feel proud for representing women in a good light. This is not particularly helpful – it reinforces my own assumption that people will judge my performance in light of my gender.
Although happiness prevails upon tournament success, I am reminded that were the cards not in my favour, I would be feeling that familiar guilt and shame. It reminds me that I view myself as a representative, something that, simultaneously, I feel proud of but do not want.
Women won’t feel the Mantle Effect if we don’t view ourselves as representatives. The solution, I think, is increased female participation. In a store where 25% of players are female, rather than 5%, there will be a lot less pressure.
Conclusion – A Natural Balance
Although my increased focus on the competitive side of Magic has been a short journey so far, I’ve learned some interesting things about our approach to the game. If you’ve had similar experiences, or ones very different from mine, I’d love to hear about them.
Until next time, have fun fine-tuning your Thoughtsieze timing, building a Squirrel tribal casual deck, or whatever makes you happy!
Thanks for reading,