You Are Not Entitled to Win, so Here’s How You Can Become a Better Magic Player, by John O’leary

You Are Not Entitled to Win, so Here's How You Can Become a Better Magic Player, by John O'leary

You Are Not Entitled to Win, so Here’s How You Can Become a Better Magic Player

I play Magic: the Gathering to compete. It scratches a competitive itch, and I love to win.

The biggest question I had when I first decided to try and be a competitive Magic player was ‘how do I get better?’

I looked everywhere for an answer to this, and while I found a huge body of information about the mechanics, specific formats, metagames and even individual cards I didn’t find what I was looking for: a process.

My goal with this article is to articulate a big-picture process by which you can consistently improve at Magic. I’ll be drawing on my own experience both within the game, as a Spike, but also from outside the game. I spent just over two years of my life as a professional athlete with aspirations of competing at the Olympics, and now work as a coach/personal trainer working alongside athletes and members of the general public.

The pursuit of improved performance has been an intrinsic part of my life for almost a decade and I hope I have valuable advice to offer you.

In my experience, the single most important factor that affects performance, in basically anything, is not simply more practice. It is deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is a concept that some Magic players may be familiar with, but I will run over it here.

The brief definition is this:

“A consistent practice with a clear and focused goal, immediate feedback/coaching paired with motivation and consistency.”

The idea comes from a professor of psychology called K. Anders Eriksson, who almost single-handedly created the academic study of performance. His book on the subject ‘Peak‘ is definitely recommended reading.

(Link to his seminal study: ‘The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance‘)

The fundamental idea is that people who are experts at something are not intrinsically different or more talented than someone that has been doing the same thing for the same amount of time. Instead, it is about the quality of their practice, not just the quantity of time spent practising.  

If you can consistently approach the game with a mindset focused on deliberate practice, you will find that you are able to win more often and take more actionable information from your play.

Now, all of this sounds great; but how can you turn this esoteric concept into something applicable to your regular experience of playing Magic?


1. Focused goals

‘I want to be better at Magic’.

This statement is incredibly open-ended and because of that, mostly useless.

Do you want to be better at deck construction, card evaluation, draft signaling, speed of play, combat maths, deck choice, forward planning or mulligan decisions? This list can go on for a long time.

Magic has huge depth and trying to simply be better at the whole thing all at once is functionally impossible.

This is a trap that I fell into when I first started trying to improve as a player, and something I am still mindful to try and avoid. Instead of a general approach I would encourage people to identify some aspects of their game and focus on those for a while.

An example of a better way to talk about improving at Magic is something like this:

‘I want to be better at Magic, by improving my mulligan decisions, card evaluation and deck choice.’

This second statement provides direction and a clear, focused goal. It is much more actionable and more likely to create a better outcome.

Once you have identified the aspects of your game that you want to improve, how do you measure your improvement? The answer to that is the second aspect of deliberate practice: immediate feedback.


2. Immediate Feedback

This aspect of deliberate practice is about being able to get consistent and immediate feedback on your performance.

With Magic this can be a challenge, any given match of Magic has a huge, branching decision tree. Sometimes you can make bad choices that still lead to victory or good decisions that lead to losses.

The easiest way to try and achieve immediate feedback within a match of Magic is by taking notes and asking questions, both of yourself and your opponents. You won’t always have someone there to spectate your games and give you advice or coaching; because of this, it is important to be able to internalise this process to some extent.

The fundamental question that you always want to be asking is;

“Will this decision lead to a higher overall win percentage?”

Write down impactful decision points as they happen. If you’re playing casually, take pictures and screenshot difficult mulligan decisions or board states. Ask your opponents about their thought process, or if you’re in a testing environment, play through different scenarios and decision trees.

Be honest in your self-reflection and ask yourself all the time whether your decisions have led to the highest possible win percentage. If you can create a feedback system that provides useful information, then you will find it easier to identify the weaknesses in your game and shore them up.

Being able to generate tangible feedback is hard but doable. For example, I struggled for a very long time with combat maths in complicated board states.

It took me a long time to improve this, but the way I identified this as a problem was discussing those board positions with my opponents. I took pictures when it was appropriate and reassessed them at a later date. Using this, I found out I had misevaluated my options and then took the time to improve this singular aspect of my game.

I improved because of my ability to generate feedback on a specific aspect of my play and I know that my win percentage is higher because of this.

Create a system of immediate feedback and be honest with your evaluations. If you can succeed in doing this you will improve your win percentage. But why would you want to spend all of this effort on a game?


3. Motivation & Consistency

Everyone has different motivations and drivers for trying to improve. It can be focused on a specific event like a Grand Prix or a long-term goal such as going to the Pro Tour, or attending your first RPTQ. For some it will simply be the intellectual achievement of succeeding in such a complex game.

Whatever motivates you to improve, try to understand it. If you can understand your motivations and reflect on them honestly, you will find it much easier to remain consistent in your efforts to improve.  

Consistency is the most important part of all of this. Without consistently applied effort, you will not improve regardless of the quality of that effort.

Many of the best Magic players in the world have been playing for well over a decade, Reid Duke famously learnt to read at a young age so he could understand what his cards did. 

One of the most common things that I hear is that it is often difficult to make the time to improve as player. However if you can apply the principles of deliberate practice you will find that you are able to extract much more from a typical play session of Magic than if you hadn’t be applying these principles. Ensure that you are able to get as much as possible from the time you spend on Magic.

It is not just a matter of time spent, it is a matter of how much quality time you have spent. I am like many players, I have a job, I have obligations. I cannot dedicate myself wholly to improving Magic as my singular goal in life.

Instead what I can do is apply myself intelligently with these principles in mind to increase the efficiency of my practice time; and I know that if I can continue to apply these principles smartly and consistently that I will continue to improve as a player and achieve my long-term goals.

Doing all of this in isolation, however, is incredibly difficult. One of the single biggest factors that will improve your play is to either build a community or find one.


4. Build a team

Magic is a wonderfully social game, I think it has some fantastic communities and being part of a team/group/community will really help you to enjoy the game even more.

This section is focused on the competitive Magic player, but regardless of your goals and motivations, join a community. It will help you to enjoy this wonderful game even more.

The most important factor is that your community should be like-minded and have similar goals to you. If you have competitive aspirations and want to succeed, find other people who think the same way.

Often you will start with the competitive community in your local games store (LGS), but don’t be afraid to reach out over Facebook or Reddit. There are fantastic places for people to come together and share ideas and the best thing to do is to get stuck in.

The second most important thing is to understand what you want from your community. For a competitively minded individual, I think it comes down to two things, honesty and accountability. You want to be in a group of people who are able to discuss the game objectively and able to hold you accountable to your stated goals.

The subject of testing teams and how to get the most out of them has been covered in much more depth by Graeme McIntyre and I would recommend reading his article on the subject: 6 Tips to Help You Get More from Your MTG Team, and Team Testing, by Graeme McIntyre

If you are able to either build or find a community that uses deliberate practice to inform their testing and playing, then you will be well set-up to create consistent improvements in your game.

There it is, the process by which I think you can consistently improve at Magic. If you can apply even just some of these principles to your practice and play, you will get better.

With all of this being said, though, there is something that I need to address, as it is a huge part of the game.


5. Variance, Tilting and Entitlement

You are not entitled to win. This is a lesson it took me a long time to learn.

Variance is a significant part of Magic and one of the things that makes it novel and exciting to play. It has infinite replayability, but this does come at the cost of variance.

Sometimes, no matter how many good decisions you make or how correct your line of play is, you lose. You can lose to being mana-flooded, or mana-screwed, or your opponent drawing their statistically insignificant series of outs.

This can be incredibly challenging to deal with and can inevitably lead to tilting. Unlike when training physically, your effort doesn’t always lead to clear improvements in objective performance. Sometimes you can just get unlucky, or your opponents get lucky.

The simplest and best piece of advice that I was ever given about this was from a sports psychologist I worked with for about three years. It was this:

‘You are only responsible for the factors you can influence. Everything else is meaningless worry.’

Sometimes, you draw 13 lands and 5 spells. You have exactly zero ways to influence this and quite frankly it is meaningless to concern yourself with it. Exactly the same with your opponent drawing their single out on the last turn possible. You had no control over this, you don’t need to worry about it.

There are so many variables and factors in any given game of Magic that you do have control over that expending additional effort on factors you can’t control is actively harmful.

This is all much easier said than done, as the times you do lose to these factors can really sting. It feels bad, and unfair. However if you can learn to let go of any concern of factors outside of your control, you will be a better player. You will think more clearly and be un-tiltable, something that is incredibly evident in some of the players of the game.

Have a look at LSV, or Brian Kibler, or Reid Duke; these players have witnessed enough variance to know that they should not be concerned by it. These are the players we should aim to emulate, no matter how challenging that is.

I hope you have found this article useful, and thank you for your time.

John O’leary

You Are Not Entitled to Win, so Here's How You Can Become a Better Magic Player, by John O'leary
The biggest question I had when I first decided to try and be a competitive Magic player was 'how do I get better?'

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