Knowing Things #1 – Knowing Yourself
One of my favourite parts of Magic: the Gathering (MTG), aside from winning, of course, is helping players make the jump from casual to competitive Magic. As a former teacher, I love imparting knowledge and wisdom about my passions to other people. I was recently inspired to write a series of articles about what goes into becoming a better and more confident Magic player.
Entering a large tournament for the first time can be especially daunting for many players. They have no idea which people and decks they’ll be facing. That variability has a severely crippling effect on people who aren’t used to dealing with similar situations.
As a result, the best things you can do are know yourself, your deck, and the format. These topics will be the focus of my next three articles. My hope is that this will help those of you stressing about larger events relax a little and enjoy the experience. This mindset will, in turn, allow you to perform better.
1. On Making Mistakes
The main focus of this article will be how to avoid mental mistakes in a tournament. Psyching yourself out will lead to a disadvantage before you even draw your opening hand.
Everybody makes mistakes, in Magic: the Gathering as well as in life. It is often impossible to play a single turn of Magic perfectly, let alone an entire game. It’s not just newer players either. I can recall several different mistakes caught on camera at the Pro Tour over the last twelve months. Mistakes are a part of the game.
Upon making a mistake, there are two indicators as to how mentally well-prepared the player is. The first is how much and for how long the player lets it affect his or her gameplay. There is a chance that countering the wrong spell will cost you the game. That sucks. However, dwelling on it can easily cost you more games than the mistake itself.
One of the best ways to avoid this is to compartmentalise. Treat each game as if it’s a brand new match. Life totals are 20. You both have a fresh seven cards. If your game plan didn’t work last time, you have another opportunity to execute it well enough to win. Do it.
It’s a little harder when a mistake costs you a match. Maybe it knocked you out of contention for day two or even top eight. But this is where the second response plays a major part. The other important part is to learn from the mistake. You’ve moved on, and it’s not affecting your play, great! However, it’s equally important not to make that mistake again. You countered the wrong spell because you didn’t know what deck you were playing against? Now you know how it wins, so you can stop it.
I practiced Judo in college. The advice I received from my teacher about how he coped with a loss has stuck with me the most. When shaking his opponent’s hand following the match he would say, “Thank you for beating me. I will work harder, come back and beat you tomorrow.”
Whether it’s a new interaction or a deck you’ve never seen, learning is an important part of the game. Nobody knows every single card or every deck in a format. If you get beaten by a new card, all you can do is add that to your knowledge bank and be able to recognise it in the future. It’s not that the best players don’t make mistakes. The best players don’t make the same mistake twice.
2. Mental Traps
There are several mental traps into which many players fall when they first start playing competitive Magic. I want to help you realise some of these, and shake them off if you notice yourself buying into them.
3. Assuming the Opponent Is Better
Everyone has been there. You get the pairings for round one at the local FNM with 20-30 people. Sitting across from you is the local grinder who plays the best deck in every format and always finishes in the top two. You wonder how you can possibly beat this guy.
Sure, if he’s playing a tier one deck against a kid at his first FNM with a starter deck, there’s not much to say. However, I’ve spoken to a lot of competitive players who have also expressed the same concern in one form or another. Many players worry that they’ll automatically lose to the opponent just because he or she qualified for a Pro Tour. And this is without even knowing what deck he or she is playing. People get nervous about playing against a perennial winner.
The first question to ask is why so many players get nervous? This is presumably because the player has a lot of experience. Thus they know the format really well (a topic which I will cover in an upcoming article). They know the rules and individual interactions of most cards in the format. They know most of the major decks and many of their variations. There’s a good chance their list is honed from months of practice and tournament play. Lastly they probably know exactly how to sideboard.
So how do you, the semi-competitive/newer player prepare to face yourself to face him after sitting down? It’s really quite simple: treat him like any other opponent. What does that mean? Try to play well. You know what your deck is supposed to do. Sequence correctly and make calculated decisions. You both have access to 60 cards. You are both playing competitive decks. You both have a game plan. Execute it to the best of your ability.
It sounds cliché, but all you can do is take it one turn at a time. React to threats he or she presents, and respond to situations as they come up. Just because your opponent has won tournaments in the past does not mean he or she will automatically draw a winning hand every game. Being able to recognize what he’s on in the first turn will help, as will planning out turns in advance. However, nowhere does it say that the better player automatically wins. Take it one step at a time, keep your options open, and before you know it, you’ll be the player everyone is gunning for!
I was playing a fairly large modern tournament a few weeks ago. In the second round, I got matched up against a player who I knew had won a Star City Games Invitational a year or two ago. Three years ago, when I was just starting out with the deck, I would have been extremely nervous. This would have resulted in me making a lot more mistakes than I should have. But this time, I was excited for the challenge. I already had significant experience with the deck, and was looking forward to a more competitive environment. I was confident in my own abilities.
This is one of the hallmarks of success in competitive Magic: Confidence. Not just confidence in your ability to understand the rules and interactions, but also confidence in yourself that you know your deck. You know how to sideboard, you know how to navigate the most common matchups, and you know every use for every card in your deck. Remember all those traits I mentioned regarding the local grinder who always won? Turn those into tools in your arsenal as well. With that knowledge, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be vying for a position in the top eight of your next FNM, PPTQ, or GP.
4. Letting Past Failures Prevent Future Opportunity
This is one that has taken me a long time to overcome. You will not be able to grow as a player if you are constantly kicking yourself for a mistake you made in a match two years ago, or even just last week. It’s over. Move on.
I still can recall a mistake I made in one of my first competitive Modern matches. I’m only still thinking about it because it was one of my biggest learning experiences regarding the Stack. I was playing a Jeskai deck (Blue-White-Red) against a deck with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. I cast Path to Exile targeting his Kiki-Jiki. He activated Kiki-Jiki in response, targeting his Restoration Angel, and killed me with infinite angels that turn.
I still think about that, even though I shouldn’t. Yes, it taught me how that interaction worked. However, that lesson has been ingrained in my head enough that there’s no reason to dwell on it. Every match is a new opportunity to play your deck to its fullest. I mentioned earlier that your opponent’s past wins don’t guarantee them wins moving forward. Similarly, your past losses and misplays shouldn’t affect your chance to win the current match. The only way they will is if you think about them so much that you lose focus on the current match.
It is important to learn from your mistakes, as discussed earlier. We’ve all been there. You had lethal damage, but forgot about your pump spell. You did the math wrong and thought you could storm off and win, but couldn’t. It happens. Learn from the mistake, move on, and don’t make that mistake again.
5. Plays That Are No Longer Viable
There are a lot of similarities between chess and MTG. This might be why I enjoy both games so much. Although I learned chess at a much younger age, I believe I am much better at Magic. However, this next dilemma is one that I still struggle with in both games.
When I first started playing both chess and MTG, I would often see a combination move that seemed perfect if I could just get the opportunity. Invariably though, my opponent would threaten a play that prevented me from executing. The problem arose when I continued to focus on that same play three and four turns later, trying to figure out how to make it happen, while my opponent developed other facets of his or her strategy. I kept trying to force the play, instead of adjusting my tactics to the updated situation.
This is often more of a problem for newer players. They focus solely on removing a large threat, often expending more resources than necessary. As a result, they are left vulnerable to multiple smaller threats. Just as it’s important to plan a few turns ahead instead of just focusing on the current turn, players must also be aware of the entire board state, instead of focusing only on the most problematic threat. They should adapt their tactics to win the war, even if it means losing a particular battle. I hope to explore this in future article regarding scenarios such as when to preserve life and when taking the damage is acceptable.
6. Go with the Flow
The discussion about lines of play segues nicely into my next topic regarding the importance of being flexible. This pertains to everyday life as well as playing Magic events. I have already spoken about adapting tactics based on the opponent’s actions (one of the reasons I like reactive decks). Another way to keep oneself in a good state of mind is not to get impatient. This goes for the overall event as well as individual games and matches.
I played a Legacy GP a few years ago. It was my first Legacy tournament, and I really enjoyed the first few rounds. I was 3-1 after four rounds, and had had some good conversations with my opponents. It was a great learning experience.
What wasn’t great was the amount of time everything took. The tournament started at either 11am or 12 noon, and by the time I finished round 5, it was 7pm. I had wanted to play a few side events, but they were closing soon, and I was still technically eligible for day two. However, following my second loss, I dropped with a record of 3-2.
Part of me hadn’t expected to do that well (again, take it one match at a time). Part of me was annoyed that I had lost that match. And part of me was frustrated at how long the whole tournament was taking. But you know what? There’s nothing I could have done about any of those. I was a less experienced player, and less mature, so I didn’t handle it as well as I would now.
It’s also important not to get impatient in a single game or match. Yes, some people play slowly, and if you’re worried about having enough time to finish the match, call a judge to make sure you’re both playing at an adequate pace. As long as you’re playing at an adequate speed, don’t be too hasty to finish your turn just to have enough time for future turns. You’re better off with a draw from making the best plays than with a loss because you hurried and forgot to deal with a threat or missed a trigger.
I know I said this earlier, but I want to reiterate. The best way to prepare for any event, Magic or otherwise, is to focus on the things within your control, and to use those to your advantage as much as possible.
7. Making Last-Minute Changes
The last mistake a lot of less experienced players make has to do with the deck itself. It’s not uncommon in Magic for players to try new cards in established decks to gain a competitive edge. And every so often, one of those decks will make the top eight of a GP. This causes a lot of players to sprint out and pick up copies of the card to slot into their versions of the winning deck.
In my opinion, this is a terrible idea. I will discuss this more in my next article regarding choosing and tuning a deck. You play your deck for a reason. Every card in your list has a specific role to play in your game plan. Most players enter a tournament like a GP with a particular goal in mind. If you are just playing for fun, and hope to get one win, that’s fine. Magic is a game. It’s supposed to be fun.
However, if you’re starting to take the game more seriously, chances are you’ve been playing your deck for a while. You’ve tweaked the list to do well enough to win at FNM. Now you want an opportunity on a bigger stage. My recommendation is to stick with the list that’s been doing really well for you, instead of suddenly adding three copies of a card that just won because it did well or looks cool.
Especially in a larger field, you have no idea what decks you’ll be facing. This makes it impossible to plan for a specific metagame. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee you’ll get any of the matchups in which the card you added is actually good. I’m firmly of the opinion that players will perform better with a tier two deck that they know extremely well than a tier one deck that they’ve only been using for a week or even a month. I’ve been playing the same two decks in modern, with slight variations, for 5 years now, and I don’t plan on changing.
I hope this has given some of you an insight into the mental side of the game. In part two of this series, I’ll look at how to pick a deck, as well as the importance of knowing your deck and what goes into learning it thoroughly. Are there any tips for mental preparation you’d give to new and aspiring competitive players? Post in the comments! Merry Christmas!
Thanks for reading,