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Making the Most of Effective Practice

I want you to think back on the best tournament or event that you ever played in your entire life. What made it the best? 

It’s no doubt a specific question and every individual reader will have a different and unique answer. Regardless, I’d be willing to wager that there’s a lot of overlapping commonality among players with regard to what informed their best tournament. 

When I, for instance, think back on my best tournaments, the unifying thread that makes them special or memorable is that I played up to, or even beyond, what I believed was my potential skill-level as a Magic player. We all put in so much practice, blood, sweat and tears over years and eventually decades of play and practice. Our best events are the ones where all of that acquired skill and knowledge comes together in a performance where we exceed even our own expectations. 

Every player who shuffles up and learns to play Magic participates in a shared experience of self improvement and, regardless of whether the goal is to hoist a trophy, reach Mythic, 5-0 a league, go undefeated at a local FNM or emerge victorious at the end of a five-person Commander melee at the kitchen table, all of these goals are actualized through practice that helps us become better players. 

 

Header - Realistic Practice and Goals

“Learn to walk before you learn to run.” 

It’s basic advice, but it’s always important to keep in mind. Magic is a game of near infinite strategies and interactions based on using known information to assess new situations.

 

 

It’s impossible to prepare for every potential situation that can or will occur in your future games of Magic. That means the most important skills to hone over time is  your ability to accurately assess and evaluate situations and use critical thinking to make plays that are likely to work out favorably. 

The strongest players in the game tend to share one specific trait in common: they’re great at making assessments and applying what they’ve learned in practice to make quality decisions. Every single game and match is different and unique. It isn’t that strong players have encountered every single scenario and automatically know the objectively correct play, it’s that they have encountered similar situations over the years and can draw upon their experience to inform lines of play that are likely to work out. 

Veterans of the professional Magic scene have decades of experience to draw upon as they wade their way through the intricate puzzle of a complicated game state or staying focused in a high pressure game. It may be daunting to hear, but that’s why realistic goals are so important as an inroad toward achieving realistic results. 

Every time you enter into an event, no matter what the event is, we all go into that experience with the hope and dream that it’ll be your best tournament ever. 

There’s a shared notion that as you work hard and practice that your results ought to trend upward and culminate in reaching one goal after another. Two things to keep in mind: 

1. Magic is a game with a high degree of variance and lots of circumstances that extend beyond your control. No matter how good your preparation for an event is, you don’t control the matchups your receive nor the cards you draw. 

In your best tournaments, it’s likely that not only did you play up to your potential, but applying your skill and knowledge helped you take advantage of elements of variance falling into your favor at critical moments. Being the beneficiary of a favorable draw or matchup doesn’t detract from skill or knowledge, rather it’s skill and knowledge that allow strong players to seize opportunities. 

2. Just because a player is better today than he or she was two months ago doesn’t necessarily directly correlate to reaching the next goal. 

Improving over time is a necessity to reaching new goals, but improving doesn’t necessarily guarantee achieving specific goals. I think this is one of the hardest and most frustrating lessons for players (myself included) to understand. How can it be that I keep improving but feel like my results are plateauing?

The answer is quite simple if you think about – the field of potential opponents doesn’t remain static either. Everybody is practicing, learning and improving as well! The players with a 10-year head start on you still have a 10-year differential of experience while also continuing to improve.

While we tend to think of practice as an exercise where we improve and will eventually lap the field of potential opponents to get ahead, the margins are actually razor thin and there are thousands of potential opponents who are also working hard, learning and improving all the time. 

So the goal of your practice should always be to reach your potential and give yourself the opportunity to seize favorable variance to play your best Magic. 

 

Header - Broad and Specific Knowledge

Last month, I wrote an article where I talked about applying different strategies to practice in order to improve a specific skill set: play speed. It’s kind of a long and ponderous read but I think all of the concepts introduced are applicable and useful for getting the most out of practice.

 

 

Everything you learn about Magic is something you know and can draw upon and use in a future game. Magic is an infinitely complex game and there is more to know than can ever be learned. With that said, there are two different types of knowledge that we can use to classify information we can learn.

 

Broad Knowledge

 

Broad knowledge is conceptual in nature and relates to understanding how things tend to work and relate to one another. These concepts are applicable and useful to assessing any situation, in any format, at any time. 

“Who’s the Beatdown?” is a Magic article written decades ago, yet it remains as relevant today as it was in yesteryear because it explains a Broad Knowledge concept, assignment of role within a match up, which is a fundamental principle of playing Magic. 

 

Specific Knowledge

 

Specific knowledge is the application of broad knowledge that’s used to inform decision making. This isn’t universally applicable across all formats across all time, but rather is specific within a known context.

Specific knowledge is used to understand and prepare for events in context, it’s the specific tendencies we know about the decks in the format that we’re playing in a specific tournament.

 

 

Here’s an example that demonstrates the difference:

If a player is a Legacy expert but is playing in a Modern tournament, they can still draw upon the broadk nowledge they’ve learned playing Legacy to help inform their plays in Modern because broad knowledge is always applicable to new contexts. The specific knowledge the Legacy expert has about Legacy (for example, the makeup of the Legacy metagame or the specific cards the various Legacy decks are likely to play) will not be applicable to a different context. 

In general, it’s my observation that players tend to overvalue the cultivation of specific knowledge relative to bolstering their fundamentals rooted in broad knowledge of playing the game. There are a lot of reasons this is likely to be the case. For instance, high level professional players tend to value specific knowledge extremely highly because it gives them a large competitive edge in a specific event. However, keep in mind those players already have a tremendous wealth of experience and broad knowledge to draw upon. 

Broad knowledge always informs specific knowledge. Players who have great depth of broad knowledge are able to apply specific knowledge to great effect either by making more accurate predictions about the opponent’s lines of play or even by inventing “tech” (using a new or different card in their deck) to counteract strategies they expect to play against. 

 

Header - Returning Dividends

One thing to keep in mind when thinking about how to improve as a Magic player is that gaps in specific knowledge can be overcome by applying broad knowledge. Conversely, it’s very difficult for specific knowledge to bridge gaps in broad knowledge. Essentially, one’s understanding of broad knowledge is a fairly accurate representation of one’s play skill and ability. 

Broad knowledge impact every facet of play and are the mechanisms by which we assess various situations and decide a course of action depending on the contextual circumstances. We can apply broad knowledge to any game of Magic, in any format, at any time. Whether you realize it or not, you constantly draw upon these fundamentals to inform your assessments, evaluations and lines of play.

One of the most deceptively difficult decisions in every game is to keep or mulligan an opening hand. All other plays in the game will hinge upon the decision to play the hand or throw it back. How do you know whether or not to keep or mulligan a given hand?

 

 

First, you evaluate the hand using the broad and specific knowledge that you know: 

  • Is it a good, average or weak hand relative to other potential draws? 
  • Do you know what you’re playing against and if so how good is your hand against the known strategy? 
  • Is the hand missing key components (land, early drops, interaction) and does that detract from the strength of the hand relative to taking a mulligan?  
  • If you’re missing a key component, how likely are you to find it?
  • Is there a window where you must find it before your chances of winning are badly compromised? 

These are all questions likely to run through a player’s mind when thinking about whether or not to keep or mulligan a hand, and they’re all informed by fundamental understanding of broad knowledge concepts. You’re able to look at seven random cards and have an understanding of how the hand is likely to unfold in the early turns and whether or not that hand is likely to be strong or weak in the abstract. 

As strange and counterintuitive as it may sound, playing a new format (even and especially casual formats) is a fantastic way to enhance your understanding of broad knowledge concepts. These range from how to build or tune a deck in the abstract to making unfamiliar plays based on applying broad knowledge. 

While it may seem like the experiences learned from drafting a wacky cube, slinging battle box games, tuning a singleton deck, or playing multiplayer may not be relevant to competitive tournament play, it is actually quite the contrary. These fun encounters actually teach us much about how Magic works and is played in the abstract and are keystone, foundational ways upon which players learn and build up the Broad Knowledge fundamentals they constantly draw upon in competitive games. 

“Learners who have a high effective filter (meaning they’re stressed, anxious or uncomfortable) tend to learn, retain and recall less information when asked to do so later on in a real life situation.”In the “Playing at the Speed of Magic” article, I also introduced the concept of an “affective filter.” This is a teaching device that states students are more likely to learn, comprehend and be able to reproduce what they learn when they’re in a comfortable state, as opposed to information that’s being taught to them in an uncomfortable state.

So, not only do fun, casual games provide a lot of opportunities for players to encounter new interactions that’ll challenge them to think abstractly and build up their broad knowledge, but doing so in a comfortable context makes it more likely those experiences will be committed to memory for later down the road in a competitive event. 

It’s unlikely to be the case that casual Cube drafts or wacky formats will teach a player specific knowledge about Modern. However, honing those broad knowledge skills will give the player a better fundamental understanding of playing and applying knowledge to Magic in the abstract.

It may not be a direct correlation, but because specific knowledge is derived from broad knowledge, developing and enhancing those fundamentals will likely make you a stronger drafter in general. It may teach you new insights into how to approach different types of matchups, how to use your sideboard more creatively or how to think about inventing your own “tech” down the line.  “Broad knowledge always informs specific knowledge. Players who have great depth of broad knowledge are able to apply specific knowledge to great effect either by making more accurate predictions about the opponent’s lines of play or even by inventing “tech” (using a new or different card in their deck) to counteract strategies they expect to play against.”

In general, I think practice (as it pertains to Magic) highly emphasizes the cultivation of specific knowledg. You need to read all the articles to learn the most current configurations of the popular decks and sideboards, follow the most recent trends and put your nose to the grind stone and play the known matchups ad nauseam.

These are all competitive edges a player can seek out and use to their advantage, but nothing in all of Magic gives a player a stronger edge than solid fundamentals rooted in the broad knowledge. These concepts teach you how the game works, assessing situations and applying what they know to make informed decisions. 

I strongly recommend players of all skill levels, veteran and novice, keep that in mind and explore other non-specific avenues to build up their overall knowledge of the game.

You’d be surprised how much you can learn about Magic by drafting a Cube and how applicable what you experience will be to future tournaments. It’s also a great way to practice in a manner that doesn’t feel like homework or grinding the same formats and getting similar results. Sometimes a fresh outlook provides tremendous insight. 

 

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