Three Skills to Level Up Your Game

One of the most common questions I hear is, “What can I do to get better at Magic?” In fact, this is likely the most salientquestion among in the game. Who doesn’t want to be better?

It doesn’t matter if an individual is learning the game for the first time, or if they are a seasoned grinder going through a results plateau: everybody wants to win a little (or a lot!) more.

Today, I’m going to throw a slightly different answer out to the simple, but impossibly loaded, question about how to “get good” that I believe is applicable to anyone from novice to seasoned grinder. I’ll be focusing on three theaters of play: Strategy (metagaming / deck selection), Tactics (tuning / sideboarding), and Technical Gameplay (in-game decision making) and the relationship between the three.

The strongest players don’t just excel at doing one of these things well–they do them ALL well.

Three Keys to Improving

Technical Game Play (In-Game Decision Making)

The most direct way players tend to think about improving their game is via the quality of their technical play. The idea of “making the best play” every time. I tend to believe Magic players overestimate how far their playskill goes toward determining the outcome of their results, which is perhaps a little counterintuitive.

If you play great, you should win. Right?

While playskill is clearly not irrelevant, it’s possible to overestimate how far its impact actually extends. The reason people believe it is the be-all, end-all has more to do with the fact that they want it to be what matters most–it’s the part of the game most directly under our control and is not random.

The times when a player’s skill tends to matter the most is when there is a large gap or mismatch between the level of expertise of two opponents and has less to do with the skilled player making great plays to win the game and more to do with the weaker player making obvious mistakes to lose the game.

The single most important aspect of technical play is to mitigate these obvious mistakes, a choice between two or more options where one is clearly best.

Common obvious mistakes include:

  • Forgetting to play a land.
  • Playing the wrong land.
  • Missing a beneficial trigger.
  • Misclicking on MTGO or Arena.
  • Not understanding how two cards interact with one another.
  • Not seeing an onboard trick or interaction.
  • Doing something at the wrong time.
  • Not playing around something that beats you, when you could have easily done so.

These are not examples of two close plays where one was slightly more advantageous, but instances where the player simply didn’t recognize why one option was clearly better than another. All these examples are instances where a player opens a window for an opponent that never needed to be cracked in the first place.

Simply eliminating these mistakes is a great way to dramatically improve the quality of one’s play in a profound way. It’s easier said than done! Even strong players make basic mistakes. It’s typically not because they don’t know or understand, but because they look past something because they are distracted by thinking about something else. It takes a lot of concentration to pay attention to everything all the time, but mitigating mistakes that are obvious in hindsight is the best playskill related thing a player can do to increase the effectiveness of their game play.

On my flight to New York, I played a few games of chess on the touch screen on the back of the seat in front of me. I was in the end game and couldn’t possibly lose. I went to move my Bishop to take the computer’s Bishop and force check, but at exactly that moment the gentleman in front of me adjusted himself in his seat and I clicked the square in front of the Bishop. As a result the Computer’s Bishop was able to eat mine for free and suddenly there was no way I could win the game. What a difference one tile makes! Games of Magic can be the same way–it’s possible to make 20 fantastic moves in a row and then tap the wrong land and have it all fall apart.

I bring up this strange example not to show my ability to misclick extends way beyond MTGO, but rather to point out that mistakes cost way more than great plays typically gain. To me, being a great technical player has more to do with eradicating costly mistakes than consistently knowing the difference between a 42% play and a 43% play. A big part of that has to do with focus and concentration rather than being a genius savant.

The interesting thing about playskill is it naturally increases over time with experience, but is always finite at a given time. If I’m planning to play Friday, how much can I realistically improve my play in four days? We work with what we’ve got.

There’s a huge amount to be learned from the first several leagues with a deck, but at a point the returns diminish. What can one hope to learn from the 500th game of a matchup that they didn’t know after 499? Clearly, it’s not zero-sum, but it might not be the best way to gain an edge.

Another thing to consider is branching out and learning more decks. I would never ever advise a player to pilot a deck in a big tournament that they were not comfortable with, but trading decks with a friend for FMN, a weeknight tournament, or on MTGO is a great way to learn a ton of information and gain a larger perspective. Switching decks with friends to learn about a new deck without having to buy it. Who knows, a fresh set of eyes and repetitions can often lead to useful new ideas

Many players find themselves on a Grail Quest for “perfect play.” In fact, it’s impossible to utter the phrase without every MTG player in the room compulsively chiming in with what the phrase means to them, how to define it, and under what conditions it can be achieved. It’s so deeply ingrained I’m a little nervous to throw out my blasphemous idea that the platonic ideal is to wander the desert, drinking sand, and chasing a mirage.

I think it’s a fantasy and not a particularly useful one, since it’s not a realistic goal. Is perfection a useful goal? I’m all for self-improvement, but I’m also a realist.

How many times have you seen a player overthink a situation and talk themselves into a line of play that is way too aggressive or passive rather than just making a straightforward play? I believe it has a lot to do with the fact that plays are something we control (as opposed to random), and we often try and do too much instead of letting the cards do the heavy lifting for us.

For me, I tend to think about my playskill in terms of two factors. The first is cleaning up those obvious mistakes because they are tournament and momentum-killers. The second is to narrow my focus from many plays to the ones that are most likely the best based on my ability to interpret the situation.

In most cases, it’s reasonable to rule out lines that are obvious mistakes and refine my options to the ones that make the most sense. You know the context. It’s like taking a multiple-choice test for a Geology course where the question is:

“According to Moh’s Scale, which is the hardest?”

  1. Calculus
  2. Gypsum
  3. Calcite
  4. Metallica

Don’t overthink things by wasting time taking into consideration how big a Metal fan, or hater of math, the teacher is. Eliminate the weakest choices and focus on the choices that make sense.

In Magic, you don’t even need to get the “right” answer. If you consistently avoid making obvious mistakes (such as letting your metalhead take over and selecting Metallica), you’re likely choosing between two close lines of play. At the very least, you are using your time and mental energy to examine good options rather than poor ones. It’s often not even / pass fail. While one play was likely better for reasons that are either knowable or unknowable based on what you can glean, it may only be by a small margin. One line gives them four outs, and another gives them five outs–and perhaps, there was no way for you to even know how many there were!

Quick example. You’ve played against Collected Company a bunch of times and are up against a great player in a win-and-in for Top 8. You have limited spot removal in your deck and know you are supposed to save it for Devoted Druid. They play a Birds of Paradise and you start overthinking… Maybe he or she kept a one-lander and I can mana screw them here and win the game… The next thing you know, you’ve bolted the Bird and they played Druid on two and you’re in big trouble.

While I do think that “outplaying” people is grossly overrated in terms of correlating to wins, I think that staying focused and keeping the game in front of you is tremendously important. You’re more likely to lose the game with a careless play that to win it with a perfect one.

It reminds me of the advice they give pitchers in clutch situations. Don’t get too cute. Don’t overthink things. Stand in there, make your pitches, hit your spots, and don’t get too cute. The last thing you want to do is walk in the winning run or let them score on a wild pitch!

Strategy (Deck Choice / Metagaming)

The next place to look to level up your play is deck choice. In fact, I’m inclined to believe that this is one of the skillsets that most directly correlates to success.

Deck choice has always been important, but now more than ever. The cards are more powerful, the margins are slimmer, and the decks are faster and more consistent than ever. Choosing a great deck for the event is the single factor most likely to lead to success once you’ve minimized those obvious mistakes.

If you are playing a close game and narrow your plays down to two, but are unsure which gives your opponent more outs, the margin that delineates which is better or worse is likely only about 5-10%. If you choose a deck that is 47% against the field over a deck that is 52% against the field, then instead you’ve on average given up 5% of equity every game. Having a great deck is a huge advantage.

I tend to think people dismiss the importance of deck selection in relation to playskill because its effectiveness is determined based on random pairings and matchups. While the pairings are random, the odds and percentages are not. Your deck choice is the single most significant decision you make for a given tournament. Making better deck choices is the easiest and most direct way to increase the frequency with which you win.

The stars of Magic get a lot of love for the quality of their technical play, but ultimately they are also great deck selectors and tuners. Take a moment and think about the players you think are the most talented players. You probably pay attention to the decks they choose for events, right? Those players might not always make Top 8, but they typically select a deck that does.

Just like playskill, deck selection doesn’t necessitate perfection to be effective. They key is to eliminate weaker decks (aka, obvious mistakes) and choose from a pool of stronger options. In the same way the stronger of two close options often comes down to unknowable information, the same is often true about deck choice. We can’t know the constitution of decks in a tournament beforehand and are forced to make informed guesses. There are various websites that publish tournament results and calculate metagame and winner’s metagame projections. Use them!

Here’s an example of smart metagaming and deck choice. Over the past few weeks Jeskai Astrolabe has displaced Tron as the “best deck” in Pauper. Tron was run out of the meta by fast one-drop aggro decks and Jeskai is extremely effective at preying on those decks via great blockers, cheap removal, and card advantage.

While Jeskai has been putting lots of decks into Top 8s, it has been Hexproof Bogles claiming the blue envelopes! Is Jeskai a better deck than Bogles in the abstract? I’d presume so, but the unique situation where it matches up well against the “best deck” has made it an extremely well-positioned choice for winning an event.

I can’t overstate the importance of teamwork. Part of what makes the best players in the world so good at consistently choosing great decks is the wealth of information they gain from networking with one another and sharing information. I don’t know of any truly great players who do it on their own. Expanding your network of contacts will bring you into contact with new ideas which will always make your playgroup stronger.

Tactics (Tuning and Sideboarding)

The last category is a hybrid of Strategy and Technical Play as it incorporates elements of both. It’s also typically regarded as the most challenging and skill-testing activity in the game. It is similar to technical play in the sense that it is directly under the control of the player. It is like deck selection because it relates to playing the metagame rather than a specific game.

If you’re convinced you are playing a great deck and playing it well, chances are you’re having some amount of sustained success already. If you’re not, reconsider the accuracy of your assessment.

Tuning and sideboarding are similar exercises in the sense that you take a known commodity and modify it for a new context. In the case of sideboarding, the context is known: the deck you are playing against. In the case of tuning, the context is more abstract: the metagame you expect to see.

A highly effective way to “tune” a deck is simply to pay attention to what happened last week and make adjustments. For instance, if Mono-Red puts four people into Top 8 at a Grand Prix and three into an Open in the same weekend, it seems like something worth paying attention to.

Given the result, Mono-Red is likely a strong deck with a high win percentage. The default response is often to say, “Well, people just weren’t prepared…” It might also be that Mono-Red is just straight good. It could be both. Either way, you’d be foolish not to pay attention.

It would be wise to prepare to face Mono-Red and even hedge against it because it’s likely going to be even more popular next weekend. It would also be wise to read the articles about Mono-Red to see what the content creators are suggesting for the Red sideboard so you can make sure that your sideboard plan lines up and can actually beat what the red decks are going to be bringing in against you!

You don’t want to end up with a sideboard for Mono-Red that beats their game one deck but loses to their sideboard deck. There’s nothing more awkward than bringing in Lone Missionaries against red decks that bring in six planeswalkers!

What you play and how you build it is as important as how well you play it. There are plenty of ways to up your game that don’t involve becoming a stronger technical player than LSV or Reid Duke.

I’ve played Magic for a long, long time and have a ton of experience, but I don’t have any delusions that I can sit down and outplay people who play ten times more Magic than I do. However, I know I can put myself into a good position more often than not by simply minimizing mistakes and maximizing the equity of my deck selection and tuning choices.

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