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Breaking Through – Magical Resolutions

I write this to you a mere few days from the passing of yet another year. We all realize that a new year is just like every year before it, but the desire for a clean slate and another chance to become the person you want to be is universal. We all join together to cast out a few of our demons, our baggage, with the hope that we move on and better ourselves.

And yet, in spite of such a romantic notion, New Year’s seems trivial. We fantasize about absurd changes that are just not realistic to accomplish. We set our sights on the moon and never make it out of Earth’s atmosphere. Or, at the other extreme, we make our resolutions so broad that we have no structure to guide us. A good resolution is one that engages you. You feel challenged but not hopeless. And the feeling of overcoming a goal you set for yourself is one of the best you will ever know.

Most vow to lose some weight or to manage their money better—the same old resolutions we hear all the time, but I figure as Magic players, we have a wider array of choices than most. Magic is a very intricate game and improving in any area is going to have a noticeable effect on your overall game. Today I wanted to pitch some resolutions for a New Year of Magic.

Making a resolution for Magic is nice because you will often be able to monitor your progress and it can teach you how to properly work on your game. So many people just want to get better at Magic, but they don’t have a plan. Magic is much too complex to just tackle all at once. The best approach is generally to isolate weak areas of your game and then focus on improving that one area until you feel adept enough to move on to other areas. You will never be perfect at something, but you can improve on it to get to a level you feel satisfied with.

Plan Your Board

How often have you shown up to a tournament with your main 60 and 8 or so cards for your sideboard, only to go over a few matchups and throw in some random sweepers or graveyard hate at the last minute and call it a day? Or maybe you prefer to look at winning lists for your sideboard, so you copy one of those and then begin play? Both of these cases are relatively common. You don’t value your sideboard enough.

The truth is, every tournament you show up to with a dead sideboard card , you are giving up percentage points that you can’t make up for in other areas. When you choose to play an aggro deck, you are knowingly taking a deck to bat that has a weaker late game, but you make up for that by having a more robust early game. This trade-off is not available when you make a mistake with your sideboard.

How often have you gone to game 2 of a match, pulled out eight or nine cards, and then after a minute or two, you’re holding five cards in one hand and nine in the other. Your board had good things to bring in for the matchup, but your deck was not equipped to utilize all of those cards. That means that card six through nine may have been better spent elsewhere, for different matchups.

To form an ideal sideboard, you need to have good knowledge of the metagame. You want to start with the most popular decks in the field and then comb over each one. Instead of starting with what cards are good against those decks, first figure out which of your maindeck cards are weak against that list. This will give you a good indicator of how many cards you should be looking to bring in.

Of course, most sideboard cards are not just going to fill one role, but rather will come in for a few different matchups. So take this as an example:

UW Heroic – 8
Abzan Midrange – 6
Jeskai Tokens – 5
Mardu Tokens – 6
Sidisi Whip – 3
Mono Green Devotion – 5

Obviously my sideboard is not going to contain 33 cards, but now I know the role each card in my sideboard needs to play. If my sideboard is at 13 cards but I only have six cards coming in against UW Heroic and five coming in against Mardu tokens, I better figure out at least one card that can come in against both of those decks to have an optimal sideboard.

Take Notes

This is another area I see players unwilling to put in the effort. Note-taking is a helpful tool in Magic because there is a ton of information coming at you all the time, and remembering every single detail of that past information can be a burden. A good set of notes is going to help you to recall information faster and focus on other aspects of the match.

If you brain is occupied by remembering what cards were in your opponent’s hand from the Thoughtseize you played three turns ago, then you are likely not giving your line of play for this turn as much thought.

When it comes to note-taking, start small. Maybe just get in the habit of noting the cause of life total changes. If you are attacked for 2 by a bear, simply write the word “bear” next to your new life total of 18. In most games you play, this practice will seem pointless as you will rarely consult these notes, but when these notes do matter, they tend to be the difference. A judge is always going to side with the person taking an accurate record of what is going on in the game. Again, notes are simply more reliable.

Over time, expand your note-taking into weaker areas of your game, but just getting into the habit of writing things down is a big step to take in the first place.

Develop a Routine

This is a small note but is one that I think would help a lot of people. Generally, Magic tournaments are kind of seen as an isolated event. I went to the PTQ, I won the Grand Prix, etc. In reality, each of these tournaments is connected, like a series. Your performance at one tournament, even if that is only FNM, is going to translate into other tournaments for you in one way or another.

Once you can make that leap, it makes sense that developing a routine will be beneficial to your tournament success. Just like taking notes, when you are playing Magic, you should focus on playing Magic. You don’t want to be thinking about how hungry you are or when your next bathroom break might be. Don’t get me wrong, you are human and those things are natural tendencies, but when it comes to competition, we can do better.

My favorite routine has been at Grand Prix. Even with the Sleep-in Special, I have found that I operate best when I wake up at a reasonable time and get some food into my system. So, I always wake up for the player meeting, whether that be Limited or Constructed. I will go take care of business at the tournament hall and then my friends and I will go enjoy breakfast during the byes while we talk some strategy.

Keep your mind where it should be and get in the habit of making the small decisions come naturally.

Plan Your Turns

It is far too common for players to make crucial mistakes during a turn simply because they did not look ahead. How often do you see a player draw their card for the turn and then instinctively play their land right away? Most of the time, no harm will be done here. But the issue is that you are conditioning yourself into making a suboptimal play, even if it isn’t suboptimal for this particular time.

For example, let’s say I draw a Divination for the turn and then throw my 5th Island into play before casting Divination. Here, I have fallen prey to a poor habit and have denied myself a potentially optimal play. Divination could very likely draw me a different colored land, or perhaps a land that enters the battlefield tapped, and now instead of getting extra value on this turn, I have to wait until the following turn where I will be short 1 mana. This inefficiency can turn a win into a loss.

Instead of playing your turn as though it were a series of plays, start viewing it as a whole, moving thing. Every decision you make on that turn will have some part in the end result that you present to your opponent, so there is no one decision or one play that matters more than another. Take your time and think things through completely before committing to anything. Sometimes you will need information derived from combat to fully know where your turn can go, so be sure to collect all of the information you need before you begin making decisions.

Cast your independent spells, like Divination, before dependent spells, like removal or lands. This way you are always unlocking information first and then making the most informed decision possible.

Expand Your World

Magic has a lot of angles. Some people enjoy building decks, others theorycrafting, while others just love the intense, in-game decision making. Generally, we find a local group of Magic players or a team and then we stay with that group or team for a very long time. This is great on a social level, but it can sometimes have negative influences on your game.

When you are learning something from only one perspective, especially if you happen to be among the better players in your group and generally do not get challenged, you run the risk of that perspective just being wrong. If your group was right, then great, but if you ever learn something incorrectly or in an inefficient way, chances are that the situation will not self-correct itself within your group. The idea has already been pondered and deemed correct, so the desire to revisit it is very low.

If you are someone who is able to get many different perspectives though, now you have a way to cross reference your knowledge and provide your group with the best possible information. Finding other groups of good players and talking with them is a great way to do this, but is not always an option. Reading articles and watching videos, especially from players that you generally do not watch, can definitely help you to develop more accurate ideas and theories.

Ultimately, you are just looking to avoid becoming too inbred with your ideas, so venture out and find others and be sure not to be too defensive when opposing ideas come back at you. Remember, that is what we are looking for!

Another year is in the books and another one awaits us. Will you be the same player next year? The choice is yours. Happy New Year!

Conley Woods

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