Breaking Through – Take Note

Jacob sat down against Valakut yet again. While it wasn’t his favorite match up in the world, at least he had a solid board plan for it. After losing a close game one, he pulled out his trusty sideboard guide from his pocket.

+2 Memoricide
+2 Tectonic Edge
+4 Spreading Seas

How could he lose the match up now?

How about to those Inferno Titans? Or how about the Gaea’s Revenge that are coming in?

Spoiler: Jacob loses this match in three games. While his board plan was just enough pressure to get him through game two, in game three a fast Inferno Titan came down the turn after Jacob cast Memoricide on Primeval Titan. Without an immediate answer, Jacob took lethal in all of two turns and that was that. Meanwhile, some of the rest of Jacob’s sideboard?

2 Doom Blade
1 Deprive

I mention those because they should have most certainly come in when four copies of Inferno Titan were revealed by Memoricide in game two. Essentially, once we realize the Valakut player’s new strategy, we need to eliminate those Gaea’s Revenges with our Memoricide as we cannot beat the card otherwise. From there, we can use our other resources to fight the Titans. Jacob never reached this conclusion though.

You see, I had worked with Jacob for this particular tournament. He was a dedicated UB Control player and having one of those in the gauntlet is always nice. Jacob’s biggest problem though was that he was a note taker.

With digital assistance essentially being eliminated from tournament play this past year, I wanted to specifically discuss note taking today. When should you do it? How should you do it? Maybe you shouldn’t do it at all?

Should You?

Right off the bat, I would like it to be clear that taking notes will not automatically benefit you. You could very well be taking the wrong notes, or misusing the information. Even if you are taking good notes, there is an opportunity cost. If the value you get from looking at those notes is less than the value you would get from critically thinking about the matchup during that time, then your notes are hurting you.

And this does not just begin and end with sideboarding guides. In-game notes can be a double-edged sword as well. Writing down the set and picture number of each land you see with Thoughtseize is probably something that is going to take more of your brain power than you receive benefit from. Or I know some people that will write down every card they see in an opponent’s deck during any Limited match. I can see this having some benefits but will anything change about what you are doing by the fact that they have a Felhide Minotaur in their deck? I feel like if done more efficiently, or properly, these are areas where a player could gain an edge, but when done so “by the book” they become a matter of going through the motions.

We develop confidence when we get even a small safety net. When you go skydiving or bungee jumping, you don’t actually test the parachute or chord you will be using. Someone has, sure, but you are using a little faith that that person did a good job. And yet, you feel relatively safe, especially compared to the idea of not having anything at all. The simple presence of a safety measure, of a catchall, comforts our anxious minds. Most people feel safe with airbags in their vehicle despite having no clue how to avoid serious injury from the same device intended to save their lives. It’s all about perception.

So people feel better when they have notes, but this “good” feeling might be driving them into making mistakes just like our friend Jacob from above. Jacob follows notes to a T, which unfortunately, is just not a viable strategy when it comes to such a dynamic game like Magic.

Jacob’s sideboarding strategy was completely fine for the Valakut matchup he had tested going into the tournament, but it would be foolish to think that every Valakut player is running the same 75. Now, a list with four Inferno Titans and some sideboarded fatties completely invalidated the plan of stall-and-Memoricide-them. Jacob could have ignored his notes, but it felt too good not to. Here are the results of his playesting, should he really just discount those?

In this case, yes.

And here is the issue with notes. In order to wield them properly, you need to be willing to use them as a guide but not as law. You need to understand that there will be an exception to what you wrote down in nearly every match you play. It’s your job to find what it is. Adjust and adapt on the fly and your notes will be helpful.

Before you can ever work on anything else regarding note-taking, working on this mindset is key. Magic is a series of problem solving and your notes will not solve those problems for you. You need to do that. Training yourself to think about situations is probably the biggest step you can make in your Magic career because it has no ceiling and yet it will change how you look at the game in every way.

The How

Good note-taking is preached a lot early on in most American colleges and universities. The idea is that during any given lecture, a professor is going to spit more information at you than you can both take in and process with simply your active/working brain or memory. Instead, you pinpoint key moments or stressed events and you build a bit of a connect the dots for yourself.

While it is usually going to be true that the information you seek is sitting there at level 1 among those highlighted bullet points, by taking notes in a connected, chronological way, with some semblance of order, you can also arrive at information that takes place between any two given bullet points with just a little effort or investigation.

This type of note-taking does two things:

  1. It allows for a more efficient input phase. The note-taking process should be a stepping stone. Some people will attempt to jot down every single thing a professor says and that means they are noting all of the noise along with the signal. When I am note-taking, I want it to be in an effort to cut a lot of information into much smaller chunks that contain the most valuable of that information.
  2. You are actually required to think critically here. Note-taking should not be a cheat sheet. The point is not to have a question and then go look up the answer. Instead, the intent is to ease a little of your working memory so that you can focus on the intense task at hand. Your notes give you an easy pathway to the back of your brain where that secondary information is being stored. But now, with access to a thought process rather than just data, you can analyze and adjust as need be. Imagine walking around with a note on you that said “do not lie.” Seems like reasonable advice. But as Liar Liar has taught us all (hopefully, if not, be ashamed, go watch it, and come back here), telling the truth 100% of the time can actually get us into a bit of trouble. Lying, or bending the truth, is something that we use as a society to great effect, even if we also abuse its benefits. Instead of that note though, what if you had the concept of lying and why it is generally considered bad in your brain. Now, despite having some idea of where you generally fall on this issue, you can at least go under the hood and look around for a bit. “No, those jeans absolutely do not make you look fat in any way.” …Ding!

Good note-taking is learning and then creating a pathway to that learning. It is not a substitute for it.

If I show up to a tournament with no deck and get handed one with a sideboard guide, I will certainly reference it. But six rounds in, when I have played against Valakut three times, I am not going to keep boarding in card X that has been awful just because it’s in the plan.

This is an important point to make. Your notes are created before the tournament, in a moment of time where you simply did not have all of the information. To reference them as though they’re infallible is essentially claiming that past-you was somehow infallible and hopefully we all agree with that that can’t be the case. You are currently in a match with more information available to you, and more relevant information at that, so you need to be able to utilize that in one way or another. Referencing your notes can help in that regard, but relying on your notes will sometimes leave you up the Underground River without a paddle.


So let’s say I have been testing for a few weeks and the night before the tournament I sit down to write out my sideboard guide. Doing the typical “+ these things, – these things” is fine to start with, but we want more substance that that.

Hopefully, over the course of your testing, you were paying attention to what was going on in certain matchups. Maybe you even made notes about that stuff then!

“UB Versus Valakut—Only Primeval Titan matters unless Gaea’s Revenge is involved in which case that matters.”

That kind of note would be the perfect thing to include near your matchup board plan. If Jacob had read this rather than just his additions and subtractions, there is very little chance he would have committed the same mistake. Heck, we could even boil it down to a shorter soundbite if that is your style. Imagine a board plan that looked something like the following:

Vs Valakut

+2 Memoricide (Primeval Titan, Gaea’s Revenge)
+2 Tectonic Edge
+4 Spreading Seas

-2 Consume the Meek
-2 Disfigure
-1 Jace Beleren
-3 Sea Gate Oracle

*Gaea’s Revenge
*Maelstrom Pulse
*Summoning Trap

Here we have the same ins and outs and normal, but we have simply highlighted some cards of importance or things to look out for in each side of the matchup. We don’t need to note that Memoricide is good, because we are boarding it in, so that is obviously, but if we wanted to make a note of what we might name, we can do so pretty easily like we did above.

Some of you may look at this list and ask why Maelstrom Pulse is listed. It looks foreign to you, so it is probably just a confusing note, right? Well hopefully whoever was taking these notes has some context for that card and simply listing it is enough to jog his memory. If it isn’t, however, feel free to add more context. Even though you may never have played against Valakut before, see if this small edit does things for your understanding of why Pulse is listed:

*Maelstrom Pulse (Spreading Seas)

Makes sense, eh? And sure, 95% of Valakut lists would never splash black for Pulse, but this is a small catchall to let us know that if they have black in game 1 and we see it, we might want to leave our Spreading Seas in the board, or have a plan to never get destroyed by a rogue Pulse.

This kind of note taking is packed with way more information and possible points to look out for without being cluttered or overbearing. Chances are, if you used this method, you would barely use more paper than you already do.

Wrap Up

As we gain access to more and more information at the click of button, we need to be vigilant about processing and understanding that information before we go to use it. Note-taking is an act that should be beneficial, but when you are using it as a substitute for hard work and critical thinking you are bound to run into issues.

As a community, we need to loosen the grip that the hive mind has over us. By all means, play the best deck, adopt the best board strategies, and play the best cards, but just have an understanding of those things before you do so. Take some pride in your selection process and do a little dirty work to make sure you are showing up with the best possible product you can muster.

I want to wish all of my fellow countryman a wonderful Thanksgiving and a wonderful Thursday to everyone else around the world. Its a beautiful time of the year. Take note.

Conley Woods


Scroll to Top