So you want to get better at Magic? I mean, I assume that’s why you are here, reading my article. Luckily for you, Standard is currently so incredibly boring that I desperately want to talk about anything else so I will share with you my biggest tips for getting better at Magic.
The first question for you to consider is: Do you actually want to get better?
Everyone generally wants to get better at what they do. What I’m really asking you to consider here is your commitment to that goal. Once upon a time I played Bridge. I started playing when I went to University when I was 18. As with Magic, I picked it up quickly and rapidly progressed to trialing with the England Under 25s Girls squad. Unfortunately, I just as quickly realized that while I had picked up the fundamentals of the game easily, I was now at the point where I needed to develop the highest level of card play. If you play Bridge, I’m talking about squeezes and end-plays. If you don’t play Bridge, a good analogy is: you can bake an excellent cake, but are not interested in learning the sugarcraft necessary to pull off a 5-tier wedding cake. This next level of Bridge did not come naturally to me. I tried, of course, and I knew that with time, effort, and commitment I would be able to acquire those skills—I do, after all, enjoy logic puzzles—but I didn’t actually care enough to get there.
Progression in Magic is more linear that this. You don’t have big milestones in understanding or a particular technique you need to perfect to progress further. However, you will still reach natural plateaus and you have to decide if you want progress enough to work past them. Wishing to become better or complaining about how you always make Top 8 but never win won’t change anything—believe me, I’ve certainly tried the wishing part. Also, while reading articles helps (you are clearly already doing this; good job!) no one is just going to hand you the solution to whatever is currently holding you back.
Magic doesn’t have a set of lessons or techniques to learn beyond the most basic level. That can make it frustrating to identify how you can move forward. Luckily, I have found time and time again that the solution to improving your ability to play Magic is quite simple: Play more Magic.
Actually physically playing Magic rather than reading about or watching someone else play Magic is so important. I can tell you what you need to sideboard in the Angel Pod vs. Affinity matchup. I can tell you what sort of hands you want to keep. I can give you any number of other pointers. But, you only really get a sense for how the matchup plays when you’ve played it over and over. I picked that example because it’s what I’ve been doing recently. Initially, the matchup seemed in Affinity’s favor to a depressing degree. However, as I adapted my play and sideboarding decisions I got to a point where I was winning the majority of post-board matches. Then we adjusted Affinity’s sideboarding decisions, and swung it back a bit. I gain advantage by doing this in many ways. Firstly, I know exactly what to do post-board, and if my opponent is less practiced they may make suboptimal choices (as my practice opponent did) when they sideboard. Secondly, it became clearer to me the actions I needed to do in certain situations. Just small choices, like: what to Pod into when facing this particular set of creatures, or when the correct line is to race rather than defend. You cannot write every possible scenario into an article, which is why reading will never replace pure experience and time with the deck.
I happily don’t attribute my first PTQ win to “the correct choice for the metagame” because I didn’t even think about that sort of stuff then, or even to that stylish sideboard choice of Unified Will (which was sweet, by the way), but instead simply to gain experience with the deck. I was so excited about playing Extended for the first time, I had my deck built about a month in advance, and I would play it every time I could convince someone to play with me. When I couldn’t find a willing opponent I sat and goldfished it—while admittedly that wasn’t really much of an option for control, it still gave me ideas of average hands and draws. I made several changes because of my goldfishing (after all, if it seems mediocre when you don’t even have an opponent…). I knew exactly what my deck was capable of come tournament day. I have never prepared quite like that since then, but I should.
If you still need more convincing, I have another Carrie history lesson for you. When I win an event it’s normally very late in a season with the Constructed deck I have been playing the whole time because, by then, I have finally reached a level of competency with the deck that allows me to win. You can’t actually win a tournament if you don’t limit your misplays. Rather than waiting for tournaments to use as practice, if I had instead been playing with the deck the rest of the time, I would increase my odds of winning that all important PTQ slot.
While experience with your deck is important, familiarity with other decks in the format can be just as important. For example, sometimes just by switching decks with your opponent you can gain new insight to the matchup. I have certainly done this to find that, for example, my opponent had been playing in easy mode and it was actually really hard for my deck to win the matchup. I remember when Delver was a Standard deck and I kept looking at lists and going “I don’t get what’s so great about it.” When I tested the deck, though, I suddenly saw all the lines and options open to the strategy at every point, which was really its great strength. This testing allowed me to design Mono-Green Dungrove to beat it. It also let me see what problems a deck will face much more clearly.
Consider League of Legends. There is a champion who can put down a small circle in which she gains stealth unless she attacks—She’s called Akali. Obviously, when you play this champion yourself, you can see everything you are doing so you fail to see it from your opponent’s perspective. When you are on the receiving end of Akali-based beatings, however, you realize how annoying that invisibility is when used correctly. This lets you adjust your play to outsmart your opponents—either when you are playing with or against Akali. It’s the same in Magic. When you appreciate the most annoying aspect of your deck for a given opponent, then you can focus your play around that. For example, you could bait a control deck’s counterspells/removal with minor threats. If you know what’s important and your opponent doesn’t, then you have a huge edge, as they will likely waste their answers dealing with threats that you know aren’t actually as important to winning the match as other cards in your hand or deck.
To bring it back to Magic, I will regularly see U/W/(x) Control mirrors in Standard where the more experienced player maneuvers their play in order to resolve an Aetherling—baiting counterspells on Revelations and on Jaces and not developing those stacks into counterwars. And they will win, because Aetherling is basically the only card that matters in that matchup. You can draw all the cards you want, but once your opponent has landed an Aetherling, you would need to have 2 Mutavaults in play and have them be on 2 life to not lose.
However, while preparing with a particular deck for a particular format is an incredibly valuable experience, it is important not to burn out. Never, ever force yourself to play Magic. I’ve done this when grinding Planeswalker Points to qualify for PT Honolulu 2012. It was in a Sealed GP and while I was thoroughly miserable as my deck was just so bad and I was having no fun with it at all, I had to stay in to eke out any points I could. After I qualified and the PWP qualification slots were thankfully removed, I swore that I would never again play Magic when I wasn’t having fun. It’s just horrid and will directly correlate with a lack of success.
Luckily, however, playing any Magic will make you better at Magic!
Lines of play, interactions, resource denial, threat assessment, all these things happen in every game of Magic. Doesn’t matter if you are playing Sealed or Vintage or Commander. Whatever you want to play, just play it! Since coming to America, I have many more chances to play Magic as there are events practically every day at the local game stores. I’m starting to really notice the difference. While I’ve mostly been drafting, I’ve been getting into Modern again because it’s PTQ season and I’ve noticed that I’m just playing better. Already I’ve seen lines that have impressed me with their subtlety, so fingers crossed for PT Hawaii!
Seriously, though, I can’t stress enough that playing Magic more is your best strategy to get better. Even better: play against people who are better than you! That way you get to see the nifty lines they come up with and execute to beat you. Ask them to point out your mistakes so that you can learn. You have to accept that you aren’t perfect if you want to improve. Even just discussing strategy with your peers will help you mutually learn from interesting play situations.
That’s all I have for today. Feel free to say hi @onionpixie and I’ll see you next week.