First and foremost you will improve your experience and equity in each tournament by being honest with yourself. Ask yourself what you want out of Magic—do you want to play as an occasional hobby purely for intrinsic reward or do you have aspirations to compete at Magic’s highest levels of competition? Wherever you fall on the spectrum of competitive to casual, Magic will have a place for you. Once you recognize specifically what you want out of Magic, you can surround yourself with people who have similar outlooks.
I see players who so terribly desire to play on the Pro Tour but are crippled by their dishonesty. “I don’t care about this stupid PTQ.” “0-2 drop is the best, I get to go home early.” I have even heard players who have had middling Magic success while working or attending school full-time mock full-time professional players for “wasting” their time.
Playing on the Pro Tour is a noble goal. If you are pursuing your passion for competitive Magic, be proud of that. Keep in mind that in Magic losing is not just inevitable but commonplace—be prepared to potentially fire several shots before you even come close to hitting.
Bad beat stories are almost always horribly embellished. “I haven’t won a die roll all day.” “My opponent drew the perfect card every turn, there was nothing I could do!”
It is naturally an aspect of Magic that there are some games in which you play perfectly and lose. Nonetheless it is in your best interest to think as though there is always something you could have done to have either played or prepared better.
Sure your deck has a terrible matchup against the deck you lost to twice in the Swiss rounds of the PTQ and you won every other round. Hypothetically let us presume that you played perfectly—perhaps you should have played a different deck or drastically altered your sideboard in anticipation of your worst matchup. Eliminating exaggerated bad beat stories from your vocabulary will help you toward a more rational approach to Magic—not to mention that all of your friends will appreciate the reprieve.
Relentless Optimism & Focus
While you are in the midst of playing a match, eliminate as much outside thought as possible. Try your best not to linger on thoughts of a mistake you just made or whether or not you should have included a specific card in your deck. The beauty of a Magic tournament is that everyone submits a deck list and is locked into their choice without perfect knowledge of their opponents. Focus intently on exactly the turn you are playing and your path to victory, do not think about how many more matches you have to win to make Day Two or to reach the Top 8.
Until the match has reached its final conclusion, it’s in your best interest to believe and play as though you are going to win. Practice relentless optimism. If you are so far behind that you can only if your opponent’s morph is an off-color morph with no chance of growing, play as though that is 100% reality. Playing with the mindset that you are going to win is especially important against particular decks. Imagine that you are playing against Splinter Twin in Modern. If you have an irrationally-pessimistic attitude and always play as though your opponent has the combo in hand, then you are simply playing into their control game plan. Play with as rational of a mindset as you can and realize that there will regularly be sequences of cards that are so difficult to beat you are best off ignoring them.
It will certainly make it an easier to improve at Magic if you have an obsessive personality or an unbreakable work ethic, ideally both. If you find yourself experiencing burnout or simply loathing the act of playing: take a break from Magic. I find that whenever I remove myself from Magic it does not take too long before I am excited to get back to playing.
There is no replacement for real life tournament experience. What makes a tournament different than playing with your friend at home is an uncertainty of what to expect from the opponent, each player being invested in winning the tournament, and the pressure of a tournament environment—including the clock.
Of course, reading articles and watching videos on ChannelFireball may help you improve. Watching past match coverage online has been quite helpful to me. I have watched every last available Pro Tour and Grand Prix feature match from 2009 to the present day—some of the them I have watched more than 10 times! The first time that I watched the Pro Tour Kyoto finals between LSV and Nassif, I was overwhelmed by how much there was for me to learn about the game. Yuuya vs. Shouta in the Players Championship finals is another favorite of mine, especially game three. If you watch a large amount of coverage you will find that elite players develop habits that have become muscle memory. Attempting to find a game in which Owen Turtenwald taps a Sandsteppe Citadel instead of a Temple of Malady to cast Thoughtseize will be a tough-to-impossible task. Doing the same of any random player would be trivially easy.
There are things to learn even when a feature match does not feature the game’s elite, watching two less experienced players battle it out can be equally enlightening. In 2013 I played in four SCG Legacy Opens—I won three of them and lost in Top 8 of the fourth. Obviously this was mainly the result of ludicrous luck and fortune, another key reason for my success was that I watched a great amount of Legacy coverage. By virtue of watching many matches I found common mistakes and poor habits of inexperienced players. Time and time again my opponent would have a hand full of fantastic spells and zero lands on the battlefield, quizzically wondering what went wrong.
I would like to reiterate that there is an infinite amount that you can learn and improve on in Magic. I consider myself as much of a student of the game as anyone else. If you have any practices or techniques that have helped you improve I would be happy to hear about them.