Leveling Up Your Game – Tips for Every Step of the Way

I’ve never met someone who is perfect at playing Magic–we all have something to work on. But that doesn’t mean we all share the same imperfections in our game, or even the same types of imperfections. Today I’d like to describe some different types of competitive players and prescribe for each a list of things to focus on during practice to actually fix things that can help make the biggest improvements.

Categories and labels are provided to aid the discussion, but of course you might see pieces of your game reflected in different categories, so keep that in mind as you read.

1) Novice Players Working on the Basics

Diagnosis: It takes a while to get to the kind of core competency where you can operate your deck without repeatedly making basic mistakes. Again, we all make mistakes, but an inability to even spot many of the mistakes is what separates novices from advanced players. If you are losing a lot and have trouble identifying things you could have done differently that might have mattered, you might be in this category.

But don’t despair. This is a level where–once you get things dialed in–you can see a kind of rapid improvement in your game that will be harder to get later. This growth is invigorating, and every good player was once where you are now before experiencing it.

Recommendations to Improve:

  • Watch good players play (streaming on Twitch, event coverage, archives on Twitch or YouTube) with a studying mindset. I recommend the archives on Twitch or YouTube because pause and rewind are very valuable.
  • If you don’t understand a gamestate or decision you experience in a game, ask someone to help explain why they did what they did, or what you should do and why. If you can get some additional perspectives, this will help you see options you didn’t know you have. Even if the person giving you advice isn’t Jon Finkel, they can still give you something to learn from.
  • Play more, watch more, ask more. I don’t have too many shortcuts here. You need exposure and repetition, and exposure to high-quality play like you can find on Twitch or YouTube is the first thing I would look to add to a regular schedule of actual practice.

2) Level-One Competent, Low-Ceiling Players

Diagnosis: You can operate a deck without frequent obvious blunders, but struggle to identify strategic turning points and tradeoffs, when to zig from basic strategy, and when and how to adjust to what the opponent is doing or might be holding. I say low-ceiling because at this stage, you aren’t going to be finding creative or exploitative opportunities to add win percentage. You might also be struggling to adapt quickly as metagames change (preparing for last month’s metagame rather than this month’s, for example).

Recommendations to Improve:

  • Listen to good players discuss the tougher or more important decisions they face. Streamers who discuss their play are useful, and articles by players like Reid Duke that are not only highly skilled but good at explaining what they’re doing are helpful as well (I have a YouTube series that’s trying to get this content out there). If you can talk with players about decisions live or on Discord or something, that’s great too.
  • Try to partner with a stronger player or similar player on event preparation. In bouncing ideas off of each other, you both will learn. I know that circumstances and opportunities are not equal in this regard and I’m not saying it is easy for everyone to find a better player willing to collaborate with them. But keep trying, and this isn’t the only bullet point if you go through periods where you have to prep alone.
  • Alternate between trying to go deep on a small set of decks/limited archetypes and trying something completely new to you. It’s good practice to spend a few months trying to become an expert with, say, Mono-Red in Standard. And then perhaps when a new set comes out, you want to try a new deck and see if you can get to an even higher level of competency. Try to avoid going too shallow or too deep–you need to sometimes try to refine skill with a deck you’re familiar with, and other times try picking up a new deck.

3) High-Ceiling, Low-Floor Players

Diagnosis: You can play well, maybe even really well, but the consistency is not there. For example, you might be capable of analyzing tough mulligan decisions and making a counterintuitive keep or mull, but sometimes you keep your hand before really thinking about it because you’re tired, tilted, or distracted. Personal note: I was this type of player for at least 10 years of my Magic career.

Recommendations to Improve:

  • Don’t skip leg day. What I mean is that don’t let your talent and perhaps overall good win rate be an excuse to underprepare (or prepare only in the ways that are highly fun rather than the ones that will be most useful). If you haven’t learned anything this month from studying, if you are regularly showing up with a deck you haven’t practiced much with, if you go with “I’ll wing it” regarding sideboarding rather than having figured out whether it all adds up–these are all symptoms of a preparation gap, regardless of your talent or skill level.
  • Know your leaks. It could be you get tired. It could be you go on tilt. It could be preparation. It could be a pet deck. It could be pace of play (boneheaded mistakes from playing too fast, draws or timeouts from playing too slow).
  • Tinker with ways to address the leaks. Is there a different caffeine regimen for a long tournament that would help with fatigue? Is there a breathing exercise you can try for tilt? Is there a reminder/mantra you can use to recognize and snap out of pace of play patterns?
  • If you have friends watching you play a lot, ask them what they think is missing from your game.

4) The Almost-There Plateau

Diagnosis: You used to be able to play pretty well and identify gaps in your game, but now you play even better and are struggling to understand why the results haven’t come in yet. You fear there are blind spots in your game that lower your ceiling in a way that’s hard for you to see. You fear that more practice or more studying with the same approach you’ve had will cement rather than illuminate your bad habits or other shortcomings.

Recommendations to Improve:

  • Spend some time thinking about the massive influence of variance, and that you could be a few tries away from success rather than a few tweaks away. The best professional players don’t win even 80% of the games they play. It’s foolish to think that if your game has improved, the results must immediately follow. “Don’t be results-oriented” is a bit too simple. You want to be results-oriented to some extent since that’s one of the only feedback loops you have to improve. But you don’t want to be too results-oriented where you’re taking every loss as a personal failure or clear sign you were underprepared or played the wrong deck.
  • When studying (watching others play, in person or online), try to identify decision points and think about what you would do before the person you’re watching does it. If they do something differently than what you thought was the right move, pause the video. This may be your window into something missing from your game. If you aren’t studying, that’s the first thing to fix.
  • Try to spot the why. Ask for help if you need it. People like to discuss “Keep or Mull?” That’s great, just ask people to show their work, and practice showing your work.
  • Here’s an example that came up in the comments on my YouTube Channel (shameless plug #2):

Matt Sperling MTG

5) Burned out and fed up

Diagnosis: You are finding preparation–whether it’s the kind you know will help you, or the kind you’re not sure about–tedious and less enjoyable. We’ve all been there.

Recommendations to Improve:

  • Switch formats for a bit. You can be really burned out with Standard and still have some fun playing Cube or Legacy or Booster Draft. Try that for a bit. Pretty soon you’ll see someone’s post about Standard and find yourself ready to jump back in.
  • Take a break. Nothing wrong with it, and your life will go on if you skip a MCQ or GP or SCG Tour event.
  • Try a radically different preparation method. Have you tried hopping on Discord or Google Hangouts and playing with a friend watching or alternating games? Have you tried trying to tune a tier 2 deck rather than playing a stock list? Have you tried checking out a new stream? Have you tried recording yourself (OBS studio is free and very useful software) and rewatching it? Well, what’s stopping you?

Whichever elements of the above descriptions and remedies you identified with, I hope it helped you think of something you could be doing, or doing better, to get your game to the next level. Lastly, I want to urge you don’t forget to pay it forward. When players are asking you for advice or for some of your time, try to give generously. And if someone in your local scene or group seems like they’re on the outside looking in but might want to be included in prep or strategy discussions, try and throw that person a lifeline. I’ve found that teaching is one of the best ways to learn, and it also feels good to give as much as you take from the community of players trying to improve.


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