When a master like LSV plays (I didn’t add that in, I swear! – LSV), he rarely has to think through his plays – he doesn’t need to. He plays not on auto-pilot, but on intuition. He just has a natural feel for the correct play. On a tough decision he will slow down to consider his options, but so much of his play requires so little thought that he is at a huge advantage when he does need to really think something through. The thing is, Magic is incredibly complicated. If you are bogged down thinking about routine plays like whether to hold up Spell Snare mana or suspend Ancestral Vision, or what land to fetch, or whether you should Top on upkeep, or whatever, that is that much less energy you have to expend working through something actually difficult. You need to be able to breeze through the majority of your plays to be able to focus on the important decisions. Intuition is incredibly powerful even at making the very difficult decisions. It can be extremely difficult to logically think through all of the possibilities of a situation. Anyone who has read Zvi’s column “The Play’s The Thing” knows how complex even the simplest of decisions can get when analyzed comprehensively. But intuition, based largely on pattern recognition, can guide your play even where logic can’t work you through all of the variables. It is intuition that allows top chess players to beat the most powerful chess AI. In Magic, too, the game can be too complex to logically work through – intuition is key.
By reading Magic strategy articles online, you are clearly looking to improve your play. Though articles are a great way of keeping up with metagames, of seeing new ideas and strategies, of ensuring you are constructing and drafting good decks, they can do little to help you actually play better. Sure, an article can teach you plenty of specific knowledge, but ultimately it will fail to do the most important thing: hone your intuition. How can you do that? What are the best ways to improve as a player?
Simply playing Magic, though obviously very important, has its limitations. You make mistakes you are not aware of. You miss potential lines of play. Even with decisions you make that you are aware are close calls, it can be hard to look back on and learn from. If you are disciplined about analyzing your play, you will certainly continue to improve. But playing, on its own, is not the most efficient way to get better.
Have other players watch you play. This solves the problems of just playing games: they can help identify mistakes and plays you may not have seen. They can help identify key decisions, and help you work through how the game could have played out differently based on different lines of play. Having someone help you analyze your game is incredibly valuable, and will lead to you improving far quicker than on your own. To be of much use, though, the player probably needs to be better than you. It is probably not very realistic to have a better player watching you play very often, but when the option is there try to take advantage of it. Your opponent can serve this role very well – talk to them about the match if possible.
Play decks outside your comfort range. Decks you are “comfortable” with are decks you already know how to play intuitively. There is undoubtedly room for improvement in decks you already know well, and you could certainly develop that intuition further. But you will see a much greater return on your time playing decks you are unfamiliar with. You end up getting better not just at the deck you are playing, but you develop an entire skill set that will carry over to other decks and formats. The intuition you develop playing one particular deck will help your play regardless of what you are piloting. In the short run, I’ll be the first to suggest playing what you know best. But in the long run, your skills are much better served learning new things.
Personally, before playing Time Spiral block Constructed all I knew how to play was aggressive decks (Oh how things have changed – LSV, who has never seen wrapter attack in Constructed). I intuitively knew just what to do when I was attacking, just how to win a tight race, and just how to squeak in those last few points. I biased not only my draft and build decisions on this preference, but also in-game decisions. Any time I had a choice between a more aggressive or more controlling play that was remotely close, my natural inclination was towards aggression. I didn’t realize that I was making mistakes as a result of my bias; my brain just wasn’t wired for playing control. What I did realize is that my level of play had hit a plateau: I wasn’t noticing many mistakes, and I was failing to continue to improve. Then in Time Spiral block I started playing Mystical Teachings. I was absolutely terrible with the deck at first, but I kept at it. After several hundred matches with the deck, well, I was still pretty terrible with it, but I wasn’t losing many matches (rarely dropping below 1900 online), and the majority of the games I lost I could look back at and point out exactly what I could have done differently to win the game. When I started playing Limited again, I was amazed at how different my play was. Suddenly I was actively looking to slow games down, was much better at assessing my opponent’s big threats and how to approach them, was much better at milking value out of cards as opposed to just damage. A whole new world of possibilities had been opened to me. I hadn’t just learned how to play Teachings, I had developed an intuition for playing control in general.
Watch masters play Magic. You are very unlikely to see any mind-blowing displays of prowess, or any plays that stick out as particularly masterful. Such plays are simply not common. Instead, everything will seem routine, every play apparently obvious. Plays you might not have seen, or initially disagreed with, will become clearly correct when you see the immediate repercussions. Watching such play really helps you see the game as the master sees it, and is perfect for making the right play seem obvious to you as well. Playing against good players is much the same, as even though you are not privy to all of their options, you see enough to still get the same sense for good play. Magic Online replays, when they are up, are especially insane, as you can run through games incredibly quickly. Even if you don’t play online (and you have no excuse not to, if you are serious about improving), you should take advantage of the program by watching replays. In my opinion, there is no more efficient way to develop accurate intuition. Other people may learn best differently, but replays are largely how I learned to play.