One of the most common questions I get asked by Magic players is "how do I get better at Magic?" That also happens to be one of the hardest questions to answer. There isn't a simple miracle pill you can take. You can't perform some crazy voodoo ritual and wake up the next day as Jon Finkel. Unless, of course, you actually are Jon Finkel, in which case you probably hope the ritual doesn't wake you up as someone else.
Oh! I almost forgot. If I dig through my bag, I can probably also find the yellow pill. Take that and you'll be an above-average Magic: The Gathering player. It also tastes pretty good. Some kind of pine/banana/kiwi flavor. That counts for something.
Usually when someone asks me that question, I kind of stumble through a response because honestly it's not easy to really tell someone straight up what they need to do to get better at Magic. For one, a lot of people don't actually want to hear the answer, or they won't like the answer. Secondly, do I even know what the answer is? I certainly spent a lot time wandering aimlessly through the morass of mediocrity. Hell, I still wander through that morass often enough to be unsure as to whether or not I'm really the person to ask on the subject.
Regardless, I have spent a good bit of time sitting and pondering this very question, and I've come up with some things that I think are a solid base point to elevate your game to the next level.
Step 1: You Have to Actually Care
A lot of times when people ask for the ticket to improvement at our beloved Magic: The Gathering, they aren't actually asking to get better at the game. They are trying to get handed that magical pill that doesn't actually exist. They genuinely do want to be better at the game, but they aren't willing to do what it takes to actually get there. The first step to improvement is to realize that just like everything else in life you have to put in actual work to reap rewards.
Work may seem like a poor word choice when describing a game like Magic, but it's actually pretty accurate. While Magic is a fun game, a lot of what it takes to improve is still actual work. Some aspects of Magic operate like a science experiment. You have to study information, build a hypothesis based on that information, and then run tests to see if your hypothesis holds. Sometimes it's more fun to just join another draft or enter a tournament with the same deck you always play instead. Let's be honest here—it's more fun to play Magic than it is to labor over what your fifteenth sideboard card should be.
You can't get better at Magic unless you invest the time. To be successful in Constructed, you need to know what decks are good, what each deck is trying to accomplish, pick a deck that is well suited to beating those decks, and learn how to play that deck against all of those other decks. Then you need to decide on your individual card choices within your deck and figure out your sideboard and how to sideboard with the deck. Finally, you need to have skill within the game itself to know when and how to play your cards to get the desired result.
Let's just go ahead and say that there is a lot more to winning a game of Magic than figuring out "which player drew better cards."
There is a lot of information in this game, and it takes a lot to reach a level of proficiency with it. Not only do you need to be well versed in your deck and how it matches up against the field, but you also need to know what to do when things don't follow script. What happens when you play against a deck you didn't prepare for?
A lot of knowing what to do in those situations comes with experience. Experience comes with time and repetition. Getting better at Magic takes time and involves work. If you aren't willing to dedicate the effort needed to improve, then you simply won't.
Now, I want to point out that I'm not saying you need to invest a lot of time into Magic. If Magic isn't a high priority for you or you are too busy with other things in life to really invest much time into the game, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. One of the great things about Magic is that it can be played for a lot of different reasons at a lot of different levels. A lot of people don't care about becoming better at the game because they are happy with where they are at and how they play the game. They don't have time to invest at becoming better, and they don't want to invest the time even if they did. There's nothing wrong with that at all.
If that's the case, though, then you have to just accept that you're not going to be tearing up the tournament scene anytime soon. It took me a long time, but I eventually made that realization when I played the World of Warcraft MMO. I liked the game and was actually quite good at it, but I had to dedicate a large amount of time to stay on top of the game enough to play at a high level. At some point I realized that I wasn't willing to spend that time anymore, which meant that I was no longer going to be able to be a high level player either. If I truly cared about being the best WoW player I could be, I would have continued to invest that time. It works the same in Magic.
Step 2: Study Up
There is a very common misconception that playtesting is the key to getting better at Magic. I get messaged a lot by people who express the sentiment that they wish they had as much time to playtest as I do. This may come as a surprise, but I actually don't playtest very much. Between the Pro Tour and Grand Prix Louisville, I played about four hours of Magic. Between GP Louisville and the 50K last weekend, I played four total matches of Magic.
Granted, I think playtesting is important to improvement (and I'll get into that later on), but it's just one facet among many in the step to Magic enlightenment. Once you've determined that you actually care about improving at Magic, the next step is to study.
There have been a few games in my life that I've actually cared about being good at. Chess, Magic, and World of Warcraft are the big three. My progression as a player in all three games is pretty much identical. When I first started playing the games, I got hooked. I loved the strategy and competition and I couldn't get enough. I played as much as I could. Fairly quickly I would reach my skill cap in those games. I got as good as I possibly could without outside help.
That was never good enough. There were always players who were better than me. To go beyond my base capabilities as a player, I had to learn from those who were better.
For chess, I bought books. I learned about tempo, positioning, tactics and strategy. I could immediately see an improvement in my play. Previously, I was making plays based on what I thought the right move would be to advance the board in my favor with no real understanding of the underlying principles. After reading the books, I started to understand why the moves I was making were good or why they were flawed and came to achieve a much stronger understanding of the game as a whole.
In World of Warcraft, I studied the forums and discussions of the top players and top teams in the world. I learned how to optimize my talent points, optimize my gear, and figured out exactly how to sequence my abilities to get the most out of them. It was pretty amazing the difference in how well I performed from when I was going into dungeons blind versus going in armed with this knowledge.
Magic was no different. I picked up a number of tricks and ideas from figuring things out as I played the game, but I was playing at a fairly average level. I wasn't any better than any of my friends who played. At some point I realized that I wanted to be a better player and started to invest time into reading articles, reading forums, and engaging in discussions about Magic. It didn't take long before I had surpassed all of my friends. They didn't bother to study up and quickly fell behind.
When it comes to Magic, the easiest way to study is to read articles. Articles go up daily on a wide variety of topics, anywhere from primers on a specific deck choice to general strategy pieces. Much like studying for a test, it's important to not just "read" the articles but to actually take in the material. It's important to not just know information but to understand it.
Another easy way to study is to take time after every game you play and discuss the game. It blows my mind how averse people are to doing this. Personally, I consider talking about Magic, discussing lines of play, and talking about a game that just happened to be enjoyable and a great way to learn more about your deck and how you can better play the game. I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about games I lost or games where I had an interesting decision to make, and figuring out the right decision to make has helped me immensely in being a better player. Once I know that I made the wrong choice and what the right choice was, I don't have to commit that same error again. Study your games.
Finally, just thinking about Magic can be a good way to improve at it. There is an online game I played for a while called Warlight. It's a fun Risk-like game that pretty much solves all the problems with the original Risk game. One of the key selling points of the game was that both players would take turns simultaneously. Once both players submitted their orders for a turn, the turn would complete.
It was fun and addictive. Oftentimes you would find yourself battling against a player on multiple fronts at the same time. There was kind of a cat and mouse game of figuring out which fronts were the most important to battle on and deciding how to best allocate your armies and best set up your moves to win. A lot of it boiled down to figuring out what you thought your opponent was going to do and trying to counteract that. It was a fun blend of logic, optimization, instinct, and reading your opponent.
Frequently when I found myself stumped, I would get up from the game and go run an errand or do something else. While I was out shopping, I would figure out the answer. I would come home, execute the moves, and more often than not would end up winning. I would also study my opponents past games against other players to learn their tendencies and try to exploit them. For about six months I was the top ranked player on the site. Believe me; it wasn't because I was the smartest player or the most naturally talented player. It was because I put in the time to think about the game and study my opponents and got a leg up that way.
The same thing applies in Magic. I spend a lot of time thinking about decks and what they can do to beat other decks. I spend a lot of time thinking about specific situations that can spring up in game and what the best line might be to take if such a situation arises. It may seem silly, but just thinking about Magic can make you a better Magic player. I used to think about Caw-Blade all the time. One of the things I always thought about was how awesome it would be to get value from using Tectonic Edge to blow up an opposing fetch land. It came up exactly one time, where my opponent cast a spell, I used Tectonic Edge on his fetch land, and in response to him cracking the fetch I was able to Mana Leak his original spell. It won me that game. One game might be all you need.
Reading articles, studying Magic theory, and studying your own games is going to improve your game so much more than playing a bunch of rapid-fire matches with your friends. The comparison isn't even close.
Step 3: Don't Memorize; Understand
When I was in high school, I helped tutor a few fellow students in subjects like math and chemistry. All of them were smart and interested in improving at those subjects; they just all had the exact same problem. Any time they were presented with a problem in class, they would write down and memorize the steps needed to solve the problem. When they were then given a problem like that to solve, they would follow those steps and solve it.
Sounds good, right? Well, actually that didn't work out so well. The issue was that they didn't have any idea of what to do when a new variable was introduced into the problem. Sometimes the teacher would word a problem in a different way or provide a problem with a different variable missing than the one they were accustomed to seeing. When something like that would spring up, they had no idea what to do.
If instead of memorizing a formula or set of steps to solve one specific type of problem they had worked on understanding why their steps actually solve the problem, they would have performed much better. Memorization of facts only helps when you are dealing with those exact facts. Understanding of why those facts are the way they are can help you regardless of what the problem is. When you understand how something works, you will know what it takes to solve a different take on the problem with different variables involved.
Magic is the same way. When someone skims an article and copies down a decklist and sideboarding guide, they are memorizing facts. Without reading the article, they aren't gathering an understanding of what makes those cards good or why they should be in the deck. Then, when they are in a tournament with the deck and play against something they weren't prepared for, they won't know how to react.
Twice at the SCG Invitational in Indianapolis I played against Junk Midrange decks in Standard. I was playing Mono-Black Devotion. Junk was not on my radar at all. I hadn't prepared a sideboarding plan for Junk. If Mono-Black were simply a deck I had pulled off someone's article and not really understood how it worked, I probably would have had no clue how to sideboard.
Thankfully, I knew the Mono-Black deck very well and was able to come up with a sideboarding plan on the fly. Even though my opponents both had Blood Baron of Vizkopa, I cut all of my copies of Devour Flesh. That might sound like a risky line of play to take, but I knew from experience that Mono-Black is capable of winning games without relying on removal spells. They had too many creatures like Sylvan Caryatid, Voice of Resurgence and Sin Collector that get in the way of a good flesh devouring. I knew my only way to win was going to be to be as aggressive as possible and try to close the door with Gray Merchant of Asphodel before they turned the corner against me. I sided out a lot of removal and brought in a lot of creatures.
It worked both times.
I guess the next logical question to ask is "how does one reach a point of understanding?" The easiest way is to ask questions. If you don't understand why a card is in the deck or how something works, then ask about it. If you don't know what the best line of play to take in a game is, ask someone who is better than you and see what they think.
Don't just flounder around in the dark. Don't play a deck without understanding what makes it tick. Don't just memorize a sideboarding guide. Invest the time to understand why the deck is good, understand how you should approach new situations, and understand why a certain line of play is good or bad.
Step 4: Practice
This is the section of my article where Allen Iverson dips out. Once you've reached a point where you understand a deck and why the deck is built the way it is, the next step is to practice with it.
One of the benefits of playtesting is that you get some experience with your deck and you will make better decisions with it the more comfortable you are. Maybe you're playing Mono-Black Devotion, and you lead with Swamp on turn 1 and Mutavault on turn 2 and then on turn 3 you draw a Nightveil Specter and realize that you can't cast it because you didn't play a Swamp on turn 2. That's a very easy mistake to make, but the more you play with the deck, the fewer of those kinds of mistakes you will make.
Playtesting is much more than just becoming better at playing a specific deck though. One of the most important parts of playtesting is to learn, and it's important that you go into each playtesting session with specific questions that you want to answer while testing.
"Is Card X good against Deck Y?" Play a few games and see how the card performs when you draw it.
"What's the best approach to take in winning a specific matchup?" Play a few games with one plan and a few games with a different plan and see which seems to be working out better.
When Chris VanMeter and I were performing well with Junk Reanimator over the course of a few months earlier this year, we did exactly that. Once every week or so we'd sit down for a few hours and test. The purpose of our testing was simply to figure out the answer to a specific question.
When The Aristocrats: Act 2 started to rise in popularity, we played a lot of post-sideboarded games to figure out exactly how to beat the deck since it was well positioned against Reanimator. We added cards like Golgari Charm to our sideboard and came up with a plan for it. I beat it twice in the next Open.
When the R/G deck with Hellrider and Thundermaw Hellkite started to pick up in popularity, we tested the matchup to figure out how to beat it. I added two Trostani, Selesnya's Voices to my sideboard. I won a PTQ by beating that deck in the finals with Trostani.
When Junk Aristocrats rose in popularity, I came up with a bunch of different sideboarding plans that I thought might be good against it. I wasn't sure which was best. It took testing to figure out what was working and what wasn't. For example, I thought Trostani would be awesome because they couldn't kill it very easily and populate was a real way to win against them. It turned out that Trostani was simply too slow and Garruk Relentless was a better card in that slot against them.
We came into every one of those testing session with specific questions we wanted answered. We would test a variety of different configurations until we were satisfied, and then we would call it a night.
I want to note that at no point were we just testing a couple of brews against each other. One of the big pitfalls that players have is that they just assume that "practice makes perfect" and figure that as long as they play a lot of Magic they will become good at the game. Unfortunately, that simply isn't true. It doesn't actually matter how much Magic you play. What matters most is the quality of Magic you play.
If you're practicing matchups that you will never face in a tournament or making flawed lines of play in practice, then you're actually not helping yourself improve at all. It only takes so many games before you understand how to play a deck with a decent level of proficiency. After that point what really matters is understanding how to play that deck against specific decks. If you're just playing games against your buddy's brews, you aren't actually preparing for a tournament. There are a limited number of times you can play the same matchup with the same cards before you don't learn anything from playing it anymore.
Step 5: Be Open-Minded
Essentially, the title pretty much tells the whole story here. Be open-minded. One of the easiest pitfalls to make is to reject a line of play or reject a card choice because you don't think it's good. None of us play perfectly or have perfect card evaluation skills, so it stands to reason that we are going to be wrong about what the right play is or what constitutes a good or bad card fairly often.
Tarmogoyf was a two-dollar bulk-ish rare when it came out. Nightveil Specter was a bulk rare for a while. Deathrite Shaman started at like three or four dollars. Chandra, Pyromaster was deemed unplayable at first by many. We get it wrong a lot. Sometimes we get it right but a new card or set comes out and it changes an older card in such a way that it becomes good. That's what makes Magic so awesome. It's not always readily apparent what is good.
Therefore, it stands to reason that we should always be open-minded about cards or decks or choices within a game. To give an example, I keep a lot of one-land hands. There are a lot of people who simply refuse to keep a one-land hand no matter what it is. That's not being open-minded. While most of the time sending back a one-land hand is correct, there are a lot of times where it isn't.
Sometimes I mulligan to six cards and have a great hand if I just draw a few lands. If I am playing a deck that doesn't mulligan well or can't win the matchup on a mulligan to five, I am just going to keep and hope I draw lands. If I draw lands and win, people are going to look at the game and brush it off as me making a loose keep and then getting lucky. In reality, I took a line that I needed to take in order to win and I drew the cards I needed to do so. I gave myself an out, and I hit that out.
If you want to be better at Magic, the worst thing you can do is reject ideas blindly. Rejecting an idea without proper rationale is akin to saying "I already know what is good and what is bad." If you already know all of that, then you certainly don't need to improve at Magic because you are already as good as you can get.
I can tell you that couldn't possibly be true. Everyone can improve at Magic—even the best.
Step 6: Willingness To Fail
The last step is that you have to be willing to fail. This was the hardest for me to learn and the one I still struggle the most with. In fact, I didn't learn this lesson until a few months ago. For the longest time I refused to play combo decks in Legacy. For one, they weren't my style of deck. More importantly and the reason I ultimately avoided them was that I was afraid of failure. I knew playing a deck like Storm in Legacy is difficult and was worried that I simply wouldn't be good enough to play it. I would fail. I would try to go off and miscount. I would embarrass myself.
It was easier to simply not do it. As it turned out, I actually really enjoyed playing both Storm and Sneak and Show. I feel like I actually ended up being fairly decent at playing both of those decks. I lost multiple win-and-in matches with Storm, and I made Top 8 of an Open and an Invitational with Sneak and Show. Both of those decks are powerful, yes, and I still have much to learn in piloting them optimally, but I didn't embarrass myself nearly as much as I thought I would.
Moreover, even when I did, such as the match I played against Reuben Bresler in Cincinnati where I fizzled because I couldn't Duress myself to become hellbent for Infernal Tutor, I still learned something important and became a better player as a result. I will never make that mistake again, and it also taught me an important lesson about properly sequencing my spells.
Next time I will cast that Brainstorm first and go hellbent the natural way. Next time I will win that match.
Becoming better at Magic isn't easy. It's not a simple process. It takes time, and it takes work. I hope that I've helped provide some understanding of what it took me to get better at the game and what I believe is important for improvement.
If you love Magic as much as I do, I think you'll come to find that it's worth it.