Thirst for Knowledge - A Simple Checklist
Magic is a complicated game and becoming good at it is exceptionally difficult to the unprepared mind. It requires a drive – a desire – and a whole lot of patience. Still you’ve heard all that before. And incidentally you’ve probably heard everything I’m about to tell you in this article before too. Regardless though I feel like there is still much to be said. Exactly what does it take? Where do you yourself fall short? What is it that is stopping you from going to the Pro Tour? Allow me a few minutes of your time if you would to give you my take on the matter.
The reason that this subject is so fresh in my mind is that I’ve been asked a lot recently about “how to get good.” I’ve begun to hit up FNMs more frequently (I had ceased going for a while due to the fact that FNM often feels pointless to me although recently I’ve just been wanting to have a good time) and my good friend Larry Wyn was inquiring about how to go about forming a competitive Magic team. He is one of the driving forces behind a new store in my area called Alpha Players (which is a very unique story in and of itself that I hope to talk more about in the future) and they’re trying to start sponsoring players to go to PTQs and GPs.
When Larry asked me about how Team RIW works I gave him the lowdown on the process of team-building and also offered my personal thoughts on the matter. When building a Magic team it is very crucial that you take the time to consider what kind of players you want to play for you. I asked Larry about this and we discussed some of the attributes of Magic players that would complement the team in a positive way. We arrived at three distinct features each one encompassing various aspects of play. In order to succeed at Magic I personally feel that a person must showcase all three of the following features and that by no means is any small feat.
Let’s get started.
Surprisingly enough the first quality is skill. This one truly is a no-brainer as anyone who fumbles plays or doesn’t understand tempo and card advantage won’t ever make it on the pro circuit. You need to play a lot of Magic in order to be skilled enough to consistently perform well and a great number of players have yet to even come close to approaching the required threshold.
Most Magic players lack skill first and foremost which might sound a bit off-putting at first. Let me explain though: of all the traits required to become a world-class player skill is usually the one that needs the most improvement. Skill is also the most straightforward to acquire though as all you really need to do is keep an open mind and allow yourself to learn. This means listening to better players admitting to mistakes and playing as often as you can. Skill is one of the few things about Magic that actually can be taught but you can only improve in this category as much as your opponents and playtest partners will allow you to. What that basically means is that if you keep “smashing scrubs” at FNM you may think you’re hot stuff but in reality you’re not improving at all. In fact you’re probably getting considerably worse as your play warps around theirs and you become trained to play around bad plays as opposed to good ones.
As a result of this the only way to truly improve is to play with stronger players. I think that this is likely the best explanation of why so many players are lacking skill as most of them don’t take the time to seek out better competition and instead continue to stay in the lull between “good” and “great.” Before I went away to college I lived in Flint and I had very few skilled players to compete with. I was fine at Magic but I didn’t get much better by playing with those players. The store where I first started playing FNM at back when I was 15 however was filled with great players (Jason Terry was one of them and to this day I feel I owe him a lot when it comes to getting me where I am today) and I went from playing bad mill decks to playing Zoo Gruul and Dralnu with the very best of them in less than a year. In fact my growth from “scrub” to “good player” was so accelerated that I didn’t even notice when I had actually crossed over. The simple fact is though that the only way to improve is to continue challenging yourself by seeking out better and more strenuous competition.
Some of my friends here in Grand Rapids that I play with aren’t very good and those players tend to flock to the less popular stores in the area. I constantly ask them why and they always tell me that it’s because they “want to win.” This is easily the absolute biggest mistake that someone looking to succeed at Magic can possibly make. If you go to FNM and smash everyone with your Jund deck because they were all playing Timbermaw Larva.dec then what have you really accomplished? I mean if your goal is just to win store credit to buy cards and keeping playing at FNM then I suppose no argument I make will change your mind. On the other hand though if your goal is to take your game to the next level going to Timbermaw Larva Land each week is not doing a single thing for you. So many people are afraid to lose but losing teaches you far more than winning ever could.
There is a danger in losing though. When an unprepared mind loses at Magic they tend to blame it on something outside of their control. By now you’ve probably read a hundred articles that have told you to not blame luck or topdecks for losses and I’m here yet again to reinforce that notion. Yes luck exists and I’ve personally written about that in the past. However in most cases there is something that you could have done differently and it’s all about playing well enough to put yourself in a position where you have the most options from your topdecks and also to make yourself the least vulnerable to theirs. But what is that and how do you learn it? It’s simply skill and it comes from better players.
When people ask me how to get better I simply say that they need to step out of their comfort zone and be far more open to losing. Lose and lose well. Understand why you lost and don’t let it happen again. Watch more skilled players and play against them. I’m personally certain that if one was to go up to say Patrick Chapin and ask him to play a game of Magic with him at some random PTQ or Prerelease that he most definitely would do so. I distinctly remember years ago when I was quite bad at Magic I asked Patrick to play a game or two with me after a release event and he happily did so explaining to me every step of the way where I was going wrong and how to make better plays. Ever since that day I’ve done the very same for new players at the events I go to as I think making people at your local shop better at Magic will not only allow them to enjoy the game more but also will help improve the overall skill level of the player base in your city. That helps everyone and it’s fairly easy to do.
Finally if you want to get better you need to understand the game better. To do this use the best resource you have available to you: the internet. Read Magic articles and a lot of them. I can’t stress this part enough. You will learn how to metagame you will get an edge during PTQ seasons and you will often find things that will motivate you to try even harder to get better. Online Magic articles have existed for a long while and at present there are more articles available than ever before. Make use of them!
So to summarize:
Take advice from those better than yourself
Don’t be afraid to lose
Practice practice practice!
Be open-minded and try to understand your mistakes
Ah dedication. This facet of strong play is probably the hardest to come by. Dedication simply cannot be taught – you either have it or you don’t. Most of the time players think that they have it but in reality they just don’t.
Before I get into this too deeply allow me to say this: dedication means a couple of things in this context. Dedication means that you not only have the motivation to be good but also that you have the time and resources to be good. This is a critical point and one that a lot of players simply can’t live up to. I actually think that this is why many of the players on the pro circuit are in their twenties – they don’t yet have careers and heaps of bills to pay and they have the luxury of being able to put life on hold to travel and grind out tournaments (the same goes for PTQs). The guy who is recently married and trying to have a baby probably doesn’t have time to be testing three nights a week and taking weekends off to drive five hours for a PTQ you know? It just doesn’t work and that is largely why so many players that excel in the other two categories often fail to “make it” – their life simply won’t allow them to.
Now with that said let’s examine what dedication means for the rest of us. If one is truly dedicated to Magic and has the time and resources to expend in order to reach the next level then he acknowledges the fact that a few weekends a month he won’t be able to go partying and that sometimes he’ll miss family events and other special occasions. He knows that he’ll miss work and that sometimes even classes will get skipped to go drafting. He knows that even if he puts in hundreds of hours to Magic and spends boatloads of money to travel and pay tournament fees it may never truly pay off. He understands the risks and takes that leap of faith regardless.
And yes that takes a special kind of person. I actually know very few people like this and I don’t think I could name more than six or seven that truly have this characteristic (well six or seven that haven’t made it yet obviously). That’s a dishearteningly small number of people but unfortunately that’s probably the correct number. Many will say that they have dedication and they’d “do whatever it takes” to make it on the Pro Tour. In most cases though that just means that they’ll playtest a few times and just see how it goes. I’m not saying that you need to test all the time. In fact you truly don’t even need a regular testing schedule. All you need is to be able to learn when you do test (see the Skill section) and that in and of itself isn’t something that should be too difficult to accommodate for.
To best portray the type of person that I’m talking about here I’d like to mention Gavin Verhey. Go read some of his articles. Seriously exit out of this one and go read some. Of all the players that I’ve ever met that aren’t “on the train” Gavin has the most heart. It’s that kind of person that wants it “so bad it hurts.” Before I met him I thought that I wanted it more than anyone but I was clearly incorrect about that. It is that kind of dedication that makes great players and I think his example is an exceptional one to follow.
For myself I have always had a desire to be the best at whatever I do. However we all know that that just isn’t how the world works and over time one learns such facts. I realized that I couldn’t excel at everything and after failing time and time again at various things I made peace with that. Magic isn’t like track and field though. If you want to be a Magic pro you can achieve it through hard work long hours and perseverance. If you want to beat Usain Bolt’s Olympic record there just isn’t any hope for you. We all want to be good at something and I’ve always thought that Magic was something that I could just be great at. I feel it every time I sit down to play at a PTQ and with each win I push harder and harder to make it happen. But it isn’t enough to see yourself at the finish line. You can’t just daydream about sitting down across from Luis Scott-Vargas at the Pro Tour finals. No you need to see yourself overcoming each hurdle toppling every wall placed in front of you.
You’ve got to want it and you’ve got to want it bad.
Last but certainly not least is attitude. When Larry and I were talking about the qualities that he should look for in players I explained to him that attitude is probably the most crucial. It is probably the least important to becoming a good player but it is the most important when building a team. When you send a team of players to compete at a PTQ and they all are sore losers and treat their opponents like dirt how does that make you look? Do you truly want those kinds of players representing you?
The answer is no of course you don’t. However those types of players exist in droves out there and we’ve all had the “pleasure” of playing against them hundreds of times. He’s the guy that says “if I had drawn that Swamp I’d have destroyed you” after you beat him 2-0 and the guy who tells you that your deck is awful just because you didn’t get it off the internet. Those players have bad attitudes and they will never “make it.” Well actually they might.
See that’s why I said that this one was the least important to become a good player. If you’re a total jerk but you have lots of skill and a ton of dedication then you probably have what it takes to make it to the Pro Tour. However people won’t like you and you’ll get a bad reputation. Now I know what you’re thinking: “but GerryT is just like that!” No he isn’t. Gerry Thompson is sarcastic to an absolute fault but he doesn’t take himself seriously like the people I’m describing do. I have no doubt in my mind that when Gerry acts like some self-proclaimed god that he doesn’t truly think that way but rather he’s being humorous and light-hearted. It’s just not the kind of humor or light-heartedness that we’re all used to or so I should expect (this is the part where I mention that I truly hope that he doesn’t comment on this article just to prove me wrong haha). The people that I’m talking about are the ruthless win-at-any-cost types of players. Cheaters fall into this category and so do the “shady players.” These players will win and often win more than other players do. But in my opinion being a great player isn’t just about skill and winning – it’s about having a moral compass that points due north and about being at least somewhat noble. I think that there definitely is a sense of honor in Magic and sometimes I feel like I’m alone in that.
For example stretching the rules to gain an advantage is in my opinion wrong. Many good players do it and even good friends of mine endorse it. If it is technically allowed under the rules of the game and it helps you win then there is truly nothing “wrong” with it though I personally feel that it’s something I could never do. It’s kind of like ripping people off in trades when they don’t know the value of cards. One could argue that it is the person’s fault for not knowing the card’s worth but I’ve never been able to pull it off. And as much as I am ashamed to admit I’ve tried to do it. I really did and I actually ended up getting ripped off as a result because I wanted to “make it even.” And really I think “making it even” is exactly how I feel when it comes to playing the game itself. I want to be on even footing with my opponents so that when I win I win because I played well. This concept is why I consider attitude to be one of the factors involved in becoming a better player.
When you win at Magic win because you outplayed your opponent. When you interact with other players be polite and bolster the amazing community that this game has. If you’re comfortable with being an ass then perhaps you can ignore this section of the article. However I believe that doing so would be a shame because personally I feel that being honorable upstanding and overall positive as a player is part of what makes you good for the game and not just good at it. I mean it’s a matter of integrity. Integrity might not help you with combat math or with knowing who to send in the red zone and who to keep back but it will teach you how to be liked. It will allow you to go to any given tournament and be able to walk up to any group of players and be welcomed with open arms to become a part of those secretive playtest groups and to be the “nice guy” on the Pro Tour. Because really what good is skill if you taint it with arrogance and dishonesty?
Putting It All Together
So there you have it: a comprehensive checklist of “how to be good at Magic.” Yeah it’s just my opinion and the last category isn’t even technically needed to get on the Pro Tour but that’s just how I feel about it. And ultimately if you didn’t want to hear my opinion you wouldn’t read any of my articles in the first place right?
For me being good at Magic means that you have the ability to play the actual game well and that you understand the mechanics. It means that you are willing to put in the time and effort to be more than just another PTQ grinder and it means that you have the correct outlook on the game. It means you shake your opponent’s hand after a match even if he didn’t offer you the respect that you offered him. You don’t look at Magic exclusively as it applies to you and you alone – you think of Magic as both the game that it is and as a community of those who play it. You respect your fellow players and you are willing and able to cooperate with them and build both their ability and your own. Most of all you have to love Magic and all that it encompasses. If you’re to this point you might just be ready.
As I said before skill is what most lack. I do and I consider myself to be a pretty good player. However I can’t go toe-to-toe with Gabriel Nassif and until I can I still have room to grow. I certainly have the dedication though I feel that even that is something that I sometimes lose sight of and lack. Attitude was what I was missing for so so long and it wasn’t until last winter that I was given a slap in the face that woke me up. Now I am able to see my own faults and analyze my mistakes honestly. I personally am on the road to becoming a better player and I think it is important for me to consider just what the obstacles ahead of me are and how I will go about overcoming them. That being said I hope that you all can walk away from this with even a slightly better understanding of where you are as a player and whether or not you agree with me on the subject of attitude. Is it as important as I personally feel it is or does the way in which one conducts himself truly not an important feature in a player’s proverbial checklist? Please speak up.
And in any case thanks so much for reading.
Until next time…
Shinjutsei on MTGO