On August 1st, I tweeted:
After thinking about @ReidDuke for awhile, I've concluded that my performance in all of Magic has been shameful and I need to try harder.— Sam Black (@SamuelHBlack) August 1, 2013
And I resolved to focus on getting better the way I imagine that Reid did.
It's hard to just decide to try harder to get better. I think most people don't know how to do that. At the time, I had a plan. I said my performance in Magic was shameful because I suddenly understood how I could do so much better, and I just had to really try. I came up with a plan, but I've completely failed to execute it.
I don't have the discipline.
Maybe you do.
Are you serious about improving your game?
Right, I assume you'd probably like to get better, but are you really serious about it? If so, let me tell you what I think you should do.
I don't know that this works from experience, but it's the plan I formed for myself that I imagine would work if I had the discipline to do it.
It all started with Reid's list.
After an "unsatisfactory" performance at the Player's Championship in 2012, Reid made a list of every mistake he made in the tournament.
Then some things happened that we, the casual observer, can only speculate as to what they were, and he stopped losing. Not really, but he went on an awesome run and finished second in a spot where he was considered the extremely heavy favorite to win the World Championship the next year.
What do I think those things were?
Well, it all starts with the list, of course.
I've often felt that I get better much faster from playing in tournaments than I do from testing.
We can usually test dozens of games and come to some conclusions and improve our deck some, but three rounds into a tournament suddenly a lot more comes into focus. It "shouldn't" be this extreme, but it just is.
I think a lot of that is because the losses hit a lot harder, which if we're in the right mindset makes us think about them a lot more.
Clearly, I believe thinking about losses is a key component of rapid improvement.
Let me outline my plan.
After every game / match I lost, I intended to stop and think through what happened and point to every possible decision that I could have made that would have had a potentially positive impact on the outcome of the game. This could be anything from deck choice to card choice (archetype vs. specific "tuning" of the last few cards) to mulligans, from in-game decisions to pacing, bluffing, reads, or anything else. I'm not especially looking for excuses about why I made the play I did. Not "I played badly because I couldn't think my best because I hadn't slept—I should sleep more." That might be true, but it doesn't really tell me much about Magic. What specifically did I need to think more about, and what different play could I have made if I'd thought more clearly?
Try to think outside the box. For example, I'm playing a Jund mirror and lose. I think though the game. I played a Dark Confidant on turn 2, and then my opponent played Liliana and made me sacrifice it. I might think, "Well, I could have played Tarmogoyf instead," and then I might conclude that that wouldn't have made any difference since either would have died to the following Abrupt Decay. But at this point I haven't explicitly acknowledged a third option that I think a lot of players might not consider. I could have played neither and simply passed on my second turn so that my opponent couldn't kill one of my creatures with Liliana, especially if I had a Lightning Bolt or Abrupt Decay and could just kill the Liliana if my opponent played it and used the +1.
Similarly, don't think, "Well, I was either going to play Lightning Bolt or Path to Exile as my removal spell, and neither one would have saved me from my opponent's Phyrexian Crusader, so there was nothing I could have done in deckbuilding." Of course there was. You may not have been thinking about it, but nothing stops you from considering Dismember at this point.
Don't worry at first about whether the other plays you could have made would have been "right" or whether there was any way you could have known to make them; just try to figure out what someone might have done in your spot to win the game. Some portion of the time a play that is mathematically worse will win the game (playing around an opponent's one card instead of their three cards when they happen to draw the one card). Just be aware that it was something you could have done and then figure out if you should have later.
It might not be obvious why I think it's important to figure out what you could have done if it wouldn't be right to do it. The goal of this practice may not be entirely obvious. I don't think finding all the right answers after the fact is all that useful. I mean, it helps and is good practice, but to me it's secondary to the real goal of the project.
The idea is that if you do this after every game, enough to form habits around it, you'll start taking mental notes when you hit an observable decision point so that if you lose it will be easier for you to complete the task you know is coming for you. The goal is to get to the point where as you play you're mentally making asterisks after certain plays that you know were close or could punish you.
After you've reached that point, you should get better at identifying when those plays are going up, and then you can know to stop yourself and think more before making them. That's the real goal: to develop an alert for when you need to turn off autopilot and really process what's happening. I think the method that I've discussed is the best way to do that.
I also believe that thinking through everything after the fact will help you to build the tools you need to usefully process the possible outcomes when that alert goes off.
Let's consider an example.
This past weekend Neal Oliver impressed me and countless other viewers in his Top 4 match against Ben Lundquist at Grand Prix Oakland by playing around Ben's topdecked Celestial Flare. I don't think most people would have considered doing that. Yes, he'd just played around Celestial Flare successfully, and yes, it had been necessary and put him in a position to win. But having drawn out the Celestial Flare, I think most players would just consider the coast clear and go for the kill, but Neal didn't.
I think most viewers could see what was happening and knew to be impressed. What this means is that it was clearly right, with the emphasis being that once the play was pointed out, it was obvious to most players that it was correct but everyone was impressed because they knew they still probably wouldn't have done it. Why wouldn't they have done it if it was obvious to them that it was right?
Because when they saw it happen, they had to ask why it happened and whether it was right. "Wait, he didn't attack? Why not? Oh, because of Celestial Flare, but is it really right to play around it?" That should be the initial reaction, and the follow-up answer should be, "Well, it is a reasonable card that Ben could have drawn that Neal could lose to. What else could he lose to?" If one tries to answer that, it becomes clear that most of the considerations aren't as relevant or likely. Maybe giving him an extra draw step will let him find a Pacifism, Banisher Priest, or Planar Cleansing, but getting a Colossal Whale Pacified is nowhere near as bad as getting it Celestial Flared since the creatures it ate stay out of the game when it's Pacified and the others are simply less common.
Of course, the fact that viewers could see that Ben had actually topdecked the Celestial Flare made it that much easier to appreciate, but it was right anyway.
The goal is to get to the point where you would stop and think in Neal's spot there. You'd know when you shouldn't just attack and when you should consider playing another creature first, and you could stop and think through whether it's correct to play around Celestial Flare or not. In some ways, it's like trying to build a mental teammate who says, "Are you sure you want to do that?" before you make a play that you should think through a little more. The trick is fine-tuning this teammate so that it only speaks up at the right times.
If I believe this would work so well, why haven't I been able to do it?
As I said, I don't have the discipline. The cost is the amount of time you have to spend after each game to think. When I finish a game, I usually want to play another game right away, and I've often already clicked to join the next draft before I remember that I should try to think about what I could have done in the previous one. Not doing that is a real cost, but I think it's one that would be worth paying for many of you.
While we're here (on the subject of getting better), last night after the Grand Prix I was talking to Marshall Sutcliffe, and he asked about a checklist of things to think about when trying to figure out if you should play around a trick, saying that having a list like that to go through while playing would probably be helpful for a lot of players. So I brainstormed what I thought something like that might look like, and I came up with roughly this:
What tricks could my opponent have that influence whether I want to attack / block / cast this spell / whatever?
How likely is it that my opponent is playing each of those?
How should I modify this probability based on how the game has played out?
Has a situation come up where my opponent would have cast it if they had it in their opening hand?
How sure am I that they would have done it when they could have rather than saving it for a more valuable spot?
Has my opponent played in a way that represents it previously?
Did it cost them anything to do that? For example, if they passed on turn 3 without playing a spell, passed on turn 4 without playing a spell, then on turn 5 played a Seacoast Drake and passed and I hadn't played anything in any of those turns, I can be almost completely sure my opponent has Cancel because most likely they chose not to play the Seacoast Drake to hold up the Cancel on turn 3, especially if they played something like a Young Pyromancer on turn 2, such that the game reasonably would have played out this way if their opening hand had Young Pyromancer, Seacoast Drake, and Cancel.
Similarly, if my opponent has curved out with a two-mana creature, a three-mana creature, and a four-mana creature but done all of these things leaving one mana up, I can be pretty sure they have a one-mana trick rather than that they just happened to keep drawing cards they wished they'd drawn one turn earlier to play them on curve. Since they've been underplaying threats to hold up mana, it's cost them. But if my opponent goes two-drop, two-drop, four-drop, the fact that they happened to have a mana up on turn 3 doesn't mean much; they probably just didn't have a three-drop.
All of these things tell me how likely it is that my opponent has a trick, but simply confirming that my opponent likely has a trick doesn't really tell me that I should play around it.
If my opponent casts this, how bad is it for me?
If I play around it, what does my future look like when the card is still there? If I put my opponent on Giant Growth, am I planning to just not attack into a creature or block for the rest of the game? Maybe it's better to just lose the creature I have in play to get it out of the way. On the other hand, if it's Neck Snap, maybe I should skip an attack step and play another creature to see if my opponent really wants to commit to leaving four mana untapped every turn.
Playing around a trick means formulating a long-term plan to deal with it. If I'm not walking into it, I need to know things get better for me later. For example, if I play a good creature and my opponent attacks into it with a small creature and I'm tapped out, if I have another good creature in my hand, I'll probably block. On the other hand, if I have a Negate in my hand, I'll probably take it and then hope to eat the small creature and the trick with the Negate in the future.
I think this is most of the analysis I go through. Usually, the decision this leads to is "make them have / use it" unless that would be absolutely devastating for me or I can easily set up a situation where their attempt to use it later will be devastating for them. For the most part, I'm fine just letting my opponent use a Giant Growth as a Doom Blade with an additional cost of tapping their creature pretty often. It's still just a one for one, and a lot of the time they were really hoping to bluff some damage through and then get to use all their mana to play another creature anyway.
And that's my broad advice on how to get better at Magic for the day; I hope you found something you can use.
Thanks for reading,