Ideally, this article would have come after a big tournament victory where I made a series of brilliant decisions, since that would make this article seem more important. Sadly, I haven't won anything lately, but I also haven't gotten to play very much. Regardless, I think there's a lot to learn from an article like this since my process is a little different and potentially more in-depth than most people's.
As always, if anyone wants further analysis, I'll be more than happy to help out in the comments section.
Study and Learn
It's no secret that I bring a notebook with me basically wherever I go. If, for whatever reason, the notebook isn't there, hopefully my phone has some battery life, as I never know when I'm going to think of something that ends up being really important. How did it get to that point though?
I'll start by saying that I am not a natural talent. Sure, when I started playing tournament Magic I was winning, but I had a really good teacher in Adam Gunderson who caught me up to speed very quickly. He wanted nothing more than to succeed at Magic and so did I. We had nothing else going on in our lives that we deemed worthwhile, and Magic was what we set our sights on.
Adam was content ripping a decklist off the internet and going from there, maybe making small changes along the way, but I saw the potential for more. Even to this day, it has always been more important for me to find out what was "correct" rather than racking up match wins. If you think of Magic as one long session, it should be easy to see how knowledge will be more important in the long run. That knowledge will win you various tournaments eventually, but more importantly, it will teach you how to build decks, how to metagame, how to sideboard on the fly, how to know when to audible decks, and so on.
Magic is one big session after all. Whether it's the Magic Online grind, the pro point grind, or the FNM grind, you are better off counting your victories as things you did correctly, and not the trophies you've won. Different people play Magic for different reasons, and I can certainly respect that. However, if you're in it for the long haul and really want to make a name for yourself, what's important is constant success over a long period of time. If you're the type to just borrow a deck from a friend and enjoy a weekend of battling, that's fine with me too.
So you should start by learning. You can start slow, learn the how's and why's of what you're currently interested in whether it's what you're playing in a tournament or not. Personally, I just dove in. By the time I got internet access it was Invasion Block Constructed, and I compared the winning decklists, read what people had to say about them, and drew my own conclusions. It was not long before I had my first PTQ Top 8.
Also, when you're studying what other people are doing, make sure you make note of the why. Something might seem "bad" or "wrong," but chances are they had a reason for why they did what they did. Instead of brushing it off, it's often more important to try and get inside their head.
When a new format rolls around, it's best to learn all the decks and how they match up against each other, as that knowledge will prove valuable further down the line. Additionally, it allows you to figure out what you're interested in playing earlier. Perhaps more importantly, it will allow you to figure out what you aren't interested in, as I know quite a few people who hop from deck to deck late in the season trying to find something they like. Those types of situations are far less catastrophic when they happen early in a season.
For example, after Pro Tour Theros you probably should have built U/W Control, G/R Monsters, and the non-Heliod devotion decks. Most of those decks stayed constant throughout the season and you could have had a huge edge over everyone. I'm not saying that's going to be the case the entire time, but whether it helps you for three months or for nine, it's still probably worth spending a night or two to figure it out.
Not everyone has the luxury of being all Magic all the time like I do, but the time you dedicate should be spent wisely. Instead of surfing Facebook, you could be reading articles. Instead of watching a boring TV show, you could be studying decklists, including your own.
Set aside some time to learn the format, not just what how your deck operates within that format. If you were playing G/W Aggro and Esper Control just won the last big tournament, you should know that Mono-Blue Devotion likely isn't going to be as popular and you can afford to trim on Skylashers and Mistcutter Hydras. Without that intricate knowledge of the format and how tournament results may shift things, you won't be able to capitalize on when something goes favorably for you.
In the olden days, I used to watch a lot of replays on Magic Online to better understand the format. It would give me a sense of how people sideboarded, what the matchups were about, and how people approached those matchups. These days, I tend to figure that out on my own or watch coverage of real life events. Either way, watching other people (and paying attention to what's going on!) will likely teach you more than you ever thought possible.
Learn that format and be constantly updating to your knowledge base on it.
This is not for everyone, but it's what I enjoy the most. Not many people care as much about fine-tuning the last few slots in their deck (and that includes the sideboard) as much as I do, and that's okay. If you feel more powerful wielding the 75 cards that won the last big tournament, that's great; you should stick with what works for you.
Brewing is easy though. Essentially, you just write down stuff. I look at nearly every single Magic Online Daily/Premier Event decklist, every PTQ Top 8 decklist, every SCG Open Top 8 decklist, and every Grand Prix/Pro Tour decklist that gets posted. If anything strikes me as unique or interesting, I'll copy it down in a notepad file for later use. When I'm bored or looking for something to work on, I'll go back through those files to try and find inspiration.
When looking at decklists, I note potential options or builds that I could potentially use in the future. Currently, I have these written down:
MOD Birthing Pod (probably Kiki-Pod) - Stonehorn Dignitary
MOD everything - Gut Shot
MOD Scapeshift - Meloku, the Clouded Mirror
MOD / LEG Burn - Anhk of Mishra
MOD Junk - Razorverge Thicket, Horizon Canopy, Sorin, Lord of Innistrad, Angel's Grace
MOD Ad Nauseam - Hive Mind
M15 STD - [redacted]
They aren't all going to be winners, but that's not the point. All that matters is thinking about new, different things and keeping your options open.
To me, brewing is not just about building new decks. One of the most important parts of brewing is how altering ten cards might change a matchup. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is throwing away a deck with a lot of potential because their first version of the deck isn't cutting it. You should test, then improve the deck, then test again!
Demonstrate Your Range
I use this phrase a lot and that's because I really like it. Someone like Jared Boettcher is a dangerous opponent if you don't already have a scout on what he's playing. So far in Legacy, he's gotten good finishes with Sneak and Show, Combo Painter, Control Painter, U/W/R Stoneblade, and Four-Color Delver. He played Ad Nauseam at a Modern Pro Tour and then U/W Heroic at the next.
He's done well with all these decks. If you sit down across from him round 1, you have no idea what hands to keep or whether he's even playing a "real" deck. That type of advantage is terrifying. I would rather play against Guillaume Wafo-Tapa than Jared Boettcher, even though Wafo-Tapa is almost certainly a better player with a more thoroughly tuned deck and has probably practiced his deck more than Jared. It should be noted that I am something like 0-4 against Wafo-Tapa in matches.
This is not meant as a strike against Jared, who I'm sure is very, very good. There is just a lot of security in knowing what your opponent's strategy is. I would rather fight the enemy that I know instead of the enemy I don't, even if the enemy I know if much more powerful.
My advice is to step outside your comfort zone. You never know when your friend is going to hand you a Grixis Painter's Servant deck a week before the tournament, tell you it's the nuts, and guarantee you'll Top 8 the event if you play it well. If it were me, I wouldn't touch that Painter deck because I wouldn't be confident in my ability to pilot it correctly. Jared seemingly has none of those apprehensions.
By playing different decks (and even formats) than you're used to, you'll learn even more about Magic. To this day, I still can't figure out how to construct an aggro deck well. I've built basically everything else well except for aggro decks despite several attempts trying. There are also several tournaments that I knew aggro was well-positioned, but I couldn't pull the trigger because I didn't have a good list. Without that confidence in my deck or my ability to wield it, I might as well not even sign up for the tournament.
So get out there and try some different stuff. As I mentioned in the above section, there will be times when you have it all figured out, and you should keep running whatever you're winning with. Don't let your love for brewing or switching decks stop you from winning tournaments. There's a time and a place to practice, and that is generally not during larger tournaments where actual prizes are on the line.
Learn From Your Mistakes
Back in the day, I used to re-watch my matches to see if I could find any mistakes that weren't obvious in retrospect. Nowadays, I can typically sniff out where a game went wrong, but I could still be re-watching things.
Aside from that, there are mistakes you can make in metagaming, deck building, sideboarding, mulliganning, etc. that you might not realize right away. Feel free to talk to friends and see what they thought. They might not always be right, but it's important to have someone whom you can trust that is able to keep you in check and keep your head straight. I'm still looking for one though, heh.
It's important not to beat yourself up over it. There will always be other chances, other opportunities to succeed. It's all about learning from your mistakes and not squandering the opportunities you have in the future. Glenn Jones wrote an article earlier this week that touched on his experiences and it really hit home with me. I can't count the amount of times I had the tools to put together a winning performance but botched it somehow.
That's just all part of the journey though. If you're able to pick up on the fact that it was within your grasp, it's probably a mistake that you won't make again.
Have A Good Mentality
This might be the most important. Again, keep in mind that it's just one big session and that if you're doing things correctly, eventually good finishes will happen. Clearly that's easier for me to say than for you to do since I already have some trophies, but that doesn't make it any less true. When I started playing competitively, I didn't have any grandiose notions about winning a Grand Prix or Pro Tour, I just did the best that I could while trying to learn. These days, I'm not thinking about how many match wins I need or how to close to goal X I am, I just try to play one round at a time.
It can be easier to blame things on luck and to ignore the idea that every match you lose might be your own fault, but ultimately, that's what it comes down to. Magic is about so much more than just the decisions you make in game. Sure, maybe you mulliganned to four when you were playing for Top 8, but what about that other match you lost? Did you build your deck correctly? If you work on fixing those things, over time you'll start to realize you are way more in control of your own destiny than you realize.
On top of that, do your best to be likeable. Berating your opponents or people you consider worse than you might make you feel better about yourself in the short term, but I've made a ton of friends and connections over the years, and it's been by (mostly) being a pleasant person. There are times when you're looking for a deck, a ride to a tournament, or a floor to crash on, and having a network of people that actively want to help you can be pretty nice. Just be sure to repay that favor or pay it forward when you get a chance.
Good things will come, but sometimes you have to be patient.
Err, I should actually stop doing that.
It can be tough sometimes though. Sometimes there's a deck I like, and I just keep playing that despite knowing there is a "better" option out there; I keep telling myself it’s good. Most of the time the best option is playing what you know best, but using that as an excuse is incredibly dangerous.
Be aware of stuff like that. I will never write something that I don't believe is true, but just because I believe it's true doesn't necessarily mean it is. One of my biggest shortcomings is that sometimes I don't listen to people even when I know I should. I'm one of the hardest working people in Magic, so it's important that I trust that my conclusions are correct, but sometimes they aren't.
In short, I should listen to my own advice more often. You should probably do the same.
Trust Your Gut
This is another example of how I could do a better job of listening to myself. There have been instances where someone has shown me their deck the day before a tournament and I've thought, "Wow, that looks really good. Obviously it needs some tweaking, but this is probably better than what I'm playing." I have never been disappointed when I've had that reaction.
Five-Color Blood, Dark Depths, Gindy's initial Delver list, and McLaren's Kiki Control are all semi-recent examples of decks that I saw and immediately knew there was something there. It was no surprise to see those decks do well because I knew they would.
However, there are also instances of Todd Anderson yelling at me to play Mono-Black Devotion at Pro Tour Theros where I was almost insulted. Thrill-Kill Assassin? Lifebane Zombie maindeck? Pack Rat? These cards are all terrible. Sometimes a deck will be more than the sum of its parts, and you'll dismiss it without giving it a chance.
We don't have time to test everything, update the decks, and then test some more. We rely on intuition at times due to necessity, but you have to train your intuition to be right in the first place. I pride myself on having a pretty solid BS meter, but Mono-Black Devotion was a giant miss for me. After playing B/R Midrange at that Pro Tour and having a lackluster performance while Mono-Black made the Top 8, I started to think about it more. Anger of the Gods wasn't well-positioned like I thought it would be, and without it I didn't have any need for red cards. In that instance, I needed it explained to me because I hadn't come across a similar situation previously.
So You've Hit A Brick Wall
You think you're doing everything right but can't seem to buy a match win? Well, chances are you probably aren't doing everything correctly. Take a step back and re-assess what you think you know about the format and discuss it with your friends. Chances are they have some differing viewpoints that you could learn from.
Even after playing Magic for over a decade and actively trying to learn, I still don't know everything. The amount of times I've realized that everything I thought was correct was actually wrong is incredibly humbling. Magic is all about making good decisions, both inside and outside of the game, but doing what you perceive as learning is only part of the solution. At times, you have to challenge your notions because you never know when you might be wrong.
If you want to play Magic professionally, Top 8 a Grand Prix, or even just win an FNM, you have the tools. I came from nothing (and I mean that), and now there are people who look to me for advice. I'm not going to say it was easy, but if this game is something you truly want to excel at, I promise it will be worth it.
You have the tools you need to succeed, you just have to figure out how to use them.