"How do I get better at Magic?"
This question gets asked to me a surprising amount when I'm frequenting Open Series events, but the answers I give out are never scratching the surface due to time constraints and complexity of the subject. I've tried to have a generic answer in the past, but it always seems to not want to be heard. Nobody wants to fish for themselves, but they would rather hear something so profound that they will see the clear path to Pro Tour greatness instantly. However, Magic is like everything else on this planet where you don't just "magically" end up where you want to without putting in the work.
Hard work shows better results. Just being around Magic doesn't mean you will get better. Just because you want it doesn't mean you will get it. That is why we call it "living the dream" after all.
Now I'm not here to discourage anyone from wanting to get better at Magic because it certainly can be done. I'm living proof that with hard work it can be done. What I'm here to do is be the wake up call for what it takes to be great. To learn how to start getting your game to exactly where you want it to be.
Most players actually think that the secret to being good at Magic has something to do with being good at Magic. That's ludicrous! The secret to being good at Magic is having the mental strength to improve. You can't just be good at Magic because you want to be. It takes hard work and dedication to master something just like everything else. It takes a very strong mindset to handle adversity.
Step 1: Self-Assessment
Just like anything in life, you need to know where you're currently at and where you want to end up before anything else can be done. You can't just keep playing the same way and expect to be holding a trophy at the end. You need to constantly be evaluating results and putting in the effort that is needed for your specific goal.
The most important part of this process is to be realistic. Just because you want to play on the Pro Tour doesn't mean it's a realistic goal if you have no time to actually test. Sure, reading articles and watching videos can help, but they will never imprint the fundamentals needed to get as good as you want to be. You need to put in the hours! Think of it this way, you can read about nutrition and watch videos about how to properly work out, but those things will never actually make you healthy and fit. You need to put in the hours of work and have the discipline to get the results you want.
This is a crutch for many of those who have a ton of priorities outside of Magic. I hear the excuse far too many times that they just don't have enough time to dedicate to Magic to be as good as me. That not being as good as me is somehow something I will judge them for or that they will judge themselves for.
Too many people have forgotten that Magic is a luxury and not a responsibility added to everyday life. Your family and your job come first. It's as simple as that. Magic comes after all of the most important responsibilities have been met, but that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice success due to those priorities. It just means that you need to work harder when you have the opportunities to do so.
Magic Hack #1: Only Playtest Sideboarded Games
This is an important step for anyone who doesn't have enough time to dedicate towards Magic. You have already decided that you do not have enough time to build your own deck for the upcoming Open Series event so you found one you liked that one of your favorite players wrote about. He or she gave a detailed summary about why the deck is good and how to play it. It even had a sideboard guide! You sleeve it up and take it to your local card shop and get some games in with your friends to prepare for the event. You sit there for five hours and only play game 1s learning close to nothing.
Consider game 1s in Standard to be the equivalent of your warm-up cardio. Each deck is leaning heavily towards doing their own powerful thing with a plethora of good sideboard removal spells sitting on the wayside. Use them! Learn how to sideboard with the deck and why that writer chose to sideboard in that way to begin with. Sideboarded games are much more complex than any game 1 matchups and are the games that define results in tournaments. Testing game 1s is a luxury only those who have a ton of time to dedicate towards Magic have.
Step 2: Have Fun
Magic is a game. I know this can come to a surprise to some of you, but it is just a game. We spend our weekends in convention centers with like-minded individuals who enjoy doing the same things we do. We get to hang out with our friends and not worry about the stress of everyday life. We get to have fun!
Too many players put unneeded stress on themselves based on their tournament results, whether it's about a tournament finish or even before the event starts. Their level of happiness is solely dependent on their results.
This is bad! So very very bad!
Magic is just a game. It was created for people to enjoy their time while playing it. Nobody gets upset when they are playing Magic with nothing on the line, but once the tournament gets underway, everything changes. The stress of accomplishment changes your perspective on things and forces a shift in priorities. Instead of enjoying yourself and wanting to get better, the only thing that matters is winning. If you win you're happy, if you lose you're sad.
You can never get better at Magic if you're not enjoying it. If at any point you don't enjoy playing, then stop. It is as easy as that. If you don't want to stop but also don't enjoy it, then you need to reassess your priorities. You could very well be playing Magic solely for the rush of winning.
I can't stress the level of importance the next magic hack can have on your future results. Re-read the last sentence. Don't read the next just yet. Sit back in your chair and prepare yourself for one of the most important lessons you will ever learn in Magic. Don't just read these words because I need you to hear them.
Magic Hack #2: One Match at a Time
"I just play Magic until the judges stop me."
This is my response every single time someone asks me what I need to make top 8 and I mean it. I no longer stress over what it will take for me to make the top 8 or what I need to accomplish over the weekend to get the adequate points to continue my journey in the hamster wheel. I just play Magic. All the stress melts away after I hand in my decklist. I did all the work I could for the tournament, and now the fate of my tournament life rests on my abilities as a Magic player. I can no longer control what my deck looks like but must use those tools to navigate my way through my matches. There is nothing I can control from this point on except for how I play my next round.
Looking further ahead than the next round can be the most detrimental thing to your tournament life. Obviously you need to win a lot of Magic rounds to make top 8 of a tournament, but putting a number on it can only add stress to the experience. If you say, "I only need four more wins to make top 8," that really equates to needing four wins for internal happiness. Your brain translates this goal into a necessity where anything that hinders it will be a travesty. Losing doesn't become an option to your psyche except it obviously is still an option in reality. All of a sudden the thought of winning becomes stressful since it is a necessity, and losing becomes the greatest fear.
Instead of stressing over anything, just play Magic! It sounds so easy, doesn't it? Just worry about next round and play until the judges don't put up your pairings. Everything else can wait until after the event. Even the tilt! Worry about next round until there isn't one and then and only then can you complain, analyze card choices, and do all of those things that cost you wins during the actual event. Just relish in the fact that you are spending your weekends playing a game while doing so.
Step 3: Internalize Validation
Much like everything in life, you will never be happy if it is dependent on another person's opinion. You need to appreciate your accomplishments no matter how small they may seem in comparison. I see this all the time. I sit down against someone with a playmat littered with Star City Game Invitational Qualifier pins and they immediately invalidate those accomplishments since they are miniscule compared to my Invitational top 8s. They put those pins on their playmat for a reason and that reason is because they are proud of them, yet now they are embarrassed by them because my accomplishments are bigger? Like I'm judging them because they haven't top 8'd a Pro Tour or looking down on them because they haven't accomplished more than me.
Do you judge players who have fewer accomplishments than you do? Then why would I be judging you?
Your opinion of yourself is the only thing that matters. It is none of your business what others think of you. All that matters is being happy with your accomplishments and striving to improve on them. Looking for external validation can be one of the most damaging things in your pursuit for self-improvement.
Each and every one of us will make countless mistakes in every tournament we play. Some of those mistakes will cost us a game, a match, and eventually the tournament. Some could have been avoided, and some were very difficult to spot. The only difference is that players who internalize validation can learn from them. They don't care what other people think but only care about getting better. They will ask other players what they would have done, or why they think they made that play in the first place.
Players who can't internalize validation will try to defend their bad plays to make themselves feel better . They may even have had a chance to salvage a game after a bad play but can't admit to making a mistake. Then they just stay on a bad line to cover it up, eventually losing a game that may have been won even after a crucial mistake.
Magic Hack #3: The "I" Test
One of the biggest differences I see from players who play on the Pro Tour and those who are close but never get there is how they use the word "I". Paul Reitzl just recently was inducted into the Hall of Fame and is considered by everyone but himself as one of the greatest players in the game. He thinks he sucks. He knows he can improve and only starts sentences with the word "I" when he wants to describe how badly he played. He has internalized validation and knows that as long as he is unhappy with his personal play that he can always get better.
I encourage you to give this a shot at your next event. In between rounds you are only allowed to start a sentence with "I" if it refers to how you made a mistake or if you're asking a friend if they would have made the same play. You cannot use the letter to start a story about how masterfully you outplayed your opponent and found the correct line even though it was so difficult to discover. Let's be honest, you curved out and your opponent didn't. The end!
Step 4: Lose
Tournaments are not designed to create winners. There is a single winner and countless losers at the end of any competition. Competitive Magic is not about how many times you win, but how much you learn when you lose. How you grow over a format and absorb as much information as humanly possible. How you constantly improve.
So many players consider each and every tournament they play in to dictate where they stand. They are awesome at it after a win, and terrible at it after a loss. It sounds ridiculous in the abstract, but it is so true when they are at an event. This way of thinking has no constant. It's just randomness and the results end up not equating to anything substantial. There is nothing to learn from.
Instead of stressing over the potential chance of winning, look forward to what you can learn after losing. That no matter what the outcome is, you will benefit from it. That the only constant you need is that you will get something out of your time in a tournament.
Once you finally break from the chains of thinking that losing is bad, you can finally be free from the fear of it. The fear of losing can control many of the decisions you make in-game and cause you to not find the aggressive lines needed to win close games. You can just play Magic the best way you know how to and be happy.
Magic Hack #4: You are not the Hero
You may be the protagonist in your own story, but you are the antagonist in your opponent's. You did not "deserve" that win. You were not entitled to that trophy. It was not yours. It would have been if you won it, but you didn't. History is written by the victor. You were not that.
It is so crucial to understand that you were not deserving of something you did not obtain when it comes to competition. Just because you wanted it does not mean it should be given to you. So many times I hear stories about how someone's opponent was bad and could have won so many turns earlier if they were as good as they were. All I hear is that their opponent got the toy they wanted to play with and now they are throwing a temper-tantrum because they think it's theirs.
You deserve what you earn in competition. Even if you made a mistake and still won, you deserved it. That's how variance works. Sometimes you win because of skill and sometimes it's luck. Same goes for losing. Again, the only constant is that you are learning from the experiences and trying to use the information to get better in the future.