Over the last year or so, I have thought a lot about what exactly I could do to analyze my game more objectively, and thus more quickly and accurately hone in on my mistakes in order to strengthen my game. I watch every one of my games that is featured on camera so as to comb through it for potential mistakes, especially games I won since it is easy to gloss over mistakes that did not get punished.
Self-evaluation is always difficult because of the need for objectivity. We all like to think that we are pretty good at this game, but in reality, Magic is such an impossibly hard game that even the best players make plenty of mistakes, however small they may be. So the first and most important principle to keep in mind is to be honest with yourself.
In the vast majority of games you play, you will make several mistakes – and not just small ones. You will make mistakes that drastically change the course of the game and decrease your chances of winning by a staggering margin. You can accept this fact and improve, or you can deny it and wallow in mediocrity. It is difficult to admit that in some sense we are “bad” at Magic because it can bruise our egos but in reality it shouldn't.
Self-improvement isn't so much about where we start or where we end but the difference between them. Maybe your end goal is to try to be great, whatever that means, but at the micro scale the best way to do that is to just get better. No matter where you are in Magic - kitchen table player, FNM grinder, or Platinum pro - you can always get better.
The second step is to be thorough. Do not let a learning opportunity pass you by. Once you find a non-obvious situation, think about it. More importantly, talk about it with anyone who will listen and offer honest feedback. Talk about the upsides and downsides of every reasonable line of play and consider as many variables as you can think of: the board state, each player's life total, the cards in your hand, potential cards in your opponent's hand, your strategy for the matchup, oddities in your opponent's deck choice or lines of play, anything. How does each of these things affect the given play? Try to be as exhaustive as possible.
Well, what if after all of this you still don't reach a consensus on what the right play was?
That doesn't matter.
I'll repeat that: That doesn't matter.
The point of this exercise is not to come to the correct conclusion and memorize it for the next time you are in that exact same situation. You will frequently have game states that are similar to those you have encountered before, and so you can draw on what you have learned previously, but Magic is too complex and dynamic of a game for you to simply memorize the correct plays from past experience and repeat them when appropriate.
The real benefit to combing through your previous games is the process itself. It is about creating a mindset where you are aware of every part of the game and what that means for your line of play. You are exercising that part of your brain, making it stronger so you can better analyze lines of play when it counts. Just like a golfer practices hundreds of different bunker shots so they can recognize different lies and adjust accordingly.
That is not to say that the results of your analysis are completely useless, they are just not the primary benefit as most players believe. The results are only interesting insofar as you can see how they change as the variables in the initial scenario change. To illustrate what I mean by this, consider the following example:
After a successful attack, life totals are twenty for you and twelve for your opponent. Do you play a post-combat Siege Rhino into a possible counterspell?
If your answer is anything other than “It depends,” you are wrong.
There are a myriad of questions to ask that could alter the decision here.
What is the rest of your hand? Is it threat dense/light? You may be wary to run your only two threats into a Crux of Fate, but is holding back going to just make you lose to a spot removal spell combined with a counterspell for your Rhino?
Do they even have a counterspell? Maybe they had an opportunity to counter the Anafenza and did not take it, making it less likely they have one. But does that mean it is more likely they have a sweeper?
How did your opponent resolve their scry with Temple of Enlightenment? Did they leave the card on top? If yes, you may be more wary of a potential Crux of Fate. If no, you are more likely to be aggressive.
How well-equipped are you to win through a Crux of Fate next turn? Dragonlord Ojutai? Have you seen part of their hand from a previous Thoughtseize? If you apply too much pressure, then Crux is a blowout. But if you don't apply enough, then Ojutai will force you to play into a Crux anyway if you do not have an answer.
How close is your opponent to casting Dig Through Time? Letting your control opponent use their mana in the early game to trade cards and then cast a cheap Dig to reload is playing into their game-plan so you should avoid it, but if they have an empty graveyard, maybe adding that first card doesn't matter as much as trying to apply pressure.
What is the rest of your deck like? Do you know anything about their list other than what you have seen? If your list is poorly positioned in game one against control you may want to be more aggressive and vice versa. Maybe you know your opponent plays more Cruxes than normal so you are wary of extending your board further.
What is your strategy going into the matchup? Are you trying to be hyper-aggressive? Are you trying to choke their mana as best as possible? When in doubt, make the play that best furthers your strategy. If that strategy isn't working, try another one.
There are so many variables to consider here that often you will have dissenting opinions on the correct play and that is perfectly valid as a means to generate fruitful discussion. Even if you do reach a consensus within your group for a specific scenario, it is beneficial to posit a slight change to see if that affects the outcome.
In the above situation, the Siege Rhino represents lethal damage if your opponent is at twelve life as I stated, but if they played Dismal Backwater earlier instead of Temple of Deceit then it is no longer lethal. A single point of life makes me much less likely to play the Rhino because the potential benefit is much lower.
I could easily go on about this play for thousands of words but the point is being able to view these decisions from every angle is important for gaining a complete understanding of each individual decision. Maybe it is correct to play the Rhino about sixty percent of the time (an arbitrary figure chosen to illustrate this point) and hold it the other forty percent, but knowing that is no more helpful than knowing whether your matchup with Abzan Aggro against Esper Dragons is 60/40 or some other ratio.
The idea is to understand what variables are important in determining the right play, just like when playtesting a new matchup you are trying to understand what the correct strategy is and what the most important cards are. Once you understand how the many variables interact with each other, you can more quickly and accurately dissect the specific scenarios you encounter in tournament play and make the correct play more often.
The difference between average and well-above-average players is most often found in the ability to consider more of the possible variables and what effect they have on the appropriate line of play.
How many of your mistakes boil down to not even thinking about the possibility to begin with? If you are anything like me, it is most of them, so building awareness is the best possible path to improvement. And the notion of a “correct play” must be viewed in the context of your awareness. If you accidentally play around a card in their hand without meaning to, then you didn't really play around it, you just got lucky that your misplay worked out even better than you thought it would.
Of course you do not have the time to run through all the possibilities in a tournament, which makes it even more important to take the time to be thorough when practicing. The process hones your instincts so that you can be confident that your instincts in-game are likely correct.
I have focused mostly on in-game decision-making here, but these principles also apply to other Magic skills like sideboarding and deckbuilding. You can't answer the question “How do I sideboard with deck X against deck Y?” without first answering many other questions...
- How does a typical game play out?
- In a long game, which deck has inevitability?
- Does deck Y have any glaring weaknesses?
- How do I expect my opponent to sideboard based on their approach to the match-up?
...and the list goes on.
This is why many writers have decried the use of sideboard guides, since in the most cases they are an oversimplification and cause players to focus on the wrong part of the equation: the end result. The focus needs to be on those questions and reasoning through them to arrive at an answer. That is what will develop your skills and make you a better player in the long run.
Magic is an immensely complex game, and often as humans we are trained to look for singular causes and black-and-white answers which are near to useless here. Sure, you will have matches where you lose entirely to variance, and recognizing and accepting those games is important – but the real improvement can be made in the non-obvious scenarios, times where the solution is dependent on many different variables.
The best players are more aware of everything going on and how those things matter, so they make better decisions in these spots more often. The difference in their chances of winning that game is fairly small as a result of this better decision-making, but over the course of many such plays, over many games, matches, and tournaments, the difference emerges.
The real difference is always there of course. The best players don't care about being right or wrong in the moment. They don't care about being better than anyone other than themselves. It's a long road, and the process can frequently seem tedious. But to reach your potential you have to learn to love the process of getting better.
It's all about the journey.