It's common knowledge that humans are creatures of habit. Whether it's having your eggs cooked the same way in the morning, taking the same route to work each day, or watching some TV in bed at night, we all have some habits that we repeat on a regular basis. There is something comforting about waking up each day and knowing exactly what to expect. To have the same patterns repeat and save us from the frightening unpredictability of the unknown.
Like Linus clutching his blanket, we hold on to these habits sometimes to our own detriment. With these habits comes complacency. When we cling to them, we blind ourselves to the possibility of anything better. Our fear forces us to remain the same rather than improve.
Ultimately, complacency breeds boredom and a strange sort of contempt. We grow to resent these life comforts as we realize the sacrifices that must be made to keep them. However, the fear of the unknown is strong and too often compels us to stay in our self-made bubbles in spite of the desire to burst it in favor of new experiences.
For Magic players, this behavior pattern manifests itself in several ways. The most obvious is players only playing one deck or one kind of deck across multiple formats. Expertise with a certain archetype is incredibly valuable, as I have argued many times; however, when it comes at the cost of playing a significantly better deck for a given tournament you are giving up too much equity. Countless times I have heard players make the justification that while their deck was not necessarily the best choice, it was the best choice for them. Often such reasoning is lauded for being a mature evaluation of one's skills and limitations, but in my opinion, this argument is toxic and stultifying.
If your goal is to have the most successful career in Magic possible, you have to make yourself as well-rounded as possible. You are rarely going to be able to play the same style of deck in every format or even on every week of a given format. By developing the skills to play multiple archetypes, you give yourself the flexibility to react to the metagame and switch decks when one becomes obsolete. Without this flexibility, you are at the mercy of the metagame, hoping your deck remains viable for months at a time.
In addition to the short-term harm you do yourself by locking in on a certain deck, there are long-term consequences. When you play a certain archetype repeatedly you become biased towards it because of the idea of it also being the best deck is attractive. Moreover, your expertise with the archetype serves to mask many of its flaws and highlight its strengths, cementing the bias in your decision. This same phenomenon occurs in reverse with decks you are unfamiliar with. You play them suboptimally in testing, and therefore, view them as worse than they actually are. Once you open yourself to the full spectrum of decks in a format, you can analyze each of them more objectively and come to a consistently better conclusion.
Biasing yourself towards certain archetypes is particularly damaging in Limited. During a draft, you want to react to the table and situate yourself in the most open colors. While you may have certain preferences, biasing yourself completely towards or completely away from a certain color or archetype means that in some percentage of drafts you are going to pass up the best deck for your seat. Without being comfortable with every archetype in the format you are never going to be as successful drafting reactively as you could be.
Now the remedy to this situation seems simple: play different decks. But for value-obsessed Magic players it is easy to give in to the fear. In this case it is the fear of losing at a tournament because you played a deck you were not familiar with. We are always looking to maximize our chances of winning this weekend, and playing a completely new deck is a surefire way to tank those chances. But I am urging you to look beyond this weekend. You have to be willing to sacrifice short-term success for long-term gains. In doing so you will miss out on some good finishes, but you will make it up over time.
The obvious solution to this issue is to get your reps in with a new deck beforehand. Play it in testing and local events until you feel ready to break it out at a larger tournament. This is fine advice, but often, that time is a luxury you do not have. Magic is an incredibly dynamic game, and the window of time where a given deck is dominant is often very short. And in reality, playing under the bright lights at a bigger event is different than playing at your local store. The pressure increases as the stakes are higher, and that is when your skills are really tested. There is honestly no substitute. So if you are serious about improving, then you can't let the fear define you. Play the deck, lose, learn, and move forward.
Another way Magic players limit themselves is with their tournament choices. Having played locally for a long time I am frequently confronted by players who are looking to make the leap into bigger events but fear that they are not yet ready for that level of competition. They have this idea that improving at Magic is this series of prescribed steps where you start at the kitchen table, graduate to FNM, then maybe a few IQs, then Opens, GPs, Invitationals, and so on, but really it's just fear. Specifically, the fear of embarrassing themselves in front of better players. Instead they have this idea that they will practice so much at lower levels that when they finally move up, they will take the event by storm and bypass the growing pains altogether.
In reality, all you are doing by holding yourself back until you're "ready" is succumbing to that fear and hindering your own progress. Life isn't an RPG where you can spend hours grinding experience by killing little minions in the forest and then run through all the castles in ten minutes. As I noted above, there really is no substitute for playing in tournaments, so if you are serious about improving, you need to make the leap and travel. It may be nice to be the big fish in a little pond crushing your FNM every week, but in the end, it is unfulfilling. Sure, it may be a "spew" to fly to that GP, but until Magic gets some serious sponsorship money it will always be a spew, so you shouldn't be doing it for monetary gain. You should be doing it for the experience and the trophy, which makes the trip worthwhile.
Personally, I fell into this trap for a long time, refusing to travel to GPs because the Pro Points didn't matter for me. In reality I was putting myself in that situation, making them not matter by never trying to accrue a meaningful number of them. Starting last year, I decided to fly to Grand Prix and put more effort into qualifying for the Pro Tour, and while I missed day two very often, I found enough success to hit Silver and play three of the last four Pro Tours. Who knows how many Pro Tours I could have played by now had I made the leap sooner. It just goes to show you always regret what you didn't have the courage to do.
The other factor that leads to players holding themselves back is that Magic as a community has the reputation of being harsh to outsiders and newcomers, which greatly contributes to this fear, but I personally find that reputation to be exaggerated, especially over the last five years when the game has exploded in popularity and as a result made the community much more open and accepting. Personally, I find meeting new players and offering them advice one of the best parts of my job as a writer, and I would wager the vast majority of my colleagues feel the same. So going to these events are a great opportunity to learn from better players and network with like-minded players, both of which are critical for improving.
The last way you can broaden your horizons is by opening yourself up to different formats. Years ago there were plenty of players that considered themselves Limited experts that really only played Constructed sparingly. This was possible because Pro Tours were not mixed format, and they did well enough at the Draft Pro Tours and Grand Prix to stay on the train. Now at the highest echelons, players have to be well-practiced in Standard and Limited, and sometimes Modern and Legacy, in order to succeed.
However, I still see players at lower levels that focus on one format and identify themselves as a "Standard Player" or "Legacy Player." Not only do you limit the range of tournaments you can play by specializing in a single format, you limit your ability to improve. Every format in Magic is unique in which skills it emphasizes and deemphasizes. In Legacy, for example, you are tested on your ability to wade through a mountain of corner-case interactions, how you time your Brainstorms, and how well you know your archetype; while Standard focuses more on staying ahead of the metagame and sideboarding. Limited tests your deckbuilding on the fly and how to read what your opponents are doing. This does not mean that other skills are meaningless in these formats, but certain skills are more important.
It is a lot like isolating certain muscle groups when exercising. You could work your muscles more broadly, but curls will be better if you are trying to build strength in your biceps and a chest press will be best for your pectorals. In Magic, each format isolates certain skill groups, and by neglecting any of them you will leave that part of your game underdeveloped. Over time you become the Magic equivalent of that guy at the gym with huge arms and chicken legs. You don't want to be that guy. Don't skip leg day. Don't skip Legacy day.
It may seem like I am limiting this advice to the commonly played competitive formats, but I think there is value to playing casual formats as well. Formats like Commander and Cube Draft stress deckbuilding, with Commander forcing you to be more creative by restricting you to one of each card. Mental Magic is excellent for making sure you fully understand what each card does, the equivalent of playing chess blind. All forms of Magic are going to force you to exercise some skill set, and it is up to you to recognize the potential of each format and maximize it.
It's easy to see that the best players are often the most versatile, the most flexible. They can pick up any deck and play it well and never seem to be intimidated or overwhelmed. To the rest of us it seems like a superhuman ability that we have yet to unlock. In reality it is a skill that they have developed over time. The skill is courage. The courage to overcome their fears and work on their games without bias.
Magic is a hard game, and making your way to the top takes an incredible amount of dedication. If you don't have the desire to put the necessary work into the game, that is fine. You can get plenty of enjoyment out of the game only playing certain decks or certain formats. You can be an FNM grinder or a kitchen table player that only comes out for the Prerelease and have a lot of fun with the game. But if you want to be the best you can, you have to put yourself into uncomfortable situations, burst that bubble, and overcome the adversity and fear that comes with the unknown.