The most vital part of my game came to me three years ago during the lowest point of my career. I was in the middle of the biggest top 8 drought I have ever experienced and thought that winning in this game was a thing of the past. My confidence level was at an all-time low, and nothing apparent was going to get me out of this abysmal spiral. The only thing I could think of that could possibly turn things around was a reboot of how I learned.
The way one learns is as important as the process of learning if done poorly. Often times, for whatever reason, people will be unresponsive to new information that could change their perception of reality. Whether it is because they are emotionally invested in what they deem true or the irrational fear of wasting the time it took to get to those conclusions, a person can fall into bad habits when it comes to learning, which is detrimental to finding success.
Magic is one of the most complex games ever invented, yet it also has a severely high level of variance pumped into each game. This deadly combination can cause people to have a very convoluted idea on what is actually happening. Initially a player who is beginning to learn Magic will often times see games won by powerful spells and lost in the same vein. This is because they and their playgroup are relatively new to the game, causing them to not understand the more subtle sides of it. Magic might be difficult to learn, but just casting Stormbreath Dragon and attacking will lead to many victories, which is exactly why many new players see skill in casting these spells even when the skill being used is understanding that Stormbreath Dragon is a powerful spell.
Maybe the most crucial talent a Magic player will ever have is the ability to evaluate cards and determine which ones are worth casting. A new player will often times seek out the most powerful cards if they value victory on the competitive scene since those are the ones that rewarded them in the shortest amount of time.
It took a moment of clarity to realize that I was learning in all the wrong ways. Instead of looking at things logically, I instead would blame my results on outside elements that were "out of my control." I realized that even though there were aspects of this game that couldn't be controlled, there were still parts of it where I was not respecting the impact I could have. It took me a while to figure out exactly what I did and didn't have control over, but it was the most important exploratory phase of my whole career.
I had to relearn many aspects of my game, and the first was respecting powerful cards. It was as if I became a Magic-snob and looked down on the most powerful strategies. I tricked myself into believing that those strategies were flawed in some way or that only "n00bs" played them to justify my thoughts of playing synergistic and "more advanced" strategies. I thought that those strategies weren't flexible enough, which deemed them worse than other things I could be doing. I was wrong on so many levels! Good cards will always exist and are played because they are so good. It's not actually rocket science to reveal a Bonfire of the Damned off the top of your library or play a crash of Siege Rhinos, but that doesn't mean it's not something you should be doing. This is actually something that I have to constantly fight when working on decks for tournaments. I often search for ways to lower my power level to increase my flexibility when left to my own devices. I've just learned to notice it more often to control my urges.
This specific problem that I had and still sometimes have might not be something everyone can relate to, but it was the first stepping stone for me to realize I was doing things incorrectly. If I could screw up something as simple as "play with the best cards," what else might I be doing wrong? I spent a long time working out the kinks in my game and respecting the fact that I was far from omniscient when it came to competitive Magic.
From this intervention I began to learn that making rules for the game was the easiest way to understand something and then internalizing it so I wouldn't have to constantly relearn the same things over and over again. I made a list of things I can control in Magic, and a list filled with things that I cannot (which also alleviates stress when preparing for events). All of these shortcuts have allowed me to have a level head when preparing for events and choosing archetypes to play week in and week out.
So what can you control in this game?
What deck you choose to play is completely under your control. This decision comes with its own set of pros and cons, but the fact of the matter is that it is your choice. This decision can often times be difficult when there is a new strategy that might be better than the one you are comfortable with comes out. Your choice becomes whether to play the deck you know better or play the deck that might be better, but the decisions might be more difficult to make correctly. The deck you are comfortable with might also be poorly positioned, which could also add complexities in the decision-making process.
Whatever the reasons may be, this decision is important and under your control. After every event, I reevaluate if my decision for choosing a specific deck was correct or not regardless of results. I've loved deck choices that I missed day two with as well as regretting those I played to a top 8 finish. Emotion seeps into this process constantly, yet it is one place where emotion should not be.
Once you have decided on a deck, the next thing under your control is what goes in said deck and how the deck should sideboard against the rest of the field. This process can be done in a number of ways, but knowing what to play and how to play it is vital to tournament success and something many people overlook. It seems so often players will play the "right" deck, but not have the correct cards in the list. They'll also sideboard ignorantly and lose more than they should. Instead of blaming themselves for the lack of background, they just dismiss their involvement and blame the deck or deck designer. This projecting of insecurities prohibits growth and causes players to stay at a lower level of skill for a longer period of time. Growth only comes to those who feel the need to do so.
Outside of the 75 cards a player chooses to use, the other things that are under your control are mulligan decisions, in-game choices, and an understanding of the format and how the deck plays in said format. All of these skills culminate into a strong technical game and a deep understanding of what is going on at any event. Playing enough to know the deck's range of mulligans, understanding matchups to identify individual card strengths, or knowing how many mulligans you can take before the deck can no longer win are things you can only learn from testing and learning from that hard work.
From this preparation, the in-game decisions, or technical play, will begin to improve and small shortcuts will begin to form. Knowing a deck well enough to shortcut early decisions is something practiced players use at every event. They don't need to spend mental energy on figuring out the early turns of most matchups thanks to already playing them multiple times. These mental shortcuts help players free up some time to better figure out how to transition games from early to mid or mid to lategame.
All of this for the most part can be boiled down to basic preparation and a logical digestion of the information being gathered. Good preparation can result in great performances. We have seen it time and time again. Certain high profile players take time off from the game and start to do poorly in events long enough to restart the fire. That is when the serious preparation starts anew and we see them begin to crush tournaments left and right. They might be highly skilled players, but the processes they use to do well are those that anyone could replicate. It's just a matter of if people are willing to put in the time and not have an emotional attachment to the things they can control in this game.
Every coin has its better half, and there are many things in this game we cannot control. Often times the word we use for all things uncontrollable is "variance."
The fact that I lose and stupid players like Brad Nelson and Shaheen Soorani win.
"I hate variance."
synonyms: unlucky, luckless, out of luck, jinxed, unfortunate, hapless, ill-fated, unhappy, star-crossed, cursed, disadvantageous.
Now a logical person will understand that variance is simply a word that implies chance. Sometimes it will be fortunate, while other times damaging, but it's relatively all the same. Unluckily, we are not all logical people.
Variance exists whether we like it or not, and in fact I can say with a straight face that we all indeed enjoy variance. We wouldn't be playing this game if that wasn't the case. The "luck of the draw" is one of the most exciting parts of this wonderful game and is what keeps us coming back. If we always knew what was going to happen, this game would lose part of its appeal and we would move onto something else that gave us a sweat. Variance isn't the enemy; entitlement is.
Entitlement causes people to go out of their way to expect luck, all the while scowling at misfortune. For whatever reason a poison finds its way into the hearts of some of us and causes those poor souls to begin to feel jaded due to the fact that all we needed was one more land. The time between rounds is no longer spent discussing politics or how Platinum Pros are taking over Magic Online one click at a time, but rather how someone in the party lost to a stupid n00b. Oddly enough the match before this one they played masterfully while their opponent was flooding out uncontrollably.
Understanding what you are not in control of and preparing for it can actually increase your win percentage as well. I know that sounds crazy, but we do play a game called Magic! For example, let's take a look at nut draws.
A nut draw is when a player has as close to the perfect opening hand as possible. Now it doesn't mean they will automatically win due to all of the other parameters on this game, but they do start the game with a significant advantage. Often times, these draws cannot be beaten and will end in a lost game for the opponent.
"Often times these draws cannot be beaten and will end in a lost game for the opponent."
Let that sentence seep in. Internalize this, because this is one of the most important lessons I have ever learned while playing this game. Nut draws exist whether we like it or not. Sometimes there is a deck in the format that has them and the only way to try to beat them is to drastically change a deck to accommodate such draws. This is more often not something you should be doing. Changing your deck by multiple cards to slightly increase your chance to beat a specific matchup-specific draw isn't worth your time. It might feel like you are giving up, but what you actually are doing is understanding that those are the games they are supposed to win, and that allows you to increase your deck's overall expected value by reallocating those resources to other problems. This greatly increases your chance of winning since you are spending less resources on corner-case scenarios and instead working on the big picture.
The same can be said for topdecks. Sometimes an opponent is just going to win if they draw something. They played to their outs and now they get the opportunity to win thanks to their efforts. It's the same thing you are trying to do! Playing around everything is often times going to cause you more harm than good, which is why it is more beneficial to try to think what cards are in their hands and what outs they have before deciding what to play around. You can't actually control what is in their hand or on top of their deck, but you can control your ability to try to deduce possible outcomes.
Now learning to breakdown games and figure out what is in an opponent's hand is really difficult and something none of us have mastered. It's actually one of the most daunting abilities in this game that people never try to master. Now I know we all try consciously or not, but just like building muscle, this ability doesn't get better without practice. You should always be trying to put your opponent on cards instead of figuring out how many different cards you can play around. After all, they can't have them all!
Next up on the list of uncontrollables is new technology. Almost every major event has some number of players bringing something new to the table ready to exploit those who are below the learning curve. Sometimes these new creations or small changes to existing archetypes are groundbreaking, but sometimes they're not. The only thing that is for sure in the middle of the event is that it exists.
I have seen many players at Grand Prix almost look down on themselves for not figuring out things that I spent weeks perfecting. It's almost as if they see me as an established player doing something new and exciting while they are playing something old and stupid. Now I can't read their mind, but I would guess they are looking down on their potential chances in said event, or even in the future.
This is not the way to go when presented with information that others are playing with new toys in the event you are trying to win. You were not in control of them bringing something new to the table, and it for sure doesn't make you a lesser magician because you didn't figure it out. All it means is that they have that deck and you have yours.
What can be controlled is your gameplan going forward in the event. Much like every war, you must do reconnaissance and figure out exactly what they are trying to accomplish by playing that deck. You don't just sit back and watch your tournament go in the toilet. You make sideboard plans and try to do your best with what tools you have! The tournament isn't over until the last match slip is filled out, and you have to treat that moment as your last breath. You didn't test that hard and drive that far to just give up because someone figured it out.
Now many of you are probably saying that is exactly what you do, but I assure you that you don't. For example, have you ever made day two of a Grand Prix or SCG Open and decided to test an unfamiliar matchup before day two? I'm guessing the answer is no, but why wouldn't you? Team Eureka absolutely smashed Grand Prix Brussels and did it very openly all weekend. It's almost as if people just let them walk all over them on day two. Now this team comprises of some of the game's best who have also prepared enough to have a deep understanding of their deck, but the day two competitors could have taken some time before bed to figure out just exactly how these guys are doing so well with a deck that was deemed bad.
There is much more you are in control of than you would think.
The next set of rules I put in place to make preparing for tournaments easier was a specific set of rules for each and every existing format. The best clean example for this is how I recently discovered that I think one Slaughter Pact in Jund and Abzan in Modern is correct. Through testing, it has shined time and time again, which made me set it in stone and say that I will no longer play without one in my deck until I or someone else gives me a good rule to change my decision. Since then I have yet to play without it and have yet to feel like this was a bad decision.
Not every rule is as simple as this one. I actually have a decently large set of rules that I have placed onto this Standard format and still to this day none of them have been wrong. I just recently realized that I missed one.
Early in testing for #PTBFZ, I discovered that the Battle Lands gave Standard a Modern feel. It was difficult to articulate, but some cards that would normally be fine in Standard felt lackluster. I couldn't put my finger on it until I had a long discussion about the format with my team. From that talk I was able to discover a couple rules that could be put in place that I haven't broken even to this day.
Rule #1: Every deck should be able to gain life.
The way decks are built in this Standard format is somewhat unique to other Standard formats. Every deck has such a high power level that taking damage is almost certain. Life is just one of the many resources in this game, but twenty doesn't go as far as it used to. It's vital for a good deck to be able to get back some of its lost life so that decision making doesn't have to constantly revolve around maintaining enough to survive.
Rule #2: Every card must be good early while also being good late.
Now this rule might be more optional than it is concrete, but it is one that I follow. Games go so super long in this format that drawing extra lands as well as mediocre spells in the lategame can be detrimental to winning. A good example for those not understanding this would be Rattleclaw Mystic in the four-color Woodland Wanderer decks. Now people are more than welcome to play strategies like that, but personally I steer clear from as many weak topdecks as possible.
Now the third rule that I have recently implemented to my roster took some time to figure out due to how convoluted it sounded. Like I said earlier, Standard has started to feel more like Modern thanks to the fetch/dual manabases. This has caused the format to restrict card choices and give most of the decks a significantly high power level. What I didn't think about was how this could affect the way you built decks.
Until now I have tried to make sure that all of my removal spells in the maindeck could target most of the creatures in the format and left cards like Valorous Stance in the sideboard. This has caused a headache when trying to fit everything I wanted into the sideboard, which meant the "silver bullet" type cards would always get the cut. Cards like Hollowed Moonlight, Infinite Obliteration, Virulent Plague, and even Dispel have all been on the chopping block, but that is all about to change.
Standard has always been a broad strokes format, which means that there was always a high number of decks you had to prepare for. That all changes when the manabases are as good as they currently are. Thanks to how easy it is to get to so many colors with ease, certain strategies will begin to prove themselves better than others. For example, Jeskai Black has proven to be a better deck than Mardu Blue. It's so true that it even sounds foolish saying so. Certain decks are better than others, which has made this format revolve around roughly six decks.
This means that preparing sideboards should include those silver bullets instead of trying to mitigate for the improbable. From now on I will be respecting the cards that I just talked about instead of trying to make my decks have more accessible spells.
Magic will never be a solved game. Its complexities are as deep as the ocean below us and the sky above. Okay, that might be a lie, but the game is deep! We will never fully understand this game, but attempting to is a step in the right direction. I hope my story of better understanding this game can help you along your journey for the same.