You're in the Top 8 of a small local Legacy tournament and are playing TES (The Epic Storm), a storm combo deck, and are paired against the only Merfolk player in the room. It's game 2, and you're down a game. Your hand:
For those of you who process these things better visually, as I do:
Your opponent is at twenty and has enough creatures to attack for lethal next turn, so you're obligated to act immediately. Additionally, your opponent has seven cards in hand, and there's a Standstill in play.
How do you win this game?
Can you win this game?
This article is, in large part, about discipline, in both noun and verb form.
1. training or conditions imposed for the improvement of physical powers, self-control, etc.
— verb (used with object)
10. to train by instruction and exercise; drill.
11. to bring to a state of order and obedience by training and control.
My goal today, as I look at a number of topics, is two-fold.
First, I want to try and help you get better at Magic. Writing articles that attempt this are difficult for me, for a number of reasons. I've found that the more specific you make such an article – for instance, an article on how to beat MUD with Tezzeret and Oath of Druids, or how to build TES to beat Survival – the faster that article will age and become irrelevant; highly specific strategic articles tend to have a short shelf life. Sometimes such an article is actually out of date by the time it hits the internet. However, as you pull back and broaden your focus, you leave more and more up to the interpretation and skill set of the reader. I believe there's a reason that there are so few seminal, classic articles that have broadly applicable theory information, such as “Who's the Beatdown?” : they're extremely hard to write.
Consider poker strategy. In poker, there are set conditions that you can discuss, because the cards don't ever change. Thus, we can talk about pot odds, hand strength from different positions, and so on, and those strategies, while certainly debatable, won't become irrelevant due to “metagame shifts” or new printings.
In Magic, the reverse is true. The cards are always changing, the field is always changing, and strategy is always changing. Basic, fundamental understandings of the game are always being challenged and updated, or invalidated by new cards. Thus, an article that broadly discussed how to play control mirrors would look one way in 1997, another in 2005, and another today. Obviously, some of the concepts would hold up, since if they didn't, the entire use of the moniker “control” wouldn't make sense from year to year, but writing an ageless article on most Magic topics is very difficult due to this constant shifting and changing in the game.
For example, some time ago, Patrick Chapin wrote a detailed and lengthy article on how to win with blue decks in Extended. If you were to read this today, there are underlying concepts you can apply to other formats provided you have enough understanding of Magic to do so, but on a basic level, that article is about a format that no longer exists.
So, today, I'll try to discuss some broad concepts and attempt to tie them to specific examples, to try and bridge that gap.
My second objective today is to help you become a better Magic writer. While this may have been more useful to some of you a few weeks ago, for the StarCityGames.com 2010 Talent Search, there aren't really that many articles on this topic, so I thought I'd take a stab at it. Generally speaking, Magic players are an intelligent lot, and many try their hand at writing, so this should be of use to a lot of you.
What makes this interesting for me is how closely related these two topics are and the way that focusing on one will often make you better at the other.
Lesson One: Don't Give Up!
Back to the game situation I posted earlier. How do you win this game?
If you look at the cards in your hand, one thing is immediately obvious: you cannot deal more than fourteen damage with the cards you have available. In other words, with the cards you have in hand alone, you cannot win the game. Thankfully, you have a resource available besides the cards in your hand: your opponent.
Merfolk is an interactive deck and, as such, it has cards like Daze, Spell Pierce, and Force of Will, cards that your opponent will use to stop you from winning the game. Because you have an Island in play, an Empty the Warrens won't win you the game as you'll still die to your opponent's islandwalking Merfolk team.
Basically, you have three options:
1 – Scoop ‘em up. You know you can't win with the cards you have available.
2 – Play a Tendrils for some amount to buy yourself another turn. While certainly an option, it's hard to imagine any card off the top that allows you to win the game in the face of an opponent who's going to see at least eleven cards before your next turn.
3 – Try to win the game.
Note that options two and three aren't mutually exclusive, as you can try to build two into three, depending on how the turn progresses; that said, we know two is likely to be a futile effort and need to focus on number three.
In order to win, you have to get your opponent to cast three spells. It's really that simple. If your opponent casts three spells before you play Tendrils, and doesn't have another counter for one of the Tendrils copies, you can win the game. In this situation, your opponent's cards are a resource. You can't win without them.
Of critical importance here is the order in which you play your cards. The only ones that really matter are the Dark Rituals into Tendrils at the end. At least one Dark Ritual and one Lion's Eye Diamond can be used as “bait” spells.
Here's how I played out this turn:
1. Lotus Petal, breaks Standstill, resolves. Storm count: 1.
5. Play Chrome Mox, no imprint. Storm count: 9.
6. Play Tendrils of Agony with BBBB. Storm count: 10.
Perhaps my opponent's play here wasn't optimal, but it's still reasonable for him to assume that I don't have my only copy of Tendrils of Agony, as with any other card in hand, he has successfully bottlenecked my mana and stopped me from doing anything.
The key thing here is to first recognize that you still have a chance to win and to play the cards in such a way that your opponent may counter the ones that don't matter. You also have to do all of this without tipping your hand. To make this sequence of plays happen, you need to know what free counters Merfolk plays, which cards might look threatening enough to counter, and understand Storm enough to realize you aren't dead just because you can't win with your own cards.
As a player, one of the most important skills you can learn is how to stay mentally checked in to a game even when it looks like you can't win. The only way to win the game scenario above is to get the opponent to play three spells, and from his side, the only way he loses the game is if you have the only copy of Tendrils of Agony in the deck, and the last three cards in hand include two Dark Rituals or one Dark Ritual and another Lotus Petal plus the Tendrils.
This is an actual game situation that came up last Saturday, and I won that game.
Game 2 of the finals of the Philadelphia StarCityGames.com Legacy Open offers another example of this idea of playing to outs in the face of likely defeat from my personal Magic history. Here's a brief recap of what happened.
Game 2, I lead out with a Steppe Lynx on my first turn, which is countered by a Force of Will, and then play a Wild Nacatl on turn 2, playing around Daze. Jim plays a Rhox War Monk on his third turn, and I have red mana up to counter it with Pyroblast, but I wait until my main phase, again playing around Daze (which Jim has sideboarded out, but I'm not aware of this). Jim plays out another War Monk, and I kill this one using two Lightning Bolts. Jim then fetches out a Dryad Arbor, untaps, and plays Natural Order for Progenitus, leaving me with a Wild Nacatl against his Progenitus.
Things look grim.
On my turn, I play out a Tarmogoyf and a Knight of the Reliquary. What I don't know is that Jim has another Rhox War Monk in hand, along with a Force of Will. Jim lets the creatures resolve, and on his turn plays War Monk (his third of the match) and has no blue card in hand, so he cannot use the Force of Will.
Some quotes from the coverage during the time from when Natural Order resolved to the final turn:
“Jim's hand was really good this game, and then he drew War Monk, War Monk.”
“War Monk, the Zoo slayer!”
“Now if this game had gone longer… if we played a little more Magic… the double Canopy would get him back in the game… As it is though, it's a losing proposition to race a 10/10 with protection from anything.”
“He drew a Path! What a rip… that's incredible.”
So, really, how lucky was I during this game? First, I played around Daze, expecting those to still be in Jim's deck, but watching the coverage later, it sounded like he boarded them out for Spell Pierce, so I was hurting my own tempo during the first few turns of the game.
Second, my outs at the end of that game were actually relatively numerous. Keep in mind that I have three draws that last turn thanks to the two Horizon Canopies that were in play. In my deck, live draws included the three Paths to Exile, two Fireblasts, one Pyroblast, plus the potential to win by drawing two burn spells off my draw for the turn and my first Canopy.
Am I favored to do this? Certainly, no.
However, it's worth noting that Jim drew not one, not two, but three War Monks this game, which is more statistically unlikely than my drawing one Path to Exile during the course of the game.
This was the second dramatic finish for me in this Top 8. I had a much more unlikely topdeck in game 3 in the quarters, hitting my last remaining Path to Exile to win a game that even I thought was unwinnable. These games are simply examples of playing to outs, knowing what the outs are and taking a shot at making them work. The TES example is perhaps a bit more advanced in that not only did I need to draw the Tendrils of Agony on my last turn of the game, but I also needed my opponent to have three counterspells and have him play them on the right spells.
I know a lot of people who see me play consider me a lucky player, but a lot of the games that I've won in this fashion aren't really luck; they involve crafting a game state where I have live draws, where other people might check out mentally and punt the game.
In other words: don't give up. No matter how precarious things may look, or how unfavorable the game state may be, you have to keep yourself emotionally level, and stay in the game. When people are playing from a position where they're ahead, they often play loose and take unnecessary risks, and even though it looks like a game is unwinnable, you can sometimes exploit this to steal a victory.
How does this relate to writing?
Writing articles on a consistent basis is challenging. A lot of people have one or two great articles in them, subjects they've always wanted to write about, or a deck or matchup they've mastered that will make a great article. The tough part is coming up with topics on a consistent basis. And, when you're just starting out, the actual writing process can be difficult. How do you come up with topics? When you have them, how do you flesh them out? How do you push through when an article feels half-cooked?
The premise is mostly the same: don't give up.
If you're hard up for a topic, the best suggestion I have is to just talk to your friends that play Magic about Magic. While I generally have an idea for an article each week, I often find that talking to my friends about formats, upcoming tournaments, or tournament results will lead to an idea worth writing about, and many times that idea is better than the one I had originally.
Another great way to find a topic is to go online and read what other people are saying, both in articles and forums. I've found article topics through discussion on team boards, on The Mana Drain and The Source, and several articles I've written have been counterpoints to articles other authors have written for StarCityGames.com.
If you have an article that's in progress, and you feel you're stuck and can't finish it, take a break. I often use the same principle when it comes to videogames; when I get to point where I'm stuck, especially one I know I should be able to beat but just can't for some reason, I shut it down and take a break. Almost every time, when I come back, I'm immediately able to get past the point where I was stuck previously. The same thing is often true when writing. A short break from the computer gives your mind a chance to reboot, and when you sit back down, the words that were shut off before seem to come much more easily.
If you want to be a writer, don't give up when you can't come up with a topic or you're struggling to finish an article you've started. Use the resources you have available – friends, forums, other players, and writers – to help you push through.
One other thing I've done at times is to sit down without any topic in mind at all and just start writing. This might sound like a strange way to end up with any type of quality result, but it has been responsible for some of my most popular articles over the past two years.
Lesson Two: Know When to Give Up!
You also need to know when a game is truly lost, and throwing in the towel is advantageous. This situation comes up most often when a control deck is involved, or against a player who plays at a deliberate (read: slow) pace that makes time a factor.
For me, one of the worst feelings I can get is an unintentional draw or a loss because I tried to stick out a game for a thousand-to-one chance of winning. This is especially disastrous in the early rounds of large events. If you're talking about an elimination game, then obviously you do whatever you need to do, but in a game 1 situation, knowing when to progress to game 2 rather than play for an unlikely chance of winning game 1 is an important skill to master.
This is one of those broad tips that's hard to dig into, as each situation is going to be different; I generally try to picture what sequence of draws I'd need to get back into a game, and how likely it is that I can draw those cards (if any set of draws even exists) before I lose to what's already on-board, and what I think my opponent is holding in-hand, along with any possible adjustments for play skill. More importantly, if we're talking about game 1, you have to consider the matchup. Do you have cards for this matchup in your sideboard that dramatically change the expected outcome of those games? Is your best chance of winning the match to win game 1? Do you believe that you're favored in the matchup? Considering the answer to these questions will help you figure out whether it's right to move onto the next game in the match.
In terms of writing, one of the most challenging things as a writer is giving up on an article that isn't good enough for publication. When you have what you think is a good idea and sink time into it, the last thing you want to do is shelve it and start from scratch; yet, there will be times where that is exactly what you need to do. Some articles seem reasonable at first, but when you flesh them out, you realize the original idea is ill-conceived or inaccurate.
Just as it is with building decks, sometimes you want something to work so badly that you waste an inordinate amount of time. Know when to give up and move onto something different. Just as you can't win every tournament, not every idea you have is going to work as a full-length article.
Lesson Three: Focus on What Matters
Great, another one of these articles, right? Well, I hope this is a little different.
Focusing on what matters is one of the most stated tips when you look at broad strategic suggestions in Magic writing. What people talk about less often is how you figure out what matters.
Fundamentally, knowing what matters comes down to understanding matchups. Playing Zoo against Counterbalance involves maximizing threats before you lose to the soft lock. Playing Zoo against Combo involves dealing as much damage as possible in the first three turns of the game. Playing the mirror means maximizing resources and, often, leveraging Tarmogoyf superiority. Playing Zoo against Goblins requires the Zoo player to win before Goblins can develop mana and board position.
So what cards matter?
Zoo vs. Counterbalance: Resolving one-mana threats on turn 1 is hugely important (which is why I played Steppe Lynx last summer). Resolving Qasali Pridemage to disrupt the soft lock is massively important. Chain Lightning and Lightning Helix are relatively weak. Avoid the few chances Counterbalance has to get ahead in card parity, such as Firespout and Engineered Explosives.
Zoo vs. TES: Resolving a first-turn creature is absolutely a requirement. Fireblast is an excellent trump card to support hands that deal quick damage. Knight of the Reliquary is completely dead; Sylvan Library is too slow.
Zoo vs. Zoo: Steppe Lynx is very weak, and Chain Lightning becomes weaker as the game develops. Games are most often won and lost based on one of the following staying on-board: Goyf, Knight of the Reliquary, Umezawa's Jitte, Sylvan Library, Grim Lavamancer.
Zoo vs. Goblins: Generally you won't need to waste burn spells or removal on Goblin Lackey, unless it's obviously going to connect otherwise. Avoid using Path to Exile in the early game, as Goblins is more likely to win if it can develop mana on-board. Steppe Lynx is relatively weak here, but Grim Lavamancer can be terrific. Resolving an early threat capable of punching in through blockers is hugely important, which is also why Mogg War Marshal is annoying as a blocker and a supplier of enough tokens to let Gempalm Incinerator cycle for enough damage to remove a Wild Nacatl.
One of the most interesting questions in Vintage right now is, “How do you beat MUD?”
Probably the best strategy for beating MUD is Oath of Druids; MUD decks are trying to win, chiefly, with Lodestone Golem and other creatures like Karn, Razormane Masticore, and Steel Hellkite. If you can resolve Oath of Druids before MUD locks out your mana, you'll probably win the game. To make sure Oath resolves, cards like Force of Will, Spell Pierce, Nature's Claim, and Hurkyl's Recall are major weapons. You don't really need to establish control of the game to win this matchup, as you're simply trying to resolve a two-mana enchantment.
However, beating MUD with Gush or Tezzeret requires a completely different tactic. One option is to use early counterspells to resolve Lotus Cobra, Dark Confidant, or Trygon Predator. Lotus Cobra will usually let you resolve spells for the next few turns by doubling or tripling the mana production from your land drops. Dark Confidant can let you out-resource the Workshop player, although it can be dangerous if they resolve an immediate threat. Trygon Predator can lock the MUD player out of the game by removing a threat every turn and keeping mana suppression off the board.
One-for-one spells like Nature's Claim are a good support plan for these cards but are a poor plan in and of themselves. Running two removal spells against a deck with forty-two artifacts is a little loose, especially when said deck is already looking to hit you with a Chalice of the Void with one counter. Nature's Claim is best used to remove a key threat like Lodestone Golem, or the first resistor to let one of the cards I mentioned earlier resolve. When we look at one-for-one spells, something like Ingot Chewer is often better, in that it dodges Chalice and Thorn of Amethyst.
Decks that want to build to one big turn, like Gush and Storm, will often want to use a bounce spell like Hurkyl's Recall or Rebuild. Here, the key card to avoid is Tangle Wire. Wire forces you to play the bounce spell during your turn, and the Tangle Wire's trigger is still going to resolve, muting your mana. Sometimes this is irrelevant, particularly in the case of something like a Rebuild which will let you replay your artifact mana.
When you play TES against Merfolk, your opponent is simply trying to bottleneck your mana long enough to win the game. That's why versions that have access to basics are often better prepared to win the game than those without, despite the fact that the five-color versions have better cards available to them, such as Xantid Swarm and Orim's Chant. Identifying what matters in this matchup is harder, because it will change every game. Early in most games, Ad Nauseam is your most reliable path to victory, but as your life total drops, using Xantid Swarm or Orim's Chant into an Ill-Gotten Gains loop will quickly become your goal instead. Going for the IGG plan too early may result in your missing an easy win with Ad Nauseam, but devoting too much effort to Ad Nauseam may leave you ill-prepared if your opponent hits you for more damage than expected.
So, how do you figure out what matters?
Understand your deck's plan and the opposing deck's plan. Which cards are most important to executing your plan?
This summer, I lost a Vintage match I could've won because I failed to pass the test of focusing on what matters. The first game, my opponent made an error in his Doomsday pile and passed the turn back to me, and I Oathed into Iona. Not sure what color to choose, I went with black and promptly lost. In hindsight, blue was the obvious choice as no set of black cards would win the game from the board position my opponent was in; the Doomsday pile had to involve some sort of interaction with his sideboard, which implies blue.
The third game, I led out with a land, and my opponent played a land and cast Extract. For no particular reason, I countered it with Spell Pierce. I had a Voltaic Key in hand and didn't want my opponent to rip Time Vault out of my deck, leaving me with a blank card in hand (Key) and another in my deck (Tezzeret), but this is a terrible reason. My hand was very strong as long as I had another turn to develop my board, and ultimately Time Vault is more or less irrelevant, as I had a second-turn Oath set up, or the ability to play a longer game by leaving Mana Drain up. Instead, I watched my opponent play Mox Jet, Dark Ritual, and Doomsday and win the game on the spot, all because I'd burned a Spell Pierce for no reason.
In game 3 of the TES against Merfolk match, I discussed at the beginning of this article, I played and resolved a Xantid Swarm on turn 2. For no reason, I attacked it into a level-two Coralhelm Commander, not realizing that it already had flying; I haven't played with or against Merfolk in a few months and just didn't read the card. I lost the match because of this lack of focus. Basically, I checked out mentally, because in my mind resolving Xantid Swarm equaled game win.
You figure out what matters by reading, watching, observing, testing, and understanding. One reason why people like to stick with the same deck is that you're much more likely to know what matters for your deck. Understanding your own deck is hugely important. Expanding that knowledge into your opponent's deck can give you a large strategic advantage. Convincing your opponent that something matters, when it really doesn't matter at all, takes you to the next level.
What about writing – how does the concept of focusing on what matters apply to your writing?
I strongly believe, and have always believed, that when discussing and considering one's writing, what matters is the final product, not the process. In school, for years, my teachers and professors talked about the importance of using a preliminary outline when writing. The only time I've ever used such outlines is when the submission of said outline was required for credit, and I'd write the outline after my assignment was done, which really defeats the supposed purpose. If I had to submit it ahead of time, my outline almost never resembled my final writing.
Some people like to have multiple articles going at once, or work on several starter ideas that they flesh out later. Others may produce a full outline and write using methods my teachers tried to teach me in school, such as writing an intro paragraph and thesis that lays out the order of the following paragraphs, tied together in a summary conclusion paragraph. To some people, the idea of just sitting down and writing without a plan, and ending later with a four thousand-word article, is completely foreign; probably as foreign as using an outline to lay out a similar article is to me.
What matters isn't the process you use to set up your writing. It doesn't matter how you write, whether it's all at once, in highly productive spurts, slowly and consistently, or even sporadically when the mood strikes you. Some people write and rewrite almost compulsively, while others struggle to get through even one complete proofreading.
The important thing is that you find a process you're comfortable with, one that produces results that you're proud of and willing to share. And, just as it's vital to improving as a player, practice really does make perfect, or at least, it helps optimize your process and your results. Start writing shorter pieces, and build toward full-length articles (generally 1500-3000 words for most writers and websites). Begin with topics you're familiar with, and I think above all else, try to write with a voice that is yours, rather than trying to emulate another writer.
Just as a unique deck, cutting-edge tech, or consistently above-average results will help you stand out among the crowd of Magic players, presenting information in a unique voice, a confident voice, will help you stand out from other potential writers.
Write confidently about what you know, sound like yourself, and focus on producing a quality result rather than the process of getting to that result.
Lesson Four: Try New Things!
In Magic, it's easy to fall into the habit of playing the same type of deck in every format. Unless you're one of the better players in the world, it's likely that you're more comfortable with certain deck styles than others.
For example, I always prefer to play a deck that defaults to the beatdown role in the majority of matchups, rather than the control role. In Standard, if there's a version of Red Deck Wins that's viable, or some kind of base-green aggro deck (something like B/G Elves from a few seasons ago, or Beastmaster Green in Zendikar block, or Doran in Lorwyn block), that's almost always going to be my preferred deck choice. I like Zoo, and I also like big-spell decks (like Enduring Ideal and Oath of Druids) that aim to resolve one key spell, and decks like Dredge (or other linear strategies like Affinity in old Extended) that overwhelm through sheer power.
There's a prejudice out there that says the best players always play control, and control is always the best deck. This is often because blue is the best color in the game, but it's hardly accurate across the board, and any comprehensive review of tournament results will show that control is often the wrong choice for most players.
Magic is a deep game, and locking yourself into any one portion of the game, one style of Constructed decks, is unfortunate and often detrimental to your development as a player and to your results. Too often, people key off on whatever deck style gave them their first success, and then burn out when they can't replicate that success over and over again. If you enjoy playing the same deck and have good results with it, by all means, stick with it; but, if you find yourself struggling, I encourage you to try new things.
I stayed away from Storm combo for a long time because I didn't have time to practice with it, and it's often considered one of the more difficult decks to play; while Storm decks can be difficult, the fact that these decks are often high in raw power level compared to other decks means that in many tournaments, you can play a Storm deck suboptimally and still achieve better results than playing an aggro or control deck competently. My first time out playing Storm in a Vintage tournament, I made Top 4, and I remembered how much I'd enjoyed playing similar decks in Legacy and Extended previously; in fact, I have no idea why I stayed away from Storm in the first place, as most of my previous results with Storm decks were actually pretty good! Somewhere along the way, probably when I scrubbed out of two consecutive PTQs with TEPS in Extended eighteen months ago, I decided I just wasn't good at Storm and shouldn't play it.
Who knows how many events I underperformed in because I took an entire subset of decks and refused to play them?
I've written previously, and above, on the importance of understanding how decks and metagames function. While you can get a handle on some formats by reading and reviewing results, nothing will prepare you as well as actual testing with the full gamut of relevant decks in a format. Some interactions become obvious only when playing actual games of Magic; the best tech often comes out of identifying a specific strategic weakness, and then testing potential solutions to address or attack that weakness.
For a lot of people, writing about Magic is already trying something new, but perhaps it helps to think about writing more broadly. Before I wrote about Magic, I had plenty of practice writing about other topics; I played a lot of Magic, and I wrote, a lot. I wrote music reviews on Amazon.com, and game reviews on GameFAQs.com; I wrote an op-ed column in college and posted tournament reports on forums and blogs.
Even with this practice, a lot of my first articles feel flat when I read them now. I was writing about Standard when I wasn't into it, or breaking down tournament results that I didn't find interesting. When I started to write about Vintage and Legacy, formats I was playing and found exciting, I began to find a niche, and a voice. Ideally, this is something you can do before you try and submit something for publication.
While I think Chapin is the gold standard right now when it comes to exploring and pushing the boundaries of Magic article writing, there are some other recent examples by Tait and Verhey that I think are fantastic (such as this, and this, and this ).
There are basic tools in every Magic writer's arsenal: the tournament report, the theory article, the matchup exploration, the deck primer, the metagame analysis, the rebuttal, the Sealed pool article, the set review, and so on. Writing these articles competently can get you a job writing Magic articles, but to stand out and stay relevant, most of us eventually need to put a new spin on the basics; try something new, push boundaries, for better or worse. Add some flavor to a deck primer to make it unique, or spin a tournament report into something different.
When playing Magic, you want to learn the basics first, but don't get stuck in a rut playing the same style of deck over and over; the same applies to Magic writing.
Try new things! Apply this beyond Magic, as well. Another example: I've wanted to do target shooting my entire adult life, but never got around to it. Last week I fired a handgun for the first time. Here are the results of my first 14 rounds:
You can't excel at something if you don't try.
P.S. I advise you not to break into my house.
Lesson Five: Have Fun!
The vast majority of people would earn more money by taking the time they sink into Magic and working part-time at McDonald's instead. Why don't we all work at McDonald's? It isn't fun.
Playing Magic should be fun. If the concept of fun, for you, is excelling at something and winning tournaments, there's nothing at all wrong with that. Just keep in mind that for most people, Magic shouldn't be exclusively about playing for prizes. Don't lie, cheat, or steal your way to winning a few extra booster packs. It isn't worth it in the long-term. Play Magic because you enjoy playing it. If you no longer enjoy winning and hate the work you have to put into it, play the game at a different level of competition, or take a break. Don't do it if you're not having fun.
If you really enjoy playing Magic, there's a good chance you'll enjoy writing about it. For me, writing about Magic is fun. I really enjoy promoting the formats I like, the decks I like, the other writers I like, and so on. When it's no longer fun for me, I'll stop. I enjoy it and feel like I'm contributing something useful, most weeks.
Lesson Six: Know What You're Getting Into
News flash for you here: Magic is expensive. It's also an elective hobby that has many levels of competition for a variety of budgets. Apparently hundreds of people play the game and read articles and have Facebook, but didn't know this game can be expensive! Briefly, let's take a look at this.
Do you remember Time Spiral / Lorwyn Standard, or Lorwyn Block Constructed? Take a ride with me in the wayback machine, to a time before mythics…
Did you know that at one point, Faeries played cards with costs that looked like this?
4 Bitterblossom at $30 each = $120
4 Mutavault at $35 each = $140
4 Cryptic Command at $20 each = $80
4 Thoughtseize at $20 each = $80
If you add in Sower of Temptation, Ancestral Visions, River of Tears, well, you have a deck that's over $500 in 2007/2008 money, so with inflation, that's like… just over $500! Here's the thing: outside of a few premier level events, Faeries was an absolute monster, especially at the Regionals / States / PTQ level. It was, without a doubt, the best deck in the format for a significant period of time, and during that time, it was also the most expensive deck in the format.
I know mythics are a hot topic right now. My main concern with them is the fact that they've made it nearly impossible for players to trade up for the best rares, as trading thirteen dual lands for a Koth of the Hammer or Primeval Titan just seems incredibly wrong to me. Still, the ultimate cost of decks on the whole doesn't seem that different to me than it always has, given some fluctuation from block to block and inflation.
Magic decks: They're expensive.
Wizards is not obligated to make every Standard deck available to every player. The fact that you can now draft each week and have a chance to pull a card worth $100 out of a pack is pretty remarkable. The fact that Magic cards are expensive and valuable is a byproduct of Standard being both popular and hugely relevant thanks to the addition of PTQs and several Regional and National tournament circuits (including the hugely successful StarCityGames.com Open Series).
As long as Standard has competitive decks that don't require you to own all the most expensive mythics, I think the issue of expensive mythics is being overstated in some respects. Clearly there are decks in Standard that are competitive and don't play Primeval Titan and Jace; most decks that play one or the other cost less than Faeries did, or less than Zoo decks with Goyf during Ravnica / Time Spiral Standard.
While there are valid concerns regarding mythics, saying you can't afford to play all of the decks in Standard, and therefore mythics are a problem, is kind of silly. I wouldn't write BMW and complain about my inability to own a brand new M3 because I want to own all the cars available on the market. That'd be silly.
After three and a half years playing Magic again, I have a nice collection. I used cashed out vacation time, money from part-time jobs, credit from dealing at tournaments, savvy buying, selling, and trading, revenue from writing, and winnings from tournaments to build this collection. Sometimes you have to work really hard, for a really long time, to get the things you want.
World's a tough place, bro.
Do you know how I got into Vintage? I borrowed cards from my friend, Brian LeGrow. Turns out, if you're not a jerk, and you're respectful of your property and other people's property, people will actually loan you cards so that you don't have to buy them all.
Give it a try!
Interestingly, a lot of the concern and buzz over the removal of the reserve list and the “skyrocketing” price of Legacy staples has been mitigated by the fact that the majority of dual lands are less expensive than Jace, and many are less expensive than Venser, Koth, or Primeval Titan.
Here's another news flash: writing can really be a chore. It really can.
It's time consuming. Don't get into writing for the money unless you're an established pro and know you can command top dollar, because you're probably going to be working for a very low hourly wage. Don't get into Magic writing unless you know you have time available to devote to it, and enjoy spending your time that way.
Also, be aware that people love to bash writers. Well, really, they love to bash anyone that puts themselves on display in a public forum, such as the Internet.
Did you know that people can be jerks over the internet? True story!
If you write a list of your favorite cards, it will be criticized. If you state an opinion about almost anything and state it definitively, people will argue that you're wrong. If you don't state it definitively, people will complain that you're too wishy-washy. If you don't provide a sideboard for a deck, people will complain. If you provide a sideboard but don't give a how-to guide on how to use it, people will complain. If you do those things, someone will complain that your suggestions were wrong, and someone else will say that you left out a key deck that was only played by one guy, once, that you've never even heard of. At any point, another writer might misstate your position in an article, or attack you in a forum, or mock you on Facebook.
If you're not able to take this kind of punishment, don't write.
If there's a StarCityGames.com Talent Search in 2011, I think we should have, not just mentors, but Dementors. These could be folks that write disparaging emails, condescending forum comments, and mocking Facebook posts, to really give potential writers the true feel of what writing for the Magic community is often like.
This isn't meant to discourage you. I'm just keeping it real, as the kids say, so that you know what you're getting into before you start.
I've gotten some absolutely tremendous feedback on forums and through email for some of my articles, and all joking aside, those emails, and the people who talk to me about my articles in person, those things make taking the abuse more than worthwhile over the long-term.
Lesson Seven: Magic Statistics Are Awful
This is only applicable to you as a writer in terms of understanding the concept and using it in your writing as you see fit.
Statistics in Magic are still in their infancy and are so incomplete as to be near worthless in most respects. If you haven't read it, Moneyball is a great book to help you get where I'm going with this, especially if you have any level of interest in baseball. A rabid horde of people have been trying to get me to read it for some time now, so thanks to Nick Detwiler and Matt Estadt for finally talking me into it this month.
Think about how we talk about matchups, in general terms. Someone says that Merfolk is a favorite against TES and backs it up with some number of StarCityGames.com Legacy Open matches between unknown players, with the majority of the builds being unknown as well. That gives us some arbitrary win-loss percentage. Then, someone else says that based on a similar number of matches in testing, their results show TES is even, and perhaps even a slight favorite, depending on the exact builds involved.
How do we settle this disparity?
So much goes into winning a game of Magic, let alone a match, or series of matches. A complete analysis of this specific matchup (TES against Merfolk in Legacy) needs to show the exact decks involved, and would break down significantly more data to help guide us. Consider some in-game decisions. What is the win percentage for TES on the play? On the draw? In pre-board games? Post-board games? Leading with a fetchland? With a rainbow land? With a first-turn Ponder? Duress? Brainstorm, main phase? Brainstorm, end of turn? With one Lion's Eye Diamond in starting hand, with two Lion's Eye Diamond in starting hand?
What about deck decisions? Are we looking at TES with Xantid Swarm? With basic lands? With Pyroblast? What about the Merfolk deck – does it have Standstill or Spell Pierce? Is it mono-blue, or splashing a color, and if so, which one?
Baseball statistics have been around for over one hundred years, and nearly every crazy combination of factors you can think of can be measured, but still the majority of common metrics used to discuss baseball still, today, don't provide the most relevant data in terms of understanding the game and matchups between teams.
When you write about matchups and percentages and statistics, give your opinion definitively, but just be aware that people are going to challenge you as wildly varying results are to be expected.
Magic Online provides data in a way that will never be available to us in paper Magic, but not nearly enough of this data is mined; having access to decklists, results, playbacks, and so on for Magic Online events has done much to move Magic design forward by leaps and bounds. At some point, I hope the same thing will happen with our ability to intelligently and reasonably discuss matchups in Magic as people find a way to mine actual in-game data and quantify how decisions impact game results.
For the time being, a lot of what you experience as a player and as a writer has to be based on your feel for decks, formats, and matchups, but expect to come to different conclusions from other people. That's unfortunately part of the nature of our understanding of the game and how to discuss it.
Lesson Eight: 7,000 Words is a Lot
Title says it all, boys and girls. Hopefully at least a couple thousand words here were useful to you in some respect.