Originally I was going to write this week on the Abzan Megamorph deck I intend to play at Grand Prix Providence this weekend (and probably will write that next week, so stay tuned). Instead I have been inspired by my dismal performance last weekend at GP Charlotte to write an altogether different kind of article. The format for Charlotte was Modern, which is easily my weakest Constructed format. I played Grixis Twin and was not nearly prepared enough to play my deck or the format well.
We've all been there: your friends drag you to a tournament you weren't planning to attend, hand you a deck, and expect you to play. You lose faith in the brew you've been working on for weeks at the last minute and audible to a meta deck. It's your first foray into a new format and you don't feel close to comfortable in these new waters. There are lots of times and situations where, despite our best intentions, we aren't as prepared as we would like to be for a given tournament. No amount of resolving to prepare better for next time is going to help in the moment, but that doesn't mean we should just accept our fate and 0-2 drop with dignity intact. Better to scrape and claw and do every last little thing we can to maximize our performance in spite of our failure to prepare.
The most important thing you can do is to play with confidence despite recognizing that you are not prepared. There is sometimes nothing more frustrating in a game of Magic than to see two (or more) possible lines of play, be able to compute the differences and see the pros and cons, but still be unable to decide which is better because you don't know enough about the matchup to know what to value. It is very natural in these scenarios to want to hedge, to toe the line between the two plays, hoping that at some point in the future you will be able to make the decision correctly. Don't do this. You aren't magically going to obtain knowledge you don't have while playing and the time you waste waffling might end up meaning that even the correct decision won't win you the game. Let your intuition guide you and follow through confidently on the decision you reach.
Playing confidently and assertively lets you eke out edges that uncertainty will lose you. Accept that you will make mistakes and lose games because of it - that truth comes with the territory of not being prepared, you can't avoid it. If you can carry this confidence in your lines over to your demeanor while playing, you will disguise your lack of knowledge. A good opponent can exploit an obviously inexperienced opponent by steering the games into paths where that inexperience will cost them dearly. Try to not let that be you.
Psychologically, it is very important to not let your mistakes get to you. It is so easy to tilt off after your inexperience costs you a round, to berate yourself endlessly for even bothering to play when you are this woefully inadequate. Take a deep breath. Plenty of time for those recriminations after the tournament. Until then, be confident, commit to your plays and make the most of the situation you find yourself in.
Confidence is what cost me in Charlotte. I knew I wasn't prepared and I let that get under my skin. Instead of trying my hardest to win where I could, I was mad at myself for travelling so far when I knew I couldn't compete at a high enough level. I got in my own head, second guessed every decision, switched between lines every play, and spent my between round time upset and wishing it would just be over. No wonder I couldn't win! Don't let that be you.
Use What You Know
So you haven't played this deck before or maybe even this format. You've played Magic before, right? All of us have different strengths and weaknesses as Magic players. Doing your best in unknown territory is not about shoring up weaknesses. It's about playing to your strengths. Take an honest inventory of your strengths: what game states are you great at navigating, which decks do you intuitively understand? If you can, play a deck similar to one you have mastered. Steer games into positions you understand whenever possible. You will both play better and more confidently if there is some aspect of familiarity in the game you can cling to.
At the same time, try really hard to avoid game states that you don't understand. If you can enter a worse position in a type of game you understand over a nominally better position in a game where you are completely out of your depths, you probably will have a higher chance to win. It's okay to make the 'wrong' play from an objective perspective if it gives you a higher chance to win, and inexperience often creates positions where the objectively better play will make the game harder for an inexperienced player to win. It can be really hard to admit that we are bad at something though and as a result I've watched players enter avoidable game states where they have no clue and no chance because they don't want to admit to weakness (even just to themselves).
If you are playing a new deck in a format you understand well, make sure to utilize that format knowledge. If you can Anticipate their sideboard plans or deduce some of the contents of their hand, don't get so blinded by the complexities of the deck in front of you that you fail to use that information. On the other hand, if you lack a deep format knowledge you are probably better off not trying to put yourself in your opponent's shoes and just worrying about the cards in front of you.
Use What You Have
Often, I find myself in a position where I have lots of time to prepare but no opponents easily accessible. While a much worse position than having time and opponents, this situation is not completely worthless. Spending time familiarizing yourself with The General plan of each deck is very valuable, as is internalizing the text of as many of the important cards as possible. It is often said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and a game of Magic is no different. Knowing the actual text of cards, not just their typical use cases, lets you better analyze games that have entered corner state status. I lost a game this weekend to not knowing Karn Liberated could exile lands. It was pretty embarrassing and completely avoidable if I had just bothered to read the card.
Make sure you use the percentage points you have. If your friends hand you a deck and tell you it 'autowins' against decks X and Y, it can be really easy to spend all your time figuring out what you do against deck Z. Deck Z is going to be hard to beat regardless - you are better off making sure you understand what you need to do to get those 'autowins' against decks X and Y. Not understanding an important aspect of a favorable matchup can turn it drastically against you. Take your percentages where you can get them and make sure you are actually a favorite in the matchups you are supposed to win.
Formats change, locations vary, but there are two universal constants at Magic tournaments: Magic players and downtime. Use them. Just because the tournament has started doesn't mean your preparation has to end. Brainstorm sideboard strategies with your friends between rounds. Ask your opponents if they mind delving into the secrets of their game plan after the match. Scour the thoughts of anyone in the hall who is willing to talk to you about Magic and learn anything you can. Play friendlies in downtime, do anything to gain some of that experience you weren't able to get before the tournament.
Magic is a game with a staggeringly large number of decisions to be made. Some of these decisions are nigh-on impossible to make correctly without prior experience. When playing without that experience, we need to try and make decisions that will make future decisions easier. For instance, in deck selection (assuming you have influence in what deck your friends hand you) try to pick a deck that only fights on one axis, like Burn or Jund. It is not at all that these decks are easy to play, but that as their pilot there is typically only one aspect of the game that you need to concern yourself with (damage output / raw cards, respectively). The decisions will still be hard, but at least we are just min-maxing the playing of our cards on one game axis, not trying to battle on multiple and having to gauge the relative value of one card and one life, which is where inexperience will really get you.
In-game and in deck selection it is often best to stay out of tempo territory. Tempo is the hardest axis in Magic to be able to grok without prior experience as so much of it is dependent on the format and what each deck is capable of doing / what their typical multiple spell turns look like. If tempo is your specialty and is somewhat intuitive to you feel free to go for it, but otherwise expect it to be orders of magnitude harder to execute on correctly than in formats/decks you understand well.
Wherever possible in game, Simplify the game state. Sometimes a simplified game state is highly disadvantageous for you in a given matchup, and you should not follow this advice in those scenarios. But aside from that, simplified game states are easier to parse and thus make correct decisions from, which is a huge boon to the inexperienced player. With more cards come more interactions and more opportunities to get outplayed or surprised by something we didn't know. This is a very bad thing and exactly what we hope to avoid as much as possible when playing as the inexperienced player.
The worst thing you can do is play a deck that is super mechanically complicated without prior experience. If goldfishing the deck is still a complicated puzzle, playing against a real human is an actual nightmare. Similarly, decks that are super reliant on interacting with specific parts of their opponents' game plans are not great choices. Simplify the sideboard to cards that you have a great understanding of. Do not over sideboard while inexperienced - sideboarding gives inexperienced players a great opportunity to make their deck much worse. When it comes to sideboarding without preparation, less is often more (wins). Lean towards playing a few high impact sideboard cards for a wide range of matchups to avoid this over sideboarding problem.
When deciding on your list of an archetype for a tournament you are playing without preparation, use whether or not you understand how to play a card as something more than a tiebreaker but less than a complete reason. That is, if two cards are at all close and both show up in stock lists, use the one you better understand even if it shows up at a much lower frequency. But don't use your better understanding of a card as an excuse to play it over a card that is just stronger.
Last summer, I started playing Legacy for the first time. My weapon of choice was Temur Delver. A complicated deck in a complicated format, but one that fights primarily on one axis: don't let the opponent do anything that affects the board. In preparation, I had time but no opponents which resulted in a lot of goldfishing and little real experience. But I had opens to play and was determined to do my best despite my lack of actual games. In building my deck I decided to only play three copies of Stifle, despite it being a hallmark of the strategy. I made this choice because in goldfishing I recognized that the decision of when to leave mana up for Stifle and when to advance my board state was really hard. I played less copies so the situation would come up less and I would have fewer opportunities to mess it up. My deck was almost certainly objectively worse, but I could play it better. I took second in that Open.
Just Don't Do it
In reality, there is no substitute for ample preparation. Jamming games and matchups will get you much farther than nearly anything else. Please do not read this article in lieu of preparing for an event. But, the next time life conspires against your tournament preparation don't feel like you have no shot either.
Thanks for reading,
Jadine@thequietfish on twitter