When is the last time you mulliganed to five?
When was the last time you failed to play around a counterspell and were punished for it?
When was the last time you unknowingly walked into a combat trick in Limited?
When was the last time you bottomed a card off of a scry and then regretted it?
I don't really expect you to answer any of these questions right now, but even if I gave you some time, could you?
Magic has a lot going on. Every game you play will have countless amounts of decisions to make. Some of these decisions will matter more than others in the outcome of the game, but how many of these decisions actually leave behind a memory?
For example, let's say I tank on an attack for a minute, debating whether my opponent has Aetherize or not. I decide he doesn't and I attack all out. Moments later an Aetherize destabilizes my board and swings the game around so that I ultimately lose. That moment will likely leave a lasting impression on me. I can easily associate the outcome of that game on a single decision and that is easy to compartmentalize in my mind. Weeks, maybe even years later, that moment can be remembered and adds value to my play.
Now take that same game, but change the decision to something more subtle. This time, the game hinged on a mulligan decision where I chose to keep a two-lander without access to red. I play my two Forests, draw a third Forest, play a 3/3 for three. The game drags on but I don't draw my Mountain until turn six. By that point, I am too far behind for my red spells to catch up and I lose.
I might realize my mistake from this game during the game or maybe after, but how likely is it to leave a long-lasting impression on me? There was no highlight moment. The condition for my loss and the loss itself were quite separated in time. And perhaps worst of all, the list of excuses one can make for a loss like this is nearly endless and often removes the blame from the player.
One cannot help but face the outcome of walking into Aetherize, whereas one can mask a poor mulligan decision so well that one never has it come to mind again. It is essentially Magic's equivalent to a silent killer. After the round you may tell your friend about how you just needed one last top deck to win, framing the game as though it were yours to come from behind and snatch. But maybe all along you were a favorite . Maybe it was your game to lose all along. Maybe if you had mulliganed that hand you would have never needed to top deck and that bad beat story never leaves your lips in the first place.
But who wants to hear about a potential different game based on a minute alteration in mulligan decisions?
The real answer to that question should not actually matter to you. If your friends are the type to break down high-level Magic decisions with you, that is an incredible resource that you should utilize, but even if they aren't, the only person that matters in this situation is you. If your goal is to improve as a player, then you need to be interested in these small details, no matter how flashy they are.
It's time to begin being honest with yourself and improving in the right areas. Here's the homework. During your next tournament, bring some way to record yourself. Some people may prefer to write things down, but I think that recording a short video on your phone is equally as awesome. It's all personal preference.
After each of your rounds, or maybe after every couple if you go to time or need a bathroom break or whatever, take a few minutes and record your post-match thoughts. It is absolutely crucial that you be honest and open with yourself. These thoughts are only for you and your ego should not be involved. Consider this something akin to a Magic diary or journal.
In those thoughts, you should look to include any basic but relevant information. What was the matchup. Did anyone mulligan a bunch? Any particularly interesting interactions or sideboard decisions? This information is mostly whatever you want, but it should be useful in helping you reconstruct the match in your head.
I want to take a second to loudly note that being positive is really important here. We will get to mistakes later on, but if you felt you did something way better than you expected, or if you made a call that worked out, definitely take note of those things. New behaviors that can be learned for certain situations, especially behaviors that have proven successful before, are definitely a valuable resource to take away from this exercise.
Beyond that, you specifically want to focus on areas where you think you could have improved. Talk about if you think you made a poor mulligan decision or if you fetched up the wrong land on turn two and that set you behind a full turn. Admit that you blocked in a situation where combat trick X made sense but you didn't think about it. Simply announce that you weren't confident in your sideboarding plan. Again, we are looking to be brutally honest with ourselves here.
Honesty is going to kind of suck, too. It will feel a little heavy looking back over the past hour of your life for mistakes you made. But think about the first time you go running, or the first time you brush your teeth. These activities meet us with resistance because we have not been doing them. After some time though, the tasks become easier and more routine. The same will happen with this exercise.
After you have spent a few minutes collecting your thoughts and noting possible areas for improvement, you can continue your tournament like normal. Once the tournament is done, you have quite a few options for how you want to use this new resource.
- You can watch the video or read back on your notes, just to get the info in your head.
- You can spend time coming up with alternate lines or decision paths from what you took in game.
- You can even hold off on reading your notes and instead try to remember what your mistakes were before confirming, sort of like cue cards.
The substance is in the actual note-taking process. What you do afterward should be conducive to how you learn best. If I am being honest, when I engage in this exercise, I tend to only go back and look at certain rounds that I find interesting. Of course, I have been playing Magic at a high level for a long time, so I can afford a few short cuts. If I were actively seeking success on the Pro Tour though, noting missed end-of-turn activations after a round becomes essential again, as opposed to something I can chalk up to a brain fart (You should definitely be noting your missed triggers and activations though, as simply reminding yourself in this way can improve your success rate with the abilities).
Mistakes are what separate good Magic players from great ones. People of all skills will always make mistakes; Magic is just too complex a game to get it right all of the time, but the great players make fewer mistakes overall. They see the opportunities for mistakes and then examine those areas extra carefully so as to avoid them. As you begin to note your mistakes, you too will begin to search for them in your games.
At first your mistakes are likely to be low-hanging fruit or things that are easier to admit. You will do this almost subconsciously and it is fine so long as you don't stagnate. Eventually, though, you will tire of repeating the same few mistakes and you will begin actively searching your games after the fact for cracks in your game. This process will sharpen over time and as a result so will you.
When you learn what situations bring about mistakes most often for you, you begin to avoid those situations in games, or better yet, plan for them in advance. You can begin to take some of the weakest areas of your game and turn them into your strongest as they receive the time and attention they deserve. Just keep a light on them.
At a certain point in your Magic career, the game becomes less about mastering the cards - everyone has done that - but about mastering yourself. What are your weaknesses or things holding you back from more success? Because the first step to solving any problem, is admitting you have one.
Until next week, thanks for reading!