"I want to 4-0 FNM." "I want to make Day 2 of a Grand Prix." "I want to qualify for a Pro Tour." "I want to hit Gold Pro Status." "I want to win a draft." "I want to beat Brian Braun-Duin in a sanctioned match of Magic: The Gathering." (okay, that one might be too easy) "I want to kick a ball past defenders and a goalie into a net." These are all goals we might find ourselves setting.
A lot of Magic players simply play casually to enjoy themselves a few nights a week, whether with friends at someone's house or at a local shop. Others, like myself, crave more. I always wanted to play at higher levels of competition and achieve bigger and bigger things within the game. Every year I set goals for myself and worked to achieve those goals, or as was the case in some years, achieve those Golds.
There's no right way to approach or play this game. I actually believe that playing Magic casually is way healthier for one's life than trying to grind value out of tournaments, but far be it from me to denigrate the lifestyle I myself have chosen. I understand the allure of the tournament and the siren's call of the Top 8 announcement.
Regardless of where we find ourselves approaching the game, there is always something we can improve or somewhere we can achieve more. Setting goals is a good thing. It forces our sights beyond our current state and incentivizes us to go out and achieve something better than what we've already done. It pushes us to climb out of the rut or coasting pattern we've established, and when we reach the other end, few things are better than the joy we feel in setting a goal for ourselves, working at it, and ultimately achieving it.
When it comes to Magic, I find people are often quite bad at setting goals. Most often, this manifests in people setting goals that are too difficult to achieve or setting timetables for when they want to achieve those goals that simply aren't realistic. In other situations, it results in people being unhappy when they don't reach goals without realizing how much progress they made anyway. I know I've personally fallen victim to that last one many a time.
I'm going to lay out five steps to setting and following through on goals that I hope will help my fellow Magic players in their quests to achieve something more out of this game.
The easiest mistake for people to make is to set goals that are simply not attainable in most reasonable situations. It's imperative to set goals that can actually be reached, otherwise the only thing you'll achieve is failure and disappointment along the way.
If setting realistic goals is step number one for achieving goals, then step one for how to set a realistic goal is to be objective about our own skill level. I'm going to warn you ahead of time, the next thing I say is going to be really harsh, but it is an honest reflection of what I believe and I can only hope that people approach it with an open mind.
Most Magic players I've encountered greatly overestimate their own skill level relative to other players and relative to reality. If you ever begin a sentence with "I'm really good at Magic, but…" and then lay out a list of excuses for why you haven't succeeded, please stop. You are deluding yourself. After a certain number of tournaments, results balance out with variance and our finishes in Magic fairly accurately reflect how good we actually are at the game. Excuses do not last long in Magic. It's easy to construct stories of why we are better than our results, but frankly, if our results over a reasonable stretch of time do not match how good we believe ourselves to be, then we are simply not actually as good as we think we are.
I also want to note that it doesn't matter to me and it shouldn't matter to others how good someone is at Magic. I've written about this in the past, but I care far more about what someone has to offer as a person than their skill in this card game. Magic skill is a fickle place to put value or self-worth into and it rarely results in a good ending.
Thankfully there is good news. Being objective about how good we are at Magic—and actually just being objective about everything in Magic—is the most important thing we can do to actually improve at the game, because it allows us to be open-minded about ways we can improve.
Furthermore, being objective about our own skill level allows us to set goals that are actually attainable and being able to achieve reasonable goals is a great way to feel great about ourselves and our progress as Magic players. So while it may hurt to put our egos in check and take a long look at ourselves in the mirror, in the long run it will help.
The reason it is important to objectively understand where we are in Magic is that we want to set a goal that is only a few steps away from our present level, and if we do decide that we want to set a loftier goal, we should make sure the timetable to achieve it is far enough away to be reasonable. Our goal might be "qualify for the Pro Tour" but if we've never Top 8'd a PTQ or made Day 2 of a Grand Prix, then perhaps we should make our goal to Top 8 a PTQ or make Day 2 of a Grand Prix first and delay the goal of qualifying for the Pro Tour until we've leveled up a bit.
The other thing to think about when setting goals is to set specific goals. Setting a goal like "I want to Top 8 a Grand Prix" is a better goal than "I want to be a Magic Pro" or "I want to be the best I can possibly be at Magic." Those latter two goals are nebulous; how do you know when you've become a Magic pro or gotten better enough at Magic to consider that goal accomplished? Goals without specific ways to achieve them are very difficult to follow through on.
For what it's worth, lately, my "goals" in Magic are to enjoy myself at events, to practice hard to play the best I can, and to be kind and professional in my interactions with others. These are all bad goals in that they have no end point and that they can't actually ever be achieved. It may be wrong to call them goals, perhaps framework is a better word to describe them. At any rate, I've enjoyed tournaments more since I've made this my purpose and stopped setting unrealistic goals for myself.
After we've set several realistic goals and maybe even some less realistic ones, it's important to set timetables for when we hope to achieve these goals.
I think Magic players are really impatient and set time frames for achieving goals that are simply not reasonable. For most players it takes a long time to see results. I didn't Top 8 a Grand Prix until three years after the first one I played. I didn't win a PTQ until about four years after I started playing them. I didn't play my first Pro Tour until six years after I started playing the game and I didn't play my second pro tour for another year and a half after that.
I see players often chase professional Magic, but don't give themselves enough time to actually succeed at it. Far be it from me to disparage such pursuits, but without reasonable goals along the way it can easily be a fool's errand. I don't think it is reasonable for most players to say that they are going to attend 15-20 Grand Prix in a year and set a goal of hitting Silver or Gold for that year. That is simply not a realistic goal. It may take years of attending Grand Prix events and constant work to improve one's game before a goal like Silver can be reached, and trying to swing for the fences at your first at bat is pretty unlikely to pan out.
If your goal is to make Day 2 of a Grand Prix, it wouldn't make sense to get upset if you don't Day 2 your very next Grand Prix. I see players all the time set a goal, and then go to a handful of events and fail to make that goal, and then just give up completely.
Goals might take months or even years to achieve. I think it's way better to leave an open-ended timetable for when you want something to happen than to set a time-frame that is too short. Magic tournaments are such that we will fail over and over again before eventually finding success. Not giving ourselves a chance and the time to fail a lot is not a successful long term play.
If you don't actually do anything to achieve your goal that differs from what you were doing before, it's not actually a goal, it's just a wish. A goal is something that you work toward. A goal is not a hope that things will magically happen without any change in behavior.
The best advice for being able to follow through on goals is to map out how you will get from Step A to Step B. For example, if your goal is to go from never having played a Grand Prix to eventually making day 2 of Grand Prix events, then you need a reasonable road map of how to accomplish it.
This road map should include a plan to attend Grand Prix events, a plan for how to improve your game to increase your chances at these tournaments, and a plan for how to schedule time to practice for these tournaments to give yourself the best chance of succeeding.
The plan might include more or less than that, it is simply an example, but an effective goal involves a plan of how to achieve it and actual follow-through on executing that plan. Without action, you're just hoping that things just happen to luckily work out for you.
When I was a kid and my mom made me do chores that I hated, I used to get through them by constantly calculating and updating my estimated percentages of how much progress I'd made along the way, and this sort of thing helped me get through it easier. Nowadays, I still use this method. When I drive on long road trips, sometimes I hit a mile marker and think something like "Ok, I'm now 54% of the way there" and it helps me feel like I'm making progress and not just blindly following a road indefinitely.
I think achieving goals is the same. Achieving a goal isn't just going from 0 to 100% all at once, it's a process and you hit checkmarks and lesser achievements along the way. You don't beat a video game by staying at 0% for the first 30 hours of gameplay and then going to 100% when you beat the final boss at hour 31. No, you level up, gain new experience and abilities or gear, progress the story, and/or beat levels and mini-bosses along the way.
Let's say we set a goal of making top 8 a Grand Prix, for example. If all we do is only care about exactly making top 8 of a Grand Prix and nothing else, then we might be waiting a long time for that to happen and might experience a lot of heartbreak and disappointment along the way.
However, if instead we also take measure of checkpoints and lesser achievements earned along the way, then it will feel like we are slowly but surely moving toward our goal and it will make accomplishing it seem easier. Instead of thinking about how hard it might be to get that daunting full 100% mark at our next Grand Prix event, we might think about how we're at 90% completion toward our goal and just need to finally get that last 10%.
We might celebrate finishing in the Top 16—our best Grand Prix finish yet—and how it means we are getting closer to our goal or even celebrate how we are now making Day 2 a higher percentage of the time than we used to, meaning that we are performing better and inching closer to our goal, one event at a time.
Hitting goals isn't all-or-nothing, and it's important that we keep stock of our progress along the way.
Nothing in Magic comes easy, and there are going to be plenty of times we fail for one reason or another, regardless of how much work we put into something.
It's okay to fail at a goal, and it's okay to set new goals that are easier than previous goals or ramp down the difficulty of a goal or extend the timetable for when we want to achieve a goal if we don't first get there. Much like how we should set and account for checkpoints on our journey to achieving goals, it's also important to measure the success of our goals not entirely by the result but also by the effort and work put in.
There is success to be found in working hard for something and putting effort into it, even if we don't get there in the end. Maybe our goal was to Top 8 a Grand Prix and we don't make it in the two-year timeframe we actively tried to achieve it. However, perhaps along the way we managed to set aside a few hours a week dedicated solely to improving our game and we spent that time identifying flaws and working to correct them. That's still valuable, even if we didn't achieve our goal.
In fact, it's possible that our new goal could even be something like "Spend three hours a week identifying and attempting to correct holes in my game" instead of "Top 8 a Grand Prix within the next two years." Even though we ultimately failed at our original goal, we still progressed as a player and discovered a way to set a new goal for ourselves in the process.
As I alluded to in an above section, this is where I'm at in Magic right now. My goals are things like "test these five different decks this week to determine if any are good enough to play at an upcoming event" or "play 30 drafts before the upcoming limited Grand Prix" and less about how well I do at any one event.
Effort is just as important as accomplishments, because effort helps us with future goals and future accomplishments, not just the current one. Results are fickle, but the process is everything.