With Shadows Over Innistrad right around the corner, I thought it would be a good time to take a moment to talk about what it takes to be a successful tournament player. This goes far beyond a deck choice or jamming as many games as possible before an event. I am a professional Magic player, and know a thing or two about important practices, which often can be overlooked, that go into strategic success at a tournament. Yes, there is luck in this game we play, but there is a reason why the same players continuously seem to do well.
It is true — some players possess what I am going to refer to as "the X-Factor." I do believe that the game comes easier to some, but either way it takes a ton of work and preparation in order to do well. Let's be clear though, I believe that it is possible for anyone to become a great player, if the correct steps are taken. What I am referring to when I use "X-Factor" is that certain aspects of a player's game often come more naturally than others. For example, some choose to just play Limited, and other players will consciously choose to just play Constructed.
Choosing to play one format over another often has to do with playing to your strengths. Yes, it may be that a player enjoys one format more than another, and this can be taken far beyond the constraints of Limited and Constructed. It could be that a more casual format like Commander or Pauper is the preferred format. Normally a player's strengths go together with enjoying playing, as winning is just more enjoyable than losing for most people. While losing can teach a lesson it can also deter a player from continuing to play.
Even at the professional level you have what are considered "specialists". For example, a good friend of mine, Brad Nelson, specializes in Standard. He not only brews and tunes various Standard decks, but he has a strong knowledge of the format. This allows him to feel confident about his deck choice for any Standard event. Brad attends as many Standard tournaments as he can, as it is where he is most successful, and his EV (expected value) is at its highest. A player's EV refers to how likely they are to perform well at a given event. Brad has made a living doing well at Standard tournaments, yet his Limited game is significantly worse when compared to his Standard play.
I believe that most players are not equally strong at every Magic format, and while Brad's results clearly indicate his strengths and weaknesses, with other players it is not quite as evident. Many players have a strong overall game but are still slightly better at one format in particular, though it doesn't necessarily show in their results. The reason is that communicating with other players is one of the most important aspects of preparation. Early on in Magic's history, the game was more individually-based in terms of preparation. Players would do their own thing and hope it worked out, relying mostly on raw talent.
Today, getting ready for a large event is very different. I have seen players who I don't consider inherently talented do extremely well because of their dedication and commitment to improving their game. It is extremely common to bounce ideas off of fellow players; listening to the ideas of others can help your own game and deck choice going into an event. Oftentimes a player will not do as well because they are stubborn and refuse to listen to others. Admitting you are wrong about a specific card in a deck or idea is a large part of improvement. No player is good enough to be at their best without relying on the help of others. Yes, it is possible to play a ton on Magic Online, but even that can only get you so far. For me there are three different key phases in preparing for a tournament that maximize the potential for success and enjoyment.
I am referring to the first phase as data collecting, but there is no formula to collect data. Methods of collecting data can vary from player to player. This isn't necessarily about numbers, but more about not only playing games, but also researching various decks. The Internet is your friend when it comes to researching decks. Looking at decklists will often spark ideas that wouldn't have come to you under any other circumstance.
The cards in decks as well as the metagame often change from week to week. As a result, I normally don't start preparing for a Constructed tournament more than two weeks ahead of time because the information available changes so fast. Completely new archetypes will sometimes spring up just a couple days before an event. Sometimes it will be impossible to fully explore a deck before an event, as the resources aren't available. However, in order to maximize your potential to do well before an important tournament, having as many resources as possible available is helpful.
Looking at the modern way of preparing for Pro Tours, we have the super teams, which are statistically the most successful way to prepare for a Pro Tour. These teams involve groups of players coming together and sharing information. The team is generally comprised of players who each have their own unique skillset, so that it is clear who you need to ask for advice about one area of your game. More manpower is necessary in order to tackle new formats, which Pro Tours are. It really isn't possible to test and tune all the various decks in the format without lots of resources—in this case, people—to throw at them.
Even top players sometimes have little time to test, but one key is knowing how much time you do have and using it efficiently. Perhaps there is no time to play games, but that doesn't mean the testing process is completely nullified. Even if you just have five minutes a day to use on Magic related thoughts, there is always some small way to work towards having a better experience when the big tournament comes along. While Magic is a game to be enjoyed, I do believe that players for the most part play to win, and these steps definitely seem to help in that regard.
It is important to go into an event believing that you are going to do well, and that the event is within your comfort zone. Some players may not agree with me that confidence is important when playing, but in my experience it means a great deal. If you don't believe in yourself, as cliché as it is, I believe that your chances of having a good tournament experience decrease. I have seen many a player get flustered when playing against a player that they perceive to be more talented. This may take time, as playing in more tournaments will make a player more comfortable for the next one.
For example, players who are playing in their first Grand Prix or Pro Tour are often much more nervous when playing in the event than those who have played in many of these tournaments. I know that this holds true for myself. Nerves are natural, but it's important not to let them affect your gameplay. While it is nice to be able to gain an understanding of the playstyle of the opposition, it is more important to play your own best game, regardless of what the opponent is doing. Getting flustered is perhaps the worst thing that can happen in an event, and can make a match loss seem much worse.
After making a suboptimal play it is pretty easy to disengage in a game, and write it off as a loss. After all, you just made a mistake, so doesn't that mean the opponent is going to win? Of course, this isn't how Magic works, though some players do have this mindset. It is absolutely possible to tilt off in a game or match and let one bad decision affect the rest of your event, and tournament experience. Magic is a game of mistakes. As a Pro, trust me, this is a fact. After making a mistake, being able to bounce back isn't easy, but it helps, and doing so increases your chances of salvaging a good performance in the same event. Most of the time it takes multiple losses to knock a player out of an event. If the opponent gets lucky or something bad happened in a match, the best thing is to stay positive and move on.
It is the day of the tournament, and it is important to know exactly what needs to go into being ready even before the matches start. Some of these small details may seem insignificant, but can prove to be relevant. For example, one part of playing in a Magic tournament that gets overlooked is sleep. Yes, I am actually arguing that getting the right amount of sleep will effect tournament results! There have been times when I have been so excited for a tournament that I didn't sleep the night before, only to miss a round in the event because I fell asleep during a lunch break.
It is tough to get as much sleep as usual at Magic events, but I do recommend the sleep-in-special when available at GPs, and outlining every aspect required in order to get to the tournament site in the morning. There are always things that can delay a player the morning of the tournament, so don't be the guy who misses the event entirely due to poor planning (this has happened to the best of players). When arriving on site it is important to have all the necessary materials in order to play. I am guilty of forgetting to bring items like tokens and dice, but having these items isn't that difficult and makes life a lot easier.
Strategically planning when to eat is important over the course of a long day. Since tournaments tend to start early, there's often little time for breakfast. Sometimes there are food options at or nearby the tournament venue, but usually that just means low-quality fast food. There isn't time to go out for a meal in the middle of the day, as that would mean missing a round. By the time a tournament ends it could be past 10 at night and restaurants could already be closing. Magic tournaments are not ideal for keeping up with a typical food schedule.
For some people, not eating for a day or having one bad meal in a day is okay. Other times, you are playing an event that doesn't last that long, or get knocked out fairly early in the day (though of course it is best to plan for this not to be the case). My recommendation is to think about eating options thoroughly before the tournament begins, and bring food to the event as necessary. I very rarely see players pack a lunch for a tournament, but it really does work out quite nicely, in addition to being a money saver.
Once the tournament does begin, if something is going well, don't mess it up. When I made Top 8 of my first Pro Tour I had a backwards hat on, which I never took off — I was afraid I would lose my luck. Maybe this was me just praying to the Magic Gods to let me be lucky for the tournament, but I do believe that players go on winning streaks by keeping a routine and sticking to it. I have seen other players not sleeve their decks because they believe it is bringing them luck. It may sound crazy, but does this really help you get lucky? The example may seem silly but is still intriguing nonetheless.
Thanks for reading,