Imagine yourself holding the trophy and giant novelty check for $50,000. You just won the World Championship! You're the top ranked player in the world and undisputed best in the game!
Whether you're new to Magic, an aspiring pro player, or even the second best player in the world, this article aims to tell you exactly what to do to become the best. Although I do not take myself to be the best player in the world, I've been consistently ranked in the Top 50 for the past five years and have regularly played with and against the best players in the world. This article is written from a combination of my own experience of playing near the top and also from observing the other top players. If you want to be the best, today I am going to show you how to make it happen. Let's start by laying the foundation.
Commitment as the Foundation
There was a time in Magic history when people believed that Jon Finkel's resume would never be surpassed. He exhibited more talent for the game of Magic than any other player in the world and his success matched his talent. Then some years later Kai Budde started winning Pro Tour after Pro Tour, causing people to claim that he had overtaken Finkel for the title no one previously thought could be overtaken. After winning his seventh Pro Tour, more than twice as many as Jon Finkel or anyone else in the game's history, it became pretty clear that we had a new best player in the world (and best player ever for that matter). No one has since dominated the game like Kai did when he won nearly every Pro Tour in a calendar year, shattering the record for pro points earned in a single season.
So what made Kai so dominant? Was it some uncanny natural ability for the game? Was it luck? These two factors certainly played a part, but the characteristic most top players point to when explaining Kai's success was his commitment.
Kai spent hours and hours each day preparing for Pro Tours. Even when no testing partner was around, he would play against himself in order to understand both sides of a given matchup. And when he wasn't playing, he was thinking about Magic and talking with other players about decks, metagames, matchups, or draft strategies. Eventually Kai's commitment to Magic waned and he began focusing more energy on other things like school and career. His dominance on the Pro Tour likewise waned, reopening the debate of who is currently the best.
Despite everyone having an opinion on the matter, I always find this to be a rather ambiguous question. Are you asking who played the best at the most recent tournament? Are you asking who played the best in the past month? The past three months? The past year? The past three to five years? There is enough variance in Magic and enough complexity that even the most skilled player will not always win the tournament or even play the best at that tournament, but if you look at a wider range of time, say one to five years, the best (or at least most successful) players in the world tend to be highly correlated with the most committed players in the world.
The most committed players are the ones traveling to Grand Prix every weekend. When not traveling, they're streaming, watching streams, writing articles, reading articles, testing, drafting, participating in Magic-related strategy discussions, watching coverage of faraway tournaments, and pretty much always engulfing themselves in Magic one way or another. Not everyone has this much time to invest into Magic, which is perfectly fine if you prioritize other things above Magic, but the consequence is that you lack the requisite commitment to be the best in the world because there are dozens of other top players out there who do not lack this level of commitment and will thereby outperform you.
So am I suggesting that you quit your job, drop out of school, and start traveling to tournaments each week? Well, not necessarily, but this is exactly what I did five years ago when I decided to play Magic professionally, but only because I suddenly had the opportunity to do so. I had just made Top 8 of Pro Tour San Diego 2010 which earned me $10,000 and qualified me for the next seven Pro Tours. I was also offered a job writing strategy articles to supplement my income. Prior to that point I was never realistically in a position to commit myself fully to Magic. If your goal is to play Magic professionally and to be the best in the world, it would be wise to work toward that goal by committing yourself as much as possible but also to wait for the right opportunity before cutting your sails.
Trying to over-commit prematurely could end up hindering your development. For instance, it may be wiser to save up money so you can dedicate a whole year to grinding Grand Prix rather than finding out midway through the year that you're broke and can't afford to travel to any Grand Prix in the second half of the year, leaving you with only 17 pro points and back at square one instead of on 35 pro points and qualified for the whole next year of Pro Tours. I worked my way up from FNM to PTQs to GPs to the Pro Tour and I would recommend you do the same if your ultimate goal is to be the best. Commit yourself to Magic only as a hobby until you get to the point where it can realistically become more than a hobby. Become the best at your local shop, the best in your city, and the best in your region. Keep climbing the ladder until you catch your big break in a major tournament. Then go for it as hard as you can and don't look back!
Now that we have a clear picture of when and how to commit yourself to becoming the best, let's look at some of the major obstacles you will face on your way toward becoming the best. More importantly, let's look at how to overcome them.
Overcoming Burnout and Frustration
When you're winning, it's usually pretty easy to stay motivated and looking forward to the next tournament. With Magic, however, there is a decent amount of short-term variance that will cause even the best players in the world to do poorly in a tournament, sometimes a handful of tournaments in a row. Even when variance is not to blame, sometimes the best players will have a tournament where they make a few key mistakes, play a poorly positioned deck, or in some cases accidentally fail to show up for a round or the draft portion of a tournament and thereby tank their otherwise successful tournament. Mathematically speaking even the very best and most committed player in the world will experience a few tournaments in a row where they do poorly. Getting to the point where you are the best (or remaining the best if you already are the best) requires that you figure out how to stay motivated and committed even in the face of losing.
The most important thing I do to stay motivated is to focus on the bigger picture.
...sure I made a mistake or had some bad luck that cost me a match, but I'm still alive to do well in the tournament....yes, I had a bad tournament but I'm still on pace to have a good year....sure, I failed to cash five Grand Prix in a row and time is winding down, but even if I fail to hit platinum, gold keeps me on the Pro Tour....ok I had a bad year, but as long as I Rebound next year and keep chaining Pro Tour qualifications, I can continue playing Magic professionally.
It's not always easy to see the bigger picture, especially when you're losing, but I find it indispensable to keep reminding myself that there are peaks and valleys in Magic and that over the long term the wins will come.
Another way to avoid Burnout is to focus on the good instead of the bad. I failed to cash something like six Grand Prix in a row in the back half of last season, resulting in me narrowly missing platinum by a just a few points. Looking back, I had every reason to tilt off and give up. One tournament I made an obvious play mistake that cost me a big finish. Another tournament my opponent drew a Pyroclasm at exactly the right moment to end my tournament. In another a judge made an incorrect ruling that cost me a match and my tournament and I trusted the judge instead of appealing the ruling since I did not know the rule at the time either. And then in the final tournament of the year (Pro Tour Portland) I had three turns in a row to draw a land to beat Jon Finkel, which would have earned me platinum, another Pro Tour Top 8, and a potential spot in the World Championship, but I failed to draw the land and lost. Instead of focusing on all the negatives and near misses, I was happy to at least hit gold and continue playing Magic professionally. I have since bounced back and am currently one point away from platinum for next year.
In addition to keeping perspective and focusing on the good, another way to keep frustration from hindering your progress toward being the best is to look forward to other aspects of Magic. It can be quite the grind to fly to a tournament on Friday, play in the tournament, fly home on Monday, write an article, preparing for the next tournament, and then be back on an airplane the following Friday, especially when trips are back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. The same can be true for players traveling to PTQs each weekend trying to earn their spot on the Pro Tour.
The grind can be even more overwhelming if you experience a Drought and are not doing well in the tournaments. It's important to remember to have fun on trips regardless of the result. I've become friends with many of the other top players who share my level of commitment and attend all the Grand Prix each weekend. Some of us do well on a given weekend and others do well the next weekend. If we hang out, go out to eat, play catchphrase, sing karaoke, and enjoy each other's company, it makes the taste of a bad tournament result a little easier to swallow. The same should be true for you too. Enjoy the road trip to the PTQ, go out to eat after FNM, or play a game of multiplayer pack war in your hotel room with everyone else who failed to make Day 2 of the Grand Prix.
In addition to Burnout and frustration, another major obstacle is stagnation, a point where a player feels as though they have not been showing signs of improvement and is at a loss for how to break through to the next level.
Stagnation is not just what happens when you get beat by a Great Sable Stag, but is common at all stages of development. A player starts winning FNM regularly but fails to make Top 8 of PTQs or advance to Day 2 of Grand Prix. They keep doing the things that got them to this point but they cannot break through the next barrier and they're at a loss for how to improve. The best advice for overcoming stagnation is to increase your level of commitment. If you truly want it enough, you will find a way to get it. But do you really want to get to the next level? A simple self-reflection on where you invest your free time should make it clear just how much you want it. Are you spreading your time between Magic, Hearthstone, and League of Legends? Are you watching television and movies instead of Magic streams and strategy videos? Are you reading fantasy novels instead of Magic articles? Sure, everyone needs a break from time to time, but if you truly want to take your game to the next level, then the best thing to do is to start investing more of your time into Magic.
Commitment is not always enough though. Maybe you read strategy articles and watch strategy videos all day at work and then you come home and immediately sign up for a Daily Event on Magic Online. And between rounds you book your travel to the next PTQ or Grand Prix. You're as committed as you can reasonably be to Magic and yet months and months and maybe years go by and your results have not shown any noticeable improvement from previous months or years. What can you do? In this case the best advice I can give is to make changes. Any changes. Start watching someone new stream, start reading someone else's articles. Start testing decks that are different from what you usually play. Start playing against different players. Start attending a local FNM on Friday instead of joining a Daily Event on Magic Online. The sole act of changing what you're doing will open up a new perspective to you and cause you to think about the game in a slightly different way. The more things you change, the more you'll see things differently. The purpose is to jar you out of a rut, so it's ok if some or even all of the changes end up being not worth pursuing later on. For instance, I'll often spend hours playing control mirrors in order to figure out what I was doing wrong with my white weenie deck.
Another way to overcome stagnation is to build up those around you. Wherever you are in your development as a player, you are better than someone who is eager to learn from you. As long as you make yourself approachable and you don't isolate yourself, such players will seek you out and make it known in one way or another that they want to learn from you. If you're the person that regularly does well at FNM but is having trouble breaking through to the Top 8 of PTQs or into Day 2 at Grand Prix, then take on a mentorship role to someone (or to multiple players) at the local shop who are eager to learn from you. In my experience, this has helped me to take my game to the next level at various points in my development as a player. It forces you to put strategy concepts into words and really conceptualize what you're doing. It then brings up the other player(s) closer to your level to the point where they can start challenging you on a level that allows you both to grow together as players. It also opens up lines of communication so that when they learn something new elsewhere they can communicate it to you in a way where you can then understand and learn from it.
Another benefit of building up those around you is establishing a baseline of mutual respect. After having some success on the Pro Tour with white weenie decks, I became branded as "the white weenie guy." This has its own benefits, but also some drawbacks. Pro players, including some teammates, would often not be interested in the decks I was working on because "white weenie" has traditionally been considered an underpowered archetype. So I sought out players who were having success with my decks and I began working more closely with them. By playing and succeeding with my decks, these players demonstrated that they take my ideas seriously and see potential in them. So thereafter when I would come up with a new deck, they are eager to offer input and help me test the idea. This in turn helps me because then multiple strong minds are working on a project together instead of just one mind. I've only been on Team UltraPRO for one Pro Tour but Sam Black and I each made Top 16 and he made significant contributions to the Bant deck I played in the tournament, as did several other members of the team who have taken my ideas seriously in the recent past.
A combination of increased commitment, change, and building up those around you is a perfect recipe for overcoming stagnation. In addition to Burnout and stagnation, one last obstacle that always seems to lurk right around every corner is overconfidence.
Overconfidence is the root cause of various obstacles, one of which is a sense of entitlement. You know you're a better player than your opponent and so you feel entitled to beat them. Then whenever you lose to an inferior player you feel unfairly unlucky. Yes, every time a more skilled player plays well and still loses it will be largely due to luck. But if these losses are a constant source of frustration, it is because you are failing to accurately understand statistics and how variance works in games with built-in elements of chance (such as Magic). For instance, if I'm twice as good as you at Magic, then I should beat you two out of every three times we play. And if I'm five times as good, then I should beat you five out of six times we play. Pretty much anyone competing in a tournament, especially someone who you are paired with and who therefore has a similar record to yours in the tournament has a reasonable chance of beating you. If you believe you should always beat someone that you are three times better than, then your overconfidence will cause you frustration on average one out of every four matches you play against that person. If instead you adopt an attitude that fits more closely with reality, you should acknowledge that you are only going to win 75% of the time against this particular opponent, assuming you play at the top of your game. The same goes for losing to a "good matchup." You'll beat a better player or win a bad matchup the same percentage of the time, long term, that you lose a good matchup or to a worse player. Entitlement will cause you to lose perspective and make you unnecessarily frustrated. Keep your perspective aligned with reality and you'll avoid having to deal with a cascade of obstacles all at once.
Another obstacle that overconfidence can cause is lethargy. You've already proven that you're the best player in the tournament. Why do you need to prepare for it? You'll just sleeve up any deck and outplay all your opponents because you're the best and no one can stop you. Right? This is a dangerous attitude to have because it makes you believe it is ok for your commitment to wane. But as we've already demonstrated, commitment is the foundation for being the best. Hence if your belief that you're the best causes your commitment to lessen, which in turn causes you to no longer be the best, then your belief that you're the best is the cause of you no longer being the best. It's a subtle self-sabotage that you should avoid by never taking a tournament or match of Magic for granted. Sure, sometimes you need to take a break and clear your mind instead of vigorously testing. And yes, sometimes you'll do poorly in tournaments you are well-prepared for or do well in tournaments you did not prepare for. Nevertheless if you're thinking big picture it is important to avoid falling into the trap of lethargy because otherwise it will certainly keep you from being the best.
Overconfidence can also hold back your progress by causing you to be dishonest with yourself. Why did you lose last round? The easy answer is you were mana screwed and lost because of luck. Overconfidence will cause you to believe this claim at face value without looking more deeply into what you could have done differently. Could you have bought yourself an extra turn by playing your cards in a different order? Could you have sideboarded differently? Maybe you played too many high cost spells in your deck and this made you overly susceptible to Mana Screw? Being able to honestly assess each of your games and your tournaments will be much more conducive toward your development as a player than the opposite. Avoid falling victim to this type of overconfidence that inhibits progress.
Another related way that overconfidence can inhibit progress is by causing you to believe there is nothing you can learn from someone who is not as good as you. Sure, you may be better at most facets of the game than someone, but maybe they're onto something with this new deck idea. Or maybe their reasoning for their mulligan decision doesn't make sense to you but is actually correct. Maybe their sideboard plan is better than the one you're currently using for a given matchup. Or perhaps a card you thought was unplayable can actually be really good in a particular draft format. I'm not saying you should always listen to everything anyone says about Magic, but the player who is open to learning from any source is in a much better position to grow than a player who will only listen to the best of the best. For instance, even though I'm currently ranked eighteenth in the world, I think most of the seventeen players ranked ahead of me can learn something useful from this article if their goal is to be (or remain) the best.
Go Forth and Conquer!
Think back to the image of yourself holding the trophy and oversized novelty check. Is this just a fleeting fancy or is it your destiny? Your level of commitment is the barometer by which to judge how much you really want it. After having read this article, you are now equipped with the knowledge of how to overcome all obstacles and to make your dream a reality. Your fate is in your own hands. What will you do with it?