Becoming a Better Magic: The Gathering Player

I wish I could write an article that would help everyone not only get better at Magic, but also grow to love the game more. Watching the Pro Tour coverage this weekend reminded me why I care about this game so much, and what there is to work towards. It also reminded me how far away I am from that stage now, and that I have a lot of work to do to get back on my game.

I'm introducing myself to Modern. I'm largely new to the format. Though I've played a few games and I've watched a lot of it get played, I've never really invested the time into building a Modern deck. I'm running low on tickets, so I really want to make this one count.

I'm running low on tickets because I keep losing.

How can I stop losing?

Everyone plays Magic differently. No two people will play a game the same way. Even in the simplest of games - if the game only lasts a few turns and the plays are obvious. The timing between your spells, the sequence of your lands, your demeanor - these things can change the way your opponent plays the game. This was my foundation for logic in comparing the skill levels of players. Some players are a lot better than others - but there are is so much depth to the game, and so many different ways to gain advantages, that you can learn something from everyone.

I want to focus on my mistakes and improve on what I've been doing wrong. As a player, one of my biggest strengths is recognizing when I make a mistake, and learning from it. I've definitely been making a lot of mistakes recently - I've been losing more than I've been winning. It's time for me to take a step back, and Relearn the basics. What are the basics?

If I was going to offer advice to someone playing in a tournament of a new format for the first time, I would tell them to pick an established good deck that fits their style. I'm going to follow my own advice - instead of building my own deck (as I tend to do), I'm going to pick a strong stock list and try to play it as well as I can.

Deckbuilding can be one of the hardest parts of playing Magic, and often comes with a lot of losing. I want to focus on improving my play and knowledge of the format right now, instead of getting ahead of myself by creating my own, unique list.

I usually have the most fun playing Magic when I see the look on my opponent's face when I do something completely unexpected. One disadvantage of playing Magic Online is not being able to see your opponents face, not being able to read their body language. An advantage is that your opponent cannot do the same to you.


Entering a New Format (One Card at a Time)

I'm learning the format from scratch, so I'm going to start by trying to figure out what one of the best card(s) in Modern is. I'd do this typically by trying to learn the metagame - and see which card is the most played. This card would be in the best deck (or one of the consensus "top decks"), and also in a wide variety of decks overall.

So I looked at decklists from recent Modern Dailies, and tried to figure out what the most played card is.

That card, was far and away, Scalding Tarn.

Scalding Tarn is a fetchland, the term used for the Onslaught and Zendikar cycles of lands which let you pay a life and search through your library for a card with one of two basic land types. These lands have been considered to be the best lands in Magic for quite some time (next to the original Alpha/Beta/Unlimited dual lands and basic Island).

Why?

Fetchlands provide incredible mana fixing when paired with Ravnica dual lands, as well as creating an extremely efficient way of shuffling your library, and filling your graveyard. I almost wasn't looking at the manabases of the decks when I was looking for the most powerful modern card - until I saw that six out of the seven decks that went 4-0 in the Daily on 5/20 played four copies of Scalding Tarn.

So the mana is good - too good. The downside of Scalding Tarn and the Ravnica shocklands are that they cost you life - which red decks capitalize on the mos. Here's a Monored deck pacoealflaco went 4-0 with.

DECKID=1200785

Here we have a classic low curve red deck full of damage spells. Scalding Tarn (and Arid Mesa) does so much for this deck, aside from letting you get the one-of Stomping Ground to cast Destructive Revelry with. It puts a card in your graveyard to feed Grim Lavamancer - and it triggers Landfall for Searing Blaze on your opponent's turn. If we want to go deeper, we could even say it helps reduce the chance of you drawing more lands, but I'll stop talking about Scalding Tarn now.

Monored isn't typically my style, and I'm looking for a deck which I'll be able to pick up naturally. Some say that Monored is a "dumb" deck, and is easy to play. While counting to 20 with burn spells can be easier than grinding your opponents out with advantageous trades over a long game, it doesn't mean there isn't a lot of room for play with the deck. I used to be that person who believed "only bad players play Monored". That was until I watched Patrick Sullivan play. He's well known for his expertise with Red Decks, but watching him play perfectly around everything his opponent had - I knew that the myth of Monored being for weak players was far from the truth.


Snapcaster Mage

The most played non-land card in the current Magic Online Modern format seems to be Snapcaster Mage. According to the most recent daily, the best deck seems to be U/R Twin.

DECKID=1200786

DECKID=1200787

Also, an interesting URg take on the deck, by none other than "Znapcaster."

DECKID=1200788

The infinite combo of Pestermite / Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin / Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker is one of the most played decks in Modern. The power of flashing out a card for three mana, then untapping and playing a four mana enchantment that wins the game is extremely powerful. What makes this deck work so well?

In addition to almost everything being an instant or having flash, the cards in these decks are extremely versatile. Other than the combo pieces, every card either draws a card or trades with an opponent's card. Electrolyze and Cryptic Command can do both - and the existence of Snapcaster Mage means that the deck can play a slower game, whittling away at the opponent's life total, threatening to end the game with a flurry of Lightning Bolts.

Znapcaster's list in particular capitalizes on this aspect of the deck more than the others. He's only playing three Splinter Twin (and no Kiki-Jikis), while still playing six total copies of Pestermite / Deceiver Exarch, the same amount of slots as the other decks which play five (Splinter Twin + Kiki-Jiki). If I had to guess, I'd say he doesn't plan on casting Splinter Twin if his opponent could remove his creature and get a two-for-one. This deck tries to play even more of the "fair" game, by playing efficient cards and trading, while retaining its ability to explosively end the game.

Blue/white/red is another popular archetype in Modern, making use of many of the same cards

DECKID=1200790

0 Pestermite, 0 Deceiver Exarch, 0 Splinter Twin, and yet this deck still is extremely similar to the other Twin lists. I don't know if I'll find one list that's better than the others, but I think this is an established archetype that I can start building without regret.


Staying Focused While Playing Online

Magic Online is different than paper Magic in a lot of ways. What I'm learning as I'm playing more MTGO than paper Magic for the first time in nearly a decade of playing the game - is that it's really easy to lose focus on the game you're playing.

At a Magic tournament, occasionally, especially in the later rounds when Fatigue starts to set in, it can be easy to let your eyes wander and start paying attention to the match next to you - if your opponent is taking a long time to think, for example. It's best to spend this time thinking about future turns and what your opponent is deliberating over - but we are human. Sometimes we aren't disciplined.

Online, it's easy to hit F6 and start doing other things on your computer while waiting for your opponent to take their turn. I know this causes me to lose games, but it's hard to pinpoint exactly where and how it's costing me.

It's important while playing a game of Magic to spend your brainpower deducing what your opponent is likely to have in their hand. Many times you'll be faced with a decision that you'll want to make based off of the cards your opponent has.

Let's take a basic example. For the sake of this argument, let's say your opponent has one card in hand - and it's either Doom Blade or Supreme Verdict. You have two creatures, one in your hand, and one in play. If your opponent has Doom Blade, you'd want to play the creature in your hand so you can continue to attack next turn. If your opponent has Supreme Verdict, you'd lose two cards and have no follow up.

So what's the play if you were busy looking at pictures of dogs on Facebook?

I think that playing with distractions may be my single biggest inhibitor while playing online. Unlike in real life, where the most waiting you'd have to do is if your opponent goes to the bathroom in between games, there's no RL-equivalent of an opponent who is double-queuing or disconnects.

Am I supposed to stare there with no new information for 10 minutes while winning through computer difficulties? No, probably not, but looking over at the other screen if my opponent takes more than five seconds to make a play is the opposite end of the spectrum. I've lost matches online this week because I was paying more attention to the Pro Tour than I was to the game I was playing; not a very practical way to improve my own play.

This week, I'm making my own personal goal not to multitask while playing online. It's a big mistake I know I've been making and repeating, and now it's time to stop. Even one small nuance of a step at a time.

Thanks for reading,
Nick Spagnolo