Magic is a complex game. In order to even start playing Magic, there are a lot of little things you need to know. You can probably get away with doing whatever you want for a little while, but assuming you want to start playing with other people, following the established set of rules is going to be helpful. That means learning an established set of rules, which in the case of Magic, is no small task.
Generally a player will learn some of the most fundamental rules and will just begin playing and encountering new situations and rules as they go. This allows a player to gradually learn more and more about the game without being excluded from playing it in the meantime.
As if that were not already enough of a burden though, while Magic is very complex at a rules level, Magic also happens to be one of the most strategically deep games available. Rules knowledge is a basic understanding of how things work and why we arrive at outcomes - something you theoretically could master, given enough time - but when it comes to strategy, you could spend your entire life studying the game and never master it.
Magic has so much going on from a strategy standpoint partially because there is so much player control and so many choices, even starting before a game. When you build a deck, you are actually answering 60 or more multiple choice questions except instead of four or five possible answers for each, instead there are thousands.
Taking on all of this learning as a prerequisite is just a little too much to expect out of anyone. So, along the way we are given small bits of advice or tips that aim to move us forward and advance us to the next level. For example, maybe your friends told you that playing 20 lands is a good starting point when building decks. That looks to guide you and give you some direction, but if you play long enough or learn enough, you will eventually discover that advice is a little faulty.
Today I wanted to look at some of the advice many of us have been given over the years. Some of these may be things you have outgrown while others might still be rules you use to this day. Not all rules are bad of course. For example, 17 lands seems to be the normal count for Limited decks and, although there are plenty of exceptions, that number holds up pretty well for any particular given format. But when a rule is bad and you follow it, unaware of its effectiveness, your overall game can really be hurt.
With that, let's take a look at some of these rules, lessons, shortcuts, tips, and tricks that you may have been told over the years.
The 20/20/20 Rule
Since I just happened to mention this and it is one of the easier ones to tackle, let's start here. When you first start playing Magic, all of that stuff about the rules and strategy take up so much of your focus, that building decks, especially any type of competitive deck, is almost out of the question. Still, deckbuilding is one of the core elements to Magic, so ignoring it isn't a great idea either.
For early deckbuilding, you need an easy to understand and simple explanation to get a player started. This "rule" telling players to run 20 land, 20 creatures, and 20 spells, is often one of the first to break down as a player becomes more and more immersed in the game. It is not that this is a bad rule, as it is simple and at least functional in nature, but simply that its positive impact on a player dries up rather quickly. I have been playing Magic professionally for a while and I don't think a single deck I have ever played in a tournament has had this exact skeleton.
Alas though, there are bigger fish to fry here, perhaps some that might even stir a debate!
Moving forward in time a bit, eventually, Limited Magic becomes a thing. Drafting is an entirely different world than Constructed with some of the same pieces, but entirely new ways to use them. Usually, to help a player cope with the massive amounts of information during a draft, that player is taught something in line with B.R.E.A.D.
In my little world, that stood for Bombs, Removal, Evasion, Attackers, Defenders. Everyone seems to have their own twist on what those last few letters actually stand for, but the idea is roughly the same regardless.
In theory, this is supposed to help a newer player to understand what to take over what, but does it actually hold up? I suppose I will generally take removal over a creature, but certainly not always. And as a new player, I am asked to learn a lot of complicated concepts to even begin using this system to any success. Is Shriekmaw removal or evasion? Where does Rampant Growth fit in? Is Nightmare a bomb?
Eventually some players grow to take this stuff for granted, but it can be very difficult at times. You're giving me a shortcut to draft and yet, without doing a bunch of other work and research, I have no idea what the bombs are or what the best evasion is. Your shortcut needs a map to go with it and therefore is not much of a shortcut at all.
I think that if we want players to get off on the best foot from a competitive perspective, we need to teach them general concepts that are good in Limited. For example, explaining that a power/toughness ratio that is at or close to your casting cost is a very strong thing in Limited, is going to provide a player with a lot more tools to decipher cards on the fly. Of course, you cannot stop there, but with a few of these concepts instilled, Draft and Limited in general, are going to be easier to comprehend.
Some concepts that are useful but easier to explain or teach include:
-Two versus three or more color decks; consistency versus power.
-Basic card advantage principles: what a two-for-one is.
-Some of the basic Limited creature size expectations: Hill Giant, Grizzly Bears, Wind Drake, etc. People tend to do better when they have some points of reference like those.
Always Bolt the Bird
This one is a little more advanced and probably doesn't get mentioned for quite a while into your playing days, but it is fairly iconic regardless. The context here is that, when you have a one mana removal spell (or two mana on the play) and your opponent plays a mana creature on turn one, you should use your removal spell on said mana creature. In theory, the setback on their mana development allows you to get more out of that removal than if you just aimed it at a later threat. Additionally, there is always the chance that they were relying on that mana and have little other mana and are now mana screwed, leading to a "free" win.
I would say this is a rule that you cannot really debunk as it will be appropriate to use removal on early mana creatures in some cases, maybe even a majority of cases, but it will not always be the case. The rule here is to try to help the player not outthink themselves, but the reality is, different mana creatures are valued differently and sometimes, your deck will not have the removal count to be able to use them on non-priority targets.
Killing Noble Hierarch and Deathrite Shaman tended to be safe because of the utility those creatures provided throughout the game afterward. Killing something like Elvish Mystic or Birds of Paradise is a little riskier. Just as you might Mana Screw your opponent some of the time, you also might be trading your removal for their mana while they hold three or four more lands in hand and are happy to have gotten some value out of one of their extra mana sources.
New cards have complicated this problem even further. In the Bolt example, you are trading one mana and a card for one card, so that is fine, but what if your removal spell is Dismember? Does that extra four life sway the equation any?
By all means, Bolt the Bird if you feel like that is the right play. Perhaps you have a slow hand and cannot afford to fall behind or maybe you have multiple removal spells in hand. The important thing is not the outcome of whether you Bolt or not, but simply that you put some thought into it in the first place.
Using Draft Signals
It seems that when a person learns to Draft, they will almost immediately be bombarded with talk of signaling. I think signaling is held in such high regard because most people do not understand how it works or how to use it to your advantage. Instead, they hear of this mystical art of signaling and they believe that is what they should be doing. Personally, I believe analyzing signals to be a distraction, especially early on in your Draft career.
The idea of signaling is that I can figure out what the players to my right are playing by evaluating what remains in the pack. No blue cards here? Person to my right might be blue, etc. The problem is, this type of signaling requires an unwritten agreement with the players to the right of you, and that is that they are on the same skill level as you.
Let's imagine the player to your right is significantly better than you. Will you be able to understand the signals he is sending? You see, he passed a pretty good rare in favor of an uncommon and all of the best players know that there are only a few uncommons you would take in this spot. Using that reasoning, a good player in your seat might be able to figure out what his passer took. But you are not on that skill level. No shame in that, of course, but to you, the pack is simply missing an uncommon. Maybe it is a little light on green cards, but does that mean your passer took a green card? Obviously not.
Or let's imagine the player to your right is very bad. Can you really trust the things being passed to you? Can you make the same Leaps in logic when that player doesn't even realize they are supposed to be signaling in the first place?
There are so many variables and inconsistencies when it comes to reading signals that I feel like you should never rely on them. It is fine to take some evaluation of your packs and to see what information might be available, but you can't trust that information unconditionally, making it much less important than information that you can.
Knowing what you passed is a far more valuable skill than knowing what you are being passed. You can actually control some amount of what the player to your left sees and while he cannot trust that information 100% of the time, just as you couldn't, you at least can shape the reality that is being seen a little better.
Signaling in general is just a worst skill to work on than one of the many Limited skills that we all suck at. Learn how to evaluate the power level of cards. Learn the tricks in a format. Learn how to properly manage combat. All of these things are going to have a bigger payoff than trying to read, or even send, signals.
Eventually, once you have mastered all of the basic and intermediate Limited skills, feel free to work on your signal reading, but it should not be a priority early on.
I am going to tack bluffing on here because it very much falls under the same category as signals. Bluffing can absolutely win you a game that nothing else could and that is why it is so attractive. Everyone loves to read about a bluff or to have a good bluff story told to them. It is a sexy play. But the reality is that bluffing likely factors into a single percentage of your games, and even then, most of the time it is very safe bluffs, like attacking 3/3s into 3/3s.
For a second, imagine bluffing to be like a behind the back pass in basketball. Is there value in a behind-the-back pass? Absolutely! Some amount of the time that will be the only way to deliver the ball to a teammate without risking it being stolen or interfered with. That all said, if you were the coach of a middle school basketball team and you spend time teaching behind-the-back passes, you are hurting your squad.
You see, while fancy passes can matter in some very rare situations, working on other fundamentals is going to have such a bigger return. Learning how to use your left hand, how to run a break, or how to shoot properly are all going to be significantly more valuable to your game. If you took the time spent learning fancy passing and devoted it to these more important skills, you would see a better return on your time.
Bluff is definitely a skill you can and maybe even will use from time to time, but unless you are going to sit there and tell me you have mastered sequencing, combat math, relative card values, remembering triggers, concealing information, etc., etc., then you can't really say you are doing all that you can be to improve. Focus on what matters and let bluffing be something you pick up over time, or later on in your career.
That's it for me today! Just remember to constantly be updating yourself as a Magic player. You enter new phases or chapters of life all the time and the same is true for your Magic life. If you desire to get better, learning to what to focus on is one of the best ways to achieve that. Question things and seek information where available. Our community has grown so much over the years and the resources are very likely out there. Until next week, thanks for reading!