The weeks right before the release of a new set are always bittersweet for me. On one hand, there is about to be a bunch of new toys to play with and puzzles to solve, and that's awesome. On the other hand, the tournament Magic left to play before the release feels a little pointless. It's still the same game I've been loving for the past several months, but all of a sudden I'm made to feel like anything I learn in the next couple weeks is completely useless. As a Spike who wants to constantly improve my game, being disincentivized to learn kills my interest in playing.
To combat this and get as much out of playing lame duck Magic formats as I can, I have developed some mental games designed to hone timeless Magic skills. This helps me feel like I am still improving as a Magic player while not focusing on things that will soon become irrelevant. I use games as my lens to focus myself probably for the same reason I play Magic in the first place: I'm a gamer. Games are inherently interesting to me, and since you readers all play Magic too, I imagine they might be inherently interesting to you as well. Without further ado, here are some of my favorite Magic minigames.
One of my bigger level-up moments came when I started feeling joy at the sight of my opponent's lands not untapping on their turn. This was not because I started casting Choke against blue mages, but because it hit me just how good turn cycles where my opponent's lands never tapped in the first place were for me. Eventually, I went from passively feeling happy whenever my opponent's lands didn't tap to actively doing everything I could to stop them from tapping. To that end, I developed a minigame out of my efforts to keep my opponents from using their mana.
The idea behind this game is simple: maneuver your turn so that your opponent doesn't have the opportunity to use any of the mana they left up (sadly, if they left six up for Opportunity, nothing you do will stop them from casting it). Play a creature that their removal spell doesn't hit, or elect to play an instant in their end step to waste the mana they left up for a Counterspell. At the beginning of your turn, any mana your opponent has up is 'in play,' so to speak. If that mana is still up in your opponent's next untap step, score mental points equal to the number of mana they did not use.
That's it. That's the game.
As you gain experience with the core concept here, you can add on some rules to address the fact that you shouldn't really be scoring points when your opponent just has nothing to do and that's why they didn't spend their mana: no points when opponent has no cards in hand, no points on the second successive untap step without a spell cast by your opponent, etc. Don't let any complications distract from the main point of finding ways to play your cards that waste as much of your opponent's mana as possible.
I like to score this minigame per match, with a different leaderboard in my head for each match-up. Comparing your score against Esper Dragons vs. your score against GR Devotion is pretty meaningless, as the decks just aren't prone to similar amounts of mana wasting. This game is primarily a tool for improvement, so there are no good scores or bad scores -- the key is to watch your scores go consistently up as you hone the skills involved in playing this minigame.
This game is great because it gets you constantly thinking about what your opponent is representing with the mana they have up and how you can play around it. Two mana left up for an Ultimate Price? Play a Xenagos, the Reveler over that Whisperwood Elemental. Three mana left up for a Hero's Downfall? Play that Hordeling Outburst instead of that Goblin Rabblemaster. Suspect a Counterspell? Play an instant at the end of their turn, or maybe just do nothing at all. Thinking about things like this is a very important part of being good at Magic, and playing this game really helped me get to the point where I do so reflexively. Every time you see your opponent's mana in a certain shape and sidestep the card you think they have only to see them play something else - it happens all the time - you learn something important that helps greatly next time. You start becoming intimately familiar with your opponents mana bases, something that a lot of players don't think about, and start to realize when your control opponent only has three blue sources and can only play one Counterspell a turn despite being on eight mana or when your Abzan opponent on six lands actually only has one black source and can't cast a Hero's Downfall. All of these things improve your Magic game for the long term, not just in the current format.
This next minigame is a little more dangerous - play at your own risk. About the worst thing that can happen to you while playing Mana Waster is that you take a minor tempo hit playing around the wrong spell. As the name implies, this game is all about bluff attacking: attacking with creatures that you will lose for no benefit if they decide to block. A bluff gone bad is much worse than a minor tempo hit; it is a terrible one-for-nothing card trade. For me, the risk inherent in bluffing was a very scary thing when I started playing Magic. There came a time when I knew I should be bluffing more than I was, since I was basically never bluffing, but I was too scared to start trying. So I made a game out of it as a way to get over my fear by throwing a lot of bluffs out in low pressure environments while discovering what works and what doesn't.
Like the last minigame, this one is very simple to play. Score points equal to the damage you deal with bluff attacks, but lose points equal to twice the power of any creature whose demise comes from their bluff attack being called. I feel that this hefty penalty on failed bluffs helps keep the risk of bluffing at the forefront of your mind, even while playing a minigame centered on bluffing. Besides, we wouldn't want the dominant strategy of this minigame being "always swing" anyway. Starting off in trying this minigame, it's okay to have a negative score -- I know I did. This game is a tool to help you to incorporate bluffing into your game, and you have to start somewhere. Note that some decks are better than others for bluff attacking, and may be better choices if you want to explore this game.
I play this game per tournament, totaling up my score over the whole tournament and comparing that score to other tournaments with the same number of rounds. This game is perfect for Friday Night Magic or other relatively short duration low pressure tournaments. Playing this game is a great way to make a commitment to working on bluffing, and scoring it over the duration of a tournament instead of a single match ensures that that commitment lasts for a meaningful length of time. If you attend FNM or a similar event weekly, try playing this game once a month or so and watch your scores go up. Hint: don't tell anyone you're playing this minigame unless you really want to handicap yourself.
The value of this game lies in the Magic truism that you can't win every game. Variance is real, and sometimes the cards you draw simply aren't good enough to beat the cards your opponent drew. You could play your cards absolutely perfectly and still never win anything if you don't also dabble in the mental side of Magic. Bluff attacks are a kind of gateway into the mental game of Magic, and this game is a perfect way to make sure you are getting as much value as you can out of the cards you could have and not just the cards you do have. Discovering where your opponent blocks and where they don't block helps you to figure out how much they value all of their creatures. You start piecing together the desperation thresholds for different players and decks, where players will block with their most important creatures into super-represented tricks because their spot is so dire that they don't think they can win if you have it. In short, working with bluff attacks helps you not only to not miss damage but also helps you to flesh out a mental toolbox of things to think about when considering the mental side of Magic.
This is a new one in my repertoire, inspired by recent events. I played a mirror in a 5k tournament recently where game one was a very intense grind that I came out on top of with only 20 minutes left in the round. Knowing that it doesn't get any less grindy post-board, we both sped up our pace of play to borderline unreasonable levels, and I ended up losing both of those games. I was upset with myself because I felt that my play in those games was at about 20% of what my normal paced play is. Obviously you will play worse with less time to think, but I feel like my blitz play could easily be 60-70% of my normal play - 20% is anathema to me. I played competitive chess very briefly in my formative years (I was not good), but I didn't think my blitz chess game was only 20% of my normal chess game. The difference? I practiced playing blitz chess, and I never play blitz Magic.
Practice makes perfect. I started getting my testing partners to play blitz with me. Playing blitz is very simple: just never pause mechanically manipulating card board. Never take a moment to think - think only while doing. This is not a minigame to play during a tournament, as doing so would be a huge handicap. Further, to be most effective you need a partner willing to also play quickly so you don't have a large amount of time to think on your opponent's turn. I like playing blitz Magic more during spoiler season because this is a time of less data. We have ideas about what we think will be good, but we don't know yet. Playing a lot of games quickly with new cards is a great way to gather large amounts of (slightly lower quality) data about which cards perform well and also get used to how the new cards affect the ways games play out.
I love blitz Magic because it is a very versatile minigame. At the end of a testing session when both parties are a little drained, you can play some blitz games as a more casual thing that helps get in the repetitions necessary to really commit to memory all the things you divined during the session. Or, if you want a more substantial experience, you can play a game of blitz followed by an in-depth review where you replay the game and see what decisions you would have made in a normal game. The review session is a great way to figure out what the holes are in your blitz game and help you work on it.
Blitz forces you to hone your Magic instincts in order to succeed. There are obvious gains from this in tournament Magic games that get into time trouble, as you will play better when forced to play quickly. But honing your instincts also benefits you in normal games by letting you focus more of your mental energy on the really difficult decisions. Magic is a very complex game that forces its players to develop mental shortcuts in order to play. Blitz is a fantastic way of figuring out which of your shortcuts need to be replaced and which are doing well, while also helping you to implement new ones.
In the end, these minigames are tools I have used and continue to use to ensure I focus on aspects of the game I wish to improve in. Sometimes I create very specific games centered around single cards if I feel I'm using a card poorly, or I create games for particular match-ups that I'm weak in. I use games like these as a tool to direct my learning and growth as a Magic player. Timeless Magic skill-based games like these are the ones that keep me going when the specific format I'm playing won't matter much longer, like in spoiler season, but I use them at other times as well. I hope some of the games I shared resonate with you, but if not and game-based learning direction appeals to you, make up some of your own and give it a shot. I know they have helped my game a ton.
Thanks for reading,