So now that I've roped you in with the title, this article is about Esper Hero and how skill and hard work can pay off with your Esper Hero decklist…

I'm kidding, I'm kidding. The article is not about that. Please don't leave.

Is hard work a skill in Magic? What's the intersection between skill and hard work when it comes to Magic? What's more important, putting in hard work to improve or being naturally talented at something? What kind of skills exist in Magic and how can we improve or maximize those skills? Which skills are worth prioritizing?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions.


Brian Braun-Duin

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In all honesty, I truly don't have the answers to these questions, at least not in a peer-reviewed scientific kind of way. However, these questions are all things that I have spent a lot of time thinking about, grappling with, and experiencing first hand over 13 years of competitive play. I guess you could say that I've become pretty skilled over the years at thinking about skill. I never would have succeeded if it wasn't for all the hard work I put in thinking about the value of hard work…

Ok, you can leave now. Those were pretty bad sentences.

The Stigma of Hard Work

"She's not that good, she just puts in a lot of effort."
"You're a better player than he is, he just tested this matchup a lot."

These kinds of statements are hilarious to me. Why is telling me that someone worked hard and is really practiced supposed to make me think less of them or be dismissive of them? Skill is defined as one's expertise in something. In other words, skill is simply how good you are at something. It doesn't matter how you came by that skill, it just matters that you possess it.

If I'm about to sit down for a match and you tell me that my opponent has tested the matchup a lot, but that I shouldn't worry because I'm "better than them" I'm going to think of my opponent as an incredibly dangerous opponent to face. I may be better, overall, in Magic than them when you compare results over a long period of time across many events and formats. However, at this particular moment in time, paired up against this opponent, there is a very real chance that I am not the better player.

I've built my entire career on being "that opponent" who has tested the matchup. I know I'm nowhere as good at Magic, objectively speaking, as players like LSV, Reid Duke, Paul Rietzl, Jon Finkel, and so on. However, I can tell you that there have been many times where I have sat down across from players of that pedigree and absolutely been the favored player. There have been tournaments where I'm incredibly practiced with a top-tier deck and they are just rolling in without any testing and I'm definitely the favorite to outperform them at the event, regardless of how many times they've outmatched me over the course of our careers.

Yet, we tend to consider skill in Magic acquired via hard work to be less valuable or impressive than someone's natural talents. We're way more excited about stories of people's natural genius than someone slowly rising up the ranks thanks to grinding their ass off with workhorse efficiency over the course of years. We tend to cling to the idea that people working their way into skill is second-rate to naturally having it. That doesn't even acknowledge that "natural" skill is often just skill that people have worked for, that they have mastered so thoroughly it looks natural.

I have a hypothesis for why we tend to glamorize natural skill and snub our noses at skill borne out of hard work when it comes to Magic.

Many Magic players frequently tie their own personal ego into Magic. Magic is a chance to demonstrate how smart they are, and they need that validation to fuel their ego. If they had to work hard to be good at something, it means that they didn't possess as much natural aptitude at it, thus they are less intelligent. Everyone wants to be the person who says "I crushed this tournament and I didn't even test at all!" because then people will think "wow this person is really smart if they can do well in Magic without even putting work into it."

The fact is that none of that matters, ultimately. I also think tying one's ego into Magic that way is an incredibly harmful mindset, but that's another topic entirely.

Baseline Skill vs. Skill Ceiling

Arguably, the two best National Football League (NFL) quarterbacks of all time are Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. When they were in college, Peyton Manning was basically The Chosen One who would bring balance to the Force. It was widely believed he would be a really good NFL quarterback. Tom Brady was a backup quarterback at the University of Michigan behind Brian Griese who almost nobody has ever heard of. It was not widely believed Tom Brady would be a really good NFL quarterback.

Peyton Manning got drafted in the first round and was immediately a force to be reckoned with. Tom Brady got drafted in the sixth round and was a backup quarterback to Drew Bledsoe on the Patriots. It wasn't until Bledsoe got injured that Brady even got a chance to be a starter.

There's no question that Peyton Manning was the better quarterback in college. Tom Brady wasn't even good enough to start on his own team. When you look at their baseline skills, it isn't even close who is way better. Peyton. Not close.

Tom Brady, arguably the best quarterback ever, sucked back then. He simply wasn't good. But Tom Brady is probably the most obsessive, hardest working player in NFL history. And while his baseline skill was fairly low, at least by NFL superstar standards, his skill ceiling is incredibly high. Tom Brady continued to get better and better year after year, even as his body aged past its prime. Where other quarterbacks would begin to decline, he still continued to improve.

The thing is, it's not like Peyton Manning didn't work hard either. He was also obsessive and an incredibly hard worker. But still Tom Brady caught up to him, and if you go off of results, Tom Brady is a better quarterback who had a better career. It's not a case of Tom Brady just outworking Peyton Manning, it's a case of Tom Brady having a much lower baseline skillset but the two players having similar skill ceilings.

The vast majority of players who were significantly better than Tom Brady in college could not have accomplished anywhere close to what he accomplished, even if they were given the same opportunities he was given. They may have had higher baseline skills, but they didn't have his skill ceiling.

We see this happen all the time in Magic. Someone relatively new to the game starts performing really well in events and we think "Wow, this is the next Jon Finkel" and then a few years later they are still playing at that same level. They had high baseline skill but they never improved from there. Whereas other players might grind fruitlessly for five years, never winning anything, and then eventually start to break through and year after year get better and better until suddenly they are at the top of the game.

Even if you have low skill at first, that absolutely doesn't mean that you can't have incredibly high skill later on. Some people just learn slower than others, but when they reach their final form, they can retain and utilize information far better than others, even people who initially outpaced them significantly.

The Intersection of Talent, Skill and Hard Work

For clarity's sake, talent is one's natural aptitude. It's how good one can potentially get at something, whereas skill is how good one actually is at something. They are similar but not exactly the same.

Natural talent and hard work go hand in hand. You often see people say things like "I'll take a hard worker over a natural talent any day." Why not both? The top people in pretty much any discipline are people who had a lot of natural talent but who also worked incredibly hard.

The hard truth is that if you don't have any natural abilities in something, you'll probably never succeed at it. It doesn't really matter if you work really hard at being a professional athlete if you lack any semblance of athleticism. You'll never get there. Some people simply will never be a great competitive Magic player, no matter how hard they try. It's kind of taboo to talk about that in the Magic community, but it's true. Some people just do not have what it takes. There's no shame in that. The only reason this is a hard topic to talk about is that we tie our ego so closely to our Magic skills, which, as I previously said, is something that I think is unhealthy.

The reverse is also true. You can skate by on natural talent for a while, but eventually you will always get outpaced by people who are willing to work harder at it than you are, even if they have less talent. Over enough time, their hard work will eventually equate to more skill than your natural talent if you never bother to improve on it.

One trap that is easy to fall into is to think that you lack natural talent in something just because your baseline skill is low. Tom Brady could have thought "I guess I just don't have the natural talent to compete in the NFL" when he couldn't even start as a quarterback in college. It turns out that he did have the natural talent, he just had a lower baseline skill than others.

One's natural talent definitely plays a role in one's skill ceiling, or how good one can eventually get, but it doesn't always correlate perfectly to how good one starts out.

So how do talent, skill and hard work play off each other? Talent affects one's skill ceiling, which is how good someone can eventually get. Hard work is the means to progress from one's current skill toward one's maximum possible skill.

Hard work improves skills, but the catch-22 is that being skilled at something also impacts how much value you get out of hard work. You have to work much harder at something that you aren't skilled in to learn valuable information from it. As I've gotten better at Magic, I've had to invest less time into grinding with decks to get better with them and it takes me less time to identify flaws in decks and card choices than it used to. As my skills have improved, my ability to use hard work optimally also improves. Top professionals can sometimes learn more about a deck in ten games than a random player will learn in 100.

In some ways, the reverse can also be true, however. If you take a complete novice and give them two weeks to get better at Magic, you'll see massive improvements in their play over those two weeks. Give an established player that same two weeks and you might only see marginal improvement or no improvement at all.

Talent also affects how much value you get out of hard work. If you have a high natural aptitude for something, or a high talent, you're typically going to get more value out of hard work than someone who lacks that same talent. Talented players tend to rise more quickly than non-talented players, even those with higher baseline skills, because they get so much more value out of the work they put in.

Types of Skill in Magic

People often equate skill in Magic with in-game skill. In-game skill is basically how good one is at actually piloting through a game of Magic. While that is almost assuredly the most important skill for one's success in Magic, it's not the only skill, and we tend to over-focus on this skill. We lend it value far beyond what it deserves and we tend to glamorize it to the exclusion of other skills, some of which are also really important to competitive success in Magic.

In-game skill can also be broken down further into tons of subskills. For example, some people are really good at risk assessment, which is definitely a subcategory of in-game skill. I'm personally good at making game plans. I'm good at constructing a plan for winning a game and adjusting that plan as the game progresses and new information springs up. However, I'm definitely way weaker than other players are at actually executing that plan.

Like anything else, this is a skill that can be improved, and one of the ways that in-game skill can be temporarily boosted is by becoming an expert with your deck or expert at playing certain matchups. That gives you an inflated skill when you play that deck or that matchup relative to your normal skill level, even against normally better opponents.

In a long-term sense, I think this is one of those skills that plays heavily on natural talent as well as experience and there's no get rich quick path toward becoming good at this. It takes a lot of time and work and sometimes it just takes having played thousands of games of Magic to be able to see the kinds of patterns that emerge repeatedly.

I think I'm pretty good at in-game play skill, relative to the average Magic player. I think one has to be, to be a professional Magic Player. However, compared to other professionals, I think I'm pretty low on the totem pole in this category. Other pros are simply way better at this than I am. Fortunately, there are lots of other skills. I think I'm good at a lot of these other skills and that makes up for my deficits in this arena.

Sideboarding is an incredibly important skill and also probably the most underdeveloped skill among Magic players. I think a lot of the reason that I succeed with Esper Hero in Standard, while other people can't win with it is that I've learned how to sideboard with the deck. It often doesn't matter how much better you are than someone at in-game skill if you put yourself at a disadvantage by submitting the wrong 60 cards in games two and three or by having a weak sideboard for a tournament. Overall, I think I'm weak at sideboarding, but so is nearly everyone. Brad Nelson's success largely hinges on him being the best player in the world at this—miles ahead of most players.

Deck Selection is a skill that entails being able to correctly identify which decks are good and what deck might be the best deck for a tournament. I think my success in Modern has largely been that I frequently pick well-positioned decks for events and that I learn and master strategies that are powerful enough to eventually be banned.

Deck building is the skill of being able to come up with new decks that can compete with other decks in a format. This is a pretty rare skill. While a lot of people love to brew decks, only a handful of people are actually skilled at it to the point where they can build tier 1 decks. Personally, I am a bad deck builder. I leave it to others.

Deck tuning is similar to deck building, but not exactly the same. Deck tuning is taking an existing decklist and making changes to improve it. Michael Majors is the best deck builder I have ever seen. His ability to come up with new decks is honestly art to me. However, Majors was never that great at deck tuning. He'd make the original shell, but it would fall on other people to figure out the exact pieces of that shell.

There are even sub-categories for deck tuning. I think I'm very good at identifying flaws and strengths of decks and which cards are good or bad, which is a major aspect of deck tuning. However, I'm bad at figuring out how to take that knowledge and turn it into a cohesive deck with the correct numbers of cards afterward.

Metagaming is a broad skill that encompasses deck selection, deck tuning, card selection, and expectation of what decks are going to show up in a tournament. Metagaming can influence what deck you choose to play in an event, but it can also impact how you construct your deck or sideboard.

Mental game is a big one. Being able to rebound from mistakes, not tilt from losses and keep a healthy and positive approach to Magic is really important to success, especially long term. Some people are phenomenal players, but they crumble and self-destruct at the first sign of adversity, and until they fix the holes in their mental game, they'll always be held back.

These are only examples of skills in Magic. There are far more beyond this, even. Magic is an incredibly dense and complex game and there are always a myriad of ways for one to improve at Magic, even for people who have been playing for decades. There is also hope for people who are weak at one skill, because they can make up for that shortcoming by being great at another skill.

Is It Better to Master Your Best Skills or Bring Up Weak Ones?

As with most things, a mixture of the two is likely correct. There is value in being well-rounded in Magic because different formats value different skill sets and even within formats, certain decks or styles of play also value different skill sets. Being a master of one thing can be a huge weakness when that thing isn't as valued in Magic anymore.

However, if you're only average at everything and don't have any area where you truly excel, it can be tough to separate yourself from the crowd and truly thrive in Magic, too. Being great at one particular skill carries a lot of value, not just for getting a leg up on your competition, but also for the value that you can provide as a resource or a teammate to network with other Magic players.

In-game skill is always worth improving, as it's the most important skill and will always be valuable in Magic. Some other skills can be outsourced, and thus are less important to master.

For example, I suck at deckbuilding and while I could probably improve by investing a lot of time and work into it, I feel no reason to do so. Other people can build decks, and I'm perfectly happy to play those decks that they build. Instead, I can focus on my strengths, which are tuning them and learning them, and I don't have to waste my time.

One of my skills, deck selection, is also something that can be outsourced. If you're bad at choosing good decks for a tournament, or making good card choices within those decks to prepare for a tournament, you can rely once again on other people. If you have a friend who you know is good at deck selection, you can just ask them what they'd play and then play that deck.

I think the most important skills to work on improving are mental game, sideboarding and in-game play. I think it's important to have a solid baseline in all of these skills. So if you have one of those skills that is really low and dragging you down then it is absolutely worth investing in bringing that skill up to a reasonable level with your other skills. If you are fairly even across the board with these skills, then it's probably worth taking one of them and working really hard to elevate that skill to a high level, because individual mastery has such a high value.

Sideboarding, in particular, is probably a good one to work on because I tend to believe that almost everyone is really bad at this, even professionals. It's extremely common to be average at sideboarding compared to other Magic players, but have your sideboarding skill be well below average when compared to how good you are at your other skills.

Should I Watch the Movie Dodgeball?

Yes. I researched this article exclusively by studying the team Skillz that Kill from that movie.


Brian Braun-Duin

Connect: Twitch Twitter