What is it about Magic that makes so many people find it captivating enough to devote such a significant portion of their time to it? A very difficult, if not downright impossible question to answer, and I will not attempt to do so. All I can say for sure is that for me, it is the never-ending opportunity to grow and improve in my Magic skills that keeps my focus on the game. Magic combines a limitless amount to learn with a limitless number of opportunities to test that knowledge in competition, and that combination is a compelling one.
At the beginning of my Magic career, my approach towards tournaments was all about maximizing the amount I was learning. Each tournament was a valuable opportunity to get better, and I did not let them go to waste. I think this is a common mindset for players new to the competitive scene – they recognize they are not on equal footing with the entrenched player base and want to close that gap as quickly as possible. Carried to its logical conclusion, this attitude results in players sacrificing some of their tournament performance EV to increase their growth EV.
For most players, this stage is viewed as something that they will graduate from as soon as they gain the experience they are looking for. I reached that point after finding some minor success, and eagerly looked forward to a new era of tournament crushing. I spent the next few months trying to win and consistently failing to do so. Eventually I grew frustrated and willingly gave the game up due to mild pressure from outside circumstances.
When I came back to the game (as we all do), I was once again in learning mode. I quickly crushed a GPT for Cincinnati, but that wasn't enough for me to feel ready to leave learning behind. I narrowly missed Top 8 at Cincinnati by losing two straight win-and-ins, and my desire to improve over everything else only strengthened. By the time I managed a Top 8 in Chicago, I had hit upon the realization that has helped me more than anything else in Magic: it is never time to stop learning.
By adopting the attitude that my main goal in any tournament is to learn as much as possible rather than maximize my chances of winning that particular tournament, I feel that I am increasing my performance in the long term. I'm not, however, particularly interested in convincing you that this mindset is the 'best' or 'only' way to approach competitive Magic. It has its strengths and its weaknesses, it works for me, but it might not work for everyone. Instead, I would like to discuss the tips and tricks I have developed to learn as much as I can from every tournament.
Trying to learn as much as you can from a tournament does not mean playing a new deck and learning it. Quite the opposite, actually. There is a level of skill with a deck you can obtain essentially on your own. Things like the deck's ideal sequencing, the mana considerations you need to keep in mind while making early land drops and your general plan in every matchup can all be learned by yourself either in research or gold fishing. Anything that can be learned by yourself needs to be before the tournament or you will be devoting brain space to simple mechanics that you could be better using to learn. Comprehending the high level things that are occurring in a game is really hard when you are weighing the pros and cons of basic plays.
For this reason, I am a huge proponent of players that are seeking to reach the highest level of Magic beginning their quest by grinding a single deck nigh on endlessly. Obtaining the level of familiarity with a deck that can only be reached through tons of grinding allows players to glimpse levels of the game they previously could not. I played more Monoblack Devotion during its time in Standard than I have played any deck before or since, and that incredible familiarity with the deck really helped me to access a higher level of play at tournaments. All of a sudden, the focus of my brain activity was on the mental side of Magic, things like reading my opponent and finding opportunities to bluff through damage or represent removal spells, and I experienced a new side of the game firsthand.
And you know what? My growth in the mental side of Magic followed me long after Monoblack Devotion was no longer a deck. The extensive stretch of time I spent playing that deck built the foundations for my mental game, and those foundations have proved sturdy and deep enough to support my mental game in every deck I have played since. There is much more to Magic then analyzing the board and your hand and making the 'optimal' play, and it becomes much easier to see that when finding the optimal level zero play is effortless.
The other reason to make sure you have a great understanding of the mechanics of any deck you take to a tournament is opportunity cost. I believe tournaments are great opportunities to learn and grow as a Magic player, and they could certainly be used to learn the mechanics of a deck. But then you would be unable to use them for more high level things than mechanics, essentially depriving yourself of a limited opportunity for high-level growth. Learning the mechanics of a deck outside of a tournament setting is both possible and easy, if potentially time intensive, so do that. Ensure that at tournaments the bulk of your brain space is free for the tournament-only learning you have limited access to.
You can only get so far listening to the advice of others. Articles, videos, and the advice of trusted friends are all great resources that you should Foster a voracious appetite for, but you need to be utilizing them in the right ways. It is very important to develop your own Magic instincts and intuition, and one of the best ways to do that is to constantly compare what you think to what others think and figure out why others think differently from you. Reading how pro player X sideboards might help you in your next tournament, but putting in the extra work to figure out why their boarding is better than what you had been doing will help you for much longer.
That extra work can really only be done at a tournament. You can test various sideboard plans with your friends, but if you still think a matchup is way different than how the pros view it, how can you be sure your testing isn't flawed? You can't. I'm not trying to tell you that every time you disagree with respected players you're wrong - far from it! Magic is an incredibly complicated game that often has no single correct answer. But to come to the conclusion that your approach is better than the 'pro approach,' you need to be very sure you have a deep understanding of both approaches. Truly understanding every possible approach is important for long-term growth, and that understanding is best gained through the stress of a tournament.
This is where I believe it is important to be willing to sacrifice some of your tournament performance EV from time to time. Using tournaments as a laboratory for experiments on the best lines of play or match-up approaches is a very important tool in learning all that we can about Magic, but if the experiment goes poorly we are likely to perform worse than if we stuck with things we already had a solid understanding of. The knowledge we stand to gain from experimenting like this is so important though, and will often help us hone our Magic intuition. With a more keen intuition, we pick better and better experiments that help us keep improving our intuition. We improve much faster at Magic than a version of ourselves who was too scared to experiment like this, and after just a few tournaments, that improvement translates into better tournament performances than the scared version of us would manage, despite our constant experimenting.
Maybe you don't see why we have to be willing to experiment in tournaments. After all, what is testing for if not to learn Magic before applying that knowledge in a tournament? Why can't we limit our experimentation to the controlled, safe environment of our testing sessions? If that works for you, I won't tell you that you're wrong. But for me, there is just something fundamentally different about the Heat of Battle. We often hear that battle plans are good right up until the battle starts, and I believe this holds true in Magic. If you don't try a sideboarding plan or a line of play out in a tournament, you will have an exceedingly difficult time understanding how it holds up to the rigor of an opponent trying their hardest to make it fail. How well it Withstands minor and major alterations, how fluidly it can adapt to handle unforeseen circumstances. I believe the adage 'try before you buy' has no place in competitive Magic.
Fearlessly Trust Yourself
This is the part of my method that I had the hardest time adopting. I spent all this time and effort testing out different plans, approaches, and lines of play, and would of course reach conclusions on which I thought were better. But when the conclusions I reached were different than the common wisdom on the subject, I would have a very hard time pulling the trigger on acting on that knowledge. I was unable to trust that I had reached the right answer, no matter how much effort I had put into it.
I put "fearlessly" in the header of this section because trusting yourself over the common wisdom takes courage. If you put faith in your experiments and your intuition when everyone else in the world thinks that you're wrong, and it doesn't work out, you come out looking quite foolish. And this is Magic - even when you're right, you are by no means guaranteed that things will work out. Variance exists.
In reality, finding spots and matchups where the common wisdom is not the best approach is the dream of all this experimenting we have done. If you find a piece of knowledge that others don't have, you have struck gold. Knowledge like that is the single thing that can elevate your win rate the most. So when you have it, you really have to trust yourself. The fact that the knowledge that is the most sought after is also the knowledge that we are most prone to doubt ourselves over when executing is the fundamental paradox at work here.
When there's a lot on the line it becomes much harder to trust yourself. If it goes wrong, you have no one to blame but yourself, and that can be terrifying. I know that fear held me back for a long time. Now whenever fear Threatens to Paralyze me, I just remind myself that this is the culmination of all the effort I spent to obtain the knowledge I now have. If I fail to employ that knowledge, I have effectively wasted all of the time and energy I spent obtaining it.
Never Stop Learning
Getting better at Magic is a process. In my mind, it is a process that never ends. There was a time when I thought that eventually I would have learned all there was to learn, and Magic would just be about using that knowledge in new ways, not continuing to gain more knowledge. Now that I'm this far into the rabbit hole, I'm pretty confident when I say it will never end. There will never be a time that I decide that I am done learning Magic. Nor would I want there to be.
My goal in any match of Magic is not to win - well, it is, but that's not my primary goal, more of a side quest. Instead, I want to learn all I can from that match. An unexpected benefit from this attitude is that it insulates me from variance. In any match of Magic, variance could dictate that it is impossible for me to win. As long as I learn something new, test a theory, or confirm a thought, I have something to be satisfied about.
Learning Magic is a process, and a journey. The farther you go on that journey, the more matches you will win. Guaranteed.
Thanks for reading,