We are winding down on the year, and the various formats have settled down in place as we wait on Kaldheim spoiler season to kick into full gear. With all of that in mind, I decided today we should focus on some bigger picture topics. Often, in these articles, I am writing about short term gains and what’s currently happening. Today’s article is one you will be able to come back and revisit along your journey in Magic. It’s an opportunity to reflect on your current actions or awareness of this topic. It’s never too late to introduce new habits. You also don’t need to try everything at once. You can start slowly adding these tips to your preverbal toolbelt.
Don’t be afraid to play the best deck.
(Note we are talking about hypothetical formats where there is a clearly defined best deck. Think Oko format and Lukka Fires)
A lot of players have an aversion to playing the best deck. Sometimes it’s rational other times, it’s not. We have seen players like LSV and PV, two of the best Magic players of all time, talk about their eversion to this for a long time. They would talk about how the mirrors were “higher variance” or “I cant leverage my skill.” In modern times they talk about how that was a flawed perspective. So if this has been you in the past, don’t worry. You are in good company.
Let’s talk a minute to look at some common and flawed excuses people will use to justify not playing the best deck.
“Oh, I don’t want to play mirrors all day” –
If your goal at the event is to do the best you can and hopefully win, this excuse is sort of a joke. If you think you are one of the best players in the room. Playing the best deck gives you a skill advantage along with the proven most consistent deck in the format. This combination will put you in a great position to win the event.
Ok, but what if you’re not one of the better players in the room? If that’s the case, wouldn’t be playing the deck that’s the most powerful or consistent bail you out of many situations? If you don’t think your play level is in the upper percentile, why would you put yourself at a deficit before the event even starts? You might not be better than your opponent, but you will have a much better shot with a proven best deck.
Also, many players will never play the best deck or do everything in their power to avoid playing one. Even at Pro Tours, where everyone going into the event knew what the broken cards were (looking at you, Oko), the most popular archetype only made up about 60% of the field, which is a historic number. Previously, the highest was roughly 48%. Given this, it’s unlikely you’ll play a mirror match in any given round. So relax; fear around mirror matches is statistically unfounded.
“Oh, there will be so much hate for this deck” –
While this excuse does hinge on the deck in question, don’t let it stop you from watering down a killer deck. A great example of this was Modern’s Urza deck before they adopted Oko. You brought an artifact combo deck that tried to go infinite with Thopter Sword. Numerous players attempted to play cards like Stony Silence or Rest in Peace to stop the combo. What they failed to realize is your deck came prepared to deflect the hate. When you come from this place of confidence, you completely juke the plan they are presenting. Often the best decks can do this. So, while it’s often case by case with this bit of advice, keep an eye on your deck’s potential. You don’t have to hold back on building what you see as the best.
Playing the best deck is highly underrated in the Magic community due to the game’s variance. Yet on average, playing the best deck will give you the most consistent results over time.
You and your opponent are telling a story to each other.
Every single turn and action can tell you a lot about what’s going on. Every action you both make and DON’T MAKE builds a narrative to the other player about what’s not only in your hand but what you’re trying to accomplish.
As a relatively easy-to-understand example, let’s say your opponent on turn one plays forest go. You play a Triome and pass. On turn two, they play a Triome and a Llanowar Elf. What did they draw for the turn?
Well, it’s straightforward to assume they drew Llanowar Elf. One might deduce that any deck with Lanowar Elf will find it’s played it on turn one every possible chance.
Let’s look at another example.
You are playing the Gruul Mirror. You present a trade for your opponent. Your opponent is behind on board, and life totals are 20 (you) and 13 (them). Your Bonecrusher Giant and 3/3 Brushfire Elemental attack into their Bonecrusher Giant. You have a mountain and a forest as your only mana. The opponent, after careful consideration, decides to no block. Why might they not block?
One answer is they have a The Great Henge in their hand, so they can’t really win a race by attacking back. If they have a Primal Might in hand, the Brushfire should die to any creature plus a Primal Might, so you would trade the Bonecrusher Giant to save life. This leads the only commonly played card to be The Great Henge. With this information, you may be able to make a more informed play. For example, if you had a Fire Prophecy, you might want to consider killing the Bonecrusher Giant post-combat to deny this Great Henge.
These are both apparent situations that are easy to see what’s going on. One of the things you should be thinking about when playing is what they have in hand and building a “range” of cards their hand could be. While you won’t always be right, you will be able to play our games with a gameplan and do the best you can to leverage your cards as effectively as possible. One way to work on this is to have notepad open or some pen and paper and write what you think is in their hand at the end of each turn cycle. This practice may take time, but it forces you to note what’s going on and think about the process.
We have another level of strategy that takes some finesse, but it is worth mentioning. The art of sending the wrong signal or “Jedi mind tricking.” I am not going to talk about this today tho. If this concept is new to you and you have a more challenging time doing it, you should focus primarily on them and play good technical Magic. The mind trick stuff is very “cool” but often doesn’t lead to the results you’re looking for nearly enough. Just avoid this stuff. It often leads you towards more defeats than wins.
Use all your mana every turn.
Magic is a resource game at its core. Every turn, you have a finite amount of mana to spend. In theory, that number increases by one every turn for the first couple of turns. This allows you to play increasingly more powerful spells. Playing the cards that will enable you to use your mana the best way possible every turn and set up for subsequent turns is a vital part of improving. Some decks that highlight this are both Rogues and Mono-Green. Rogues tries to have lots of powerful early plays, then transition to overwhelming your opponent with a flurry of spells in the midgame. While having permission spells to counter their high mana plays. On the other hand, Mono-Green wants to make a land drop every turn and curve out into powerful creatures, then use cards like a trail of crumbs to keep the train rolling on plays. Both strategies lean into using all their mana every turn and are highly efficient, thanks in part to this vital trait.
If you think of mana as a finite resource, you should be trying to get the most bang for your buck every turn. This is why tempo decks can be so powerful if the card pool is deep enough for them. They operate on low resources and high payoffs the whole time.
While there are points where this heuristic will be missed or imperfect, you’re first starting it will become a guiding light. You’ll come to find it’s reliable more often than not. As the player, you can apply this to your deck building and playing of the games.
Defeats don’t define you.
When you are trying to improve in Magic, you will lose A LOT. Lucky for us losing is a great way and place to learn. From defeat, you can glean a lot of insight into your mistakes and who you are as a player and person. Losses will be numerous, and your Magic carrier will see many more tournament losses than victories. You cannot let the defeats define your self-worth. Too often in Magic I see players base their self-worth on their last event. Everyone has their way of handling and tackling losses. For myself, I accept and know that I will lose sometimes. That will motivate me to keep wanting to improve. I don’t let a loss or a bad event ruin my day because I know it’s about how you handle yourself overall, not merely a single event or game. I can’t give you an answer or a magic trick to make handling losses easier, but it’s pivotal to improving and enjoying Magic. I can tell you that when you let wins and loss determine your happiness, you’re fighting an uphill battle.
Be the eternal Sophomore.
A lot of Magic is learning. Most of that learning comes from watching and listening to other players in the community. Magic is a game of strategy. You always have to question what you know about a format or a match up. Having the mindset of the Eternal Sophomore is one of questioning, listening, and learning. You will spend a lot more of your time ruminating on Magic, learning about it, then actually playing. Having the right mindset going into the game is pivotal to get the returns you want. If you’re going into things thinking you know it all or have nothing to learn, you’re not going to make much progress. If you stay open to the prospect of new ideas, you will learn a lot and will likely enjoy the journey far more.
Try and find like-minded people who are willing to listen, question, and learn. Once you find like-minded players, you can make some serious headway to improve your play in-game and view the game overall. You will see real rewards going forward when you find your community. It’s important to remember that you want to learn for this next event coming up, but for every event. Every time we learn and play an event, we have a chance to be more prepared for the next.
These five tips will help you improve if you start applying them to your game and mindset. Magic is not a sprint, its a marathon. You don’t need to start doing all these things perfectly right away. Over time you will improve at them, and they will begin to become second nature to you. If you struggle with any or many of the things I’ve mentioned here, don’t beat yourself up. Anything worth having in life takes hard work.
Mason Clark is a grinder in every corner of the game who has played at the pro level and on the SCG Tour with Team Nova. Whether he’s competing in Standard, Historic or Modern, Mason plays with one goal in mind: to be a better player than he was the day before. Check out his podcast, Constructed Criticism, and catch his streams on Twitch.