10 Tips to Playing Better Competitive Magic

From the Archives - This article was originally published on April 2nd, 2008. We've pulled it from the archives to bring it to the eyes of our readers.

I've had this article sitting and going through various permutations over the past weeks while I worked to launch articles on ManaNation. As you read this, it will echo back to what Lee said last week and I swear that we both independently came to these articles though we agree on multiple points.

As the Editor for articles on ManaNation it was an interesting exercise to compare the tone and style between Lee's writing and my own. Quite different!

1. Make every play to gain an advantage over your opponent. One thing I've learned is that in Magic, like in Chess, when you break it all down the bottom line is that you must gain advantage. Often I ask players what they're playing to do, and they'll say "kill the creature" or "win the game." The first being infinitely short sighted and the latter being infinitely too broad. Killing his creature is gaining an advantage or taking away a disadvantage. But you must look for the better play. Thomas Edison said, "There's always a better way, find it." Never stop looking for the better play.

Every move, every action, every thought, must be to gain an advantage, remove a disadvantage, or at the least, maintain your position. Every attack or block you make, every spell you play or counter, all must be considered in this way. It's alien and in truth can be exhausting, but you must focus and examine the game in this way.

2. Learn your deck. An immediate sign of a novice player is someone who doesn't know their deck inside and out. Trying to remember how many of a card your deck has is a clear sign that you're not that comfortable with your deck. How well should you know it? You should be able to write out your entire decklist and sideboard from memory.

This includes, not only studying your decklist and such but also playtesting it a great deal. Too many times have I watched novice players buy a deck they saw online and head directly to the tournament. You MUST playtest.

You'll come to points in games where you need to know what it is possible to draw, or what to tutor for, or what is left. If you can't remember, then you've already lost the game. If you happen to win it, it is by luck, not by skill.

3. Play thoughtfully. It seems like these days people are slinging spells as quick as possible eager for the next step in the game or being terrified of going to time for a round. Shuffling through your hand is a nervous tick that players pick up in competitive play, but you must think much slower than you move the cards.

For the love of god people, slow down. Chess can be played fast but the brilliance comes out of slow, thought out, calculation. Magic is no different, there are more unknowns than in chess but the game is still dominated by strategy and tactics. If you rush into a play, you're going to miss something, and that something could cost you the game.

4. Be confident. It is better to be confidently wrong than hesitantly right. This also means, trust your instincts and don't second guess yourself.

I met a kid at a tournament a few months ago who was 3-0 but was sure he was going to lose out. I did everything I could to bolster him, encourage him, trying to change his attitude. His deck was good and he seemed to know what he was doing, but sure enough his lack of confidence killed him and he went 3-3 and dropped out.

Confidence is a very hard attribute to gain, it comes with experience and recognized success. I qualify success as "recognized" because so often people see any tournament that they didn't Top 8 as a failure, when in fact they must actively look for their successes. Did you win one game following the exact plan you laid out? Did you accurately predict an opponent's hand? Did you squeak out a win with a brilliant attack? Did you beat a higher ranked opponent? You must look for the wins and in turn you'll find your confidence.

5. Know Magic. Understand the rules and know how the mechanics of the game move and act. You don't need to memorize the rules such that you can quote rules sections, but you should read the comprehensive rules. There is simply no excuse for misplays due to mistakes in how the rules work. When it comes to competitive play, card interactions and ability timings are all the more important.

I like keeping the comprehensive rules in the bathroom as reading material while I do my business. No seriously I do. Or keep it in your backpack for when you're on the bus or train.

6. Play Magic to win. The greats of any sport or game have a killer instinct. They might smile and be the nicest of people, but once they're sitting across from you they're still going to go for your jugular and not let up until your cold corpse stops twitching. Too graphic? Maybe. But quotes from Bobby Fischer, Vince Lombardi, and Tiger Woods are all great examples of competitive and cutthroat players. Don't be nice, win the game.

You simply can't allow takebacks when the game is on the line. That being said, you can't expect others to allow you to correct mistakes.

7. Network with other players. Yes, you have to be social. Zvi Mowshovitz, in his recounting of his preperation for last years' Worlds, discusses his choice of playtesting and networking. This is a major part to making it to the Pros and staying on the tour and that is, finding a group of people to build, playtest and investigate formats with.

Magic Online makes this easier than ever. Play on there, build a group of friends, and begin exploring the metagame. Or, maybe use our forums, we're building a strong community and spinning ideas among each other trying to find the next big "Tech."

8. Play more Magic. You can never play enough. A teacher once told me, in relation to greatness, "Practice, practice, practice. If you're not practicing every day, somewhere someone is, and when they meet you, they will beat you." That is a major point for Magic too. You can't be casual and make it on the Pro Tour.

At the same time, Magic shouldn't interfere with life. Don't do it during classes or instead of being social with friends. However, you can't expect to win tournaments regularly without making it a priority.

9. Take breaks from Magic. And as a counter to point 8, you also need to take breaks. Burnout is killer and unfortunately it will hit when you are going through the most stress, either leading up to a major event or during one. So be sure to take nights and just go out with friends and watch movies, dance, be social - let your brain escape the rat maze for a while.

The brain is a muscle. And the more you work it the stronger it gets. But like any muscle, it can be overworked and it will begin to become counter productive to work it, this is when the times of rest become extremely important. Let it rest. Let your subconscious take over for a while and let your conscious rest.

10. Never stop learning. We're blessed to have this game during the age of the Internet. When knowledge is just a few clicks away. The moment you stop thinking you can learn, or begin to believe that you are too good, you'll come crashing down. "Pride goeth before the fall," or something equally deep and insightful. Right?

Jon Finkel said in our interview with him that the best advice he could give to new players was to always learn from others. Listen to their input, whether they're better than you or not. Different perspectives, different experiences, and an open mind can bring together a powerful force. And that is, by far, the best advice on this list.

See you all next week when I write about understanding the machine that is magic.
-- Trick