A Magic the Gathering Aptitude Test
Magic, like most games, requires a certain amount of skill. How we quantify that skill in ourselves and our opponents is controversial at best and unknowable at worst. I am of the school of thought that believes magical skill is dependent upon a number of different factors. Each of these facets of skill could be examined in 1000's of words apiece. I will merely touch upon each within the context of trying to gauge a player's overall magical aptitude.
There are three main factors we'll consider: Deck Construction, Battlefield Prowess and Card Choice. Each of these should be self explanatory. Deck construction includes the planning, choosing and constructing of original decks. Battlefield Prowess encompasses any and all in-game situations. Card choice differs from deck construction by including drafting skills, overall card sense, sideboarding choices etc. Though related to deck construction, card choice is less about deck planning, mana curve calculations and balance than it is about individual card choices.
The only real way to look at skill levels in this game is to examine each of the aforementioned criteria within the major play formats. We could argue over the small differences in skill required between sealed and draft all day but I'd rather take a deeper look at each of the formats in a vacuum. Success in a major format is a good judge of magical finesse if it gives each player an equal opportunity to win, leaving skill as the deciding factor. As you read through each blurb on the various formats, think to yourself- how do I feel about my ability in this area? From there, you'll hopefully gain a more holistic approach to gauging a Magic player's aptitude.
Deck Construction - Limited events are often favored by the pro community. Monetary issues are non-existent. The paper-rock-scissors effect that constructed events usually revolve around is null. Both sealed and draft involve creating a deck, from scratch, out of nothing. Deck construction skill is the be all and end all of this format. If you can't make a deck out of six packs or pull enough cards out of a draft to make something quasi-functional, you're severely lacking in deck construction skills.
Battlefield Prowess - Strategy on the limited battlefield is at once more complicated and at the same time less complicated than constructed. More complicated in the sense that you're playing with cards that you're not used to playing with. Less complicated because you're stuck with a very small card pool and you're usually just slamming evasive creatures at one another and spamming removal. Limited's ability to put you into truly unique situations is unmatched, it's just that those situations are usually fairly simple to decode due to the nature of the format.
Card Choice - This is where draft and sealed shine brighter than any other format. During a draft you're going to make split second card choices often. You'll have to decide which direction you're going to take your deck and once you have chosen your cards, choose which of those on color cards you're actually going to play.
Overall - Though the possibility of a "good draw" or "crap pool" are always there, limited puts most players on an even battlefield. More than that, players are forced to create decks from scratch on the spot. Limited shines quite brightly in all three categories of skill.
Deck Construction - Constructed formats involve a different kind of skill. Putting together a deck from scratch, is tough business and there are only a handful of players around that still do this. Most get their ideas from blogs, top 8 lists and forums. The decks are often tweaked by the handler but the ideas are usually a collective (now online) effort, honed by thousands of hands and MTGO playtests. Then there's the added element of the paper, rock, scissors effect of any given standard event. If everyone is running Jund and I play an anti-Jund net deck for the win, is that skill? I suppose it is a form of skill to anticipate and compensate for the climate around you but I think the old days of creating your own deck from scratch that no one sees coming are gone. The amount of skill required in the constructed formats has gone down as the internet has become a melting pot for ideas. The opportunity for glory is still there, it's just much harder to come up with original deck ideas when the internet community beats most everyone to the punch.
Battlefield Prowess -In legacy and extended many games are over within three or four turns. The battlefield skill here lies in the mulligan, and your ability to anticipate and disrupt your opponent's combos. In standard (at least right now) games tend to stretch on for six or seven turns. Stay familiar with the current popular decks and you should be able to anticipate your opponent's deck after the first or second land drop. The potential for an infinite number of battlefield layouts in competitive constructive formats can be overwhelming. Luckily you'll probably only see a handful of unique decks at any given event.
Card Choice - Card choice is extremely important in constructed formats. There are so many different removal, burn and counterspells that have been printed over the years that you'll need to use all of your card choice skills to get the right cards into your deck.
Overall - Constructed formats are the heart and soul of Magic the Gathering. The game is supposed to contain 'infinite possibilities'. Only in constructed can you truly explore those possibilities. A great amount of skill is necessary to navigate these fickle waters. Though that skill may come in the form of net decking with a slight tweak or two, you're tapping into a great reserve of skill nonetheless.
Some skills are more on the fringe. They directly and indirectly affect a player's overall skill level whether consciously or unconsciously.
Casual Formats - Though not officially sanctioned formats, skills can be gleaned from these formats as well. Real decisions are needed to negotiate a hardcore EDH or multiplayer bonanza. Though not a huge factor in determining your skill as a magic player, a lot of the same higher level thinking situations arise on these battlefields.
Economic Understanding - A firm understanding of the Magic the Gathering economy can really help determine the course your magical ship will sail. Most of us do not have unlimited resources so we are forced to choose between online or offline; Baneslayer Angel playset or a Box of M10 etc. Just recently with Zendikar, players were scrambling to make sure they had the dual fetch lands they anticipated they'd need. Even at premier events you're going to run up against a player or two with a financial crutch. Though you may win anyway you'll want to identify someone playing Grixis Panorama as opposed to the proper fetch lands the minute they hit the table. The ability to glean information, anticipate card prices and get what you need when you need it on a budget is certainly a skill in itself.
Flavor Knowledge - My meta and I play a game when we're between excruciatingly long EDH turns. I'll read the flavor text of a card in my hand and my opponents will try and guess what card I'm holding. Often they'll actually guess the card correctly! 10,000 cards is a lot of information to memorize. I've always felt that a deep understanding of MTG flavor (the novels, web comics, etc.) can help you keep track of that huge library of information, whether consciously or unconsciously. This may not work for everyone but I not only enjoy Magic more after having read the novels, I feel a deeper connection and recognition of the cards themselves.
Personal Disposition, Intuition, Attitude and Mood - Some people have it and some people don't. Lets just call it "the spark". Some people are just born winners. They have a sixth sense-type intuition, they top deck everything they need and just have a great attitude about competition in general. This one will be hard to work on if you don't already have it but I believe personal disposition certainly affects the way you approach the game.
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To really assess a player's overall skill level you need to use what I'll call the "Top Chef" method of separating the wheat from the chaff. Of course a player can be good at one form of magic or another but the true test of a player's skill is to see what he can do in a sealed event with a mediocre pool. Or what he can do in a constructed event where their deck choice isn't lining up with what he anticipated. A holistic approach should be taken when attempting to account for a gamer's skill level.
Of course each of these categories is weighted differently by each player. In my personal opinion I ranked them in the order that they should weigh on the players overall skill level assessment. Limited followed by constructed and hopefully peppered with a healthy smattering of some of those X factors.
Just for fun I put together a little quiz. The following questions are designed to (very unscientifically) gauge your current grasp of Magic the Gathering. The questions range from easy to difficult and cover everything from general knowledge to tournament level strategy. While no test is perfect, I hope the questions give you some insight into your own skill and experience as a Magic the Gathering player.