Five Helpful Habits To Improve At Magic You May Not Be Doing

Five Helpful Habits To Improve At Magic You May Not Be Doing
Diabolic Tutor Art by Greg Staples

Hello everyone! I haven’t done some general content in awhile and who better to do it for than all our valuable Premium supporters! I know a lot of my content is based around the deck of the day for the most part, but general content to up your game is also an extremely helpful tool to have. With that, I was once a casual player trying my best to break into competitive Magic and it took me years to get even just a sliver of success. I made countless mistakes in play to get to this point, but more importantly and in a much less appreciated way, I made countless mistakes in my process as well. Having the right system to improve is an invaluable asset if you’re trying to improve overall.

This won’t be a comprehensive list of every single thing you could be doing, but just the top 5 tips I frequently mention on stream, coaching, Discord, etc. that many players don’t do. The reason I chose these 5 is that these are all mistakes I made that hurt my chances to improve, so don’t let the same thing happen to you!

REVIEW YOUR VODS

Confront the Past Art by Kieran Yanner
Confront the Past Art by Kieran Yanner

It’s funny how obvious this practice could be yet how long it took me to think of actually trying it out. Magic is an extremely difficult game with seemingly infinite choices to make on every turn. Most of the time when I’m playing, I’m completely focused on trying to make the best line and not thinking about much else. Although this is a great strategy in terms of winning, the natural consequence of this is that it’s very easy to get tunnel visioned by what you’re doing. If I was convinced that the line I took was correct at the time, it’s actively detrimental to start poring over it mid-game to re-evaluate how good it actually was. This was actually a huge issue I had in the past where I always wanted to evaluate my mistakes to improve, but trying to remember them mid-game was too distracting, then by the time the match was done, I couldn’t remember a lot of crucial details.

Since nearly all Magic right now is being played online, this is a completely avoidable problem! Recording VODs gives you the security of knowing that you can’t forget any context if you’re trying to evaluate decisions you made in game. I know most players would just want to move on to the next match, but going over past VODs can be an extremely enlightening experience where you can analyze the mistakes you know you made and actually catch ones you didn’t realize you made! Here’s my favorite and personal example: a 2019 Modern SCG match between myself and the master himself, Reid Duke (give it a watch if that interests you.) This was right at the start of what I’d consider to be my real attempt to foray into competitive magic so I considered myself pretty good then. I won’t spoil the end, but after the match I knew I made a few mistakes, but I thought I played the match really well overall. My friends who were watching me more or less mirrored the same sentiment and we all went on with our lives.

However, I had an itch to rewatch the match again because I love going over old VODs for no real reason. So after 2 years and a lot of growth, what did I find? I played the match horrendously. Ok, maybe that’s strong, but if I gave myself an 8/10 before, I’d give myself a 4/10 now. I still don’t think I made that many mistakes, but the mistakes I thought that were minor in the moment were actually colossal when I had a fresh perspective on the scenario. Sure, over 2 years is a pretty big gap to review a VOD, but going back over your play when you have a fresh mind is easily one of the best things you can do to spot mistakes and level up your game.

PLAY EVERY DECK

1920x1080-2020-Season-Grand-Finals-Metagame-Breakdown-Hero
Source: Magic.gg Metagame Breakdown

Another piece of advice that seems so obvious now, but old Bob never did. In fairness to old Bob, I can see the rationale for not taking this advice: wouldn’t it make more sense to get in as many reps as possible with the deck you want to improve with rather than playing decks you have no interest in? Even now that logic still makes sense to me, but it’s missing a key component that many players overlook: perspective.

Say you’re preparing for a Standard tournament and you’re 99% sure you want to play Gruul Adventures. It’s your favorite deck, you’ve been playing it for a while, you feel comfortable with it. I would assume most people wouldn’t register a deck that they weren’t comfortable playing, so it’s safe to say that you’ve gotten a lot of practice with Gruul Adventures. With that, if you’re already solidified with your Gruul game, why not learn how to play the matchup from the other side? Once you’re put into the opponent’s shoes, you can gain new insight on how you can beat Gruul, and how someone may want to sideboard against you, and so on. Why is this so important? I can’t even count the amount of times I had players have the completely wrong perspective on a certain matchup, and nearly every time it was due to them only seeing it from their side. Whether that’s thinking a matchup is really favorable when it isn’t (a good recent example was Rogues vs Monogreen Food), or players boarding in a certain way because it’s what they always did, but approaching the matchup the complete wrong way. It’s extremely difficult to understand how to approach a matchup from either side if you only play one half of it, and I think this information gap is one of the largest that can hurt a competitive player.

Lastly, and this isn’t even that rare, you may be surprised by how much you like a new deck you’d never thought you would ever play! There have been so many times in my personal experience that my friends recommended a deck, I pushed it off, then I ended up trying it and loving it (Rakdos Cat, Golgari Adventures, Humans, Bant Spirits, the list goes on). Information is one of Magic’s greatest weapons, make sure you’re always looking to stockpile more of it.

TAKE A BREAK AFTER 2 LOSSES (OR BETTER YET, AFTER 2 MATCHES)

Study Break Art by Cristi Balanescu
Study Break Art by Cristi Balanescu

This is not as obvious of a tip as the previous two, but I would say this is just as important. Magic is a really fun game and many people I know can play it hours on end. I have absolutely no problem losing track of time with Magic if you have the ability to, I do it all the time. If you’re playing for hours on end and having a good time, I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong. However, there’s two distinct issues I have for people who play for hours on end without a break: tilt and fatigue.

Let’s tackle tilt first. Has this ever happened to you? You were one win away from the Mythic (or the next rank) and the games super close. It’s a sweat, and by misplay or luck, you happen to lose. So frustrating! You queue up again, get your worst matchup and get stomped. I don’t know about you, but most people are definitely tilted at this point. So now you’re faced with two options: run it back or take a breather. 99% of people that I know instantly run it back, and that’s a huge problem if you’re trying to win. I’m not saying to feel nothing when playing Magic, but trying to play optimally when you’re angry about your previous matches is a recipe for disaster. I’ve heard from so many people that this exact scenario happens, they keep jamming and they go from one win away from Mythic to the floor of Diamond 4. I understand the impulse for the salty runbacks and I did the very same for a long time (and admittedly sometimes still do), but if you’re looking to win, give yourself a few minutes to cool down, let the anger subside, and try again. It may feel bad in the moment, but the more you allow yourself to simmer in the moment rather than taking it out on Magic, the less tilt will impact you and the more you’ll enjoy playing Magic. It’s really easy to take a lot of frustration out of Magic and start to despise a game you love, it happened to me years ago, and I don’t want it to happen to you.

Let’s take the other scenario. You’re playing Magic for hours on end and even doing pretty well. You’re definitely winning more than you’re losing, so why stop? Well, you probably started mindlessly jamming games at some point. Most players want to improve, but the allure of winning a lot is really strong and makes us feel really good about ourselves. If we can turn off our brain and keep winning, why not? If you’re doing that and just playing to have fun, go for it, no issues here. However, a lot of players will jam for hours and hours on end with no breaks in an effort to improve and/or learn, and that’s just not an effective strategy. Magic is an extremely taxing game and it’s really easy to forget that you’re consuming a lot of energy to play at a decent level. After even just a few matches, fatigue will definitely start to set in, maybe not so much that you even notice it, but it definitely starts. With that, if your main goal is improvement, I recommend taking a small break after every 2 matches. Not only will this help offset the fatigue by a little bit, it’ll let you think over your games and find areas that you could’ve done something differently. Playing a few matches well and with purpose is way better than jamming a lot mindlessly in the arena of improvement. I’m not saying to walk away for an hour, but even just grabbing water or going to the bathroom could make a large difference in your ability to play or learn over the course of a day.

WATCH STREAMS ACTIVELY

Luis Salvatto versus Luis Scott-Vargas at 2020 Season Grand Finals
Luis Salvatto versus Luis Scott-Vargas at 2020 Season Grand Finals

I love watching Magic streams when I have the time. It’s great, lots of people enjoy it, good times all around. If that’s why you watch, good on you, keep doing what you’re doing. This advice is for people who keep getting the advice to watch streams to improve or want to use streams as a tool of improvement rather than just entertainment (but it definitely can be both!).

So, how can you use streams to improve? You have to actively watch them. You have to put yourself in the streamer’s shoes while they play the game. Pretend you are them and figure out how you would play each turn of the game. Then, if they deviate from your play, either think about why they did or simply ask them. You can do this either with the stream audio on to hear their thought process or muted so you don’t get influenced by them, I don’t think one way is better than the other. There’s a whole host of excellent streamers out there who are good at different things so if you’re trying to learn a particular skill, you can just actively watch their stream and start to piece together where they’re coming from. As you get better at active watching, you’ll find that you may have improved significantly without having to even play!

A lot of pros use this technique with their peers, so it’s definitely something that has a lot of backing to it despite not being talked about often. With that, if you’re watching a stream to improve, I think it’s best you watch someone who is willing to answer questions. I know some streamers aren’t able to answer questions solely because they’re too popular and it gets lost in the mix, but if they seem unwilling to answer, you’re likely better off finding another stream.

EMBRACE MAKING MISTAKES AND LEARN TO LOVE LOSING

Team Pennant Art by Anna Fehr
Team Pennant Art by Anna Fehr

This is the most important and difficult skill of them all. Magic is a unique game in the sense that although there’s generally innumerable decisions at your disposal, there is generally a “correct” one. A line that furthers your game plan the most, plays around your opponent’s game plan the most, plays best to your curve, etc. However, some of these lines are so complex that it’s unreasonable to expect a single person to think of them in time. Hell, Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa is likely the best player currently (or ever) and even he constantly admits that he makes a good amount of mistakes. Magic isn’t a game of playing well so much as a game of trying to avoid playing poorly. This may seem like a redundant idea, but I think the distinction is important.

If you’re willing to admit that Magic is a contest to see who can mess up less times, it makes you way more open to the possibility that you likely make a lot of mistakes. It’s easy to get caught up thinking that you played a match well and only lost because you were unlucky, but the chances that anybody played the perfect match is extremely low, even for the best players in the game. It is absolutely crucial that you can be honest with yourself and put your ego aside so you can see where you messed up and how to avoid making the same mistakes again. It’s easy to do when you make a mistake and win regardless, but it’s extremely difficult when you mess up and lose. “Oh they had the nuts, I couldn’t do anything” is a common line I hear (and say) and it can certainly be true. Did you mess up the game the opponent killed you on turn 3 through interaction? Probably not, but it’s possible.

However, I’m not even talking about those games though, there are plenty of games that I’ve lost and I chalked it up to variance where I very clearly made a mistake and didn’t want to admit it. It’s hard for a person to admit when they made a mistake, exponentially so if you made a bunch of mistakes, but that’s part of the game. You need to be honest when you’re winning and doubly so when you lose. I know this is a hard shift to make and this is something I’m still working on, but I’ll tell you there is something worse than losing in Magic: plateauing in Magic. I had a multiyear plateau where I thought I hit my skill ceiling, but I just refused to acknowledge my mistakes. I’m still hyper competitive and hate losing, I’m learning to embrace the Defeat screen as that means, more often than not, I made a mistake and there’s an opportunity for growth there. If you want to be a better player, it’s not about winning the most, it’s about learning the most.

Thank you for reading!

DoggertQBones

Robert "DoggertQBones" Lee is a streamer and high ranked Arena player. He has one GP Top 8 and pioneered popular archetypes like UB 8 Shark, UB Yorion, GW Company in Historic, and Temur Koma in Historic. Beyond Magic, his passions are writing and teaching! Twitch Discord

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