Essentials for Every Magic Player: Heuristics and the Importance of Building Good Habits
Table of Contents
Hi everyone! I’m Drifter and I’m back with another strategy article; this one is all about becoming your best self as a magic player through the formation of good heuristics and the prevention/breakage of bad ones. Don’t worry, you’ve formed many already, even if you don’t know it! I’ll be defining the term, explaining why everyone needs them, how we form them/how to break them, and giving some common examples.
Learning this stuff is useful to new and old players alike, because if you’re anything like me, you had plenty of bad habits at one point or another and you’ve probably already broken some of them; I’ll teach you how to search and destroy! For newer players, doing things properly in the first place can save you a ton of stress on your road to becoming better at the game, and I’ll explain why that is.
I’ve been enthralled by Limited ever since I began playing in New Phyrexia. With a particular fondness for flashback and cube drafts, I’ve drafted more sets than I can count on every platform through wildly different eras. On Arena I draft infinitely, having profited 40k or so gems, and have made top 50 Mythic several times. Self-reflection and forming good habits are paramount to Limited improvement, and those themes feature throughout my articles.
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So what am I talking about?
Heuristics are fragments of mental muscle memory, learnt through practice. In Magic, they weight your decisions – you’re more likely to follow them than not; they present themselves as default plays and act as tiebreakers. The last time you played a tapland on turn one automatically, you were following a heuristic. If you’re used to doing something, if that’s how you were taught and you’ve done it hundreds of times already, then you’re far more likely to do so in any given game.
Your priorities determine what makes a heuristic good or bad. I’m going to be writing this article as though your goal is to improve at the game (and therefore to win) but if you’re just playing casually and don’t really care, some of this advice might not be as useful to you. Good heuristics, with that aim in mind, are heuristics that help you maximise your chances of making the right play; the right play being the play that maximises your chance to win. Bad heuristics in this example are heuristics that hurt your chance to win but you still default to each game. If you’re not sure what I mean, feel free to check the examples section before returning here!
Why are heuristics necessary?
Heuristics are one of the most important rewards of practice. Having good heuristics means you can play much faster, and have to think a lot less, while still playing the best you can. Good heuristics mean you have to tank a lot less because your inclinations will just lead to the right answer; you don’t need to spend a bunch of time thinking, because it’s not new to you anymore.
Playing magic becomes one headache after the other without them; that feeling when you have no idea what to do in a certain situation is because you haven’t formed one through lack of practice. Luckily, if you don’t have one, your brain will form one quickly and easily – it doesn’t like that feeling either!
If 90% of the time destroying their Runaway Steam-Kin is correct, then doing so in any given case is far more likely right than wrong if you just autopilot and do so. That being said, it isn’t great to autopilot; you do need to consider if this is a 10% case such as if there’s a bigger threat, or you don’t have much removal, or it’s not actually doing anything on this board, or they don’t have many spells in hand, etc but a) you’ll forget sometimes and b) it’s much faster to do that when you already have the default in mind, and are just seeing if this is a corner case. The question “should I kill the Steamkin” is much easier if an answer immediately springs to mind: “well yeah I usually should” – there are fewer factors to consider if you know that it generally goes badly for you when you don’t.
That being said, heuristics aren’t the end-all be-all. Magic is incredibly complex; there are exceptions to every rule, and so a good player has to know when to dismiss the default play. But in order to dismiss them, first you have to know them inside out – it won’t be right to follow them blindly in every situation, but that’s not the point; for something to be a heuristic, the idea is for it to be right the majority of the time. Even if you’re making a mistake, it tends to go less badly for you if it’s generally the right play. If I counter my opponent’s Teferi in a Control mirror, it can’t really be that bad – the spots where that is bad is if I had an Elspeth Conquers Death or some similar easy answer in my hand or I needed to save the counter for something bigger, but that’s not really that common and then I still have the other answer or I can draw a counterspell or similar answer that Teferi would’ve stopped. If I had the bad heuristic of usually not countering Teferi, whenever I made the mistake of not thinking hard enough (one of the most common mistakes there is), Teferi would enter play and I’d often lose with a bunch of counterspells rotting in my hand.
How are heuristics formed and broken? How can you affect the process?
Heuristics are formed primarily though practice, by the plays you make and by putting lessons you learn into action. New players have a huge leg-up here – their brains are actively trying to make sense of it all, and they’re also way more likely to remember and take on advice. It’s much easier to write upon a fresh slate than one you have to scrub off first. This is also part of why children learn things much more easily than adults – if you teach your kids how to play magic well and they’re passionate, they’ll surpass you easily in time because they’ll have to spend so much less time on breaking bad habits. Beware though, this goes for bad heuristics too – you really need to be sure you’re implementing the right things you’ve learnt.
To facilitate forming good heuristics and avoid forming bad ones, I’d recommend new players watch pro players, read articles, and constantly second-guess themselves/what people have told them – don’t let something become a heuristic unless you’re reasonably sure. It’s not enough to merely learn from them though; you also need to play and implement what you’ve learnt. Once you’re feeling confident in what you’ve learnt, you need to play a lot and make it second nature to you. If you find yourself defaulting to a certain action in a game and you didn’t intend to/you’re not sure of it, stop yourself and consider other options/ask for advice.
Not all of us are new players, though. Let me explain why forming bad heuristics can be so crippling, and what to do once they’re formed. It’s harder for old players to form good heuristics, because we need to break bad ones first – if I always play my land at the beginning of my turn before I do anything else, I first need to learn not to do that so I can learn the better heuristic of planning out my turn before I do things. See the examples section for more info on this!
Bad habits form bad heuristics; as we all know, bad habits can be really hard to break but heuristics can be even harder (setting aside when habits become addictions or whatever), because they’re how you’re ingrained to think and it can be difficult to notice them in the first place. If you’re used to playing your land first then every time you want to avoid doing that, you have to argue with yourself a little; your brain will default to doing so and you’re asking it to go against the grain. The reality is that you just won’t remember every time or you’ll do it too late; all your arguing will be for nothing if the land is already in play. To break the heuristic, you have to not only have the desire but to be absolutely focused in your games; you have to be ready to think “okay stop, don’t play that land” until that stops being your default, and if you’ve been doing that for a while then that can be very ingrained and take a long time.
Even if you manage to stop yourself for a while, there’ll be another game, another time where you’re feeling lazy and if the habit isn’t truly broken, that land will just plop itself into play again. It’s also really annoying – imagine having to tank every single turn to stop yourself from doing bad things in a game you’re trying to enjoy; I’ve had to do plenty of that myself and it has improved me, but it hasn’t been fun. So, it’s a lot of stress to break and a lot of lost percentage points over a long period of time to form that bad heuristic in the first place – saving a little time for the cost of hampering your ability to get better significantly looks like a much poorer proposition when you think about it in these terms. It’s not hopeless if you’re trying to break a bad heuristic though – you just have to persevere. Even if you have to remind yourself sometimes, it’s not the end of the world.
People often prioritise saving time, but that’s an easy way to develop bad heuristics when it conflicts with playing well. Here’s an example: why is it so important that I learn to attack before I cast spells? I know I hide information by leaving my mana open, but that won’t matter most of the time, so surely I should just do it when it matters? The answer is that this kind of thinking is not necessarily wrong, but it’s harder and it’s a question of priorities – if your priority is to save time rather than play well, this approach makes sense because you’re making that your default. What does that mean? Well, each turn your first inclination will be to play things before you attack and you’ll have to evaluate on the fly to see if you’re giving away information in doing so on this instance, and sometimes you’re likely to rush and forget to evaluate, so you might make the wrong play every so often. If your first inclination is to hide information, you’ll have to evaluate when you can save time instead, and sometimes you’re likely to rush and forget to evaluate so you’ll lose some time you could’ve saved. So the question is: what’s more important? Making a bad play sometimes and losing a few percent, and potentially some games you could’ve won, or saving a second or two every attack step? If you’re trying to improve at the game rather than just play casually and rapidly, it’s clear that the latter is less important – increasing your chances to win games is the definition of getting better.
If you know that what you’re doing is the wrong thing but you choose to do it as a new player, you’re harming your long-term growth – it’s harder to say “oh I’m just doing this to save time” when you don’t have a precise grasp on what the best thing to do is. As an old player, you need to have developed a good heuristic for this to be okay – you have to know you’re going against the default, and be okay with that in this case. So if you do play your land first, because this is a casual game and you just want to play really quickly, that’s okay – but make sure you haven’t just defaulted to it and that it’s a conscious decision you made. Also keep in mind that you’re playing with fire a bit; it’s really not that hard to fall back into or form new bad habits.
Now that you know your focus is on playing well and developing good habits will help you play better, that means that if you’re considering making the time-saving play over the better play, you really need to be saving a lot of time or running into time trouble a lot, or for the gain to be miniscule for it to be worth it (but if you don’t think things through properly, then you won’t know how big the gain was!). After all, at a competitive event, people will be aiming to play well much more than play fast, so they’ll be advantaged if you’re trying to play fast. At a paper event, they still get the benefit of you playing fast in that the game is less likely to go to a draw; when playing online, they just have to strike the balance between not timing out and playing well, and honestly Arena/Magic Online both give you a lot of time.
What are some examples of good and bad heuristics?
Note: This isn’t the focus of the article; there are limitless examples I could cover. Anything from “Dream Trawler psyches you out and you concede too fast” could be a bad heuristic. I might do a follow-up focused only on examples, depending on how much people like this one, but I’ll just be giving a handful of common and important ones here.
You should be able to identify some of your bad heuristics, just by noticing in games things you did automatically that ended up hurting you – if it often hits you a moment later that you should’ve thought a bit more about something, and you make that same mistake several times over a play session or two, then you might well have found a demon that needs exorcising! It’s easy to just attribute that to carelessness, but it’s often because it’s your default – it’s not just that you’re not paying attention, it’s that you’re not used to paying attention/don’t realise you need to in that particular spot.
Everyone knows this one but throughout magic’s history, victory has generally favoured the side that uses its mana better. This is the most common heuristic; if you aren’t sure which is the better play, it’s likely to be the one that uses more of your mana. It’s even on an Arena loading screen! I’ll link an article from the Wizards site here that further expresses this point (but beware, it’s from 2007, so don’t trust everything it says!). Obviously, as with every heuristic, it doesn’t always hold, and especially more controlling decks often ignore mana efficiency (removal in general complicates this a bit; no one is saying you should just use it unthinkingly on creatures that don’t matter just to use your mana), but by and large it’s true.
Every player at times, for the sake of speed, laziness, or because their timer is running out, will forget to think things through properly – it’s easy to miss subtle plays by going for the obvious good play that presents itself first e.g. if you can Murder their creature now, you might miss that you can attack first and potentially get them to double block and then Murder one of them for a blowout, because the Murder play looked good anyway. A competitive chess heuristic that isn’t nearly famous enough among magic players applies here: if you can see a good play, look for a better one first before you do anything. If you get into the habit of doing that, you’re much less likely to miss things, because your default will be to stop yourself and check. You might waste a little time sometimes when there’s not a better play, but it’s a couple of seconds a turn for a major advantage in some games. So tl;dr: don’t fall into the trap of always going for the first good option that presents itself; get used to thinking for a bit, especially on tough turns!
Almost every player falls into the trap of always playing their land as their first action of a turn at one point or another. While most of the time this doesn’t hurt you, it sometimes won’t be clear what land you want to play, and the information you gain over the course of your turn will inform that decision – if you draw a tapland off a card draw spell and weren’t using the mana this turn, you would have wanted to play that tapland but you can’t because you already played your land. If you really need triple blue this turn, but haven’t thought it through first, you might play your land that doesn’t produce blue too early and cut yourself off it; it’s really easy to do that and it can really hurt you. This is a heuristic that’s pretty hard to break, because well early in the game you’ll need to play your land first anyway, and mostly it won’t hurt you. But if you’re looking to improve, become a really good player, well there’s a lot of competition there – you can’t just sacrifice narrow edges and lose games where you could’ve won them. It’s not that there aren’t reasons to play your land first – i.e. if you have a haste creature or need to have mana up to cast spells in combat; it’s just something you need to think about on more complex turns, rather than just doing so automatically. To train yourself for this properly, you need to think through your turn before you begin to play.
This segues into an important heuristic almost every pro player already follows, which recent Worlds winner PVDDR has a whole article on here: Thinking your whole turn through before you act. I won’t repeat the contents of that article, but the approach of thinking through your whole turn before making your play exemplifies my points here: almost everyone was taught to break down your turn into a bunch of plays you do one at a time (because it’s easier and you have to think less all at once), but that later proves a bad heuristic.
In casual paper games, your opponents might let you take mistakes like playing your land too early back, but that itself can lead to the formation of bad heuristics; if you then make the jump to competitive or just start playing online, it can be easy to be in the subconscious mindset of “oh, well if I do something wrong, I can just take it back” when in fact, you can’t anymore – if you intend to improve and play at higher levels of competition, it’s usually better just to accept your mistakes; you’ll learn more if you have to deal with the consequences of each one.
New players often don’t attack in Draft enough – you have to think through what will happen in combat as a new player; draft board states can get very complex in terms of combat maths and there’s a lot of variables to consider, so it’s easier not to. Once formed, heuristics really help here, and will simplify the combat phase for you, but to get to that point you have to do the thinking; you have to put the work in.
It’s sometimes not that simple. A subversion of this I overcame personally, was I was attacking too much. I don’t mean I was just attacking when it was obviously bad, such as when I was going to lose creatures for free or take lethal damage back, (I wasn’t new at this point) but I was attacking just because I had the opportunity without considering the situation properly. Free attacks are great but you do need to check that they’re actually free. I’ve trained myself over time to think “I attack when it’s good, not because it’s what I normally do”, and because of that I see more spots when I shouldn’t attack in case something bad happens and I’m down a blocker and suddenly taking a lot of damage, or they have mana up and I’m concerned about a trick – this is an example of how blindly following heuristics can be bad. Attacking is obviously still my default, but these days I incorporate a second or two of thought each time.
Heuristics can lead you to bluff less, but bluffing can often pay off. For example, if my opponent and I each have a 2/3 on turn 3, it’s not obvious that I should attack there – surely my opponent will just block and I’ll be wasting my time? But if their 2/3 is high value or your opponent just really doesn’t want to run into a trick there, they might well not block. If you’re playing a creature that blanks that 2/3 anyway or your creature has vigilance, this can just be a free attack to make in some spots.
Heuristics can often lead you to follow the same play patterns, while failing to adjust for changes or anomalies. A common mistake is when you’ve analysed the board state a couple of turns ago and make the same decision you made then on the basis of that information, while failing to take into account the changes since then. For example, say you’ve been attacking with your horde of 1/1 tokens each turn but your opponent played Sarkhan the Masterless and made a dragon last turn, attacking now would cause you to lose them all for free, even though Sarkhan doesn’t actually look like it has changed anything beyond making that dragon blocker.
It’s also easy to focus too much on trying to push damage when you’re ahead in a racing situation, and later fail to adjust for the fact that you’ve started to fall behind and can’t afford to attack quite so aggressively.
If you’ve noticed that the obvious conclusion from a lot of what I’ve said is “think more”, well you’re right! Taking the time to think things through is the most common way to beat bad heuristics – I explained earlier how you should fight with yourself if you’re doing things wrong. As you get used to that, you’ll find yourself stopping every time – it’s like you’re back to a fresh slate, so now you can start practising good habits until they become second nature. Don’t settle for failure, just because the path to improvement has a few rocks in the way!
As always, thanks for reading and may the habits you form always prove great!
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