Improving at MTG
This part of the guide contains an unusually high amount of personal experience and opinions. Consider to be sort of the point of it. You can also view our entire range of strategy articles here.
Compiling learning resources is an unrewarding task: many much better players and Magic theoreticians did a similar job before me, and I wouldn’t even understand if my attempt falls short compared to them. On the other hand, the amount of resources and their compilations is a downside in itself as it may lead to paralysis of choice and not knowing where to start. With that in mind, I wanted to pick some articles I find appropriate for three levels of Magic learners.
If I successfully dissuaded you from following my judgment, you can just go through the Level One course by Reid Duke. Things to note about it:
- It’s big. If you’re just starting, it may take you a month or two to absorb it at a pace that will make sense. It might be better to read just a few articles, then take a week off experiencing the stuff in the game, come back, re-read some parts, then read some new ones.
- The sections were not written in the order they are presented now.
- The sections reference cards long out of Standard; in fact they partially served as previews for cards just revealed back then. That interferes with their purpose as learning materials, though not too much.
If I didn’t, keep reading. My selection of resources is broken down into three stages, roughly: shortly after being introduced to the game; being acquainted with most aspects and delving deeper; having extensive play experience and starting to look at the wide picture. In the end I also list the collections of links for “further reading”; please note that a lot of links lead to dead or revamped sites, and Google will be your best helper in finding some articles by their name if they are not to be accessed directly. Sometimes Scryfall on the second screen will be needed to check the cards.
1.1. You’re completely new.
You tap your lands, play creatures, pump creatures, kill creatures, and smash the opponent. You wonder how to fit all the cool cards you’re getting in your deck, how to beat that unfair spell that destroys all your creatures, and why you can’t kill the cat before it’s baked.
When you’re just coming into Magic, I don’t think there’s a better way to start learning than to have someone experienced by your side. Even the best introductory materials are written by veteran players, and they may inadvertently skip key things because they are too obvious for them. Reid Duke in a section on attacking and blocking writes as a matter of course:
For this reason, you shouldn’t plan to use combat tricks when you block, because your opponent will have all of his or her mana open.
But… wait, why it’s so obvious they will have available mana when making an attack? Many new players will slam their new shiny creature they just drew (or finally can play thanks to another land) before doing anything else during a turn — and yes, it’s known as a very common mistake. But Reid doesn’t explain it and only comes to the subject way, way later in the course. Having a knowledgeable friend helps jumping over such traps.
At this stage learning is more about playing than about reading. Few abstract concepts are as crucial as reading cards, remembering what keywords mean, and calculating mana and damage correctly. But once you start seeing choices and doubting your decisions, maybe you’re up for it.
In this case, look at the first two chapters of Level One, and check in particular:
- “Attacking and Blocking”, already referenced above;
- “Tempo & Card Advantage: A Delicate Balance”, on how having things in play competes with getting more of them;
- “Linear Strategies”, on the most obvious approach to building a deck: focusing on one theme.
1.2. You learned the ropes.
You know when to play instants and when to expect them. Counterspells, board wipes, and Planeswalkers are a problem, but not an imminent game loss — or at least you know when they are. Maybe you tried drafting and got a grasp of the mana curve. You wonder whether you removed the right creature in that game you lost, how to build a deck around your new Mythic and what happens when you copy a copy.
This is the stage when learning by reading may have the most sense. You experienced a lot of things first-hand but you lack the vocabulary to talk about them and the foundation to think about them. The most of Level One, chapters III to V, or VII could be an appropriate read at different moments on your way — just not all in one go, that will make more of a mess than help. One of the short advice people were giving is “Start slow”.
- “What I Know About Magic: The Gathering”, a great and amusing read on the different approaches Magic decks employ and discovering them;
- “Ah Yes. Very Standard”, on how the game developers currently see that same archetype wheel;
- “Who’s The Beatdown”, on understanding that one and only one of the players has to be the aggressor;
- “Sequencing”, on the information flow and how your actions affect it;
- “The Line-Up Theory”, on giving questions proper answers;
- “The Number One Rule”, on the importance of having a proactive plan, and another take.
- “The Deadly Four Mana Mark”, on how unobvious the cost of expensive spells is.
1.3. You have played a lot.
You played several kinds of decks and recognized some to be harder to pilot. Your mulligan decisions are affected by who goes first. You wonder why a certain deck fell out of the meta, whether to board in hand disruption and what was that thing about layers.
This is the stage where my ability to judge resources and give advice starts to deplete. You might be already playing better than me. Reading is still important and useful, but at times things are so abstract and nebulous that you won’t be able to make use of them without discussing. This is also the stage when you may revisit some of the “introductory” materials like Level One’s “Concepts of Gameplay” and find a couple of new thoughts.
- “One Word”, on asking the main question: why?
- “Clear The Land And The Fundamental Turn”, on understanding the timing of a deck’s plan;
- “Eight Core Principles of Who’s The Beatdown”, elaborating on the seminal article referenced in the title;
- “Technical Play”, on the importance of doing simple things right;
- “Thoughtseize You”, on all the aspects of hand disruption spells;
- Mulligans by Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa, and/or Mulligans by the same author on the same topic.
1.4. A collection of link collections.
On the one hand, it has to be acknowledged that Limited Magic is a very different beast from Constructed. On the other hand, at a lower level it’s still the same game, and learning to play Limited is often cited as a way to get better at Magic in general. Within Limited, Sealed and Draft are rather close in terms of choosing tactics, card evaluation, etc., but Draft has the additional stage of picking the cards. For this reason Limited advice is usually focused on drafting, and then sometimes adjusted for Sealed.
All essentials are also covered here at MTG Arena Zone in more detail by Compulsion:
2.1. Building a Limited deck.
This is not meant to be a thorough introduction to Limited, more like a refresher.
- 40 cards is the minimum for a Limited deck, and only once in a blue moon it makes sense to play more.
- Limited decks usually use two colors. Draft decks may be mono-colored or splash a 3rd color; Sealed decks may have higher average card cost, and more often use 3 colors as Sealed is normally slower than Draft. The viability of mono/3-colored decks varies with sets.
- Creatures should make the majority of your spells, almost always. Among non-creature spells removal is of utter importance.
- Generally, you play 17 lands. 16 is often the right call in mono-colored decks or if you don’t have cards for more than 4 mana. 18 might be reasonable if you play three colors and/or expensive cards, and at times playing the 18th land is just safer than playing a bad 23rd spell.
- Maintaining a good mana curve — the bell-shaped distribution of cards by mana cost — might be more important than fitting all the strong cards you want. Usually you’ll see 0-3 cards for 1; 4-8 cards for 2; 4-8 cards for 3; 3-6 cards for 4; 2-3 cards for 5, and 0-3 cards for 6+ mana, so the peak of the curve is normally at 2, sometimes at 3. Of course, specific numbers depend on the set, on your plan, and the format; things are additionally complicated by the fact that spell costing X mana doesn’t mean you want to cast it on turn X.
- While you may go overboard on 2-drops (cards for 2 mana), it’s not as safe to play too many 3-drops. A useful idea here is that you can’t expect to be able to play two spells costing 3 or more in one turn for quite a while.
2.2. A brief overview of common approaches to picking cards
BREAD is a popular acronym for the priority of picking cards while drafting: bombs (cards that single-handedly can decide a game), then removal, then creatures with evasion, then just good aggressive (or attacking, or ability) creatures, and d is for something you don’t want to pick or play, e.g. dregs. Once widely suggested, it’s now more often shunned, because it requires a more basic thing: understanding what cards are good and why, but does nothing towards that goal. Yes, you can learn about bombs on the web, but after a few picks you’re on your own because cards are not picked in a vacuum: removal may be too expensive, a good creature with evasion may be off-color and dregs might be required to fill the curve.
CABS is a jokingly coined abbreviation meaning “cards that affect the board state”. It is also a sort of a framework for picking the cards, and it doesn’t help you to evaluate their power either — but it also doesn’t pretend to. Instead it presents a set of rules that aren’t aimed to be at your service eternally, but rather helps you focusing on the basics, in the well-known paradigm of “to break the rules you should first know the rules”. It has more rules than just picking cards that affect the board state, check here for a sum-up article, or here for the original podcast episode.
Quadrant Theory, on the other hand, is a framework for evaluating cards by looking at how happy you are to have the card in four common game stages: at the start, when developing the board; at parity mid-game; when you’re winning; when you’re losing. The general idea is that you want cards good in several of the “quadrants”, and cards only good when you’re winning have the lowest priority. Here’s a summary article, here’s the original podcast episode, and the topic was revisited and reimagined.
2.3. Some considerations on approaching drafting in general
- Since your first picks in draft are likely to be strong cards, it’s pretty natural to keep taking cards of the same colors. It also more or less ensures getting enough cards in your colors, and if you’re new to drafting, it’s totally fine to go this way. However this practice has been dubbed “drafting the easy way”, and is widely considered to be suboptimal in the long run. “Drafting the hard way” is generally about being open to change, be it on the scale of formats or a single draft. One of the key things is learning to see what colors are coming your way from other drafters, and then following that open lane — as opposed to sticking to your first picks. Here’s the original article on the topic.
- Success in playing Limited also hinges on a lot of the stuff discussed in part 2, from tempo to sequencing to determining who is the beatdown, to lining up threats and answers, and more. A twist on the line up idea is a big part of preparing to draft a set, a topic that touches both the previous point and the previous section (card evaluation in picking). From a general overview of a set you’d need to infer several features (it doesn’t mean you must do it on your own, reading and understanding the reasoning is enough), such as, but not limited to:
- Speed of the format. How early aggressive creatures line up versus early defensive creatures? Versus removal? Costly removal and a lack of good defensive creatures hint at a fast format. Plentiful early answers and, say, decent 1/3 creatures for 2 might mean the format is slow.
- Removal suite. Building on the previous point, how damage-based and toughness-based removal aligns versus creatures? What creatures survive such removal, and how good they are? In a set with 3-damage burn spells and -3/-3 black debuffs, 4-toughness guys live better.
- Toughness thresholds. Once again adding to the above, how risky it is to have 1 toughness? Is 2/1 significantly less reliable than 2/2? What power first strikers have? If there are enough decent 4-power attackers, a 0/5 defender might suddenly become a key card.
- Evasion. How good are the fliers? How good are defenses? With 1/3 common Spider for 2 mana, 1-toughness fliers are going to be sad.
- Part of the BREAD’s decline might be attributed to what seems to be a shift in the set design paradigm in the last years. As pointed in this article, ranking and picking cards based on individual strength isn’t working anymore:
…cards have text, and those text boxes interact and care a great deal about which other cards are in your deck. <…> So I could tell you which cards I’m happiest to first-pick, but once you get around five picks into a draft, almost all of that stuff goes out the window…
This means you are going to draft for synergy and aim at specific archetypes, determined by set mechanics and pace, and often hinted at by so-called signpost gold uncommons. It means “drafting the hard way” now includes understanding big swings in the evaluation of specific cards depending on the direction you’re taking you draft in. A red card desired in a white-red aggro deck might be an underperformer in green-red.
- Bonus point. Drafting on Arena has its specifics. Be mindful of them. Remember when you draft with bots. They have very fixed preferences, and the same colors might be open again and again. Remember when you play with people who drafted with bots. It means they will more often have decks in those open colors. (Then Arena updates, and everything changes.) Remember that in best-of-one Arena tries to give you a better hand in terms of spells/lands ratio. There’s no direct conclusion from it, but it may inform your land count and mana curve decisions.
2.4. Reading, watching and listening
For every set, you will be able to find a lot of card reviews and archetype guides. The oft-linked Channel Fireball website, for example, publishes set reviews by a Hall-of-Famer Luis Scott-Vargas, though it was moved to the paid content section. Finding good “theoretical” articles is not as easy, but note that a part of the Level One course is devoted to Limited. Some articles successfully combine general principles with hints on a specific set, like this article on Theros. For Ikoria, this comprehensive guide is a great learning resource.
Watching experienced drafters on Twitch or YouTube is also a good way to up your game both on a specific set and in general. Look for those who explain their picks and decisions thoroughly. I’m not going to bring specific examples, because preferences here depend very much on style and personality, but the question is raised on Reddit (for example) so regularly that you should find several (overlapping) selections with ease.
Finally, in the long run, a lot of lessons can be learned from ongoing podcasts on Limited Magic: Limited Resources (website, YouTube channel), Lords of Limited (website, Twitter feed), and Limited Level-Ups (website, Twitter feed).
Limited Resources listeners also have a reasonably active subreddit, where I was able to find a short list of episodes recommended for beginners, a somewhat outdated but extensive list of most important episodes, another recent list for starters, and a wiki-like page that also features a selection of crucial learning episodes, among other things (scroll to the bottom).
3.1. Magic as a game involves randomness and variability by design
i.e. many outcomes are decided by variance. Most likely you’re here because you’re frustrated by it, not because you’re praising it.
Coping with variance in Magic has both psychological and mechanical aspects, but while there are many articles on it, the majority is devoted to the former: reconciling with variance. For that part I can only reiterate: do it. Accept that variance is there, it decides some games, and sometimes you will lose even though you did everything right. A correct decision may lead to a loss. Live with it. And let’s focus on things that are in our control. Quoting Raphael Levy,
In a game of Magic <…>, random factors are going to play a role, the importance of which is going to depend on the difference of level between the competitors.
Only two more notes for paper players, because we’re talking Arena here, and this may be important. First, you’re likely playing many more games on Arena in the same amount of time, so you’re naturally exposed to more random outcomes that may be qualified as outliers. Second, Arena does the shuffling for you, and most likely does it better, so outliers tied to the shuffled deck might appear more often for this reason as well.
3.2. Why there’s variance at all?
It might be that randomness is not your thing, and you would thrive in a game like Chess or Go. For Magic though we can ask the developers (while proofreading their answer :P):
Just like you, we want Magic to be a game of skill, but there is plenty of skill in Magic already. (If you don’t believe this, try playing against a player who is much, much weaker or much, much stronger than the players you normally play against. The difference in your win rate should be jarring.) We love dramatic come-from-behind victories, and we value that Magic allows them to happen. Mechanics that reduce variance in gameplay risk keeping them from happening often enough.
Or, if we think they are biased and have to lure us into buying their products, find a third-party opinion:
Generally speaking, a healthy quantity and quality of variance translate directly to more fun and enjoyable gaming experience.
There’s also an interesting historical game design perspective:
The most important and far-reaching mechanical innovation of Magic: the Gathering was that it introduced both variance and a means to mitigate that variance in the same mechanic. In any format of Magic, you’re responsible for creating a deck and drawing cards at random from it during the game.
It was the original prelude to deck-building: the genius of Magic is that randomness is a core part of the game (as it is with any game where drawing cards is involved) but because you can decide what cards go into that deck, you control the likelihood of drawing any given card. Indeed, the biggest variations in how Magic is played even today come from how that deck is assembled, whether through a draft or sealed packs or your own invention at home.
3.3. So, what kinds of variance there is aside from a randomly shuffled deck?
How do we quantify and qualify variance to decide whether it’s healthy? Here are some examples:
- Built-in uncontrollable randomness, e.g. Haktos the Unscarred; Mirror March.
- Uncontrollable, but manageable randomness, e.g. Gallia of the Endless Dance.
- Uncontrollable outcomes stemming from the randomness of the deck, e.g. Amplifire; Unpredictable Cyclone.
- Choice-based outcomes stemming from the randomness of the deck, e.g. Anticipate; Gyruda, Doom of Depths.
- Board-dependent situational variance (not randomness), e.g. Extinction Event; Fabled Passage; Furious Rise.
- Built-in controllable variance, e.g. Mythos cycle; Adamant cards; modal spells like Return to Nature.
There are many more cases of variability in outcomes, for example, when interacting with the opponent’s hand. Curious readers may dive into MaRo’s articles on variance (p. 1, p. 2), but this list suffices to show the point: players and designers often shy from higher, out-of-control variance, and accept low/moderate variance depending on how our choice can influence it. Some mechanics are not expected to be seen anymore because of high or uncontrollable variance:
Because it has too high a variance, R&D doesn’t expect Intimidate to be used anymore.
3.4. We also tend to tolerate variance that builds on the already-shuffled deck, as it’s usually anyway the most important and impactful source of randomness.
I’d even go as far as saying that most of the time the tilting variance is the one of the shuffled deck: you don’t see Rakdos, the Showstopper often, but if it drops and kills your board, it’s unfortunate yet still somewhat fun. Not drawing lands or drawing too many is a much more common and much less flashy (or fun) occurrence.
Magic designers understand that well enough, so they tend to create, promote, reprint and reimagine mechanics that help to mitigate undesired effects of random shuffling; and [competitive] players embrace them to build more consistent decks. You can’t impact your draws directly, but you can mitigate bad draws by preparing your deck. Let’s go through some examples.
- Scry. Before 2004, there were just a couple of cards with this effect. But it helps with filtering draws so strongly and gently at the same time that the mechanics became evergreen and even was a part of the mulligan process for a while. Respect for Scry is high enough to make scrylands Rare and used in serious decks as opposed e.g. to gainlands; in Limited evaluation “Scry 1” is considered to be equal to half a card draw, and UW control mirrors in times of Theros Beyond Death were said to be decided by who draws Castle Vantress first.
- Scrying has some set-specific variations, like Surveil or Explore. Explore is a bit more distant and interesting “relative” though; it has a somewhat bigger variance as it impacts the board, but still allows for enough control, and a group of Explore trigger/payoff creatures were quite popular in decks using green.
- Looking and selecting from the top/searching the deck may be seen as improved scrying or drawing. While the former is popular and sometimes used in all colors, offering a well-balanced help to deck randomness, tutoring and wishing effects (taking from outside the game) right away defy deck randomness and are most usually overpriced to avoid extensive use.
- Using extra mana. Kicker and some other alternative/additional costs mitigate excessive land draws by offering more choices/better effect for more mana. Some activated abilities, often called “mana sinks” also do that; this is how 1-drops like Almighty Brushwagg or Spectral Sailor provide high enough value in Limited.
- Escape, Flashback, Jump-start, and other Buyback-like mechanics also may help to mitigate issues with extra mana along with being a sort of card advantage.
- Cycling is a mechanics that single-handedly can raise a card’s viability due to the help it provides with looking for more lands/better draws.
- Landfall and modal double-faced cards with a land on one side try to deal with the issue of having “extra” lands itself.
- Mulligan rules themselves were slowly changed, giving more options to deal with bad hands.
What’s the conclusion here? Normally you have a lot of tools at your disposal to bring more consistency to your matches, and at the same time, you probably don’t want to get rid of variance completely. Use the tools and focus on improving your skills.
I’m even less qualified to cover this topic compared to the previous ones, and it may turn out to be much bigger than the (bloated) section on Limited. Thus I’m going to limit it to two small sections and one link, since some articles on deckbuilding are already linked above (see Level One and 1.4).
For further reading, we also have Required Reading: The Deckbuilder’s Doctrine Part 1 and Part 2 at MTG Arena Zone by DoggertQBones.
4.1. It is okay to struggle with building good decks.
If you’re new, it’s fine if a deck you tried to build does not perform well. If you played Magic for a couple of years, it’s fine if a deck you tried to build does not perform well. If you have twenty years of Magic behind, it’s still fine. Deckbuilding is a very different skill from actually playing Magic. They are intertwined of course, but in no way success at one of these activities implies being good at the other. Don’t be ashamed to take someone else’s list. Even more: examining, dissecting, modifying a well-performing list is a good way to improve in deckbuilding, presumably on any stage.
4.2. Even when not aiming to build the next meta deck, you can use some help.
Even a “jank” deck will feel and perform better if you thoroughly consider required card counts and carefully build your mana base.
- When deciding on mana sources of every color, deck builders for years have been referring to this article by Frank Karsten.
- Another way of understanding that is just by sampling millions of outcomes, as this website tries to do.
- If you need to know what are your chances to draw a certain card in a certain amount of turns, try this calculator.
A summary guide laying out fundamental principles of good deck building, covering choosing cards, having plans, making mana bases, and more.