Top Magic players are there for a good reason. Magic is a game of fine margins, and even the best don’t win much more than 60% of their games at the Mythic level. To achieve their win rate, they need to excel at all fronts of Magic: deck building, drafting and gameplay. Limited data from 17Lands gives us a glimpse on what are those players good at, and some hints on what to pay attention to if you want to replicate their results. As Dominaria United is drawing to a close, I look at what are the universal characteristics of cards that top players do disproportionally better with.
Top Players Data
But first, we need to answer one key question: Who are the top players, and where can you find them? For the latter question you need to go to Card Ratings in the Analytics tab on 17Lands website (17L). Above the table with win rates of each card, you have some drop-down menus where you can adjust what does the table show. One of them, “all users” as a default, lets you select only one of the three categories of players: top, middle or bottom. This lets you filter groups of users with a track record of using 17L based on their win rate.
The win rate thresholds are not known, but generally top users will have a win rate over average 17L. Top players as those who have a high win rate in at least two of the last three formats. That is high win rates compared to other 17L users, and keep in mind that 17L users have already win rates above average Arena user. This means top 17L users are pretty much top limited players, maybe not Pro level but not far from it. When I say – 17Lands.com defines top players – yes – that means that you can get access to the top players data.
17Lands defines top players as those who have a high win rate in at least two of the last three formats. Mind, that is high win rates relative to other 17L users, and 17L users have already win rates way above an average Arena user. This means top 17L users are pretty much top limited players. Maybe not Pro level but not far from it. If you are aspiring to that level of play, it is advisable for you to try and understand – what do those players do differently from you and give it a thought.
What are the characteristics of the top platers? Well, first of all – you might be surprised by how many of top players are there. 45% of all games tracked by the tier system are by top players. 35% are from the middle tier and only 20% of the games are by the bottom 17L tier. There is a good reason for that – players get into the tiers only if they played across last three sets, and 17L users that do it are more likely than not going to be high win rate players. Players with lower win rates are the ones who play less regularly and therefore won’t be assigned a tier.
Another reason – dedicated 17L users will improve their win rate. Not only thanks to 17L but also thanks to their ambition and work on their skill. Looking at winning, top players win 60.7% of their games (best-of-1). Middle tier players are actually not that far with 57.1% win rate. Bottom players win roughly 50% of their games, which makes them potentially a good proxy for an average Arena user playing limited.
Learn how to walk before learning to run
The differences between different tiers give us a very interesting possibility of catching a glimpse between different ability levels and different stages of training as a drafter. One thing I always found problematic in Magic content is that it is usually created by top players, even professional level ones. And a master in a craft is not necessarily the best person to teach a beginner. That is because for a master, some aspects of the craft that beginner needs to learn can be as natural as breathing. Learning a new skill usually follows a trajectory that includes learning bad habits. Because only learning a bad habit can give you a springboard to understand why it is bad, and let you level up at a later stage. When you learn how to ski you start by making a snow plough with your skis, because this lets you learn how to turn at a speed you can manage. No professional skier will do the snow plough in competition and intermediate amateurs quickly learn how to keep their skis parallel, but skipping the plough stage of your learning is very difficult.
Drafting is very much the same. You have to go through stages of development to get better and understand the format. And sometimes levelling up will require learning something that is wrong for a good player, but at your stage it actually may be right, until the next level-up, where you will be able to unlearn the bad habit. My actual hypothesis is that players stagnating in their win rate is in equal parts the fault of not learning better methods and not being able to unlearn bad habits they needed to acquire to get to their current level.
The player tier data will help you finding what habits you may need to unlearn and what you might need to work on. But in order to be successful in that, you probably should realistically place yourself at a skill level. Incorrectly thinking you are an intermediate player when in fact you are still relatively beginner may harm your progress as you will try to learn strategies you are not ready for, and by implementing them badly, fail to grasp what was all the hype about. From my experience, lessons like that stay with us for longer and can damage the long term development as a player. It is, in a way better to reach milestones in the right order. If you can identify which tier you are in, you should probably look at what are the people in the tier right above you doing differently from you. Mind, that does not mean it has to be a slow process – some will start drafting at a high level within months of their first, some will take a bit longer – the duration is an individual thing.
What do top players do differently?
But without further digressions: what do top players do differently? I looked at the Game in Hand win rates of each card in the hands of top and bottom tiers and selected those cards that did disproportionally well in the hands of the top players and cards that showed the smallest differences between those groups. The average difference between those two tiers in win rate is 10% so any card with a difference larger than 10% works better for top players.
The list is very complicated, in the way that it is hard to see a discernible pattern instantly. But armed with some knowledge of the game it is possible to categorise those cards and with a bit more data, show the reasons for why those cards are the outliers. In most cases, the cards on the list are among the most complex in the set in terms of game play. They are also frequently traps for the players who are just starting to play limited.
Let’s look at a classic rookie trap – Sheoldred's Restoration. Reanimate spells have a very broad appeal in Magic. It feels good to cheat out a big thing from your graveyard and that positive feeling masks all those times it was a dead card in your hand. Same thing with Twinferno, where occasional situation when you used it to win a game on the spot can mask all those games when it did nothing.
Be more selective
Experienced players are not so easily deceived by this type of cards. But at the same time they know very well about their potential to win games. They rarely use them, but when they do… They win quite a lot. You can see it in the graphs below. Top players not only pick Sheoldred's Restoration and Twinferno less frequently than the bottom tier players, but after that, they also play it less frequently in their decks. They are very selective in when they want it and play it. And I can guarantee you that when they do, they have a good plan for the card and a precise role it should play is a part of how they will play out their games.
In case of Sheoldred's Restoration, top players pick it 4%p less frequently and play it 17%p less frequently. Compounded, that means they play the card 4 times less frequently and this seems to be the cause for the large difference in win rate. The card is situational and should be only played in very specific circumstances. Potentially as a reserve way to recur Wingmantle Chaplain but there were no Urborg Repossession in the pod. Beginners may be less disciplined and try to play it in deck where the card is a liability. Similar situation with Twinferno: experienced players draft/play it only 2/3 of the times bottom tier players do.
But most cards on the list are drafted and played at similar rates. Why is Negate so much better in the hands of top players then? Data can’t tell but I will gamble a guess it has a lot to do with plan and discipline. Especially with cards like Negate or Pilfer, which are situational. Beginner players are more likely to play Negate the first time they see a target for it. Experienced players will evaluate the urgency of casting it. If I sit with an Urborg Repossession in hand and opponent tries to kill my creature I will frequently let it happen even with Negate in hand. I want to save this unique response to things that swing the game much more than a single removal.
On the other side of the table, if I suspect my opponent is having a counterspell, I will frequently try to lure it out with tempting targets to clear the way for my bomb. And sometimes it works and I win games thanks to that. Sometimes a good player will not get fooled by my shameless lures. In DMU one of my opponents let three of my removal spells resolve. They identified that they don’t need the creatures in that particular situation as I was going to run out of library very soon, and was not posing threat to their life total. In the end pressed by my thinning deck I had to try to cast my potentially game winning Herd Migration and opponent countered it with the Negate. Discipline won them the game.
Pick the Right Company
Clockwork Drawbridge is played exactly as frequently by top and bottom tier players. But the results with both those cards are in stark contrast to each other. Top players win 15%p more with the Drawbridge. Here the most likely culprit is the company Drawbridge keeps in decks from each tier. Top players play two key cards for the Defender deck: Wingmantle Chaplain and Shield-Wall Sentinel much more frequently than bottom tier players.
This can mean that bottom players play Clockwork Drawbridge without those two key cards much more frequently. And Drawbridge is not a great card outside of being a support card for Chaplain decks. This means the bottom tier players will put some cards in decks where they don’t belong more frequently, because they are not yet able to recognise that it is incorrect. Identifying that some cards have a very narrow home is a big level-up in limited.
A rare subcategory of cards that top players do much better with is cards that just don’t appeal to bottom tier players. In the graph above, it is represented by Vohar, Vodalian Desecrator. Top players play the card almost twice as frequently as the bottom tier players. And they also win much more with the card. Desecrator is a card that requires a lot of decisions – both game play and deckbuilding, a lot of planning and it is perhaps the reason why more experienced players do much better with it and newer players tend to avoid it or don’t recognise its power.
Vohar is not the only card top players tend to play much more. Others on the list are also heavy on decision making, in colors that value more complex strategies than require good management of your threats and a plan more complicated than turning your creatures sideways (not that there is something wrong with that plan). Top players play Micromancer twice as often as the bottom tier players. Four key spells are played more than 50% more often by top players: Phyrexian Espionage, Tolarian Geyser, Impulse and Fires of Victory.
Geyser is a particularly symptomatic card. In several recent sets there were strong uncommon cards that bounce a creature and draw a card and in case of every single one of them, they were under-drafted compared to what their win rate would suggest. This makes me think that there is something deeply unappealing in bounce and draw for beginners – and that understanding of tempo-based strategies is something that you should perhaps introduce to your skillset at later stages of learning.
Local maximum is a situation where we find a good solution based on the fact it is better than anything around. But that doesn’t mean there are no better solutions further afield – it is just hard to find them as you need to undergo a complete paradigm shift to find them. And they may seem to be hard to grasp while you are sitting comfortably in a place where you think your current solution looks pretty good indeed. This is partly the reason why in Limited you get level ups – sudden jumps in your understanding of the game. Those are nothing else than realising that your local optimum was not the best thing possible in the end. And I saw exactly why that might be in the top vs. bottom tier player data.
Multiple cards in the dataset had a win rate above average for the bottom tier and below average for top players, but the most extreme example is Tattered Apparition 51% game in hand win rate is pretty decent for the bottom tier, but 54.6% win rate among the top players is pretty bad. But if you are a beginner player and see that the Apparition is performing pretty OK when you play it, it might be hard to believe the local limited grinder who claims the card is pretty bad. The dissonance between advice and personal experience can be hard to parse. And because of that you can convince yourself to play weaker cards and missing an opportunities to level up and start drafting decks where cards like Apparition are poor, but that have a much higher generic win rate.
Top players do things differently, but just looking at what they do in draft, playing the cards they play, avoiding the ones they avoid is not enough to replicate their results. You can’t jump over some stages of development as a player, you need to understand not only what but also why are they doing something. But by looking at the differences and actively thinking on why some things top players do work for them, you will level up much faster. 17Lands gives you the tools, but without your own input and challenging your convictions you will find it hard to level up.
This article is based on my seminar series, Magic Numbers. If you are interested in the content, the seminar looking at the top, middle and bottom player tiers is available on YouTube: