Required Reading: The Best Magic Advice You’ll Ever Get – How To Think In Game Plans

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Hello everyone! Believe it or not, I’ve crossed 100 articles on MTG Arena Zone! Woo! I can’t thank everyone enough for reading my content which allows me to do this every day. With that, I want to give back the best I can by giving you the best Magic advice you’ll ever get. This is surprisingly not clickbait and this is the foundation of how most excellent players play Magic.

I was a very bad player for a long time, but once I figured out this system and how it works, I improved dramatically. I went from somebody who couldn’t really hit Mythic at all to constantly being at the top of Mythic, hitting rank 1, and top 8ing a GP. This is the main lesson I teach to all my coaching students and this is simply the best way to approach Magic. This magical system is the Game Plan system. Before I dive into it, I actually talked about game plans briefly in one of my first articles so if you can read about that first if you’d like.

I was first introduced to this idea when reading one of PV’s old articles, What Makes a Great Player Great, where he interviewed a bunch of different Magic pros at the time and tried to find out what made them so good at Magic (give it a read, it’s an excellent piece). There were a lot of varied answers, but a prevailing one I saw was thinking with a game plan in mind. It fascinated me that across a lot of different pros who seemed to approach the game very differently, most of them had this answer as the most important skill.

Unfortunately, that was all I had to go on so I didn’t get for a while on what exactly it meant. I could rationalize that constructed decks are built with a particular purpose and you should always keep that in mind, but that didn’t seem like super sage wisdom or anything. A year or so later, after dwelling on it for a while, it clicked. I went from a player who hit a major plateau to making leaps and bounds of improvement weekly. I realized I struck gold so I spent a few years figuring out the exact intricacies to the system until I finally felt like I figured it out enough to talk about and mastered it enough to prove it works; so here we are. I touched on the topic briefly before, but now it’s time to give the long form of what I believe is the absolute best advice you can get as a Magic player.

Before I begin, I know many players think in terms of “game plans”, but there is no set structure to what that entails and likely varies from player to player. This version of it is just my interpretation, but seems to be as close as possible to what I’ve observed from the very best players in Magic. 

WHAT IS THE GAME PLAN SYSTEM? 

The Game Plan System is a way of approaching Magic that is broken down into two large segments: the thought process and the knowledge base. The thought process is how you think about Magic when you’re playing, and the knowledge is as it sounds, knowledge of a deck, metagame, play patterns, etc.

Although both are important, I think the thought process is the more important of the two as well as being significantly harder to grasp. The knowledge is generally easier as that can be obtained by playing, studying, watching streams, and so on. The thought process though, can only be achieved through constant and meticulous effort to change the way you naturally want to go about Magic.

From my experience coaching, some people grasp the thinking quickly, some very slowly. The only overlap I’ve found between both groups is that they both improved their play substantially whenever they utilized it, even if it was for only a turn. Let’s break down how you go about the thought process of game plans.

GAME PLANS: THE THOUGHT PROCESS

The natural inclination for the vast majority of Magic players when they have to navigate a turn of Magic is they think the following: “What is my best play this turn?”

This seems very reasonable as you obviously want to execute your best possible line you can that turn, do that every turn of the game, and reap the rewards. Although this seems reasonable, not only is this the “wrong” way to approach Magic, I believe it’s an actively detrimental way to approach Magic. Why is that? Two reasons:

  1. The question doesn’t fundamentally help you find that actual answer to that question and it makes you think only in turn by turn chunks. The first issue is just what it is, asking what the best play is doesn’t really help you at all. Obviously your goal will always be to do the “best” play, so asking yourself that is pointless, but wasting a few seconds thinking it isn’t that big of a deal.
  2. The second issue is the real killer, thinking in turn by turn chunks. I’ve noticed those who think in terms of “What is my best play this turn?” have habituated themselves to only think of Magic on a turn by turn basis. That means if they have any strategy that can span over a few turns or even the entire game, this line of thinking doesn’t account for that.

With that, I see a lot of players do what seems good in the moment, only to lose the game down the line for a decision they made many turns prior. If you want to be better at Magic, we can’t only think about it turn by turn, we need to look at it holistically. The first thing we need to ask ourselves instead of what’s my best play, is how do I win this game?

THE THOUGHT PROCESS PART 1 – HOW DO I WIN?

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Bonecrusher Giant (ELD) Art by Victor Adame Minguez

The first thought that should go through our heads at the beginning of every decision tree in Magic is “How do I win?” This is a stark contrast to “What is my best play?” as asking yourself how you win can actually lead you towards the correct answer while what is your best play is just an etherious concept. This distinction may seem small, but when you ask yourself the right question, it makes it a lot easier to find the right answer.

Have you ever gotten an essay question in school that was super vague and you didn’t know where to begin? I have, and you probably have too. It was frustrating beyond all belief because you didn’t know what answer you were supposed to be working towards, and thus, you probably approached it incorrectly. Magic works the same way. Asking what is the best thing to do is vague and unhelpful, but asking how you win is a specific question that is answerable.

Although this type of thinking may sound like a very small mentality shift, I would unfortunately say it is a lot harder than it sounds. Sometimes this modality of thinking is easy. Say you’re playing Naya Adventures and your opponent has a huge board, but they’re at 2 life. How do you win? Well, you likely can’t attack through their board, so you need to topdeck a Bonecrusher Giant. Easy right? Most of the time though, you have a bunch of different lines you can take on any given turn, all working towards similar goals. How do you even begin to parse out which one of those lines is correct?

GAME PLANS: KNOWLEDGE PART 1 – FORMULATING A GAME PLAN WITH MATCHUP CONVENTIONS

As I said before, to use the Game Plan system you need 2 components, the thought process and the knowledge base. To properly form a game plan, you need to have an understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish in the first place. Some of these decisions are pretty easy.

You’re playing Monowhite Aggro versus Dimir Control, what is your game plan? If you answered, beat them down or any iteration of that, then you’re correct.

Next question, you’re playing Four-Color Yorion against Monored Aggro, what is your game plan? If you answered, control their board then find a way to win or something like that, correct again! Man, you’re good at this.

How about this though, you’re playing Gruul Adventures against Monored Aggro, what is your game plan? This is where things get trickier. Game 1, your game plan is generally to race because that’s what your game 1 configuration facilitates. In the sideboarded games though, you have a choice. Do you want to continue racing, or do you want to transform yourself into a slower deck and try to be more midrange? This also isn’t the hardest question, as most players would opt towards the slower deck that cares less about racing (especially on the draw) and more on living as your cards are better than theirs on average and if you get to cast more of them, you can probably win.

This will lay the framework to how you go about answering the question “How do I win?” since if you don’t know your role in the matchup, you’ll have little chance of answering it accurately. Knowing the general matchup convention is the preliminary knowledge into creating a game plan; the next layer of knowledge you’ll need to apply is a bit more nuanced and a lot more difficult.

KNOWLEDGE PART 2 – FORMULATING A GAME PLAN WITHIN THE ACTUAL GAME

Although we have a lot of theory behind Magic, games don’t always play out how you would assume if you only care about classical archetype roles. For example, when I started to learn how to play Control decks years ago, I was terrible at them, but not for the reason you’d assume. I timed my spells well, I used my interaction well, I was answering my opponent’s game plan quite well even when I had little experience with the archetype. Then why was I so bad? I didn’t know when to “flip the switch”. Control is all about controlling the game right?

My issue was, I couldn’t identify at what point I should switch gears and be the proverbial aggressor. I would either sit back forever and eventually my opponent would top deck their way out of the situation. I would sit there and mope that “Of course they drew what they needed”, but if I considered how I could end the game before that point, it wouldn’t have been an issue in the first place. I let the general matchup convention of control being a purely reactive deck cloud my judgement and cause me innumerable losses with the archetype.

General matchup conventions can start your plan, but you have to finish it within the context of the game itself. How I formulate my plans are as follows. I ask how I win that game, I consider the general matchup conventions at play, I evaluate the board state and my hand to figure out what I need to happen to win, and I execute that plan with my available resources.

Let’s use a hypothetical example. You’re playing Gruul Adventures. You’re in a matchup where you know your opponent doesn’t run removal and you want to kill them as quickly as possible. You have a 1/1 on board from Lovestruck Beast that’s still in the Adventure zone as well as a Bonecrusher Giant in the Adventure zone. It’s turn 3 and you can cast either one, which do you pick? Well let’s start with the question, “How do you win?” You want to kill them quickly, so you would be the aggressor in this matchup. Within the context of the game, you know they don’t run removal and you can play either Lovestruck Beast or Bonecrusher Giant. If you want to kill them as quickly as possible, you should play Lovestruck Beast.

This is an easy example, but once you get the hang of it, you can use this line of logic in functionally every situation and ideally with the same level of ease. However, the examples will rarely be this easy as after you ask yourself how you win, you need to ask an equally important question, how does your opponent win?

THE THOUGHT PROCESS PART 2 – HOW DOES MY OPPONENT WIN?

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This is what I consider to be the second level of thinking in game plans and it’s the one that is significantly harder to become adept with. Understanding how you can win is much easier when you can see the board state, know your hand, know your decklist, and so on. However, you also have to learn how to figure out how your opponent can win with extremely limited information. You’ll still know the board state, but most of the time you won’t know their hand, and likely will only know their general deck and not necessarily their exact list (unless it’s open lists of course).

SCENARIO 1

Let’s use the same scenario as before, but change it slightly. You’re still on Gruul Adventures. The general matchup convention is the same and the board state is the same. The only difference you know your opponent likely plays removal and they just passed their turn 3 with mana open, what do you do? You ask yourself the same questions. “How do I win?” You want to beat them to death as fast as possible. In that, you want to play Lovestruck Beast as it has the highest power, but hold on a second! They likely have removal since they passed with mana open. Now you have to consider, “How does my opponent win?” Is getting your Lovestruck Beast killed too much of a blowout that you won’t be able to come back from it? If so, you then opt for Bonecrusher Giant, going against your first instinct on how you win the game. Why? Bonecrusher Giant still plays into your game plan, but also plays better against theirs.

However, you can even consider option number 3 and throw all Gruul conventions to the wind. Maybe you just pass the turn. Why would you do this? Maybe you have an Edgewall Innkeeper in hand and you evaluated that you need to draw a card and make your opponent’s removal awkward to win the game. Remember to be flexible in your game plan and remember that general wisdom is just that, general. Don’t be a slave to all your preconceived notions about Magic as the best players know when to break from common wisdom to find the right play.

SCENARIO 2

Let’s use another example from the article I wrote and linked from the beginning. The game plan example is at the bottom between Ken Yukihiro and Seth Manfield. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you. So everyone was absolutely floored by Seth’s play, Maelstrom Pulse on a Treasure token is not a common line, but from the context of game plans, it makes perfect sense. Let’s go through the same line of thinking we have before, but from Seth’s perspective. How does he win?

He has way more than lethal on board, a decent life total, and is staring down only 6 power in creatures. What does he have to do? Live the turn so he can untap and attack Ken for lethal. Now the important part, how does Seth lose? Seth loses to one card and one card only at this juncture, Muxus, Goblin Grandee. Even Ken’s second best card, Krenko, Mob Boss, will not present enough damage to kill Seth. So how can Seth avoid losing to Muxus? Make Ken unable to cast it by destroying his mana producers. As I said in the article, Seth isn’t a supercomputer, he just figured out how he lost and prevented that when his victory was inevitable.

The best plays are those that advance your game plan while simultaneously closing as many doors on the opponent as possible. Since Seth already had his way to win, his only concern was mitigating how he could lose. Surprisingly, in terms of game plans this example is actually pretty easy to figure out as Seth had a lethal board state that Ken couldn’t hope to prevent and only one card in Ken’s deck could possibly bail him out.

This gets infinitely harder when you’re in the thick of a game and have to answer these questions when your opponent has presumably more resources and more outs, but that will come with time and practice. If you want to know why the very best in the game are so good, they haven’t just mastered answering “How do I win?”, they’ve also mastered answering “How do I lose?” This concept is something that I still have to work on constantly, but improving on it at all will make you a vastly stronger player.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Now that we understand all the base components of how the Game Plan system works, let’s combine all the components. You have to navigate a turn of your game and you’re unsure what to do. You ask yourself “how do I win this game?” You first consider the general matchup convention (this should be natural so you probably don’t even have to think about this too hard). You devise a rough game plan on what needs to happen for you to win that match. You look at the board and your hand and eliminate any options that don’t work towards your game plan and focus on those that do.

At this point, you should likely be left with only a few good options. Then you should ask “how does my opponent win?” You use your knowledge base and consider what they could have and what they need to happen to win. You try to find the middle ground of how you can win while also making it harder for the opponent to win and you decide on that play. If you can do that, you have successfully navigated the Game Plans system for that turn.

A common question I get is, “What if I identify the right game plan, but don’t know how to execute it?” Then you’re way better off than most. Don’t be afraid to be wrong when executing your game plan as you already did by far the hardest part in coming up with one. If you go about it the wrong way, you likely had a flaw in your knowledge base in some capacity. With that, it’s way easier to amend a mistake in your knowledge than it is to amend a mistake in your thought process. How do you amend holes in your knowledge base? That’s where testing and practice come in. If you approach testing as a tool to learn rather than a constant grind to improve on ladder, you’ll reap significantly more results. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, even those who have mastered this system make mistakes all the time.

CONCLUSION

That’s the skinny on the Game Plan system. Believe it or not, that’s functionally the shortest way I can explain it, but if you take the time to utilize this information, I can functionally guarantee you will substantially improve as a player. I have yet to meet a single person who hasn’t improved dramatically after even just learning how to use this system, and every single time they get decent with it, they go from Plat and Diamond players to Mythic players, with little else needed but a thought process adjustment. There’s very little advice that can give you such dramatic improvement, so I implore you to try this the best you can.

Thank you for reading! If you like my content and want to see more of it, you can check me out on Twitch! Furthermore if you like the idea of improving dramatically and want help doing it, you can message me for coaching on Twitter! My rates are extremely reasonable and I’m willing to work within most people’s financial situations. Have a great day!

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DoggertQBones

Robert "DoggertQBones" Lee is the content manager of MTGAZone and a high ranked Arena player. He has one GP Top 8 and pioneered popular archetypes like UB 8 Shark, UB Yorion, and GW Company in Historic. Beyond Magic, his passions are writing and coaching! Join our community on Twitch and Discord.

2 Responses

  1. Rene says:

    Just wanted to say thanks. This was a real eye-opener for me. I’ve felt my game improving a LOT simply by trying to shift my way of thinking, since I’ve always been a “best-play-in-this-turn” sort of player.

    • DoggertQBones says:

      I’m sorry I didn’t respond before, I appreciate the compliment! As I frequently say, if this system can even work for me, clearly the system is really, really good.