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February 10, 2004 - Better Play for the Bad Player



So, I have been trying to play more Magic. Just the kind of comforting thing you want to hear from someone like me, whose Magic articles you read every week. But it's true; I don't get to play nearly as much as most of you. I have a wife and two kids, and am a stay at home dad. I run events every weekend, and own a store. My free time is few and far between, and as much as I love Magic, I just don't get a lot of opportunities to play it.


But what I have really been trying to do is play better. I want to play in Regionals this year, and realize that I need to play better if I want to make Nationals. Playing once a month or so does not a good player make, and I know I'm not too amazing to begin with. So, I started by reading some of the great articles on Magic Theory, Luck, and Mistakes.


One thing became quite clear. Most of these articles don't really give you exact direct ways to get to play better. They either discuss theory in general, and not how to apply it to win, or they describe specific situations in which they made bad plays, and what the right plays were. That's great if you happen to run into that situation, but what about all of the other situations? Flores came closest with a nice article on mistakes, and how to recognize them, but I think it was still a bit oriented towards specific situations, and I wanted something nice and generic that said, in its simplest form "If you suck, here is a couple ideas for how to get better."


I didn't find one, so I guess I am going to have to write my own.


First, I'd like to say that I suck at Magic. My only credibility to this article is that I KNOW I suck at Magic, and am trying to improve. Therefore, what you are about to read is what is working for me, and hopefully will work for you. See the disclaimer in my very first article about "never trust Monk on Magic Strategy."


Also keep in mind that most of what I will discuss will be how to get better while PRACTICING. Tournament play is a whole different animal and some of this advice does not translate well to tournament play. At the end I'll discuss a few things about tournaments to keep in mind, but in general this article is about “playing better” not “winning tournaments” in the vain hope that the first should help the second anyway.


Rule 1: Play Slower


I don’t care what your current speed is; you need to slow it down. The greatest mental mistakes come from simple things like playing too fast. Playing the wrong land, tapping the wrong mana, playing the wrong creature, bad clicking on MODO, all of these are “quick” mistakes, things you can solve by simply slowing down your play to make sure you are doing what you WANT to do.


Take a moment to look at your cards and board position a second time. Look at your cards and make sure you didn’t forget a card in hand. If you have a wish in your hand, take a moment to think about what is in your sideboard. Just make sure you are not missing anything obvious.


Rule 2: Play Different Decks


This is simple. There are many different types of decks out there: Control, Combo, Aggro, Land Destruction, Discard, Aggro Control, and Sligh to name a few. Do you know how to play each one? What may be the right play in the context of one deck may not be for another. Even if you lean towards a certain deck disposition, you want to learn how to play other deck types, if for no other reason than understanding how your opponents will react when they play those types of decks against you. It also helps you understand the key cards in different match ups. Cards that may be significant to one match up may be close to worthless in others. Magic is very much a complicated game of Rock Paper Scissors. Knowing when to be Rock vs. Paper is very important.


Rule 3: Analyze all Possibilities


It’s far too easy to see the “right play” almost immediately and not think of the other plays that are possible. If you have a bounce spell in hand, the obvious thought is to bounce the biggest threat, especially if it grants you tempo. But take a moment to look at each additional play. Look at every permanent, including your own, and see what would happen if you applied the card to them. Even if you stick with your original choice, it opens up your mind to think of things it may not have before.


            Rule 3A: Realize "Do nothing" is a possibility


This is a big subset of that rule. Realize that doing nothing may be the correct play. Holding that bounce spell may be better until you get a counter for when they try to replay it. Holding that creature kill spell may be better until they play a bigger threat. You may want to hold that random discard spell as well until they have fewer cards so you have a better chance of hitting what you want. In short, don’t rush things. Don’t play things until you have to, or it best suits you. Make sure to always include this in analyzing all possibilities; it often is the right one.


Rule 4: Never assume you lost to luck or a top deck


The ego shattering truth comes out at last. More than likely, you did NOT lose that game because of mana screw, mana flood, or because an opponent top decked. You lost because they outplayed you, or in some cases simply had better cards than you. Or maybe you misplayed something that turned the tide, or you just didn’t understand the match up. In any case, you should always assume that you did NOT lose to luck, and should review the match in your head afterwards. What could you have done differently? What did they do that won the game? Did you walk into a trap? Could you have played a different way to disrupt their game plan?


Obviously, there are going to be times when you really do lose to mana screw or flood. It DOES happen, but you want to start off by assuming this is NOT what happened, and only accept it as a last resort.


            Rule 4A: What else COULD you have lost to?


This is my favorite mental exercise, and helps me with my mistaken belief that my opponent top decks to win. He may have had one card that killed me or finished the game, but I need to step back and wonder how many of such cards were really in his deck to begin with. Sure he drew the Terror, but the Lightning Blast, or the Arrest, or the Electrostatic Bolt, or any number of other cards would have done it as well, and I should have some basic knowledge of what my opponent has in his deck, so I should know the odds of him drawing ANY of the solutions he has for a given problem, and need to react accordingly.



The next two rules apply to tournament situations.


Rule 5: Know when to enter your Scoop Phase


Time is a critical resource in tournament Magic. And every match is three games. This is important to remember, because you don’t want to end up running out of time, especially when your opponent has won game one. Analyze a game and recognize when there is nothing to be gained by continuing to play, bite the bullet, and concede. Make sure you have enough time to play all the games you need to in order to win the match.


Rule 6: Know when to enter your Decision Phase


On the contrary to Rule 5, you also need to know when to slow down. This does not mean stall, or play slowly deliberately. This means that you need to realize when you are reaching a critical point in the game, and need to slow down to make sure you make the correct decisions to win the game. Understand when your opponent is preparing to do something to change the game, and take the time to figure out what it is, and how you can combat it.




It all sounds so easy, doesn’t it? But we make the same mistakes day in and day out, over and over again. We play the wrong lands, we tap the wrong mana, and we rush through a part of the game we really should be slowing down at, caught up in the moment of the game. It’s habit more than anything else. It’s not difficult to learn new things, but it’s very difficult to break habits we have already learned. The brain is a very “trained machine” and it takes a lot of practice to make it leave established thought processes. But with perseverance, you can overcome the simple obstacles that stop most of us from becoming better players.


I hope you enjoyed this week’s article. It’s not often I try to impart strategic wisdom, but I thought after hearing me drone on about PT Amsterdam for twenty two pages and two weeks, you might want something a little different. As always, feel free to e-mail me at rayp at primenet dot com if you have any comments or suggestions.


See you Next Week!

Copyright 2001


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