I got a decent number of comments about my article a couple of weeks ago chiding me for writing an article about getting better without providing any “actual” ways to get better. There were those who read it that jumped to my defense, for which I thank you. You guys understood what I was getting at. This week, I want to delve a little deeper into the topic I started last week and see if I can’t help put some of the others at ease.
To start, the idea behind the last article can effectively be summed up in two sentences:
It does you no good to have all the information on a given format if you are bad at Magic.
The best way to get good at Magic and master the game is to play it a lot.
It’s a rather simple concept, one that usually goes without saying. I thought about it some more after driving to a PTQ in Louisville two weekends ago with Gabe Walls and Cedric Phillips. We got discussing something that Cedric had written in one of his articles and a response he got. At one point in a recent article, Cedric had effectively written that while he thought he was good at Magic, he didn’t think he was good enough to win a Pro Tour. He got a Facebook message from Mike Turian after it had been posted saying that, while he enjoyed the article, he totally disagreed with the fact that Cedric didn’t think he could win a Pro Tour. If Cedric was going to win a PT, he was going to have to ditch that mindset.
I’d like to start by saying how amazing Mike Turian is. He is one of the best players of all time, and I’m talking Top 5, not Top 50. He understands the game at an insanely high level, but his best quality may be that he understands all of the levels below him as well. I t does no good for him to explain very high level strategy and the way he thinks about a situation to someone incapable of understanding it. Sure, they may be able to duplicate the play in a future situation, but that’s just mimicry, not understanding. Turian understands that and is able to explain things in a way that players of all levels can understand. This is an invaluable skill to have as a member of R&D. He is able to understand how players of all levels approach the game which improves his ability to design and develop cards that appeal to a mass market. It also makes him a fantastic teacher.
This brings us back to what Turian told Cedric. If you don’t think you are good enough to win a Pro Tour, then why do you try? What kind of competitive person doesn’t strive to be the best they can be? I understand why this idea was so off-putting to Turian, but I also understand what Cedric meant. He has had flashes of brilliance, but he has also been occasionally inconsistent. When you taste a high level of success, like Cedric did in his Pro Tour-Kyoto Top 8, it can be hard not making it to the Top 8 of a PTQ. And it wasn’t a fluke that Cedric made his Pro Tour Top 8. He’s legitimately very good at the game. After discussing this for a while, our other companion, Magical Billionaire Playboy Gabe Walls chimed in with a very poignant idea: it wasn’t what he was doing that was the problem, it was how he was doing it.
Gabe started by suggesting that Cedric plays too fast. Playing fast indicates one of two things, both of which can be deadly for a player trying to push through to the next level. The first is confidence. While confidence itself isn’t a bad thing, overconfidence can be. Confidence that a play is correct can often lead to making it without thinking. Only after a great deal of experience can a player truly be confident that a given play is correct, and then only because they’ve gone through it a million times. Watching a player like Kenji Tsumura is a perfect example of what I mean. Many players will go into the tank for a moment to think of a play and then pause at every step along the way to make sure that they aren’t deviating from the path they designed. Kenji thinks about a play and then charges ahead, confident that he won’t misstep on the path he chose because he has taken it so many times before. Believe me when I tell you that when Kenji was not in school, he played a lot of Magic. I mean a lot. That repetition made him confident, but it also gave him confidence in that confidence, telling himself that he’s done this enough times to be right.
The second thing it can indicate is simply a lack of thought. Sometimes, things appear simple on the outside. How much thought can there really be in a first turn Arid Mesa activation or a first turn Brainstorm or Ponder? Well, they didn’t name Brainstorm or Ponder with names involving thought for no reason. What appear to be relatively simple decisions are actually monumentally important. You are directly impacting every turn you take after that one with your decision. You are shaping the types of resources you have available to you later, and that can decide a game. One of the most difficult decks to play at this most recent Grand Prix-Columbus was the CounterTop deck played by finalist Tom Martell. The deck played eight sac lands, four Brainstorms, four Senseis Divining Top, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. You’d think that with this much library manipulation, you should easily be able to control the outcome of the game. You can simply find anything you need. The truth is that while that much manipulation is very strong, the Legacy format is so fast that you can’t waste a single point of mana. If you search at the wrong time or for the wrong thing, you often lose the game. It’s that close to the wire. Without taking the proper time to think about these seemingly easy decisions, and playing too fast, you can easily lose games for yourself.
After this long discussion, Gabe also hit on another point, one that very directly relates to my last article. We talked about Cedric’s preparation for tournaments, and how it seems correct up front, but how it can be flawed with more insight. The way Cedric goes about preparation for a given tournament is to play all of the decks a little bit and decide which of them he feels is strongest. Then, with his deck choice made, he plays it until he knows every matchup inside and out. Then he plays in the tournament.
Seems standard, right? Experiment with all the decks, find the one you like, and learn it until it’s second nature. That is what we all hope to do to prepare. But Gabe brought up the way Luis Scott-Vargas practices for tournaments and there is little, but significant, difference.
Luis will play all of the decks in the format. He plays all of them in every matchup from both sides. And then he plays them more. And then more. And then more. He makes his deck decision at the very last moment. Sometimes, he gets to the tournament with a deck in mind only to find that it is a poor choice for the decks he sees around the room. Because he has spent so long practicing with all of the decks, he can simply audible to a more suitable choice. In addition, when learning a matchup from one side, it can be difficult to completely understand your opponent’s motivations and goals in a given game. When you are intimately knowledgeable about both decks in a matchup, you understand far better how to defeat an opponent.
After talking about this for a little bit, I came to realize that this was exactly what I had written about in my last article. What Luis was doing was exactly what I advocated. He was simply putting in a ton of work and maximizing his time spent by making sure that he was always trying to learn something. Cedric has spent enough time playing that he has the situational memory to help out in most situations, but by advising him to play slower, we were attempting to help him be better able to access it and avoid overconfidence. All in all, that is the general message that I tried to convey, one that hard work with a definite goal in mind and learning from the ground up is the key to success. I know it sounds like common sense, but to be honest, people do often follow it.
One last thing I wanted to point out is that there is a reason I try not to provide strategy advice in my column. Simply put, I do not think I am qualified to advise anyone on how to play better. But I do watch a lot of successful Magic players and spend a great deal of time around them. The one thing that I think I really qualified to do, and that will best benefit all of you lovely people, is to provide you with the philosophies and qualities that these upper level players seem to exemplify. I try to help you think like them so you can become like them. Getting there is up to you.