The Observor: 10,000 Hours

It has been said that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. Assuming you devote around four hours a day to perfecting your craft, you’re looking at just under seven years before you attain that mastery. In the long term scheme of things, 10,000 hours isn’t that long to spend considering the outcome. After all, mastery isn’t just being pretty good at something. I’m pretty good at a lot of things, but I am in no way a master of any of them1. Take basketball, for example. I am pretty good at basketball. I’ve been playing fairly regularly for a couple decades now, I’m pretty tall, and I’ve had some actual training. I am not a master of basketball. But I can tell how big a factor time spent practicing is and where the difference lies.

It’s in the muscles.

I’m not talking about muscle size or definition2. I’m talking about muscle memory. I can see some of the people I’m playing with actively thinking about what their next step should be. There are some situations I have encountered so many times that I just instinctively know what the right play is. I dish the ball off to a teammate and immediately break for the basket along the right path to get a pass back. Now all I have to do is finish. The lack of hesitation and indecision on my part allows me to focus my attention on the next step in the chain. I’m not burdened by having to analyze each step along the way. In addition, I’ve been in that situation so many times that I know that the decision I made was the correct one (or at least the most correct I am capable of understanding).

That’s why I’ve always loved the phrase “takin’ the kids to school.” If you are schooling someone, they are obviously making mistakes. As long as they learn from them, they are spending their time on the court wisely. Part of becoming a master is making mistakes. All the mistakes, in fact. Once you’ve made, and learned from, all the mistakes one can make, there are nothing left but perfect plays. Once you’ve stored all of the things you need to know into your reflexive memory, you are free to think of higher level strategy. This is why coaches always have their player practice the basics over and over. It’s a lot easier to pick and roll in a game time situation if you don’t have to think about how to set it up. To borrow a phrase from Nike, you just do it.

After seeing the most recent crop of Magic superstars, it should be readily apparent that the 10,000 hour rule applies to Magic just the same as it does to everything else. My favorite example of this is Brad Nelson. Once upon a time, Brad was far better known by his Magic Online Premiere Event-dominating screen name FFFreak. After a string of absurd finishes, including a ninth-place finish at his first ever Pro Tour, a Grand Prix win, and a Top 8 performance at Pro Tour-San Juan, he may finally be more famous as himself!

Magic Online is the best tool to use to master Magic that has ever been created, even more so than the advent of Magic strategy sites such as this one. This is mostly due to the nature of learning and mistakes. As anyone who has ever had a child or been one3 can tell you, you can tell someone a million times not to do something, but it isn’t until they ignore you and do it anyway that they can truly learn what a bad decision it was. Strategy sites work the same way. They can tell you what the correct decision is and even explain why in many cases, but you won’t understand it in as complete a manner until you fail to heed their advice and lose. For a competitive player, which I’m assuming anyone who wants to be a master is, there is no feeling you want to avoid more than loss. Loss brands the lesson into your memory.

It is important to note that the 10,000 hours rule only applies to you if you are actively trying to learn from your mistakes, to gain incremental expertise. If you just battle all day every day, but refuse to learn what your mistakes are, you aren’t going to be able to progress past a certain level. This is one more reason that I think that Magic Online is such an invaluable tool—it provides you the tools to evaluate your game. If you lose a match and can’t figure out where it got away from you, you can take a look at the replay and try to figure it out. You can record the video (through third party programs such as Camtasia) and ask around for help dissecting a certain game. You can have a friend watch your match and evaluate your play. Hell, you can even just sit and watch higher-level players play and see how they respond to certain scenarios. All of these great tools help you become a little better at a time. Eventually, it adds up.

Mastering Magic is an oxymoron. I understand that the middle of an article devoted to mastering things is an interesting time to bring this up, but bear with me. You see, Magic is actually two separate games. Scratch that, it’s an infinite quantity of games. First, you have the very basic differentiations between Constructed and Limited play. They require a slightly different set of skills from one another, leading to some players specializing in one type over the other. Beyond that split, you can dissect it even further by breaking the two halves up into their respective formats. I don’t think anyone will argue that there is a huge difference between Draft and Sealed, as well as Legacy and Block Constructed. I’ll even take it one step further and claim that each incarnation of a format is different from the previous. That’s obvious for formats such as Limited and Block Constructed, where the entire card pool is different from one format to the next. For a format like Legacy, though, it usually takes a minute or two for the format to feel any really noticeable effect. There are over 10,000 individual Magic cards that are legal in Vintage and Legacy. Finding out how each of the new cards in a set interacts with them can take some time and testing. Most Magic players are smart enough to realize that they could never master all of the formats that exist. Instead, they focus on the one format I haven’t mentioned yet—the metagame that is Magic: the Gathering.

Metagame is a term that has become kind of bastardized by Magic players. The metagame essentially refers to the game within the game. Most Magic players have adopted this term to represent the constant power struggle of one deck type versus another in a given format. While I suppose that it is rather like a game trying to figure out each decks representation in a format, I prefer a broader definition. What is the one thing that all formats have in common, from Vintage to M11 Sealed Deck? They’re all played within the rules of Magic: the Gathering. Magic is Magic‘s metagame.

Now we’re Back to Basics. How do you think professional Magic players got to where they are? The same way professional basketball players did. They practiced the basics until they were second nature. Because of its ever-shifting nature, Magic works best in terms of analogs, and not individual situations. It is less important what you do in situation A than why you do it. Some rules never change. You don’t learn that you pick Doom Blade over Serra Angel, you learn that, while a dominating flier is good, exceptional removal is better. This helps you in more situations. Understanding the reasoning behind decisions like this helps you in untested formats to come. It also helps you understand why a card like Last Kiss is worse in its format than Vicious Hunger was in its4. You learn how the timing rules work and how priority works, most of which are force fed to players on Magic Online. Once you have begun to master the basic elements of the game, they don’t have to occupy the forefront of your thoughts anymore, freeing you up to focus on improving other areas of your game.

Four hours a day, every day, for just under seven years. That’s mastery for you. You’ve got the tools, but do you have the desire?

Nate Price

(1. Accept humility; I am a master of that.

2. Although that wouldn’t hurt me too much. While I am tall, I am also excessively skinny.

3. I assume this implies to most of us. Some of us, such as Travis, are just born old men.

4. The size of the creatures is so much bigger in Rise of the Eldrazi and there are far less juicy targets like the rebels that you just have to kill. )

  1. Nice article, although it was a little short on actual advice imo. Just ’10.000 hours of actual practice makes you a master, no less.’

    A little information on how you’d suggest we go about mastering things other than the very basic and obvious would have been nice.

    That said, I still liked the article. But more as a fun little read than (magic) advice of some kind.

  2. How would one divide this 10’000 hours between learning cards and card interactions, deckbuilding and actual playing skills.
    The wrong cut between these 3 could make your 10’000 hours a much larger amount.

    Only joking, 10’000 hours?! I don’t have that kinda time for anything!

  3. footnote #1 –> except humility*?

    interesting article, and you know, 8 hours a day, 3.5 years, 12 hours a day = mastery in under 2 and a half years! great deal :-p

  4. It would be interesting to do an article series on very specific Magic concepts- from deck building and general strategy to data mining and trying to “time” what decks people will be playing for a specific tournament. There are a lot of ways to lose before you get to the tournament itself.

  5. what does it mean to “accept” humility? humility means the quality or condition of being humble and is a trait that you have or don’t have.

  6. Mastery is not necessarily about logging 10,000 hours of rigorous training. Mastery is more about a deep Understanding of the game; deeper than simply knowing the best combos in each format, or which deck archetypes are dominating the so-called “Metagame.” Having facts is great; however, they are so many ropes of sand without the Understanding to masterfully coordinate all of these facts into an unstoppable war engine.

  7. @horrificus

    Im sure if you did log up 10’000 hours, the understand of those things would surely come. If not I very much suggest changing your activity as not to waste another 10’000 hours on something that you will essentially never ‘get’.

  8. Anzsilly: did you happen to notice when you were copying and pasting from your digi-dictionary that it is also a verb (and not a preposition)? This would mean that the footnote would not make sense or be grammatically correct. Now, no more nitpicking :)