Leveling up in Magic: Practice Smarter, Not Harder

Magic is a difficult game, and a lot of players tend to find themselves plateauing and finding themselves unable to improve. Some simply don’t have enough time to dedicate to the game, while others play every single waking moment, but still don’t get the consistent results they crave for. What separates the average Magic player from the average Magic professional? There’s a multitude of factors, but chief among them are their methods of practice and staying sharp.

Practicing and actually playing Magic are easily the best ways to improve your skills at it, but simply playing with no goals in mind will get you nowhere fast. Your time is exceptionally valuable, and there are some very small things you can do while playing Magic on a day-to-day basis that will help you improve dramatically.

Pattern Recognition

One of the most essential things that you must decide is how much dedication, effort, and practice you want to put forth in getting better. Magic, in this sense, is just like any other competitive sport or esport. A few months ago, I picked up fighting games as a hobby, and I realized that the experiences I was having at attempting to "git gud" while fighting games translate well to Magic:

When you first start playing a fighting game, often it is with friends and both of you simply button mash your way to victory, much amid shouts and bragging rights. However, I wanted to take it a step further and actually fundamentally understand the game and mechanics and specific characters; I wanted to graduate beyond the concept of "button mashing" and understand what each of the buttons I was mashing was doing.

Compare this to when you first start getting into Magic: you’re probably with a few friends, playing cards with cool art, and learning combat math from attacking with Shivan Dragons and Sengir Vampires. You start to learn things you like and dislike, and you begin to recognize play patterns, such as playing around suspected Giant Growth or gaining enough life to beat a lethal Fireball from your opponent next turn. This period also exists within fighting games, where you begin to learn that you can input forward, down, down+forward (the famous Z pattern) to do Ryu and Ken's Shoryuken in Street Fighter. You start to spam this move, and you realize your opponent’s response to it is ducking low, then you start to formulate a strategy, predicting what your opponent is going to do next and then responding accordingly.

This sense of pattern recognition and formulation of a base game-plan is one of the cornerstones of any game, and it’s particularly evident in Magic as well. You’ll eventually learn to adapt to your opponent’s game plan and begin to do some off the wall things, such as declining to reveal the Lightning Bolt to flip your Delver of Secrets because not revealing could make your opponent block badly and make an otherwise nonlethal Lightning Bolt suddenly lethal and very dangerous. It’s not an obvious play to make, but sometimes it is correct to do so. But what happens when you don’t have time to dedicate to Magic? How can you get better if you’re only able to play once per week, or per month? There’s no shortcut method of getting better with low effort, but your time is valuable and limited; this is difficult to balance, but there is hope! You can glean a lot from an individual game of Magic, played at any level, and that is where the majority of learning will come from.

Downloading Your Opponent

Losing in a game of Magic presents some of the most valuable learning opportunities, as does losing in a fighting game. Right after you lose, you’ve done some quick analysis and figured out aspects of your opponent’s game plan, and you want to play against them again with this new found information. You evaluate that because your opponent is playing a strategy with many copies of Swords to Plowshares , you want to redouble your efforts and value a different threat suite against them, featuring True-Name Nemesis and Bitterblossom instead of going all in on Delver of Secrets like you did the previous game.

This concept of adaptation is known in many competitive hobbies and sports as "downloading your opponent." What this means is that you take note of things that your opponent showed you in the first game/set/bout and respond to them or change your game plan based on that information. Within fighting games, this behavior is often seen as someone losing a set or two quickly, but then overall coming back and winning the match because of how they changed or adapted their game plan to defeat the opponent. When the adaptation is complete, it’s jokingly referred to as "download completed" as your execution against your opponent causes almost a complete turnaround in a specific match. An example of this from a recent fighting game match takes place here:

In Magic, however, this means taking the information that your opponent showed you in the first game, and changing how you sideboard and your overall game plan in post board games, such as the above example with Grixis Delver. Another example could be if you are playing against a creature-light strategy, such as Simic Nexus in Standard, and you have a pile of removal left rotting in your hand as you lose game one. You have now "downloaded" your opponent’s game plan, and you can adjust the configuration of those removal spells and board out some number of them for the second and third games.

You’ll often do better against that opponent in subsequent moments of play because certain aspects of their game plan are now more clear to you and you can line up your strategy to subvert their main forms of interacting with you. There are entire decks in Magic designed in this fashion: control decks with a low creature count in order to minimize the effects of removal against them that then choose to board in creatures in post board games, aggressive decks with uncounterable lands and Aether Vial in order to minimize the effects of opposing countermagic, while then boarding into more spells and things that demand counterspell answers, such as Planeswalkers. Understanding these concepts are just the beginning of how you can improve your play drastically.

Taking this one step further, if your opponent plays in such a way that invalidates cards that you have in your deck, like Wasteland, you can adjust things in sideboarding and trim on some of those cards, or if your opponent tries to curve out all of the time, cards like Daze gain equity, even if you believe you should board it out on the draw in most matchups, and so on. Evaluating your strategy on the fly like this, especially in sideboarding, is where you will be able to maximize the information you've gleaned from downloading your opponent.

Play More Magic Than Your Opponent

Learning how to subvert your opponent’s primary axes of interaction is one of the biggest concepts in Magic, and in Legacy it primarily presents itself from a deckbuilding perspective. Decks such as Grixis Delver lean on a diverse threat suite, glued together with cantrips, in order to minimize the opponent’s impactful plays and win by keeping the opponent’s plans controlled just enough to cross the finish line. Decks such as Miracles lean on locking the opponent out of the game by invalidating their sources of pressure and threatening spells with cards such as Terminus and Back to Basics. Each of these decks, in other words, are actively looking to minimize the amount of Magic that actually gets played by the opponent. You’ll almost certainly win if you are the one who gets to make the most decisions.

Continuing with the fighting game analogy: if you’re the one who always gets to press buttons, you’ll always be the one to defeat your opponent. If you get to press all of the buttons, your opponent will get KO’d without them being able to do anything. In Magic, if you’re the only one making game actions, you’ll be able to win without your opponent being able to do anything. This concept is illustrated heavily from any strategy employing lock elements, such as Chalice of the Void.

However, strategies like this are also often the most difficult to evaluate in terms of impact, as you don’t have all of the information that your opponent has. You have no way of knowing how your Chalice of the Void or your Counterbalance or your Narset, Parter of Veils is impacting a game because it contorts the plays of your opponent, and you’re just minimizing the effectiveness of their "button presses." You’re still busy pressing your own buttons, stringing together your own combos, and winning your match of Magic.

Condition Your Opponent

There is another fighting game concept, known as "conditioning the opponent" that also can be applied easily to Magic. The easiest way to illustrate this concept usually involves what’s known as the "bluff attack". Mostly used in limited, the "bluff attack" is attacking a 1/1 creature into a 2/2 creature. The obvious issue here is if the 2/2 blocks, your creature will lose combat. What doing this does is make your opponent think you have some sort of trick up your sleeve, such as a Giant Growth so they choose not to block in fear of the combat trick, if it would result in a bad trade of resources for them. Thus, this 1/1 suddenly has dealt 3,4,5 damage as your opponent continues to not play into your trick. What happens when you suddenly stop attacking? Your opponent is then forced to re-evaluate if you had anything at all, or if you suddenly had something else you wanted to use your mana for. Or what happens if your opponent blocks once, gets punished with a trick, and you make the same play in the second game? They’ll spend more mental energy playing around it because they got punished for it, and you get to suddenly control what your opponent does, and you can thus switch it up and force them into making mistakes.

Capitalizing on "conditioning the opponent" in fighting games comes up in the form of a concept known as a "mixup." Say you punch your opponent, and they get hit by it repeatedly. Eventually, if they want to stop getting hit by your punches, they’ll try to block them. Suddenly, your punches don’t work anymore, but you decide to mix up a string of punches with a low kick. Suddenly, their guard against your punches breaks as the kick hits them, opening them up for subsequent attacks. Now your opponent can no longer reliably guard against you, as you can hit them with either a punch or a kick, and you can now make them fear either attack, as you’ve conditioned them into behaving one way, but attack them from another. You remain unpredictable, and now your opponent can no longer rely on previous behavior that they tried to "download" from you, giving you the upper hand.

Learn From Variance

Of course, Magic is not at all a fighting game, as there is variance within Magic and sometimes your losses will be due to variance. However, this is also a valuable lesson in and of itself: learning what variance is and taking future steps to help minimize variance. This can often be difficult because some instances of variance controlling a game are difficult to fully evaluate. For instance, if you lose on turn 4 with an uncastable Kaya's Wrath in hand because you failed to find an untapped 4th land can often be chalked up to variance. If this keeps happening, however, this presents a trend and could be a true problem that you need to solve from a deckbuilding perspective. Perhaps this requires a reconfiguration of your manabase in order to allow for that 4th untapped mana to be more easily attainable. Or, perhaps some additional cheap removal spells in order to bridge that gap to the 4th turn more easily so you are bitten a bit less by your deck’s overall fail rate for hitting that 4th untapped mana. This is not perfect, but identifying ways in which you can help minimize negative effects of variance will go a long way.

Learn From Others

Saving the best for last, each tip so far has been geared towards things that you as a player can take to improve your game, but one of the simplest ways to learn and improve is to watch better players play a deck, or evaluate a strategy. It could be watching someone like Patrick Sullivan walk Ross Merriam into one of the greatest plays of all time:

Or it could be watching Autumn Burchett play great magic throughout Mythic Championship I:

You can learn lots from watching incredible players of the game, from their decision making, to them conditioning their opponents, to sideboarding plans that subvert what their opponents expect. They are great players, after all, and they’ve started out in much of the same places as you.

Magic is a difficult game, but you can improve upon various facets of your own game play by distilling several concepts within your own practice time:

  • Recognize patterns within a game, and adapt to the formation of those patterns
  • Learn from your losses and "download" information your opponents share with you in order to better formulate your game plan in future games
  • Minimize your opponents’ abilities to make meaningful decisions
  • Condition your opponent, mix them up, and confuse them into making mistakes
  • Learn from moments that would be otherwise attributed to variance, and adapt your decklist and your game plan
  • Watch people better than you; you can learn the reasons for many of their plays and concepts by simply watching them play Magic

There’s no shortcut to success in any hobby, but taking the time to cover these points in each thing you do will drastically help your chances of improving at Magic, towards whatever goal you set for yourself. Be humble; realize that no matter who you are, there are aspects to your game that you can improve upon. Once you realize that, take the steps above and learn introspectively. Practice smarter, not harder.