Throughout my experience as a player and a writer I have found that there aren’t many consolidated strategy articles. There are no cliff’s notes or wikipedia articles for the things that you should be doing. It’s pretty straightforward to sit down with someone that is playing Magic for the first time and overload them with all the things they could be doing better. Most of our habits are collected experiences and most strategy articles take a deep dive into handful of these.
This is my attempt to capture a lot of relevant knowledge in a very small space with no particular order of importance. Without further delay – here’s my list and brief explanations regarding each simple mistake you might have made in the past.
1. Using a tutor effect before knowing what you are tutoring for
Strategically, it makes more sense to cast/use a tutor effect when you know exactly what you are planning on getting. What you select should align to your strategy and the board state. This prevents you from getting the wrong land with Evolving Wilds or Borderland Ranger. It’s a simple shortcut that we all make early on in Magic. It’s way easier to grab just “a land” instead of the right land.
2. Not thinking on your opponent’s turn
Your most scarce resource in Magic is time. The easiest way to take faster turns is to plan your moves during your opponent’s turn. The more “dead time” you use as your opponent lays a land, ponders a decision, or otherwise fills their turn helps you keep or create speed on your turn. This is a problem for a lot of poker players too when they first start playing. It’s easier and more natural to only think when the action is on you. Challenge yourself to know your move beforehand and use all the time wisely…not just yours.
3. Not changing plans with board state
Conversely, when you get locked into a method of action if a board state changes dramatically (i.e. your opponent adds two blockers, a planeswalker, etc.) it’s important to be able to alter your plans accordingly. When you balance thinking during the entire course of match with the ability to change your plan based on the board state you’ll find yourself choosing multiple lines of play based on your opponent’s actions. The thought process looks like – if he/she plays a large blocker I will do X, if he/she removes my threat I will do Y.
4. Growing attached to one way of doing things
This is borderline life advice but it applies very well to Magic. Complacency is the greatest challenge to change. If you want your results to change you need to change your game. Changing your game will normally involve doing something differently. Change your deck style; change your approach to a matchup. You will learn more from analyzing the differences then basking in the comfortable light of sameness.
5. Playing instants as sorceries
This is pretty basic, but instants are useful specifically because of their flexibility in when they can be cast. You don’t need to cast that Joint Assault for damage until after blockers are declared. In general – it’s right to wait to use instants until the very last moment that you can get the effect you want out of them.
6. Casting spells in your pre-combat main phase without a specific reason
It’s one thing to power up your Champion of the Parish with Gather the Townsfolk pre-combat to get more damage in. It’s another to tap all your lands to play a creature and then swing. The more information your opponent has – the better the decision he/she can make. When you play that creature pre-combat you are sending a message that you have nothing that affects combat and gives the green light to block as they desire with no fear. Plus, your opponent has more choices to use their removal “I was going to kill that 2/2 when it attacked to save some life…but you just played a 4/4, so I’ll kill that instead”.
7. Building a hateful sideboard instead of a flexible sideboard
This is a little bit more advanced – but when you’re building a sideboard you’re looking to shore up both matchup styles and specific matchups. If you’re bringing in Pillar of Flame against a zombie deck and Strangleroot Geist based decks but you’re lacking a good card against reanimation strategies like French Rites – consider Nihil Spellbomb or Surgical Extraction instead. The more options you have with your sideboard the more prepared you’ll be for the crazy stuff you may not have planned for.
8. Tapping mana incorrectly
This can vary from leaving the right lands up to bluff what your opponent fears most to simply leaving the most options available by tapping your lands. Every time you tap your lands, you are making a strategic choice. Don’t get lazy about it. Plan what you need to leave up or pretend to leave up and move on. In general, tap your basic lands first because they only produce one color/one function.
9. Using phyrexian mana over real mana for no reason
I’ve seen people take 10 damage from their Birthing Pod over the course of the game when they could have only taken four. Your life total is a resource (see Mistake #12) – therefore spend it instead of wasting it. Paying full retail for that first turn Gitaxian Probe is mathematically worth it far more often than you might think.
10. Using phyrexian mana spells or free spells at the end of your opponent’s turn
If your play an Island first turn and pass the turn, then your opponent plays a Delver of Secrets. The “pro play” is to pay two life to Gut Shot it at the end of the turn…right? That’s what all the cool kids are doing. No! You can play that Gut Shot at any time at no mana cost. Play a land and have Mana Leak up in case your opponent has Mental Misstep. You lose nothing and gain far more options by delaying.
11. Ignoring mana curve
When you are deckbuilding/drafting/constructing any deck – you should have things to do during all stages of the game. You should have a bunch of threats or answers that are good in the early and mid-game. Many prereleases I have attended have people playing decks with nothing but three drop and four drop creatures. This is a recipe for disaster. Just be able to interact at multiple places in the curve, lest your army of three cost creatures run into a six drop.
12. Not thinking of life total as a resource
Sacrificing your creature in combat by blocking a larger creature to save two points of damage when you are at 20 is almost always incorrect. Your life total isn’t some Magical number that determines you are dead – it’s a resource. Get used to spending it and saving it and try to remove yourself from the idea of life totals being equal to life itself.
13. Only paying attention to what you draft
Signaling in draft is another topic altogether. What I want for you to do is to learn to stretch your memory and skills beyond just your pick. Open the pack, get excited, and choose your card. Now that you’ve selected your card what would the next pick be? The pick after that? When I draft in person, I sort the picks in order from 1-9 so I have a good idea of what quality of cards will be coming back to me. I sort my pick first at the front of the pack, then the next, then the next…you get the idea. I want to have a good idea of what colors my neighbors will be in. Then shuffle the pack once you have a mental image of it. I can note cards that I’m surprised didn’t come back and from a pattern of those cards, have a good idea of what is overdrafted and what is underdrafted early in the draft.
14. Playing only one format
I got so much better when I started playing type two regularly. I used to be a draft addict. I rearranged my work schedule to come in late, bribed my wife with chocolate and chores, and went to draft weekly at my shop. My skills really tempered themselves when I found myself applying deckbuilding rules I had in limited to constructed. When my aggressive mulliganing started to spill over from constructed to limited I started seeing more wins in both arenas. Even casual formats like EDH and Cube can channel your skills in new ways and teach you new interactions.
15. Playing only one style of deck
In my first (admittedly rough) article for LegitMTG I made this point that resonated with a lot of readers. Basically I challenged those that just loved sitting behind a wall of permission to start flopping aggressive creatures instead and vice versa. Play aggro decks with control elements. Play combo decks. The more styles that you expose yourself to; even if you have a favorite style you will have a more intimate understanding of matchups, strategies, plans of attack and perhaps a new appreciation. Try green eggs and ham every once in a while, you’ll be surprised and you’ll learn something even if you don’t like them.
16. Skimming articles for deck lists only
I have no right to tell you what to do or not do with your time. But if you want decklists that are better tuned and more proven for results – you’re going to get better decks from tourney coverage. Check MTGO results. Check the latest pro tour qualifier decklists. Most decklists in articles are less tried, less tuned, and less tested than the battle weary decks that you’ll see from tourney results. Also, at the possible expense of providing a bridge for all the trolls out there to hide under…writers and readers both hate it when people are like “Where da decklists at?” as the first comment in an article with zero new technology.
17. Not having consistent physical mechanics
When you shuffle your deck – it should look the same every time. When you lay your cards out before looking at them (you do that, don’t you) lay them out the same way every time. The more muscle memory you have the better. Develop your routine and vary it only if you need to.
18. Not drawing for miracles
You know the difference between a turn six Terminus and a turn three Terminus? Apart from beating Zombies vs. losing to them? When you draw a card, make sure it doesn’t make contact with your hand until you know exactly what that card is. This allows you to play miracles. This can also be the difference between a game loss and a more lenient penalty in the event you accidentally draw an extra card (depending on rules infraction level and at the discretion of your judges).
19. Organizing your hand
I am not proud to admit this…but when I first started playing Magic 17 years ago or so – I would play a “random” discard card like Mind Twist and Hymn to Tourach a little bit too effectively. In those days, you didn’t randomize and roll a dice; if you played the spell you got the privilege of picking the cards at random right out of your opponent’s hand. My playgroup always sorted the lands to the front to help them to remember to play land. I always got their lands when I wanted them and their spells when I didn’t with this information. To this day I can often tell approximately how many lands and action cards that someone drew by how they organize their hand. I know you just drew a land because you brought it to the front. There’s no need to organize your hand – you know your own deck and all the cards in it after a few games. You give away far too much information to a wary eye when you do these techniques that you aren’t even conscious of.
20. Not shuffling your hand.
Everyday I’m shuffling – queue dancing hamster commercial. In all seriousness, a way to keep your cards randomized is to constantly shuffle your hand. You don’t need to be a jerk about it (shuffling loud and to distract – or as an intimidation tool with a newer player). Benefits of this technique for me include sometimes coming up with new uses for familiar cards in addition to giving my hands a non destructive something to do (I naturally fidget). The tradeoff is that I’ve developed a tell – if I shuffle a LOT I’m probably holding things that are not useful.
21. Playing extra land.
If you just absolutely drown in extra land over the course of the game, it’s a very good idea to just keep it in your hand and think of it as something useful that you don’t need right now. New players are used to laying a land per turn if they can and it’s one of the harder habits to break. By all means, keep playing lands until you have enough to cast any card in your deck. Sometimes it’s right to play three more lands than your most expensive card against a deck that could have Mana Leak. Sometimes you’re playing a deck like Wolf Run Ramp where every extra land can translate into damage later (don’t hold your lands there). But by and large, hold those lands and your savvy opponents will be playing around tricks and possibilities that they don’t know you don’t have.
22. Failing to understand priority.
This is tricky in some ways – but did you know that in most cases your opponent cannot respond to you playing a land on your turn? Did you know that your opponent can use their Koth of the Hammer +1 to animate a Mountain before you get a window in which you use Incinerate to kill the planeswalker? Did you know that if you play Lingering Souls from your hand, then immediately cast it from your graveyard for the flashback cost your opponent never has a window to cast Surgical Extraction at that Lingering Souls? These examples are extremely common things that happen at the kitchen table and FNM’s everywhere that people aren’t aware are happening. All of these examples have exceptions (i.e. comes into play triggers and other things that cause a stack to be created) but the bottom line is to learn your priority rules. Rules can be your friend. Read the rulebook and play some Magic Online and your rules knowledge will grow.
23. Not calling a judge/not appealing.
Mistake #22 is rules complicated. Mistake #23 is beyond simple. If you don’t know PLEASE call a judge. Your opponent doesn’t have any incentive to rule in your favor – they want to win. A judge has a compelling reason to make the right call for everyone. Their job is to help players and support the competitive integrity of this game. Sometimes judges are even bored and waiting for a call. Oblige them. Also, if you disagree it’s ok to politely appeal to the Head Judge. The Head Judge is busy and important and evaluating other judges – but they need some player interaction every once in a while and judges are people like everyone else and they can make mistakes. I can assure you that you will not regret calling for a judge or asking for an appeal or a bit more explanation. Maintain sportsmanship and seek to understand rather than looking for an edge.
24. Keeping your life total on dice or technology.
Paper is virtually the only way to go. Paper with notes is even better. If there is a life total dispute that can’t be solved by discussing the evolution in the game state, if one person keeps their life total on paper and the other uses dice, guess who the judge is more likely to believe as the most accurate keeper of the life totals? Dice and smartphones are great for kitchen table games and EDH – but if you want to win a competitive event you should use paper and pen(cil).
25. Refusing to shuffle your opponent’s deck.
I don’t want to crush everyone’s dreams here – but your opponent might not be a legitimate or honest person. Most fine people you sit across from aren’t out to trick you – they just want to have some fun and enjoy this game for their reasons. You lose nothing by taking a few moments to shuffle your opponent’s deck. It’s both players responsibility to confirm the randomization of presented decks. If you saw your opponent shuffle twice or 30 times, it’s a good idea to give them an extra shuffle or two. You’re just helping a random deck stay random.
Bonus: Not helping your opponents.
One of my friends went X-1 at our Avacyn Restored prerelease. I may be biased, but I feel he’s a pretty nice guy. He lost round one and proceeded to win out for the rest of the day. With every opponent that he beat, he unselfishly helped them rebuild their deck or retool some of their choices to improve their deck. When the final standings were called, he was ranked 1st despite losing in the first round. In competitive events a first round loss eliminates you from finishing first almost every time regardless of the size of the tourney due to tiebreakers. He won because all his opponents started winning after he helped them get their decks from 10 creatures to 15-17 or when he cut an unnecessary color. The moral of the story – it pays sometimes to help others.
Thanks for climbing this list with me. I hope this informs your game.
As always, thanks for reading.
I appreciate your feedback.
@chasekeaten on Twitter
What was your hardest mistake to identify?
Did any of these simple mistakes surprise you? Why/why not?
If you could add any mistake to this list, what would it be?
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