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How to Win at Magic: Part II

Written by Zach Cramer on . Posted in Competitive Magic

How to Win at Magic: Part II

Zach Cramer

Zach is a Northeastern Magic grinder who specializes in eternal formats. When building decks, he has a strong preference to Blue cards, toolboxes and combo decks. With a recent RPTQ finish just short of an invitation, Zach hopes to take his skills to the next level and play on the Pro Tour.

Greetings all! Last week I shared with you a few of my tips on Magic philosophy, deck selection and tournament preparation. This week, I hope to complete my discussion with my thoughts on last minute tweaks, audibles, tournament behavior, and post-tournament reflection. In addition, I hope to treat all of my loyal readers with some sick tech, some sweet decklists, and a great story or two. But first, an aside on how to playtest. Many of my friends read my article last week and asked me to clarify why I test for Quarters and why it helps me so much. I said that I like to playtest with Quarters because it helps me more than playing for fun. You know what’s great about Quarters? When I keep losing Quarters to Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, I’m not thinking about if the matchup is 50/50 or even if I’m up on Quarters, I’ll remember that if my opponent doesn’t keep Gideon in play, I’ll keep my Quarter! That’s what effective playtesting looks like. It’s not matchup percentages, it’s not how many games you win, it’s about finding which cards matter and figuring out what gives you and your opponent the best chance win the matchup. You know why else I enjoy playtesting with Quarters? It disincentives people (myself included) about keeping bad hands, sketchers, and mulliganning back to 7s. Preventing all of these things helps to to get the most effective memories about your testing. Emotional memory can be a great ally.

Thoughts on Deck Selection and the Infamous Audible:

So, you’ve taken my advice, you’ve picked a deck you like, you’ve put in the testing and you’ve got a pretty good feeling. And then the articles. Always the articles. Authors everywhere are trying to summarize their testing, showcase their edges, and discuss their metagame predictions. I don’t know how you all deal with these articles, but, very rarely do I find that I am assured or given comfort by them. Many of my friends can attest to the fact that Thursday and Friday I am questioning everything that I felt certain about on Wednesday, especially if the pros are writing about something different than what I was thinking. In particular, I remember completely shifting my deck in response to Brad Nelson’s 4 Color Saheeli Primer. What a dumb idea. Let me break down what I just did. Step 1: Play a deck I like. Step 2: Test properly for stakes with competent pilots and review that testing afterwards. Step 3: Read 2,000 words for approximately 15 minutes. Step 4: Set all of my previous progress on fire. This is a recipe for disaster. Yes, this information is helpful and very often will aid your research, but, completely altering your deck is an absolute mistake if you have testing to defend your choices. I’ve tried my best to look at what pros are saying and examine my playtesting through that lens, or look at how their sideboard addresses specific matchups. The best part about playing Magic is that the cards look completely different depending on how your playstyle matches up. Your testing and your play will define which cards are best. If a card is performing well for you, the best thing you can probably be doing is continuing to play it. Obviously, this requires good testing that leads you to informed and experienced testing. I’d like to assume that goes without saying, but, I know that I’ve put blinders on in testing before so I’ll give it a sentence.

Tournament Behavior, Etiquette and Sick Snack Tech:

Alright, you’ve made it to the day of the event. You’re traveling today. Whether it’s on the way to GP, or a local PPTQ/IQ and the like, every drive is an opportunity. If you’re lucky enough, I’d always recommend traveling with friends. These drives offer an opportunity to talk about the format, card selection, matchups, popular decks and other sorts of material to get you hyped up. Furthermore, just talking about life or enjoying each other’s company can go a long way in making a tough tournament feel better. I’ve made great friends with people just because I’ve happened to be in a car with someone or a friend of a friend. Magic players have a lot in common with each other simply because they take an interest in Magic. Magic players have taught me fun card games, recommended excellent movies and video games, and introduced me to delightful food and great ways to randomly determine who will pay for them (Oh, the Credit Card Game – more variance than playing 4 Horsemen in a Legacy Tournament). These trips offer you one last chance to make tweaks and adjustments before the tournament starts. If you are not driving with friends, I’d definitely suggest doing something on your own to get in the mindset for the tournament. For me, this ranged from pumping myself up with my favorite music, to listening to Podcasts to add the insight a car full of friends would have offered. Here’s a quick list of Podcasts I listen to frequently: The Girlfriend Bracket, MTG Pro Tutor, The GAM Podcast, Grinders, Scrubland, Limited Resources, Top Level, and The Masters of Modern.

Once you’ve made it to the tournament, it’s important that you do everything you can to stay in the right head space. For me, I always try and catch up with friends, listen to positive and upbeat music, and play casual formats like Pauper, Battle Box, or Split deck with friends. Split deck, by the way, is where you split someone’s deck in half and play with it. I recommend playing Belcher, I’ve never laughed so much. Staying in good spirits keeps your energy high and keeps you excited for the games ahead. Tournaments are long and in order to do your best you’ll need to be well hydrated, eat something energizing, and enjoy your hobby the way it’s intended. Pro tips on food: Epic bars are the most delicious protein bars I’ve ever had. Chicken Siracha gives me life and the extra protein really helps my brain stay active. While everyone has said this before, it remains important to incorporate it. Healthy food is best, protein is good, and make sure to bring aspirin. Another detail that I’ve found to be important to making sure I’m playing my best is to make sure that I am kind and pleasant to all of my opponents to create a positive experience for as many people as I can. If I’m having a good time, my opponent will be encouraged to create a fun game of Magic too. Making sure both players are enjoying themselves, especially in your local store, is the best way to grow the game of Magic. Doing your best to enjoy yourself keeps you and your friends from avoiding tilt. Similarly, don’t ever give people Bad Beat Stories. Just don’t do it. It doesn’t help anybody feel better or enjoy themselves more in the tournament. Furthermore, it hurts your ability to acknowledge your failures in the game, which leads to stagnation as a player. I am the biggest offender of salt and bad beat stories and I’m making a serious effort to change that. To pay for my crimes of saltiness, I’ve tried even harder to root for my friends when they’re doing well, and stick around to watch their games when I can. If Magic players truly want to cultivate a strong community, the change starts with the individual.

Post Tournament Reflection and The Importance of Goals for Long Term Success:

So, you’ve finished your tournament, you’re back in the car, and you’re going back home. There’s still more work to do. Something I’ve found particularly impactful and important is a post-tournament reflection of some kind. A friend and former PA State Champion Jon Goss introduced me to an easy car conversation that can go a long way. Basically, each person in the car says something they did well, something they did poorly, and something they learned. This reflection offers people the ability to enjoy their success, learn from their failure, and focus on a way in which they’ve gotten better as a player since they started the event. As someone who plays week in and week out, it was absolutely critical to take my losses in stride and see the ways I was improving as a player in order to keep the fire to succeed alive in me. If you follow with me on Twitter, you’ll know that I have quite the monkey on my back in terms of PPTQ success. In the last 3 seasons, I’ve been unable to succeed at actually winning one, despite Top 8ing almost 80% of the 35 PPTQs I’ve played in. When you’re experiencing a plateau and can’t seem to break through, it’s absolutely vital to see growth, even in the smallest way. For example, one time after failing to win a limited PPTQ, I reminded myself that I didn’t forget any of the combat tricks I spent all week trying to memorize. While it didn’t offer me immediate success, I can promise you that this knowledge led me to do better in existing games. Sometimes, it takes weeks, months, and even years to have some of your skills, talents, and lessons to take fruition. For me, I’ve tried to make very clear and precise goals. These goals span from as short term as doing by best in every match, to as long term as earning a Silver level qualification to the Pro Tour. These goals help showcase your progress, even as your long term goals feel far away, your short term goals keep confidence and pride high. Being able to know that you played around a card, properly sideboarded, or built your sealed pool as best you could, might be just the ticket to giving you the excitement and passion to get back on the grind after a tough tournament. There’s so much variance in Magic, and yet, there’s so much that we can do on our own to ensure the best possible tournament for yourself. Continued success in the fundamentals WILL lead to success in in the future.

That’s all I’ve got for this week! Next week, I’m hoping to finish writing my thoughts on the 4C Saheeli deck myself and 6 pilots all took to Day 2 of GP NJ. I’m thrilled about the way that Standard looks and am taking every possible opportunity to play it as much as possible before Amonkhet. Talk to you all next week!

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