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How To Win In Magic Part 1

Written by Zach Cramer on . Posted in Competitive Magic

How To Win In Magic Part 1

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.

As someone who plays a high level Magic tournament every week, I’ve come to believe that there are some fundamental truths about giving yourself the best chance to win in a given tournament. Something that most Magic players realize once they dig deep and dive into the competitive scene is that the grind is wrought with mental and emotional struggles. I was hit hard with these struggles in the last 4 months as I met a pretty vicious losing streak that made me seriously question my prowess as a player and my interest in the game. What I learned might not be the advice that you’ll get from Platinum Pros, but, I can promise you the things I’m about to tell you have helped me find the love for Magic again, and that newfound love has also brought me some victories. In this article, I hope to condense my 3 months of silence into a real, tangible, guideline for how to succeed while playing Magic. I’m planning on breaking this into a two sections. Firstly, I’d like to discuss the most important thing about tournaments: The prep. From there, I’ll go into detail about what I’ve found to be the best behavior during and after the tournament in order to make sure the things you’re learning in a tournament help you in future tournaments. I hope to make this article as evergreen as possible so that you can apply this to any deck, format, or tournament you play in. If you have any questions on what I’m writing below, make sure to sound off in the comments.

Before You Even Start Playing:

In regards to tournament preparation, I’ve had a few realizations lately. Firstly, STOP SWITCHING DECKS! Especially in Modern, when you start going into unfamiliar waters, you’re going to play worse. You’re going to mess up sideboarding, and you’re probably going to not understand what actually matters in the matchup. In every format right now, what matters is matchups. If you understand the key cards when your opponent doesn’t, that gets you an advantage. If you’ve been playing the same deck for months, your sideboard will be focused on your weak points. For example, in my UB Faeries deck, I’ve made sure to include Kalitas in my 75 to deal with problematic matchups like Burn and Kitchen Finks decks. These choices came from playing the deck for months and knowing which cards are beating me and how to fix those holes. This can lead you to try and search for the strange but important cards that will win you matchups and answer the problematic cards in matchups. While Kalitas might not be the best example for that point, Jeff Hoogland’s choice to play Myr Superion would be an excellent example. Jeff decided to play Myr Superion to assist him in the difficult Eldrazi and Affinity matchups. Little known fact: Myr Superion is bigger than Drowner of Hope and Reality Smasher and blocks Etched Champion for days. These card choices, while not always 100% correct will be used best by someone who knows why the card belongs there in the first place.

Similarly, play what you like, because what you like is probably also what you know. This is not a blanket pass to pick any pile and play it, but, it is to say that Daniel Fournier, Corey Burkhardt, and Shaheen Soorani have been and will continue to kill it with control decks because they’d rather play Magic that way and they know where they can find their edges. It is mentally and financially smart to do the things you enjoy when you’re playing a game you like, and it will also help you win. After the first week of this Standard season, I picked up the 4 Color Saheeli deck and I promise you I’ve learned more about Standard by doing so. It’s not my style to play Mardu Vehicles, nor is it my strength to do math with Winding Constrictor. But boy, lemme tell you something about efficiently drawing cards and playing Value decks. I was rewarded for this decision by recently Top 8’ing a Starcity Games IQ with 4 Color Saheeli using my knowledge of the matchup, and my affinity for the archetype in going undefeated against every Saheeli deck that I played. Knowing which cards mattered and knowing when to change my play led me to be more familiar with unconventional lines that ended up winning me the game. If you’re having trouble figuring out if you like something, I’ve made a special effort to proxy up a deck that I’m interested in before buying into it or playing it in a tournament. I always love to tell people about when I decided to buy into Legacy Storm 5 years ago, I owned a fully proxied version for 6 months before I even purchased the .25 rituals. Over the next year, I spent a little bit of each paycheck until I finally had the whole 75 at my disposal. I knew the ins and outs of that deck before I even had all the cards, because I wanted to make sure the money and the time I was going to spend mastering the deck were spent on something I liked doing and found joy in. I see players all the time who just sprint into a new deck only to find out it’s not what they want to be doing or where they want to be in a format. I like to make those mistakes early on the backs of Magic cards, particularly in Eternal formats rather than ending up with a pile of cards I don’t want to play.

An Aside on Mentality and Variance:

Another issue that I’ve been pretty vocal on Twitter about is how to keep your spirits high when you are losing. Recently, I made a concerted effort to play Magic at every opportunity. This means that I have experienced more variance in the last few months than I have probably faced in an entire year. This means that every weekend I have to pick myself back up, dust myself off, and play Magic again – win, lose or draw. This means that I needed to make sure my highs and lows as a Magic player didn’t define me. If I won an event, I needed to take pride in my process during that tournament rather than the finish so if I were to fall on my face the next week, I could look to see if my play was still worth lifting up as good. This can be very difficult if you lose a tough game or if you are out of contention early in the tournament. But, if you’re focused on playing the games, finding the right lines, and playing with sportsmanship and poise, you’ll be able to see the moments of positive variance just as often as the negative variance. Doing what you like and what you’re good at helps manage the rough spurts and the bad beats much better as well. If you bomb out of a PPTQ or a GP because you played a deck you dislike, you’re going to take it a lot harder than you would otherwise. I remember playing in multiple GPs and just conceding outright to my opponent in Round 8 or 9 because I didn’t want to slog through a tournament with the deck I picked. What a waste of money, time and fun!

On Playtesting:

Once you’ve picked a deck you like that you think you can play well, it’s time to prepare for a tournament. That means playtesting. Yes, you have to play Magic to get better and you have to make mistakes to get good. When I playtest, I make sure I’m focused on it and that I’m giving it my best effort. For example, I make sure to set up a pre-determined (and well updated) gauntlet before testing and I try to put the gauntlet decks in the hands of competent or enthusiastic pilots. Similarly, I always play more post-board games than pre-board games. The post-board games really give you a clear idea of what sorts of cards are best against you and how your opponent hopes to beat you, and whether or not the post board dynamics are different than the game one experience so that you aren’t blindsided. Standard right now is very much about the ways matchups shift after sideboarding. The Mardu Vehicles deck has gone as far to bring in Fumigates, Planeswalkers and edict effects after board. It would be absolute disaster to assume that your post board games versus your Mardu Vehicles opponent would favor you as the aggressor only to be blown out by a Fumigate, or refuse to bring in Negate only to be obliterated by an Ob Nixilis Reignited or a Chandra, Torch of Defiance. I make sure to make special notes on a notepad or on a life pad about certain lines, certain mulligans and other interesting decisions so I can talk about them in the future. To promote this kind of dedication in playtesting, I love to playtest for Quarters. Every game, we ante up a Quarter and the winner of that game gets both. It may not seem like a lot, but, you’d be surprised what some kind of reward or prize can do in strengthening someone’s play. Before I sit down at the table, I make sure to write some specific goals I have in playtesting. Things like learning if a card is good in a matchup, figuring out if a sideboard strategy is optimal, and deciding what kinds of hands to keep are all really good examples of how to get the most out of your testing experiences. With these tips in mind, I hope to leave you until next week where I will discuss my tips on making the finals changes to your deck as well as my thoughts on how to play well during an event and how to examine your tournament performance as you get ready for the following week. Until next time.

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