A couple of days ago, I was talking to Ondrej Strasky about World Magic Cup teams and players we considered good or bad. The conversation eventually got to a point where he asked me how good I thought he was, and I said I thought he was very good. He seemed surprised and asked why.

It’s a good question, isn’t it? We all know the players we consider great and the ones we consider less than great, but it’s hard to explain exactly why that is. I’ve played against and watched so many good players that I think I have a very good idea of who is great and who isn’t, but my conversation with Ondrej got me thinking about the factors that lead me to formulate those opinions.

So: what makes a great Magic player great? What separates them from the “merely good”?

Ondrej seemed to think that a great player was one who made few mistakes. He thought he made a lot of stupid mistakes, so he couldn’t be a great player. I disagree with him. To me, a great player is one who understands what is going on in a game and has good reasons to make their plays. A great player is one who knows how to win the game, and formulates a plan to get the desired outcome. Making a pointed mistake might hurt you in a game, but fundamentally misunderstanding how Magic works (not knowing when to be aggressive, when cards are worth more than life, and so on) will hurt you every game.

They Have a Plan

The best Magic players are strategically sound. They treat the whole match as a match, and not an individual sequence of turns—they have a plan, which they adjust depending on the game state, and every action they make furthers that goal, from deckbuilding to mulliganing to sideboarding. This plan is generally based on a vision of how they are going to win the game. Yet, they know that it’s possible for their plan or goal to change depending on how things are going. If you know your plan, you know what is important, and then you know what you should prioritize.

A good player will block a 5/1 with a 1/1, because 5/1 is better and you’re trading up. A great player will make the same block 95% of the time, but they will also identify the 5% of situations where that 1/1 is more valuable than 5 life points.

I think that, most of the time, once you have a goal it’s not hard to find the best way to execute it. For example, imagine your opponent attacks you with a 5/5 trampler and you have a 3/3, a 0/1 and a 2/1. If I tell you what your goal with this play is, then you’re probably going to be able to figure out the correct blocks:

  • If the goal is to take no damage, you block with all your creatures.
  • If the goal is to kill the 5/5, you block with the 3/3 and the 2/1.
  • If the goal is to take a maximum of 3 damage while retaining as many creatures as possible, you block with the 3/3.
  • If the goal is to take as little damage as you can while leaving 3 power in play, you block with the 2/1 and the 0/1.

Those sequences aren’t hard—you just have to do math. The hard part is in understanding what your goal should be. Anyone can tell that if the goal is to take as little damage as possible while leaving 3 power in play, I should block with the 2/1 and the 0/1—but how many people can tell when that's the case? Way fewer. This is how great players think—they understand their goals, their plan, much more than other players, and everything they do follows that.

Great players also have good reasons for their plays. To me, what you are doing is not as important as why you’re doing it. If you are making the right play for the wrong reasons (or for unknown reasons), then that doesn’t really speak volumes as to how good you are (unless of course your reason doesn’t make sense and/or you’re wrong every time). If you make a play that I think is wrong but your reasoning makes sense, then that will impress me more, because it means you have the right mindset and your mistake is much easier to fix. I make plays that are wrong all the time, but it’s very rare that you ask me “why did you make this play?” and I have absolutely no reason, because I think as I’m doing it.

Mistakes

As it turns out, I disagreed with Ondrej when he said the greatest players were the ones who made the fewest mistakes—I think it’s possible to be a great player and make tons of mistakes, as long as your reasons make sense. Nassif is an example of a player like this—his ceiling is so high and he can win games that no one else would through his understanding of what’s going on, but he will also miss obvious things like playing 2 legendary creatures at once, and so on. It’s also possible that someone doesn’t make any obvious mistakes but isn’t a great player because they fail to grasp the general strategy of the game.

Basically, I think great players make pointed mistakes, whereas other players make chronic mistakes. Take, for example, me. I think I’m a great player, with a deep understanding of the game, but I still make tons of mistakes that other great players don’t—I tap the wrong colors, I forget to use abilities, and so on. Some Pro players will never, ever tap the wrong colors of mana.

At GP Quebec City, I played in a feature match in which I forgot to use Tasigur at the end of the turn and then forgot to use a planeswalker the turn after. This was not a strategic mistake—I obviously wanted to use those cards—but I just forgot. I had a good strategy, I just executed it badly. Next time, I will not forget. Sometimes, I tap my lands such that I end up unable to cast the spells I want, but, again, that’s bad execution—if you ask me “what land should you keep untapped?” I’m going to be able to tell you the right one, I just didn’t do it. This doesn’t mean it’s not a mistake, but it’s the kind of mistake that is more acceptable to me because it’s less likely to happen a second time.

Now, if you take someone who doesn’t understand that they should use those cards, or that doesn’t understand why it’s correct to keep Plains up and not Mountain, that’s a lot harder to fix, and they’re just going to repeat their mistake over and over unless they learn why they should keep Plains up to begin with.

Understanding the Opponent

To be good at Magic, you need to understand that your opponent is a rational actor and their plays make sense—if they make attacks such that you will take less damage than they will, you have you ask yourself why—maybe they have an Overrun effect, a Fireball, a Fog.

To be great at Magic, you need to take this further—you need to know that, though you can’t control what your opponent is thinking, you can give suggestions through the ways you play. Much as you infer when your opponent makes a weird attack, so will your opponent when you make a weird attack, and this changes the way you play. This means sometimes not attacking when you have the Fireball because you know it will raise “Fireball alarm bells” and your opponent will play much more conservatively, and sometimes attacking when you don’t have it for the same reason.

What Makes a Great Player Great?

Through writing this, I’ve also realized that this is just my view, and it’s not necessarily the right one. It’s also a very convenient view for me to have, because it plays up my strengths (general strategy) while downplaying my weaknesses (pointed small mistakes). It’s possible that the only reason I feel this way is that it makes me feel like a great player—I took abilities that I have and made them the baseline for who is “great.”

To compensate for that, I decided to ask what other great players thought, to see if our definitions of what made a great player great were the same. I polled a group of players that I consider great and that come from different testing groups the following questions:

1) What quality most differentiates good players from great players?

2) What quality or skill do you excel at most compared to other great players?

3) What quality or skill do you lack the most compared to other great players?

Owen Turtenwald

1) Attention to detail. Great players will try to make sure every aspect of the game is under their control or at least understood by them and they will try to do everything correctly. Even the smallest things you can think of, which lands to leave untapped to represent tricks that aren't in their deck to closely watching which lands the opponent leaves untapped to try and observe a pattern.

2) Beyond just making good plays each turn, I try to have a vision for how the game will play out or what the most likely way I win looks like. So when I sideboard and when I make in-game decisions it's all building to strengthening my position in the type of game I envisioned.

3) I think the one thing I do poorly that most other good players do quite well is deck selection. At Grand Prix I don't usually have very good Constructed decks and many of the Pros seem to have the best deck for that week, and I only do well at the Pro Tours when I have a great deck, I rarely win in spite of a bad deck choice.

Sam Black

1) Before I got to the point where I could be considered great, I probably thought it was largely talent—when you look at guys like Jon Finkel and Zvi Mowshowitz, they’re just so obviously brilliant that it’s easy to imagine that you basically just need to be a genius as a barrier to entry, if you’re trying to be great. From the other side, it feels a little more achievable. You still have to have the right mind for it, but Magic uses so many skills that “the right mind” can mean a variety of things.

The most important points are what everyone says—practice, challenging yourself, and really being dedicated to succeed, but I think really, the most important thing is just your frame of mind—how you approach the game. I consider myself a pretty good “talent scout” for Magic—when I meet someone new who plays seriously, I can get a pretty good feel for how much potential they have, and most of that is just about looking at how they think about things, how they take losses, what steps they take to learn, and how open they are to learning. A lot of it is old hat at this point—try to take responsibility for your losses and figure out what you could have done rather than blaming luck, listen to ideas that diverge from your own and reevaluate when someone does something differently than you do, but a lot of it is just about humility. You have to have faith in the idea that you can get better than you are, and to do that, you have to believe you’re not already as good as you can get.

Then for the absolute greats, there’s a little more to it—something they do really exceptionally that no one really knows how to learn, that special spark, you can’t really teach, so I’m not sure how valuable it is to try to quantify or define.

2) I think I’m best a big picture strategic thinking, forming a long-term vision for a how a draft deck might come together or how a matchup might play out. Outside of that, I’m very willing to take risks and I’m very willing to lose. For me, the game is about exploration, and losing a lot is the best way to learn. I also have a pretty good ability to model how people think in general, which means I’m good at figuring out how likely my opponents are to make various kinds of mistakes, which can help a lot when you have to play to an out that involves the opponent doing something wrong.

3) There are a few big ones: I lack the patience to just grind matches with a known good deck that I understand just to learn every last detail—I’d rather try something new where I can learn more quickly. This helps me try a lot of ideas to find something unique before a Pro Tour, but it also means that I’m rarely the best player with the best deck late in a season when others have practiced a lot. My raw processing power isn’t as great as some of the best players—sometimes a board can get too complicated for me to think through every possibility, and I get lost when I start to try, and have to fall back on intuition. Fortunately, I’ve played enough to have a pretty robust intuition.

Alexander Hayne

1) I think great players think outside the box more. A good player will make the somewhat obvious but good play, and play around what they imagine the opponent might have. The great player instead considers how their opponent might play, and makes plays that use the fact that their opponent is thinking about what cards they might have. Basically, good players play their game and they play it well, but great players also play their opponent's game. The great player might make an objectively worse play in a vacuum, but one that causes their opponent to make an even worse one.

2) I'm very good at seeing the big picture. I think I'm better at long-term strategy and planning than most other players. I always have a plan to win, and am willing to change plans when another plan seems to have a higher chance of winning. Instead of making plays that look the best at the moment (for example, using a Turn Against as a 2-for-1), I look at how I expect the game to go in the future turns and make sure to plan accordingly to win the war instead of just the battle (if my opponent has Ulamog that I can't beat with my slow deck, I need that Turn Against at some point to be able to win, and can instead trade other resources for the 2 creatures I would have otherwise killed). I will often figure out a way to win where others thought there wasn't one.

3) I'm weak at drafting. While I am passable at deck construction and strong at playing, drafting a deck is another matter entirely, and one that I struggle with. Knowing how to evaluate cards, recognize signals, and many minutiae built up over years of experience are all things that I need to work harder to keep up with other great players. In terms of playing, I think I am relatively well-rounded, but will occasionally miss a small but important detail because I am focusing more on figuring out how to shape future exchanges into a favorable position. For example, I might forget to ping my opponent end of turn with a Nettle Drone if my plan is to grind out my opponent, but not when I'm planning to get into a race, since it will be fully on my mind as an important resource in my plan.

Kenji Tsumura

1) My answer is continuity. Winning some tournaments is very respectable, but winning for many years, like Jon, Yuuya and you [PV] do, is more impressive. In addition, recently, the average player’s skill is getting higher due to Magic Online, and a lot of good players make a team and test more logically. So I think a good result is harder to achieve than before, and to keep winning seems more attractive to me. I think great players never forget their mistakes, and they can adjust those mistakes to the new set or card. Not repeating the same mistake in the same situation isn't that hard, but not repeating the same mistake in a similar situation with new cards is very hard for most of us.

2) Play speed. I usually use 5 minutes or less to finish a match on Magic Online, and I haven’t seen an opponent who plays faster than me. (Except LSV... man!)

3) Imagination. I, and so many players, need a lot of practice to win, but some great players don't need it. For example, Shouta usually practices only a few hours or sometimes doesn’t practice at all, but he can imagine everything in his brain and end up with good results. That is the skill I want to have and it is the reason why a lot of players respect him.

Yuuya Watanabe

1) I think a great player never misses their opportunity because they know how to overcome difficulties. In general, playing the big match, like a win-and-in, or single elimination rounds is very hard to play. It makes you nervous and causes you to make more mistakes than usual. A great player knows how to control their emotions perfectly, so they can give their best performance every time. I guess that is very attractive for an audience, and it is the key to being a great player.

2) I excel at understanding my strengths and weaknesses, so I can chose the right deck or right card for my play style. Selecting a bad deck/card for your play style tends to end badly, so I think understanding your play style is really important.

3) There are so many things and I can't write down everything here. But if I have to chose one—it's English!

Jacob Wilson

1) The ability to adapt to each decision or situation as a new and unique circumstance. A lot of players will go into a game with preconceptions about what their deck's plan is and how they are going to approach a matchup. It's easy to think too theoretically about a game of Magic rather than evaluating exactly what is in front of you.

2) Playing differently against bad players. I do not think I am the best player in the world (yet). I have a mediocre win percentage at Pro Tours and the World Championship. But I excel at Grand Prix and other tournaments where I get to play against weaker players regularly. I think that I bluff a lot more than other Pro players when I am playing against unknown opponents. I also make my deck choices based on the assumption that my opponent's will make mistakes—I often choose to play a mediocre midrange deck over a powerful combo deck (Modern Jund over Amulet Bloom at the last Modern GP).

3) Levelheadedness or focus. If I make a mistake or get annoyed it can negatively affect my play or cause me to lose the motivation to win. I am pretty easily distracted: a judge, coverage reporter, or spectator stepping into my match or saying something that they shouldn't never fails to take my focus away from the match.

Kai Budde

1) I think being able to keep composure during high pressure situations is often the deciding factor. Just getting a little edge here and there often makes the difference in the long term. You keep seeing people make small mistakes in important games that they wouldn't make if they were playing in a home game or online. Staying focused under pressure helps a lot.

2) Probably what I answered for the first question. Also, tournament Magic was different at my time. Actually having great players around you locally made a huge difference as the whole internet/online thing just wasn't as massive as it is now. Having a fairly big group of local players that were on well above average Pro Tour level was great. And having a few that were at that time in the top 50 in the world was even better. Being talented is great, but there are very few that have so much talent that they can get up there without hard work. I played a lot. And I had great players to play against on a daily basis. That just makes a huge difference.

3) I've been told by multiple people that I give too much away when playing Magic. I don't think that happens in big matches, at least I hope it doesn't. But it's certainly the case in way too many spots.

Shahar Shenhar

1) Networking!

2) I think every good player can become great by networking with other good players. I got better by playing with people better than me. I learned from them instead of trying to prove that I’m better. Ego can get in the way.

3) To be honest, I like to be great at whatever I do, I’ve always been very competitive. For me, the better I do, the less committed I become. Winning Worlds has given me some disinterest in Magic, for example.

Luis Scott-Vargas

1) Good players play cards. Great players play games, and there's a world of difference between the two. People may understand that in some matchups they are the beatdown and in others the control, but that still doesn't mean they've made the leap from casting whatever seems best on a given turn to planning out the game and always making plays to further that plan. Some great players aren't even the tightest when it comes to technical play, but they have the understanding of what it takes to form a plan, and how to play with it in mind. Plans change, some games are hard to navigate, and each new card makes you reevaluate, but playing with a greater purpose in mind is something absolutely necessary if you want to be great. You should always know why you are making a play, and as someone who has had the opportunity to watch tons of Magic, it's very clear when a player has reached the level where they are playing a game instead of just playing their cards.

2) This may be unsurprising given the answer to the first question, but I put a very high value on having a plan, more than many great players, and feel like I'm very good at identifying good game plans, especially ones that aren't common strategies. I am also good at paying attention to detail, and the combination of the two helps me make sure my technical play delivers on the overarching plan. I also think I play way more intuitively than most players, and lean on my subconscious a lot more, which helps me make plays most people wouldn't have gotten to.

3) Unfortunately for me, my intuitive style of play does mean that I lose a lot of value when I'm not playing enough Magic. I think it's fair to say that I was better when I played a lot more, and I suspect I have dropped off more since then than some other players would have, just based on my play style. Combine that with my propensity to play very fast (which does have advantages), and I've found myself making more strategical errors than I would have in the past.

Conclusion

Though there are many factors that contribute to making a great player great, all of them important, the one that was highlighted by the most people was something akin to “having a plan”—not just playing cards at random but having the big picture in mind. Five of the ten people in this article (Sam, Hayne, Owen, Luis, and I) went as far as saying they’re better at it than most great players, which I think says a lot about how important it actually is.

If you’re a good player trying to become great, remember these points:

1) Have a plan. This is in my opinion the most important thing (and it seems to be accepted as such by a big portion of great players). Do not just play cards at random, understand the game as a whole.

2) Adjust to new situations. It’s impossible to memorize everything, but it’s also impossible to figure everything at once if it’s all new, so try to take previous knowledge and adapt to it. The way to do this is to understand the “why” as opposed to the “what,” because the “what” will change, but the “why” will not, and if you know the “why” you can extrapolate it to other situations.

3) Pay attention to detail. A small detail may seem almost irrelevant when you’re doing it, and it probably is, but it adds up. Leave the right lands untapped, don’t forget to use your abilities. This is the area I need to improve in the most of all that was said here.

4) Network. Having a team of good players who have the same goals as you is very important. Know that you can improve and that there are people out there who can help you do it.

That’s what I've got for today! Thanks a lot to all the Pros who gave their valuable input here, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.