Maybe a subtitle that is identical to the column title deserves a more epic article, but I found it appropriate, so whatever...

It should come as little surprise I'm most often asked about how to get better—“How do I become pro?”—It makes sense too. The Pro Tour is a marketing tool. Its existence is why I played the game from about day 100 onward.

Don’t get me wrong, Magic is a great game, but without that competitive force driving me to be the best I could, I would have likely only played casually, battling friends a few times a year—but the allure of success, of money, and of holding a trophy were too much to pass up. I have since learned that the money is a nice benefit, but success in and of itself is enough to motivate me.

I now write 3 columns about Magic weekly and have done so for 3 years now, and in all of those articles combined, I haven’t even come close to providing all of the necessary tools to get a player to become a pro.

That said, I'd like to cover a few of them. Here are the factors I rate highly in order to take your game to the next level:

Big Fish, Little Pond

You’re going along. You’ve won a bunch of FNMs by now, but you just secured your first PTQ win after Top 8'ing States last week. You’re on cloud nine.

Try convincing that player that he isn’t as good as he thinks he is—Go on. Unfortunately, we are creatures that respond to results, and when you are doing well at something, regardless of the level of your competition, you gain confidence. This can transfer poorly to the Pro Tour though, when you eventually get in over your head.

Confidence in and of itself is not a bad thing, but it does translate into cockiness or overconfidence quickly, especially considering the age range of most people who get into competitive Magic. I've talked about how I reached that point after Pro Tour Honolulu, so I am certainly aware of how easy it is to slip into that zone.

The tough thing is that falling into this trap is difficult to avoid. You have become the king of your hill. There is no one showing you up and when you do lose locally, it gets pinned on mana screw or bad draws. This means there are very few checks and balances at the local level to protect you. The Pro Tour has plenty of these checks and balances, but once you show up and get crushed as a result of your big head, the damage has already been done.

I think that the best way to keep a surge of success from putting you into a world of overconfidence is to surround yourself with good friends that can keep you grounded. You need friends that you respect, and not just playtest partners whose opinions barely matter to you. Being reminded of your humility can be all it takes to keep you humble and determined.

Opportunity Does Not Mean Opportunity

This was a mistake I made when I was coming up, and although I managed to dodge many bullets in that regard, the mindset can hurt you. With so many tournaments happening these days, a grinder might view the grind as attending all of these tournaments. They begin to keep track of the season in terms of how many events remain and how many tournaments they have been to.

These are common practices for professionals, who make a living off of things like appearance fees, so tracking tournament attendance is important. But tracking tournament attendance as though it were the end goal is not very healthy. I bring this up because of one of big mistakes I see new players make, which is essentially valuing quantity over quality.

A player might be excited that he gets to attend every Grand Prix in a given season, which is a good thing. But when that player fails to work on the format, or show up with a good deck, simply because going to the Grand Prix was priority one, that can hurt them. Honestly, going to two Grand Prix events with a well-tuned deck is probably better value than going to four tournaments with a bad deck.

At some point, that no longer remains true. Once a player has developed a consistently high level of play and you do get appearance fees, attending more tournaments translates into higher value for you overall. But when the tournament is all about making Top 4 or Top 25 so that you can make the train, or at least have a shot at it, showing up counts for very little.

Understanding that taking a week off to put in a bunch of prep work for a tournament two weeks from now might have value, is not apparent to a grinder. More tournaments, more opportunities is too important to ignore. Shifting that mentality to one of quality over quantity can give you the testing and prep needed to do really well at one or two tournaments though, which is crucial to sustained success.

Think it Through

This piece of advice might seem fairly broad, but I think it is the single most important habit to sustained success.

To put it bluntly: Never make a decision you cannot justify when asked about it.

If I walk up to you after a turn of your Limited game and ask why you attacked with your Bear and [card]Grey Ogre[/card] but not your [card]Hill Giant[/card], you should be able to explain why you did that. You don’t even need to be correct, necessarily (which we will discuss soon), but you need to have an explanation. If your answer is something along the lines of, “because I could attack,” you probably need to plan out your turns a little bit better.

If you are making plays, decks, or decisions, have a plan or a goal in mind. You should know why you are making that decision, and you should be aware of consequences from both sides of the equation. If my play is to attack with my Bear and then I am utterly surprised by the [card]Nephalia Seakite[/card] my opponent plays to block it, I probably messed up.

By learning to explain the reasons behind your decisions, you learn to evaluate the same from your opponent. Why would he leave open four mana with 6 cards in hand here? What cards in the format should I be thinking about? What goes wrong in the worst case scenario? What goes right in the best case scenario? The answers to these questions can be crucial, and taking the time to think about them is the way to find them. Eventually, as you work on these skills, they almost become second nature and you learn to evaluate situations on the fly to a somewhat high degree of certainty.

Even just the ability to reason out your lines leads to a more well-rounded game and more refined ability within any individual game. Even if you are wrong, when you come up with a plan of action, you are fitting together a bunch of moving pieces to reach your goal. This behavior develops to the point where you do it quickly and effortlessly. Of course, there will always be lapses in judgment, as we are all human after all, but the habit is a huge improvement for anyone not currently using it.

Once again, I think having a reliable set of playtest partners and friends around makes incorporating this much easier. If a friend can watch your playtest games, and then asks you why you made a certain play at random times throughout game, you are going to start developing correct lines of thinking. This does require you to be honest with yourself, or to at least have a friend that won’t buy your bullcrap, but hopefully if you want to improve, you are ready to be honest with yourself.

Compare all of this to a game in which being random is generally known as a bad thing: Street Fighter. This actually applies to any fighting game. You can sit down to play a game of Street Fighter, button mash like a madman, with little forethought, and you can actually win a game. You are not going to consistently win, but it can happen. Once you level up and begin to execute combos, blocks, and positioning, you realize how much more effective using strategy and tactics can be versus random actions. Playing Magic without a sound plan is essentially the same thing.

Wrap Up

Practicing more, surrounding yourself with a good group of people, and reading any and everything Magic related are all essential to you progressing as a player. That said, those have all been drilled into your skull so many times that me repeating it would be more frustrating than helpful.

But, in addition to all of those clichés, I definitely experienced moments in my career that lined up with the three points I also brought up. I learned most of my lessons the hard way, and the truth is, many of you will too, but if a few people manage to avoid the traps by being told about them beforehand, I am happy with that.

This weekend is Grand Prix Denver. I am not thrilled with my deck right now, as I probably put too much time into hosting the event rather than brewing, but I still have some time and will hopefully end up with something sweet. If you manage to show up, feel free to stop by and say hi. As always and until next week, thanks for reading!

Conley Woods