There is a big difference between FNM winners and PTQ winners, and again to Pro Tour winners. I haven’t won any Pro Tours yet, so I’m still working to improve to that level, however I can offer advice for those that want to move from FNMs to PTQs.
Here are, in no particular order, some of the key skills you want to develop to take your play to the next level.
To an extent, this will improve simply through practice, but if you want to improve in tournament play you need to make sure you really understand how Magic works. Players at lower levels often lack a decent understanding of the stack, phases, and priority. I can’t count the number of times people have tried to [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] a [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card] before their opponent has a chance to activate it, which isn’t possible since they have priority after it resolves. Now they know they should use the +2 ability and they know you have a Bolt in hand. Nice.
The best way to learn this stuff is by playing on Magic Online. The interface is very clear about when you get priority and all the phases that exist.
There are lots of cool things you can do when you understand these facets of the game. For example, if you have a [card]Celestial Flare[/card] and your opponent plays around it by attacking with two creatures, you can kill the one during combat and then in the end of combat step you can cast [card]Celestial Flare[/card] to cause your opponent to sacrifice the other. Attacking and blocking creatures retain that status during the end of combat step, and therefore are eligible to be sacrificed to the Flare.
You also need to really understand (and remember) how cards interact with one another. Just this week in the Top 8 of the SCG Open Legacy, I watched a player matched up against Painter’s Servant combo, with 3 mana, cast Thalia and then try to cast [card]Dismember[/card] on the [card]Painter’s Servant[/card]. This clearly fails, and then his opponent duly plays [card]Grind Stone[/card] and wins on the spot. A simple mis-ordering that you cannot afford to make.
No one is perfect. I remember one particular draft played by a certain LSV where he reasoned that he needed to cast his [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] for just guys (as he had more life) in order to stay safe, but then decided to active his Gideon and attack first. Afterward, he cast [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] and it just went to the graveyard as he now had as many creatures as his opponent. He had a good chuckle about it, but I’m sure this is a rare example of an LSV misplay, can’t imagine recording makes it easy to keep the correct level of concentration.
There are lots of interactions in Magic. The more you play and understand the rules, the less likely you are to lose games because of them, and you can even turn them to your advantage.
Learning from Others
The fact that you are even reading this shows some willingness to follow this piece of advice. Listen to the advice of players you respect. For example, when I started playing, a member of my LGS that won more than I did told me that life-gain-only cards were bad in Limited (think [card]Angel’s Mercy[/card]), because you don’t add to your defense or offense, and it doesn’t generate value. At best, it may delay the inevitable. A good reason from someone better than me? I never thought about playing a card like that again without a very good reason. Lots of people are willing to give you advice. The trick is working out who to listen to.
You also have to want to improve. I know some people who will not listen to advice about splashing this card or not running that card. They will never improve and I stopped trying. This is fine if you are happy playing at your LGS and don’t care about going further. If you do care, then listen well.
In a similar vein you have to accept that your game needs improving. One player at my LGS frequently complains that anything and everything screwed him out of a victory. Mana issues, lucky draws from the opponent—the truth is he has the same amount of luck as everyone else, but he also misplays a lot and keeps terrible hands. If you don’t appreciate your own skills and faults, how can you improve? Everyone makes mistakes. Good players learn from from every mistake they make.
I have a friend who is constantly going to time in tournaments. I would estimate this costs him significantly more victories than it costs his opponents, because he is very good but he agonizes over everything. I have seen him dither about the most insignificant play decisions. I can’t watch him, as it infuriates me too much. I go to time so rarely it surprises me when I do.
Did you watch the World Championship? In the Standard portion, I noticed they’d been given an extra 5 minutes on the usual round time (55 instead of 50). This seemed useless, as even though there were several UWR Flash mirror matches in a round, they were all completed in about 35 minutes. Why? Because Pros don’t go to time. Slow play is a non-issue. Much of this is familiarity with their decks and thinking ahead. During my opponent’s turn I am thinking about how to block should they attack (this often tells me if they are going to as well). I next consider how I’m going to attack on my next turn and how he will block next turn. Then of the spells I have in my hand do I need to cast any of them next turn… Always think, I’m always thinking. Then when it comes to decision time I should know what I’m doing and won’t slow up the game.
People get touchy about slow play. But, being told you are playing slowly does not mean you are doing it deliberately, you are not being accused of cheating. Regardless, your pace of play is slowing up the game, which is unfair to your opponent and annoys everyone else in the tournament. You have to play at a pace to be able to complete a 3-game match in 50 minutes. You can’t actually think about everything before making a play. Make your best guess and run with it. That is why it is cunning to use your opponent’s play time to make your decisions. If you want to win events, you can’t afford draws. Learn to play promptly and in a timely fashion.
Playtesting is essential to success. When I have been preparing a lot for a format I will, on average, be much more successful than if I’ve come in cold. I tend to do much better later in a Constructed PTQ format as the meta shifts around me and the amount I have played it goes up. There is a reason top athletes still practice how to do the pole vault. You don’t get to a certain point and stay there without effort. I tend to be bad about this aspect of play but I can appreciate how much of a difference it does make when I put the effort in.
Many players will try to skip on this. Playtesting is BORING! You slam decks into each other over and over for no purpose. It’s easy to find anything else to do, including laundry, painting the house, or cleaning under the sink. What it is important to remember is there is a purpose. Many, in fact.
When you playtest for a format, you should have the most common decks in the meta built—a gauntlet through which to run your decks. By playing the most common decks in the meta you become familiar with the average contents of those decks. This means you know what to expect them to play and what they can be representing. [card]Restoration Angel[/card] shouldn’t take anyone by surprise by now, and yet you still see people walk into 4 open mana and get punished. Equally if you want to go even deeper, you can use this knowledge to represent things you don’t have but your opponent might have to play around, like pretending you have a [card]Restoration Angel[/card].
If you get blown out by something all or most copies of that deck run, and could have played around it to win, then no one is going to give you sympathy.
While you can probably say what spells, say, Jund, is playing at the moment, you don’t have time to sit and think through all the options (see Slow Play). You need these decisions to become instinctive. Just this weekend, I was at a PTQ (yay M14 Sealed) and had a [card]Banisher Priest[/card] (with another one under it) and an [card]Undead Minotaur[/card] in play, opposite nothing. I went to attack, turned both guys sideways and immediately my brain said “eek! [card]Nephalia Seakite[/card]” as, although my opponent had mulliganed, which probably explained the lack of any board state, a Seakite would reverse everything quite nicely for them. I immediately decided to not declare the Banisher Priest as an attacker. The Seakite duly hit the table and blocked the Minotaur as my opponent realized I wouldn’t walk into it willingly. If my brain had been slower at spitting that out I would have lost horribly.
Another advantage of playtesting is understanding how your decks play in each matchup and what the key cards are. By doing this you will know whether you play an aggressive or controlling role against a given deck. You will also know what are strong keeps and what cards you need to see and/or deal with.
Playing the Junk Reanimator list I ran at the SCG Invitational against Jund, I absolutely had to deal with any resolved [card]Olivia Voldaren[/card]. That card was backbreaking in the matchup, and as my decks certainly had plenty of ways to deal with any given non-Demon creature, it was embarrassing to lose to it because I hadn’t kept an answer. [card]Scavenging Ooze[/card] was also a pain, and again I would try to keep an answer for that. I also knew a late game Bonfire was incredibly painful and could do my best to limit the damage from it, but ultimately knew I was hoping not to see one. Because of this, I was confident against Jund, as I knew exactly what mattered and was pretty certain I knew this better than my opponents. I’m sure this was partially responsible for my 3-1 success against Jund at the Invitational.
Playing Magic – Practice Makes Perfect.
Playtesting also works for this, but just playing Magic, any sort of Magic, is great practice.
I can often read people for what cards they are holding. Some of this comes from playtesting and being familiar with the sets I am playing (see the aforementioned Restoration Angels). However, knowing what people could have is different from knowing that they do have it. This is especially useful when it’s an unusual card, like a rare in Limited. There are lots of little tells that many players given off unintentionally during play. It’s hard to write these down. I’m not even sure how I know sometimes, but over time I’ve seen enough counterspells and tricks that I’ve learned to spot them. Over time your brain learns to recognize patterns, and eventually it becomes instinctive. I remember the first event where it suddenly kicked in. It was Innistrad Sealed, and I read about 5 distinct cards during the match, culminating in identifying when they were holding a [card]Blasphemous Act[/card], which isn’t exactly commonplace.
Once you can identify cards like these you can play around them—clearly a helpful skill. Of course, you might not always be right, especially if they are a cunning opponent, but it is nice when it works.
You can also tell your opponent what you know. This will sometimes force them into making bad moves. If you’re wrong they can often tell you so in their reaction. I often will tell people when I know they have [card]Giant Growth[/card]. It can cause less practiced opponents to immediately use it, as they feel the “jig is up,” meaning I no longer have to worry about playing around it—much easier.
One thing you can look for is what mana they leave up. You can and should use this to bluff, as well. In a given set or deck, I will think about what I could have and represent it. Leaving up a single green mana whenever possible for that [card]Giant Growth[/card] I don’t even have in my deck, or black for [card]Tragic Slip[/card] in Junk Aristocrats. By always leaving up the mana for the spell I could have, it isn’t obvious when I do have it. Because you would leave it up if you had it.
Look at how happy or disconcerted they look about something or how twitchy they are. If I play an okay but not terrific creature and my opponent flickers a bit, I know there is a counterspell I should continue to try to force before I play the actually scary threat in my hand. Equally, if I commit another creature to a board state and my opponent is too relaxed about this, I can expect some sort of mass removal piece. Just little things to look for.
You may think these edges are small and nothing may come up in a given match, but as high-level Magic is all about small edges, you should try to get a handle on this one to beat your opponents.
I hope you found some of these things useful. I found this useful to write, as I’ve gotten lazy about some of these things myself recently, especially the playtesting, so I need to get back in practice. Practice what you preach right? I shall see you next week and feel free to shoot questions @onionpixie on Twitter.