I started playing Magic when I was about 4 years old. Revised was the most recent set and my dad had a collection. Family legend has it that I learned to read because I wanted to play with him so badly. From there I played casually until the release of Invasion, when I stopped playing for a long time.
I picked Magic back up again with the release of Shards of Alara when I was in college. I played in PTQs for quite a while, finally winning one to attend PT Nagoya in 2011 (which I skipped my college graduation ceremony to attend). After starting 8-2 and feeling on top of the world, I lost my next 6 rounds to end up not even cashing, let alone re-qualifying. From there, I spent the next year playing in PTQs, eventually meeting a young Jacob Wilson, and beginning to travel with him and Matt Nass to GPs and PTQs.
This was one of my biggest “level up” moments. If there is one single takeaway from my Magic experience, it is that you should strive to find a group of friends who want to achieve the same goals as you do, whether that is winning FNM or winning a Pro Tour. You constantly push each other to get better, bouncing play scenarios and deck lists off each other. You also end up spending a lot of time at tournaments not actually playing Magic, and having friends to spend that time with makes everything more fun.
1) Find Friends to Travel and Play With
I don’t think it’s that important that your friends be world-class players to help you push to improve. I was lucky enough to become friends with people who are currently among the best in the world, but when we met, neither Jacob nor myself had even qualified for a PT, and my process for becoming friends with him and Matt certainly wasn’t “find the best players in the room and befriend them.” I also have seen this dynamic play out on a more public scale with Team ChannelFireball. When the team first formed, it was just a bunch of friends who were all qualified for the PT and wanted to work together because hanging out with friends is awesome.
Another side effect of hanging out with Matt and Jacob was that they expanded the range of events I was willing to attend. Before spending a substantial amount of time with them, I wouldn’t really have considered flying to a Grand Prix. Convincing myself to take this step by seeing my friends do so was huge in being able to get more practice at high-level Magic, which is absolutely essential. After about 6 months of traveling around with them, I managed to win another PTQ for PT Seattle, and have qualified one way or another for every Pro Tour since.
My next “level up” moment came in a way I would not have expected at the time. The month after TeamCFB had a dominant performance at the last large Worlds tournament with Tempered Steel, I had a lot of free time on my hands and played a lot of MTGO with the deck. At the time, I had played very little with aggressive synergy decks and boy did I learn a lot. In the beginning, I did a good amount of losing, but over time I identified common mistakes I was making and figured out how to address them.
2) Leave Your Comfort Zone
You learn more when you have to adapt to situations that you’re not familiar with, and as you widen your range, you’ll be able to more quickly pick up a variety of strategies depending on what happens to be good in the format. One caveat is that you should be careful not to accidentally teach yourself bad habits! This ties in to my previous point about having friends you can bounce ideas off of. Talking through things like mulligan and sideboarding decisions is super helpful even if you’re unable to come to a consensus.
3) Practice, Practice, Practice
The last factor that really helped me improve was just to play a lot of Magic. It may seem obvious, but practice really is the most important factor for mastering almost anything. Before I made the Top 8 of my first Grand Prix, I had played probably somewhere in the thousands of real MTGO matches with real prizes on the line with Pod.
I think that the “real prizes” part of the above statement is also pretty important. Even though the stakes on MTGO aren’t generally very high, having opponents who are legitimately trying their hardest to beat you means that you won’t get any free wins.
This is a problem I’ve noticed in particular when playing Hearthstone. Because the result and time investment of any one match is basically meaningless, some opponents I’ve played against concede very early when I’m either playing a strategy they don’t enjoy or when they fall a little behind but not irreparably so. I also find that I’m much more willing to play games while I’m distracted by doing something else when there’s nothing on the line, which definitely hinders my ability to notice mistakes I’m making.
So to recap, my three biggest tips for improving at magic are: find a group of friends who share your goals to travel with, try to expand your comfort zone by playing decks you wouldn’t normally try, and most importantly, play a lot of Magic. That’s all I’ve got this week, thanks for reading and let me know what has worked for you to improve in the comments!