Yesterday the clouds parted, the sun came out, a giant magical rainbow extended down from the heavens and I finally clinched the last Pro Points to lock Silver Pro level. Kyle Boggemes and Stu Parnes (my Limited teammates) came up big and we ran the table on Day 2 after a hard-earned 6-3 start with a weak pool. We finished 11-3-1, which was good for 13th place.
I cut it close this season with only one Grand Prix left to hit Silver and qualify for PT Hour of Devastation, but I dug deep and got it done over the past two weekends. I’m thrilled that I’ll continue to play on the Pro Tour and am determined to get over the hump this time.
The struggle I faced when grinding through a really unfortunate slump got me thinking about a concept: What does it mean to be good at Magic?
There are different ways players can be good—strengths and weaknesses. Are you a Limited master, Constructed specialist?
I’ll start with myself ,because I’ve been thinking a lot about the areas where I can improve as a tournament player.
The Difference Between General and Specific
One of my biggest strengths is experience. I’ve been playing Magic since 1994. I’ve accumulated over 100 career Pro Points and played over a dozen Pro Tours.
One of my most insightful teammates, Andrew Elenbogen, has said my biggest strength is my range. When it comes to deck selection I can play anything regardless of archetype with a week’s practice. The range stems from experience. I’ve played it or something like it before!
A player who is generally good has a solid understanding of fundamentals and how the game works that is derived from experience.
But if I have a ton of general “goodness” and am struggling, where is the disconnect between that skill and winning? Specific knowledge is the intricate and up-to-date understanding of the format you are playing right now.
Let me give you an example:
Back against the wall to find points for Silver level, I put everything into preparing for GP Cleveland.
As a generalist, one might approach the format from the perspective: “I’ve played tons of Limited already and I know the cards and what is good.” But as a generalist who was trying to work on specifics, I took it a step further.
Let’s practice as a team. Let’s build lots of Sealed pools. Let’s discuss what we’ve learned with each build. Let’s actually uncover what is unique and important about the format.
As a team, we collectively built at least 10 Sealed pools and played them against other decks. I know more about Amonkhet Team Limited than any reasonable person should.
For instance, because we built so many pools, we realized it was likely that our decks would break down into a base black deck, blue, and red deck. Kyle focused on black decks. Stu was on blue. I was the red mage. We focused our individual attention on mastering our respective archetypes and knowing them inside and out.
Our Day 1 pool was bad, but because we were prepared, we grinded out Ws by getting the most out of our mediocre decks. I had to play a very tricky 15-land (no removal spells) beatdown deck and because I’d played this deck before, I had valuable information about how to sideboard (often 10+ cards), knew to mulligan aggressively, and knew which hands were traps.
If I had not observed these things in practice, I would have lost multiple matches, and we would not have made Day 2 because of it. Focusing on these specifics was directly responsible for my hitting Silver level instead of falling short when the season was on the line.
The Relationship Between General and Specific
You can rest on your laurels, but having won in the past doesn’t translate to winning the next round. If anything, having won in the past is just an indicator of what you are capable of when you apply yourself.
The relationship between these two skill sets is that experience becomes a lens that enhances your ability to distill better specific observations.
It doesn’t matter if you are a whiz-bang Vintage player when you are battling in an Amonkhet Team Sealed event. The most important thing is: How good are you at Team Sealed?
Pat, I’d like to resolve the puzzle: “Get-Rekt-Newb.”
It is one thing to know the kind of things that might happen if you are playing a format. They might kill a blocker or have a counterspell, etc.—it is another thing entirely to know exactly which spell is coming and how it will impact the game.
Specific Knowledge About the Format Is the Most Important at an Event
I’m not talking fundamentals like understanding how the stack works or the phases of the turn. These are costs to play at a competitive event. If you need to work on these skills and have any kind of competitive aspirations, this is the easiest thing to fix and you should prioritize mastering them.
There are fundamental aspects of specific knowledge as well. For instance, do you know all of the tricky or counterintuitive ways that cards interact in Limited?
Are you aware of all the typical common/uncommon “mondo combos” that are likely to come up?
Leveling up your specific knowledge about a format is the quickest way to gain an edge for an upcoming tournament. You can’t suddenly have more experience than BBD by practicing Magic for two weeks. But you can learn a ton about your deck and its matchups in two weeks.
Generally Good Allows You to Distill Specific Information
Nothing can replace playing games when it comes to learning about a format. But the larger the pool of experience you draw from, the better equipped you are to draw accurate and useful conclusions from what you are observing.
If you put a gun to my head and asked me, “who is the best generally good player?” I’d answer, Jon Finkel. He has so much experience and natural talent for strategy.
There is a mythos around Finkel that he just shows up to Pro Tours and beats everybody without practice. He can win without trying. He’s generally good at Magic.
It is true he plays fewer Grand Prix than other leaderboard pros, but I’d guess his preparation for the PT is first class. He tests with a great team and I assume he gets more out of the testing than others do because he is so generally good. If you have tremendous general skills, you can do more with less.
I don’t know what his process is. Maybe his secret is that he practices more than everybody else. He probably practices a lot for the specific events he attends. I doubt he shows up and wings it.
I do believe that at a certain point, a mastery of specific knowledge overcomes even the strongest general knowledge.
Imagine you hand Finkel a random deck and ask him to play it in the blind against a decent opponent who is also playing the deck without having seen either deck before. The decks are different but have an exactly 50-50 matchup. I imagine Jon, being such a generally strong player, would be heavily favored to win the match.
Now imagine Finkel is playing the same scenario in the blind but the opponent has been allowed to test the matchup 1,000 times, has worked out sideboard plans, and knows everything inside and out. Despite being the best player in the world, the mastery of specific format knowledge at some point overtakes being generally good at the game. No slight against Jon—I’m using him as an example of the best of the best to prove a point—understanding the specifics is extremely important for a person’s success in a single tournament.
How to Leverage the Specific Knowledge
General understanding is the filter through which players are able to interpret and apply specific format knowledge. The stronger a player’s general understanding and experience, the stronger their ability to correctly apply what they observe.
KBoggs has a rule: “I don’t discuss Modern matchup percentages.”
I agree. Nobody ever agrees because everyone has a varying level of general and specific proficiency when it comes to interpreting data. People overestimate depending on their experience. I’m more interested in asking: “What is your sideboard plan versus Dredge? What comes in and out?” And assessing the plan myself than hearing what percentage you think you are to win the match.
You leverage specific format information by learning the important aspects of the format, and then devising the best plans to exploit the things that matter most.
Most players who are “generally weaker” tend to focus on the wrong things and misinterpret the specific data they encounter more often. Experience brings clarity.
Here are some examples:
- Person who says they are conceding a very popular matchup.
- Person who has 8 dedicated sideboard cards for an unpopular deck.
- Person who plays a deck that beats the best deck but outright folds to 65% of the field.
- Person who has an unfocused deck that throws away card slots for weak cards left and right.
Players do these things because they lack the experience to correctly identify what is important. Their specific observation informs them that they should construct their decks in such a way, but a larger sample size would prove these decisions to be suboptimal.
In this sense, a small sample of specific knowledge without a strong general knowledge context will typically lead to the wrong conclusion.
My LGS RIW Hobbies has a Modern League tournament series where the points accumulate and filter into a big Top 8 event with large prizes.
I committed to the League a few times as a way to keep up with Modern. After a few weeks, it was clear to me who the strongest players were and which decks they played. I could have metagamed against the best players and increased my weekly win percentage. Obviously, because my emphasis on playing the League was to improve at Modern I didn’t do this in the weekly League.
There were certainly some players who prioritized winning each week over learning the specific knowledge of the format. Decks warped to beat what the strongest players were on.
These players overperformed in the League because of their metagaming skills, but ultimately struggled in the more important events they would travel to. The reason is obvious—they were taking shortcuts that helped them win in the short term but stunted their general and specific format knowledge.
Using general knowledge to understand what is going on is important. Applying the specific information you learn is also extremely important.
It’s not good enough to be “generally good” and assume that because you won in the past that you’ll continue to win in the future. Chances are that when you won in the past, it was because you had great specific understanding of the formats you were playing at the time.
Magic changes, set-to-set and week-to-week, and in order to be at the top of the pile it requires you to change and adapt to it. Being generally good can only take you so far, and at a certain point you have to invest in preparing for the moment. What you’ve done in the past will only carry you so far.