Remembering triggers is a skill many players lack—and a single missed trigger can cost you a game. I’ve missed my fair share of triggers and some have cost me dearly. Over time I have learned to get better at them. I want to talk today about some of the ways I have done this.
When I talk about triggers, I don’t just mean “triggered abilities”—this advice can equally apply to activated abilities that you might want to use in response to something happening or at the end of a turn, like sacrificing an [ccProd]Ember Hauler[/ccProd] in response to [ccProd]Day of Judgement[/ccProd].
It’s even worse if the trigger is considered “detrimental” by the rules—this means that the trigger is controlled by you but, when it happens, it can cause a negative effect on the outcome of the game for you (e.g., [ccProd]Desecration Demon[/ccProd]’s combat-step trigger). These types of missed triggers will cause a judge to issue warnings, which can rack up into game losses purely through sloppy play if the mistake is repeated—which is likely over the course of a tournament if you have not trained yourself out of missing them already.
The most tried and tested method for remembering upkeep triggers is to place a single die on top of your library. This is great for cards like [ccProd]Dark Confidant[/ccProd] but is even stronger for cards with only occasional triggers like [ccProd]Huntmaster of the Fells[/ccProd], or for triggers that you are more likely to forget such as suspend. The reason the die trick works so well is it forces you to do something differently.
Humans are creatures of habit. More specifically your brain likes to adopt patterns. Look at how each individual player likes to arrange their play space or how they shuffle their deck or even place their cards on the table.
I like to use a play mat.
I place my deck on the left-hand side with a diagonal slant to top edge of the sleeves facing away from me.
I place my lands closest to me with creatures in front. My lands overlap showing about (2cm) of each.
I draw my cards of the top of the deck by pulling it off the top of my deck, onto the table face-down, and pulling it along the table surface briefly before placing it into my hand.
I can perform the actions required in a game of Magic with very little, if any, conscious effort. So can you. Remember when you had to think about turn order, about untapping your lands before you drew? About tapping mana to cast spells? Well, you committed all those things to memory and your subconscious took over. This is good—you don’t want to have to use brain power to do the trivial things. However, it can cause you to miss triggers by getting you to default certain actions.
When I started playing, I fell into a habit of “automatically” forgetting that the upkeep step even existed. It is, after all, one of the least used steps. For many players the first stage of a turn is the draw step (often even forgetting to untap first). Drawing your card is the exciting part of your turn, so it’s natural to want to go straight to it. However, that makes triggers in your upkeep very easy to forget and, once you’ve drawn your card, you’ve made it very clear that you have moved past upkeep, so you aren’t going to be given it back.
Given time, your brain can be retrained to allow for triggers but, in the meantime, the easiest way to fix the problem is doing something to disrupt the norm. That’s why the die on top of the library trick works. When you go to draw you are forced to do something different. You have to remove the die before you can draw the card. That very difference jolts your brain to sit up and pay attention. In some ways this becomes a new pattern: when there is a die there is a trigger. But, that’s fine, because you’re no longer forgetting the trigger altogether.
It is less trivial to do, but you can extend this practice to triggers at other times. For example, I had great difficulty remembering triggers like [ccProd]Falkenrath Noble[/ccProd]. These triggers tend to be harder to remember in Limited as you don’t have familiarity with the cards. Again I try to create a physical difference. In this case, I want to remember a life total change is going to happen when creatures die, so I hold my pen. I don’t pick up my pen except to record life total changes, so, if I’m holding it, it’s to remind myself that I have to note a life total change. It’s like tying a knot in your dressing gown if you remember something when you are falling asleep. In the morning, you wake up and see the knot which doesn’t belong, and you remember why you had tied the knot.
Other times I roll a die between my fingers or even hold a pen lid in my mouth. Anything different.
Some Constructed decks use a lot more triggers or abilities you might want to use in response to things your opponent is doing. Aristocrats from the recent Standard format is an excellent example of this. [ccProd]Blood Artist[/ccProd] had the same triggered ability as [ccProd]Falkenrath Noble[/ccProd], which you need to remember each and every time it happened. You don’t play an 0/1 for 2 for its awe-inspiring power on the battlefield. Every single one of those triggers were essential to the deck’s ability to win. On top of that, if an opponent tries to kill one of your creatures, then you probably want to sacrifice it to one of your outlets—[ccProd]Cartel Aristocrat[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/ccProd]—before it dies in order to receive a slight benefit. Furthermore, if they are targeting the [ccProd]Blood Artist[/ccProd] directly with a removal spell, then you might want to sacrifice other creatures to your Aristocrats in order to get many Blood Artist triggers before the Artist itself dies.
The Aristocrats had lots of these ability and trigger interactions—this made the deck really interesting and challenging to play. Without the funky synergies, it was a rubbish collection of creatures. Every missed trigger or opportunity to use an ability could easily cost you the game. When I first picked up that deck, I missed enough triggers that I got incredibly annoyed with myself, but after each one I would kick myself. Eventually I developed a great way to handle the deck. Every time—and I mean literally every time—something happened, I would touch each of my permanents, just briefly, to make myself consider if I should be doing anything in response.
With other decks you have particular time frames in which you expect to be responding to a lot of triggers. When I learned to play Dredge in Vintage, every upkeep I would run my finger along my spread out graveyard to check if there was anything there that needed my attention, and again at the end of turn when creatures got sacrificed. Because those were particularly dense times of action for the deck, I made myself look in each of those phases particularly thoroughly even if I didn’t think there was anything to do.
With repetition and practice I came to rely less on this, admittedly slightly tedious, method, but in the meantime it worked. I won a WMCQ while doing this, so it’s not just practice—you can use these techniques in games that matter. One of the most important things to realize is that these “tricks” or methods aren’t an admission of incompetence or of lesser skill. Honestly it’s often the reverse. By using techniques to improve your game you are showing you are a player who can learn and adapt; a player who can manipulate your surroundings to your advantage. Displaying awareness of your own potential failings isn’t a bad thing. You just told me you are not going to fail owing to a missed trigger, because you have your ways of remembering. I find that sort of person much more intimidating than an arrogant opponent who thinks he doesn’t need help to win the game.
After playing Magic for some time now I have gone through the learning curve of remembering my triggers. Even so, I did all of these tricks to beat my brain into a form where I will now remember most effects without conscious thought. However, you will still see me place a die, or pen top, or whatever else I have at hand, on top of my library to remember [ccProd]Dark Confidant[/ccProd] triggers or that I need to Dredge, etc. I’ve never even thought there should be a reason to be ashamed of this, or that it might be a weakness, and yet I’ve had opponents miss upkeep trigger after upkeep trigger and refuse to take my advice to do this. Why would they do that? Do they think they don’t need it? That it’s beneath them?
No one learns at the same pace. It is important to help yourself learn. When you miss a trigger, take it on board and learn from it. Try to think of ways to help yourself remember it. You’ll get there, eventually.
Until next week feel free to add me on Twitter (@onionpixie) and on Facebook.