I’m feeling good. In less than a week, I’m getting married. After the honeymoon, I’m excited about getting back into the full swing of competitive tournament Magic. I’ve taken a little bit of a break from big events due to a combination of travel burnout and other obligations. In terms of preparation, planning a wedding makes testing for a PT look like taking the dog for a walk. I’m looking forward to the next chapter of my life, which does not include invitations, photographers, and seating arrangements! I should have just used DCI reporter to randomly assign seating.
I’ve been focusing my MTG attention in areas where I wouldn’t typically snoop around. I’ve been using the time to explore some of the fringe and casual formats: Brawl, Commander, Timeline, Battlebox, and Pauper. These are formats I wouldn’t typically make time for while testing for Modern, Standard, or Legacy events.
I’ve still been keeping up with the competitive formats on MTGO and at the LGS but I’ve been much more focused on building and tuning my own brews than playing the best deck.
For the first time in a long time I feel like I’ve been playing Magic 100% on my terms. No pressure, no grind, and no expectations. I’ve been going to about one big event a month for the past several months and have cashed all three times. How am I playing at a higher competitive clip when I’m spending the lion’s share of my time with Magic brewing decks for Pauper and formats that don’t even exist!? It seems to defy common logic.
The reason I’m writing about this topic is because I’ve been surprised about the way my game has improved despite taking a step back from being primarily focused on tournament play.
I’ve changed up my approach and despite playing in fewer large tournaments, I have improved my all around play. In addition, being away from the competitive scene for several months has also changed the way I perceive competitive Magic and how I will try to approach it moving forward.
Fun is Not a Useful Metric for Thinking About Competitive Games of Magic
One lesson I’ve taken to heart is that competitive games are not designed with fun in mind. Games are designed to be fun, no doubt, but playing a game competitively for high stakes changes the game.
“Look at how much fun Steph Curry has when he’s competing.” Yeah, when he’s sinking everything and winning, but when he can’t get open and is missing his shots I see scowling and mouth guard throwing… it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love basketball—it’s a testament to the fact that competing is hard work and the opposite of play time.
In Magic, it’s easy to criticize decks, formats, and annoying cards (what up, Teferi…?) when a player gets to the point where they’ve played a lot of matches. It’s easy to tell what feels obnoxious or oppressive because it’s in your face and happens often enough.
Does this mean that a player shouldn’t have opinions about what would make formats better or which cards are obnoxious in tournament play? Absolutely not. We all draw our own conclusions and think about the game in different ways. The DCI bans cards, which proves that there are problematic cards and strategies that end up proving too dominant over time.
Players are rewarded for playing the deck that gives them the best chance to win and not the deck that is the most amusing. It’s game 3 of the finals of an RPTQ and you can almost taste the sweetness of that blue envelope—how concerned are you with the amount of fun your opponent is about to have?
When it comes to tournament matches, consider the following: Everyone in the event paid to play and people traveled long distances at great expense. It’s a competition and people put a lot of time and energy into selecting and tuning decks they believe will beat you. Do you select or build decks to take to tournaments based on the criteria of “how much fun this deck will be for my opponent to play against?” If you do, bless your heart because you’re a saint—but likely dead for Day 2.
One way of thinking about Magic I’ve been guilty of is to assume that tournament Magic games should be more fun, more interactive, or just plain different. It’s easy to identify matchups or cards we don’t particularly enjoy playing against in a competitive setting.
While it’s easy to identify things that feel bad, it’s more difficult to identify what would actually feel good.
I want a format with a zillion decks, but I don’t want my deck to have a bunch of terrible matchups. I also don’t want the format to have a dominant best deck. I mean, how would one even accomplish such a balance?
All I want is a fair deck with a 55% percent matchup against everything. Cool, everybody wants this, but nobody wants anybody else to have it.
Even in sports, teams have success by creating formulas that generate positive results and other teams try to replicate the approach. I don’t care how many nachos Prince Fielder ate from a fan’s plate when he fell into foul territory—he was a disaster at first base and did not compete well when my favorite team was well positioned to win it all.
Fun is cool, but fun doesn’t win. Good play wins, which is why professional teams recruit players and coaches based on their skill rather than likability.
Here’s an example: I’ve always been a huge hockey fan. I’ve watched hockey all my life and I played hockey through high school. As a Michigander, I was a huge Red Wings fan growing up and was lucky because the Wings were actually ridiculously stacked in the late 90s and early 2000s.
In terms of raw talent, they were in a league of their own, and yet they got swept 4-0 in the Stanley Cup finals to a New Jersey Devils team that looked on paper like it didn’t stand a chance.
The reason? The Devils developed and implemented a defensive strategy called The Neutral Zone Trap, which basically exploited the rules of how far a puck was allowed to be legally passed up and down the ice.
By defending in a non-traditional way and bolstering the neutral zone with an additional defender, it made it extremely difficult for opponents to bring the puck into the opposing zone under control, which mitigated opposing speed and skill, and created lopsided turnover differentials.
Other teams took notice of what the Devils were able to accomplish and copied them, which led to a brand of hockey with less scoring, which was unpopular at the time. As it was unpopular with viewers (and talented players and coaches alike), the NHL was forced to essentially ban this style of play by changing the rules of the game.
Does this trajectory of breaking the format, seeing that success replicated by other competitors, and then that widespread replication lead to discontent with the game, and then that strategy banned seem analogous to any CCGs?
The game play isn’t about playing the most fun games of Magic that have ever existed. It’s about crafting the best strategies and rising to the challenge and overcoming the best possible level of competition. The best competitive decks, like the best sports teams, often use strategies that are not the most fun to watch or play against but most consistently translate to wins.
Winning is fun. Planning a strategy, executing that strategy, and having success is fun. I can’t imagine that the Red Wings had much fun getting Stax locked by NJ, but I imagine that the Devils had fun hoisting the Stanley Cup when it was all over.
All Work and No Play Make Jack a Dull Boy
I used to play ice hockey and even played for a few teams that utilized Neutral Zone Trap style defenses. It was always more fun to play for a team where the coach let the players do whatever they wanted than for a coach who demanded rigorous discipline and attention to playing a detailed system.
I once had a coach bench me for the rest of the game after I made a risky play with the puck that resulted in a breakaway goal because that wasn’t the play I was supposed to make. The disciplined defensive schemes may have been less fun or exciting to play, but wow were they effective.
Even when I was playing for a Trap team, the second my friends and I got out on the pond after school we were all using ridiculous Sergei Fedorov breakaway moves all afternoon long. The kind of nonsense that would get a player benched in a real game. The key is that there is a time and a place for the fun stuff too—just not in the actual competition (unless you’re as good as Sergei, which sadly I was not, although I did have those gaudy white Nike hockey skates one year!).
In terms of Magic, I’ve embraced spending more time with casual formats. I can build outside-the-box decks and play against opponents who are basically looking for a similar experience. I’ve always been obsessed with Battlebox for a similar reason—the games are just so freakishly fun and interesting compared to the tournament experience because they are all very different.
One thing I never fully realized up until recently is how important playing Magic for fun with my friends is to me and how much it enhances my overall experience with Magic. I’ve been actively setting time aside to get together with friends and Cube, Battlebox, and play for enjoyment. It seems obvious, but when you’re grinding competitive events, sometimes it’s hard to see the value of spending an evening playing Type 4 or Mental Magic when there is a Modern event coming up.
The same can be said of trying out new strategies and brews for established formats like Legacy, Modern, or Standard. I’ve been brewing a lot more lately and have been enjoying testing out bold new technology that I never would have sleeved up six months ago, even at a local weeknight event.
The results can often be more tangible than just having fun and doing something randomly creative with Magic cards. Atarka Red started as a fun gimmick deck that a friend of mine from the LGS was toying around with that turned out to be a format-defining tier 1 force that earned me an Open trophy. Sometimes those random wacky concepts are actually good and pay dividends in competition, because nobody else knows about it.
There’s obvious value to using metrics and percentages to determine the strongest deck choice. Yet, how big of an advantage does that actually yield in the scheme of things? Everybody who bothered to look at MTGTop8 or read a handful of articles has exactly what you have.
A great deck might be 55% against the field. You need to win 85% of your matches to qualify for a Pro Tour in a competitive event. Is doing the same thing as the hivemind really the most effective way to gain those margins? Possibly.
I’ve tended to do better when I play things I’ve built myself that are a little off the beaten path. It’s not because those decks are objectively better than the best deck in the abstract, but the unknown factor is worth a lot. Any time your opponent doesn’t know exactly what your deck is doing, what cards you might have, or how to sideboard—those percentages start to swing dramatically in your favor.
I played an on-camera feature match with Atarka Red the first week it was legal where my opponent tapped out for a Siege Rhino to go to 15 life, which is a pretty nice place to be against a traditional red deck, but not against a deck full of pump spells and Temur Battle Rage. I untapped and trampled over 30. If it was week 2, he would have just killed the Swiftspear and not tapped out. It’s good to be on the super secret tech first.
I played against Michael Majors in the finals of that event. He’s a much better player than me. He made critical missteps in both games that allowed me to win. I 100% believe that if he had been afforded the luxury of playing just a handful of games of the matchup before our match that he would have easily 2-0’d me, based on the matchup and the hands we kept. The surprise factor and the advantage of having a deck or tech that your opponent can’t account for is very, very real and rogue decks and pieces of tech are worth working for.
As a person who has tended to get bored with formats like Standard and Modern when I play them a lot, I’ve found that making time for fun Magic more often alleviates that. It makes it easier to see those formats for what they are and focus on embracing what they’re about: playing a broken deck against other broken decks.
A particular Standard or Modern might not be my favorite iteration of Magic ever to be played, but if I want to compete at a high level over the weekend it makes more sense to focus, embrace it, and be prepared, than spend my time itemizing a list of reasons why I find Teferi to be an unreasonable Magic card.
The value of embracing your inner casual player can translate to competitive success since some of the best casual ideas do translate into potential competitive decks. It’s also a way to keep your mind fresh and open to new ideas and concepts, and not bogged down with tunnel vision about what already exists.
Exploring new formats, trying new cards and ideas, and thinking outside the box is a great way to not only keep Magic fresh and fun, but also an area for developing new ideas and strategies.
I would never have expected that I’d learn so much about tournament Magic from embracing casual formats these past months, but that is exactly what happened. If you ever feel like you’ve hit a plateau or a wall with a tournament format, perhaps jamming some fun games of a casual format with a weird brew is just what the doctor ordered.