People often ask what they can do to improve as a Magic player. What people don’t often ask is what they should avoid doing. In this article I am going to discuss a few pitfalls that hinder a player’s progress in achieving higher levels of Magic success. Hopefully, if you find yourself in one of these categories, this article will shine some light on it, and you’ll be able to kick the habit. These are all things I have dealt with in my own Magic career, so I can certainly relate.

“Hey man, I’m sorry you lost that round.”
“It’s okay, there was nothing I could do.”

We have all played the game in which our opponent had their perfect draw. Maybe it’s a game of draft and our opponent drew their Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and we had no way to remove it. Maybe they top decked a Fireball for 13 the turn before we were going to attack for lethal damage. Maybe they just had an explosive draw with a perfect curve. It’s easy to write these games off as a loss by telling ourselves, “There was nothing I could do.” The danger of having a mindset like this is that rather than think about what we could have actually done differently, we will just write it off as “nothing,” and move on. It is simply easier to walk away from a match of Magic thinking that we did the best we could and that no matter who was in our seat, they would have suffered the same fate.

The truth is there are games where no matter which plays we decided to make, we still would have lost. Barring extreme circumstances, however, it’s very unlikely that there was nothing that we could have done to increase our chances of winning at all, even if it was only possible to increase our chances by a small amount. If we are serious about trying to improve as Magic players, it is very important to think about what we could have done differently after every match of Magic we play, whether we win or lose. That’s what is important; taking what we had available to us and using that to give us the best chance to win, no matter how small that chance is.

Another common situation where I tend to see this happen is after a player is the victim of a mana screw or a mana flood. It happens to all of us. It’s easily the most annoying thing about Magic, the occasional game where we feel like we don’t get to play. “There was nothing I could do.” In games where we only draw one land, and we never draw another one, of course we couldn’t have won the game. But maybe we still could have discarded differently so that if we had drawn more lands we would have increased our chance of winning the game. That is how we need to think about our play in these situations.

“On your opponent’s last turn you could have blocked differently and given yourself an extra turn.”
“Yeah, you’re right, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.”

This is a similar situation that I find even more troubling and also I tend to see more often. I am certainly guilty of having done this myself. Imagine a situation in which we’ve made a mistake that prevents us from getting one additional turn. Maybe the extra turn was very unlikely to matter. We’re way behind on board, we only have one card that we could have drawn to help us at all, which even if we draw, we’re still probably only 50/50 to win the game. When we lose we flip our top card to see what we would have drawn, and it wouldn’t have helped anyway.

In terms of our equity in the game, we have made a small mistake. If we were drawing to 1 of 25 cards, in a game of Limited let’s say, and after we draw our one card we only win half the time, we only cost ourselves 2% equity in the game with our mistake. One out of every fifty times we would have won the game if we hadn’t made a mistake. That’s very unlikely to matter. Plus, we flipped over our top card, and it wasn’t there, so we didn’t actually cost ourselves anything in this situation! That isn’t true, though.

We cost ourselves two games out of every hundred. The mistake did matter.

The psychology of dealing with a mistake this way makes sense. Making a mistake is very stressful. Feeling that we’ve cost ourselves a game or a chance to win a game is not only stressful but also disheartening. By convincing ourselves that it didn’t matter, we are in a way absolving ourselves of our mistake. That way, we don’t have to feel bad, we don’t have to feel stressed, and we don’t have to worry about it.

Therein lies the problem. If we absolve ourselves of mistakes, just for the sake of not thinking about them or dealing with them, we are more likely to repeat them. It’s certainly okay to make mistakes, we are all human. But if we are serious about improving as Magic players, the single most important thing about making mistakes is to learn from them. If we condition ourselves to think our mistakes don’t matter, how can we expect to learn as much from them? Don’t get me wrong here, by no means do I think every minor mistake should be stressed over for hours. But rather than saying, “Yeah, you’re right, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyways,” try saying, “yeah, you’re right, I made a mistake, I should have done X instead of Y in order to achieve result Z.”

I like to think about what led me to make the mistake. Sometimes, I’m not really sure. Other times, I had forgotten about a change in board state, or wasn’t expending enough mental energy because I was too far ahead, or something of that nature. Some people start to play very sloppily when they are way behind. I am the opposite, I actually play harder when I’m behind, and have noticed myself start to play more sloppily than I should when I’m way ahead. If we notice something like this about ourselves, we can work to fix it. That doesn’t mean it will be easy to fix, either, or that we’ll never make the same mistake again, but at least it gives us a reasonable starting point.

“Why did you play or sideboard that way in that matchup?”
“Owen or Reid or Luis or Tom or EFro or Ben or Frank said to!”

There are a lot of world-class Magic players who provide top-notch Magic content right now. Reading and watching as much content as we can in order to expose ourselves to many different ideas and opinions is incredibly valuable. Of equal importance is understanding how to incorporate those ideas into our own Magic arsenals.

It’s important that we realize that articles and videos aren’t a comprehensive list of how to play in every situation. When I write something about a deck in Standard, for example, I sometimes include a strategy guide for how to play and how to sideboard against the other top decks. But that is precisely what it is intended to be—a guide. It’s not intended to be a checklist of things to do that will ensure victory. It’s my best advice based on my experience with said deck or format, and my Magic experience in general. Not every opponent will play the same deck lists, and some while being the same on the surface will have major differences, causing tremendous shifts in strategy for both playing and sideboarding.

If we’re following a sideboarding guide that Owen has written about Mono-Black Devotion, we should take a moment and ask ourselves, “What reasons did Owen give for a particular strategy in this matchup? Why did Owen say to sideboard this way in this matchup? Is there anything we’ve seen from our opponent that makes his or her version of this deck different than usual? If so, how should we alter our general strategy? How should we alter our sideboarding strategy?” and most importantly: “Why should we alter our strategies in those ways?” By asking ourselves why we are doing things, we will develop a better conceptual understanding of Magic as a whole.

The same holds true for Limited. When Luis writes a set review, and puts one card at a 4.0 and another at a 3.5, this doesn’t mean that Luis is going to take the 4.0 card over the 3.5 card in every deck he ever drafts. He just means that on average, the card rated 4.0 tends to be a little better than the card rated 3.5. Every deck is different, and while this is a good starting point, we have to be aware that each deck we draft presents us with unique situations and challenges. “Why are we choosing this card over this one?”

I had the benefit of growing up around a ton of phenomenal Magic players in Massachusetts. There were world-class players that I was able to interact with from a young age. I was further lucky that they were all very friendly and willing to answer my questions. Whenever I wasn’t sure about something, I’d ask one of them. I more or less took what they said as statements of fact. Even when I disagreed with them, I just figured since they had so much more experience and so much more success in Magic than I did that they must be right. What I didn’t realize at the time was that what I was really being provided were very, very good starting points from which to draw my own conclusions and develop my own ideas. That’s what happens today, on a much broader scale, with the wealth of content available.

Next time you’re at a tournament, try to avoid the pitfalls. If you make a mistake, don’t stress about it, but try to learn from it. Think about each game you play and what you could have done differently, win or lose, no matter how hopeless a loss might have felt at the time. Use information you’ve learned from reading or watching Magic content to make sure to go to the tournament prepared, with a strategy in mind, but never forget to ask yourself: “Why?”