I was recently asked by a friend about how best to improve at Magic and succeed in tournaments. There have been countless articles written on this topic, and I feel many fall short of giving advice beyond the total bare-bones basics:
• Drink water
• Stay focused
• Sleep well
• Pick a good deck
Sure all of these are true, but each is so painfully obvious by now that they aren’t even particularly helpful to hear.
The Real Key: Film Study
The advice I gave that person was to go to a website that I enjoy, mtgcoverage.com, and pick a single player and watch all of their matches. The Top 25 Pro rankings, Hall-of-Famers, or even your friends are fine places to start. I watch these matches whenever I have time. There is a ton of Magic coverage to consume, and you can watch the best in the world for hours.
The best way to learn from these matches is to watch intently and from the viewpoint of the player you’ve decided to follow. You can see their hand and try to dissect exactly why they’re making the choices they’ve made. There is so much going on in each game, and you can see the best making misplays or amazing comebacks, sick reads, and more.
In every form of competition from professional sports to Magic, there is a wealth of information to gain from studying the tapes, and I’ve come to realize that there are precious few players that recognize that this is a great way to improve and who are willing to dedicate hours to doing it.
It takes a special kind of interest to wade through hours of feature match play to find the games that aren’t decided by mana screw, mana flood, superior matchup, or superior draws. But trust me, they exist, and when you find them if you’re anything like me you’ll be totally enthralled. It’s especially fun to see when a great player has an inferior draw to their opponent and eeks out value long enough for the draws to even out.
Watch the Best
I would also recommend that any player trying to improve watch every Pro Tour Top 8. Almost never will a Pro Tour Top 8 match have an inexperienced player or a player who’s unfamiliar with their deck, which happens regularly in other forms of Magic coverage.
When I first started to play a lot of Magic, I loved to watch all the old Pro Tour Top 8s. Now I have found that they have good replay value, as now that I am at a massively higher skill level, there is much more strategic depth for me to enjoy on a second viewing.
Observe Unusual Card Choices
Other factors to learn from are to watch which decks did well and then to try to decipher why they did well. They can be similar to other decks in the tournament, but with specific innovations that allowed them to succeed while others failed. Not only are the players fun to watch and the games interesting, but if you can figure out why their deck is unique, you can use that kind of information for your own decks in the future.
I’m in a unique position as well—I played in and did poorly in many of these Pro Tours, so I can also try to remember what deck I played, why I played it, and why more successful players did well to compare that to what I did poorly.
Know Your Enemy
This kind of coverage study works for Limited too. I like to watch prominent players do Sealed and Draft, because it tests their knowledge of the basics. Do certain players do well in Constructed on the back of having good decks or on the back of being strong players who have a good deck for that weekend? Which players win more in Draft than they do in Constructed? Why do they win more in draft? It’s also fun to watch many of the elite players in Draft and see which of them regularly have great draft decks and which of them regularly have awful decks but win a lot of the time anyway because they’re so much better than the competition. There are tons of recorded draft portions too. Watching how certain players value the cards can be an interesting experiment all on its own.
A huge percentage of Magic coverage is broadcast live and watched once for entertainment. I study it over and over to plug holes in my own game. Many players out there want to improve and simply don’t know how. Film study does take a certain kind of dedication but if you want to be great at something, step one is dedication.
The last thing to watch for is how the top players handle themselves and show great strength and emotional control in tough situations. The best of the best handle themselves like true professionals and exude an air of confidence. That’s definitely something to strive toward for in any endeavor.
This is probably one of the best Top 8 matches in history—Yuuki Ichikawa vs. Jackson Cunningham in the quarterfinals of Pro Tour Magic 2015. I’ve watched it multiple times, and I’ll say Yuuki Ichikawa is one of the best players on the planet. Every action he takes is methodical and with purpose. He plays the games expertly and it’s a perfect example of an aggressive deck against a control deck, and you can see each player’s actions totally dictated by their roles.