There are a million places a person could look to improve their game. Obviously, the simple solution is to just play better. Easy task… but what does that even mean?
When I say “just play better” the first thing that probably comes to mind is a better execution of the Xs and Os of playing Magic. The better assessment of board states. Better execution of strategy and tactics. Better ability to anticipate what will happen next.
By all means, do these things! The best way to guarantee better results is through better play. The problem is that these skills come from the cultivation of practice, experience, and format knowledge. We all collect these pieces through consuming content, reading articles, and playing games, but the actual application of these tidbits is honed over time.
We all hone the these skills in our own way and at our own pace.
Today, I wanted to talk about something that is a little bit more tangible: “Table Presence.”
The Disposition of a Master
It’s round 9 of a Grand Prix and you are riding the razor’s edge with a record of 6-2. It’s a big win-and-in for you. The announcement comes over the loudspeaker that Grand Prix Round 9 pairings are now available at pairings.channelfireball.com. You anxiously whip out your phone and refresh the page. A public service announcement about not colluding or randomly determining the outcome of a match continues over the PA amid the bustle of excited players finding their seat.
You are paired against a Platinum Pro. A little bit of nervousness creeps in because you know it is going to be a tough road through this player into Day 2. You take a deep breath. “You got this,” you tell yourself, and you put on a confident face as you walk to table 67 for the showdown.
You find your spot and your opponent is already seated. He’s shuffling up and greets you with a smile. “Hey, I’m so-and-so. How’s it going?” They extend their hand and you introduce yourself and shake it. As if you didn’t know who they were—it’s not like you had read their article this week before the tournament!
The thing that you find most unsettling about the exchange is how little the magnitude of the situation seems to bother this person—this absurd Magic playing android with nerves of steel and cold water in their veins who doesn’t seem bothered in the least that their entire tournament rests on a single game.
Think About How You Want to Represent Yourself at the Table
Every waking second of every day we make decisions about how we represent ourselves to others. How we dress. How we act. What we say. How we carry ourselves. All the world’s a stage and we are the players.
The same general idea translates to gaming. When you sit down at the table your opponent sees you and sizes you up.
A Platinum Pro has some obvious advantages over the average player. First of all, the Pro player has likely played in a lot more big spots than a less decorated mage. They’ve been there before and have experience handling the pressure of the moment.
Here’s another secret: Everyone feels the pressure—the difference is that some people handle it better than others.
Are some people naturally better inclined toward handling pressure? I don’t know. It is clear that some people become better. Look at Tom Brady. Whether you love or hate the guy, it is undeniable that when the brightest lights are shining, he goes out and executes.
Is that a natural skill or something he taught himself to do as a result of hard work and experience? Maybe both. The key is that it is something that anyone can work on improving. You or I may never reach GOAT levels of stone cold ambivalence toward pressure, but we can certainly level up our stats beyond where they are now.
It’s important to exert confidence at the table. If you don’t look confident, well, you are probably aren’t, which doesn’t bode well for how things are going to play out. In order to play your best you need to be confident that you know what you are doing so that you can play your game. If you are not playing your game, then you are likely playing their game. Good luck defeating a more experienced opponent when right from the start you are playing into their hand!
It is important to be yourself at the table. Seriously, just be yourself, but a confident, focused version of yourself. It’s way easier to be yourself than somebody you aren’t. If you think about it, you’ve probably played against many different styles of players. The person who is super chatty and distracting and wants to talk about everything but the match. The person who probably played competitive sports and keeps giving you intimidating stares. The person who barely acknowledges that you exist and wants to have exactly 0% interaction whatsoever. The person who seems really nervous and unsure of themselves. The person who seems personable and dialed into everything that is going on.
Personalities are important and play a part in competitive gaming. Think about the different personalities in competitive poker. There are a lot of skilled players and many of them have wildly different tableside manners that range from individuals who never shut up to players who wear a hat and dark shades and rarely speak to anyone.
When you are thinking about what your table presence is, think about being a version of yourself where you are comfortable and in your element so you can play your game.
Always Stay the Same But Never Stop Changing
There are certain players with skillsets and table presence I deeply admire, and I’ve tried over the years to implement some of the things they do well into my own game.
The first time I ever played against Gerard Fabiano was at a Gatecrash Limited Grand Prix. We both had great decks and were 8-1 (back when large Grand Prix Day 1s could have 10 rounds) and we were playing in an on-camera feature match.
Gerard was an acquaintance. He was somebody I’d occasionally chat with in between rounds of events but I’d never played him before. I was confident because my deck was great, but what came next was so completely unexpected.
Gerard never shut up from the moment we sat down to the end of the match.
How was I doing?
How was my trip going?
How was my deck?
What did I lose to?
I’d play a card and he’d want to know: How good had that card been for me in the tournament?
There was one turn where he took pause for a few seconds and then asked:
“If I attack with this creature would you block?”
I thought about it and I said, “I don’t know. It depends on what I have in my hand.”
He replied: “Whether or not you will block is really important to whether or not I want to attack or not. I’d really like to know whether or not you’d block here.”
“Do you want me to block?”
“Do you want me to attack?”
“It depends on whether or not YOU want ME to block.”
“Do you think I want you to block?”
“It will depend on whether or not you attack.”
“All right, attack with my creature.”
“That was fun.”
“Haha. Agree. Well played.”
The match was a ton of fun but it was also mentally taxing. It takes a lot of mental energy to keep up with somebody who is so good but also so engaging and obviously sharp as a tack.
It was like playing against the “Good Cop” half of a Good Cop/Bad Cop duo that is interrogating you for information! It’s something I’ve tried to incorporate into my game to some extent over the years, albeit I’m not nearly as charismatic as Gerard.
On the one hand, it’s one way to gain some serious table presence and I’m not talking about just being distracting or annoying. It creates a whole other level of gamesmanship that is taking place when an opponent begins to think about how their responses or body language might give information to the opponent.
The other thing is that it can make a game really fun when two players are actually interacting and playing the mind game with one another.
Also worth noting—if an opponent ever tries to engage you and you don’t want to play the mind game, a fairly strong defense is just to shrug and smile or smirk whenever they ask you a question you feel is probing for information.
Another player I’ve tried to co-opt some skills from is Corey Burkhart. As far as players go, he is probably the nicest player in Magic when it comes to good sportsmanship and good attitude.
It doesn’t matter whether Burkhart is paired against a Platinum Pro at the Pro Tour or a beginner at FNM, he shows the same humility and respect. If you walk by Corey’s table after a match it is impossible to tell whether he won or lost by his body language and/or the way he is interacting with his opponent. He’ll be happily chatting, laughing, and shooting the breeze with his opponent.
Being happy and being kind is confidence personified. It shows that you respect yourself enough to respect others. I noticed that and wanted to incorporate into my own game and life.
The last player I’d like to talk about for having a really strong table presence is Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa. He’s so focused when he plays and rarely does anything slip past his notice. Paulo isn’t going to chat you up for intel like Gerard. He isn’t going to shower you with sunshine vibes like Burkhart. PVDDR is very polite and good-natured at the table but his laser focus is scary as hell.
One of his other strengths is incredibly important to being a strong tournament player. His pacing.
He always plays at his own pace regardless of whether his opponent is trying to play fast or slow.
One area where tournament players struggle (especially under pressure) is when the pace of the game gets away from them. We’ve all been there—an opponent starts playing a little fast and we go with it and end up making a mistake. Have you ever had an opponent say, “Kill that,” and immediately bin their spell and you go along with it despite the fact that you could have taken a response? It’s important to play your game and not let somebody else influence your play. The thing about PVDDR is that he never does things hastily (even when an opponent is playing fast or slow). He thinks it through methodically and then makes his play.
One area I struggled as a newer player was that I was always in a race to see what was going to happen and I wouldn’t pay enough attention to the here and now. I’d be focused on what I was going to draw and what was going to happen later in the game and would breeze through decisions that I should have spent more time on.
I’d fixate on things like, “Will I draw a fourth land on time,” which may have been the most important thing going on in the game to me. But I’d spend so much time focusing on things I couldn’t control and might or might not happen that I would neglect smaller things that I could control.
I watch a lot of content, and PVDDR is always devoting his focus to the things he can control and getting the most out of them, which is just good Magic. Focus and playing at your own pace is really important. You never want to let an opponent lead you into plays because you are going with the flow.
Here’s sort of an extreme example from Grand Prix Indianapolis a few weeks ago. It was the last match of Day 1 and my team and I were playing a win and in for Day 2. Unfortunately, we were in rough shape.
It was the deciding game of the match and my opponent had a very strong turn that put me into a really bad place.
My opponent drew Jade Bearer for the turn, which did two things: It changed their clock to have me dead on board next turn to evasive creatures. It also gave them an extra blocker.
My plan had been that I would Overrun and attack for the win. The Jade Bearer was a big problem. It gave my opponent a 2-turn clock instead of 3 and a blocker to chump with to survive if they had a bounce spell. They left mana for a bounce spell up.
On my turn, my teammates and I went into the tank. I had options but none of them were great against the bounce spell. Around this time a judge sat down and started watching the match. After a few minutes, I received a caution to make a play.
It was the last game of the day and for all the marbles, and there was more than ten minutes on the clock and so I responded to the caution by saying: “It’s the last match of the day to qualify for Day 2. There are more than 10 minutes on the clock and this is likely the last turn of the game and I’d like to think it through. I’m aware that I’ve been cautioned but I need to think about this more. Please, just let me think without interruption and let me know when it is my last warning to make a play before I receive a game loss and if I haven’t found something better I’ll make the play I have in mind.”
The judge gave us some more time and when it was time to make a play I did. The opponent had the bounce spell and we lost the match. We went through all of our options and couldn’t find a way around the bounce spell. We congratulated our opponent’s on making Day 2 and that was the end of the event.
The judge was cool about it, which I appreciated. I obviously wasn’t trying to slow play to abuse the clock or anything, but I wanted to use that time to really focus on what was happening and consider all alternate potential options.
The key is that I played at a pace that I felt comfortable and didn’t let the circumstances, an opponent or a judge, lead me to play outside of my comfort zone.
Table presence is important because it is a reflection on yourself. The self is the ultimate fixer-upper project because there are always areas where we can improve. Even something as arbitrary as what kind of attitude and demeanor you project at the table can have a big impact.
I may never have as good a chatting game as Gerard. I may never be as kindly as Corey. And, I may never have PVDDR’s focus. I’m just me, which is fine because I’m all right too. I can say for certain that 2018 me has a lot better table presence than me in 2012. #value
It comes from experience but it also comes from making some changes. If you find yourself getting those jitters before a big match against some worldslayer opponent, stay confident and be the best version of yourself that is going to play your game down to the last hit point. Also, it doesn’t hurt to reflect on how you play and think about areas where you could improve.
Sure, it’s easy to say, “If I would have played this spell rather than that, I would have won!”
But why did you make one play over the other? Were you playing too fast? Did your opponent scare you off of a line because of their table talk? Did you lose some confidence under the pressure in a big spot? Did you lose focus when the game started to speed up a little bit?
The solution to all of these pitfalls is just to be you and have confidence in your game. The key is to find a zone where you are playing to the absolute peak of your experience and ability.
It’s okay to be nervous. Just remember that if you find yourself in that spot, you belong there just as much as the other guy or girl. You didn’t get there by accident—you got there because you are winning. You are winning because you are playing your game. Figure out what your best game is and play it well.