The Magic grind is an odyssey. A journey.
At the start, we set out in search of adventure and glory without knowing what to expect. We practice, attend tournaments, and ultimately hope to improve with experience. Sometimes we play well and the game feels easy. Sometimes we get shipwrecked on Calypso’s Island of making the same mistakes over and over again and have trouble advancing to the next challenge.
The point is that Magic is a process—a series of obstacles that challenge us to constantly improve in order to be the best that we can.
The fundamentals, however, are often overlooked.
When I attend a tournament, my goal is always to play to the best of my ability. I want to be prepared and execute the plan I’ve been working on in the week leading up to the tournament. I don’t expect to win or Top 8. My expectation is to play well and give myself the best possible chance to win each and every match.
After every tournament, I reflect on the experience. How did I do? How did I play? Where could I improve?
Have you ever played in an event where you did well but fell a little bit short? Maybe you needed to win one more game or match to make Top 8. So close, but still not there. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on tournaments like that and suspected that if I would have had a slightly bigger edge somewhere, some secret tech, or if I were maybe just a little better, I could have gotten there.
The elusive “if I could just get a little better, I’d be there” feeling.
Fundamentals Are the Magic Item You Seek
I’ve had a lot of conversations with other Magic players about how to get better and reach that intangible “next level.”
It feels like it’s “out there,” somewhere just beyond your grasp. The secret sideboard card you didn’t find. The unknown deck you didn’t play. The sick, outside-the-box-play you didn’t see. The magical Medusa head you need to slay the Kraken and rescue Andromeda. The intangible, missing thing that you need to acquire in order to complete the hero’s quest.
If you noticed that Medusa isn’t in The Odyssey, give yourself 300 xp bonus toward leveling up.
The theme threading the article together is myth. The secret sideboard is as much a myth as finding a gorgon head to help you rescue the princess. We are not held back because of the magical item or knowledge we haven’t found yet—we do not advance because we don’t properly use the knowledge we possess.
Fundamentals are the answer to what ails us. Good. Solid. Fundamentals.
So, what are fundamentals? Good question. It’s complicated.
Fundamentals are the basic building blocks of Magic theory and play. Fundamentals are the foundation upon which we build our understanding of how the game works and which lines we take.
I’m going to give four examples of where good fundamentals are important in ways that may not be 100% obvious.
1. Deck Selection
One of the most self-actualized things I’ve ever heard a Magic player say was, “I agree that deck is probably an amazing choice for this tournament, but I don’t think that I would be able to learn to play it well enough in time for the event, so I’m just going to stick with what I know well.”
It makes a lot of sense. Knowing the ins and outs of how a deck works, the matchups, and how to sideboard are important. In fact, I’m pretty sure that is like 90% of what playing Magic is all about.
Choosing a deck that is not only good but one you know how to play well is important. If you can’t play it well, how can you realistically win? Are you just going to “run hot” all day? Sounds about as realistic as finding a golden fleece.
I’m not talking about chucking “no-land” or “all-land” hands. I’m talking about those hands where you stop and think, and the only answer to “should I keep or not?” is “it’s complicated.”
How do you decide which hands to keep and which to throw away? Going back to deck selection, when you have a tremendous amount of experience with a deck, it is easier to know which hands are a trap and which hands are likely to work out.
How do you decide when to keep and when to mulligan in Limited when you haven’t played many games with your deck?
What does this hand do well? What is this hand missing? How likely am I to draw what I need and what happens if I don’t?
The decision to keep or ship is often the most important decision that you make during the game.
I do the same song and dance as everybody else when it comes to mulligans, and a lot of the time I think the answer is that it’s close. The more I play, the less I believe in the myth of right or wrong plays. I believe in choices that have risk and reward. Some plays are riskier than others and some plays are more rewarding than others, but when you are making decisions based on unknown information or whether or not a land will appear, the outcome is unknowable.
People keep bad hands all the time. “I’ll just see what happens.” Famous last words.
Personally, after I’ve crunched the numbers and figured out what my hand is and what it needs to win, if I still don’t know whether or not I should mulligan, I simply ask myself if I think the hand is very likely to to win. I have a serious, honest moment with myself where I ask myself if the hand is really better than a random 6? Then I do the thing.
Fundamentals. If the hand isn’t very good, why are you keeping it?
There are a dozen great articles on how and when to mulligan. If you find yourself constantly plagued by regrettable decisions before the game starts, reread them and work on improving your judgment.
The answer isn’t some mystical wisdom that is beyond your comprehension. The answer is refining your fundamentals and doing the important things well.
3. Sideboard Well
I think choosing a deck is the most important skill in all of Magic. That one decision impacts every aspect of your tournament.
Perhaps the second most important is how you sideboard. How you sideboard is an extension of deck selection and deck building, which most people don’t really think about.
In each sideboard game of Magic, you are afforded the opportunity to reconstruct your deck. You take cards out and add cards to form a new deck. How often do you present the best possible deck that gives you the best chance of winning?
Fundamentals. How well do you know your sideboard plans? Also, how good are your sideboard plans? Have you tested them out much? Are you certain that they are even good?
There is no easy way to solve sideboarding. Unfortunately. But refining those skills and actively thinking about improving your ability to sideboard better is a huge area where everyone can improve.
Better fundamentals = better success.
4. Be a Master of What You Know
Andrew Cuneo. Craig Wescoe. Brian Kibler. What do these players all have in common besides the fact that they are all Pro Tour Champions?
The answer is that 90% of the time you can predict exactly what kind of deck they are going to be playing almost regardless of format. Cuneo is on control. Wescoe is on White Weenie. Kibler is on some midrange creature deck.
These players have success with these archetypes in formats where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it! How in the world is that even possible?
The answer is deceptively simple. They have a personal theory of how Magic works that has been refined and expanded year after year. They have tuned fundamentals about how their chosen archetypes work and how to build, play, mulligan, and sideboard within their areas of expertise.
It isn’t so much mastering a particular deck as it is mastering an entire style of deck and applying those concepts to similar decks across a wide array of formats.
Each of these players understand what they need to do in order to make their deck beat different kinds of decks.
A control master understands how aggro decks will try to win and how to exploit the matchup. The control master will also understand how aggro decks will try to sideboard and have a plan to counteract. The control master knows which hands can and cannot be kept and why. The same can be said about every single kind of matchup.
I’m not saying that everyone should only play one style of deck. I am saying that you should work hard to really understand what you know and apply it to what you are trying to do.
In Magic the fundamentals are everything. The better you understand the basics of how the game works and what your deck does, the better you’ll be able to play it.
If you want to build a really tall building that rises into the sky, you’ll be hard pressed to keep adding levels if the foundation is shaky. I’ve had a lot of success at improving my game simply by returning to the basics and honing those skills.
Make good decisions when you choose and build your deck.
Make good decisions when you mulligan.
Make good decisions when you sideboard.
Take the things that you know to be true and apply them in other contexts. Be a master of what you’ve learned.
If you do these things, you are headed in the right direction.
Focus on the fundamentals. Refine and expand on those skills. Don’t look for a deus ex machina solution to improving at Magic. Instead, go back to the basics and build an unshakable foundation of solid strategy to draw upon.