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One of the great appeals of Magic is that every single game is different. Between each player’s card choices in deck building, their decisions in game play, and the way the cards come off the top of each library, the number of variations is limitless. A few draw steps into a game of Magic, it’s safe to say that you and your opponent are engaged in a unique game that’s different from anything two human beings have ever played before, or will ever play again.
This quality limits our ability to study and prepare for future games. I can practice W/B Vehicles against U/W Control, and I can learn to recognize the common openings and basic patterns of the matchup. But I could play a thousand games, and the thousand-and-first game is still guaranteed to be different. Maybe I’ll have a Karn with 7 loyalty, a Plains, and a Heart of Kiran exiled with silver counters, two History of Benalias in my hand, and my opponent will have Plains, Irrigated Farmland, and two Field of Ruins untapped with six cards in their hand—and I’ll have never faced that situation before. This is not even considering that I might be against a different opponent with different card choices and a different approach to the matchup.
My thousand games of experience with the matchup are a great weapon to have in my arsenal. They are the closest thing to the situation I’m facing, and I can use them to inform my instincts of how the game will play out, and what actions I should take to win it. But it’s important that I recognize the limitations of those thousand games. If I try too hard to match this game to a previous experience, I’m likely to miss something. I might wind up making a play that was good in a similar situation, but sub-par in this one due to some minor detail.
A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing
My thousand games of practice of the same matchup against the same opponent is an extreme and unrealistic example. I created it to point out that it’s impossible to master MTG by brute force. Even at our most prepared, we always need to supplement pattern recognition with thinking on our feet.
Let’s consider the opposite extreme, which is one that’s remarkably common: games of Limited. Every deck that’s played in Sealed deck and Booster Draft is going to be quite different, featuring lots of singleton cards. You won’t know what your opponent has before you start the match, and you’ll certainly never have practiced against their exact combination.
In other words, when you go to sideboard before game two, the weapon that you’ll have in your arsenal is game one. Game one is the extent of your experience with the matchup. If you want to be as prepared as possible for game two, then you need to squeeze every drop of information that you can from game one. And yet, it’s crucial that you don’t overstep by presuming that game two will play out in exactly the same way.
Imagine that you’re playing Sealed Deck, and you lose the first game to Darigaaz Reincarnated. Darigaaz is a mythic rare, and unless you’re an extremely high-volume player, the number of times you’ve faced it in Limited is probably in the single digits. Still, after losing to Darigaaz, most of us will know to scour our sideboards for Pierce the Sky, Divest, Deep Freeze, or anything else that we can use to beat it. Losing to Darigaaz is your clearest, freshest memory of the matchup, so preparing to beat it in game two will be at the top of your mind.
Now consider an alternative situation: You’re playing Sealed Deck and your opponent gets mana screwed in the first game. They play a Forest and an Island before discarding to hand size—a Windgrace Acolyte and Darigaaz Reincarnated. You bash their brains in with Baloth Gorger and some Saproling tokens, and the game is over in all of about three minutes.
Now your memory of the matchup is beating up a defenseless opponent. You might think, “She’s got some crappy 4-color deck. I’ll run her over again in game two.” Even more likely, you might not think at all! Maybe you’ll absentmindedly browse through your sideboard, but if game one went so well, why do you need to change anything?
This is a case where your experience can do you a disservice if you put too much weight on it. You need to force yourself to think more deeply about what could happen in game two. Your opponent has a plan for winning the game, and it probably didn’t involve missing land drops and discarding to hand size. If you want to be prepared for game two, you should work hard to identify what that plan might be, and prepare yourself to beat it.
You should treat these two situations the same way. You should identify Darigaaz Reincarnated as an extremely powerful card that your opponent is likely to find if the game goes long, and is likely to beat you with if you’re unprepared. In both cases, you should be scouring your sideboard for answers. It’s only your game one experiences that makes the two situations different, which is why you need to be careful that they don’t lead you astray. Making the right choice in the second situation is still possible, but it requires a higher level of thought, focus, and honesty.
I allowed myself to fall into one of these traps recently. I had drafted a strong G/B deck and won the first two rounds 2-0 with relative ease. The first round of the finals was no different, as I had a great curve-out and my opponent’s anemic draw with Fungal Plots put up little resistance. I was thinking that I’d finish the match quickly and be in time to meet my friends for dinner, pleased to have bolstered my trophy count in the Magic Online leagues.
I lost game two to Fungal Plots. Of course I lost game two to Fungal Plots! It wasn’t some karmic justice, it’s that we both had grindy G/B decks where the board stalled out and Fungal Plots gave my opponent an advantage in a protracted game. This should have been obvious to me, and yet I was completely unprepared to beat it. My experience in the first game, and indeed the four prior, was that my deck was great, I would always have great draws, and I didn’t need to do anything special to win.
Reality hit for game three, and I reconfigured my deck for the matchup, but I had a mediocre draw and lost anyway. Losing a game is an expensive way to learn a lesson, but that’s the way I had to learn it. I’d put too much weight on my previous experiences with this particular Draft deck, and not enough thought into how the next game might be different from the last game. Winning had made me overconfident.
You can observe overconfidence like this towards the end of any long tournament. “I know how to win the Mono-Red mirror. I’ve won the mirror four times in this Grand Prix!” Guess what, buddy, Mono-Red is the most popular deck, and anybody who’s made it this far in the tournament with Mono-Red probably has a good record in the mirror. The person you’re gonna face in the quarterfinals might be 4-0 in the matchup also, and one of you is gonna lose.
Confidence is good, but overconfidence can make you careless and prevent you from seeing the big picture. You might have won a bunch of games in the Mono-Red mirror where your opponent failed to get Hazoret the Fervent into play. That’s great, but if you’re not deeply considering how you’re going to win the next game if your opponent does get Hazoret into play, then you’re doing yourself a major disservice.
A Lot of Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing
In my younger years, I noticed a pattern that arose each time I would pick up a new deck. I’d start out losing before I really knew what was going on. Then I’d win more and more as I learned how to pilot the deck and how to sideboard. In those days, I was sharp and I wanted to win more than anything. Once I had a good number of games under my belt, I could recognize the common patterns, maintain focus in the games, process new situations, and there wasn’t much that could stop me.
But then something would happen. I would reach this point, and then I would start losing again. I wouldn’t see those brilliant lines, and I couldn’t escape the traps my opponents set for me. The problem, as I later realized, was that I had played the deck too much, and I was playing based on pattern recognition instead of based on focus, creativity, and attention to detail. In short, I was on autopilot.
Overpractice can be a real problem. You can see it every time an expert is dismissive of a new idea, or a less-experienced player’s suggestion. If you get to a point where you’ve “figured it out” and you’re done learning, then you’re also done getting better. You’ve passed that sweet spot where you’re experienced enough to know what’s going on, but fresh enough to think deeply about the small details.
This problem can be solved. I’m no longer afraid of playing my thousand-and-first match of Modern Jund. The key is simply that you need to maintain hard work and honesty throughout every step of the learning process. Periodically challenge yourself to make sure that what you’ve “figured out” is true and can’t benefit from some revision. Bring a high level of focus to your games, and consider whether you’re playing that Irrigated Farmland because it’s the best play given your hand, or simply because it’s the pattern that you’ve trained yourself into.
Experience is the best weapon we can have going into a game of Magic. Putting in the hours is one of the most important aspects of improving. But no amount of past experience will tell you for certain what’s going to happen in a future game. Use experience to inform thoughtful decisions, and be sure that it’s not tricking you into playing carelessly.