Originally, my plan was to write about concepts such as “the fire” and “the zone” until, in my efforts to describe “the zone”, I came to something like “transcends technical play”. At that point, I coincidentally got an e-mail from Zaiem, who suggested I write about “technical play”, and I decided it made more sense to write about technical play before writing about any of that. Therefore, I’ll keep “the fire” and “the zone” (as well as other possible mental states) for a later opportunity, and today I’ll talk about technical play and how you can try to go above that.
First, what is “technical play”? The way I see it, technical play is the process of handling the cards very well, in the context of what you have and what they have. It is the mechanics of the game. A good technical player will simply not make many mistakes that other people will catch—they might not make the “best, genius play” because the best play might just be way beyond what they can envision, but they will rarely make actual mistakes.
When people make comparisons about Budde and Finkel, I’ve always envisioned that Budde was the better technical player, whereas Finkel was better once you go beyond that (though I don’t actually know either person, so this is just what I perceive from what people say).
Anywhere you go, there will always be someone who is decent, better than the group around them in technical play. Those people then start worrying about other things, such as bluffing, reading their opponents, blah blah—those things are cool, but they are not that important in anything but the latest stages of your Magic career, and you should not waste brainpower on them if you’re still making simple mistakes.
In fact, if you’d only make sure you do everything well technically, then you’d probably win a lot more, and it’s very possible to get to the top while just focusing on technical play—the Japanese are the best example I can find. Not every person from a given country is the same, obviously; but I (and I assume everyone else) have always associated them with good technical play, solid rather than genius. You will rarely be blown away by a play a Japanese player makes, but you will just as rarely be blown away by how bad something they did was. Shuhei and Yuya are prime examples—they’re both very solid.
Being good technically doesn’t mean you can’t be good in “other aspects”, though it’s almost impossible to be very good in both—what makes Luis the best in my opinion is the fact that he is very good technically while also being very inventive. He has a very high ceiling, but a very high floor as well. I think I myself can get to the same high ceiling, but my floor is much lower—you can see me making technical mistakes that Luis would never make, such as forgetting to add counters to [card]Ratchet Bomb[/card], forgetting to attack, etc. Shuhei, on the other hand, has a lower ceiling, but a very high floor.
If you’re “good”, it’s much better to be like Shuhei, because playing well will win you most of your matches (since you’re the only one doing it at that level). You don’t need to be a genius to beat most PTQ opponents, you just need to make less mistakes than they do. Once you get to very good, though, then not making mistakes is not going to cut it, because most people at that level will not make a lot of them—by this point, I’d rather sacrifice a little bit of technicality for wins elsewhere (though it’s not really like building an RPG sheet—you are what you are). If you’re reading this article, however, that is most likely not you, and, again, you should just focus on technical play by now.
There are many things people do wrong regarding technical play, and most are easily avoidable. Playing lands, for example—we never pay close attention when playing lands, since it’s automatic, but sometimes it’s not and then we lose the game because of something silly. It’s not like you thought about it and decided to play the [card]Plains[/card] over the [card]Island[/card], it’s just that you didn’t even understand you had a decision to make—you played the Plains because you happened to look at it.
When I played Tron a couple of weeks ago in Lincoln, most of my decisions included which land to play—the deck had many lands that came into play tapped and encouraged you to play them early (Colonnade, Seachrome Coast, Hallowed Fountain), but at the same time you wanted Tron as fast as possible, so you also wanted to play those early on. Add [card]Tolaria West[/card] to the mix and you have a real nightmare concerning your land drops.
Tapping lands is not much different—in many situations we’ll just tap the first lands we manage to grab that actually cast our spells; but then we’ll find ourselves in situations where we can’t cast a certain card, or, more subtly, we’ll not bluff anything because we happened to tap all our lands that cast tricks. This sounds silly, but I really do see people messing this up a lot, and I do it too, so I guess it’s not that silly. A good technical player is also not lazy—there are many situations we can solve but choose not to, because that’d be “too complicated”. We convince ourselves that we need to draw a certain card when we really don’t, and sometimes it doesn’t even take much work to see—you only need to add and multiply a couple numbers and you will see that your current line has you dead before you kill them, so it’s bad.
Another important aspect is to play your cards to their full capability. Many cards do a lot of things, yet we are used to doing one of them, so that is all we do. Even something as lowly as a 2/2 has multiple uses—it attacks for two and it blocks, but it also threatens a planeswalker, carries equipment and threatens to block a bigger creature. A 2/2 in play is doing much more for you than beating for two—it’s giving you options. As long as it’s there, your opponent never knows if you’re going to enchant it with something and hit them for five out of nowhere. As long as it’s there, they might not be able to play their 4/2. And that’s a 2/2 with no ability, mind you! Once you add a lot of real cards to the equation, then stuff becomes way too complicated, to the point where you cannot figure it all out on the go, so you must know those things already.
The most common use of cards that people miss is targeting your opponent with effects that normally target your guys, and vice-versa—bouncing your own creatures with [card]Silent Departure[/card] or playing [card]Act of Treason[/card] on your own guy to give it haste are two somewhat common situations, and you should always keep those in mind when you have those cards. If you’re playing it, know that it can do that, and the play will come to you when you draw the card.
At GP Baltimore, two of my friends were playing a draft and one attacked with [card]Pitchburn Devils[/card] when the other was on three and had a 5/5, and the 5/5 guy just scooped, though he had a [card]Skillful Lunge[/card] in hand—it never even occurred to him that he could pump his opponent’s Devil, have it not die, and then attack for lethal next turn. The reason it did not occur to him was that he looked at the card and read it as “target creature you control gains +2/+0 and first strike”, because that is how it’s always used, but that’s not actually what it says.
Another common situation, for example, is to not realize what you have to counter or kill. Most people are guilty of spending their resources too easily, particularly in Limited—when you don’t know what’s coming and you only have one good removal spell, then only kill something that you have to kill. This happens in Constructed, but the opposite does as well—we have the mindset that certain cards are “supposed to be used a certain way”, and then we fail to recognize when we should use them a little differently.
When I play against Delver, I often counter [card]Ponder[/card], even if most of the time it’s wrong to counter a card drawing spell, because it stops Delver from flipping and they are a deck that is often constricted on mana. You could say that I won my Top 8 match at Worlds in Japan because I [card]Mana Leak[/card]ed Randle’s [card]Preordain[/card], in a match that normally has much better targets. Why did I do it? Honestly, because it seemed right—I wanted to be able to tap out for [card sea gate oracle]Oracle[/card] and my own [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card] soon, and I wouldn’t be able to use [card]Mana Leak[/card], plus he played a specific land turn one that made me think he probably didn’t have many more. If you play a lot, you’ll learn that most of the time what “feels right” is right, even if you can’t necessarily explain it.
Likewise, you should often just counter the Titan rather than the acceleration, but when I played Delver against Ramp at the semifinals of GP Orlando, I countered [card]Sphere of the Suns[/card], because that would allow me to tap out on turn three for [card geist of saint traft]Geist[/card] without fearing retribution. Basically, you need to know what your cards do, and you need to be able to deviate from what you normally do with them when appropriate.
So, how do you improve your technical play? The short answer is “playing a lot”. The long answer is basically the same with more words, and there’s going to be a “play against better people” in there somewhere. Some of the game mechanics are entirely dependent on you, and you just have to play enough that it becomes automatic.
Imagine the following, somewhat common, scenario: you have two 2/2s and your opponent has [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card]. He attacks, you block with one, and he [card]Vapor Snag[/card]s it before damage, so you take four from the Angel and the Geist lives. Now, I don’t want you to figure this out the moment your opponent attacks—I want you to have run into that scenario two weeks before, when you were playtesting against your friend. You don’t have to reason everything as it happens, but you have to have experienced those situations before, so that when the time comes to play for real then your play of double-blocking will be automatic—as automatic as your play of Vapor Snagging his one blocker before damage if you are the Delver player.
Playing with people that are better than you is helpful, but problematic, because if everyone thinks like that, then no one plays. If John wants to play someone better than him and Josh is better, why would Josh want to play with John? It follows that Josh also wants to play against someone who is better than himself, and so on. If you can’t find someone who is better than you and wants to play with you, then playing against people who are “good” will suffice—the most important thing is that you want to be able to make sense of their actions. At this level, understanding actions is very important—why is he doing this? Then, once I find out why, what do I do? Those two are the most important things.
Understanding why your opponent is doing things is not hard—you just have to ask yourself why you would do those things. This is the main reason it’s way more productive to play against someone who is good—if they’re bad, then God only knows why they’re doing the things they’re doing. When your opponent attacks his 2/2 into your 3/3, ask yourself—when would I attack? Maybe you’d attack if you wanted to get two free damage, if you had a pump spell, if you wanted to turn morbid on. Then, decide if you want to block or not based on that. Honestly, this should do for most of your Magic career.
There are, however, many things that seem to be beyond the realm of technical play—bluffing, for example. If technical play considers the things people do, then to go beyond that you need to work with how people think.
Let’s go back to bluffing—simply put, most people don’t know how to bluff. Not only that, they don’t know when to bluff. To bluff, you should try to estimate the probability of being “caught”, and then compare it with the advantage that you get. If you think there is a very small chance your opponent catches it, but the benefits are also minuscule, then don’t do it. If you think the match is going to be a race and two points are going to matter, then by all means throw that 2/2 out there.
This might work differently for you than it does for me, but when I bluff or call bluffs, I only use thought process (theirs and mine). Some people will try to use faces, expressions, mannerisms, they will try to make their opponents think they have the card by the way they act—this is not necessarily wrong, but I haven’t found it to be as effective, perhaps because I just can’t do it very well.
There is much more to bluffing than just mindless attacking, though—you could, for instance, not play a spell to keep open mana. In the Delver versus Ramp matchup, the thing that a player does that correlates the most with the result of the match is keeping mana up when you have no counterspells. Someone bad will think “I have nothing, might as well play my [card snapcaster mage]Snapcaster[/card] for [card]Ponder[/card] here” and will promptly lose to a Titan, but someone good will think “I have nothing, but he doesn’t know that. If I pass, he is not just going to run Titan into my open mana, I don’t need the [card]Mana Leak[/card]”. Then, as the Ramp player, even if you suspect that they do not have the Mana Leak, you’ll probably just pass and wait until you can play another land—the cost is very minimal, and the negative outcome (losing your Titan) is much stronger than the positive outcome (playing your Titan a turn earlier).
You must understand that some plays are just incredibly bad for your opponent, and he is not going to make them—you don’t need to fool him, you don’t need to do anything other than pass with open mana. In this scenario, your play is the percentage play as long as your opponent also makes his percentage play, and that is the big thing with bluffs—you present to them a path so disastrous that they will not take it, even if they don’t believe you have the card, and they will actually be correct in doing so. By doing this, you gain an extra turn.
Now here you’ll see some people attempting stuff like thinking for 35 minutes, sighing, tapping and untapping their lands and saying go—this is for children. In general, against good opposition, you’ll just give yourself away by doing this. Again, you don’t have to try to trick anyone—all you need is to play in a way that having a certain card makes sense, and if your opponent is good he will respect that.
At the PT, I had someone sigh extremely loudly, and then sigh again and agonize for a long time before they kept their opening hand, and by then I just knew they had something very close to the nuts—he overplayed it, and I caught it. It hardly made a difference, but it would have been better for him to just keep his hand like a “normal person” and give me no information.
By the same token, when I try to “catch” a bluff, I’ll very rarely look at their outside-the-game actions—I will see what makes sense for them to have based on how the game has played so far, and then I’ll see how likely I think it is that they have something, and the consequences of them having or not having it. If you can look at someone and say “they have it”, then all the props to you—that is a skill I don’t have, and, honestly, I don’t really miss (at least in Magic) because I can just use logic.
There are exceptions, of course—when you have nothing to lose, then there’s no harm in giving it away, so you might as well try it. The Estratti play against Martell comes to mind. If you’re not familiar: Martell had a [card]Beguiler of Wills[/card] equipped with [card]Mask of Avacyn[/card] in play, and Estratti was very far behind in the game. At some point, Martell left only the Beguiler up, and Estratti attacked and hastily played [card]Moment of Heroism[/card], where it was then established that “oh, wait, blocks hadn’t been declared yet”. The thing is—Martell was not dead to Moment of Heroism, only to an eventual second pump spell. By acting all excited and showing one pump spell, he put Martell in mortal fear of, well, dying to a second pump spell—he then blocked with the Beguiler and lost the game.
Is that not “for children”? Well, it kind of is, but it worked, and at that point, the worst case scenario was neutrality—either it won him the game, or it did nothing to the game (since the game was already lost). I can totally respect that play, and I doubt that I would ever be able to do it. I likely wouldn’t even think of it, and even if I did, the chance I’d be able to execute it with a straight face is almost zero, because, again, that’s not the sort of skill I have.
I do believe, though, that had I been in Martell’s shoes, I would have caught it—I might still have blocked, but if I did it would be because I decided he was more likely than not to have two pump spells based on the way he was playing (and that by blocking I would be able to beat two pump spells—this is very important, if you can’t beat a card then don’t play around it), and not because he excitedly dropped a card in play. Do you think you’ll ever see Shuhei, Yuya or Kenji making that play? I highly doubt it, but you might see Luis or Chapin doing something like that.
Yet another thing that goes beyond technical play is adapting to your opponent. Remember how I said those sighs, overly long motions, tapping and untapping were for children and you shouldn’t bother with them? Forget that. Against a certain group of people, they will work wonders, and part of being a real master is recognizing when that is true.
I would never attempt this kind of thing at the Pro Tour (because, again, I am not good enough at it in comparison to how good my opponents will be at catching it), but at a local tournament? You’ll see me doing the “pen trick” every round (for those who don’t know it, the “pen trick” is when your opponent is undecided on whether he attacks or not, then you grab your pen to supposedly mark life totals, so they think you have nothing and they attack, and then you ambush them with your flash dude or something). Different people play different ways, and you should not play the same against everyone.
One of my favorite stories for illustrating this is Luis at Worlds 2008 in Memphis—he was playing Swans against I believe Tron. On turn three, Luis had [card]Blood Moon[/card] in hand, as well as [card]Simian Spirit Guide[/card] and a permission spell of his own, and his opponent had three open mana. The “technically correct” play is to wait a turn so that you can play [card]Blood Moon[/card] with permission up, since there is no reason to risk it now, but Luis noticed one thing—in game one, his opponent would always [card]Condescend[/card] for the necessary amount, never more. If he had five mana and Condescend for one would do it, then he would Condescend for 1. Assuming his opponent would do the same this time, he just went for Blood Moon—if his opponent Condescended for one again, like he had been doing all along, then Luis would just remove the Simian Spirit Guide and pay.
Another example: at GP Houston, Gabe Walls was playing [card]Dark Depths[/card] against Zoo, and our sideboarding strategy for that match was to take out [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[card]s. Gabe, however, noticed that his opponent hadn’t been attacking Jace game 1, so he actually brought another Jace in! The reason Jaces were bad was because they died, but if they weren’t dying, then he had to reevaluate based on that particular opponent.
You don’t necessarily need to be playing against someone bad to adapt—even good people do things in different ways. I know that Martin, for example, tends to play around more things than other people, so I will make sure to bluff more against him—if I have a guy, I might not cast it, because if I leave 3W up I know he will try to play against Bellringer, Midnight Haunting, Rebuke and Smite the Monstrous all at the same time—which is probably right, but I know he will do it while other people won’t. The difference is that, with good players, it generally takes a while for you to pick up on something like that, whereas with people that aren’t so good you can do it in a game, because what they do is radically different than what you’d expect.
Well, there you have it. To sum it up:
– Technical play is the most important thing in Magic, you should work on that above all else. You can be a world class player even if you focus on technical play alone.
– The best way of improving your technical play is to play a lot, against good people—there is no way out of that.
– Start by worrying about their actions, once you’re good enough at that you can start worrying about their thoughts.
– Your opponents are not the same—what works with one might not work with another.
– Logic and train of thought are way more important than behavior once you get to the “big leagues”, but at the local level it’s the opposite.
I hope this was useful, see you next week!