PV’s Playhouse – The Art of Writing (Magic Articles)

Hello!

Today’s article will be about something that I’ve wanted to write for a while, but haven’t yet—how to write a Magic article.

“But PV, what if I don’t write articles, do I just skip this?” No, you don’t! First of all, you never know when you might want to write an article—if at any point you do well in a major tournament, there will be a website that is going to want a report from you. If you do a good job, they might want more, so getting some tips on how to write a Magic article can be a good investment. You don’t have to be an awesome writer to write a Magic article—you just have to be good. The better you are at writing, then the less good at Magic you have to be.

Even if you don’t plan on writing articles, I think there are many bad articles out there, and by telling you how to write a good article hopefully I’m also telling you how to identify one when you see it, which is important, because believing a bad article is harmful.

Obviously, what I think makes a good article is going to be biased by what I think is a good article—which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily correct, because what I like is not what you should like. To remedy that, I’m going to avoid discussing what I personally like, and instead talk about things that should, theoretically, apply for every article, no matter your taste.

In Magic, there are many types of articles—some are about making people win more, and some are about making people have fun. I will focus on the ones that are about making people win.

Coming Up with a Topic

As a general rule, unless you write a weekly (or bi-weekly) column, you should come up with a topic before you write the article. “I wanna write, what should I write about?” is not really the best way to go about it. When I started writing, I almost never wrote—I only wrote when I thought I had something in particular that I wanted to share. Nowadays I write weekly, so sometimes I have to come up with topics or force myself to find something, but it’s better if you start with the topic and then create the desire to write the article.

Choose a topic that you feel particularly knowledgeable about. Magic players who read articles are usually at least semi-good, sometimes very good, and they need a reason to listen to you. If it is not obvious why I should be listening to you, then you have to tell me. If you write about a deck, I want to know why I should believe you that the deck is good—are you a very experienced player that is usually correct in assessing a deck’s power? Did you in a PTQ with it? Did a friend of yours do very well with it at the Pro Tour? Either that, or you better make a ton of sense.

Know your limits. “How to Win a Pro Tour,” by Jon Finkel would be awesome, but “How to Win a Pro Tour,” by John Smith would be an eyebrow-raiser, because I would assume that if John Smith knew how to win a Pro Tour he would have won one already. Now, there are exceptions—but it’s important to make them clear. Maybe Jon Smith didn’t win a Pro Tour, but he was part of Tom Martell’s testing team for the previous Pro Tour. He knows what Tom did right or wrong. He was part of the process.

Say you decided to write an article about mana bases in Limited. Do you have years of experience at the competitive level to draw upon? Are you studying statistics? Are you more knowledgeable about the subject than the average person reading your article? Do you do something that you think is right (and can back up), but other people do wrong?

If not, then why are you writing about mana bases in Limited? What makes you think you know enough that you can teach the readers about it? Chances are, unless you write it for a very basic audience (which is totally fine, but not the case for most people), you should just leave the topic to someone else.

Keep in mind that I am not saying that because someone is in a position of authority you have to listen to them, or that they are necessarily right. What I’m saying is that, unless you feel particularly qualified to write about a topic, don’t. Once you get to the actual article, then your words will determine whether you’re right or not, whether you make sense or not—not who you are. If Jon Finkel writes, “the way to win the Pro Tour is to eat a Chocolate Sundae every morning,” well, that makes no sense, I’m just going to disregard it (or maybe try it). But, if it’s not absurd and I simply happen to disagree, I will go back to it and think again, because it’s Jon Finkel.

So, if you can’t write about mana bases in Limited, then what can you write about? Again, whatever topic you feel like you actually have something to add to. Have a new deck that most people don’t know about, but you think is pretty good? Write about it. Think everyone is making a mistake with their Naya builds? Write about that. See a lot of people doing the same things over and over in your local shop? Try to write on how to correct that. Most of the time, if you play a lot of Magic and go to a lot of tournaments, there will be things to write about—I struggle because I don’t actually play a lot.

I obviously don’t have a recipe for coming up with an article, but I do know that inspiration comes from anywhere. I once watched Shouta Yasooka play a match in which he took the damage one turn and then chump-blocked the next, and that got me thinking—“Why did he take last turn, but block now?” And that spawned an entire article about blocking. Another time, I read a book on warfare for a class and kept thinking of how it could be applied to Magic, so I wrote about it. Once I went to the prerelease and saw many people doing the same thing over and over, so that also became an article. If all else fails, just ask Twitter/Facebook, that’s what I do!

Now a little on specific types of articles:

Tournament Reports

Tournament reports are tricky business. They’re the easiest articles to write, since they basically write themselves, and they will usually be your first “point of entry” into the Magic writing scene, but it’s also very easy to write a bad tournament report. Most good tournament reports are a combination of enjoyable and useful, though you can get by with only one of those if you’re exceedingly good at it.

Don’t be afraid to talk about the non-Magic parts of the trip. Part of what makes Magic interesting is the fact that you go to different places and do different things. If you have pictures, I think that’s good too.

In essence, try to get a little “you” in the article. If you want to write about the non-technical aspects of the tournament, then I want to know what you thought, how you felt. In general, I like articles that are personalized—I want to eventually be able to read your article and know that you wrote them, without ever checking the author name.

I can do that with a lot of writers right now. If there are a lot of puns, they’re Luis’s. If they are 15 pages long and talk a lot about food, they are Web’s. If there are detailed, awesome colored graphs and tables explaining everything and words that I don’t fully understand, it’s Shearer. If they have decks with four colors and an average casting cost of 8, that’s Travis Woo. If it talks about embracing yourself as a deckbuilder, not being afraid to be different, bad cards and/or The Zone, it’s Conley. If there are a lot of English mistakes, it’s BenS. If it’s in Japanese, it’s Shuhei’s. If it talks about Mike Flores, it’s Mike Flores. I’ve been told by many people that they read my articles in my voice, which I think is pretty cool (or not, because my voice is kind of annoying, but you get the idea).

Don’t just talk about every match. I used to do that, but I tend to remember more details than most people, and I always tried to find interesting points in a match—key decisions and why I made one over the other, plays by my opponent that gave me more information than they should have, etc.

Narrating the game is very boring, but narrating the thought process is very interesting. I don’t really care about what you did, I care about what you thought. If nothing interesting happened in the round, you don’t have to mention it at length. “I played against Burn and comboed him twice on turn four,” is good enough, you don’t have to say, “turn one he played a [card]Goblin Guide[/card] which revealed [card]Glacial Fortress[/card]; I then played [card]Sleight of Hand[/card], selecting [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card] over Mountain. On turn two, he played…” This is just not useful. You can even get by with “Round 7: Burn – 2-0.” The way you remember a thought process is, well, mostly thinking. When you have to make a cool decision, “store” it at the end of the match. Say you won because of a key play that could have gone a lot differently—you can then think, “nice, I can write about that,” and you will probably remember when it comes the time to actually write it.

You should also make sure you include the thought process behind choosing that specific deck, because it is a significant part of your journey. How your testing started, what changed, why you settled for one deck and not the other, what you would do if you could do it all over again. In the end, many good tournament reports are just deck articles with a good story. When you don’t have a story, you just have a deck article…

Deck Articles

A deck does not need to be confirmed awesome for you to write about it, but ideally it has some backup other than your imagination—unless, of course, the format has recently changed, then I think all bets are off. When I read an article about a new deck in a new format, I want to know the general idea and why you think the deck works. If it’s an established format, I want to know:

• Its good and bad matchups, roughly. Something like, “Esper has a favorable matchup against Bant, UWR and Naya Midrange, an even matchup against Naya Aggro, a slightly bad matchup against most normal builds of Jund and a horrible matchup against Reanimator,” is very short and useful to whomever wants to know if they should play the deck in their particular metagame.

• The reason for weird cards. I don’t need to know why you play [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] in UWR Flash, but if you play 2 Snapcasters and 4 Augurs, I want to know why. If you play [card]Planar Cleansing[/card] over [card]Terminus[/card], I want to know why. [card]Dramatic Rescue[/card]? Explain please. If you think there is a card I could consider playing but you aren’t, also tell me why. Every time you deviate from the expected, provide an explanation. I would also avoid the, “Island: adds blue mana,” joke and its variants, it’s been played way too much already.

Most deck articles will have this, though—people have to write something after all. What most won’t have, and I think is very important, is some insight into how the deck operates that is not entirely obvious. Should I try to be aggressive or controlling? Which kind of hands should I keep? Should I kill their early creatures? Is life more important than resources? Doing this as an overview works, as does having a couple of short tips. For example, in my latest article about Esper I wrote:

“Against UWR, make sure you solidify your position before milling them. If you start on t4, you risk getting [card]Harvest Pyre[/card]d out, but if you wait you can usually establish total control with [card]Dissipate[/card]s and then you kill them.”

This is not exactly obvious, but it is very important and it can be the difference between winning and losing that matchup, and I think stuff like that is what makes a difference for someone reading it.

Sideboarding is a nice plus, but to me a sideboarding guide is actually less useful than an explanation, because I might not want to play your exact list. You can say, for example, “against Naya Humans, cheap removal such as [card]Pillar of Flame[/card] is actually better than mass removal, because you usually need to kill their early drops anyway or you die before you Wrath, and without Pillar, Thalia is very hard to beat. You don’t want the counterspells because they’re too slow, and the [card]Boros Charm[/card]s because none of the modes are very good, but don’t take out the [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] because you want a way to kill them before you flood out.” This will give me the general idea of what I should have and what I should do, even if I don’t play your exact 75, and that is way more important than, “Naya Humans: -1 [card]Counterflux[/card], +1 [card]Boros Charm[/card],” and so on.

If you know the exact sideboarding (which sometimes also changes depending on what version they’re playing, play/draw and what you think they’re going to do), then by all means post it—it’s only helpful—but make sure you post an explanation too so that people can extrapolate from it. I think people are mostly lazy when it comes to reading about that—they prefer hard numbers—but it’s worse for them.

When I give out hard numbers, it usually means, “this is what I did in the tournament when I played against that deck,” and not necessarily what I would do in the future against a different opponent (because you do sideboard differently depending on the opponent and what you’ve seen them do, right? right?)

Theory

Theory articles are fascinating to me. They are the most interesting ones, they’re the hardest to write, and they’re the most rewarding, since they’re timeless and if they’re good you feel like you’ve made a real contribution. For that reason, or perhaps because I’m overly critical, it pains me how many of those articles are just bad—many use a number of fallacies to elaborate on incorrect points, for example.

If you’re reading this article for advice on how to write, then you’re probably not going to write a Theory article anytime soon. You will, however, read a lot of bad ones, so I think it’s very important that you recognize when a theory article is sound and when it’s flawed. Some theory articles are very complicated and use a lot of words, so you might be led to accept what it says just because it looks right, and you shouldn’t. Contrary to many kinds of articles, people liking a theory article does not mean it’s good—it can be harmful if people like your article when you’re a good writer but the information is bad.

As a reader, I think you should be more critical of what you’re reading. A lot of people think something is great just because they want to agree with it—they are looking for validation, and once they find it they’re happy. For example, you might be a person that doesn’t like to mulligan much. Then you read an article that tells you common wisdom is wrong, and you should in fact keep most hands with one land, or hands with seven spells. You think, “great, I can finally keep those hands, awesome article!” when the article is in fact just not correct. “But—a pro player said it!” Well, sure, and 15 pro players said you shouldn’t.

Do not assume your premises will be accepted.

One thing I see in plenty of articles is the focus on proving an “if pq” analogy, but not bothering to prove that p is in fact correct. Disproving p will not automatically disprove the conclusion, but it will invalidate the argument even if the analogy is correct.

A while ago, a friend sent me an article looking for an opinion, and the article was based on the main premise that the best deck was the one that cheated the most on a number of resources. Then it went on about what decks could cheat the most on those resources, how you could make such a deck, etc. It never bothered to explain to me why the best deck was the one that cheated the most on a number of resources—it just said that as if it were an accepted rule.

Everything else that followed was logical, but it needed you to agree with the main premise, and I didn’t (I do not think “the best deck is the one that cheats the most on a number of resources” is valid), which invalidated the entire article. If your article depends on a fundamental rule, then you have to make sure you explain that rule and that it’s actually correct.

Be practical.

A lot of people write articles in which they write a lot of things, but don’t actually say much. Some people will give terms and turn their articles into a glossary, but they don’t explain why those things are actually useful. This is the writing equivalent of: “why do you play [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]?” “Because it’s 3 damage for one mana!” which is just not useful. I can read the card and I can read whatever it is you’re talking about, I want to know more about it.

The same article that I was sent also said that, “playing [card]Think Twice[/card] and leaving a mana up makes you lose efficiency because you didn’t utilize all your resources,” but it never explained a) why it makes me lose efficiency, b) if losing efficiency is actually bad or relevant and why, and c) way more importantly, what I can do with that information. Does that mean I shouldn’t play the Think Twice? That I should not have it in my deck? It doesn’t mean any of those things. Then why are you telling me that?!

I want to know the practical consequences of the information you are giving me. I think articles that focus too much on theory (such as the various mana theories) lack in this department. They explain the theory but never say what you’re supposed to do with it. If [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] is worth a mana and [card]Wild Nacatl[/card] is worth two, should I [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] the [card]Wild Nacatl[/card]? Maybe, depends on the situation. That’s the exact same answer I’d give if I hadn’t read an entire article about the theory, though. So why did I read it? What are you giving me? Be practical!

Use examples.

Examples are the best! Examples make the reader comprehend what you’re talking about, they convince me that it’s useful, and they tie theory with practice. For example, a couple paragraphs ago I mentioned the article I was sent that talked about the best deck cheating on resources—ideally, that helped you understand just what I meant. I am doing it right now—I am giving you an example of how an example is useful. At every opportunity, make sure to include a ton of examples to illustrate your points. Anything works, really—a situation that happened to you, to a friend, that you witnessed, etc. If none of this happened, just create one.

You should be careful not to use examples as confirmation of things they do not necessarily confirm, though. The same article about decks elaborated on its principles and then listed decks that were good and cheated on resources, but the two things were not necessarily related. In this case, I felt like it was better to start with the examples, and then try to see what they have in common, rather than starting with the trait you want and then look for it, because you can almost always twist things and select the one variable you want.

For an example of what I consider a great theory article is the one on Time Management, by Zvi Mowshowitz:

Zvi starts the article by laying down the rules—that’s what it is, period (though not anymore). Then he elaborates on what makes the clock run out, how people will try to use that against you, and what you can do to stop it in a bunch of scenarios. He also has many helpful examples so that you understand he is not just making things up, but that what he is saying can be applied to real games of Magic. A “Time Management” article could certainly have turned out very obvious and very dull, but the applicability and the examples, coupled with Zvi’s no-nonsense style of writing that I really like, combine to make this article on a very unconventional topic into one of my favorite articles of all time.

One last thing about articles—for all writers of all kinds of article—READ. THE. COMMENTS. Many writers, some of which are pretty good, say that they don’t like reading the comments on their articles, because they feel bad—some people are rude, etc. This is very silly. A lot of the feedback is genuine, a lot of people have actual questions, and, who knows, sometimes that guy you thought was rude actually has a point. The presentation does not diminish the truth of what is being said, even if it will lead you to act that way most of the time. If they’re obviously trolling, then feel free to ignore them, but if someone complained about something, chances are they actually do not like it, no matter how rude they were—it might just be them, or it might actually be a flaw in what you’re doing, and you’ll never know if you don’t read it.

A lot of writers dismiss negative feedback as “haters gonna hate” or “troll lolz,” and I think that is the wrong approach, the times where people are actively trolling (i.e. saying something they don’t believe just to be annoying or with the sole intention of flaming you) are very few. As a writer, I always read every comment I get, and I enjoy getting comments—good or bad—so if you have something to tell me, please do. As a reader, I expect the same—if I went through the trouble of writing a long post in response to your article, you better read it!.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and happy writing!

PV

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