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Thoughts on Improving at Magic: The Gathering

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Quiet Speculation is proud to welcome Daniel to the team. Look for weekly strategy articles from him on a variety of topics to help improve your game. ⁠—QS Staff

Hello, my name is Daniel Goetschel and I will be writing strategy articles for Quiet Speculation. I started playing Magic while in middle school and quickly became interested in competing in events. I have participated in numerous tournaments over the last decade, with top finishes including second place in the 2021 Magic Online Championship Showcase (MOCS), and winning Grand Prix Niagra Falls, a Legacy GP, in 2019.

Since the beginning, I've been on a journey of continuous improvement. Today I will go over some of the things I have learned over the years that shape how I approach the game.

F*** Heuristics

One of the worst things you can do in MTG is rush through your turns without thinking through your options, and one of the easiest ways to do that is using heuristics to justify your choices.

Heuristics can be helpful, those rules of thumb such as be mana efficient, control decks don’t care about damage, just survive vs aggro decks, and so on. But I think the great danger of heuristics is that it stops people from thinking intricately. Rather than analyzing the situation an individual finds themselves in, they just slot the heuristic into the decision, for example, if you have the opportunity to take an aggressive line with a controlling deck, you might think well control decks don’t care about damage, I’ll find another way to win, and then not think through the pros and cons of the aggressive line. In other words, instead of probing the problem that lies in front of you, you apply the heuristic and move on to the next choice.

Heuristics make lines seem reasonable without thinking them through.

A good way to counteract this is to slow down. When you begin your turn, think through the pros and cons of various lines, try to be conscious of your thought process. When a game is finished you can ask yourself why you made all the decisions you made. Things might be a bit more clear in retrospect and one might be surprised by how many choices they made "automatically." Heuristics make lines seem reasonable without thinking them through.

The same also applies to deckbuilding. People are often afraid to try things, to stray away from group heuristics for how decks should look. I will discuss this more in the deckbuilding section.

Technical Play

Some videos illustrate what I am about to discuss quite nicely. I recommend going on YouTube and searching Channel Huey and looking for Pro Tour Hall of Famer Huey Jensen drafting Born of the Gods, Khans of Tarkir, Vintage Masters, and playing Theros Standard. There are also videos of Reid Duke doing the same. 

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa also made a good video in a similar vein here:

What you can take away here is how they play turn by turn. From the moment each turn starts they think through the pros and cons of various lines. It doesn’t seem that difficult, but wow does it help them avoid taking bad lines. Usually, they take reasonable to good lines. This process takes patience and diligence, not abstract raw intelligence or skill.

These can guide people on how one should compose oneself during a match. The general attitude. Sitting back and surveying the scene rather than rushing in and jamming through turns as quickly as possible.

It isn’t as easy as it looks. if it was, everyone could win as much as Paulo. Having the mental fortitude to be able to play an entire event, turn by turn, patiently thinking through many of your options can be tiring. Separating good from bad lines can also be difficult due to the abstract nature of Magic theory.

I recall Paulo saying he thinks if he just avoids bad lines it can make it seem easier than trying to hunt down the “best” line, since the value of a good line is still high, and the difference between the best and second-best play isn’t that much. It's much higher than a bad line in comparison.

Here's an example of me playing through a game: I was playing Sultai vs Winota last night in the Standard Challenge. My god this is painful, I remember feeling sickly after losing this game. Seeing now that they mulled to five this game made me feel such a mixture of shame and pain I almost wanted to stop writing this article.

It is turn one. I have the option of which land to play, either Ketria Triome, or Fabled Passage. Fabled Passage allows us to cast Heartless Act on turn two, but we have four lands already, so we could also save Fabled Passage for turn four and have it then enter untapped. Further surveying the options, we have three two-drops we could potentially cast on turn two, [/card]Wolfwillow Haven[/card] or the two blue instants which are reasonable plays, meaning we won’t have a dead turn two if we don’t cast Heartless Act. Additionally casting the Act on turn two will cause us to play our one untapped land, setting us up for potentially three turns of playing tapped lands. Though the combination of Wolfwillow Haven plus two-drop can make it not too awful and there is a reasonable chance we cast Jwari Disruption at an Esika's Chariot .

When I saw Lair of the Hydra, I thought my opponent might be playing an adventures deck. They were reasonably more popular than Winota, I thought off the top of my head. I was kind of scared of an early Edgewall Innkeeper or Magda, Brazen Outlaw. Looking back though, if they had an Innkeeper they would have cast it turn one. Edgewall Innkeeper drawing cards also isn’t the end of the world, as the opponent drawing extra cards isn’t that threatening. I just want to comfortably hit my land drops, and save my removal spells for creatures like Lovestruck Beast that they need to dedicate full turns to casting. Killing threats which actually pressure me is more appealing than hitting Innkeeper or Magda. Additionally, casting a potential Heartless Act on turn two can trip up all my mana, Anyways, obviously, I went for the awful play and played Fabled Passage. 

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Turn two, I remember I was tilting around here,. I didn’t realize they only had three cards somehow, because of their mulligan to five. I chose to pass with Jwari Disruption up so they couldn't resolve Esika's Chariot. It would take a while to cast Wolfwillow Haven, but them resolving a Chariot seemed bad. Despite this, there was a big chance they won’t use their treasure yet, and I still have the option to cast Heartless Act or Omen of the Sea. If I tapped out, and they resolved Chariot that would be pretty bad for me.


Instead of Esika's Chariot though, the opponent cast Elite Spellbinder. Now I had the option to Jwari Disruption it, but that seems awful because they could just pay for it, so I dismissed that idea quickly. My other options became to Heartless Act the Edgewall Innkeeper or the Spellbinder with the trigger on the stack, or to cast Omen of the Sea. Looking back, I think I should have just killed the Innkeeper so they couldn't Winota, Joiner of Forces me next turn by taking Act. In the moment though, I waited. The opponent took Omen of the Sea, and I cast nothing, figuring to wait for Winota. Next turn they cast Chariot into another Spellbinder into Winota and I lost.

I don’t think I played awfully. I thought through my options, I just came to bad conclusions. Those poor decisions snowballed and made me lose a game where I had tons of spells to cast, but barely cast any. Maybe it was a case of tricking myself by playing around everything but I ended up playing around nothing. Thinking through the pros and cons of the various lines cogently should help alleviate this. 

Play Poorly, Lose, Feel Bad: Coping with Infinite Losses

Playing poorly, losing, and then feeling bad, is my typical Magic event routine. Zoom out for a moment though, and it couldn’t be any other way. Failure is programmed in.

Allow me to explain what I mean. If you define playing well as playing in the way Paulo or Huey play, as I described earlier, you won’t reach those standards until you win literally as much as them over the long run. If that's the case, you will never be satisfied unless you are literally the best player in the world.

Let me elaborate further,  I don’t see many people holding themselves accountable for their shortcomings. Many blame mulligans, bad matchups, and so on for their losses. Here’s the thing though, do you think they played perfectly every turn? No, I know they didn’t because if they did they would be the best player in the world. So what are people complaining about? They don't play optimally but want to win?

In the play optimally mindset, every event you go to, you will play, make mistakes, lose, and feel bad after. It can feel crushing to prepare for an event, make what seems like boneheaded errors, and scrub out. A total blow to your ego. Now, I am aware of why feeling like a failure is programmed into competition. This isn’t because I suck, but because making infinite mistakes is programmed in. Again, if you didn’t make mistakes you’d be the best player in the world. Even though each mistake seems so obvious in retrospect, it isn’t in the moment. Try to live never making any mistakes, it’s just hindsight.

Deck Selection

Deck selection is incredibly overrated. There are so many things to pay attention to in Magic, mulligans, sequencing, sideboarding, and more. I think mastering all of those things is what leads to the highest win rates overall. You can see it in action with players like Shouta Yasooka, playing what many deem suboptimal decks but still crushing. There are other examples as well, like Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, or Logan Nettles (aka Jaberwocki) with Jund (2nd place at the Omnath MOCS!?). Generally, any good player will have a high win rate with whatever deck you throw at them.

To me, it seems if you play well, you will win a lot, so you should focus on that and not deck selection. After playing an event I've never said "man I wish I could get that last sideboard card down." I usually regretted playing suboptimally. That said, I recently realized why deck selection can be quite relevant still.

I was watching some old modern coverage, from around the time Splinter Twin was legal. Watching people play Merfolk, Zoo, Affinity, BGx, wacky combo, and control decks, and then facing off vs Twin, it didn’t even seem close to close. The Twin strategy was just miles better than every other deck. Not playing Twin seemed like SUCH a massive disadvantage. It opened my eyes to why deck selection is actually relevant. There is a huge amount of asymmetry in the metagame at times. Giving yourself the short end of the stick by not playing the obviously best deck can really screw you. So I try to be aware of my process for deck selection. I don’t want to be that guy not playing the Twin deck when Twin is legal.

Trying to be scrupulous on deck selection is quite an interesting process. It isn’t always as easy as just play Twin. It can be difficult to know which decks are the good ones, and which are not. It’s an ongoing, adaptive, evolving process. The Twin example helps to frame this. 

Recently, I’ve been playing Pioneer, where I can really practice my deck selection. At first, I thought I wanted to cast Treasure Cruise because I think if you cast Treasure Cruise you are likely to win, and it’s easy to cast. I also thought it was asymmetrically powerful compared to the other cards in the format. I liked Izzet Phoenix, but couldn’t solve the Burn matchup, and Burn is just way too popular in the format. I was also sometimes losing to combo decks, though with more time could have maybe found better fixes. I could have kept improving the deck but got bored.

Jeskai Ascendancy is another Cruise deck, which I found a bit clunky, though I would put it down as maybe a tier-one deck in the format now. I tried to brew Cruise decks but failed and got lazy. I then moved on to trying the Jund Sac decks after the deck did well in the showcase. I didn’t like the Bolas's Citadel deck as I felt like you couldn’t win unless you cast Citadel, and your opponent could interact with it. Again, I think the deck is quite good. I experimented with food versions, and they were pretty good. I might work on them more but I found getting the last few slots down really difficult (I even brewed a Fires of Invention wish version at one point). I thought of a delirium one too that could fetch [cardCauldron Familiar[/card] or Korvold, Fae-Cursed King but turning on delirium seems kinda difficult.

When I play Pioneer again, I will probably try Vampires. I think it has a reasonable plan in every matchup and going Thoughtseize into Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord is quite nice, though it has lower power than some of the crazy multicolor decks I feel a lot of decks line up very poorly vs other decks in the format, which Vampires could help fix in theory I could also see trying Jeskai. Though that deck looks kinda awful, it's also kinda cool. If you're interested in Pioneer, stay tuned for my article introducing the format.

Last thought with deck selection, don’t be afraid to try stuff. This goes back to heuristics. Usually, when I prepare for an event, I play my games and try to pay attention to why I’m winning or losing, and try to solve my issues. This means I am down to try whatever card or strategy if I feel it can solve my issues. A lot of times this will involve playing cards or plans people will think are really bad, but it doesn’t matter. I just ignore it. Not that these people are wrong per se, but that is useless for us. We can’t approach magic just mimicking others' opinions especially since almost everyone else's opinions are also awful. Remember again, everyone is basically worse at winning than Paulo, and Paulo isn’t even that good, he’s just the best.

Imagine, for example, being a new player going to a local game store, and hearing everyone’s opinions on Magic, and taking it to heart. This will likely make you a worse player than if you stayed at home just playing Magic Online, and coming to your own conclusions. It’s unfocused out-of-context language you are encountering. The same is true even when hearing opinions from more experienced players. You must learn how to extract useful information from what they say, not just mimic it and turn off your brain heuristic-style.

Extracurricular Activities: Journaling, Watching Your Own Games, & Watching Coverage.

Here are a few more ideas to help you improve:

Journaling

When playing events, try keeping a diary/journal, and writing down mistakes you made. This way, after playing a few events you can see recurring mistakes you make, so you can isolate them and try to work on them. For example, one of my biggest mistakes currently is not sleeping enough. I tend to go to sleep around 12-1 am, and many Magic Online events start at 7 am I always say I’m going to go to sleep early, but it’s hard to go to sleep early on the weekends. I always end up feeling tired in the morning, this mistake is pretty obvious so I am aware of it, but you never know which subtle ones you might catch and then try and squash out.

Watching Coverage

I have found watching coverage to be tremendously useful, and I'm not alone. Allen Wu wrote an excellent article on watching coverage. In the article, he goes turn-by-turn through the games of the first Modern Pro Tour Quarterfinals between Sam Black and Josh Utter-Leyton, discussing the various options the players had, and sharing his own thought processes as if he were in their places.

Watching both players play, seeing both hands at once, opened my eyes. They say when you watch coverage it seems so easy to play well, that all the mistakes seem so obvious. Over the years, I’ve even received advice to "play as if you aren’t playing" or "play like you are watching yourself play." When I feel burned out on Magic, like I can’t make any good decisions, and I'm too stressed and tired to play my own games, watching coverage lets me practice the problem-solving part of my brain in a nice environment and also makes me feel smart (to recover the badly bruised post-event ego) without having any skin in the matches.

Watching Your Own Games

Much like watching coverage, watching your own matches can be incredibly useful. Honestly, this is something I’ve avoided for a long time, as it feels incredibly incestuous and painful to watch my own games. Bringing up that Winota game from last night actually made me feel nauseous. But bringing yourself to watch your own games the way you watch coverage is something good to try and work through to try and improve. It seems like an incredibly fruitful zone to extract value from if you so desire.

Daniel Goetschel

Daniel Goetschel started playing Magic while in middle school and quickly became interested in competing in events. He has participated in numerous tournaments over the last decade, with top finishes including second place in the 2021 Magic Online Championship Showcase (MOCS), and winning Grand Prix Niagra Falls, a Legacy GP, in 2019.

View More By Daniel Goetschel

Posted in Analysis, Free, Legacy, Pioneer, StrategyTagged , ,

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