Beyond the Game: Understanding Other Skills in Magic

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
2/2/2017 11:01:00 AM
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I frequently hear the phrase “they are a really skilled player.” Whenever I hear that phrase, it always means the same thing. It means “they are really good at piloting a game of Magic.” While that is a very valuable skill, it doesn't tell the whole story, and it only reflects one of many skills that are important to Magic success. When people reduce whether someone is good at Magic to if they are good at piloting a game of Magic and nothing else, they are missing the bigger picture. Oftentimes I see people who are surprised that someone that they perceive to have low or average skill did well at a tournament and they immediately look to explain it away with variance.

While sometimes variance does rear its beautiful head, there are also a lot of other factors at work in any given success story. There are many types of skill in Magic and sometimes these other manifestations of skill take a bigger role in winning a particular event than just the in-game prowess that we tend to focus too much on. In other words, our perception of a player's low skill level might simply be incorrect because our measuring tool is flawed. That player may not necessarily have the most in-game skill, but perhaps they knocked it out of the park with deck selection and sideboarding, and that is still reflective of skill. It's just a different, non-traditional kind of skill. Modern is a good example of a format that measures skills in ways that are far different than what we normally think of as skillful. As Magic changes, the kinds of skills necessary for success also change. Adapting to the new ways we can demonstrate skill in Magic is imperative to long-term success.

I view it the same way I would look at stats in a Role-Playing Game, or RPG. Do you put your points in Speed or Strength or Charisma? Intelligence isn't the only stat. Some Magic players might have max points for In-Game Skill but they only have five points in Mental Fortitude or Sideboarding or Metagaming. Most players tend to only focus on trying to improve their In-Game Skill to the exclusion of other skills, when a lot of times they would get a lot more mileage by focusing in other areas, areas they may not even really think about or know exist.

To provide an example of how important these other skills are, I owe a lot of my success this last year to Brad Nelson. Brad Nelson is not the best in the world when it comes to piloting a game of Magic. Don't get me wrong, Brad is still very good at that, but that's not his area of expertise, but when it comes to sideboarding, metagaming and figuring out how to exploit a format or a particular deck, there is nobody better than Brad. That isn't just hyperbole. Nobody else really thinks on the same level he does. Just spending time testing with him this year has improved my skills in those areas by such a significant factor that I went from a mediocre season as a Silver Pro to the best Magic year of my life. I'm getting older, slower and dumber every year, so it's hard to imagine I'm getting better at in-game skill as the years go by, but I got to boost my stats in other skills, and the difference was absolutely enormous.

It's no surprise to me that I have routinely done poorly at Pro Tours, which occur at the very start of a new format, but yet I often succeed at Grand Prix as the season progresses. I'm not great at in-game skill or being able to quickly identify strategies, how to sideboard on the fly, or how to adapt to new strategies that you see pop up at Pro Tours. However, I'm very good at solving the puzzle of specific formats the longer and longer I have time to work on it. By the time these later Grand Prix come around, I have mastered a wide variety of decks and know how all the pieces of the format fit together.

When I show up to a tournament like that, I may not be even close to the top of the ladder when it comes to in-game skill, but I've cultivated all these other skills that are important to Magic success enough to a point where I may still be one of the most overall skilled players in the room anyway.

Having long-term success isn't even just about improving your own skills in certain areas, it's also about surrounding yourself with people who have skillsets that differ from your own, recognizing where each player succeeds and fails, and trying to maximize everyone's individual talents to bring up the whole group. A lot of times players will only surround themselves with the best players they know. While there is a lot of value in this, sometimes the best players aren't great teammates, and sometimes overlooked players have a lot of value to offer to a group even if they aren't the most talented at in-game decision making. This also doesn't take into account that we often have a flawed understanding of who the best players are if we are only looking at in-game skill, because it ignores such a huge part of what makes someone a successful Magic player.

I often hear people complain about Modern, saying that it isn't a “skill format.” Despite those claims, we often see the same people putting up strong Modern results week in and week out. Corey Burkhart is a great example of this – he has mastered his Grixis Control archetype in Modern and he has multiple Grand Prix Top 8's and a Magic Online Championship Playoff win with the deck. It's hard to argue that Corey has simply gotten lucky every time he has entered a Modern tournament.

Why has Corey succeeded in a “no skill format” where others cannot? The answer is that Corey does have a lot of Modern skill, it's just that Modern emphasizes a lot of skills that we don't traditionally recognize as being “skills” in Magic. Games of Modern are generally over pretty quickly, which takes away from a lot of the in-game skill that we've come to rely on in formats like Legacy and Standard. Modern, on the other hand, glorifies skills like deck selection, card choices, sideboarding, mulliganing, and format familiarity.

If you want to improve at Modern, consider working on improving in those areas of your game. You can still demonstrate skill in Modern and outplay your opponents, but a lot of that happens before the tournament even starts.

In fact, those are all skills that are becoming more and more important in Magic as the game evolves over the years. I often hear older players complaining that Magic isn't as skill-intensive as it used to be in the “good old days.” I reject that notion! I think Magic has just as much skill now as it ever has, that skill just manifests itself differently, and to keep up with Magic we have to adapt as players to the new kinds of “skillz that kill.” These days, so much is riding on things like mulligans, deck selection and sideboarding compared to Magic years ago, and adapting to perfect those skills is a way better way to approach the game then just complaining that things aren't the same as they used to be.

I want to take a quick look at some of the different skills that we often underrate, overlook, or just flat out don't even think about.

Skill #1: Sideboarding

Sideboarding is an enormous skill that we simply do not credit enough for people's success. Brad Nelson is a master at constructing sideboards and having plans for how to sideboard on both the play and the draw in every single matchup. If you want to pinpoint one area where he has an edge on nearly everyone else in the field, this is it. That edge likely contributes to multiple wins per tournament for Brad over someone who is just picking up a deck and doesn't know how to sideboard exactly.

Skill #2: Deck Selection or Metagaming

If we're assigning skill points like an RPG game, then I'd go ahead and call this one Decksterity. Deck selection means choosing a deck to play that is well-positioned in the current field. This skill involves a mixture of intuition, logic and data and just-flat out experience in evaluating how players will react to the results of the previous week's events. Oftentimes, this also involves keeping up with the tide of public opinion by following social media, articles, and checking Magic Online results to see if people are starting to gravitate toward a specific strategy.

As an aside: There are many players who are working with a budget or simply want to play a deck that they enjoy regardless of how well-positioned it is, and I want to state that there is nothing wrong with that. I'm writing this article with the intention of it being applied toward competitive tournament endeavors, but Magic is meant to be fun, and I encourage everyone to play the game in the way that they enjoy playing so long as it's within the rules and respectful to each other.

Skill #3: Card Choices

This skill refers to how we make individual choices within a specific deck to combat the metagame. Once we've selected a deck that we think is good for the upcoming tournament, we still need to figure out what the right build of that deck should be. Oftentimes we end up playing the right deck but with the wrong build, and that costs us. The goal is to play the right deck with the right build, and almost every time I've done well at the professional level it has been because I've hit the sweet spot of playing a good deck with a good build. Say what you want about in-game skill, but I've found that having the right deck with the right card choices will go a lot further in a tournament than playing at 100% efficiency with a pile of mediocre cards.

Skill #4: Mental Fortitude

Beyond simply having the right deck and right cards for a tournament, a large part of tournament success also falls under the confines of the tournament itself. Some players are simply not great at playing tournaments. They crumble under pressure or let mistakes, their opponents or even a touch of variance get under their skin and it affects their play. They will tilt off after a loss and prevent themselves from being able to recover for the remaining rounds, or they will tilt off after a misplay or a run of bad luck within a match and let it affect how they play the rest of the match. Many players will also just give up when they think they are losing a game and won't look for those small opportunities to claw back and win the game.

Having a strong mental game and being able to approach a tournament round by round without getting emotional or let outside factors cloud your judgment is a major skill that many players lack. You can have the right deck and be a great player, but if you mentally throw in the towel at any point, it's basically all over.

Skill #5: Preparation

When I talked above about deck selection and metagaming, I covered the skill of figuring out the metagame of what decks you perceive people will play based on various factors such as last week's results, public perceptions and so forth. What I didn't talk about is how to determine the deck that actually beats your predicted metagame, and a lot of that falls under preparation.

Once you have an enemy, it is usually possible to figure out a way to defeat that enemy, but that's where preparation comes in big time. Oftentimes our first instincts are wrong, our decks that are supposed to beat the best decks don't actually do that in practice, and the only way to figure that out is through trial and error. My testing for tournaments usually involves me spending time reviewing the previous week to figure out my expected metagame and then trying different decks, card choices, and configurations to try to solve that problem.

Skill #6: Format Familiarity

This overlaps a lot with in-game skill as being familiar with the format will lead to making better plays in game, as well as making better mulligan decisions, which is a huge factor in tournament success. Being familiar with a format means that you can do things like identify what deck your opponent is playing with the first piece of information you are given, know roughly what 75 cards comprise that decklist, and know what your strategy should be against the deck. I attribute nearly all of my in-game skill to format familiarity. When I'm playing really great Magic at a tournament, it's usually because I've spent tens to hundreds of hours over the past weeks and months learning everything there is to know about it and my format familiarity is at an all-time high. When a situation that springs up in a tournament game reminds me of a similar board state that I encountered testing on Magic Online the week before, that's a good feeling.

Skill #7: Stamina

Stamina refers to one's ability to play Magic at a high level for a long tournament. Some tournaments start at nine in the morning and don't finish up until around 10 p.m. That's a long time to play and Magic is a very mentally taxing game. It often strains your mind so much that it can be like a sport where it leaves your body drained afterward. This is especially true for me when I'm playing a deck or style of archetype I am not super familiar with, as the decisions do not come as naturally and I have to use more brainpower to make them.

Years ago, before I wrote any articles or had any tournaments success, I was just a random guy who played in PTQs in the Virginia area and traveled to SCG Opens when they were close. I went on a streak at one point where I lost four consecutive win and ins for Top 8 of SCG Opens. I had never Top 8'd an open and this was very frustrating for me. The major reason for this was that I would get tired and get headaches by the end of the day that really messed up my ability to play well. If I had been able to handle playing 13 straight hours better, I probably would have won some of those rounds.

Skill #8: Range

Range refers to what kinds of decks someone is willing to play. I used to have an extremely narrow range. I used to play White-Blue, Blue-Black or Esper Control in every format no matter its viability. I was like a young Shaheen Soorani. Then I discovered what green cards were and for a while, I only really touched green midrange strategies. These days, I tend to play the kinds of cards and decks I'm good at and enjoy, but if those decks are not viable, I will pick up and try to learn a different strategy even if it doesn't suit my natural talents. I'd love to eventually reach the level of a player like LSV, who can play basically any deck or strategy with a high amount of skill. The problem with having a niche for what kinds of decks you play and only playing decks in those niches is that those decks aren't always good. Sometimes you handicap yourself severely by not being able to play a deck outside of your comfort zone. Expanding your range as a Magic player is key for long-term success as certain strategies move in and out of viability.

Conclusion

This by no means is an exhaustive list, but hopefully this provides some insight into many skills in Magic that go beyond one's savvy at piloting the cards in game. Many of these skills are related to each other and many also bleed over into in-game skills, but the main point here is to recognize that these skills exist, these skills matter, and these skills often go completely ignored when we try to rationalize people's successes or lack thereof.

A lot of times we can't really improve our in-game skill that much. The harsh truth of the matter is that some people are simply more naturally gifted than others in that arena. Some Magic players are simply brilliant and think on a level far beyond the average player. I don't think I will ever be able to achieve thinking on that level. I'm don't have the same natural aptitude that many do. What I can do, however, is cultivate my other skills as much as I possibly can and continue to find success that way. Because the other, less harsh truth of the matter is those other skills matter just as much if not more than in-game skill, and being able to recognize them and adapt to the changing landscape of skill in Magic is way more important than being able to perfectly navigate a mono-blue Counterspell control mirror circa 2002.

- Brian Braun-Duin




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