The Skills for Success in Every Format
I saw a discussion on social media the other day talking about skill, variance and whether Legacy was the most skill-intensive format in Magic. While it is true that some decks and strategies and styles of gameplay do require more skill to pull off than others, I still think there is a huge misconception about what constitutes skill in Magic and what skills are applicable to each format.
Mostly, I think players are pretty good at recognizing skills that take place directly within a game of Magic but have a huge blind spot when it comes to other skills in Magic.
I have already written an article about other skills in Magic beyond just the in-game skill that we glorify so much. Rather than rehash the things I talked about in that article, I am going to instead look at each of the major formats that we play in premier level events: Standard, Modern, Legacy, Sealed, and Draft and talk about the skills needed to thrive in those formats. Personally, I think there is just as much skill in Standard as Legacy, a statement that might come as a surprise, because there is a commonly held opinion that Legacy is the most skill-intensive format. They just emphasize different skills, and I want to look at these skills.
Legacy is a format that is dominated by Brainstorm and other blue cantrips like Ponder. You don't need to play these cards to do well in Legacy – in fact I think Lands, a red-green deck with around 35 lands in it, is the best deck in the format. With that said, most of the top decks are blue-based Brainstorm and Force of Will strategies.
More than any other format, Legacy is all about how well you play the game itself. Legacy decks are fairly well-defined strategies, often with years and years of theory behind them, and they don't change that often. As a result, Legacy doesn't emphasize things like deck construction or sideboarding nearly as much as other formats do.
It's easy to fall into a trap of just assuming that Legacy is the most skill-based format because almost all of the skill of Legacy just boils down to things like how you sequence your Brainstorms or how you play around Daze or when to fire off that Crop Rotation to avoid soft counters. It's easy to see bad decisions get immediately punished or good decisions rewarded. Legacy rewards the kinds of skills that we most traditionally associate with being good at Magic: outmaneuvering your opponent's cards with your own and getting the most value out of them.
This is just one area of skill in Magic, and while it is perhaps the most important skill, it's still only one cog in the wheel of full Magic mastery. These skills, like any others, are also very learnable. With enough practice one can learn how to better sequence your cards. The biggest key to improving at Legacy is to play a lot of games with cards like Brainstorm, Ponder and the like and work on improving on when to cast them and what to do with the cards you see. What decks you play matters less than getting good at playing Legacy-style cards. Over time, it becomes easier to make these decisions. Even non-blue decks like Death and Taxes are still hugely driven by sequencing: learning how to use Rishadan Port and Aether Vial at the right times and learning how to order playing out your creatures is big.
The key skills in Modern are recognition and assessment. Modern is a format that requires mastery of a particular strategy more than any other. Modern is by far the most diverse format in the game. There are so many different decks that are all playable choices and these decks often do wildly different things. Modern has the weirdest decks of any format. There are traditional decks like Jund or Burn or White-Blue Control, but for each of those decks there are off-the-wall strategies like Grishoalbrand or Lantern Control or Ad Nauseam or Red-White Prison or White-Black Smallpox or...you name it.
Games in Modern are usually over quickly and sideboarded games are often decided by powerful sideboard hoser cards. This means that the skill in Modern is largely one of preparation and familiarity. It is paramount to be able to immediately recognize what strategy your opponent is on and then immediately recognize what your deck needs to do to beat that strategy. You don't have a lot of time to adjust mid game because of how quickly games end, making early decisions extremely important and early mistakes extremely punishing.
Being successful in Modern requires an investment into learning the decks of the format more than the cards. In Legacy, being good at traditional skills like in-game decision making are good enough to carry you, but that won't fly in Modern. In Modern knowing every aspect of your deck and quickly recognizing opposing decks, what cards they will have access to and how to strategize against those cards so you don't make colossal early mistakes is the most important skill. That takes time and experience.
The best way to improve in Modern is to put effort into mastering your deck and being prepared to beat the myriad of strategies you will face over the course of an event. This often means studying the format and thinking ahead about how to beat these decks.
Formats like Modern and Legacy have a variety of extremely powerful sideboard cards. It's usually pretty clear when you are supposed to board them in and when you draw them in sideboarded games you have a huge advantage. Standard, being a smaller format with less powerful options coupled with recent design philosophy to print less of these “anti” cards, means that you rarely have Standard sideboards with such clear decisions of what comes in and what goes out.
The skill in Standard is all about sideboarding and metagaming. Gameplay in Standard is generally, but not always, much less skill-intensive than it is in formats like Legacy. Still, I think it's way easier to cast Brainstorm and sequence Ponder with fetch lands than it is to build a great sideboard in Standard and have a cohesive sideboard strategy against all the decks. The skill it takes to succeed in Standard is way harder for me to personally master than the skills in Legacy. I say this not to imply that Standard is a harder format than Legacy, but rather to showcase that there is actually quite a bit of skill in Standard that many people overlook and I personally am just not as good at it.
Standard over the past few years is all about transitioning after sideboarding. Ramunap Red starts out as an aggressive deck but transforms into a bigger strategy with Glorybringer and Chandra. Mardu Vehicles is an aggressive artifact-centric deck that transforms into a Mardu Planeswalker Control deck. Even more rigid decks like Blue-Red Control often transition into having a creature plan after sideboard.
I think building a sideboard to anticipate how other people will build their sideboard, and then being able to design a cohesive plan is hard enough in Standard. I think that difficulty is then increased tenfold in actual matches, where you have to figure out what level your opponent is on and how they will sideboard because you really need to know if you are supposed to keep in your Fatal Pushes or side them out for Ob Nixilis and that answer is entirely dependent on what your opponent decides to do.
You have to make adjustments on the fly, and that is not very easy to do, especially when cards are often so close in power level. Should I have Tireless Tracker or Whirler Virtuoso? Should I have five removal spells or seven after sideboard? These decisions are often very close and also hard to make. For example, at Grand Prix Denver, I never boarded in Radiant Flames against Ramunap Red because they always go big, even though Radiant Flames feels like a card that is in the sideboard for Ramunap Red in the first place. I even boarded in Tireless Tracker against Red in my semifinals match because my opponent's sideboard plan involved going huge with cards like Hour of Devastation and I wanted card advantage to grind it out. I find mastering the song and dance of sideboarding and gameplan transitioning to be pretty hard and it is definitely the most important skill to learn and master in Standard.
One other skill that Standard pushes is metagaming. Legacy rewards you for mastering certain cards like Brainstorm. Modern rewards you for mastering your deck and knowing how to play it against the field. Standard rewards you for mastering the metagame by changing which decks you play on any given weekend to adjust for changes in the field.
I recognize that changing decks week in and week out is not something that a large amount of Magic players can afford to do, either for financial reasons or because they don't have time to invest in learning new decks all the time. That's perfectly fine, and I'm not suggesting that you have to do this, I just wanted to point it out as another skill that Standard rewards. You don't have to change decks, but you should work on changing your own deck for each event you play to adjust for how other people are changing their decks and work on constantly improving and updating your sideboarding plans to better effectively beat your opponent's sideboard plans.
Mastering sideboarding in Standard is a skill that can be learned. Brad Nelson has built an entire career on being the best in the game at doing this. While Brad is also an exceptional player, this is the area of his game that he has such a huge edge on everyone else and he gets a large amount of wins by winning the Princess Bride game in sideboarding against all of his opponents. He anticipates how they will sideboard and out levels them. The best way to learn this skill is to playtest specific matchups with specific sideboard plans and see if they work or not, and then move on to other plans. Prepare for every eventuality of how the opponent might sideboard.
I think Sealed is actually both the highest variance and highest skill format in Magic. To some extent, you are at the mercy of what cards you open, but there is also such an enormous amount of skill in building your deck, and then also an enormous amount of skill required to play the games out properly.
Sealed Deck rewards the skills of deckbuilding: creativity, ingenuity and problem solving. If you like thinking outside of the box when it comes to Magic, then Sealed is probably a format you should consider playing more. People who hate netdecking should also consider playing more Sealed, because sealed is the epitome of a format where everyone has to build their own deck and you can't lose with your brew against a finely tuned tier one force of nature. It takes a huge amount of skill to be able to build a pool properly and genius Limited players are able to find diamonds in the rough to make use of cards or ideas to salvage a bad pool that other players would likely overlook or not even consider at all.
There are also many times where you could build a good version of a bad archetype and it's actually better to build a bad version of a good archetype because those kinds of decks are simply better performing in a specific Sealed environment. There is a lot of thought that goes behind building a Sealed pool beyond just mashing your two best colors together into a deck. You have to really consider whether your deck is capable of beating the kinds of decks that others will build and then decide if maybe building a slightly worse deck that will match up better is a superior option.
Sealed Deck also requires a huge knowledge bank to work on. Skills in Limited formats generally transfer down through the years such that types of cards or types of strategies are almost always going to be good in Limited. People who have been playing Limited for many years always have a leg up on newer players when it comes to Limited. They've seen all these types of cards before and they know what kinds of removal spells are going to be good or that defensive ground creatures plus flying creatures is usually a solid limited game plan.
Sealed Deck also has a very high amount of in-game skill that is required to succeed. Some of this in-game skill are things like knowing which removal spells or pump spells to play around, which is just format knowledge. Much like how Sealed Deck values creativity and ingenuity in deck building, it also values those same skills in game play and sideboarding. A lot of being good in Sealed gameplay is being able to read your opponent. They are hitting land drops but not deploying much to the battlefield? They might have a sweeper. They have a game plan that trumps yours? You might have to get creative in sideboarding, sometimes even bringing in a new deck, or new color, or even just adding a color for a sideboard card with high impact. Sometimes it's important to also even ask yourself why they would be playing a particular color combination. If they are playing a color combination and you haven't seen many good cards yet, there's a pretty reasonable chance they are doing it because of some rare or rares in those colors and it might be possible to figure out which ones they are.
The best way to improve at the kinds of skills that Sealed emphasizes, which are mainly problem-solving abilities and being able to think outside of the box, are to work on experimenting more. If you run a practice Sealed event, try out some builds that wouldn't be your first choice. Listen to other people's advice on how to build a pool and try out their ideas.
While Draft, also being a limited format after all, utilizes many of the same skills as Sealed, I think it predominantly relies on a different skill set. Draft skill emphasizes logic, deduction and planning ahead.
Signalling is one of the most important skills in drafting. Signalling refers to figuring out what the players passing to you are drafting so you can avoid getting your colors cut by them as well as determining what colors the players you are passing to will end up in so you know what to expect to get back in pack two.
Signaling is all a logic and deduction game. You have to quickly scan a pack and attempt to deduce what cards or color of cards your neighbors have been selecting. Then you have to process that information to make a judgment call on which card to select yourself. There are also a lot of decisions to make regarding switching colors mid-draft that mostly boil down to using the information you have gathered so far and what you know of the format to make a calculated choice on whether or not it would be worth it to switch colors.
You also have to weigh factors like human error. Your neighbors won't always select the best card and likewise you won't always identify the best card for them to select. I always overhear people say things like “I can't believe you didn't take that card,” not realizing that a decent portion of the time they aren't supposed to take that card.
One way I really worked to improve my draft game over the past year is to put myself in other people's shoes. I had a lot of failed Pro Tours in draft that resulted from me poorly evaluating signals because other people didn't have the same card evaluations that I did. Regardless of whether I was actually right or wrong about those cards being good or bad didn't matter for understanding signals. What mattered is how my neighbors viewed those cards. Getting passed a card I think is really good doesn't mean the color is open if my neighbors don't also think that card is good.
The best way to improve at Draft is to take time after each draft to evaluate what went right and wrong in the draft. Try to understand why your neighbors made the choices they did and try to understand which archetypes performed well in the draft and why. The more you understand these things, the better your logic and deduction will be for future drafts.
I think learning what skills are most important to success in any given format and then working to improve at those skills is the best way to master a format. I have spent a lot of time trying to understand how to improve at various formats over the years I have played Magic and these are a lot of the conclusions I have drawn about what makes a good Modern player, or what makes a good Standard player, and so on. There is way more to it than “just being good at gameplay” and once I started to realize this, I also started to experience way more success in Magic. Skills needed to succeed also will change over time as formats adapt so it is also important to not hold rigid views of any given format but alter your assessments over time.
- Brian Braun-Duin