Magic: the Gathering
August 8, 2008 5:26 AM   Subscribe

How does one get skilled at Magic: the Gathering?

I've played Magic for years now and the high level of play at tournaments still amazes me. What skills does one need to be able to play it at that high of a level?
posted by LSK to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I used to play with a bunch of friends. Some consider it a hobby others considered it their life. The ones that considered it their life did a lot better. They read books, they subscribed to forums, they found out what worked and what didn't. Every single moment was spent building decks and trying them out.
posted by bleucube at 5:35 AM on August 8, 2008

1 - Build you deck around things you can get to. My favorite deck was a sappling one, where 1/1 sappling tokens were cheaper than penny candy.

2 - Know the odds of your deck, and use cards to increase that. I forget the numbers needed for a deck because I always have between 50 and 60 anyway and I know that's in the limits somewhere. Put those amazing cards in there, then some cards that will let you go find them.

3 - Don't forget about the small creatures. An 8/8 doesn't do much for you if you don't have the Mana to use it. Some of the most frustrating games I've lost in were when someone had a small creature deck and they started getting me before I could get stuff out.

4 - Find the Mana balance. The exact number will be different based on what all you need to use it on. So play around with it until you find a number where you get both Mana and the stuff to use it on.
posted by theichibun at 5:47 AM on August 8, 2008

I have never played this game, but some friends of mine were competitive, and it seems to come down to keeping several decks going and experimenting with their various strengths.
posted by phrontist at 5:51 AM on August 8, 2008

An old college roommate used to compete in tournaments like that back in the day and he had invested a couple $grand in his cards, and he said that the ones still consistently beating him spent considerably more.

So, the above tips are nice, but I'd research the bankrolls of your competitors. (no, I'm not saying anyone can buy their way to winning, but as theichibun says, you want to squeeze all the odds in your favor, and sometimes that means dropping a lot of money on some rare cards that give you that edge. Sure you still need the skill to pull it off, but without the right cards, it's much more difficult)
posted by johnstein at 5:53 AM on August 8, 2008

Money, Money, Money, MOONNEEY!

Net decking is the cheapest way to remain competitive. If you want to be creative you have to have more money to get more cards because you will be experimenting constantly.

Seriously though, just play casual, I never enjoyed the tournament scene that much (except for the casual games I played at the outskirts of said tournaments).
posted by symbollocks at 6:22 AM on August 8, 2008

It's true that money does have a decent amount to do with Magic, in that Standard has individual cards in upwards of $50 (Hello Tarmogoyf, Mutavault, etc.). However, you're asking about skill, and besides, if you have friends who play seriously too, you can borrow and trade.

There are 2 ways to get your skill up: deck building, and gameplay.

Deckbuilding really is a lot of trial and error. As you play more and more, you realize how efficient cards are, but theory is only an approximation of reality. Certain cards that appear so-so will work just right in your deck, while others that should be great are just kind of weak and lacking real synergy. Play multiple games with a deck, get a feel for it, and only then do you know what cards to cut and what to add.

Furthermore, play-test against other good decks. Being able to beat your little brother's dragon deck isn't a good estimate of how it will do at a tournament.

Gameplay, or operational skills are the other aspect, and one that I'm still working on, even at Friday Night Magic. Learn the rules and the turn order, and do things very slowly at first. People playing casually will do things such as untap, draw, completely skipping their upkeep. Or they'll declare their attack by tapping creatures, skipping ahead. Just like martial artists perfect their form by moving slowly, so should you play slowly and methodically. You don't need to go super slow all the time, but thinking before acting is very important. Magic is a game of imperfect information, and you never want to tip your hand too soon.

A couple of quick tips: Do most things as late as possible. It really stinks to tap out and then not be able to respond to a crucial play on your opponent's turn. Do things in response to your opponent, or at the end of his/her turn if nothing important happened. Similarly, unless you need to do something before the attack, play spells after your attack. Untapped mana and a clutch of cards makes an opponent wary of combat tricks.

Unfortunately, the final part is kind of just natural. Some players simply have amazing memories. Pro players who are great at drafting can remember not only what they drafted, but also what they passed. I can barely remember what I've picked. Practice, practice, and practice some more.
posted by explosion at 6:37 AM on August 8, 2008

Try to make a new deck everyday and test it out.

1. Mana balancing - i usually found that around 1/3 mana was adequate, but some decks will require more or less.

2. Card combos - Try to come up with unique combos (or look some up online) Then build a deck around it.

3. PRACTICE - seriously, play A LOT.

I used to play online with a program called OCTGN which allowed me to make a deck adhering to any of the formats available. It also allowed me to access cards that i would never see in real life(black lotus, moxes, etc.), and therefore negate the money advantage, which lets you focus on pure strategy.
I have no idea if OCTGN is still working, but this thread has me wanting to get back in the game.

If indeed OCTGN is still working, let me know, I'd like to play sometime...feel free to MeMail me if you have other questions as well.
posted by schyler523 at 6:41 AM on August 8, 2008

I haven't played for a long time, but I was really into Magic in high school and just after. This is all based on my experience, which may be outdated. I agree with bleucube, what it really takes is immersion. Talking with other people who play at a high level and take the game seriously, and especially play-testing your decks against them. It's like any other competitive thing, you get better by playing against people more skilled than you. I played some on the weekends, and 1 or 2 games at lunch. The guys who went to tournaments played every day, for 6-8+ hours on the weekends, talked about the game, read about it, went home and tweaked their decks. At least one guy I knew made a healthy living by constantly trading until he had a good collection, selling it off, and starting the process over.

In addition there is the issue of always keeping up with the current state of the game. If tournament play is still the way it used to be, they only use the 3(?) most recent expansion sets. That means that what you can do with a deck is constantly changing, and you need to be on top of what the killer cards, combos, and strategies of the day are. This is really the key to the game I think: knowing the existing cards and the ways that they work together well enough that when a new set comes out you can quickly recognize the valuable cards and how they will interact with existing strategies. This was the part that I hated, and we always just used all the cards we had.

As far as specific strategy, speed and mana efficiency are just about everything. Even a three card combo is generally too elaborate to be useful. An 8/8 creature is never going to come out in a game against a skilled player, and it's a waste to have it in your deck. Play with the fewest cards allowed.

I think Wizard magazine used to print lists of tournament winner's decks, and talk about the strategies that they are using. You can even buy replicas of some of them. It's a good way to get an idea of what the top players are doing, and you'll quickly see how they each have a unique take on the hundreds of current cards. It's an incredibly complex game, and it's always changing.

And remember: blue==playing dirty ;)
posted by Who_Am_I at 7:02 AM on August 8, 2008

Parmanparman, if you don't have anything helpful to say, please take it to MetaTalk or just off the site completely.

Magic, despite its nerdy fantasy setting, has a well-organized, and well-funded tournament scene, with prize support. People get obsessive about all sorts of things, from sports to chess. Granted that chess does not have as dynamic a metagame, and the game itself does not change or require a buy-in, but so what? If someone wants to devote some time to mastering a game, it's their prerogative.

Furthermore, at least on the top end, the players tend to be very sociable, and some of the most notable players have been well-groomed, decently dressed, and even (gasp!) attractive. Get over your stereotypes, and let people have the hobbies they want.
posted by explosion at 7:07 AM on August 8, 2008

If you are going to be making your own decks, study your mana curve very, very carefully. Unless a card wins the game for you, you shouldn't have anything over 6 CMC in there.

Pick colors that match your preferred play style. Do you like to beat face? Red Deck Wins. Combo? Dragonstorm. Be evasive? Faeries. Discard? Mill? Whatever you like to do, make sure that you play a deck with colors that lets you do it. This will keep you more focused on your deck's theme and goals. I'm a MBC type myself, so obviously don't play competitively. ;)

If you just want to win, then netdecking is the way to go. It will be pricey and will involve you playtesting that deck over and over again so that you know it like it's your own. You will also need to tweak it for your play environment.

Brainstorm decks with other players. The stuff coming out of the Japanese MTG scene for the past few years have been wacky-amazing.

60 cards only. A twitch over a third of the deck should be mana and mana-accel.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:22 AM on August 8, 2008

(1) Practice, practice, practice, and have fun. Play all of the goddamned time, at least 3 or 4 times a week. At a certain point the more advanced stuff will come easier, and you'll learn to pick up on the different possibilities each card can offer without having to watch a pro.

(2) Combos, specifically those that can increase mana during your turn. You can always use more mana. (It's been a long time since I played, and I really don't remember the exact cards, but I know this is how someone more skilled than I beat the sunshine out of us almost every game. Being 18, I kept going back for more, but he was always able to pull more mana than me.)

(3) Find someone much more skilled than yourself (I don't necessarily think that this person has to be a tournament player) and watch them play someone else a few times. I think it would be easier to learn some of the key strategies if you're not sitting across the deck from said person cursing every time you get hit. After watching for a while, play against some players slightly more skilled than you and work your way up gradually.

(4) Nthing continuous expermiental deck building.

(5) Keep up with the new card releases, and try to hunt down some of the older cards. A lot of those older cards tended to have some really powerful cards that aren't matched in the new releases, and just one or two in your deck can make it amazing.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 7:26 AM on August 8, 2008

First, learn the rules in and out. I mean, obsessively. Magic has a few tiers of rules knowledge that get you through the game. The first tier is enough to just have fun with your friends. Then the second tier is much more precise and it's the level that more serious players know. As much as I hate to recommend it (because the software is horrible, horrible I tell you!), you can learn a lot by playing Magic Online. It walks you through each phase and enforces all the rules correctly and will drill everything into you. Just getting to this level will win you a lot of games. The final tier, which the pros and judges are at, is the absolute minutiae of the rules book. They're almost to the point of quoting the actual rule verbatim. They know all the weird, complex card interactions as soon as a new set comes out, and they can answer any rules question with lots of confidence. Getting to this level will win a few more games for you.

Second, as everyone has said above, you need to immerse yourself in the game. Playing multiple times a week, lots of reading online (I don't really know the good sites, but things like Star City Games, The Mana Drain, etc.), and most importantly, finding players who are better than you. It's really hard for a group of friends who decide to improve to do it on their own. It just won't work. You need to be playtesting and drafting with tournament players.

As a warning though, competitive Magic unfortunately brings out the worst in some people. Playing the game live (as opposed to online where every rule is enforced and there is no room for disagreement) can be a bit of a pain. See the beginning of this article, which can be typical for tournament Magic.
posted by Durin's Bane at 8:07 AM on August 8, 2008

Make yourself a tournament-illegal plague rat deck, and evaluate your decks against it. A deck full of only common plague rats and land (from early editions, no idea if newer ones differ, but they're cheap commons anyway) scales with horrifying speed -- and that's how fast the best tournament players' decks get rolling (some are even faster).

If I couldn't compete with that, the deck was just too slow for serious play.
posted by Pufferish at 8:09 AM on August 8, 2008

I don't play seriously at all, but I think keeping up on the sets for whatever format tournament you're playing in plays a big role, too. When you're making decisions you need to always balance what cards they might have in their hand. You can make much more informed guesses when you know what's possible in the set and what the theme of their deck is.

Also, if you end up playing draft formats (which help negate the buy-in substantially) that advice goes double. Same for the practice advice. The metagame in a draft is critically important and can really only be learned through practice. It's a wonderful format, though, and you should definitely give it a try if you're worried about competing in constructed format tournies. They're much more dependent on insane combos and super mana-accelerated decks and I think they're substantially less interesting to play with and against. Draft decks are always quirky and weird and I enjoy playing them much more.
posted by heresiarch at 8:14 AM on August 8, 2008

I haven't played Magic for over ten years, so take this with a gallon of salt. That being said, I heard the whole "you have to spend a ton of money to be competitive" whine a lot then, and it simply wasn't true. My most fun and competitive (as in, I won a couple of local tournaments) deck back then was almost entirely common and uncommon cards* and cost me about ten bucks total. I know WOTC or whoever owns them now tweaks the official cards a lot, but I would wager that they still put out excellent common cards if you use them correctly.

For me, the important part of getting good was playing a lot of different decks. From that experience, I learned that my decks had weaknesses against certain types of other decks, and then tweaking that for broad competitive play. In a tournament setting one has a sideboard for responses, but if you can tell that different decks give your deck fits, you should address those weaknesses.

I wish I could have anonymously responded to this. Now anyone looking at my history can see what a huge nerd I am.

*Red/Black; the red was direct damage and the black was discard. I bet I can even come up with the entire deck roster from memory if you memail me.
posted by norm at 8:20 AM on August 8, 2008

Everything theichibun and mitzyjalapeno say. The basic idea of 'how to get good' at a CCG (if not actual strategies and deck concepts) are basically transparent across most CCGs.

I haven't played Magic in ages (since the very early days of the game), but I have played other recent CCGs with friends - I played for fun, they played competitively. The defining characteristic of a good player, IMO, is the ability to see card combos. Out of the 100-odd cards released in an expansion (and the hundreds or potentially thousands of cards released before), which two or three or four can work extremely well together, and how do you maximize the probability of getting those cards in your hand at the same time? Having a mathematically-oriented mind helps quite a lot; so does reading up on strategies and becoming active in the game's community. Lots of practice is a requirement - people who win at Gen-Con tournaments have played thousands and thousands of games to get to that point.

In lots of games, this tends to lead to rock-paper-scissors at tournaments - players will use variations on basic decks X, Y, and Z, where X beats Y, Y beats Z, and Z beats X. In games where this is the case, it isn't uncommon to see groups of people entering tournaments in blocs, with each major deck concept represented - the advantage is that you can playtest deck concepts with your co-conspirators before the tournament, and that there is little chance that everyone is going to be knocked out in the first few rounds. It also leads to lots of drama, because of prize-splitting arguments and whatnot, and most individuals tournaments frown on that sort of thing, to say the least. I don't know how common this is in Magic, though.
posted by Cassilda at 8:33 AM on August 8, 2008

I think a great way to learn more about what types of cards there are and deckbuilding strategies is to play Limited a lot. It will help you to work around your limitations, which translates well into Standard or Extended play. This will only help you so far, though, so like others said: practice, practice, practice! Don't be afraid to go online and look at decklists and imitate them, but at some point you need to really intricately understand how card interactions work. And you also need to have a huge encyclopedic knowledge of cards and what they do.

If you're interested in the tournament scene, you're going to have to know what every card in the current Standard environment does off the top of your head. It sounds daunting, but you don't have to recite the things word for word. At some point you should be able to look at a decklist, and without looking up each card, be able to explain the win conditions for the deck and explain what decks it fares well or poorly against.
posted by joshrholloway at 9:00 AM on August 8, 2008

I used to be a very competitive magic player but dropped out of the scene about 6 years ago. Most of what I say should still be true, but I apologize if I mainly reference older cards.

Most of these answers don't accurately reflect what it takes to play magic at the truly high levels (i.e. Pro Tour). A high level player will be capable of playing just about any deck and card ownership will never be a consideration. Even at the level of a PTQ (Pro Tour Qualifier), almost everyone you face is not going to be restricted by card ownership.

The key to being a good magic player is understanding resource advantage. There are two fundamental types of resource advantages: card advantage and tempo advantage.

Card advantage is the net gain you get in cards over an opponent. For example, playing Ancestral Recall, probably the best card ever, gives you an advantage of +2 for a single U. If I play Wrath of God and kill 4 of my opponents creatures and none of my own, this is a card advantage of +3. If you continue to make plays that net you card advantage, you will win the game. The problem with most cards that net you significant card advantage is surviving until you are able to play them.

Tempo advantageIs an advantage is the advantage you have in the pace of the game over your opponent. Time Walk nets you no card advantage, but is probably the best possible card you could play on your second turn since it lets you play another land and get ahead of your opponent. Hymn to Tourach is a great card because it nets you both card advantage and tempo advantage. Memory Lapse is a frequently used over Counterspell in many decks because it gains you tempo advantage. When Abeyance was a legal card, it was in virtually every deck because it gained you tempo advantage at no card cost.

All constructed decks in magic lay somewhere along the continuum from aggressive to control. Aggressive decks attempt to use tempo advantage to get the win. If you're playing a sleigh deck (is this term still used? lots of direct damage, small red creatures) and you haven't won by turn 7, odds are you're not going to win the game. This deck plays at a very fast tempo but has no way of generating card advantage. Similarly, if you're playing a control deck and you've got some life left at turn 7 (and you're not against another control deck), the odds are pretty good that you win. There are, of course, decks that lie somewhere along the middle of the continuum (Survival of the Fittest based decks, for example).

The exception to these rules are combo decks, which I won't really get into. Playing a combo decks frequently require the ability to perform relatively complex calculations in your head and tempo/card advantage are less of a consideration.

When playing Limited, tempo advantage becomes less important and it's basically all about card advantage. Limited games are much slower and you almost always have time to make bigger plays.

When you learn to approach Magic from the perspective of maximizing your resources against your opponent, you will become a much better player. I've also found that these fundamental ideas apply to just about any game as well. I rarely game anymore but in the rare instances I do, I will be able to hold my own (even in a game that's new to me vs. seasoned opponents), because I have a thorough understanding of these concepts.

One more thing that I forgot to mention: If constructed remains similar to the way it was when I played, there are typically anywhere from 2-4 different primary decks. The strategies in playing one deck against type of deck are usually pretty clear. Learning how to play your deck against another deck of the same type is one of the hardest things to do and is incredibly important to being a top tier player.
posted by christonabike at 9:05 AM on August 8, 2008 [9 favorites]

Lots of good advice here, I would also recommend that you find out what the most popular and most powerful decks are in the format you want to play and replicate them yourself (this is called netdecking). Keep these decks on the side in order to play your desk against them (your deck can also be a netdeck if you choose). Then play a lot, like really a lot. You can even play yourself (choose two decks and play both), playing yourself sounds silly but you can learn a lot by doing it. All in all, if you want to be a serious Magic player then you need to devote a lot of time, and at least some money, towards this goal. Also, be careful never to reveal too much information about your deck, and always keep your cards on you AT ALL TIMES; there is way too much thievery going on at card tournaments.
posted by Vindaloo at 9:32 AM on August 8, 2008

Vindaloo is right, playing against yourself can actually be very useful. Mainly it will help you learn the math of the game better, such as card drawing probability and mana distribution.
posted by joshrholloway at 11:52 AM on August 8, 2008

Start with this thread (And read all the linked posts)
Subscribe to SCG (likned above) and RSS feeds and read them.

Download Magic Workstation or Apprentice and make the decks you read about. Play them solo until you understand how they win, and why. Then play them against someone else who is better than you.
The next step is to figure out what sort of player you are, and select decks that work with your type- control, combo, aggro, some mixture. Focus on playing that type of deck, but practice playing against all types.

Good luck!
posted by Four Flavors at 4:20 PM on August 8, 2008

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