How I Became a Much Better Player with Deliberate Practice

February 8, 2015 | Posted by Dee

Tight technical play decides more games of Magic than all other factors combined.

- Patrick Chapin (Hall of Famer and “The Innovator”)

Applying Deliberate Practice to MTG

Many years ago, I used to play on Magic-League. It’s an online MTG league that kept ratings. You start out at 1600. My rating was around 1650 so I was basically a slightly above average player. For months, I played many games to try to increase my rating but I could not do it until I did one thing.

I started applying “deliberate practice” to my game. Instead of just playing games over and over and hoping to increase my rating, I became intentional about improving my playskill.

A lot has been written about deliberate practice. The book, Talent is Overrated, was instrumental for helping me understand the concept and applying it to MTG.

Here’s what my practice looked like.

I recorded every game using screencast software. Then, I went through each game and critiqued each decision point and asked myself if I made the right play. This included evaluating sideboarding decisions. I think sideboarding is the biggest area players can get an edge against intermediate/advanced competition.

After a couple months of doing this, my rating jumped to 1760, which was top 50 in Constructed on Magic-League.

But more importantly, I gained a much better understanding of how the game works. I made less misplays because I trained my mind how to spot good and bad plays. The coolest thing was being able to see my opponents’ mistakes without even looking for them.

I felt like I gained a spider sense for detecting bad plays and good ones. For example, I was watching commentary of the last Pro Tour and someone made a play that seemed bad. Right after I thought that, LSV, the commentator, said he thought the play was suboptimal.

In another example, a few Pro Tours ago, I was watching the stream of AJ Sacher. He was commentating on the Pro Tour match with Finkel. Finkel had just called the attacking bluff of his opponent. Basically, his opponent attacked with a 3/3 into Finkel’s 4/4. Finkel thought for a second and decided to block. His opponent had nothing.

I thought this play was brilliant because there was a really good chance the game would turn into a race. If it did, Finkel couldn’t afford to take the damage. No one in AJ’s chat noticed this play except AJ. I thought the play could decide the game for Finkel and sure enough, right after I thought that, AJ said the same thing in his chat.

The game did become a race and Finkel ended up winning with only 2 life. Afterwards, AJ wrote that Finkel won because of that brilliant block.

The playskill I gained from deliberate practice translated to real life and Magic Online. I won a lot more at FNMs. I regularly got top four at big FNMs and I top eighted a States tournament.

Also, I have a 60%+ win rate over hundreds of matches in Magic Online tournaments where cards were on the line.

Read Poker Books

Here’s the catch, though. Can you spot mistakes in your games?

I had to draw from my poker background to learn how spot the mistakes in my games. Poker helped because it gave me the tools to calculate odds, understand outs, and read my opponent’s hand. These things are critical for playing a tight game of Magic.

I don’t think I would’ve been able to evaluate my games successfully without the poker background.

I learned how to play poker by reading poker books. Those books were super helpful because you can take their concepts and apply them to MTG. There’s a good reason why many of the top pros have a poker background.

Unfortunately, there are no good books for learning the concepts of tight technical play in MTG. When people ask me how to improve their technical play, I literally tell them to read poker books.

Here are five poker books I recommend:

  • The Theory of Poker: A Professional Poker Player Teaches You How To Think Like One
  • Getting Started in Hold ‘em
  • Small Stakes Hold ‘em: Winning Big With Expert Play
  • Professional No-Limit Hold ‘em: Volume I
  • Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em

The lack of good technical play books is definitely understandable because Magic is much more complex than poker especially since the MTG card pool changes on a regular basis unlike poker.

I can only imagine how tough it would be to come up with fundamental concepts of technical play and then find relevant examples to illustrate those concepts. Also, there is not much monetary incentive to write that book.

It’s easier and more lucrative to write about deck building and decklists. However, as the Chapin quote above implies, if you really want to win more matches, you should focus on improving your technical play.

Learn from the Pros

Here’s another way to apply deliberate practice to MTG. I haven’t tried it but it seems like it would work pretty well.

Analyze how the pros play by watching their MTGO videos. You can find them on Channel Fireball and Starcitygames.

But there’s a way you should watch them to get maximum benefit. At each decision point, pause the video and ask yourself what the right play is. Don’t forget to include mulligan and sideboarding decisions.

Then, compare your play with what the pro does. If your play is different, try to figure out why the pro’s play was better. Now, sometimes your play will be better but you better have a really good reason why.

To get feedback on particular decisions, take a screenshot of the game, post it on MTG Salvation or this subreddit, explain the situation or game state, and ask people what play they would do.

If you do this a lot, I bet you’ll become a much better player.

Warning! Deliberate Practice is Not Fun (But That’s Okay)

One of the interesting things from the research about deliberate practice is that applying the concept is not fun. But when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.

Consider the world class ice skater. She looks flawless in the Olympics. She makes difficult jumps look easy. However, if you were at her countless practices, you would see the hundreds of falls she experienced before she was able to nail those jumps perfectly. Falling down over and over is not fun.

You’re going to have that same experience of falling down multiple times and learning from your falls before you actually become much better.

By closely analyzing your own games and/or pros’ games, you’ll be doing something out of your comfort zone. You will see many mistakes and that is not fun.

In my experience, the evaluation sessions were draining. It was definitely a lot more fun to just play games without critiquing them.

But you know what? I’m a spike. What’s fun for me is winning. That’s why I kept at it.

Focus on Technical Play, Not Deck Building

I recommend mostly playing tier one decks. It’s hard enough trying to figure out the right plays. You don’t want to add another complex task to your plate.

But here’s what great. I believe the process of evaluating games helps your deck building skills. I’m not sure how this works but I do know that I’m a much better deck builder and I never tried to intentionally improve my deck building skill.

I think it’s because you’re taking a deeper look at games and somehow this helps you become better at evaluating the power level of cards and how cards interact with each other. Those two skills are critical for building strong decks that attack the metagame.

Also, having many recorded games is a boon for deck tuning. If you are recording your games, it’s easy to review them to see the cards that are not performing as well as the others.

Once you identify the worst cards in the deck, you can go through the card pool and try to find better alternatives. If you can’t find any, then the deck is probably flawed or not good enough for the metagame. Then, you can simply choose another tier one deck.

You can do a similar thing with sideboarding. Review your games of a particular matchup and see which cards are underperforming in sideboarded games. Then, try to find better cards based on the situations and game states you reviewed.

Play Online

Finally, I’m a big proponent of playing online for several reasons.

  • You can play a lot of games quickly
  • It’s a lot easier to record games
  • You can play any deck for free (with certain programs like Cockatrice)
  • You can switch decks quickly
  • There’s a diversity of decks to play against
  • There’s a diversity of play styles to play against
  • You can find an opponent at pretty much any time during the day since Magic has a big global player base
  • You can play in your pajamas

I don’t know how active Magic-League is these days. The last time I tried it, I couldn’t find anyone to play with.

Today, I would look into Cockatrice. It’s free. Just make sure to only create or join games labeled “Serious” or “Competitive” to increase the level of your competition. Also, label your games “with sideboard” or “2 out of 3” because learning how to sideboard is very important.

Read the comments on Reddit.