Know your game...

Posted: March 23, 2018

So - you’ve played your first few games of Arena. You’ve learned the basics - played a few lands, summoned a few creatures, battled your way through several turns, hopefully won games as well- and I’d like to welcome you the immensely rich and deep world of Magic: The Gathering. Yet all these new mechanics can be a bit overwhelming and maybe you’re feeling a bit lost; How do I improve at the game? What is the optimal play? I’m hoping this article will answer those questions at least in part, and that it will nudge you in the right direction to, step by step, becoming a better Magic player.

The basic answer I’ll give you is simple enough: Familiarize yourself. Familiarize, familiarize, familiarize. That is the keyword of this article. With what, you ask? Now that is a good question, and there’s more than a plethora of things to consider. First and foremost, though - Familiarize yourself with the game. 
I cannot stress enough how important this is. Learn the ropes, get a feel for what playstyle you enjoy, experiment with various cards and tactics. Fortunately for most, there is no better (and more fun!) way to achieve this than through simply playing the game. Click that ‘Play’ button, get into a match, play it out, try to see and note what happened this game. What went right this game? What went awry? Why did you win? What caused you to lose? There is something to be learned in every game. Now, this answer is obviously a bit general, but let me once again say how focal this is to improving. Getting the game down will naturally help you ease into all the other areas of this article. Which brings me to, well, the other areas: Familiarize yourself with your options. 
The main advice here is to focus. Take it slow, look at the cards in your hand, analyze the board. How will you play this turn out? How will the plays you make affect your board presence, how does it tie in with your game plan? What is your plan for the following turn, or the next one, and the one after that? Let’s say you can ramp out (gain access to more mana through cards like [Thunderherd Migration] or [Gift of Paradise], or play a creature. Maybe you need the board presence of the creature right now - or maybe ramping lets you play that big creature the next turn, resulting in valuable tempo. How might your opponent respond to these? Which one is the better play? Do you float mana for a [Counterspell] and pass on your turn, or do you tap out to play your [Glyph Seeker]? Fortunately there is no definitive answer to these almost ever - there are only more and less optimal options (and sometimes not even that), which is what makes Magic so skill-testing, but also wonderful to play. No way to go around this other than - again - playing it. A lot. 

Familiarize yourself with your deck. Always know what your gameplan is - do you try to overwhelm your opponent with early aggression and then use a few finishers to seal the deal? Stall the game out, distributing your resources on dealing with your opponent, so you can drop high-end spells later on that finish the game off single handedly? There are countless decks and play styles, every one of them having it’s nuances and requiring a different way to pilot it. Know what your deck can do and can do, in multiple ways - Know where your strengths lie. Know how playing a certain card can potentially help you five turns down the line. Know what you can draw from your deck, know what you’re trying to look for digging with [Supreme Will], know which ways you have to deal with your opponent’s threats. Learn how to mulligan your deck - recognize good hands from bad ones, know which risks you can take - don’t be afraid of the mulligan, be aggressive with it. Are you going first, and maybe are looking for a good early tempo plays? Have a below average hand, but are on the draw (going second) and are willing to take the risk of not mulliganing? Can you deal with this or that should your opponent have the perfect hand? Knowing the intricacies of your deck helps immensely, and it helps you adapt during the game much more fluidly, since the better you know it, the faster you can familiarize yourself with the flow. 
Many an article has been written on this topic. The very basic premise is learning to recognize the Aggressor in the matchup, which, in short, means differentiating between the one on the offensive in the matchup and the one who has to respond to the enemy’s threats, having to be careful to not fall behind far too much, hoping to turn the game around eventually. The state of the this is not static, and usually can shift many times during the match. Sometimes it is rather straightforward, like during the early game in an aggro vs control matchup, but even then it, do not take it for granted. Especially while playing Aggro or Midrange decks it is paramount to establish the Aggressor as soon as possible, but be aware that the tide may change very soon, so look for all the opportunities to take advantage of your aggression, look to chip damage in, play into your gameplan. Try to recognize what your opponent is playing as soon as possible and determine, how, more or less the game should play out. Obviously, nothing ever goes perfect, but it’s always good to have a plan. For this, though, knowing only your own deck in and out (although it helps immensely) might not be enough…

Familiarize yourself with your opponent. While the task of learning the format and the metagame around you might be very daunting, it eventually becomes necessary if you strive to compete and improve. Do not force yourself into it, Magic takes time. It’s fine if you don’t know any cards right off the bat, but the issue eventually fixes itself as long as you keep playing, Eventually, you’ll learn that there are cards to play around, be it simply seeing that your opponent left floating mana, potentially threatening a [Censor], or maybe knowing that at 6 mana, your opponent may drop the fearsome [Carnage Tyrant], or recognize that your opponent drew a good early curve. Familiarizing yourself with whatever it is that your opponent is playing will likely result in sometimes severe adjustments of your gameplan, mulligans, any view on the game that you might’ve had. Nonetheless - or rather, that’s exactly why - it’s important. I’m not saying that you go through the collection and learn every single card down to it’s collector number, but, as I said in the beginning, and it especially applies here, learn from the games you play. With sufficient information on both you and the opponent, you’ll be able to familiarize yourself with the outs. 

Ever had that game where you’re one turn away from losing, and only that one draw from your deck can save you now? That’s an out. It’s important to know your win conditions when ahead, yes, but it’s equally as important to know what you can do to not lose and how to best achieve that. Say you are at three mana, but your opponent has taken a massive lead on the board. Would it be better for you to play a creature to try and stall or ramp out to 5 mana, hoping to draw into [Hour of Devastation] next turn? Did you explore the powerful [Vraska, Relic Seeker] on top of your library, but you really need the [Ravenous Chupacabra] to deal with your opponent’s pressure, so you’re forced to put her in the graveyard? Depends on the situation. Depends on the deck. Depends on your opponent. All of these points come together in one way or another and affect each other. Additionally, you need to recognize your opponent’s outs. Don’t overcommit when it’s not necessary, making yourself vulnerable to a board wipe. Don’t attack in with all your creatures while you suspect they might be holding [Settle the wreckage]. Be patient. At the same time, though, be careful to not give your opponent an out by playing around his outs. What I mean is, don’t take all this for granted - Magic is fluid, you need to adapt to the situation. Don’t hold all your creatures back in fear of your tokens being traded away for nothing but chip damage, or your Wreckage being Settled. At some point your opponent might just take over if you are overly careful and don’t take your chances while you can. Sometimes your best only out might simply be hoping that your opponent is not holding [Settle the Wreckage]/[Counterspell]/[Vraska’s Contempt]. Oftentimes, you playing to your out, despite trying your best, has only a slim chance of working. But, even if you lose, you can walk away from the game knowing you did your best to mitigate the chance of that loss.


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