Magic can be an incredibly intricate and complex game to learn and play. While its basic rules are not too hard to understand, there are a lot of underlying strategies that are not always outwardly apparent to everyone. I know for myself, I definitely didn’t understand a lot of the aspects of MTG strategy when I first started playing, but it was something I picked up over time. Since then, it has become one of my favorite aspects of this game.
If you want to be a better player in any regard, even if you tend to play casually, or you’re and experienced player, I feel like it is always beneficial to read about some of the deeper aspects of our beloved game. And there is so much to talk about! So, without further ado, today we are going to be talking about competitive strategy in Magic: the Gathering.
I’ll divide this article up into parts to make it easier to find exactly what you’re looking for. First we are going to go over something that I believe to be one of the most important things that you can do to really start upping your game.
Learn your deck!
It seems obvious, but a lot of people like to skip this step. From first hand experience, I can confidently say that learning your deck is one of the most important things any player can do if they want to play the game at a higher level. The problem is, I think a lot of people throw around the term and maybe don’t know exactly what it entails. So here is a quick definition of what I believe it means:
Learning one’s deck isn’t just about knowing the cards in it. It’s about knowing the cards not in it. It’s about knowing your matchups, knowing all your possible draws, knowing as much as you possibly can about the different situations you could get into. It’s about truly understanding the way your deck fundamentally functions. But above all, it is about knowing why it is a deck in the first place, why it even works, and what it does.
Match Ups and Card Choices
I truly believe that if you take the time to really dig deep into your deck and figure out all of its intricacies, then your playing will improve greatly. It’s very important to not only understand the cards in your deck, but also understand what role they play in the grand scheme of things. How the different cards function against different match ups, and which cards in the sideboard are beneficial against various popular decks.
It’s also important to know how the deck will respond in different situations. Try to ask questions like:
How does my deck fair against “x” strategy?
If it were ever put into “insert common situation” would I be able to recover?
After understanding the intricacies of the deck, why and how the cards in it function the way they do, and how the deck fairs against various types of match ups and situations, then it is important to understand how to mulligan properly.
Not every deck in the game will respond to mulligans the same way. Some can handle them well, while others struggle a lot, and yet others would prefer to mulligan in certain match ups. Knowing how the deck fairs against other strategies, and which cards are effective can really help with this, as it allows you to quickly judge a hand’s usefulness without too much worry. Since every deck is different in this regard, I cannot write a specific universal guide to mulligans, but generally you want to have a good spectrum of answers and threats that are relevant to the match up at hand (This is mostly applicable to games two and three).
Finally, the last aspect, but definitely not least to learning one’s deck, is understanding its position in the meta. Try to figure out what role the deck takes, how and why, you and possibly others have decided that it is a deck that is worthy of competitive play. What decks does it beat? What chances are there that it will get good matchups? Does it fill a void in the meta that previously was unfilled? Or does it add on to already existing strategies?
Knowing the answers to these questions can not only help you better prepare for how you will play your deck against your opponents (in the next section), but what you can expect people to bring in as sideboard cards against you.
That brings us to our next section, which is understanding when to play as control or aggro, and how to play against certain strategies.
Control Vs Aggro?
Now you may be asking at this point; But, I play an Aggro deck, why in the world would I switch to control? And you are right, you would never just switch to a control style of play entirely. However one of the most useful things I have picked up on during my time playing Magic is something that I don’t hear a lot of people discuss. And that is: in a lot of match ups it is important to understand when you are the aggressor and when you are the controller.
While this doesn’t always apply to every matchup (namely combo vs combo, which is typically a race), it does apply to a vast majority of match ups and decks. It’s a really strange concept, but even in aggro vs aggro match ups, there will typically be one deck that acts as the main aggressor, and one that acts as a slower controller. The difference between the two may be only very slight, or it could be astronomical, but it will still be there. I’ll use the Modern Jund mirror match as an example.
Let’s say we are playing a Modern Jund deck, and our opponent is playing Jund as well. Now let’s say it is turn five and it is our turn. Our opponent has two large Tarmogoyfs on board, and we have a Dark Confidant on board and a Liliana of the Veil in hand as well as an Abrupt Decay and a Tarmogoyf. In this scenario our opponent is putting a lot of pressure on us very quickly, and while playing Tarmogoyf could provide us with a good blocker, it wouldn’t do much proactive right away. They would still be pushing through a lot of damage and we wouldn’t be able to do much for another turn. Instead it would be better if we used our resources to attempt to remove our opponent’s threats, while also gaining an advantage for ourselves. We are effectively playing as the control deck in this situation, because we are opting to control our opponent’s board state, rather than aggressively attack them.
It’s also important to note that throughout a game the roles can and do switch from time to time. In our example above, if we managed to remove all their creatures, and then played our own goyf and started beating down with it, we would effectively switch to the aggressor, and they would have to become the controller.
Overall, I think that this is a useful concept to learn because it means that you can’t just plug and chug your deck the same way ever single game. You’ve gotta be adaptable, and able to understand and read when a deck is going to aggro you out, or when it is fine to press the “go” button and go ham with your creatures.
This phenomena even happens with control decks. While it is true that most games with a control deck will involve the control deck actually being the controller, there are a few instances where a control deck will have to switch to an aggressor in order to close out a game effectively, or take advantage of a weakness in a match up.
Play Testing and Knowing Other Popular Decks (Meta Side-boarding)
This almost falls hand in hand with our first two points. By playtesting your deck you will gain a much better understanding of how the deck will function, when it should be an aggressor or controller, and what cards do what. Play testing helps prepare you for whatever you could face.
When play testing, I recommend trying to play against as large of a variety of decks as possible. While this may not be feasible for everyone, I think that getting matches against as many decks as you think you could face is very important. Be sure to also test against the more popular decks in whatever format you are playing, as well as goldfish on your own to get a feel for what your deck’s opening hands could be like.
Now that’s all good, but I also believe there is another aspect to play testing that a lot of people overlook. That aspect is getting to know the other decks in the format well. I don’t just mean playing against those decks, but actually playing those decks.
In fact, I believe that learning as much as you can about the other popular decks in your format is just as valuable, if not even more valuable, than knowing how to play your own deck.
By actually getting experience playing other decks, the pieces of the puzzle will start to fall together, and you’ll start really understanding why certain match ups are the way they are for you. You’ll also begin to see how to beat the decks that you’ve played against, and be able to read with fairly good accuracy what your opponent may be doing or playing based off the first couple turns of the game.
While it is not very feasible to learn every single possible deck you could ever face, I still think it is good to gain experience with a fair amount of the popular decks in the format. And if you can’t playtest them at all, at least read primers on them, or look at lists and figure out exactly how they would play certain games, and what their matchups could be.
Another very beneficial side affect of this, is that you can start doing something that I call “Meta Side-boarding”. Which is where you sideboard against a deck anticipating the cards that they will bring in against you. So your sideboard not only becomes a tool to counter your opponent’s main strategy, but it becomes a tool to counter your opponent’s counter to your strategy.
Learning about how the other popular decks play can be very beneficial, and it can even help up your wins against your worst match ups. Not to mention meta side-boarding is not something that a lot of people expect.
The Stack, Game Rules, and The Nitty-Gritty
This may be the most obvious point on our list, but understanding Magic’s basic rules is also very important. If someone doesn’t understand how certain cards function in various situations, then all of the other points above start to become less valuable to that player, because they don’t yet understand the game entirely.
Now, I’m not going to bore you all and go over every rule in Magic (there’s a rulebook for that), nor am I going to explain every reason why it is important to know the rules. But I will go over what I feel is one of the most common misconceptions. And that is the idea of priority, and doing things during an opponent’s turn.
A lot of people sometimes assume that spells can just be cast whenever, but you can’t actually play instants whenever you want to. In fact instants are pretty limited with how and when they can be cast. Magic has a concept called priority, which could be described as the right to cast spells and activate abilities. If a player does not have priority, then they do not have the right to do much of anything. The player who’s turn it is always has priority, unless they pass it to their opponent, but it is always passed back to the active player after the opponent completes their action.
As stated above, priority is typically passed whenever a player does an action, which means that instants can only actually be played in response to something. You can’t just cast a random instant or even activate an ability during your opponent’s turn while you are waiting for them to think about something. You have to do it in response to something. Whether that something be changing turn phases (ex: moving from upkeep to draw phase), casting a spell, or activating an ability, players can only do things during their opponent’s turn when priority is passed to them.
Sometimes a player can even hold priority, which is where they don’t pass priority, and respond to their own action.
If you would like to read about other misconceptions in MTG, check out this article.
Final Notes & General Tips
While we’ve only just covered the tip of the iceberg, it’s important to remember to practice, practice, practice! Not just play test, but practice everything. If you take the time to really understand the intricacies of your own deck; the match ups it has; and the other decks in the format; as well as the more confusing principles of Magic’s rulings; it can and does definitely help you be a better player in the long run.
Another note I have is don’t let others dissuade you, always have a positive attitude, and know that playing Magic won’t come naturally to everyone. It’s all a huge learning experience. Everyone starts out not knowing anything about playing the game, and it’s okay to lose. Just learn from your mistakes, and use them to make yourself a better player. If you believe that you can be a great player, and you approach playing the game with positivity, then that can also go a long way in helping to improve your playing.
My final tip to everyone is, have fun! With all this talk of being competitive, it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of the fact that we all play this game to have fun. It’s important to remember to laugh and talk, and just have a good time playing Magic. You don’t always have to feel pressured to win every game, and sometimes taking a break from a competitive mindset, and just playing casually for a bit can be really beneficial. But even when you play competitively, it can be really good to still have fun with the game, and enjoy your time playing it.
While nothing on this list is one hundred percent guaranteed to make everyone a better player, I do feel that a lot of this stuff can really help boost most people’s game. Some of it you may have already known, while some of it may have been completely new. Regardless, playing Magic at a higher level can be a daunting task at times. But if you take the time to carefully understand the game, and really get into the nitty-gritty of everything, it can open up so many amazing doors in regards to your playing!
I hope that this article was helpful to you in some way! Do you have any other useful tips? Or did we miss any points? If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please leave them in the section below.
And as always, happy gaming everyone!