Magic: the Gathering might be a hobby for most, but among us there are spikes, competitive players looking to make it in a world of ruthless spellcasting, trying to find an edge to rise above the rest. Sadly my favorite format (Modern) is not supported enough for anyone to be a Modern-only pro, yet I take every opportunity there is to attend a competitive Modern event, be it MKM Series, Grand Prix, or something local. It’s the spirit of competition that I’m after and not a pay-day. Today I’ll talk about some tips and tricks about traveling and competing. Every edge, albeit a small one, is still an edge we can have.
One of the reasons I’m writing this is that I like to do some self-reflection to gather my thoughts before big tournaments, and with three on the horizon for me, this is the perfect time to publish an article like this.
If you are one of those players that like to compete, you will understand what bothers me: choosing the deck, and even more so – choosing that 15 card sideboard. We’ve all been there, trying to make a perfect side for all the expected decks, only to change your mind and start all over again. What if you try to squeeze a sideboard card into the main to free up the slot, but what to drop from the main?
Because of these common and understandable nuisances, I had to bring a bunch of my cards with me when traveling to the event even if I knew what deck I will play. I’m all for having the choices, but bringing your collection to a foreign country and dragging it around the airports, hotels, hostels, public transport and venue is not something I look forward to. I would much rather have my unused cards back home, somewhere safe and sound, but what if I need it for my sideboard …?
After a few larger tournaments all around Europe, I had enough, so I bought a 4 pocket binder just for traveling and it was probably one of the best decisions I have made in a while. Sure, I will still drag my cards around, but it will be in a smaller and much lighter binder that is easier to fit into the safe in a hotel, for example, or even bring some tradables to the event and not feel the weight on your shoulders. You can bring your Burn deck and all possible sideboard cards in something like Ultra-Pro: 4-Pocket Flip-Binder.
I know this is old news for most experienced traveling Magic players, but it really does make a difference. I used to bring three decks and a 9-pocket binder with me when traveling for an event and I don’t miss that at all.
Every article about competitive Magic is telling you to sleep well and be rested for the event. Some even tell you to eat light and healthy (more on that later), and I agree with them all. But most of all, be well rested. Don’t stay awake long and get your sleep. Nobody knows you as good as you do, so listen to your body and follow your needs. It is important to stay in your groove and don’t shake up your way of life before the event, since you will just end up stressing yourself.
One example is sleeping arrangement. I can get by sleeping in a dorm room, but you never know how relaxed you will be in the night time. There might be a few snorers, or even something like drunk people coming in at late hours. Best you can do is arrive a day or two early (at least Friday for GP), take a single/private bed room (or find something via AirBNB, be it alone or with friends), and try to do some sightseeing, taking your mind off of Magic and doing some exercise by walking. Yes, you would like to focus and do more research for the tournament, or do some metagame predictions, but if you came this far (to a bigger event in a foreign country), you know your business, decks in the format, and technical side of the game. You won’t get better the last day (unless you are playtesting a new deck with friends, but even that should be done beforehand). Runners are a good example here; they train for a longer period, but during the last few days before the marathon (or a longer run), they usually eat well, rest, and don’t run at all.
Believe me that 7 or more round tournaments are exhausting for your mind and body, let alone if it is only Day 1 of a Grand Prix. Do yourself a favor and think ahead about your needs for staying in shape and in the best condition possible (mental and physical). I would rather pay a few extra bucks and sleep well than go full on budget with a possibility of sleepless nights. I came this far, paid for all the tickets and accommodation, so wasting it all seems wrong.
Another advice regarding your accommodation is to be in a walking distance to the venue, as morning exercise (even if you walk for only 15 minutes) goes a long way. It wakes you up, makes you sharp and improves body circulation.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat what you are used to, but if you really want to get the most of your abilities and focus during the tournament, you should be wary of your diet. At least for the day before, don’t eat too greasy, or too late, and it is better to eat less more frequently than just one or two big meals and pack yourself full. Last thing you want is to have trouble sleeping because you ate a large meal late in the night, or running to the restroom at night or during the tournament. Same goes for breakfast, which is going to be the most important meal for you that day. Eat well but not too much, and try to start with some fruits, followed by eggs, sugar free cereal and yogurt or something alike. Bring some nuts and fruits to the venue and eat when you have spare time, it will be a long day. Try to stay off of refined sugar which can cause fatigue and loss of concentration.
Last minute changes to the deck are understandable, but by that time you should have practiced with the deck of your choice for at least a few weeks, be it either at FNMs, with playtesting groups, on MTGO or at other competitive events. Knowing your deck and interactions goes a long way, especially how it matches agains the rest of the field. Practice sideboarding, and try to play as many games as seriously as possible, even if it’s only FNMs. Stay in touch with fellow players and check the latest results from the tournaments. Better yet, check all the primers on the Internet to inform yourself about the latest deck techs and their match-up against your deck. For limited, be sure to know about all the popular and viable archetypes and try to get some reps in on MTGO or at your LGS.
It’s like homework or preparing for an exam, but the one you look forward to.
Reading and giving signs
While not really scientifically accurate and mostly viable only for constructed events, there are many signs that you can either pick up or send upon meeting your opponent for the first time. We are not talking about the looks, but their Magic accessory. What kind of a playmat is he or she using and which deckbox is it. When I started with competitive Magic, I used to play Goblins all the time, and my go-to deckbox was a red flip box and I used green sleeves with a Mardu Scout playmat. I bet that even before Game 1, some of my opponents were evaluating their starting hand as if they are facing a red based aggro deck, knowingly or subconsciously. However, I used the same setup while piloting other decks as well, something we could call next level metagaming (if playing Goblins is level zero in the mentioned case).
There are also things like Tarmogoyf dice, specific tokens at the ready, and Infect counter, but all that could be a distraction just as well. Germ, 1/1 Spirits, Voice of Resurgence or a 3/3 Artifact Golem tokens anyone? In formats like Modern and Legacy, players like to go all-out with their pimping, which includes accessories.
I like to use black sleeves and a WMCQ Top8 playmat just for the sake of a mental trick. We all know you can buy any playmat you wish, but my opponent could be thinking that I earned it and might be less confident in his or her chances, and even if he or she plays 1% worse because of it, that’s an edge right there. Either way, earning a WMCQ (RiP) Top8 playmat was quite challenging in countries like USA, Japan, Germany and other nations with large playerbase, but in my home country of Slovenia that was not the case. Around 20% of the participants received one at the end of the tournament (small country, smaller playerbase and therefore less competitors at the events).
Needless to say, if a player in front of you is using a Liliana playmat and a black or green deckbox, you could be looking at someone playing BGx and not burn, while a Snapcaster playmat could indicate the beloved 2/1 Human Wizard in his deck. Or you could be totally wrong, of course, and here you have to take an educated guess. How likely is for a BGx devotee to pimp his accessories, or how far would a Burn or Tron player go to try with mindgames (and vica versa). However, don’t read too much into their accessories and try to mulligan conservatively.
All in all, people are more likely to muligan a slow hand against a Goblin Guide playmat with a red deckbox than against a blue one with a control-themed playmat, that’s just how we work. Best to use some random accessories (my friend used to play with a YuGiOh playmat) or go with generic colors (black sleeves and black playmat, for example). We are talking about small percentages for Game 1 only, but nonetheless.
Reading players and bluffing
You got nothing but lands in your hand, yet you bluff by tapping a land or two while thinking and maybe even counting. You untap and gesture as if not yet, and say go. Either way, if you do that only when in a dire situation, it usually won’t work. I for one am not a good bluffer or reader, but I try to play with a similar pace and expression at all times. Don’t throw that topdecked removal with a sign of relief if you have other cards in hand, unless bluffing means nothing (like to finish Game 3). Salt and tilt makes you easy to read, so try to keep calm.
However, do not overthink as you may be called for a slowplay, or you can get lost among all the possibilities and do something obnoxious. Don’t get visibly upset with mulligans, bad keeps or useless draws.
Stacking small advantages
We talked about small things that might give you an edge, yet they usually won’t get you an advantage all by itself. However, by stacking small advantages you can get a larger edge against the field and improve your chances to do well at the tournament, even if by a little. Sometimes, you need only that much to rise above the rest and make that Top8, and othertimes you lose by a chance (or a topdeck). Either way, a term min-maxer can have a bad connotation in a world of games, but in Magic: the Gathering it means to be competitive, it means to be a spike. Are you one?
By no means am I suggesting to cheat or act in an unsportsmanlike manners. Be the best you can be and get the most out of the given situation (information). Try to play without the burden of big expectations, but do play to win while having fun. For more on improving your play, be sure to check out my summary of the greatest articles of competitive MTG!