Being a good player is not just about practice. Many will say 'practice makes perfect'. Practice is very important but there are many factors that will decide whether you win a tournament or not and I'd like to talk about some of those.
My position in the local community is a rather strange one. I'm someone who loans decks. These requests come from people that test for GP/Pro Tour and are serious about their results. Thanks to this I get the possibility to see the new decks and trends before someone shows up with these in stores because these decks tend to get copied after the major tournament these players participated in. On the other hand when I personally show up at PPTQ I'm often called names and whatnot because players obviously think I can't play Magic well.
I'll tell you a story or two from this weekend. On Saturday there was a PPTQ for Kyoto and people were trying to get hands on decks they could play. The decks people wanted were Mardu Ballista, Temur Control and 4c Saheeli. I wanted to participate in the tournament but my body started to act up and I was in terrible pain and cramps the whole day before (and the whole weekend). On Saturday morning it seemed to be a bit better and I headed to the LGS with cards for some of the players. Even though I had my BG Delirium on me I did not plan to participate. When I left my flat I managed to leave my keys inside the flat so my original plan of coming back ruined. At the PPTQ I was offered the chance to play a Temur Control deck. I signed up for the event and wondered how round 1 would go after I did not manage to get much sleep due to the pain and cramps. I did not even eat anything before the event because I simply expected to come back and spend the rest of the day in bed. Instead I turned up among competitive players that came to qualify for the RPTQ. As someone wrote in one of their articles, at a PPTQ there is only one winner. Other players will get their entry fee in packs or store credit back, some will win more, but only one player will qualify. There is only one winner and for that all the players need to strive to win, not just do well.
From the story above I mentioned several things a player should avoid if they want to do well at events.
1. Be ready, know your deck
If you are going to an event you want to win, you should have a deck, be familiar with it and be ready for the upcoming metagame. This usually means that if you don't own the cards already you should get them, if possibly few days earlier, so you can still test with them and tweak the deck a bit. It doesn't matter if you play online or in paper. Just get the deck and play with it. It's not likely that someone will provide you the cards at the event especially if players bought all the copies from all the stores before the tournament. If you don't do this it can happen that you won't be able to play at all because crucial cards from your deck will be missing. This applies to Online events as well. Buy the deck well before the event starts. I also experienced several last minute trades. When the event starts at 5.05 pm (our time) don't ask someone to get the deck at 5 pm. Seriously, there are many things that can go wrong. Magic Online does not export or import decks correctly, it crashes, it decides just to lag and whatnot. Be sure to have your deck ready for submitting at least 15 minutes before the event is supposed to start. You'd think that players are usually ready but often there are many that aren't.
Play a deck you are familiar with and also be ready for what you expect. If you are familiar with the deck type you choose to play you will get less mentally exhausted. This is something to consider when you want to participate in a 9+ rounds event. Familiarity also means that you should have your own sideboard and plans for the matchups you are likely to encounter. Without this you will have a hard time winning. Even if you are a very good player, mistakes happen and if you don't have a plan devised it is more likely that they will occur. Don't be afraid to play cards that will surprise people. Many players are just copying decks without giving too much thought into the deckbuilding process or sideboarding. They may know how to properly sideboard, but often they won't know why they sideboarded in this manner. If they do, they will also know what cards you will most probably board in. They will use information from Pro Tour or GP or latest SCG. These players can be caught off-guard relatively easily with cards they don't expect. Often they will evaluate the card as bad, not making sense and may misjudge you too. Many players think that what is written in articles all over the internet is right. They do not suspect that a player might have different plan while having the same information available too. At one Qualifier I played Abzan Red. It was rather classic build as other players would say even though I did not copy that from anywhere. The card making it Abzan Red was Crackling Doom so everyone was ready for that. I put an odd card in it though - Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury. I put it there to fight UB Control at first but it proved to be good against players playing different decks too. Not because the card itself would be good. It had two different effects. One that it actually worked as I intended thanks to its Dash ability. The second one was rather more interesting; when my opponent saw that I have Kolaghan in my hand they simply changed their play. They did not consider me a threat anymore and often misplayed just because of this. They did not expect that my deck could actually be rock solid anyway.
Kolaghan ready to fly for the win with the help of Gideon.
2. Sleep, eat, do not break your routine, stay calm
I made this a second point to stress the fact that your deck should be ready, decklist mailed or written on piece of paper at least the day before. The second thing that went awry for me on that Saturday was no sleep, no food nor water. Human body needs sleep and nutrition. Without it, it is tired, has slower reaction time and will require more energy from you. If you go to a big event make sure you sleep well, eat well throughout the event and drink a lot of water. If you need to eat something sweet (which helps the brain to get what it needs) make sure to drink more water than normal. If you need caffeine in order to function note that its effect lasts for a certain period that is different for each of us but often for a shorter period than one needs during a 9+ event. For me it usually lasts for 5 hours and after this my body simply crashes. Usually when playing a 9+ event I get tired so when the caffeine wears off I get tired and totally incapable of playing Magic. If you feel this coming make sure to drink another dose of something containing caffeine.
Do not to break your pre-tournament routine if you have one (and if you don't, make one). Your body is most probably used to some kind of routine when it comes to big events be it 'offline' or online. When I travel somewhere I make sure to know where the site is the day before, I write down my decklist that day as well. For Online I make sure to get up several hours before the event starts. I know that if I wake up in the middle of the night to enter an event, I can't concentrate much. I play few matches to wake myself up and watch games in the tournament practice room to get an idea what the players might play. An hour before the event I try to calm down, relax, eat and then enter my first match while trying to stay calm.
Every single time someone used Deathrite Shaman's ability my client crashed. Staying calm wasn't easy.
During a large event staying focused and composed takes a lot of self-discipline. If you want to succeed in a tournament you need to avoid being on tilt*. The reasons why a person gets on tilt can vary. For me Magic Online crashing at a crucial moment in a game is something that puts me on tilt and makes me salty. Making a crucial mistake or misclick that causes me to lose a game eventually (sometimes not) is also something that puts me on tilt and can make me very upset. These things upset me because I know they shouldn't be happening and I feel that something went wrong. One needs to accept the fact that this happens though. We are all human, we make mistakes and Magic Online is not the most stable software out there. No matter what, when you find yourself in such state, stop for a while. Calm down. Think twice before you do something. Even if this means you will play more slowly. Take your time and ask yourself 'Is this the line of play I'd take if I weren't on tilt?'. Figure out what kind of player you become when on tilt because that can help you put yourself in check. Learn how to be composed fast. If this is a common problem for you I'd advise you to read some books about poker and playing on tilt.
*Tilt is term coming from poker (or at least used there the most). It is a mental state during which the player is frustrated or affected by emotions (be it positive ones or negative ones) and is incapable of thinking the usual way. It often leads to a player being too aggressive and reckless, often not being able of complex strategic thinking.
Now I will talk about some things some people do not do as often as they should, especially at a big event. Learning how to mulligan takes time and when a player is not yet confident enough they usually tend to mulligan less than is needed. Many people stick to 'I have some lands and some spells I can play' and keep. But often players forget that a hand still needs a plan. This is something players should understand naturally. You should have a plan devised already and if you do you should know what cards you need in your opening seven cards. If it is not there, you should take a mulligan. If you are playing an aggressive deck you need low CMC creatures that can make the aggressive plan to happen. If you will keep a hand containing just removal and 3+ CMC cards you may not get far if you can otherwise win by turn 4 after throwing creatures at your opponent. This also means that if you don't have many ways to fight the deck you are facing you should mulligan into a hand that allows you to fight against the deck. If you understand that when facing Dredge while having no means to be faster you need to take a mulligan into graveyard hate you should be able to do the same when you play different deck. If you play a blue deck, you are on the draw and face a Thorn deck you really do not want to keep a hand with 1 land.
This may look like a keep. In some cases I would actually be glad to see such a hand against decks where I need to play a creature on turn 1 and turn 2 in order to be able to win. This wasn't the case though because I was facing Dark Petition Storm. Against that deck what one needs is disruption in order to even make it through turn 1 or turn 2.
4. Do not underestimate/overestimate your opponents
One of skills a player should develop is to find out at what kind of thinking level their opponent is and place themselves one level above it. In real life you can get hints about players level even before starting to play. Some players will have problems with pre-game procedures, won't be good at shuffling etc and those are all tells that you may be facing someone at lower level. If you sit down across someone who can shuffle fast and well, you may be facing someone of higher level. That is something that gave me up when I first faced a Slovak pro player. Only the fact that I properly shuffled my deck made the player way more wary. On Magic Online thinking levels are also distinguishable but sometimes you need to 'probe' your opponent to see how they react to see if you were correct about your evaluation. Don't ever throw your game away but if you can be sure about your opponent's thinking level it will help you considerably in your decisions and game plan.
The concept of leveled thinking was introduced in No Limit Hold 'em: Theory and Practice by David Sklansky and Ed Miller (it is a book about Poker theory if the title of the book does not tell you anything). The very first level - level 0 - simply says 'What do I have?'. This means that the player is capable of working only with information that they can see (their hand, cards on the table). That usually means that a player at level 0 is not capable of reasonable interaction and that is one of the reasons why linear decks are suggested for new players. At level 1 the player is capable to ask themselves 'What could my opponent have?'. The player is already capable to play against certain cards in their opponent's decks thus higher their chances of winning. At level 2 it goes even further. The player is capable to think from their opponent's perspective. They ask the question 'What does my opponent think I have?'. This is the level at which you can start bluffing because you know your opponent will be able to follow your possible but invisible threats. For example representing two untapped Islands can suggests a Counterspell. Level 3 starts to become rather tricky. The question is 'What does my opponent think I think he has?'. If your opponent is capable of seeing that you represent Counterspell your opponent will start thinking about what cards you actually have in your hand - be it the suggested Counterspell or another card that you try to keep hidden in your hand. There are infinite thinking levels and it goes on and on in this fashion.
My opponent has two untapped Islands
Do they have a Counterspell in hand?
If not what cards are they trying to hide?
Depending on your maximal thinking level you will be able to spot certain levels your opponents play on. If you can place one level above you should be able to lead the game where you want. When you will find yourself playing a mind game with your opponent that's exactly where thinking levels are applied. Do not underestimate your opponents and don't overestimate either because that will put you in a bad position. A player who does not see that you are representing a counterspell will simply play their spell if that helps them get closer to victory. They won't see that there is a chance that you can deal with their card.
If you are on equal thinking levels all you can do is play technically better than your opponent and use your opponent's mistakes to your advantage.
If you are certain though that you play against someone who is well above your thinking level or skill just go all-in (this means blindly following a path to victory, the one a player at level 0 would follow), play tight and technically correctly because that is how you can have the highest chance of winning. Let them worry about what your deck can do. Do not try to 'lead the player through your game' because that's something they will be able to read easily and use it against you as they can place easily one level above you.
5. Learn from your own mistakes
When we participate in a premier event every loss usually feels worse than usual. There are losses we have to accept because we lost due to variance but there will be many games lost because we made a mistake or devised a plan that wasn't the best. Magic is primarily about mistakes. We should always reflect about the games we won or lost. We should be able to recognize when we played well and when the game went awry because we made a mistake. Sometimes we do not get punished for our mistakes but often we get punished for them. Those are exactly the moments that we should remember because it should remind us that making a mistake will result in something bad, possibly a loss. We should learn how to avoid those situations and not make the same mistake again. For that we have to learn to see our mistakes, be critical about our plays and realize the consequences. If we misplay, we should also still be able to continue in the game, not making yet another mistake. We have to reevaluate the situation and see if there is still a way how to win the game. We can think about our mistake later, it shouldn't affect us during the actual game that we still want to win.
You find yourself in a winning position. Your opponent is in top deck mode having nothing and has only access to two cards that can turn the game around - Ugin and Mindslaver, both with one copy in their decks. But you decide that your opponent is not likely to draw any of these in one turn and that you can 'afford' to be greedy. But then this happens. Your opponent top decks Mindslaver and punishes you for your greed. We should be thankful that something like this happens because we get the possibility to learn from our mistakes.
Finally a player needs to learn to never give up. When you play unfavorable matchup do not give up before starting the game or during it. What you should do is heighten the odds always even if the situation looks really bad. There are always outs against something you face no matter how improbable drawing your out is. Sometimes it requires a combination of several cards and a plan that spans turns (and few blanks from your opponent). Sometimes it is just one card in your deck that you need to top deck. The odds may be low to win such a game but if you won't do everything for the scenario to happen, it most probably won't happen. Play in a way so you can reach your out. If you know that you can only win with certain cards you already have in play and you are waiting for another piece of the puzzle do not throw away your cards. Keep them, protect them, take all the damage necessary. Because it can happen that you will draw the last card you need in time. Magic is a game of variance and anything can happen. Your opponent might draw badly, may misplay etc. Anything can happen and you can still win. That is variance - something that many players call 'luck' or 'bad luck'. But in order for this 'luck' to happen we need to work towards it. Variance is part of the game and it is a thing that makes the game awesome and makes players return to it, because anyone no matter how skilled has a chance to win even if the odds are low.
Thanks for reading.
S'Tsung (I'm stsung on Magic Online, or you can follow me on twitter -> @stsungjp)