This week, I'm taking a break from Pauper to start a second article series. Sculpting the Mind will run at the same time as Pauper to the People, albeit probably less often. I will most likely only write one article per week, so some weeks you'll see Pauper and others you'll see Sculpting. Sculpting the Mind will focus on theory, mindset, and tournament best practices, so it's great for general improvement even if you don't play Pauper.
In order to set the stage for the topics in this article, I have to provide a bit of personal context. Don't worry, it's still gaming related. In middle and high school, I was an avid chess player. I loved the game because it was one hundred percent a game of skill and preparation. There was no luck involved, so I knew that whenever I lost, it was an opportunity to get better. I started regularly attending my school's chess club and went to tournaments with it, and my skills grew steadily. I got to a point where I was moderately competent at the local and state levels. It was during my sophomore year of high school that I ran into a problem: I wasn't getting better. My weakness was tactics--on-board tricks and traps. No matter how many puzzles or how much studying I did, I couldn't get better at them, which made it difficult to get better at the game as a whole.
My coach back then suggested I didn't spend enough time analyzing my moves and thinking through all the possible outcomes. I tried it and it worked, but it was difficult to sustain. I often found myself slipping back into playing by rote, which inevitably led to me making mistakes and losing. Nonetheless, flexing my analytical muscles, however infrequent, did result in me internalizing some concepts I had previously failed to grasp, which helped me improve at a slightly faster rate--a trickle rather than my previous drip.
I eventually grew tired of chess--mostly because I started playing Magic, which interested me even more. The deckbuilding aspect and the fact that different games of Magic played out in different ways (not because of variance so much as because of the difference in resource management between archetypes) made it more entertaining to me than chess, which was mentally stimulating but often repetitive. I only spent a few months as a casual Magic player, quickly becoming more and more interested in competitive play.
Fast forward to five years later and I have the same issues with Magic I had with chess: I struggle with relying on concrete analysis over pattern-based intuition. While my Magic intuition is significantly better than my chess intuition, as Magic is a more intuitive game overall once one internalizes the rules, I still haven't been able to consistently go beyond the IQ/PPTQ level because of my failure to analyze. The issue doesn't just extend to my in-game play, either. It also means that when I lose games, I struggle to understand why. If I made a mistake, my lack of careful analysis often makes it difficult to know where that mistake was and what I should have done better.
This issue has led to many frustrated days and a few sleepless nights, as well as contributing to me "quitting" Magic (let's be real, it was only a break. Nobody ever quits Magic). I have tried pretty much everything to get better--changing decks, sticking with a deck for a long time, changing formats, brewing. Nothing worked. Up until a few weeks ago, if I was getting better, I didn't notice it. Fortunately, I recently figured out how to correct this issue.
The primary method I use, which you can likely use as well, is establishing a focused, systematic internal monologue with myself. My big struggle with playing on autopilot is that it has a lot of inertia--once I start, it's difficult to break the pattern and switch gears to concrete analysis. Thankfully, my internal monologue often works the same way: once I start it, it's relatively easy to keep up.
Establishing an internal monologue is a less-than-concrete term, so let me elaborate. What I mean is that I start talking to myself as if I were explaining my decisions while streaming or simply justifying them to a friend who is watching, but I don't talk out loud. I keep a running monologue inside my head, making myself my own audience. This forces me to explain my decisions, which in turn forces me to have concrete reasons for those decisions.
Now, that isn't necessarily enough to help me make good decisions, which is where the systematic part comes in. In my monologue, I list all the possible lines I could take for any given decision. I won't analyze any lines that are obviously unreasonable, such as killing my own creature without provocation or making clearly horrible attacks. I cover all reasonable lines, however, and I consider how they fit into both my plan and my opponent's. This allows me to make much more thorough, well-considered decisions, which both improves my play and increases my win rate.
I feel compelled to stress that this method will not turn you into a great player overnight. What it will do is allow you to function at your personal maximum capacity, which will sharpen your decision-making considerably and will highlight your areas of opportunity with regard to improving your overall game. The point isn't always to make the right decision--that will come with time. The point is to have a concrete reason for each decision you make so that you can identify your mistakes if a situation doesn't go the way you expect. If you consistently have issues with the same type of situation, you know that you have found a hole in your game, and you can take the necessary steps to identify why it's there.
One of the benefits of establishing a monologue on Magic Online as opposed to in paper Magic is that you can narrate your decisions aloud, which I find makes it easier to think through the more complex lines. This also allows you to combine your monologue with video recording, enabling you to go back over your matches and find your mistakes. When I was playing chess, the primary way I improved was by going over records of my games and figuring out the thought processes that led to my mistakes. I think this is an underutilized aspect of Magic-related improvement, especially for players who play on Magic Online.
If you have trouble establishing an internal monologue, try streaming on Twitch or recording videos--either for yourself, for an article here on PureMTGO, or to post on YouTube. This will help you get used to the out-loud approach, which you can then internalize for your paper tournaments. Soon enough, you'll be monologuing without giving it a second thought.
One of the potential issues with establishing an internal monologue is decision fatigue. When you play Magic on autopilot, you are expending very little mental energy. Concrete analysis is the exact opposite; you end up expending a tremendous amount of energy, especially at the beginning. Fortunately, once you get used to concrete analysis as your default approach, it will not only get easier, but you will be able to make certain decisions on autopilot with absolute confidence in order to save brainpower for the more difficult decisions. If you doubt this, watch footage of Brad Nelson playing. His pace of play varies wildly: he will spend fifteen seconds on one turn and five minutes on another. This is because he knows which decisions he can make by instinct and which he has to think about. He has developed this understanding through years of practice using focused, concrete analysis. You too can get to that point if you put in the time and energy--none of us may ever be as good as Brad Nelson, but it's definitely possible to get onto the Pro Tour with enough work.
I think establishing an internal monologue is potentially the most important breakthrough I've had in my Magic career. I hope it helps you all as well. Let me know if you try it out and how it works for you!