In this article I will go through the things you can do and the mindset you can adopt to maximise your odds of winning a tournament. This article is intended for intermediate competitive players entering 20-100 person events.
An introduction to better play
Getting started on beating the skill ‘plateau’
I find that a lot of established players plateau. They learn the format, get confident with a deck and can play an event without blundering, but then they stop improving. An important piece of advice for players who have played for a while but don’t seem to be getting results is to look to eek out advantage in other places. A good place to start is to think deeper about what your opponent might have based on their plays, because these cues can provide clues about your opponent’s hand. Maybe they chose to Thoughtseize your Lightning Bolt over your Jace, the Mindsculptor, which might imply a more aggressive start or a Spell Pierce in their hand for later. Or maybe they Gitaxian Probe you paying mana not life, implying either they believe they only lose to an aggro strategy, do not need to be mana-efficient, or have an ultimately lackluster hand. Perhaps they kept up a land despite knowing they have a ponder in hand, implying a fatal push, or maybe they don’t want you to wasteland what they fetch for in your next turn suggesting a low-land hand.
Each of the above examples provide clues that suggest at least 2 things, and then those things get refined as the evidence piles up. Take these clues with a grain of salt. You don’t want to over compensate just because you have a ‘read’ on a card. Most of the time my reads aren’t so much on a specific card as they are on my opponent’s type of cards in hand and therefore what they most likely don’t have (if they had the bolt for my Snapcaster that I want to equip to Sword of Fire and Ice, wouldn’t they have just used it on my Jace in their main phase?). You also need to keep in mind that players bluff. Most of your game actions won’t change based on clues; but when faced with key decisions we can start using this information and weighing up costs. When you get a read on a card and make the correct game action based on it, it feels really good and it sets you apart from the pack.
Spotting unconventional decisions and learning from them
The previous examples are pretty common and you usually need a few pieces of evidence before you feel concrete on it. Sometimes though, your opponent does something that just feels really out of place. The more magic you play the more you notice something out of place and can start deducing from it. For example in a Cube match this year I was playing with UB control. Game 1, my opponent resolved a Turn 3 Griselbrand, but I got surprisingly close to stabilising. Not long enough to win, but long enough to establish that they were committed to the reanimate strategy. Game 2 on the play I have a good hand with lands, Remand, Phyrexian Revoker, Phantasmal Image and a Phyrexian Arena. The first 3 spells are good in the matchup, in particular Phantasmal Image. Arena is a slow card at the best of times, but especially against an opponent who last game was deploying Griselbrand on the same turn an Arena comes down. Needless to say that when my opponent Thoughtseized me turn 1 I was surprised to see they took Arena. With just one decision from my opponent I obtained several pieces of information about their hand. If the Thoughtseize was followed up by a fast combo, Phantasmal Image can copy their creature for a lot less effort. Remand and Revoker aren’t crushing, but any interaction with a combo deck is worth Thoughtseizing if you plan on ‘going off’ any time soon. Phyrexian Arena is only good in a drawn-out grindy match. Since they were worried about me tapping out for a slow enchantment on Turn 3, that means they had nothing punishing until at least turn 4. I also know they don’t have any additional hand hate as they would have taken Remand immediately and taken Arena the following turn. I know that most likely, their hand is very slow and generally bad. I know that if I find an early threat like Bitterblossom I should jam it and not worry about holding up Remand for the early combo. I know that they likely have only 1 of the three pieces of their combo that they need and that piece is probably not a ‘looting’ spell because that would fix the bad hand.
You can check out the game in the video below, the rest of the match is a nail biter anyway so it’s worth watching!
The takeaway lesson is to analyze what your opponent is doing, and to look out for things that are out of place or don’t follow the convention of the matchup. A quick example of breaking a convention in Highlander would be seeing an opposing Midrange deck missing its Turn 3 play, which is out of place, and going into 2021 should warn of an Opposition Agent!
Reading social cues
The other clues an opponent can give are social cues. I am often baffled by how much information good players give me. In paper magic you can begin to garner clues if you take a few seconds to look at your opponent after drawing your hand. I make sure my opponent has drawn 7 exactly and then watch their facial expressions and the time it takes for them to make a decision. This is a commonplace tactic in Poker where you want to read the player as they look at their hand rather than deliberate over your own.
One last ‘level one’ tip
Here’s a piece of practical advice to round out the suite of ‘small stuff’ advice… start attacking with 1/1s. There seems to be a phenomenon where a midrange player with a 3/3 and two mana dorks will swing the 3/3 but leave the dorks untapped out of instinct even against a control opponent. For the most part, players aren’t playing around a specific threat, it just doesn’t feel right to attack. A mana dorks main role is to produce mana. As a result, a player may pigeonhole them into that role. In this example, we can reduce a clock from 7 turns to 4. Even against a burn player who likely has a haste creature, closing a game quicker gives them less draws to find direct damage to kill you. The most commonly pigeonholed card is Restoration Angel, a card that wins me a lot of matches as a vanilla 3/4 Flyer, not as an overpriced Ephemerate. Try to think laterally about your cards and respect what they can do beyond what they were designed for. Games of Magic are won on razor thin margins and you should try to milk anything and everything from your cards.
Building your play toward ‘the next level’
With your eyes set on the prize of maximizing your odds of winning a future tournament, I will go through a series of important behaviours you can engage in to push your play skill toward the next tier.
Testing against a Gauntlet
One key distinction between winning in a 4 round FNM and winning a 50 player event is the pool of archetypes and decks that you are likely to face. The more rounds there are, the more your deck is run through a ‘gauntlet’ so to speak. I can remember losing to a Mono Green ramp deck with cultivates, Garruk’s Companions and Rampaging Baloths. Their deck was ‘just for fun’ but it lined up well vs my tuned Highlander midrange deck as my card advantage was largely irrelevant when competing with a resolved Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger. For the most part though, their deck didn’t have a plan, particularly in the sideboard where they missed key spells such as Sylvan Library, Choke, Carpet of flowers and Kitchen Finks. My opponent on mono green was going to struggle against Control, Combo and Aggro. I was their only win of the day and they were my only loss. They were able to go home that day proud that they beat the winner of the event, but we can see that whilst this is a commendable achievement, they still have work to do to take the next step. Lessons can be learned by both of us on either side of the equation!
If you want to win a tournament, expect to play at least 8 rounds of magic, possibly against 8 different decks. Have a plan for each archetype, even if that plan is “I hope I dodge reanimator”, then do it with some evidence (using previously successful decks) or at the very least, apply some logic to it. You might find that although you think the reanimator matchup is a write-off, through testing you find a small angle where you can win, if things go the right way. Testing against a gauntlet of different decks will provide you with the data to make the right decisions prior to the day, as well as make informed play on the day itself. Even then, if your deck is favored in every matchup except reanimator then you can still afford to lose a round to the reanimator player in the room and make top 8 near the top of the swiss at 5-1.
As for playing a deck ‘just for fun’ in an event, this article is not to disparage the way you enjoy playing magic (likely this article isn’t written for you as the target audience!). In the earlier example, my opponent had no plan or genuine aspiration to win a tournament. Their goal was to show someone, (anyone!) what their deck was capable of at its best. The seed grew from a place of joy (but also from some amount of self-indulgence). They likely saw the synergy between Khalni Hydra and Steel Leaf Champion and set their aspirations right then and there to complete that synergy as many times as possible. If on the other hand your goal is to win the tournament, then let winning be the thing that inspires you to build the deck for the event, not the other way around.
Engaging in ‘True Tuning’
You might be thinking at this point “Beckett, I’m playing Grixis Control, it’s tiered and it’s tested.” But you can still apply the same lessons above to some of your ‘cute’ card choices. I’m guilty of building lists that do well in a grind because I enjoy that game style. I love navigating them, but I realised I was making self-indulgent card choices that didn’t actually help me in my weaker matchups and were ultimately superfluous.
In Highlander I wanted to be greedy and play Reclamation Sage in my Sideboard because it had great synergy. I could Birthing Pod into it and then away again; I could Green Sun’s Zenith for it, I could clamp it, or equip it to an Umezawa’s Jitte and close with attacks. Reclamation Sage had also been in my mainboard for years (before it was trumped by Knight of Autumn in Abzan midrange). It just felt right. But my teammates urged me to play something different. Sarven McLinton was on Return to Nature and Drew Carter was encouraging me to run Collector Ouphe. Sarv’s logic was that if you could interact with Blood Moon in any way then you’re likely ahead so you don’t need to get greedy for the 2/1 body (midrange already has a great matchup against the Izzet Control decks trying to ‘Moon’ you… as long as you don’t get mooned!). Often the Blood Moon or Back to Basics comes down before you have a chance to find your basic Green land, which renders a SB card dedicated to the matchup useless anyway. How devastating is that? Return to Nature at Instant speed and 1CMC less meant that you can hold it up against an opponent on their third turn on the play and be set to untap and deploy a devastating 3 drop like Blade Splicer. It also operated as a graveyard hate slot to free up dedicated sideboard space for opposing Reanimator decks, and randomly hose an enemy Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath in the midrange mirror.
Drew reasoned that the artifact decks that Reclamation Sage was in the board to hit were so powerful already that a 3 mana spot removal would do little to ebb the tidal wave that was coming. He opted for a complete shutdown of the Artifact Ramp opponent with a silver bullet in Collector Ouphe as well as Null Rod. It was a hard one to accept given I played a Stoneforge Mystic Package and had the majority of my points tied up in Artifacts that activated.
Eventually I opted for Force of Vigor. It had no synergy whatsoever but would be able to be cast with a Blood Moon already in play. It also hit two artifacts or enchantments at a time meaning I could put a genuine dent against artifact-based decks at the low-low cost of 0 mana. I had to empty my cup and listen to the advice I was getting from experienced players and team mates on their findings in the current meta. But I also had to back my own judgement after carefully considering their advice. Keep up to date with the meta and constantly refine your list based on results and advice. It’s an ongoing discipline. Doing this with objectivity is a really difficult thing to do; but if your goal is winning the tournament (over showing off your cool synergy) then this process becomes more natural.
Playing for the long game both in and outside of the game itself
Practice makes perfect (or at least, better)
You need to practice a lot to get better. I’m sure you’re already playing as much magic as you can justify. But let’s briefly outline some of the things we get from practicing.
- We learn the strengths and limitations of cards
- We learn specific rules on how cards work (think bolting a 2/3 Tarmogoyf, or “Wait, my True Name Nemesis died when blocking a Questing Beast?” Essentially, if you get blown out by something and it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth you’re less likely to do it again
- We learn the metagame
- We get confidence in our list and feel comfortable with it
- We keep our skills tuned to be able to play at a reasonable rate (read: less likely to go to time) without blundering
- When things go awry, you’re less likely to be phased by it
Investing emotions in your development, not the outcome (which may be outside your control)
The last point in the previous list is important. I would encourage you to be emotionally invested in your matches, but don’t let your opponent see it. Here’s a practical tip: Stop complaining about how bad your dice rolls have been today. Getting a bad beats story off your chest to your friends can be healthy and instinctive. I do it too. I get salty and I get invested. But save it for after the match. How ‘unlucky’ I’ve been with dice rolls legitimately doesn’t enter my mind. I guess when you’ve rolled dice thousands of times for thousands of games it all eventually comes out in the wash. When I hear my opponent complain about it, I feel I’ve got an edge. I think to myself “Oh for them, Magic isn’t a journey of development.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say that my opponents losing their cool over a dice roll itself is the edge, but what it tells me is that ‘This FNM is important to them and it’s got the chance of getting under their skin.’ There’s also a good chance that getting irritated by pure chance has stunted the growth of their playskill in a broader sense too. They likely have made excuses for their losses rather than reflected on what they could have done differently. They have plateaued because they couldn’t see beyond a 15 player FNM. When you treat FNMs as practice for big tournaments, you stop worrying about how unlucky you got. The trick to keeping a cool head in top 8s is to do the same thing there. Treat your Top 8 as practice and development of your larger magic journey. Everybody has bad beats stories. Stop treating them like a new experience and start with accepting dice rolls.
The first time you make top 8 you might feel overwhelmed by it. The easiest way to spot this in yourself and others is if there is a change in demeanor. Players who are new to top 8s will often start speaking excitedly with a big grin on their face. Chuffed just to get this far. They start losing their pacing. They lose focus. Ultimately they have settled. They have settled for top 8 being enough. In many ways, they would be right because it’s a great achievement (especially if it’s your first time). Putting effort into something goes hand in hand with passion. It’s emotionally hard for us to tap our potential and put 100% into something and then fail. My advice is to put the effort in (and more importantly get emotionally attached) and then review how you feel when you lose. I am able to play for the win as if nothing else will do, but once the dust has settled, I can look at a second or third place and realise holistically that it’s a really good result. This means I can keep a consistent mindset and playstyle, despite the opponent and despite the occasion.
When I played club chess there were very little excuses heard post-match. If you lost, you might politely ask your opponent to go through the match with you and show you where you went wrong. You treated this time as invaluable. The issue with Magic is the higher level of variance. Hardly an event goes by that I don’t see (mostly the bottom 40%) missing triggers, missing swings, or tapping the wrong lands… but then proceeding to complain that they lost because their opponent top decked the win. You need to try finishing your games and then reflect on the critical decisions and key points, remaining open to the stuff that you could have worked on regardless of luck. You cannot ever play an event without making mistakes. You can train yourself and practice to avoid a blunder (a large obvious mistake that significantly alters the game), but accept that mistakes are an inevitability in a multi round event.
Working as a team
Another long term strategy is developing a team. I’m part of Adelaide Eternal and I know I wouldn’t have the success I had without my teammates. From playtesting and theory-crafting, to loaning cards and helping you do the maths if you can intentionally draw and still make top 8. Having people around you in an individual pursuit is hugely beneficial. Top athletes in individual sports from Cycling to Gymnastics all have a team of coaches, psychologists, personal trainers and peers that work together. It’s very rare to see an unaffiliated competitor at the top level of a sport win an event. You don’t have to have a team name and a logo to achieve this. At its beginning, Adelaide Eternal was a collaboration. That doesn’t mean you exclude working with others; I still collaborate with people outside of my team all the time. I’m in multiple group chats with magic players and am surrounded by friends talking about what works and doesn’t work in their deck and why. If you struggle overcoming social barriers with other people, simply watching a twitch streamer or youtube personality is a good idea for interacting with and learning from someone else. It can feel a lot like collaboration when you focus on taking the parts of their content that you like, and incorporate it into your playstyle or approach to the game.
The importance of cross-training
Play multiple formats. I play: Cube Draft, Modern, Legacy, Vintage and Highlander. I also dabble in Standard, Pioneer and other Draft formats. Highlander is a culmination of the top cards and interactions in all these formats. Mastering them (or at least practicing them) gives you lessons on what works and what doesn’t and why. Drafting in particular lets you get to the roots of magic, practicing basic blocking, attacking, board development and threat analysis outside of the comfort of your memorised list. One of the big attributes to my team are my insights from other formats on up-and-coming cards that usually start getting adopted months later in Highlander. It helps keep us on the cutting edge of innovation. For example, I won the pre-release sealed event for Zendikar Rising. I don’t play Sealed often but I felt comfortable because I had learnt lessons on the basics of magic from all my other formats. The sealed event in turn gave me lessons to bring back to Highlander. My two best cards in the event were Fearless Fledgling and Luminarch Aspirant.
Aspirant was a card that impressed me to such an extent that I considered its viability in Highlander. A week later Sarven McLinton asked me what I thought of it and I was able to give him an informed opinion. He then played a copy in his Bant Tempo list which finished 2nd place at the first Zendikar Rising legal event, due in part to our combined knowledge on the strength of Luminarch Aspirant. My lesson from Fearless Fledgling was the power of a simple early threat that develops with time; no value engine required. It took over the game if left unchecked, killed surprisingly quickly and the flying gave me options to race when I had lost the board anyway. I didn’t go away thinking Fearless Fledgling itself should be put into Highlander, but we need these reminders to help us assess more powerful but still comparable cards like Restoration Angel, Bitterblossom, or Scavenging Ooze and remember why they are good and how they win games.
General Tips and Tricks
Last of all, I’d like to rapid-fire out some important points that, whilst not necessarily earning a full section in this article, are nonetheless important for setting yourself up for success.
- Organise. Dedicate time to organise yourself at home prior to leaving for your event. If the event starts at 10.00am, don’t wake up at 9.00am,shower and go. Check you have your deck, the sleeves are good, you have your mat, pen and paper, dice etc. If a decklist is required do it with ample time before the event starts (and review it!). Memorise your list. When I write my decklist out for a tournament I make sure I don’t need to look it up as I write it out. This will help you when the pressure is on for a key decision about what to search for with your Chord of Calling, or how many direct damage spells are left in your deck.
- Break. If you finish early and need a break take it. You can even go for a walk if you’re confident you can get back in time for the next round. Set a timer on your watch and ask a friend to call you if the round is beginning early. Don’t play practice games in between rounds. You should have done this prep before game day. Don’t wait until you’re drained to start taking a break because you might not get it. Do it from Round 1.
- Scout. If you’re in ‘the zone’ and don’t need a break, then scout. No one can stop you; it makes a huge difference, it’s legal, and it’s free.
- Keep a consistent attitude and demeanour throughout the rounds and top 8. If you have a friend who you have a specific style of chatting with then fine, but don’t let your opponent or the moment alter your tone and therefore play style.
- Call a judge if you need. Even if it’s a dumb question or something you should already know. Even if there are a lot of people watching. Ask the question and get it off your mind so you can focus on the game. Also call a judge on your opponent if you need to, even if it makes it a bit awkward. I’ve never regretted it. You’ll always regret the judge calls you don’t make.
- Don’t be afraid to ask your opponent to speed up their pace of play. Unintentional draws rarely help anyone, especially you if your goal is to win this event! If your opponent is ‘tanking’ on relatively trivial decisions, or consuming time that otherwise does not need it, ask them politely “let’s keep up the pace to ensure that we have enough time for a result”. Even if it feels impolite, it isn’t (when phrased appropriately), and often your opponent doesn’t even realise they’re doing it!
- Don’t scoop early unless it’s a tactical decision (e.g. based on time, or not showing ‘tech’ when your opponent is most likely to win). Otherwise, never scoop. You can win. Your opponent can blunder. At the very least you can (usually) get in their head, such as implying you have an ‘out’ to the situation that will change their sideboarding.
- Devise a ritual that lets you reset mentally after a blunder. Raphael Nadal the tennis legend does the same ritual he takes every time he serves. This introduces timing to his serve and helps him clear his mind to focus on the point to come.
- Practice. If you can’t get an opponent to play with, play online. If you can’t do that, play a different format. If you can’t do that, Goldfish.
- I Goldfish even hyper interactive control and midrange decks for hours a day leading up to a tournament. Usually just while doing something else like watching a movie or talking with my partner at home. Having a deck in my hand and seeing hand after hand and the first few turns of how you might draw makes you supremely comfortable with the list, its working parts, its mana issues and its pacing. All of this frees up your mental load on the day of the event itself.
- Stay hydrated. Keep a water bottle with you and if you need it, some scroggin or a healthy muesli bar. Soft drinks and energy drinks will give you bursts of energy and then deplete you.
- Believe in yourself. If you’ve read this far. You want it. Go get it and be determined. See you in the top 8!
It is clear that there’s a lot of practical techniques that you can adopt to improve your game. Hopefully I’ve helped you understand how deeply and passionately some of us take competitive Highlander and therefore how exciting it is to realise how much further we can take this game. Magic: The Gathering is just in its infancy compared with the decades or even centuries of love and thought put into other games, from Chess to cards. Because it’s comparatively so young, every single person interested in competitive Highlander has the ability to contribute to its culture and make an impact on the game. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to contribute to it with this article.
I would like to thank my Team, Adelaide Eternal; the Points Committee for their tireless work; and Dan Abraham who assisted with the production of this article as well as theory crafting with me.