Lessons Learned

April 14, 2014

There are three types of Magic tournament players:
1. People who spend the time between rounds telling their friends how lucky their opponent was to win the game that they played masterfully (SPOILER ALRET: they probably played poorly).
2. People who are rude to their opponents throughout the match, hitting the table when they get blown out, and those who run outside, after the match, to yell and curse in a corner behind the convention center.
3. Professionals. They are polite to their opponents, even when they are getting destroyed, never say they were unlucky, and always stay level-headed. The most important thing about being a professional is not what happens during the match but after it. They deliberate for hours about the one play they were unsure about and analyze every possible outcome purely in order to learn.
Now before I tell you how to get into this third, glorious category, I am going to take a moment to speak about the most loved man in the Magic community – Reid Duke. Reid Duke has been on an unbelievable rampage recently. For those of you who don’t know, he won a Grand Prix and came in second in another, came in ninth place at a Pro Tour and in second place in the World Championship. All of this in a matter of a few months… Yes, it’s quite unreal. But Reid hasn’t always been on top. I have heard stories from years ago when he was just another grinder, with dreams of making his way to the Pro Tour like everyone else. But he was fortunate enough to go from a PTQ nobody to the most respected player in the world.
Whenever I have played against Reid I always learned something. He is always very nice, always looks very confident, even when he is getting attacked for lethal, and most importantly – he always takes his time. Each one of these attributes is very important when aspiring to become the best of the best. Most people think play skill and technical play is the most important thing in Magic but this is only half the battle.
So what does it take to become as good as Reid? Well, unfortunately, in my opinion it’s impossible… There are, however, many things you can do to make sure you evolve from a category one or two player to a category three player.
The first and most important step is realizing that Magic the Gathering is just a game. This has been the hardest thing for me to grasp. I have been playing card games my entire life and they really are what I live for. I go to sleep every night just waiting for the next tournament and wake up in the morning thinking the same thing. This has been my life since I was ten. Recently I have begun to realize that TCGs are not about winning. They are about going to tournaments and having a great time with the amazing people that you won’t find anywhere else. Going in with this attitude is essential.
“I consider the money I spend on Grand Prixs as paying for the experience. Whenever I get a check in the mail it feels like an added bonus.” – Christian “The Big Game” Calcano.
If you play every match thinking that the world will come to an end if you lose, you are not going to succeed. In order to become successful you must become detached. If the prize money is going to pay for your next meal, the pressure and worry will make you play poorly. Although losing a Magic match and losing all of your money are very different, the same concept applies. Players need to be relaxed and have a good attitude in order to play optimally. If you’re not having fun you’ll never make the transition into category three and shouldn’t be playing Magic. Do you think that Reid Duke, Owen Turtenwald, William Jensen, Ben Stark and LSV don’t have the potential to make millions in a different field with the unbelievable intelligence they all have? Well sure they do, but the reason they play Magic and the reason they are so successful is because they have a genuine love for the game.
Once you get the first and most important part down you must move to step number two. You must obtain “The Fire”. Now what is the The Fire? Well it is different for everyone. For me it is what keeps me going. It makes me want to prepare extensively for every Magic tournament I go to. It makes me want to drive ten hours to a GP. It makes me want to fly to every GP I can because all I want is another trophy on my shelf. I can come up with a bunch of different ways to describe my Fire, but at the end of the day it is wanting to win. It is wanting to be the best at what you do even if you aren’t. It is the thrill that gives you the chills every time you are playing for the top 8 of a tournament.
A lot of my friends who have done poorly recently talk about how they are losing “The Fire”. For that matter many people who go to tournaments don’t have The Fire in the first place. So you must be thinking, how does one get it? Just like many things in life it will come naturally. If you love the game and travel to tournaments you will get it. It isn’t something you can force, but when you get it… you will know.
A friend of mine, Andrew Tenjum, lost playing for top 8 of Grand Prix DC this past weekend. As I was returning a few cards to him after the tournament he looked at me and said, “I want to go to Grand Prix Albuquerque so badly. I was so close to getting onto the Pro Tour and after this tournament there is nothing else I want more.”
For those of you who don’t know, Andrew Tenjum isn’t a virgin to winning. He recently came in second place at the Invitational and has other strong Grand Prix finishes. The Fire can come at any time ladies and gentlemen, but when it comes I suggest you hold onto it for dear life because it is a very important key to success. You must want to be at that tournament and you must think that you have the best chance of winning it. This determination and drive will lead you to be more focused and well-prepared for the event and help you find other players to work with who have this same Fire.
Now step three is the most interesting step. Step three is realizing that being a professional doesn’t correlate with winning or being on the PT. Some define being a professional as playing Magic as a career or having multiple PT top 8 finishes, but I disagree. Being a professional is having, and more importantly utilizing, all of the skills we have spoken about. Now, most people who play Magic for a living and have multiple top 8 performances fall into category three because these characteristics are the most important for a successful Magic career.
My major flaw is that I am very insecure about my Magic play skill. I constantly ask people how good they think I am and if I am better than players X, Y or Z, or if they think I have what it takes to win Magic tournaments. Well none of that stuff matters because even if I think I’m the best player in the world, it won’t win me the match. Every time I sit down at that table, the match is all that counts.
Many players are intimidated by “big name players”. Please, please don’t allow yourself to become one of these players! I have had friends who look at the pairing board and see they are playing against LSV and say, “Please God let me run savagely well and get extremely lucky to win because he is sooooo much better than me!” Well let me tell you something – with that attitude you will probably have to run like a god to win because you are bringing a knife to a gunfight. When you think you are the dog in the match, you will play badly, I promise you that. So make sure at the beginning of every match that you take a breath and have nothing else on your mind besides Magic cards.
The last and the most difficult step for many is step four – wanting to learn. For me this is probably the step I am best at. Many of my friends don’t even ask me after a match if I lost or won. They know that if I won I walk around, checking out how other people are doing, and if I lost I don’t budge from the table – thinking and analyzing every step of the game and trying to understand what went wrong. Those few minutes after a match are crucial and are where I learn the most. The match is still very fresh in my head and I can remember things extremely clearly: the possible lines I could have taken, if I should have attacked the turn and if playing that spell a turn later was correct or not. It is very important to analyze every match, even those you win as winning is no guarantee that you played perfectly. There’s always something to learn. Going over the games you’ve won is nearly as important as taking the time to think about the games you have lost.
My main problem is usually playing too quickly, lack of preparation, not analyzing my turns enough and letting my emotions take control. The most important step in becoming a category three player and improving your play skill is realizing exactly what went wrong and how to make sure it never happens again.

Unfortunately, despite knowing all the steps I am still not a category three player. Knowing isn’t enough; you must know how to apply them. It’s not easy and not everyone can do it but I truly believe that a player who can successfully accomplish all the steps is destined to do very well.
I have been dedicating all of my time to Magic lately and have still not been able to achieve some of my goals. I don’t lose because I lack playing skills but because I lack many of the skills that category three players have. All I can tell you is to play and study a lot because like everything else in life, you need to invest time in something to be good.
I hope this article will give you the spark to help start your Fire. Despite the fact that I still have a way to go, if there is anything I can do to help you make the transition into a category three player, please feel free to contact me here or on twitter@jdemestrio.
Until next time.
Joe Demestrio

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