Getting Better in Magic: The Basics

I started playing Magic: The Gathering right when Guilds of Ravnica released, and in just a little over a year, I’ve managed to go from knowing basically nothing to making Mythic Rank. I’ve always played the game with competitive in mind, coming from a background of playing Hearthstone competitively for about 4 years. For anyone who’s interested in what I consider the fundamentals for advancing your competitive skill, these are some skills I want to share with you. In the future, I will dig deeper in a follow-up article with some more advanced information on furthering your Magic game such as mentality and playing your opponent. However, first, we have to start with the fundamentals of competitive Magic success.

Before you even sit down at the table, you have to select all 75 cards of your deck (or more if you’re an animal). This is the biggest decision you’ll have to make before entering a game of Magic or a tournament. There are two key factors for determining what deck to play in my opinion, and they are preparedness and power. Preparedness is the most important aspect of choosing a deck, as playing a Tier 2 deck that you’ve been playing for weeks or months and have familiarized yourself with its play patterns and tools is going to get you way more success than picking up a Tier 1 deck that’s rather complicated to play without much practice put into it. However, if you’re very familiar with both a Tier 2 deck and a Tier 1 deck, it’s probably best to bring the Tier 1 deck due to its general power in the meta unless you have specific reasoning for bringing the Tier 2 deck. Deciding what deck to play is the first step to having a successful ladder session, tournament, or match, so being knowledgeable of the current meta is something you should invest a lot of time in if you’re looking for success. 

Once you’ve chosen what deck to play, it’s important to tech it for what its purpose is. Deciding your tech is all about being able to read the meta and what you can do in order to get yourself an edge over players who are bringing the best decks to a tournament. For example, if the meta is mostly blue decks, then a mainboard Mystical Dispute or two. If one deck is super prevalent, then maybe you dedicate 1-3 very specific cards in your sideboard just to beat that deck. It’s up to you to decide what cards you want to add to your deck to specifically target parts of the meta. While you want your deck to be good all-around, giving yourself an edge in a matchup that you know you’re going to play into is something that is worth the risk of adding specific cards to your deck. 

Sideboarding by new players is something extremely underrated to them. Since Magic is a Best of 3 format that means you’re theoretically playing 2 of your 3 games sideboard so maximizing the efficiency of the 15 cards in your sideboard is key to success. A good sideboard is the life or death of a deck after game 1 and can even turn an unfavorable matchup into a favorable one. You’ll want to make sure that all 15 of your sideboard cards are useful and can also target multiple matchups unless you have very specific silver bullets for a single matchup. If you’re laddering or heading to a big tournament, then make sure you write up a sideboard guide (this is completely legal and I think extremely under-utilized). This way you don’t make any mistakes when you’re suffering from mental fatigue and makes the whole sideboarding experience easier. Always be tweaking your sideboard; if there’s a card that sees little to no play then replace it with something else. Also, don’t overboard for matchups. Sure, these 12 cards seem really good post-game against a certain matchup, but then you’re starting to turn your deck into some post-sideboard hate amalgamation rather than a fine-tuned winning machine. Take full advantage of your sideboard as that’s what’ll help you win the most matches in Magic.

The mulligan phase is the most important part of any Magic game. This decides what your opening hand is and how the first few turns will play out. I think with the new mulligan system going for aggressive mulligans from 7 to 6 or 6 to 5 is perfectly fine in a lot of scenarios. Especially post sideboard, you’ll want to mulligan for your sideboard cards aggressively, and, if you know your opponent is on an aggro plan, you can’t at all afford to keep a slow hand. So, you’ll want to try and mulligan for a hand that can match their early pressure. Keeping hands with low land counts is fine if you either have ways of drawing cards to get looks for more lands or if your hand has enough action when getting those lands to be successful. So keeping a 2 lander with cards like Growth Spiral or Uro is fine, but keeping a 2 lander with “all gas” 3-5 mana cards is not something you can afford to do unless you’re on a desperate mulligan to 5. Put a lot of thought into your mulligan then look at it and ask yourself: “Does the hand I have give me enough tools to win the game?”

You will make mistakes while playing Magic. You’ll tap the wrong lands, you won’t play around the card you know they have, you’ll miss onboard tricks, and you’ll not play a land before casting a card into Mystical Dispute and only be able to pay 2. Don’t beat yourself up for your mistakes. Even if it’s a game-losing mistake, it’s happened and you have to move on. In a recent Pioneer Starcity IQ I went to, I was playing Mono-Black aggro and I had a Spawn of Mayhem on the board. My opponent attacked me down to 1, and I scooped because I was dead to my Spawn of Mayhem in my upkeep. The issue was, my opponent was also at 1, so the game would’ve ended in a draw. I was obviously tilted by this misplay and I ended the match with my first loss of the day and ended that round at 2-1. Did I let this get to me? I didn’t and played my hardest to still succeed in the tournament, eventually finishing tenth after losing my win and in for top 8. I didn’t let my mistake follow me and played pretty solid games to give myself a shot at success. So even though you’ve made that mistake, keep playing and stay positive. Players who make mistakes can lead themselves to make more mistakes. So play the game out after your mistake like it didn’t happen, and don’t ruin the rest of your game because you made an error or you won’t be able to come back from your mistake. 


Magic is a game that takes time to master, and there isn’t really a formula to Magic success. In a future article, I want to go over some of the deeper aspects of Magic play that I’ve been working on. So stay tuned for more, and keep striving to get better at this amazing card game.


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