Two months of drafting on Magic Arena: brief thoughts.

I am horribly hooked on playing Limited in Magic Arena. I do not think there is a cure for my affliction.

Just two months ago, it was all about Constructed. I played paper Legacy for years until Arena beckoned. Arena was a way to play Magic in a convenient way at home. I hadn’t even realized that I could craft cards, so I was jamming the Merfolk precon deck over and over again.

Constructed, even with wildcards, proved to be excruciatingly boring. So I stepped over to Draft and Sealed, beginning with War of the Spark, and haven’t looked back since.

Two months later, I’ve played somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 to 100 drafts. Mostly WAR and M20, with a tiny bit of Ravnica Allegiance thrown in.

This is unprecedented. I’ve never drafted Magic in any meaningful way prior to playing Arena. I played ONE sealed event with Ravnica Allegiance, and that was done purely to kill time after scrubbing out of a Legacy tournament. I Cube drafted on occasion, but let’s be real here, Cube isn’t real Magic.

Two months later, I am still very much a scrub. A scrub’s scrub. Scrubby McScrubberson.

But I’m good at picking things up fairly quickly. I absorb content, strategy and heuristics like a mofo. And for now, there is still a great mountain to climb.

Here are some thoughts as I sit in the airport, looking to pass the time…because I am not playing Arena.

Perspective #1: Enjoy the Grind. Embrace the Grind.

What I mean by “the Grind” is the act of grinding out long games of Magic in which you conduct lots of creature combat, save your pump spells for maximum value, and try to win games with five cards left in your library.

In all of my years playing Magic, I really sucked at combat. I focused on the Legacy format which is really not about creature combat. At all.

Nobody blocks in the Legacy format unless you think a Baleful Strix holding off a 20/20 Marit Lage for one turn is skill intensive. The format is about calculating whether you can race a Batterskull after dropping fourteen Goblins on the third turn. Or having a flying Delver of Secrets go the distance while Skill-Name Nemesis gums up the ground.

It’s no surprise that I abandoned playing decks like Nic Fit and Death & Taxes a few years ago. They were too grindy for my tastes and I never wanted games to go long. Plus, they were just bad decks.

In two short months of playing Limited, I’ve become much more proficient at the nuts and bolts of The Grind.

I now know when to attack planeswalkers and when to play around Flash creatures. I can adequately play around combat tricks. I even offer creature trades at the right time, and spend much less mental energy calculating trample damage.

A bit part of this evolution in my game is just gaining more reps and seeing more situations play out. It’s also watching others play Magic and thinking about what I would do in their shoes.

The bottom line is that I feel comfortable adapting to what Limited throws at me. I’m becoming less of an aggro specialist.

This adaptive mindset has bled into my Standard and Legacy play. I feel more confident now about going the distance in games, and at times even feel capable in outplaying my opponents on turn 24.

Perspective #2: Limited teaches you to fight the strong urge to go on auto-pilot.

Because I am still a terrible Limited player, every pick of every draft is a battle with myself. An inner battle.

I’ve oscillated between drafting the easy way — locking into my colors/archetypes super early — and drafting the hard way — staying open, staying present, trying to reach drafting Nirvana, a la Ben Stark.

Since I track my results like a mofo (wins/losses/punts), I’ve concluded that pretty much every time I gloss over picks and/or come up with stupid axioms — “you should NEVER run card X in your deck,” “you need at least 17 lands in any draft deck,” etc. — I am MAX-PUNISHED.

Punished. To the max.

I’ve even had to check myself during games because I lose concentration, make a bad play, and drop a totally winnable match. Usually it comes down to lack of sleep or focus. Sometimes I totally forget cards Y and Z exist and get careless. Hello, Flame Sweep!

What it all comes down to…is that I haven’t got it all figured out just yet. ‘Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one’s loading up on ten thousand more gems. (Sung to the tune of Alanis Morrisette’s “Hand in my Pocket.”)

One way to address this deficiency in my game is to play a lot more Magic. The foundation is important.

The other way is to watch lots of other people play Magic at a high level. Deathsie, Ben Stark, AliasV, LSV, countless others…they are all really talented Limited players.

You can definitely “check yourself” by checking out other players. God bless Twitch and YouTube.

Perspective #3: Drafting a great deck doesn’t mean anything. You still have to play the games, and win them.

Perhaps it’s all the years of hearing players say things like this that spoiled my expectations…

“I drafted an amazing deck. Easy 3-0.”

I’ve lost count of how many AMAZING decks I’ve drafted on Arena that went absolutely nowhere. Five crazy bombs, perfect mana curve, works of art.

In many cases, those perfect decks brought me to a sobering 0-3 or 1-3 record in BO1, and then the deck is scrapped forever.

See, I still had to play the games out. Still had to mulligan correctly, sequence my plays correctly, and do all the little things.

I still needed to draw that fucking Dread Presence. Why am I drawing all my damn Swamps, instead? ONE TIME, DEALER. ONE TIME!!!!

There’s definitely an element of entitlement here. When I draft a 10/10 deck, I am already visualizing my victory. Already thinking about the celebratory tweet. It’s bad.

I’m reasonably sure that “Easy 3-0” applies to players who’ve played a million more drafts than I have. The Jarvises of the world. The ones who denigrate Arena bots. (I still can’t beat those stupid bots, by the way.)

If you’re a strong technical player who’s already played in five Pro Tours, then those words actually hold merit.

If anything, I’ve experienced better finishes when my decks are mediocre, 6/10 crappy brews. I am more on edge, more alert, and basically not taking anything for granted when I sit down to play.

What’s the learning here? I have to assume nothing is easy. Because for me, it really isn’t, and I haven’t earned that right to get complacent.

Perspective #4 — Magic is really, really, really hard.

I feel like I’d been living in a cave for the past decade…and wholly ignorant of my own skill level.

There’s an apt analogy for this. It’s similar to feeling like I could compete with professional basketball players, despite the fact that I:

  • Blow wide-open layups in practice. Stupid mis-clicks in Arena, make bad blocks, overextend my attacks to be dead on board.
  • Don’t know where I need to stand on the basketball court. Building mana bases incorrectly, mulliganing badly.
  • Have never played against top competition in my life. Not reaching Mythic in Ranked Draft to test vs. the best players on Arena. Not having the pleasure of playing against a deck with 6 Heartpiercer Bows, yet.
  • Can barely dribble a ball. That’s me drafting, followed by watching a Ben Stark video, having my mind blown, and then getting a drink.

Do I believe that successful people in any profession just lucked their way into it and got extremely lucky for prolonged periods of time? Heck no.

OK, what next?

My tracked win rate is living proof that I’ve got a long way to go.

The only thing I can do is make better decisions. I am not going to give up.

What I will do, however, is play with more restrictions. I believe restrictions breed…something. If not creativity, then stronger focus and eventually better results. This includes:

  • Playing a maximum of two drafts a day. This helps minimize auto-pilot syndrome.
  • Doing draft walkthroughs with a friend or coach.
  • Writing down leaks in my game.

I’m also going to consider streaming my drafts. Not only because I work on CardBoard.Live and we’ve developed a sweet set of tools for Arena streamers, but because tilting in public can be cathartic. I’m mostly joking about the cathartic bit, but weirder realizations have happened.

I’ll report back before the end of the year. Hopefully by then I won’t have thrown my laptop out the window in a fit of rage.

Peace,

James

 

 

 

 

 

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