Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Playing To Win At Magic: The Gathering

A good part of this article is inspired by David Sirlin's excellent book Playing To Win, which can be viewed for free online at www.sirlin.net/ptw. This article will have many of the same concepts, but also has my own ideas and examples specific to Magic: The Gathering. Reading Playing To Win is not required to understand this text.

Playing To Win At Magic: The Gathering

An article by Jay Bailey (mtgsalivanth)


Many of the concepts found in these texts will be ones that you do not agree with. If you wish to argue them, I'll make it easier on you by providing my e-mail address (www.salivanth@live.com) and my Twitter account. (mtgsalivanth). I routinely check both of these.

With that out of the way, let's move on to the meat of the article: Playing to win at this game. Some of you do not want to play to win. Some of you play casually, and don't want to progress past the level you are at right now. That's fine: these concepts do not apply to you. I speak to the ones who aim to improve their game.

Magic: The Gathering is a game, and the first thing you must accept is the following:

Magic: The Gathering must be treated like Magic: The Gathering.

This means that no tournament-legal card, deck, or strategy is cheap, wrong, or should not be used for reasons other than 'It will not help me win'. If you are playing casually, play casually, but in tournaments, PLAY TO WIN.

This means accepting truths about the game. A combo deck is not cheap because it does not interact with the opponent. It's not a deck that 'does not 'play' Magic'. It does not interact with the opponent because it's not designed to. If you think that's wrong, you're not playing Magic: The Gathering. You're playing a different version of the game, and you must play the version that the tournament is playing.

If a deck is going to cost several hundred dollars to build and you can't afford it, fine. But don't whinge about the fact that you can't afford it. If you cannot remain competitive with your budget, then you should set your sights to other places other than improving at the game and playing at higher levels.

Counterspells are a valid strategy. Discard is a valid strategy. Land destruction is a valid strategy. (Note that I'm not saying these are valid as in 'They are competitive' for they may not be at the time of your reading. However, it is valid as in if it is a competitive strategy, you should not refrain from using it because it's 'cheap' 'dishonorable' or 'no fun'.)

I believe David Sirlin himself said it best.

"The game knows no rules of "honor" or of "cheapness." The game only knows winning and losing". 

- David Sirlin, author of Playing To Win.

I could give many other examples. Netdecking, metagaming, rules lawyering...but the principle is the same. If you want to win, you must accept that every tournament-legal strategy is fair game if it increases your chance of winning.

You do not decide what is fair and what is not. Wizards of the Coast does. If they say it can be done (by not banning or restricting it) then it can (and if it is good, will) be done. End of story.

Sir Scrub

Let's introduce a player I call Sir Scrub. Sir Scrub has many names and many guises. He may appear at your table or your FNM. If you haven't met him, or have met him in a large tournament where you do not have to put up with him again, be grateful.

You can never outplay Sir Scrub. Ever. You can beat him, of course, but it's always due to luck. You drew better or he drew worse. He was mana screwed or mana flooded. You got a lucky cascade, he never did. Sir Scrub is cursed with terrible luck, but at least he plays with honor.

Sir Scrub is the guy who draws cards off the top when he loses and then says 'In 3 turns, I would have had you.' The fact that you made sure the game DIDN'T last longer than it had to doesn't seem to resonate with Sir Scrub. He still had all these in his deck, he just never drew them.

Do you recognise him? You probably do, and if not, it's a good thing, too.


The previous section seemed to make no sense. It offers no advice on winning, and just bashes people. I wrote that section to show you the opposite of what you should be.

You should not chalk matches up to luck. Sometimes you WERE mana-screwed or mana-flooded. But could you have prevented it? By saying that mana-screw cost you the game, you're saying that:

A) You fully randomised your deck.
B) You made the correct mulliganing decisions.
C) You played perfectly.
D) There was no way you could have psyched your opponent into thinking you had something to stop him doing what he did to win.

Only if all of these are true can you blame mana-screw or mana-flood, or any other luck-based occurence.

When you lose, be humble. How could you have performed better, played more tightly, anticipated your opponent's moves better? Was his lucky topdeck lucky or was he holding you off until he could draw it? Did you push him as hard as you could, or in control, did you defend and prioritise threats to the best of your ability?

You must trust your decisions and your deck. A classic example is mulliganing. Do you, after mulliganing, look at the top card to see if you would have drawn the card you need? Okay, so there WAS that third land off the top. Who cares? You still made the right decision. This is something I consciously stopped doing, since by doing so, I basically say 'I don't trust that I made the mathematically correct move.' You must trust your decisions after you make them.

You must do everything you can to win. If you need a certain card, did you aggressively mulligan to find it? Did you defend as best you could to attempt to draw the card? Did you overextend into your opponent's sweeper? These are things that could cost you the game, but can be hard to notice. A 5-land hand against your opponent's Black-Red deck in Zendikar draft can very well be suicide, even if it looks good against a slower deck. If you don't know what your opponent is playing, that's one thing, but Game 2 you should not make that mistake.

Did you do your research? You didn't know what to do in that situation. Perhaps you should have tested more.

Essentially, there are a thousand things that you probably could have done, but did not, that can contribute to your loss, a lot more than mere luck. If you're not trying your best in a situation, luck merely helped your opponent win, not sealed it for them.


A great deal of my blog and many other hands have written about how to improve your play skill at Magic, so I shall leave that to other articles and other hands. This is the mindset you MUST take into any serious tournament, and if you do not, you may as well not go. If you still disagree with me, as some of you probably will, my e-mail is once again www.salivanth@live.com. My Twitter account is mtgsalivanth. Feel free to argue as much as you like, but in the end, as I have come to realise: this is the mindset that counts when you want to win.


  1. A good article. After playing casual for quite a long time and I just recently decided to get competitive and this article has come just at the right time. Thanks.

  2. Hello Salivanth,
    Im very new to MTG started with MTG 2010, and now i bought a booster box of Zendikar. Now with that said ill tell you a got pretty lucky and got a lot of rare and good cards from both series. So my question is do you have any good Blue & White, Blue & Black decks i can make or get an idea of with both series. I always had played with red & black and i called it a life drainer, if cards were shuffle well it will only take 7 to 9 hands to end the game. Thank you.

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  5. I first read Playing to Win many years ago when Flores recommended it back in the Dojo days, and this is a great summary of it in a Magic context. Just as relevant now as it has ever been. Good job!

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