Mental Missteps: Mistakes I Made as a Casual Magic: The Gathering Player

038_mental_misstepLast week, I shared my personal journey through an eight-week “fast” from Magic: The Gathering. The much-needed time away from the game allowed me to realize some “mental missteps” I made as a casual player that I’d like to share, as well as what I plan to do more effectively in future games.

Let me say two things before I begin. First, I realize not everyone plays Magic in the same way or with the same motivations, so this is very much a “your mileage may vary” essay. Second, this is by no means an exhaustive list of dos and don’ts, so I welcome any feedback in the comments section to supplement what I’ve written.

I’ll start with my missteps, or, what I felt I did “wrong”:

  • I cracked boosters. This seems innocuous enough, right? People love surprises and instant gratification, and boosters offer both. “Am I going to get that shiny mythic rare?” “Ooh, maybe I’ll be the lucky one to score the ‘God Pack’ this time!” What I came to discover, however, is that cracking random boosters as an impulse buy ended up being a poor decision well over 80% of the time. By the time that wrapper came off and I’d sorted through everything, I often had a handful of cards I’d never play with or were worth too little to trade.
  • I bought into the hype, literally. Hype is everyone in the Magic community. Speculation over new and returning cards and mechanics ebbs and flows with the release schedule, but it’s always humming in the background. One of the worst things I did was trade for three of the Journey Into Nyx enemy-colored gods (Athreos, Iroas, and Pharika) right as the set came out. Athreos, for example, was priced at US $24 on release day. At the time of this essay, he’s hovering around US $8-9. This was a completely impulsive decision, and, as someone who played only occasionally with friends, is was a poor one to make as well.
  • I only played decks when I had all the cards (again, literally) in hand. For some reason, I never wanted to play with proxies, which are “stand-ins” for cards you don’t yet have in your possession. Professional Magic players use proxies constantly to test and fine tune their decks before they commit to adding them in their deck list. I never played any of mine until I had them fully assembled, after which I would start playing and testing. More often than not, I would discover that cards I had just traded for didn’t work out as I expected, so I’d cut them from the list and start up trades for their replacements.
  • I focused on too many decks in Standard. Part of what makes Magic endlessly fascinating is how many combinations of cards, effects, and mechanics you can combine in your decks. With each new set comes a whole new array of concepts and interactions. This makes it hard to choose where you want to go with your Standard decks, as new cards can make dramatic changes to your current game plan, both from what you want to design and what you’ll need to account for on the other side of the table. My problem here is that I couldn’t decide. I saw deck builds online and wanted to try quite a few of them, so I had at least three or four partially-built decks going at any one time. Without a consistent play group and use of proxies, I often didn’t realize how well a specific build would perform until I had committed a good deal of time into its design and development. This often left me with one decent deck and several other lukewarm builds.
  • I overlooked the most vital aspect of Magic: the social aspect. This was the hardest lesson for me to learn. At its core, Magic is a social game; it is not designed to be played alone. There is only so much satisfaction you can draw from singular activities such as trading, collecting, and deck building. As I mentioned in my “fast” essay, I had moved hundreds of miles from my former playgroup, so I lost my core group of casual gamers. I also did not have the desire to playing Magic online, as I had read many not-so-positive experiences about it, both from the mechanical side (glitchy interface and frequent downtimes) and the personal side (cutthroat competition and rude opponents). I started venturing out to local game stores to find other players, but did not have the guts to interact and talk with folks there beyond the games themselves.

What should I have done?

  • Drafted. What I came to realize over time was that many of the cards in any given set are designed exclusively for the Limited format. “Bad cards” exist specifically to add strategy and tension in drafts. You need to be skillful and cunning to craft a winning 40-card deck from random booster pulls, which is why there is such a die-hard following around Limited. Had I drafted instead of cracking boosters, I would have been able to experience new cards and mechanics in a fun and constructive way.
  • Been patient. Had I bided my time and waited until the hype over Journey Into Nyx had cooled off, I could have snagged Athreos and his divine kin for a third of their prerelease cost, and spent my remaining trade credit on other cards I wanted. It seems that, with a few exceptions (such as dual lands and high-value reprints such as Mutavault and Thoughtseize), the inflated prices of hyped cards settle down within the first one to three months after the set hits the streets. Planeswalkers in particular are notorious for being highly overvalued ahead of a prerelease.
  • Used proxies and playtested. Whenever I design a deck, I have a vision in mind for how it will play out. More often than not, however, cards I bought or traded for didn’t interact on the battlefield the way I planned. Had I used proxies to test my theories instead of taking the time and money to acquire the actual cards, I could have given my builds a proper run-through, chosen what really, truly worked, and saved my trade credits for the final roster.
  • Narrowed my focus to a single Standard deck. Making a commitment to one build in Standard would have been a much wiser use of my time and money. It would have limited the trades I wanted and freed up points for higher-dollar cards for that one deck. It also would have allowed me to playtest it exclusively, sussing out strengths and weaknesses much faster and more effectively. Plus, playing with a single deck would have helped me sharpen strategies in specific matchups (for example, what cards would I need to always swap in or out versus a Control player, or an Aggro player).
  • Put more effort into finding a play group and settling in at my local game store. I’m an introvert at heart, so it’s challenging for me to form new friendships and connections in places where I don’t know anyone. It would have been worth the personal risk to have gone out of comfort zone and be more gregarious and purposeful when playing at Friday Night Magic and prereleases events. I could have also taken the initiative and taught fellow coworkers about Magic to form a new playgroup during office lunch breaks, much as I did at my former location. I took the easy route out and assumed I would make new Magic friends by proxy, when, instead, all I did was sit on the sidelines between games and keep to myself.

Now, let me turn it over to the masses: what have you learned as a Magic player that you realized was not the best method or tactic? What would you offer as guidance or advice to other players out there?

About brightmatrix

brightmatrix is a long-time casual gamer. His gaming journey has included Magic: the Gathering, the first, second, and fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons, and the first wave White Wolf games from the late 90s. If you are a denizen of the Twitterverse, you can read his posts on Magic, web development, puns, and other shenanigans at @brightmatrix.


  1. Dan Silverman says:

    Proxie playing is one of the reasons that Cockatrice is the best. The decks I played you all with frequently (token, illusion, and green ramp) were all tested against strangers online to see how they would fare. I also learned how to make MTG profitable. When M14 Garruk was going for $20 I refused to pay that for one card. It made more sense to order a “bundle” that an online seller offered me for $140 that I knew I could flip for $200+ and still end up with at least 2 of the cards I was looking for.

    That said we had the discussion before about how difficult it is to get involved with a new play group at the card shop. Me and my daughter went weekly to two different shops and saw many of the same people. We talked to them between games and at the end of the day the ones that were descent were the shop owners and the majority were a-holes. Our initial belief was that it was just the shop we frequented so when someone suggested we try another shop we went there. It was the same thing. Those that were typically descent to you while playing became the biggest jerks when they lost.

    Playing in those situations also affected how I played with friends. I remember one game with you that got exceptionally heated and despite winning was no fun at all. Dealing with people where you have to fight on every turn makes it tough to play casually with friends who don’t care if they win or lose.

    I tried out MTGO a few weeks back. MTGO has a reputation for being especially unfriendly and being the worst the game has to offer. In the three games I got to play for free I added two people to my friends list and had an extremely pleasant experience. I have an issue with paying to play for items in a digital environment but it was the most fun I’ve had with the game in over a year. That said it could also be because they were also new to the game and not regulars.
    so is

    One last item I’ll touch on as I’ve almost written an article in response is the “buying into the hype”. As someone who has sold Thragtusk for $1.50, repurchased him at $4, and then resold him at $15 all in the same year. If the big 10 players aren’t using a certain card at the moment, it is likely to be doomed. Thragtusk is now $2 and Nykthos, Shrine To Nyx is sitting at $4 when I believe both of these cards peaked at around $20. You could argue that Thragtusk fell because it is now out of standard rotation but cards like Snapcaster Mage continue to climb. If the “pros” don’t use them, they drop faster than blackberry stock.

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