One of the most basic components of playing Magic is resource management. Many overarching strategies rely on maximizing one or two resources to overwhelm an opponent. For example, a deck like Miracles relies on counter magic, and superior card draw and selection. It carves out an advantageous board state by denying an opponent access to resources while at the same time replenishing hand size. The Deck eventually wins with a Jace, the Mind Sculptor ultimate, a pumped up Monastery Mentor, or a large Entreat the Angels.
Grixis-Control uses discard spells and efficient creature kills spells to support opponent hand and resource denial, eventually going over the top with a Gurmag Angler or an out-of-control Liliana of the Veil or Liliana, the Last Hope. Effective players try to maximize their game plan through the efficient use of the resources in hand and on the board. But there is one, often overlooked, resource that exists outside the deck. A resource every player tries to maximize in every part of their lives: time. Specifically, time dedicated to this hobby of ours, MTG.
Time, like many resources, isn’t renewable. We cannot resurrect it from the graveyard or recycle it. Once it’s spent, it’s gone; the challenge comes in spending it wisely. For many of us, time is split between many competing things; family, job, school, hobbies, etc. The amount of time dedicated to each one usually waxes and wanes as the years go by and correlates to life events (like marriage) or our goals (moving for career advancement). Each impacts the amount of time we can dedicate to any item. I’d argue that for most, as life demands increase, the amount of time spent on hobbies decreases, as it holds a low time-priority for the majority of us. Sure, we can talk about pro-players or streamers, but let’s be honest; they make up probably less than 2% of the total player base. So, when playing Magic, how do we maximize the resource of time?
Magic requires knowledge investment. [Full disclosure: I heard this term on one of Jeff Hoogland’s recent streams and, for once, I agreed with him. So I’m co-opting it.] Knowledge investment is an aggregation of play experience, comprehension of game mechanics, as well as understanding the current meta-game either locally (FNM), statewide or nationally – all dependent on where you intend to play. The more extensive our knowledge investment, the better we will play Magic. However, knowledge investment requires time to build. The trick is how to budget our time wisely to increase our MTG knowledge investment while still juggling those all important time commitments of daily life.
I’ve drawn up a few time maximizing strategies that can help even those on the most limited time budget increase their MTG knowledge investment. There are three main ways to increase your knowledge investment: reading, watching, and playing. For each of these methods, you need to focus on why you are reading, watching, or playing. In my opinion, lack of focus leads to wasting time.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s start with the first focus-defining decision: what deck are you going to play?
If time is limited, then selecting one deck to play will pay dividends over time. Learning the mechanics of the deck will come with an upfront cost, but with the proper investment of reading, watching, and playing, you will avoid having to relearn the deck’s mechanics as the knowledge becomes ingrained in the old knowledge investment memory bank, saving you… wait for it… time.
Switching decks costs knowledge investment capital, which costs time! Never forget that! Even decks that are different versions of one another (TES versus ANT), requires a completely new skill investment. Think of all the Miracles players when they lost Sensei’s Divining Top; it cost them time testing new versions of the deck to find adequate substitutes, or different win cons. The new Miracles build is similar to the old, but it plays differently. We also see this during set rotations in Standard. It takes time, and Accumulated Knowledge, from novices to pros, testing various builds to create definitive Tier 1 and 2 decks and strategies. The constant thrash in Standard is one of its cons (in my opinion), while formats like Modern and Legacy are more stable. However, if you like learning new decks, and investing both time and money every few months, knock yourself out. For me, stability is one of the ‘pros’ to playing Legacy.
Deck familiarity saves time and allows you to avoid spending hours keeping up with constant change. A keen understanding of a single deck has multiple advantages: one, it saves money because you’re not buying new cards all the time; two, it saves time in learning the match-ups. In a format like Legacy, changes rarely occur. The big decks of the format have been the big decks of the format for a long time. [This is why the DRS ban spun Legacy a bit as decks had to adjust to either not having DRS anymore (looking at you Czech Pile) or not having to deal with DRS as instant graveyard hate (Reanimator and Dredge). If one plugged away learning Reanimator and Dredge, that player is probably doing fairly well right now because they already know their other match-ups and the banning of DRS just helped them out.] Now that I’ve underscored the importance of choosing a single deck to invest in we need to move on to the next step: picking a deck.
The first step in deck selection is figuring out what style of deck you want to play. Like beating folks down with huge fatties? Nic Fit is a pretty good, ahem, fit. Want a deck that rewards tight play by taking small advantages where you can find them? Miracles will do the trick. Of course, it’s up to you. I suggest keeping in mind what is fun for you; don’t let others tell you your deck isn’t fun to play against. As far as Legacy is concerned, we are playing broken decks in one way or another. Even ‘fair’ decks like my beloved Stoneblade do broken things, like cheating a 4/4 vigilance with lifelink into play with Stoneforge Mystic, or casting a creature like True-Name Nemesis, with protection from a player. Even Burn is absolutely fine. If you like seeing how fast your can whittle away someone’s life total, have at it. In the end this is a game and the end goal here is to have fun; otherwise why waste our time?
So now we have a deck we want to play. One of the first things I’d recommend is finding a primer on the deck. A trip to The Google should quickly return a few primers and various versions of your chosen deck. I’d rack and stack by age, as some primers are pretty out of date. Also, look for newer articles written by the pro-tour regulars or long-term streamers. Both can provide the latest lists and deck techs that explain how the deck works. Most also detail match-ups, and some even provide sideboard guidance. All of these provide valuable knowledge investment in return for some well-spent personal time.
Personally, I think streams are a great way of seeing how a deck works and, to some extent, the reasonableness of its match ups in the current meta-game. As I wrote last time, both Miracles and Grixis-Control own the majority of the Legacy meta-game at this point; knowing how to face each of those is important knowledge. However, streams have some downsides. For one, they take time. We are investing time simply watching another person play the deck. These streams usually cover 5 rounds of Magic which can take up to two hours. You can expedite them by placing You Tube on fast forward but you will still need to slow things down to cover interesting board states. Second, sometimes streamers are just bad players. Maybe they are new to the deck and don’t have a good understanding of how it works, maybe they just hit a string of terrible match-ups; either way, you just lost a couple precious hours. To solve this, I’d recommend doing some research on decks favored by pro (or at least non-scrub) players who stream. This can narrow down the streams you watch as well as make watching those streams worthwhile. Additionally, note the differences in their list and yours. Why they chose certain main and sideboard choices are important if you are going to leverage their knowledge to increase your own.
Finally, the axiom that there is no substitute for experience applies here. The more you play a deck, the better you will get at it. Play testing with other players, and against various decks, will make you a better player. It’s especially helpful to set up gauntlets of the most played decks in the meta-game, and play open handed to encourage discussion of possible lines of play. Often your opponent can help you gain insight into how other decks perform and their propensities towards control, aggro, or disruption. Even tournaments can lend themselves to this type of feedback. I’ve received countless constructive critiques and post-game analysis of tricky turns or missed lines. Each have been well received and helped my play the next time. Other methods for getting more reps in are online MTG avenues such as Magic the Gathering Online (MODO) or Xmage. Both provide quick and easy ways of finding fellow players and getting some practice in. Outside of tournaments, all of these approaches provide opportunities to practice playing your deck of choice.
In order to show how this process works, I decided to change my Legacy deck this week. (I know, David is not playing Stoneblade? Stop the presses!) The first thing I did was think about what types of decks have interested me over the past couple of years. Two popped into my head, TES and Dredge. As Dredge happens to be taking off in Modern lately, I decided I liked the idea of trying Dredge in Legacy. I reached out to a friend, who’s run Dredge before, about a good list to start with and he pointed me to Orim67 who has had a lot of success on MODO. Here’s the list:
2 Putrid Imp4 Golgari Thug
4 Lion’s Eye DiamondEnchantments (4)
4 Bridge from Below
2 Lotus Petal
2 Nature’s Claim
3 Silent Gravestone
1 Dread Return
4 Leyline of the Void
1 Ashen Rider
Now that I had a stock list, I went over to the Googles and found a primer on Legacy Dredge. Although slightly dated, the primer focused on what Dredge does and how to plan around the inevitable hate cards most decks will bring in against you. For those not familiar with Dredge, it abuses a mechanic called, unsurprisingly, dredge. If a creature with dredge is in your graveyard, instead of drawing a card, you may return that creature to your hand and place X cards from your library into your graveyard where X is equal to the dredge number of that card. For example, Golgari Grave-Troll has dredge 6, so, instead of taking a draw, I replace the draw effect with Golgari Grave-Troll’s dredge effect, place the troll in my hand and turn over the top six cards of my library into my graveyard. Obviously, you abuse this in some manner, usually through the use of Bridge from Below and sacrificing both Narcomoebas to Cabal Therapy (or in combat) plus repeating Ichorids to build a large horde of 2/2 zombies. Basically, a combo-beatdown plan that can produce T2 kills. However, hate and variance can make it a glass cannon deck. So the skill really comes from knowing what you are playing against, using Cabal Therapy to its fullest, while changing your game plan accordingly: sometimes becoming a reanimator style deck, and bringing in anti-hate cards like Silent Gravestone or Wear // Tear for pesky cards like Leyline of the Void. Basically, trying to steal a second match over the next two games.
Now, normally, I’d only play this deck (like Stoneblade) at FNM. The local store here runs a 3-round Legacy tournament every other week. Let’s do some math, let’s say I play all three rounds with three game matches, that’s nine games of MTG with Dredge every other week, which is roughly, 52/2 * 9 = 234 reps a year. Now, I did this with Stoneblade, and I would say it took about 3-4 months before I became proficient with the deck. We will shoot optimistically and say it took a quarter of a year to become decent, that’s approximately 58 reps, over 3 months! And that’s decent, not amazing, with the deck. Of course, I’d like to improve on that with my new deck before playing it on Fridays, so I watched some streams.
I picked streams by Orim67, Jeff Hoogland, and others, to see how Legacy Dredge paired up online. I did this for a few days, we’ll say about 9 hours total coverage playing expedited (sped up) streams. Finally, I decided to bite the bullet and purchase the deck on MODO. It ended up running about $120, which for a Legacy deck is fantastic! – I’ll come back to real cards in a moment. So, I took the deck online.
Over the past four days, I’ve played 59 games over 24 matches. My win percentage with games is 24/59 or about 42 percent. My match wins are less at 9/24 or 37.5 percent. Ok, not great conversion rates but let’s take a closer look at those numbers. In four days I was able to play 59 games of Magic. That’s equal to 3 months of in-life, FNM tournament play! Let’s look at the cost savings with respect to time here. At FNM, let’s say I can finish a round every 45 minutes with a 5 minute reset cost, with three rounds that is approximately 2.5 hours for 9 games of Magic. In one night, online, I played 6 rounds which lasted an average of 15 minutes each. That’s 4 rounds an hour. In one hour, I played more rounds online than I normally did at a weekly FNM. Even extending online rounds to 20 minutes each, I still end up with 3 rounds in an hour of play, or the equivalent of 1 FNM every hour. Clearly, time investment favors online play.
As far as getting better with the deck, I’m definitely more proficient today than I was a few days ago. I’ve also tweaked both the main and sideboard a little (nothing hugely different from Orim67s list, just a Dread in the main because big trolls are a thing), and added Firestorm because I like it. I’ve also learned the value of having no fear in the first game, just go all in, most decks don’t pack GY hate in the main. Also, for decks like Storm, you can’t afford to durdle, you need to win and win fast. This is where Cabal Therapy is an all-star. Learning to play Cabal Therapy correctly could be an article all by itself (It is, Google it!). The best advice I saw in regards to Cabal Therapy is imagine the card you fear most when you cast it, name that card. It’s worked pretty well. Additionally, don’t undervalue just chaining therapies together. That Cephalid Coliseum works on a target player, nice Brainstorm in response bro, let’s put them all back in your hand and discard before I name a card. I’ve also run across a few folks willing to critique lines and question SB choices. They’ve been helpful and no one has been rude – which is nice.
Hopefully we’ll see if the experience will help at FNM. Which brings me back to real life cards. I’m borrowing Dredge from a friend at the moment until I can buy the cards I need. If starting from scratch in Legacy, Dredge is one of the cheapest but still comes in over $1200 cold hard cash. Magic isn’t a cheap hobby by any stretch of the imagination. That brings me to the last point about running the same deck: it saves on the money resource.
In the end I hope this article has helped focus your attention on how to invest your Magic time wisely when it comes to improving your play or even picking up a new deck. Being smart with how you spend your time can make you a better player as well as squeeze in a few extra hours in your day. Remember, time is a valuable resource, don’t Squandered Resources it.
David starting playing Magic: The Gathering in 1995, opened a Lord of the Pit, and became primarily a Black player ever since. As with most older players, he has played the game on and off through the years, fully returning to the game during Return to Ravnica. He found Legacy a couple of years later and never looked back. When David is not slinging broken spells across the table, he can be found either playing video games with his kids, endlessly scrolling through TV shows with his wife, or reading and writing papers for his PhD.