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Perfect Magic


This article was originally published on 5 April 2011 and forms part of the Blackborder Classics series.

About Jonathan Randle

Jonathan Randle
Jonathan Randle

After an 8 year break from Magic I won English Nationals at my first attempt in 2008. Since then I've made made the top 8 of Nationals 2010, Grand Prix Birmingham 2008 and Worlds 2010. I have a deep passion for control decks and have a reactive, stoic and philosophical approach to the game.

  • 52 Lifetime Pro Points
  • Top 8 Worlds 2010
  • Top 8 GP Birmingham 2008
  • Great Britain National Champion 2008
  • Top 4 Great Britain Nationals 2010

Perfect Magic

'The player who wins, is the player who makes the least mistakes.'

I can't recall where I heard this saying but I know that I have always believed in it. Playing the perfect game of Magic, is, in my mind, unattainable. It is the pursuit for perfect play, however, that is important.

Magic is a complicated game. There are many factors to consider, and I’m not just talking about the cards or lines of play as we have to consider our opponent in almost everything we do. In this article, I shall strive to cover some of the things we can do to perfect our game, and to express some of the key things I have learned along my way.

The first step I shall mention is concentration. Concentration is absolutely crucial to playing perfect Magic. I know that I myself am capable of great levels of concentration. I can focus absolutely on my task at hand, and block out everything else from my mind. Whether it is playing on the Pro Tour for thousands of dollars, or my local FNM, I can focus on something so hard that I can fail to realize my phone is ringing or that the building is burning down. This is one of my greatest strengths as a player. I know that it can be difficult to concentrate sometimes, when there is pressure and a crowd gathering to watch your game. Other thoughts can enter your mind, and it can drift and wander. You can worry too much about external matters and lose focus to a point where it is near impossible to regain. Conversely, I can say that of myself, when I am unfocused, I am quite capable of making the most basic errors imaginable. For instance, I was playing a game last night and on turn 3 (I was playing CawBlade) I tapped my Celestial Colonnade and Seachrome Coast to cast my Stoneforge Mystic leaving my Plains untapped so I couldn't Spell Pierce his Koth. This is a pretty unimaginable error, but the sole cause was a lack of concentration. To maintain myself during a match then, to play as optimally as I am capable of, I ensure that I leave all else at the door. If I have control over the environment, then I will set it so that I don't have to compete with anything but my opponent. I often get terrible headaches during Magic tournaments, so I do my best to prevent them by drinking plenty of water and taking pain killers when I feel the onset of one. My point being, prepare yourself. A game of Magic doesn't begin with the die roll, it begins when you wake up in the morning. Know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses, and take measures to help ensure that you can concentrate the best you can. There was an instance during a tournament when I was suffering from such a bad headache, I had to drop entirely. This was entirely my fault - I wasn't prepared. If you start to flag and you can feel yourself slipping away, then drag yourself back into the game, and into the moment. There are many battles taking place during a match, and one of them is who can focus the strongest. Who can notice each minute play, who misses triggers and who sees 3 moves ahead. There is literally no excuse for misplaying due to lack of focus. You may win the game, but it will not be perfect. Preparation in terms of deck selection, tuning and practice is naturally essential for success. You may have the wrong sideboard cards for a particular matchup, this would be your fault, and your mistake.

There are basically two kinds of mistakes one can make. One is the 'factual' kind, i.e. tapping the wrong mana or missing a trigger. The other is the theoretical i.e. taking the wrong line of play. There is a legend that the greatest player of all time was only ever seen to make one mistake - mana burning once. The theoretical misplay can be extremely difficult to spot. It can sometimes be next to impossible to determine if one line of play was correct or not, even retrospectively without perfect information of the game state. For someone like Kai to have forged such a fearsome reputation, and to have produced such a legend, then he must have had the natural talent as well as an incredible work ethic. To better understand lines of play, to play close to perfect, technical Magic, then one must work hard and practice. Knowing the nuances of a deck, the intricacies of the interaction of cards comes with practice, practice, practice. Some lines can often be counter intuitive at first. They will be things which you normally wouldn't do because you are so locked in to playing mechanically perfect. For instance, I was watching my friend Joe Fletcher playing CawBlade and he failed to search up an equipment with his Stoneforge. After being Inquisitioned the following turn the reasoning was very apparent. He had another two Stoneforges in hand. This was a clever play because he pretty much ensures he will resolve his Sword since after the second Stoneforge enters play he can flash his Sword in without fear of another Inquisition. Thinking outside of the box isn't really thinking outside the box. It is just determining the correct, more perfect line of play. A game of my own experience where I consider myself to have played near perfect Magic was the semi-finals of Nationals 2008. I was playing Faeries whilst my opponent was playing Mono Red. I was completely in the zone and was making plays which nobody watching noticed. In game 5 I cast a mainphase Spellstutter Sprite purely in the hope that it be shot down by Keldon Megaliths. My reason was that I had worked out that in three turns I should win the game on one life, barring anything out of the ordinary happening. I ended up winning that game, and two others in that match on one life.

Then there are the intangible, incorporeal perfect plays. These are impossible to determine. This is where you battle your opponent and yourself above the cards. I shall loosely group these into two sets. Reading your opponent and misdirecting your opponent.

The two are interlinked and always affect the other. Both categories involve body language, sending and receiving the right signals, how they play their cards, how they breathe, where their eyes look. A lot of information is processed subconsciously - you just 'know' they are holding a certain card, not from their line of play but because you have sensed it from the manner in which they took in their breath when they drew. Sending these signals is equally as important as reading them. If you are aware of what your body is doing, then you can manipulate it to influence the way their subconscious reads you. Imagine the depth of these skills. At every turn being aware of every signal muscle in your body, and theirs, and using it to affect the game state. Imagine what it would take to play the game perfectly. In the fifth game of the 3rd/4th place playoff in last year’s Nationals between myself and Dan Gardner I failed to remember this lesson. He had me dead to rights. He had ultimated Elspeth, Knight-Errant and had a Jace, the Mind Sculptor, two Baneslayer Angels and a couple of Wall Of Omens in play and four Path to Exiles in the graveyard. All I had was a Vengevine and a Lotus Cobra. He was on 6 life. I drew Primeval Titan, knowing that it was my only out. After thinking for a short while, basically slow rolling, I cast the Titan and expected it to be countered and thus lose the match. Dan duly Cancelled it and the rest is history. However, had my Titan resolved I would have fetched up two Sejiri Steppes and won the match. I asked Dan after if he had known this, and he admitted that he didn't. He countered it for fun. In hindsight, there was so much more I could have done to help resolve my Titan. Anything from feigning weakness, or displaying strength. From making it appear to be bait, to talking him into the futility of the card. Up until that point I had played exceptional Magic, but my last move, was a fatal mistake. Another recent example of this was my Worlds quarterfinal match against PV. In the fifth and deciding game I kept a risky hand which would pay off should I resolve a Preordain and find just one land from it. PV countered my Preordain, and by the time I found another land I was already dead. I didn't think, I didn't try enough to send the correct signals. I was too focused on playing mechanically correct and lost out on the intangible play. Again, this was a fatal mistake. Playing perfect technical Magic is a very difficult thing to accomplish, but it will only take you so far. To play perfect, unbeatable Magic, you have to play the intangibles perfectly too.

Perfection is impossible. But what is possible is to be perfect in any given moment. This paradox reminds me of one of Zeno's paradoxes, that of the arrow.

“If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless.”

—Aristotle, Physics VI:9, 239b5

To break a game down. Into turns, and phases...and continue to subdivide it into bare instants then you can strive for perfection at every step. However, the sum of all these perfect instants does not equate to a totally perfectly played game. One of the reasons I can think of is that the game is in constant flux. Plans you may have made, may be forced to change. Another is that there are simply variables, and for want of a better word, luck. There are always unknowns and with that comes an unattainable knowledge of perfection. In essence, one could play perfectly, but never be aware of it. So, having said that, if perfect Magic is impossible, then what should one really strive for? In my opinion one's goal should be that which was first stated in this article. No mistakes. Do not try to play correctly, try to play flawlessly. Do not focus on the positive, but rather the negative. Awareness, concentration, experience, practice, preparation, manipulation and control. Everyone makes mistakes. A perfect game of Magic has never been played. But if you can minimalize the errors you make, then you will come as close to it as is possible.


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