Magic Online offers a great way to get in limitless drafts and Sealed play. It is also great for Constructed play, but in my experience, people play either paper Magic or Magic Online exclusively. It can feel constricting to many players to feel they need to have both a digital and a paper collection to play the game. An approach I rarely see discussed is using Magic Online to help you test cards and deck concepts, allowing you to innovate prior to face-to-face events. Magic Online, when approached with the right perspective, can augment your performance at Friday Night Magic, Grand Prix, PPTQs, and more—all without forcing you to duplicate your collection of paper cards.
Playing to Learn
Before we can talk about Magic Online as a platform for innovation and learning, we have to discuss a shift in mindset you must make. You must stop simply playing to win, and focus on playing to learn.
When we play to win, we are looking for efficiencies; we need the most direct route to victory available to us. In deck building, this is also true. We play to win, so we build decks with "good cards" that will get us to victory with the least effort. We look for cards that are the most efficient, powerful, and uncomplicated.
But just as often as we see decks full of those "good" cards dominate, we see a rogue deck builder make good on her promise to innovate by breaking out of the accepted mold of what's "good" to win a notable tournament.
I keep using "good" in quotations not because I think that bad cards don't exist, or that good cards aren't good; instead, I emphasize that cards are "good" or "bad" in a given context. Context includes the available pool in a format—but more specifically, context describes what is being played right now. It's the metagame at the local and global level. When certain cards are popular, it reduces the power of some cards while raising the value of others. Ultimate Price is a perfect example of a card that can fluctuate between "good" and "bad" over the course of a few weeks. Ultimate Price shines in metagames overrun by monocolored creature threats. When the threats are colorless or multicolored, it's a dead card. Cards and decks can shift in value over time, and while becoming proficient with a strong deck has advantages, testing new cards provides us the edge of being the first to find what has gained value due to the current set of dominant cards.
To gain that edge, we must play to learn rather than just to win.
When we play to win, we are looking to play what's in front of us, assembling the best cards and using the best plays to attain the win. There is nothing wrong with this, but acquiring the best cards is difficult because everyone wants them. Playing the best deck can provide us many edges, but we lose a valuable element of surprise since we are using a deck that's strengths and weaknesses are well known.
Playing to learn means focusing not on winning, but rather on seeing. Magic players often value cards based on how they think they will perform. But there are many cards and concepts hard to imagine until you see them in play. At Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad, few people were expecting to see Seasons Past and Dark Petition working in tandem, but Team Pantheon tried it and saw how it performed. Jon Finkel had a Top 8 performance with two cards almost unnoticed in Standard, all because his team played to learn before shifting into a play-to-win mindset.
Playing to learn means first letting go of concerns about victory or loss. This can be hard. Winning feels great and losing feels bad. But winning or losing is just feedback. It's an end result of the turns and plays made in the game. When you play to learn, you focus your attention on the smaller moments and don't concern yourself with the outcome or the feeling of winning or losing—your attention should center on what did you learn?
In Magic, useful areas to focus on learning are:
Technique. I sometimes like to choose one element of my play and make sure I get that right no matter what, even if it means a temporary decrease in another facet. I've focused on my combat math, sequencing, play speed—I've even focused on shuffling before! Even minor improvements make a huge difference.
Card Dynamics. You can learn a lot about cards just by playing them in a deck. When I try out a new card, I take notes and ask the following questions:
- How frequently is effective? How frequently is it ineffective?
- In what situations is it effective or ineffective?
- When I am behind, can this card help me? Can I make comebacks with it?
- What are its best interactions? What cards does it like to be played with?
- Are there any popular cards in the metagame that this card performs well against?
- Other than surprise, what is the edge the card gives you, if any? Does a similar card offer that edge more effectively?
None of these questions is about whether the card is "good" or not, but rather about what it is. Each question should funnel you down toward the final question, which is "Can I use this card in the current Standard metagame in either a main deck or a sideboard?" A card that is powerful in a narrow set of circumstances could be a good sideboard card or even a metagame call if it works against something popular in your area. A card that provides critical synergies with more powerful cards might also play a role.
Even if you can't use a card now, however, that doesn't mean you can't find a use for it later. Now that you've taken notes on when the card is useful, you can be ready when the metagame changes to see if it's time to pick the card up and use it.
Deck Concepts. Beyond just individual cards, you can take a look at deck concepts that define different strategies. A deck concept is not just an archetype (like white weenie or ramp), but rather a specific approach to getting there. Is the concept for your white weenie deck to use the Humans tribe (I hear it's good)? Or is it going to use token generation and pump? When looking for deck concepts, I try to find edges for innovation by looking at these meta-concepts:
- The Underlooked—A synergy that seems present in the card pool that no one is using on a big stage. What tribes might synergize well with Stoneforge Masterwork?
- Eye on Mechanics—Looking at a mechanic that remains unexplored in the metagame. How good is investigate, really? Let's push it and find out.
- Old Cards, Meet New Cards—Sometimes a card that's been in the environment for a while is just waiting for new cards to be printed. Mixing those up can make a new concept, or make an old concept viable. Could Cryptolith Rite make Allies viable?
- So Weird, It Must Be Good?—Sometimes you look at a card and it's so strange that it might just work. Could you abuse Brain in a Jar with counterspells? Can Startled Awake make a viable finishing card in a mill deck?
So how does Magic Online help you play to learn? First, it's available for testing whenever you are. The playing-to-learn philosophy wants you to play as much as possible, to get as many "looks" as you can. Next, cards are easier and quicker to acquire in digital form than in paper. You can make decks quickly and make changes just as fast. Last, Magic Online lets you dial your level of competition easily. You can play in a casual room for simple tests, two-person and eight-person queues for stronger tests, or Dailies as needed. Finding the level of competition you need for the type of testing you must do is simple.
You can build a deck concept, gather the cards you need in a few minutes, and be playing games within an hour. Sometimes I've managed to go from deck concept to first match in less than fifteen minutes!
When I'm testing, I don't usually play in queues. I spend much of my testing time in the Tournament Practice Rooms on Magic Online, as you get close to competitive without wasting tickets on an untested (or in-the-middle-of-testing) idea. Most concepts don't work, and it's good to find that out early.
If a concept does start to do consistently well, I might do some two-person or eight-person queues for a real test.
Sometimes, though, I'm only really testing a card or two. I might have a lesser version of a popular deck with easier-to-acquire cards, or I might have a new concept where a few of the cards are more important to me than the deck is. You can always lift good cards from bad decks.
More importantly, in true playing-to-learn style, you shouldn't be afraid of building bad decks. The deck builders who make some of the best decks build a lot of bad decks first. Just don't get attached to any particular deck. You can always take the good parts and put them in something else.
You Don't Need Two Collections
The goal is to minimize duplication of your collection while simultaneously improving your game. You can work with "just enough" cards to prototype. Here are tips to make it easier to prototype.
- Stockpile Commons and Uncommons—It's much easier to collect commons and uncommons on Magic Online, so there is little reason not to do so at early in prototyping.
- Focus on Lands—If there is a place to invest in your "just enough" prototyping mini-collection, it's on lands. Getting the rare lands for colors makes it easier to switch prototypes or tweak the mana on existing prototypes.
- Look for Outliers—You can go for the sought-after rare or mythic rare, but if you can focus on the Seasons Pasts and Dark Petitions of the game before they are popular, you can maximize prototyping and value.
- Start a Pool—If you get a group of friends to prototype with, you can lend each other cards when needed to maximize value. Get a shared spreadsheet and track who has lent what to keep things organized.
To get better at innovating, you need to think of Magic Online as a place where you can "fail" faster and more effectively than anyplace else. In fact, you don't have to think of it as failure at all. It's feedback! That feedback can be turned into knowledge and wins at your next in-person event. So take what you learn online, find a store near you, and see how far your new knowledge can take you at your next FNM!