Let's Slow Things Down: Three Bad Habits I'm Getting From Arena

Darin Keener • August 13, 2019

Remember when you were about six or seven years old and you had to walk past those plastic egg machines in your local Walmart or grocery store? Wow, they were enticing...shiny red paint on the gleaming metal, the silver knob and prize door that positively gleamed at you, and the prizes? Man, the prizes. The things in that machine where the things you wanted...temporary tattoos of SpongeBob, plastic superheroes, jewelry...I mean, JEWELRY? Could you imagine at six having your own necklaces or ring like the adults had? So you begged and pleaded for that quarter, and you got that egg and whatever was in that egg, and...do you remember any of the prizes? Do you still HAVE any of the prizes? Have any of those things become prized possessions of yours?

Didn't think so.

In many ways, Magic Arena has become a boon to the serious Magic player. It's made it easier to get games. The interface is attractive and more conducive to showing to people outside of the community. As a streamer, I'm vividly aware that there's much more attraction to Standard when it's played on Arena than when it's played on Magic Online. But it's also the egg machine. You want what's in the machine really bad, but along with that awesome gameplay and graphical interface there are also some bad habits that can hurt your overall MTG gameplay. I'm not telling you to stop playing Arena. But I am telling you to be aware of these bad habits and make sure they're not creeping into your normal gameplay.

Bad Habit 1: Playing Too Fast

It's so easy to get into a hurry on Arena. Unless you're in full play mode all the time, you don't have to tap mana. You just fling cards onto the board and it does what you want it to do. And the AI has improved at picking your lands significantly from several months ago, when it was a complete crapshoot to know what needed to tap for what. And you obviously don't have as much time to think about and react to plays with the timer system that's used. That burning fuse is doing everything it can to stress you out and to make you play at the program's pace.

Don't let it.

Face it: as a game, Magic is much closer to the pace of chess than it is to the pace of Overwatch. It takes thought and consideration to see the lines of play that you need to consider and how you're going to continue from each play that your opponent makes. And the only person that can control whether you take the appropriate time to make a correct play is you. Don't let the software rush you into making bad plays because they're on you and not on some timer.

I've gotten into the habit of differentiating between "normal play" and "critical moments" in every game. In normal play, I'm happy to play as quickly as possible and bank time. If I have only one play to make on turn 2, and the exact amount of mana to do it, I'm going to jam that as fast as I can and build up my timeouts. But when I get to a critical moment, everything changes. The first thing that happens is that I immediately tell myself that I'm using my timeouts. That takes all of the time pressure off of me so I can think about the play that I'm going to make rather than considering whether I might be able to avoid using one.

I also begin to manually tap mana for all important plays, ESPECIALLY when I have lands or mana sources that have other purposes. Maybe I don't want to tap my Paradise Druid because I need to protect it from removal. Maybe I don't want Treasure Cove to be the first land tapped because I may want to draw a card after making a play. Be willing to do things manually and think. Take a deep breath, and then begin to work through your possibilities. If it helps, speak the lines out loud. As a streamer, I do this even when the camera isn't on. You have the benefit of being on the other side of a screen rather than scaring the person across the table from you because you're having a conversation with the voices in your head.

Bad Habit 2: Ignoring/Skipping Game Phases

This may seem obvious, but hear me out. Arena has five places where you can place a hold on a turn phase to do something: Upkeep/draw, first main, combat, second main, endstep. Magic Online has nine: upkeep, draw, main 1, begin combat, attack, block, damage, end combat, main 2, and end turn. Now, obviously, many of these overlap and it's not like the game doesn't function without all of the stops. But the sheer number and division of stops in MTGO are a good reminder that they actually exist, and that there are some times when you want to set those stops so you can make strategic plays in a given situation. Arena has a tendency to try to "gloss over" these stops in order to keep the pace of the game at a place where it WANTS you to play. Yes, you can set stops. But it's not as intuitive, and there are plenty of examples where Arena skips priority or gives away information because of them.

One of the great training values of playing on Magic Online is that it made you acutely aware of when you could do things in each turn, and this was a big help to "ramp you up" to playing on paper or in a tournament setting. Make sure that you're not missing out on this education in Arena. In fact, I would make this a priority. Every time the game skips over a stop where you could have done something and you didn't, WRITE IT DOWN. Figure out which stop you're missing, make sure that you can actually do what you want to do (and you're not just trying to do something illegal like casting Fight With Fire as an instant,) and figure out if things would have been different if you had set a stop or if it was actually a program bug.

One of my complaints with Arena is that its "full control" mode is incredibly non-intuitive. I'd prefer that there just be a "hold priority" button that you could press if you knew you needed to do something in a certain way, and then un-press it when you were willing to move on. But, until that happens, you have to take care of yourself and hit the stops when you need them.

Bad Habit 3: Resigning Too Early

I was listening to Ryan Spain talk about the way that online game designers attempt to keep you playing their games and spending real money on their product on this week's Limited Resources episode, and it got me thinking about the desires of the game makers against the desires of a player trying to improve.

The designers of Arena WANT you to play best-of-one. They want you to be comfortable and happy knowing that a different match against a different deck is only one resignation away. But this often means that you may be liable to bail on matches when you're simply behind rather than when you're actually defeated. Lord knows that I can fall into this bad habit a lot. Since I am a Johnny at heart and I'm much more interested in playing and testing off-the-beaten-path brews rather than trying to make Mythic every season, there are a lot of times where the loss of a game or a match doesn't affect me at all. It's the easiest thing when a game gets frustrating or uncomfortable to quit and start over with a fresh game and a fresh draw. But learning how to play from behind or play to your outs and the situation on board is a skill that you can't get any other way than playing from behind.

Knowing what your outs are when you're playing from behind is a skill. Slowing your opponent down in order to maximize your win percentage is a skill. And you're going to gain that skill from putting yourself in those situations. Differentiate what sort of "play" you're doing at any one time. Yes, it's okay to jam a couple of games after work and bail if you decide you want to play a different deck. But don't think that this is the same thing as tournament preparation just because it says "ranked" next to the game type. You play the way you practice, so make sure you're practicing in a way that's similar to how you're going to compete. If you care about FNM, make sure you're drafting against humans every once in a while, or that you're playing in the BO3 queues and playing full matches. Get your sideboarding practice in. Play in uncomfortable situations. That's how you'll get better.

So if you're like me, you know you do these things. It's okay if you do -- it doesn't make you a bad person. It just means that you need to increase your awareness of this stuff a bit and change the way that you practice and play. It'll make you a better player in the end, and it'll make your "grind" of climbing ladders more like directed practice where the aim is to make you a better player rather than grinding. You grind metal. You sharpen your mind. Sharpen, don't grind. Have some great sessions, and as always... drive friendly!