Most of my Magic playgroup plays the game at least somewhat competitively, be it in draft or Standard or Legacy. However, as far as I know, none of them began playing the game by entering tournaments. Instead most of us honed our skills in a more casual setting. My theory is that what each player learns during this time will stick for the rest of his or her Magic career, and influence the types of plays he or she will make in a more competitive context. This article will discuss the benefits and drawbacks to developing your play ability around the kitchen table, with the assumption that the urge to play for prizes will eventually surface.
From the very first deck you build, you will begin to develop your own personal play style. For instance, simply due to the decks I've built and played in the past, I have become quite good at using control and aggro-control decks. Aggro just isn't my thing (read: I suck at it!). My friend on the other hand learned to play the game using my most aggressive deck, a white weenie variant. Because of his roots, he now plays little else besides aggro.
While it's true that a player who starts out competitively will have a similar experience in play style development, the freedom to tweak your deck freely in Casual play often leads more and more decks in the same direction. Here's an example. My first tournament deck was a UG madness deck. I built it because it was powerful and had lots of internal synergy (the cards in the deck mesh very well). During my casual years I had developed an inordinate fondness for internal synergy, so when I moved to competitive play it was only natural that I try to capture this. Had I instead started out with tournaments I would have built Affinity (the new breakout killer deck). Once it started getting hated out of the tournaments I would have switched to the next big deck I came across: astral slide. My point is that starting out as a Spike will lead you to stay true to the current "best" archetype, and not necessarily develop a play style all your own. In the case mentioned above, affinity is an aggro deck and slide is a control deck. Playing the two back to back, therefore, does not pull you in any one direction.
That said, having a specialty in certain deck types does have its perks alongside its detriments. It's good in that you become very efficient at building and playing that type of deck. It's bad in that you may limit yourself in the number of tournament-worthy decks you can play well. The other problem is that, if you start playing in a multiplayer setting, you'll soon "learn" that aggro decks suck. Have you ever tried playing a zoo deck in a 6-player match? You get annihilated. In multiplayer matches mana-cost efficiency means less than it would in one-on-one matches, especially one-on-one tournament matches. Because of this, you'll find lots of players building decks will 6-8 casting cost creatures and big, powerful, clunky spells (Plague Wind
, for example). For players, like myself, who learned to play in a group (I played 8-player matches at the lunch table in high school) you will eventually need to alter your mindset of what's good and what's bad.
When I took my first deck (not first tournament deck, mind you) to a tournament, I left very confused. My deck was full of huge monsters like Krosan Cloudscraper
, and Riptide Shapeshifter
to pull them from my library. How then could I lose so much? After I was handed my first defeat at the hands of Goblins (1/1s and 2/2's killed me? What?!) I realized I had to reevaluate my perception of certain cards. So, I went back and took a look at the cards I had accumulated through trading over the last year. I was, well...appalled.