by Benton Madsen

I was extremely fortunate to have a runner-up finish in PT Phyrexia: All Will Be One, and not long after that, an acquaintance reached out about the possibility of magic coaching. I know some MTGO grinders who offer coaching services, and I had wondered if, in light of my finish, someone would reach out to me.

To tell the truth, I didn’t know how to feel about it.

On the one hand, I could certainly use more sources of income. On the other hand, I didn’t think I could promise someone that they could get better because of my coaching. It didn’t feel intellectually honest. The reason for that, and the reason for this article, is that most of my improvement in MTG has had absolutely nothing to do with playing the game more. It has to do with three things I’d like to share with you right now.


My first big finish in a tournament came in the Super Sunday Series at GP New Jersey. I had also just finished, or more accurately was being given a week off of, a weight loss program in South Carolina. I had been big my entire life—when I entered the program, I weighed almost four hundred pounds. It had gotten to the point where even though I wanted to lose weight, I simply couldn’t without help. Exercise hurt like hell. My body’s movements were uncomfortable and I would eat away negative emotions.

At this point the program was almost over, and I had lost roughly 100 pounds. Once I started exercising and losing weight the spiral I had been going down reversed; the more I lost the easier it was to lose. Accordingly, I had made my own lunch, and in fact I had prepared every meal I ate over the course of the weekend in advance. I believe for GP NJ I brought steamed chicken, carrots, and some zucchini soup in a thermos. My finals opponent had been the only player to beat me in the Swiss, and as I picked up the remains of my chicken to move toward him, he picked up his bag of Clif Bars to move toward me. At that moment, when I heard the rustling of his plastic bag, I realized something fundamental to my understanding of the game: to my knowledge we were the only players that had brought our own food, and we were meeting in the finals.

Meal prep is tournament prep.

If you want to play Magic the Gathering at a high level for nine to 10 hours a day, several days in a row, you will want make sure that there is no ambiguity whatsoever in your mind about what you’re going to eat, and you want to make sure that what you are eating is of a high quality. If you are not confident about what your next meal is, it will become a distraction that pulls attention away from the game you’re playing. Some people would say I did minimal preparation for this Pro Tour. I ran maybe four leagues and a challenge with boggles before registering it in PT Phyrexia.  I had played maybe five drafts of this format.

My tournament prep was probably among the bottom half of players at this event, but my meal prep was a different story. I made five pounds of chicken sauteed with vegetables, and I brought the ingredients for Ethiopian coffee (butter and coconut oil) which served as my breakfast each morning and dinner each night. The only thing that was left to chance was the actual coffee that was used for the Ethiopian coffee that I got at the convention center. Eating is primal. It’s a huge thing in life. It’s an intense activity for the body- you should have a plan ready to be enacted before you show up to any tournament you care about. You wouldn’t go to an event without planning for the decks you might see, so why wouldn’t you plan for the one thing you’re guaranteed to face: hunger.


During the US Regional Championships this year you may have seen a somewhat strange sight. A blonde gangly guy in a red shirt yelling at the top of his lungs while holding a big green cube. That guy was me. That cube was the cornerstone of the greatest in-tournament play I’ve ever made. If you were at the US RC, you may also remember the chairs there were…not great. They were small, very sharp, angular, and metallic. They didn’t have much cushion to them at all. I was feeling that across day one. My back was hurting and it was affecting my play. I decided I would not scrub out of a tournament for the sole reason that I was uncomfortable. I snuck off to the main hall of Dreamhack, asked someone who did not have any credentials if I could borrow one of the green seating cubes from the main hall, then asked the judge if I could use it in lieu of the convention center chairs. His understated “yes,” elicited my yell.

My play massively improved, and my back pain dissipated. Your body and your mind are not two separate things, they’re one being that works in unison.  To expect your brain to work perfectly when your back is hurting is hubris. Be comfortable. It matters. If you look at my feature matches you may notice that I sit with my legs stacked on top of each other. I always do this at big events if the chairs are big enough to allow it. A certain amount of bodily fatigue is unavoidable at big tournaments, the human body just isn’t meant to sit in a chair nine hours in a day. However, when I sit with my legs stacked I find that it shifts my fatigue off my back and onto my achilles tendon. I only have one back, I cannot switch backs when it gets uncomfortable, but I can switch feet when one of them has had too much weight on it for too long. This practice has effectively doubled my tournament longevity.

This is the same reason that I advise anyone who wants to do well in a tournament to bring only what they need for that tournament. Leave the trade binders, the extra play mats, the EDH decks, and the side event decks at home. It won’t necessarily affect your mentality to have these things, but it will decrease the amount of time it takes for your back to become fatigued. If you must bring paraphernalia with you to Magic Tournaments, consider investing in a bag that rolls to take the stress off your back.

But not all problems are as simple to solve as a comfortable seat. Some people don’t have the luxury of forgetting their problems. Some people are going through messy divorces, the difficulties of parenthood, trouble in their job, deaths of loved ones, financial stress, these things don’t fade away because you’re playing a game of Magic: The Gathering. But in those rare occasions when you can be free of the troubles in your life, when you can let go of winning and losing, and embrace being whatever and whoever you are, clearer thoughts will just come to you. I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life, I’m just trying to share with you what I was fortunate enough to experience.

If I was going to coach someone on how to play the game in an honest manner, I would need them to understand that managing something like self-care is far more important than what I could teach them about racing, or side-boarding, or stacking Light-Paws triggers. There are some tips and tricks to know about playing a deck, but you will learn them better and more thoroughly if you take care of yourself to the best of your ability. Walking into a Pro Tour without proper self-care is like trying to race the Indy 500 with a broken-down car. No matter what I or anyone tells you about the game, if you really want to do well in it, the real person you need coaching from is you.


Finally, a word on the best resource for improving at M or anything else: friends. My Auras deck was borrowed from Chase Masters. He gave me the full 75 sleeved and ready to go in the middle of the draft section of the Pro Tour on his way to the PTQ. Without him I couldn’t have physically played the deck that I wanted to, and that was the least of his contributions to my event. When I made Top 8, my friend Robert Pompa called me and told me to get some sleep and ask my friends at the event to test the matchup overnight. The idea that people might be willing to test for me never would have occurred to me without Pompa suggesting it.

[Ed. Note – Veteran readers of Hipsters of the Coast might remember Rob Pompa’s seminal Melira Pod primer from 2013]

While I slept Vincent, Justin, Mike, Chase, and Erin Diaz all tested the creativity vs. Aura’s matchup. In the morning Chase handed me a two-page executive summary of their findings and a sideboard guide. The night before my Day 1 draft, I sat at a dinner table and picked Kevin Thanikit’s brain about the BW deck in this format, then I picked William’s brain about UW artifacts, and his advice was the basis of my day one 3-0 draft deck. The next night I picked William’s brain about GW toxic, and that advice became the basis of my Day 2 draft deck. Derrick Davis and I ended up coming up with a metagame guesstimation that turned out to be pretty much entirely accurate, missing only the rise of Creativity, which we suspected was a possibility but did not think would ultimately occur.

Derrick Davis and Chase Masters both served as a sounding board when I was pitching different deck ideas. Michael Letsch, who had played an aura’s list which was the basis for mine in the US Regional Championship conferred on our Top 8 sideboard plans, and confirmed many of my suspicions about how the deck was supposed to mulligan. My Top 8 was a clear team effort, one in which I, in many ways, had the smallest part. My friend group is bright and talented, I’m very lucky to have them in my life, and I don’t know how or when I managed to find them. What they did for me was a substantial sacrifice of their time and effort, with no real expectation of when or how I would ever pay them back.

Don’t worry about whether or not your friends are good at Magic. As we’ve established doing well in Magic: The Gathering tournaments is about a lot more than Magic the Gathering, worry about whether they’re really your friends. Do you talk about other things? Do you know what they’re trying to do with their lives? There’s nothing wrong with getting to know someone through the game, but you’re missing out if you rarely take it further than that.

A lot of players talk about getting better at Magic, but they rarely try to improve at the Gathering.

That’s my two cents.

Best of luck to you all,


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