As I was typing this article, I came to the realization that it was gonna be a two parter, so this first edition is about how to ask for help, and the second part about giving it will come later.
Before I dive into this article, I want to give all of you a huge compliment. A pick me up, of sorts. Something that you might not have realized.
You all play Magic, therefore you are all intelligent. Yay.
No, seriously. I’m not giving you any bull here. Take a step back and think of everything that goes into playing this awesome game we enjoy, things that not everyone can nor is capable of doing, or things that we all take for granted.
-Possessing a reading comprehension at or even above a junior high level.
-A baseline level of mathematic ability.
-The ability to make plans, strategize, and think ahead. This includes formulating, abstract concepts, and thinking about things that are not obvious nor in front of you.
Magic is an intellectual game, full of people who are in some way or another, of above average intelligence. Guess what this means?
We suck at helping each other. I said it. We are TERRIBLE at it. Conversations that begin as rational discussions over card quality, or card choice, devolve into some of the most mean spirited, cruel arguments you will ever see. Magic players can be as toxic as a Youtube comments section, except for the part where we say that stuff to each others’ faces! I personally, have delivered some of my most damaging zingers during Magic arguments (I am sorry to genius level homeschooled kids the world over, on an unrelated note). But why is it that way? Well, we often see asking for help as a sign of weakness. How many of you have ever had a question, and thought of someone you want to go ask for help, because you KNOW they are qualified to help you. But you talked yourself out of it because you can’t stand that person, or you don’t want that person to think that they are better than you?
You. You in the back NOT raising your hand, I would like to call ‘BS’ upon ye. Now hoist thy hand. Verily, you are full of it.
Smart people are used to, at one point or another in time, being the smartest person in the room; whether it’s school, work, home, or within a friend group. They like that feeling, and more often than we care to admit, see other smart people as potential rivals or threats to our own intellectual superiority. This makes asking for help a potentially painful experience. I mean, for goodness sakes, men don’t like going to see a doctor when we’re coughing up blood, running a temperature of 110, and listening to Ed Sheeran and thinking he’s GOOD. All three of those are life threatening conditions, and we will talk ourselves out of seeing a medical professional. And here we are, faced with potentially asking someone for help, and thereby admitting that there is at least one part of this game that THEY are better than US at? It can be, in a word, painful.
Guess what? Get. Over. It.
Not asking for help doesn’t make you better. It sure as heck isn’t going to allow you to catch up to the person you are so afraid of asking for help, a person you are, by your own admission, conceding is at least in some ways better than you. So you can either not ask them, and continue to struggle and be behind them for even longer, or you can suck it up and approach them and try to learn from them.
What’s the worst that could happen? You make a friend? gasp
Because guess what? Asking someone for help actually makes someone feel good about themselves. People are flattered by it, and normally jump at the opportunity to be useful if approached politely. And if you are willing to trust that person to help you, they in turn may ask you for help one day about something, and that’s how a community grows. So here’s a homework assignment for literally all of you reading this: At the next Magic tournament you play in, ask someone for help about literally anything Magic related. Do it, and see how that interaction goes. I’m willing to bet that it will be a pleasant experience. In order to facilitate that, let’s look at the proper ways to ask for help.
Asking for help occurs on a spectrum, and figuring out where you land on the spectrum can help you ask for the type of help you really need. While saying, “I have no idea about something, please help!” may indeed be an accurate assessment of your situation, it doesn’t really set the person you’re talking to up very well to assist you.
On the one end, there are people who ask for help despite knowing (or thinking they know), exactly what they want/need to hear. These are situations where someone asks for help, but they really only want to hear one answer, and they are seeking reassurance of their own opinions. Some examples include:
“I played against Burn again, so of course I lost. There isn’t really anything I can do to improve that matchup, is there?”
“This new card is so great, I don’t see why everyone isn’t going nuts over it. You agree don’t you?”
“That deck is so obviously terrible, I don’t see why people play it, do you?”
An important thing to note about every one of the above examples is that they all include the person seeking help going into the conversation not only with (strongly) held, preconceived opinions, but they are not actually seeking “help” from the listener; they are looking for someone to agree with them. The vast majority of the time, asking for this type of help is, ironically, remarkably unhelpful, since the following are the limited range of ways the interaction can go.
1. The listener agrees with the person asking for help. This does not change the person’s opinion, nor arm them with new knowledge.
2. The listener disagrees with the person asking for help. This creates a confrontational tone to the conversation, since the initial question was so loaded, and the person is less likely to be open to whatever advice they get, because it is delivered with an air of, “no, you are wrong because, blah blah blah”.
On the other end of the spectrum are the people who want so much help, that they provide very little context in regards to what is useful or practical to them. The more open ended the question, the farther down this path the person goes. Some examples include:
“How do I play Magic?”
“How do I get better at Magic?”
“What deck should I play?”
An important note: there is certainly a time and a place for all of those questions above, and each one is a vital, and important stepping stone on every player’s journey to improving their game. But that doesn’t mean we can’t refine some of those questions a bit (“How do I play Magic?” is an obviously necessary question that every Magic player asks at some point). If you ask me “how do I get better at Magic?” because you want to do better at FNMs and local tournaments, and I begin rattling off my morning routine prior to a big tournament that ensures I’m well rested and fueled up for a long, 10 hour day of mental acrobatics, I’m not really helping you because my help is for a problem that is very different from the problem you are facing (also, I do none of those things; ask anyone who has traveled with me, I am the epitome of a slow starter). Another example is if you ask me, “What Modern deck should I play?” but you don’t provide any context for what kind of decks you enjoy, what your budget is, or what cards you already have, then the odds of me administering the best help possible is very low. If asked, I would probably say “Tron”, in a very loud and annoying voice. If asked for why I feel you should build that deck, I can create a 24 page Power Point slide expounding the virtues of Tron and why it is, without a doubt, the most fun and powerful thing you could ever do with pieces of cardboard.
And then you tell me that you prefer combo decks. Or that Tron isn’t your style. Or that you have most of the cards for a BGx deck and need help deciding which one. Or that you only have a budget of 200 dollars and want a cheap, competitive deck. In an instant, all of my help is wasted, but not because I gave bad help, but because that help wasn’t pertinent to you. Could I have answered the question, “What’s the best Modern deck I can build with X amount of dollars?”, or “I enjoy fun combo decks, is there a Modern deck for me?”. Probably, but you, as the person asking for assistance, need to in turn help the helper, and frame the question in a way that gives them the most relevant information.
The key to effectively asking for help is to find a place on this spectrum somewhere towards the middle. An excellent example comes from a recent FNM at The Dragon’s Realm, where a player brought Alex Strange and myself his Modern legal, GB Elves/Quillspike combo deck and asked for help in making it better. The player was very clear in framing the request; he knew that his deck concept was, to put it politely, suboptimal. He knew that there were different color combinations of elves (such as GW, or Abzan) that provided an improved card pool. He knew that the Quillspike combo was not a necessarily efficient way of closing the game, but it was the type of thing he enjoyed doing, and within that context, he wanted help on making the deck more viable. So let’s analyze what Alex and I, as the helpers, have to work with from the information he provided us:
1. The player enjoys off the wall, “cool” combos, and the Elf creature type.
2. The player is not seeking to build a tournament level deck; he wants to play with the best version of HIS deck, regardless of where it stands in a larger metagame.
So, out the window goes the litany of creative ways of telling someone to “play with better cards”, or “play a better deck”. The help that I decided on was to look at the Quillspike combo, which required him to play a long list of cards that were not necessarily great in any situation where he didn’t have Quillspike, and find a different, no less off the wall combo that synergized with the rest of his deck better. Enter Cloudstone Curio, a card that in Elf decks can allow you to create infinite mana, draw infinite cards, make infinite 1/1 elves, in myriad complex and silly ways. The plus side? All of the cards that facilitate Cloudstone Curio are also better for an elf deck. We took out cards like Rancor and Quillspike and put in cards like Heritage Druid + Nettle Sentinel, which as any Elf player in any format will tell you, is the basis for all things stupid and broken.
So what our protagonist received was an upgrade to his deck that allowed it to become much more efficient at winning games of Magic, while still keeping a fun, over the top combo in the deck.
One last thing before we wrap up getting help: if you get help that you don’t agree with, or isn’t what you wanted to hear, what do you do? I’m not talking about tough love advice, I mean the individual ignored the parameters you set up for what kind of help you needed, or they gave you help that you know is blatantly wrong, or something else. How do we conclude that interaction without creating all of the problems we discussed at the beginning of the article?
1. Say thanks. You should do this all the time, regardless of whether or not the help you received was useful to you. The individual took some of their time and dedicated it to you, and that is a considerate gesture worthy of at least a sign of gratitude.
2. Conclude the conversation quickly, at least as it pertains to whatever you wanted help over. The longer it goes, the more likely it is that you will feel obligated to argue with them, or that people listening will chime in with their own opinions. It is very easy for such discussions to spiral into heated debates that can cause far more harm than good. Change the subject, get food, offer a distraction. But once you feel the conversation is no longer helping, end it.
3. Leave the other person better than you found them. You asked them for help, which boosted their esteem, so right away you did a good turn. And maybe they are wrong, but you, by asking them for help, are admitting of your own volition that you do not know as much about the topic as you would like, and you sought out this person because you felt they did. So even if you want to argue with them, or try to “educate” them, the odds are good that you are not the right person to give them advice, and they didn’t ask you for it, you asked them. Let it go. If you can’t give the right help to someone ready to receive it, all you’re doing is talking for the sake of talking, initiating conflict where none needs to be, and making people feel like they are idiots. And even if they are idiots, they probably don’t appreciate that fact. So smile, say thank you, and walk away. The odds that down the road, once you both are more educated on the topic you were discussing, that they will be willing to listen to someone who treated them with respect in the past are higher than initiating a poorly timed argument in the here and now.
That’s all for now. Next week we’re gonna cover the other side of this whole thing, and discuss how to properly give help. Leave any questions, complaints, or concerns in the comments section, and until next time, get help!
Yeesh, that statement is full of irony.
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