Allow me to begin with a story.
Yesterday I flew to Atlanta to begin preparing for Pro Tour Journey into Nyx. I was upgraded to first class on my direct flight from Madison, and as usual,
there was an 8.5-ounce water bottle waiting for me at my seat. I drank it in one gulp. On our flight, the attendant asked if I wanted anything to drink. I
asked for a water, drank it in one gulp, and asked for another. She brought me two and I thanked her, and drank both of them immediately. She commented
that I was thirsty, and brought me three more saying that she will win. I drank them, and she brought another three. I finished those and she asked if I
wanted more. I said I thought I was good, and she brought me one more saying, “Just in case.” Well, it was there, so I drank it too. Then she sat this down
next to me:
I think it was intended as a joke. I took it as a trophy. I stared at it, and it started to look like a challenge. I wondered if I could drink that too. I
started to think that if she’d just set another small bottle down, I’d definitely have drunk it. After a couple minutes, I realized that I was both still
thirsty, and curious as to just how much water my body was interested in. I opened the bottle and drank the first half liter without taking it away from my
lips. In the end, this was left:
Why do I mention this? Well, why did it happen? I don’t normally drink whatever ludicrous amount of water that was in an hour. Let me back up.
Every release weekend, my friend Ben Rasmussen has people over to his house all weekend to draft the new set. I did nine drafts at his house on Saturday
and Sunday. When I’m moving from one match to the next and one draft to the next without a break, I forget about doing other things. I ate breakfast at
8:30am on Saturday, went to his house, and I don’t think I ate again until I went home at 1am. I also didn’t remember to drink anything during this time.
On Sunday I did it again, and again, I basically didn’t drink anything. Monday’s flight was my body’s attempt to recover from a weekend of serious
There aren’t just a lot of articles that tell you to take care of yourself during Magic tournaments, to make sure you have plenty to eat and drink and a
good night’s sleep–at this point, there are a lot of articles that say there are a lot of articles about that! So of course, when I say that I played
Magic all weekend and didn’t take care of myself, I know this is nothing you haven’t heard before.
My point is that I know about this, and I know it’s theoretically important, but it can be incredibly easy to forget about, at least for me.
Anyway, I just thought it was a funny story that I wanted to share, it only loosely ties into what I want to talk about, which isn’t about physically
preparing for a tournament, but rather, about your mentality as you prepare for and enter a tournament.
There are a lot of different attitudes that you can actively cultivate before a tournament that will really color your experiences, and different ways of
looking at things will come with a different set of risks and benefits. I don’t think there’s a single best mindset for a tournament for everyone. I think
you need to figure out your tendencies and your risks and find what works best for you. What I want to do is talk through some options.
Let me start with some more stories to frame what I’m talking about, because I don’t think I’ve done a great job expressing it.
US Nationals 2008
was my first high-profile tournament success. I’d won some PTQs and some independent tournaments before that, but nothing at that level of competition. In
that tournament I played G/B Elves, which was a deck I had little to no experience with before the tournament. As the tournament approached, I thought
about what I’d need to think about while playing the deck that was unusual from my normal habits while playing Magic.
Specifically, I knew that the game was often going to come down to setting up a lethal Profane Command. I told myself that I should focus on my opponent’s
life total, on actually doing the math on exactly how much damage I would need and when and how I would kill them. Finding this single detail of my game to
work on helped keep my focus on my play of the games–each new game was another chance to practice the skills I’d set out to work on. This meant that I was
thinking about my play in the game, rather than thinking about how many more wins I’d need, how well I was doing, what my chances were, or whatever else I
could be getting distracted with. I felt like I played much better than usual in the Swiss portion of that tournament, and I think my mentality worked
perfectly for me at that time.
In general, I think this is a useful trick when you can manage it. Find something you want to work on to think about during your games. Maybe you want to
learn to keep a count of how many cards are in your opponent’s hand without needing to ask them, or maybe you want to make a habit of mentally listing
every single trick your opponent could have when they attack you. Maybe it’s something more basic; you might have a habit of playing things in main phase
one when you should play them in main phase two, or two when you should play them in one, and you want to focus on asking yourself which main phase is
optimal and why before you cast anything on each of your turns. Most of the time, it will be “I should attack first so that I have more mana up during
combat,” but it might help to specifically think that to yourself each time, especially if you can remember to always look for a counter argument, and
ideally, at some point you’ll think, “No, I should play this Favored Hoplite before combat because tapping a single mana doesn’t change what spells I’m
representing, but it does say that I have a trick that I can target multiple creatures with.” I suppose that’s all just a tangent to the real point, that
it will just keep you focused on the game.
That sounds pretty good. Why don’t I just do that every tournament?
Well, first of all, focusing on some specific aspect of a game isn’t necessarily optimal. You could easily distract yourself from what really matters if
you tell yourself that you’re going to expend most of your mental energy on something trivial. That’s the biggest and most obvious danger. Also, it can be
hard to do. If you choose to tell yourself you’re going to focus on something boring or meaningless, it might just not hold your interest, or you might
forget about it in the moment, and it just won’t be effective.
In Pro Tour Dark Ascension, I played Spirit Delver, the deck that Jon Finkel and Jelger Wiegersma made Top 8 with. I started the tournament with three
losses in Standard, facing elimination. I liked the deck a lot, and the rest of the team was doing well with it. Despite my results, I felt confident in
the deck, and deeply invested in its success. In the fourth round, I played someone who was clearly feeling entirely defeated by his first three rounds and
had lost all hope. He kept terrible hands because he was tilting and lost without putting up a fight at all. I didn’t want to be that guy, and I wasn’t in
danger of being that guy. I was focused and determined, and I managed to win out to make Day Two and finish the tournament in the Top 25.
What mattered here was determination and feeling personally invested in my deck. It was also extremely important to my confidence that other people were
doing well with the deck, so I knew I hadn’t made a bad choice and I could still win. Sometimes, it can really help to have something to prove.
This is most useful when you’re on the verge of giving up. Imagine you start a tournament badly–maybe you had one bye at a Grand Prix and you lost your
first two rounds and now you’re looking at six more rounds, you need to win all of them to make Day Two, and you’ve already lost twice and haven’t won. You
can’t really imagine how you could win six in a row, and you start to think about what else you could do with your day, or at least make plans for what
you’ll do when you lose your next round. Maybe those plans start to sound pretty good, and you just accept that that’s what you’ll be doing and you either
drop directly or just completely lose focus.
It’s OK to choose something else over sticking out a tournament if that’s the best use of your time, but often it isn’t–what you want to do with that day
is play the tournament, and you’re just telling yourself other things to protect your feelings. When everything seems hopeless, one of the best ways to
turn it around and care about your results again is to have something to prove. Don’t think about the narrative that you just chose the wrong deck and got
out of the tournament quickly, or about how you got mana screwed, or how you hadn’t slept well and it just wasn’t your day. Think about how awesome it’ll
be when you can tell your friends that you lost early and had your back against the wall, but played your heart out and managed to turn it around. If you
get too invested and lose, it might be particularly tilting, but the good news is that if you’re already facing elimination, you’ll be out of the
tournament, so it won’t matter if you’re not in a good place to play your next match.
This is a dangerous perspective to adopt early. You start to focus on externals and narratives instead of your actual games, and you get too emotionally
invested. I think it’s a good tool to have for times when you’re finding yourself losing hope and interest, but I think it’s risky to go into every
tournament like you have something to prove.
When I made it onto the train (qualified for every Pro Tour based on Pro level), I stopped playing in PTQs as the rules at the time no longer allowed it.
When Planeswalker Points were announced, there were changes to the rules that allowed me to play again. So I played in a few for fun because they were
nearby and I didn’t have anything else going on that weekend. A lot of my friends were playing, and I would love to see some of them qualify, so I figured
my goal would be to concede to one of them later in tournament where it would significantly help their chances of qualifying. I was playing the tournament
as a blocker.
Obviously, this meant I barely cared about my result in the tournament. I went in with the attitude that this doesn’t matter at all, and I don’t care if I
lose. What I found was that the tournament was far easier than I remembered PTQs being when I used to play in them regularly. I finished in the top eight
and conceded to friends in my first two PTQs back, and a couple of weeks ago, I conceded instead of playing for Top 8 because all of my friends had already
been eliminated. Sometimes, being totally uninvested can be the perfect mindset. You’re not worried or distracted by other things; you’re just playing
Magic. The attitude is going to be most like it is in your practice games, so it should be very comfortable.
I’ve seen a lot of people on the edge of quitting Magic or who have basically stopped playing play one last tournament just for fun and then randomly win
it, much to their surprise, because they didn’t prepare and didn’t care. Maybe they did well because they didn’t care so much.
This approach is the hardest for me to analyze. One the one hand, it makes sense that not being stressed out can be great. On the other hand, if you don’t
really care, you’re unlikely to really look for the hard plays. I guess my main fear is that you’ll play similarly to the guy who’s feeling defeated, but
thinking about it more, I think that, while both don’t care, they’re still coming at the game in totally different ways–one of them is tilting and the
other isn’t. If you’re feeling defeated, you might not want to mulligan a bad hand because you’ve gone to five cards three times in your last two matches
and you just know it’ll happen again. If you just don’t care, there’s no reason you’ll make worse plays than normal. It can be a good way to play in an
emotionally level way.
Of course, it’s just not a sustainable way to seriously play Magic. If you never care about your outcome, why are you doing it? And if you never care, it’s
probably hard to motivate yourself to test, and if you test, at some point, you’ll probably become emotionally invested. Still, every now and then
realizing that a particular tournament is particularly insignificant to your larger goals can be particularly liberating in a way that might help you in
that tournament from time to time.
My roommate often talks about “winning the expectations game.” The winner of this particular game is the person who is expected to lose. Why are they the
winner? Because they have nowhere to go but up. When you’re expected to win, you can only be disappointed. If you lose, you’ll be disappointed, if you win,
you’ll be about where you were before, since it was expected. If you’re expected to lose, the reverse is true. Expectations can be powerful and
significant. When I was on my run of Top 8s following PT Theros, people were joking that they expected me to Top 8 each event I played in. Suddenly, there
was a lot more pressure than usual. I’m not sure if these expectations helped or hurt me. I broke my streak and ended that particular expectation game with
a miss playing for Top 8, so it’s not like I fell apart under the pressure. I know that games are more fun when your expectations are lower and you do
well, but I haven’t been able to figure out a direct causal relationship between overinflated expectations and actual success.
It feels like something that should play a role in determining your mindset, but I think it’s just less directly significant than your actual mood and
There are a lot of different ways to approach a tournament, and what you tell yourself to think about, what you’re focused on, your mood, and what your
goals and expectations are can be just as important as taking care of yourself or choosing a deck. While it’s always best to eat, drink, and sleep,
figuring out the best things to think, and figuring out just the right amount to be invested is much trickier, as anything you can focus on can have
benefits but also pitfalls. My goal isn’t to offer a direct prescription, but to raise the question, and suggest that you think about what your mindset has
been before tournaments where you’ve been successful in the past, and that you should find ways to recreate that perspective.