Arcane Teachings – Project Hollywood- Mental Game with Rich Hagon and Doug Linn

Read Tom LaPille every Monday... at StarCityGames.com!
Monday, February 18th – I’ve been very fortunate to meet some truly wonderful people through Magic. Some of those are people I work with on decks, some are people I practice with on Magic Online, and some are people I hang out with at tournaments. Two recent conversations with two such people resulted in some interesting shifts in how I think about Magic, life, and the universe, and this article centers around those conversations.

This week will be a bit of a change of pace. I’ll be back to Extended next week, when we will have a whole Grand Prix tournament’s results to digest.

I’ve been very fortunate to meet some truly wonderful people through Magic. Some of those are people I work with on decks, some are people I practice with on Magic Online, and some are people I hang out with at tournaments. However, a select few of them are people who regularly challenge me to improve myself. Two recent conversations with two such people who happen to be StarCityGames.com writers resulted in some interesting shifts in how I think about Magic, life, and the universe, and this article centers around those conversations.

I chose to title this article as part of Project Hollywood because I’m not happy with my current mental game, and this article is an exploration of some ideas that I am trying to integrate into my regular thought processes. Note that these ideas work for me; your mileage may vary, but I’m naive enough to think that things that help me could help you. If they don’t work for you, forget them and move on.

Rich Hagon on Losing

I was having a conversation with Rich Hagon over instant messenger recently when he told me that he had a deep thought that he wanted to leave with me. The following ensued:

Rich Hagon (RH): You’ve had assorted backlash over various articles you’ve done, essentially because you’ve argued for leaving as little to chance as possible, and you’ve used the term (paraphrasing) that you don’t want to give the universe an excuse to not let you achieve whatever it is.
RH: It isn’t the universe you don’t want to let get in your way. It’s yourself. People crave escape routes all the time. Subconsciously, people love to be right, and if you allow yourself the opportunity to lose, subconsciously you work towards fulfilling that expectation. So, rather than sounding slightly cosmic, what you’re actually advocating is a searing and ball-breaking courage that has brought many a strong person to their knees – a willingness to look themselves in the mirror and say – there is no hiding place. It is ME that failed, ME that didn’t get the job done
RH: and THEN to have the courage to go again.
RH: Leaving yourself no room is courage, pure and simple.
RH: Fact – almost everyone likes to lose.
RH: Fact – almost no-one can bear the shame of winning.
Tom LaPille (TL): what blows my mind
TL: is in the forums of super angry article
TL: I was just like “**** you all, winning the next PTQ. Have fun getting crushed by me, lol.”
TL: and then I actually won…
TL: like when you decide that you’re allowed to succeed sometimes it happens so fast.
RH: Interestingly, it almost always happens fast, because you have to remember that almost everyone else is trying to lose
RH: so it’s like a hot knife through butter.

This was pretty shocking to me at first glance. People want to lose? The “shame of winning”…? What is going on here?

You probably play tournament Magic of some sort given that you are reading me, so let me ask you to complete a simple exercise. Open up a word processor and make a list of all the ways that you can lose in a tournament and still be satisfied. Is it okay to lose to someone better than you? Is it okay to lose if you mulliganed once? What about if you got a bad matchup? If your opponent “outplays” you? Is it okay to lose if you’ve already made the Top 8? When, where, how, and to whom would you be willing to accept a loss? How many situations are on that list? The fewer there are, the more likely you are to stop fighting for a win because you found an acceptable outcome that doesn’t involve objective victory.

I think that I had some of this figured out by accident, but only for PTQ’s. I was already quite comfortable with the idea that there is only one prize at a PTQ and that not winning the tournament is a binary failure in exactly the same sense that 0-2 dropping is. When people congratulated me on my second place finish at the PTQ in Cleveland after I punted the finals, I wondered to myself why I was being congratulated at all. “In the finals of a PTQ” was not on my list of situations that were acceptable to lose from. I am actually surprised in hindsight that I made it as far as I did in that tournament given that I had just picked up Next Level Blue literally three days before, but losing because I didn’t know my deck wasn’t something that I was going to be okay with, and perhaps that is what carried me to the finals. The next week, I had more practice, won the whole show, and felt invincible.

In stark contrast to this, yesterday I played four hours of Counterbalance mirror against Patrick Chapin and won exactly one of the first ten games. It’s true that he was outplaying me by a very healthy margin, but somewhere early along the line I became used to the idea that I was supposed to lose the player matchup and so I stopped really fighting to win. After catching myself and stopping that line of thought, I did significantly better.

Your thoughts can also betray you in the midst of individual games. I distinctly remember game 3 of the semifinals of the Butler PTQ this season, in which I kept two Tarmogoyfs, Vedalken Shackles, Engineered Explosives, Steam Vents, Island, and Tree of Tales on the draw against Domain Zoo. This is clearly a terrible keep for Next Level Blue in that matchup. My plan was to turn 1 Explosives for one, turn 2 pop it, turn 3 Shackles, and turn 4 steal something and play Tarmogoyf, but that’s just hilariously slow especially on the draw. At around turn 4 of that game, I realized the horrible mistake I had made, and I thought to myself verbatim “Is this how it ends?” before catching myself. That, my friends, is a very dangerous thing to think. It’s reasonable to think that if one makes a big mistake in a game that he could lose because of it, but that isn’t useful to apply to yourself while actually playing. Instead, try to think that you’ll win anyway, and then figure out why. Adam Yurchick is an expert at doing this; I’ve never seen him be the least bit discouraged by his own play errors, even in the finals of PTQs at Grand Prix tournaments with gigantic crowds, and I try to emulate his ability to do this.

Getting to this point is, generally speaking, not the easiest thing to do. As a corollary, it is very rare that you meet someone who doesn’t have some conditions under which they will accept a loss. Sometimes all it takes to defeat someone mentally is to find one of those conditions and provide it to them; that’s exactly what Patrick did to me yesterday, and he knew exactly what he was doing. I’m fairly certain he was doing it to prove a point to me, but I’m sure that isn’t far from his standard operating procedure against anyone at any tournament.

Here’s the interesting thing. Before I started writing this article, if someone asked me if I would be okay with losing the finals of a Grand Prix, I probably would have told them that I would be happy to get that far. That needs to change if I am going to actually “try to win” in Vancouver and Philadelphia. How can I win the tournament if I would happily accept losing the finals? By the time I get on the plane to Canada, I want to be to be distinctly not okay with that. I know how powerful it is to see losing as completely unacceptable in any form at low levels; I want to transfer that attitude upward.

It is powerful to be one of the few people in the room who are trying to win in the sense that losing in any way is unacceptable. Are you one of them? Could you be one of them?

Doug Linn on Committing

Doug is a fellow member of Team Meandeck and denizen of Columbus, Ohio, so I see him in person a fair amount. Doug’s favorite thing to do when I talk about anything is to ask me is if I am “committed” to it. When he asks this, he is asking me if I am truly serious about accomplishing what I say I want to accomplish or not. There is no moral judgment implied here; it’s not wrong to not be committed, nor is it automatically right to be committed. However, I find that it’s unlikely that I succeed at anything hard that I’m not truly committed to, and knowing my own commitment status is important for setting realistic expectations. This kind of commitment can only demonstrated through actions; you may think you are serious about something, but the only way to truly know what you are committed to is to pay attention to your actions. If those are not congruent with what you say you want, then you aren’t committed to what you think you are.

I think I finally committed to this whole Trying To Improve A Lot At Magic thing when I bought my ticket to Grand Prix: Vancouver. I was originally going to skip that tournament because of school; missing classes was going to be awkward, I didn’t want to have to get ahead on class work, and it was more than I wanted to spend. After I won a PTQ, I realized that I had a decision to make: either commit to Magic, or don’t. Anyone truly serious about Magic would not miss a Grand Prix in their own continent if there was anything they could do to help it, so I went ahead and booked that ticket. Interestingly, a number of opportunities have opened up for me since buying that ticket, only one of which is a weekend trip to Michigan to do some brewing with the RIW crew before the Grand Prix. I don’t regret the decision to buy my ticket at all.

There’s something strange about a commitment mechanism that is very powerful. The old story about throwing your hat over an impassable wall to motivate yourself to climb is a tired cliché, but there’s enough truth in it for me that I like to keep it around. My very first large non-local Magic tournament was the 2002 Amateur Championships at Origins. I had practiced for a good month before the tournament and I had a list I liked, but I couldn’t find the Yavimaya Coasts I needed and I was missing a few sideboard cards. I finally broke down and bought everything I needed for the whopping sum of $25, more than I had ever spent at once on cards at the time, and I ended up placing third out of more than three hundred players*. That $25 may not sound like much of a commitment, but to sixteen year old Tom that was a big deal.

Ever since then, I have consistently done better at tournaments that I have put significant investments into. Every road trip that has resulted in a PTQ win for me has involved an overnight stop at an intermediate location. I’ve only made the Top 8 of one PTQ out of fifteen or so that was held in my hometown, and that tournament only had 40 players in it and I lost in the quarterfinals. At Grand Prix: Columbus, held fifteen minutes from my apartment, I 2-3 dropped Day 1. I don’t mean to excuse any poor play and deck choices at all of these tournaments by blaming those failures on a lack of travel, but I do think there’s enough of a correlation here for it to be worth noting. This is something that I am working on. I suspect that this kind of thing doesn’t just hold for me, though; Steve Sadin flew to Brisbane for a Grand Prix on a whim last season, and he did quite well for himself there and eventually hit twenty Pro Points to gravy train. Steve didn’t seem to think that was a coincidence, so there’s another example.

If your results plateau, perhaps a commitment mechanism can help. Drop the cash on a set of Tarmogoyfs. Get in your car and drive six hours to the PTQ. Buy the ticket to Vancouver. Whatever it is, find some way to force a commitment by going above and beyond your normal standards and you might supercharge your improvement.

Of course, one also needs to be technically skilled at Magic for all of this stuff to matter in the least bit. Don’t forget that. That’s why I played eight hours of Counterbalance mirrors this weekend…

My next article will run on Wednesday of next week, not Monday, but it will talk about my future experiences at Grand Prix: Vancouver. My hat is currently located somewhere in Canada. I’m off to go find it.

Happy qualifying!

Tom LaPille

* I have absolutely no idea what my life would be like right now if this had not hooked me on tournament Magic.