Chatter of the Squirrel – Focus

Read Zac Hill every week... at StarCityGames.com!Wednesday, February 27th – Magic skill, like the term “intelligence,” is fairly difficult to explain. It’s not hard to define; “ability at manipulating specific sets of operations” works for most cases. But that definition doesn’t really cast light on the number one question that follows from it: namely, “Why can some people manipulate more of those operations than others?”

It seems like I write four or five of these articles a year, post-tournament “what-went-wrongs” or “what-went-rights.” It has become almost formulaic. Yet the single biggest boost to my ability as a Magic player, the single variable that has affected my game the most, is the degree to which I analyze my performance after a tournament. I am not the kind of person who can get by operationally, behaviorally, passively amalgamating all a game’s decisions into categories of “what worked” and “what didn’t.” I don’t usually just see things, get them, understand immediately why a particular choice was correct or not. So through my reflection and repose, my etching of words onto a page, through the ideas I try and convey in this column, I attempt to order my brain’s mishmash of disjointed goings-on into something I can use.

Fortunately, this time I think I’ve come up with something palatable.

Naturally, my performance in the tournament disappointed me. Given how little I’m able to test anymore it wasn’t exactly surprising, but I’ve had a very good Limited year up until KL and I thought I grasped this format better than most of the other people with whom I’d been talking. For the first time in a long time, though, I couldn’t pinpoint any huge mistakes either during the draft or during the games themselves that definitively cost me a win. I lost my first match to a triple-Oona’s-Blackguard Rogue Constructed deck, the second to double-Mulldrifter double-Nevermaker double-Nameless Inversion machine that had mulliganed into oblivion the previous round, and the third to Gaudenis Vidugiris in what was simply a good match that went the wrong way.

That’s not to say that the KL trip was altogether a failure. In fact, it was far from it. My early departure from the competitive ranks allowed me to don a stylish faux-Pacific-Islander coverage shirt and play a role I’ve wanted to play for quite some time. The Wizards crew were generous and entertaining, the Batu Caves were a resounding success, and I hope my quarterfinals and semifinals coverage proved enjoyable for everyone to read. I am disappointed that Finkel himself felt that his match against Marcio Carvalho was overdramatized – you can see his comments in BDM’s interview from Friday, in which he dismisses as fancy the “mind games” I thought I had observed – but from my position at the side of the table I called everything as I saw it. Marcio was positively quaking, and he had lost the match before it started.

The most important element of my “weekend with Wizards” was the perspective it lent me on this year’s Pro Players’ Club changes. I thought the talk with Chris Galvin was honest and informative, and while of course some of our issues remain unsatisfactorily addressed, that is the nature of a company with stockholders. Bill Stark has already said everything you need to know about the meeting, but I do want to reiterate a couple of important points:

1) These changes are as temporary as everything else in Pro Tour history. They’ve added shows, they’ve taken them away, they’ve added, subtracted, and redistributed dollar amounts to different programs far and wide. Wizards’ stated goal is to expand their player base, and if these changes run counterproductive to that goal then all of us can be sure the schedule will be shifted yet again.
2) Wizards really does want to know what we think. Look, I hate large corporations as much as the next guy, but it’s absolutely essential to understand that it wouldn’t serve anyone’s interests if they were “out to get us.” Other companies pay lots and lots and lots of money to find out what consumers really want. It’s much cheaper for Wizards to just ask players what they think and hear their answers directly, so it doesn’t make any sense to think that they’re not going to listen. That isn’t to say that every concern presented, every solution posited, is well-thought-out or even conceivable. It does mean, though, that whoever wants to speak his mind really ought to do so.

I’ve said already that I wasn’t able to unearth any secrets that would reveal to me why my tournament performance was so disappointing (aside from my general lack of testing, but I tested more for KL than for any tournament since Valencia). Fortunately for me, though, I’m a political scientist. When social scientists find themselves unable to explain causality, they look to the next best thing — correlation — and see if they can draw any conclusions from there. As of yet I’m not sure how many of those correlations are meaningful — that’s the nature of the beast, in many ways — but some data is better than no data at all. Here’s what I found:

1) In the modern era of my development as a player, there’s a one-to-one relationship between my having a bed to myself and my making money at an event. When I sleep on the floor or in some improvised situation, I don’t make Day 2. When I do, I win games.
2) When I have roomed with at least one “gravy-trainer” I have always made money. Brooks and co. were positively awesome for this event, but I have to wonder if I do better when everyone around me expects a certain type of finish as well. This isn’t to say that in KL my roommates didn’t plan to do well. But it’s a different attitude entirely when you’re around people who are hungry for a finish. It’s like Tom’s article last week. You have to demand a win.
3) I have a disproportionately high level of success against players who are better than me. This didn’t even come up over the course of this tournament – Gaudenis was the highest-level player I went up against – but the conclusion it suggested lined up with the conclusion suggested by the first two terms of our little discussion here. A lot of that, of course, is luck, and I’m not remotely trying to cast myself in a positively light by being all “look wow I beat [insert player here] I must be reel gud.” That’s pathetic. I do think it’s relevant to the discussion, though, because I know for a fact that when I go into a match against someone I recognize, I focus.

There’s the title, finally.

Magic skill, like the term “intelligence,” is fairly difficult to explain. It’s not hard to define; “ability at manipulating specific sets of operations*” works for most cases. But that definition doesn’t really cast light on the number one question that follows from it: namely, “Why can some people manipulate more of those operations than others?”

Let’s get to examples, because I know the vocabulary I’ve chosen isn’t exactly the most transparent. To take a narrow slice out of the “intelligence” pie, some people are clearly better at linear reasoning than others. Entire logic classes are devoted to dissecting the chains of thought that lead from a set of postulates to a given conclusion, and a great majority of people don’t make every single leap perfectly every single time. Yet, unlike physical acumen, there’s no quantifiable factor that demonstrably “gets in the way” of someone’s ability to complete a chain of reasoning. If I’m running a race, the fact that I have small leg muscles and a burgeoning gut is going to draw a line somewhere that dictates my performance maximum no matter how much will I pump into it. Experientially, we can say the same thing about intelligence because it’s ludicrous to assume that less intelligent people simply aren’t “willing” to think as hard. But the very nature of logic, in its systematic applications of objective and falsifiable truth, would suggest otherwise.

I can watch LeBron James play basketball a hundred times and get no closer to doing the same thing myself. But if someone explains to me, I don’t know, each step of a complex carbon nanotube layering process, I ought to be able to re-create the chain of thought that leads there assuming I comprehend its component parts.

Why this digression?

It seems to be apparent that, absent some elements that we just don’t understand at present, at least some degree of intelligence and discernment involves how much time we spend actively thinking about an issue at hand – how much time we are able to focus. We can’t cycle through a set of operations without willing our mind into going through that process. Similarly, for Magic, I’ve found (I think) that when I’m up against someone very good I am 100% attuned to the match. I take more variables into account, I plan more actively for the long term, I make sure not to miss triggers and “end-step-ping-yous.” When it comes down to it, I’m more conscious of the game at hand, and although the variable factors that remedies may be hard to quantify, I notice a marked improvement in my ability. I can’t say for certain I’m making fewer mistakes, because it’s not like I ever consciously decide to ignore my Kithkin Healer (or whatever) and let a creature of mine die for no reason. There is just a feeling in the back of my mind that cylinders are turning.

It seems like, when I’m rooming with “pros” or am around people with the same competitive drive, I don’t lapse into “autopilot.” More accurately, I find myself scrutinizing each and every game with the same rigor as if it were the finals of the Top 8. What is funny is that I don’t have to sacrifice anything to do this. It’s not like we have some finite amount of mental energy that we can run out of if we spend it all in one place (though there is definitely some form of mental fatigue that exists, I don’t find it as easily identifiable as physical fatigue and I certainly don’t believe it’s as linear). Like Tom said last week, if you care about winning you absolutely positively must enter into every game with this mindset, because losing has got to be unacceptable. I didn’t exhibit that kind of competitive fury this past weekend, and it cost me in ways that I’m only beginning to understand.

Note that there is a very awkward balance to strike between this competitive fire and between the counterproductive obsession with results that I’ve written about before. The key is to focus entirely on the game at hand, wrap your competitive spirit around the result of a single match (insofar as you can affect it) and not on the outcome of the tournament. Thinking “I need to go 4-2 from here” is not going to do anything for you. Thinking “I must must must must must win the match I’m playing right now” definitely will.

Where does the “sleep” variable come in? It may not fit neatly into any sub-heading at all. Sam Black told me that if he has Magic, he can go without food, drink, or sleep so long as he continues to game. Sam was being entirely serious, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that for many of us Magic is ingrained in our minds on such a subconscious level that the process of playing the game temporarily diffuses for us what would normally be more pressing needs. For me, though, the more tired I am the more difficult it is for me to forcibly attune my mind to the “frequency” necessary to play an optimal game of cards.

The moral of the story is that I think a lot of us expect to show up at a tournament and do well purely because of our playtest history and natural ability. This is a bit like trying to win a boxing match without throwing punches. “I trained really hard,” you might say, “and I’m really athletic, so I should be fine.” Well, not really. You can have the greatest deck in the world, could have put up the greatest pre-tournament results known to man, but if your opponent is picking the game apart looking for advantages while you’re sitting there simply announcing spells, you’re not going to make it too far.


* In the broad sense, not the Chapin “behavioral aspects of playing cards” sense, though I echo the desire to see LaPille/Richard/Adrian cover the topic as well