Fishing Lessons – Put the Coffee Down

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Tuesday, April 13th – There is a type of time in Magic writing that I call “The Lull.” It’s when there aren’t really any relevant formats to talk about. The PTQ season is over and the new set isn’t released so I can’t talk about the upcoming formats with any actual knowledge. There aren’t real tournaments happening so tournament reports aren’t an option either.

There is a type of time in Magic writing that I call “The Lull.” It’s when there aren’t really any relevant formats to talk about. The PTQ season is over and the new set isn’t released so I can’t talk about the upcoming formats with any actual knowledge. There aren’t real tournaments happening so tournament reports aren’t an option either. I find set reviews to be some of the most boring and pointless articles written, due to the fact that they are all speculation that pretty much anybody could make. Even the in-depth card analysis is fairly worthless, as there is no frame of reference to put them into yet. Without creating an entire mental construct of what the impact of every single card is going to be on each format’s metagame, and then applying each card to the created construct, the discussion of the cards’ relevance is fairly pointless in my opinion.

It’s fun to talk about the new cards and all, don’t get me wrong. I am just saying from a competitive point of view, to even consider your judgments of a card to be accurate without proper context is going to lead to some false assumptions that could be damaging to your game.

So what do I do during The Lull? Well, normally I strive during these times because I get to talk about some more basic strategy and explain some theory, review the fundamentals and talk about the design of the game or the politics of the Pro Tour. It’s not all about deck reviews and tournament reports or metagame write-ups like the writing scene usually is.

The problem is, a series of coincidental circumstances has left me topicless. I don’t want to write a tournament report of a dead format. I can’t write about some of the strategy stuff I wanted to put out because similar stuff was published so I want to put some more time into it, I can’t publish my article on the difference between wanting a fish and wanting to learn how to fish (called Fishing Lessons… like a self-titled album, but in article form) because it will just offend people, and I don’t want to print my next piece on Stock Mana because I’m trying to space out those articles to minimize complaints by people who don’t like abstract theory work like that.

So this week, I have yet another article on attitude and approach to competitive Magic. I know there are a million of these articles out there, and each one is more useless than the last all the way back to the very first one, but I have some analogies and terms to use that might help some people understand what these types of articles are saying.

Also, I feel I have a slightly different view of these works. You see, a lot of the people that write this type of article about having the desire to win and visualizing success and so on are unable to follow their own advice. Either that, or I feel they miss the sweet spot on emphasis of the topics. Mental preparedness is important but mental strength and emotional control are often overlooked or understated.

Everyone who is trying to play competitively knows that you should set your goals high and attack them with determination and drive. The thing that is missing is what setting your goals should mean. I have the most extremist point of view on the topic, so it may be refreshing to hear my stance, which is as follows:

If you don’t plan on winning the tournament, don’t bother showing up.

Anybody who says their goal was to Top 50 a Pro Tour or Top 16 a GP doesn’t have the killer instinct to take home the trophy.

Now, I am a competitive player, so that is the viewpoint I am taking. If you play for fun and whatnot, then this subject is not for you.

A common problem the public has with viewing someone with this schema is that they perceive it as arrogance. There is a difference between confidence and conceitedness, and recognizing that is important.

Confidence is what mentally strong players have while preparing for and playing in a tournament that allows them to keep their minds in the game and their eyes on the prize. Conceitedness is when someone refuses to learn and is delusional about their abilities in the game.

The two are actually on very different sides of the emotional spectrum, but the results outward are very similar. It is only the subtle causes behind them that shows what the personality trait is.

People who are conceited have a very difficult time learning anything new because they are trying to feign confidence and do so by deluding themselves into thinking they are the nuts. They need to feign that confidence because of their own insecurities and frustrations. That is the exact opposite of someone who is genuinely confident, because the latter person is constantly learning and adapting while maintaining a strong mental framework of the game (and the game within the game, and the game within that game) and the attitude that will have the highest pay-off.

Confidence is rooted in the mental strength of a player to not let doubt creep into his subconscious and cost him at the tables.

Blaming luck is that creeping doubt manifesting itself. THAT is why you are always told not to blame luck; is the difference between confidence and conceitedness

Now, all of this talk in absolutes misses a key aspect of the topic, which is that, if you are logical and don’t let emotion or bias affect your analytical abilities, you can determine certain arguments or views using simple facts. Statistics and analysis can give you hard evidence that makes it so you don’t need mental strength to fight for them.

My example is a while back in an article, I wrote that I wasn’t threatened by the field of a certain tournament, as I was better than a vast majority of the players. People called me conceited and so on, but I wasn’t just saying that to inflate my own ego (which would be the conceited reason). I was doing it because that is how I viewed the tournament and fought off the doubt that I wasn’t going to win it (the confident reason). So even though I would have said the same thing whether I was confident or conceited, the reason behind it is what shows which it is.

This can be shown by looking at the cold hard facts. I was in a local tournament, the players were of average FNM skill-level. Meanwhile, I have had some decent success on the GP and PT circuit and practice far more than any of the other players in the tournament. There were only 1 or 2 other “name” players in the field and I was well-prepared for the event. All of this adds up to me being able to see that I am probably one of the better players in the tournament. Does that mean I’m automatically going to win it? No, of course not. Does that mean that I should feel confident in my abilities and not get suckered into doubting myself at the table or blaming a bad deck choice or poor luck and making a costly error due to this lack of focus and mental strength? Yes, I believe it does mean that, which is why I stated such in my tournament write-up.

An aside: the most common weakness in somebody’s mental game is their inability to maintain focus. Keep that in mind.

The key, as everyone knows, and many writers before me have said multiple times, is to always be learning. If you aren’t learning, you’re not going to succeed. When you stop learning (or miss opportunities to learn), then you have got to take a step back and figure out if you are confident or conceited It is not an easy thing to do, but for the sake of your game (and your personality), it is vital to be able to view yourself as unbiased as possible. I have had to do this multiple times, and am currently in the process of it now. I know I am susceptible to these types of pitfall traps and make the extra effort to review my game and my mental status as often as possible I order to avoid hitting that dreaded wall of stagnant knowledge.

If you aren’t a student of the game, a master of introspection, and have strong grasp on your emotions, you will not succeed in competitive Magic.

As soon as you settle, you are dead, and the only thing that can resurrect you is to come to terms with the fact that you settled. If you are happy with your performance at a tournament, you better have won it. If you are happy making Top 8 or whatever, then I am glad that you’re happy. My job isn’t to write about how to make you happy; only you can do that. I am here to write about how to become the best Magic player you can be. The truth is, if you are happy with anything less than first, you are selling yourself short, and it will cost you. It is a true test of your resolve.

If you are happy making Top 8 at a PTQ, then you are done in that tournament. If you walk away from a tournament saying that you were happy with your finish when you made Top 4 but didn’t get the invite, then that is going to haunt your subconscious next time you are in the Top 4 of a PTQ. You hit your goal, you’re done. Maybe you make the finals. Well now you’ve surpassed your own expectations and are proud of yourself. Good luck in that finals, because without it you aren’t leaving with that envelope. Not with that attitude.

An important distinction for me to make here is the difference between being cut-throat and being a d*ck. Being cut-throat just means you have the soil of killer instincts in which the seed of greatness grows. It doesn’t mean rules lawyering or being rude or unsportsmanlike. In fact, this is similar to the confident versus conceited discussion.

Most cut-throat people I have met are very nice and fun to play against. Most d*cks I have played against don’t even know what it means to have what it takes to understand the concept of being great. These are the guys that create the misconceptions in the casual community that PTQers and/or Pro Players are *ssholes. While there are some of those out there, the majority of the best players are actually great people. People misconceive cut-throatedness and drive to win as being a d*ck, even though they are actually personality traits on complete opposite sides of the emotional spectrum (despite having similar outward results at times).

Greatness in any field is created in a very competitive spirit with drive to be the best. Ponder for a moment, if you will, a field of expertise where greatness is possible. A sport perhaps, or a field in business. Maybe a game or a performing art. Now think about whether or not that, to achieve true and pure greatness in that field, one would need to have the killer instinct and drive on that subject. This isn’t a Magic lesson; this is a life lesson.

Greatness doesn’t fall into your lap.

And besides work and a sheer dedication to the fundamentals (like I talk about in my Fishing Lessons article that will probably never see print), one also needs to have the drive and desire to be the absolute best there has ever been.

Everything in life is a game. Do you think that business transactions aren’t the same as chess games? Do you think a hand of poker is any different than buying a home? Can you say with all honesty that relationships are more at their core than cat and mouse games? Your opponent in round 7 of a PTQ is gaming you just like a car dealership is gaming you just like a stripper is gaming you and just like your best friend asking for a favor is gaming you. It’s all give and take, and it’s all gaming. Strategy is life. Whether it’s zero-sum or Nash Equilibrium or multiplayer political dynamics, all you are ever doing is playing a game. Do you have what it takes to try and be the best who’s ever played whatever game you choose to play in your life?

Think back about fields of expertise where greatness is attainable. Let’s talk about performing arts. Where do you think phrases like “knock ’em dead” come from? When you are an actor (or comedian, or musician, or mime) your job is to win the game you are playing. Your opponents are the audience members and you are trying to use your skills and abilities to entertain and amuse them in whatever fashion your particular instance applies.

People don’t say, “have a good time!” or “try and make it so they enjoy themselves!” to a fellow performer. They use violent metaphors like “blow them away” or “you’ll kill them.” These aggressive, combative terms reflect the undertones of the relationship between the audience and the performer:

They aren’t friends out for a good time together; they are enemies in direct competition with one-another, and the fellow performers are encouraging their peer to win the game.

If you are okay with being decent at something or just want to durdle along your whole life and be average, then that’s lucky for you. You will lead a happy life, get married, have kids, work a job, and die. For me, that’s not enough, and I know some people out there know what I am saying. I always want to be the absolute best at everything I do, and that is because I have this killer instinct. If you want to be the best and don’t have that primal instinct to kill (a.k.a. win) then you better develop it quickly because life is short.

Have a good week.

AJ Sacher