Flow of Ideas – Rekindling Your Fire

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Thursday, December 17th – Burnout… the affliction of PTQ road warriors, playtesting junkies, and even professional players. Burnout is a mental condition many Magic players go through without even realizing it that threatens your success as a player, the longevity of your competitive Magic run, and, most of all, your level of fun. Fortunately, there are ways you can identify and combat burnout.

Burnout. No, not the 1R Mental Magic all-star, but the affliction of PTQ road warriors, playtesting junkies, and even professional players. Burnout is a mental condition many Magic players go through without even realizing it that threatens your success as a player, the longevity of your competitive Magic run, and, most of all, your level of fun. Fortunately, there are ways you can identify and combat burnout.

Let me back up. Over the summer, I took a class revolving around personal applications of psychology. It was one of the most intriguing and applicable-to-life classes I have ever attended, and the skills the class taught me have since been incorporated into everything I do. It was taught by someone who worked with professional athletes for a career in addition to teaching, and so naturally a lot of what I learned could be applied to Magic.

Though much of what was taught seemed like common sense to me, I realized it was mostly because of my discipline in Magic. Still, I learned meditative techniques, methods to calm down in a pinch, ways to improve my skill level even while I wasn’t playing, and how to maintain focus amongst the highest levels of stress, among other topics. One area which we spent a lot of time covering was the danger of burnout. It’s something a lot of Magic players have, and can hinder your success if not dealt with.

First, it’s important to define exactly what burnout is and what it means.

Burnout is defined as, “The psychological, emotional, and sometimes physical withdrawal from an activity in response to excessive stress or dissatisfaction.” This description hits on several important points, if you look at it closely. Most important is that each of the withdrawals are not mutually exclusive. What that means is that you can psychologically withdraw without physically withdrawing.

Let’s bring it back to Magic.

You know the PTQ. The one happening this weekend, just an hour away. You go through the week not particularly excited about it. You hate Zendikar Sealed, and you’ve been brawling all season with nothing to show for it. A PTQ every other weekend for the past two months to no avail. It’s like you’re been flinging yourself at the same brick wall over and over, trying to get it to tumble. Yet you wake up Saturday morning and begrudgingly get ready to drive a state over to sit among the masses and register a sealed pool.

Stop right there.

It’s obvious that you don’t want to go. Your mind is telling you not to go. So why are you going? Out of some obligation to qualify? Because if you don’t go you will feel like you will have to rescind your title as some kind of aspiring pro player? There will always be another PTQ season.

One of the most important things I have learned all year came from a podcast interview I did with Noah Weil. (Look it up in the StarCityGames archives.) We were on the topic of playing in tournaments, and I had asked why Noah had taken a break from the game.

His answer was simple, yet life-changing.

Noah explained that there is no point in waking up in the morning and playing if you don’t want to go. Magic is a game. It is a game we spend weeks of preparation on and fly across the country to play for thousands of dollars, but it a game nonetheless. If you aren’t wholly into it, if you don’t have that burning desire to go out and slaughter eleven other opponents so you can take home a qualification, then go back to bed.

When playing in PTQs feels like work, you need to take a break. And that’s exactly what Noah did.

What happened when Noah finally snapped out of his funk? An immediate GP Top 16.

Since then, I’ve followed Noah’s advice and found myself a much happier person. Especially with the advent of PTQs on Magic Online, it’s easy to cram your schedule with events. One day I logged onto Magic Online and headed for the Premier Events room only to realize I wasn’t interested in PTQing that day. I closed out of the program and enjoyed my evening by focusing my attention elsewhere.

It’s not just motivation mumbo-jumbo. It’s all the danger of the psychological condition of burnout.

A little under two weeks ago, I found myself furiously brewing the night before the 2009s when I just realized I wasn’t having any fun playing Standard. Noah’s words of wisdom echoed through my mind, and I chose to not play the next day.

Surprisingly, it felt great. It was as though a burden had been removed from the ringbearer. I showed up, still saw all of my friends, and still did all of the activities that allowed me to have a good time. But the actual act of playing Standard, which I hadn’t been enjoying, was removed from the equation. Playing Standard felt like work I wasn’t enjoying. Why subject myself to that?

On the surface, it might seem like this is purely an opportunity cost trade. I don’t play, so I don’t spend the time or money. Sure, it could have been a waste… but I could have also won the tournament! However, not playing has its own significant value, not easily found in dollars.

Let me explain. Study after study has shown that you been able to link success with arousal. No, not that kind of arousal. If that were the case, most Magic players would be highly successful. (Just kidding!) But really, arousal means an excitement and strong connection with whatever you are doing. When your level of arousal is too low you can’t properly perform at what you are doing; too high and it leads to thinking too much about your performance as opposed to actually performing. (For those familiar with diagrams, it’s an inverted U axis; it peaks in the middle and drops off at both extremes.)

When you are so jaded that you are not excited about playing in a tournament, you end up with a low level of arousal — making it difficult to reach your peak performance state.

There are a few techniques to increase arousal, thereby decreasing burnout. One of the primary ones is to do exactly what Noah suggested: take some time off. By not playing in the 2009s, I separated myself, however slight, from the tournament scene enough so that I will be more excited to play in a tournament the next time around.

Now think about this for yourself: are you honestly having fun grinding out the last few Sealed PTQs? If the answer is no, then you may want to reconsider attending. One of the first keys to dealing with burnout is recognizing you are burnt out and taking time to deal with it.

The three main symptoms of developing burnout are low motivation or energy related to working in your field, concentration problems, and lack of caring. If you are feeling any of those, then you should seriously evaluate if it’s better to take the last few weeks off so you can start Extended season off fresh. It’s only going to make matters worse going into Extended if you do poorly because you can’t focus in the last few weeks of this season.

While taking time off is the best technique to help deal with burnout, there are two others which can also help to rekindle your passion with Magic.

The first is to use burnout to promote your own personal growth. Alright, so the current format is jading you. Why not take this as an opportunity to use some time refocusing on other areas of your life? If you spend even a little time working on other pieces of your life, it can make Magic look fresh again. You can fall out of the rut you’re in and come back with a fresh perspective on the game and current format.

The first time I ever made Top 8 of a major event — Regionals — I spend the days prior completely removed from Magic at the beach. Last year, I went out on my first date with a then-prospective girlfriend, and then made the finals of the PTQ the next day. The PTQ I won with Faeries for Berlin was the day after Independence Day, and I had spent the entire week before simply focusing on other aspects of my life, then spent the holiday with my family and girlfriend. All three times I breezed through the competition, and I don’t think any of those decks was really leagues above the other players. Yet, each time was one of those rare tournaments where winning just flowed naturally. I could just see the right plays better, and was more relaxed in general. Most importantly, I was more excited to just go play after a little time off and it was reflected in my game.

That brings me to the last way to combat burnout: have fun. No, really. I have talked a
about this a lot in the past two months, but if you are burnt out try and have fun playing.

Let me introduce you to a real world analogue: this article.

It’s finals week, I’ve taken three English classes this quarter, had a job writing for the school newspaper, and written Flow of Ideas each week amidst it all. Most people would probably reach the conclusion that the last thing I would want to do right now is sit down and write this piece.

That couldn’t be less true.

The secret is that, as opposed to the other 20+ pages I have had to write this week, I have fun writing about Magic. Writing my column each week is a reprieve from all of the other writing I have to do, and I’m sure it’s one of the few things keeping me from burning out on writing.

The same kind of thing is true in Magic. If you use a more relaxed playstyle, play decks you find enjoyable, and enter every tournament not with the goal of stone-facing all of your opponents, but creating some witty banter, you will find yourself having a lot more fun than when every opponent is Jund-wielding scum you need to wipe off the face of the earth.

Sure, maybe this attitude isn’t true for a qualifier, but that doesn’t mean you have to exercise it there. If you haven’t been to FNM for a while, show up and have some fun with something you’ve wanted to try for a long time. Using small, local tournaments as conduits to relax your Magic muscles during the strain of a PTQ season can be unbelievably helpful.

“The fire” is what a lot of Magic players call the drive to travel across the countryside and around the world playing the game we all love. But even the largest fires will eventually burn out and smolder on the ground without proper tending. By tending to and regulating your own personal fire over time you can keep it lit over the course of the year, instead of frantically trying to light it when you need it the most.

As we head into the holiday season, a lot of my friends are celebrating by grinding out games of Extended for the January PTQ’s. More helpful than any amount of testing is going to be taking a breather and immersing yourself in life during this special time of the year. It’s one of Magic’s rare off-seasons. Enjoy your family. Enjoy your friends. Try out something new. Experience something different. Magic will be there for you when you’re all done. And you’ll be ready for Magic better than ever.

If you have any comments, feel free to e-mail me at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com, or post in the forums. I’d love to hear about your own personal experiences with what I’ve covered today. Talk to you soon!

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else