Flow Of Ideas

This week Ari provides you with some snippets of wisdom from the pseudo-notebook on his computer, touching on emotional control, focusing on what matters, and more!

I have a pseudo-notebook on my computer consisting of half-formed article ideas.

Some of these are just too research-intensive to pull off in the time frame I think of them (i.e. An Oral History of the Junior Super Series).

Some of these are just too small and require other pieces to form a flow of ideas (Gavin Verhey reference very much intended).

These are a few of the latter.

Next Level Play And You

Many of the most memorable Magic plays are classic examples of leveling your opponent. The Mike Long Drain Life play, which depending on viewpoint was either a savage bluff kill or a savage long con regarding the number of Drain Lifes in Mike’s deck. The Kenji-Ruel Force Spike play, which is routinely underrated as one of the greatest game play moments of all time.

The problem is that while these are all awesome stories, part of the reason they are such great parts of Magic history is their rarity. They are the exception, not the rule. They are the cool trick you try to emulate, only to fail miserably.

Good mental play is not about outsmarting your opponent. Most games won and lost on the mental level, just like on the technical level, are about not losing to yourself and just playing a solid heads-up game of Magic.

A lot of this is on the level of the old Raging Ravine problem. You hold a land to bluff a spell, and suddenly two lands off the top later you are short a mana to activate your Raging Ravine twice in a turn. While this is more of a technical example, a lot of the same can be seen here. You spend so much mental energy on silly things like physically dominating the playing field or trying to extract information in a pre-match conversation that you lose to an incorrect sequencing decision or poor mulligan.

At one time, I thought these kinds of edges were awesome. To be fair, they probably had been great up until that point since I was playing in the JSS, where nothing you do matters and everyone’s a winner. In a world where your opponent’s hands physically aren’t large enough to shuffle, it’s easy to pat yourself on the back for getting them to miss a trigger. It didn’t hurt that most of the people I was playing against were, quite frankly, very bad. Slowly but surely the obvious losses to my own play started piling up, as did the lack of wins from these shenanigans.

If you have the spare mental energy due to a complete mastery of a format or the game, feel free to spend your mental processing power doing whatever you want. Honestly, I highly doubt anyone has ever or will ever reach that level.

Aside: Returning to Mike Long, this is unfortunately a serious edge cheaters have on fair players. Even if they do nothing illegal over the course a match, their reputation precedes them, and their opponent spends time and effort watching their physical play as opposed to making game-based decisions.

Emotional Control Does Not Mean Being A Robot

Whenever someone writes about tilt, there’s a lot of emphasis on being unfazed by it. There’s a huge problem with this.

“I don’t care” is secretly three of the most dangerous words in Magic.

“I don’t care” is the easy out to a bad situation. “I don’t care, it’s just one tournament.” “I don’t care, it’s only a children’s card game.” Or my personal favorite, the Adam Yurchick special of “there are actual dinosaurs on the cards.”

The problem with this attitude is that there is often a bleed. “I don’t care about losing” becomes “I don’t care about winning,” and at that point it becomes “what am I even doing playing this game” and “I quit but for some reason I still play.”

That’s the lie that a lot of people tell themselves. They actually care way too much about winning and losing to expose themselves to failure, but they enjoy the game too much to leave. They hate part of it, so they let it make them miserable and spend a lot of time talking about this. But they also love winning too much to pass up the chance to do so. The up-down swings of misery and enjoyment keep them committed at just the wrong level to break through or break out, and it ends up perpetuating the cycle.

The trick that seems to work for a lot of people is ascribing enjoyment to another factor. See, for example, the strategy of focusing on learning. If your goal is to maximize and enjoy learning from each time you play and ignore win or loss, eventually you will just be the best and incidentally win.

Personally, I just admit that I enjoy winning way too much to care about losing. Even if I lose this round, I might win the next. Losing isn’t an absence of winning; it’s just a minor/irrelevant delay. It’s the same as the EDH player whose deck does nothing twelve times in a row and then makes an absurd story the thirteenth, only with the goal of three match points instead of casting Goblin Game.

The Universe Is Causal

If you believe you have proof against the above statement, I’m sure a lot of people would be glad to hear it. We shall precede with it as a premise.

It feels good to tilt off. Two of my finer Pro Tour memories are going on life tilt (and almost drowning) after bricking out of Pro Tour Honolulu and going mildly insane watching Superjail! after bricking out of Pro Tour Austin. One of the best Magic articles of all time is about this exact thing.

I’m not going to speculate as to why tilting feels good. It’s really beyond me why it should (communal bonding?), but that doesn’t change the fact that most people take some kind of perverse pleasure out of gripes about mulligans to four and missing colors in Draft. If I did understand why, maybe I could fix it from the root cause. As is, we just have to treat the symptoms.

The thing that I always come back to is this; nothing you do after a match will change what has already occurred. You sitting around and complaining about it won’t change the fact you lost game 3 to drawing seven lands in a row. What you can do is try to change the events that happen next. Sitting around and realizing your no-action keep was bad prevents you from losing a game to the same “bad luck” as you did this last round.

Maybe you think that fuming about your loss helps you get focused or pumped for the next round. If that’s 100% your reasoning, by all means go ahead. I have speculative concerns about the positive feedback of enjoying tilt and tilting because you lose, but anything there is nearly impossible to prove.

Coming back to the top of the section, one of the best mental game examples of all time is Mihara’s Dragonstorm Worlds victory. He makes a massive mistake in an insanely high-pressure situation. His response is not to rage out. There’s a decent amount of disappointment, but it’s controlled. His line instead is “how do I salvage this?” and as a result he hits his out and just wins instead.

This is also the same as the Reid Duke philosophy of “never scoop.” Even if you are well adapted to shaking off a loss between rounds in your own way, being in a losing position in a game just sucks. Oftentimes it’s clear you have already lost, and you are just sitting there losing valuable snack and chat time between rounds. Except you aren’t. There’s always the chance of your opponent botching it horribly. There’s a definite expected value of time versus odds of winning to be done here, but at the same time the only thing you can do that results in you winning that round is continuing to play.

Aside: This is one area where Magic Online playtesting has some issues. Because of the pickup nature of that testing medium, you have incentive to call nearly lost matches quits just to play more matches. In real life, you rarely get to spend X more tickets and start another round in under a minute. Double queuing helps but is still basically the same as conceding in terms of mental energy. Not that this isn’t something that can be worked around; you just have to be very aware that the temptation is much stronger to scoop early online.

For examples of shaking off a loss between rounds, see the Brian Kibler trademarked tournament song, the Brian Kibler copyrighted go for a walk, the Brian Kibler patented watch videos of your deck tech on the Pro Tour broadcast screen, and the Brian Kibler secret formula of realizing that even if Reid has better hair, you’re ahead everywhere else.

Focus (Mostly) On What Matters

I have a friend. This friend plays a lot of Magic. I mean a LOT of Magic. As in has three PWP byes without a PTQ win amounts of Magic. He also struggles to improve and knows he is struggling to improve.

I’ve tried to help him in the past, but honestly my advice has both not been great and never hit home. I say a lot of stupid things like “focus more on winning.” I have good intent, but in the end I sound like a really bad fortune cookie.

Instead of trying to focus on accidental Zen quotes and other nonsense, I think I have an empirical reason for the problem he is having.

In the past year, I’ve played in approximately the same number of non-Pro-level events as I have Pro-level events (my previous statement to the contrary didn’t count unsanctioned Legacy). In the years before that, I probably played between one and four local events a week.

The actual amount of time I spend on Magic hasn’t really changed.

A small amount of this is writing time, but I often find myself booting up Magic Online on the side while I do that. Some of this is now video articles, but to paraphrase myself “I’m not recording cool decks right now because I don’t have time to not test for Grand Prix Detroit.”

When you’re trying to play a ton of events across a ton of formats, it’s hard to go very deep into any specific one. Instead of spending four hours battling Storm or Elves or Belcher in yet another random Legacy event, I’m playing W/G Midrange iteration number five in a Standard Daily. The sole format I spew time on is Momir Basic (weekly format namedrop accomplished), and I’ve made sure to extrapolate as much of that as I can to Limited combat math.

This is also part of why I strongly support the Pro Point collection changes to Grand Prix. When I feel obligated to attend every Grand Prix to hit a Pro level or make the World Championship, you have little time to actually prepare for any given event and can’t leverage a significant advantage there. When you are given some breathing room, you can afford to play to win a specific event as opposed to taking the buckshot approach.

All in all, you should be spending more time in Magic focusing on your goals. If your goal is just to play a bunch of events and have fun, that’s a perfectly respectable goal to have. If your goal is to win a Standard PTQ, that’s also a very reasonable goal. Just be very aware that the best way to achieve the first is not likely playing one Standard Daily per day and the way to achieve the latter is not playing Draft FNM, Legacy on Wednesday nights, and then playing Modern Dailys until 3 AM whenever you get the chance.

You Are Not Obligated To Play

Let’s keep the end of this nice and simple.

Preemptive Aside: Apologies to all of those who do not live in major Magic regions. “Don’t qualify for the Pro Tour ever” or “play this one PTQ that my country gets per six months” is still a choice, but it sucks.

There are a large number of people who are obligated financially and contractually to be at a Magic event.

Very, very few or zero of them are playing in it.

I highly doubt that you are in a situation where if you didn’t fire up that 30-ticket Magic PTQ and play the 1000-man Sealed Deck gamble at 6 AM on a Sunday, your life would fall apart. If you need the winnings that bad, why are you gambling 30 tickets?

You define your own range here. It’s not in my range or most people’s to skip a Pro Tour for any reason other than a more important, less movable scheduling issue. I personally probably won’t ever skip a Grand Prix in driving distance. But if you just aren’t feeling like playing in a M14 Sealed Grand Prix, you don’t have to go. Or PTQ. Or any of that Limited format at all in my case.

Often people make playing in events a routine or automatically click yes like it’s a software licensing agreement.

It’s not.

All I’m trying to say is playing in every event is a choice you make with your time. Choose wisely.