Ari Lax was knocked out of Top 8 contention at a Pro Tour because his alpha strike got Fogged and he died on the swing back. Instead of going all tilt-and-fume, he took a deep breath and shook Brian Kibler hand. Then they talked about the match and all the decisions that took place during it. It was basically the exact opposite of when NBA player Amare Stoudemire turned his hand to mulch by punching a pane of glass after a playoff loss.
You see, in Hollywood…
You know what? Let’s start over. Let’s talk about Sol.
To put into perspective how long ago this is, my Extended deck has four Savannahs. Tommy is X-4 after six rounds, which is pretty good since he has Acridians in his deck because we’re freshmen in high school and don’t have the slightest clue that we aren’t good enough to win here.
By the start of round 7, Andrew Pacifico’s girlfriend is so bored on the dusty busted leather red couch in the far corner of the play area that she’s lost interest in how much money he’s getting for his suitcase full of duals. I only know who he is because his picture was in an Inquest magazine Tommy left at my dad’s house earlier this year.
After my last match is over, I open the splintered door to the cramped old mop water bathroom. Two dead upside-down cockroaches is enough for me to join everyone else with self-respect in making the hike to the grocery store or the Hardee’s across the shopping plaza parking lot.
You see, in Hollywood, there are these actors that only other actors know about. They don’t make People magazine covers. The E! Network doesn’t make jokes about them. They aren’t red carpet material. It’s the same in the music industry. There are musicians that never appear in album jackets. They make their living getting called in to write songs and play tracks by the rock stars we’ve all heard of.
The guy buying Pacifico’s dual lands looks exactly like the comic store guy from The Simpsons. Swear to God.
To put into perspective how long ago this is, Andrew Pacifico’s picture in Inquest that year attained him about as much celebrity status as there was to be had in the culture, if you can even call it that. At that point, the only guys that mattered were the local ringers. The regional oral tradition heroes. The final boss at the local nine-player FNM buried deep within some county beside the curvy road confines of who-cares-where. All day long Tommy and I had been spotting them. They’re the ones that can shuffle their decks without throwing them on the floor. They’re the ones citing specific comprehensive rules clauses to illustrate to their opponent in an official capacity the ins and outs of precisely why they’re getting their teeth smashed in.
Tommy and I agree that Sol is the best of them.
Sol is like one of those studio musicians. Sol is like one of those Hollywood hidden gems. Sol isn’t just good. He’s a Magic player’s Magic player.
Tommy and I watched him conduct himself methodically all day at the front tables. He was focused; he was meditative. There was a gift and a talent he possessed that was absent from those around him and those that sat across from him. We watched him work all day to push himself comfortably into the Top 8, where during the quarterfinals his deck completely dismantled itself and left him small and exhausted, a grown man screaming in a chair with his pale sweaty hand outstretched up in order to show both the ceiling and the God beyond it his middle finger, signifying in front of a crowd of forty or fifty that he recalcitrantly disapproved of all fates that existed on the basis that he was not permitted to qualify for the Pro Tour that night.
You could say he overreacted.
The 40-odd spectators, the three or four shoe-string budget shop vendors along the big white wall, the parents waiting near the fingerprint-smudged front glass door—we’re all trying to figure out how to be the first to speak after Sol blew up. We’re searching our minds, looking for something we can vocalize in an effort to return the awkward silent room back to the way it was before Sol’s self-discipline failed him and he threw a stick of dynamite out of his mouth.
Finally, I hear something. It’s mouse quiet.
It’s Tommy. He’s whispering in my ear.
"What a jackass."
Fast forward a thousand years to Luis Scott-Vargas in the first ever Players Championship. He’s playing his favorite archetype in Cube, the one he’s practiced to perfection a thousand different times. And in this moment, on camera in front of thousands watching from home or their local shop or their phone on a commuter train or something, he’s losing. He’s sitting across from Shuhei Nakamura, but in all honesty, he’s beating himself.
After it’s over, after he’s at least in part donated a win to his opponent, he does his half of the paperwork and smiles cordially. He calmly removes the feature match requisite microphone pinned to his ironed sports jacket and excuses himself.
I’ve seen Luis lose win-and-ins to nobodies. I’ve seen people take his picture while he’s signing the slip and tell him about their Twitter feed blowing up.
He takes it like a man.
To all but the most oblivious player, it is well known that your emotional state has a significant effect on your ability to play Magic optimally. There exists a huge volume of strategy articles that illustrate the importance of sleep, of discipline, of the physical pacing during a long Magic event. There is an even greater catalog of articles that preach the crucial nature of reflection in your Magic play. A number of pro players talk of their forfeiture of dwelling on luck being a huge turning point in their journey to reach big time Magic success. As soon as they stopped feeling sorry for themselves and started thinking about different decisions they could have made, their game improved dramatically.
Much less common in Magic strategy writings is what the actions and emotions of a player after a match has completed say about them and their ability to play the game. What unsung advantages does a player who congratulates their opponent before removing themselves from the table have? What hidden disadvantages were there all along to a player who screams in frustration after they lose?
Regardless of how competitive of a player you are, regardless of whether or not you have the kind of personality with which you freely express your joys or frustrations instantaneously, there exists a general guideline that if you’re high fiving everyone in the room after a win or you’re throwing a fit after a loss, you probably weren’t in a mental state to be playing your best regardless of the outcome of your match.
This phenomenon is much more visible if you look at results from the Open Series/Classic Series over the years. There are a large number of tournaments available to play in on a weekly basis; many players attend them in multiples, yet few are able to replicate success consistently. Of course, part of the deal is that Magic is a card game and even the greatest players require a large sample size before their wins start adding up. But is the relative lack of repeat winners on the Open Series simply because of the presence of variance or is there something else going on?
Because of my line of work and my travels, I am regularly surrounded by strong players, and they all fall into one of two categories: players who are successful because their goal is to continually become better and players who are good due to experience but are worse than the first category because they think whatever success they’ve previously attained entitles them to win against any opponent they’ve never heard of. Very often, the players who win an Open Series event, a PTQ, or a SCG Classic are simply not mature enough to avoid the Entitlement Fallacy—that is, the idea that Magic: The Gathering has a memory and that it believes in tenure.
If you remember nothing else from this piece, remember this: there are Magic players who think that because they have succeeded at Magic on some level that they automatically deserve to win against minorities of the community, that they deserve to win against people who haven’t been playing for as long as they have, that they deserve to win against people who have to read well-known cards that everyone else in the room has known since spoiler season.
If you’re one of those players, you’re wrong. Nobody is entitled to a win, and if you think so, you’re probably much worse at Magic than you think. Having a trophy on your mantle doesn’t mean that a twelve-year old girl can’t miracle Bonfire of the Damned you into your second loss the next time you show up to play. More importantly, it doesn’t mean you can complain about it. Your time drowning in self-pity would be more productively spent shaking your opponent’s hand and, where applicable, asking yourself why you weren’t playing the card that beat you.
The caveat, of course, is that tournament success is fueled by ambition and ambition is fueled by investment and investment is fueled by emotion. It’s perfectly reasonable to get angry when you’ve worked hard to achieve something and you fell short. It’s reasonable to be heartbroken; it’s reasonable to be discouraged. The problem in a competitive environment is that these feelings often get directed in very unproductive ways.
This is where Amare Stoudemire comes in.
For those of you who don’t know, Amare Stoudemire is an immensely talented professional basketball player who, following a loss some time ago, punched through the glass on a fire extinguisher case on his way back to his locker room. This is an example of feelings being directed in a counterproductive way. Ultimately, he missed games and his team lost, proving once and for all that being so pissed off that you put your hand into a blender accomplishes positively nothing and makes you look ridiculous.
Magic players like to put their hands into blenders. A lot.
The larger implication of competitive emotion gone wrong is that it hurts the community at large. It’s easy to forget the longer Magic remains successful, but if every single player in the room lost their composure every time a game didn’t go the way they wanted, competitive Magic would rot in record time. Magic players aren’t just players—they’re ambassadors, they’re community representatives. Every time you redirect your competitive anger to another player, you aren’t just creating a negative experience for that player; you’re making the entire community look petty.
That competitive passion, that fiery emotion: they’re both fine. But it isn’t your opponent’s fault that they wanted to win as badly as you did. Redirect that energy to your work ethic. Redirect it to your preparation for your next event. Even redirecting it to the glass on a fire extinguisher case is better than lashing out at your opponent. Shake his or her hand. Congratulate him or her. This game and its community are better when you’re acting professional or at the very least personable. Magic has given you a lot. Why let your short-term anger take away from it?
People underestimate the effect that a lack of sportsmanship and composure can have on the community. On your community. On my community.
To put into perspective how long ago this is, I was ready to quit Magic altogether. Watching Sol, as talented as he was, acting violently over coming up short at a PTQ made me feel alone in the crowded silence of that room. The locals all knew him. Everyone expected great things from him. For a few long seconds, I thought he had let us down.
In that instant where I had such discouragement and disillusionment with Magic because of Sol’s defeatist fit, I remember watching him finally put away his defiant middle finger. It disappeared among the cards he was picking up off of the table, all lazy and woebegone. He closed his eyes and lowered his head. He swallowed a mouthful of spit and pride and reached halfway across the playing surface of the table.
Nobody broke the silence. Sol broke his own.
Presiding over an encouraging iron-grip handshake, he looked his opponent in the eyes and said, "I wish you the best of luck. I hope you win this thing."
And we all knew we’d be playing this game forever.