Is “Good Enough” Good Enough?

In following and playing Magic, we’re constantly seeing others succeed and fail. The pressure and expectations we put on ourselves and others is always there, but is it fair? Anthony Lowry ponders the importance of personal preference when it comes to competitive Magic.

What is your goal as a competitive player?

Is it to be the best in the world, or just good enough?

Can you even tell the difference?

When one makes the decision to compete in a premier event, such as a PPTQ, SCG Open, or Grand Prix, if their desire is to make the Pro Tour, then you’d imagine that they’d want to do what they feel is necessary to get there. This has been stressed and shoved down our throats for what seems like forever now, and for good reason. We see all of these players that are constantly in tango for the incredibly highly subjective “best in the world.” You see them on camera, week in and week out, and it makes you want to be them. When one decides to put everything they can into being the best, are they trying to actually be the best they can, or are they just trying to emulate what they see?

It seems like a very outlandish, and to some, silly argument to make. Why would you not want to be the best player in the world?

Well, there are quite a few reasons.

It’s very easy to want to be the best before seeing the effort it takes to do so. In an environment where factualizations are plaguing a game that thrives off of anything but, the players in said environment want to throw out that very thing they cling to when it doesn’t favor the–the ground work is often clouded and skewed. The work involves a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of people that actually care about seeing you succeed, instead of people that are only using you for their own benefit, all of which are real things for normal people. Even the best players in the world wind up winning maybe sixty percent of their games, which is simply not enough to consistently do well in a large tournament, because competitive Magic does not reward short-term consistency. If you wind up reaching a good win percentage (which contains factors you cannot control, and understanding that may or may not be within range at that point), compacting it within large tournaments would be best, because spiking tournaments is way more rewarding. How do you control that, though?

You don’t.

Well, sort of.

The old saying roughly goes: “You have to get good to get in, and get in to get good.”

It’s like needing a job to gain three years of experience, but needing three years of experience for all the jobs.

Of course, this isn’t the absolute, and there are certainly ways of carving your own path. Shaun McLaren is one of the biggest examples of being a “lone wolf,” with the general rules not applying to him. There will always be outliers and exceptions to the rule(s), but that doesn’t mean you should make those the rules yourself. That’s how the competitive ladder works, and if you aren’t working to become better, both in the game and with the people around you, then you’re going to fall behind. It’s as simple as that. You want to travel to as many Grand Prix as possible to qualify for the Pro Tour? Hope you have the money to sustain that, and I sure hope you aren’t expecting a return, because trying to profit from competitive play is almost not a thing unless you’re Platinum or at least top 8’ing a large percentage of events you’re playing in.

All of that said, if you do wind up making it, you’re pretty set, and it’s a great thing. Many of the best players in their respective circuits are also among the best people to learn from, and they are usually more than welcoming if you’re serious about doing whatever you deem necessary to be on the top of your game. There’s also a whole lot more that comes with being a great player as well. You get to travel the world to play a ridiculously awesome game with players all across the globe. You have the prestige of being on the Pro Tour or the #SCGINVI, and taking the next step, which is the World Championships or the #SCGPC, respectively, is absolutely huge. At the bare, accomplishing a dream of yours is one of the best feelings ever, and anyone that tries to dictate what you want to pursue doesn’t deserve the right to see you pursue it. No one knows what you want to do better than yourself, and if you end up finding a community where people want you to succeed, then it becomes much more of a realistic thing to strive for.

That brings us to the other side of the spectrum: Is it worth it?

If you work in an office building, and you’re the best at your job, resulting in some extra slack and a couple of raises here and there, are you okay with the person who isn’t as good at your job as you getting the promotion because they put more effort into getting it?

Well, no one can answer that for you except you, but the other side of the coin is worth a look, especially since it’s not talked about nearly as much.

What if you were just good enough? Say, good enough to just get by on your circuit (FNM, Open Series, doesn’t really matter). If you’re just trying to 4-0 FNM every two or three weeks, get a Top 32 at an Open, or occasionally skirt the Pro Tour here and there; if you’re making a run in the Players’ Championship race, does it really matter how much better you are than others if you’re hitting your goal already? Why work so hard to improve if you don’t need to put in any more effort to get what you want? I know it sounds like a cheap cop-out, but even though there exists a world where people aren’t able to put in the time or effort, there also exists a world where people don’t want to put in more time or effort, and that’s okay, regardless of where they’re at in skill, performance, or rank in their respective circuit. I have talked to quite a number of players that are or were very much up there in their respective leaderboards, both inside and outside of Magic, and it’s pretty interesting to hear how having the sense of complacency actually adds to their game when they do invest in it. They aren’t pressured to perform every single event–they just walk in, kick ass to the best of their ability, and walk out, regardless of result. Some of them also understand that their ceiling, in terms of raw skill, isn’t as high as the best players, but it’s high enough where they can still do well in their environment, and that’s good enough for them. Some also have multiple competitive commitments, making their time split between different proverbial arenas, which makes their efforts fractured and unable to maintain a set focus. All of these reasons are perfectly fine, as it isn’t anyone’s place to judge how someone except one’s self spends their time, but understanding why different motives exist and different goals can be achieved differently is a very powerful thing to grasp and incorporate into your own operations.

Funnily enough, the overarching points presented so far can easily be translated to in-game components as well, and it becomes even more interesting the more intricate it gets. Often times, many incredibly complicated games and plays are self-manifested from the player being overwhelmed with options, combined with the desire to find the “perfect” or “correct” play. In reality, it is almost always impossible to make perfect plays all the time throughout the course of a tournament, especially since making the correct plays for a tournament begins long, long before a tournament even begins! When a good chunk of being “correct” or “perfect” involves prediction, anticipation, and unknown information, you simply don’t have a choice but to settle for good enough, even when every single person out there will make every attempt to present every bit of strategy as fact.

Perfection is a myth in Magic. Doing everything you can to apply what you know and think is going to happen is the real thing you’re doing. If you’re in a ridiculously tough situation in a game, and you’re spending a ton of time trying to figure out what the perfect play is, chances are you’ll get hit with slow play as a side effect. If you’re in Ross Merriam’s marathon Brainstorm spot, would you bother considering the plethora of corner cases that he considered, or would you put more energy toward the more likely and the perceived relevant factors? If you’re in a situation where you, arbitrarily, have an 80% chance to win next turn, but an 85% chance to win the turn after, what do you take? Is there a “right” answer? Depends on who you ask. Depends on what’s good enough to you. Depends on if you know for a fact that that 85% is, in fact, 85% (you won’t know, because that’s not how Magic works).

Heck, just take a look at how often players are so quick to crown a best deck in the format, when basically no deck has claimed dominance in any of the major format over an oppressively long period of time since basically Caw-Blade. This way of thinking is a concession to the “good enough” side of things, because you’re giving up the willingness to look for holes and shifts and adapt accordingly. Now, you can argue that just taking the perceived best deck and going with it will give you the highest chance, and strategically, it makes sense, but it doesn’t take away from what you’re doing in terms of mindset and train of thought. You are settling, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

With that, you lose a lot from being complacent. Your wants for a lot of things that you don’t have are less justified if you aren’t willing to put in the work to attain it. Those bad beat stories already didn’t matter, but when you’re losing based on a topdeck that you may have been able to prevent because of a play you made five turns ago, but failed to see it because you simply aren’t as sharp as you could be…

Lastly, and probably most importantly: What happens when you are no longer good enough? What if everyone else gets better or you get worse? You’re now on an even playing field, and you have to pick up a huge amount of slack that might be too heavy for you to handle. Even if you do wind up catching up, you’re still lagging behind because of just how much everyone else is working toward the same thing relative to your work. While you’ll likely have an awesome sense of security wherever you’re excelling at in the short term, your long-term benefits may wear thin after a while.

So, which one should you be focused on? As said before, it depends on a lot of things, but preferences aside, there are definitely arguments for both sides of things with almost everything Magic related. Do you want to be the best player you can be, no matter how much winning you actually do? Being complacent won’t cut it. Are you already subjectively very successful or accomplished at what you wanted? No need to invest as much as you need to, then. Are you agonizing over that last sideboard spot but can’t figure it out? You can figure something out quickly and be done with it, and risk losing because you missed a matchup or interaction that could’ve mattered if you spent more time working on it, or you can put the work in and find something that may still not be good enough, but is much closer to what could be the perceived notion of “correct.”

Whether it’s Magic for a living, making decisions in or before a tournament, or anything in a competitive environment, there are merits to either route here. I personally don’t believe that there is a right or wrong, as with most things in Magic, but the more we ask ourselves these kinds of questions, the more we stop factualizing things that have much more pronunciation on an individual’s thought process, and the more we can broaden the spectrum in which different people go about different things of their own volition.