Your brain is a very powerful tool.
Using it to the fullest is easier said than done, however, if you want to win more at Magic, you’ve got to make the best use of the tools available to you.
Cards? Decklists? Articles? Sure, but more important than any of these are the metaphorical muscles of your brain.
You are more than your brain.
Forget this and what you’re really doing is imagining that your consciousness is all of who you are. You have so, so much more to you. When your brain is
in shape, it’ll seem to just sort of produce the right answers for you: new ideas, new perspectives, and awesome results. It’s like getting into physical
shape and then seeing how much easier physical activity is, activity that once required effort but is now trivially easy.
Some players are very deliberate, relying on disciplined logic and reasoning to try to solve problems in front of them. The skills that go into cultivating
this conscious disciplined system for breaking down and solving problems is valuable. It’s also not what we’re talking about at all today.
We’re talking about the skills utilized by that other type of player, the one that plays on intuition, that trains their brain to do the thinking for them
whenever possible. Both are styles that have their place, and being proficient in both will take you far beyond what either can on its own. Most people
talk about the conscious side. We pay so much more attention to the logic behind a certain play, the percentages of a matchup, the reasoning for using a
card, and so on. The unconscious side is no less important.
The idea of playing on auto-pilot is a funny thing. Most people hear this and think of it as a negative thing. After all, surely it must be bad to not be
thinking when we act. Consider how easy breathing is (usually). It doesn’t exactly require conscious effort on our part, thinking about each muscle, each
part of our body that is dancing in unison to inhale each breath. We can, quite literally, breathe on auto-pilot, and it’s very useful, as it frees up
brain power for thinking about more important things.
The more situations we can force ourselves to learn on an intuitive level, the less we’ll need to think about them in game. We only have a finite amount of
RAM to dedicate to the tasks at hand, so having shortcuts set up in the background can allow us to use what processing power we do have more efficiently.
There’s a time and a place for deep thought, but forcing oneself to have to play on intuition sometimes strengthens our subconscious. It increases the
strength of the “muscles” of our brain.
Can’t stop yourself from thinking too much? First step: accept that you think too much. Acknowledge it. Say it out loud. Tell someone. This doesn’t change
things overnight, but it does inform your brain as to your position on the topic by helping inform its perpetual evolution.
Tons of ideas bouncing around? Too many to think about at once? Take some notes. Give yourself some clues, some prompts about stuff to think about later.
Realize something particularly important? Something that seems important? Jot it down! Send a memo to future you.
This can be a physical paper note, but it can also be electronic. Sometimes I find something online I want to remember the existence of. Sometimes I have a
thought about a project I want to work on in the future. Sometimes something strikes me as of interest to a future version of me, but I’m not sure which
one. So, I send an email to myself with the attached information as well as some key search terms so that if I’m ever searching my gmail for that word, I
might stumble upon it.
Taking notes of cards you want to try, decks you are brainstorming, or any other Magical ideas that can be structured in the form of a to-do list. This is
particularly helpful for those of us with attentions that zigzag all over and those of us with more ideas than we can possibility keep track of at once.
Have an idea about what card to use in a deck? Maybe you’re building your sealed pool and you are torn between two cards, one you believe most people would
use, the other that you kind of feel like might be better in this spot. Say what you’re thinking out loud, and not just what you’d use but what you’d use
it over. It sounds funny, but sometimes just saying something out loud can reveal how we really feel about something.
Somewhat related, speaking out loud can do wonders for avoiding tilt. Just made a mistake that cost you a match? It can be so incredibly tempting to write
a story in our head that makes it not our fault. Then we want to run around telling anyone that will listen our story as we try to convince ourselves that
our story is true. This takes us further away from the real, from the present, from awareness and high functioning.
What if we instead just acknowledged the mistake out loud? No emotion, just report the facts.
I would have had good chances if I had made the right block a turn earlier.
As lucky as they got to rip that Gray Merchant, I shouldn’t have given them the extra turn by playing so conservatively.
I would still have been a big dog, but that five card hand wasn’t playable
, and I would have had better chances with four.
Not ready to say the truth to someone else yet? Okay, just say it out loud so that you hear it. It’s like a magic spell that just by speaking the words,
suddenly your brain is more focused, your consciousness more aware of the real world.
Which is the higher priority: convincing yourself that you’re already perfect, or moving closer towards perfection?
What do Reid Duke, Owen Turtenwald, William Jensen, and Josh Utter-Leyton all have in common?
They’re the top four strongest American players?
Sure, but what else?
All four top 8ed the last Pro Tour, or the Pro Tour before that?
Okay, we’re going to be here all day. Yeah, they actually have a lot of similarities, so let’s cut to the chase.
All four are fearless about telling their teammates about their own punts. As good as these four men are at Magic, all four make mistakes. They are not
afraid to face the truth though. In fact, their skill is so high, they recognize far more mistakes they are making than most. As a result, it might sound
like they are making more mistakes than mid-level players, at least if you went based on self-reporting. Just think about how many PTQ level players you’ve
heard say “I played perfectly but just got unlucky,” in some form or another. Magic is definitely an arena in which the Dunning-Kruger effect is alive and
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people that aren’t good at something think they are much better than they are. This stems from
someone unskilled not having the tools to understand what skill is even at the task.
Ever notice how 80% of poker players say they are above average in skill at the game and about half would say they are in the top 80th percentile of
That people are overconfident is nothing new, but realizing this and being able to transcend it is a very powerful tool.
“I wouldn’t say I’m good at Magic. I’d say I’m less bad than most, sometimes.” -Jon Finkel
The better someone is at Magic, the more aware of what’s really going on they are, and consequently, they tend to realize mistakes others would be blind
to. The more you train yourself to look for and acknowledge the mistakes you have made, the more you will see in the future. The greater your awareness of
yourself, the more you will actually improve, the more you will strengthen yourself in the areas of weakness.
When you run from your mistakes, when you deny them, you don’t get any better. Just think about it from your brain’s perspective. How is it supposed to
learn from a non-event? It’s pretending the event never happened, so why would it think to change anything as a result of it?
That pain of knowing you made a mistake is a good pain that motivates your brain. Lying to yourself can block some of that pain, and fishing for sympathy
from others can be a drug that takes that pain away. Of course, then you’re less motivated to actually address the underlying issue. Worse, some people
become addicted to the drug, people that have been incredibly fortunate over and over, or in big ways, complaining about how unlucky they are.
Unlucky people are unattractive.
Of course, the more useful end of this is that lucky people are attractive. I’m not talking romantically (though that is certainly true too). I’m talking
across the board.
What if lucky people are just like everyone else, it’s just that when they encounter variance, they see opportunity? Meanwhile, unlucky people encounter
variance and write a story where they are a victim because the exact situation they were expecting did not happen…
In any one specific situation, someone can be lucky or unlucky, no question. Looking at the big picture though, we all know people that just seem luckier
than others, and people that seem to get unlucky a lot. Variance is a funny thing, and maybe it’s just a reflection of ourselves that we paint such
pictures of them, but try living a week assuming everything that is happening is actually really fortunate for you in the long run. See what happens…
This isn’t to suggest taking unwise risks or actions that you think are a bad idea. It also isn’t about celebrating things going wrong in some maniacal
revelry. It’s about being open to opportunity wherever it may sneak up on you. It’s about rolling with the punches and truly going with the flow. It’s
about being like water, adapting to the shape life takes.
Once you start to dance to whatever rhythm is playing in
life, not just doing a structured dance planned out beforehand, the entire dance changes form. Once you view each mistake you make as an opportunity for
growth, it becomes easy to face the truth, to embrace the reality of the situation. You have the ability to level up from this experience. Why waste that
Sam Stoddard once wrote an article on
Creating a Fearless Magical Inventory
. He was sick of losing and decided to make a list of every mistake he makes, every leak, every shortcoming, every bad habit, everything he does that
lowers his chances of winning at Magic. He resolved to be absolutely fearless, to write down the harsh truth, what he knew inside but had trouble admitting
to people, and often had trouble admitting to himself. Then he posted the list publically, officially acknowledging these areas of his that he wanted to
His Magic Online rating (back when they were visible) jumped nearly 200 points, and he went from seven months with zero PTQ top 8s to hitting three in a
row. We do have breakthroughs from time to time, epiphanies that can lead major rapid advances in our game. Becoming aware of your weaknesses is one of the
most effective ways to experience a rapid acceleration in your game.
Often, just figuring out what it means to improve one’s game can be a challenge. There’s such a strong desire in us to convince ourselves that what we
already do is what we should be doing. Changing, learning, growing, can take effort. It can take work. Maintaining the status quo is often so much
When you realize what mistakes you make, what weaknesses you have, many paths will open up front of you for how to improve. Sometimes, however, you’ll
encounter weaknesses that you don’t know how to overcome, how to change. When poised with such a dilemma, just ask. Ask for advice! This is not to say that
you should adhere to every suggestion, but look at your response to it. Often seeing someone’s perspective can reveal elements of your own that you might
not have had clarity on. Sometimes new perspectives can sneak up on you and rearrange your worldview like William Jensen heading to the back of the bar
with a couple glasses of scotch in his hands.
William Jensen is, well, ninja me…
What? Look, figuring out the right people to ask for advice is its own puzzle. If you want to succeed at something, study people who succeed at it. These
are often not the same people that try to convince you to listen to them, that want you to do what they tell you to.
Be mindful of who you are seeking out for advice. Yes, obviously you want the advice you seek to be useful, but beyond that, observe who you are inclined
to seek out. What does that tell you? Often, when we want to hear a certain answer, we ask people we believe are likely to give us that answer. What do we
see when we cut to our core and ask ourselves why we want someone to say that?
Maybe it is just the answer we already believe in our heart.
Maybe it is just that we want desperately to convince ourselves.
Only you can know for sure, but if you can see through the illusions and acknowledge what is really there, the answer is there.
Who am I right now?
Not sure? Look, really look, inside. Meditation can take many forms, and it doesn’t have to adhere to some rigid structure. It’s really just a question of
what are you trying to accomplish and what works for you.
Who has time for that?
Setting aside some time to be alone with your thoughts each day can increase your productivity during the rest of the day by more than enough to justify
the time spent. Maybe it’s fifteen minutes, maybe it’s an hour, but having some time to be alone with our thoughts has a way of recharging our brain much
like sleep does. Sometimes a good night’s sleep can make all the difference in the world, and going without enough sleep can lead to us getting so caught
up in the illusions we lose sight of who we really are.
When we know we’ll have time to go back to thoughts, memories, and experiences, it can also make it easier to not overly dwell on a problem we’re
roadblocked on. Sometimes, we need to focus on the match at hand. Sometimes we need to focus on the deck we’re building. Sometimes we need to focus on
cards we’re drafting. All those random distracting thoughts that pop into our heads? If they’re important, they’ll return when we are alone with our
Focus on what matters.
Too many thoughts to keep track of running and bouncing all over? Wondering what you could have done different? Have a deckbuilding idea that you are
trying to figure out? Seriously, literally meditate on it. Sit on the floor in a quiet room alone, not uncomfortable but also not super comfortable. Start
with the general image of the subject, but let go of thoughts. Rather than fight them, notice them. Then let go of them. Whatever it is you are meditating
on, be with it rather than thinking about it.
Just finished a long playtest session? Spending a couple minutes processing what it means can be a form of meditation, particularly if you are observing
what’s going on inside of you rather than just listening to what people are saying. Observing what’s going on inside you is not the same as thinking a
whole bunch. Let your brain do the thinking rather than your consciousness.
One of my favorite ways to meditate on what I’ve learned, how to solve a problem, or what to make of a card, a deck, a format, is to go for a walk by
myself. While walking, just observe. Notice what your brain puts in front of you. Besides, taking a short physical break from the mental athletics of Magic
can stimulate your brain and your body. Training for a Magic event doesn’t have to be an extreme sport, but get your blood pumping a little bit and it can
go a long way.
Somewhat related, it gets said from time to time, but being in shape really does have a significant impact in our ability to perform all weekend long in
major tournaments like Grand Prix, Pro Tours, and SCG Open weekends. When our bodies begin to fail, our minds follow.
Garry Kasparov is considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all-time. Part of his training regimen for chess was running several miles a day.
Chess can be an incredibly draining mental exercise, and being in excellent shape gave him the fortitude to continue to bring his A-game despite hours of
It’s not just taking care of yourself before events either. You gotta take care of yourself at Magic tournaments if you want to have the best chances you
can of winning. Don’t take care of the essentials, and you are less likely to be at the top of your game. Which brings us to the moral of today’s story.
Want to win more at Magic?
Get some sleep and stay hydrated.