Magical Hack – Psych 102

Read Sean McKeown every Friday... at StarCityGames.com!
Friday, February 15th – If you sit down at a tournament believing you are worse than your opponent, there should be very little surprise when the outcome of the match decrees that you were right. One of the simplest statements I found insightful is “If you always do as you’ve always done, you’ll always get as you’ve always got.” In my particular case, the “doing as I’ve always done” is “believing myself to be worse than my opponent.”

Losing at Magic is something that happens for a reason, or so the press kits for the Pro Tour would have us believe. Recently, the concept of “the Fearless Magical Inventory” was put forward here on Star City Games by Ben Peebles-Mundy and by Sam Stoddard, following a discussion on MiseTings. In these articles, both Sam and Ben looked at the mistakes they make most often and what they can do to force themselves to stop settling for bad play, to make progress in their play to bring it from “poor” to “acceptable” and thus improve their chances to win any given PTQ – it’s awfully hard to beat the other guy when you’re both trying to beat you.

One thing, however, doesn’t sit well with me… and that is the fact that they stop looking at things after they identify the surface facets. This quote from Sam, which concludes his article, sums up both everything that is exemplary and everything that is wrong about creating a Fearless Magical Inventory to advance your game:

“Creating my list wasn’t about magically fixing all of my problems — I will probably never be able to do that. It was about admitting that I have room for improvement, and figuring out ways to get better. It was about knowing what I am doing wrong so I can try and stop doing those things in the future. I don’t expect to ever totally clear my list off – that would be arrogant and foolhardy. If anything, I expect the list to grow over the course of the next year. Ideally, for each item I cross off, I want two to replace it. As the list increase in size, so does my understanding of the game, and the number of things I’m doing right. Each addition is another item that I am taking control over. I think Bill Stark said it best — Magic is a game of inches. I want to inch forward.”

This past weekend, I put together a lot of things to even be able to compete at a PTQ. I had to work on a deck for a format right after a change – which got us a few weeks in a row of articles about Goblin decks – and I had to playtest the deck sufficiently in order to play it well. I had to convince myself somehow that I could afford to road-trip to a PTQ, when I’d just lost my job the week before and had been dancing around waiting for a paycheck that mysteriously took a week longer to mail out to me than by rights it should have (thanks old job, screw you too!). To even attempt being able to afford the trip, I had to drive several other people to the event, which gets me “nice guy” points but is ultimately a selfish act because otherwise, I can’t go. So I had to arrange for a hotel room the night before, and making sure I had at least three other people traveling with me to the PTQ. I had to obtain cards for the deck… cleverly, I’d bought the bulk of it from Star City Games when I realized I was going to start Goblinsing people to death… and if there is one thing I hate doing nowadays it is trading for cards, since I am very, very distant when it comes to ‘knowing card prices.’ I just happen to hate “scrambling for cards the morning of the PTQ” worse, and ultimately had to do it anyway.

One thing I have always had trouble putting together, however, is my own brain. Originally back in the fifties the Sylvan Learning Center had tried calling itself the “Sylvan Mind Control Center”, a mistake they thought would be a wonderful business maneuver because really who doesn’t want to learn to control their own mind? (We see reference to this joke every time we look at a Green deck-manipulation enchantment and remember Sylvan Library, by the way.) I’m not a psychologist – I went to school for chemistry and engineering – but I tend to like the theory that since you possess a human brain, that maybe if you tried you could figure out a human brain… and because of this I am quite enamored of the book Neurolingustic Programming For Dummies, which was recommended to me by a psychologist as a good way to read up on modern, non-Freudian psychological theory. In short, it’s a basic manual on using your brain… and can teach you some pretty simple lessons that are all too easy to miss.

When I go to a Limited tournament, I am pretty confident that I am one of the best players in the room. So long as I don’t defeat myself… a feat I succeed at apparently at least one match per Limited PTQ, just going from the Kuala Lumpur PTQ season… I figure I can easily compete hard enough to have the Top 8 on the line regardless of the contents of my sealed deck, and from there be quite competitive in the draft because I draft a lot in my spare time just to have fun on Magic Online. Limited is a format that pits you and your skills against your opponent and their skills very directly, and I’ve got a strong chance against most PTQ-level foes in pure brain-on-brain warfare. When I go to a Constructed tournament, however, we introduce a whole new set of woes… after all, we aren’t playing one-on-one brain warfare anymore, anyone can outsource their deck design to someone much smarter than them in their network of Magical friends, or just netdeck it from popular Magic websites such as the Mothership or Star City Games. Card availability can be a factor, and there is a complex interplay we call “the metagame” that is part information gathering and part information extrapolation, such that he who has the best guess wins.

This weekend, I had one of the better decks in the room, if not necessarily the best deck in the room. There are a lot of competitive options in the Extended format, and no ‘de facto’ best deck in the format (though Dredge is obviously the de facto most powerful deck). I happened to like one that just got a shot in the arm with the new expansion, which just happened to be gathering steam when we last checked the PTQ season, and which happens to be one of a very small number of viable aggressive decks in a format that is dividing itself between aggro-control and combo. I’d made a few tweaks and tunes from the last publication of the decklist, and settled on the following:

I started the tournament quickly 4-0… beating a Dredge deck that didn’t have an answer to multiple self-sacrificing Goblins and a fast Earwig Squad for the non-Bridge from Below cards that mattered the first game, and that had a Leyline for those willing-to-die Goblins but very little action on its own that just got beat by a Warchief-Piledriver draw. Beating two Death Cloud decks, because it’s really not a realistic option and its game-plan against Goblins is more “cute” than “effective.” Beating an Affinity deck because his decklist was embarrassing (Earwig Squad told me so; Qumulox… really?) and because drawing Shattering Spree in multiples is pretty devastating. Then we played another Goblin deck at 4-0 and settled in for the mirror match; I lost the first handily because he drew enough lands and Ringleaders while I was behind in both to even effectively use the first Ringleader I’d drawn. With about 15 or 20 minutes on the clock, and the opponent mulliganing on the play, I offered the draw… rather than face the possibility of poor fortune.

In actuality, though, we have to dig a lot deeper, into a mode of thought that has been plaguing me for literally years. I am known as the Fish guy in a Replenish world for a reason, after all. Winning the first four matches of that tournament is worth noting, if we want to go into greater depth about the Goblin deck more… but I think it’d actually be more instructive to learn from the losses, because they are deeply rooted in the psychology of Magic players and tournament play as a whole, and touches on some issues I’ve been wanting to discuss in an article for a few years now.

Everything being discussed from here on, when it comes to neuro-linguistic programming, I learned from “Neuro-Linguistic Programming For Dummies,” with the help of a licensed psychotherapist I had the good fortune of knowing a few years ago and who I found quite instructive on the subject. The field of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a branch of psychology that turned off from the main tree in the mid-1970’s, when a few rather clever people worked at observing some very clever psychotherapists to figure out how their very disparate approaches to therapy worked and what ties (if any) they shared. As a “science,” it’s currently under hot debate; plenty of people won’t touch it, and claim that it is not peer-reviewed and clinically tested. As a scientist, I can tell you a thing or two about “peer review” and how worthless the lack of it can be, in a world where political alignment to a group or a goal can make or break your career… nobody wants to risk sticking their neck out if they can help it, so “peer review” is readily granted to the safe and non-embarrassing things and often denied on groundbreaking work. As the counter to that, groundbreaking work usually gets as much wrong as it gets right, so even something that shakes up the scientific world is bound to have a few mistakes in it… look up “phlogiston” on Wikipedia if you want a good laugh and/or don’t believe me.

As an armchair psychologist, however, a lot of the techniques that are detailed in Neuro-Linguistic Programming For Dummies seem to have quite a lot of resonance when it comes to what I understand about myself and what I understand about other people. Whether you want to look at it as a psychological text or just a really clever ‘self-help’ book is up to you, but we here in the Magic world have already seen some startling applications of NLP bring in good results: Steven Sadin recently detailed how paying attention to his breathing modulated his calm and cut his adrenaline rush that would lead to bad play, to cut the “swinginess” out of his game when he was threatened with losing a match and to avoid tilting after losing a match. In NLP terms, Steve has been grounding himself… giving himself a steady state from which he can remain emotionally detached from the outcome of his overall matches (i.e. “winning the tournament”) and maintain a positive state of mind with all of the resources you’d imagine that comes with. The “Fearless Magical Inventory” discussed above goes into detailing what mistakes you are making, so that you can begin to make progress on getting better at the game… and having a list of things you want to change is a great start to bringing change about.

I just don’t think they are looking deeply enough… after all, I ran into a rather clever sequence of plays which led to me then throwing the match away, for which I then felt as if I’d somehow be able to settle for the excuse “I got a bad scout” or “I didn’t think he’d have drawn one in that one-turn window”. I was playing against an opponent who was a friend of Ty Dobbertin, playing the updated version of Ty’s deck which won the last PTQ in Rockville, Maryland. I’d landed an Earwig Squad on my opponent, wanting to pull out Seismic Assaults as he only has three, they killed me game 1, and pulling all three in game 2 was an absolute killer move that led to him lying down and dying to the Goblin horde as his end-game was cut out from under him. But for game three, something had changed… there were some Solitary Confinements in his deck, two to be exact. Now, I had been of the opinion that there were just two… I’d seen a few of his friends playing the same design, and through watching and scouting I’d noted them pulling two copies of the enchantment out of their deck following a match. Of course, we all know team-mates don’t always agree on numbers, and it could even have been that there were more available in the sideboard that the player I’d scouted didn’t feel he needed for the matchup, or even just didn’t know what he’d want to take out for it so he left it in the sideboard. My “scouting information” that there were just two Confinements was highly unreliable, and could only be treated as such.

When I Squadded my opponent, I saw two copies of Solitary Confinement. I also saw he only had one dual land that produced White mana in his entire deck, not surprising considering he had zero White cards main-deck and would have to min-max the impact of an extra land that costs life to use versus the shortage of sideboard space to hold another land to enable the light White splash. I didn’t remember seeing a Temple Garden when I used the Squad in game 2, so I was 99% sure given my knowledge of the deck designer and previous experiences that if I took the lone Sacred Foundry we would then be changing the “you lose to Solitary Confinement” long-game to “all Birds of Paradise must die” long-game, with me winning the match. I patted myself cleverly on the back, took two of the three Assaults out of his deck and tossed in the Sacred Foundry as well, very confident that I could handle the rest of the match from here. All I needed to do was kill all of his Birds of Paradise.

Next turn, of course, my opponent plays Birds of Paradise and buys back some lands with Life from the Loam again, and all I have to do is continue decreeing that all Birds must die and we’re good. However, instead I decided to use a Ringleader and turn up the pace of the game to kill him faster… when the correct play was to play the Matron in my hand, fetch Mogg Fanatic, kill Bird and swing for six damage with my Goblins to put him down to 8 or so. Nine turns later I died to a Terravore, after my opponent sat behind Solitary Confinement from there on out. This match was played at 4-1-1, winner still looks good to make Top 8, and I blew it. But to figure out why, instead of “I got a bad scout” or “I didn’t think he’d have it”, we have to look at psychology… the psychology of me, for that matter.

As I’d said above, I offered the intentional draw in the mirror at 4-0 to avoid losing the match (and thus having a harder tournament) due to the mis-chances of a fickle Fate that might give my opponent ‘the nuts’ off a mulligan to six on the play. I didn’t feel very confident about playing the Goblin mirror match… despite watching Jim Davis, local area famed Goblin-master, play the mirror repeatedly at the last PTQ and feeling intuitively tuned in with all of the decisions he was making, feeling as if I had a solid grasp of not just what he was doing but why he was doing it. A lack of confidence in the mirror match isn’t something that’s terribly new for me… after all, to some degree or another I’ve been dodging mirror matches for a decade whenever I could, playing and designing “rogue” strategies just so I never have to worry about sitting down with the same 75 cards and getting outplayed by my opponent because they were better than me.

If you sit down at a tournament believing you are worse than your opponent, there should be very little surprise when the outcome of the match decrees that you were right. One of the simplest statements I found insightful and useful from NLP is “If you always do as you’ve always done, you’ll always get as you’ve always got.” In my particular case, the “doing as I’ve always done” is “believing myself to be worse than my opponent.” It just so happens that for the most part this isn’t true… in the first four rounds of the day I was averaging about one mistake per match, generally something very small… like not playing a Mutavault on the second turn because I figured I was going to play a Warchief ‘no matter what,’ completely taking away the option of not playing Warchief if I felt my opponent might have a response because I didn’t have something better I could do (like giving my Goblin Piledriver a friend to attack with). Most of my opponents made more than one mistake a match… and for the most part I doubt they were even conscious of the mistakes they were making, glaring though they might be to an observing PTQ snob. So pretty clearly this whole “I think I am worse than my opponent” thing wasn’t grounded in reality for this tournament… and is a leftover artifact from 1998 when I started playing this game seriously on a more competitive level and had to accept that harsh reality as the reason I wasn’t making PTQ Top 8s.

Now, the reason I am not making PTQ Top 8s is because I believe I am worse than my opponent, at least when it comes to a Constructed format. And this is a damning belief… because it is something that will make itself visible at the wrong time, like when I decided to settle on a terrible plan the turn after I had verbally decreed “the name of the game is now ‘All Birds Must Die’.” My opponent in that match made at least one mistake a turn, with his tricksy Life from the Loam deck… but I made the one mistake that mattered, and he didn’t make the one mistake that mattered back by forgetting to upkeep his Confinement or drawing for his draw step and thus earning the game-loss.

It’s quite possible that a lot of players out there have similar beliefs about themselves and they aren’t even aware of it, never mind cognizant of how to go about changing that perception of yourself and giving yourself the tools you need to seek change. Stoddard, in his “Creating A Fearless Magical Inventory” goes into detail about how his play is sloppy and how to go about fixing that, giving him a regimen to work at in order to improve his play. However, what he never asks is why he is sloppy… and the answer to that question, or at least the means to learn the answer, is present within the confines of neuro-linguistic programming. The first few chapters of the book seek to teach you about the study of NLP, where it comes from and how things were figured out, and gives you a few examples of how the brain works that can show you that there is at least a reasonable amount of truth behind their study of the mind… after all, for most people it works, which is why despite being lambasted as ‘not being science’ it nonetheless has traded a lot back and forth with mainstream clinical psychology in the 30+ years since its original inception. But for someone who really wants to learn why it is they do what they do, there’s an entire section called “Opening The Toolkit”… and in that section there’s a chapter called “Driving Habits: Uncovering Your Secret Programs.”

The simple concept is like this. Everyone has a sliding scale of values, listed one on top of the other, and the ones on top trump or take precedence over the ones below them. Let’s say the average tournament player has the following values:

1. Having Fun
2. Playing A Deck Of My Own Creation
3. Winning Matches

You can already see where the problem is here. This person believes that he is playing in tournaments to win matches… and he even thinks he picks decks, whether he designs them or not, because he thinks they will win him the tournament. In actuality, however, he just wants to have fun more than he wants to play a deck of his own creation, so he doesn’t mind net-decking if he thinks he’ll have more fun if he plays a deck he sees on the Internet. After all, casting Death Cloud in Extended sounds pretty fun, especially if you have a Planeswalker in play and your opponent gets left with nothing. If he’s pretty sure he’ll have an equal amount of fun playing a netdeck or a deck of his own creation, then he’ll play a deck of his own creation… you’ve probably seen this person many a time at States, playing Heartbeat / Eye of the Storm Combo right after Ravnica came out or otherwise catering to his Timmy / Johnny / Spike personality-type. Third on that list is winning matches… and let me tell you, that Eye of the Storm deck didn’t. But he still had fun, so ultimately the tournament was a “win” for him.

Learning why you do what you do is clearly critical… after all, just because you think you know doesn’t mean you actually do. I have been pushing for years and years now with the belief that I was a good Magic player, when in actuality it seems that an awful lot of my behaviors seem to be telling me that I believe the exact opposite to be true.

The process for learning exactly what your personal hierarchy of values is, is rather complex and thus not something I feel would be well-presented in this article. Worse yet, knowledge is power but a little knowledge is very dangerous, and about the last thing you should be doing is traipsing about inside your own skull messing around with things there with the guidance of a Magic author who more-or-less knows what he is doing but cannot convey that knowledge accurately and articulately. For that, after all, you’d have to read the book, which is to say you should begin at the beginning and build a framework of understanding before you start messing around. After all, in the end it all comes down to belief… and while I’d like to think I’ve given my audience good reason to believe I know what I am doing when it comes to designing decks and noting trends in tournament data, this same working relationship does not tell you to believe me when it comes to psychological advice.

And ultimately, it all comes down to belief. Psychologists note something quite amusing they call ‘the placebo effect,’ which is perhaps just a less happy way of putting ‘the power of positive thinking.’ Ultimately, the brain does not work in truths and falsehoods no matter how much we want it to… it works in beliefs and non-beliefs, because the brain can sense and value information but cannot in and of itself discern ‘absolute truth.’ You are what you believe you are… which is why negative self-perceptions can be so damaging, because they become ingrained within your beliefs about yourself and thus are acted upon by your own mind in a properly self-defeating manner.

After all, looking at Sam’s Fearless Inventory, we see this list:

“2) I choke under high pressure situations. I make plays that are far riskier in order to end the situation as soon as possible.
3) My mind wanders in the middle of the game when the board has become “stalemated.” I wait for an overwhelming advantage to try and give my opponent too much time to draw something.
4) I play faster than I should, leading me to doing things like forgetting to play a land before my attack, or playing the wrong land. Or attacking with the wrong creatures, or a million other buffoon-like actions.
5) I keep hands that are risky solely based on the fact that I won the first game and “I can afford to lose one.”

17) I do not spend enough time examining all the possible blocks in a combat situation, and only take into account the one I would do, which is not always the correct one. This leads to combats going horribly awry when I miss something minor.”

You could presume, as Sam has done, that these are all separate things… but what if Sam’s lack of self-confidence is causing him to value “finishing the game quickly” over “playing well” because he feels the longer a game takes the better the chances are he’ll get mired down into a situation that a player smarter than himself can figure out, but he can’t? I don’t know and have never met Sam… but you don’t have to be an idiot to think your opponent is smarter than you are, just lacking self-confidence in your own intellect. In a game we try to think of as an intellectual sport, there’s a lot more to “playing well” than just sitting and thinking long enough. You have to put in the time and the effort to develop the proper skills… and then you have to believe in yourself and your ability to overcome the long odds every time you walk into a PTQ.

One of the old adages taught by Sun Tzu is, “know thy enemy as you know thyself.” It’s pretty crucial to our little game, figuring out what the opponent is going to do, so you can put your metagame bullets in him as he zigs when he should have zagged and collect your well-earned match win. But what’s often lost is that you have to know yourself, too… and plenty of us don’t, as I realized when I spent the latter four rounds of my tournament this weekend frittering away a 4-0 lead because I had to stare “playing the mirror match” right in the face and not flinch, only to learn that I still lacked the confidence I’d thought I’d picked up somewhere along the lines and was defeating myself far more thoroughly than any of my opponents possibly could.

Every once in a while, it helps to sit back and ask yourself a few questions about tournament play, if you consider yourself a serious tournament player. (You can also ask yourself these sorts of probing questions about anything at all, often to surprising results.) It may just be that you aren’t as serious as you need to be in order to win the event… and that it might cost you more than you are willing to pay, to become as serious as you need to be.

1. “Why do I play this game we call Magic: the Gathering? What do I get out of it?”
2. “Why do I go to Magic tournaments? What do I get out of it?”

These two things are often not the same… after all, plenty of people don’t go to tournaments, and after a while plenty of tournament players stop playing Magic: the Gathering and start just playing tournament Magic. These two things are innately in conflict with each other… after all, most people will tell you they play Magic to have fun, and because they get enjoyment out of it… and most people who go to a tournament end up disappointed by the end of the day, or just never have any fun while they are there to begin with. “Tournament Magic” is inherently un-fun, a downright fun-killer, because the conditions are very favorable to negative experiences from high-pressure mana-screw to cheating and blatant rules-lawyering that prevent a large portion of the Magic-playing world from even wanting to shuffle things up for their first-ever PTQ. It’s not that you can’t have fun at PTQs… you can readily go and play Ghost Dad, after all, and have a blast. But if you’re ‘going to win the tournament,’ generally you aren’t going to be fueling that ‘want to have fun playing Magic’ goal… and it’s quite possible that might be the thing hindering you from winning your PTQs because you’re not taking the game as seriously as you need to for the goals you tell yourself you have.

I’d hate to sound like this article has been one big advertisement for a book (… worse yet, one that Star City Games doesn’t even sell!…) but if anything in this article so far has sounded like you, it might be worth taking the first step towards honestly figuring out what it is that’s been holding you back and learning how to resolve such inner conflicts as have been plaguing you whether you knew it or not. Because if you always do as you’ve always done… you’ll always get as you’ve always got. And look where that has gotten you so far…

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com

PS: Since not every article can not be about Goblins, having played in the PTQ I have realized a few slight changes need to be made. This is the list I will be playing this weekend, improving on the lessons learned last weekend… at least as far as deck technology goes.

I feel as if I’d gotten almost everything I’d cared about right… but that one Snow-Covered Swamp was a significant liability over the course of the day and was something I came to regret by the time I was on full-blown tilt. It was put in the deck to dodge nonbasic land hate like Blood Moon or Destructive Flow… and those are not the kinds of cards that are actually good against Goblin decks, so the ‘added functionality’ of having a Swamp to search for had zero utility, while the sheer suckiness that was ‘drawing the Swamp’ had severe drawbacks every time I saw it.