Optimizing Your Mind For Competitive Events

Michael Martin takes a look at optimizing how our brain operates so that we can maximize our chances to make the "best decisions" across an entire tournament.

Imagine this scenario…

Your car doesn’t have a gas gauge. Never has.

You technically would "know" that your car has gas simply because your car is running, but you’d have no idea how much you currently have at any given time unless you had recently filled your gas tank up.

So you fill up on a Saturday morning. You want to take a thirteen-to-fifteen hour drive cross-country.

You confidently drive off without as much as a couple of bucks for gas.

You sporadically floor the gas pedal when you feel the need to get around obstacles/other cars, pushing your car into overdrive to navigate tough obstacles. I’m sure it’ll be fine; it’s not like this effects your mileage or anything.

Seriously, would you expect to arrive at your destination?

What if I told you that you could be doing this every single time you go to a Magic tournament?

This article is going to apply to every single tournament you will ever attend. Today, instead of focusing on formats or metagames, I want to look at optimizing how our brain operates so that we can maximize our chances to make the "best decisions" across an entire tournament, be it FNM or a Pro Tour. I want to look at this from a "behind the scenes" angle, one that aims to figure out what exactly is going on in that noggin of ours and why our decisions away from the game table affect our decision making ability at the game table.

Look at the state of competitive Magic these days. The StarCityGames.com Open Series is allowing players to participate in more and more large tournaments, with players spending the entirety of the daylight hours on a Saturday and/or Sunday entrenched in matches of Magic. Most of the player base tends to fall in the 18-30 age range, and as such we also tend to not listen to our bodies and understand how our decisions affect us. Without understanding the effects that these long days of tournament Magic have on our cognitive abilities, we players tend to fall prey to our mind’s own shortcomings rather than a lack of ability or some unconquerable skill level their opponent possesses.

If our goal is to win a given tournament, why do we spend all of our efforts agonizing over that last sideboard slot that’ll matter in maybe 1% of your game play when we should be focusing on how best to optimize our thought processes during the tournament, which affects 100% of all game play?

Fueling Your Thinking (aka Self-Control vs. Blood Glucose)

First, I want to look at how our brains fuel themselves while performing complex thought. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying "nothing in this world is free," and the same applies to thinking; sure, we may not notice that our brain is burning juice, but there’s a reason you were always told to make sure you have a big breakfast before big tests in school.

The first thing I want to look into is how applying self-control will deplete your body, not just your mind, of valuable resources.

When I refer to self-control, I’m not necessarily referring to that feeling of needing to watch what you eat. Sure, that is a form of self-control, but self-control goes beyond that. Self-control is literally any time you stop yourself from doing what you would naturally and/or habitually do in a given situation. It could also refer to forcing yourself to do something above and beyond what you would usually do in that situation. You’re literally controlling your habitual responses and overriding your mind’s natural inclination to perform the task that it is used to performing in a given situation.

Studies have shown a direct link between your blood glucose level and your brain’s ability to regulate itself and perform self-control activities. Your brain uses glucose, the same fuel the rest of your body uses, as its fuel to perform complex thinking. Furthermore, when you exert self-control, you are expending more blood glucose than any other cognitive function would expend.

In other words, nothing else your brain does requires nearly as much fuel as actually having to stop and think about what you’re doing.

When you’re constantly required to stop and think about what you’re doing, your internal gas tank will start running low. This would be the equivalent of flooring the gas pedal when you need to get around slow moving cars in the left lane; sure, it gets the task done in the timeframe you want it done, but there is a cost. If this continues over the course of a day, your body will eventually deplete its reserves of energy if you’re not consuming more fuel.

So what does your body do in that situation?

Your brain reverts back to what it knows instinctively/habitually and simply overrides your self-control capabilities. It tells you, "We’re low on fuel buddy; we can’t afford to spend the fuel necessary to think about that." You essentially go on autopilot, reverting to your learned, habitual tendencies without applying complex thought to the situation. (A lot of authors have referred to going on "autopilot" late in tournaments; this could provide at least some of an explanation for this.)

The Importance of Playtesting and Knowing your Deck (aka Exerting Self-Control vs. Habitual Responses)

While actually having to stop and think about what you’re doing will deplete available energy to perform future cognitive processes, performing habitual mental processes doesn’t burn energy at nearly the same rate that performing self-control processes does. In fact, the amount burned is rather negligible. This means that if you’re used to performing a certain action such that it doesn’t require you to stop and think about it, you don’t expend anything remotely near the amount of energy you would if you have to stop and think out that action. You’re not exerting self-control anymore, as you’re allowing your body/brain to perform in the manner that it is both used to and wants to.

How do we make this information relevant to our preparations for a Magic tournament?


Lots and lots of playtesting.

In an interview years ago, Luis Scott-Vargas talked about how he learned to trust his gut reaction because it was based on his playtesting and what happened in those countless games that he’d transcribed to not only memory but habit.

Also on the topic of LSV, Bing Luke referred to a situation during Magic Community Cup preparation a couple of years ago in an article. It involved a series of events during a Caw-Blade mirror match in which a complicated decision took a long time for the team to decipher before LSV weighed in. Here’s the copied text:

"Later I was wandering around the tables when I saw Zaiem Beg playing a Caw-Blade mirror match with both players deep in discussion over a turn that had just happened. Our side of the board is after drawing our card for the turn. Only the Hawk is known to our opponent. Our opponent’s board looks like Divine Offering on one Batterskull, and he had a window to cast Spell Pierce but did not. He hasn’t really had an opportunity to cast a two-mana counter and has missed at least one land drop.

I walked through the game state, thinking aloud about what we had to do and what we thought our opponent had in hand. Clearly we are losing this game and would like to cast Jace, but it’s also exceedingly likely that our opponent has a Jace or a counter. After ten minutes of discussion, Gavin Verhey walked by, and we rewound the discussion. Another ten minutes and we came to a conclusion.

After Gavin and I came to agreement, Luis walked by, and we again rewound the decision tree and game state. Within a minute, Luis blurts that we should just cast Jace pre-combat and see what happens, essentially coming to the decision Gavin and Zaiem and I took a half an hour to get to."

You know where that ability to come up with the "correct" decision so quickly comes from?

Being in similar situations countless times already. Knowing the possibilities and probabilities through repetition.

There’s a reason you see people such as LSV do well consistently across entire tournaments, making the correct decision time and time again. It’s because they playtest so much that the "correct play" has been inscribed in their memory, moved from the prefrontal cortex, where we process complex thoughts, to the basal ganglia, where habits are stored.

(Lately, even LSV himself has noted a drop-off in his tournament results; he also notes in his Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze tournament report that his occupation change has left him much less time to playtest. While correlation doesn’t imply causation by any means, the two things do seem to be related.)

If you can make correct lines of play habitual before a tournament begins, you’re going to be in a much better position to make the correct decisions when you’re no longer in your comfort zone. Think of playtesting as an investment of energy prior to a tournament so you won’t have to expend that energy during the tournament. The more you can commit to habit, the better.

If you are playing against LSV late in a tournament and you’ve had to constantly agonize over decisions to keep up with his skill level, when the game state becomes extremely complicated, guess who has the mental juice left in the tank to figure it out still and who’s going to be gasping for "mental air."

This segues into the issue of deck familiarity versus playing the "best deck."

Playing a new deck that you’re passed the night prior is potentially a tournament-winning move. It could be a deck no one expects and has the raw power to push through an entire tournament field.

However, you won’t know what the "correct" play is through habit; you’ll have to consider all lines of play. You have to learn on the fly. We’ve already covered how this can burn through your energy stores over the course of a longer tournament. Playing with the deck that you’re familiar with will mitigate this a bit, as you’ll have more of the habitual "correct" plays stored in your memory banks. This gives you more energy to make the tough decisions later in the tournament.

You may not immediately notice the negative effects of having to tank on every decision, but they’re there and will affect you over the course of a long event. Even something as simple as goldfishing a deck to learn the intricacies of early turn sequencing will help in this regard.

A great example of how picking up a deck the night prior will wear your mental capabilities down is a tournament two years ago: StarCityGames.com Standard Open: Washington DC when I was playing RUG Ramp with Lotus Cobra and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. A super powerful deck, to be sure, but one that I was handed the night prior to the tournament. Even without knowing the ins and outs of the deck, I still started that event 7-0-1, with an intentional draw with Ali Aintrazi Grand Architect deck.

Everything was going great. I was almost a lock to Top 8.

Then the hinges fell off. I lost a quick two games to Joshua Ravitz playing a deck I’d beaten seven times that day, Caw-Blade. I thought the matchup was nigh unlosable and was comfortable sitting down for the feature match (the coverage for which incorrectly had me at "7-1").

To this day, I still can’t explain how I lost. Usually, I can look back and see the mistakes I made and how that ultimately led to my defeat. Even sitting here now, I can’t tell you what happened. I was so burned out at that point that I had no idea what was going on and went on autopilot with a deck I wasn’t familiar with.

I then lost in the final round to a Boros Landfall deck when I boarded in counterspells against an aggro deck. That’s how far gone my mind was at that point. You see, I didn’t get time to eat much that day. In fact, I didn’t eat at all. And I noticed the effects after ten or eleven hours of battling. The problem is that usually we don’t equate the effects to the "lack of nutrition" + "complex thinking." We just say "I’m burned out" without realizing why.

Succeeding When Constantly Tanking (aka How Eating Plays a Part)

Most of us know how our body gains blood glucose: we eat. More specifically, we consume calories. Our body absorbs glucose into the bloodstream at a rate of roughly 30 calories per minute, and it takes roughly 10 minutes for this to metabolize in the brain. In experiments testing self-control, researchers would make sure that subjects waited at least fifteen minutes after consuming roughly 150 calories to make sure it metabolizes in the brain.

This is how your body fuels itself. You can’t do anything without fuel, much like how you’ll be sitting on the side of the road if you forget to give your vehicle the fuel it needs. When you’re making a ton of agonizing decisions, you’re going to burn through your reserves like a Hummer H2 flooring it down the Autobahn. You’re going to need more fuel to account for what you’re burning.

So let’s go back to the deck familiarization versus best deck conundrum. Am I saying the only correct decision is to play a deck that you’re familiar with? By no means! However, I am saying that if you choose to make that last minute deck change, you’re going to need to be prepared. Your brain is going to need more fuel over the course of the day than you would need if you were more familiar with the deck, as you’ll make more decisions that might have been habitual if you’d playtested the deck previously. Without eating, you could end up like I did in DC: 33rd place with nothing to show for it after a stellar start, driving home dejected and bewildered.

My advice? If you’re playing a control deck, an intricate combo deck, or a deck that you’ve picked up the night prior, you’re going to need to refuel constantly. We are all aware of the lack of choice when it comes to food selection at tournament sites, so bringing snacks may be wise. Looking at this practically, you’re probably going to use up more time each round than your Searing Spear wielding brethren. This is going to make obtaining snacks between rounds difficult at times, especially if you have an exceptionally intricate and complex match that goes to time.

Ironically, the times like this when you have the least time to get food is when you’ll need that refueling the most.

I know most of us are generally aware that we need to stay hydrated and eat during tournaments. What I’m trying to relay is how important that actually is. Remember my initial scenario, in which you are driving a car with no gas gauge on a thirteen-to-fifteen hour trip?

That’s what happens at Magic tournaments when you don’t eat.

The only difference is that we don’t have "blood glucose gauges" similar to a gas gauge in a car to alert us as to how much "gas" we have left in the tank.

How Often and What Should I Eat?

In the studies I looked into for this article, when the experiment would depend on blood glucose levels, researchers would require that their subjects refrain from eating at least three hours prior to showing up to allow their blood glucose levels to stabilize. That means that after about three hours you can reasonably expect that the food that you’ve eaten that day is no longer adding more fuel to your tank; even if you haven’t been making tough decisions and going into the tank a lot during your rounds, it’s probably best to grab a quick bite every three hours or so.

When you do grab that snack, try your best to consume complex carbohydrates instead of simple carbohydrates like sugar. The calories from sugar will grant a quick boost of energy but will also leave you crashing once you’ve burned through that fuel. Not what you need during a long event.

Complex carbs like starches (potatoes, noodles, bread) and vegetables provide calories that give longer lasting effects. Aim for these when trying to refuel during events. Of course, this isn’t always possible when eating food at the site, thus why I advise bringing your own food.

Of note: while Splenda and Sweet’n Low provide sweetness without the calories, if you’re drinking your coffee at events with just those artificial sweeteners, you’re not gaining any caloric energy, as coffee has less than ten calories per cup itself. This is relevant to me, as I drink my coffee with Sweet’n Low—diabetes runs in the family, so we all drink artificial sweeteners, plus I’ve gotten used to the flavor.

Also, that little line at the bottom of the 5-our Energy commercials that says "does not provide caloric energy" should hold a bit more meaning at this point. Ironically, 5-hour Energy doesn’t actually provide "real" energy.

Emotions, Going on Tilt, and "Unbeatable Auras"

Controlling emotions, biases, prejudice, etc. is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to burning brain fuel. How does emotional control affect our tournaments?

Tilt. More so avoiding tilt.

I’m reminded of an article Gavin Verhey wrote a long time ago (before he got the dreamiest of jobs at Wizards of the Coast) entitled "The Impalpable Aspects of Magic." In it, he goes into what he refers to as the "unbeatable aura." Now, I’m not saying I buy into the notion of an "unbeatable aura," but he brings up some points that I think are noteworthy to the discussion at hand.

He talks about a "relaxed confidence" when referring to this "aura." He refers to certain tournaments where he felt he had this aura and that everything would go right. He would keep one landers and hit his second land. He would always draw the card needed to pull out a game. He talks about how he was totally relaxed.

I think he’s on the right track, but I think that he’s looking at it from the wrong end. When everything is going your way, you have no need to control emotions. You’re also getting the positive end of the luck spectrum. This is all attributable to variance, as you’ll have good tournaments and bad tournaments. We all know this.

When you’ve prepared for a tournament to the point where you’ve gotten the matchups you’re expecting to face figured out, you’re going to have that "relaxed confidence." That confidence is due to allowing your mind to relax and just go with what you’re used to doing in any given scenario.

When you are drawing well over the course of the day, you don’t have to regulate emotions, which means you’re not burning up your mental fuel. This, again, helps maintain this level of "relaxed confidence"; relaxed because there is no need to regulate emotions (and thereby burn the fuel needed to be able to continue regulating emotions) and confident because things are going your way. This has the added benefit of not forcing you to burn through your energy stores, which adds to the relaxed confidence because you aren’t burned out.

Gavin argued that these things happened because of an "unbeatable aura." I’m saying that this feeling of having an "unbeatable aura" came from being on the correct side of variance and the positive effect this has on regulating emotion (and mental fuel).

When things are going your way, you’re going to have an easier time when it comes to regulating your energy stores. When things aren’t going your way, this doesn’t mean that it’s just "not your day" and that you don’t have some conceived aura that allows you to overcome all odds; it just means that you need to work a bit harder that day to maintain and regain your lost energy stores.

You ever hear the phrase "when it rains, it pours"? This applies when things start going south in a tournament if you allow it. You end up on the wrong end of variance at the end of your round, which causes you to go on tilt. Regulating this emotion (which means not going and kicking the crap out of your opponent, his/her deck, the wall, flipping the table, etc.; in other words, restraining yourself from acting out due to your emotional state) causes severe loss in blood glucose, which in turn reduces your ability to further regulate emotion and perform complex thought processes. Things go from bad to worse very quickly.

Try your best to take bad beats in stride; bad luck does happen (albeit not nearly as much as people think), but it doesn’t have to ruin our day. The best players are the ones who can take bad beats in stride and say "that’s Magic." They have bad luck just like you and I; they just know how to take it all in stride.

When things aren’t going your way, remember to try to refuel by eating something; you may not be able to perceive the shortage of energy, but after reading this article hopefully you know the effects of an intense, emotional round on your cognitive abilities.

Wrap Up

This article isn’t meant to say "if you eat more, you will win more," as the two things aren’t necessarily connected. You need some level of skill, a bit of luck, and an understanding of competitive Magic. However, I will opine that without managing our energy/glucose over the course of a tournament, winning is going to need more "luck" than it would otherwise. Sure, you can win, but it’s going to take a bit more luck, as you won’t be making the optimal decisions at all time and won’t be getting the most out of your resources.

This was eye opening for me to research, as I now bring enough snacks to events to be able to eat at least once every three hours and more if I’m playing an especially intricate deck. When making the correct decision at every juncture is critical, running out of fuel is damning to your chances not only in that round but at the event as a whole.

This article didn’t even get into the effects of sleep and lack thereof; I could probably write an entirely new article just on that point. Just know that sleeping is just as profound and important as eating, as not having a sufficient amount of either during a tournament is like walking into a gunfight then realizing you forgot ammunition.

Don’t doom yourself by not filling up your gas tank during your fifteen-hour drive. You wouldn’t do that in a car; why do it at a tournament when your goal is to win?

Until next time!

Michael Martin

@mikemartinlfs on Twitter

Mikemartinlfs (at) gmail (dot) com