Perilously Comfortable

Ashley outlines five steps you can take to keep yourself from letting games slip through your fingers. Being confident is great for your game; what about being too confident? If you want to improve as a player, take these words to heart!

I was watching an episode of The Glee Project when I came up with the idea for this article. In the show, contestants vie for a spot on the cast of Glee by performing in front of a panel of judges. Every episode ends with the worst three performers of that week having to give a last chance performance. In the last episode, these people were: Marissa, Cameron, and Alex.

So the three get up in front of the judges and sing their hearts out, all praying to survive to another week of competition. Cameron and Alex are talking backstage, and Alex says, “I know I’m going this week.” To which, Cameron replies, “No, I know it’s going to be me.” Both of them seem really down and are obviously sincere in their belief that they’re done and are going home. Marissa says right afterwards, “Well, I don’t think I’m going home. I think I did a good job.” Or something to that effect. She also seems to believe what she says, yet she is not like the others in that, while they think they’re in danger of elimination, she feels safe despite being in the bottom three, comfortable even.

When the results get posted, it is Marissa who gets eliminated. On one level, this surprised me, as I thought she was far more talented than the other two guys and also had a far better personality and attitude. What didn’t surprise me was that the person who felt the safest was actually in the greatest peril. This got me thinking: did her comfort level lead to her elimination? Could she have avoided her loss if she had been less secure in her position?

Magic is not the only competition going on out there. We live in a competitive world where our dreams are on the line every day. Watching some of this competition may be entertaining to us, but, for the people involved, the prize is worth so much.

It is not unusual that we see a writer link lessons learned in life to winning at Magic or vice versa. It is not at all strange if someone applies the things they’ve learned in one card game to another card game or even unrelated types of games: chess and Magic for example. Still, maybe it seems odd to look at The Glee Project and think it can teach us anything about getting better at Magic. So, let’s use another example.

In the last season of America’s Next Top Model, one of the contestants, Brittani Kline, managed to not only anger most of the other contestants, but she also disgusted the judges with her attitude. She was only midway through the competition, and she was certain that she was going to be eliminated every week after that. Yet, she miraculously made it all the way through to the end and then won the whole thing!

In Magic (and poker) lingo, her mistake caused her to play tighter. She knew she couldn’t afford another mistake after that and so didn’t make any. In any competition, the most dangerous mistakes you can make are the kind that you think are no big deal. Though many writers have discussed the importance of confidence playing an important role in winning (anything, not just Magic), so few have talked about the dangers of overconfidence. It is my assertion that when you feel the most comfortable, you are actually in the greatest peril.

There is a great difference in my mind between the player who thinks they can win the whole tournament and the player who thinks they can’t lose. In the first case, they are being open to possibility and believing that their winning is part of this spectrum of possibility. In the latter case, the player is closing themselves off to possibility. They are seeing only their assured victory and wildly underestimating their competition. They are putting blinders on to things they would see if they weren’t so convinced of their own awesomeness.

I think this is part of what leads to that sense of entitlement you see players get sometimes, especially ones who are overestimating their own ability. When they lose to someone they perceive to be a bad player, they get upset and whine about mana-screw, variance, luck, topdecks, mythic rares, anything they can to make them feel better about themselves. This is something in psychology called Cognitive Dissonance, where we might know something on some level but work hard at convincing ourselves differently, often using some sort of extenuating circumstances, all to relieve ourselves of responsibility for our own failings.

Think about it this way: taking responsibility is the only power we really have. We can’t control other people, and we can’t control luck, but we can control our attitudes, and we can strive to understand our failings so that we can diminish them. Here is another area where we cannot get too comfortable. For when we already think we are as great as we can be, we stop trying to be any greater.

You see winners talking about humility. There must be a reason for it, and it’s not because they’re trying to lead everyone else astray. When we think we know everything, we stop learning.

One time I was playing a friend of mine, and he made a mistake that gave me an extra turn to win. I had about a 25% chance to draw an out, but I failed to draw it and lost. Afterwards, I explained the situation to him, and he responded that he played the way he had because he’d “thought I had something.” When I logically broke down every card I could’ve drawn and what situation I would’ve been in had I drawn it, I was able to demonstrate logically that, even though I had a handful of cards, the only way I would be doing nothing was if I were only drawing lands.

Now, I was probably unlucky, but I didn’t complain about it. I used this game as a learning experience for both of us, and I’ve used it as an example countless other times. The reason is that, while the odds were in his favor to win, even with his mistake, 25% is really not so little, and I could’ve easily taken the victory out of my almost certain defeat. What if I had done so? Not realizing his mistake, would he then claim I had merely gotten lucky? But that’s wrong, isn’t it? It probably would’ve made him feel better though!

So get this: the point isn’t to feel good about ourselves; the point is to learn and grow strong, then to win. The only time we should be patting our own backs is on the drive home!

Here’s another tip: the person who is most deserving doesn’t always win.

I thought Marissa was one of the best contestants and Brittani was one of the worst. I was personally rooting for different people in both competitions, but didn’t their response to pressure put them in a more deserving position regardless of their earlier “plays?”

The worst thing you can do is think you’re more deserving right out of the gate. As I’m trying to demonstrate: comfort = death. When you’re playing a bad player (and they may not be as bad as you perceive them to be!), do you keep a loose one-land hand? What if you’re playing someone like LSV or Paulo? In the first case, how do you suppose you’re going to lose? Typically, the only way that really good players even can lose to exceptionally bad ones is by keeping ridiculous hands like that. Sure, you can attempt to absolve yourself of guilt later among your friends when you cry: “But I was mana-screwed!” or “I was so UNLUCKY!” Whether your ego recovers or not, your tournament record will still be the same. Things are what they are, not what you want them to be.

So how do you beat someone in the latter case, someone who’s above and beyond you? Obviously you try to play as tight as you can. That’s a given, but maybe you know you’re going to need a bit of luck to help you out. So what if you look at the same one-land hand, and it is just absolutely perfect? All you need to do is draw one more land in the next two draw steps… Maybe you keep it after all. But not because you deserve to get lucky. The masses might love Cinderella stories, but the Universe doesn’t care one way or the other. So keep what you’re going to keep, but banish all your notions of deserving anything. To the victor goes the spoils. The battlefield dictates who’s deserving. Trial by fire.

“But I’m great!”

“But you lost…”

“But I’m great!”

“But… you lost!”

Stop trying to prove you’re already as good as you think you are and try to get better. Don’t let yourself ever get too comfortable. Who cares if you “should” beat so and so? Events often do not unfold the way we’re conditioned to believe they should. The good guys don’t always win; the nice guy doesn’t always get the girl; Cinderella doesn’t always find her prince; David doesn’t always slay Goliath. So erase any idea of “should.”

We get the most comfortable when we’re playing someone we “should” beat. That’s when our tournament life is probably in the greatest peril! I’ve beaten a deck dozens of times only to lose to it once it’s tournament time. I’ve lost to a little kid playing B/G Poison. I’ve beaten my worst matchup only to then lose to my best matchup. Why do these things happen? Partly because we get these ideas of what should happen that make us far too comfortable and complacent.

When this happens, we are making moves with what amounts to impaired judgment. I heard a saying once: “The best swordsman is not most afraid of the second best swordsman… he’s most afraid of the worst.” The reason for that becomes clear: we can’t necessarily credit the worst competitor to make the right moves. However, we don’t really know they will make the wrong ones either. In a sense, they’re inherently unpredictable. I remember right after Brian Kibler won a Pro Tour, he joked on Facebook that he couldn’t win an FNM! But I also imagine that Brian can predict what other good players are doing more easily than he can the random players who show up at the local store. When we’re faced with the unpredictable, shouldn’t we be MORE on our toes, not LESS?

A friend of mine used to say all the time, “Even a blind squirrel can find an acorn once in a while!” We really don’t want to be on autopilot when their light bulb comes on and they level up. In that moment, we had best be giving our full attention!

Jon Finkel once said, “Focus on what matters.” How can we focus on what matters if we don’t know when and if something will matter? Even if you give a newbie an out, sometimes they’re going to get it, and most players, no matter how bad, aren’t going to forget to attack, Lightning Bolt you when you’re at three, or fail to play the card that will then and there win them the game.

If you want a good example of how being comfortable can cost you, here’s one from a PTQ I played in a few years back:

I was playing B/W Tokens and had gone undefeated all day, even in my three mirror matches. My concentration was good; my energy was high. I was focused. By the time that the Top 8 rolled around, I had literally been lazing around for two hours feeling quite proud of myself. I hadn’t lost a match; I’d intentionally drawn the last two rounds. I had made yet another Top 8. I have often asked myself the question if I simply forgot how much I wanted to win.

I once heard a similar story from a player who said they’d been distracted by the Top 8 pin and the box of Magic cards they’d already won, both of which were set right beside them before play began. We can’t allow ourselves to become so self-satisfied that we forget there is more Magic to be played and more winning to be done.

In my Top 8, I got paired up against a deck I was unfamiliar with: Red Deck Wins with black splashed for cards like Anathemancer. I knew nothing about the opponent playing the deck. Was he good? Was he bad? Well I quickly lost game one due to no fault of my own that I could detect (though it’s important to remember that I may have made mistakes that I didn’t detect…).

In game two, I had a pair of Bitterblossoms in play and Ajani Goldmane. I was down to a mere six life. My opponent assumed that he had me (and you know what they say about assuming…) and flashed Flame Javelin. “You’re dead,” he declared. I was, after all, going to take the rest of the damage on my upkeep.

Well, I thought that would just suck, so I decided I’d better Celestial Purge one of my Bitterblossoms at the end of his turn. At that point, I saw his look of confidence turn into a look of horror. Had he been feeling too comfortable? Up a game and lethal damage sitting in hand? How could I lose? he might’ve been thinking. Guess he should’ve played that Flame Javelin AFTER I had taken damage on my upkeep…

This could’ve turned into one of those bad beat stories you hear about how your opponent had the one card that would save them! Yet his own actions had put him in that predicament. But all was not yet lost. I still had to win somehow…

Looking down at my permanents, I quickly assessed the situation: I’m at one. Bitterblossom kills me next turn. If he draws a burn spell, I lose. If he draws a land, he can unearth Anathemancer and… I lose. If only there was some way I could win that turn, while he was completely tapped out… Well, obviously I’m at one and have Ajani Goldmane so I guess I have to gain life… Oh, wait, I have a lone Mutavault to go with all these Faerie tokens… If only I had some way to pump them all… But it’s too late. My “obvious” play was totally incorrect. Ajani’s life gain ability has been used, and I can’t quite kill him. I’m done…

Maybe I was too pleased with myself that I’d managed to last another turn against all expectations. So I took that turn, and I blew it. Only I can say for certain whether my level of comfort affected the outcome, but I believe, somewhere, it did. Perhaps I was overconfident after going undefeated. Maybe I had gotten lazy after the two-hour break. It could be that I was just glad to have another Top 8. In the end, perhaps the only play it affected was the very last one of the match, the one that eliminated me from contention.

It may seem surprising that I could make such a great play followed up with such a terrible play, but once we understand the concept of being too comfortable, we can see how something like this could happen (and as an aside: some players would argue there are no “great” plays, only the correct plays!).

So now that I think I’ve explained why being too comfortable can be a bad thing, I want to list a few steps to prevent that from happening.

Step 1:

Remember that it is theoretically possible to lose to the worst deck piloted by the worst player. Perhaps they happen to play really well that match or just get really lucky. Maybe they’re so unpredictable that they blindside you with a card or plan that you don’t expect.

I once lost a game to a U/G deck that used Extirpate on all of my Damnations to protect his Troll Ascetics! His only access to black mana was from Birds of Paradise or if I played my Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth! Ordinarily, I’d call this a terrible plan, but it worked. That time.

Now the terms luck and variance get bandied about a lot, mostly as though they are bad things. Remember that part of the reason we play Magic, instead of a game of perfect information (chess for example) is that we like the infinite variety the game has to offer. Because these things exist in Magic, sometimes the worse player is going to win. I see so many people caught in the trap of thinking that their wins are all based on skill but that their opponents’ wins are all luck.

I guess that’s because we’re all human beings with easily damaged egos. To get better we need to toughen up and accept that though sometimes we’ll lose because we’re unlucky, it’ll never make us a better player if we don’t try to see beyond our perceived bad luck.

So if we’re humble and accept that sometimes we’re going to make mistakes, including ones we might not even realize, and that sometimes we’re going to lose because we mulligan to four and get stuck on land, maybe we can approach every game with the attention and seriousness that it deserves.

Step 2:

Remember why you came. I made the top 4 of the last PTQ I played in. During one round, I had mulled to five, was stuck on land, and would almost surely lose. However, my opponent made a mistake on turn 1 of the game, which I took advantage of. When he asked if he could take it back, I said no. I came to win, and I expected to be held accountable for my mistakes. We’re not playing on a level field if he is not also accountable for his.

That particular game I needed every edge, but I wouldn’t have let him take something back even had I been winning by overwhelming odds. As it turned out, I did end up winning that one, quite possibly because of that mistake. You have to be willing to take the game and yourself seriously enough to warrant a win. You have to feel like you deserve winning more than your opponent but without letting some sense of entitlement make you believe you can’t lose.

The universe isn’t fair. Sometimes your opponent will make a horrible misplay and still win and sometimes you will too. In the latter case, don’t let yourself off the hook just because you won that particular time. It won’t make you a better player. Magic is a game of squeezing out every advantage and taking every edge we can get, even a 1% one. Even if you manage to win a single game despite a misplay, in the larger scheme, these things will cost you.

Also, keep your goals in sight. Making Top 8 of a PTQ is just Phase 1. It may feel great after a long day of grinding it out to “get there,” but you’re not done yet. At the same time, don’t let your goal overwhelm you. Tournaments are not won all at once.

In the book Why Didn’t I Think of That? (which is highly recommended reading by the way!), the author asks the reader if they think they could memorize a 30-digit number. I’ve asked people this myself as a sort of experiment. Almost everyone says no. But then the author goes on to say, “But I bet you remember the phone numbers of three people.”

The point is that our minds can get overwhelmed by the big picture. The truth is that our brains are far more advanced than any computer and that people have demonstrated remarkable mental feats such as multiplying large numbers together in seconds without the aid of a calculator and memorizing the exact order of several decks of cards, and so on.

In the book Bird by Bird the author relates a tale that her brother was overwhelmed by a report he had to do on birds. Their father sat down and told him, “Just take it bird by bird.” The author uses this anecdote to demonstrate how a writer finishes a novel: one step at a time. This wisdom also comes to us in the form of a proverb: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

What all this amounts to is that you can win the tournament, but you need to take things match by match. Once you start thinking that you only need to win one of the next three rounds, you’re going to start feeling more comfortable. You can’t let that happen. No matter how unlikely, it is possible that you will lose all three of those rounds. Don’t pat yourself on the shoulders yet. Not when there’s more winning to be done. I mean, did you come just to make another Top 8 or did you come to win?

Step 3:

Have a support network. Your friends and teammates may make great playtest partners, but hopefully they can also provide support at the tournament itself. Maybe it sounds silly, but it’s definitely encouraging to have people rooting for me or reminding me not to take it easy, that there are still more rounds left. When they remind me that I choke in the Top 8, they aren’t doing it to be mean; they’re putting me on notice that I mustn’t get too comfortable. After all, we’re not always aware that we’re doing it.

Step 4:

Play lots of Magic. Nothing teaches you that you can’t get too comfortable like playing lots and lots of Magic. Over the years, I have won and lost in incredible ways that prove you can’t take anything for granted. Also, you’ll start to catch yourself when you begin to feel comfortable because of simple pattern recognition. If you keep losing in the quarterfinals, for example, maybe you’re letting yourself enjoy Phase 1 too much and not focusing enough on Phase 2.

Not only can playing lots of games keep you from getting too comfortable, they can help you if you have the converse problem: you’re too uncomfortable. Once you play a lot of games, especially in more important events, you will realize that there will be other chances, that this is only one tournament of many, and you are only doing what you have done many times before: playing a game that you enjoy.

Step 5:

Reflect. You won’t get better if you don’t think back over your games and matches, not just the ones where you lost but ones where you won as well. Did you catch any questionable lines of play? Did you keep a sketchy hand? Noting all the small mistakes that are possible will help keep you alert.

I recently had an opponent urge me to play faster as early as turn 1. Now, typically I am not a slow player, but I realized that what land I played first was likely to have a major impact on the game.

When I pointed out that I was going to take a reasonable amount of time to make my decision, he responded with: “But it’s only turn 1!”

Though he was right, I’ve actually lost several games in the last couple of years just to playing the wrong land on the first turn. I picked up on the pattern, saw a hand with a high level of complexity, and I recognized the easiest way I could play it incorrectly. Why should we assume we can’t make a mistake as early as turn 1?

Imagine that you have Seachrome Coast and Celestial Colonnade, and you have Spell Pierce and/or Preordain in hand. Which land do you play first? While some of you might snap and make a decision here, I think that’s wrong. Have you considered what deck your opponent might be playing? In this scenario, are you on the play or the draw? Do you have any actionable 2CC cards in hand right then? Are you likely to draw any? These are all factors that can and do often matter. You can’t get too comfortable simply because decisions in Magic are not made in a vacuum.

Should you play a land before attacking? Should you not? What if you have a combat trick? What if you’re trying to bluff a combat trick? What if you don’t want your opponent to know you can play a spell post-combat?

Should you attack before casting spells? What if your spell is Tempered Steel? What if it’s creature removal on a blocker?

Should you kill their creature with your removal spell? What if they play a better creature? Does it matter if they are likely to play a better creature right off or five turns from now?

The point is that you must always ask questions, even from a superior position, maybe especially from a superior position! Do you know why? Because that’s the point where you’re likely to be the most comfortable! I’ve heard so many players state that they play better when they’re behind. Well, this is the reason!

Don’t get fancy; don’t get cute. Just ask yourself how your opponent can hope to beat you and try to obstruct that. If you can only lose by being aggressive, then play conservatively. If you can only lose by playing conservatively, then play aggressive! If you lose because your opponent has a card, then play like they don’t have it.

Ultimately, it’s about striking a balance. Most of us know that fear can cloud our mind. Few recognize that confidence can too. Just stay humble; be cautious. Remember: pride comes before the fall!