PV’s Playhouse – Overthinking

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Wednesday, December 16th – In the quest for the perfect play in any given game of Magic, we often gloss over the basic play in search of something cooler, or more “professional.” This curse of overthinking the easy and complex interaction can lead to mistakes and game losses in the best of us. Paulo investigates the process of overthinking, and offers sage advice on its avoidance.


It is no secret that, although everyone makes mistakes, bad players make them far more often than good players. From conceptual mistakes (such as not knowing when to be the aggressor, when to play an attrition game, etc) to small details (such as forgetting to ping you with Blood Seeker), all are made in greater quantities by the inexperienced players. There is one kind of mistake, however, that is more likely to be made by the good and experienced players – Overthinking. My article this week will take a look at what overthinking is, and how it can be detrimental to your play.

Throughout my years of Magic, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many Pro Players about the most varied subjects. There is one thing that I’ve talked about with many different players, and most of them seem to be of one mind: often, the more you think, the higher the chance you will make a mistake. Now, don’t get me wrong… of course you should think, especially if it’s the first time you’ve encountered the situation. I’m not telling you just to play your cards in the order you see them. What I’m telling you is to think as much as you have to, but not more, and not about anything else. One example:

A week ago, I had a discussion with a friend, who is a good player, about someone’s play at the finals of a PTQ. The first guy – we will call him John – kept a hand of Grazing Gladehart, Sky Ruin Drake, and five lands, in the UG Mirror. Then the guy drew three lands in a row, and on his turn 3 (on the play), he played the Gladehart. Then his opponent untapped, played Blazing Torch, and killed the Gladehart. Some turns later, John lost. My friend’s point was that he should have held the Gladehart for a turn in his hand, since he knew his opponent had Blazing Torch, and by doing that he would assure himself two life.

Now, you see, someone bad would never do that. They would never even consider the possibility. For someone to make this play, the person has to remember the Blazing Torch from his opponent’s UG deck and has to identify that holding the creature in hand for one turn would ensure two life regardless of it – clearly above your average bad player’s skill level. However, in this situation, the bad player’s play would be entirely correct, and my friend’s play is just awful. Sure enough, if everything goes as he thought – that is, his opponent has the Blazing Torch, his opponent would play and use the Blazing Torch on his turn, and he keeps drawing lands — then, and only then, he gets the gigantic benefit of gaining two life over the “bad play.” Imagine, though, if the guy draws a four-mana card! Now you’ve just Time Walked yourself for the rest of the game! Clearly when you have 8 lands and 2 spells, you need things to go your way – you cannot afford to hinder yourself even more to try to gain two life, because two life is not going to save you, but drawing a sequence of good cards will… and by making his “good play” he cut that possibility as well! My friend was trying hard to come up with the “pro play” that he completely ignored everything else, namely that his scenario is not the more likely to happen, and that even if it does, his advantage is not big, whereas the consequences are disastrous if things go differently.

It is not only my friends who have the luxury of making those terrible plays. I make my share of them too (and so do most good players, I guess). I’ve even written about a couple before. For example, when I played Lightning Helix on my own guy in Berlin, only to lose a game that I had 95% in my grip when I realized I would have to lose one life to fetch a land. Why did I do that? Is it because I am an idiot? No, because my mind was busy with other things. It was busy trying to come up with the perfect play. It was the last turn of the match, and I had all the time in the world, so I tried to think about every single thing that could happen, even the ones I already theoretically knew. My mind was busy thinking of the consequences of my actions, and not only in an in-game way. I could imagine myself writing in my report, for example, how I had won this game with a masterful play that only five people in the world would have thought to make. When your mind is busy with those things that should not be relevant, then it cannot work on what really matters.

In that scenario, I had a lot to think about. Not only was it the deciding turn of the match, with a lot at stake, but the play itself was also somewhat complicated. In this scenario, I was using up a lot of my Working Memory. Working memory, also known as short-term memory, holds information that is relevant to performance and ensures task focus. It’s what allows us to remember and retrieve information from an early step of a long task, such as going through a complicated play. It’s what makes me think, perhaps even unconsciously, “I’ll not Helix Llanowar Elves, because of X. Do I Helix the Druid, then? No, because of Y,” and then not have to go back to thinking why I am not Lightning Helixing the Llanowar Elves again – it is what glues together the whole thought process in my mind as I am thinking it, making it a whole thing and not a lot of disconnected thoughts. With working memory, I can conclude that Helixing neither the Elf nor the Druid is correct, and then do the same for every single target that could be Helixed and arrive at a conclusion. This is, incidentally, the reason more capable people are more prone to doing worse under pressure – those people generally use their working memory fully, and cannot spare any bit of it to think about anything else, whereas people who do not use it will not miss it. They will do their usual bad job under pressure, but not worse.

There are, however, limits for working memory. If I tell you to multiply 15 x 15, you can probably do that because you remember the results of small operations and add them together. You do not multiply 15 x 15 itself, but you perhaps multiply 15 x 10, then take half of that and add the results (or whatever works for you). If I tell you to multiply 1667 x 8975, you probably cannot. The same works for a game of Magic. If you have to think of a couple things together, you are able to. Once you start factoring in too many things, you can no longer put everything together and your train of thought falls apart. That happens when the situation is absurdly complex – and in that case, good luck, because there is nothing you can do about it – or when you start using your working memory for things that do not matter at all, such as “oh god I have to win this round to be able to draw in”, or “if I lose I might get paired versus the All in Red guy”, or simply “I want to make the right play here, I know I can do it!”

Another example of bringing your working memory to its limits can be seen in the finals of Pro Tour: Kobe, in which Willy Edel attacked with everyone for one or two damage short of lethal, and then died in the counterattack. Willy is a really good mathematician, and he worked with statistics for years, so I have complete trust he would not miscount something like that in a normal situation. However, the board itself was rather complicated, with multiple creatures with multiple abilities and counters that sacrificed other creatures for bonus damage. There was a lot Willy had to work with – basically every possible blocking from Merkel, and how that would interact with his 10 or so Saprolings, plus sacrificing them for +1/+1 effects. That would probably be too much for some people’s working memory, who would just ship the turn, but Willy actually had to work with all the pressure – it was the Pro Tour finals! Everyone was watching, and a lot was at stake. The result was that it was too much for even his working memory, and in the end he forgot something that he had already calculated in the beginning of the process – he knew he could make a Saproling to pump his other guys, but he mistakenly counted that Saproling as one of the attackers, so he was one damage short.

Willy is not alone in this, either. Other silly mistakes have been made in deciding games. Charles Gindy, for example, decided to Terror his opponent’s Lord of Atlantis instead of swinging for the kill in the finals of Pro Tour: Hollywood. Mario Pascoli threw his guy away by entering combat against a First Striker in the finals of Pro Tour: Kuala Lumpur. Makihito Mihara played four spells and then had to topdeck his third Rite of Flame because he suddenly found out he had miscounted against me in Paris. Those are not plays I would expect those people to make in normal circumstances – they suffered what we call “choking under pressure,” when pressure can be the importance of the match (as in those games), or the person pressuring themselves because they simply want to make a “pro play,” like my friend with the Gladehart.

Yet another example of a game in which I definitely went overthinking, and almost lost because of it, is the game against Boros at Worlds. I was so focused about making the best possible play and not dying (and there were a lot of people watching too, so I wanted to impress them!) that I ended up playing horribly and almost losing the game (incidentally, that also included me killing one of my own guys with a removal spell, so maybe I should stop doing that). I think it is a very hard distinction to pass on, but it is very important – thinking about making the best play is not the same as thinking about the best play. I think this distinction is seen more clearly when you are playtesting alongside someone – that is, you are playing, but both are focusing on the game and trying to come out with the best plays. When I do that, I play much worse than normal – it’s actually embarrassing. The reason for that is that I worry about making the best play, and I worry about being able to justify it – I think too much about it. The moment you think “I should make the best play here,” you are already losing ground.

One way to free your working memory of some of its burdens is to trust your brain in repetition and association, and not try to think when we don‘t have to. Most of the time, when we make a play in a game of Magic, it is based on things we already know. Back when we first started playing, we had to learn everything – the reasons, the processes. Then the situations started becoming more and more common, and through repetition and association we don’t have to think that all the time again. If my opponent plays Mountain, Jackal Pup, my brain automatically gets the message “don’t take damage,” since it takes information from all the times my opponents played Mountains and aggressive guys and concludes that in almost all those situations the life total was the deciding factor in the game, so it should be the same this time. That leads me to making decisions that preserve my life total, even if they are disadvantageous in other aspects. On the other hand, if my opponent plays Plains, Goldmeadow Stalwart, then my brain gets the message “control the game”- I no longer have to make unfavorable trades to stay at a healthy life total, and I now make plays with the goal of controlling the board – I will now take damage one turn so that next turn I can double block and kill his creature, for example. There is nothing in the two particular cards that says it should be so – for all I care, Goldmeadow Stalwart is as aggressive as Jackal Pup – but due to playing many years with similar cards, I have a better idea of what is going on.

The same thing happens with almost every play you make – you don’t have to think about playing a land turn 1, and you (generally) don’t have to think about playing your three drop on turn 3 – you simply know it is correct. When we have practiced something so well that you don’t need to think about it, subconscious processes are at work – when we then slow down to focus on these automated actions, we can thwart those processes, tripping ourselves up. When you think about those situations that should be automatic, your body suddenly reverts back to the technical, deliberate thoughts it took to learn the game. Suddenly, you’re thinking through the task instead of just doing it – and then you ignore all the concepts you’ve acquired throughout the years and do something completely stupid. Take my play against Cavaglieri at Worlds this year, for example – I wanted to play Explosives for two, and then I instinctively tapped Hallowed Fountain and Island. Then I actually thought about it, and went on to untap my Fountain and to tap another Blue source – which resulted in my Explosives being for one, and in me losing the game. When I did things automatically, I got it right – when I stopped to think, it all added up with the pressure of being in the World Championships and it being a feature match, and the desire to play technically perfect – that is, to keep the W source untapped because everyone was looking and I just wanted to make the right play though it wouldn’t matter that turn – and I messed up the very simple play.

So, to avoid falling in this trap, do two things. First, trust your brain on what it has already concluded on its own. Of course you don’t have to be a puppet of previously stored information, and it might be that your Goldmeadow Stalwart opponent is playing WR Burn and what you want to do in the game is to preserve your life total just as if he had played Jackal Pup – as a famous detective would say, you have your little grey cells, use them. However, in the middle of an important play, do not panic and suddenly start going through everything you’ve already unconsciously gone through. If your brain already did the work for you on those particular situations, then be glad and move on. Second, don’t think of outside factors! I don’t care what the match is worth, or what you are going to write in your article about it (and this I fall victim to a lot, which is probably why I can remember things so well – but, as the saying goes, do as I say, don’t do as I do), and neither should you!

One more thing you can do is prepare yourself for the situations you will face in tournaments, so you are already used to them and therefore don’t waste your potential thinking about them. Scientists once conducted an experiment in which they would put two groups of people in a low pressure environment – group A would just learn golf, and group B would learn golf but were told that their classes were being monitored and watched by professionals. In the low pressure experiment, both groups performed about the same. Then they put them in the high pressure experiment – the students were told they were going to receive monetary awards on how well they did, and also that they had a partner whose awards also depended on their improvement, and they would of course be watched. In this test, group A’s performance dropped significantly, and group B’s actually improved! This suggests that being exposed to a particular environment from the initial stages of learning might actually counter the negative effects of this pressure. In practice, that means you can, for example, have someone better than you watch your playtesting sessions, and be fully aware that they are going to criticize you after that for every mistake you make. This way, you adapt to the environment where you are being judged.

In the end, this cannot be completely avoided. After all, we are humans and not machines, and psychology will play a part in our game no matter what. So next time you step by a Pro Tour and happen to watch a Pro Player make an horrendous play, such as killing his own guy, or not playing his three-drop into an empty board, or playing five rituals to burn for eight and pass (I guess just pass nowadays), don’t rush into thinking “my god, how did this guy top 8 a Pro Tour?!” It is probably not that he didn’t think of it, but just that he thought about so many things that the most obvious ended up overlooked in some corner of his mind as he went through every possible situation he could find in search of the best play.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. See you next week!