Removed from Game – It’s All Good

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Monday, April 14th – With only 13 fewer endings than ‘Return of the King,’ Rich Hagon’s trilogy on mental techniques designed to up your winning percentage comes to a conclusion with an in-depth look at Steve Sadin, and takes in techniques employed by Cheon, LSV, van Lunen, the Belgians and more that can give you the edge the next time you sit down to cardboard conflict.

Welcome to the final part of my short but mildly controversial series on positive self-image, Cognitive Dissonance, finding an Edge, and giving yourself Permission to Win. I’m assuming that most of you have been along for the last two, but for those that haven’t…

Previously on Removed From Game:

Talkative Event Coverage Podcaster Rich Hagon wrote a lengthy and passionate piece about giving yourself the chance to succeed when, in his view, the default human condition is one of failure. Using – in a rather cavalier fashion that brought him much objection from the scientific section of the SCG community – terms like Cognitive Dissonance, he argued that for much of the time we will lose because we choose to, since that fits in more accurately with our own self-image of failure. Calling on a selection of personal anecdotes, he concluded part 1, catchily entitled ‘A Very Big Secret’ by suggesting that we could learn much from successful Magic players, and indeed successful people in other walks of life. His end-of-episode cliffhanger suggested that we could all give ourselves Permission To Win, and that subsequent articles in the series would demonstrate how that could be achieved.

Seven days later, ‘Permission To Win’ hit the screens around the world, and once again controversy abounded. Largely featuring examples taken from the Ginger Alliance Book of Goodness, he sought to demonstrate how Tom LaPille had taken control over his destiny, given himself Permission to Win, and succeeded admirably. In a sub-plot, he also unveiled the darker side of what happens when nasty bullies like himself preyed upon the innocent and weak. This was designed to be a cautionary tale about what can happen when someone who has decided to Win comes up against someone who subconsciously may not be quite so sure. Depending on perspective, these ‘tricks’ were either seen as examples of using every resource to Win, or being a d*ck. Either way, the forums were full of opinion, and readers will be interested to know that a spin-off series, ‘The Moral Maze,’ will be coming soon , an interactive experience where readers will be confronted with a host of ethical and moral dilemmas in Magic, and vote on what the correct course of action should be.

Meanwhile, with seconds left in the episode, he again left us wanting to tune in the following week by dangling the guest appearances of none other than Steve Sadin and Patrick Chapin, plus a host of others, as all the delicately woven plot strands fell into place in the final episode, an episode so packed with positivity, inspiring stories, solid sense, and feel-good success, that readers could only feel good about themselves as the credits rolled.

Alternatively, you could read the last two articles, couldn’t you?

So, the conclusion.

Let’s kick off with a look at Steve Sadin. I have an enormous amount of time for Steve, and believe that he has a bucketload to teach all of us about success in Magic. Although he has yet to win a Pro Tour, which in itself is hardly a crime since Olivier Ruel and Kenji Tsumura among the crop of current Superstars haven’t either, Steve won Grand Prix: Columbus last year with FlashHulk. But the achievements that he’s already accomplished are I believe likely to pale into insignificance compared to what’s coming in the next few years. So what can Steve teach us?

Be The Right Age

What is the right age to succeed at Magic? Although it’s going to vary from person to person, the key to this is having the availability of commitment. Steve is now, I think, 19. When you look at someone like Makahito Mihara, the 2006 World Champion, he made the most of his talent just in time, because he’d reached a stage in his life where the ‘real world’ was going to get in the way. Quentin Martin made the Top 8 of Pro Tour: Prague, and was the Limited Information columnist for a while over on the mothership. Craig Jones got all the way to the final of Honolulu. Neither won a PT, and now both have been overtaken by Real Life. Don’t get me wrong, good things are happening for both of them, just not in Magic. Mihara on the other hand, knew that Real Life was on the way, and took his chance. Will Kenji, who is now pretty busy with studies, ever win a PT? The odds have lengthened.

So what about Steve? Well, he worked out that, if he managed to make a success of Magic, he had several years where his likely lifestyle of living in New York and studying could dovetail nicely with trips around the world. Plus, raging stud though he undoubtedly is, the prospect of serious relationships, girlfriends, and wives, at least simultaneously, are relatively unlikely to complicate matters at this stage. Now you could be 35 and reading this and decide that you are the Right Age, and that’s possible. But the group dynamic of the Pro Tour suggests that to be unlikely. So if you’re ancient like me, you better have good reasons to make up for not being the right age.

Trust Yourself

Steve shares something very important with Paul Cheon. Vowels. Because, after all, who’d want to be called Stv or Pl? Seriously though, these guys Trust Themselves. What do I mean by that? Well, at some point last year they sat down and came to the conclusion that a particular goal could be achieved. In Steve’s case, it was the idea that he could get on the gravy train and automatically be qualified for every Pro Tour this year. For Paul, he was attempting to reach the pinnacle of the game, Level 8 (as is now). For both, a serious investment both in time and money was required. Steve knew that only by flying around the world to a Grand Prix in Brisbane could he sensibly accumulate the points he needed to make it. Not only is that a killer journey, but at the end of it, he was very much alone. Don’t misunderstand, Australia’s an incredible place and I’m sure people were friendly toward him, but during those three rounds of byes, he was essentially alone, between rounds, alone, after Day 1, alone. Of course it’s true that we’re always alone with ourselves, but at a GP on home soil we don’t feel it so obviously. In Brisbane, Steve was on a mission, with no support network. He simply HAD to trust himself, because without that what else was there?

As for Paul, he had a support network in the shape of the mighty Luis Scott-Vargas, and you shouldn’t underestimate the power of a good travelling companion. In fact, I’ll come to that in a mo. But for now, let’s stick with Cheon and his trip to Krakow last Autumn for the Grand Prix. GPs are great, Poland’s a lovely place, Krakow was really nice, but it isn’t a place you necessarily take the best part of a week to travel to and from just to play Magic from North America, unless you’re very serious indeed about it. Cheon had done the math, and worked out that a decent finish there, plus Daytona, plus Worlds should get him over the threshold. He didn’t do well at Krakow, he won Krakow.

Remember the Victory

Another thing that Steve and Paul share was observable in their reactions to getting across their respective finishing lines. They were close to incoherent. Even talking to them weeks later, they still found it difficult to put into words what their successes meant to them. I believe this is very significant. To me, what happened was this: They had set themselves a task, where there could be no blurring of the lines, no self-justifying, no moving of the goalposts. There could only be Success or Failure. Cheon would have Failed had he ended up Level 7, in his own mind. Steve would have Failed if the points hadn’t stacked up. From personal experience, there is nothing on Earth more exhilarating than the moment where everything you’ve striven for is achieved. All the clichés about ‘top of the world’ and ‘floating on air,’ they’re actually rubbish at explaining the feeling. I’m going to have a go at putting it into words. This, or variations of it, is what I believe Steve and Paul and everyone who has ever experienced a moment of unadulterated Success is feeling at that moment.

I looked at myself, shorn of all pretence.
I saw the person I wanted myself to be.
I believed I could be that person.
I dared to try to be that person.
And I found that, after all the sacrifice, the self-doubt, the striving, the pain, the willingness to do whatever it took to be that person I so wanted to be,

There is precisely nothing in the known universe more powerful and positively electrifying than finding out that you are the person you want to be. Nothing. Both Steve and Paul said to me, in essence, ‘I am who I thought I was.’ At that most precious of moments, some are struck dumb. Others have such an adrenaline rush they go running around the building screaming (that was me when I found out I’d got my job with Wizards), they just can’t contain that rush of self-actualisation. And remembering the moment where you became whole, where your dreams precisely meshed with the person you were at that moment, is one of the greatest skills to being Successful, because no matter how good you are, stuff gets in the way, and that perfect synchronicity may only come once in your lifetime. Use it, feed off it. It doesn’t get any better, so Remember the Victory.

You’re Human

When I’m at a GP or PT, I don’t get to see a huge amount of Magic played. At the GPs, my cohort Ben Coleman tends to go out and about, while I interview players and edit the shows. So when Ben comes back from watching a game to tell me that someone incredibly good at the game has done something, well, idiotic, I’m always suspicious. No offence to Ben, but there’s more likelihood of him or I having misread the game situation, or what a particular card does, than that the player in question is the ‘guilty’ party. I therefore make a point of giving Ben the third degree when this happens. Are you sure? Independent confirmation? Have you looked up the card? Does it have errata? Can we check with the Head Judge? And finally, are you sure you want to go on record on magicthegathering.com, be listened to by thousands of players around the world, and say that a contender for Player of the Year has made a schoolboy error?

In Krakow, Ben’s answer was yes. And that’s how me, you, and thousands of others got to hear about Paul Cheon facing an opponent on 2 life. Paul was on 1 life. His opponent had just attacked with a bunch of monsters. Paul had a Magus of the Tabernacle in play. As his opponent passed the turn Paul said ‘guess I need something good off the top.’ He untapped, drew a land, and conceded. Then LSV, watching across the table, asked why Paul hadn’t attacked with his Magus for 2, thus killing his opponent. Yep, one of the best players in the world didn’t count to 2. That’s pretty high up the chain of unforced errors. For most of us, our tournament ends right there, not because we’re out of mathematical contention, but because we know in our heart of hearts that nobody that idiotic can succeed. But Cheon knew that 9999 out of 10000 he was the winner of that match, and that he was Only Human. That happened in his 4th match of Day 1. He didn’t lose another round en route to winning the Grand Prix. Being human means mistakes. It doesn’t mean we can’t win. Cheon can. Cheon did. So can you.

Be A Team

I’m rarely jealous, but I confess that last week I really wanted to be somewhere else in the world. Specifically, I wanted to be in a car with BDM, Steve Sadin, and Jacob van Lunen going to a special draft tournament in Connecticut. You can read all about it in BDM’s column from last Friday. Quite apart from an awesome day of Magic ahead, and ignoring for a moment the sheer ‘yay’ of being in New York and eating pie from Grand Central, what could be better than just sitting and talking with three of the most interesting guys in the game? Can you even begin to imagine how much Magic knowledge you’d get just by sitting in the backseat and listening in? The Pro Tour historian. San Diego Pro Tour winner. And this year’s Player of the Year. Oops. Did I say that out loud? Yeah, as a by the by, Steve Sadin is my pick this year, based largely on his mental game. But let’s not get too sidetracked. Putting yourself in a position to have great fun whilst also improving your Magic is a real win-win situation. Cheon and LSV clearly feed off each other. Steve and Jacob van Lunen are in constant contact, and both are part of a truly influential network that stems from BDM. Then there’s the Japanese GP marauders, until recently the near-unopposable trio of Kenji Tsumura, Shuuhei Nakamura, and Tomaharu Saitou. Would anyone seriously back against one of these three making the Top 8 of a European GP? I certainly wouldn’t, and part of that is all about the Team. Patrick Chapin, of whom more in a while, is intimately involved with Mark Herberholz and Gabriel Nassif, and if you’re a Pro and want something scary to keep you awake at nights, I’ll be ending up with a mental story about these three.

But to me the finest example of the Team approach to Magic right now is the Belgian quartet of Fried Meulders, Marijn Lybaert, Jan Doise, and Christophe Gregoir. If you want to see bonding in action, you should watch these four through a GP weekend. They travel together. They stay together. They test together. They eat together. They lose together. And, more importantly, they win together. From tournament to tournament, whenever they are individually out of contention, their focus moves straight to their teammates who are still in with a shout. You could argue that this achieves little, but actually it’s a very powerful mental edge. Not only do the remaining players feel that they are being actively supported, and that their games are being watched for possible reminders by teammates who want them to succeed, but for the player who is out of contention there is still an element of reflected success. This is especially true for Constructed events, where despite bad matchups that may have put you out of the running, you can still claim Success via the piloting of the team deck by one of your colleagues. I have nothing but admiration for these four guys, and believe that largely due to their team approach, Belgium is arguably the second most powerful nation in Europe at Magic. That’s mighty impressive.

Be Brave

Pierre Canali and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa. Herberholz and Chapin. Ruel and Ruel. Finkel and Ravitz. All pretty sensible pairings for Pro Tour: San Diego last year. Who did Hall of Famer Dave Humpherys partner? Steve Sadin. Huh? What’s that about? Humpherys, I repeat, is a Hall of Famer. Who wouldn’t want to play with a Hall of Famer? The Byzantine qualification process for SD meant that Steve would have to partner someone with Level 4 status or higher. Who could he get? He went for the best player in the world who wasn’t already taken. He didn’t think, ‘it would be rude to ask.’ He didn’t think ‘I’m not good enough.’ He just asked. Humpherys said yes. And when I asked Humpherys why he was playing with Steve, he simply shrugged and said, ‘Nobody else asked me.’ Nobody. Now it’s possible that having BDM in your corner to vouch for you probably did Steve no harm, but the fact remains that he was the only person on planet Earth who looked at the Fantasy List of partners and went, ‘I’d like him on my team’. Sometimes, you just have to take a deep breath and go for it.

Let It Out

Steve didn’t know me very well back in San Diego. I interviewed him and Dave when they were at 4-0. The next time I spoke to him, and I swear this is coincidence, they were 4-4. I didn’t have my microphone on, and was just asking Steve how he was getting on because I was genuinely interested. He stood in front of me for a moment in silence, and then said, very politely, ‘Excuse me for a moment.’ And then he proceeded to physically leap up and down and round and round like a demented whirling dervish, practically pounding the ground in frustration. His body literally couldn’t contain the passion for the game, and his desire to succeed, and his frustration, and, in front of a near-stranger, he understood that the most important thing for him at that moment was to vent and let it out. After a few seconds of this unusual but vital display, he calmly came back and simply said, ‘Sorry about that. Had to be done. Essential.’ And that last word struck home with me. It was ‘of the essence.’ In other words, he understood himself well enough that the alternative to that apparently inappropriate display would be some kind of mental implosion. He listened to what his body and mind were telling him, and acted on that information. That’s smart.

Explore Human Knowledge

If there was one lesson that came out of last week that I believe is more important than any of the others, it would be to Remove the Excuses, the reasons that we allow ourselves to permit failure. This is in some ways a coinflip to that lesson. In ye olde days, if you were serious about Magic you had a million ways to gain an edge over your opponent that largely had to do with your understanding of the game, and their lack of it. If you were the guy who actually read the oracle wording, you knew more about the game than most of your opponents. If you understood combat timing, you had an edge over most opponents. Even in more recent stack-driven times, if you understood the Stack, you had an edge over most of your opponents. Magic Online has killed almost all of the technical edges that players have historically had over lesser opponents. At the very highest levels of the game, the best in the business can still run rings around beginners with stack shenanigans, and cunning timing of triggered abilities and so on, but for the most part the guy who tries to cast Wrath in his upkeep and forgets to ping you every turn have gone. That means that if you want to win, maybe looking to less traditional resources might be helpful. Of all the many reasons I love Steve as a Magic player, his willingness to explore facets of humanity in a bid to improve his game is almost certainly number one. If you read his articles, either here or now over on the mothership, you’ll find, buried in most of them, a little nugget that hints at the sheer breadth and avidness of his quest for edge-gaining knowledge. ‘Matt Wang said I should read about Negotiation.’ Why? Well, it turns out that Negotiation forms a key part of successful Drafting. Books on Negotiation apparently have nothing to do with Magic. But an understanding of it helps Steve find an edge.

The time I finally realised that I was talking to someone potentially very special indeed came at Pro Tour: Valencia. We only had a few minutes to talk, but we quickly got on to the mental aspects of the game — I think we were discussing how different players would deal with the extra day before the vent, and the punishing schedule on Day 1. To my utter astonishment, since I never expected to have a conversation about this with a Magic player, I found myself listening to Steve as he talked about the idea of controlling one’s breathing during a match. Many of you may be already thinking seven shades of ‘huh?’ But Steve was talking about something that sportsmen and women utilise all the time. The basic technique is this: Over a period of time, usually weeks and months, you keep a journal, measuring both your performances (times, results) and your stress levels, as measured by your own 1-10 scale. Over time, you come to a realisation of where your optimal stress level is. There is no ‘right’ answer to this number. But whatever it is, you should aim to keep your stress level at or near that internal number. Fall too far below it, and you’re likely to make sloppy plays by not being alert. Overcook yourself, and you’ll soon be finding ways to lose that God hadn’t even invented, because it all gets too much, and keeping a ‘cool’ head is paramount. I can’t tell you how far down this road Steve has gone. But I can tell you that amongst all the card choices and sideboard options and matchup dilemmas, he’s found room in his head for the idea that one day he might beat someone just by having a slower heartbeat than them. When someone team drafts for my life, I want Steve on my team.

So where does Patrick Chapin come into all this? Well, wouldn’t you just know it, the Network Executives have come along and insisted he be given his very own Magic special, ‘Patrick Chapin: Mental Titan,’ and yours truly will be presenting that show next week.

But I promised that I would end with a truly scary thought for those of you thinking of competing at the World Championships in Memphis this year. When I mention Worlds, what do you think? Something you’re going to listen to on the podcasts, and watch with Randy and BDM? Maybe you’re hoping that you can do really well at your Nationals this year, and secure an invite. Maybe some of you are even thinking about making Day 2, especially if you’re a decent-level Pro.

Let me tell you about Patrick Chapin, Mark Herberholz, and Gabriel Nassif. Chances are, they won’t be thinking about Worlds today at all. But if you asked them about it, and they were honest, they would tell you that they are all wondering who the OTHER semi-finalist at Worlds 2008 is going to be.

You may be quite certain that these three have given themselves Permission To Win.

You can do it too. All you have to do — and for lots of humanity this is so scary that we can never bring ourselves face to face with it — all you have to do is Decide, and from that empowering moment where you give yourself Permission To Win, winning comes.

As advertised, ‘Patrick Chapin: Mental Titan,’ coming soon to an SCG near you…

As ever, perhaps more than ever given my genuine passion for this topic, thanks for reading.