The Beautiful Struggle – Surviving Slumps

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Examining one’s own thought processes during a slump is a tricky business. As I wrote in On Discipline, being able to self-examine your play is one of the hallmarks of good discipline. The problem with this is that during your worst slumps, self-examination doesn’t seem to turn up anything useful.

I wish I had something positive to write about this week, but unfortunately I don’t. I’ve been on Magic Online for about a year, and I am currently mired in the worst losing streak I’ve had yet. Basically, after a fine Thanksgiving weekend with Merfolk decks, as I outlined in Thanks, Merfolk!, I haven’t been able to buy a draft win.

Doesn’t matter if it’s a 4-3-2-2 queue, an 8-4 queue, or a Premiere Event; doesn’t matter if the format is triple-Lorwyn or something more esoteric. I don’t think I could string two wins together if my life depended on it. My rating, which has crested over 1850 a couple of different times (the last time was during Tenth Edition Release Events), and hovered around the 1760-1770 range during the Lorwyn Release Events, is under 1700 and dropping rapidly. During a recent PE a player recognized me, checked my rating, and typed “HAHAHAH” for over a minute. Such is the danger of using your name as your login handle, I guess.

I’m actually used to this phenomenon; slumps of considerable length can happen in online games because you can play so often. Back when I was playing chess online, slumps and rushes of several hundred rating points could happen over the course of a few days because the games end so quickly — you can fit a lengthy string of blitz chess games in the time it takes to finish a single match of Magic.

However, you don’t have to buy the pieces from a store to play each game of online chess, which can make your Magic slumps a little more painful. That financial investment makes it a lot more important that you get through a Magic slump with the right mindset; slumps that last too long can cost you quite a bit of money, otherwise. I know it is costing me right now.

Now, when I say “slump” I am referring to “a negative pattern that is much longer than what you normally experience.” Obviously this varies for everyone. With the way Luis Scott-Vargas has been playing lately, a slump for him might mean missing Top 16 at a Grand Prix. If you’re the sort of person who goes 2-2 at every Friday Night Magic, then a slump might be a few consecutive week’s worth of 1-3s and 0-4s. On the other hand, I once played against someone with a rating of 1376 on Magic Online; I can’t even imagine what a slump would be like for that person. Maybe winning a match? It would definitely be breaking his normal pattern.

I would like to say that the first thing you do when you are slumping is look for what’s gone wrong. However, we all know that not to be the case. The first thing you do when you are slumping is complain, “Damn it! I just cannot (bleeping) win a (bleeping) match!” or something along those lines. There’s no shame in it. Losing feels bad, especially when it means some money was taken out of your pocket with no return. Anger is a perfectly normal reaction. Once you calm down, though, then you actually have to take a look in the proverbial mirror and figure out where you’re going wrong.

(Actually, for me, it’s a literal mirror that I have set up next to my monitor. After a hard day of reading the forums, I need a reminder that I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me. I also need to tell myself that there’s no shame in using references from 1992.)

However, examining one’s own thought processes during a slump is a tricky business. As I wrote in On Discipline, being able to self-examine your play is one of the hallmarks of good discipline. The problem with this is that during your worst slumps, self-examination doesn’t seem to turn up anything useful.

During a slump, you lose with everything and to everything. When you draft Goblins, you lose to Merfolk; when you draft Merfolk, you lose to Goblins. When you have Imperious Perfect on turn 3; you lose to removal and/or fliers; when you draft fliers and removal you’ll lose to a turn 3 Imperious Perfect. You’ll get two copies of a Wrath, and your opponent will have two copies of a better Wrath (the other day I had double Finals Revels and my first-round opponent had double Thundercloud Shaman). During your worst slumps even your wins feel like losses: a couple of days ago I had to combine savage topdecking with my opponent’s poor play to avoid losing to Protective Bubble. Protective Bubble, for God’s sake! The mere thought that I was close to losing to that card makes me feel like a stain on the underpants of the universe.

My point is, during a slump there is the tendency to believe that you are doing everything wrong. Your decks seem bad, your play seems bad, your mental game seems bad. Self-examination during this time is a fine prescription for a crushing case of depression. At the same time, though, you can’t just dismiss the fact that you might be doing something wrong; slumps are rarely just the result of 100% bad luck.

Interlude: On Extended

** There is a deck. Maybe you knew about this deck, but you thought it was old news. It isn’t. A Lorwyn common has given it new life. I have been restrained by threat of force from saying anything else.

** Man, how bad is maindeck Thoughtseize for the PTQs? I imagine many more people would play Gaea’s Might Get There or other Red builds with Tribal Flames in the PTQs than at the Pro Tour, and those decks would do a victory lap if you used a card and lost between 2 and 5 life to make them discard.

** Has anyone proven why “Chase Rare Control” — a.k.a. The Winning Deck From Valencia, a.k.a. The Worst Named Deck of All Time — isn’t the best choice for PTQs? I have to believe that some deck running Counterbalance/Top is the boss of the format, because that combo can beat everything but dredge-type decks, and this deck has lots of outs to the opponent’s graveyard.

Back to the Article

So, what do you do when you get in a slump? Well, there are no hard and fast rules, but there are some things that I have noticed, which might be able to help you:

Take a break. This is usually the route that I take to get myself out of trouble: take some time away, don’t think about Magic for awhile, return to the game with new eyes a week or two later. Just make sure that the break is long enough that you really feel like you’re coming back to the game anew; when I had to take a poker break during a losing streak earlier this year, I found that a too-short break can actually be worse, because it makes you eager to get back without losing any bad habits you developed during the slump.

Since a slump is, by definition, a period of bad things happening for you, it had to be proceeded by at least some success. I’ve found that success can sometimes put you in a bad routine. After awhile you get used to doing everything right, so much so that you can forget just how much attention you have to pay to doing things right. Then, once the idea of a slump starts germinating in your head, you can reinforce it by straining too hard to get that “right” feeling back. For those of you who like American football, this is why most people seem to think that the Patriots cannot go undefeated all the way to the Super Bowl, because it’s really hard to avoid a rut like this over the course of six months (19 games plus preseason), especially since everyone and their brother is gunning for you over those last two months.

This is why breaks are sometimes needed. Every football team wants a first-round bye in the playoffs, and every Magic player needs the occasional break to avoid slumping. This approach has worked wonders for me in chess and poker, and I’m on Day 4 of my current Magic break and feeling great. If you really need to satisfy your gaming fix over your break time, might I suggest online Scrabble? You can play it for free.

Try something new. If you don’t want to take a break, you can achieve almost the same goal by radically changing things up. Maybe you’ve never drafted Kithkin before, or perhaps you hate playing beatdown decks in Constructed. Well, if nothing else has been working for you recently, why not give it a shot? Sometimes adopting the viewpoint that you have nothing more to lose is the only way to get yourself out of the losing mindset. The key is that word radical: you have to try something completely different, way out of your old comfort zone, so that you lose all of the familiarity with the game that you had while you were slumping.

The idea is that changing things up, like taking a break, is another way to see the game in a new way and get yourself out of bad routines. Plus, you might find that changing things up can lead you to something you really enjoy and are good at. I actually started playing in Momir Basic events online during my first draft slump, just to shake things up, and I found the format such fun that I became fascinated by its strategy.

On the whole, though, I prefer taking a break to changing things up, because changing things up can sometimes exacerbate the problem. If you switch to something which is worse — let’s say you switch up your draft game so that you only draft color X, which is being horribly over-drafted by everybody and their brothers — then that can start you on the path from “slump” to “out-and-out disaster.” Nobody wants that.

Stay Positive. One thing which I’ve seen in chess and especially poker, is that when a slump finally ends, you tend not to feel different. It seems like you are playing exactly the same way as when you were slumping, but stuff just starts to work out for you.

In reality you probably did start playing better to get out of the slump, because most slumps are not a result of bad luck alone. Most slumps happen, as I said before, because past success can make a person a little lazy about doing all of the Little Things that you need to do to stay good. So, most slumps end because you start playing better and doing those Little Things again, but because the things you are doing right are “little” things, you don’t feel like you are playing any differently.

Anyway, the point is that while you are slumping you generally need to feel optimistic about turning things around. You need to remember that you don’t have to make some monster leap to get back to where you were. Once you start winning again, you’ll feel basically the same. If you’ve demonstrated that you’re the sort of person who can win at a given rate — whether that rate is “one FNM per month” or “one 8-4 queue per night” — then keep believing that you will eventually return to that winning form.

As a side note, don’t think those “one 8-4 queue per night” winners don’t have slumps. They do. They just keep the slumps shorter and recover better than the rest of us. After the first time my rating passed the 1850 barrier, I looked at my rankings and saw, just one slot below me, the name “rhoaen.” I like to think that state of affairs caused Rich to end whatever slump he was in, lightning-quick.

Finally, I’d like to let you all know that I’m taking a break from writing, first for the holidays and then to study for a qualifying exam in early January. You should see my next article on January 17. I may be on Magic Online every once in awhile for a study break, so feel free to say hello.

mmyoungster at aim dot com
mm_young dot livejournal dot com
mm_young on MTGO

No, I don’t actually have a mirror set up next to my monitor.