The Good Advice Players Just Don’t Get Enough Of

You’ve heard a lot about improving your game if you’ve read Magic articles for a long time. You’ve heard about playtesting, about getting enough sleep, and so forth. But Mark Nestico has some important words that just don’t get enough attention in the competitive Magic world.

Well this certainly was an exciting week for yours truly. I was lucky enough to see the Gin Blossoms and Deftones live back-to-back, I turn 30 on the 21st of May, I’m going to Disney World for four days, and I was blessed with my first extensive Reddit thread about my piece regarding theft last week.

Lots of people liked it!

Lots of people didn’t!

I’m just glad you all seemed to feel something at all.

At any rate, kiddies, today we’re going to talk about something I’ve been meaning to have a chat with you about for quite a while, and on the eve of a milestone in my life I feel like the time is finally appropriate.

No birds and no bees.

Just…I don’t know. Harmony.

You see, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked by players is “how to get better.” Usually I give the traditional and expected answers: playtest more, build a strong team, and be familiar with the metagame…things other writers have already chatted with you about before. I like to put my own unique spin on things, but at the core, one of my critics was right: it’s been said before. I’d like to do something newer and fresher with you today. Perhaps it’ll help you the way it has helped me.

Months ago, I chatted a bit about mindfulness, which is a way of thinking that is meant to alter your perception, emotional state, and ability to process the current situation you are in. With mindfulness, the events of your past fail to influence the present, which in turn can impact your future. You pragmatically view your emotions from a distance and do not label them as either good or bad, which gives you the opportunity to experience the current moment.

Now, you may be wondering how this will affect your Magic-playing abilities, and to be frank, it is difficult to see at first. Magic, much like any sport, is a game fueled by emotion. When we win, we experience joy. When we lose, we experience anger, sorrow, reflectiveness, or a whole host of other feelings. Rather than being ruled by those emotions, mindfulness (and by extension mindful meditation) allows you to reflect without feeling or attaching meaning to something. Don’t understand yet? You will!

Do Not Stress Over the Things You Can Change; Do Not Stress Over the Things You Can’t

At its core, Magic is a game of variance and chance. The most difficult aspect is using skill in order to minimize the effects of “luck” on a match, which is why you see players like Brad Nelson and Gerry Thompson able to do so well on a constant basis. They make educated decisions based on analysis, experimentation, and educated guessing that allow them a degree of control that most players do not have. That’s why you’ll see them more easily able to fight through mana flood or mulligans. It’s not because they are luckier than you, but instead because they’ve studied what to do in those scenarios.

A friend of mine was playing for Top 8 in a PTQ about four years ago. I had already locked up my spot and was enjoying a round off due to a draw. I took this time to use the restroom, grab some water, and enjoy a sandwich at the bar the hotel had near the ballroom we were playing in. I returned to the hall about twenty minutes after the round had started, and he was already walking up to me. I smiled and gave the thumbs up, to which he replied with a frown and thumbs down. It turns out he mulliganed quite a bit in both games, as low as four, and was ousted from a potential Top 8 pretty quickly. His take? “I think I didn’t shuffle enough. Maybe I should have shuffled more.”

This is a situation where your shuffling probably didn’t have much to do with it. If you adequately shuffled, and your opponent did as well and even cut your deck, chances are that your draw wasn’t affected by you not doing it twice as much.

Luck is controllable, but only so much. His trips to Paris over and over again are a part of Magic, of which we seem to maintain a very negative-centered view when it comes to luck, and less of one when things are going our way. The common “you need luck to win a tournament” is certainly true, but the more mundane victories players have that can be attributed to their opponents failing to draw well, mulligan, or misplay are every bit as lucky as the player playing well. They share in equal parts of the match. The trick is minimizing the luck side.

We are unable to change that Magic is a game based on luck, and because of that understanding, it becomes significantly easier to not feel anger about losing to it. It works just as much in our favor as it does against us. What tips the scales is you as a player and the ability you bring to the table. This realization means that, while we may have been unlucky, it is a factor we should be able to come to terms with.

Understand There Is a Ceiling for Every Player

Players get upset when they lose.

Players get upset when they lose to a homebrew while they’re piloting the deck that won the latest Pro Tour at an FNM.

Players get upset when they are unable to achieve the desired results they believe they should.

Maintaining a proper mindset is paramount in not letting yourself get overwhelmed by emotion, fear, or anger. Understand that every player has a limit that, in most cases, they are unable to get past. Setting goals, having reasonable expectations, and having a full acceptance of where your ceiling is will save you plenty of mental energy.

I am not as good of a Magic player as I wish I was. I bat .500 on the Pro Tour, and with preparation, I’m sure I could do much better. With that being said, I have no illusions of what my capabilities are. My ceiling hasn’t been reached yet, or at least that’s what I believe. In my current state I’m as good as I can be, and I’ve come to understand that.

Many players, both good and those who harbor the belief that they are good, always want more. Their inability to perform at a desired level, like at an SCG Tour® tournament or a Grand Prix, fails to placate their ego and internalized expectations, which creates the domino effect of unfulfilled potential. I’m friends with a lot of vendors. Do you know why they love Sundays? Because disillusioned players sell their decks when they don’t do well. “I’m quitting Magic.” I know, because I used to succumb to this.

When we believe we are better at something than we are, it creates dueling illusions. Failure is due to outside, uncontrollable circumstances. Success is owed due to investment and time spent. There is rarely an in-between.

As a teenager I played baseball, and I loved it. I was a good contact hitter, could field well, and never stopped trying to learn. I wasn’t big, though, and I watched as many of my peers grew taller, bulked up, and became the type of athlete that my body wasn’t really capable of being, no matter how much time I spent in the gym or studying. I had to come to terms with my limitations, and I enjoyed baseball until I couldn’t play at the level I wanted to anymore. That doesn’t mean I had to quit playing, but it did mean that I couldn’t get angry when I didn’t make a team or get a starting spot. It wasn’t owed to me.

Spend time working on the things you can achieve and getting better as best you can, but do not hold on to the belief that you should have success just because you work towards it. Sometimes the journey is a reward, like the friends you make and the fun you have along the way, regardless of the outcome.

Prevent the Past from Dictating Your Future; Be Here Now

Mindfulness has one tenet that initially resonated with me when I began to actively learn it, and that is doing your best to not let events, prejudices, or past ways of dealing with situations affect your present mindset. Doing so affects your future and can jade or darken it.

Magic is probably the one hobby that I’ve had in my life where disabling my past has allowed me to vastly improve as a player. Last year, around January, I began secretly practicing mindfulness, and in that time I had the best year of my life playing Magic, the best results, and the best mindset. I was finally able to burst through whatever was holding me back.

For example, I couldn’t ever win a PTQ. I just couldn’t. I lost in the Top 8 of so many of them that it almost seemed like a joke. I failed because I expected to fail; in the past I had, so why should the present be any different? Why would any in the future be any different?

It was no longer an option to allow previous shortcomings into my life. I had to live in the present, examine my plays and current state from a distance, and access. This gave me a clear insight into what plays to make and how to react to what my opponent was doing. I could call on past matches and my understandings of the matchup, but it also kept me from playing around certain cards to the point where it would lose me the match.

In short, and as cliché as it sounds, I urge you to play one match at a time. You may be 5-3 on Day 1 of a Grand Prix and this match dictates if you make Day 2, but putting so much pressure on yourself will only cause you to make mistakes or blame yourself for any error. Each match is its own separate entity, completely isolated from any others you will play during a given tournament, and battled against a pilot far different from the last or next one you’ll play. Nothing is the same. Previous understanding must be integrated and the rest disregarded.

I’m sure some of this sounds a bit too “new age” for some of you, but I still wanted to share it. A lot of players are looking for different or interesting ways to improve, and this was something helped me a great deal.

I hope it helps you as well.

Next week I’ll be in Disney, so you won’t be seeing me, but I’ll be living in that moment. Enjoy yours.