Luck Doesn’t Exist

Luck, variance, randomness… whatever you want to call it, MTG is full of it. Or is it? GerryT shares wisdom learned the hard way about making your own luck.

Lucky Clover, illustrated by John Stanko

If you knew me when I was twenty years old, I owe you an apology. 

I’m sorry. 

“For what?” you ask. Well, basically for everything. One of my lighter offenses as a young, fired-up kid with a taste of success was speaking in hyperbole. On more than one occasion, I uttered the phrase “luck doesn’t exist” without a hint of irony, much to the chagrin of many. It was the best way to shrug off my friends’ bad beat stories. Since they were typically seeking affirmation or comfort, they didn’t enjoy my response. 

Are you a bad friend if you fail to meet their immediate needs, even if you think you’re doing what you think is best for them in the long term? I think not, but given their reactions and the fallout of some of those friendships, it’s clear I could have gone about things in less of an edgelord way. Being hard on them was, at the time, what I thought would help them the most, but it usually had the opposite reaction. In hindsight, I would have handled things differently. 

I do empathize with being frustrated by an important loss and wanting to vent, but understand that forcing someone else to shoulder your frustration and comfort you isn’t something anyone would willingly sign up for. Putting someone in that position isn’t being a good friend either. 

Anyway, as a late-thirtysomething, much calmer and more grounded version of myself, I’m gonna say it again, with feeling: 

Luck doesn’t exist. 

If I’ve built up any good will through community contributions, providing content I believe in, or by generally being an arbiter of truth, please hold your disdain for the phrase until you’ve finished reading and taken in the entire piece. With an open mind, this is an article that could completely revolutionize how you approach competition. You’ll even be happier as a result. 

How is it possible for me, as a rational, relatively intelligent human being, to believe such a thing? Magic is a game with variance where the best players in the world struggle to consistently win even 70% of their matches. Luck clearly plays a factor, right?

Well, how many times have you seen the deck a team registered for a Pro Tour and thought, “Really?” Then they proceed to bomb out of the tournament and you wonder how some of the brightest minds could have ever staked their tournament life on such a pile. Even the best players don’t always make the right decisions. 

If you’ve ever spent a week testing for a Pro Tour or any other large event, you know exactly how much work gets put into those events. For those of you who haven’t, allow me to explain. You need to choose how to allocate your time, figure out the best deck, try to break the format with new cards or interactions people haven’t experimented with, attempt to figure out what the expected metagame is, and then finally select which deck to play. At that point, you still have to figure out your actual decklist and sideboarding plans. Oh, there was usually a Draft format you had to learn as well. 

Even if you’re not secluding yourself in the forest for a week or two before a Pro Tour, you’re still making countless decisions, any of which could determine your tournament life, all before you sit down to play your first match.

Now, be honest. Did you really lose because you mulliganed? 

Yes, there are incredible corner-case scenarios where you mulligan to four twice and never had a remote chance of winning that individual match, but it’s so far below 1% that it’s not even worth talking about. There are matches where you play well and still lose. Sometimes, someone is more prepared than you. You can’t win each individual game, but you can set yourself up for a deep run in any tournament you join.

One of the best things about tournament Magic is that you’re rarely playing single-elimination, so you have some losses to give. However, even though the tournaments aren’t single elimination, they often feel like winner-take-all. Single-slot PTQs are especially brutal in that regard. These tournaments are designed to create losers, which leaves many people walking away from an event unsatisfied. The odds that you win any given tournament are so astronomically low that it’s illogical to be upset by losing, regardless of the factors. 

This isn’t a purity test and I’m certainly not exempt. I’ve gotten caught up (in a heated gaming moment, if you will) and wanted to direct my frustrations somewhere. We aren’t perfect and are allowed our transgressions, but it shouldn’t be the default response. 

What causes that response should be a question you ask yourself. Any frustration someone has from losing comes from somewhere and it’s never because of luck itself. It could be that you think you’re a stronger player, that you really cared about doing well in the event, or that it seems like nothing is going your way lately. Most of those stem from entitlement, a feeling that has never helped anyone.

Even if you are the best player with the best work ethic and the most Twitter followers, you don’t “deserve” anything. The best players have to continually prove that by consistently executing on what made them great to begin with. If you renounce entitlement, losing (even under unlikely circumstances) won’t elicit a reaction. 

Maybe it’s about not wanting to shoulder the blame for a mistake. There were times when I wanted to blame anybody but myself because my fragile ego couldn’t handle the notion of not living up to my meager expectations. As I’ve noted, there are countless decisions that get made at any given tournament and we’re going to get many of them wrong. Like Venusaur, we’re all just trying to do our best. That amount of blame would cause immense guilt and self-loathing and I would only wish that upon some truly terrible people.

We collectively need to shift the narrative that mistakes equate to character flaws or lack of ability and take blame out of the equation entirely. All I want is for there to be accountability. A mistake is simply a point of data you can use to improve. Magic is hard and the only way to get better is by challenging yourself and being willing to make those mistakes. It’s nearly impossible to play perfectly. We know that, yet still attribute what we perceive to be failings to luck, simply because we don’t want to hold ourselves accountable. It’s easier and less painful to place blame somewhere else, but it shouldn’t be about blame to begin with.

Being accountable doesn’t start when you sit down for a match. It starts in your preparation. If you didn’t have the time to devote (or did and chose not to), you didn’t do everything within your power to win that event. In doing so, you’ve given up every right to complain about luck being a factor and expect people to take you seriously.

Very few people have copious amounts of spare time to devote to Magic, so it’s not easy to do everything necessary to increase your chances of winning. That said, if you can’t put in the time, luck still isn’t a valid thing to blame. Temper your expectations relative to the likelihood of winning. 

My secret is to shift the focus. Treat luck as a non-entity and concentrate on something else. For instance, anything you learn is helping you grow, be stronger, and ultimately become more successful in the future. Any failure is a learning opportunity. Zoom out and look at the bigger picture. 

Nobody is going to remember that you went 10-6 in a Pro Tour. Hell, you won’t even remember. Any individual match is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. What you and everyone else will remember are your career highlights, which will be few and far between. They’ll evaluate you based on that and you should as well. In order to bolster your career, you’ll need to constantly be improving and, if you do, the results will eventually come. 

Focusing on the long term can be difficult if you’re not grinding tournaments week-to-week. Organized Play is also currently in shambles. In the current age, many things are uncertain. While several SCG CON events have been announced, I wouldn’t expect the full return of a tournament series anytime soon. If you get to play in one or two big tournaments per year, you’re in the minority. Framing your Magic career as a large session is more difficult now than it’s ever been. 

The lines have also begun to blur in regards to casual and competitive players. For most of you, I’d wager that the notion of a “Magic career” is bordering on absurdity. Even if the events aren’t happening every weekend like they used to or that’s not a lifestyle you want to pursue, it’s still a better way to approach whether or not you’re achieving whatever metric for success you’re aiming for.

So, how do you practically go about changing your mindset? I recommend focusing on the positive aspects. Learn how to enjoy growth and becoming better at a thing you’re passionate about. Start weighing those level-up moments more heavily than actual wins. Celebrate the things you did correctly.

It’s not an easy process, especially if you’re mired in the negativity. Google “growth mindset.” Read about it. Practice positive affirmation if that’s what it takes. Find a friend who wants to grow as well and hold each other accountable. Listen to the (sadly defunct) HeadGAMs podcast on the topic. 

When something is frustrating you, think about why. Consider that your choices have more impact than you might otherwise give them. On top of it all, do it without placing blame on yourself or wracking yourself with guilt.

For too many folks out there, one of the problems might be that they aren’t surrounded by the right people. Find some friends who bring each other up rather than complain. Alternatively, you could work toward being the change you want to see in your existing friend group. Instead of talking about the lines they messed up, also point out what they did right.

Personally, I didn’t start doing that until far too late. Magic is about the gathering, right? It’s about hanging out with your friends, playing games, cracking jokes, and having a good time. The positivity and good vibes are what it’s all about and there’s no reason that can’t extend to the tournaments and games themselves. 

If Magic players can say “my matchup is unloseable” with a straight face when they’re barely a 70/30 favorite, saying “luck doesn’t exist” sounds far less hyperbolic. With all the choices that go into determining a match of Magic, luck is such a minuscule part of the equation that it shouldn’t even be part of the conversation. 

There are mirror matches, Draft, and Sealed where things are slightly more out of your control than playing Constructed. Formats like Vintage can also be higher variance due to some of the cards being disproportionately powerful. None of that changes the fact that your decisions matter so much more than anything else.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to what you truly care about. If it’s about winning, folks need to understand that it takes time. You can’t rush becoming an expert at anything and the process is typically long and involved. Quell any notions of entitlement, figure out a way to enjoy learning, and focus on the bigger picture instead of individual turns, games, matches, or tournaments.

If you continually make good choices, eventually you’ll be in a position to get that trophy. I never put too much stock in winning a trophy — as long as I made a deep run and felt like I put myself in a good enough position to win, I was happy. Do that enough times and eventually you’ll close the gap. 

The last time I was able to fully put this into practice was 2016. For the first part of the year, I traveled to tournaments for 23 of the 26 weekends and cashed 90% of those weekends. That fed into 2017’s Pro Tour Amonkhet and early 2018’s Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, where I finished first and second, respectively. Around that time, I also finished second at US Nationals and qualified for the World Magic Cup. 

I was happy with my relationship to Magic. I was learning and improving, plus my losses and near misses fired me up even further. It works. You still have to show up and do the work, but having that attitude and perspective makes everything better.

If you watched the finals of PT Rivals of Ixalan, you can see that attitude in action. My matchup was close, but I don’t think I approached it correctly. I got annihilated in probably the biggest match of my life. I did it with a smile on my face and it was genuine.

Winning two Pro Tours is already an incredible feat, but winning two in less than a calendar year? Incredible. Had I won that Pro Tour, I’d probably be in the Hall of Fame. I knew that at the time. Even though the magnitude of the match was immense, I took my loss in stride and that attitude was probably why I was able to be there in the first place. 

If you still want to chalk things up to luck, I suppose you claim these events don’t prove anything. In theory, you could attribute the events to me running hot. However, it’s easy to make that argument for a single event, but not about an entire era. 

Honestly, I wanted to write this article as passively as possible because of the nature of the subject and a title that looks like clickbait. I’d much rather write from personal experience than direct accusatory “yous” at the audience, but it didn’t flow as well. That’s certainly a failure of mine as a writer, although hopefully the message comes across as is. When you produce a piece of content, there’s always the worry that folks will take issue with something in the article and focus on that rather than the message. Similarly to how I communicated the notion to friends decades ago, I’m concerned I could have done a better job here as well. Hopefully that isn’t the case, but if it is, I can always learn from the experience and try to present it again in the future.

Nothing would make me happier than the community searching for self-improvement while also enjoying their games. We’d all be better off for it.