What determines success in Magic? Is it intelligence? Experience? Hard work? Certainly those are qualities that all of the most successful Magic players share. A good answer would be that it's a combination of all three. The best answer however is that while important they all pale in comparison to what's really most critical: a healthy state of mind.
A lot goes into being a great Magic player. You need both a strong mental game and solid technical play. Mental health underlies them both. It affects your focus on the game and will mean the difference between making stupid mistakes and seeing game winning plays. It can lead to overmastering your opponents or at least to keeping them out of your head. As we all know Jedi mind tricks only work on the weak-minded.
Before going on I need to apologize for my confusing language. Mental health for Magic is not the same as mental health for everyday life. Quite the opposite; I'm going to ask you to discard—or perhaps just Brainstorm away for now—your rational realistic ways of thinking in favor of something better. I'm going ask you to delude yourselves to listen to a series of untrue statements and by the time you finish reading I'm going to ask you to believe them. You'll be better off for it.
Any Game Of Magic Can Be Won
The greatest players in the history of the game don't have flawless win percentages or anything remotely close to it. Sometimes you keep a two-land hand and lose on turn 10 without drawing a third one. Sometimes your Storm Combo opponent kills you before you even get to play a spell.
Those things don't matter! While you're playing there's no point in thinking about if there is a way for you to win. There is a way for you to win; it's a matter of if you can find it.
When his opponent sticks a mythic rare bomb in Limited a rational player is likely to throw in the towel. He might concede on the spot or he might see a few draw steps in a tuned-out waiting-to-lose mindset before going to tell his friends that Mikaeus the Lunarch or Garruk Primal Hunter or Wurmcoil Engine is unbeatable.
On the other hand a mentally healthy (deluded) player will look at it as a new challenge. He'll consider the situation recognize the game plans which will no longer lead to victory and search for another one that will. Maybe it's setting up a race in the air. Maybe it involves killing your own chump blocker to blank his lifelink for a turn. Maybe those things have to combine with a very specific top deck but there is a way to win! If you don't believe deep down that victory is possible you won't search your hardest for a path to it and you'll lose games you might have been able to win.
But this belief is not just about mastering combat steps and solving complex puzzles on the final turn. It can and should affect your play right from the start of the game. An important piece of MTG wisdom came from Faeries master Manuel Bucher: "play around everything." If you adapt the belief that every game of Magic can be won you won't become lazy. A rational player might use her Doom Blade on a Thalia Guardian of Thraben—a fair profitable trade—but a player who believes that every game can be won will be more careful with it. She knows that there's a way to win if her opponent plays a turn 4 Hero of Bladehold just like she knows that there's a way to win if her opponent plays a Hero of Bladehold every turn for the rest of the game!
If Manuel Bucher's advice alone is not enough perhaps a second master can convince you by example. In game 4 of the Pro Tour Kyoto finals Gabriel Nassif found himself in a favorable though not quite safe position against Luis Scott Vargas's B/W Tokens deck. With a board of six creatures LSV played an Ajani Goldmane into Nassif's Negate. The rational play would have been to Negate the powerful planeswalker and close the game in short order if LSV did not have a strong follow-up.
However Nassif took his time and realized that he would be able to beat the Ajani Goldmane with what he had hard as it might prove to be so he saved his Negate for what could have been a potentially even greater threat in LSV's hand under his Windbrisk Heights or on the top of his deck. Mr. Nassif did not get lazy because he believed that the game was winnable even if LSV had both Ajani Goldmane and Head Games and he played accordingly.
The power of this belief is that it will stop you from ever getting lazy and from lying down without a fight. It will make you confident careful and thoughtful. Remember though that while every game can be won that does not necessarily mean that you or I or Gabriel Nassif will win every game. Never be too extreme in your decision-making.
For any given player it might be best to Doom Blade the Thalia or Negate the Ajani because allowing them to stick would create a situation that's simply too difficult. If I'm at one life and I'm being attacked by more creatures than I have blockers I still believe that the game can be won. However I know that's a situation that's too tough for me personally so I'll do everything I can to make sure it doesn't get to that point.
There are two important corollaries to the belief that any game can be won. The first is of course that the same will be true from your opponent's perspective. No matter how good things look for you don't consider yourself safe until the fat lady sings. If your opponent has not conceded you should assume that they're still playing for a reason. Put yourself in their shoes recognize how they'll try to steal the game from you and stop them.
The second relates to how you'll handle losing. If any game can be won then you should be disappointed in yourself each and every time that you lose at Magic. You should analyze the loss and try to find a place where you could have done better whether it was in deckbuilding sideboarding mulligan decisions or gameplay.
The key though is that you ought to be disappointed in yourself and then move on! If you enter Magic tournaments you are going to lose and often. You'll never even survive let alone grow as a player if you take your losses too hard. Most importantly believing that every loss is your own fault will make it easier to get over those times when you make a clear mistake that ends up costing you an important game.
Recently I went back to watch Pro Tour Dark Ascension's epic semifinals between Brian Kibler and Jon Finkel. Before game 2 is finished technical difficulties force the cameras to shift temporarily to the other match. The last thing we the audience get to see is an Inferno Titan massacring Finkel's board. The cameras cut away and when they return fifteen minutes later Mr. Finkel had miraculously won the game.
Perhaps for the people who watched it live what happened between Kibler and Finkel seemed ordinary and unspectacular. I for one don't care to know exactly what happened after that Inferno Titan hit the board. I'll take it as a lesson that even in the grimmest of situations you should never give up hope.
It Doesn't Matter How Good You Are
Having an accurate assessment of how good you are relative to others could hypothetically be helpful. It could inform your decisions about when to attend tournaments when to intentionally draw and what players you should try to emulate in order to improve.
That doesn't matter though! For one thing it's so difficult to gauge how good you are relative to other people that it's a waste of time to even try.
I mentioned that handling losses better can be an indirect benefit of believing that every game can be won. Handling losses better is in fact the primary reason why not caring how good you are is critical to your success in Magic. After all not handling your losses properly can damage your mental health...
Magic is a very swingy game and it can be devastating to suffer a long dry spell when you've put everything you have into it. Heaven knows I've been there. It can be discouraging you can lose confidence and feel low about yourself and that's a bad thing for countless reasons. The way to get through it is to tell yourself that you will never quit no matter what; that you'll constantly try to improve whether you're better than every Hall of Famer or worse than every six year old who just learned the game. Once you've accepted that nothing will change whether you consider yourself a good player or a bad player so there's no point in even thinking about it.
As dangerous as low self-esteem can be for a Magic player overconfidence can be just as bad. Winning one tournament two tournaments or a hundred tournaments in a row can be a hint that you're okay at Magic but it doesn't prove how good you are relative to other people. People don't like to feel stupid and your friends won't want to be around you if you always act like you're better than them.
But even more important than what people think of you is what you think of other people. Whether you're better or worse than somebody overall you can still learn from them because different people will be good at different aspects of the game. Listen to what people have to say. Never disregard it but never take it as gospel either. Put it through the filter of your own mind and figure out how you can use it to improve.
From a tournament perspective too you should never prejudge your opponent as being either better or worse than you. Remember of course that any game of Magic can be won or lost so being overconfident or overly negative can only hurt your chances.
If I was to ask you reader if you're better than Kai Budde your response should be:
Cheaters Never Prosper
Many games of Magic have been won by cheating. People have cheated throughout the history of the game there are still cheaters today and there will still be cheaters five years from now. People have won money fame and respect at every level of competition by cheating.
None of that matters! Cheating is bad. That's all I'd have to say to some people and good for you if that's the case. However I'm here to convince you that cheating is a bad decision for any player who wants to take Magic seriously.
Habitual cheating will eventually be caught and severely punished. Drawing extra cards and stacking your deck are obvious; you might get away with them any number of times but the risk is never worth it. There's no explaining your way out of such cheating and the damage to your reputation for even being suspected of it is tremendous.
The more tempting cheats are small opportunistic ones that come up especially often against inexperienced opponents. If your opponent rearranges three cards with Ponder but forgets to draw you should tell them. If it looks like you're going to lose and the clock's running down you shouldn't stall things out. These are the small ways of cheating that are more difficult to enforce and easy to talk your way out of when you're called out for them. Nevertheless it's in your best interest avoid them.
Even seemingly small violations can be severely punished if there's reason to believe that you had malicious intentions (whenever you know a rule and don't follow it you're cheating just like you would be if you were to draw extra cards). Trying to decide whether to employ such an opportunistic cheat is simply a chore you're better off not giving yourself. Weighing the pros and cons the possibility of getting caught and the possible punishments are all things that will take your focus away from the game. Your best bet is just to have a strict code to always follow the rules making your decisions easy and leaving you to focus on what's important: playing the game.
So as an honest rule-abiding player what should you do if you suspect your opponent might cheat against you?
You should do whatever you want to whatever you're comfortable with. If you catch a cheater in the act great! But it's not your job to do so. Habitual cheaters will be caught and justice will be served eventually even if they pull one over on you.
The power of the "cheaters never prosper" belief is that you'll always be able to focus on playing your own game and not be distracted by worries and bad feelings. Some people are comfortable calling out a cheater but others don't like confrontation. Standing up for truth and justice is good but stepping outside your comfort zone is not the thing to do right before beginning an important match of Magic. Another option is to privately ask a judge to check in on your match if it sets you more at ease to do so.
The situation to avoid is one where you feel pressure to constantly watch your opponent. If you're present and focused on the game it will be difficult for your opponent to draw extra cards or sneak things from one zone to another anyway and you should be content with that. The saddest thing that can happen is for someone to win because of a reputation for cheating simply because it distracted their opponent and prevented them from playing their best.
These are the beliefs—or delusions—that I live by. They may not be true in the strictest sense but my Magic career is happier and more successful because I put my faith in them. And I do believe them to be true; I've only taken a step back from my normal way of thinking for the purposes of writing. Once the final i is dotted and the last t crossed I'll forget that I ever called them delusions and go back to believing them as I believe that Swamps add black mana. This time next week if you were to ask me "Reid why do you believe any game of Magic can be won?" I'll say "What do you mean? Because that's the way it is."