Your Mind At A Magic Tournament
Hey everyone! This week I've been thinking about the intangibles that bring success to a player at a Magic tournament. Almost too frequently we discuss technical proficiency ad nauseam always aiming for perfection with our in-game decisions. Common maxims include: "Save your Mana Leak you can beat a Solemn Simulacrum but not a Titan." "Read the signals when you draft; you can't just force every time." "Patience with that Brainstorm young Padawan. You don't have anything you want to get rid of yet."
My personal favorite right now is the beautifully concise "Mulligan the bad hands." Certainly we all need to learn proper sequencing and we can always stand to beef up on our technical play. There is more to tournament Magic however.
This is not another exhortation to sleep more before a tournament or to eat regularly during the day or to prepare your decks more in advance in order to ensure you aren't frazzled acquiring cards before the tournament. Those are all important and I guarantee that they will help you perform better but there is a deeper variable in there that I want to explore.
There are sports psychologists who make big bucks by psyching up athletes before competitions and I'm willing to bet that there's a tangible reason those guys are so highly valued by professional athletes. Something about how you feel has a profound effect on how good you are at thinking.
At first glance it doesn't make a lot of sense. Why should our emotions affect our "internal CPU" processing speed? Being tired and doing more poorly makes sense at least: our brains slow down when they haven't had downtime in too long. Being hungry too: we need our fuel. But being sad? Angry? Why should they ruin our ability to calculate outs or to tap our lands correctly or to attack with the right creatures?
We have a special word (that we stole from poker) to describe the negative interaction between a person's emotion and their logic a simple four letters that we'd like to avoid at all costs: tilt. The dreaded tournament-killer itself not many people are immune to at least some degree of tilt and recognizing your vulnerability can actually help you in the long run.
I'm sure you've all also experienced the other side the "anti-tilt" so to speak where you're playing well running hot feeling good and loving the fact that you're at a Magic tournament. Ignoring the good luck for a second do you have any doubt that you play much much better when you're in that zone? Emotional state is the culprit and you can learn to use yours to your advantage.
Some people are more susceptible to their emotions. It's simply a fact. It's not a concrete good or bad thing but has its benefits and drawbacks. The two extremes of the "emotional susceptibility" spectrum I'll use here are my good friends Gerard Fabiano and Reid Duke.
Both of these men are superb Magic players but maybe just maybe Gerard tilts a teeny bit harder than Reid. After "Wee woo wee woo" perhaps the most common phrase out of Gerard's mouth is probably "How do I run sooooo badly! It's like comical how unlucky I am! Hey by the way you want to buy Top 8 insurance?" I don't blame him for it; it's just part of who he is. The flip side is that he is one of the most fun people to be around when he's happy. He always has a big smile on his face and never runs out of funny things to say.
Reid on the other hand is as stoic as they come during matches. If you were to peel a miraculous Bonfire of the Damned for example against him in a key draft match for the Top 8 of a Grand Prix he'd probably shake your hand with an "Okay good game." (He'd probably complain about it just a little bit later but he's remarkably even-keeled in game.)
What is it about these two skilled Magic players that makes them so different in unlucky spots? The key here is that Reid is great at managing his emotional state whereas Gerard plays a little bit more at the mercy of his emotions. I firmly believe that it's this skill of Reid's that allowed him to stay in the zone for eighteen rounds without a single loss at Grand Prix Nashville.
I'm going to give you all one more example of how emotional state can make or break a tournament from personal experience. The back end of Pro Tour Dark Ascension was horrendous for me. After going 0-2 with what I had thought was at least a 2-1 draft deck I was in no place to play top-level Magic.
To give you a sense of how bad it was I spent most of the downtime between rounds chatting with friends about why I was spending so much time playing Magic and what I should do with my life. I was in Honolulu for a Pro Tour and all I could think about was what a waste of time Magic had become in my life. Was I insane? Well not really but I was wallowing pretty hard in self-pity and was not having much success in driving that emotion out by thinking about the intimidating big picture of life.
I ended up winning two matches out of eight that day missing cash by two wins and an extra pro point by one. I know I punted at least two of those losses but I just couldn't think about the game. I was too busy thinking about what a waste of time Magic was and why I bothered to continue with it.
Then there were the SCG Invitationals. In both of them I came in with byes I knew the formats I knew my decks and I was unassailably confident. After all I was an Open Series ringer and these tournaments were so easy! At least that's what I was telling myself. You can ask any of the people who stayed with me for the SCG Invitational in Baltimore. When other people were talking about how they thought their tournament would go I told them that I honestly thought the tournament was mine to win and I would definitely Top 8.
And you know what? I was very very surprised to lose two whole rounds on Day 1 of the SCG Invitational in Baltimore because I thought that I was going to win every round until it was time to draw in. And you know what? After those two losses that's exactly what happened. I don't want to say that it was definitely the confidence because I had two byes great decks and good practice for that tournament but I know that I was able to sit down at the beginning of each round prepared to play the best Magic I could and to win.
That's anti-tilt in a nutshell the confidence that allows us to Top 8 major tournaments. And the best part is it's self-perpetuating because as you do better at tournaments you have reason to be more confident going into subsequent tournaments and that helps you do better at those. What I'm talking about is nothing new: Jon Becker wrote this about nine years ago in one of the better articles I've ever read in which he explores what he calls "Tomfidence."
What if I told you that you could bottle that emotion that allows people to Top 8 long arduous tournaments and that whenever tilt is about to strike you can re-center yourself and get your mind in the right place? In tournament reports we frequently hear about the long walk players took after their last loss that got them back into the mindset to rattle off six wins and take home the trophy.
What we hear about less frequently are the failed attempts to get back into that zone where the player's mind stubbornly drifts back to the poor luck the previous round and prompts him to make a bad keep because of it. The truth is I've failed in my attempts to get back into the zone much more than I've succeeded. It's really hard to consciously manage your own emotions more so when you're in a stressful environment like a Magic tournament.
That's why it's so invaluable to create some simple yet effective mental rituals for yourself at tournaments to try and shake the tilt. There are a multitude of options but some of the best are the long walk listening to music or (don't laugh) meditation. What won't work is commiserating with your friends about your bad luck or replaying the game in your head.
If it was a quick loss my go-to choice is taking a long walk and just looking around (some Magic tournaments are in pretty nice locations in scenic downtown areas). Usually I also get food healthy food if I can find it. This kills two birds with one stone since I get to refuel for the next couple rounds in addition to "resetting my Magic mind" for the day.
Plenty of people jam in their headphones and listen to music between rounds as a calming habit and I heartily recommend it as well. It's a great way to block out other stimuli and bring yourself back to a specific mood. What I think remains unexplored as a potentially better option however is meditation.
There are lots of types of meditation and one I think might have a lot of promise incorporates guided imagery in order to elicit a certain relaxed mood. The way it works is that by listening to a description of an image and visualizing it a person can become calm and confident. Although it may sound like a bunch of nonsense I'm excited to try it and see what kind of effect it really has on my tournament performance.
I encourage each of you to take twenty minutes of time you'd otherwise spend playing a two-man on Magic Online or poring over decklists to look into (and maybe try out) some meditation techniques that you could apply between rounds at a tournament.
While we're discussing what to think about during and between rounds at a tournament I'd like to touch on some of the less productive thoughts that can keep you from putting your full attention to the task at hand. I always notice the best players taking their tournaments one round at a time and just focusing on winning the round at hand.
The limit to confidence is when you stop thinking about winning the current round and start thinking how many more rounds you have to win before you Top 8. Rather than setting a specific goal for a tournament like Top 8 or Top 16 set a new goal each round to win that round. It's a lot more direct immediate and keeps your attention where it needs to be: the game at hand.
This is also where the hunger fatigue and thirst issues pop back in from just physiological to psychological handicaps and where I connect those maxims back to the importance of mood habit and comfort zone in a tournament setting. Think about it. When you're hungry and tired you tend to be uncomfortable and being uncomfortable is the root of being distracted. It all comes back to the ability to focus on the play at hand and the emotional aspect of that ability to focus should not be understated.
Whether you're a Reid Duke ice cold during the match and intensely focused on all the plays at hand or a Gerard Fabiano conversing and trying to dictate the pace of the game with your personality and your emotion your game play is profoundly affected by your mood. You owe it to yourself to hone that part of your game because odds are you've neglected it for far too long.
Before the bonus section here is a short article to give you a sense of how you can meditate and what it offers you. Think about how many distractions there are at a Magic tournament and how those distractions hurt your play skill.
Bonus: The Million-Dollar Mulligan! Three sample hands. Think about if you'd really follow through on your decision in a tournament setting. How tilted would you have to be to keep the loosest hand?
Hand A: You're Delver (of course) Stalker-Sword version on the play round 1 game 1 of StarCityGames.com Open Series: Providence.
Would you keep?
Hand B: What about this one on the draw?
Hand C: What about this one on the play?
I think I'd probably keep Hand A since a Delver on the play is just so good and you're drawing to a land to hold up Leak or an instant/sorcery to really put the opponent in a bind otherwise you're Pondering to a land. It's loose but I think it's okay. I could be wrong on this one though since you can't cast your Geist and double Mana Leak when you're tight on mana could be bad news also.
Hand B is real loose and I think I'd ship it. It's just not doing much to get ahead. You have Vapor Snag and Snapcaster Mage but no action after you bounce two creatures. What if they cast anything that Vapor Snag doesn't interact well against?
Hand C is tough. It's got the game-ending combo of Stalker-Sword and nothing else. I'd keep it just knowing that I've probably conceded against any Whipflare/Wolf Run deck and I'm probably favored against G/R Aggro Humans any Lingering Souls midrange deck and the mirror with this hand.
Let me know if you like this feature and I'll expand it to more formats and more examples. I think it's important to practice mulligan decisions as much as possible since they are the most subjective decision in the game in terms of being correct or not.
Have a great weekend and go crush those tournaments!