I remember the pain. Watching as he stood up from the table hurt. I was rushed off stage before I could take my first breath of realization. Instructed to stand there for the time being, I didn't know what to do with myself. My shoelace was untied. Was it like that the whole match? "You will win like five of these before you're done. This was my one chance," he told me as if it was some kind of consolation. Scott Larabee stood center stage talking into a lens. Behind it was thousands of adoring fans watching history in the making. Directed to center stage, I walked toward him. He handed me a piece of metal and was immediately instructed to step aside. He then handed my trophy to someone else. But it wasn't his—it was mine! This isn't how it was supposed to end.
Amsterdam was a pivotal moment in my career. It was the first tournament where I discovered confidence in myself. This might sound a little strange, especially if you followed my career back in 2010. The truth of the matter is that I never really had confidence in myself or my game. I just put in the hours. I knew everyone I worked with was better than I was, and the only way I could get on their level was with hard work, persistence, and dedication. I grinded all day every day to get to the place I was at. I was good only because I forced myself to be. I could be better than anyone on any given day if I worked harder than they did.
I knew this going into the tournament but somehow had lost it when the dust settled. I had just made Top 8 of my fifth premier event in a row and achieved Level 8 status (the equivalent of Platinum now). I was now in the lead for Player of the Year and officially hit baller status in my own mind. I mean, I just beat Kai Budde on Sunday! Only two people could say that, and little ol' me from North Dakota was one of them. StarCityGames.com became interested in having me as one of their content providers, my current employer was raising my pay to keep me, and to top it off Brian David-Marshal pretty much let me set up shop in his weekly column. I was the worldwide story for almost six months.
I deserved this!
Without me even knowing it, my mindset changed. I became displaced. I no longer had those thoughts of being inferior to the other titans of the game but rather felt superior. For the first time in my life, I had an ego. I mean, how couldn't I?!
With this mental transition came a much more damaging physical one. I prepared less for tournaments and spent more of my time reveling in the fact that I had "made it." I spent my free time partying with my friends, chasing woman, and looking at myself in the mirror.
Alright, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea.
I did not Top 8 a single event in 2011. I became the butt end of every joke, but more importantly I was no longer playing Magic for myself. I was playing it for the rush of having the world behind me once more. I wanted that feeling back more than the trophies themselves. I wanted people to watch in awe as I crushed tournament after tournament. I wanted to be untouchable.
I was living in my own shadow, and I didn't even know it.
Nothing can be more damaging to a mindset than misconstrued validation. It's so easy to fall into a displaced mindset when you're not constantly self-evaluating your personal progress. This doesn't just mean overall tournament finishes but everything. The decks you pilot, the plays you make, the decisions that go into an entire tournament.
Without constantly checking on if you're improving on the smallest of things, how can you ever expect to do great things?
The biggest culprit of hindering growth in Magic is the misevaluation of one's skill. This is incredibly easy to do if one is not constantly evaluating oneself and rather using results for validation. Everyone knows that luck plays an important role in Magic, yet many find it difficult to rationalize when it happens.
My personal definition of luck is "an emotional attachment to variance." It's so easy to be blinded by results due to the simple fact that anything can happen in a game of Magic. No matter how good or bad one plays, the fact of the matter is that it's possible it won't change the outcome of a game. The easiest coping mechanism when someone is on the bad end of variance is to give up all control of the situation and blame luck.
Courtesy of Cardboard Crack
We all understand that given enough time variance is stifled by skill. Too many pros have defied the laws of variance with stellar performances that spanned months or even years. The ugly truth is these players still rarely have better than a 70% win percentage.
It's so easy to look at these pros and want exactly what they have. Everyone wants to be a winner. The problem is tournaments are not designed to make winners. There can be only one of those. Tournaments are designed to create losers—and a lot of them at that. Way more than you think. Of course you know how many losers there are in an event if you think about it, but no one ever does. We just see the trophy and the person lifting it up.
It's so easy to see these players doing well and never truly think about the amount of effort they put in or how many poor performances came before this moment. We never think about the struggles they overcame to get there. We just focus on the fact that they're now on top of their game and fantasize about what it would be like to have that.
These delusions of grandeur create a disconnect between the balance of quality and quantity. You see, quality is always nice in every aspect of life, but it has to have a very important correlation with quantity for it to truly be appreciated. Without a balance of both, you'll never know the true value of what you've achieved. Without being on the bottom, you won't appreciate such great heights. Without understanding the process, you'll never maintain success.
The journey is always the most frustrating part. It always takes longer than you want it to, and there are always low points. Greatness doesn't come easy and doesn't come without a cost. The struggle is where you learn the most about yourself and your abilities. It's the time when you find weaknesses and discover places to improve.
Well, in a perfect world this is how it works.
The ugly part is that this is not the way most players perceive reality. They don't rationalize that it takes a long time to consistently do well in Magic and don't understand that there is a constant upkeep when it comes to the skills associated with the game. They do well at one or two events and all of a sudden think their bar has risen and expect these results will continue to replicate themselves. I don't want to ruin the secret, but they don't. No matter if you won the last tournament or not, you still start your next event just like everyone else.
So how strong is your mental game? I recently made a checklist for myself to make it easier to evaluate my personal growth in the game. If any of these hit home to you, I think it's time to do some soul searching of your own.
One of the most difficult things to cope with in competition is losing something you never owned. This delusional level of abstraction is very common when it comes to tournaments in any sport or contest. There are a slew of potential reasons why these thoughts manifest themselves. It could be from the stress of internal or external expectations or simply the need for misconstrued validation. The only thing that's important with all of this is that it's poisonous in our journey of growth and self-discovery.
Remember the first paragraph of the article? This was the first sign of my downfall, and I didn't even know it. You see, I selfishly already thought I won the Pro Tour before that match even got played. This is the exact opposite of how I thought my match against Kai Budde was going to play out. I thought I was once again going to get swept in the quarterfinals of a Pro Tour, but I was going to go out swinging. I was going to give it my all.
Sitting down against Paul Rietzl was a little bit different. Somewhere in my subconscious I thought I had already won. All I had to do was get through one more guy playing a deck I'd already beat. When this wasn't the case, my mind immediately went to a dark place. I thought something was taken away from me when it couldn't have been further from the truth. I hadn't yet earned the title of Pro Tour Champion, but I felt I deserved it.
It's pure poison to a player's game to think they deserve something more than their opponent. Just because you see the storyline that got you to this match doesn't mean your opponent didn't have one. They have their own struggles and hardships. It isn't like they didn't test for this event, get in a car with friends, and drive countless hours to get to this place. Just because you don't know their story doesn't mean yours is more important.
Who cares if they made a mistake and didn't get punished for it? Do you always play perfectly? Have you never made a mistake yet still come out of the match the victorious one?
It's understandable to want a win so badly that even the thought of losing makes you sick to your stomach, but that doesn't mean you deserve it. You didn't earn it, therefore it isn't yours. Facts are facts. The only productive thing you can do now is learn and move on. Maybe not right after the game, though, because we are human and have emotions. Venting isn't a bad thing, but obsessing over it will only cause you to lose the ability to grow from the experience.
One of the most baffling things I see so many players do at Magic tournaments is try to justify their losses, almost like they feel that their closest friends will judge them for losing. They always look dejected when they have to admit they lost. Often they hang their head and tell a story about how they mulliganed and never drew a third land, or that their opponent curved out, or something else. They know variance played a role and aren't mad about that but want to make sure their friends understand it wasn't their fault.
You know what Gerry Thompson would say to me when he lost? "I f#$%ed up. Wanna grab food?" He would never blame anything for the loss. He simply accepted it and moved on. He also won more matches of Magic than anyone I know.
Do you judge your favorite pros when they lose? Hell, do you judge your friends when they lose? If the answer is no, then there is a pretty good chance their answer is the same. Don't constantly think that your peers are going to judge you for losing a match or a tournament or never winning one ever! These thoughts will hinder you from the moments that truly matter at tournaments. The connections we make and the experiences we learn from is what you should take away from Magic.
A healthy mind is more important than almost any testing you could do. Confidence is something that can only manifest inside of you. Your peers are there to be supportive and share a bond with you. You all know each other's struggles and everything else that goes on in your lives. These are probably your best friends. These people are not indicators of your own self-worth.
Be honest—do you always think you're going to do well in an event? Almost everyone I talk to (including myself) expects to do well in an event, when the fact is only 1-5% of the field will Top 8. This isn't a bad thing per se but can be damaging if not controlled. There's a big difference between having confidence and simply expecting great results.
In most areas of life, there's a strong correlation between effort and results. If you study hard, you get good grades. Put in the time at the gym, get sexy and you know it. This isn't always the case when it comes to Magic tournaments. You can playtest all week long and have a worse weekend than when you didn't do any preparation. That's how competitions work. You're competing against a room full of other people that potentially did the exact same thing with their time. Just because you put in the time doesn't mean the outcome you want will happen.
When you expect that you will have a great finish, many bad habits can potentially begin to form.
- You start to assume that round 1 of the tournament is less important than the finals. Just because the tournament isn't on the line doesn't mean this match is any less important than any other ones. You still have to work hard to win. Round 1 doesn't mean easy. This isn't a video game. Opponents don't just "level up" the deeper you get in a tournament. End boss is only a saying.
- You get extremely discouraged when you pick up your first loss. When you think you'll do well in an event, you forget the fact that it's possible to lose. Once that first chink in the armor is formed, your mind might get sidetracked. You might now fear the second loss. This causes a bad mind state going into the next match, which could in fact make you play out of your comfort zone. Fear is a real thing even in Magic but is just as damaging as anywhere else in life.
- You create unneeded pressure on yourself. There's no reason to stress over a match of Magic. You should focus and try your best, but stressing only causes you to leave your comfort zone. You may start to think about things that are not in your control at the given moment.
- You get frustrated when your results don't live up to your expectations. Instead of spending time learning from the tournament, you grow bitter that you yet again didn't get what you wanted. Much like a child, you enviously look at others that have what you want.
- You don't learn from your wins. This is something very few players do. Even if you win a match, you should always look back and find key plays that decided the win or potentially could have let it slip away. Understanding why you win is just as important as figuring out why you lose. If you expect to always win, you'll put less emphasis on this important part of the process.
One of the most common things I see players on the path to Magic greatness do is start to undervalue their results in tournaments like Friday Night Magic. They often don't consider them serious events and therefore underplay their victories. Magic is popular because it caters to almost anyone. Some play it for the competition, while others value the social aspect. Some just need a night away from the wife and kids. Whatever you want out of Magic is what you have to take. If you're serious about playing Magic competitively, you have to own it. You have to treat every round like you're playing in a Pro Tour. You have to find your mistakes, learn from them, and continue on your path to win the event.
"But I'm not going to be a jerk at FNM!"
If that thought came in your head when you read the last paragraph, this next lesson is for you.
Don't Be A Jerk!
For some reason, there is a small subset of Magic players that think being cutthroat is the way to be a professional Magic player. That you have to get players on the smallest of things and almost con them into making mistakes. Like the gray area in the Magic rulebook is relevant and needs to be utilized.
It's actually detrimental to your game to think this is how it is done at the Pro Tour and replicate it. Yes, things are very serious there and rules lawyers do exist, but it doesn't define competitive play. You know what does?
I got to the Pro Tour because of my undying dedication to becoming great at this game. I worked hard, put in four years of work, and finally got my chance. I didn't once rules lawyer someone or have an asterisk behind one of my victories.
When you look for outside assistance like this, you often hinder the potential of just getting better. Life is full of shortcuts, but nothing is ever sustainable if you use them. Put in the time and just beat people the respectable way. Be nice to your opponents and kindly crush them in a legit match of Magic.
Being A Good Loser
I will be the first to admit that this is what I have to work on the most. I have always been a passionate Magic player and want nothing more than to win every game I play. Obviously that's impossible, but my weakest moments are right after matches. I'll always be my bubbly self a couple minutes after a loss, but I know I look very angry after I lose on camera.
I didn't say I was perfect! But if I didn't have to live through most of these, how would I know to write about them?
The thing I hope you take away from this is that nobody is perfect. Not even Kibler. Nothing comes easy, and nothing is sustainable without constant upkeep. You have to put in the work and gain validation from inside of yourself. Nobody is more qualified to judge you than yourself. You just have to have the kahunas to look yourself in the mirror and critique what you see.