If there is one thing that is true in Magic, it is this: the game doesn't care how well you think you should be doing.
If you've been playing Magic long enough, you've certainly seen the arc of growth that people you know in the game go through. You've probably gone through an arc yourself, though it can often be harder to see what it looks like when you're standing in your own shoes. Trying can be an important part of getting better.
I've written a little about how I started getting into the game at a serious level, and why a good finish at the most recent Pro Tour in Honolulu was so important to me. In a pure vacuum, it could be called "a great finish": my teammate Ari Lax won the Pro Tour, I placed highly enough to get a big paycheck, and I'm seeing a ton of success with my Pro Tour deck in the current Standard. But, really, I found the result disappointing. My goal was to win an invite back to the Pro Tour, and I failed in that goal by a single match.
In a situation like that, you can complain all you want. But what you really have to do is just own it. The game doesn't care about the woulda coulda shouldas. When all is said and done, the match slip is signed and that particular moment is done. All you can do is go on to the next moment.
Star Rising (and Fading)
I feel like my star was at a real bright point around 1999-2000. I'd gotten my first GP Top 8, I tied for the Top 8 of a Pro Tour and had nearly achieved several other major event Top 8s. My decks were getting a ton of play, being in the Top 8 of many events (including one instance with two copies in the Top 8 of Worlds). I was being mentioned on the short list of several players who were occasionally spoken of as "best player not to have a Pro Tour Top 8."
Then nothing. For a while.
In many ways, the aftermath of that time reminds me of a small bit in an Interviewsening with Brad Nelson.
I don't know how Brad thinks of his time after his meteoric rise in 2010. I can't speak for Brad, but I can speak for me. The crest of my results was much lower, I think, than what Brad achieved.
Looking back, when my game was at the peak of that moment, one of the things I never did was really commit myself to my game. I barely attended Grand Prix; sure there were less of them, but I didn't even seek those out unless they were fairly convenient. Whatever else was happening in my life, Magic was certainly very important to me - I wanted success. But what I did with my tournament experience was to not truly pursue it.
Being in Magic shape is much like being in good physical shape: it is much easier to improve and maintain when you are already there. The game continuously moves, so no matter how talented you are, the best time to try to hone your skill is when it is already pretty sharp.
I didn't follow through. That's on me.
One of the things that I'm generally quite good at these days is maintaining my emotional calm in matches. The "bad beats" that everyone goes through in the game are normal to the very idea of Magic. Simply put, bad luck happens.
For some people, this is a moment where the steam builds up and explodes out.
Of course, losing your calm doesn't just happen from bad luck. It can also happen because of a mistake, a disappointing victory, the judgment of peers, or any number of other things.
One dramatic moment I particularly remember happened in the IHOP my regular Magic group met at after the gaming club closed. In a dramatic game 3, one of the players lost a close game, and a young spectator immediately piped up, "Wow! You should have won that one! If only you'd done..."
He quieted down; the losing player had started rending their own shirt with their hands. Red-faced, the player tore the polo shirt in tatters on their own body, glared at the kid who said something, and stalked out into the night, some of their shirt still in the booth.
"Next time," said the winner of the match, Darrell, "Make sure you know that someone wants to hear what they could have done."
That's a dramatic example of someone losing their cool, but it happens all the time. Back in Grand Prix Flash-Hulk (Columbus 2007), I had an innovative Prison deck that thrived in a world of Flash decks. Sitting at 8-1 after Day One, I lost my first round of Day Two to Flash-Hulk. I messed up the match, losing a game I should have won.
I was furious at myself, and it cost me the rest of the day, where my very mood impacted my matches, turning game wins into losses. I still finished 32nd place, but who knows how much better it could have been?
It was a big day for learning about what matters. I've made plenty of mistakes in the seven years since that event. But I don't tilt any more. I wish I could tell you what the "secret" was for not tilting, but I can't. I just made a conscious decision to pay attention to my mood and to do what I needed to clear myself and change it.
Maybe I'm just following some sage advice:
When I look back at the article about that day and when I think back to it, I externalized the blame for that tilted response. It was as though I thought it was something that happened to me. And really, that failure was on me. I needed to take control of my emotions, and when I didn't, it was my failure. Owning that was the beginning of getting it out of my game.
Bad Player Me
I've made a ton of bad plays in my life. While Mike Flores might have been given the moniker "Bad Player Flores" for a good part of his Magic career, the truth is, we all make horrible plays - even those players who are at the pinnacle of the game. Ask Finkel, ask Budde, ask whomever it is that is the best player in the world right now (Turtenwald?), and they will tell you that at even their best, they've messed up.
A long time ago, Mike Turian made a hard stand against the concept of a perfect game. Even the wrong timing of a smile could be considered a mistake in terms of what kind of information it gives off. You don't have to be that hard line though, to look at most games of Magic as full of mistakes. Whenever I hear someone say that they played a game "perfectly," I'm a bit dubious. Whenever I hear someone say that they played a tournament perfectly, that is downright comical to me (as well as being evidence that they are far worse at Magic than they realize).
Oftentimes, a mistake won't cost you. At Honolulu, I played against Jelger Wiegersma, with me U/B Control and him with B/G Constellation. Ashiok had hit Pharika, God of Affliction, and a few turns later I put his Pharika into play on my side of the table. Triumphantly, I spent B/G to eat a card in his graveyard and get a snake.
"I put a snake into play," intoned Jelger.
Now, there is Good Magic and there is Bad Magic. I still won the game and the match, but this was some Bad Magic. Winning isn't an indication that you were doing things correctly. I didn't remember how a card worked, and it cost me (though not enough to turn the match).
More recently, at a Khans of Tarkir Sealed PTQ, my opponent was tapped out with two cards in hand. They had a 3/3 morph, a Mardu Hordechief, and a 1/1. I had five mana, a Rakshasa's Secret and a Suspension Field. I moved quickly, casting the Suspension Field and then planned on casting the Rakshasa's Secret, expecting to start the process of taking over the game. Unfortunately, this went horribly awry: my opponent revealed Watcher of the Roost, turning their 3/3 morph into a 3/2 flier, dodging my Suspension Field, and ultimately winning the game as a result.
Earlier the same day, I was playing in a tight game 3 when a friend popped by my match and said something to me I couldn't quite make out. I turned to him, turned back to my game, and promptly forgot to attack. Again, this definitely cost me the match.
It might be tempting to say that my friend caused me to lose. It might be tempting to say, "yeah, but there were only three cards that existed that could have caused that play to be wrong!" But the fact of the matter is this: I could have sequenced my spells in a way that would have afforded my opponent no opportunity to win that game. I could have taken a pause after turning back to my game and not missed an attack.
That is on me. I have to own that.
Not owning your mistakes, not taking responsibility for the things under your control is just another way to stay stuck in time and not improve. And not only does Magic not care how well you think you should be doing, if you stay standing still, it will run away from you, leaving you behind.
Last Week (and This One)
In my article last week, I talked about decks as schizophrenic. The ideas in my article were good, but this was an ignorant way to try to talk about them. Especially given how pedantic I can be about terms, misusing the word "schizophrenic" was thoughtless. Yes, yes, yes, there is a way in which the colloquial and dictionary definitions of the word could be said to apply to what I was talking about, but my choice of terms was definitely insensitive and I could have done better.
Thanks to everyone who spoke up about this; I certainly appreciate it.
Getting better is about being accountable. We can do this in Magic, but we can also do it in life.
I won't be in San Antonio for the Grand Prix this weekend. If you're looking for a deck recommendation, I still suggest my U/B deck, but only if you've put in the practice and know all of the sideboarding. I actually almost pulled the trigger and ended up flying down to play, but ultimately, making a decision to travel on the most harrowing travel weekend of the year sounded horrible.
Good luck to everyone competing this weekend. And to those of you who celebrate it, I hope your Thanksgiving was great.