SCG Portland is in the books, and while that tournament might have been just another weekend of Magic for most, it had an entirely different meaning to me. It was the event where I "locked up" my qualification for the StarCityGames Players' Championship. The SCGPC was a tournament I never took too seriously at the beginning, but recently made the decision to strive to qualify for. It was initially a daunting task since I was behind by what seemed like an unfathomable amount of points, but weekend after weekend I drove to the next location trying to shorten that gap.
Now I sit in sixth place with room to breathe.
My journey to the Players' Championship started back in September. I had recently locked up Gold level status on the Pro Tour, and was ready to grind out the remaining months of the year on the Open Series circuit. I decided to try my hardest to qualify for the event by going to tournaments every weekend until the end of the year. It was going to be a long and exhausting road, but I wanted nothing more than to play in such a prestigious event in my backyard. More importantly, I wanted to know I could do it.
Some might say that grinding alone will get someone into this tournament. This may be true for some, but it was never the case for someone like me. I fall into the camp of people who can't be successful doing something they don't want to do. I didn't want to grind the Open Series circuit at the beginning of the year, so I constantly skipped events I easily could have played in to have a relaxing weekend at home instead to prepare for upcoming Pro Tours and Grand Prix. I could have played in both events but didn't. I just didn't have the drive.
Motivation inside the world of competition is a whole other animal than in the real world. The list of reasons why people complete challenges is a googolplex for material, yet can often times be boiled down to simply having a chance to win something. Much like playing the lottery and the business model of The Underpants Gnomes, people often times see the starting point of enrolling into a competition and the end result of winning it without any thought of the process that takes place in between. For some, the hopes of hoisting the trophy is enough drive to keep the wood burning. This just isn't a reliable source of fuel.
My thought process about competitive Magic was exactly this in the beginning of the year. Issues in my personal life piled on top of a rough patch in Magic caused me to lose sight of personal performance. The only reason I went to events was to win. I was hungry for victory, but I had no interest in how it was obtained. Much like a toddler, I just wanted it. I deserved it. I didn't get it.
There isn't a lonelier road for a competitor than that of failure. To constantly be seeking success on the horizon while having none of it in the rear-view mirror. Sure they were accomplishments back there somewhere, but the constant drive has left them too far gone to go back to. They drift so far into the distance that the idea of reminiscing about them feels foolish and hollowing. Week after week filled with near misses. Month after month of "there is always next time." Year after year of "what could have been." The idea that you might never get back what you once had.
I lost sight in what really matters as a competitor: to constantly get better.
"Tournaments are designed to create losers, not winners." -Stephen Horne
You are not supposed to win in competition. You are supposed to try to win, but you are not supposed to win. In all actuality, every competitor but one is supposed to lose. Tournaments are not here to cater to your personal interests, but simply be an outlet for a group of individuals to evaluate their skills against one another. It's as simple as that.
The want to succeed sometimes overshadows the drive to perfect one's game. Instead of worrying about the decisions we make, we only care if those decisions ended in the results we wanted. "Who's got the chips" becomes the way of life, destroying any chances for personal growth. Your self-esteem becomes intertwined with your tournament finishes creating results-orientated thinking. Bragging becomes a part of your wins, and tilting a part of your losses.
It took me the longest time to fully grasp the stifling effects of tournament entitlement. Maybe it was the culmination of competing for so many years, or just a revelation unearthed through self-evaluation during the countless road trips, but I realized that my mindset in Magic was toxic, and I was going to have to restructure my thought process if I wanted to be happy with my game ever again.
I started working the hardest on my perception of competition. I would still put in work on the fundamentals, deck decisions, and lines of play, but my biggest concern would always be my mindset during events. I would strive to have the best mindset throughout each tournament and embrace the idea of "the grind." That instead of putting pressure on myself to win each round, I would need to make it through these three months with a specific goal in mind. I would need to qualify for the Players' Championship as well as be in fighting shape for it.
Stamina may be the most crucial ingredient for competitive success. Tournaments are long and grueling affairs in which the competitors need to stay sharp for an extended period of time. Eating healthy, staying hydrated, and getting adequate sleep are all part of the equation, but one often times goes overlooked: emotion.
For the longest time I thought being emotional when it came to competition was a good thing. I figured that once I wanted to so much that it would become a "life or death situation," and it would be almost impossible to lose from that position. "It all comes down to this," became my personal chant before every match. Heart beating, sweat beading, mind believing that it's all or nothing. Wins began to feel euphoric, and losses soul crushing.
Viewing competition this way is exhausting. The pressure to succeed began consuming me. Every win got me one step closer to the promised land, and yet every loss closer to death. I was playing emotional Magic, even though my catchphrase from earlier in my career was "one game at a time."
You don't want to put added pressure on yourself in an event. The thoughts of needing just one more victory, or not being able to lose another round begin to eat away at your psyche. You start to put added pressure on every round as the tournament continues. Each time getting more and more intense until you start playing worse because of it.
The best way to view competition is to just relax and play Magic. Instead of focusing on what you need to have happen to win the tournament, or what needs to not happen to lose, you can simply focus on variables that have a constant. You can transcend from the pressures of competition and become the best at them all at the same time.
Competitive Magic boils down to four constants that you are in control of: Deck Construction, Mulligans, In-Game Decisions, and Sideboarding. Everything else in the game are just distractions that can cause you to do a worse job at the things you can control. Variance, pressure, jealousy, inadequacy, fear, ego, and entitlement are all distractions that can cause you to lose your way in your quest for constant and never ending self-improvement. Your one and only motivator in Magic should be to do the four constants the best you possibly can. I say this because that is exactly what I have done to my own personal game in the past six months and could not be happier with my results.
I can't tell you when the complete shift occurred, but I can say I was striving for this outcome for some time now. The pressure of always needing to perform was getting the best of me, and yet my self-esteem in my personal game was at an all-time low. I just didn't think I was good enough to run with the big dogs anymore. I decided that it was time to focus on getting my game back to where it needed to be, and the only way to do this was to lose focus on everything that didn't do that. I still wanted to win tournaments, but focusing on getting better wouldn't change that outcome, but could potentially expedite the process.
That is exactly what happened. Once I started focusing on what I could control instead of wishing I would win more, I slowly lost the ability to feel emotional in any outcome from Magic. I simply stopped caring about anything that wasn't in my control. Loses began to roll off my shoulder easier, and I wouldn't bring the "tilt" from previous matches into future ones. I just started playing Magic until the judges stopped me.
Focusing solely on personal performance can be daunting at first. Staring into the mirror can be a scary act. You have to look yourself in the eyes and tell yourself you can be better. That you didn't do your best and there are areas to improve upon. There are no excuses in this process. It's just you against yourself. A one on one duel to see if you both sink or swim.
It took me a while to get used to spending time every week to find all of my mistakes from the past events, but from all of this something interesting started to happen. I started to look at Magic the same way I used to look at golf. That it was me against the ball, and the only way to get better was to know that I had room to do so. Magic sort of falls in the same category once you let everything irrelevant slide away. Sure the ball in golf isn't the same as an opponent sitting across from you, but that doesn't mean it's irrelevant to constantly be trying to find ways you can improve.
From this came the ability to find holes in my game. Almost like a hunger, all I concerned myself with was finding errors. Every loss came with the question, "What did I do wrong?" Most of the time I would find a point in each game where my decisions could have been better, but sometimes there was just nothing I could do. The sobering fact about those situations was that I started to believe that I wasn't good enough to find the points I could have played better when they didn't present themselves. That the best in the world would have known where I screwed up, and thus, I need to get even that much better.
Forcing myself to find improvements quickly became a part of my game, and from that came way more victories than before. Since I started grinding for the Players' Championship and working on my game, I have top 8ed more Open Series events than in all the time before that. In just three short months, I have more Top 8s than before those three months. That is just crazy!
The work isn't over yet. This weekend is the Season Four Invitational followed by the Players' Championship. Two weekends to cement all of my hard work over the past few months. Two weekends to show myself that I can play Magic with the best of them. Two weekends to play the best Magic I know how to!