Having been subject to the torturous conditions of the northeast in a particularly snowy winter, I was rather excited to escape to a tropical paradise and compete in Grand Prix Miami last weekend. A few days of sand, surf, and spells seemed like the perfect remedy to my winter blues, and after a poor performance in Memphis I was looking to pick up some pro points.
After two days of competition I finished just short of my goals, ending with a 10-5 record that while good enough for a min-cash, was not good enough to further my quest toward Silver. Disappointed with another mediocre finish in a game that disproportionately rewards the top performers, I set about salvaging my weekend with some good food and good company.
Unfortunately for the first goal it appears that Magic players are drawn to The Yard House like moths to a flame. Refusing to run it back for a second time on Sunday, I instead opted for some wonderful ceviche before meeting up with everyone else later on in the night. While a thoroughly enjoyable evening, I ended up back at my hotel talking with Brian Braun-Duin and Gerry Thompson.
It is during this conversation that my perspective on the weekend would irrevocably change. You see, Gerry is not one to accept excuses. Ever. So when I tried to not so smoothly dismiss my tournament as just another one of those not-quite-there finishes that happen when you play as much Magic as I do, he delved deeper. Having seen that I arrived the Friday before the tournament with little idea as to what to play and latched on to the G/W Devotion list that Brad Nelson and BBD had been working on, Gerry knew I had essentially put zero preparation into this tournament and asked a simple, blunt question:
"So what did you expect?"
Did I really expect to compete with some of the best players in the world playing a deck cold? No, that would be absurd. So could I really be disappointed with a mediocre finish? Not really. All my emotional distress was caused by expectations that were too high, at which point I internalized an important lesson:
Expectation must be commensurate with preparation.
While someone with little to no practice may on occasion perform well in a tournament, the best results invariably come to the best prepared. So if I did not put in the necessary work to succeed, how can I possibly be upset with my result? From this new perspective, my 10-5 finish actually seemed good. Ultimately my disappointment was misplaced, as I was focused on output when I should have been focused on input.
If you set your expectation to match what you put into the tournament, your experience will nearly always be enjoyable and vice-versa. The beauty of this mantra is that it is true for all levels. Have you ever seen the players who are 0-4 at the local Prerelease but still having a blast? They are the ones that purposely do not look at spoilers so as not to spoil the excitement of opening a fresh booster pack filled only with possibilities. They are not expecting to compete for prizes. They just want to open a sweet dragon in their favorite color and have a fun story about attacking with that dragon for the win. Even when losing to their own blunders, they are quick to let it go with a simple "That was stupid," never losing the smiles on their faces.
On the other end of the spectrum are those that cannot have fun unless they win the tournament. They are better than their opponents and their deck is copied from the last Pro Tour so it has to be great and they do not have to test. They are usually the ones that make those around them miserable, as well as themselves, as they blame their poor luck for that key second loss.
When your expectations match your preparation, you will enjoy yourself, which in turn makes you more likely to reach those expectations.
Upon realizing this, I also realized that I have been too often the latter player and too rarely the former. Leading up to Miami I spent my time making excuses as to why I could not dedicate time to testing. I had to write articles, shovel snow, and leave my home early to ensure no travel-related delays. Once in Miami I was too uninformed to even ask the right questions of the players around me who had experience with the deck. I had to buy cards for the deck and meet up with friends I do not see often. When I had my deck together I did not have any other decks together so no real testing occurred, despite me having ample cards to make test decks.
My words said I cared about my results, but my actions said otherwise. Gerry simply cut through my BS. Any time I brought up a potential obstacle to success, he was quick to offer possible solutions or obvious ways for me to go about finding potential solutions. Ultimately there was no escaping the conclusion that I had been failing myself and my lofty expectations, not that my results had been failing me.
These excuses are incredibly easy to rationalize for Magic players. We tend towards the hyper-rational end of the spectrum, which makes it simple to find some biased evidence to connect reality to our skewed conception of reality. Once this rationale is established, escaping it is difficult because in all the feedback you receive you disregard the facts that run counter to your reality. Of course that other player won and I did not, they got very lucky in round eleven and their opponent received a key game loss in round thirteen. Well, they also spent the week preparing and after every round were talking over the difficult decision points in their games to learn as much as possible.
It sounds so obvious to write these things, but it is also clear to me that most players who suffer from poorly matched expectations will remain oblivious unless directly confronted about it, so I felt compelled to write about it. Once I was confronted with my shortcomings, finding solutions seemed so simple that I became embarrassed. Life is always going to present obstacles, such is its nature. Our job is to overcome those obstacles to the best of our ability. Just because I do not have a full month or even a full week to test for a tournament does not mean I should do nothing. Every minute I can give to a tournament raises my preparation, and thus, my expectation.
So when I have to spend two days in New York City before flying out to a tournament as occurred with Miami, I have several ways to use that time constructively:
- I could purchase a laptop and use MTGO.
- I could bribe Anthony Lowry into testing with me. He inexplicably loves Halal Guys despite its complete and utter mediocrity. (Yep, I went there Anthony. Come at me bro.)
- I could build and test decks against myself if no one else is available. It is not ideal, but it is better than nothing.
Even the most difficult problems have solutions if you look hard enough. We're not squaring the circle here. It's only Magic.
When I am not feeling as prepared as I would like, I have a wealth of excellent players I am fortunate enough to call friends that will offer help. But it is selfish to always place myself on the receiving end of such help. Was I particularly grateful for being given a tuned decklist the day before the tournament? No. Was I especially invested in the results for everyone else playing the deck? No. Once again my expectations greatly exceeded my preparation.
Magic is a difficult game, and no one can achieve lasting results without some help. In order to be deserving of that help, you need to be willing to help yourself, which requires preparation. Even if you were legitimately unable to test much, offering thoughtful advice/criticisms and genuinely caring about those people who are helping you can be enough to earn your keep. This weekend I was essentially a parasite. I look forward to remedying this in the future.
The key here is making the most of the resources that you have by turning them into something actionable. Sometimes the question of how to go about doing this is easy. Do you have more time to play than those around you? Then test a lot of games and organize your results into something clear and digestible. Do you have plenty of access to cards? Build all the test decks your team could need.
Other times it will be more complicated, but the question of how to best use your resources is a vitally important one because the only way to escape the trap of excusing your failures is by putting yourself in the best possible position for success. Finding creative ways to accomplish this in difficult situations is a skill to be refined over time. After every tournament, success or failure, we should be asking ourselves what we could have done differently. More importantly, what could we have done better? No excuses.