Today we are going to be talking about something a little bit off the beaten path. Well that isn't entirely true. It's actually about when every path is so beaten that you yourself don't even know what to think. When no matter what you do, you never seem to be getting anywhere. The monkey on your back starts chipping away on your shoulder until you are left bitter and resentful to any glimmer of hope that you will accomplish what you've set out to in the past.
Today, we talk about the grind.
Knowing what cards to play with and how to play them is the goal of any Magic player. There are enough stories out there about people "breaking the format" or "destroying a metagame," but there is very little content out there about the players coming up short or having bad years. That's due to how discouraging it is. Everyone wants to hear about people succeeding because they one day want to do the same thing. Nobody goes to a tournament wanting nothing more than a top 64 finish. They want to be holding the trophy at the end of the tournament. They want the oversized check and the prestige that comes with it. They want to be called a champion.
The thing about competition is you can prepare yourself mentally for the long roads and middling finishes, but nothing prepares someone for being worse than they once were. The next step on the way to glory is always doing better than you previously have. Just like in everything else in life, you want to see the fruits of your labor and constantly improve at what you do. The only trick is that Magic is a competitive sport and everyone else is trying to do the same. This makes it difficult to master since others are trying to indirectly keep you from achieving your goals.
There is nothing more hollowing than being considered a worse version of yourself. You can internalize the fact that someone else is better than you. That's easy. What's difficult is continuing to sign up for events when you know you can and have been better. This is the descent into one of the worst mindsets you can have when playing Magic.
The Brad Nelson
This subject hits close to home since I've been every Magic player. I've played for years at my local game store, lived off of Magic Online, played the final round of a Pro Tour, held trophies in varying tournaments, and been considered the next coming of Kai Budde. I've also been the laughing stock of the Magic community. I've been called a has-been, a flash in the pan, bad, stupid, fat, ugly, and my all-time favorite, "someone who can't close."
It took me years to get over the fact that I couldn't maintain being the best player in the world. This was ridiculous now looking back, but at the time I was so obsessed with my previous success. It was enveloping. It was addicting. It was frightening that I would never again be the person that I once was. This sense of despair was more than I could take, and I started to look for a way to get out.
The brain can go to drastic places when expectations aren't met. I was considering trying to branch out into shout casting or streaming when I thought I could no longer be a respected Magic player. I feared producing content because I thought people would realize how bad I actually was. I was frozen in thought every time someone asked for my advice from fear of them finding out that I was a fraud. I wanted to be the Brad Nelson that everyone in the world respected and feared. I wanted it back.
Eventually I did get it back. Not because I wished upon a star and the Magic Fairy made it so, but because I stopped fixating on my shortcomings and just worked on my game. I knew I couldn't start in fighting shape, so I began to train. Learning from each and every mistake and fixating on finding holes in my game. Finding flaws became my addiction. I didn't even care that much about winning anymore. I just wanted to play the best I could.
It got so intense that when I won my win-and-in at the Invitational in Columbus, I could only fixate on a small play mistake I knew I shouldn't have made. It's something that has come up before, and I knew I should have played it correctly this time. It took Todd and Gerry getting excited for me to snap out of it and realize my day was over and it was time to celebrate. I didn't even care about Top 8ing. I just wanted to continue preparing for my top 8 matchups and have the best chance of winning possible.
Winning started to take the back seat to perfecting my game. I wanted the best decks, the best sideboards, and the knowledge to pilot them the best I could. I started having Grand Prix Top 8 streaks, and people not only began to once against respect me, but they again started to fear me. I had gotten everything I once wanted back, but it no longer was enough. There was always a tournament to prepare for and points to collect. Open Series Points or Pro Points, it didn't matter. There was never enough time to celebrate victories, only enough time to prepare for the next event.
I have always lacked balance. Whether it was success or skill, I have only fixated on one independently. In my mind, you can either celebrate your victories and get bad, or invalidate them and continue striving for success. A normal person will understand that success comes and goes. You should strive for perfection, but you should still relish in any success that comes your way. If you don't, what are you striving for in the end? Well the answer is that I am not striving for anything but perfection. I am simply on the grind to mastery.
This is not something all of you will understand. Not those of you who look at Magic as a hobby anyway. This way of thinking sinks into the subconscious of anyone who travels to enough events with aspirations of excellence. Finding a balance becomes difficult, and you either become complacent, depressed, or apathetic. It's simply the progression of a grinder.
The system is designed for players to want to play as much as possible. Whether you are going to a Pre-TQ with aspirations for qualifying for the Pro Tour, gathering Pro Points at Grand Prix to get onto the Pro Tour, or playing in Pro Tours to try to qualify for Worlds, the system is always allowing you to play more Magic to get more out of it. To be fair, it's the way the business should be modeled. Every other game is designed this way in one way or another. They just want you in their hamster wheel and not in someone else's.
This takes its toll on anyone that has made the conscious decision to "go for it." You start to feel trapped by your own decision. Each weekend is a potential chance to get closer to your goal, but at the same time, it wears at you in one way or another.
The Michael Majors
Mike and I have become pretty good friends over the past year. We tested together for Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx and will again for Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. Lately we have been talking quite frequently about Magic, and the topic of mental perspective has been one of our main topics. Last season was a great year for Majors. He top 16-ed two Pro Tours and found himself one point away from Platinum. The year might have ended on a low point, but the journey was amazing for someone who never had a Pro Level before. Majors got on the Pro Tour and found out that he can wrestle with the big boys. This year hasn't been as good to him. He hasn't had terrible results, but it's been nothing compared to his previous season.
Is he not good enough? Of course that isn't the case. He is a bright upcoming Magic player that has the potential to be a very big threat. Will it happen? Who knows! That's the point to all of this. You can't guarantee success, but in the back of his mind he wants to find the formula that he had last season.
The issue isn't a change in perspective but a broadening of knowledge. Michael Majors found himself on top of a peak last season. It was his personal peak. This was the best he had ever done. It was what he knew to be success. This was now his benchmark. Since then, he has begun to plateau, and he doesn't understand why. This was the advice I gave him:
It doesn't matter if you win or lose. The goal you should be concerning yourself with is not whether you win but sharpening the tools that result in winning: deckbuilding, mulligans, sideboarding, and playing. That's all you can control. If you try to put an emphasis on wins and losses, you will lose sight of the fact that no one is always good and that you constantly have to be evaluating your decisions to stay sharp enough for the next event.
I win at Standard, but it's not because I've won at Standard. I still put in more work than anyone else despite the fact that I've got an "edge." You need to internalize that wanting to win doesn't create wins. Once you do, you will again have the freedom to take the aggressive lines you lost sight of. Imagination is a key element to success and that can only be utilized when you are not afraid of failure. The fear of losing or disappointment of it will only stifle your abilities. You just need to say you will learn something new each and every day you play.
Competitive Magic is a series of peaks, plateaus, and valleys. It is impossible to stay at a constant state of skill, but that is the beauty of the game. We are always learning and re-learning things. We just have to understand that and keep trying to be the best we can be.
It's not always that simple. Going to tournaments week in and week out is exhausting. You always start out starry-eyed and bushy-tailed, but the road is a harsh mistress. It beats you down until all you want is your warm bed and a numbed mind. You don't even know if you like Magic anymore. You start to think that you just like competition, but maybe Magic isn't the right outlet.
The Todd Anderson
There are ways to mitigate this way of thinking. The easiest is to take breaks. Not just physically but mentally. This becomes difficult to do since every weekend has potential points to be earned and could theoretically cost you the one thing you were working for to begin with. You start to feel stuck. You know you need the break, but you don't think you can afford it. You have to simply fight through the pain and continue on reaching for success, but you'll eventually start grasping at straws.
For example, the grind to make it to the Players' Championships last year was difficult on me. I traveled for Magic eight weeks in a row just to qualify. What kept me going was the mediocre success I was having in my attempt to qualify. Each week I got closer and closer to my goal, but further and further from my sanity. I was stretched beyond my means, and every other aspect of my life was affected. I became extremely stressed out and was taking it out on the people around me. Now it is difficult to consider that a sob story since I eventually won the whole thing, but the wear and tear was apparent.
On the other side of the coin was Todd Anderson. He was my partner in crime for this adventure but did not get the success I was obtaining. He eventually gave up on his goal and took a couple of weeks off to decompress. In his mind, it was too much for him to handle, and since he was further from the goal than I was, he would just go for it all at the Season Four Invitational. He ended up taking ninth place on tiebreakers.
Some would consider this a very sad story, but it could also be viewed as a success. Todd understood the situation and made a decision that would give him the best chance he could to qualify. Sure, this was a near miss in the end, but that isn't a bad thing.
Todd needed a break. He was in a bad mindset and knew that anymore grinding would be a waste of time and leave him exhausted for the Invitational. He wanted to recalibrate and get his mind fresh for the event. This break might have ended any chance he had at spiking multiple Opens in a pipe dream scenario, but it did give him a chance to get it all back at the Invitational. In the end, his story was yet another in his string of near-misses, but his attitude towards it was much better since he cleared his head.
The last lesson of the day is also the most important. One of the toughest parts of constantly competing is dealing with near-misses. Finding the tenacity to try again after being so close is the way most Magic players lose their spark. They lose their doggedness, and with it, their immunity to adversity. No other player understands the near-miss better than The Dizzler himself.
The Brian Braun-Duin
BBD has become a household name. He has two Grand Prix titles under his belt with one of them being a 4,000-person Legacy event. He has gotten himself in a position where he is qualified for the next three Pro Tours and has no signs of slowing down until that number is six. He does everything and goes everywhere in an attempt to satisfy his hunger for mastery. He is the purest of grinders.
Brian has traveled a much longer road than I. He has finished in 9th about the same amount of times that I have top 8-ed. While I always sneak into a better standing like 12th at a Grand Prix or 32nd in an Open, he takes 9th, 17th, and 33rd. He is always finding himself on the bubble, but he can laugh about it. He understands that this isn't about a destination of fame, it's a journey towards greatness. That success should be converted into mastery.
Brian's secret isn't that he played enough Magic to get good enough to succeed. It wasn't that easy. His secret is that he understands the value of a near-miss. He views them as near-wins and strives to do better. To constantly pursue closing the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
Brian Braun-Duin and I share one thing in common: We both value mastery over all. We both sacrifice for the sake of our craft and not for the sake of crafting a career. Success might motivate us, but a near-miss can propel us in an ongoing quest to being the best we can possibly be. We thrive not when we've done it all, but when we still have more to do. We build out of the unfinished idea, even if that idea is our former self. This is the dynamic of mastery. This is the fuel for grinding. Coming close to what you thought you wanted can help you attain more than you ever dreamed you could. You just have to be able to understand that today isn't the only day.
It's just today.