The Boxer Mentality
Have you ever wondered why competitive Magic is populated by a bunch of surly guys who think they are better than everyone? Or why Magic players routinely claim to have lost to everything but their own mistakes? Or perhaps why most players' opponents happen to be the luckiest sacks of 75% water on the planet, even though these same people do not go home every night to be greeted by Jennifer Garner and Halle Berry?
In this article, I'm going to explore some of the psychology of winning and losing, and explain why being a boxer isn't what you want to be in order to be successful at Magic. I'll also include some details of my recent trips to U.S. Nationals and Origins, and relay a hilarious anecdote that is sure to embarrass Brian David Marshall, Randy Buehler, Alan Comer, or Scott Johns.
If you search for it on the web, people bastardize the term"boxer's mentality" to mean all sorts of ridiculous things. Thankfully, you have me to lay down the law and tell you what I learned it meant.
The great boxing coaches all know that no matter what your fighter's skill level, you have to send him (or her) into the ring believing he can beat anybody. It doesn't matter if it's true or not - it's simply a necessity. Before you throw your guy into a ring, you have to make him believe that on any given day, he can beat anybody on the planet. As edt said to me,"You also make sure that for his first fight he isn't facing Roy Jones Jr., but he still needs to believe he could beat him."
So the boxer mentality is not kill or be killed, or win at all costs, or anything silly like that. It's simply this: On any given day, at any given time, I can beat anybody. You may be more familiar with it sounding like this,"I'm King of the World! I'm the Greatest! I'm a baaaad man." It also translates (perhaps most importantly) to,"I will not lose." It is almost universally accepted that this is the proper attitude to take into a fight.
The reason for this (and I assume most of you have little experience with this phenomenon) is that getting hit hurts. A long bout against a tough opponent will occasionally have moments where you wish you were dead. Your body screams at you, your lungs are on fire, your legs end up as wobbly masses of jelly, and your face wonders why you have a self-loathing complex that forces you to keep ramming your nose into some other guy's fist a twenty miles an hour. The only way to make taking a beating worthwhile is if you believe that you will still end up with a big"W" (and maybe a belt) at the end of it all.
Sounds simple, right? Well it is, except in boxing (or fighting) it can get you pummeled by convincing you to take on a fight in which you are obviously outmatched or simply aren't ready for. Then again, that's what good promoters are for... The boxer's job is to win the fight. If you happen to pick a fight on the street that you can't handle, that's your own damned fault, isn't it? Stop fighting on the street and do it where you get paid.
There's one additional important item that needs discussing before I relate this back to our silly little card game. Notice the phrasing of"I will not lose." See how it doesn't say,"I can't lose." Many boxers say"I can't lose. No one can beat me. I am undefeatable." That's the wrong way to think, for a multitude of reasons, not least of which is that it leads to overconfidence.
When you step into a ring, you have to believe that you can win, if you execute your strategy, if you exploit your opponent's weaknesses, if you have prepared yourself properly for the fight, and if you don't give up somewhere along the way. If any of this goes wrong, or even if your opponent somehow gets lucky and lands a knockout blow (which actually happened in the Roy Jones Jr. vs. Tarver fight... if you watch the tape, you can see that Roy saw Tarver's punch, threw a faster counter punch that just missed the mark, and Tarver knocked Roy out for the first time in his pro career), you can lose. Anything can happen.
It is only through a fighter's will that he makes losses impossible.
The Relevancy to Magic
As the late, great Jon Becker discussed back in Tomfidence, the Boxer Mentality is a useful thing for a Magic player to have. In fact, it really makes no sense to have any other attitude. However, since you are infinitely more likely to take a loss at Magic than in boxing (you control a lot less in Magic than you do in boxing, not least of which is the ability to choose matchups that suit you), you have to rearrange the words a bit to make them appropriate. Graham Ribchester was particularly lucid about this point when we discussed the topic, so I'll just quote him instead of stealing the credit for myself:
"What you want is to believe you have your game so well-tuned that you won't make a mistake, and that you are playing well enough to spot anything. However, if you don't draw the right cards, you're still going to lose - and you have to be able to recognize this. If you don't recognize this, then when you do lose for that very reason, your ego is going to take one hell of a battering and you might not recover. If you're looking for the reason why you lost (and of course it isn't there, because you just drew crap), then you're always going to be questioning yourself, 'maybe I could have won if I had done this.'
"So you don't actually want a boxer mentality, although you do want to emit one. You do want to intimidate your opponents without actually being noticeably intimidating. People don't like playing Kai... I doubt he thinks he will never lose, but other people think that and that's good for him. I'm gonna stop writing your f***ing article for you now."
I agree with what Ribs had to say, though I think that even if you haven't prepared well, have a bad deck or matchup, or are facing a better player, mise well believe you're going to win, amiright? I mean, you could dwell on all the things that you did wrong coming into the tournament, or how you screwed up in your draft, or how you never beat the guy across the table from you, but what's the point? Don't think you are unbeatable, but do believe that you are going to win.
Coping With the Beats
Obviously boxing is not Magic, but similarities between the mental games of the two are strong. However, as I mentioned before, even the best Magic players will lose frequently, while the best boxers can go entire careers picking up only one or two losses. This means that Magic players must learn to cope with losing a lot better than boxers because they will be confronted with this reality more often.
In boxing, a loss tends to be a coin flip as to whether it will end a fighter's career or not. Some fighters simply can't deal with losing - they end up a shell of their former dominant selves and quickly spiral out of the ranks of professional fighters (or at least descend to journeyman status). Some sports psychologists argue that this happens because the boxer now has proof that they can lose, and it becomes a subject they dwell upon in the ring. Their will to overcome obstacles in pursuit of victory is shattered and at some point in future fights, the punishment (or effort) becomes too much and they pack it in (See: Vlad Klitschko (or for you non-Boxing fans out there, the one without a belt)).
Other fighters use a loss as a motivating tool. They blame the loss on improper preparation on their own part, and use that to push themselves to greater heights later in their careers. This isn't a common occurrence, but it does happen.
But what happens when it comes to Magic, a game where even the best players at the height of their powers lose a couple of matches a tournament, and everyone, regardless of skill, will have some days where they go 1-2 drop? Remember, there are a lot more factors beyond your control in Magic than in boxing, so you can't take responsibility for every loss. Yes, there are reams of articles out there explaining how Magic players don't take nearly enough responsibility for their defeats and it prevents them from becoming better players, but you also can't take responsibility for all your defeats. Sometimes it's really not your fault. Therefore, how players cope with failure has a significant effect on their potential to do well over time.
I have a friend (who will remain anonymous) who has a major tendency to go on tilt. He's a good player, this friend, though he will often downplay his own skill, since he hasn't really"achieved anything." He works hard to learn new formats, and he actually practices extensively in order to elevate his game when an event he cares about arrives. In fact, this guy really pours his heart and soul into the game and generally expects his investment will pay off with results.
Unfortunately, Magic (not unlike poker) remains a game of probabilities. Some days you are going to get beat by the guy playing a deck full of Crazed Goblins and Lava Axes, regardless of what you do. Then the next round, you are going to sit down across from his little brother and lose to his deck full of land destruction and Arc-Sloggers.
Sh** happens, kids, and there are times that no amount of preparation can correct for it. Hell, sometimes you even have the best deck in a field, but end up facing bad matchups all day long and going straight to the bean bracket without so much as a whiff of victory along the way.
Anyway, this friend has a very hard time accepting these sorts of results. When he works hard at something, he expects to succeed. I think we all do, really - especially when you can look around and see that half the players in a tourney showed up while doing no playtesting whatsoever. Therefore, it guts him when things go poorly. A bad loss sets him into a minor tailspin of wroth and rage, but a whole bad tournament puts him in bed to sleep for twelve to fifteen hours at a time. He loves the game, but it is unacceptable to him that luck can play such a huge factor in something that is generally such a skill-tester.
The interesting thing is that this guy is an excellent player when he's thinking clearly, but as the beats start to accumulate his mood prevents him from making the right decisions. Therefore, his skill level is actually a variable that fluctuates based on his mood. This may seem odd to many of you - but I bet you all know someone like this, and perhaps even experience such fluctuations yourself. I know I do.
Anyway, this inability to accept bad beats with grace and humility (even though the circumstances are often beyond your control) not only prevents some players from maximizing their results, it can also adversely affect their lives.
[Incidentally, no matter how good their skills, these sorts of people generally make awful poker players. The math says that if the same idiot keeps betting his 4-8 offsuit into your Kings, he will lose a lot of money over time, but the fact that he just stole twenty bucks from you five minutes ago with it grates to the point that you no longer play effectively. If you are this sort of person, you should probably work on fixing your mental game or give up the hobby entirely, as it's just going to make you miserable in the long run.]
Observations on How Some of Magic's Top Players Handle Adversity
One of the perks of my job is that I get to hang out with a lot of the top Magic players on a semi-regular basis. I usually see these players in a tournament setting though, so I also get a glimpse as to how they handle both winning and defeat. Allow me to briefly categorize some of them and point out how it affects their ability to perform.
Brian Kibler has a baseball closer's mentality when it comes to losing. He tends to ran about whatever happened to him last, but doesn't actually let a loss get to him too much. Brian is generally able to focus on whatever the next task at hand is and relegate a bad beat to the back of his mind. This does not, however, stop Brian from being perhaps the most cathartic whiner on the Pro Tour. If you were to follow Kibs around for a whole tournament, you would be regaled with stories of how somebody"backdoor hee-hawed" him out of game X with card Y all day. He rarely gloats in victory, but every tough loss is regarded as the worst possible thing that could have happened. I relate well to this kind of attitude, because I too am a professional complainer. This is probably why Kibler and I get along so well.
Of course, this is nothing compared to listening to Brian while he's playing poker, but that's another game entirely.
Zvi, on the other hand, is someone I've seen get completely rocked by a series of frustrating losses. He tends to let things get to him a little longer than Brian does and actually shows frustration or disgust from time to time depending on how things are going. Now, don't get me wrong, Zvi is generally a very cheerful guy who often makes for good match coverage because he's chatty and generally even-keeled whether things are going his way or not. It's just that he's more likely to be emotional about bad beats or mistakes on his part than Kibler, and is highly critical of himself when things go wrong. In truth, Zvi's responses are normal, and you see them every week on the PTQ circuit.
Love him or hate him, Mike Long is someone who is fascinating to watch. For those of you who don't know, I played Magic in Mike's store for the first two years I was back in the game, so I've probably seen more of the highs and lows of Mike than you will ever see on the tour. His psychology is also pretty interesting, as he always starts out a match where he's in contention with a happy and chatty attitude. My guess is that part of the reason for this is that it allows him to play mind games with his opponent easier (people are much more likely to divulge information they don't mean to while engaging in casual banter), but another reason is that Mike is an extrovert and likes to talk with people. On the flip side of the coin, when things go badly for Mike, he can get very surly. If things are going really poorly, he'll occasionally berate someone for playing awful cards, or for making bad plays and still being able to win... Which is not uncommon behavior among any hyper-competitive player, really.
The impressive thing about Mike is that no matter how his last match ended up, if he's still in contention, you will see him snap back to chipper Mike at the beginning of his next match. After the tournament, he may go into full-on bitch mode about how bad the game of Magic is, and how manascrew will be the game's downfall, and maybe claim he's never playing again - but while he's still in the game, Mike rarely lets losses get to him from round to round.
I have been a failure at the psychological aspects of Magic. When I haven't prepared well for a tournament, I tend to focus on all the things I should have done instead of what I need to do to win. When things are going poorly, I think a lot about all the cards that my opponent could have that beat me, instead how to best execute my game plan in order to achieve a win. I also let bad losses get under my skin, and it colors my opinion as to what kind of day I'm having. I'm not nearly as bad as the guy who goes into depressive funks based on his Magic results, but I'm definitely not the standard bearer for always believing I'm going to win a match either. In order to play my best, I always have to feel confident I've prepared enough for a particular tournament. You can guess how often that happens.
The weird part is that I've known all this stuff for years. I've read Tomfidence. I'm aware of the power of a positive attitude... But I never really applied these elements to myself. I've been an athlete all my life, and I've always been willing to intimidate the hell out of my opponents because it gave me an edge in the rest of the game.
In baseball, I'd pitch high and tight against opposing hitters to make sure they weren't getting comfortable, and I'd make sure the batter knew I did it on purpose. I wasn't looking to hit anyone, but I also wasn't about to let guys stay comfortable, and it always worked to my advantage. In soccer, I made sure the other team knew that I was coming hard for balls and that I wasn't afraid to make some contact in the process. Everything was legal, but after a while you figure out how to get under people's skin without breaking any rules.
In short, I've always understood the mental game in the sports I've played. That said, I never even dreamed of being intimidating or using tricks to get under someone's skin while playing MTG. I also never considered the benefits of thinking,"Sure I'm going to win. What other option is there?" This is in spite of reading articles about it for years and always believing I'd win in sports.
I still don't know how to be intimidating and yet sportsmanlike while slinging the spells (I'd guess that comes partially from reputation), but I've certainly changed how I think before each match. I now believe that I will win, because there is no other productive line of thought. My only regret is that I didn't figure this out years ago.
To answer the questions from the beginning of the article, most players believe they are better than everyone else, blame losses on anything but themselves, and think their opponents always get lucky because they have to. That's how they maintain a boxer mentality, and continue believing that they will always win. It's too hard for them to let other reasons creep in while playing and keep their mental game in order. You don't have to be an obnoxious twit to do this, that's more of the easy way out.
Of course, the best players can filter through the events of a match, find their mistakes, learn from them, and become even stronger from match to match. This is what you should aspire to. In the meantime believe you are going to win, and remember that how you handle losses is probably more important than how you win. Aside from that, enjoy playing the game. There is no other option that makes any sense.
So I'm sitting in the side events area at U.S. Nationals and playing in the semi-finals of a draft against Randy Buehler when Seth Burn walks up to me and hands me his cell phone. I look at it and ask,"What's this?" Seth responds,"It's Flores." This is the conversation that followed.
MJF:"You're really hard to get a hold of, you know that? So when are you posting my article?"
MJF:"The one I just sent you. It should be in your inbox now."
TK:"Mike, you realize that I'm at U.S. Nats right now, correct? In fact, Randy Buehler's sitting here wondering when I'm going to get off the phone so we can finish our match."
MJF:"Just tell me when you're posting my article."
TK:"Monday or Tuesday probably."
MJF:"What do you mean? It needs to go up tomorrow."
TK:"Did you read the e-mail I sent last week saying when the deadline was?"
MJF:"(pause)... no. Who reads your e-mails?"
TK:"Well, it said you needed to turn stuff in by Tuesday night so I could get everything done and then travel to Kansas City."
MJF:"Bah, this is unacceptable! That's it, I'm shipping it. This article is going to Brainburst!"
TK:"Well, you can do that, but Kibler's sitting right next to me, so I don't think it will go up any faster that way than it would if you just wait on me."
TK:"Gotta go Mike. Randy's giving me dirty looks. Talk to you next week."
I love michaelj, even though he described me as,"a goober, but I kinda like him" to one Joshua Ravitz. It turns out that Mike had originally called BDM's cell phone, but Brian wouldn't let him bug me, so Flores just called around to cell phones he thought would be at Nats until he found someone who knew where I was and who would give me the phone.
Now unlike some of my writers, I never make up stories just for the hell of it. Nor do I make up quotes about them being museum curators, but that is neither here nor there. What follows is a completely true story that has not been modified in any way to protect the guilty. It also probably means I'll never get to write for MagicTheGathering.com, but honestly... Would they let me tell little stories like this there? Doubtful my friends, doubtful.
Friday night, I barn along to dinner with BDM, Scott Johns, Randy Buehler, and Alan Comer. If you like listening to old-school Magic stories (as I do), then this is practically a dream dinner date (yep, I'm easy). It was honestly one of the most entertaining meals I've ever eaten, and (at the risk of all credibility here), I felt completely like your average MTG fanboy who won some contest. Anyway, the point here is that if you ever get to go out to dinner with these guys, I highly recommend it (particularly if it's to one of the best steakhouses in KC).
Midway through dinner (sometime after the appetizers had been delivered), I look down and notice that there's a folded-up paper napkin next to me that I hadn't noticed before. At first I thought maybe somebody thought I dropped it and picked it up for me. Then I realized that didn't make a lot of sense since we all had cloth napkins, and the only paper ones were from our drinks, and got all excited when I realized that maybe the waitress was hitting on me (though I was wearing my wedding ring, so I should have guessed that wasn't the case either. Le sigh). Tragically, the waitress was not hitting on me, but when I looked down at the napkin, I saw something far more entertaining instead.
I quietly folded the napkin back up and put it in my pocket. Then when the waitress came back, she smiled at me, asked how our food was, and I answered,"Great." And then quietly, I whispered,"Every once in a while..." I didn't say anything to anyone else at the table about it, though, because I didn't want anyone to get offended and chop her tip or anything. Besides, I liked having my own private joke for a bit.
After the meal was over (and I had eaten so much I was miserable; I think Scott Johns and I more waddled than walked back to the hotel), and we were outside the restaurant, I told everyone what had happened and passed the napkin from person to person. Perhaps the most entertaining part of the whole thing was that as Randy, BDM, Scott, and Alan read the note, they all cracked up and looked down at their shirts to see if they were wearing plaid. Hell, if I hadn't received the note, I would have checked to see what shirt I was wearing myself. Good times, Good times.
So, what do you think the odds are that Scott Johns wears some plaid at Pro Tour: Seattle?
Until next time, I leave you with this quote I got from the People Under the Stairs cut on the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack:
"Whenever stress sears my brain just like acid rain drops, Mary Jane is the only thing that makes the pain stop."
The Holy Kanoot
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