Fishing Lessons - Coming Back from the Bottom
The point of this article is not brag or complain or just to talk about myself. It is to help everyone else who may have similar issues as well as to give everyone a better idea of what someone with these problems is going through. There will be no decklists or draft tips. It is an introspective case study on myself. The things I've done well the things I've done wrong and the things that I need to do now. I am here to share my experiences in the hopes that some part of the public can relate or understand. There is nothing harder than giving oneself brutal honesty and that is the place that this week's Fishing Lesson comes from. Please enjoy.
I have crippling depression and anxiety and it has a very large impact on my lifestyle. I sleep for 12+ hours almost every day and every once in a while I wake up in one of two distinct physical states that would be considered as abnormal. One I refer to as Fluffhead (after the song of course) and that is where (without a better way to describe it) it feels like my brain is stuck in a raincloud and my eyes feel like they want to roll back into my head. When in this state I have a hard time stringing together ideas and have trouble formulating thoughts into statements and cannot access my memory whatsoever. This lasts for up to 3 days where I try everything I can to cut through the fog even temporarily in order to feel sane again.
The other abnormal mental state is one I call brainsmash (like Mind Rot but faster and more violent) and this is where it feels like somebody took my brain out of my head in the middle of the night then smashed it with a sledgehammer or ran over it at a high speed with an 18 wheeler. This usually only lasts about a day or two but soreness lingers for up to a week. I am able to function and make coherent statements and access my memory in this state but my head throbs and all of those mental functions cause severe pain. I also am incapable of doing multi-layered thinking such as inductive reasoning or reviewing my own thought processes. Obviously both of these states make it impossible to play cards.
I had never really done extensive testing for a tournament in my career; I just didn't need to. I was putting up results I was happy with using an amount of time put in that I was comfortable with. I wasn't content to continue with just those results but rather I was content with the rate of improvement my results were going in. Why fix what ain't broke? But when I found out that it was indeed “broke” I had a hard time changing my ways. Eventually I figured my testing regiment out doing a lot of losing in the meantime but then my results still didn't improve the way I wanted them to. I decided to take some time off to get my head straight before returning a few weeks later feeling much better. I then got 12th in GP: Boston. The game felt easy again.
When I was capable of turning it on I could not be stopped. The phrase “refuse to lose” comes to mind and I wore a look in my eye that could only be described as predatory. I have felt this rush only a couple of times in my career but it is almost otherworldly. My brain chemistry is where I want it to be my emotional state is where it should be I've gotten the right amount of sleep so I'm not groggy or tired the right amount of food so I'm not starving but I'm not content and my subconscious and conscious minds are both firing on all cylinders. I had a deck that was good and one that I knew very well and nothing was going to stop me. It's only happened a couple of times but when I can turn that on it feels incredible.
My mental and emotional state outside of Magic rendered me incapable of flipping the switch in my head to get to that point. After the GP I took more time off to continue getting my head together. As I sorted myself out I was getting Fluffhead and Brainsmash less and less. I was feeling better and better about myself and my life and I was slowly regaining access to that doom switch hiding somewhere in my skull. I was taking a step back and examining where I was and what that meant and it was working.
Plays wasted words proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying
I took 3 more weeks off before going to Rome. I played stock Boros Bushwhacker to a 5-1 finish dancing my opponents around the room like I had in the past and knew I could do again. I let my mental strength fall though and panicked the next day. My brain chemistry and mental states were not where I wanted them to be and the anxiety and weak emotional place I was in took their toll as I struggled to manage a 2-4 on the day. I want to take this time to explain what could have caused this but I don't want it to sound like I am making excuses. I know that this is under my control and I have taken responsibility for my losses. That being said there were a few things that were making it difficult to turn it on that day. For starters I didn't get as much sleep as I would have liked. Then we had to run from the bus stop to the site to get there in time. The combination of being a little tired having to run so being physically tired and not having time to get settled in and get focused before the draft started I was not where I wanted to be.
I had drafted the format quite a bit but Limited has always been my weaker format. Without time to mentally prepare and get settled in I let that memory creep into the foreground and cause me to doubt myself and my abilities. I was going to time on every pick second guessing myself and being unsure what was going on around me. Then after the draft I went around asking people about picks and how my deck should be built instead of taking that time to try and calm myself down and get my mind focused. I went 2-4 and was not surprised.
I didn't do anything that night but work on getting my head on straight. Some people naturally have the positive trait of a “short memory” which is where a player is able to let things go right away and view each new decision for what it is; an entirely new decision. It is an important ability to have for card players much like many athletes. For example Closers in baseball often go on huge downswings after blowing a save. That is because their previous mistakes are clouding their current abilities. The best closers must have short memories.
Want to talk about a short memory? Your Pro Tour champion Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa started that tournament 0-2. It's not easy to get to the point where you can battle back from that so easily.
I lack that trait and it takes considerable mental energy to keep my mind focused on the present rather than the past. Once that doubt creeps in however it becomes difficult to focus. That is why I have to take the time to manually sort through the past for lessons that will help me in the future and throw out all of the negativity fear and doubt. And that is what I did that night in Italy as I prepared for the third day of competition.
I had to get past what happened to me that day fix why it happened to me and get my predator-eyes back. I made a point to get a little extra sleep and felt good going into day 3. I played a fairly stock Zoo list and only lost the first match in which Yuuya Watanabe got pretty lucky. I danced everyone else out of their shoes and it felt great. All I needed was some introspection and some fresh self-esteem.
Then began my slide. After Rome I couldn't win a match to save my life. I became unable to access the switch and was starting to have trouble keeping my head on straight once again. My emotional standing and my mentality plummeted and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I tried some short-term fixes but it wasn't working and I eventually gave up. At the time I still didn't realize the significance of any of that psychological mumbo-jumbo on my game and it was time to start doing something that I thought would actually help me improve; playtest.
Rise of the Eldrazi came out on Magic Online and I crushed the first couple of drafts I was in and felt pretty confident. That confidence was rooted in results and not ability however and I was still in a bad place. I began to lose. A lot. It was utterly hopeless. I would join drafts knowing for a fact that I would be out in round 1. My decks were quite good insane at times but I would still mentally pack it in and the cards would follow. I couldn't tell why I was losing. I was playing like I always have and I thought my decks were better than most of the ones I had won with in the past. I couldn't figure it out and of course that only added more anxiety and depression on top of what was already a low point in my career.
Looking back over my drafts I could remember certain picks that were justifiable with “keeping my options open” that I may have even made if I had my predator switch flipped but there is a very key difference between taking a pick confidently to keep your options open when you're secure in your abilities and in the right mindset and taking a pick to keep your options open because you are unsure of yourself and don't know if you're supposed to commit or not and are going with the “safer” pick essentially by default. You may end up with the same card in the end from both approaches but there is a world of difference in the meaning behind it being taken.
I would draft over and over attempting to analyze and learn like I always had but I wasn't making any progress and I knew it. If anything I was just hammering bad habits into my subconscious. I drafted into the wee hours of the morning and lost with an absurd regularity. I was thinking at the time that I may have just hit a plateau; maybe the results that I had put up were the best I was capable of doing. Only if this were the case I would be somewhere around 50% match win percentage. If you go 25-25 in matches after putting up numbers like 10-2 at higher level tournaments then it is possible that you just ran good at those tournaments and that is the level you are at. When you go 7-43 though there is obviously something larger at work.
I may not have always been the best player but at least I could always tell what I was doing wrong and learn from it. Once I realized that I couldn't do that I had a panic attack. I was too close to the game it seemed and was unable to think through my decisions properly. I wanted to lose and was going to make it happen at any cost. And that's what is so amazing; I managed to get myself to lose through sheer desire to lose. I wasn't making throwaway attacks or game-ending punts; I was just doing everything suboptimally hoping my opponents would have X card to punish me for it often after determining from their line of play that it would make sense for them to have that card in hand.
I was playing as well as I ever had but my ultimate goal was to be beaten on the last turn possible and made it happen with startling regularity. This was more than mere lack of focus; it was a self-destructive internal drive to lose.
So why did I want to lose? Obviously that became the question. There are multiple parts to answering it some more important than others but all relevant in my mind. For starters the depression and anxiety made it easier to lose than to continue playing. I wasn't trying to win I was just afraid of losing and the difference is incredible.
If you want to win then every match you play is another opportunity to win.
If you are afraid of losing then every match you play is another chance to lose.
While you want to win you want to play as many rounds as possible so you can keep trying to win each one. When you are afraid of losing losing as fast as possible made it so you had fewer opportunities to lose and thus less rounds to worry about potentially losing. The mindsets can be extrapolated in this way very easily. I found myself unknowingly saying things like “hopefully I'll be out of this joke tournament soon” and so on which shows that I really did want to lose so that I didn't have to continue playing rounds. I didn't want to continue playing rounds because to me each round was just another chance to lose.
How demented is that?
Another reason I wanted to lose was because it was easier. If my head was in a bad place I could just leave it there and lose. But if I wanted to win I had to put forth the effort to clear my head and concentrate on having a short memory maintaining focus and keeping confidence above doubt. Depression breeds laziness and laziness breeds losing and losing breeds depression. Rinse repeat.
Losing is easier than winning because of the variance as well. If you are going to create a self-fulfilling prophecy you're going to be far more accurate with doubt of your abilities than you are with confidence in your skills. Once someone gains that confidence and their subconscious is in alignment with the game it becomes very hard to beat them. Do you think that it is a coincidence how often players go back-to-back? Levy LSV Nassif Saito accomplishments like Kibler's tear and Brad Nelson going from getting his first GP win to getting his first PT top 8 Yuuya Watanabe stringing together 5 premier event Top 8s in a row and so many other similar runs are not mere coincidences. These players did not run unrealistically well for 2 weeks. That is not the way “luck” works. They had their heads in the right place and they had a burst of confidence from actually creating a positive self-fulfilling prophecy through the variance that it made it easier to do the next tournament as well.
So if the losing depression laziness cycle is what brought this all crashing down how did it start and how does one get out of it? As for how it starts I have always been an emotional wreck due to my mental disorders so I have been teetering on that edge my entire life. I have come up with two topics worth investigating in this matter through my personal introspection. The first of which is my age and maturity level.
When I put up my first few results I was freshly 18. When my slide began I was about to be 20. I know that 2 years may not seem like a long time and it isn't but the maturity level between those ages is significant. So how does being mature hinder my results? Well the argument I would make if I were assigned to debate this side would be that as a more mature and analytical thinker it becomes easier to doubt or over think. Going into Grand Prix: Denver I had just come off a good tournament and felt like I couldn't be stopped. You know how 18 year old kids seem to think they're indestructible? That's because that is actually how they feel. I was just ignorant enough to not think about how I was only the 100th or so best player in the room but instead just sit down each round knowing in my heart of hearts that I was going to crush whoever was unfortunate enough to sit across from me. And that's what I did (until the Quarters at least).
Even when I locked up Top 8 I didn't even realize what was going on because all I wanted to do was beat another player. I sat down across from Saito in the 3rd or 4th round of day two and knew it was a horrible match-up for me and all I could think about was how I felt bad that he was going to lose to such a favorable match-up. I was stupid! Not that I am much smarter now mind you but I was a punk kid and I didn't know any better than to just keep beating whoever they sat in front of me until they told me to stop. That is something that I have lost with time and something that as Brad Nelson has recently said is very important to high-level tournament success.
With those extra two years of wisdom and maturity I approach things differently. I did a personal exercise where I put myself back into GP Denver as if it were today and tried to record my mindset so I could later recover the memory of how I felt at the actual event and compare the two approaches. As you can guess 20 year old AJ Sacher thought things through much more logically. I figure I was about a 30% underdog in the match-up and that Saito is a much better player than I am so you could give him a few extra percentage points and then I will do my best to hit my 1-in-4 chance of winning.
The cockiness of youth gave me the confidence I needed to trust my abilities and focus on my plays. When I started over thinking things and applying logic to things outside of my control I gave up my ability to use the skills I had developed. Instead I left things up to chance and allowed doubt to creep in. Confidence is supposed to help you focus and trust your lines of play but I out-logic'd myself into trying to abide by percentages and odds and consider factors that had no real reason to be considered. I was no longer just playing every turn the best I could.
The second topic that I was considering the effects of was due to the perfect timing related to my downswing. As I said I was already on the teetering peak of emotional and mental control close to falling into a pit of depression and anxiety. I was doing pretty poorly took some time off and put up 2 decent finishes to close out the season once I got my head on straight. Then after Rome and before my disgusting slump my dog passed away. His name was Tego and he was my best friend. We grew up together and he was the sweetest dog I've ever seen. I've always been a bit of a loner as I don't assert myself into social situations as often as some so Tego was really all I had for a long time. He was very sick and we put him down shortly after I got back from Rome.
I was a complete and utter wreck. Completely inconsolable it took me days before I even got out of my bed. I didn't eat and didn't get up at all except to go to the bathroom. It was over a month before I left my house again and I was still having outbursts at anything that reminded me of him which was of course everything. To this day about 6 months later I still get upset over his passing about once a week.
So I starting losing because my dog died? Not exactly. I had a weak emotional foundation and was already borderline insane barely keeping my head above the drowning depression that had plagued me in my latter high school years. When I lost Tego it was merely the straw that broke the camel's back. Especially because he was the one I would have gone to if I had a different emotional crisis. Now with my weak emotional framework in ruins and the mental-stability carpet being metaphorically pulled out from under me and no one to go to about any of it my life crumbled.
And it is impossible to play cards to the best of your abilities when your life is crumbled.
Focusing alone was impossible but the severe depression the deeply rooted anger at the world and its unjust ways and the emotional baggage left unsorted clogging up your mind is enough to take the wind out of anybody's sails. That depression is what developed into that horrible subconscious desire to lose.
The people who consistently do well have their lives together. It's said that you have to check all of your emotions at the door to play cards but that's a lot easier to do when it is in a neatly packed suitcase that is properly structured and well balanced. My life was crumbled and I thought that it was separate from playing cards and thus not relevant. That is quite obviously not the case. Especially for someone that plays with as much emotion as I do. When you know what you are doing and are content and happy with your life and the direction it is going playing cards becomes much easier. That is because when you are not balanced and content you rely on cards to tell you how to feel and becoming emotionally invested like that is nothing but bad news.
So where do I go from here? Well that's the stage I am in now. It took me quite a while to dig up a lot of truths about myself and my game and now that I have all of this new perspective it is time to get my stuff together. Thankfully as I said Brad Nelson recently wrote an article with some great advice about having a strong mental game and having emotional control and that piece truly spoke to me. With his jump-start and the advice of GerryT and many other great friends it is time to put together a to-do list of sorts. A kind of mentality and emotionality check-list for high-level tournament success.
I strongly suggest making your own. You may have some items similar to mine you may not but everyone knows that “being in the right mindset” can be a huge difference maker. It's just that without spelling it out for themselves people often struggle with knowing where they are supposed to be.
Here's mine as of time of writing and it is subject to change as it always should be.
- Do a better job of coming to terms with Tego's death.
- Start building up a stronger emotional foundation.
- Continue to get the ball rolling in life and doing projects and having fun and fight the depression back.
- Work on having more fun playing and know that each match is an opportunity to win not a chance to lose.
- Once emotionally and mentally ready put in some more time playtesting than in the past.
- Network more and get more advice and help. Especially for deck choice (which I will talk about in an upcoming article).
- Take the time to develop a short memory for tournaments.
- Be sure to feel good at tournaments both emotionally and physically (sleep eat shower etc).
- Focus on playing each turn perfectly and know that is all you can control.
- Feel like you can win the tournament but know it won't fall into your lap.
These are the things that I plan on working on in the next few weeks. I know that some of them will take more time than others and some may be months away. I know that it will be hard work but I know that it will be worth it. I also know that when I get to the point where I can turn that switch on again that the world had better watch out.
See you next week.
Special thanks to Brad Nelson for putting down in words what I needed to read. Thank you to Gerry Thompson for taking the time to impart your wisdom and expertise about this unto me. You have both saved me a lot of time and stress on my road to recovery. Also thank you to every one of my friends who has offered words of wisdom advice an expression of support an ear to speak to or any form of help in these tough times. I know not everything in my life is where I want it to be but I wouldn't trade my friends for anything in this world.