Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Abstract Iterations #1 - The Pressure to Win
The simple truth is that tournament Magic is a competitive activity; there are winners and losers of every game and every round in a given Magic tournament and the *vast* majority of us would much rather be the former than the latter every single time. This desire is completely natural in a competitive setting and is in fact a huge part of Magic culture; from prize payouts for top finishes to catchphrases like "get there son" this game is largely about winning. Unfortunately there is of course a downside to this focus on success; for every single winner in every round of a Magic tournament there's someone who lost and probably doesn't feel great about it. This vast disparity between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat can be difficult to accept and consequently many players (myself included) will be under an enormous amount of pressure to win each time they sit down to play. Now to be fair, pressure isn't always a bad thing. Many of our finest moments as human beings come while "under the gun" as it were and there are even people out there who actively *enjoy* the emotional experience of being under pressure. For most of us however pressure is an unwanted distraction; it clouds our minds, hurries our decisions and ultimately makes it harder for us to accomplish our goals. In a high skill (yes I said it) game like Magic this distraction can be fatal; you really can't afford to waste a lot of mental energy dealing with pressure when most games and matches hinge on a single play or sequence of plays. In light of this it's certainly fair to say that how you deal with "the pressure to win" during a given Magic tournament can be just as important as your deck choice or practice hours in terms of wins and losses.
Thankfully while all of this internal turmoil was going on I happened to mention my feelings about the subject to one of my more grounded friends (and regular tournament opponent): Beau Wheelan. In no uncertain terms Beau informed me that my mental struggles were "nonsense", that I was a good player, that I loved playing Magic and that it was a little pathetic that I didn't want to play because I was "afraid of losing". Coming from someone else I might have been seriously offended but I've come to know Beau as a straight shooter who isn't afraid to say what he means and his evaluation of the situation forced me to come to grips with my own fear of losing. Everything he had said was 100% true and I realized that the months since the GP had simply been a macrocosm of my experience at that event; at first I had been excited about winning but as the games piled up and the pressure to win had increased I had recoiled and eventually decided to take myself out of contention before match results did so themselves. I was simply replaying out the same scenario over the course of many smaller tournaments instead of one large event! Clearly something had to change and I decided to actively work on my own ability to recognize and cope with the "pressure to win" that was clearly ruining my Magic experience over time.
1) Respect the game - As previously mentioned tournament Magic is by nature a competitive game and therefore each game results in both a winner and a loser (time issues/intentional draws aside). This is of course by design and the hallmark of a well designed game (like Magic) is that both players start out with a completely equal chance to win the game. You both have 20 life, you both start the game with 7 cards in your hand and you both have the opportunity to mulligan if your opening draw is terrible. The only real slanting factor is that someone has to go 1st and even that is determined by a completely random die roll while the opportunity cost of going 2nd is simultaneously offset by gaining immediate card advantage. While it's certainly true that you have a chance to lose every time you play, on a basic level it's important to remember that you have an equal chance to win simply by sitting down. Even if you don't believe in yourself or you own abilities the game *itself* has been designed to give you a fighting chance. Conversely there are going to be times when all the self confidence, belief and play skill in the world won't buy you the win simply because the nature of the game dictates that *someone* has to lose. Whenever I'm afraid I'm going to lose my next round or find myself too impressed with my own abilities I take a moment to remind myself that Magic is a game and thus "both outcomes: winning and losing, are a possibility" every time I play.
3) Respect yourself - Let's face it; you didn't just fall off a bus and start playing Magic yesterday. The vast majority of players will arrive at a tournament with some combination of past experience and preparation for the event. For example I personally have been playing Magic off and on since Fallen Empires and while those early kitchen table Magic games rarely come up in my everyday tournament experience they certainly taught me a whole lot about timing and the fundamental rules of the game. Whenever I catch myself doubting my own ability to win I try to remind myself that I'm a pretty good Magic player, that I've been playing the game for more than a decade and that I've probably won tougher matches than this in the past. This is especially important in larger Swiss tournaments where winning early means you are likely to face better players who are also winning as the rounds go on. During these situations I remind myself that I'm also winning too and thus by definition can count myself amongst those "better players who are winning"; victory is the only rite of passage in a Swiss tournament and I deserve to be at that table because I've won just as much as my opponent has.
5) Accept that you've lost and then come out fighting - When all else fails and I'm starting to crack under the pressure I have one last trick left in my bag of answers; giving up. Now don't get me wrong because by that I don't mean quitting or conceding the match and I certainly don't mean dropping from the event (even if I do it because I'm sick all the time :( ). What I mean is taking a moment to mentally compose myself, closing my eyes and imagining a world where I've already lost the game/match. I focus for a moment on how that makes me feel and then I accept that feeling which is typically frustration or anger. I then channel that feeling into a determined promise to make my opponent's impending victory as difficult for him as possible. That's right folks; if all else fails I play pretty much for spite (those of you who know me are nodding in unison right now). You'd be surprised at what a person can accomplish through obstinate refusal to go quietly into that good night and pressure isn't factor when the cause is already lost. While I certainly can't recommend this "fatalistic" approach for every match-up because it's not much fun, I have won more than a couple matches in exactly this mindset.
Well folks there you have it; my first article in a little while and my first attempt at really "writing" an article in quite some time. I hope it wasn't too self indulgent or creepy personal, my goal really was to help other people deal with the pressure to win we all feel in Magic. I promise to get back to writing about specific decks and tournaments as soon as I can make it through 3 rounds of a draft without passing out. As always thanks for reading and until next time remember that when the pressure mounts you gotta keep it weird.
P.S.: For those of you who're curious I did resume my winning streak after Beau helped me straighten my head out. It currently stands at 61 matches (53W-8ID) and while I'm certainly proud of the accomplishment I try not to spend a lot of time thinking about it. As a Magic player all I can do is try and win the next game the T.O. says I have to play and worrying about anything besides that only distracts from my goal. Besides, I've already lost match 62 right? :)