Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Abstract Iterations #1 - The Pressure to Win

Hello everyone and welcome back to another, admittedly late edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Before we get started I'd like to apologize for the abstract, personal and/or theoretical nature of this article.  Typically I prefer to write about specific decks, cards or events because there's usually more tangible information I feel I can share in that type of article.  Unfortunately due to a recent illness I simply haven't been playing a lot of Magic and therefore have no exciting drafts, decks or card interactions to write about.  In the absence of any actual games to talk about I thought I'd try my hand at a general "theory" article; after all in my present condition it may be quite a while before I get a chance to play in another tournament.  Additionally while I certainly could write a throwaway article about tips and tricks you can use to win matches I'd rather focus on something that's been coming up a lot for me in my recent play experiences; namely feeling and dealing with the "pressure to win" each time I sit down.

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.

Okay personal story time folks; as some of you who've been reading this blog for a while are aware I decided to start taking tournament Magic a little more seriously after GP Toronto.  I'd started the day 4-0 and then stumbled through 2 losses with a high fever before dropping to go home and sleep.  While the end result was mildly disappointing I came away from the event with the sensation that I was at least reasonably good at tournament level Magic.  More importantly I found that I had enjoyed the activity immensely despite being very sick for the entire day.  Mostly I liked the opportunity to compete and win against new players; some of whom were clearly better than me at Magic and would thereby improve my game simply by playing against them.  Of course I also learned that I wasn't mentally (or physically for that matter) prepared to win a large Magic tournament yet because I was not adept at handling the accumulated pressure to win that each round of the GP had added.  As the rounds wore on I started to wear out mentally and the first time I played an aggressive opponent who was trying to put me on tilt I almost cracked completely.  I proceeded to win that round through sheer determination but I was left spent and mentally exhausted; after two quick 0-2 losses to players who were simply playing better than I was at that point I realized I had nothing else to gain and went home humbled but hopeful for the future.  I honestly felt that play-skill hadn't been my problem so much as general lack of practice playing tournament level Magic.  To rectify this issue I began changing my Magic playing habits drastically; I tightened up my Standard decks and made an effort to build a tournament copy of every single deck in the format that I could afford.  I also began insisting that practice games with my friends and playgroup be played as full 3 game matches complete with sideboards.  Finally I made an effort to attend as many sanctioned tournaments as my body would allow me to; mostly drafts but with a fair number of FNM Standard events sprinkled in between.  In short I began to put in the necessary effort to "level-up" as a tournament Magic player instead of just "playing Magic" and hoping for the best at tourney time.

A funny thing happened as I started to put more effort into tournament Magic; I started winning matches and simply didn't stop.  Match after match, tournament after tournament and week after week it simply seemed as if I could do no wrong as the wins piled up.  After a while my friends and playgroup began to notice that I was always either winning or taking an intentional draw in the finals during tournament play.  To be completely fair I had noticed too and when the consecutive number of matches won/drew in finals reached 30 we started to talk openly about my win "streak" and when it might come to an end.  Of course not all of my wins had been a matter of preparation and skill; on several occasions I only won because of my opponent's mistakes, sweet topdecks and some pure blind luck.  Additionally there were the aforementioned intentional draws in the finals; any one of which I could have lost to a good opponent running a strong deck if the matches had been played out (although I typical won the "for fun" match after reporting as I recall).  Unfortunately I seemed to be the only one who realized exactly how much luck had been involved in starting the win streak and as those around me grew to expect me to win each match, internally the pressure to continue winning started to overwhelm me.  I became paranoid about losing a sanctioned match and found myself playing tighter; at times even questioning my own desire to continue playing the game.  With every round came a new opportunity to suffer the agony of defeat and thereby prove that I had no business being on this kind of run in the first place.  Even the actual act of winning started to lose some enjoyment for me as I began to subconsciously regard victory as simply delaying the inevitable emotional crash when I finally did lose a match.  This internal pressure would ultimately come to a head sometime around match 38 or 39 when I chose not to enter an 11 man draft event simply because I was somehow sure I would lose a round that evening.  Like a witch's curse I felt a bad feeling wash over me and I openly decided on the spot to take some time off Magic simply because I felt somehow *fated* to lose my next match.

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.    

Once I'd properly identified my problem  it became much easier for me to develop a strategy for coping with it. I began to examine my feelings closely and asked some hard questions like: "why do I feel pressure to win?", "why am I so afraid of losing?, "why do I think I deserve to win anyways? "do I really respect my opponents enough?", "don't they want to win too?".  Needless to say I wasn't entirely happy with some of the answers I found but these questions helped me re-evaluate myself as both a Magic player and a person.  In turn this allowed me confront my own fears and insecurities directly; more importantly it allowed me to go after these feelings individually and develop a mental checklist to help me stay afloat when the pressure to win is dragging me under.  While obviously everyone has their own demons I hope that by sharing my own methods of coping with pressure I can help others develop their own personal solutions to the problem.  Please keep in mind that this is by no means a "magic potion" to negate pressure; this is simply a list of the ideas I try to think about when I'm feeling anxious/under pressure during a Magic tournament.

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. 

2) Respect your opponent as a human being - While I certainly can't speak for everyone, I know that sometimes when I'm under intense pressure to win I can find myself locked inside my own head.  I'm worried about if *I'm* good enough, if *I* can find a way to win, how will *I* feel if I lose this round and in the process I fail to consider my opponent at all.  My opponent then becomes a blank slate on which I project all of my anxiety about the match and thus grows into an unbeatable Golem fueled by my own fears and insecurities.  Suddenly I find myself wasting mental energy on beating a perfect opponent, who knows every possible line of play I can come up and is drawing the nuts turn after turn; completely inside my own head before the match has even started!  When this happens to me I try to remind myself that my opponent is not perfect and is in fact a human being just like me.  He (or she) may well be feeling just as much pressure to win as I am and more importantly they're as likely to screw up or have a bad draw as I am.  I make a point of introducing myself to each new opponent and make the effort to learn a little bit about them (besides their names) before we start; this helps me humanize them and ensures that I won't be fighting against my opponent and my own thoughts at the same time.  Naturally this goes the other way too; whenever I find myself assuming that I am going to win my next round or feeling that I somehow deserve to win I come back to the same point.  My opponent is a human being just like me; with hopes, desires and all the mental faculties God has bestowed our species.  He (or she) came here to win games just like I did and may well be every bit as skilled at this game as I think I am in my worst moments of hubris.  Everyone in the room at a Magic tournament is there because they know how to play Magic and they like to compete; nobody is going to hand out wins on a silver platter and every win you claw out will be earned because you played better, drew better or somehow found a way to "get there" ahead of your opponent.  The concept of who "deserves" the win more is by nature offensive to your opponents and will cause you to underestimate them at the worst possible times.  There's a fine line between letting your opponent make a mistake and assuming he will do so; no matter how many previous play mistakes you think he's made in the match.

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.

4) Focus on the game -  Occasionally no amount of rational thought will help me calm down and alleviate the pressure I'm feeling to win.  My mind is simply racing too fast in all the wrong directions and trying to break it down logically is simply going to take too much time/energy away from my play.  At that point I'd generally do anything to stop thinking about the pressure I'm feeling and conveniently the tourney organizers have provided the perfect distraction; a game of Magic!  I combat the pressure by focusing entirely on the current game and even sometimes the current turn.  I divert all my mental energy into making the best play possible based on the current game state and use that focus to block out the rest of the world entirely.  It's just me, my opponent, our decks and this next turn; nothing else matters including our records, tiebreakers, previous mistakes in the game and who is or isn't the better player.  This single-minded turn by turn approach works well as a distraction from pressure simply because it doesn't leave you a lot of time to think about anything besides the current game state.  You aren't worried about winning the match; you're just trying to win the next turn enough times that winning the match will be the eventual result.  Naturally this style of play can lead to the periodic boneheaded mistake when you focus so hard on the current game state that you walk directly into an opponent's obvious trap.  In my experience however this is pretty rare and focusing entirely on the current game state leads to *many* more wins than losses.  Most of the time you'll see the trap coming anyways because you're paying such close attention to the game and can then easily play around it.   

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? :)


  1. Bwahahaha. Perhaps we'll play in Round 1 of the next FNM. If not... that 61 might turn into 72.
    (Might turn into 72 anyways... >_>)

  2. That was rather interesting nina, it's probably best that you finally got that out of your system, still hoping you get better :)

    also, new phyrexia ?? :P

  3. A very profound and understandble piece of writing. Magic should just be nothing but a game for casual and having a fun time. I understand competitive atmosphere when time calls for it, but totally we have to follow those 5 golden rules of respecting the game. These are great and sound advice and will make sure to follow them when I am playing. The game does not need more sore losers, just players who will strive to become better.

    @Zielle: I hope they release both rather than one. I really want to get cards from both sides. Norns and Praetors have seriously beautiful and strong artwork. Worth collecting and building a deck.


  4. @justmoukou They deff aren't, it's just new phyrexia, now time to get the entire set in that scribble cause it's awesome opossum