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CardShark Content - Dave Andrews (3/12/2001)

This article was inspired by pain and suffering. Not Pain/Suffering, the bad Invasion split card that you don't even build into your sealed deck - I'm talking about the pain and suffering of competitive players as they strive to improve their game. Every competitive player has encountered setbacks while trying to take their game to the next level, whatever that level may be. These setbacks can be very frustrating and hard on a player's self-esteem, and can even cause a strong player on the rise to quit the game of Magic altogether. In the past few months, I have heard some pretty harsh statements from friends who were experiencing hard times in the game of Magic, and those statements have inspired me to write this article. I'd like to give a few techniques on how I approach the game mentally. Some I use to improve my game, and others are just meant to keep me from setting up on the water tower with a high-powered rifle every time I have a bad tournament.

Understanding the Nature of Magic
´´I'm just getting tired of not seeming to get anywhere over the last couple of months. If I don't make top 8 at States, I think I'm just going to quit Magic.´´

´´I don't get it. I win a couple tournaments, think I'm finally starting to live up to my playing potential, and then I come down here and lose to !´´

These are two harsh statements made to me by two good players, each experiencing a temporary slump in the game of Magic. Neither statement expresses a very healthy attitude, and they both make the same mistake: both players based too much of their Magical self-esteem on a single Magic event. Magic is fickle. It isn't like the classic game of Go, where the better player always wins. In Magic, the better player tends to win more often over time, but in any given instance, anything can happen - mana-flood, mana-screw, an amazing topdeck, or an amazing play, whether carefully orchestrated or randomly stumbled upon. I'm sure that it wouldn't take much searching to find a story of some player who stormed his way into the top 8 of one PTQ, then went 2-2 drop in the next. (Could it be that your author has experienced this particular joy first-hand?) This is simply the nature of Magic. There's no way around it, and you just have to accept it.

This of course means that the wise Magic player should not evaluate his play solely on any given instance of play, whether that instance is a single play, game, or tournament. Maybe that big win was just your lucky day, and you're really not so hot as you think you are. Or, as is much more common among competitive minds striving hard to improve their game, maybe you are being too hard on yourself over one game or tournament. It seems so obvious when you are looking at it here in print: Taking a beating in one tournament doesn't make you a bad player when you've stormed through the last three in a row. However, when you are on the receiving end of that beating, it can be very disheartening, and that is when it is most important to remember just how fickle Magic can be.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you go out, get wrecked in some Magic game, and then just decide, ´´Oh well, Magic's fickle, I'll just ignore that game.´´ Always, at the end of any tough beating, there is something to be learned. Do you need more land in your deck? Less land? Did you play the wrong deck for the metagame? What could you have done to play better? Just make sure it is a learning experience, not an ego-crushing one.

One thing that I do to try to stay sane in the face of Magic's whim is to try to set non-specific goals. Rather than saying, ´´I'm planning to make top 8 at Chicago this weekend,´´ I'm much more likely to say, ´´I'll be going to 5 PTQ's this season, I plan to make top 8 in at least 3 of them.´´ By approaching the game this way, I am much less likely to have my self-esteem crushed on the day that Magic decides to play evil math tricks on me.

The Best Player in the Room
Any time you step onto a tournament site filled with unfamiliar faces, one question naturally comes to mind: who are the best players here? This question is one that is best left unanswered. After all, why do you want to know? Is it so you can be intimidated into making mistakes versus the stronger opponents? Or would you rather slack off versus the weaker opponents, so they can sneak in a lucky game win while you're not playing your best?

Before I walk onto any tournament location, I already know my answer to the best player question. Right or wrong, I am absolutely convinced that I am the best player in the room, and that everyone else is a close second. They're not a close enough second that they can beat me when I am on my game, but nevertheless every opponent is dangerous and ready to pounce on any mistake I may make. Adopting this attitude keeps me confident and sharp, which serves my needs perfectly. Taking this attitude shouldn't be considered cocky or over-confident; it is just a positive competitive mental attitude you can adopt to give you that confident edge over your opponents.

The Best Deck in the Room
Once, during the long car ride down to Origins, I was explaining my theory on topdecking to my good friends Travis Cullum and Nate Fritz. I exclaimed that in order to get good topdecks, you have to believe that you have the best deck in the field, that your deck loves you, and that it always wants to give you just what you need to win. Then, while randomly playing some Type 1 games in between events, Nate and I watched Travis beating on another player, who then said that he would just topdeck The Abyss
The Abyss
The AbyssSet: Legends
Cost:
4
Color:
Black
Type:
Enchant World
Rarity:
R
Artist:
Pete Venters
Text:
All players bury one target non-artifact creature under their control, if they have any, during their upkeep.
and turn the game around. Sure enough, his next draw was The Abyss
The Abyss
The AbyssSet: Legends
Cost:
4
Color:
Black
Type:
Enchant World
Rarity:
R
Artist:
Pete Venters
Text:
All players bury one target non-artifact creature under their control, if they have any, during their upkeep.
, and he ended up winning that game because of it. Later that evening, Nate excitedly told me ´´It was just like you said - he said he was going to draw The Abyss
The Abyss
The AbyssSet: Legends
Cost:
4
Color:
Black
Type:
Enchant World
Rarity:
R
Artist:
Pete Venters
Text:
All players bury one target non-artifact creature under their control, if they have any, during their upkeep.
, and then he did!´´ Well, that kind of mind-over-matter mysticism isn't exactly what I had in mind. Maybe I can explain it a little better here.

Magic is a game of infinite situations and possibilities. Any given game situation has many different directions it can go off in based on the decisions you and your opponent make, and what you each randomly draw. Going through all the possible situations is generally next to impossible, but thankfully experience and intuition can narrow down the possibilities very efficiently, and can sometimes determine the proper course of action all on their own. Most times, though, a player needs to work through at least some of the possibilities in order to make the correct play. I've found that my ability to work through the possible consequences of any play is directly related to my level of confidence. I work things out much easier when I believe that doing so will lead me to victory. This is why completely believing in myself and in my deck is vital - it gives me the willpower I need to find the correct plays to allow my deck to shine. Believing that your deck will eventually give you the tools you need may not magically make you topdeck, but it can help you to play well enough to get to the all-important topdeck, or to set up the best situation where obtaining the topdeck will swing the game in your favor. Conversely, if you don't believe your deck has the gas to turn the game in your favor, your will to permute the possible plays in a given situation can be severely decreased.

One other note on the topic of getting what you want from your deck and topdecking. I have at times heard players talking about the more consistent top players, and saying that they aren't really that good, they just get lucky and seem to always get the topdecks. The truth is, good players create good topdecks, by making the right plays and maximizing the chances for their decks to do their thing. If you don't believe that good play creates good topdecks, consider this: you are getting beaten down, and will lose the game if you do not topdeck a Wrath of God
Wrath of God
Wrath of GodSet: Revised Edition
Cost:
4
Color:
White
Type:
Sorcery
Rarity:
R
Artist:
Quinton Hoover
Text:
All creatures in play are buried.
next turn. There are 4 Wraths in the 40 cards remaining in your deck, giving you a 1/10 chance of topdecking the crucial spell. What if you could set up your blockers and use that spell in your hand to buy yourself one more turn? The chances of topdecking the Wrath 2 turns from now is the chance of not drawing Wrath next turn (9/10) times the chance that you will draw it the turn following (4/39). This means that compared to your exactly 10% chance of drawing the Wrath next turn, you now have a just over 19% chance of topdecking it in the next 2 turns - you've almost doubled your chances for a topdeck just by buying one extra turn!

This Match is the First Match of the Rest of Your Life
Every match of Magic you play is its own separate entity, and should be treated as such. This idea may seem contrary to my comments above about not giving too much weight to any single Magic instance, but whereas looking at the big picture is essential to appropriately gauging whether you are meeting your Magical goals, taking each match one at a time is definitely the best way to work towards those goals. A game of Magic has enough factors to consider when attempting to come up with the correct strategy without including outside factors that really aren't relevant to the game at hand. Did this particular opponent beat you the last 3 times you played? Doesn't matter. Did you make a stupid mistake last round that cost you the match? Doesn't matter. Is this the first round of the tournament? The third? Are you 5-0, or 4-1? Unless you are in a position to consider taking an intentional draw rather than playing, it just doesn't matter.

There are some players I know that just can't make a mistake - not because it can cost them a game, but because it can cost them 3 or 4. Once they make one mistake, they just can't seem to shake it off, and beating themselves up over it just causes them to miss more and more plays. This is definitely one of the quickest paths from the main event to a side event. It is important that you learn to shake these kinds of things off, and just play each match as an isolated unit.

What if This Was the Last Match of Your Life?
Pretend for a moment that you are playing in your last Magic tournament before retiring from Magic forever. How would you want to be remembered, and what would you remember about the game? I don't think it would be the contents of those six boosters you won in that side event booster draft. It would be the friends and the fun. It would be traveling to different cities, or maybe even different countries, that you probably never would have gone to if you didn't go for the game. It would be the playtest sessions that lasted way too far into the night, until your buddy Travis disappeared into his bedroom only to emerge a few minutes later with his bed sheets over his head, growling ´´I am the Phyrexian Scuta
Phyrexian Scuta
Phyrexian ScutaSet: Planeshift
Cost:
4
Color:
Black
Type:
Creature
Sub Type:
Zombie
Rarity:
R
Number:
51
Artist:
Scott M. Fischer
Power:
3
Toughness:
3
Text:
Kicker-Pay 3 life. (You may pay 3 life in addition to any other costs as you play this spell.) If you paid the kicker cost, Phyrexian Scuta comes into play with two +1/+1 counters on it.
! Rwarrr!! Rwarrr!!´´ So I guess my last suggestion for how to approach Magic is to appreciate what really makes Magic magical: the friends, the fun, and the experience. Stay focused on playing the best game you can, but also having the best fun you can, and success will come around.


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