Confession: I haven't played a single match of Magic in the last two weeks. There was a three week break on my tournament schedule and thus no immediate incentive to play. Plus, I needed a break from the Magic grind. Breaks have always been a large part of my game, helping me maintain focus and perspective throughout my struggles to achieve my Magical goals. I always seem to think more clearly, play better, and even enjoy the game more at the conclusion of one of these breaks. But even on a break, Magic is rarely far from my mind.
This break came about from my Dad inviting me to join him on a trip to California. Due to my non-Magic obligations, I could only possibly be there for a single weekend, and even that much would require skipping the Grand Prix in Pittsburgh. This was a hard sacrifice for me to make, but the combination of California, spending time with family, and needing a break from Magic anyway made it the clear correct play. So I spent this last weekend in sunny California, a welcome Respite from the bitter cold of Connecticut.
Today's article is a new concept: a kind of stream-of-consciousness of my thoughts as this trip to California progressed. You see, my body may have been in California, but my mind was walking the multiverse. If you're looking for up to date Standard stratagems and tactics, check back next week. But if you're interested in a winding trail of thoughts covering such hits as slow play, effective goal-setting, dealing with monotony while grinding, and the Fire, read on.
The First Beach
I got off my plane and met the smiling faces of my family at baggage claim. After insisting that I wasn't overtired from my journey (I don't find long periods of sitting particularly arduous), we set off to explore a nearby beach. I'm used to Michigan beaches, where it's more of a state park feel -- you have the beach, maybe a concession stand, and no other sign of civilization. So I was awed by the bustling downtown of the beach area. It was all so busy. There were so many options in front of me as to what to focus on. Should I bask in the beauty of the water, wander the cool stores, stop and watch one of the buskers, or contemplate the plethora of food options?
In order to get anything meaningful out of my beach visit, I had to make a choice deciding what it was I wanted to get out of it. It struck me that this same problem is one I've been struggling with in Magic. We constantly hear that to improve your game, you have to put in the time. That's not the whole story -- it's not that you have to put in time, it's that you have to work. Just playing games isn't enough, no matter how much time you spend jamming games with a friend. That's play, what's necessary is work. Working is hard and never appealing (even if Magic work is fun), but the secret is that it is necessary. You have to go into every playtest session with a clear picture of what you hope to gain from it and a fully formed plan as to how to obtain the knowledge you desire. Yeah, that sounds right. I resolved to double down on my planning and schedule time to sit and think about the specific things I want to learn.
I decided that the water's beauty was the loudest siren call for me and walked down the pier so that I could take in the ocean's full majesty. As I executed this plan, it occurred to me that my earlier resolution was not as groundbreaking as it seemed to be when I made it. Sure, the idea of having specific goals for playtesting is vital, but it's far from a new idea to me. I learned that lesson the hard way a while ago, and while I definitely have been too lax lately, pretending to myself that this resolution was a magical epiphany that would fix everything was a bad idea. No, the problem to solve right now isn't micro goal setting in playtesting, but macro goal setting and resource allocation.
Magic's too big these days and the options too plentiful. There are so many different tournament options on any given weekend, all with different rewards, both monetary and progression-oriented. I have previously given no thought to what tournaments I play, going to whatever is the closest in the formats I prefer. I haven't given any thought to what it is I am hoping to gain by playing tournaments -- I haven't set a goal for myself. Without a goal, any single tournament success is borderline meaningless, in that it is no more than it appears to be at face value: a single good finish, nothing else. With a goal, that same good finish is a stepping stone, something to build off of. Just as it is important to know what you want out of playtesting, you need to know what you want out of the Magic you play, big picture. Setting a concrete goal makes it far more likely that you will achieve the level of success you desire. Partly because having a visualized plan is a huge asset, partly because directing all your available resources towards success is way easier when you know what success looks like, and partly because having a defined goal to hang on to makes keeping your motivation consistently high so much easier.
We hang out on and around the beach until the sun goes down. The sunset is gorgeous in the way that only sunsets on a beach can be, and sad in the way that every sunset is, marking the end of another day. It's Friday night, and I realize that a few decisions made differently and right now I would not be watching a California sunset but instead be eagerly anticipating the beginning of a Grand Prix in the morning. The sun sets on our fun filled beach day, and I wonder if I missed the sun setting on the burning of my Fire.
There was a time not so long ago when skipping a Grand Prix would have been unfathomable to me. I wanted Magic success so bad then, and every tournament was an unmissable opportunity to prove myself. Has the will to fight just left me? There's certainly been times at tournaments lately when I've thought so, when I realized that I was putting less than every fiber of my being into every individual match. My past self would have been aghast at my Apathy, but that's the nature of the relationship between current and past selves. The passage of time mandates change, and sometimes the things that were the most important to us even just a year ago are just another thing now.
You can't fight against a sunset. No matter how badly you want to keep enjoying your beautiful sunny beach...nothing you can do will turn back time. Fighting against it is useless, and your anger only mars the great day you had. I can keep going through the motions and try to will my Fire back to full strength, but if the sun has set on my dreams of Magic success then no amount of fighting will bring them back. The key is moving on with grace and dignity, letting go of what you once had and accepting the change. Change is inevitable, and thinking that your Magic dreams won't change with you is folly.
The Fifth Beach
I am not good at vacationing. We spent the next couple days checking out other nearby California beaches and beach downtown areas, and each of these beaches had its own pier. Somehow, we ended up walking up and down the length of each of these piers. The second was okay, getting another shot to marvel at the beauty of the ocean was somewhat welcome. By the fifth, I wanted to scream. How did my family not understand that these beaches were all the same, that driving twenty miles further down the coast didn't appreciably change the scenery (even when viewed from the end of a pier), that the same class of touristy downtown had sprung up around all of them?
My boredom at a level where I was dampening the vacation experience of my comrades, I ventured off by myself to Meditate on the problem. I've had similar issues in the midst of intense magical grind periods of my life, when the rote repetition of playing the same matchup again and again began to wear on me. The key for me then was always to look deeper and begin to appreciate the subtle differences in game states, the way situations can be completely different while looking nearly identical. Magic has an astounding amount of depth, and I have at times claimed that any single matchup in Magic is enough of a game to occupy my interest for longer than the average tabletop or video game. Surely there is a comparable amount of depth in real life.
And so I turned my attention to looking for what made this beach appreciably different than the others. Try as I might, I couldn't find anything -- I'm not very well-versed in beach culture, after all. What I did notice though is that the ocean was far calmer than it had been before, allowing me to appreciate a different form of its beauty. Happy to have found a difference, I began to stare out at the calm ocean. Things just seemed slower out on the water that day. The waves of course, but even the boats and swimmers all seemed to have taken up a statelier pace. Naturally, this observation led my thoughts down a new path, towards an issue that had been on my mind a lot in this Standard format: slow-play.
Time trouble seems to be more of a concern in Standard these days than ever before, and the likely cause is, of course, the powerful fetch and battle land combination. An unprecedented amount of my mental energy is going towards playing quickly, making sure my opponent is playing quick enough, and otherwise doing everything in my power to make sure the match reaches a natural conclusion. I have made critical mistakes in matches recently due to hastening my pace of play, and have begun to resent players who seem to not care about ensuring that the match finishes. Specifically, I have come to hate the concession culture we have developed around matches that hit end of round procedures. The idea that conceding to the player who is ahead on board is expected bothers me.
In an ideal world, a custom of one player conceding at the end of turns if no conclusion is reached is plus EV for both players. Wins are more than twice as good as draws, so turning an expected half your draws in the long run into wins and the other half into losses is a beneficial transformation. The problem is that it is not an ideal world, and some people derive more benefit from this arrangement than others. Hitting end of round procedures is not an affliction that affects everyone equally, nor is it something that you can't work to protect against. I willingly dedicate a portion of my mental energy and constrict my deck selection to ensure that my matches finish. I center my preparation around patterns of games, helping me to know what to do in every pattern, using the repetition of the grind to process situations faster and run out of time less. If my match doesn't naturally finish, I will take the draw and not engage in a custom that attempts to minimize the draw penalty. Draws are the punishment mechanism in the tournament system designed to incentivize players to ensure their matches finish. I want matches finishing to be incentivized, and thus do not want to engage in our concession culture. The round clock is not an evil to be fought but an integral part of Tournament Magic, which is the only form of Magic I concern myself with.
I was up in time to watch the sunrise on my last day of vacation. As I watched the light begin to creep up on the dark beach, I thought about my impending return to normal life. Vacations are great, but I always find myself missing my regular, day-to-day life at the end. The sun's first rays were glittering over the surface of the ocean and the sky was that beautiful orange color when it hit me that most of my thoughts were about Magic. After all, I haven't played a match of Magic in two weeks.
All of a sudden my thoughts were flying. Flights to book, tournaments to go to. Before I knew it I had four Safari tabs open on my phone, cross-referencing tournament schedules and setting grand plans. I chuckled and looked back at the beautiful sunrise. So, the report of my death was an exaggeration. Maybe someday my Fire will go out, and when it does I will do my best to accept it and move on from this phase of my life.
But for now, it turns out all I needed was a break.
Thanks for reading,