When I was still at University, I sometimes needed to go away for a couple of days to attend Pro Tours. In all four years I spent studying, there were times where the dates of exams were in conflict with PT dates. As much as I wanted to graduate, I didn't want to miss a Pro Tour. I studied the university rules to see what reason one could use to skip an exam and write it on another day:
-You're being hospitalized (not an option).
-You're attending funerals (can't really use this one every time).
-You are a high-level sportsman and are attending a high level competition.
I could get behind that... So I gathered all the papers talking about Magic, the Pro Tour, and my results (I wasn't in the Hall of Fame yet, but I had won tournaments including a GP and a few local newspapers were talking about me). I showed a very complete file about what I was doing, and soon enough, they let me go on my journey to the PT while giving me an excuse for the Pro Tours to come.
While I was happy that such policy existed and that I could use it to play on the PT, I wasn't feeling much of a sportsman. Some people call Chess and, by extension, Magic an intellectual sport. But is Magic really a sport?
For a long time, I didn't have much to compare it with. I was only/mostly playing Magic, going for a run once in a while -my chubby face on the pictures from PT Yokohama 2007 confirms I needed more than a run once in a while- and wasn't much of an expert. The wake-up call came from my brother who told me I needed to "move my ass" a little more. I had never realized I was actually chubby. So I started putting on my running shoes, going for a run every day. A couple months later I started Karate and in 2009 I started Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. While I quit Karate soon after I started BJJ, I have been very much into the sport since then (just got promoted to purple belt, which is quite an achievement already); I run a magazine and write articles about it (check out Jits Magazine France if you're interested) and have also taken part in competitions.
1 - Comparing Magic and Sports
Here I'll be comparing Magic to the sport I'm training, BJJ (If you have no idea what it is, check out this video) . It could work with pretty much any other sports, but for the sake of simplicity, I'll just stick to what I know best.
A. Preparation for a Tournament or a Competition
Preparing seriously for a Magic tournament takes a lot of time. You have to check the new cards, build decks, play matches, check the new decks online, build and play against the new decks. You can never be too ready for a tournament, there's always something you could do to improve your strategy.
When we go to a secluded place to test, it's close to a 100% dedication to the job. You wake up, eat, shower, go to bed thinking about Magic. It gets so mentally exhausting that you need breaks to let everything sink in and take a step back to have a clear idea of what you're actually doing. I do that by taking my running shoes or going training as I can't see any other activity that uses enough of my focus and physical energy to take my mind off the game. Some play video games to "breathe" a little.
It's quite hard to keep a healthy lifestyle while preparing for a tournament. Days are long and you always feel like playing "one more game" before going to bed. Soon enough, it's four in the morning and you know that you're gonna have a hard time getting up and being fresh for the 10am draft. Eating well isn't a concern and you'd eat pretty much anything that you can find. Going to the supermarket is a necessary evil to keep yourself sustained.
I'm describing a playtest period that I believe is pretty common among pro teams.
When you want to kick ass in a sporting competition, you need to be ready. The requirements to be ready in a physical sport competition are different from a Magic tournament.
Training for a competition takes a lot of hard work. You're not as worried about what the others could do. You'll be trying to improve yourself, work on your technique, work on your cardio, your Stamina, your overall physical condition and push yourself to the limit, to be better than the others. "The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed on the battlefield," they say.
Your diet will have to be adapted to what you do, to give you enough energy to train, while preparing your body to be in its best condition on the day of the competition. Sometimes you'll also have to watch your weight if you're competing in martial arts in a certain weight class.
B. The Tournament / Competition
Magic tournaments usually start early and finish late. You sometimes have to stay focused for more than eight hours on the same day. Being able to play well one whole day is nothing short of an accomplishment. You will put to use all the knowledge you had on your deck and on the format in the games. A lack of focus will inevitably lead you to make mistakes.
Sleep is a very important component of staying focused during the day. Feel a little sleepy during a game, and you're done.
I guess there are ways to train yourself to feel awake and focused through a whole day of tournament. A healthy diet could work for starters, along with a snoring-free hotel room. However, jet lag or long trips to get to the tournament location, and long unhealthy playtest sessions don't help making it work.
Unlike Magic tournaments, sport competitions usually don't last for several hours (except maybe tennis matches). In BJJ, a fight can last up to 10 minutes (for black belts, between five and eight for lower belts) and you can step on the mat up to six times on a single day (in very big competitions, otherwise it's usually three or four). Therefore, succeeding in a sports competition is not entirely about being able to focus for a long period of time.
C. Every Day Preparation
Playing a lot of Magic helps you remember game patterns and discover interactions you may not think of during a tournament. I firmly believe there is a thing called "playing too much Magic". There are two concepts linked to "playing too much Magic": Reflexes and automatisms. When you play too much Magic, you are so used to sling spells that you get into a tournament on auto-pilot mode, only playing relying on what I call "your automatisms." Playing the right amount of Magic helps you train your "reflexes." A reflex would here be a mental mechanism that triggers when a new situation comes up, your mind would integrate all the data and you'll be able to play accordingly. On autopilot, you would make the play that you've been making the most when the same situation (or a similar situation) came up, leading to a lot of mistakes since the actual situations vary a lot from game to game and the right play may not be the same as the one in practice games.
In sports, overtraining would have an influence on your health if you don't let your body recover and get injured or are repeating the wrong things. Otherwise, drilling a move over and over again doesn't only improve your technique (as long as you perform it correctly) it also "prints" it into your muscle memory. In a competition, you want your body to react immediately to a situation as you usually don't have the time to think about your move anyway. Think one second too long and you might just fall too far behind. While on autopilot, you need lucidity, an important part of competition in sports, but which is also extremely hard to maintain due to Fatigue and stress. You need to be aware that your opponent may do something surprising that you haven't drilled. The best sportsmen are often the most elusive ones, the ones that make moves that you've never seen before or that you're not prepared to face. Lucidity could compare to the notion of "reflexes" I mentioned above.
The most important difference between Magic and Sport is that you can't be taught Magic. As much as I'd like to be a Magic teacher, it will very hard to teach someone how to play Magic well. You can't teach a playstyle. People can watch you play and take notes, but ultimately, it will be up to them to understand why you choose a move over another. Whereas your progression in BJJ depends a lot on the level of your instructor and of your partners, in Magic even if the players in your local store are all bad, you can still be a pro-level player.
D. As a Hobby
Most of what I mentioned above refers to Magic and sports in competitive environments, or where you want to get your game to the next level. Not everybody plays to win, or does sports to compete. Both practices can serve a purpose in the practitioner's life. You can do sports as a hobby, because you like to run, roll, hit a ball, sweat, and meet people with the same interests as you or just to stay in shape. And you can play Magic just to have fun, as an excuse to have a fun night with friends.
While there's no doubt both can be considered hobbies and fun past times, I would never consider casual Magic to be any kind of sport, even intellectual. It's just...well, a game!
E. The Luck Factor
It's been discussed at length in countless articles. Luck (or "the sum of all random factors" as I refer to it) plays a big role in Magic. A pro player can lose a game of Magic to a casual FNM player. A BJJ black belt has about a 0.001% chance of being submitted by a white belt, just like it's very unlikely, no matter how good you are at Tennis, to score a game against Nadal. No matter how much preparation you'll have, you'll never get these kinds of odds.
In sports, you have no chance of winning if you don't train hard enough or at least as much as your opponents or in the right conditions (you have a good coach, you eat properly, have a proper physical conditioning). In Magic, it happens every day, that new players beat seasoned players; that's just how it is.
2 - The Notion of Competition
When you talk about sports, there's often this notion of competition.
I'm a competitor. When I was a kid, I wasn't particularly athletic, didn't like playing soccer and spent most of recess time playing chess. I liked it because I was able to beat older kids / young adults when I couldn't beat them at any sports. When I got introduced to Magic, I quit chess and focused on that instead. It was like a second nature; I could just see plays that others couldn't. Way later, I started doing sports and discovered a world I didn't know. The karate I was training wasn't very exciting and there was no real way to actually compare your progress or where you were at with others. It was indeed a sport, but without competition.
In BJJ, you can't hide. You have to spar. In the beginning, I got my ass kicked over and over again. I signed up the day I walked into the gym, telling myself: if one day I can be good at this sport, it will be a heck of an accomplishment. It was a challenge with myself, but I also wanted to see if I could be good at that. When a competitor starts something, he wants to be the best at it, or at least try to be the best. I've spent countless hours at the gym, improving my game and getting better every day, competing and even winning against serious competitors. To do that, I had to train, hard. I have a long way to go to black belt, but I know I'll make it eventually with more training.
3 - Time Commitment
When you want to be competitive, in anything you do in life, you have to spend time to get better. When we compared Magic and sports, it was the main common point. The lifestyle is different, one involves physical conditioning, diet, drilling, the other involves playing games, finding new strategies, and studying.
On one side, you train for future gain. You're not going to lose your technique or your physical endurance (as long as you keep training). You'd be at your peek when the competition comes, and you'll be better than before the preparation. On the other side, you prepare for a tournament, and as soon as the format rotates, you're not keeping much of what you've learned. Your play level is hardly different than before the testing.
4 - Winning at Magic
To be good at Magic, or at pretty much anything; I believe you need talent. Talent is an innate trait that makes you good at what you do. It could come from genetics, from your family environment and most likely by the way your brains forms and grows up. A kid starting a new sport or an activity early in life will improve much faster in his teenage years than an adult who's just starting.
In sports, what you don't have in talent, you make up in training. You still won't be able to beat Nadal no matter how much you train, but you will improve as long as you keep training.
Winning at Magic depends on four things:
- Your "talent" to elaborate your game plan (or play style).
- Your ability to stay focused; turn your automatisms into Reflexes (my recent article on focus).
- Your efficiency to study and make the right deck choices and metagame calls.
- The random factors involved in a Magic tournament falling to your advantage (a fortunate draw, good pairings).
So Why Compare Magic to Sports?
If you want to win more at Magic, you shouldn't compare it to sports. If you plan to play hardcore for weeks, thinking it's going to make you a better Magic player, I believe you are wrong. The brain's "muscle memory" is translated to "automatisms" (note: the brain is not a muscle), and automatisms are a very good way to make mistakes and lose focus. I'm not saying that not playing at all is the way to go either. You have to be familiar with the cards, the format, the tricks, and so on. You'll have to test your strategies, change your deck and new cards through the long process of playtesting.
Your talent, the way you think about the game, will make you find the right line to play. Your play style is something that's very deeply settled within you. The way you attack or block as early as the first few turns of a game, might dictate the rest of the game, and you may not even notice it was a bad (or a good) plan to begin with.
In a way, Magic is more comparable to a giant scientific experiment where you have to study all of the parameters, throw them all together, and see if the results you have planned come out. Just like in a scientific experiment, there are factors you can't control that will mess up your calculations, in a good or a bad way.
As a Magic player and competitor, I consider myself a student of the game, trying my best to get the best grades, using the time I have available to study, and the talent I have to play to try to win as much as possible.