I've lost more games of Magic than most people have played in totality. That's a fun and also sobering thought. I've spent more time getting the socks knocked off of me and yelling "You've gotta be kidding me" into the aether than most Magic players have spent playing the game, period. In some ways, getting the socks knocked off of you completely socks, and in other ways, there's a sense of peace in having it happen so many times that you've come to accept it as inevitable.
I think a lot of players have a serious disconnect between how they deal with losing and the nature of Magic as a game. It's impossible to have a great mental game if you're incapable of dealing with losses, because it's impossible to avoid them. Magic isn't a game like Chess where a powerhouse player can win all their events by simply being better than everyone else. Magic is a game where you might be a powerhouse player who is better than everyone else and go 0-3 and drop.
I think having a bad mindset toward losing hurts one's tournament equity. It hurts your ability to do consistently well at events. More than that, I also think it hurts our sense of community.
Recently, in the Magic Pro League Sapphire Division league play, I started 0-3 with Kethis Combo in Standard, losing three mirror matches in a row. For those who aren't aware, the MPL Divisional play takes eight MPL players and pits them against each other in a round-robin tournament structure. Each of the eight players will play against the other seven competitors, and the top four players after the round-robin will compete in a playoff to determine the winner, who earns byes directly into day two of the next Arena Mythic Championship.
If none of that makes sense to you, I'll explain what the stakes meant to me personally. If I won my division, I'd lock myself into the MPL for next year with near 100% certainty, I'd triple my odds of winning the next Mythic Championship, and I'd put myself in a dominant position to play in the 16-player World Championship, possibly even soft-locking up a slot. So there was a lot riding on the event, especially pertaining to my future career as a Magic professional, short- and long-term. Those are some of the most important matches of the year.
To start my first three of seven matches with losses really sucked. I was especially frustrated because all three matches were Kethis Combo mirror matches, I lost the die roll in all three of them, and the person on the play won nine out of nine games. I felt like I got unlucky in how some games played out, in addition to losing all my rolls in a matchup where the play is a massive edge.
Starting 0-3 put me in a position where I would have to win all four remaining matches left in the division and get lucky with tiebreaker math to have a shot at the Top 4 playoff. The odds weren't in my favor. I was frustrated. I felt I got dealt a rough hand in those matches, and that my losses were outside of my control. However, the simple truth is that none of that mattered. No amount of frustration, complaining about variance or moping around could change what happened.
Furthermore, I was not eliminated yet. I could allow my frustration to carry over into the next day of play, or I could put it behind me and focus on my upcoming matches. I could cash in on my complaint equity, or I could just try to win enough to have no reason to complain. I decided to do the latter. I reassessed how I was sideboarding in the Kethis mirror match and made some slight changes. I studied up on my remaining matches and planned out how I would play and sideboard in those games. I put the work in and took them seriously. I went to bed early so I would be well-rested.
It paid off. I won all four matches. I got lucky on tiebreakers. I made it to the Top 4 playoff. It was unlikely to happen, but unlikely isn't 0% and fighting on with a small sliver of hope basically sums up the grind of tournament Magic. I did eventually lose in that Top 4 playoff, but that's beside the point.
Years ago I don't think I would have had the ability to finish strong in that spot. Oh, I would have played out my matches and tried to win, but I would have likely done so with a defeatist mentality, which definitely carries over into one's play. I may not have put in as much effort to find good lines of play or tried to perfect my game plans and sideboard strategies, no matter how much I would have liked to believe I was doing that. If frustration from your past losses is ringing through your mind, it's impossible to be entirely focused on the current match at hand.
There's this notion in sports, sometimes called the "champion's mentality" or the "mindset of a champion," that true winners in don't tolerate losing. They do anything it takes to win, and they simply will themselves or their teams to victory. Each loss hurts deeply for them and motivates them to get out there and make sure it never happens again. Winners find a way to win games that other people don't, because they are personally offended by each loss and that pain is the fire that drives them.
I don't think that concept applies to Magic. Furthermore, I think it's incredibly harmful. The champion's mentality in Magic is to accept losing as inevitable and embrace it. That's not to say that you should enjoy losing or not care about trying to win. A true champion calmly accepts their loss and moves on to the next game, regardless of the circumstances. No matter how great you are at this game you cannot avoid losing at a high rate in competitive play.
The champion's mentality in Magic is to understand that you are not special and that you don't get more unlucky than everyone else. The champion's mentality is to acknowledge that everyone loses games to variance, just like you do, and to accept those losses when they happen without letting them destroy your focus. The champion's mindset is one of acceptance and understanding and moving on. The champion doesn't obsess about results, only process and execution.
The key is to distance oneself from the feeling that each loss is a person affront. We've been told so many times to get upset when we lose and use that discontent to fuel us in the future so that we don't lose again. We've been told that if we no longer care about losing, then we don't have the competitive fire it takes to win. I think that notion is complete cow manure. That ideology just trains us to be unable to cope with losing in a healthy and positive manner. It trains us to dwell on our losses. It trains us to carry them on with us so they can harm our ability to win the next match.
That might be a fine mentality when we are in control of our losses, but in Magic we are only in control of so much. Sometimes we sit down across from an unwinnable matchup. Sometimes we sit down and mull to four twice and don't get to play the game. The height of competitive Magic is not caring about losing more than everyone else does. It's caring less—accepting it more—than everyone else does. It's caring exclusively about playing the best Magic you can and embracing the darkness of losing like an old friend. It will come when it comes and the true champion plays each new match without the memory, the frustration, and the emotion from the previous loss.
Letting losing affect us can ruin tournaments. If one loss upsets us, it can spiral into more losses. It also can ruin a season of tournaments. If one bad tournament upsets us, it can spiral into more bad tournaments. The best players in the world only do well at a handful of events a year. Sometimes it can be months, years even, between good finishes. Those are the simple truths of Magic, no matter how good one is; and being unable to accept loss as inevitable and allow it to happen when it happens without getting destroyed is the key to success. Success in Magic is long-term success, which requires a long-term mentality.
If your fire in Magic is driven by an unwillingness to lose and a need to win, then you will burn out quickly. It's not sustainable. Every tournament creates significantly more losers than winners. For everyone celebrating in the Top 8, there's the other 99% of the tournament who fell short. I recommend getting your drive—your fire—from more healthy places, like enjoying the gameplay, the process of self-improvement or preparation, a love of solving the puzzle of Magic, or anywhere else that isn't specifically tied to results in a game rife with variance.
Unfortunately, being unable to handle losing in a healthy manner doesn't just affect our chance of success in tournament play, it also affects how we interact with others in our community. Magic creates losers more often than winners and that has an impact on how we view and treat each other.
I've long held the belief that as a whole, the competitive Magic community cares more about other people failing than about people succeeding. We often like to see the people at the top get cast down from their thrones and ripped from their pedestals. We root for people to lose when we don't think they "deserve" another win, when we think their results outpace their skill, or when we believe it should have been us in that spot instead. We root for people to lose like how we lose. It feels unfair for others to succeed when we cannot, especially if we believe we are entitled to success.
I think this is a product of a losing mentality. Success comes infrequently in Magic, or maybe never at all. It's simply the nature of the game. But that lack of continued success can poison our mindset toward other people's success. We see people celebrating and happy when they do well and we often react with bitterness or disappointment at our own failure. It can be difficult to swallow our own defeat, especially when it's long-term repeated defeat, and truly celebrate others' successes.
I have struggled with this almost the entire time I have played Magic. I have struggled to be happy for my friends who won with my deck when I scrubbed out. I have struggled to be happy for someone who is on a long win streak when I'm personally losing event after event after event for endless months on end. I've struggled to overcome my own personal sadness and bitterness to help someone else feel happiness and accomplishment at their own successes.
I still struggle with this. But this mentality hurts our community. It creates division and a desire to belittle or strip down others successes instead of a sense of camaraderie and support for each other. Instead of cheering for people who break free of their losing streak, we tell them how lucky they got, as if to show that we did not experience that same luck. We look for ways to poke holes in their success to make us feel better about our own lack of it. This isn't healthy for a community.
It can be tough to escape the frustration and bitterness of someone else accomplishing something we want, even for genuine, well-meaning people. Yet, Magic is a way better game for us personally and for the community at large when we celebrate successes rather than dwell on failures. They happen too often for that to be healthy.
I've made it a goal over the past few years to be happier for other people who are experiencing success, and to try to help them enjoy and celebrate their success in the way I hope others do for me in the rare times it's my turn to experience it. Doing that has also made me happier in Magic too, even when I'm not earning success myself.
I think this is a lot easier to accomplish when one has embraced losing. If you accept losing as the norm, as the inevitable conclusion so much of the time, then it changes your perspective. Losing a win-and-in for Top 8 is no longer a bitter failure, it's now just the norm. Winning is still success, but losing is no longer failure, it's inevitability. You can't escape inevitability, but you can break free sometimes, and that's worth cherishing for ourselves or others.
Brian Braun-Duin is a professional Magic player, member of the 2019 Magic Pro League and recurring special guest of the Bash Bros Podcast.
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