People can play Magic for fun or they can play to win. If you're looking for winning decks or winning strategies in this section of TCGplayer.com, you're probably in the second category. To be "winning" at Magic doesn't only mean winning a game, it means winning matches, and sometimes a lot of them in order to end up either in the money, in the points, or wherever the finals standings may get you.
To be considered successful at a tournament, a 50% win rate isn't going to cut it. A 4-2 record in most tournaments won't make it to the Top 8 and, even though you won 66% of your matches, it's not going to be good enough.
The idea of having to break the 70% win rate to be successful can deceitfully make you believe that you're not good enough or that you just keep losing. We usually remember the losses way better than we remember the wins.
The psychological Backlash of a loss is far more impactful than the Impulse or motivation a win could give you. Before we go deeper into the psychological effects of an outcome of a match, we need to define the reasons why you win at Magic.
The better you are at the game, the fewer mistakes you make, the more you take advantage of your opponents mistakes and the longer you can stay focused. Very logically, you can say that the better you are at the game, the more you'll be winning (yeah, not kidding).
As a gamer, your goal is to maximize your chances when you sign up for a tournament, which means make the random factors impact as little as possible on your tournaments. That's why you tweak your decks, so your draws are better, so they are more adapted to the metagame. You also play or test to get better for the same reason.
C) Variance / Luck / Random factors
If you're familiar with my articles, you've probably read about this before, but for those who aren't, let's sum it up briefly:
In a game of Magic (or in pretty much any other competition opposing two or more people/teams), random factors are going to play a role, the importance of which is going to depend on the difference of level between the competitors.
For example, let's say you're playing against your exact self (in a parallel universe), with the same knowledge, skill and deck; the outcome of the match will be dictated entirely (so 100%) by random factors: who wins the roll, who draws better, etc.
If you're a very good player playing a not-so good player, you can overcome the die roll or the bad draws by outplaying him, therefore lowering the importance of random factors to about 30% (or 20% if you're playing against a very bad player). Meaning you'll always lose at least 30% of your games to the field (on the long run).
Remember that there are games you can't win. You can be the best player in the world, but you're not going to beat your opponent's nut draw or overcome your mulligan to five. You are going to play bad matchup and get horribly smashed. You can be prepared for the metagame, but sometimes you just play the wrong matchups back to back and your tournament is over. The more prepared you are, the less chance you have to face a bad matchup and, even if it's unlikely that you play someone that has the deck to beat you (a deck that has nothing to do in the given metagame), there's still a chance you play against it. That's just how it is.
I'm often asked "how much luck matters in a game of Magic? " My answer is always the same: "it depends on who you're playing against; it could be between 20% and 100%".
So here we are, you play the best Magic of your life (or you think you do), you prepare hard and seriously for every tournament you attend. And yet, you are not winning.
It's very easy to blame variance, you know, it's the game after all, stats and stuff. You're winning some, you're losing some, sometimes you win for a while, sometimes you lose for a while. You have to put things in perspective and understand that sometimes the right play might lose you the game. For example, you go aggro to win right away if your opponent "doesn't have it"; he has it, you lose. In most cases, that play would have won you the game.
So that's a reality. You are going to have winning and losing streaks, but human factor also plays an important role in these situations.
When you're losing, or not performing as well as you hoped for, it is sometimes very hard to put your finger on exactly what's wrong, that you're not playing your normal Magic. At a random poker table for example, it's very visible. You see a player losing, he starts tilting and steaming, he plays to make up for his losses, he takes more risks, plays worse and therefore loses more. If that's not a strong person mentally, his personal life will become affected as some pro players rely on their winnings to keep a roof over their head.
Magic is of course a little different. Pro players don't usually rely on winning money at tournaments to eat. The psychological toll of losing at Magic is real; and you can always blame variance to cover for something else that's happening. You couldn't find your third land, or never drew your second color, yeah, bad beat, couldn't win that game. Or could you? It's deeper than that. It's a downward spiral, making you disconnect from your actual goals and from potential openings in games. Losing once is a thing, losing a lot is different.
So two things: either you really are having a bad time, accumulating losses you can't do anything about, or you are having a bad time and you're giving too much credit to variance.
What it means is that the psychological effect of losing makes you less sharp, you always expect the worst, and you start playing not to lose instead of playing to win. You make worse decisions, you start losing focus ("he's gonna have the answer anyway, so why bother").
I think the biggest challenge of a Magic player, by far, is overcoming losing streaks.
The discouragement you feel when you keep losing is real and can (and most likely will) influence your next game if you don't control it. You have to put things into perspective and have to move on right away. I talked about the importance of "keeping it real" in my article "Thoughts on Complaining," and doing so is vital if you want to have a positive state of mind and play to win.
Over my now long carrier, I have had ups and downs. Incredible winning streaks, and seemingly endless losing streaks. I'm writing this article as a form of therapy as well as to remind myself how to get back into the driver's seat. I just busted out of GP Madrid last weekend with what I thought was a great Limited pool. It feels like the more I progress in life, the more my priorities shift, the harder it becomes. I would have thought it was the other way around. I just finished a very average season where I only performed at three Pro Tours and didn't do very well everywhere else (luckily for me, it's what matters these days and why I'm Gold this year).
So here are a few pieces of advice to overcome a loss or get out of a losing streak:
It shouldn't matter how you lost your last game or the last 10 games - if you messed up, if you got "unlucky", if you got paired against your bad matchup again - you need to keep a positive attitude the whole time. One of the best ways to do so is to think you lost for a reason. Sure you may have learnt a thing or two that may be useful in the future, but let's say for example, you lose one and win the next two. Your tournament didn't end when you lost, and now you're 2-1. Had you won, you may have played two difficult matchups and been 1-2 by that time.
Playing on tilt is a very good way to throw away the whole tournament, so you need to get over your losses fast. Clear your mind of the bad vibes related to your loss(es), because being hot headed is not going to help. No matter how mad you are at yourself, at your deck, at the universe, you have to keep it together in order to play well. Don't let it get to you, you may have regrets but like most times you regret something, there's not much you could do about it except making it right. And you know how you can make a loss right? By winning the next rounds.
You basically need a fresh new start after each loss or a way to Erase the memory of signing the paper slip in your opponent's favor. Keeping a positive attitude also works when you're winning. During the WMC in 2013, before each of our matches, whether we had won or lost, I kept reminding my teammates: "Le tournoi commence maintenant !" or "the tournament starts now." It basically meant that.
But how do you do that? How do you convince yourself that it's in the past and you have to move on? It's easy to say, but when your heart is pumping, that you're all pissed and angry, it's tough to think straight.
As some of you know, I'm publishing a martial arts magazine. I recently got to edit an article for an upcoming writer that's titled "hypnosis for competitors."
The writer is a seasoned martial artist and a hypnotherapist. He wrote essays on the subject and helps BJJ, Luta Livre, and MMA fighters to overcome their psychological problems related to competition. For example, one of his guys had been knocked out in his last two fights and had this trauma, a fear of getting back into the ring to fight and getting knocked out again. After a few therapy sessions, he was able to overcome his fears and win his next fight on the first round.
What he explains is that your mind is more likely absorb information and set itself on future goals when it's in a state of "trance." Trance is basically when you don't feel the outside world and focus only on your own self, on your body and everything it touches. Your mind will be sensitive to suggestions made by a therapist, to overcome fears or trouble in your life. You can also use it to self-suggest potential solutions.
We won't go too deeply into details about how you can achieve that for your everyday life (if you're interested, I suggest you look into it). For now we're gonna stick to Magic tournaments.
I had never heard of that before, or at least not with such a perspective (overcoming a KO). What I thought was interesting was the similarity with something I've been using for a long time, what I called "mantra" in my article about focus. The idea is a little similar to the one of getting yourself in "trance." You focus on one particular thing (in my example, it was a song), and you get back into your game.
Since you're not going to be able to lie in the grass and have five to ten minutes for yourself every time you lose a match to get everything back together, you need a simpler trick, and that could just work.
I'm guilty of not being able to do that for myself these days. I'm a little off my game, embarrassing myself in feature matches for not reading my cards right, and overall not winning a lot. One day, I think it was at GP NJ in 2006, I had missed Day 2 and I went to eat something with Pat Sullivan and Ben Seck (I'm pretty sure it was that crew). I shared my frustration about not being able to win anymore. They cheered me up and said it was only temporary. The following year, 2007, was probably the most successful year of my career.
We have spoken about the psychological impact of losing, but there's also something else that's very specific to Magic when it comes to losing streaks. While the game itself doesn't change from one period to another, the fact that new sets come out every three months and totally shift the formats might influence your winning and losing periods. I know there have been formats, especially in Limited, that I've never been able to understand, while I could grasp the essence of others.
If you're good and don't let yourself get discouraged, you're going to be on the winning side again.
Just to finish this article, let me share a short story with you.
In 2006-2007, I was running a column for the mothership called Ask The Pro. I would receive questions from all over the world, from a wide range of players, and I was giving the perspective of a Pro Magic Player. I would mostly receive rules questions (that wasn't exactly the point of the column) and questions from aspiring pro players.
One day I received this message: "Hey Raph, I'm discouraged. I've lost in the semifinals or the finals of the last three PTQs. How do you keep motivated? How do you not just give up? I would love to play on the PT, but I can't qualify."
I replied in the column: "If you made it to the semifinals once and the finals twice, that has to mean you know how to play. Just don't think about losing, and eventually, you'll make it".
At the beginning of 2009, at PT Kyoto, someone came to talk to me:
Dude: "Raph, I really wanted to meet you. You remember me? I'm Stefan!"
Me: "Sorry, not really..."
Stefan: "You replied to me on your column. I was the guy who couldn't qualify, and you talked me into not giving up. And here I am!"
Stefan had a pretty good run in the following years as he qualified a few more times. He's been a little away from Magic lately, working and taking care of his wife and children in South Africa.
I'm not saying "don't give up and your dreams will come true"; this is something I don't really believe in. I'm saying don't give variance its chance to bring you down. Learn from you past mistakes and always look forward to the next game instead of letting the losses take over. Ask people around you to see if you're indeed losing your mind tilting, or if you're just another victim of the so called variance. If you're good, then show it. You'll lose once in a while, you won't always reach your goals, but you'll keep as much control over your destiny as you can.