2018 was, in terms of Magic, quite a good year for me. In terms of my life itself, it was one of my least happy years of recent memory.
I haven't always been big on year-in-review articles because I feel like there's no reason that the ticking up of a dial to turn a date from 2018 to 2019 should be that big of a deal. Why does the passing of a single day represent the catalyst necessary to create healthy reflection on past events to grow from them? We should do this anytime throughout the year, not just on New Year's Day. With that said, any excuse, no matter how arbitrary, to get us to take time to improve ourselves, make plans to better ourselves, or even just reflect on what we did right or wrong so we can try to replicate that is a net positive.
Seeing people talk about how good or bad 2018 was for them did actually sparked me to spend a bit of time thinking about it in my own life. And to be fair, the demarcation from 2018 to 2019 actually does reflect a fairly serious change for me, both because it signifies the start of the Magic Pro League, the most important thing to ever happen to my professional career, and because I finally have started to find my footing in my personal life and therefore have discovered hope once again for a happy and fulfilling 2019.
In terms of my life outside of Magic, I went through a tough and unexpected breakup early last year from a relationship that had lasted three years and from which both of us had expectations of it lasting significantly longer. That soured the rest of the year, without a doubt. I spent the summer and fall months battling with depression, not directly because of the breakup, but because I was profoundly unhappy. I knew what steps I needed to take to get my life back on track and find happiness, and yet I lacked the strength to execute on it.
Finally, in the dying moments of 2018 I actually mustered the strength to begin to change my life for the better. I made the difficult decision to move out of Roanoke, a region I have lived around since 2004, and one that I truly like. However, it was also a city where friends were slowly disappearing out of my life or moving away. I knew I needed a change, but sticking to the status quo is simply easier. I also have made strides to improve my health and lose weight, another area of my life I was unhappy with but struggled for the motivation to do what I knew needed to be done. It feels good to pop into the new year with some forward moving traction.
Strangely enough, the problems in my personal life didn't translate over to Magic. The 2017-2018 season was my most successful season out of the five years I've played Magic professionally in terms of points earned, and it wasn't particularly close. It didn't have the big spikes, like the years I won Worlds or won Grand Prix titles. Instead I relied on consistently strong performances at Pro Tours and Grand Prix events to accumulate steady points. It didn't feel like I was doing very well, since I wasn't putting up top 8s, which created a strange dynamic where I thought I was doing very poorly at Magic while I was actually having my best year ever.
My confusion surrounding my own Magic success as well as the flaws in my personal life bleeding through made 2018 a tough year to get a grasp on. I can confidently say that I grew as a person in 2018 and I learned a lot of things, but it's also not always easy to pinpoint exactly what those things are. You know you've leveled up, but you can't remember exactly which quests got you there.
Nonetheless, I still wanted to write this article, because it was a hard year for me and yet I think I pushed forward in a number of ways. I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about it and these are things that I think were most important for me last year.
Do you still hold all the same beliefs that you did 10 years ago? 15 years ago? I know that I certainly don't. I often think about what people believed in the year 1919 and how completely wrong many of those beliefs turned out to be. Is there any reason to believe that in 2119 people won't look back at the things we so fervently cling to and talk about how wrong we were? Logically speaking, there is simply a high likelihood that we are wrong about a fairly sizable chunk of the things we believe, both as a society, and on a personal level.
That's why I simply don't understand the notion of tightly clutching our beliefs like they are facts and being too stubborn to consider the possibility that something we think is correct might, in fact, not be correct. Is it better to live in a self-created bubble of delusion or step forward and embrace truth, even if that truth means accepting that we are frequently wrong about many things?
Personally, I think being willing to accept being wrong and taking joy in it, not because we were wrong, but because now we get to move closer to being correct, is a liberating mentality. There is no shame in being wrong. Everyone is wrong about a lot of things, even if many people are unwilling to ever admit it. There is, however, shame in refusing to change from believing something that is wrong, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
I think one of the single most important things someone can do to improve their Magic game is to immediately remove the association of embarrassment or shame with being wrong about something. Instead of fighting to defend something we believe in, because we don't want to be wrong, we should be fighting to figure out what is actually true, instead. The point isn't to prove to people that you're right. The point is just to simply be right.
In Magic, this is huge. Magic is not only an intensely difficult game to get right, because of all the different parts and moving pieces, but because what is correct in Magic doesn't always remain correct. Playing deck X might be correct this weekend, but an awful choice in the next. I find that I am often correct in identifying cards that are good, for example, but I am often wrong in that I don't quickly enough adjust for when they start to become bad. Being willing to listen to others when they tell me "you're not correct about that" has been huge for me and my success.
Nowhere has this lesson shown itself more than in my Limited game, this year. I drastically improved my Limited game from 2017, and I owe quite a bit of my 2018 success to that. The biggest change I made in Limited was quite simply to stop thinking I was right about everything. If enough of my teammates believed something to be true, I would trust in them and change my approach as a result.
In fact, a lot of my success at Pro Tours was in drafting decks or cards for archetypes that I personally had written off as not being very good, but that my teammates had found to be strong. It's not that I suddenly assumed I was wrong about everything, but rather that I was willing to accept that I could be wrong, and willing to search for what was right even if it meant that it wasn't my beliefs that shone through.
Make a misplay? Own it. Your deck is no longer well-positioned for the metagame? Own it. Your improvements to your deck end up being worse than someone else's? Own it. There's no shame in being wrong, only shame in refusing to stop being wrong.
Few things are as black and white as people often tend to make them out to be. I've read articles about how you should play the decks that cater to your strengths as a player. I've also read articles about how you should just always play the best deck regardless what it is, and widen your range as a player.
Hell, I've written both of those articles. In fact, I have flip-flopped between these two viewpoints for much of my career. Early on, I stuck to playing decks that I enjoyed, but I often missed out on opportunities to win with busted or overpowered strategies. Then, fatefully, I got second place in a Grand Prix a few years ago with Splinter Twin in Modern, a deck that I hated and strategy I didn't think I could pilot. Since that point, I started to make it a point to just play the best deck whenever I could even if it wasn't my first choice.
Eventually, my strategy to only play the best deck started to catch up to me and I was losing a lot. 2017 was one of my worst years on the Pro Tour in terms of performances and I spent a lot of that year just playing the best deck, doing poorly with it and wishing I had played my deck instead, which was usually like the second or third best deck.
In 2018, I started to shift my mindset back again to playing decks that fit my strengths as a player rather than just whatever the most powerful strategy was. In February, I got my best Pro Tour finish, 15th place with Lantern Control, despite a very mediocre performance with Lantern Control in Magic Online leagues the week leading up to the Pro Tour. I loved Lantern, I was good at playing it and I made the executive decision to stick to my strengths over playing what others would agree was the best deck, and it paid off.
In a later event, I played Golgari Midrange because I thought it was the best choice, even though I didn't like the deck. I didn't do well with it, which was further evidence toward my belief that simply always playing the best strategy isn't correct for me as a player.
So which is it? Do you play the best deck, or do you play a deck that you're better at piloting, even if it's not number one? Well, I frankly don't think it's as black and white as that question makes it out to be. Unless, of course, the best deck is Orzhov Midrange, which also happens to be my favorite deck. Things are pretty Black and White in that case.
I think sometimes the best deck is so much better than the rest that you should just always play it, even if it isn't your favorite choice, if your goal is to do the best you can in the event. I went 8-2 at a Pro Tour with Temur Energy based on this principle. Temur wasn't my favorite deck or favorite style, but it was just too powerful to pass on. I also think that sometimes it's hard to nail down exactly what the best deck is, and that gaining extra value from playing something you play better and that you enjoy playing covers the lack of equity.
The point here is that the answer isn't strictly one or the other and don't let people, myself included, tell you that it is. Strike a balance between the two that works, and that balance might be different for each person. My balance is closer to playing decks that fit my strengths over decks that are objectively the best, but I know some players that perform better when they just always play the best deck. Learn when to break from your preference, either when the gap between the best deck and the rest of the field is too large to ignore, or too small to base decisions from.
This one is pretty straightforward. Don't register black and green cards together as the only two colors in your deck. Just don't do it. In any Constructed format. I made the profound mistake of playing Golgari Midrange at a Standard Pro Tour this year and I regret it immensely. Learn from my horrific mistakes. Learn from my heinous offenses against common logic and decency by selecting to not sign up for your next tournament with Golgarbo. Don't make the life altering, catastrophic and completely unforgivable errors I committed and steer clear of unplayably bad strategies. I deserve to be punished for my transgressions against humanity for even thinking about possibly registering this pile of donkey feces for a tournament, let alone actually doing it, and the fact that I escaped unscathed from this crime against what is right and what is true is one of life's greatest tragedies. I will never get over it nor will I ever be the same and I urge you, nay, I implore you with everything I have to please, for the children, for yourself, for all that is decent in this godforsaken world, do not pick up this deck and play it in a tournament.
This was the hardest lesson for me to learn this year. The reason it was hard to learn is because it forced me to face truths that I didn't want to face.
As this year progressed, I realized more and more that I didn't enjoy playing professional tournament Magic. It wasn't the Magic itself. In fact, I have truly enjoyed playing Magic this year, especially after I learned how to change my expectations regarding Magic tournament play. It was the tournament experience itself.
The Hall of Fame season revealed a dark side of the Magic pro community that I've always known existed but just wanted to ignore. I grew strongly disillusioned with the concept of professional Magic. Players fighting each other tooth and nail for small prize purses, the cheating accusations and actual cheating that constantly were going on at tournaments, the angle shooting, scumming, scooping, and general unpleasantness sometimes present at the highest levels of competition were a huge turn off for me. I also hated the culture of complaining about everything on social media and also disliked the times that I contributed to that culture myself.
If you asked me what the best part of the Magic experience is, I'd answer that it's the Magic community. If you asked me what the worst part is, I'd answer that it's the Magic community. There are so many wonderful people involved in this game, but a lot of the culture and mindset surrounding tournament play just isn't something I cared about anymore or wanted to be a part of anymore. It's been a huge part of my life for the last five years – maybe even the most defining part – and it was hard to face the truth that I no longer wanted to do it, especially since I still cared about Magic so much.
I was planning on making this year my last year as a professional Magic Player. Then MTG Arena happened. Arena allowed me to experience the joy in what I still enjoyed about Magic – the Magic itself – without the people tilting off in chat or all the other negatives that I described above. MTG Arena reinvigorated my love for the game and gave me a new angle for how I could stick around with Magic without going all-in on the tournament slog.
I decided I wanted to start streaming Arena and shift away from the hyper-competitive tournament scene to a more fun and relaxed "let's enjoy the game" mentality. I wanted to be done with the playing on fake accounts, hiding information and scrapping for every miniscule advantage possible and instead foster a fun community that enjoys Magic the way I want to. It was then incredibly lucky that I was then asked to be a part of the Magic Pro League.
I'm not trying to make the argument that you should follow your passions and you too will be gift-wrapped the biggest opportunity of your professional career that happens to be exactly what you wanted to do anyway. That would be absurd, and I still consider myself unbelievably fortunate that this somehow happened to me.
My argument is that you should find what motivates you in Magic. Figure out what you care about, which parts you enjoy, what part of the game keeps you playing. Then make that your focal point. Figure out how to make that a bigger part of the experience for you and try to cut out the parts that you don't like.
I was prepared to cut out playing professional Magic because I didn't like it anymore, and honestly I was happy with that decision even though it had been a huge part of my life for the last five years. Magic is a game. It's meant to be enjoyed. If we're not finding enjoyment in the aspects of Magic that we're involved in, then the best thing to do is probably to take a break, move on, or find another area in Magic where we can find enjoyment instead.
Despite a rough 2018, I am incredibly optimistic about 2019. For the first time in a long while, I have clarity about what it is I want to do, how I can do it and most importantly I'm actually making strides to accomplish it. I'm looking forward to what I'll learn this year, and I'm looking forward to doing the best job I can in sharing that information, either through my streams or articles here.
- Brian Braun-Duin