I'm excited to announce that starting today I'll be writing bi-weekly for TCGplayer. It comes at a point when I plan to put more time into Magic and therefore I'll have more tournaments to talk about, more decks, more strategy, in a nutshell more stuff.
I'm leaving this weekend for GP Strasbourg where I'll be playing a Limited GP and from there I'll be flying to Nice, France to play the World Championships. That means that I've mainly been working on the decks I'll be playing there and I don't want reveal too much of what the team came up with and what we're going to play. Don't worry, you'll have a full analysis as soon as I get home with the trophy. Yes, that's very optimistic, but you can't go into a tournament without believing you're going to win, right?
Today I want to talk about a topic that is never really spoken about. Well, people talk about it, but they never really explain what to do with it or how it works. I want to talk to you about focusing in a game of Magic.
I've been trying to figure this out for a long time: how come high level Magic players still make so many mistakes? When I look at a game of chess or tennis, these people manage to play their best games for hours without shaking. Sure they still make some mistakes, but their games or sports require a lot more training than Magic. Let's get real, Magic may be an intellectual sport, but it requires much less training than tennis if you want to be the best. You don't wake up early in the morning for physical conditioning or manage your diet every day...
It has to do with the random factor in a game of Magic, and even though playing a lot to prepare for a tournament will increase your odds of winning, the best player won't always win, not like in chess or tennis. But still, even with countless hours spent at the table playtesting, not a lot of players manage to play a whole day without making a single misplay, and it wouldn't matter how much they play, there will be a time where they mess up.
It comes down to one thing: focus.
The definition of focusing is to commit all your brain and mind on one single thing. A tennis player has to focus on the ball and let his muscle memory do the rest. A Magic player has to do a lot more mentally and that might just be the reason why even top players aren't flawless.
Just think about it, you're in a tournament, in-game, what are the things you are supposed to think of? Let's have a look at the most obvious things: the known information.
-Your opponent's board
When you make a play mistake that includes any of the above, without involving any of your opponent's tricks - for example missing an onboard kill - it's either because you're very bad and have to go back to the practice room, or just that you failed to focus properly. How many times have I talked to fellow pro players looking totally stunned and repeating again and again: "man, I'm soooo bad, you'll never believe what I just did..."
The thing is, it is very hard to focus 100% on every game during a whole day. There are just so many more things you have to think of that weren't on the list above.
Let's have a look at a few other things:
-Your opponent's hand
-Cards (and potential cards) in your opponent's deck
Magic wouldn't be fun if you had perfect information all the time. You are required to analyze the potential outcomes of your plays, what your opponent may have in his hand or in his deck. You don't have to play around everything, but just make sure you remember what's going on.
Some people just don't have the ability to focus on too many things and it's especially true for players starting the game at an older age. For a lot of us who started Magic when we were young, every focus point became a second nature, you grew up learning these. It's the same thing for about any sports you start; a 16 year-old will learn anything much faster in four years than you if you start at 30.
In addition to the mostly obvious things to keep in mind when you play a game, there are a ton of other times you have to stay sharp: when you write your decklist, when you count your cards, when you sideboard, so many opportunities to make costly mistakes.
But you don't. So why? Why is it so hard? You have one job, one thing to do: focus! And yet, you can't.
We've briefly gone through the obvious things you can miss, but there are so many external factors that hinder your concentration. One of them is what's going on around you. Basically, any stimulus that reminds you of anything related to anything outside the game can affect your game.
There's a lot going on in a tournament while you're playing: all the announcements for side events, people calling judges, your neighbors making strange plays, because you can't help not having a look at what's the next table is playing. So many little things that could pull your concentration away from the one thing you have to do. These days, you should even make sure your bag is strapped around your leg...
Pressure is another huge factor for loss of concentration.
Last year, I was in the booth a few times to do the commentaries on European GP's and have seen some horrible plays from all kinds of players, from amateur players playing their first ever feature matches to seasoned pros used to playing on camera. The thing is I'm also guilty of making horrible plays under pressure.
Pressure is this uncontrollable feeling that you feel in your whole body whenever you think of the stakes or the stressful conditions you're playing in. When you're playing a feature match, you're either the famous player, playing against a famous player, or doing well in a tournament and people want to check out a special match. You'll have people watching over your shoulder to see what's going on, sometimes a camera covering the games, or someone taking notes to report your match in the written coverage.
What becomes different for you in that situation is that you won't be playing for you and your result only, but for people's enjoyment as well. Without a doubt, people are going to comment and judge your plays. In theory, it shouldn't make any difference for you, but it does.
What happens under pressure:
-You realize you're playing against a better player and that you shouldn't mess up. Maybe he'll think you're not a worthy opponent, or he's going to talk about how bad you are if you mess up. That sends the wrong message to your brain and even though you'll try to make sure you'll avoid bad plays, you'll lose focus and eventually start playing badly. -You realize you're playing on camera and that you have to play extra tight, and make sure people watching will agree with your plays. Once again, you'll be focusing on the wrong things...and start playing badly. -You realize you're only one win away from Top 8, that you can't lose this one...the only thing you can think of is how miserable you're going to feel if you lose and miss. That doesn't help with focusing either.
Basically, every time you think "I have to play well" or "I have to not play badly", you're not thinking about the game as a whole, and it is a way to lose focus.
Overconfidence plays a similar role as pressure, even though it's pretty much the opposite. You might be in a dominant position on board, have the most insane deck you've ever drafted, play an easy matchup, or a very weak opponent. You know you're going to win and you let your guard down and start playing loose. Not focusing in "easy matches" is also a good way to throw away points.
That's just a few of the million reasons your mind can drift away from your games. Now that you know what's going on, let's try to fix it a little bit.What Can You Do Differently?
If you're not aware of how important focus is, you'll never be able to win constantly in tournaments as you'll never play your best game. Some people are able to focus for a very long time but chances are you're not one of them.
A lot of pro players have different ways to stay focused. Most of these methods are meant to remind them that they're in-game and that their mind shouldn't drift away. You'll sometimes see on some players' knuckles the letters "S T A Y" on one hand and "F O C U S E D" on the other hand. Whenever they feel they're losing focus, they think of the words on their hands and get back into the game.
You'll sometimes see Japanese players slap themselves in the face before a game or just in the middle of a match for the same purpose.
My method is a little different but serves the same goal. At the beginning of a tournament, I choose a song I like (any song really) and keep repeating it in my head. I then associate that song to the tournament. Whenever I'm in a game and not focusing enough, I think of that song and get back into it right away. I played these songs in my head so many times, that if you ask me about a song I had in mind 10 years ago, I'll tell you exactly for which tournament I picked it. Think of it as a kind of mantra.
There are a lot of ways you can use this information to your advantage. Anytime your opponent loses focus there's a pretty good chance he makes a mistake. A lot of top pros get in your head with different methods for just that reason. They might not even do it on purpose; they just do it naturally but the result is the same. They induce different kind of feelings into you: fear, Intimidation, or even comfort.
For example, some of them become total jerks. They call a judge as soon as something doesn't seem right (even if everything is ok) before they even ask you what you did. It's totally legal and might make you feel uncomfortable. You'll tend to be focusing on the wrong things from then on and play worse.
Others talk to you in a friendly manner and make you feel like you're playing at home or with a genuine nice guy who doesn't care so much about winning when in fact, it's just a trap to get you out of your game.
There are countless ways to Divert your opponent, most of them being kind of psychological wars. If you're not using any of these techniques naturally, it might be hard to adopt a new one quickly. Playing a good game of Magic is about playing your cards well and taking advantage of your opponents' mistakes. If they can make more than usual, it's all good for you. But keep in mind that getting into a psychological war can affect your own game if you're not used to it. If you start focusing on putting your opponent off his game, you're not focusing on your own game.
Focus is not something that you can train easily. There are a few exercises you do to can try to improve your level of concentration, a few games you can play (amateur chess, memory, etc.). Unless you're in a tournament, there's no real way to put yourself in a situation where you're playing under pressure, so you'll have to pick up your own experience as you go.
If you don't have a "trick" to get your focus back during a game yet, I advise you to find one and try it in your next tournament. A song, words on your hands (I doubt this is considered outside assistance), or slaps in the face; whatever works for you.-->
I can't finish this article without telling you why this is an important topic to me. Back in 2000 I played the finals of the European Championships against Noah Boeken. I was playing Replenish and he was playing Stompy. I was probably at the top of my game back then but I lost what seemed to be an unlosable match, 3-2, when I should have won it 4-1 (or 3-1). I had the kill on board in game one and five, but missed them. In game one I phased off my lands with Parallax Tide, to bring them back with Parallax Wave (by phasing off the Tide) and playing a Replenish...only to realize I didn't have an Opalescence in play. I totally brain farted, and it was a lot because I lost my composure. Because it was the finals, Noah was a friend of mine so we played in what was seemingly a "friendly finals" (we had split the winnings) and he was very good at diverting your focus. I remember him making all these strange noises, knocking on the table constantly. It took me a while to get over that match, and it pains me every time I think of it. I know what caused my defeat and I learned from it.
Until next time!