It's almost hard to imagine what things were like in January of this year, because it feels so long ago. It's weird, because I've had years of my life fly by in what seemed like an instant, but that was not the case with 2019. It seemed to drag on forever.
This year was one of the worst years of my life, but I'm a firm believer that adversity can provide perspective and wisdom if you're fortunate enough to make it out the other side mostly unscathed.
It's wild to think what my mindset was at the start of the year. The MPL was just starting up and I was excited to jump into the world of streaming and truly embracing what it means to be a Professional Magic Player™. My optimism and cheer was through the roof. When I first heard about the MPL I was so excited that I ran around my house celebrating with a ****-eating grin on my face. It was a realization of my long-standing dreams for what professional Magic would become, and I was lucky enough to be a part of it. I was the kid who dreams of hitting a grand slam in the World Series who then grows up to do exactly that.
Throughout the year that feeling dissipated. There's no one event or moment I can point to and say "that's when the light died for me," but the MPL didn't live up to the expectations that I or others had for it. Perhaps we set our sights too high, or perhaps the execution was too flawed, or a bit of both.
I do think that future years of the MPL, the new Rivals League and the other competitive systems will be way better. There were some serious growing pains in year one, and the competitive Magic community felt the brunt of that. I think year two will still have a lot of flaws, but it's ultimately moving in a direction that I think is positive, and I believe that Wizards of the Coast does genuinely care about having a good system around professional Magic. Fingers crossed.
I tend to think year-end reflection articles are not particularly useful and are typically comprised of "lessons" that people "learned" that they'll forget in two months. I genuinely feel bad writing a reflection piece for that reason...buuuuuut...I'm going to follow that exact formula and forget everything I said here by February. Get wrecked, nerd.
In seriousness, if my life were to be shown on a graph, this year would show up as a jagged outlier compared to other years of my life for so many reasons. I vividly remember 2012, another volatile low-point year in my life, and the ways that I rebounded from it in the following years. I will remember this year too, and how I eventually rebound from it. My lessons from generic years didn't stick with me, but 2019 is going to haunt and enlighten me for years to come.
"This year will be different," says temporarily enthusiastic man who will fall into the same traps again. Hire me, The Onion!
In 2017, I played the "best deck" in nearly every tournament, regardless if it was a deck that fit my playstyle and I failed miserably. In 2018, I played mostly decks that fit my playstyle even if they weren't the best deck, as long as they were still good decks. I had a great season. This year I did exactly the same thing as 2018 and just played the decks that fit my style best in every event, as long as they were still good decks. Sometimes this meant I played the best deck, if things lined up that way, but mostly I just played what I wanted to play for each event.
In the case of Esper Hero during the midpoint of the year it worked out beautifully, but I don't want to make the mistake of assuming that my methodology was correct just because it succeeded in this instance. I think Esper Hero was a perfect storm of a deck: it meshed perfectly with my style, I played well, and somehow it lined up to be one of the best decks in the format. That's an anomaly, not a data point.
I think my methodology actually failed and I just got fortunate. I played Izzet Drakes in Mythic Championship I to a 4-6 finish. Most of the rest of our team played Mono-Blue, the best deck of the event. In Mythic Championship VII, I played a Jund Food build that I worked on by myself; thus, I had a flawed list, while the rest of my team played a Simic Flash deck that put all three of the pilots into the Top 8.
Both times I didn't play those decks because they weren't my style of deck, but it was a mistake both times. I'm not great at the blue tempo gameplay style. I took my lessons from 2017, that just always playing the best deck doesn't really work for me, and went too far the other direction of always playing the deck that fit my style. Sometimes it's better to play the best deck even when it's not a perfect fit. I was a coward and didn't want to play a deck that I thought I would fail piloting instead of being bold, taking risks, and becoming better at a playstyle outside my comfort zone.
Striking a balance between these two methodologies is much better than blindly adhering to one or the other. There are no easy rules that you can just follow on autopilot and be successful with. There are times, like when I played Urza over Hogaak, that I felt pretty great in my choice to go against the grain, because I knew that Urza was a broken card, too. But deep down I knew Izzet Drakes wasn't great and Mono-Blue was, and I ignored that voice. I paid the ultimate price for ignoring that voice (having one bad tournament amidst a year where I did well enough to requalify for the 2020 MPL).
2019 was an endless battle with depression for me. I learned so many things about myself this year from it. I'm starting to win that battle here in the tail of 2019. The last month has been pretty good for me, all things considered. My life happiness levels are trending upward and I think I've broken from the worst of it.
Breaking through did not come easy. It does not just magically go away and fix itself. One of the best lessons I learned this year goes something like this. I might not be responsible for any of the problems in my life. They might entirely be someone else's fault or caused by circumstances outside of my control. Regardless of the source of these problems, it's my responsibility to fix them. I can bemoan my lot in life, always blaming others for my shortcomings or problems, or I can take full responsibility for those problems and do something about them.
Significant other cheats on you? Not your fault, but it's absolutely your responsibility to figure out how to positively progress your life from that point. Nobody else is going to step in and do it for you.
I do not think I am at fault for my depression. I do not truly understand why I am depressed. I make a good living doing my dream job in an affluent nation in the most prosperous time in the history of the world. My life is comfortable and my needs are provided for. By all accounts, I should be really happy and motivated, but instead I spend days not mustering the strength to get out of bed and feeling a sense of deep hopelessness that I can't really explain.
I think there is something wrong with my brain. I don't really know how else to explain it, other than I think my brain is just broken. I don't think that's my fault, but it's become my responsibility. It's my responsibility to get help. It's my responsibility to make changes in my life. It's my responsibility to take actions with the intention of fixing my problems rather than do nothing and suffer them. If I continue to do nothing to fix my problems, then it actually does become my fault.
Now that's easier said than done. It's hard to just turn around and change things when you're trapped in the belly of the beast, but there are always days that are better or worse than others and on the days that were better I took it upon myself to actually change how I lived my life. The one thing I knew for sure is that how I was living was not working. I changed my diet. I changed my living habits. I changed what content I consume. I started becoming more social. I completely changed my approach to and interaction with social media.
Did my life suddenly and magically improve? It did not. Some of my absolute worst days came after I made a number of these changes. However, I was living a healthier, more balanced life, and as I made changes, I also gained a better understanding of how to make calibrations to these changes to better suit myself in the future. I started doing this about three months ago and I wasn't sure if things would actually improve, but they have.
I genuinely hope that I will never forget this lesson, because it feels like a cheat code for life. It's not a free pass to happiness or any kind of BS like that, but approaching every single problem in your life with "this is my responsibility now, how do I change it" rather than "why does this always happen to me?" is extremely liberating. The difference is night and day.
There are two kinds of ways to not care about Magic. The first way gave me my first ever Pro Tour/Mythic Championship Top 8 in MCII in London this year. That form of not caring is when you feel completely at ease because you truly and utterly do not care about your results in a tournament, and are free to just focus on playing the best Magic you can without pressure, stress, or external issues weighing on your mind.
It's a unicorn. It's a mythical feeling. The only times I can remember being in the zone like that were GP New Jersey 2014, Worlds 2016, and that tournament. I've tried to regrasp the exact essence of it time and time again and it always squeezes through my fingers like sand. You can't convince yourself to not care. At least not entirely, not at the 100% level you need to be truly in the zone. There's no way to fake it. You just have to actually not care. It's gotta be genuine.
That was my mindset going into London. I almost skipped the Mythic Championship and I probably would have if it wasn't something that I felt obligated to attend as part of the MPL. I was struggling in my personal life and simply did not care at all how I did in that event. However, I still did love the game of Magic. That's the difference between "not caring" and Not Caring.
Going into Mythic Championship VII I also did not want to attend and had to drag my feet to go, but unlike MCII, this was a different kind of not caring. Like Aslan told the Witch in the Chronic (what?) Cles of Narnia, there was a deeper magic, from before the dawn of time. This was a deeper cut of not caring, one that the White Witch version of myself from MCII would not have understood. It was what we in the business call a Turkish not delight.
This wasn't the kind of not caring that manifests itself in not worrying about results, it's the kind of not caring that doesn't even want to play the games in the first place and can barely muster the willpower to try to win when playing them. That kind of not caring does not manifest itself in a way that is helpful to your end results. I lost one or two matches at Mythic Championship VII that I could have won if I wanted it more and tried harder to find better lines, but I just didn't do it.
It's a case of burnout. I've burned out on Magic before many times, but never like this. I thought this might be a permanent burnout, the kind that you don't recover from, the kind where you quit Magic and maybe you come back again in 10 years when nobody knows you anymore and the culture is way different or maybe you stay gone forever. That kind of burnout.
This one is too recent for me to have any kind of insight or lesson here. I really don't know what's going to happen in my future. But I've got a month off and I'm probably not going to play any Magic during that month, and maybe that will help. I know for a fact it's not going to get better by forcing myself to play Magic when I don't enjoy the game anymore.
But, as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or at least, I really, really hope it does. Otherwise I'm ****ed for the 2020 MPL, and while I may not be loving the game right now, I still want to beat the absolute socks off the other competitors. I want to make them rue. "Rue the day they thought they could beat you?" you might ask. No. I just want to make them rue.
Brian Braun-Duin is a professional Magic player, member of the 2019 Magic Pro League and recurring special guest on the Bash Bros Podcast.
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