Conventional wisdom is often correct. After all, something doesn't just become conventional wisdom by chance; rather, it happens when enough people observe the same thing enough times or enough people push the same idea enough times. However, one thing that also happens frequently is things once considered conventional wisdom end up being proven false as humanity advances in knowledge. Sometimes this is accompanied by people abandoning those ideas, but just as often those ideas just keep being believed long afterward anyway.
The longer and longer I've played Magic, the more and more I've begun to reject some concepts that I either misunderstood or that were pushed and supported by other writers and players. I've been reading about these since I started playing the game over 10 years ago. Some I still see being written about today. Originally, I believed these things, but I no longer do and now I think that holding these beliefs can be actively detrimental to one's progress as a player.
Hopefully I can help undo some of the damage that myself and other writers have created in the past.
I've been reading about this one forever. The best players hate losing on a visceral level and they get extremely upset when they lose. This is part of "the fire," which is the competitive drive to succeed, and the best players hate losing so much that they will do anything to win and avoid the frustration that comes with a loss. Once losses stop bothering you, then you've lost "the fire" and won't perform as well in events. Or so it goes.
I think that idea is an absolutely full crock of donkey dung. In other words, I simply do not agree.
There is a huge difference between caring about losing and getting upset about losing. I do think we tend to perform better in events when we care about doing well in them, but there is no reason there must be a correlation between caring about wins and losses and reacting emotionally to them. I care a lot about doing well in tournaments, but I do a lot better as a whole when I just let losses slide off me than when I react strongly to them. It's not that I suddenly care less when I don't get upset after a loss, but rather that I just have a better mental mindset toward losing, and that stronger mindset is going to help me much more in a longer event than being emotional.
In fact, I think reacting emotionally to losses is actually an enormous detriment to how we do in a tournament. We hear stories all the time about someone doing well in an event and then they pick up a loss, get frustrated or emotional about it, and then spiral from that point and start punting away future matches. That's the kind of thing that sometimes happens to people who react emotionally to losses. You don't hear about that happening to players like Reid Duke who just shrug off their losses and continue to play the best Magic that they can.
I also think there is a real cost to caring too much about any one event, one that has a negative effect on a huge swath of players. I care deeply about Magic and I put countless hours into testing to perform well in the tournaments that I spend lots of time and money traveling to. However, each individual event is unlikely to be an event where we get the conclusion that we want, so I try to focus on Magic long term rather than let the wins and losses of one particular event affect me emotionally.
Magic is a game where it takes a long time to finally get that Top 8 or Top 64 or Day 2 or whatever one's goal might be, and sometimes it simply just never happens at all. Putting too many eggs into the basket of any individual tournament is just asking for frustration and failure, and furthermore, putting that kind of external pressure on yourself actually does create a negative effect on our gameplay. Anything external to the match at hand other than just playing the best we can in that match is a distraction that reduces our chances to win.
We as players also simply have a really skewed perspective on losing. We take losing personally. We think of losing as something that happens to us, rather than something that just happens. Someone has to lose every match. Sometimes that's us and that's normal. We think of us winning as the conclusion that is supposed to happen and thus if we lose something went wrong and things didn't end up the way they should. That's a very selfish perspective to have. Why is it unnatural or wrong for us to be the loser? Objectively speaking, why shouldn't our opponent be the one who wins the match? What makes us more deserving of the win than them? We only see it through our perspective, instead of looking at it objectively.
Losing is a natural part of Magic and we'd be better off if we just accepted that and learned to take the emotion out of losing. This doesn't mean we have to stop caring about winning and losing, or that we should not put as much effort into doing whatever we can, legally of course, to win as many matches as possible. It just means that getting emotional and upset after a loss isn't actually a helpful mindset to have, and it certainly isn't a good barometer for how much we care.
The idea behind this misconception is well-meaning. The point here is that oftentimes the reason why we lose matches is because we make mistakes that cost us games. It's been said that nobody has ever played a "perfect game" of Magic; we make mistakes in every game we play. It is therefore in our best interest to look back at past matches and focus on finding the mistakes we make – something we can actually control, unlike matchups or variance – and try to fix those mistakes to improve. This is all well and good. Reducing and learning from mistakes is pretty excellent.
The problem here is that the actual execution that people suggest, which is to "look back after every game and try to determine what mistakes you made" actually tends to create more problems than it fixes. While it is theoretically possible that nobody has ever played a "perfect" game of Magic, perfect in this context includes things like body language, reading tells, facial expressions and external things like that. People have played complete games where they played the right lands, made the right attacks and blocks and cast all the right spells at the right times every single turn. Many of those games have been played.
The mentality of always having to find a mistake you made becomes a problem when people start searching for mistakes that don't exist. I see this happen all the time. Someone loses a game and they play it back mentally to try to find mistakes. Since it is ingrained in our minds to always look for mistakes we made, we force ourselves to concoct mistakes that we can improve on. If those mistakes don't actually exist or we are looking at the wrong thing as mistakes, we can actively make ourselves worse. This most often manifests itself in players convincing themselves that they should have mulliganed great opening hands because they didn't work out or that they should have taken worse lines of play because the line they took didn't work out and thus was probably "the mistake" they were supposed to find that game.
Mistakes happen in games we win and games we lose, or sometimes not at all. We can lose plenty of games where we played very well and then go on and win games where we made a ton of poor plays. Not every game has a mistake we can learn from and many games have tons and tons of them. Sometimes the games we could learn the most from are actually the ones we won, which we tend to ignore in general.
I should note that players who complain frequently about getting unlucky are usually players who are making lots of mistakes. That's just logical. Luck tends to balance out over time, so it's unrealistic to think that these players are way less lucky than other players, and if they are losing a lot more than other people are over a long enough period of time, then reason holds that there are other factors at play like mistakes or poor deck choices.
With that said, sometimes the reason that someone loses a game is because they actually did get unlucky, and it is okay to admit that as long as it is an explanation, not an excuse. It's also important to note that sometimes we just lose. Sometimes both players can play well, neither player gets unlucky, and yet someone still has to lose and that is us some amount of the time. Sometimes we played great and even got lucky, and still lose because our matchup was bad or our opponent played even better or got even luckier. It's not a weakness to fail to find a learning moment from every game. It's okay to be objective about our losses, and players do themselves a huge disservice by trying to always pinpoint mistakes that may not even exist after losses.
The best way to improve at piloting games of Magic is to examine your wins and losses over long periods of time and come up with trends and then work to correct the bad trends. What kinds of games are you losing? Are you losing games that go long where there are a lot of decisions to be made? Maybe you are playing too passively, or too aggressively, or you are casting your spells too early or holding them too long. Are you losing with a deck others are winning with? What are they doing with the deck that you aren't?
It's also important to keep track of what games you're winning and how you're winning those games, because that can serve as a control variable for figuring out why you're losing. Sometimes it is as simple as "I win nearly every game I draw Traxos and lose most that I don't" which was a conclusion I came to after a day of Team Sealed a few months ago. Sometimes it is something more in-depth like "I win most games that are over around turn eight or nine, but lose most that go longer or end sooner" or "I win against these two decks a lot but lose to those other two decks, so I need to work on being able to beat those." These trends can point us in the direction of consistent, repeated mistakes we might be making.
Mistakes are really hard to properly find and evaluate. We don't notice the vast majority of mistakes we make because we aren't skilled enough to even realize they exist. Oftentimes I find that I am doing the best in tournaments where I feel like I am making lots of mistakes. Eventually I figured out that I'm not necessarily actually making more mistakes in those tournaments, I'm just more knowledgeable in the format and with my deck to even be able to see the mistakes in the first place. Mind blown.
We tend to do a poor job evaluating ourselves, our games and our mistakes, most of which we can't even see. Looking back at each game in a vacuum and trying to hand-pick mistakes just doesn't work as a meaningful way to improve, and can actually even make us worse. We should be examining games we won and games we lost not by themselves, but as part of a greater trend and try to establish patterns in the kind of games we win and lose. Those patterns can serve as a map to figuring out the mistakes we are making. Fixing those mistakes, on the other hand, is easier said than done. I'm still learning that myself.
There is a concept called Results-Oriented Thinking. There have been a lot of articles written telling us to not use Results-Oriented Thinking. Those articles are completely correct. Results-Oriented Thinking is bad.
What is Results-Oriented Thinking? It's when we take a single result or a small sample size of results and base future decisions off of them instead of logic. For example, let's say you are playing a 15-land deck in Limited – already a deck with a low number of lands compared to the normal 17 or 18 – and you flood out super hard in game one so you sideboard out two lands. That is using results-oriented thinking. You're taking the results of one game and basing a future decision off them rather than using logic instead. It's unlikely 13 is the correct number of lands. it's more likely that 15 is right and flooding out was just variance in the previous game. Another example of Results-Oriented Thinking is winning game one with a card and then not sideboarding that card out because you just won with it, even though you know it isn't good in the matchup after sideboard. That is overriding logic with one singular result, which is not enough to draw meaningful conclusions from.
The problem with having "don't use Results-Oriented Thinking" drilled into our head by a lot of articles over the years is that a lot of players confuse using Results-Oriented Thinking with simply using results at all. Players wrongly shout "don't use Results-Oriented Thinking!" to situations where people are simply applying useful data. Properly analyzing results is a great tool that is extremely valuable in driving our future decisions. Studying results is not the same as falling victim to result-oriented decision making and the two should not be confused.
Using Results-Oriented Thinking might be removing a land from our deck after we flood out in one game. That is a knee-jerk reaction to variance and likely incorrect. Using results, on the other hand, might be building our decks with less land in general after playing a lot of games in the format and winning more with those kinds of decks. That's a logical, data-driven approach designed to help us to win more.
Players tend to misevaluate where to draw the line between someone positively using results and someone fallaciously using Results-Oriented Thinking. The number of results we need before they start to be useful to us is pretty low, I believe. I would wager my threshold for how much data constitutes useful information is way lower than most people. We don't need perfect information, we just need useful information.
People always argue that sample sizes are too low in Magic to draw conclusions from. I think that is completely wrong – Magic isn't a scientific research paper. Sample sizes might be too low to draw 100% conclusive evidence from, but nothing is ever conclusive in Magic and we don't need it to be. If I play 20 games of a matchup and one side wins 15 of those games, I certainly can't say that one deck wins 75% of the time definitively, but I still can say with a fairly high degree of confidence which deck is favored in the matchup, and that's good enough.
Results are a very useful and very underused tool. Over the past few months, I've started to keep spreadsheets tracking the data of my wins and losses with various decks I'm testing. This has been a valuable tool to keep me honest. Sometimes we like a deck and think that it is better than it actually is and keeping track of results is a great way to take emotion and bias out of it. I've rejected a lot of recent decks that I've liked because my win rates were lower with them than other decks, even if my mind wanted to tell me the opposite. I have yet to regret this decision.
It is also common for us to come up with excuses for why decks are winning or losing. We say things like "I keep losing games against Mono-Red, but I think I get unlucky in a lot of them" or "my win rate with this deck has been fairly average, but I keep flooding out in games that I was really far ahead in, so I still think the deck is good. That's just variance." The vast majority of time we would be better off if we just trusted the results instead of trying to explain them away as not relevant or a bad sample size. Maybe we think we're getting unlucky against Mono-Red but in reality Mono-Red has almost exclusively rares and mythics so their card quality is better than ours. Maybe we are flooding out and losing games that we were winning because our deck can't close quickly and lacks a relevant late game, a relevant flaw. We can trick ourselves in many ways, but the results tell the true story.
I also think results are a really good way to evaluate ourselves and how we are personally doing in Magic. If our personal results have been becoming better or worse lately, there is a lesson to be learned there. It isn't Results-Oriented Thinking to draw conclusions based on how we are doing over an extended period in Magic events, it's just being smart and logical.
A couple of years ago, I went a full 12 months where I did badly in every single Standard tournament I played. It would be illogical for me to ignore those results and just say "oh that's just Results-Oriented Thinking" and just keep plugging along expecting things to change. Instead, I learned a lot of valuable lessons about the kinds of decks that I do poorly with and the kinds of decks that I struggle to beat consistently. Those realizations helped me with deck selection this year, and I've been winning a lot more ever since.
Now those are some results I could definitely get oriented with.
- Brian Braun-Duin