“Solving a difficult puzzle or a complex problem requires your brain to work long and hard, something called mental stamina.” – vocabulary.com
One of the hardest points of adjustment for me moving into competitive Magic was sustaining mental stamina. In a perfect world, every player would be able to play at the same capacity in the first round of a tournament as the ninth round. In reality, this is far from the truth and managing mental stamina is typically associated with simply getting better at the game. There is very little discussion about various ways competitive professionals and grinders handle keeping their play tight throughout a tournament. In this article, I’m going to discuss what works for me and what I have seen work for other people.
At the risk of sounding cliché, staying hydrated is essential. Letting yourself get dehydrated makes it harder for your body to stay focused. Not to mention the amount of talking you do when playing Magic! I generally bring a water bottle for the day and fill it up at least once. There are also usually water fountains at each event if you forget a water bottle as well. In general, I try to drink enough water to stay hydrated, but not so much water that you have to leave the table in the middle of your match every round to use the bathroom.
Eat Something If Possible.
I have met a few grinders that cannot bring themselves to eat while playing in a large Magic tournament because they are nervous; however, if possible, you should eat something so your body isn’t distracted by hunger while trying to focus on a match. Eating something greasy can cause sluggishness, but unfortunately is usually all that is available at the convention centers. For this reason, I recommend packing granola bars, nuts, and/or fruits if possible. I typically bring two granola bars and eat after round 3 and round 6 at each 9-round tournament I attend. While eating a full meal would be even more beneficial, finding the time and the luggage space to pack full meals is unrealistic. Ultimately, eating something is better than nothing.
Get More Sleep.
In general, sleep is underrated. I am a large proponent of a minimum 8 hours of sleep, but I seem to be in the minority of my peers. Magic tournaments are draining mentally, socially, and even physically. Not getting enough sleep is the best way to set yourself up to fail before the tournament even begins. Most true grinders likely have this one figured out though, so I will not spend too much time dwelling on it, but if you are planning on attending a large Magic event, get as much sleep as you possibly can and set yourself up to perform at your best all day.
Minimize Context Switching.
This is a lesson that I only recently learned was negatively affecting my play. At large Magic events there are many other things surrounding the main event including: artists booths, vendors, and cosplayers. Previously, I very much enjoyed checking out all these extraneous things in between rounds at Magic tournaments. However, I recently realized this was causing me to context switch out of whatever format I am playing and focus on something completely different. I still try and check out these extra elements of Magic events after I am done playing the main event each day, but minimizing the context switching mid-round has eased the tax on my mental stamina at large events.
Converse Only If You Can.
Social interactions provide yet another tax on your mental stamina and can be considered another example of context switching. For instance, it can be tempting to socialize with your opponent during the match. I am an extremely social person, so this may not be as much of an issue for other people as it is for me, but I tend to talk a lot during my matches. The social aspect of the game is what convinces me to drive/fly to as many tournaments as I do, instead of staying home and jamming MTGO all weekend. As a result, I tend to converse a lot while playing and I noticed I was hamstringing myself when doing so. I found myself playing far better where there was less conversation during the match. Therefore, I made a rule that I will socialize as much as I can before the match starts and try to minimize extraneous verbal communication once the match begins. This rule also encompasses avoiding excessive conversation between rounds. There is typically substantial downtime between rounds, and, as I mentioned previously, context switching during that time taxes your mental stamina.
Consider Your Limits During Deck Selection.
This was probably my biggest weaknesses when I started going to the SCG Opens regularly. My first Legacy Open in 2015 I played Miracles at a big event for the first time…Yikes. I had played the deck often in local tournaments since our local scene plays a lot of legacy, but I was not ready for 9 grueling rounds of activating Sensei’s Divining Top. I certainly would have done better in that Open had I chosen a slightly less mentally taxing deck. As time went on, I got more reps with the deck and became comfortable with my ability to play at a high proficiency every round with the deck. I was also able to be much more realistic about my proficiency late in tournaments. This is a subject I think people tend to look past quite frequently. Instead, people generically assume that if they enjoy a deck, they won’t have any issue playing it for a whole weekend. While it helps to enjoy the deck you are playing, being able to play the deck proficiently is an important consideration as well. If your favorite deck is Lantern Control, and you are planning on attending a Modern Open or Grand Prix, I recommend being honest with yourself and recognizing your limits before locking the deck in for that tournament. Control and prison decks with a lot of decisions will take a huge toll on your mental stamina because those decks typically rely on this high volume of decisions to function properly.
Write Sideboard Notes.
Of the things Magic grinders don’t do, neglecting to utilize sideboard notes baffles me the most. When playing high stakes Magic, it is common knowledge that players should leverage any advantage they can get to win. Yet most players I see choose to try to store all the information they need to know while sideboarding in memory and recall it all in the heat of the moment. I just don’t get it. You are allowed notes when sideboarding to relieve pressure when playing and most players elect not to use any at all! Keep in mind, these notes don’t have to refer to just a series of ins and outs for various decks. If you have all of that memorized to your core, you can put things like common sideboard choices, tips for sequencing in various matchups, gotcha cards that are less common to watch out for…anything! Personally, I like to write a complete sideboard guide for the deck I am playing for the weekend while traveling to an event. This practice helps me begin to focus on playing my best Magic during the downtime of travel, when I can’t really do much else anyway. There is the added bonus of getting feedback from the people I am traveling with to refine my sideboard strategy even more. I can’t stress enough that this is an enormous resource that most competitive Magic players at large tournaments elect not to use and is one of the easiest things you can be doing right now to get ahead of the competition while reducing the mental strain of Magic tournaments.
Have A Plan For Handling Tilt.
This last topic is immense and there are plenty of fantastic articles written about how best to manage tilt. I am not going to go over them here. If you do a little bit of Google searching, and possibly some soul searching, I am sure you can find one or more techniques that work for you. It is important to have a plan. If you get frustrated when playing because you are doing poorly, got blown out by a card you have never seen before, or forgot known information, dwelling on these mistakes not only causes you to play worse in the moment because you are no longer focused, but the high emotion involved puts a tax on your mental stamina later in the tournament as well. I find it is best to remove myself momentarily from a tilting situation to refocus. For example, I have, on multiple occasions, made mistakes in game, called a judge so I could use the bathroom, and spend a minute or two in the bathroom collecting myself to continue playing out the match to the best of my ability. I do not take measures like that often and usually only when I am feeling especially tilted. For less extreme tilt, I typically try to note the mistake, mentally or physically, to address later and focus on the rest of the match. Handling tilt is done differently by each person and these methods I find work well for me and have been instrumental in helping me prevent tilt from poisoning the rest of my tournament.
There are more, smaller ways you can ease the mental strain of Magic tournaments, but these are some of the biggest ones I see Magic players, amateur and veteran alike, allow to negatively impact their tournament performance. I don’t know if it is pride, apathy, or they don’t realize the impact neglect has on performance, but I think mental stamina is one of the easiest aspects of a Magic tournament to maintain once you accept it is essential to do so.
Thanks for reading! If you have anything to add to the discussion, or disagree with anything I said, I would love your feedback and feel free to comment in the section below. Until next time!
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