Two articles ago, I provided you all with a system for approaching in-game decision-making. I claimed it was the most important advice I could give you to improve that aspect of your game.
Today’s article is a companion piece to that article. It contains the most important piece of advice I can give you about out-of-game decision-making.
This article isn’t about deck construction, metagaming, or tournament preparation, although those factors have almost as much effect on your tournament performance as actual in-game decisions. For Standard, sometimes they have more of an effect. No, this article is about attitude and perspective.
Outside of Brad Nelson, not a tremendous number of Magic players have talked about the concept of humility. A lot of people have discussed variance and the problem with blaming your losses on it, but very few have approached it from the perspective of being humble and taking responsibility.
Semi-professional Magic players as a whole generally aren’t encouraged to be humble. Desperate to break onto the professional scene, we feel pressure to take credit for any accomplishment that we had even a modicum of influence on in the hopes that it will lead to increased name recognition, which is admittedly quite an important tool in this community. In addition, we have articles telling us that we need The Fire in order to win a big tournament, but it is rarely mentioned that The Fire can coexist with humility.
And then there’s our upbringing to think about. Demographically, most of us (at least in the United States) are white, male, middle-class, and educated. All of these factors mean that we’re used to success. We’re used to the systems of our world being set up to accommodate us in subtle yet significant ways. So is it really a surprise that when we are confronted with the possibility that we made mistakes or the possibility that we got unlucky, we think it’s more likely that we got unlucky?
Improvement in any area of life, but especially in iterative, skill-based tasks, requires focused self-awareness and analysis. And the single most important thing is honest responsibility.
Take responsibility for your mistakes and your role in the situation. This is an axiom that is helpful in all areas of life, but incredibly important in Magic specifically. Did you lose because you drew two lands in a row in the late game but your opponent drew two spells? That might seem like variance on the surface, but there was likely a way to avoid that situation. Could you have taken a more aggressive line and denied your opponent the two draw steps they needed to get back into the game? Or made those draw steps irrelevant somehow? Is the deck you’re playing just not equipped to perform consistently well in the matchup? If so, should you be playing a different deck? Should you have built your deck differently?
When it comes to variance, the situation is different than it appears. Don’t blame a loss on bad luck until you have examined every single aspect of the game and taken responsibility for your role in your loss. There are certainly times when you didn’t make an in-game mistake, or any in-game mistake you made didn’t matter, but those are often because you didn’t build your deck or sideboard correctly.
In my experience, the top three causes of losses in Standard are:
- Not knowing your plan for each matchup
- Building your deck incorrectly
- Sideboarding incorrectly
You’ll notice that “play mistakes” aren’t on my list. This is because Standard is not a particularly complex or tactical format. Most play mistakes you’ll make center around failing to correctly evaluate your role or mis-managing your resources, which are caused by not knowing your plan for a given matchup.
In contrast, here’s the same list but for Modern:
- Play mistakes
- Not knowing your plan for each matchup
- Building your deck (specifically sideboard) incorrectly
Older formats, such as Modern and Legacy, are much more tactical than Standard, and require players to make much more involved play decisions. The prevalence of cheap, situational countermagic and more ways to interact with opponents’ manabases makes in-game decisions very complex compared to similar decisions in Standard.
There are a tremendous number of variables at play in a match of Magic, and there are only a few that you aren’t responsible for. So when you lose a match, it almost guarantees that you made a mistake somewhere. Usually, multiple mistakes combine to lose a match.
Mistakes aren’t just active, either, and there is no “good enough.” Sure, you might win a game, a match, or even a tournament despite many mistakes, but if your goal is to be the best player possible, nothing short of perfection is enough. So let me be clear with what I’m really saying in this article:
Anything you do that is less than perfect is a mistake, and is your responsibility.
Woah, Casper, harsh much? A bit, yeah. This is a truth in any part of life. Perfection should be your goal, and anything less than perfection is a mistake.
But that’s okay.
You heard me right: mistakes are okay.
The point of taking responsibility for your mistakes is not to punish yourself, but rather to allow you to do better next time. Responsibility is not you saying “I’m a bad person for doing this.” It’s you saying “I did this, and I can/want to/am obligated to do better.”
Everyone makes mistakes, and no one is going to stop making them. Mistakes are okay. The goal is perfection, but in order to have that goal and stay sane you have to realize that you’ll never achieve it in all areas of life. Just try to get as close as possible.
In the context of Magic, perfection might very well be achievable. Only God and Jon Finkel know if it really is, but there’s a chance. And it starts with taking responsibility for your mistakes, followed by identifying why you made them.
Could you have won a turn faster? Could you have played around another card your opponent might have had? Could you have built your deck to be slightly faster, more consistent, or more resilient?
Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometimes mistakes don’t affect the outcome of the game, or affect it by a fraction of a fraction of a percent. But often times, mistakes have more of an impact than you realize, and in many instances they are the difference between triumphant victory and crushing defeat. So getting into the habit of avoiding the little mistakes, as well as analyzing every game, even the ones you win convincingly, will be tremendously helpful.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my career as a writer and editor, it’s that feedback is one of the most important tools available to anyone looking to improve. When someone gives you advice about a play or a card choice, whether that advice was requested or not, seriously consider what they’re saying. This applies even if they’ve literally never been right about anything before, if they act like an asshole most of the time, or even if they just say “that card/play is/was awful” without an explanation. They don’t have to be smart, or nice, or comprehensive to be right.
Basically, it all boils down to taking responsibility for your decisions and doing everything you are morally willing to, even if it hurts your pride or makes you uncomfortable, in order to improve your play. This applies to all areas of the game, from deckbuilding to mulligans and sideboarding to in-game decisions to even social interactions within the context of the game. Be humble, take responsibility, and remember:
Mistakes are okay.
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