For many, playing magic is about trying to be flawless: that desire to pare down all the little details of a deck, a matchup, a sideboard plan, until only perfection remains. For those who are constantly willing themselves to improve, winning isn’t enough: they want to achieve, as often as possible, perfection in their play.
Perfection is the feeling of a close game, where victory hangs on a razor’s edge, and you somehow find the one way to win from a dozen different ways to lose. Perfection is having no outs and inducing a misstep from your opponent, and you (not the cards, not the top of your deck) win a game that had no business being won. Perfection is to be at the moving, working center of elegance itself: the game in which no action is superfluous, where every card has exactly one place to go.
But then it happens, and the beauty is marred by the unwelcome presence of an unwanted mistake. The 3/3 you thought was a 2/3. The singleton you didn’t bother to play around. The Blood Moon you forgot was in their sideboard, or the extra removal spell that you forgot was in yours.
Maybe you get mad at yourself, or at your opponent. Maybe you blame the top of your deck for not rewarding your tight play. But no matter what, so long as perfection is the only thing you’re willing take away from a game of magic, something in you is going to give. That nasty feeling of inequity, the tilt, that pang of regret, the self-defacing “I’m so bad,” and the deep knowledge that you could have, should have done better, will never go away.
The point that I want to make today is that it doesn’t have to be like this. It’s possible to want the perfect game of magic but still be comfortable with mistakes, and all of this depends on perspective. While that seems really obvious, I think it’s the only way to transform our mistakes from a weakness into something positive.
What’s a Mistake?
On the surface, many games of magic look similar, but what inevitably changes is the perspective of the players in question. What are they playing for? For fun? Planeswalker Points? Store credit? Pride? Whether we know it or not, we are always looking for something very specific out of every game. The gravity of the mistakes we make depend on what we are looking for.
For instance, when you are doing a practice draft for the PT and see an Architect of the Untamed and a Peema Outrider in the first pack, do you take the questionable rare and see how it turns out? Is that a mistake? On the surface level it usually will be: you are taking a questionable card over a dependable one. You’ll probably be less likely to win your draft because of it.
But no one would ever think of that as wrong, or go on tilt if the gamble doesn’t work out. In testing, not taking the speculative pick is the real mistake because the knowledge that you gain from it is way more valuable than winning the draft. So if our goal is to learn, rather than win, than what counts as a mistake can vary.
Altering your perspective, and changing how you feel about mistakes, means committing to the idea that learning is more important than winning. It is to see yourself, and your success as a magic player, not as the product of this play, or that game, or this tournament, but of this season, this year, this decade: to find success in growth and experience rather than in results.
If the goal is always to learn, how can a mistake possibly hurt you?
Ever teach someone how to play magic? Usually people are a bit wary of attacking at first, and tend to make ridiculous chump blocks to preserve their life total. Even when it’s pretty obvious (to us) that these are mistakes, this really depends on a difference in perspective.
I think the drive behind this excessive caution is not wanting to make a mistake: people think that if something bad happens to their best creature, they might lose the game. For experienced players this trepidation looks absurd: what do you have to lose? How are you going to learn if you don’t make mistakes?
Like it or not, this applies to most of us too. If we aren’t willing to make embarrassing plays, or to play new decks that we aren’t good with, or to keep sketchy hands that might not turn out, we are robbing ourselves of the ability to improve, and allowing ourselves to be satisfied with mediocrity. Of course the trouble is that we, unlike the new player, have tangible things to lose: cash, invites and respect are always on the line.
Nonetheless, shifting our perspective on mistakes means realizing that we are always in practice mode. As long as you have yet to reach your goal (winning a local tournament, day 2ing a GP, qualifying for the Pro Tour), you shouldn’t be trying to win: you should be trying to learn enough to push you to the next stage.
And guess what. As soon as you get to that stage you will find you still have a lot of learning to do before you make it to the next one.
I remember watching one of Paul Cheon’s Chlogs during a GP that he wasn’t doing too well in. In between rounds, he told the camera about all the mistakes he had made, and how they cost him games he could have won. That taught me two important lessons.
First, I realized that no matter how good you are at Magic, you will make mistakes. No one, not even the best player in the world, is flawless. Mistakes are simply a part of the game, and pro players, despite their obvious skills, are human just like the rest of us.
Second, I realized that the difference between the best players and everyone else is not the presence and absence of mistakes, but the quality of their mistakes. The things Paul was beating himself up over I wouldn’t have even have noticed.
So the challenge of succeeding at Magic, at a certain point, isn’t in avoiding mistakes, but in developing your ability to see mistakes that you didn’t know were there: your goal should be to try to make better, more sophisticated mistakes than you’ve ever made before.
When you take a longer perspective on your magic career, individual games and tournaments become less important, and the general trends of your results start to matter more. So practicing this philosophy means changing how we look at success and results. The best way to do this is to break down all of the elements that go into winning a tournament, rather than thinking too much about the tournament as a whole.
Instead of telling yourself you’re going to T8, try to focus on what you need to do in order to be the kind of player who is capable of T8ing that event.
Want to T8 a GP? How are you going to do that if you miss lethal on board, even if it’s only once in a while? How can you be sure that it won’t happen when it really matters?
Want to qualify for an RPTQ? How are you going to do that without learning your matchups ? Why try to “get lucky” instead of trying to learn?
Here is a list of some things I’ve told myself before tournaments.
I will not make any bad mulligans.
I will not miss lethal on board.
I will work very hard to not go to time.
I will make aggressive attacks, even if they seem wrong.
I will remember that Signal Pest does not have flying.
I will remember to use Qasali Pridemage before it dies.
I will always float mana in response to Rishadan Port activations.
I will remember the contents of my graveyard for Snapcaster Mage without looking.
All of these directives involve very concrete lessons. In each case I knew what I had to do to improve, and usually I did.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to play a perfect game of Magiv, and there is nothing quite like the experience of mastery. But the reality is that it isn’t always going to work out; we are going to fail, at least some of the time, despite our best efforts. We need to realize that mistakes are a reality, not a weakness, and then ensure that mistakes only show up on our terms.
So don’t tell yourself you’re going to T8. You can’t promise that to yourself with any honesty. Instead, tell yourself that you won’t make any bad mulligans; tell yourself that you will sideboard purposely and strategically; tell yourself that you won’t tilt after your 1st misplay of the day.
Expecting yourself to T8 and then failing won’t make you better. Taking different aspects of your game, one at a time, and working on them purposely will.
Above all, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and don’t be too hard on yourself when you do. In order to fix a mistake we have to make it first, and recognition is the first step in eliminating it from our repertoire of errors.
Of course perspectives are like moods, and we don’t always get to choose the view point we have. As much as I might wish otherwise, I am not always a perfect zen butterfly. I will still get angry with myself. I will still blame things that are not me for my losses. I will not always learn from my mistakes. Neither will you.
But as long as I can commit to the idea that learning is more important than winning, than the winning will take care of itself. That’s because I will be constantly improving my game rather than focusing on my losses.
Are you tired of always playing the “best deck” and still falling a bit short? Bored with a format that seems to favour luck over skill?
Take a season and brew some crappy decks. Lose a lot. Be bad. Sooner or later you’ll have to. When you get to the PT who’s going to build your deck for you?
As Shakespeare said, “To thine own mistakes be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou will crush tournaments on the regular.”
Or something like that.
Thanks for reading,