PTQ Grinding – The Mental Game

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Hey guys! This is my first attempt at writing for Manadeprived and I feel like it is long overdue. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Doug Potter and I am from Edmonton, AB. I have loved this site for years, submitting videos here and there and my proudest moment was wearing a Manadeprived shirt at Pro Tour Barcelona, when Alex Hayne took down the title. On my quest to become the second highest finishing Canadian at the PT, I learned a lot of lessons from people quite a bit better than me, so I figured it was time I pass the torch in hopes that you, the reader may gain even a small bit from my experiences.

Some of these lessons may seem obvious, and when I discussed them with friends, my first reaction was to shrug away obvious knowledge. It wasn’t until I started to really think about each of these lessons in detail that I started to improve my mental game. Since GP MTL, and beginning to work on these lessons, my next tournament was Champs, which I won. The following PTQ season was Barcelona, and I was able to take down a 100+ person PTQ. I am not saying it is a magic formula to success, but I know that many people don’t spend enough time on the mental aspects of the game, and invest a lot of time on deck list hunting. You will find no decklists or secret tech in this article, just a few lessons I used to improve my game.

With that, let’s get started!

1 – Recognizing your mistakes

So I am sure at this point if you are a PTQ grinder who is consistently, or semi-consistently T8ing PTQ’s you realize the importance of recognizing your mistakes for the sake of self improvement. I have lost in the quarterfinals of 23 PTQ’s (only passing the quarters twice I might add) and I can give you a list of embarrassing mistakes that would be enough to make most people quit MTG, but that isn’t what I want to focus on. Way back in 2005 I was going to my first ever Pro Tour in Philly. I had finished 9th at GP Seattle and on top of the local PTQ winners, Murray Evans was attending the PT. Murray was someone I looked up to, as he had a couple recent PT T8’s. I began testing for the event with Murray and talking a lot with him. He told me something that has both stuck with me for the past 7 years as well as been a constant source of internal argument as I approach the game.

Murray Evans: “You will never lose a single game that you make 0 misplays in” Now wait a minute.. What about that game where I looked at 4 back to back no landers, and decided to mull to 3 instead of keeping a crap 4. Can you actually call THAT a mistake? What about the limited game where I cast a 2 drop, a 3 drop off a perfectly acceptable keep, and every card I drew after was un-cast-able due to never drawing another Land? What about that game where my opponent just killed me on my turn 0 with Charbelcher combo? This advice is garbage! Murray would answer some of these comments with “You probably made a mistake in deck construction” or “Your deck selection was a mistake” or “You kept a bad hand, and mistakenly thought it was good”. I was not satisfied with these answers, so I disregarded the advice. I almost all but ignored it, until I had a talk with Hayne at GP MTL, when he got 2nd place.

I don’t think Murray was 100% accurate, but I think what he intended the advice to do was have me start taking a look at my games more closely, start evaluating every decision I made and stop making it about luck or topdecks, start criticizing myself in a constructive way in desire of self betterment. This wasn’t completely apparent to me until MTL.

Me: “You won? Sick you are still X-0-1!”

Hayne: “Yeah, my match was incredibly close!”

Me: “What happened?”

Hayne: “I won game one, game two I cast a Divination in a spot that upon reflection I should have done X instead. That made it so now my out was to cast Y, and if he topdecked Z I lose.”

Me: “Wait but you won 2-0 how was that close? You won that game with your line anyways so who cares? Gratz!!”

A simple conversation but when I look back on the weekend, and every conversation I had with Hayne I started to realize something. Hayne wasn’t satisfied with winning, he wasn’t satisfied with getting 2nd at the Grand Prix, all Hayne wanted was to play every game of Magic PERFECTLY. I started to realize that I put so much of my attention on the big mistakes that cost me games. I started thinking about something my friend Eric Chan always says, “There is no such thing as an irrelevant misplay.” This was starting to make a lot more sense to me, as it is true that every mistake we make is in fact us failing at the goal we should desire – playing every game perfectly. How had I gone so long without being so desperate to find all of my mistakes win or lose? I started to notice that after the GP weekend, and after I began hunting for mistakes, I was actually a pretty terrible player. I decided in my weeks of testing for Champs and all my MTGO drafts that this was a good thing; it wasn’t a good thing that I was terrible, but it was good that I was starting to realize it. The rate I began improving was rapid, and my results were starting to line up. It seems so blatantly obvious, but I was too overcome with the emotion of winning matches to lock up T8, to realize that I miss sideboarded and left myself pretty far behind, which sometimes came back to bite me in the T8.

To sum it up. Lesson 1 – Pay attention to your mistakes, ALL of your mistakes, not just the ones that cost you games, and seek to fix those leaks in your game.

2 – Focus

This was a big problem with my game. Focus has multiple parts to it, the actual focus within the match, the focus you require between rounds of a tournament, and the focus required outside the tournament. I will talk a little bit about each.

In Game.

One thing to not about focus is you can’t possibly pay attention to everything that is going on at all times. If you do, or try to, you will burn out. What should you focus on? Try to pay attention to your pace, your rhythms that you fall in with any given opponent, and the things that matter most. Trying to do complex math each end-step on if you should sac your Marsh Flats to slim your deck, or hold it just incase you draw a landfall creature is probably not the best thing to be doing. You should have a feel for these types of things in the outside tournament focus. At the same time, when you are facing a huge alpha strike you should spend enough time thinking through the attacks/blocks/outs and not just make impulsive decisions. I have heard a lot about “using your mental energy” on the correct things, and I feel like staying focused is very important to this. If you ever find yourself up a game and thinking about how after you win this round you only need 1 more to draw in to T8, STOP yourself. If you are up a game and your opponent is mulling to 5 playing for T8 and you start thinking about what you might say in your profile, STOP yourself. Those things are important, but not during the game.

Inside the tournament.

People often spend this time hanging out with friends, catching up on old times, telling bad beat stories, and complaining about how hungry they are and how little time there is between rounds. The stress release is important, but there are other things that you should be doing as well. Start getting a feel for the metagame at the top tables by scouting and asking people what they lost too. Scout when possible, and take a peek at the pairings sheets to do some quick math if you can. This is always important because you don’t want to sit down in the last round and be unsure if you can draw or if you have to play. When your friends get knocked out of the tournament, put them to work scouting the top tables and helping you out, since I guarantee you that they will be willing to be doing something other than sitting around bored. Make sure you are hydrated and eat between rounds, I can’t tell you how many tournaments I ate/drank nothing all day and just felt miserable when the T8 was being announced, or the quick scramble for McDonald’s when I have drawn the last round. These all seem OBVIOUS things to do, yet most players lose focus in this stage and let these things slip. Two day events contain a whole new level of focus that I didn’t realize for a while. I always wondered why I couldn’t T8 Nationals, but I am starting to feel like I don’t prepare properly in between rounds with the things we need to function such as good food and sleep. I will give you an example from PT Barcelona of one person reminding me of this lesson, via a FB conversation.

Mike Flores: “You have this on lockdown right?”
Me: “Yeah”
Mike Flores: “Then go to sleep”
Me: “After Olle Radde hit his Bonfire on the 1 turn window, I kind of lost focus a bit, but once my back was up against the wall I have been tight”
Mike Flores: “It’s gotta be pushing midnight there”
Me: “Yeah I am just messaging a girl, waiting for her reply then going to bed”
Mike Flores: “Eff that brother, and stop making excuses. You don’t “lose focus” when YOU topdeck someone else. GO TO SLEEP! I expect mad props in your report when you T8
Me: “You are awesome haha”
Mike Flores: “GN!”

Simple, and to the point. As much as we want to do all these things when at big events, if the goal is to actually get there it is important to focus on what is important. Since playing properly in every game, at every juncture is the goal, it is important to allow yourself the chance to do that with proper rest. Big shout out to Mike for whipping me in to shape, as I needed that sleep to put myself in the position I did to be playing 1 match for the cash.

Outside the Tournament.

There are so many places that you should spend time focusing on, but I will list a few.

1) Sideboard. The average player does not test post-board games anywhere near enough, and as a result have sub-par board/board plan for their matchups.

2) Testing. People take testing quite casually, and aren’t diligent enough with notes of results/reasons for results (AKA Mulligans, Mana Screw, Problem cards, etc). At PT Barcelona Caplan ran a tight ship with a system to take detailed notes on how our Miracle deck matched up against the meta, and those notes helped us tweak and tune it to the final list.

3) Worldwide Results. It is important to look at results all around the world, and identifying them for the given metagames. People often look at a list that “won a PTQ” and figure it is perfect, when they don’t realize it is a 24 person event in a small town where people know exactly what the others are playing. Another common mistake people make is they don’t take the 30 minutes required to go look through every MTGO Daily event/premier/PTQ during the weeks heading up to their event. It is all free information, and it all adds up

4) FNM level. How many people are guilty of going to weekly MTG events and just messing around? It seems fun to keep the 4 Gitaxian Probe 0 land at this “Freeroll” but it is all testing. Especially when limited is concerned, this is the best testing ground to bolster good attack/block mechanics and notice what opponents are telegraphing. Why not take these events with a little more focus, and attempt to use them to improve? I am not saying stop having fun/rules lawyer, but there is nothing wrong with using them to practice

5) MTGO. Playing an online PTQ in your pajama’s is very tempting, but doing it while watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones, farming the Butcher on D3, and yelling at your roommate about your last piece of pizza going missing is not going to give you good results. Focus a bit more on every match, as the information all adds up.

There are many more places where we lack in focus but I think this is a good start to get us thinking. I read a tweet once that said winning a PTQ is 33% Luck, 33% Skill, and 33% Prep, so why are people so satisfied with only giving themselves 35-50% maximum to work with each round, and not doing everything they can to succeed?

Focus, Focus, Focus. A PTQ is not simply won in a handful of games, and a lot more time/energy goes in to it than it seems. Stay focused, and take no prisoners.

3- Criticism

No one likes being told they are wrong. More than that, no one likes being CONSTANTLY told they are wrong. I find it odd when I walk up to a local PTQ player after I watched them throw away a game, and they just deny the mistake or are so stubborn that they stand their ground on their line of play rather then discussing it. I think the key to this is how stubborn most of us tend to be. Who wants to put in hundreds of hours playing a deck, sit down against someone and take a bad line of play that costs us a pivotal game? That sounds terrible!

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Or does it? I think people are far too afraid of being wrong, and it costs them a lot of valuable information. This also goes for giving advice to others, and responding to their criticism. I heard Jay Boosh talking on the Eh team about sideboarding out his Delvers, and he just got TRASHED for it by his cast-mates for a solid few weeks. We have it built in our blood that some things are 100% wrong all the time, such as sideboarding out the namesake of your deck. If we are unwilling to logically defend our choices, why are we doing them in the first place? I was very impressed with the way Boosh described his reasoning, and it made me feel like right or wrong, he was taking the steps required to become a better player. When we discussed sideboarding at the PT, everyone seemed to have some different opinions on each matchup at first, no one was in total agreement on every matchup (go figure with 11 players) but we each presented logical arguments for every option of how to board, we listened to others explain how they felt like we were wrong, and we went with it. Ultimately, as a group we came up with one unanimous strategy through deliberation and listening to criticism.

Don’t be stubborn to the point of being obstinate.

4 – Emotions

This one is probably the most mentioned, and the hardest one to fix. Most people get upset when they lose, especially when it is an important match or there was some “bad luck”. At the same token, many people get overly excited when they topdeck a 1 outer, or miracle their 3rd Entreat the Angels. Both emotions are very dangerous within a match, as tilt can lead to anger, anger can lead to rage, and rage can lead to the dark side. How often have I lost game 1 by mulling to 4, then look at a sketchy 7 card hand and SNAP kept? Is that the best way to win a match? Obviously not. If you have problems with tilting, I feel like it might be important to figure out what you can do outside the game to help. Stress relief is very important, and balance is also needed to succeed. I used to be the guy who would get very upset if someone topdecked well against me in testing, that is the LAST place that we should be upset when we lose.

So where is the lesson? Honestly, the best thing is to remember why you are at the event. Do we play this game because we love the game, love the community, and love the PT dream, or do we play it because we want to win SO BADLY that when we don’t it is the worst day of our life? I know everyone is different, but I noticed Hayne throughout MTL say things like, “Yeah, I get to play Day 2, which means I get to play more of the game I love, this is sweet,” or, “Man I gotta tell you this story, this game was so epic!” or, “I mulled to 5 and had the hardest time ever winning but I just realized exactly what had to happen to pull it out, and it worked!”. When Hayne sat down against a pro, he didn’t get upset and irrational; he realized that he had a chance to beat one of the best and seized it.

How was I able to work on my emotions? I started to mix in more casual events in my schedule, started to focus more on having fun and not treating it as such a grind, as well as taking a long overdue break. Sometimes, a break can be good, and during the year I took off MTG I was able to get a lot of perspective on my game. When I came back, I had a new goal of playing my best, and began to realize that the winning and losing was a byproduct of good play more often than the random variance. I will never forget the second pod at PT Barcelona, I managed to beat EFro, Levy, and Ben Stark to 3-0 with a mediocre deck. Each of them was super nice post match, talked to me for a bit, and EFro even positively tweeted about my play (which is unusual for him). I told Stark how blown away I was how nice each of them was after he congratulated me on 3-0ing a “lineup of sickos” and he told me that even pro’s have a winrate of 60% or so at PT’s. That is still super impressive, but it means that 40% of the time they lose. He said that until you can accept that you will lose a lot of games, you can’t ever hope to improve. This realization is the best way to combat tilt I can think of.

Don’t go on tilt, and if you feel like you can’t help but tilt, start trying new things, re-focus, or take a break! The game will still be here in a few months when you get back.

5 – Play the best deck

Now this one sounds obvious, but honestly it feels like it is impossible for many people. The “best deck” is not always the same for every player, and I think if you watch the top players and see people like Paul Rietzl winning with aggro, we can all agree that this shifts. That said, do you think it is any coincidence that the big powerhouse teams usually come up with a strong, consistent deck that isn’t taking a big risk? If the average player would more often put down their pet deck and pick up the net deck I think they would win a fair bit more. This is done well in advance to the tournament, so you can focus on the preparation needed to thrive, and will lead to an edge in mirror matches against people who audible to the best deck too late. In this current format, I look at someone like Brian Ziemba who keeps going to GP’s and keeps cashing with Delver, over and over. He has been playing the deck forever, it is the “best deck”, and when people keep bringing brews up he just seems to slay them down. If you aren’t sure what the best deck is, go out on a limb and try asking people who are better than you. I am not ashamed to admit that in the Barcelona PTQ season I asked Kenji Tsumura over MTGO, and I tweeted at some notable names in hopes that I could find out what they would play. I also asked some of the better people in my city, such as Francis Touissant and finally listened to his PTQ winning advice, to secure myself a ticket.

Don’t be afraid to play the best deck, and over time tune it to crush your meta and secure yourself the ticket.

This is just the tip of the iceberg that is the mental side of MTG. I simply wanted to get the conversation started on a larger scale. Hopefully these lessons can further the journey down the path to victory. It took me 6 years since my 2nd Pro Tour to make it back to my 3rd, and I feel like it was largely due to how much my mental game was lacking. If you have any questions, feedback, or want to hear more I would love to discuss!

Thanks for reading.

@DougPkr
facebook.com/Douglarr

 

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