One of the most underrated skills in Magic is your “mental game.” There’s no easy definition for what this actually means and what falls under this umbrella and what doesn’t. What’s indisputable is that your mental approach to playing individual games, playing in tournaments and even toward Magic as a whole is crucial to succeeding in competitive Magic. It’s also something I have historically been absolutely terrible at. The great thing about your mental game, though, is that it’s a skill you can work on! I don’t claim to be an expert, or that this is everything there is to improve your mental game – far from it, that is something you can always get better at. That said, these are the things that helped me move from completely reliant on being in the right headspace and being very easily pushed out of there to being able to perform well consistently, regardless of how I’m doing at the time.
The title of this section looks a little like clickbait, but this is actually one of the most important aspects of how you should be approaching Magic. If you approach each game looking to win, then whether you succeed will depend solely on the result of the match, and not on how well you played. This is bad for a few reasons. The first is that this can make you feel bad about losses where you did your best, but more importantly, it makes you see wins where you play poorly as a success, rather than something to be improved upon. Counterintuitively, the way you maximize your win rate in the long run is not by playing with the primary objective of winning, but to play each game trying to make sure you play as close to optimally as possible. The aim is to get to a point where you’re either satisfied with your play or unhappy with your play based on how well you played – the actual result of the match should be close to irrelevant.
In the long run, this is generally a more productive way to go about improving your play, but even in the short run, this has a bonus upside of making you lean on variance a lot less and recognize when losses are a thing that could have been avoided with tighter play. When your primary focus is on results, it’s easy to blame losses on a string of bad variance, like top-decking a series of lands in a row or not drawing interaction against an opposing combo deck. However, when the metric you’re evaluating success on is the quality of your play, variance is completely irrelevant, and you’re forced to question the choices you could make that would have led you to success in spite of variance, or at least would have given you more outs – in the above examples, perhaps you could have been more careful with spending your resources when ahead to avoid losing to a series of dead draws, or maybe you could have mulliganed aggressively to a hand with interaction against your opponent’s combo deck.
While talking about not playing just to win is easy in theory, in practice it’s impossible to completely stop caring about results, particularly when at the end of the day some results do actually matter. As such, the most reasonable way to approach this is simply to try and get as close to caring solely about your play as possible. One helpful tool to do this is to look at your success not in terms of individual events, but rather as a single continuous whole – rather than focusing on doing well in individual tournaments, focus on what will lead to your success the most over Magic tournaments as a whole, and use this to focus on constantly improving through trying to play as well as possible rather than just to win.
One of the final goals with shifting from a goal of winning to a goal of playing well is to get to a point where your satisfaction with a match you play is determined by how well you played and not who actually won. Ultimately, Magic is definitely a game with variance (though not as much as some would like to believe), and if your satisfaction is determined by something over which you have limited control, you’re going to eventually end up getting frustrated with results. Ironically, this is something that’s going to affect your results negatively in the long run by making you play worse. If your satisfaction is dependent on how well you played, it’s determined by something you control, and hence try and improve on, rather than frustration at something you can do nothing at all about.