FFfreaky Friday – Variance

As Magic players, we understand that luck sometimes does not go our way. We play so many games but know how one draw step can sometimes cost us an entire day of competition. Getting lucky can also get us all the way through a PTQ even though we didn’t play that well. Variance is something that can make or break a person depending on how they handle it.

My story began at Worlds this year where I got my first taste of negative variance in a very long time. I got so used to winning that I forgot what it felt like to play great Magic and still lose..a ton. Then my good friend told me that he lost my passport but we should be able to get it back from the police station on Monday. This didn’t seem like it was going to be that big of a deal but I got a flashback from something Cedric Phillips said to me back in Amsterdam.

A conversation broke out about how lucky I was getting. This was obviously after I just took second in the tournament, achieved level 8 status before anyone else, and took the lead in the Player of the Year race. He told me that when variance finally struck, it was going to strike hard. I laughed it off since I don’t believe that luck is something that always breaks even. I won’t lie and say that those words didn’t scare me though.

So, nothing else bad happened and I had a great time in Tokyo. I got back to San Jose and recorded some videos with Tristan and Luis for Magic TV. I said my goodbyes and went to the airport to get my first flight on my way to getting home to see family. While at the airport I got into a great conversation with my brother and time started to fly. I soon realized that the plane that I was going to get on is still not there and we were supposed to take off 20 minutes ago. This is a bad thing since my connection flight would take off only 35 minutes after I was scheduled to get to the airport.

I got to Salt Lake City just in time to see my flight take off and found my way to the counter to figure out where to go from here. I got to the counter where there was a long line of other people that had also missed the last flight out for the night. Being the people watcher I am, I decided to listen in to how people handled stressful situations like this.

Not Being Tilted

In the past I would have been as tilted as most people in this exact same situation. It took me many years to realize that handling a bad situation is a skill just like any other. You have to look at it with a level head to be able to succeed when the cards (figuratively or literally) are stacked against you.

This is when I realized that the person at the front counter was actually the guy I was on the flight with. Mike was a cool guy and the conversation was very solid. He seemed like he was very levelheaded and was having a good time in life. This was not the case at the front desk when he found out he could not get a flight until the next day and that there was no free lodging. He was going crazy and telling the person that the front desk that they couldn’t do that to him. He became very irrational and emotional.

I got up to the other attendant and figured out what I had to do to get home. It involved getting a flight the next night to a close town where I would be able to take a bus to my hometown. I would have to front the discounted rate for a hotel and spend an entire day in a town I had never seen before. I couldn’t do anything about this situation but deal with it and get home as soon as possible. I got everything situated and made my way to my hotel, took a shower, and went to the hotel bar for a couple drinks. I met a great couple there and was having a good ‘ole time.

About two hours later Mike rolled into the hotel. He looked physically ill and was even taking out his anger on the concierge. He spent so much time trying to fight bad luck and it did not help at all. He just missed out on a few hours of his life and still was in the same situation that I was. I learned this because he grabbed a drink and told me his brief story. He drank a beer out of rage and desperation and took two to his room. I spent the next two hours hanging out with the couple and learning some great things about new friends. I know that I handled this situation the way I wanted it to be handled, but I still think I came out of the situation better than my life-tilting friend, Mike.

High variance is something that Magic players have to deal with much more than a non-gaming person. This should mean that we are less sensitive to it, but that is not always the case. It comes down to how well the individual can deal with it. When a player has a very bad round, they can’t let it influence the next round, or event.

Many players come to me with questions ever since I became a Pro Player. Most of them have to do with the actual cards, but every once and a while someone comes to me with a question about how to deal with a certain situation. One of the most recent questions was from a guy who has been Top 8ing almost everything he plays in. He did very well in a string of 5k’s and PTQ’s but lately could not even stay live for more than the first couple rounds of an event. He doesn’t think his game is slipping but the luck he once had has dried out. He asked me if he should just quit the game or grind it out. This question hit home for me.

Before I was a Pro, I was just like every other PTQer. I spent all of my free time working on whatever season it was to get my chance at Pro Tour glory. It was supposed to be just a hobby, but to me it was life. I would Top 8 almost every PTQ I played in but could never win a match once I got there. This was a very frustrating process but the grinder in me would never let me give up. I knew I was good enough to at least get to play in a Pro Tour, but had to just wait for my luck to come.

The Grind

This soon changed when I took a very depressing loss in the Top 8 to Owen Turtenwald in a Madison PTQ. I drove all the way down there and knew I had the best deck for me to play. I crushed the swiss and even beat Owen on my way to the Top 8. My match in the Top 8 was very depressing and I got crushed by Owen in two blowout games. The whole trip home made me think that it was time to give up the dream and move on. I was thinking very irrationally and emotionally due to my dissapointing loss. I decided to quit playing.

The next month involved me not playing any Magic and spending my time at my newly acquired job and playing some video games I neglected while trying to become a pro. My best friend and roommate finally made me go to a qualifier in Winnipeg that was happening the next day. I told him I didn’t want to but his persistence won me over. I got together the same deck I played last month and did battle. I ended up taking the tournament down. The troubles of variance almost got me to throw in the towel. It took the faith of one of my friends to talk me into taking another chance.

You would think that since I was a success story that I would tell this player to keep his head in it and it will soon be alright. It is not. It takes an individual to figure out what they want out of this game. Variance is a harsh mistress and sometimes things will not go your way even though you did everything to prevent this. You have to ask yourself if you are enjoying your time playing Magic, and what is it about the game that you enjoy. Winning cannot be the only thing that you pull enjoyment out of.

This was my big problem back then. I only had fun when I was winning and that was the only reason I played the game. I wanted to go big and was willing to go home if that didn’t happen. This way of thinking left me with some very disappointing days that should not have been.

Nowadays I have figured out what is important to emotionally invest yourself into while playing Magic. It is not if you win or lose, but how well you are playing. This is the only thing you can control while playing this game and is the only thing that can help you get better at the game. If you spend time on thinking about how unlucky you are, you will miss important decisions that will help you in the future. It is impossible to play good Magic if you are not making decisions with a clear mind and a healthy attitude.

The player I told this to was very confused by my answer. I told him that it was up to him and if he couldn’t find fun out of the game that he should quit it and move on. He thought there was some great secret to playing good Magic and avoiding variance. I know that he just didn’t want to hear this answer. He wanted the easy way out.

That’s the funny thing about Magic. There is rarely the easy way out. It is always filled with long days and tough roads ahead. Sometimes you lose to the kid that made a mistake every turn of the game but slammed a bomb down in the last minute. It sucks that you lost the game, but it is great as well. That is why Magic is so great and popular.

What I forgot to tell this player is that blaming variance for a loss is rarely correct. He was actually in a very common situation that most Magic players get into. So in his story he told us that he was doing very well for a long period of time. During this period he was in theory spending a great deal of time playtesting. Playtesting tends to help a player control variance by making them a stronger player. They get to see so many more situations and this allows them to get themselves out of some very rough spots.

Most players take testing less seriously when they are constantly doing well. It is a trap I have been through one too many times myself. Once he was doing well he slowly playtested less causing him to allow more losses into his game. He chose to blame variance instead of something he actually had control over. This is how he took the easy way out.

This does not mean variance is a myth. It is very true and will cause losses in the game. Variance is only as bad as how you deal with it though. This does not just include Magic, but with everything in life. Happiness during bad situations is not always something that comes easy but I assure you that your quality of life will improve if you learn how to deal with it and move on. It will even be better if you can dig deep while in a bad situation and find that you had control over it the whole time.

I know that I am cutting this short, but my connection is finally here and I am about to end my 24-hour layover in Salt Lake City. I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas and a fresh attitude going into the next PTQ season. Play tight and don’t let the negative attitudes bite.

Brad Nelson


Scroll to Top