In Development – Learn to Have Fun


I was ninja timed out of a match during an MTGO Daily Event last week.

I was running my B/R/G control deck against U/W control in the fourth round of the Daily, and my opponent took game one, then burned pretty readily through their clock during game two. Although we retained board parity for much of the game, it seriously looked like they were going to time out.

This is where I made a mistake.

At some point my thinking shifted from, “Wow, they’re going to time out,” to ,”Yes, they’re going to time out,” and I started to treat that as my win condition. The natural consequence of this tunnel vision was that I didn’t successfully execute my “kill them with Bloodwitches” primary game plan.

And they F6ed me to death. Sad, I know.

As I’ve mentioned in the last couple weeks, I’m getting back into playing on MTGO these days, and part of that retraining process is familiarizing myself with the user interface, and how best to handle it. Much as experienced paper players have solid standard operating procedures, veteran MTGO players have a good handle on the interface and how to work around its more particular aspects such as stops and clock management.

Seeing what I’d done to myself and how my opponent helped set it up, I felt a little sting of having cost myself a match, and then filed away the experience for future reference. It will inform my game play from now on.

That said, I didn’t feel particularly tilted. I made a mistake, I’ve learned, I’ll do it better next time.

The difference between “serious” and “dire”

I really don’t like it when people say, “Why take it so seriously? It’s just a game.”

I touched on this before when I tried to sell you on going to PTQs. The idea that trying to be good at something is somehow the opposite of fun just doesn’t fly with me. It’s fun to learn, it’s fun to improve, and it’s fun to actually be skilled at something.

This applies across the board, whether it’s your career or that hobby where you meet up with people and play games with illustrated cards.

On the other hand, if you’re a regular reader of Magic strategy articles, you might start to develop the impression that being good at Magic is the most serious thing in the world. Writers tend to slip into a mode where they tell you what you must do to succeed, with the tone of a former Soviet-bloc ice skating instructor at the local mall rink trying to bully eight year olds into being Olympic champions.

I’m not a fan of this point of view, either.

First, although I like putting work into my hobbies, I don’t want my hobbies to be work.

Second, I think it actually makes you a worse player.

Going into things pre-tilted

If you ever watch an MMA match, you’ll notice that when a competitor returns to his corner between rounds, his corner guys give him proactive advice:

“Try out your jabs. He’s slowing down on the right.”

“Take this guy to the ground this time!”

“Just keep touching him. You’re winning, just keep touching him.”

If that last one sounds at all dirty, well, it’s a quote from B.J. Penn’s corner man during one of his matches, wherein Penn kept tagging the other guy’s head with jabs and the occasional solid punch, which generally leads to winning.

What you don’t hear them saying is something like:

“Man, if that’s all you’ve got, he’s going to kill you!”

Of course, they actually do say things like that during training, just like you might get down on yourself for misplays from time to time. But the thing is, when the fighter goes into the ring, they change to the proactive advice, and get his mind into the game and keyed to victory.

I’m going to guess you don’t have a corner team. The upshot of this is that if you build up the belief that learning how to play well is a dire need, then you may well carry that belief with you while you game. If you tell yourself that Magic is always serious business, and that you need to vigorously punish yourself for play errors, then, well, you’ll do that.

All the time. At tournaments.

The really good playtest articles will admonish you to “train how you fight.” This means no takebacks, no free mulligans, and possibly other things like not chatting during the game, or placing an emphasis on sideboarded play. To all this excellent advice I’ll add the suggestion that training how you fight should include training to approach all play with a positive attitude. After all, if you playtest for a week ahead of a PTQ and punish yourself for making mistakes the entire time, you’ve spent a week training to be on-tilt the moment you screw up at the PTQ.

Each new tool is a new toy

For the competitive player, play mistakes and game-losing errors should probably sting a little. After all, if you don’t care at all, you’re not going to have the motivation to win a tournament. Wanting to win always has the corollary frustration with losing, and that won’t ever go away.

That said, we don’t want to be “that guy.” You know the one. He’s brought a reasonably competitive deck to the tournament, won a couple rounds, and then loses. He grumbles. He goes into the next round grumbling, and loses again. Now he’s yelling about his bad luck, or how the metagame sucks, or just ranting incoherently while everyone at the tournament keeps a safe distance.

Even if you’re a model citizen and don’t externalize your gamer rage, you still don’t want to be “that guy” on the inside, seething in your shame at not realizing that Consuming Vapors has rebound and suiciding a second Baneslayer Angel as a result, losing you an otherwise winnable game. If the voices inside your head are still telling you how terrible you are, you’re not really going to believe you deserve a win in your next match, and it all falls apart from there.

The solution to this problem plunges us firmly into cognitive behavioral territory.

Cognitive behavioral psychology is all about the idea that many of our unhelpful behaviors are spawned by unhelpful emotional responses to the world. If we can reframe those emotional responses, we can reframe our behaviors.

In other words, you are never going to play perfect Magic. It’s unrealistic to think you can, and you will burn yourself out and start hating life if you try to. In contrast, by accepting that you’re going to make errors, you can avoid wasting time beating yourself up, which has the welcome knock-on effect of letting you focus on the game and win more often.

Based on watching a lot of very good players, I think that one of the most effective ways to reframe our mistakes and defeats is to remember that every setback is new knowledge.

And every piece of new knowledge is a new toy.

Imagine that you’re a new user to Magic Online, and you’ve been running it for a couple months using just mouse clicks, with all those obnoxious sound effects running in the background, and with your stops stuck on the defaults. Then a friend comes over and shows you the function keys, how to redo your preferences, and how to change your stops around mid-game.

You might kick yourself for all the time wasted and games lost. Alternately, you might just say “Cool!” and put together a crib sheet with the various commands until you have them memorized. It’s this latter attitude that I’m suggesting we embrace about the game itself.

Sure, I had that burn of loss when I was timed out of the last round of that Daily. But then I thought, “I think he tricked me into playing for time, then timed me out! It’s an MTGO rope-a-dope!” I can appreciate the coolness of what was done to me, even as I would have preferred to win that game. Should it come up in the future, I won’t just know what’s going on, I’ll have that joy of recognizing the technique that’s been used against me.

I’ve made it a tool in my toolbox, and the next time the situation arises, I can legitimately say “I have a tool for that!” and enjoy the fun feeling of having an inside track on the game, and of knowing that I’m prepared.

and since I know that’s what I’m going to do with the knowledge, I have that good feeling almost immediately. I know I’ve learned how not to get roped into timing out. The hapless owner of that accidentally suicidal Baneslayer knows how to play around the rebound on Consuming Vapors.

Instead of going on tilt, I acknowledge that I’ve received a consolation prize of knowledge from my opponent even as they were administering an unwelcome beating. I might even get to use my prize as soon as the next match, the next game, or the next turn!

By way of example, I played against Ben Seck in round four of a PTQ at PT San Diego. When he went for the Dark Depths combo, I let him pull the counters off of Depths with his Vampire Hexmage and then targeted Depths with Ghost Quarter. He sacrificed his other Hexmage, and I pointed out that that didn’t work the way he thought it would. After a quick judge call to confirm the interaction, Ben smiled, binned his Depths and both Hexmages, lost the game, and went on to win the PTQ.

I think it’s good to realistically ask ourselves how we’d react to that situation. Ben clearly accepted that he’d just picked up a tremendously useful tool for the remainder of the tournament – after all, he was never going to be outmaneuevered by a Ghost Quarter ever again.

Getting in the habit of good habits

It’s easy enough to say “Of course it’s unhelpful to go on tilt. Sure, I’ll treat lessons learned during play as new tools and appreciate them.” However, we can’t expect to just do this during the game, or even during casual play.

If you’re interested in reframing your thinking about lessons learned during play, you’ll need to actually (as odd as this may sound) make yourself do it during your playtest, casual,or practice games. If you’re part of an active group of players, this is the time where you all get to be each others’ “corner men” (or women, as the case may be). When a player in your group screws up, you could take a break from the default gamer stance of good-natured mocking and instead do something akin to a medical or military after-action report and actually talk about the play, potential alternate plays, and what to do next time.

If that seems weird to you, check out this video snippet:

In case you’re not familiar with the event, that’s the quarterfinals of Pro Tour Honolulu 2006, and Tiago Chan has just completely rolled Ruud Warmenhoven, 3-0 and out. Instead of stalking off in quiet frustration, Ruud wants to talk about the details of the match, and Tiago is happy to do so.

This kind of interaction can be a little difficult to get started with – it forces us to drop our defensive layer of sarcasm and irony and admit that we actually really do enjoy the game and care about how we do. But once we do that, we can have an exciting, collaborative experience of figuring out how to be better players, and this attitude shift will carry over into our tournament game play.

If you’re not working with a big playtest group – maybe you’re sitting at home grinding through MTGO queues – you can still set up tools to help you reframe how you treat mistakes and losses. The way I like to approach this kind of thought process on my own is to ask myself a reasonably structured series of questions, and then to actually make sure I answer them:

1) What happened just then?

2) What options did I have?

3) Were any of the options better than what I chose to do?

4) What’s my plan to deal with this in the future?

It’s really useful to have a structure and make yourself adhere to it, because otherwise our inclination is to try to avoid the self-loathing stage of having made a mistake by just forgetting about it entirely. That’s really nice in terms of feeling good about yourself, right up until the same damn thing happens to you all over again, and you get to feel twice as bad for making the exact same mistake you made before.

In contrast, if you actually have a set of questions, and genuinely take a moment to write down a real answer for each one, over time you’ll start to take a proactive approach to dealing with your own mistakes whether you meant to or not. Sure, the first few times around your answer may look like this:

1) What happened just then?

I sucked.

2) What options did I have?

Suck less.

3) Were any of the options better than what I chose to do?

Not sure.

4) What’s my plan to deal with this in the future?

Suck less.

Trust me that you’ll get bored of that after a while, and your answers will start to actually address your choices, and to contain ideas for what you might realistically do in the future.

Just one more tool

Following my own advice, I’m not going to suggest that it’s critical that you reframe your thinking so that learning to play better Magic becomes a fun aspect of the game rather than a dire need. But I do think it’s a good idea, and it’s a place where you can simultaneously get better at the game while also relaxing and just enjoying the hobby a lot more.

How do you think about mistakes, lessons learned, and the drive to be a better player? Do you have any tools you use to reframe your thinking? Drop by in the comments and share your thoughts.

35 thoughts on “In Development – Learn to Have Fun”

  1. Its good to know that people keep the fun part of the game in mind. This article reminds me of when i played WoW a few years ago and I got so obsessed with being in the top guild, etc, that the game completely dominated my life and made me miserable (I stopped playing shortly afterwards).

    Keeping a good attitude has probably won me more games than I think. I never thought about the ‘pre-tilt’ thing before but it makes sense. Thanks for your help!

  2. I’d really like to know why you write articles. they often give no valuable insight and even more often they are hyper technical, I mean were playing a card game, there’s no need to try and make it super elite and technical. anyways just my opinion.

  3. Could you explain to me exactly how you were timed out on MTGO I don’t really understand it. I assume you got to a 8min vs 3 min situation or something but I don’t really understand how you playing for the clock got you! timed out. (I understand how it could get you killed by an opponent playing more spells and killing you)

  4. @ the above poster.

    You’re kinda ignorant. It’s still a game and it’s competitive. There are actually tournaments where money is involve that people do invest in to compete at the top level. There is nothing wrong with what he wrote in this article. If you visit any local card shops with fnm and events, you will see poor behavior constantly. I think this is an interesting article to have readers rethink about how they have been acting towards other players and maybe try something new when they lose a game.

  5. Thanks for the article,

    While others seem to complain about the content, I think that his advice may hopefully show some people that their negative, rude, and antisocial behaviors that stem from losing are hindering their growth as a player. Also, its just annoying to be around.

    Cleaning up the streets and taking a bite out of crime i suppose…

  6. insightful article

    bottom line: whine less, focus more, learn from the booboos and try to enjoy what you are doing

    working on it

    thx man

    I’ll post a link on my facebook because loooots of people need to read this

  7. i really hate it when people say but and try…

    Do or do not there is no try.

    But negates every word before it but it doesnt sound good.

    See what I just said there!

    I said it doesnt sound good.

    The but negated the first part!!!! OMGGG

    Great Article I really enjoyed the read, excellent valid points!

    Encouragement! Feel the tantra energy!

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  9. This was a fantastic article, I read it on the way home twice and this is something I want to internalize as I find myself on pretty heavy tilt sometimes.

  10. I read a similar article from Rob Hahn in an old duelist magazine, I messed up the other week in a game and discussed it openly with the player after the match, never made the same mistake again.

    No-one ever learns anything from complaining.


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  12. I think a lot of people will relate to this. I myself know there are times when I am happy in losing if I acknowledge a play error and there are times I would kick myself for exactly the same thing. Being able to keep a consistent frame of mind is one of the most important factors to prolonged good play and enjoyment of the game.

  13. Re: timing out on MTGO
    If the times on the clock are close and one player manually clicks through priorities while the other player “F6s,” the manual clicker is going to lose that fight.

  14. I’d also like to hear how playing the clock made you time out. Please elaborate, because I sometimes play the clock and would like to learn from your mistake before I have to learn from my own.

  15. Ninja’d by Riki.

    I guess what I mean is, why were you trying to play the clock if you weren’t ahead of him on time? Or were you ahead and then got behind?

  16. “I sucked. Suck less. Not sure. Suck less.” Awesome…

    Sounds like a vampire at an AA meeting trying to get over his human-blood needs…

    Of course, this is exactly how I can sum up my performance at a Legacy event on Sat. Paired against ANT, lose G1 to a quick ANT combo that got my FOW out with a Silence. Bummer. G2, I keep him off his combo with a quick CB/SDT and get to turn 5. I have Thopter Foundry, Sword, CB, and 4 lands in play (after having to shuffle away SDT. I have a fifth land, Enlightened tutor, and Tezz in hand, but no counters. I know I can win for sure in two turns if I don’t run out Tezz and keep the tutor up for CB to keep him off Ad Nauseum, but I instead go for the win next turn option by running out Tezz and getting Time Sieve in play. Correctly, he hard-casts Ad Nauseum, goes down to 2 life, gets his storm count up to 9 exactly, and Tendriled me out. After face-palming, I asked him if he was confident in the game and he mentioned something about the only way he could win it was by me tapping out and doing something dumb. Well, that confirmed it, and when I play ANT in a side event later that day, I remembered it vividly and tried not to repeat it….

  17. Anthony Avelar

    My last PTQ I went into it already on tilt from a previous PTQ. I didn’t test my deck well and was scared to make any errors with my complicated Elves deck. Thinking about making errors made me many more errors. I promised myself to relax for National Qualifiers and got top 4. Did get frustrated when my opponent said that he wasn’t going to Nationals and wouldn’t concede to me. I didn’t even want my packs.

  18. Thanks for all the comments everyone.

    For questions about being timed out — yes, rookie error. I started out ahead on time, and was clicking manually for a while before I realized what was going on, and then the time gap was not long enough that I could check my crib sheet (I did have one) in time to recall which function key I wanted. Won’t do make that mistake again. 🙂 It’s a silly way I shouldn’t have lost, which was pretty much my point.

    @facepalm – Getting hyper-technical about hobbies is part of the fun. If you’re ever at a PTQ that’s being held in a convention center, just wander around for a while and check out the other events that are being held in parallel. Plant and garden convention? There will be hyper-technical panels about fertilizers and light/shade arrangements. Scrapbooking convention? Hyper-technical presentations about archival papers and adhesives. It doesn’t make it elite, it just means we’re focusing on it because we’re interested. This is one reason I like articles like the one Matt Sperling wrote this week — what are the rules we’re using to make our mulligan decisions? We can probably play just fine without knowing that, but isn’t it cool to talk about it?

    This is also why Frank Karsten’s ‘Aggregate Faeries’ list was awesome and kind of funny.

    That said, if you think my writing is either ‘elite’ or too technical, then it makes sense you’re not going to find it insightful. So it goes. 🙂 This is why we have many different writers on the site.

    @Leon and others – You know, I wasn’t even thinking of this from the perspective of how it’ll help make us all more pleasant to be around, but that makes a ton of sense. I was just starting with the basic idea that beating yourself up all the time is (1) fun and (2) not even a good way to be a better player. It makes sense, of course, that this will extend to making us nicer players to be around, too.

    @Dan – Yes, those are definitely correlated behaviors. If the only consequence available when admitting we screwed up is massive self-flagellation, then, well, time to blame luck!

  19. Great article. This is something I’m trying to incorporate into my play style, specifically asking myself what I did wrong and how to fix it. I recently taught my nephew how to play Magic and I am trying to get him into the habit of doing this type of thing after matches. Usually after a match we will sit and discuss play mistakes on both sides. It has helped him improve because he makes less mistakes and helps me improve because it keeps me sharp on thinking about random errors and situations I normally wouldn’t think about.

  20. One thing that I always do is being nervous in tournaments. This is strange because I have been doing sports all my life and never been nervous during matches. However, after my first loss, I always reach my top level of playing and any tension dropps.

  21. Good article. I have an example of why this type of thing is important.

    At Grand Prix: Houston, I’m playing Living End and it’s round 7. I’m 5-1 and playing against DDT after I win Game 1.

    I’ve combo’d and left him with 2 lands, an Urborg and a Dark Depths. I have lethal damage in two turns. I draw for my turn and rip a Fulminator Mage. I attack, leaving him dead on my next turn, and play the Mage. At this point I try to figure out how he can beat me, and decide my best course of action is to destroy his Urborg and take him off colored mana (He hadn’t played a land last turn). Of course he rips another Urborg, plays a Hexmage and makes a 20/20, blocking my lethal and killing me next turn.
    (I think the right course of play in that situation is obvious, but ask if you don’t see it, as I didn’t at the time).

    After the game, I try very hard to not go on tilt, and managed to stay fairly calm as we head to Game 3 with about 8 minutes left. I call a judge to watch for slow play (my opponent had literally taken 3 minutes to play his first land in a previous game). Of course he Turn 4 20/20s me Game 3 to win. I let his slow play and my play error get in my head, forcing another mistake in Game 3 that might have cost me it.

    After I lose the round I really did go on tilt, and as such missed 1 card while de-sideboarding, causing a game loss when I’m deckchecked (for the fourth! time). I lose that match to move to 5-3, letting a misplay and going on tilt cost me Day 2.

    That is why I found this article very helpful. The ability to turn your own play mistake into a learning experience is easy when you’re new, but after you play longer and know the correct line of play, and simply miss it, is much harder. Thank you for the great article.

  22. Another thing this article touched on that is important is discussing play mistakes after the game regardless of outcome. I see a lot of good, but not great, players assume that because they won, they played optimally. To do so is to miss opportunities to improve.
    When I first started playing, I would ask every player how they would improve my draft deck or play a situation differently. This wasn’t always easy because some people are assholes (one guy would literally throw cards across the room he didn’t think should be in my deck) but I took their advice as it was and used it to improve.

  23. I just realized that I wrote in my comment above that beating ourselves up is “fun.” Amend that to “not fun.” Lost a critical word there!

  24. good, useful article, even the best players need to learn better sportmanship instead blaming their oppenents wins on luck and the fact they had bad draws. Just accept you lost, learn, move on. It really doesn’t matter what level you play at, casual with friends, FNM or the fricking pro tour, arrogance and ignorance are just bad for the game.

  25. Enjoyed the article.
    I’ve done this a lot without even realizing it, so I feel lucky. Run my Game-winning Invoker into Puncturing Light? Oops; Note to self: don’t attack with it next game (sure enough, it came up in the next match).

    My question is what we can do to help the people across from us. Making suggestions afterward can make them feel stupid or make you look superior. And if they really have gotten unlucky and drawn 14 of their 17 lands before dying, what can you say to curb their frustration a bit?

  26. @facepalm: your name is exactly what I did while reading your comment.

    Excellent article, I’ve noticed myself that I do tend to come down excessively hard on myself whenever I make a mistake (I’m kinda glad Blood Seeker isn’t in limited anymore). I will make an effort not to be so hard on myself in the future!

  27. Great read. Keep up the good work and ignore the naysayers.

    One thing you have left out is probably the situation where a player thinks he has made all the optimal decisions in a match (ie, thinks he/she did not make any play mistakes) but eventually lost the match eventhough he/she played perfectly. As a result, said player gets stuck in the tilt zone. This is a slight variation to the normal theme, one which I think is more detrimental as the problem is actually twofold (thinks he/she played perfectly and blames luck due to his/her losses). how would one address the situation? also, being a bystander, what can you do to assist those in such conditions?

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