Specifically, she has a theory about poker, tilt, and why physicists might have a special affinity for the game based on their day jobs…and how that day job teaches them to fight tilt.
Tilt is one of those psychological aspects of Magic, or any game, that operates outside of discussions about sideboarding, optimal use of mana, who’s the beatdown, or pretty much any other element of technical play. Instead, it lives over in the seemingly, if not actually, fuzzier territory of cognitive skills, those abilities that are difficult for us to describe in familiar terms, but which clearly have a big impact on our success and fun in the game.
Today, I’m going to touch on Ouellette’s ideas about tilt, and how they align with my own experiences in that area. I’ll talk a little about the idea of tilt in general, and then close things out with some tools to help us defeat – or at least minimize – tilt.
The physics of tilt
Ouellette’s article in Discover magazine takes a look at physicists who also happen to be very good at poker. In it, she proposes that physicists are effectively “trained” to be good at games like poker through a combination of being good with numbers and modeling, and the ability to resist tilt.
This is probably true, and I think it explains a lot about how I play Magic, and provides lessons for all of us.
A quick refresher on tilt
When we say that we’re “on tilt,” it means that something has happened in a given game or match of Magic that has so emotionally unsettled us that we’re now playing in a way that is very different from our original plan. Usually, our new, on-tilt style of play is markedly worse for us than our original plan.
Some classic examples of tilt include –
You kept a hand with a reasonable amount of land and a solid progression of spells, but randomly stalled at three land for three or four turns in a row when you needed to cast Day of Judgment to live. As a consequence, in your next game you keep a six-land, one-spell hand, because you’ve vowed not to lose like that again. Naturally, you lose on mana flood.
You were in a solid position to win game three of your second round at a PTQ, when your opponent drew the one card they needed to not lose, and then the next one card they needed to beat you. You play for the next few rounds, but your heart isn’t in it, and you keep making misplays because you kind of expect them to “luck” into a win no matter what you do. It just isn’t your day.
Physicists and tilt
First, check this familiar moment from the pro tour:
Imagine yourself as Nassif’s opponent. It seems amazing that someone wouldn’t go on tilt after having the [card]Cruel Ultimatum[/card] topdecked against them. However, you can be assured that some people wouldn’t. Like maybe a physicist, if we believe Jennifer Ouellette.
So, how does being a physicist – or, say, a biologist – factor into this discussion?
Take a look at the last sentence of the second tilt example.
It just isn’t your day.
The physicist knows that this can only be a descriptive statement made after the fact. At the end of the day in which get topdecked out to take your third loss at the GP and fail to make day two, we can say that it certainly wasn’t your day. However, earlier in the day when you got topdecked out to take your second loss to put you on the bubble, it would have been wrong to say that it’s not your day.
You have no idea what your whole day will be like until it’s over.
The physicist knows this, just as they know that probabilities only reliably display themselves over very large sample sizes.
More to the point, they know this means that, on occasion, they will experience short-term outcomes that do not “match” the long-term odds. In other words, they know that sometimes an opponent at the poker table is going to hit their long-shot river card, and in Magic, that sometimes even the twenty-eight lands in your Valakut deck won’t be enough to save you from a game where you don’t draw any more lands after the two in your opening hand.
Logic puzzles versus likelihoods
I spend a lot of time around computer scientists. Many of them like logic puzzles and deterministic – that is, luck-free – games such as chess. Their preferences here are likely to be the same ones that motivated them to work with computers in the first place. The system is relatively constrained, and if you’re smart enough, you can figure out either (1) an answer to the puzzle or (2) that the puzzle can’t be solved using the tools you have available.
Experimental biology is all about tilt-inducing situations. I’ve been asked before by my computer scientist associates to give time estimates on certain lab tasks – like, say, making a genetically modified bacterium. The answer on that one was, “Well, best case scenario is two weeks. Worst case scenario is infinity weeks.”
That is, it might not work, and we might have no clear indication that it wasn’t going to work.
It’s a feature of working with nature that nature sometimes just says, “No.” Certain things may be chemically or physically plausible but simply not be true – life doesn’t work that way.
In designing our experiments, we control the things we can control – the chemicals we use, the duration of organism growth, the temperature, and so forth – and understand that a lot of the rest is hidden in the black box that is all that we don’t know about how life works. For even the most well-studied organisms, for example, we don’t know what a good third or more of their genes do – and for most of them that percentage is way higher.
This is one reason I like Magic – it’s all about controlling what we can control and then accepting that the rest includes many more factors than we can reasonably address in our heads. Thus, we need to be able to plan and play correctly while accepting that something that is out of our control may go awry.
Just like a bio experiment.
As a consequence of years of experimental bio, I just don’t tend to tilt. It doesn’t make sense to me to do so – if I feel I made the correct card choices or plays, then if I came up on the wrong end of an unlucky break, I accept it and move on.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes. Anyone who’s ever watched me play tired knows that I make a ton of mistakes then – the same if I try to rush my play and accidentally shortcut my OODA loop.
But years of setting up a correct, well-thought-out, properly controlled experiment only to see nature kick me in the gut has pretty much meant that I don’t get incredibly upset if my opponent gets their one remaining copy of Lightning Bolt to burn me out a turn ahead of the win.
Naturally, I can’t recommend grad school and a career in science as the solution to all your Magic tilt woes. Instead, I’ve included some ideas for actionable ways to prevent tilt toward the end of today’s piece. But first, let’s look at the inner workings of tilt, just a little bit.
Thinking about tilt
Tilt is fundamentally all about cognition – how we process the world. It’s about how we understand what’s going on, how reality and our predictions match up (or fail to), and then the psychology of how we respond to those mismatches. In fact, it’s that discrepancy between our understanding of reality and, well, reality that causes a lot of these problems in the first place.
So let’s take a look at that.
That Ultimatum, again
Okay, so here’s that video link if you want to watch it one more time. It’s the exact same video, so you can skip on ahead if you like.
Our first thought is “That’s amazing! It was the one card Nassif needed, and he drew it!”
Our second thought, after we get over cheering for Gab and vicariously experiencing the rush of topdecking the perfect card, might be “So how lucky was he?”
Gab started this game with a mulligan to six cards on the play. The “called shot” Cruel Ultimatum happens on turn nine. In the interim, Gab had his Plumeveil Pathed, letting him search up an Island. Thus, by the time he went to draw his card, Gab had forty-six cards left in his deck, with two of those forty-six being copies of Cruel Ultimatum.
So Gab had about a 4.3% chance of topdecking a Cruel Ultimatum at that moment, or somewhat better than one in twenty-five.
Those aren’t the best odds ever, but they’re also not insanely unlikely.
Your bad beat is boring
Marshall and Ryan from the excellent Limited Resources podcast said this section’s eponymous line:
“Your bad beat is boring.”
As they said, this is especially true in poker, where all bad beat stories boil down to “I had an X% chance of winning. My opponent had a much smaller Y% chance of winning, but bet anyway. Then my opponent won. Man, that sucked.”
Magic, at least, offers the possibility of more evocative stories, like having your opponent tap their “Ultimatum mana” and then draw that same card to crush you out of not just the game, not just the match, but the quarterfinals of a Pro Tour.
However, Gab’s wonderful showmanship aside, the Cruel Ultimatum story really does boil down to “My opponent had a 4.3% chance of drawing a crushing card against me, and did so.”
If we can divorce ourselves from the psychology of the moment, most bad beat stories – the kinds of experiences that put us on tilt – are exactly this mundane. If you find yourself calling your opponent a lucksack, or feeling like you’re “always” getting topdecked out of games…well, you might be falling victim to a tilt-inducing failure to appreciate just how normal your situation is.
In their excellent book The Psychology of the Psychic, David Mark and the late Richard Kammann examine the cognitive basis of our tendency to see a 4.3% experience as “hyper rare” instead of “something I’m reasonably likely to see at a Magic tournament of typical length, all things considered.” Their findings, distilled, are that people are amazing at finding patterns and significance in things – almost certainly both beneficial, evolved traits for naked, clawless hunter-gatherers – but are pretty bad at intuitively understanding statistics.
It’s like finding a penny on the ground with your birth year on it. If you think, “Wow, that’s so weird” then you’re probably misevaluating some likelihoods – at least if you’re a Magic player of typical age. After all, they minted a lot of pennies the year you were born, and those suckers are still in circulation.
Being able to keep the actual numbers in mind as you play makes you a lot more resilient against the feelings that put us on tilt.
Protection from tilt
Let’s watch the rest of that Ultimatum moment:
Matteo Orsini-Jones rocks back in his seat when the Cruel first hits the table – and really, who wouldn’t? But immediately afterward, he’s all business, calmly trying to figure out how he can win from his newly revised position.
No stomping off, no throwing his deck box, and no quitting – just trying to achieve a win following a significant change in the state of the game.
Now, keep all that in mind was you watch the following excerpt from the Semifinals of Pro Tour London 2005. We’re late in game three of the match between eventual winner Geoffrey Siron and Johan Sadeghpour. Sadeghpour has already messed up his combat math twice, leaving four points of damage on the table, and is generally outmatched by Siron’s brutal, nearly mono-red draft deck (Siron went on to sweep the top eight, going 3-0, 9-0).
Sure, Sadeghpour was almost certainly dead once double Honden got online. But it’s game three in the semis of the Pro Tour – there’s nowhere else he has to be! There are no time concerns within the round, and as we’ve seen all over the place, even in high-level play people screw up and give you opportunities to win games and matches you should, by all rights, be locked out of.
You can hear the disbelief in Randy Buehler’s voice at the concession, because, taken in the abstract, it actually makes no sense at all. If you stay in the game, you have a finite, if very small, chance of winning…and thus a finite chance of winning the whole Pro Tour. Once you concede, you’re done – with no gain other than getting to leave the game early so you don’t have to feel so bad about yourself.
But if we can’t think about things in this way, then we’re likely to ride with our negative emotions and just pack it in before we need to.
Tools against tilt
So, tilt is a product of our misunderstandings about reality coupled with our emotional responses to negative or unexpected outcomes. It also makes it hard for us to have fun, and hard for us to win. So what can we do about that?
Retrace your numerical steps
I’ve mentioned likelihoods a couple times already in today’s article. This is probably the best inoculation against going on tilt – knowing the odds.
I recall the end of a match during a PTQ toward the end of the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor format PTQ season. A Kithkin player had a reasonable board presence going on…when his opponent topdecked and cast Hallowed Burial, sweeping all the lovely hobbits away.
Face shifting into an ugly red, the Kithkin player yelled, “God! You’re so lucky!”
His opponent, very matter-of-fact, said, “I’m running four copies.”
Which, of course, made a lot of sense for a post-board game between a control deck and a creature-based aggro build.
Viewed as a clutch lucky topdeck, that Hallowed Burial was insanely frustrating. However, by that point in the game, the control player was anywhere from 8-12% to see a Hallowed Burial off the top of their deck with each draw. Or, to put it another way, the Kithkin player was betting on a 88-92% chance that whatever he committed to the battlefield would survive each of his opponent’s turns. Over the course of two turns, that meant he was about 20% to eat a Hallowed Burial. Three turns, 30%, and so forth. The opponent hit the low-ish percentage result when he topdecked the Burial…but a one in ten chance each turn is not bad at all, and not a savage beating if you’re on the opposing end.
We’re all better players if we can calculate our odds anyway, but when you’re facing down tilt, consider following this recommendation – the next time you feel that something is “unfair” or “unlucky,” take a few extra seconds to figure out roughly what the odds were.
I suspect that you’ll discover many more situations are “a little unlikely” rather than “insanely lucky.” That may help reframe your gameplay in general, but will certainly act to keep you from going on tilt the next time your opponent’s topdeck turns out to be unfortunate for you.
Back when I did Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, we drilled a lot. This involved working the same, fairly limited action over and over again until it was imprinted in our reflexes. Once we’d drilled things enough times, they became part of our natural repertoire, such that you didn’t have to think about it, you just responded correctly to an opponent’s attempt to arm bar you.
This was important, as it let us focus on overall strategy instead of keeping track of each little thing. It also meant that even when we were tired, or maybe woozy from nearly being choked out, we would follow what was likely to be the best course of action.
The same thing applies in Magic.
It’s tempting to go off plan when we are upset, or feel like the universe is conspiring against us. We make riskier keeps – or overly “safe” ones. We cast cascade spells without thinking about what we are likely to cascade into because “maybe we’ll get lucky.”
It’s pretty much the definition of being on tilt.
We can prevent this if, when we’re playing casually, or testing, or at FNM, we have a plan and then stick to that plan. The stress you experience during testing is (hopefully) less than at a PTQ, GP, or even at FNM, so it lets you practice following your plan.
Do this enough times, and it’ll be natural to you even when you’re upset because your opponent
My suggestion is to, at least every so often, play them out.
You will make mistakes. There is no perfect play. As much as I loathe the cognitively unhelpful “everyone is terrible at Magic” idea, it is helpful to realize that everyone has an error rate. Gab Nassif, for example, makes egregious misplays on a regular basis. But he smiles, takes it in stride, and either recovers within that game or goes on to win the match as a whole.
My favorite example of this remains, of course, Mihara at Worlds 2006:
There is a man who has made an enormous mistake, teeters on the ragged edge of tilt, and then recovers, finds a way to win, and wins.
Wouldn’t you like to practice that a little during playtesting before you field test it at a big event?
Playing through your errors gives you practice in having a game continue even after you’ve accidentally ceded advantage. You do not suddenly “deserve to lose” just because you made a mistake…but if you always concede practice games the moment you make those mistakes, that’s exactly what you’re training yourself to believe.
Being resilient against tilt is, above all, about generating positive experiences, habits, and feelings. It’s about the positive value of knowledge – when you know the odds, you know that the scale of your misfortune is not so great. It’s also about practice – practicing both your plan A and your post-error plan B. It’s about knowing that there is no mystical “right to win” that will be revoked by fate or because you didn’t play well for a moment.
Taking a step away from tilt is a dual win. It makes us better at actually winning games and tournaments, which is always nice. It also makes each and every game that much more fun — because honestly, wouldn’t it have been cool to be in Matteo’s seat at Kyoto for the called shot, win or lose?
Of course it would.