In Development – Read Books, Play Better

How do you get better at things?

The Power of Full Engagement

How do you get this focused?

Clearly, focus is critical for good gameplay. You need attend to the game state, to your opponent’s plays, to their potential plays, to the cards in your hand (and deck, and graveyard…), to your life totals, and more. You also need to be able to filter out background noise, the guy next to you who keeps bumping your elbow, and nearby judge calls that have nothing to do with you.

…and at a PTQ or other, bigger event, you need to do this for nine or more hours—longer than a typical workday.

So how do you get that focused?

What the Book is About

The Power of Full Engagement is a book about how to efficiently use and recover energy.

It sounds simple because at its core it is—but it’s also a powerful concept.

The approach described in The Power of Full Engagement was originally developed by researchers studying how top athletes differed from their less effective competitors. The researchers eventually noticed that success in professional athletics wasn’t driven by large differences in skill. In fact, it was basically impossible to identify significant skill differences between people playing at the top of the game. Instead, the consistent winners were defined by their ability to “reset” between rounds, points, or heats.

In other words, it’s not just about whether Tiger Woods has tremendous technical skills. It’s also about how effectively he gets his mind and body calm, refreshed, and ready to go in between holes.

The approach described in this book is about learning to efficiently use and rapidly regenerate energy. It’s also about how to expand your energy capacity—effectively giving yourself a bigger battery to work with.

The authors break energy out into four categories—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Physical is what it sounds like. Mental is about your cognitive acuity—how alert and mentally competent you are. Emotional is about your mood—are you calm and steady or ragged and uneven? Spiritual energy is about motivation and drive—do you have the will to go on and the motivation to remember where you were trying to go?

They offer approaches that use rituals and practice to expand your capacity in each area as well as to keep you operating optimally throughout your day.

One of the biggest take-homes, by the way, is that you shouldn’t do anything for more than about an hour and a half or maybe two hours at a time.

How this Factors into Your Game

What’s the common factor in all of these pictures?


Brian Kibler is well known for always having headphones of some kind on him, and for having a specific song he’s chosen for an event. He listens to it between rounds—between each and every round.

The authors of The Power of Full Engagement would call that a “ritual.” Just like the athletes they originally studied, Brian uses a ritual to reset his energy between rounds. This kind of ritual can serve as a waypoint to reset all four types of energy. It gives you time to reduce your heart rate and refresh your body (physical), to calm your mind and lose the concerns of last round (emotional), to cut out the hustle and bustle between rounds and get your brain back online (mental), and to remember your whole reason to be at the tournament in the first place (spiritual).

Of the books I’m discussing today, The Power of Full Engagement has the most direct, no-interpretation-required application to playing Magic. Quite naturally, observations and approaches derived from athletic competitors map directly onto the needs of cognitive competitors.

Change Anything

So what’s the difference between this Conley…

…and this one?

This is a bit of a trick question. If you answered, “the ChannelFireball shirt,” then you’re on the right track. One of the big differences between the Conley you saw in the Top 8 of PT Honolulu a few years ago and the Conley you’ve seen since then boils down to this:

Yup, having a team.

Conley is a good go-to example for the impact of working with a team, as he’s written and talked about it quite a bit. And as we’ve seen with any number of players who make the transition to being very successful, having a team is typically a critical step in that transition.

But why?

What the Book is About

Change Anything is a book about behavioral change. As the title suggests, it’s all about the science behind changing what you do—and how you can apply that science to any part of your life. Change Anything might be retitled “learn anything,” since it’s really about the ways we learn things—the focus just happens to be on our habits and other “routine” behaviors.

The science backing Change Anything comes from a host of behavioral studies that look at decisions people make about small things—“Do I buy movie theater popcorn?”—and much bigger ones—“Am I going to kick this heroin habit?” As those two disparate examples might suggest, they’ve drawn in information from a truly broad range of experiments and real-life observations (for example, the fact that of those American soldiers who had drug addictions while deployed in Vietnam, the majority of them dropped the addiction instantly on being given a relatively brief “dry out” treatment and reintroduction to the U.S.).

The book begins with the fact that the idea of “willpower” as the sole driver for all personal change is bogus. In fact, believing that we just “ought to” be able to change how we operate is one way we all punish ourselves severely for what is really a significantly more complex situation.

Change Anything breaks out the elements that impact our ability to change into six “sources of influence.” The idea is that you can use all of these sources to manage your own behavioral change:

Of those six sources of influence, only the first one—personal motivation—is really about “willpower” at all. The second one is about making sure you have the skills you need, and then the other four are all about the people and things surrounding you.

How this Factors into Your Game

Well, what if one of those things we want to do is play better Magic?

Or, to break it down a bit more, what if we want to succeed but find that we choke in the higher rounds, or seem to lack some technical or strategic skills that the better players in our environment have?

What should we do to become better players?

Change Anything provides the template for using all six “sources of influence” to upgrade our Magic skills.

Personal motivation, for example, goes beyond simply wanting the change a whole lot. In Change Anything, they lay out several methods people use to continually remind themselves of their goals and motivations. It turns out that even the state of “wanting to do something” is a learned skill—and one you can reinforce and teach yourself. When Zac Hill wrote a note on his hand to keep focused during Day Two of PT Honolulu, that was one form of applied personal motivation. The simple act of having a note out there where you can see it is far more powerful and reinforcing than trying to keep the same thought in your head.

I mentioned the idea of joining a team because that covers a lot of important ground in behavioral change. Change Anything captures this in the areas of “social motivation,” “social ability,” and to a lesser extent in the two “structural” areas. Basically, what you do is influenced tremendously by who you’re around.

Do you practice for PTQs with players who are sloppy, allow a lot of takebacks, and make excuses for why their pet decks should have worked? If so, you’re likely to pick up those behaviors whether you mean to or not.

In contrast, if you prepped for a PTQ with Paulo, Luis, and everyone else, you’re likely to hear a lot of clear discussion about a deck’s realistic chances in the metagame. Similarly, you’re going to experience and interact with a lot of crisp, excellent play—and honest discussion of play mistakes or when a player was choosing to be lazy, sloppy, or greedy.

It isn’t just about somehow getting attached to a team of excellent players, either. Spending your practice time with others who are similarly motivated to learn and become genuinely better at the game means that whenever one of you wants to drift, the others will act as coaches, keeping everyone on track.

You’ll find upon reading Change Anything that if you’re serious about changing how you play—whether your goal is winning on the Pro Tour or becoming a more conscientious and fun Commander player—you have a lot more power over that change than you first thought.

The StrengthsFinder Books

What’s the difference between these two players?

(That’s our own Josh Utter-Leyton on the left, and Shouta Yasooka on the right.)

Conveniently, Luis summarizes some of their differences for us:

Here, the question was actually about who the best deckbuilder is. Luis’s answer is exactly right. Shouta builds decks that look like they shouldn’t work but which, at least in his hands, do. Josh takes a known archetype and makes a change that looks subtle, but ends up having a dramatic impact on how the deck plays.

So which one is the “better” deckbuilder?

Honestly, their approaches and skills are so different in this area that the most we can say is that they’re both very successful deckbuilders, that you could do a lot worse than to use one of their designs, and that you’d have to be on your best game to take either one down in a Constructed round.

But we still can’t say one is “better” than the other. What’s up with that?

What the Book is About

The nice people from the Gallup organization—yes, the folks who do the polls—have taken a long, detailed look at what makes people good at what they do. After millions of interviews, they learned that top performers do work that is most suited to their strengths.

Yes, that sounds self evident, but I promise it’s a little more useful than that.

The Gallup researchers figured out two important things: First, a strength isn’t just “something you’re good at.” Second, a strength isn’t the same as a skill.

The Gallup research led them to define a strength like so:

It’s not enough to just be good at the area that strength covers—you have to enjoy it. In fact, a strength usually occurs in an area where you enjoy it so much that you don’t realize that for other people, operating that way just doesn’t come naturally.

In other words, we often miss our strengths because they’re so much easier for us than for other people. We’re probably most aware of the skills that we’re good at, but which took us a fair amount of effort to acquire.

Okay, so a strength isn’t just something you’re good at, but it’s also something you love doing.

A strength is also not a skill. Instead, a strength is usually a way of operating or style of thinking and doing things. One of these strengths may lead you to like certain skills, but they aren’t the same thing.

For example, one of my strengths is communication. Here’s the short blurb describing this strength from the book Strengths-Based Leadership:

People strong in the Communication theme generally find it easy to put their thoughts into words. They are good conversationalists and presenters.

This suggests that I’d enjoy writing, but it’s not the same as the skill of writing. If you look at my first articles for ChannelFireball.com and compare them to my articles now, you’ll see that my skill in writing gaming columns has improved. But the strength is part of why I’m inclined to do this, and to learn to be better at it.

So a strength is a way of thinking or acting that you’re likely to be good at and to enjoy doing.

How this Factors into Your Game

Context is another of my strengths. Here’s what the book has to say about context:

People strong in the Context theme enjoy thinking about the past. They understand the present by researching its history.

How am I most likely to start building a deck, even for a brand-new environment that follows a set rotation?

By looking at past decks.

I spend a lot of time in the Event Coverage Archives at the Wizards site, and as you all know, I’m a big fan of analyzing the game by doing retrospective analyses of metagames, PTQ seasons, PT top performers, and so forth. This isn’t how everyone approaches understanding the game, certainly—but it’s a way that works especially well for me.

We don’t know what strengths Josh and Shouta would score highly in, but it’s a fair bet that they’re different. Those differences likely play out in their deck design preferences, their play preferences, how they work with teams, and pretty much every aspect of their respective games.

Similarly, your strengths are likely to have a big impact on how you learn the game, improve at the game, play with others, and (again) every aspect of your game.

Conveniently, each copy of a StrengthsFinder book comes with a code to take their test online that will evaluate your likely top strengths. It’s a fast test at 20 minutes, and it will serve up your top five strengths along with a more detailed explanation of how they operate, and suggestions for how you can work to your strengths to maximize your performance.

Unlike other “personality” tests, this one is actually based on extensive empirical analysis and a very large dataset. Like Change Anything, the Gallup authors have drawn from this large dataset to develop actionable steps and suggestions you can use to work toward your strengths in everyday life—and this certainly applies to your Magic play.

There are several StrengthsFinder books out there. My recommendation for the busy Magic player is Strengths-Based Leadership. Written for business executives, it offers concise and useful summaries of each strength along with helpful advice for how to work well with your strength and avoid some pitfalls that come with certain strengths.

Magic Book Club Time

Those are my big three suggestions for books that will help you practically improve your game. What are yours?

magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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