In Development – The Focus of Your Attention

Have you noticed that we’re just full of terrible, useless advice?

Most Magic writing bounces between “advice column” and “gadget review.” On the gadget side, you have deck lists, which are easily digested and about which you can effectively make your own judgments. On the advice column side, you have people telling you how to “play well,” whether that means draft pick orders, some technical aspect about exactly when to cast a spell, or the broad, broad category of advice that boils down to “think this way.”

I’m going to guess that while you may have had technical disagreements with those other categories, it’s in the land of “think this way” that you’ve just found yourself flat-out disagreeing, not understanding, or maybe even feeling bad about the fact that some excellent player’s advice just totally doesn’t work for you.

There’s a reason for that.

Today, I’m going to take a look at your brain, how it works, and why that means the best advice given with the best intentions may, at the end of the day, ruin your game.

Some things to remember about the brain

Before we do any of that, let’s check in on three things that we’ll want to have in mind when we think about, well, thinking.

The brain is just another body part

Don’t think that I undervalue the brain. It’s a big deal. Despite being less than 2% of your body mass, it pulls down a whopping third of your body’s oxygen and energy. You wouldn’t be paying that kind of exorbitant metabolic cost if the brain weren’t a big deal.

That said, it’s also just another organ in your body.

This matters, because a lot of the advice you’re going to get about Magic boils down to “Just use your willpower and do it this way.” This line of thinking is closely aligned with any time anyone has ever told you that something is, “All in your head.”

Pause for a moment and think about how stupid that statement is.

If you catch hepatitis and your liver starts disintegrating, no one’s going to tell you, “It’s all in your liver. Get over it. Just apply some willpower (liverpower?).”

Your brain is a highly interconnected mass of soft-ish tissue that features defined pathways and biases, and will respond distinctly to the outside world…much in the way that I can drink pretty much infinite milk, but many of my unlucky Asian friends need to shy away from overly cheesy pizza. My body produces the right enzyme, theirs doesn’t. Simply as that.

So, in reading the rest of the piece today, keep in mind that just telling someone to “behave differently” is super-not-useful. Instead, like with retraining some other part of your body – say, your biceps – you need an actual plan and actual methods if you want to change how you think.

Guys, you don’t win any gender arguments here

Any discussion of the brain, thinking, and biological differences is likely to bring up some spurious argument about how male brains are just “better” at things like Magic (and girls are better with Barbies, I suppose…except that my sister never played with the Barbies she was given, and instead was captain of the rifle team).

Here’s the short-and-sweet version:

For age-matched samples, women’s brains are more active than men’s.

So during your turn, the woman across the table is actively tracking the game state, adjusting her plan, considering possible lines of play, and generally addressing what she’s going to do with her game.

The guy may well be watching the next game over, and need to be reminded when it’s his turn.

Just so you know.

It all comes down to the basics

I’m not going to talk about this today, but I will reiterate that the basic rules always apply.

In case you didn’t catch that article, it boils down to “sleep, eat, stay hydrated.”

Lack of sleep will always, always trump everything else that I’m going to talk about today. So just keep that one in mind.

With those basic concepts out of the way, it’s time to take a look at two of the major operating elements of your brain, how they influence your play, and what you can do about them.

Go / No-Go

The thing that marks you as human and not, say, a mouse is your ability to do complex planning, including the ability to override your instinctive responses and make choices that are logical even if they aren’t comfortable.

It’s how you can tell yourself to do the math, calculate your opponent’s odds of actually having a counterspell, and then cast your spell even though your instinctive brain is screaming at you that “He has it!”

The front of your brain in action

This kind of thinking is traditionally known as “executive function.” That’s executive in the sense of managerial, in that it’s the kind of thinking that tells the rest of you what to do. It’s the core component of impulse control – it’s why you don’t just grab clothes off the rack and walk out of the store, and why most of you don’t try to play Magic with seven extra cards in your lap (which led to a DQ and long suspension for the impulsive individual who tried it, by the way).

The current evidence points toward your executive function living in the front of your brain. This makes sense in terms of evolutionary history, too – it’s a late arrival to the whole “brain” deal, coming long after parts like the middle (which handles emotion, among other things) and the brain stem (breathing!). In terms of the biology involved, this means that the middle of your brain sends signals to the front of the brain reminding it to turn on and to stay on when you’re addressing a complex situation.

Executive function in Magic

So, a while ago I wrote this article titled Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. That article talked about a decision-making model that follows those four steps. Although it’s a nice general model for raid decision making, it’s also implicitly about maintaining robust executive function.

When you get rushed and start losing the “observe,” and “orient” steps, that’s your executive function checking out.

In Magic terms, slippage in your executive function shows up when you do things like miss a land drop, pass the turn when you didn’t mean to, pass priority when you shouldn’t have, or mess up your sequencing and cast a spell at the wrong time during your turn.

More subtly, executive function is what lets you take damage this turn so that you can counter or disrupt the much bigger hit that you know is coming on a future turn. It’s also the cognitive element that reminds you to wait one more turn so you can combo off with countermagic protection, instead of just “going for it” right away.

How we can manage our executive function

Pretty much everyone can benefit from some tools to aid executive function. The simple fact of the matter is that your executive function is effectively “last in line” for oxygen and energy in the brain. In other words, if you’re hungry, your body is going to throw executive function over the side before it gives up on, say, breathing. It’s only logical – after all, if you’re starving to death, it’s probably okay to be a little less reserved in your actions.

Similarly, cognitive burden – that is, having a lot to think about – taxes executive function. That’s why I’m a big advocate of taking notes during games. Anything you can take away from your working memory and commit to solid media – that paper in front of you – is more brain that you’re unlocking to actually think about the game.

If you find that you have difficulty with the specific go/no-go decision points – for example, whether to move to combat, or out of your Upkeep, or to pass the turn – it can help to build in stops. Yes, like in Magic Online. You know that you’re allowed to use reminders on top of your deck. The specific tournament rule says that:

Small items (e.g. glass beads) may be used as markers and placed on top of a player’s own library or graveyard as a reminder for in-game effects. These markers may not disguise the number of cards remaining in that zone nor completely obscure any card.

In general, we use reminders to keep us from forgetting things like, say, paying for [card]Slaughter Pact[/card]. But its fine, as long as you don’t obscure your deck, to place a marker on your deck to remember things like “passing the turn” (which, in “in game” terms, involves a double priority pass). If you find that you tend to forget specific things – like land drops – you may want to put a token on your deck to remind you to carry out that specific action.

Helpfully, using this kind of reminder in the real world actually tends to train your behavior such that you eventually pay carry out the action without the reminder. Note that this may differ from your experience with Magic Online stops, which I’ve seen actually undercut some players’ ability to remember triggers and similar events. The key cognitive difference is that when you place the reminder, you’re actually retraining your brain. When Magic Online does the work, you aren’t.

The other challenge to our executive function is attention drift. Essentially, if you aren’t receiving enough input, your executive function might shut down. If that happens during your opponent’s turn, it’s going to be awfully inconvenient for you to try to get back into the game once you need to.

There are two ways to address this issue.

First, if your attention is slipping, we have another word for that. You’re bored. If you’re bored, your opponent is probably committing a Slow Play infraction. Call a judge.

Second, if you find that your focus is slipping and it’s not because your opponent is way too slow, then an alternate approach is to provide additional input. A lot of you are probably already doing this, giving us that characteristic “flipflipflipflip” sound we’ve learned to associate with Magic tournaments. If you don’t feel like incessantly shuffling, you can also fidget with a pen, play with your dice or tokens, or any other thing you can do with your hands that doesn’t require that you pay attention to it.

Locked on target

During Conley’s remarkable performance at Worlds last year, perhaps the most striking aspect was the image of Conley at the table, eyes locked on the game, the rest of the world completely out of the picture.

If executive function gives us the ability to form complex plans and make decisions about deploying them, then attention gives us the ability to stick to them…or, sometimes, to get stuck on them.

The brain’s back-seat driver

The part of your brain that has a significant role in focus and attention shifting – that is, the ability to move from one task or object of focus to another – lives behind kind of behind the part that controls executive function. It responds to different biochemical signals than your executive function, so it’s entirely possible that you may be strong in one area and not as strong in another. For example, someone with a strong focus and poor executive control might get stuck on an incorrect idea (“It will be easier to find my Magic cards if I file them by artist”) and then stick to it until it’s complete (“Wait, this isn’t easier at all!”).

The main take-home here is that “attention” and “focus” are actually two biologically distinct traits. Just because you’re good (or bad) at one, it doesn’t mean you have to be good or bad at the other.

Focus in Magic

If attention in Magic is about what we do and don’t remember to do, focus tends to be about how well we stick to our game plan. Sometimes, it’s about how we stick to that game plan too well.

Being on the low side of focus can look like having issues with attention, in that you lose track of your game plan. However, the reason behind failing to stick to your plan shows that it’s about focus. When the issue is attention, you’re likely to realize you’ve accidentally missed that attack you meant to make pretty much the moment you make it – it’s that “Aw, man!” moment that happens right afterward. In contrast, if you’re losing track of your plan, you won’t even realize that you’re reacting moment-to-moment, pretty much “treading water” and trying to react to your opponent’s game plan the entire time.

Or, to put it another way, you might need to learn that you’re not great at focus based on one of your friends pointing it out.

The other end of the focus spectrum is over-focus. This shows up when you can’t help but stick to your game plan. The classic case of over-focus is when you’re on a “don’t lose” plan A and you religiously stick to that plan even when an opportunity to just flat-out win the came arises. To someone watching your game, this seems like you’ve just stupidly missed something obvious. But inside your head, the reason you missed that “obvious” on-board win is because your focus center is throttling your executive function and pretty much everything else it has to to keep your brain on plan.

In fact, if you’re focused enough, it might even cause you some distress – like an actual headache – to try and change plans on short notice, or in response to changes in the game.

How we can manage focus

Conveniently, the tools to manage over- and under-focus work on the same basic principle.

Have a procedure.

There’s a reason the people in critical jobs – like airplane pilots – use checklists. If you have every necessary step on a checklist, it forces you to pay attention to each of those critical steps. In other words, if your brain doesn’t want to stop and pay attention to each step, you don’t give it at that choice. Or, if your brain just loves to stick to each step and spend infinite time on it, you don’t allow that to happen either…because there are all those other parts of the checklist you need to go through.

In practical Magic terms, this actually looks a lot like something I talked about back in Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. You make a list of game elements that you want to check on at a regular interval – perhaps before you start your turn, or, if it doesn’t make you an insufferably slow player, several times per turn.

For example, you might run this checklist at the beginning of your turn:

I’ll reiterate that this approach helps address both ends of the focus spectrum. If you’re inclined to get locked into one game plan, a check list forces you to address the entire situation to determine if things have changed such that you need to change. If, instead, you have trouble sticking to a plan, the checklist reminds you that you need to have one.

And yeah, you can’t physically carry a checklist like this into the match with you (no outside notes!). Instead, you can practice (with an actual checklist there) during your playtest games, as that ingrains this kind of checking into you as a habit.

…and, conveniently, habits are powerful things that can overrule our brain’s biochemistry of attention and focus. Once we build in a habit, it will carry through into our tournament play even when we can’t bring our notes with us.

Attend and focus

I began with my dissing of “willpower” because I think the idea is corrosive to our efforts to be good at this game and have a good time doing it. Just as we do with athletic sports, we apply our motivation and intent to the tools we have – our bodies – as we try to learn to be better at whatever we’re trying to do.

The tremendously useful part about admitting that your brain is just another body part is that you can realize that all that advice out there needs to be customized to fit you. With that in mind, the tools in today’s piece can help you, but you’ll need to figure out how to tailor them to suit your brain and how it wants to think about your next game of Magic.

magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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