Tangible Ways to Level Up Your Game: Breaking Through Mental Barriers

(You can read Part 1 here).

“I’ve hit a plateau with my play and can’t get over the hump.”

I guarantee the problem isn’t technical game play and here’s why: playskill is capped at the moment, but increases over time with experience as you learn. If a player is not improving there’s a larger fundamental problem.

How to Avoid the Plateau

I know that sounds harsh, but it’s not meant to be mean or condescending. It’s meant to be direct, honest, and real. When you can’t be direct, honest, and real, with yourself or with others, is exactly when you find yourself strolling along a plateau. Nobody is perfect. We all have flaws and weaknesses in Magic and in everyday life.

We don’t get to disconnect from ourselves and become Magic-playing robots when the tournament starts. Not only do we bring our strengths, insights, and knowledge to the table but we also bring our flaws, weaknesses, and shortcomings as well.

  • Do you get frustrated and tilt at Magic tournaments when things don’t break your way?
  • Do you give up on games too easily because you are probably dead?
  • Do you have a hard time taking criticism, or get dismissive when somebody critiques your play or deck?
  • Do you focus too much on the negative?
  • Do you beat yourself up too much over mistakes and have a hard time letting it go?
  • Do you sometimes make unnecessary mistakes because you lost focus or concentration?
  • Do you inexplicably play worse when the pressure is on?
  • Do you blame bad luck rather than take responsibility for your choices?
  • Do you lack confidence in your ability to choose between hard choices?
  • Do you keep weak hands and hope they work out?

WELCOME TO THE CLUB! Nobody is naturally immune to this, and it’s debilitating.

These are not technical game play problems that get fixed by jamming more matches on MTGO. These are issues resolved by taking a good, long look in the mirror and being honest about where we can do a better job at being better versions of ourselves. To have flaws doesn’t make a person weak, stupid, or bad–it makes them human. However, to remain in denial about areas that could use improvement is to miss an opportunity to grow and improve, not just as a Magic player, but as a person.

On a personal level, I’ve struggled with each and every example on my list at one point or another. Some are so deeply ingrained in my personality it seems impossible to eradicate them entirely. For instance, I tend to jump into a negative headspace and lose sight of the big picture when things go wrong. The key for me was realizing it wasn’t an issue of becoming a robot who flips a switch and doesn’t have negative thoughts, but rather to recognize when it was happening and take control. If it wasn’t for Magic and my desire to improve, I might have gone through life oblivious that I even had these tendencies.

Earlier this year, I Top 8’d Grand Prix Tampa. The table couldn’t have been more perfectly set for me to fail. My win-and-in opponent did all the things that most frustrate me and tend to make me lose my composure: shady angle shooting to the max.

He looked at my deck while shuffling it, he leaned over the table to look at my hand, he would act like he was casting a spell (wait for me to react) and then pull it back to tank before making a decision, he improperly (and beneficially) tracked life totals, rushed me to play fast when he was ahead and then blatantly slow-played to force a draw when he losing, and topped it all off with the coup de grace of evoking my biggest pet peeve: straight-up fabricating stories to judges. I believe my opponent loudly called for the judge multiple times while I was in the tank to ask for rules clarification on irrelevant things, likely to disrupt my concentration and continue pushing me to the edge.

Not only was the match a greatest hits of things that I can’t stand about tournament Magic, but the games themselves were won or lost on razor-thin margins. I would have lost that match three years ago, guaranteed. I would not have been able to maintain the type of focus and composure necessary to make the many precise difficult decisions in a row correctly to maximize my chances. I mentioned I was hurried up and slow-played because at one point in game three I was losing so badly my opponent assumed he had won.

In order to mount a comeback, I needed to make plays predicated on optimizing my chances of drawing specific outs. I did. Once I flipped the script, I had to make difficult choices about how to sequence my plays in such a way that I could win the game in play without giving my opportunity to force a draw. In this case, I had to make tough choices with the game clock as my biggest adversary. Automatic plays.

There was no room in this match for tilt or negativity to go unchecked. It took everything. The “technical plays” were all within my playskill to make, but so were they three years ago when I played more competitive Magic. The difference was all attitude and composure in the face of pressure and discomfort.

Often the biggest problems with our play stem from within. The key is to identify areas that could use improvement and try to notice when they creep up. The game I described is a good example because not focusing on the negative and getting trapped in a negative headspace is something I’ve worked to improve at on a daily basis for years.

The key is to get better at being aware of when it is happening and finding coping strategies to keep it in check. Does shady play bother and upset me? I think it’s clear it does just by the language I used to describe how I felt about the events that took place. It clearly upset me at the time and upsets me still when I think back about it. The key was that I didn’t just sit there focusing and stewing about it with “I can’t believe I’m going to lose to this garbage, I hate that this is happening…” running on a loop in my head.

I could feel it creeping in. I could tell my opponent could see it creeping in and was trying to exploit it and I made a concerted point to calm it down. I told myself, “All of these feelings are a distraction. The game requires my complete focus and attention and lending any attention to my feelings right now will only detract from my ability to solve this puzzle and win this match. I want to win this match MORE than I want to feel sorry for myself.”

The fact I was able to pull it together in a situation that would have taken me apart at a different time in my life is the result of assessing my weaknesses and improving them in and outside of Magic. It’s not a matter of never feeling annoyed or frustrated, good luck with that… It’s a case of noticing and correcting it. Negative thoughts, these days, are quickly followed up with thoughts like “You’re being really negative, reign it in and be more objective about what’s going on.”

If it’s holding you back in Magic, chances are that it’s holding you back in other places as well. These types of personal and metal skill sets are a big key to unlocking your Magic potential, but they are even more important in day-to-day life because they bring you closer to being the best and happiest version of yourself. Winning feels nice, but not nearly as good as feeling happy, confident and in control of your own destiny! It’s also a weird coincidence that people who have a strong mastery of these non-MTG specific skillsets tend to perform way above average at the game.

Must be variance. 🙂


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