More Variance Than You Realize

The past few months have been filled with experiences and challenges for me, giving me a good opportunity for reflection.

Life is fast and it has a funny way of continuously speeding up. If you’re not careful, it’s possible to fall into monotonous routines. New challenges and experiences help you grow and develop as a happy and fulfilled individual.

It’s funny how if you don’t pay attention to where you’ve been and why you’ve been there—the path just continues on into the future. There is something to that Robert Frost quote:

“Two paths diverged in a wood, and I–
Took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

I always took this quote to mean the author chose the experience others were less likely to choose, but it also applies to doing the things you wouldn’t typically do. A willingness to explore outside your comfort zone.

I’ve traded in negative, cynical friends for upbeat, positive ones. I started a new relationship with somebody who is supportive and wonderful in ways I didn’t know existed. I’ve made deliberate choices to experience the world in a new way because I was unsatisfied with what I was doing before. I truly believe how we choose to see and participate in the world determines reality.

You can hope for the best, but if you don’t try your best, the odds aren’t great.

From a Magic perspective, I’ve changed my game in dramatic fashion. I used to be terrified of MTGO. I haven’t been video game savvy since I was 13 and have had a tendency to shy from things I struggle with. Throwing myself into learning MTGO and doing video content on CFB has been one of the more challenging and rewarding endeavors I’ve undertaken in a long time.

I really appreciate the support, and, believe it or not, I appreciate the negative criticism. I take it to heart and use it as motivation to improve. It gives me a newfound respect for the people who are really good at doing it and something to work toward.

Testing on MTGO is a boon and it makes me embarrassed that I haven’t been using it since day 1. For anybody who doesn’t do it because they’re intimidated, I highly recommend jumping in.

There is Variance in How You Play

All of the “changing your paradigm” talk is leading somewhere important in the overall scheme of the Magic topic that I want to discuss today.

I had an insightful conversation a while back with Patrick Chapin where he was riffing on a concept that I found really interesting. We were discussing variance in Magic—being mana screwed or flooded—and he brought up something that kind of blew my mind. He pointed out there is also a degree of variance to whether a player does or doesn’t figure out the most ideal lines of play in a game.

A lot of players idealize pros as Magic playing robots and expect them to always find the perfect play. If you don’t believe me, check comments for coverage or content where players are berated by viewers for making sub-optimal plays in match. It’s also the mindset that starts the slippery slope argument for why any time a player makes a beneficial mistake on camera “they must be cheating” since good players never make mistakes. It’s also the mindset that shames players for being bad because they made a mistake in a game.

Even Steve Nash missed free throws every once and awhile and if you think every easy play in a game is automatic, ask Bill Buckner how he feels about that statement… nothing is ever a given and there is a margin of error in everything.

People tend to think about variance as conditions that are beyond a person’s control—for instance, which cards we draw from our deck. Since we, as players, control the decisions we make with our cards, we tend not to think of our plays as being variant. We think of them as choices that were either “correct” or “incorrect” depending upon the context and the outcome.

There is a great quote from Casino about betting on the variance of individual players:

“He bet like a brain surgeon. He’d find out the kind of inside stuff nobody else knew, and that’s what he put his money on. Even back home, years ago, when we were first hangin’ out together… he knew if the quarterback was on coke . . . if his girlfriend was knocked up.”

Typically, when we are playing matches, hopefully nothing so extreme as these circumstances are in effect, but there is still a range of outside influence that can affect our ability to find lines of play:

  • How dialed in are you?
  • How much experience do you have with the matchup?
  • How much rest have you had?
  • How much pressure are you under?
  • Do you have a cold?
  • Are you tilted from a tough loss the round before?
  • Maybe you are riding too high from a lucky win the round before?
  • Are you stressed about work or a relationship in the back of your mind?

The list goes on and on.

There are a lot of lines that I think are the dumbest line in the English language, but “You get paid to do X, therefore your mistake is unacceptable” is in the upper echelon of things truly ignorant people think are socially acceptable to say.

Whether we are talking about playing a game of Magic, sports, working in an office, or managing social relationships, nobody is beyond mistakes. Professional athletes make a ton of money and make mistakes that are obvious to fans at home constantly. The thing the “armchair quarterback” often fails to realize is that observing it from the outside and recognizing mistakes is not the same as playing the game in the moment.

The argument that an athlete or player makes X amount of dollars so it is therefore unacceptable to strike out or not find the most ideal line is absurd. Games are played in real time, under pressure, and against a clock. Players make hundreds upon hundreds of decisions in a match and to some degree that personal variance will impact how good those moves will ultimately be on any given day.

The quality that differentiates a great Magic player from a good Magic player, and from a novice Magic player, is the ability to find and correctly execute better lines of play a higher percentage of the time than others do.

What does that mean?

From the perspective of a player who is constantly trying to improve my game and get better, what it means to me is that there is real value to putting yourself into the frame of mind where you are most likely to succeed at Magic, life, etc. I try to stay positive. I try to be pleasant. I try to have fun. I try not to get down on myself for making mistakes. And I try not to judge other people for making mistakes.

When I sit down at a tournament, I find that being in a good mood, rested, focused, engaged, and having fun all lead me to play my best Magic. I try not to worry about the outcome and instead focus on enjoying the game and playing to the best of my ability every single time. It’s impossible to eliminate the personal “variance” Chapin described because it is part of the human error of playing games.

The human error is what makes games worth playing and worth watching. Otherwise, we’d watch robots play sports or cards (and I hope that day never comes, even though I know it will).

Understanding that games are not played perfectly by robots and are in fact played with a high degree of error by human beings is an important fact that goes hand in hand with appreciating and respecting the game.

This principle can also be expanded beyond games into how we think about and understand the people in the world around us. Just because we observe a mistake doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to point it out and belabor the point. It isn’t that unusual for a person to miss the most optimal course of action in any given situation but our culture has adopted an attitude that scorns and ridicules mistakes of any kind.

I’ve tried a lot of different things in order to achieve the “perfect play” that is expected from a professional Magic player. The conclusion I’ve come to is that striving for perfection is a recipe for disappointment, whereas striving for improvement is a winning formula.

Nobody makes the perfect play all the time, and even if you were capable of making a better play but missed it, it doesn’t mean you’re bad. It means you’re human.

There is a degree of variance to your ability to find and execute lines of play that you bring with you to every round. The key is to minimize this personal variance by forming and molding habits and a mindset that creates consistency in playing to the best of your ability and capability.

For me, I’ve gained consistency by continuing to reshape my mindset and outlook about the world around me.

I’ve gained consistency by forming better practice and testing habits by utilizing MTGO more.

I’ve gained consistency by not focusing on potential outcomes of matches and instead playing the game the best I can in the moment to take the pressure off.

I’ve gained consistency by choosing to focus on how I can improve rather than lingering on mistakes or misfortune.

I’ve gained consistency by embracing the positive and focusing on being supportive by building friends and teammates up rather than trying to bring them down.

All of these qualities allow me to approach every game of Magic with a mindset that gives me a greater chance of minimizing personal variance in the hopes of playing to the height of my abilities.

Last aside, every time I’m called for a feature match against a relatively new player they say the following, to the letter: “I hope we’re not on camera because I don’t want to mess up on camera.” Getting to play on camera should be fun, exciting—a cool memory that people should be able to look back on with pride and not a stressful activity where people are worried about being mocked for making a mistake.

For me, it doesn’t bother me anymore. I’ve made some great plays on camera and some dumb ones. I get blasted by somebody for something on a weekly basis and have developed a pretty thick skin from dealing with it for years now. But I can’t help but think it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

I won’t mock you for not seeing or making the best possible line of play. It’s part of the game and I have enough respect for how difficult the game is to realize and appreciate that mistakes are part and parcel with playing. If anything, I’ve come to believe that the real punt is and always has been having a bad attitude, focusing on the negative, and disrespecting the game. These are mistakes that I hope to never, ever make again.

You won’t always play perfect, but you can always play your best.

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