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Avoiding the Pitfalls of Tilt

You’re playing a tournament and things are just not breaking your way. You’ve practiced and tested, you know your deck inside and out and are familiar with the match ups. You feel confident you made a good deck choice, but your draws are just not coming out smooth and your opponents always seem to “have it.”

Welcome to the exciting world of Tilt!

What is tilt? Lots of people have described their experience of tilt in a variety of ways, but in general I tend to think of it as a spectrum of irrational and detrimental behaviors that are derived from frustration. When things don’t break your way (especially when you feel well prepared and have high expectations for yourself) it tends to be mighty annoying. 

Today I’m going to take a look back at my professional days in tournament Magic and what I learned about dealing with and working through my own feelings of tilt as well as how I feel about the dynamic a few years later looking back on my experiences. 

 

Header - Why Does Magic Cause Tilt

Let’s start with why many people tend to reach a performance plateau in their game where their own tilt becomes an obstacle that’s necessary to overcome. First and foremost, Magic is a variance game that masquerades as a pure-skill game. In actuality, Magic is a combination of both worlds – variance and skill – and it’s always important to be realistic about how far skill can carry you in a given match. In the immortal words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard…

“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness. That is life.”

In life and in Magic, there are some situations that will occur where you simply cannot “play perfect” enough to achieve the outcome you desire. In tournament Magic, the types of concrete goals you tend to encounter round after round are to win the game and the match. There are some games and matches where you won’t draw the right combinations of cards at the right time to emerge victorious. 

The dichotomy where you may see yourself as a highly skilled player who simply doesn’t have the right combination of cards to win the game can be frustrating, especially when those frustrating losses start to rack up and you experience the perception that you’re catching a lot of bad breaks in row. 

It may well be the case that, over the course of a singular tournament, you’re running on the unlucky side of the coin. However, that’s simply part of playing a game where the primary mechanism that doles out “who has what” is drawing randomly from a deck of cards.

Regardless of whether you’re religious or not, I think this quote is extremely good advice for any aspiring card player who is working on toughening up their mental game and reinforcing it against self-sabotaging experiences of tilt. 

“God, grant me serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”

Let’s break this down – in terms of Magic.

  1. There are moments in games and matches where no amount of technical expertise or play skill will allow you to overcome your opponent’s cards. 
  2. There are also moments in games and matches where technical expertise and play skill will allow an experienced player to overcome favorable draws from the opponent. 
  3. Internalizing the difference between these two scenarios and accepting them will allow you a better chance at identifying and neutralizing irrational feelings of tilt when they start to creep in. 

 

Header - Everybody Tilts

Another thing that makes the experience of tilt so visceral and distorting is that it feels like something you’re going through alone. Realistically though, it’s something that every Magic player encounters and works through in their own play. 

The strongest and most unflappable players in tournament Magic are simply better at identifying their own tendencies toward tilt and making a concerted mental effort to take control of those feelings rather than let them dictate their plays. 

One thing is true – the less you allow irrational, frustrated emotions inform your mindset and future plays in a tournament, the better off you’ll be. It’s not that strong players don’t or never experience tilt – it’s more that they’re better at identifying when it’s happening and regaining control of their mental facilities to counteract those feelings. 

Strong, experienced players are also better at masking the signs and tells of tilt. I’ve seen players act like perfect gentlepeople at the table right down to the moment of defeat, extend the hand and wish an opponent good luck, only to politely excuse themselves from the table to go outside and swear up a storm to work through those overwhelming feelings. It happens, but it’s always more useful to put those feelings to the back of one’s mind until after a match when they can’t hurt your game. 

The key here is that the reason there are so many redundant Magic articles about how to work through tilt is because it’s a ubiquitous and universal feeling among Magic players. I even wrote about this topic back in 2017!

Losing sucks. Mulligans suck. Being outdrawn sucks. Being top-decked sucks. Drawing bad sucks. Being mana screwed sucks. Bad matchups suck. 

I could go on and on but you likely get the point. There are lots of aspects of Magic that can determine whether you win or lose that are beyond your individual control. Accepting that and focusing on doing the things you can control better (rather than being angry about things you cannot control) is what mastering tilt is all about. 

 

 

Header - Recognizing When You're Tilted

The most important tactic players have for combating the negative effects of tilt is simply being aware that it’s happening in the first place! I’d like to share another quote from an ancient philosopher that relates to this.

“Knowing is half the battle.” – GI Joe

If a player is unable to accept or internalize that tilt is impacting their ability to make rational, logical and well-informed plays, there is literally nothing that can be done about it. Bad beats will happen and when they do, that player will become upset and play worse than normal. 

Have you ever noticed that when people are angry, upset or frustrated that they tend to make worse decisions? Now, imagine that principle applied to making dozens of micro decisions that inform the outcome of a strategy card game. If a player is mad, upset or frustrated but refuses to acknowledge those feelings, their ability to think clearly and make the strongest decisions is compromised.

Magic is a difficult game. It’s okay to not be perfect at Magic or know exactly what to do in every possible situation. Even the strongest and most experienced players frequently find themselves in board and game states that are new and unfamiliar where they need to make evaluations on the fly. We do the best we can based on what we know. 

With that said, nobody likes to admit that they made a mistake. It’s clear that in Magic, everybody makes mistakes all the time because there are so many unknown variables put into play at any given time. I bring this up because it has to do with the “knowing the difference” between things a player can or cannot change the outcome of. 

A lot of times, players don’t want to admit to others (or even themselves) that they took a line that didn’t play out or that they could have done things differently. You become too invested in thinking your choice was the best and only good choice available. In a lot of situations, a player may make a reasonable choice, lose and then experience tilt by internalizing that chain of events as “there was nothing I could do.” 

It comes back to that quote about internalizing things we can or cannot change and understanding the difference between the two. Each part of the equation is important. 

If every time you lose, if you place that loss into the category of  “there was nothing I could do about it,” it’s likely you’re rationalizing all of your losses as unlucky bad beats. If you’re inclined to view the entirety of your experience playing the game as “you played perfect and got unlucky,” you’re framing your experiences in a way that is likely to invite those tilting feelings. 

In actuality, the best defense against those frustrating feelings lies in the internalization of the dynamic between accepting the bad beats you cannot change. Being courageous enough to honestly evaluate your plays and look for areas where you can improve your decision making and honing your ability to be objective about your plays and understand the difference between these two different types of losses is key.

 

I’ve played thousands of competitive matches over my 20 years of playing in tournaments. I’ve felt the thrill and satisfaction of hoisting trophies on multiple occasions and I’ve also experienced the trainwreck of torpedoing my own tournaments by giving into feelings of tilt. 

When I look back on all the Magic I’ve played, I regret every single time I got frustrated or tilted and let those feelings take over my tournament experience. In hindsight, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that while those feelings of tilt felt large and overwhelming at the time, in hindsight, it all just fades into the background as regrettable nonsense. Even the worst bad beats or misplays, eventually fade away into the static of the present and future. 

At some point, whatever competitive Magic voyage you’re on will be behind you and you’ll look back on those tournaments and figure out what it all meant to you as a person. It’s weird that the outcome of matches that seemed to mean so much at the time dissolve into meaninglessness. All of those Pro Points, Pro Status, and Top 8s that you fought tooth and nail to acquire become irrelevant in day to day life. 

It turns out that just being there, at the events with my friends, and being a part of something really cool and special was the part of Magic that had the true value and what I will always remember the most about my tournament days. You never look back at it and say, “Yeah, I was totally justified in feeling tilted in that match.” I remember it all more like, “I can’t believe that I was so upset about losing a close Magic: the Gathering card game match ten years ago.”

Obviously, not everyone necessarily has the benefit of 20 years of hindsight when you’re in the moment of experiencing tilt, but that’s sort of the point of me writing about the topic at this point in my life. Magic is competitive, there are win based incentives and prizes, and we all want the validation and approval that comes along with winning. With that said, it’s important to always place things in context. Yes, it’s a competitive game with prizes and incentives to win, but it’s also a game that’s played because it’s fun and people get a lot of enjoyment out of being a part of the community and playing the games together. 

I’ve spent a lot of time describing how giving into those angry, frustrating feelings associated with tilt are likely to lead to a competitive player giving up equity in a tournament by making less focused and/or objective tactical choices. It’s also as compelling an argument that playing tilted detracts from your personal enjoyment of playing and experiencing the game in both friendly and competitive tournaments. It’s been nearly a year now since the last time I was able to play in a large tournament (due to COVID-19) and I would give nearly anything to be able to spend a long weekend at a convention center with some of my best friends to enjoy the experience of the event. It’s certainly something about Magic that I have a newfound appreciation for now that it doesn’t exist in the present. 

 

 

Nonetheless, when I was playing competitively and had to deal with tilt (in situations where I was playing for money, status, or pro points), I found that spending time working on understanding the difference between things I can or cannot change and being objective about the difference was a huge step forward. In hindsight, I look back at times when I self sabotaged by giving into those feelings of frustration and I think, “What a waste of a fun weekend to spend it feeling that way.”

No matter how you try to justify tilt, it’s always a detriment to everything: fun, objectivity, as well as results. It’s important to recognize when those types of emotions are taking over and once develop your own strategies, thought processes and rationale for putting your clear-headed self back into the driver’s seat. 

Do what you want, play however works best for you and make Magic whatever you want it to be. With that said, playing tilted, frustrated or angry for whatever reason is an experience that, looking back on after 20 years, is something that I’ve personally never found to be helpful, useful or favorable. It’s always a drag on your play, experience and enjoyment of Magic as a hobby. 

 


 

To summarize, don’t beat yourself up too much over games lost. Learn from mistakes. Be objective about what you could or couldn’t do to win a match. Magic sometimes feels like the game being played means everything, but in reality, Magic is the sum of all of your play and experiences. You win some and lose some, but the goal is always to improve, learn and have fun. I would argue that the experience of tilt is detrimental to all of these goals I’d associate with being a Magic player (personal improvement, learning and winning) which is why it’s something worth talking about and developing skills to deal with it. GLHF. 

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