A Quick Story

When most people think about martial arts they more or less think about what they’ve seen in Jackie Chan movies. They think about backflips, spinning jump kicks, maybe the occasional fireball shooting from someone’s finger tips…

I know this to be true because these are the things I had in my mind when I joined a student-run martial arts club in college. And I did indeed learn a lot from it and have a ton of fun. (That’s probably why I’m still writing about it five years later. )

Each class was about 90 minutes. We’d do our normal workout, then the instructor would teach us a new move (this could be a takedown or an armlock or anything else that was similarly super awesome). Finally we’d have some time for “sparring,” which was simply open practice against the other students. We wouldn’t go hard enough to hurt each other, but it would definitely be enough to fire up the competitive spirit.

After a year of training, I’d learned a lot. I could usually beat or fight to a draw against most of the other students in sparring. That was, until Mark showed up.

Mark was a year younger than me, but had several years of martial arts training at a more serious school. He was as big as me, as strong as me, but much faster and much more skilled. He beat me senseless.

At first it was only figuratively speaking that he “beat me senseless.” Later, though, through no fault of Mark’s, I’d actually wind up leaving class beaten and bruised. It’s because when I couldn’t win fair and square, I started to get frustrated, putting more strength and aggression behind my moves. This is exactly the opposite of what most martial arts teach, and Mark showed me why—he’d easily deflect my attacks and I’d wind up at far greater risk of injury than he ever was.

I’d spend each week thinking about what moves I could try to use on Mark the following week. I’d see it so clearly in my head, how I’d be able to trick him or catch him off guard, how I’d do something that he wouldn’t expect. But that’s never how it played out in practice. Any time I’d try a throw or a sweep or a joint lock, I’d leave some opening that Mark would exploit and I’d end up flat on my back.

What was the difference between Mark and me? For a while, any time this question would cross my mind I’d satisfy myself with the answer, “he’s better than me.” One day, though, I decided to consider more deeply, and try to come up with a more precise answer. We were both humans, we both had two arms and two legs, what was he doing that he doing that I wasn’t?

I came to realize that the better question was, “what was I doing that he wasn’t?” The answer is that I was making mistakes. I was leaving myself vulnerable while he wasn’t. Mark never did any fancy Jackie Chan moves on me, all he was doing was staying calm and neutralizing whatever I did. He’d just sit there and wait for me to do something stupid, which I inevitably would.

The following week I came to class with a new strategy in mind. No tricks. No Hail Mary’s. No “moves” at all.

When it came time for me to spar with Mark I just played calm, collected defense. My legs were solid underneath me, my chin was tucked down, and my arms stayed close to my body. A minute passed and neither of us had given up any openings—it was already longer than I’d ever survived against him. This time, it was eventually Mark that got impatient. He went in to finish me off, but I stayed solid while his balance was temporarily off, and this time he ended up on his back! Shortly after, I had won!

Now, although my story may have painted this as some Earth-shattering battle, this was not the case. There was nothing on the line, no crowd cheering, no beautiful women swooning. It was just a friendly contest at 6:50 p.m. on a Thursday night. Nobody else even noticed, just a proud Reid and a surprised Mark.

Mark remained a much better martial artist than me for the rest of my time in the class. He still beat me far more often than anything else. Once in a while I could fight him to a draw. And once in a long while, maybe on a day where Mark was a little off and I was really in the zone, I could get a coveted win. I’d finally learned what I needed to do to have a chance against him.

The big flashy moves sometimes worked for me when I used them against less experienced opponents. However, as the level of competition went up, it was less about who had more techniques in their arsenal, and more about the fundamentals. It was about being careful, staying tight, and not leaving yourself vulnerable.

This is a lesson I’ve carried with me ever since, and that I try my best to apply to Magic. You don’t have to do anything special to win at Magic. You don’t have to come up with a deck or strategy that no one else has ever thought of. Quite the opposite, it’s the simplest strategies that perform best.

Thoughtseize and Tarmogoyf win tournaments. Delver of Secrets and Daze win tournaments. Hero’s Downfall and Desecration Demon win tournaments. This is because these strategies are simple and low to the ground, and they don’t leave big vulnerabilities. The more complicated a strategy, the more room there is for something to go wrong.

The next time you start building a combo based around Tamiyo, the Moon Sage’s emblem, Mirari, and Possibility Storm, ask yourself if there’s a simpler way.

There are plenty of super exciting Jackie Chan flip kicks to be done in Magic, if that’s what’s fun for you. However, winning at a high level of competition is about the fundamentals. Keep it simple, keep it safe, and you’ll notice yourself winning a lot more.


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