Aiming for Cumulative Growth

My opponent has 4 mana up and could have these 5 tricks in hand. Now if I consider those possibilities and base it on the last few turns, realistically, it’s most likely to be Silverstrike. Should I just play into it, or force my opponent to hold up more mana the next few turns? If I attack now and my opponent uses the Silverstrike, that will let my Thornhide Wolves that I’m going to play post-combat survive the following turns, which is actually even better for me than not attacking.

Me: “I’ll attack with the team.”

Opponent: “I’ll crack these 2 Clues, make 2 tokens off Ulvenwald Mysteries, and block all your attackers”.

Me: “Yep.” Whoops, how did I forget the on-board trick?!?

If you’ve ever gone in the tank only to forget public information and lost because of it, know that you’re not alone. I know that I’ve had similar situations like this happen many times to me, and I’ve actually found that they’ve happened more in recent memory than years ago when I was much worse at Magic. I have two theories as to why I miss simple on-board tricks or triggers from time-to-time.

The first is that when I was worse at Magic, I didn’t realize my simple mistakes. But when I miss a trigger, it’s pretty obvious and I’ll see that shortly after. If I don’t see an on-board trick, I’ll then get punished by my opponent and know not to make such an obvious mistake again in the future. To say that I merely skipped over simple problems when I was worse at the game and that I now see them is quite naïve.

Thus, I think my second theory must be correct: As I level up my game, I sometimes forget the simpler building blocks themselves. My mind can become so much more wrapped up in complicated board states—where the game is headed, what cards my opponent could be holding, why they took the actions they did, etc. that I completely miss a detail that I might have otherwise remembered if my brain was solely focused on the board and the interactions that could occur there.

Whenever this kind of thing happens to me, I wonder to myself how on Earth I could let this happen since it’s such an obvious error, and after playing the game as long as I have, I shouldn’t ever make such a mistake. The truth though is that it’s easy to make unforced errors, and that’s why I think it is easier to improve if you think of getting better as “cumulative growth” rather than “leveling up.”

As a Magic player, you think of the term “leveling up” as a way to unlock or get better at some skill. Getting to that next level, thinking as a better player would, and growing in areas you might be weak are all important to becoming the best Magic player you can be. One reason I love this game so much is that there is always room to improve. That always gives me hope that I can reach the Top 8 of the next event I play in as long as I prepare right, play my best, and am constantly trying to improve. But I’ve realized that I can often forget about areas in which I’ve already improved upon if I’m always thinking about the next way to get better.

As an example, let’s say that your current focus is on becoming better at sideboarding. In game 1 you might notice that your opponent is playing a bunch of 2/2s throughout the course of the game and that you know that you have a pair of Militant Inquisitors in your sideboard that will match up wonderfully even though they’re generally horrible in your no-equipment deck. That’s great! But be sure you’re still focusing on the game at hand and ensuring your technical play is the best it can be. Focus on your game plan at all times and spend your mental energy in the right places at the right time so that you can actually capitalize on your newfound improved sideboarding skills.

Cumulative growth promises learning and forcing yourself to think in holistic terms. When approaching the game and setting goals for yourself, you still need to focus on earlier lessons and spend time and focus in-game on what matters. In my example at the beginning of the article, if I just made a mental note of Ulvenwald Mysteries a turn or two before and ensured I knew to check how it would affect the board whenever my opponent had access to Clues, I wouldn’t have made my error. Would that have required a large effort on my part? No, but if I assume I’ll always remember without the proper inputs to actually force myself to acknowledge the Mysteries, then that is a recipe to forget every once in a while. Even if I only miss something like this 0.5% of the time, that still hurts me over the long run, and it’s worth setting fail-safes so I can minimize my mistakes further.

The other reason I like thinking about Magic and learning in terms of cumulative growth rather than simply leveling up is that we succeed when we build and add on to existing concepts, rather than learning something brand new. When you learned algebra, you didn’t suddenly forget your basic multiplication tables. It was an extension of that knowledge rather than learning a whole new thing. So next time I’m trying to improve on a skill in Magic, it should be in addition to everything I’m already doing right.

As another example of cumulative growth rather than leveling up, maybe you realize that you’re not noticing your mistakes and wonder how to improve. You go back and rewatch your matches on Magic Online to try and spot errors. This is a common leveling up approach. I still encourage such a practice but also recommend shifting the focus a bit. When you watch those matches, also be sure to note what you’ve done right! Building upon successes or failures will help to reinforce good habits and can help you avoid errors that you might otherwise make when you’re not as mindful. When you’re being mindful about the whole game and experience, you’ll also give yourself opportunities to see things you might otherwise have missed. Maybe in thinking about how the game played out you’ll realize you simply played the wrong creature on turn 3 and that led to a bad trade you could have avoided entirely, and you only realize this because you’re thinking about your sequencing, a skill you are already confident in. Suddenly, you learn something even though you weren’t even focusing on it in the first place!

Part of what spurred my thoughts on this issue were these great recent Tweets by BBD:

Which he then follows up with:


What I love about these two quotes is that BBD is thinking through every single instance of where he could have improved. Without considering that very first turn Ponder, he might not even have realized that he could have changed his actions at all and thought he just got a little unlucky over a long game to just barely lose. But then, the second tweet really ties it all together with the fact that maybe that decision tree was actually correct and he should do the same thing in the future because it would win more games on average than changing his line! He’s being more inclusive about his whole thinking process and evaluations and that is the sign of a great player who is trying to give himself every edge he can to get better at the game. Note that he isn’t being result-oriented but he is being thorough about his thought process. I also think it’s easy to go overboard. If you correct something that you think was wrong when it was actually correct, you’ll actually make a mistake next time all while you think you’re correcting an error.

I’m always trying to improve my game, and might do that to the point where it actually hurts me on small things I overlook. Moving forward, I want to correct this by considering everything a bit more purposefully and understanding how new problems and solutions fit into the framework of my understanding of Magic. By doing that I can actually improve overall rather than gain a few percent in one area only to lose it somewhere else. Mindfulness is key. With that, I encourage you to think about an area in which you can improve. But don’t forget what you’ve already achieved. If you aren’t careful, you might level up but have the wrong context for that advancement and treat it as an isolated incident, leaving behind valuable lessons of the past. Instead, aim for cumulative growth and appreciate your past, your current success, and where you might go in the future.


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