Magic is ultimately a game that combines plenty of logical, calculated decisions with human elements. As we all know of course, the human elements are much harder to trace or judge, and therefore do not get quite the same attention when it comes to strategy talk or advice. In reality though, the human elements, once/if able to be taken advantage of, are actually the easiest thing to manipulate due to the manipulator being, well, human. That is to say that while you can never convince a probability that it is in fact wrong, you can make huge strides to altering your psychological approach to the game or any of its components.
Fighting your Nature
One area where our human nature betrays us is in the consistency department. Unfortunately, we allow circumstances to alter our play decisions and attitudes which ultimately leave us in situations where we are rarely playing the same game twice. So much is said about strategic line of thought, insisting that there is only ever one actual “best” play and that every other vector is inferior. Human inconsistency has a similar set of restrictions although with slightly different focus points in assuming that inconsistent play and attitudes should be avoided, as there is more times than not a “correct” behavior or behaviors to exhibit for any like situation.
Essentially, we allow our opponents or circumstances to dictate how we play the game. In other words, our decision making process and our mental state hinge on just how we perceive our opponent or our current situation. Let’s begin with some common examples and later see if we can take some steps to remedy that, as I realize thus far that my statements have been a bit cryptic, although that is primarily due to the subject matter.
You are playing at a Friday Night Magic event. It’s Rise of the Eldrazi draft. The draft goes well and ultimately leaves you with a pretty insane deck that should have little problem 3-0ing. Pairings go up and you find out you are playing against Johnny, the 11 year old boy who does not understand the game nearly as well as you. You sit down as instructed and shuffle up though, thinking more about the future rounds or possibly what sounds good for dinner. Johnny never wins a match most weeks, and judging by his oversized deck of likely all 42 cards he drafted, that is not going to change today.
You of course keep any seven card hand with a land in it, as it should be mostly irrelevant and the match starts. He begins the game with a mountain and a [card]Goblin Arsonist[/card]. You let out a soft chuckle and proceed, chatting with your friends sitting next to you and getting involved in other people’s matches, as they are surely more exciting than your own.
Up to this point, I think everyone, yes even you, can think back to a time where this was them to a point. We are cocky creatures by nature but usually show enough respect for our opponents that this does not come out in such an easy manner. Johnny here though can barely hold our attention and therefore our mind is somewhere else. This does not make you a bad player, or a bad person, only human, but the story can take a turn for the worst very quickly.
After Johnny plays a few more random dorks while you set up your board of U/W levelers, the unthinkable happens. Johnny taps for seven mana, plays a Devastating Summons for two 1/1s, and caps that off with a Hellion Eruption, resulting in 2 damage to your Skywatcher Adept from a pair of Arsonists and 6 big ole 4/4s to deal with. You fail to draw anything remotely close to an answer and die a few turns later
Now while this exact situation may be unique, it is probable that everyone reading this has also given away a game that they had no business losing due to letting their guard down and underestimating their opponent. Is Johnny a bad player? Yes. Is Johnny’s deck pretty bad? Yes. Is Johnny still an opponent who is sitting across from you with the intention of winning? Yes. Just because a player does not present him/herself as a competitive or respectable threat does not mean you should treat him any differently. There is a high likelihood that you will win regardless, but it establishes a pattern of inconsistency that can attack you at the worst possible time in the future.
The human mind seeks shortcuts whenever possible as it is charged with processing an abstractly large amount of information. Therefore, if you can train yourself to be consistent and play within a set range in style and decision making, your brain is able to process information faster and with more accuracy than if you are constantly sending it mixed signals. Now it should be noted that while a narrow range of consistent play is optimal, a wider ranger of potential play is optimal.
This means that while you tend to play within a certain comfort zone during a match for most or all areas, if pressed to reach beyond those limits, the outliers stretch very far. For example, it is preferable to be consistent in the following areas: speed of play, mulliganing, card evaluations, in-game decision making, effort output, information gathering, information giving, sideboarding, and plenty of other more niche areas, but that does not mean you should not have the capability of reaching beyond your boundaries of consistency when required.
If you are a consistently slow player but are in the bubble round of a tournament with a win and in scenario, game 3, and the clock is ticking down below 5 minutes, you should be able to summon another gear in order to not only finish out the match without a draw, but do so at an optimal, or near optimal level of play. If you are forced to speed up but every other part of your game suffers dramatically, you are not helping your situation out any. Now of course you will not play as well as if you were in your comfort zone, as there is a reason it is your consistent range in the first place, but you should be able to play at some arbitrary percentage of that consistent level that still allows you to win (90% lets say).
Your consistency levels are chosen, or settled upon even, because they provide you with the best chance of winning. If you begin to slip beyond those, or confuse the brain with levels all over the place, you are jeopardizing your chances of winning. This may most commonly be seen at the FNM level against less skilled players, but the same type of situations occur on the opposite side of the spectrum as well.
Say you are at a Grand Prix, your 3rd or 4th one, and the pairings for round 7 have you squared off against none other than our own LSV. You sit down and immediately begin chatting with him, telling him that you admire his writing and work and would like an autograph etc. You allow him to play a little sloppier than usual despite usually being a stickler for the rules but you don’t want to look foolish in front of a pro. In essence, you allow him to dominate the match on a social level which of course leads to a domination of strategy on his part as well. If this isn’t you, you may end up trying too hard to beat the pro, convinced that it means more than other matches, overexerting yourself and trying to do things outside of your normal comfort zone, which ends up catching you when you least expect it, costing you a match.
As far as your mental state should be concerned, every match of Magic is just as important as the last, no more and no less. If you allow yourself to bend that rule because you are facing Johnny’s 78 card deck or LSV at a Grand Prix, you have betrayed everything that got you to that point in the first place.
At my first ever Grand Prix in Dallas, I was up against Tiago Chan in round 12 or 13. I was a nobody at the time and knew Tiago from plenty of Pro Tour coverage. In the match, a situation came up where I cast a Trash for Treasure (yes, really) on a Sundering Titan. I chose the lands from both sides to be destroyed and we put them all in the graveyard. About 15 seconds later, Tiago caught himself and realized he wanted to play a Stifle on the Titan’s comes into play ability. He asked if this was OK and said he would understand if I said no since he clearly missed the opportunity. I tanked for a minute, but ultimately gave in due to the fact that this was a pro and he had been a nice guy all match. Of course, 3 turns later he had a Mindslaver lock on me and beat me on turn 5 of turns in that game 3. I ended that tournament in 10th place (Tiago in 9th) missing out on the Top 8 by breakers, where even just that draw would have moved me into the Top 8.
For no one else all tournament was I allowing any take backs or sloppy play to steal match wins from me. Even in round 4 my opponent asked to go back to my draw step to cast an Orim’s Chant and I called a judge to make sure he wasn’t allowed to do so. I let myself slip for one moment in the face of a Pro and it ultimately cost me. Had I remained consistent, I would have likely ended up in a Top 8 at my first ever Grand Prix.
The opponent is obviously an important dynamic involved in any given match of Magic, but one cannot allow the specific traits of that individual to pull you out of your normal routine. Do not pass up on free information that the player may be giving off via tells or what not of course, but simultaneously do not allow that information to betray you by it convincing you to do the same thing in return. The opponent should never be able to modify your game simply by them existing. Certain traits are just irrelevant to a match and they should be treated as such. Yes a Pro is going to play better than an 11 year old, but you should ignore those facts and play to the best of your ability at all times. If you are modifying your game based on your opponent you are placing yourself into bad habit formations. If you choose to capitalize on some weakness of the opponent, then by all means go for it. Just be sure to be fully aware of these decisions and do not allow them to disrupt your own game plan.
It is natural to wish to do more or less based on the situation at hand but that does not make it optimal when attempting to master a game. Developing a consistent level of the various fields above will take time and a keen understanding of your own limitations, but the results should be worthy. It is not enough to simply acknowledge that you are inconsistent, as you must actually work at rectifying the situation too. If you are finding yourself contemplating what speed to play at during a game or how much you should be talking to an opponent, you still have work to do. Just think of how much more efficient you can be if those things came as a given. Instead of worrying about mostly trivial things, you can then focus on your game play, which is of course the most important thing. Just remember to be aware of those times when leaving your comfort zone is the best choice at hand.
Becoming consistent is far from easy unfortunately, but there are some steps to work at it properly. I would recommend feedback as the most direct route to consistent play. Utilize your playtest time to not only figure out card and deck choices, but also to establish healthy patterns in play. If someone is available to watch your match, as them to point out when you are making inconsistent decisions that both were derived from a similar set of circumstances. Some of these inconsistencies will be due to a learning curve of course, as playtesting usually involves new interactions or decks, but some will just be the result of inconsistent modeling. Do not be afraid to ask questions and have discussions about your decision making or any of the points of your game that could improve from being more consistent. Information is the key to understanding the finer points of the game, so do not shy away from it. Hopefully, over time, you can begin to transition these dialogues into shortcuts, allowing better efficiency and consistency in your play.
Once you have developed consistent behaviors, you can more easily assess problems as well. Even if some set of behaviors you are acting out is flat out wrong, you can now manipulate a single variable within that set of behaviors and see a sweeping change to the outcomes. If you have no consistency in your behavior, there is now no universal variable to change and therefore no universal shift in results. Consistency opens up all of these doors that seem to be hiding opportunity behind them. And as we all know, more opportunity is always beneficial. Thanks for reading.