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Breaking Through – Learning to Fail

‘It’s only a game!’ Every Magic player has heard that phrase at some point during their Magic playing careers, either coming from an outside perspective, or occasionally escaping from their own lips. And at some fundamentally basic level, it is true; Magic is just a game. But if we approach the game from that perspective, or even approach life in the same context, isn’t everything “just” something?

Everything is “Just a Thing”

School is just school and movies are just entertainment etc. The bottom line is that anything you experience is more than a basic activity of some sort. Each experience you have is made up of information that you learn and grow from. Some institutions are designed with this in mind, like school, but basically everything you do furthers your life in some way, teaching lessons and creating memories along the way. While Magic is technically a game, it is also an experience from which we all grow.

Magic truly is analogous to life. So many lessons that the game teaches us, or at least attempts to, translate perfectly over to our everyday interactions in the world. After all, very few people seem to think that “it’s only a job interview,” or “it’s only a wedding.” These things have implied value due to society saying so. In our world however, Magic has value. Magic is just as real as that wedding or job interview. Sure, there are obviously priorities we must set, but the bottom line is that Magic has value to us and we should learn from it.

The most basic of lessons taught when reading about Magic, is learning how to win. This concept has a stranglehold on strategy writing, and for good reason. Learning how to win is a life-long commitment that you will never master and must therefore continuously study in order to improve and, quite frankly, keep up with those around you. This emphasis on winning may be justified to some extent, but it also misses in some areas. Magic players in particularly, have a very difficult time learning to fail.

Learning to fail probably springs off of this page immediately and translates into “being a good loser” but this type of learning to fail has nothing to do with sportsmanship. Instead, this failure is a stepping stone of sorts. We can’t just win every time we play a game, but that does not mean we should discard the losses and move on. Instead, every interaction and experience should be extracted into lessons that turn failure, into success.

In the next few weeks I will be starting up a new video series here on Channelfireball. The concept is a simple one: to take decks (usually rogue) and evolve them or acknowledge their shortcomings and move on. In some ways, this will simply be a look into the processes I use for deck building. While the concept of designing decks will be the major takeaway with the project, there is a more important lesson that will become apparent. Failure in deck design is the norm.

For every single deck I design that has some success, a dozen decks lie on the cutting room floor. Hopefully this series will bring that to the forefront and showcase the fact that without failure, success is much less likely. Every deck that doesn’t make it lends its lessons to me for future design. Sometimes this is through learning about a specific interaction within the format, or other times it is simply the playtesting that comes about through the excitement that a new deck brings. Whatever the exact case, failed decks are hardly a waste of time.

This concept is a difficult one to grasp for those that are not dedicated deck builders. Failure during the playing of a match is a much harder thing to confront. Still, when it is confronted, there is so much more information to extract than from a win. Often, after a win, you may recount the 1 or 2 play mistakes you made and be content with the result. This leads to you going about your business and telling all of your friends the situation, but in reality, there was probably a lot more information hidden amongst that match.

It is almost natural to be results oriented at times, which is what can happen when attempting to learn. Subconsciously, after a win, you feel fulfilled and therefore can ascertain that you made mostly correct decisions in the game you played. This is a difficult thing to overcome, but it is feasible, as you simply need to be more critical of yourself after a win. This is easier on the ego, as at least you have 3 points, regardless of any deep dark misplays you may find. A loss on the other hand, is nearly impossible to think through logically.

It is a difficult thing to critique yourself after a loss because you naturally already feel punished for any mistakes you may have made. Searching for them after the fact feels like torture. This is why we so heavily lean on excuses after a loss. It is much easier to blame a lucky topdeck than it is yourself, which puts your mind at ease. The problem here, is that you do not learn anything from an excuse, even when they are legitimate!

Let’s say you made a play that put your opponent on a 1-outer and he draws it off the top for the win. You now have a legitimate excuse that you can tell all of your buddies about in hopes of some sympathetic pats on the back, but what have you learned? I commonly preach a different mentality to local players, despite it not being all that well received due to its blunt nature. If you lose, blame yourself. I don’t care if you legitimately lost to a string of bad luck or not. You should actively seek out ways in which you could have played differently as those are they only way you will emerge from the match with a better understanding of the situation, and of yourself.

This means that even if you have to lie to yourself after a match, it is better to do that and come up with some scenario that you could have played differently, than to blame luck and move on. In this scenario, at least you are learning something. Failure is not a bad thing and as competitive people, it is difficult to embrace that fact.

Humbling can be Good

Failure teaches us things and develops our sense of humbleness like winning can never do. I remember after Top 8ing what was effectively my first Pro Tour, I felt invincible. At the time, I had not really proven very much, but I felt vindication and could honestly take on the world. I was told by everyone that my deck was the best in the Top 8 and that I got unlucky to get knocked out in the semifinals. Those remarks of sympathy felt good to the soul, but they taught me nothing. If anything, they allowed me to retain that aura of invincibility about myself.

But once I began traveling to more tournaments, I began to realize that it was not my successes that I took the most away from, but those times of struggle. A success is awesome, but generally means you have probably already figured out what you needed to know, or at least think you do. A failure however, is a clear sign that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. If a player is not able or willing to accept this, he is doomed for a career of mediocrity.

Learning to fail is not about learning how to lose, it is about knowing what to do once you get there. Losses are inevitable and are an essential part of the game, so it only makes sense that we should be utilizing them as tools and not just bemoaning their existence.

And honestly, it will all come easier when reading this than it will during the moment. It will be brutally difficult to step aside and look at the loss from an objective standpoint in the moments during that loss, but it is something that you must remain vigilant about, as it will improve your game. Sit there for a second and take in the loss in silence, but do not get up from the table with the intention of telling a bad beat story. If you are seeking an opportunity to be entertaining, that is one thing, but find someone you can intimately discuss the game with and sit down with them in an effort to better understand what went wrong. This person is going to be biased as they are your friend, but be clear in asking for their honest evaluation.

Some players look to talk to their opponent’s directly after a match to see what could have been, but this has flaws in it inherently. That opponent has a few things on their mind already, like going over to his friends to give the good news, so holding him up at the table may not bring about good results. Even when a player does take time to sit there with you and assess they game, they will typically try to be consoling and will therefore not be as honest with you as they should. They have just won and thus don’t care if they look bad during post-assessment, where as they probably want to soften the blow to your ego (unless they are just total tools of course),

The biggest resource any Magic player has at a large tournament are friends, so use them after the match just as you would before the match. No one is shy to ask for some help playtesting or tweaking their sealed build, yet when the topic of a loss is at the center of discussion, we all look to move off of the conversation as quickly as possible or else make it look like some giant fluke. Stop doing this and your game will improve.

The bottom line is this: we, as a community, need to be more willing to embrace constructive losses as a tool to learn from and not an event to regret. Your loss at any given tournament does not mean you are bad or wrong or anything of the sort, so as soon as we are willing to set the stigmas aside and understand that we have been ignoring massive amounts of information by shying away from our failures, we stand to learn a thing or two.

At your next tournament, try to incorporate this concept just a little bit at first, if you are uncomfortable with the idea. Maybe take an introspective look into a match during just one or two of the matches you play in, rather than torture yourself by doing it during every loss. As we talked about before, it will be difficult, but it will be worth it. Once you have come to grips with acknowledging your shortcomings, begin to look back at losses more often, building up to the point where you can do it after every loss you suffer. Remember to be honest and objective with yourself, or else you are only cheating the one person who should be gaining from the experience: yourself.

I look forward to seeing everyone in Toronto this weekend and hope to hear some feedback from players who have not partaken in this type of exercise before. In a game where the smallest edges turn into drastic win-loss differences, we should be seeking those edges rather than shying away from them. To everyone not in Toronto this weekend, good luck in your PTQs and as always, thanks for reading!

Conley Woods

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