Breaking Through – Mental Stability


Recently, I was running through a draft on MTGO and I made a pretty ridiculous and unorthodox mistake for my typical pattern of play. The exact mistake is not that relevant, but for the sake of completeness I will elaborate regardless.

The Draft Mistake

I am playing a 4-color control deck with only a few win conditions: Nirkana Revenant and Pelakka Wurm. My opponent is playing a B/R deck chock full of removal, but I know for a fact that he is not going to be able to deal with the Revenant as there are no Black or Red cards that can handle the job.

As my library thins, I finally draw my Revenant with 7 swamps in play and 3 Prophetic Prisms to be able to keep her well out of Heat Ray range or anything of the like. On top of that, I am holding an Induce Despair, a Consume the Meek, and a Pelakka Wurm, so this game is looking good. Untapped are a pair of Mnemonic Walls for myself, whilst my opponent has a Bloodthrone Vampire and some random spawn tokens. I naturally pass the turn after playing the Revenant and begin to count my chickens so to speak. My opponent casts Traitorous Instinct on my Revenant and I look to see how many cards are in his hand. He only has 2 and I am sitting at 14 life. I look at both of my Walls and look back at his hand, thinking that there is no way he has 2 removal spells to make this lethal. And even if he has an Emrakul’s Hatcher or something to make the Bloodthrone huge, I have a second blocker due to my second wall, so I finally let the Instinct resolve.
Immediately I understand what I have done. I stare at the Bloodthrone Vampire and back at my Revenant, sitting triumphantly on the opposite side of the battlefield. I did not die from that attack by my Revenant, but I may as well have, as my bomb rare was quickly eaten up by a hungry vampire. Of course my opponent had removal for my Wurm and I was unable to win before decking.

If you were just to read those two paragraphs, you may mistakenly attribute the mistake to a case of over-analysis, basically claiming that I looked too deep into the tank and missed the sucker fish pressed right up against the glass. While I suppose this may have contributed slightly, the true flaw in my situation was that I was distracted. I was recording a video while doing commentary, while observing the T.V. In the background, and was not paying attention to the game, at least with any regularity. I was certainly paying attention when I clicked OK but I had relied on my ability to quickly assess the current game state to cloud the correct line of action. Basically, instead of allowing the sequence to build up to that point, I continuously left focus and reentered, forcing myself to evaluate the new board state every time. I had given up the opportunity of playing a fluid game and was instead relying on bits and pieces of information.

Getting to the Zone

It is easy to drop it there too. I messed up, I analyzed my mistake, I found a solution. End of story right? While the question seemed to be answered, the detective in me wanted to dig a little further. Every year or so, some author writes a detailed piece on how the were able to reach that mythical mount of theirs. Each article is different, but each is the same. The latest comes from Brad Nelson who wrote a great piece about how he just stopped caring and played it round by round until he had won a Grand Prix. Zac Hill has written on it before, and many of Magic’s greats have chimed in. Everyone is familiar with the quote of “Focus on what matters” for example. Each person has reached some level of enlightenment, at least for a moment, maybe longer, and they wish to share that with the reader.

This can be extremely difficult, as expressing one’s own emotional state or state of consciousness when they finally “get it” is no short task. The running theme, and ultimate piece of advice that most of these writers reach is a good one, although blunt: Avoid distractions.

This message may not be explicit in all cases, but when you begin to dissect the advice, that is ultimately what is reached. “Focus on what matters” is pretty clearly saying to avoid distractions as they are what “doesn’t matter”. But even Brad’s (and others’) advice to play the tournament one round at a time is just another way of saying limit your distractions. If you are focused in on a single round you do not have the looming cut to Top 8, the money, or the pride factors on the line. Instead, you are involved in one moment in time.

This advice is obviously invaluable but there is something still to be said on the matter. To begin to bridge the gap, let us turn to another phenomenon in Magic that is very similar to the above, or sometimes even entwined with it: The Zone.

You hear of players being in the zone in all sorts of capacities. Some just tear through a tournament with some fierce determination while others piece together miraculous win streaks over a month with an over the top will to win. Most people who have hit this level will tell you that it is not something that one can simply turn on or off. It is an aligning of the stars where everything just works. Therein lies the subtle difference between the two stages, One can always focus on what matters if they determine to do so, where as one cannot just “light themselves on fire” in some blaze of victorious glory.

So while there are no surefire ways to get “in the zone” there are some steps to making that more likely and they conveniently come on the path of focusing on what matters or limiting distractions.

I understand the desire to “let loose” and play with the primary goal of having fun, but I think that only looks at part of the picture. In order to have your cake and eat it too, there must be a line where you are able to push yourself and enjoy what you are doing at the same time. I cannot claim to be a person who has always had the will to win at all costs, but in those moments where I have done so, I have done things significantly differently than normal and can recognize it looking back. For example, if you envision the tournament you are going to attend as more important than it really may be, either by making it a personal conquest or by putting your back against the wall, psychologically you are more likely to fire back with more force.

The human mind is a very powerful thing. Studies have shown that when a person is limited to a single action, as other choices are obsolete, and when that action is perceived to be the sole hope in a serious predicament, the person is able to go above and beyond their normal capacity to overcome all odds. This occurs physically sometimes, as when an average sized woman has lifted a car off of her crushed child, or mentally, in cases where an individual solves a problem under extreme conditions in a much faster time than in a control setting.

This is a fine line, as we want to be having fun playing Magic, but putting yourself in a “you against the world” scenario and truly believing that this is the case should more often than not lead to a higher mental state. Once in this state, it is easier to transition into being “in the zone” and surely easier to focus on what matters as distractions are limited.

Earlier tonight ( as of this posting but not writing) my Lakers will have played a game 7 against the Boston Celtics (and I speak for myself and probably Matt Sperling when I say that if we did not win the title.. there is going to be hell). A reporter asked Lamar Odom, a forward for the Lakers, why he played so much better in game 6 at home and down 3-2 in the series, than he did in Boston when the series was tied. Lamar simply said, “If somebody’s breaking into your house and trying to hurt your family, you’ve got to switch your mindset, right?”

This needs to be a constant in the psyche of competitors for anything. Each game is yours to win or lose and it is therefore your responsibility to protect that right. Obviously there will be times of waxing and waning, but at the end of the day, you need to be in the mindset of getting things done.

This is one reason I have never been a fan of people limiting their goals to anything other than winning. It is fine to want to Top 64 a Grand Prix, and afterward you may be in a better mood, having met your goal, but isn’t the more important mindset the one that occurs while the standings are still being updated? If you set your goal to winning the tournament and believe that this is a possibility, you are less content with mediocre play and should as a result, strive to find your zone. Your mind set before and during the tournament is more vital to its results than your mind set after. I am obviously not wishing ill will upon you after a tournament either, but learning to pick yourself up after a failed goal comes later (which we will discuss later as well).

Do not confuse the idea of goal setting to be a distraction to the here and now of winning each round. While it definitely can become a distraction for some players, theoretically you have set this goal ahead of the tournament and not during it. This means that once the decks begin to get shuffled, you can focus on each individual step that falls in the way of your goal, specifically:winning the round you are in.

Playing technically sound is awesome as it shows you have the capability of playing in such a manner, but it does not guarantee that you can do so on a consistent basis. Instead, that task is left to your mindset. The second you allow yourself to feel too comfortable with your level of play is the second you stop looking for opportunities to play better, which is coincidentally the same second your play begins to unravel.

It is quite hard to actually plateau in this game, or reach a point where you are neither improving or deteriorating. In order to do that, you need to be playing in such a manner that literally breaks even. Think about the possibilities of your play when you have become content with your level of output. You can longer be gaining in skill or game intelligence by definition, because you have found a spot you feel comfortable with and have therefore mastered all the skills you feel you may need. This leaves two possibilities.

Imagine that Magic is played on a percentage scale, where 50% is breaking even, 51% is improving (although less than say 80% wold be) and 49% is deteriorating. If you have ruled out that top 50% due to the fact that you don’t feel the need to improve, your highest level of play is 50% which is a plateau. Even then, there is a 49 to 1 shot that you are playing below this plateau level and are actually hurting your chances of winning.

This leaves a player in a sort of funk that literally burns them out. They have not been able to push themselves hard enough which cycles into poor results, which cycles into frustration and eventually ends in a rock bottom scenario. This is why it is so important to maintain that ever improving mentality and set your goals so high.

Yes, if my goal is always to win a Pro Tour and I do not do so, I am going to be bummed out about my play, but that is motivation for the future. If I instead set my goal to top 64 a PT and meet that goal, I hit some level of contentedness. While I can then turn and increase my goals for future events, I am at least for a moment caught up in a world where I did all I could do and got what I deserved. Instead, I want to be that player that never gets to my goal. I want to continuously be marching uphill and as a result always improving. If I ever reach the top, where else is there to go?

This may seem like a depressing scenario, akin to Sisyphus who, if you are not familiar, was destined to continuously push a rock up a hill and that once near the top, would roll back down only to begin the cycle again. But there is a distinct difference here: your hill is without a summit. Even if you slip and the rock rolls down the hill some amount, it should never hit the bottom, and progress is still being made. It can seem depressing to never hit your mark, but if you are able to sift through the pieces and understand that your hill’s peak and progress/improvement are not tied together as a single entity, you can being to understand that you are making progress, yet still remain thirsty.

Brad wrote a small anecdote about how Tom Ross was able to pinpoint his placing before the tournament. He attributed this to knowing how well he prepared etc, which has some validity behind it I am sure, but can we discount all other factors here as well? What if Tom had said, “I am going to win this tournament.” Given the same amount of testing and preparation, could we expect him to perform differently. Obviously there is no hard answer here, but I would prefer to think that the answer is yes, especially when we look at support from similar situation in studies.

It has already been said, but the mind is powerful. It definitely has the capability of vaulting your performance to a new level or tripping you up, all dependent on your mental positioning. Is it less likely that Tom wins the tournament as opposed to top 32ing? Absolutely. But maybe that extra confidence and extra determination puts him into the top 16. We can never know the limits of our mind so why ever try to corral that by giving it limitations. Obviously we do not want to skimp on the testing and preparation, but we also need to stay as mentally sharp as possible because we never know what we are capable of. Do not run the risk of a completing a self-fulfilling prophecy that is not at its highest possible level.

A passion requires dedication and it requires a confidence in your ability to set things right and deal with them. Some may confuse the idea of always looking to improve with having a lack of confidence in your skills. After all, if you feel you need to improve, you can’t be very confident, can you? Of course you can. You can literally be the best player in the world and know it, and still challenge yourself to improve. Confidence is key in owning up to your mistakes and your successes and using the information from both to continue to better yourself. Without confidence, you may begin to attribute things to forces outside of your control, which, even when true, never actually helps you improve as a player.

It may make a player more comfortable to know that they did all they could, but it never actually helps them improve technical play. As humans, we are going to attribute some things to that sick draw by the opponent or a bad match up no matter what, so why ever look to do so? If we seek scapegoats, we do not learn. Scapegoats will show up and you will lean on them no matter how strong-willed you are, so never go out and track them down as you are now hurting yourself by overemphasizing their impact.

It is definitely critical to balance that competitive fire with the serenity that playing a game should bring, but turning to the second should never compromise the first. I feel like the atmosphere around the game takes care of the fun by itself. I don’t think there could ever come a time where I get so caught up in winning that I fail to appreciate the amazing people, places, and situations that this game grants me. Because of this, I allow all of the extras that come with the game to keep me having fun and to leave me grounded.

You can always turn to a friend for a fun night out, and this is doubly true on the Pro Tour as there is a cast of characters the likes of which have never been matched, but you cannot turn to a friend and expect him to be able to push you or get you into a competitive mind set. He may be able to even, at least once, but to put that burden on someone else is selfish at best.

I fully encourage the words of my fellow writers when they champion the idea of balance but I do so with that in mind. Your responsibility to yourself is to stay poised and ready to win. The game will figure out the rest so long as you are willing to let it do so. The people you meet, the places you go, and the nights out on the town are enough to keep you smiling regardless of your performance, so work on that which no one else can.

Basically, it all comes down to this. In order to win you must be willing to accept the challenge and shoulder the pressure associated with the task. It is foolish to think that ignoring the climb in front of you can get you up the mountain. It is fine to break down the task into sections and approach each one separate from the last, even beneficial, but to never confront the threat ahead can only subside one’s fear for so long. You may be able to get by in any given tournament by just “winning the round you are in” but eventually you are going to cave. We are human and to ask us to ignore the mountain and stare only at the rocks at our feet is very difficult. If you never take time to confront the mountain,when you finally do, the challenge may be daunting, and you are bound to crack.

I believe it to be preferable to condition yourself to accept these big challenges so that when it does sneak up on you when you least expect it, you know how to handle yourself. Take each match as its own entity but do not crumble when your mind eventually wanders, which it will. This is the only way to put up consistent results. Yes, focus on what matters, but prepare for those times when you are not able to grasp exactly what matters and what doesn’t.

There are things that when learned, give you the best chance of winning when everything is firing on full cylinders and these are important to understand as you need to know what to do when you hit your zone. That said, knowing how to react during the other times is just as important. Stay poised, stay focused, stay confident, and learn to develop a healthy fear for the task ahead of you. Winning will not always greet you, but improvement will, and that is all we can control or ask for.

Conley Woods

26 thoughts on “Breaking Through – Mental Stability”

  1. The_Immortal_Djinn

    It’s clear that a lot of thought and juice went into this article, C-Dub. Kudos on another incredible write-up.

    When I won the Regionals title in 2008, the morning of the event I was both nervous and excited. I’ve played in hundreds of tournaments in the past, but I had never been more prepared than I was for that event. I walked into the tournament area, scanned 200 players, and told myself “There isn’t a single player in this room that can beat me today”. I felt as if I knew and understood my competition’s decks better than the people piloting them did. I was in “the zone” prior to playing a single match. I was both nervous and excited because I had cultivated a mental state that bred confidence but also the same kind of poise and focus that you’ve talked about in your article. My goal was not to make top 4 (which was the invitational cut-off) but to win the whole sh-bang. Of course I go 9-0 losing only one game the entire day.

    I have yet to duplicate that feeling. But you’ve successfully addressed how, in a philosophical and fundamental way, one should mentally prepare themselves for a highly competitive event. That taking things “one match at a time” is a good way to stay in the moment in terms of focus, but that it’s crucial to never lose sight of the ultimate goal which should always be to win the damn tournament. I know from personal experience that having this kind of state of mind will net you better results than having the goal of simply making the Top 32.

    Nice Job Again, CW.


    (PS – Kobe still, in fact, bags the tea)

  2. Damn, Conley,

    Just when I had found the thing I want to write about you steal it from under my nose. You see, after my T8 in GP Paris and PT San Diego the wheels have been falling off for me and just recently I understood why. I was trying to put it down in words but now you have done better than I ever could.

    I do want to add, however, that not every person will be the same and for some a different mindset or goal will be needed to achieve that level of consciousness you need to break through that ceiling.

    Good write, always looking forward to your next,

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  4. Honestly I found this article repetitive and redundant. Brad’s article was good, you should read it and internalize it is mostly what I got. Maybe I have ADD, this is just my $.02.

  5. It’s important to know yourself for these kind of things. Maybe Tom Ross knows of himself he cannot put himself under such pressure and plays better if he has a doable goal instaed of a goal of which he actually knows he won’t reach.
    You seem to be the kinda player who does better when there’s a goal which seems unreachable, but you know you really wanna go for it and that you have to hold on and eventually you’ll come closer than anyone else, because they gave up.
    Each does it it’s own way and it’s important to know yourself.

  6. Either Induce Despair on the Bloodthrone or Consume the Meek in response to Instinct would mean he gets back the Revenant at EOT.

  7. Fantastic article. I’ve been dealing with this issue a lot lately, as the difference between me playing normally and playing at the top of my game (in anything, MTG actually being a minor issue) is such a stark contrast that it can’t be ignored. I think you may have glossed over one thing, though: effort. It takes work, patience, and a TON of practice to ever get anywhere near THE ZONE. The mind, as with the rest of the human body, can be trained.

  8. Consume the Meek does cause his opponent had Eldrazi Spawn . . . . unless the opponent chose to the vampire instead of a token?

  9. Consume the Meek does nothing cause his opponent had Eldrazi Spawn . . . . unless the opponent chose to the vampire instead of a token?

  10. Wow fail grammar, double posting, and ability to read cards from the above poster.

    Consume the meek would wipe his opponent’s board and therefore save his revenant.

  11. Yeah, with enough spawn, the opponent could save the vampire from induce, but consume the meek hits them all.

  12. Vodka_7up, you are thinking of consuming vapors. Consume the meek is the instant speed Damnation for creatures with CMC <= 3.

  13. Consume the meek doesn’t work well with Wee Dragonauts.

    Therefore, it is a terrible card.

    nice article. Always nice to be reminded that freeing yourself of distraction can do wonders (alluding to the beginning of the article) and that always knowing you can improve, even if you are the best, is a great way to put you in a mindset to “place” at a tournament and let your preparedness take you the rest of the way.

  14. Really enjoyed, the article I’m a big fan of winning.

    However a word of caution, goals need to feel achievable to motivate people. For example a recptionist set to get 100 gym memberships in a month for a cash bonus who got 90 last month may feel motivated to work harder for the sales. However If her manager set het a target of a million she is probably not going to try.

    Your clearly at the level where winning is a realistic goal but I think you need to make a series of transistions to get to that stage. If you’ve scrubbed out of the last 5 gps you’ve been in, then setting yourself a goal of winning the whole thing is similar to the manager setting the receptionist a goal of a million sales is not going to motivate you.

    But I do agree that alot of players set themselves goals of top 8 or top 32 and then become happy when ever they hit this goal. Generally I cash in a tourni I’m happy for example, I don’t im upset, I imagine alot of people have similar goals. Reach a level where they cash most the time and do not higher the bar so to speak, I have certainly been guilty of this.

  15. This article became boring about halfway through. A good message, overwritten, undersourced.

  16. I have had a ton of trouble with distraction and ROE draft- a ton. It is due to similar factors which affected your play, having websites open in the background and listening to music being the two big ones. I’ve noticed the quality of my play decreasing immensely, and I am making play mistakes where I shouldn’t be, especially in situations where I am playing control and need to counter something. It’s been quite frustrating but it has been getting better too. Your article was very helpful Mr. Woods, I’ve been puzzling over my ROE limited play for a while now as I seem to be unable to get a grasp on this format. Hopefully your insights provide some help!

  17. Please tell me that you still have the video of this draft. I find the most interesting lsv videos aren’t the matches he wins, but rather the ones he loses, just to hear his running mental commentary on the match and how he preserves his mental game. These post game run downs are more insightful, but hearing what goes on inside the head of a pro to keep his composure is what really interests me.

  18. 7 Swamps in play. Tap 6 mana. Play Nirkana Revenant. 1 Swamp open. Pass.
    He plays Traitorous Instinct.

    Is there anything you can do?

  19. Two words: Good Job.
    I must admit two thing I’m enjoying the most on this site are your articles and LSV’s Draft-Videos. So keep up on good work 🙂
    BTW, I was thinking about mind set and stuff a moment ago when I was in bath room; my thoughts and yours have some in common, but I must admit – after reading this article, some things became more clear and obvious to me than before. Thanks.

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