Carrie On – Keeping Calm

Although I was not surprised by the lack of bannings last week, it did throw my “article about Standard post bans” plan out the window. As I am far from qualified to discuss the impact of [card]Land Tax[/card] on Legacy, I’ve got a window of opportunity for something different.

“Your success has inspired me”

I entered the biggest stage in competitive Magic for the first time at Nagoya. With a scant year of experience, I finished 32nd. I’ve subsequently gone on to play in two more Pro Tours and have qualified for the WMC this summer.

Not bad for only two years.

I get to write articles on the back of this relative success. Yes, I haven’t won any major events (yet). Luckily, I don’t write articles to provide the cutting edge knowledge/technology/whatever to let you win a Pro Tour. I write for people just like me one year ago. People who are thinking of entering tournament level Magic, or people that are trying to catch their first break.

People approach the big names like LSV to get their playmats signed. When people approach me, they thank me for inspiring them. They tell me that, thanks to me, they took their first step; or they simply believed in the possibility that they could achieve. You don’t have to have been playing since you were 12. You don’t need 10 years of experience, a fountain of knowledge or a mountain of basic lands to be successful.

It’s a pretty cool feeling.

“I’ve been doing it wrong.”

Yet I have never really talked about this.

I know my target audience, yet I seem to have stopped writing for them. I blame large, hulking beasts with green skin and tusks—ogres? Anyway, for some reason they scared me into trying to be what I’m not—a world-leading expert on Magic. I am, however, pretty knowledgable in how to progress fast in the tournament scene. I’m also perfectly aware of what a new tournament player is seeking in the way of information since I was just there (and still am in many ways).

I aim to correct this. I hope to bring you more articles aimed at entering into and succeeding on the tournament scene.

There is no secret code to winning, but there are measures you can put in place to help you realize your potential.

“I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.”- Shepherd Book, Serenity

I really like the above quote. It resonates with me on so many levels. It’s not a religious quote; it’s a life motto.

You have to believe in your ability to play Magic.

Magic at all levels is the same. I made the coverage in Nagoya for three reasons: 1) That I had theretofore recently started playing 2) that I learned of the game through Duels of the Planeswalkers and 3) because I told Richard Hagon “It’s just Magic, and I can play Magic.”

It was my biggest shock when I entered the Pro Tour that I wasn’t ridiculously outclassed. I was merely hoping to not embarrass myself, yet I surpassed that goal.

At the end of the day, whether it’s at the kitchen table or at the PT in Hawaii—it’s still just you, your opponent, and the cards. If you know how the rules work, how your deck works, and how their deck works, then you can win.

Paulo wrote in his tournament report from Nagoya about how I resisted using [card]Galvanic Blast[/card] on his [card]Glint Hawk Idol[/card] for about three turns in a row, in order to activate my [card inkmoth nexus]Nexi[/card] for metalcraft to kill a potential [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card].

Hundreds wouldn’t have held off as long as I did. Why did I? As I was playing Mono-Red I knew I had an awful lot of outs to this [card]Glint Hawk Idol[/card], but very few to [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card]. Paulo was, of course, playing Tempered Steel and I knew the only real problem I could have at that moment was a Hero. Lo and behold, I was rewarded with two dead Heroes, and the match.

With a simply awareness of the potential threats my opponent could produce and the available answers in my deck, I was able to make the correct decision.

You get to this point by hard work, practice and listening to your elders.

“It’s not about the winning, it’s taking part that counts.”

Okay, you believe you are capable of playing Magic. Great! Why haven’t you won yet?

Probably because you are trying too hard.

People do not talk much about psychology in Magic, and yet it’s just as important here as it is in many sports.

Before I played Magic, I competed at a national level in Archery. I was the best female archer in my University and County. Archery is a pretty dull sport to watch, because the way to be good is to do the same thing over and over again in exactly the same way. It’s a perfectionist’s idea of sport.

When you start learning archery, getting a good score is 80% skill. When you get good it’s 80% psychology.

I competed at the British University tournament in 2010 and I came second only to an Olympian (which doesn’t seem too unreasonable). It was the best shoot of my life. Yet when I finished it was like waking from a dream. After I shot my last arrow I turned to my boyfriend and said “it’s raining?”. It had been raining for the last four hours! I just hadn’t paid it any attention. What mattered was the shot, one at a time.

I wasn’t thinking about what I needed this arrow to score to stay in second, or that a bird had just passed behind the target, or the bright pink hat someone further down the line was wearing. As soon as a stray thought entered my head, I would stop my shot and start again.

It’s an odd state. Kind of like meditation. Focus without focus. A state often referred to as “in the zone”.

I never thought to apply it to Magic until my first PTQ win. It started off like any other tournament. I was still quite new to the game, so I had just come to play this new format (Extended) to have some fun. It wasn’t until after I had won that I realized I had slipped into my mental zone.

I recall in my semi-finals against Jund (I was playing UW Tempered Steel), he drew for his turn and then angrily told the judge to get the people behind him to stop watching. I looked up in confusion to see some people shuffle away looking somewhat contrite. Apparently they had made some sort of noise about his draw that “made it obvious what he’d drawn”. I hadn’t even noticed—all I was focused on were what my attacks should be next turn, did I need to use my [card]Path to Exile[/card] yet, how was I going to win this game?

I didn’t think about the possibility of winning the event until I had done it.

There is a lot to be said for not competing to win.

“The only way to win is not to play.” – War Games

After my success at the PTQ and Nagoya I had a bit of a downturn. Why? Because it had become about winning. I became the run-of-the-mill player. When you ask them how they are doing, they say “X-1,” or whatever. Yes, it’s efficient, but focuses on the wrong thing. You are counting the losses. Because losses are the obstacles to Top 8, Day Two, etc. It’s not much better to think about wins. “I only need one more win to make Day Two.” How about instead you go play your next match in isolation of all that has come before and all that needs to come after?

The best players in the world are as cool as cucumbers whether they win or lose. During any given game they are 100% focused on what is happening right there and then.

When you see someone with great play skill fail time and time again (and I’m pretty certain everyone knows one), chances are their focus is off. There are plenty of articles about tilt and how to avoid it, but it is more than that. While you are doing well, you have to not get carried away. It’s about always keeping a level head, which will allow you to simply play good Magic, and good Magic is winning Magic.

I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit recently because of the WMCQ. I was totally relaxed all day. Even in my win-and-in round I was laughing and joking. I was just having a great time, allowing me to simply play good Magic. I think my friends knew I was going to pull something special. They hadn’t seen me have so much fun since Modern with Assault Loam. Sadly, I never converted [card]Seismic Assault[/card] into a PTQ win (2nd and 3rd), but it turns out when you aren’t trying to win you do much better.

On reflection, the reason for this was that I built the deck the day before. With minimal testing I knew it had game against some of the decks I would face, but I went in blind. With such rigorous preparation, I could relax. I hadn’t spent ages on deck choice, or tuning the sideboard to make this the deck to beat all. If I did badly—well, I guess it turns out that deck wasn’t such a great idea. I had nothing to lose, no expectations to meet. This was the same feeling I had at the PTQ almost a year ago, and it is important for me to work out how to recapture this feeling even when not playing a rogue list.

How do you become relaxed and enter “the zone”?

An excellent question. It’s also a personal question, as it is different for everyone. I spent years in archery working on my mental focus, and eventually I could settle into it on demand. I stood still with my bow before each shot emptying my mind and relaxing my body, allowing muscle memory take over. I’m not there with Magic yet.

Magic events are tiring and demanding. You have to grab food quickly between rounds. You can’t accidentally forget to drink anything. If a match goes long, you have little time to chill before sitting down for your next match.

Find your way to relax in between rounds.

I am a person who enjoys having some refreshments after each round and chatting to people about, well, anything. Sometimes a step outside to breathe the cool air, and find some peace and quiet gives me a chance to settle my thoughts.

There are people that listen to a particular piece of music. Others like scrutinizing every play from their previous match. I can’t tell you what will help you. You need to learn to identify when you are not focused, and then work on how to correct that.

It is also helpful to identify anything that is likely to unsettle you, so you can take steps to avoid it. I don’t take my trades to events anymore, because getting a bad deal or having to rush off to the next round is not good for my mentality. On a similar vein I don’t like being rushed at all, and am always lurking near the pairing boards well in advance. I also get really cranky if I don’t get food, and massive headaches if I forget to drink. I don’t like carting lots of stuff around, so I’ve gone really minimalist and now put my deck box and dice in my handbag.

It is with this knowledge that I aim to improve my mental state, which should lead to more success at Magic.

This has been such a hard topic to actually write about. It’s complex and not well discussed, but hopefully it will provide a starting point for you to work from. I wish you success in you next big event and remember: it’s just a game.

I’ll see you next week. Feel free to tweet at me until then @onionpixie.

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