Typically, I try to write material that is lighthearted, amusing, and easily accessible—but today, not as much. Today, I am going to touch on a subject that is a little bit more serious in hopes that it resonates with some of my readers who are perhaps going through and feeling some of the same things I am.
For starters, I’ve been trying to quit smoking on and off for nearly 4 years now and have gone 3 weeks without a cigarette. It may seem like a tiny accomplishment to many (you don’t get a trophy or a Top 8 playmat), but it is a tremendous struggle for me. So much so that I have straight-up failed every time I’ve tried up to this point.
Behind the Smokescreen
Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.
I don’t want to spend much time on the subject of why smoking is bad because it should be fairly obvious to everybody. It’s expensive, it’s gross, it’s smelly, it’s unhealthy, etc. It is telling that after being smoke-free for 21 days that the smell of a cigarette or a person who smells like cigarettes doesn’t make me crave a smoke—it literally makes me nauseous.
That fact made me realize something. The compulsion that led to me failing to quit so many times in the past didn’t come from “cigarettes out in the world somewhere”—it came from me. Something deep inside me every time I succumbed again said, “I know that you’ve struggled to get to this point but go back to the same old BS you were doing before.”
I wrote an article years ago (when I quit smoking for about 6 months) about how great quitting smoking was, how much my game was improving with a clearer body and mind, and urging others to quit as well. I’m embarrassed about that article because I eventually started smoking again. “This is great! You should all do the same thing!” And I don’t follow through.
This isn’t an article about quitting smoking—this is an article about enacting real positive change in your life and your game.
Game Changers in Life and in Magic
Right now, reading this text, you have the ability to make an infinite number of choices that will impact your life for the better or the worse. You are not programmed to contemplate every single possible thing that you might do at any given moment (because it isn’t useful) but there are more options available than you realize. For instance, you could light up a cigarette, or take a walk around the block, or buy an airplane ticket to Alaska and walk around Alaska.
You really only consider the options that are in the range of things that you typically do and experience.
The option to fly to Alaska for an impromptu walk would never even enter your mind because it isn’t in the range of experiences that would ever enter into your day-to-day decision making processes about “so, what is next for me today, tomorrow, etc.”
You have a job, significant other, obligations, and can’t just do something else at the drop of a hat.
My dad told me a story about when he was a young man working at some terrible manufacturing plant when he was in college. One day, while he was working, the song “California Dreaming” by the Mamas and the Papas came on the radio. One of the guys he worked with calmly and casually stood up, punched out, and drove to California and never came back. My Dad said he got a postcard from the guy a month later that said it was the best thing he ever did.
I guess what I’m hinting at here is that when the song “California Dreaming” comes on the radio, most people would have the following range of reactions and possibly decisions: “Should I turn it up? Turn it off? Sing along?” Not the fella from the story—his reaction and subsequent action to the song was to leave his entire life behind and start a new one in California…
It’s not that you need to be thinking about starting a brand new life on the other side of the country in response to various pop songs coming on the radio, but I think it is empowering to understand that you could if you wanted to. You have way more options than you realize.
My typical workday routine was something like: wake up, smoke, coffee, smoke, shower, smoke, drive to work, and pick up fast food breakfast, a pack of cigarettes, and an energy drink on the way.
Disgusting? Check. Unhealthy? Check.
The fact of the matter is that when a person is living their life locked into a routine and participating in their day-to-day activities, the “other alternatives” become invisible. When I was going through the drudgery of waking up and doing my “smoker’s morning routine,” I wouldn’t randomly consider other unfamiliar options. For instance, instead of walking outside and lighting a cigarette, I never pondered an impromptu flight to Alaska.
I could also say that before having my first morning cigarette I never considered not having my first morning cigarette, which is problematic. These were choices I made over and over again because they were the choices I understood and the options I gave myself.
People can only understand their choices so far as they can perceive the world around themselves. I didn’t magically wake up one morning and think “what if I didn’t smoke?” It takes weeks, months, and years of feeling run down and awful to come to the realization that a change is necessary and then to actually go about implementing those changes into my day-to-day life.
Non-smoking routine: wake up, (don’t smoke), coffee, work out, shower, make a healthy breakfast, and go to work.
The whole mechanism for change is a process: realizing that something is wrong, figuring out what to change in order to fix it, and then actually implementing those changes.
To everyone out there like me who struggles with some of these problems: smoking, energy drinks, and other unhealthy lifestyle elements, you’re not alone. It is tough but if I can change, so can you.
Applying Self-Awareness to Magic
Many of you are probably reading this and thinking, “But, Brian… I didn’t make nearly as many negative life choices as you did—what does this have to do with me getting better at Magic?”
Remember the whole scenario about the guy who picks up and goes to California? It plays here. Let me explain.
Magic is a very different game, than say, Trivial Pursuit. You purchase a copy of Trivial Pursuit to play at your family’s board game night. The objective of the game is to test everyone’s knowledge of seemingly random facts. If you wanted to “win” at Trivial Pursuit you could open the game, read every single one of the questions, and memorize the answers.
If you spent more time memorizing the answers than anybody else, you would win. But is that in the spirit of the game? Absolutely not. Would it help you with randomly generated questions on a TV game show? Not much. But when playing the game out of the box at your house it would be the premier competitive strategy for winning the game.
In fact, in order to take “cheating” out of the equation, I will assume that all of the players have an equal opportunity to read the game cards and try to memorize them. Then once everybody has spent a week practicing memorizing the cards, each player will pay a $65 entry fee, receive a customary playmat, and compete for cash prizes…
See where I’m going here?
Magic is not like Trivial Pursuit at all, despite the fact that many players approach the game as though it were.
It is possible to memorize enough interactions to be better than a lot of people. The Living End player who knows that Grafdigger’s Cage doesn’t stop Living End has a big advantage against the unfortunate Abzan Player who hasn’t figured that out yet and just boarded it in…
But memorizing important interactions will only get you so far in Magic. At the core of the game, Magic isn’t actually about interactions—it is about making choices, and despite what disgruntled PTQ grinders may mutter after getting their 2nd loss to not make Top 8:
The cards don’t actually play themselves.
There is no “easy” fix at getting better at Magic. Just like there is no easy fix to getting back into shape or quitting smoking. But the process that gets you from one stage to the next is largely the same.
Similar to real life, when you are playing Magic, the more you understand about what is going on and the more options you can see, the better position you put yourself for finding and executing the best possible choices.
The Doppelganger Experiment
You memorize a sideboard guide about how a deck will sideboard against the 10 most popular decks in the field. In the last round playing for Top 8, you play against a rogue deck that you’ve haven’t played against before and lose the first game.
You have 60 cards in your main deck, 15 cards in your sideboard and have a decision to make about what you will take out and what you will bring in given the cards you saw in game 1. You will inevitably board out some number of cards and bring in some number of cards.
Now imagine that one of the best players in the world, let’s say Huey, is also playing the exact same 75 cards you were, is in the same win-and-in scenario against the same opponent, playing the same deck. Would the best player in the world bring in the same cards as you did?
The point isn’t necessarily what you think it is going to be—let’s now further complicate the example by adding to the equation a third round where another one of the best players in the world, let’s say Reid, is put into the same situation.
Will all three of you sideboard the same? Will you inevitably sideboard differently, but Huey and Reid sideboard exactly the same? Will all three of you sideboard differently, but Huey and Reid sideboard more similarly than compared to you?
Now remember it isn’t that Huey and Reid get to discuss how to sideboard and come to a consensus on the best plan. They each have 2 minutes on the fly to make a series of decisions about how to change their deck in between games the same as you do.
When put into this scenario playing Magic, players, whether they are an FNM player or a Hall-of-Famer, are all basically doing the same thing: drawing on experiences to make decisions.
“Should I board out removal for more threats?”
“Are my counterspells going to be better than removal?”
“Should I board out some threats for reactive cards?”
“Which threats would I board out?”
There are so many things to think about—how do you ultimately decide which decision tree to climb down? It all boils down to making sense of your previous experiences in the past: what you have done that has worked in the past, what you’ve read, and what you understand about Magic.
In order to make meaningful change, you must understand the thing they are trying to change.
Lastly, I’d like to say a quick “thank you” to my readers and in particularly those who post in the comments section. I’ve really enjoyed interacting with you all and appreciate the fun and positive comments and feedback.
I don’t know if it’s that the readers here are way more chill than at other places, but I used to dread checking my article feedback on other sites because people were so rude and negative. I want to say that I really appreciate the positive energy, and that the positive feedback and fun conversations have certainly helped me along my journey to quitting these past three weeks!