Play For Yourself

Everybody wants to win more at Magic. Heck, even famous players at the top of the game want to win more. But wanting to win and actually winning are not the same thing. How do you reconcile the desire to win with realistic expectations? I have a couple of strategies that are useful for improvement and will keep you feeling good and staying positive along the way.

Don’t Measure Your Success Against Others

“Losing only feels bad because winning makes somebody else feel good.”

A lot of times the successes of your friends or rivals can leave you feeling like you’re being left in the dust. But it is important to remember that you are not them and you can only control how you play and prepare.

If you work hard, bring your A game, and try your best, that’s all you can do to get results. Trying to make sense of whether or not somebody else is better or worse than you and how they got a different result does not change what happens in the tournament. In fact, worrying about noise like who is better or worse than you are is an active waste of mental energy.

All you can ever try to be is better and if you strive to improve every single time, chances are you will see improvement in your game and your results over time.

Be Fair to Yourself and to Others

“Never get too high and never get too low.”

Expectations are useful. But if you aren’t realistic with your expectations, they can turn against you and become a liability.

Variance and luck play a major role in the outcome of games of Magic, and as a player, you must accept and process that if you are to continue improving from week to week.

The more honest you can be with yourself about what happened in your matches, the more opportunities you will have to correct mistakes and improve your play.

If you played well and lost: chin up, there is no shame in that.

If you made a mistake and lost: chin up, as long as you learn from it, then the experience was worthwhile.

If your opponent played really well and it made the difference, take note of what happened and try to incorporate that lesson into your game. A lot of times players will rationalize a loss by thinking, “well, if I would have drawn a different card on some pivotal turn of the game I would have won.” But asking to draw the perfect card at the perfect moment is asking a lot.

Rather than looking at a match from the perspective that you got unlucky on one turn and that was the difference maker, try to look at the entirety of the match for information you can use in the future. Everyone knows that drawing a fifth land on turn 5 would have impacted the game because that is obvious, but there is so much more to be learned about Magic other than always wishing for the perfect card.

Also, if your opponent played well, it is perfectly reasonable to compliment their play after the match. I’ve found that looking for an opportunity to praise some attribute of what my opponent did well often makes me feel better after a loss. It reminds me that there are other factors involved in a match of Magic besides my imagined bad luck.

It feels better to exhibit good sportsmanship than bad sportsmanship. When you make a habit of practicing good sportsmanship, it is part of a process that helps you play better.

Be the Kind of Player You’d Want to Root For

There have been times in my Magic career when I felt I was playing at an elite level. Yet, even when I was playing at a high level, I wasn’t always the kind of player that I’d want to root for. I felt a lot of pressure to win and when I lost, my sportsmanship lacked. I also found myself focusing on the negative and complaining too much about my misfortunes or things I didn’t like.

The irony, of course, is that the reason many people feel strongly compelled to succeed at Magic is they want the acceptance and respect of the community. Literally the only thing that the community asks in order to grant acceptance is that you don’t cheat and treat yourself and others with respect.

There is a reason that everybody loves certain popular players. It is because they treat others with respect and they respect the game.

Teaching is the Best Way to Learn

One statement I learned in school that has always stuck with me is, “if you really want to understand something, teach it to somebody else.”

In the past 6 months, I’ve learned to take a less competitive approach toward local tournaments. For the most part, I play in these kinds of events to practice for bigger events and to learn about quickly changing formats like Standard and Modern.

In the past, I’d just try and win as much as possible. Now, I’m much more focused on learning as much as possible and that often means offering my opponent information that I wouldn’t typically offer up at a competitive event.

For instance, I try to be as transparent as possible about what is going on in my games, especially with newer or less experienced players.

For instance, a lot of players are unfamiliar with the card Spike Feeder:

In particular, people are unfamiliar with the second ability that allows the controller to move a +1/+1 counter from one creature to another. So, when I’m playing against an inexperienced player at Tuesday Night Modern at the LGS and I cast Feeder against an opponent who I am 100% convinced will walk into the trick, I make a point of telling them: “so, yeah, the second ability lets me essentially reset a persisted Kitchen Finks.” Then they can try and play around it better like a more experienced player would at a Grand Prix.

I have the same mindset at a prerelease as well. I’ll let casual players take back plays or try to help them as much as I can when they don’t understand something. I play local tournaments to learn, stay sharp, and have fun.

Only a Sith shows up to the prerelease to slaughter Padawans.

There is nothing wrong with trying to be the best player at FNM. A lot of big fish in the big river started out as big fish in a little pond somewhere. My point is that for players who are looking to take the next step and have success on a bigger stage, letting go of the hubris about winning small may be helpful.

The best thing you can possibly do if you are one of the big fish is to help bring up the level of competition around you because it improves your game in the process! Playing against better opponents will make you better in the long run.

Be Positive and Encourage Others to be Positive

I can’t even stress how important being positive and associating with positive people is to having success. I’ve written a lot about it in the past few months but I just wanted to reiterate the sentiment even if I don’t have space to go into it at length.

All of these little tips in one way or another focus on changing a negative habit, trait, or behavior into a more useful and positive one. Whether it be something as simple as having the presence of mind to say something nice to an opponent who beat you, or having the foresight to realize the upside in helping a less-skilled opponent in your LGS at the risk of losing a game.

The key to being good at Magic is to continue getting better at it day after day, week after week, and year after year. You don’t wake up one day and magically become “great” and stay great forever. The ones who reach the summit are the ones who enjoy the climb and strive to keep learning, improving, and enjoying the challenge of playing the game.

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