FFfreaky Friday – Variance

As Magic players, we understand that luck sometimes does not go our way. We play so many games but know how one draw step can sometimes cost us an entire day of competition. Getting lucky can also get us all the way through a PTQ even though we didn’t play that well. Variance is something that can make or break a person depending on how they handle it.

My story began at Worlds this year where I got my first taste of negative variance in a very long time. I got so used to winning that I forgot what it felt like to play great Magic and still lose..a ton. Then my good friend told me that he lost my passport but we should be able to get it back from the police station on Monday. This didn’t seem like it was going to be that big of a deal but I got a flashback from something Cedric Phillips said to me back in Amsterdam.

A conversation broke out about how lucky I was getting. This was obviously after I just took second in the tournament, achieved level 8 status before anyone else, and took the lead in the Player of the Year race. He told me that when variance finally struck, it was going to strike hard. I laughed it off since I don’t believe that luck is something that always breaks even. I won’t lie and say that those words didn’t scare me though.

So, nothing else bad happened and I had a great time in Tokyo. I got back to San Jose and recorded some videos with Tristan and Luis for Magic TV. I said my goodbyes and went to the airport to get my first flight on my way to getting home to see family. While at the airport I got into a great conversation with my brother and time started to fly. I soon realized that the plane that I was going to get on is still not there and we were supposed to take off 20 minutes ago. This is a bad thing since my connection flight would take off only 35 minutes after I was scheduled to get to the airport.

I got to Salt Lake City just in time to see my flight take off and found my way to the counter to figure out where to go from here. I got to the counter where there was a long line of other people that had also missed the last flight out for the night. Being the people watcher I am, I decided to listen in to how people handled stressful situations like this.

Not Being Tilted

In the past I would have been as tilted as most people in this exact same situation. It took me many years to realize that handling a bad situation is a skill just like any other. You have to look at it with a level head to be able to succeed when the cards (figuratively or literally) are stacked against you.

This is when I realized that the person at the front counter was actually the guy I was on the flight with. Mike was a cool guy and the conversation was very solid. He seemed like he was very levelheaded and was having a good time in life. This was not the case at the front desk when he found out he could not get a flight until the next day and that there was no free lodging. He was going crazy and telling the person that the front desk that they couldn’t do that to him. He became very irrational and emotional.

I got up to the other attendant and figured out what I had to do to get home. It involved getting a flight the next night to a close town where I would be able to take a bus to my hometown. I would have to front the discounted rate for a hotel and spend an entire day in a town I had never seen before. I couldn’t do anything about this situation but deal with it and get home as soon as possible. I got everything situated and made my way to my hotel, took a shower, and went to the hotel bar for a couple drinks. I met a great couple there and was having a good ‘ole time.

About two hours later Mike rolled into the hotel. He looked physically ill and was even taking out his anger on the concierge. He spent so much time trying to fight bad luck and it did not help at all. He just missed out on a few hours of his life and still was in the same situation that I was. I learned this because he grabbed a drink and told me his brief story. He drank a beer out of rage and desperation and took two to his room. I spent the next two hours hanging out with the couple and learning some great things about new friends. I know that I handled this situation the way I wanted it to be handled, but I still think I came out of the situation better than my life-tilting friend, Mike.

High variance is something that Magic players have to deal with much more than a non-gaming person. This should mean that we are less sensitive to it, but that is not always the case. It comes down to how well the individual can deal with it. When a player has a very bad round, they can’t let it influence the next round, or event.

Many players come to me with questions ever since I became a Pro Player. Most of them have to do with the actual cards, but every once and a while someone comes to me with a question about how to deal with a certain situation. One of the most recent questions was from a guy who has been Top 8ing almost everything he plays in. He did very well in a string of 5k’s and PTQ’s but lately could not even stay live for more than the first couple rounds of an event. He doesn’t think his game is slipping but the luck he once had has dried out. He asked me if he should just quit the game or grind it out. This question hit home for me.

Before I was a Pro, I was just like every other PTQer. I spent all of my free time working on whatever season it was to get my chance at Pro Tour glory. It was supposed to be just a hobby, but to me it was life. I would Top 8 almost every PTQ I played in but could never win a match once I got there. This was a very frustrating process but the grinder in me would never let me give up. I knew I was good enough to at least get to play in a Pro Tour, but had to just wait for my luck to come.

The Grind

This soon changed when I took a very depressing loss in the Top 8 to Owen Turtenwald in a Madison PTQ. I drove all the way down there and knew I had the best deck for me to play. I crushed the swiss and even beat Owen on my way to the Top 8. My match in the Top 8 was very depressing and I got crushed by Owen in two blowout games. The whole trip home made me think that it was time to give up the dream and move on. I was thinking very irrationally and emotionally due to my dissapointing loss. I decided to quit playing.

The next month involved me not playing any Magic and spending my time at my newly acquired job and playing some video games I neglected while trying to become a pro. My best friend and roommate finally made me go to a qualifier in Winnipeg that was happening the next day. I told him I didn’t want to but his persistence won me over. I got together the same deck I played last month and did battle. I ended up taking the tournament down. The troubles of variance almost got me to throw in the towel. It took the faith of one of my friends to talk me into taking another chance.

You would think that since I was a success story that I would tell this player to keep his head in it and it will soon be alright. It is not. It takes an individual to figure out what they want out of this game. Variance is a harsh mistress and sometimes things will not go your way even though you did everything to prevent this. You have to ask yourself if you are enjoying your time playing Magic, and what is it about the game that you enjoy. Winning cannot be the only thing that you pull enjoyment out of.

This was my big problem back then. I only had fun when I was winning and that was the only reason I played the game. I wanted to go big and was willing to go home if that didn’t happen. This way of thinking left me with some very disappointing days that should not have been.

Nowadays I have figured out what is important to emotionally invest yourself into while playing Magic. It is not if you win or lose, but how well you are playing. This is the only thing you can control while playing this game and is the only thing that can help you get better at the game. If you spend time on thinking about how unlucky you are, you will miss important decisions that will help you in the future. It is impossible to play good Magic if you are not making decisions with a clear mind and a healthy attitude.

The player I told this to was very confused by my answer. I told him that it was up to him and if he couldn’t find fun out of the game that he should quit it and move on. He thought there was some great secret to playing good Magic and avoiding variance. I know that he just didn’t want to hear this answer. He wanted the easy way out.

That’s the funny thing about Magic. There is rarely the easy way out. It is always filled with long days and tough roads ahead. Sometimes you lose to the kid that made a mistake every turn of the game but slammed a bomb down in the last minute. It sucks that you lost the game, but it is great as well. That is why Magic is so great and popular.

What I forgot to tell this player is that blaming variance for a loss is rarely correct. He was actually in a very common situation that most Magic players get into. So in his story he told us that he was doing very well for a long period of time. During this period he was in theory spending a great deal of time playtesting. Playtesting tends to help a player control variance by making them a stronger player. They get to see so many more situations and this allows them to get themselves out of some very rough spots.

Most players take testing less seriously when they are constantly doing well. It is a trap I have been through one too many times myself. Once he was doing well he slowly playtested less causing him to allow more losses into his game. He chose to blame variance instead of something he actually had control over. This is how he took the easy way out.

This does not mean variance is a myth. It is very true and will cause losses in the game. Variance is only as bad as how you deal with it though. This does not just include Magic, but with everything in life. Happiness during bad situations is not always something that comes easy but I assure you that your quality of life will improve if you learn how to deal with it and move on. It will even be better if you can dig deep while in a bad situation and find that you had control over it the whole time.

I know that I am cutting this short, but my connection is finally here and I am about to end my 24-hour layover in Salt Lake City. I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas and a fresh attitude going into the next PTQ season. Play tight and don’t let the negative attitudes bite.

Brad Nelson

47 thoughts on “FFfreaky Friday – Variance”

  1. Great Article!

    There’s just so many skills in Magic and this is defenitely one: accknowledge the variance in this game.

    I played my best Magic in Amsterdam and went 10-6, which qualified me for Worlds (ratind), where I definitely played worse, not bad, but worse than in Amsterdam and i made Top 8. That’s Magic!

  2. absolutely wonderful brad!
    i think the lessons in this article will help many more players then any i have read so far.
    i have seen so many good players let a losing streak get to them and they get so on tilt that
    they play far worse then they normally would. your mind set is such an important part of how you play.

    i’m very sorry about what happened at worlds, and want you to know that i have faith in you and can’t wait to see what you do in the up coming year.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. I have noticed that as I became less and less concerned with the final results and more with the way I was playing each game, I was getting more and more enjoyment out of each game, win or loss. With less focus on the result, I’ve been able to pull off some wins that shouldn’t have happened, and I’ve lost some heartbreakers, but I’ve gotten a little better as a player with each passing event, and that’s what matters.

  4. Just in case anyone was counting, the word variance was used 12 times in this article 🙂

    Great job this year, Brad. I was routing for you and PV the whole way!
    I hope you smash Guillaume (in the politest way possible)

  5. This was a great article which really showed your Maturity as a person as compared to Mike. I am curious, however, as to whether you have any advice into how to show parents who don’t support Magic as a hobby what a great game this is. That would make for an even more interesting read.

  6. I totally agree with this, if you can go to a tournament and have a good time despite not having a good finish is a great skill. It takes a lot of sting out of loses and makes good runs last WAY longer since it’s easy to stay in a good head space.

    That’s not to say I don’t get pissed when I loss . . . thankfully I’ve been able to consciously recognize it and use it as a motivation booster to get better.

  7. Good article, looking forward to watching the showdown for Player of the Year. I’m sure having competition come at you out of the blue like that is disappointing on a certain level, it certainly does make for a dramatic moment in the history of the game. And you seem willing and able to make the best of that.

  8. I actually stopped playing Magic because of variance. I stopped enjoying drafts when every week I would get together what seemed like a decent deck and draw either 7 or 0 lands every hand. There was one deck I got so fed up with 2 rounds of mana flooding that I dropped to 15 lands. First hand was 7 lands, and I mulled to 5 lands and a spell. I kept since I was on the draw, and drew four lands. I discovered I needed to play a game with much less variance, and I switched back to Hearts and Spades.

    I do love drafting and sometimes wish I could go back and have fun, but I’ll play an online game of magic and draw 7 lands then mull to 6 lands and instantly remember why I quit.

  9. @ superglucose: If you have ANY basic math education you KNOW 7 mulling into 6 land hands are VERY VERY rare. You make the fallacy of Hasty Generalization : arguing that a special case is the general rule.. Oh noes I drew all lands once, so I must always draw all lands…

    If you play 100 games, have a decent land ratio and shuffle well then you will find out like everybody else that this happens only once or twice… And sure, sometimes you get 7 spells no land… And sure sometimes you get 3 lands and 4 cards, but still have to mulligan because of this particular matchup, where the 4 cards are all completely worthless.

    Some of the greatest magic players mulligan a lot, for example Martin Juza and Paulo VD da Rosa, I bet it’s closer to 25% than to 10% of their hands.

  10. even if you are the best player on the tour you can easlisy go X-X for the whole year. That is varince Brad… going X-X only one tourney is pretty damn lucky. play poker for a year!

  11. Great story for Christmas!

    Shuffling is very important! To get some basic knowledge about your shuffling skills I recommend that you try with a deck of sorted basic playing cards.

  12. “and playing some video games I neglected while trying to become a pro.”

    Thank god you came to your senses.

  13. In poker terms,any guy coming up to you saying they play awesome and are getting unlucky is the equivalent of a bad beat story. just tell them to man up and move on with their life,you really do not want to hear it,even though you can relate,and if you cant take the swings(variance) you cant play the game.or any game with a luck factor.time to learn the umpteen million chess opens

  14. It took me years to learn this. Variance is CONSTANT of the game so when bad shit happens to you it should be treated as a CONSTANT. Focus on things you can control. Only then can you maximize your potential.

  15. i play mtgo an never see variance effect me

    i think irl magic is more like cheaters an stackers an stuff online u cant do that an its more random an ppl do to cheat in big tourneys like saito with hacked shuffles an crap an slow plays like reading jace even tho ur level 8 an on the pro tour i dont think u need to read a jace an u cant even read english cuz ur japanese so yeah hes a liar an fraud

  16. This article validates why I think you are one of the best Magic players now and forever. You don’t let your losses get to you and you share your lessons with the rest of us unabashedly. I learned a lot from your take on variance, reflecting on my own recent downward spiral after getting a ton of wins over the last couple of months. I wanted to quit but I couldn’t do it because I love the game and the friends I have because of it. Now I have one more reason to remain playing: to play every game to the best of my ability just like you. THANK YOU.

  17. The attitude with which you approach the game is great.

    The way you compose your writing into compelling reading could use some work. Try varying sentence length or getting more focus into paragraphs to better pace content for your audience.

  18. I’ve known Brad for many years. I was the one that introduced him to magic back when we all played in the school cafeteria after school. He was in my Geometry class and sat behind me. He was the quietest guy ever. If you asked him a question he would give you the shortest version of the answer possible. I decided to get him into playing magic. Partly because I wanted more players in our school and partly because he seemed like he could be a fun guy.
    He came a few times and then started netdecking us. He dived into the game so fast and so hard that we were left in the dust. The first deck that he brought to the table was a Stasis deck. He didn’t get very many games because that deck is simply busted in a table top magic game, but he had fun.
    He really got me into the game. He likes to put all the credit of his being in the game because of me, but really, he was the one that kept getting better and better and made me try to be better and better. I chose the road of having a job while he chose the road of grinding out magic. In the end, he won, haha. With all the MODO he has done over the past 7 years, there is no way I’ll ever catch up to him. I still take him down from time to time though, because I can read him all too well. 😉
    When Brad lost in Madison in T8 he was on serious life tilt. He gave up. Simply put. He was going to sell all of his cards and get a job and live the boring life that he so desperatly fought against. Really, life without passion is not worth living and I could see the effects of it in Bradley.
    The Winnipeg tournament was notorious for having very few players and I knew that the best chance for getting Brad back into the game was to have him play there and win. I finally convinced him to go (with the help of a dinosaur shirt).
    Long story short, he got there and then REALLY got there.
    Go team roommates!

  19. Variance is a funny thing …I am pretty sure you can neglect most of it if you are good enough. This means you mostly notice it when you’re not at the top of your game. I got the most awful bad beats at Worlds I ever had in my life (I told you about them), but it was also the event I was least prepared for, and I’m not blaming anything on double traps into Ulamog plus Emrakul. I could have changed everything when I would have been prepared, probably starting with playing another deck. Eventually, as a really, really god player, I think variance can be reduced to *almost* nothing if you just play well enough. Of course, you are bound to give away a game or two during a tournament to it, but probably not much more; if you’re good enough!

  20. I quit magic after Brad and Corey started beating me at FNM. It made no sense because I’m so rediculously smart and my sleight of hand skillz are obscene.

  21. @Harrison Hite

    Do well in school. Help out at home. Be actively involved in extra curricular activities and stay in shape both mentally / physically.

    Show them you’re a responsible person and in charge of your own life rather than the game taking charge of your life.

    More often than not, it’s not the game or the hobby that parents are worried about, but the amount of self control that their child has.

    Besides, who wouldn’t raise an eye brow if their teenage kids ask for 10+ dollars every week to play card games that will ostracize them from socially well adjusted kids in school?

  22. @Greatbox:

    C’mon – its just a game. I mean, seriously out of all the things that teenagers could be doing/spending time and money on, this is probably one of the most constructive.

    Also, I mean $10 doesn’t even buy you one draft so that number seems a bit low to me.

    Sometimes you just have to stand up for yourself and say look — I’m not doing drugs or anything that is so terrible. It’s just cards mom and dad – get over it.

  23. @OTurtenwald

    What? I got out of reading the passage that the ‘variance’ he spoke of was consistently doing well in the PTQ rounds but never well in the matches once qualifying. That last match was just the straw breaking the camel’s back.

  24. So, you get unlucky in a single tournament and now you’r crying like a baby and talking about “variances”? We all know that you are not in the same level that PV, LSV or Conley Woods.

  25. @Oturtenwald

    Yes. That is exactly what the article was about.

    @ Brad & roomate

    If you want to quit smoking don’t forget to replace it with something else that has a physical change on your mental state i.e. exercising. You will have a physical need for nicotine and without a replacement habit to get that relaxation you will immediately start again. *shrug*.

  26. Brad. I’m glad you are not letting it phase you, and I am stoked to see you play against Matignon for POY. Take your own advice; keep a level head and playtest the hell out of everything. Right now, you remind me of Mark McGwire on the ’89 A’s. That might not mean anything to you, but when I was ten, he was my hero. I know you are from the midwest, but you play for a bay area team, so the parallel sticks.
    You kick ass, keep your head in the game. Make us proud.

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  28. Great article Brad. I’m just an old fart who enjoys playing MTG with his son. The best part of the article to me was “find fun out of the game” and if you don’t “quit it and move on”. I love the competitiveness of the game, but more for me it is the fun of MTG.

    Sure I go to the PTQ’s and someday I dream of playing my son in the final round of the top 8, but I’m not smart enough to get there, so I hope someday I see him there cause I know he can.

    Either way though…we go to meet friends, make new friends and have a good time.

  29. Though worded differently, the skill of remaining neutral to variance is actually a well founded theory in psychology. In Stephen R. Covey’s best seller “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” he talks about how everything can be divided into two spheres:

    1) The sphere of influence, in which your actions affects the chain of events
    2) The sphere of interest, in which you can not alter the chain of events

    Correlating to Magic, you might have an interest to win the game (or a tournament), but your sphere of influence is limited to what cards you play and how you play them – and the rob lies in focusing your efforts on only that. Embracing this concept is such a big step for most people, and will help you far beyond just Magic.

  30. great article!!!
    i have been playing for 15 years, and had my worse pro tour at chiba. I really enjoyed your article.

  31. “Nowadays I have figured out what is important to emotionally invest yourself into while playing Magic. It is not if you win or lose, but how well you are playing. This is the only thing you can control while playing this game and is the only thing that can help you get better at the game. If you spend time on thinking about how unlucky you are, you will miss important decisions that will help you in the future. It is impossible to play good Magic if you are not making decisions with a clear mind and a healthy attitude”
    I think you just changed my Magic life forever. These words hit home, like you wouldnt even imagine. THANK YOU SO MUCH BRAD. Smac

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