Today I would like to share with you an important and hard lesson that I had to learn in the past few weeks: how to handle a streak of “bad luck“, continuous losses and not getting the desired results.
Some of you may already know my story, and my accomplishments last year in Magic; I top 8’ed 3 PTQs early during the year (including a win), qualified for the first two Pro Tours, won back to back Grand Prix, qualified for the other two Pro Tours of the year, cashed two of them, locked Gold, won the MSI finals in London and finally finished top4 in the World Magic Cup with the English Team as their captain. Most of this happened when I had a full-time job and a girlfriend to spend time with.
Now, how did all this happen when I was barely investing any time in testing for any of these tournaments? Simple, I was being lucky; I was on what a friend calls “the positive side of the balance”; I was winning some games because I was playing well, I was winning others because I was getting lucky draws, and some games I won simply because my opponents were having bad draws.
I think all Magic players have gone through– and still do go through–this experience, you know you are making mistakes, you know your opponent is better than you, you know your are playing a bad match-up but, you still win. It’s just part of the game we love, some people call it good luck-bad luck, others call it variance.
During my winning streak, I started playing more and more Magic in order to keep those numbers high and I was playing a little bit better each time, each tournament experience helped. Joining one of the best teams in the world and probably best in Europe also improved my skills. I started being more strict with myself about making mistakes, it didn’t matter how far ahead I was in a game and how unlikely it was for me to lose it, I’d still wanted to find the best play in each situation and make the right decision.
I was making less mistakes, but when you try to play fast enough to avoid draws, you also make some mistakes that you realize a few seconds after; I was okay with it though, the mistakes I was making were really unlikely to cost me the game, and as long as I spot those mistakes I will be able to remember them and avoid them in the future. More than mistakes, I would call them “making the good play instead of the better one“.
But then I started getting lazy, I started being less and less strict on myself about those apparently little decisions, at the end of the day I was still winning, so who cares.
Until I stopped winning.
Suddenly and out of nowhere, I started paying for every little mistake I was making; in many of the situations I was making good plays decisions, giving myself a 99% chance to win the game, however I was getting punished by that 1% for not making the better play. To help show you what I mean, I will include an example here below:
I was playing in the Super Sunday sealed event in Seville a couple of weeks ago (ended 7-2, throwing away the two matches I’d lost). In round 8 (still at 6-1) I was playing against Temur colours and on my turn 6 I had some options and decisions to make; I’d missed a land drop and I had a lot of good cards in hand and couple of creatures in play, I was certainly winning that game by the number of resources I was still holding.
It occurred to me at the time that the best way forward was by playing Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker and attack for a lot of damage and putting my opponent at 2 life. I was at 11 life, he had a morph creature with a +1/+1 counter on it from from Map the Wastes, 5 lands all untapped and 2 cards in hand.
I took a moment to work out how I could possibly die in his turn. The answers I could think of at the time were: At the end of my turn he’d cast Ethereal Ambush, play an untapped land, unmorph a Woolly Loxodon and attack with everything, or at the end of my turn he’d unmorph– and the unmorphed creature would have a power of 4 or greater –then he’d pump it with Become Immense. These scenarios seemed pretty unlikely at the time, and chances were that I wasn’t going to die on his turn, the game would be mine on my next turn and so I just decided to make the play and cast Sarkhan.
There were actually more scenarios and cards that I didn’t think of back then at the time, which could also make me lose the game e.g. Surrak Dragonclaw, Crater’s Claw, Mob Rule, Temur Battle Rage. Most of those cards are rares and the chances seemed pretty low that he had them. The truth however is that regardless of any of this, I had already found at least TWO ways in which I could die if I did make that play, I still decided to make the play anyway because I felt that luck was still in my favour, and it was unlikely that I would get punished for my mistakes.
For many people without enough experience in the game, many of these scenarios would not have even crossed their minds and that’s fine; Magic is a game that has a lot of depth, requires a lot of time invested and a lot of experience is needed to consistently perform well on the top tables. On the other hand however, if you are one of those players with a high level of commitment to the game, like me, you should always make sure that you are reducing your chances of losing to the absolute minimum, especially in games that you think you have already won.
So, when do we start talking about handling the bad streaks of not winning? Just one more point to cover before that, I’ll do my best to keep it short.
In recent weeks, both in paper Magic and in online Magic, I was getting punished for EVERY little mistake I was making. No matter how unlikely it seemed at the time to lose with certain plays, every time I was giving my opponent a chance to topdeck an out, it was happening. I lost in the most unlikely circumstances and met the biggest losing streak I’ve ever had.
My normal reaction was of course getting frustrated and hating everything about the game. I didn’t want to play more and I wanted to spend my time doing something else, at least for a few days.
The main reason why I did so bad in GP Seville (finished 6-3 but got the third lost in round 7, excluding the byes I actually went from 1-3 to 3-3) was not just for the bad streak but also because of my lack of knowledge of the format. I’d spent the past two months testing Modern for the Pro Tour and only had 2-3 days after coming back from Washington to catch up with Standard.
I’d underestimated how deep Standard actually is right now, most of the main decks can play different roles and having the knowledge of how each one of them interacted with the others is vital if you want to succeed in any Standard event. More than deck choice, card selection seems to have the most influence on your tournament results.
Pro Tour Brussels is in less than 7 weeks time, Grand Prix Krakow follows the week after that and Grand Prix Paris is three weeks after that. All these events are in Standard format and I intend to participate in all three. Naturally, after my disaster in Seville, I didn’t want to– and can’t afford to — just give up the game for a few weeks, instead I wanted to play as many hours of Magic Online as possible. So, how did I manage the frustration of not winning and still motivating myself to play Magic?
Every time I felt that I was starting to get frustrated and that things were going nowhere, I’d stop playing for a couple of hours, go out for a walk, focused on my breathing and started thinking about what was going on. And it always boiled down to this, that there are two kinds of things in life: the ones I could not do anything about, and the ones that I COULD do something about.
The things I couldn’t do anything about were basically getting unlucky, making too many mulligans and losing games that I couldn’t have played any differently. This is what we already called the variance of the game, it is there and it is going to affect many of your games. So do we just quit the game at this point? No, we do the only thing we can do about it; we focus on the things that we can actually do something about.
And what are the things we can change when we are on a losing streak? Firstly and the most important thing of all is that you’ll need to be able to spot the mistakes that you are making. I am not only talking about the in-game mistakes, which I have already discussed above, but also the ability to assess the decisions you are making pre-tournament, the decks you want to test, the decks you want to play, and the metagame you want to beat, and so on.
In my case, I started losing to variance and started making changes to my decklist as a result. I tried out new cards and new approaches to the deck. I was only changing 1-2 cards at a time but I ended up with a deck that had 20 cards different from the original build. The deck that I’d spent the most time on was Sultai Control; how could it be possible to lose so much when at the exact same time another person was winning a GP with the same deck? Well, it wasn’t the same deck, I was playing well enough to make games look close, but the decklist wasn’t the best one and that was also one of the reasons I was losing so much.
I also made many in-game mistakes, I was tilting from losing so much. Every time I had the option to make the best play I was instead just making the good and easy play because “I was surely going to get punished no matter what play I choose, so there is no point in over-thinking it“. This was of course a mistake.
I think I also made many mistakes because I was still getting used to the format again, and that’s perfectly normal; we can’t expect to play at our best if we don’t have a good knowledge of a format. This can only be fixed by investing time and learning.
The methods I’ve adopted above are working for me. In Season 3 of the Magic Online Championship, I had 27 QP (needing 35 to qualify for the finals) and I had 5 days to get the remaining 8 points. After many hours of playing during the remaining five days I ended the season with just 28 points. Season 4 started 4 days ago and I have already earned 17 points, which I feel indicates a big improvement in results.
One last important point to mention. What if we spot the mistakes we are making, we do our best to change what we can change, but we still lose because of variance? Well remember that variance is always going to be there, and it is there for everyone. If some players can win back to back World Championships or top 8 multiple Pro Tours, it’s not because the variance doesn’t exist for them but because they are just doing their best in the situation they are in. So don’t worry if the results are not there for you yet, as long as you are doing things right, the results will show in the long run.
Community Question: What are your tips for handling a bad losing streak?
Hope this wasn’t too boring for you to read and that you were able to learn something from it. I will see you this weekend in Liverpool, where I mean to break my bad streak in paper events and make it 3/3 top8s in English Grand Prix.