The Five Worst Feelings In Magic: The Gathering, And How To Deal With Them – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge
“Myths, whether in written or visual form, serve a vital role of asking unanswerable questions and providing unquestionable answers. Most of us, most of the time, have a low tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. We want to reduce the cognitive dissonance of not knowing by filling the gaps with answers. Traditionally, religious myths have served that role, but today — the age of science — science fiction is our mythology.” Author – Michael Shermer
So I’ve not written anything in nearly a month, which is a shame because I have exceeded expectations by writing as much as I would like to over the last six months or so, and unfortunately I’ve had a break in my run of articles. In my defence, in that month I submitted the PhD Application I’ve been procrastinating over for 18 months (through half a dozen drafts), tested pretty extensively for GP Manchester, made meaningful progress on my painting backlog, spent a week cleaning the house and then having my in laws up and completed Warhammer Total War with two of five factions. Busy times!
This isn’t the only reason I’ve not written however – The main reason being that I’ve really struggled to be enthusiastic about Magic: The Gathering at all recently. I’ve been going through a pretty rough spell psychologically, which I think is mostly done with now that I have submitted my PhD application, but the rough spell in Magic continues. I just don’t seem able to accomplish the things I want to in the game at the moment, and while I know that one can have hot streaks, as I came off one right before this calamitous year, and bad streaks. This one seems to be going on for ages, with no end in sight.
This is the type of problem which can become poisonous to a player, and by extension to their friends. Even though I’m aware of this, it’s a very difficult thing to control – I have become highly frustrated a lot of the time with the card game, and it’s hard to stop this vexation infecting my interactions. I’m sure that these are feelings which affect almost every competitive player, so today’s article is about identifying problematic times and feelings, and how we might best address them. Lets take a look…
5. Not Being Able to “Get It Done” – Close, But Not Quite
As we progress in time and skill through the game, it becomes the case that previous accomplishments are somewhat taken for granted. Examples from previous periods in the game for myself personally include qualifying for Nationals or making a PTQ Top 8 or two every season. Of course there were times when I really struggled to qualify for Nationals, and there were entire years where I didn’t Top 8 a PTQ. If these events had occurred so that the struggling happened “before” the consistent winning streak, and then I improved and the struggling ended, it would be unproblematic. Instead, these periods happen sporadically, without an immediate, obvious cause, and they’re exceedingly frustrating.
The most obvious spot for this is the situation in which I am in currently – having qualified in a timely fashion for the first two seasons of RPTQs – I have now missed three in a row, and don’t have high expectations for the current season either. The solution is to look at what you’re doing and see if there is anything which you might be able to change. Have I been stubborn about my deck choices? Perhaps in that I have not been keen to play the format-leading [Card]Colllected Company[/Card] decks, but I have played a wide range of decks throughout and, perhaps even more frustratingly, I still actually Top 8 every other standard PPTQ I play, only to either stall on three land or ‘flood-out’ at some critical point in the Top 8.
Am I keeping bad hands? Maybe, I keep most hands with lands and spells, in fear of the above happening. Am I playing badly? I’m probably not playing as well as I once was, as it’s really difficult to play well when your perspective is so embittered. Sometimes the reason you’re doing badly will simply be because you’re playing the wrong decks, or keeping bad hands, and this is great because you have something concrete from which you can change and try to move on.
The last year fellow player Matt Light (for example) has been a source of hope for me…
When you don’t know what the problem is, it becomes far more difficult. In these circumstances, it’s mostly a matter of waiting it out. The last year fellow player Matt Light (for example) has been a source of hope for me, as I know he didn’t do anything spectacularly different, and yet went from a situation much like my own, to winning consistently right after he beat me in a PPTQ final two seasons ago.
4. Being Disproportionately Punished – Small Mistakes, Huge Consequences
Sometimes it seems like every time you make a mistake, even if it’s something really small (e.g. forgetting to play a second Shambling Vents pre-combat because your opponent might have an edict effect, and then you will die because you didn’t gain 2 life if they top deck a particular card which they’re 1/15 to draw, as this will be exactly lethal), they always, always have the most punishing card they could and totally destroy you. Inversely, they get away with making a procession of fundamental errors which they’re really likely to be punished for, and of course you never have the corresponding response to punish their misplay.
This is such a deflating situation and, for myself, kills the desire to play. If the game is consistently like this, then where is the point in even playing it? The key here, naturally, is that it never repeatedly unfolds as such and you know it isn’t always because you can do the probability maths. It’s one thing to off-handedly accept this on a logical level, and another to accept it emotionally. There is so much to be said for embracing this sort of knowledge on a base level, to cultivate a knowledge that this fact is the same in nature as your knowledge as to what your favourite flavour of ice cream is – to become a central value or logic. Often when I speak to Magic players about the game, and I say something about probability, their eyes glaze over and they become impatient, which makes me think that it’s probably the case that there is something discordant about their knowledge of probability and the way they encounter reality in practice.
Once this is accepted, there ought to be some peace in knowing that, in the long term, you will be rewarded for doing things correctly, and thus punished for doing things incorrectly. This advice is only useful if you’re planning on playing the game long term, because if your entire experience with the game was a single tournament, then all discussions in regards to probability, chance and reality becomes singular and almost irrelevant.
3. Not Being As Good As You Once Were – Time Takes Its Toll
This happens most frequently to people when they take a break from Magic, or if they are coming back after quitting, but it can happen for other reasons too. I think I’m playing to a slightly lower level than I once did through a combination of complacency and undermined confidence, for instance.
It’s tempting in this situation to fall back on the familiar. Jonny Chapman – who is an great player from when they still printed cards on stone tablets – occasionally threatens to play Magic and within a couple of minutes will invariably say “there must be a white weenie deck”, for “theoretical reasons based on the game as it was back in the day”. The problem with this is that things change; Savannah Lions isn’t the power house it once was, and is only situationally good nowadays, as three to five mana creatures are substantially better than they used to be.
If a person plays events and their expectation doesn’t match reality, this can be pretty frustrating. To avoid this, and to salve the issue once it has happened, the key is to realise that you might be off your game. I would advise against playing any sort of “theoretically sound” decks or cards which no one else is playing for the first three months of a given format, and playing the decks as you see them on the internet. This will serve to ground your knowledge and experience in the contemporary context, and allow for a greater degree of understanding and objectivity. In short, it will make sure you actually know what you’re talking about rather than just think you do because you won some games back when Fred Flintstone was just a lad.
2. Feeling You’re Too Good For the Environment In Which You Play – The Downfall of the Complacent
Sometimes we simply outgrow playing situations. It’s not unreasonable that a player might start by finding FNM challenging, then start winning, then always win, then not go anymore. In fact the whole game is designed to be a bit like this – providing various tournaments which you’re intended to advance through as you get better. The problem is firstly that people often experience a discrepancy between expectation and reality in this respect, and so they think they’re much better than everyone at FNM, but don’t actually win it all that often – the nature of events and skill being that a player who wins more than say 70% of FNMs, is probably going to stop going, and play the PPTQ on the Saturday instead. There is a good chance that this person will end up feeling highly frustrated a significant portion of the time as they continue to play.
On an emotional level, I feel I’m too good for PPTQs, but rationally I realise that this is a bit crazy given I can’t actually seem to win one. This doesn’t stop them being frustrating as hell though! I think a design in which it made some sort of difference if you kept Top 8ing but never win (e.g. a points system of some sort) might be better, but I can see why they’ve not done this. Having a single winner is clean, easy, and there’s less chance of corruption.
I’ve got the experience behind me in the game, the maturity that comes with age, and the propensity for self-reflection which brings about extensive reading on issues of perception, all of which helps, but the disparity between expectation and reality is still a problem for me to some degree. It’s no surprise to see younger, less experienced, less accomplished players struggle more than I do with a sense of entitlement.
Doing the reading was actually really helpful for me in this respect. Cognitive Dissonance is a pretty interesting concept, and worth a look even if it’s just on Wikipedia. But what it really comes down to is realising that things are as they are, not what you expect or want them to be. You won’t win all the time, things will be hard, and life isn’t a TV show about you. Accomplishing things in Magic isn’t impossible however, but the best long term skill you can acquire is patience, both for dealing with unfortunate outcomes, as well as other players.
1. “Wheels Spinning in the Mud” – Breaking Through the Plateau
Sometimes you seem to either plateau or reach a problem which you seemingly can’t overcome in testing. When you’re preparing for events, the games you play in preparation ought to be universally purposeful (e.g. not just “jamming” games or “getting in reps”, but playing should be towards specific ends. When things are going really badly it’s easy to let things like this slide, as they require effort and often confrontation, making things seem like it’s not worth the effort it when it’s going badly.
The problem with this is that it’s basically the same as pushing down on the accelerator when your car is stuck in the mud, and waiting for it to magically self-right, when what is actually needed is to get out and call the AA. To do this you might need to go back to the basics of the format:
What are the key decks?…
Which decks beat other decks in the format?…
What are you trying to accomplish as a result of testing?…
What decks are genuinely well-suited to accomplishing that?…
What are their pitfalls?…
How can those pitfalls be overcome?…
It’s much easier to just keep playing and hope it randomly goes somewhere, but the chances are it won’t.
This is where I’m at in the current format: I’m no longer concerned that I won’t qualify – I think it’s likely that I won’t – but I am concerned by the idea of spending another five weeks uselessly playing games with no realistic chance of any sort of advancement. I’d rather just take a break, which is something I rarely do, but often think I ought to have in retrospect. If I’m to play anymore Standard in this format, then it will be with an eye to accomplishing something specific rather than hoping that the decks will do something other than go 60-40 with each other, over and over. Taking a break would be significantly better than that…
…on that cheery note, time for this week’s Fable!
The Opinionated, Nameless Horde
Once upon a time, there were, as there is everywhere, countless super average people. Collectively they made up a whole society, much like the way that nameless NPCs make up cities in role play games – the Nameless Horde were the random people on forums you’d never heard of, the people in the queue in front of you at the post office, the other drivers on the road. They were… unremarkable…
But as is often the way of things, the whole was more than the sum of its part with the horde. As a group the horde formed a thing called “public opinion”, which was used to decide who the good guys were, and who the bad guys were.
Occasionally some drama would occur and there would be cause to damn and criticise an individual, and this was the point at which the horde would loudly express its opinion about this individual, revelling in animalistic, schadenfreude-based glee. But then when all the fuss was over, the horde was still nameless, and no one had asked them in the first place, and this was followed by a sad, empty feeling for the horde.
And the moral of the story is schadenfreude doesn’t make you better, it’s just vulgar, and mean.
Community Question: Have you experienced one or more of the issues discussed in this article? If so then how did you overcome them?
That’s it for this week. I’ll try and write something again before the WMCQ next weekend. All the best!
Thanks for reading,