What Are The Roles Of Positive Thinking And Critical Thinking In Magic: The Gathering? by Graeme McIntyre

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How Would You Define Positive Thinking and Critical Thinking, and What Are Their Roles in Magic: The Gathering?

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever” – George Orwell, 1984

In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four” – George Orwell, 1984

I’ve been thinking a great deal about group dynamics, language and articulation in Magic: The Gathering recently, and it is my intent to write something in relation to that next week. In preparation for Grand Prix Manchester, Matt Light wasn’t around, but he happened to be around in preparation for the World Magic Cup Qualifier just past. I didn’t do well in either event, in keeping with the trend I discussed last week, but Nick Ball and Matt Light both went 6-2, while James Allingham made Top 8 with the same deck this week. The deck was a Sultai list which wasn’t a million times different to the deck that David Inglis, Ross Jenkins and I all played at GP Manchester, but the discussion during testing and, ultimately, my faith in the deck after each event was very different.

What this really came down to was that we discussed our direction far more, keeping on the same page, and directly addressing various concerns and issues each of us thought might be problematic with an eye to making sure this was understood by the group as a whole, thus resulting in a group consensus. This didn’t really happen to any great extent in the lead up to the GP, and I ultimately played the deck hoping that the rest of the group was correct about the sideboard, which I didn’t particularly understand. Needless to say, I feel a lot better about the deck I played at the WMCQ compared to my deck selection for the GP.

I’m often told I am overly negative about – well, a lot of things – but most importantly I am perceived as being negative about specific cards. From my perspective, the game is about problem solving, so I don’t see much point in talking endlessly about how good something is. For example, I can unproblematically accept that casting a Dead Drop for one black mana and killing two mythic rare creatures is going to be outstanding in limited, and would consider focusing on the positive aspects of this somewhat pointless.  I would be concerned about playing three, however, because there will be situations where the card won’t be at its most effective, and that this aspect of their nature is worthy of consideration.

One way or another, concern over my negativity has lead back to the concept of Positive Thinking, a popular topic found in psychology and self-help books, often as a means of dealing with depression. It’s worth saying at this point that if you’re suffering from a mental health issue and you’re finding positive thinking to be helpful, then that’s great! But it’s not for everyone as mental health care varies between individuals, and that’s okay too. I would advocate reading this article with the idea that it is only discussing positive thinking within the context of Magic: The Gathering in mind. 


The Role of Positive and Critical Thinking in Magic: The Gathering

“Positive thinking is a mental attitude in which you expect good and/or favourable results. In other words, positive thinking is the process of creating thoughts that create and transform energy into reality. A positive mind waits for happiness, health and a happy ending in any situation.” (source)

It’s tricky to find a good definition for the term Positive Thinking, as it encompasses so much within the topic. From what I’ve read around the topic (purely from Internet research rather than academic sources), it seems to be an effective working definition, in spite of the final sentence sounding rather more spiritual than academic in its definition. Realistically, no one is really looking for the positive in being viciously attacked by a wild boar, are they? That just seems like a negative experience, and the idea that you might meet new friends while you’re in hospital just rings hollow. So for the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume what is meant by that last sentence is something more in line with “being fired from a dead-end job as an opportunity to look for a job you’ll like better,” and perceptions to that effect.

Critical Thinking – Noun

  1. the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement.”

Critical thinking is easier to define as it has a more discrete meaning. This is the bedrock of rationalism and the scientific method. The only real problem with it is that it relies on “objectivity” which is a major topic of debate in certain circles – postmodernists for instance. Critical thinking conflicts slightly with positive thinking in that the latter isn’t objective, but subjective in that it prescribes a partial view of reality (e.g. forming reality with regard to the positive, and the exclusion of the negative).

There are almost certainly philosophy degrees in which this or something very similar has been an exam or essay question, so I’m only going to touch on it rather than going into the details and focus on the areas that apply to Magic: the Gathering a little more. That being said it is worth being aware of this discordance while reading the rest of the article.


Examples of Positive Thinking and Critical Thinking in Magic: the Gathering – Good From The Bad versus Bad From The Bad

Let’s bring it back to something more concrete. If we break Magic down into some categories, we can discuss critical and positive thinking in each.

1. Internal Issues – How to Evaluate Your Chances?

The nature of Magic: The Gathering is that it can be pretty “swingy”. Often you can get into a situation where you’re really far behind, but you have options, and if you think it through you might be able to win still. This is of course quite difficult to do when it’s complicated and it’s compounded by feeling that you’ve been unlucky/they’ve been lucky. This can make it quite difficult to follow through several complicated lines of play and compare them objectively.

Thinking positively will definitely help in these circumstances, in the sense that it’s pointless to think about how bad a beat you got, and there is a lot of point in thinking about what you can do to win, regardless of the bad beat. In this way thinking positively is the same as thinking critically; it’s an attempt to remain objective while there is temptation to move into a subjective, negative frame of mind… which will also make it impossible to actually think through the problem properly.

I used to be really bad for this, and my game came a long quite a way when I became fully aware of it, and checked for it. Note that I’m not saying you should be happy when your opponent top decks a removal spell, because now you have less creatures and so if your opponent then top decks a Wrath of God you will lose less creatures, because things like that aren’t going to be helpful. Ideally what would happen is that they would cast Doomblade from the top in ideal circumstances, and we would simply reassess the board, like a robot. This isn’t realistic, but what we can do is set up mental habits which mitigate and safeguard against our more destructive tendencies.

2. Community Issues – Has event quality dropped since the new Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier (PPTQ) system came into being?

Thinking positively, I’d basically be required to take issue with the premise of this question: Why is it even asking something negative like that? Instead, the question ought to be “Which events have I enjoyed most since the introduction of the new PPTQ system?”, as this will roughly correlate with the highest quality events. What positive traits did they share? Were said traits they had in line with the super cool PTQs we had before the spiffing PPTQs we have now?

Thinking critically, I’d say they definitely have dropped: Some of the events I play in now look like PTQs did fifteen years ago. Some of them are a horrific gouge in terms of price, whilst others are completely unrealistic about how many people they can fit into their venue. I understand why this is the way it is, and I’m glad I live where I do as I can avoid the events I’m not happy playing in, but overall, my play experience is worse by a meaningful margin than it was before the new system.

The difference between positive thinking and critical thinking here seems, on one level, to be a matter of perspective. We’re still talking about the same thing, and we’re still talking about improvement, but what we are not doing is clearly stating, to begin with, there are people who are at fault, and that things have been changed for the worst. While I realise that I am no doubt less happy in seeing it as I do, rather than if I was wilfully unaware, blissful in my crafted ignorance, I am also aware that this is exactly how bad things will stay the way they are. Who is there to make a fuss and be an agent for change if no one will speak up?

3. Testing and Attending Events – Is this really worth it, especially given I keep losing at the moment, or should I take a break?

Thinking positively, I might say that one way or another I’ve gained plenty out of Magic over the years in terms of success, making friends, and in a roundabout way meeting my fiancé, so playing Magic and going to events has been a positive experience. I will no doubt meet more friends and be granted access to more opportunities in the future, so I should continue to go.

Thinking critically, I would need to think about things like opportunity versus cost. Many of the friends I have made don’t play as much because they’re focused on other things. Unsurprisingly these guys have good jobs and their lives well in order. To me it seems nothing short of insane not to at least make this comparison and give it some thought…

This comparison illustrates the limiting nature of positive thinking in evaluative processes. I almost certainly had more fun than those guys have, but I might have had even more fun had I put my life savings in on a game of Blackjack. High stakes gambling is meant to be a massive rush! Losing is for negative thinkers (please don’t do this – the point is purely illustrative)…

Long term, there was probably a point in the last ten years where I should have put cards on a real back-burner, got the rest of my priorities together, then picked up cards again later if it was still something I wanted to pursue. Wallowing over that isn’t healthy, but not even considering my options would be seriously unhealthy.

4. Should I play the “high variance deck, or the “low variance” deck at my next event?

Well, positive thinking would have you playing the former and critical thinking one or the other, depending on how you evaluated it. This seems like one of the real fall downs of positive thinking in relation to Magic: the Gathering, as it basically makes it impossible to look at the negative side of the high variance decks. If you can only consider the positive, then of course you play the deck which is more powerful, but everyone who plays knows that you don’t always run good when you need to.

I’m not entirely sure that Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers or Erich Fromm – psychologists who played a key part in Positive Psychology in the 1990s – would say that the way Positive Psychology is often applied in situations like the above is what they really were advocating in their original philosophies, but instead defined it more in terms of expanding one’s horizons. Links with high risk behaviour are strongly linked with positive thinking, and this also feeds into the often touted fact that many successful people attribute their success to positive thinking. Of course, no one is bothering to interview “unsuccessful people”, who put it all in on red, because they have long since vanished into the mists of ignominy.

snowflake analogy made in Fight Club

In Conclusion: If you’ve ever watched American History X or This Is England, you’ll be aware of the insidious ways the perceptions of people (especially young, vulnerable people) can be warped by planting ties with the seeds of pernicious truth, sown with a particular agenda. Only a fairly superficial reading into this subject will unearth some pretty nasty information about how positive thinking is being used as a means of subjugation in the UK in respect to “workfare” and benefit sanctions. I’ve written before about Generation Y and some of the difficulties that generation faces in Magic, so I won’t mention much about it here beyond the fact that all this thinking positive and ignoring the objective truth feeds lead into the special snowflake analogy made in Fight Club. I’m not advocating drowning one’s self in unhappy thoughts, nor some sort of nihilism, but merely an objective reading of situations and a view towards realistic goals.

I’ll repeat, as this is probably the big take away, “objective reading of situations and a view towards realistic goals”. If we think of perception in Magic as a tug of war between positive and negative thoughts, then I would strongly advocate trying to keep the rope in it’s even, starting position. There are various things in the game which can be frustrating on numerous levels, and if you’re inclined to think negatively, then it will be extremely beneficial to bring it back to the centre, because the centre is the point from which we can most accurately see the game.

For instance, if you got stuck on two land in your 26 land deck after keeping a two lander, there isn’t any point on either dwelling on how miserable that is, or in beating yourself up because you should have mulliganed (this is a very results based thing to do). Instead, we can use maths to workout the probabilities of this happening. Then, we can use positive thinking in both outcomes to our benefit – if it was unlikely we would draw the land in time, we have learned something and can be better for it going forward, while if we were likely to draw the land, we can at least realise we played well and it just didn’t go our way that time.

At times arguments around a positive outlook seem to lose sight of this and seem to aim for ever more positive outlooks, but there is a danger in this too. Just as an extremely negative perspective is no longer looking at the world objectively (clearly) so is an extremely positive one.

Taking an extreme example, we could “think positively” about a deck with 10 land, and say “oh well we can keep 1 landers on the play and and no landers on the draw, because we’ll be positive about drawing the land and it will happen. Look at all the cool spells we can fit in the deck now!”. Virtually no one is going to argue this is correct, but what if it’s less obvious, such as a marginal combo deck with a number of sketchy draws, few land, and a reliance on a 3 card combo? Maybe positive thinking can go too far here, too, and we should really consider just playing Jund, which is super solid. In short, there are times when positive thinking can make us fudge the results of our “does it work?” tests.

Time for this week’s Fable!


The Tale of the Charmer’s Snake

Once upon a time, there was a snake that was the property of a snake charmer. Each day the snake charmer would go out and play a tune, and the snake would rise up from its basket, much to the merriment of the crowd. The snake was a particularly colourful and interesting snake, and so most of the punters wanted to watch this charmer, who was also very skilled, in contrast to his peers. Fortune and fame was the charmer’s bounty for many years.

One day, however, the snake, being greedy and thinking himself oh so clever, decided that he was the one doing all the work, and it ought to be him who was making all the money! So it was that the snake bit his charmer, and set off on his own, travelling around the fair island of UKsia.

The snake would travel far and wide, from Landan to Edenburger, each time making contacts in his “snaky” way, for he was ever such a charming snake, so that some poor mug would sit and pretend to be the snake charmer in each town, all for a tiny fraction of a the money the greedy snake made. Each time he would leave when he felt like it without even saying goodbye to the charmers he worked with, then slither onto the next town, onto the next charmer, and say…

“*ssssSSSsss* hey man, how’s it going?“ Then, without listening to their response, often cutting them off, “Great! I need you to charm for me this week…”

On and on it went for years, with the snake clearly not caring about anyone else but thinking them too stupid to notice, underpaying them on the same basis. Of course, the snake also wanted to sleep in their homes, and get a lift from them here and there…

But then the snake got older: First his colours faded. Then his forked tongue was less quick. Then his tail rattled less alluringly. Finally, he began to lose his hiss… and all his uncomplicated charmers wouldn’t give him the time of day, having moved onto newer, brighter snakes. Such was the inglorious fate of the snake.

And the moral of the story is, if you’re going to use people for things, you’d better hide it well or be eternally useful, because you won’t make any real friends.

Community Question: Does the way you perceive day-to-day life influence the way you perceive your events, deck choices or analytical experiences within Magic: The Gathering? How can we “fix” this?

Thanks for reading,

Graeme McIntyre

What Are The Roles Of Positive Thinking And Critical Thinking In Magic: The Gathering? by Graeme McIntyre
“In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four” - George Orwell, 1984

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Graeme McIntyre
I've been playing magic since the end of Rath Block, and I've been a tournament regular since Invasion Block. I started studying for a PhD in Sociology at University of Leicester in 2017. I was born In Scotland, but moved to Nottingham three years ago, seeking new oppertunities both academic and magical. I play regularly with David Inglis, Alastair Rees and Neil Rigby. I've been on 5 Pro Tours the 2016 English World Cup Team, and Scottish 2003 European Championship Team, but what I really bring to the table is experience. I've played 136 Pro Tour Qualifiers, 18 Grand Prixs, 11 National Championships, 13 World Magic Cup Qualifers, 51 Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers and more little tournaments than I can remember. More than anything else, my articles are intended to convey the lessons of this lived experience. Likes - robust decks, be they control, midrange, beatdown or combo. Cryptic Commands, Kird Apes and Abzan Charms. Dislikes - decks that draw hot and cold. Urza's Tower, Life From the Loam and Taigam's Scheming.