5 Mental Traps in Magic: the Gathering, and How to Avoid Them, by Graeme McIntyre

5 Mental Traps in Magic: the Gathering, and How to Avoid Them

Five Mental Traps in Magic: the Gathering, and How to Avoid Them – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge

Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay” – Simone de Beauvoir

It’s likely no coincidence that as I approach my mid-thirties my Facebook feed is full of people not just posting their New Year’s Resolutions, but photos of the things they have done in respect to those resolutions. The fact that people – myself included – start thinking about how they’re going to improve themselves and fix the things they’re not happy with in their lives on the first of January each year is a bit of a eye-roller, but self-improvement is in itself nothing to be sneered at. In fact, critical examination of habits and attempts to make better use of one’s time is a thing I advocate and promote with a frequency teetering towards tedium!

With this in mind, I’m planning on writing a series of articles about improvement in fundamental, big picture issues regarding improvement in Magic, while people are still inclined towards the big picture, and not more immediate concerns. This week I’m going to discuss some of the broad issues which might stand in opposition to your improvement, with more focus on specific topics in the next few weeks.


1. Don’t compare yourself to others, but instead just focus on improving your play

“Do not compare yourselves to others. Be true to who you are, and continue to learn with all your might.” – Daisaku Ikeda

Some people are better at Magic: the Gathering than you, or me, and some are worse. I state this because on one hand we can’t really prove that this is the case but on the other it’s very reasonable to assume that it is the case because of the absurdity of the alternative e.g. that we are all as good at Magic as each other, and some people just top 8 the Pro Tour multiple times while others systematically go 0-3 at Friday Night Magic every week because… that’s how the cookie crumbles?

If you’re reading this article, though, you’re likely fairly concerned with being decent at the game and you’re also thinking about yourself, and how good you are at the game, and how you draw conclusions about that. In my experience, both personally and based on observation, people tend to judge based on those around them. For instance, if you regularly beat someone who normally does well at events you attend, you might conclude that you’re as good, if not better, than they are at the game. Perhaps there is a local big shot who always wins your FNM. Maybe you’re the guy who always beats the previously mentioned regular 0-3 FNM player in the last round, but at least you’re not *that* guy, right? Maybe you are…

…I used to be. I was a terrible, terrible Magic: the Gathering player. People say that about themselves, how bad they are, how much they’ve improved, and it’s actually often just a way of talking about how great they are now. In my case it is hard to put it in words how bad I was. I’ve thought about it a bit over more recent years, and I think the problem was that I was a genuinely stupid child and early teen, but developed later, which of course helped me get better at Magic.

All the way up as I developed though, I compared myself with those around me. I think I’m better than those guys who always get crushed at draft. I think I hold my own at draft. I don’t think there are many people in the city as good as me. I don’t think there are many people in Scotland as good as me. I think I’m one of the best in the UK.

Was it true? Some will say it was, some will say it’s not. Some will say it might have been true once, but I’m all washed up, while newer, keener, hungrier players duke it out at the top tables, and I wander the venue, akin to both a sad, punch drunk old fighter, and a clown. Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days is playing in the background. It’s all terribly melancholy.

But really, who cares? It doesn’t matter at all if you’re the best player in the world, or your country, or you town, or your house. They don’t give out Pro Tour invites for it, and it doesn’t make you better at the game in an objective sense. Self-improvement comes from making yourself better at something, not the waxing and waning of your position relative to that of other people.

Focus your thoughts on how you might play better; other people are not part of the equation. Think about your games, think about how you sideboarded, think about how they played. Did they outplay you? Did you understand how the game was going to play out, or did you miss some important element of the rules? Did you play the right deck? Are you forcing a colour combination too much? It’s not enough simply to think; you must think about relevant things, and thinking about if you’re better than >local middling player X< or not is white noise.

It might seem harmless, but the opportunity cost on thinking, as well as the habits we form in our thought processes, are a real cost. Beyond this, in convincing ourselves that we are better than other people, we bring about the logical conclusion that we can expect to beat them in a given match. This engenders a sense of entitlement which breeds frustration when we lose to players we consider weaker than us, which is going to happen regularly, even if we are better.


2. Don’t worry about what other people think of you

“Care about people’s approval, and you will always be their prisoner.” – Lao Tzu

It is really difficult not to compare, as discussed above, in a competitive game however. Instead what tends to happen is that we realize on one level that the comparisons we make are subjective, partially arbitrary, and somewhat unsatisfying as a result. So we seek out ways in which to legitimise or validate our own status. We try to impress people who we see as better than ourselves so that they think we’re good, and we attempt to “help” people we consider worse by offering – often unsolicited – advice, so that they might improve. How delightfully charitable.

I am also guilty of this, even though I think it’s a really unfortunate element of the game and the community. It’s just so hard not to want other people to think you’re good, because it impacts your interactions with them in a reasonably big way. We take people’s ideas more seriously if we think they’re good, and because of the context we know each other (e.g. gaming competitively) this impacts how meaningful we are full stop, in respect to social interactions with other players, at least to some extent, and some people.

This topic has a great deal of potential for discussion, but much of that potential is largely off topic. I’ll explain a little further, though, to expand the idea as I think some people reading the previous paragraph might be shocked by what might seem like massive elitism. It’s not that people won’t be friendly to you if they think you’re not as good as them, it’s more like how it would be awkward in the work place if people didn’t think you were especially good at your job, if that job involved discussions and problem solving.  It would be even worse if your boss thought this was the case – while you’re not going to get sacked, your ideas are going to get dismissed way more than if they thought you were good at your job.

The solution is largely much the same as it was with the first point. Who cares what people think of you? Just play your own game, and focus on improvement. Try hard to give people who you think aren’t as good as you the time of day, both on a human level (that is, be nice to them because they’re a person) and in respect to Magic – even if they are worse, which they might not be, they might still be saying something you hadn’t considered, or know something you don’t. I’m not suggesting getting into a massive conversation every time someone suggests playing 10 land in Limited, or splashing a 3RRR card in their UW deck, but if you engage a bit, don’t just dismiss them, you learn, but you’ll definitely make them feel better.

On the flipside, when you’re dealing with someone you consider either better, or a peer, just say your piece and don’t let your ego get in the way. Generally speaking you’ll feel better for not engaging in this sort of crap, as clamouring for approval brings about a sense of uncertain dis-ease, the projection of which doesn’t breed the sort of respect and approval you’re seeking anyway.


3. Don’t try to justify your mistakes, own them!

“Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” – Bruce Lee

We all make loads of mistakes when we play. It’s very easy to mess up, and say “oh, he’d have won anyway” or “they were lucky” or “this is a bad match up”. It can also be more like “I know I didn’t think of that pump spell, but it’s an uncommon, and he never cast it game 2 or 3, and it’s not even good in his deck, so he should have sided it out…” or “I’d have made the same play even if I thought of the card”.

That’s not what matters. What matters is that you made a mistake. This sort of rationalisation is a face saving exercise, to avoid embarrassment due to the people around us, or to avoid frustration at ourselves.

I’ve played with loads of people over the years who have done this sort of stuff, and it’s especially problematic if they think you’re a little better than them (honestly, comparison is a problem that runs oh so deep…) because they don’t want to have messed up in front of you. The issue comes when you’re playing with someone regularly in a group or duo that is trying to get better at the game, and other people notice each other’s mistakes. If you’re already pretty decent then the mistakes can be fairly minor things, and it’s easy to see them as petty (and they often are, because of egos, and comparisons, and people trying to get each other back for it.) but small things can lose you games. Also in formats like Modern when the cards are so powerful and the games are often very short, you can lose a game for playing the wrong land on turn 1, as that can make next few turns less efficient and those few turns might actually be the entire game.

You must be able to point out, and accept in your own game, mistakes of all sorts. Improvement necessitates change – you can’t improve by being unwilling to fix your errors. The ideal mind-set would be one in which you were pleased to make mistakes (unless you kept making the same ones!) because this would offer an opportunity to improve. It’s unlikely that the best players in the world are literally like that, but I strongly expect they are far more open to the idea that they have made a mistake.


4. On the matter of hubris

“Whenever I’ve had success, I never learn from it. Success usually breeds a degree of hubris. When you fail, that’s when you learn.” – Moby

Sometimes, we just think we’re the absolute bee’s knees at Magic, and no one around us as a clue compared to us. This can come about because we’re a local big deal, so contextually it’s sort of true. Or it can be because we’ve seen our team mates make a lot of mistakes, or they’re doing badly at events. It can also be because we just happen to be pig-headed, arrogant people.

When I’ve found it happens *most*, though, is when a person has recently done well. It’s really easy to say, just after you’ve qualified for a Pro Tour, or an RPTQ, or whatever the milestone is, “what does that person I’ve tested with for 18 months know? I just won a thing, so I must know what’s going on!” This is just as ludicrous as it sounds, but it’s actually pretty easy to let that happen, even if it’s a little more subtle. So what, you randomly chain together a bunch of wins one Sunday afternoon, and now you’re on the Red Pills? Sorry, kid. You’re not The One.

So often it is when we think we’re playing like crap that we do the most learning. This is because often, we’re not actually playing any worse than we were before, but we have gotten a little better or are in a better frame of mind so we actually notice we’re making the mistakes.


 5. Self-Deception – Why, honestly, did you choose to play that deck at the PPTQ?

“Stop lying to yourself. When we deny our own truth, we deny our own potential.” – Steve Maraboli

You might call all of the above a form of self-deception, as well as a million other things, but I am referring to making things like playing a deck at an event, knowing that it’s not as good as another deck, but you either feel more comfortable with it or just enjoy playing it more. These are both legitimate reasons, within reason, but more often than not that claim to legitimacy is a soothing lie we tell ourselves.

If it’s more comfortable, then we need to look at *why* this is so. Why have we allowed ourselves to be in a position where we are not comfortable enough to play the best deck? Has it been out for a while? If so, why haven’t we played it loads, and become sufficiently comfortable? Are we just scared to play mirrors against the best players in the room? If we’re looking to improve, this is a matter of doing, not thinking. “Well done is better than well said”, and all that. How are we going to improve if we don’t actively seek out opportunities?

If it’s just that we like the other deck better, then are we really serious about improving? I’m not suggesting here that you must be prepared to sacrifice everything, or you’re not really trying to improve, but there is a difference between “I want to qualify for the Pro Tour” and “I want to qualify for the Pro Tour, but…” You can still try and qualify with your extra criteria, and you can obviously still try to improve, but it is worth recognising that you’re trying to do something particular, and be aware of the implications of that particularity e.g. if you won’t play the best deck, for instance, you are making it harder qualify because you’re limiting yourself.

That said, perhaps you’re actually more interested in qualifying than you are in playing decks you especially enjoy, in which case having the self-awareness to recognise you’re disadvantaging yourself is very helpful, but requires some introspection at times. To reiterate, either course is a real thing, but being aware of the situation is going to be helpful to you.



I hope you found this article useful because it is the first in a series I was planning on writing. Next week, I’ll discuss event preparation, after that Limited, then Constructed. If there are topics which you’d like me write about, please let me know, especially if they might fit well into the format of this series.

All the best!

Graeme McIntyre

5 Mental Traps in Magic: the Gathering, and How to Avoid Them, by Graeme McIntyre
This week I’m going to discuss some of the broad issues which might stand in opposition to your improvement, with more focus on specific topics in the next few weeks.

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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.