Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge: Top 4 Tips on Returning to Magic: the Gathering After a Break
“My comeback was not about winning or losing; it was about the feeling of being able to compete at top level again.” – Thomas Muster
I’ve not played a Magic: the Gathering event since Grand Prix Liverpool in October 2017. I played a fair bit less in 2017 in general because I wasn’t really feeling it about PPTQs, and all the people I’d normally play with were also pretty off the boil. I was also working on my PhD and enjoying Overwatch, so it seemed like a reasonable time to take my foot off the gas. The plan was always to come back for the team RPTQ, so I’ll be playing again soon.
That’s actually the first break for longer than 3 months I’ve ever had from the game since I started playing in Rath block. It’s fitting that I should be returning to the game just as the game is returning to Dominaria. In my time I’ve seen people come and go and come back, so I have some idea of the pitfalls around returning to the game, and I’m sure that ultimately 6 months out isn’t going to represent *that* big of a barrier.
I’ve thought a fair bit about coming back, and how to make the most of the break, so I thought I’d share what I consider to be the top 4 issues in terms of returning with an eye to being better than you used to be.
1. Accept that you’ll be rusty
If you’ve taken a considerable amount of time away from the game, you will almost certainly be worse in the short term from lack of practice as well as simple lack of familiarity with “new” cards. While this is pretty obvious in the abstract, because of the human failing of unchecked ego, it’s a more difficult thing to accept on an individual level. In my experience some seasoned players coming back to the game tend to take it rather personally that they’re not what they once were.
The first thing that must be realized is that there is no reason this decline in ability needs to be permanent. If you got to a certain level of play in the past then it is more than likely that you’ll be able to get back there, although it will require you to practice and so on to bring yourself up to speed. How much practice and time will be decided by a number of factors, one of which is how quickly you can come to terms with the idea that you’ve declined in the first place. If you spend all your time thinking about how all the people you knew from back in the day got lucky to beat you in your last event instead of considering how you might have played better, then you’re going to find it a slower process. There is a good chance that while you were out of the game, those guys you expected to beat improved, and you’re just not playing on top form.
Did they get lucky? Maybe, maybe not. That’s in the past – how could you have played better, and how will you ensure a better outcome next event?
2. Establish new personal routines and standards
There is a lot that goes into the various processes that occur for competitive Magic: the Gathering players. How do you proxy cards? What sort of sleeves are you using? How are your cards organized? Do you concentrate enough when you play? Are there environmental factors which impact your performance during testing? Do you concede too early, or too late? Do you eat and drink enough? Do you get enough sleep before events…?
That list of questions could go on for days. None of us is perfect, and we all unknowingly have flaws in the way we approach this stuff, but in truth many of us knowingly approach it incorrectly but we’ve never gotten round to sorting the issues out. I’ve never really been much of a collector, so while I own loads of cards they’re not as organized as they might be, and I definitely let that slip badly in 2017. On a related note, I find the deck building to be a bit of a chore – probably because my cards are in disarray. I’ve also got various flaws in my game, both known and unknown.
Coming back from a long break is a good opportunity to make changes to all this sort of stuff. You’ve got a clean slate, having already broken the habit of playing at all, so you can come back to the game and establish better practices in respect to the things you’ve let slide.
3. Establish new group routines and standards
This is a trickier area because it involves other people, so you don’t have full control of the situation. As a result some negotiation will be required, but so long as you’re trying to effect reasonable, productive changes for the group then it’s fine to push this fairly hard, in my opinion.
Some key issues which spring to my mind in respect to testing and teamwork include flaking out, being late, people not doing their share, “dominant personalities”, decks not being updated regularly enough during a season and mis-assignment of skillsets in relation to practical tasks. Oh, and absurd levels of ego getting in the way of every conceivable aspect of every possible process involved, which is sort of just Magic players for you, but at the same time – for me at least – this requires some degree of mitigation or I’d need another break.
Again, this could be a pretty long list much of which might be seemingly petty things, but often it is all the little things building up that cause us to need breaks, or combine to simply make it unrealistic for us to accomplish our goals. It might be a good idea to think about how things are in your testing group, make a list of the issues, and some potential solutions. Then try to integrate them, ideally fairly quickly although there are obvious social issues with this (e.g. “who does this guy think he is? Waltzing back in and making demands…”). In practice, because there are people involved, it will be pretty random which changes you suggest get implemented and which don’t, firstly because people have different priorities and requirements, meaning seemingly easy requests might be more difficult in truth, but also because people are pretty strange. Accept that you won’t be able to change everything to how you would have it ideally be, at least in the short term, and try to find ways to mitigate for the things you can’t change so that they impact you as little as possible.
People tend to be wary in the extreme about rocking the boat on stuff like this, but in my experience if what you’re suggesting makes sense, people will change it and realise you suggested something useful – for the practical stuff anyway. Getting people to change *their* personal routines and standards is often more difficult than it’s worth.
4. Set clear, realistic goals
If you’ve not been playing, and you’re coming back, there must be a reason why. This could be that you just enjoy playing events every other weekend, or you miss the people you played with, or you’d like to qualify for the Pro Tour one more time, or you’d like Top 8 a GP, or win a Pro Tour. It doesn’t really matter what your reason is, so long as you understand what it is that has drawn you back in.
Next you need a way to realistically accomplish your goal. Think about the sort of things that need to go into it, how you’re going to accomplish those things, and in what sort of time frame. This will be much easier if all you want to do is go to events and play them with your mates, as this is mostly just a matter of arranging to have the cards you’ll need and to be free on the weekends. If you’ve got a more competitive goal in mind, then it will depend mostly on how good you are at the game, how much time you can spend on it, and the support network you have access to.
This is very much a matter for the individual to evaluate, but having a clear idea of what you want to accomplish and how you’re going to go about doing it will give you targets to hit and milestones to reach. With this comes structure and a sense of purpose in your involvement with the game, which will serve both to increase your chances of actually accomplishing your goals, but also to make the process feel more comfortable.
It ought to go without saying, but people actually make this mistake all the time, so I’ll say it. Don’t set goals you can’t realistically reach from the outset, because this will lead to dissatisfaction, and not the good kind that spurs you on to do better next time. You’ll just make yourself miserable. Instead, set goals you can accomplish, accomplish them, and then set newer, more difficult ones to build on.
This was a strange article to write, having never actually come back from a substantial break before! With that said, I’ve seen enough people do it before, and it ultimately comes down to establishing good practices, which is something important to me and something I’ve written about extensively in the past, over many articles. I might write a follow up article to this one in six months, considering how I put what I’ve written here into practice and what I’d say in retrospect.
We’ll see. Until that point, find out what matters to you, and put mind, body and soul into its acquisition. You’re owe it to yourself. I’ve got an article on positive mental attitude and its role in Magic: the Gathering lined up for next time, but if you enjoy my writing and there is something you’d like me to cover, please let me know.
Thanks for reading,