Invisible Monsters, by David Inglis

Breaking down the mental mindgames gamers play with themselves.

Phantom Monster (Alpha artwork)

Hey everyone, it’s been a little while. I wanted to talk about the psychological side of gaming.

Hogaak, Arisn Necropolis (MH1)
Hogaak has dominated Modern until recently, which alongside preparations for a new job and the release of World of Warcraft Classic has left me with neither the time nor motivation to succeed at cards recently. But with the Organised Play updates, I plan to return to Magic with the new schedule.

These topics are not exclusive to Magic: The Gathering, I have found, but relevant across multiple different games and life situations. It’s time to talk about the mental barriers we, as gamers, create to stop us achieving the things we want, and how to overcome them.

Be honest with yourself

Self-deception is a very easy habit to fall into. In gaming (as in all things), you need to be honest about your goals and intentions. For example, with Magic: The Gathering I identify as a competitive player, so my time has to be dedicated towards that goal. I still enjoy casual aspects of the game such as Cube and Singleton formats but I know that I want to qualify for the Pro Tour. Knowing my goal helps me be honest with myself about my techniques and strategies.

Focused Time is another aspect of honesty. You need to be honest with yourself about how much focused time you are putting into succeeding at what you want. It’s easy to play Arena for hours… even if half the time you’re tabbing out watching YouTube, playing poker or not just really focusing on the plays in hand.

Honesty is tough because it can uncover unsettling truths about ourselves, or even challenge our identities. In the long run, however, it often helps you achieve your goals. For example, I’ve recently become interested in competitive Warhammer 40,000 again. When I started preparing for tournaments, I had to think about my goals. Do I want to play an army that is fun and themed (appealing to my creative side) or do I want to maximise my win percentage? After speaking to some friends, I decided I wanted to “Try Hard” which I’ll expand on more later on.

A good book I can recommend to anyone is Playing to Win by David Sirlin; Sirlin talks about what it means to win, and it is a brutal journey to try and win at all costs (within the rules). I think people have issues admitting they are a casual player because in gaming dialect, people often equate the idea of being a casual as being a negative; a poor player. Sometimes it is just someone being honest about what they want. Take me and Poker. I work as a Poker Dealer, have an average understanding of the game and would think I was better than the average person on the street, but I would still describe myself as a casual player and that is totally reasonable because I don’t wish to put the effort in to be a competitive player.

Be honest with others

It is hard to succeed in competitive gaming by yourself. There is a lot of information out there and feedback is an important part of growth. By working with others, you get to learn a lot about yourself and different perspectives.

I’m a pretty average Limited player. It took Graeme McIntyre challenging me with some light teasing and banter to realise I valued card draw too highly in Limited formats. It helped me realise I was forcing together controlling decks. After we discussed this he explained that he felt playing to the board was important and I should be picking two drops a little higher. Graeme knows I’m serious about the game, so we can discuss strategy at a high level without anyone getting hurt. His honesty was relevant, constructive and therefore helpful in developing my game play.

[Editor: Read more of Graeme’s Limited advice here.]

At times my attitude to gaming could be described as toxic. I’ve had many discussions about how to improve my approach. Both these examples, however require genuine, supportive honesty.

There have been problems in the past where I just gave people what they want, going along with their viewpoints because it’s easier than defending my own position and ideas. Sometimes it’s right to walk away from confrontational situations, but if a player is coming to you from a position of trust it can be harmful, potentially hold you – and them – back which is on top of disrespecting them as fellow competitive gamer; the people you are working with can grow as much from learning your perspective as you can theirs.

[Editor: Communication with David was a significant factor in Graeme’s own MCQ experience this year – he’s kindly shared his own testing mechanisms and reflections here on the blog.]

It is also important to be honest with others about your own goals and desires so they can determine whether you are an appropriate opponent. I’m currently Gold on Overwatch but am actively looking to improve. I have friends who play the game but don’t want to use Voice Chat. To me that is a fundamental part of the game, so our goals are misaligned. This isn’t a moral judgement, just that we’re a bad fit to play. Honesty helps everyone in the long run even if it might sting at first.

Time Management

I am not so good at this and have made a lot of excuses in the past. Everyone gets the same amount of time to start with each week. People have a wide array of differing commitments, but you need to be maximising your hobby time if you want the most out of it. At the end of each week I work out what I need to do (work/ medical appointments/ eating/ sleeping) and what I want to do (paint a unit, test a match up) then I try to make it all fit. Once I tried keeping track of what I got up to each week I found I did a lot of just “messing about.” I’m not saying you need to min-max your life, but being aware of where you are bleeding time can help you get some back to focus on what you want.

If I spend 2 hours watching cat videos… well, I could have done something more constructive. Taking time to relax is important and healthy but if you are struggling with time to do stuff taking a step back and reflecting on what eats your time might help you.
Grumpy cat sleeves

Bad Beats are a Dollar

As someone who has spent two years working in the Gaming industry, I have seen every bad beat in the book.

One of my friends who used to be a Cardroom Manager in Prague used to have a jar that people had to pay 1 Euro if they wanted to tell their bad beat story. Bad beat stories are really boring – either you drew what was needed, or you didn’t. I am very guilty of telling bad beat stories and they really are pointless.

Try to focus on the points you had control over: should you have mulliganed? Did you block correctly? Bad Beats do suck and it’s tough when you get paired down in the last round of the Swiss, but to do well you need to get over it, play tight and realise there is always another round. The games MTG fans are drawn to are often challenging, so focus on what you can do rather than worry about elements you can’t control.

Be Excellent To Each Other

This is something I have struggled with in the past. I have not been the most gracious loser – there was a time where I turned bright red with anger after losing a win and in for a WMCQ. I wasn’t the nicest to my opponent and while I did lose in a frustrating fashion I should have just shook their hand, moved on and got my prize packs and some food. I am prone to bitching – and sometimes jealously – of others and this attitude is just toxic. People who are winners in games and life don’t do this; they focus on self-improvement rather than wallowing in negative emotions.


Be the change you want to be in the world. Sometime back a friend of mine said they wanted to take the good parts of people and leave the bad parts. I think there is a lot of merit to this approach but just be a nice person and results will improve at the end of the day everyone is just trying their best so be the best you can be. It is very easy to fuse one’s identity with their last tournament result. I would recommend on building your identity by how you treat others.

[Editor – Kirsty McIntyre has some excellent strategies on how to be a good ally within the community.]

Hopefully you enjoy my trip reflecting on attitude changes I’ve made, and I hope that you too can make the most of your time and mindset for happier gaming.

Find more of David’s articles here, including tips for players getting (back) into Modern.

For more advice on refocussing your gameplay, Joe Fairweather has some advice on how to go back to basics and re-think your fundamentals.

Invisible Monsters
Invisible Monsters
Breaking down the mental mindgames gamers play with themselves.

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