Positive Mental Attitude and Grit in Magic: the Gathering by Graeme McIntyre

How to culture positivity for focus and longevity in your Magic: The Gathering gameplay.

Reflector Mage (card artwork)

Positive Mental Attitude and Grit in Magic: the Gathering by Graeme McIntyre

“Being gritty doesn’t mean not showing pain or pretending everything is O.K. In fact, when you look at healthy and successful and giving people, they are extraordinarily meta-cognitive. They’re able to say things like, ‘Dude, I totally lost my temper this morning.’ That ability to reflect on yourself is signature to grit.” – Angela Dukworth

I’ve written about the topic of positive mental attitude before, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the conclusions I reached at the time. Additionally, upon rereading the article now, two years later, it’s clear that I was frustrated about the topic at the time of writing resulting in what I hope was an entertainingly sarcastic tone, but perhaps a weaker analysis.

This definition is still on the money, though:

“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.” 

Applied to Magic: the Gathering, positive thinking impacts the way we interpret things like a bad match up, or a top deck, or our opponent being a ringer, or realizing we have made a mistake. If we were robots, we could ignore all of this stuff completely and invest all of our mental energy in trying to make the best play, but we are not robots. Instead we’re happy when good things happen and sad when bad things happen, put simply. Thinking positively allows us to overcome the sadness, which normally comes with a series of pointless, white noise thoughts e.g. “Seriously? Again!? This idiot has played so badly but top decked three turns in a row!” or “I never beat this guy, he always beats me. I don’t know why I can’t beat him. He always beats me, and he’s so smug.”

You don’t need me to tell you that you’d be better off thinking about your next play than how annoying your opponent is, or how lucky they were, but it’s easier said than done – thoughts like this are extremely hard to shake once you’re having them. If you are in the habit of thinking positively, though, you’ll tend towards thinking things like “ok, I know he had those three bombs, but he probably doesn’t have another one. I’ve dealt with the first two, so now all I need to do is buy time so I can draw a removal spell or my own bomb to match it.”  Or “cool, this guy is the best player in the room so I’ll learn, and maybe I’ll get my first win against him today, which wouldn’t happen if I didn’t play him.”

Perhaps more importantly than this positive thinking can be applied *after* games and tournaments. It’s rough when you lose a clutch round, or wipe out early at an event, or a series of events. Positive thinking allows us to take into account the things we learned from the event, attempt to implement them for next time, and take into account the other things we enjoyed – seeing our friends or traveling to a new place, for instance. This is more productive than spending time thinking about the money you spent on going to the event which you “wasted” or the fact that it took up your whole weekend or that you haven’t kept a 7 card hand in 3 months….


I’ve thought more about positive thinking since I wrote about it two years ago, especially in relation to the ways that other people perceive the world around them and how that might differ from my own. I’m not perfect, but I am self-assured and correspondingly I am not prone to self-doubt.  I don’t start especially strong at things as a rule but if I put in time and effort, I might not set the world on fire, but I do well. Consequently, I broadly expect things to go ok for me, and initial failure is both expected and unthreatening. Problems are there to be solved.

Clearly not everyone sees things in this way, and I knew this two years ago when I first wrote about positive mental attitude. It’s not just people with mental health issues that see this differently, though, and I don’t think I fully realised that last time.

Some people are scared other people won’t like them. They think they’re really bad at the game. They think they’re stupid. They feel overwhelming pressure in competition. They have a terrible sense of entitlement. They have different ideas about “luck”. They have different expectations about the social contract inherent in playing a game.

Each of these factors, and others, can contribute to a completely different perspective than the fairly simple model I had in my mind’s eye last time I wrote about this. Playing Overwatch (a team based first person shooter) really opened my eyes to how two people could look at the same thing and see something totally different, because of the team element. Time and again I’ve found myself taking the lead in communications because I’m not scared to speak (which many people are for various reasons), and because I just don’t tilt anywhere near as easily as most other players. In part that’s years and years of tournament experience in Magic coming to the fore, but it’s also because of fundamental differences in the lenses through which we see the world and our corresponding attitudes.

It would seem then that I’m looking more positively on positive thinking, and I am to an extent. There are issues with it which I still can’t find a resolution I am happy with, though. Some situations are actually just negative situations – e.g. being attacked by a bear character building, but it will more likely be fatal. So when you read a sign saying “Caution: Bears!” on your camping trip, it might be a bit negative but I can’t get past the idea that the situation is dangerous, and might involve being eaten by a bear, rather than chairs, porridge, beds and ‘just right’!

I’m 99.99% sure that the psychologists who developed positive thinking in the 1990’s would say “take a U turn, but maybe you can still go camping elsewhere…?” Clearly, this point is extreme to illustrate the point but applied to Magic: the Gathering if you play terribly all game, you should look at that, take ownership of it, and workout how to improve. From some of the more recent material I’ve read it almost seems like contemporary motivational speakers would suggest you ignore how you played, and think about how much you like the art in the set, and wait for those positive vibes to accumulate, ultimately manifesting in you becoming a better player.

Taking it in good faith what seems likely is that you’re intended to realise you made mistakes, quickly gloss over that, then workout what to do better next time.

Step 1. Gloss over mistakes.
Step 2. ???
Step 3. Profit!

It seems to me that it’s very difficult to learn from your mistakes, while also barely accepting you made any as though they are a bully you’re avoiding eye contact with. This is more comfortable than accepting that you made mistakes, but it seems as though positive thinking as described in the material I have read (various articles on the internet – academic work on positive psychology is likely more clear) is quite limited in this respect.

I was at a loss for a satisfactory solution/conclusion to this article for a while, stuck between what I thought in good faith was the intended argument behind positive thinking in respect to human error, and what I was reading in more recent literature from motivational speakers. In truth I expect some of the good in the concept has been lost as it has been … “adapted” for the purposes of selling self-help books. The idea of never needing to look your failings in the eye is a marketable one.

Helpfully, a couple of days ago an article discussing Professor Carol Deck and Dr Thomas R Hoerr’s work in respect to education, and the work place appeared on my Facebook feed. They both employ the term “grit” in their work…

Grit… is the quality of being able to sustain your passions, and also work really hard at them, over really disappointingly long periods of time” – Dr Angela Duckworth.

Sounds like good stuff, doesn’t it? Carl Dweck talks about “the power of yet” in the context of an American high school. The school, instead of giving out grades tests would simply mark papers that failed to make a grade as “Not Yet” and papers which did as “Yet”. In this way the education which the students were given was a progressive journey rather than a binary pass-fail dynamic. This encourages a “growth mindset” in which students didn’t fear failure, instead engaging in a process of protracted development. Further, they found that praising hard work proliferated the growth mindset in students, while praising inherent talent made students more vulnerable (because they took it harder when they stumbled). Ultimately, they found that the growth mindset (grit) was equal to, or even greater than, natural talent in terms of success rates among students.

Thomas R Hoerr applied this concept to the work place in “Fostering Grit”, suggesting that this can be learned and developed at a much later age. If it can be learned and developed at work, then it can be done at home. Granted, it will take a bit more work as there won’t be a manager attempting to instil it within a group so more self-discipline will be involved, but perhaps this is a more useful model than positive thinking for us as Magic: the Gathering players?

“I’m bad at limited” vs “I’m not a great limited player….yet”

“I tilt too easily” vs “I don’t have control of my emotions in events ….yet”

“I’m intimidated by the experienced players” vs “I’ve not been her long enough to be comfortable …. Yet”

Ultimately, people remember where you finish not where you start. Although, honestly, does it really matter what people think, anyway? When I started I quickly picked up the nick name “Fod” which is an abbreviation for “Fodder” as in “cannon fodder”. Like I said, I wasn’t very good when I started. It never bothered me, but as the years went by and people still called me that, including people who I had 10 years’ experience on and was obviously much better than, I did smile inwardly as the irony went right over their head.

I’m lucky that I’ve got grit. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be scared to try things and to experience the self-doubt I’ve seen in others over the years. If you’re looking to make improvements in this respect, then I’d say look into grit over positive thinking.

That’s it for this week!
-Graeme McIntyre


Rethinking the Fundamentals
Rethinking the Fundamentals
Culturing positivity for focus and longevity in Magic: The Gathering gameplay.

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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.