Having a strong mental game as a competitive Magic player isn’t just about knowing what things you should do. It’s also about knowing what things you shouldn’t do. It’s just as important to know which skills and habits you need to apply and put into practice as it is to know which mental mistakes you want to avoid making at all costs when playing.
Today, we’re going to discuss and go through what I consider to be the three most common (and most important) mental game mistakes that you want to avoid making when you’re playing competitive matches. Along with that, we’ll also talk about exactly how you can avoid making these mistakes. With that said, let’s go ahead and dive right in!
1. Checking Out Too Early.
You’re playing a tight game with your opponent. Both you and your opponent are hellbent, playing off the top of your decks. You draw for your turn, see it’s a land, play that land, and pass the turn. Your opponent draws for the turn, plays a land, and passes the turn. You once again draw for your turn, see it’s another land, play that land (frustratingly so!), and pass the turn. Your opponent draws, immediately taps 5 mana excitedly, slams down Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, ticks him up to draw a card, and passes the turn. Unbelievably, you draw a third land in a row for your turn, keep it in hand, and pass back to your opponent.
How many times have we all had this happen to us since Teferi has been in Standard? I know I certainly have. Whenever you fall behind in a game, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of checking out too early. Mentally, you simply throw in the towel, assume the game is lost, and stop fully channeling all of your focus into figuring out how to win the game. But checking out too early isn’t just something that can happen when you fall behind; it can also happen when you get far ahead. For example, let’s say you’re the one with Big T in play, drawing cards every turn, and burying your opponent in card advantage. In this situation, it’s easy to fall into the trap of just assuming the game is yours, checking out too early, and not concentrating fully on closing out the game, allowing your opponent to come back in a game that you should have won.
How do you avoid making this mental game mistake? You do so by playing with the same level of focus you would play with if the game were tight and the outcome could still go in either direction. And, in the end, that’s the way it is, isn’t it? No game is ever lost or won until your opponent closes out the game or concedes to you. Until either of those things comes to pass, anything can happen, and you need to stay committed to the game. How many times have we seen people claw their way back from a seemingly unwinnable game state, and how many times have we seen people throw away a game that seemed impossible to lose?
2. Spending Too Much Time Traveling.
It’s round 1 of a tournament, and you and your opponent are tied 1-1. You’re playing game 3, the deciding game, and it’s a close one where either player can win. Midway through the game, you make a small play mistake that swings the momentum of the game in your opponent’s favor. The game is by no means unwinnable, but you’ve put yourself into a difficult situation with an unnecessary, easily avoidable error. Throughout the rest of the game, your mind is constantly off “traveling” into the past, getting stuck dwelling over that mistake and how different things would be if you hadn’t made it.
Whether it’s a mistake you make, an unbelievable moment of amazing luck for your opponent, or a bad loss from a previous round, it can be very easy to let yourself fall into this time traveling trap. You find yourself never in the present moment when playing your matches, your mindset stuck in a poisonous state thinking about those negative experiences in a loop.
Time traveling isn’t just limited to allowing your mind to wander too often into the past, however. Another mistake that players often make is thinking too far into the future, allowing their minds to travel too far ahead. They invent and dream about scenarios that haven’t happened yet, and, in all reality, may never happen. One instance we often see players time traveling into the future is when it comes to standings and tournament positioning: “If I win my next X amount of rounds, I’ll have X record, which means I’ll have X points, and with X points I can maybe draw in if my opponents lose X rounds/drop X points/have X record, yada yada yada”.
The danger of this is two-fold. First, when you get stuck time traveling too far into the future, you consciously or unconsciously increase your expectations. That comes coupled with increased feelings of stress and pressure. Both of these things make it much more difficult for you to relax, enjoy yourself, concentrate efficiently, and play your best.
How does one avoid making this mental game mistake? You do so by, as cheesy as it sounds, staying in the present moment as much as possible, and, more important and actionable, by reminding yourself of what you have direct control over versus what you don’t. That past mistake or bad loss you experienced earlier in the tournament? It’s over. It’s done. You can’t change those things, and constantly brooding over them isn’t going to serve you in any meaningful way. Extract the learning lessons and important information from your mistakes and, once you do, discard those experiences from your mind and allow yourself to move forward into the present game, match, or round.
With regards to the future, the reality is that you have zero direct control over what your record is going to look like at the end of the event. You could win 5 rounds in a row, or you could also lose 5 rounds in a row. Magic is simply too high variance, and you just don’t know. There will be a time and place when that information matters, and that’s at the end of the Swiss rounds when that information is actually actionable. Until then, the only thing that matters is the current game, match, and round right in front of you.
3. Creating a False Narrative.
You sit down to play game 1 of a match, shuffle up, present your deck, say “good luck” to your opponent, and draw your opening hand. You have zero lands in your hand. So, you throw it back, shuffle up, mulligan, and draw your cards. You have a land in your opening hand, but it doesn’t match the color of the spells you need to play in the early turns and it’s simply too risky to keep. So, frustratingly, you throw it back again, shuffle up, mulligan again, and draw your cards. It’s at this point that a thought creeps into your mind: “My opponent just got an auto-win. There’s no way I can win on a mulligan to 5. This is over.”
This is an example of what I call a “false narrative”. A false narrative is simply a story you spin in your mind that is simply objectively not true. The mulligan example is a great one. I mean, look, do your chances of winning decrease when you mulligan to 5? Of course they do. However, saying that there’s no way you can win is just objectively not true. You haven’t auto lost, and it’s not anywhere near impossible to win a game on a mulligan to 5. I’ve won games on a mulligan to 5. I’m sure you have as well.
Another good example is when you lose the first round or two of a tournament. When that happens, it’s easy for a thought to pop into your mind: “Well, today isn’t going to be my day.” That’s another false narrative you’re crafting in your mind that’s objectively untrue. Just because you lost the first round or two of a tournament doesn’t mean it’s “not going to be your day”. You can rattle off nothing but wins every round after that and make top 8. You don’t know what’s going to happen.
How do you avoid this mental game mistake? By being vigilant and aware of the kind of internal dialogue that’s going on inside your head during your games and throughout the tournament. At all times, you want to be sure that you’re creating internal dialogue that is positive, confident, empowering, and beneficial. Behavior is largely driven by emotion, and emotion is largely driven by thought patterns. If you dictate your thought processes and internal dialogue, you can dictate your emotional reactions, which in turn allows you to dictate your behavior and the actions you take.
These three things are by no means the only mental game mistakes you want to avoid when playing. However, I feel they’re the most common ones people make, and the most important mistakes to look out for.
What mental game mistakes do you think players need to avoid? Which ones have you made in the past that you’ve learned from? Sound off below and let me know. I’d love to see what you all have to say.
Thanks for reading and see you next time!