They don’t call it “the grind” for nothing.
Qualifying for the Pro Tour is by no means an easy or at times even enjoyable process. It’s time, energy, and resource consuming. It requires a lot of luck, and punishes you heavily for a having a bad day at the wrong time. Staying on the Pro Tour is even more of grind that can be equally, if not more, punishing and unforgiving. It takes having a passion for the game, the determination and burning desire to succeed, and the perseverance and resilience to withstand the painful moments and heartbreaking letdowns you’re inevitably going to experience along the way.
Not only that, but just as important, you have to enjoy it.
The grind that is premier-level Magic has claimed many a victim. A large number of players enter into it with the dreams and aspirations of playing at the highest level, and yet only a small handful manage to stick it out and make it. Eventually, the grind takes its toll on players and, in some shape or form, the passion, fun, and enjoyment they used to get from playing Magic gets consumed by and sacrificed to the desire to achieve external success.
Like anything else in life, pursuing any kind of grindy pursuit requires balance. Yes, you have to have the desire to succeed, to achieve, to win, and to compete. But at the same time, you need to keep that desire to achieve in check by always maintaining a semblance of balance. Make sure that you have fun, that you enjoy playing Magic, that you love the game, and that you retain a healthy passion for it, because the moment Magic starts feeling like a job, work, or an activity that you’re forcing yourself to do rather than a game you voluntarily choose to do, you’re going to find yourself in trouble quickly and you’ll burn out in short time.
To appreciate the grind of competitive Magic and maintain that healthy equilibrium between success and enjoyment, here are some things you can do to help you achieve that equilibrium along the way.
1) Don’t see tournament Magic as “do or die.”
This is another aspect of the mental portion of the game where balance is essential. I’ve talked before in previous articles about the significant difference between wanting to win and feeling like you need to win. The former is a healthy form of desire. The latter is an unhealthy form of attachment. It’s great and of course necessary to have a desire to win, but when that desire to win transforms into an emotional attachment to winning, you’re setting yourself up for a dangerous trap. That kind of attitude toward the game creates an unhealthy rollercoaster of violent emotional highs and lows. You feel like you’re on top of the world when you manage to win, but when you lose, as you inevitably will, you crash hard and that crash can be difficult to recover from. If losing makes you feel that low, then you have an unhealthy emotional attachment to winning and you need to reevaluate your outlook toward Magic and reorganize your priorities in regard to why you play the game.
Even if you’re a pro player or GP grinder where your results literally can be “do or die” for you in terms of making a living or keeping yourself on the train, it doesn’t matter. In fact, not seeing tournament Magic as do or die becomes even more important for those players, not less. You need a mechanism for keeping yourself as worry, stress, and pressure free as possible, and the more you dwell on how important your results can be to you in an external sense, the more worry, stress, and pressure you’re going to feel on a day-to-day basis, which is only going to make it more difficult for you to get the results that you need so that you can make a living and stay on the train.
2) Play some form of Magic where the results don’t mean anything.
Lance Austin and I host a podcast called The Mental Mana Podcast where we talk about the mental aspects of the game of Magic and how players can better themselves by improving in that area. On a recent episode, Brian Braun-Duin joined us to talk about how to cope with losing and get past bad results when playing tournament Magic, whether it be an individual game or a series of bad tournament results over a prolonged period of time. During that episode, Brian talked about how, to help prevent himself from becoming too emotionally invested in his results and maintain that healthy balance with the game, he’ll play casual Magic from time to time for fun—obscure formats where the results are meaningless and he can just focus on having fun and enjoying raw Magic.
Personally, some of the most fun Magic I’ve ever played in my life was what my buddy Andrew Baxter called “Stack Magic.” The way Stack Magic works is you create three giant stacks—one filled with spells, one filled with creatures, and one filled with lands. Both players draw from all three stacks, and every turn, you get to decide which stack you want to draw from based on what you feel you need at any given point during the game. If you’re short on lands or a specific color, you can draw from the land stack. If you need some kind of board presence to pose a threat, you can draw from the creature stack. If you need to find a removal spell or counterspell, you can draw from the spells stack. It’s enormously fun to play, and no two games are ever the same. Try it out some time!
One of the issues with many competitive players is that they feel like they can’t play any kind of Magic where there isn’t a prize at stake or a result on the line. You don’t have to play Magic so rigidly, and it’s beneficial to you to allow yourself to relax a bit from the competitiveness of the grind by playing Magic purely for fun. It keeps you connected to the raw, “how Richard Garfield intended Magic to be” type of Magic that helps you to maintain that passion, fun, enjoyment, and love you have for the game, because again, if all you ever do is play Magic for results and nothing more, Magic will eventually reach a point where it no longer feels like a game but a job or form of work that you’re forcing yourself to do. It’ll become monotonous, tedious, and well, grindy. That’s never good, and that’s how both burnout and an overall unhealthy, poisonous mindset develops.
3) Remind yourself of why you play Magic in the first place.
Remember when you first started playing Magic? Remember that initial period of curiosity, intrigue, and discovery that Magic made you feel? Those feelings you got from Magic in the early days when you first started playing, they can be very hard to maintain or experience again. It’s difficult to keep ahold of that almost child-like curiosity and inquisitiveness you feel towards the game when you first get exposed to it, but I think it’s so crucial to always be able to hold onto that. If you don’t, you lose sight of why you started playing in the first place and Magic can get stale quickly.
I remember the first time I ever played Magic. I bought a starter deck from Urza’s Legacy. I actually still have the first Magic card I ever owned when I opened up that starter deck: A foil Bone Shredder! I also got a Phyrexian Plaguelord, and let me tell you, that card is really fun to play with. In those days, I was so eager to play Magic every day. I couldn’t wait to get home from school, hop on my bike, and ride down the street to my buddy Andrew’s house so that we could go down to his basement and play for hours on end. I got into Magic because I love things like medieval lore and fantasy, and immersing myself in that world while playing a game that challenged my mind and that allowed me to be creative was always so engrossing.
Why did you start playing Magic? What was it about the game that drew you in? How did Magic make you feel in those early days when you first started playing? I’m sure it was all wonderful and positive, and it’s so important that when competitive Magic starts to get you down, you think back to that time and allow it serve as a reminder of what Magic really means to you deep down and why you even play this game in the first place.
If you’re interested in this kind of stuff and want to learn more about the mental aspect of the game, I wrote a book about it called Mental Mana – Mastering the Mental Game of Magic: The Gathering, which I think you’ll find really beneficial and is a great place to start. You can find that here.
Do you have any specific methods you use for making sure that Magic doesn’t get too grindy and so that you can make sure that you’re always able to have fun and enjoy the game? If so, please, share it below. I’d love to see what you do and how you do that.
Thanks for reading, and all the best!