Mental Edges #3: Make Your Opponent Faceless

I have a scenario for you.

It’s Grand Prix day. You’re 3-0, excited and raring to go, dreaming of the possibilities. Maybe you’ll Top 8? Or, perhaps you’ll Top 4? Heck, you could maybe even win the whole thing! Just thinking of that puts a smile on your face.

They announce that pairings are up. You gleefully walk over to the pairings board, eager to get the rest of the tournament under way. With a grin on your face, you find your name on the pairings board, and that of your fourth round opponent.

“Bob Smith vs. William Jensen”

As soon as you see who you’re playing against, that big, fat grin on your face slowly turns into a look of shock and horror. The conversation in your head also takes a drastic turn. “What the… are you serious? This guy just won the World Championships and now I have to play against him? Are you kidding me? Come on!”

You make your way over to your table, and as you arrive, there he is. The man. The World Champion. You exchange handshakes and introductions. As you give him your name, your voice crackles from sheer nervousness. This isn’t just any player. This is the current World Champion of Magic. This guy is like some kind of god-like immortal, right?

How could you, a mere mortal player, possibly play against, much less beat, one of the gods of the game?

Because you know you’re playing against William Jensen, your whole performance changes. You take far fewer risks and you play with extreme caution, always assuming that he’s going to have the answer in his hand or completely outwit you in anything you try to do. I mean, again, he’s William Jensen, the World Champion. He’s pretty much guaranteed to beat you because he’s William Jensen, the World Champion. You play with an enormous amount of fear, play terribly, and proceed to get trounced 2-0. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe you’ve experienced something like this before. And, it doesn’t have to be the World Champion of Magic you’re playing against. Often, it’s the best player at your shop that’s always taking down every tournament and destroying everyone in their path.

In either case, when you have to play against players you perceive to be just as good if not better than you, it’s easy for an overwhelming sense of fear and doubt to creep into your mind. You become intimidated. You spend an enormous amount of mental energy and focus so much on your opponent, what they’ve accomplished, and how good of a player that they are that you neglect to focus on yourself and your own performance.

Mental Edge #3: When playing games of Magic, make your opponent faceless.

Let’s go back to the scenario I described earlier in this article. But this time, let’s tweak it a bit. Instead of your opponent being William Jensen, let’s say your opponent is just some other random player that you’ve never heard of before. They’re just as good of a player as William Jensen, but you’ve never heard of them and never laid eyes on them before.

They’re essentially faceless to you. Would you feel the same amount of nervousness, fear, and doubt in that match as you would if your opponent were Huey?

I have a phrase I love to use: “The opponent casting the cards doesn’t matter. What matters are the cards being cast by the opponent.” Who is sitting across from you and who is playing those cards is completely irrelevant. What matters are the cards that player is using. More important than who is sitting across from you is what they’re playing and the decisions that they are making.

That is what counts. Who they are, who they’re sponsored by, or how many tournaments they’ve won means nothing. What matters is the deck they bring to the table.

Seth Manfield won the World Championships in 2015. And he didn’t just win—he ran the field, going 15-1 throughout the entire tournament. In talking about that experience afterwards in article he wrote called Winning The Magic World Championships, he mentioned one key thing that helped him to play his best at that tournament that I thought was very interesting:

“I don’t like to compare myself to other players. The reason is that if I go into a match thinking that another player’s game is superior to my own, I will let it get to my head and I won’t play my best. At a tournament like the World Championships, the best thing I could possibly do for myself was to not think about who was sitting across from me during a match.”

Seth makes his opponent faceless. He’s not interested in focusing on who is sitting across from him. He’s more interested in the cards that person is playing and the decisions they are making. He doesn’t need to see their face or know who they are in order to play against them. As he said, if he allows himself to focus on the stature of his opponent, it will go to his head and limit his ability to perform to his maximum. So to combat that, he makes his opponent faceless. He blocks them out mentally.

To help make your opponent faceless, block them out mentally, and stave off intimidation, nervousness, and fear when playing. There are a few things you can do to help you accomplish that:

  1. Keep your eyes off of your opponent’s face
    As little as possible, keep your eyes averted from your opponent’s face. Every time you look at your opponent’s face, you will be reminding yourself of the difficult opponent you’re playing against, which can trigger thoughts of how good they are, what they’ve accomplished in the game, etc. even if it’s on a subconscious level. Now, this is something you can’t really do for 100% of a game, as there are times when you do have to directly interact with your opponent, speak to them directly, etc. Just limit that to only when it’s necessary. Only lay eyes on your opponent when you absolutely have to. Otherwise, keep your eyes off of them as much as possible so as to not remind yourself of whom you’re playing.
  2. Key in on the board state

    Keep your eyes locked on the board state. Spend your mental energy and focus looking over the battlefield, visualizing future plays, adding up different decisions in your mind, etc. Even when it’s not your turn, there are plenty of other things you can spend your mental energy and focus on besides your opponent. During your opponent’s turn, key in on the board state and ask yourself, “What could this turn look like?” Try to see how the turn might play out. Try to think of the things your opponent might do and how you would respond. How will they attack? How will you block? If you try to kill one of their creatures with a spell, what might they do? The more you focus on the game itself and less on your opponent, the less your opponent can intimidate you.

  3. Look at your opponent’s hands

    It can be hard to keep your eyes completely locked on the table at all times, and the tendency to let your eyes wander can be strong. If you’re going to look at your opponent in any way, just look at their hands. Don’t let your eyes look any higher than that. Again, try to stay information focused. How many cards do they have in hand? Does it look like they’re putting the cards in their hand in a certain order from left to right or right to left? Do their hands look twitchy and nervous? Are they constantly shuffling their hands nonstop, or are their hands more relaxed? You can be intimidated by your opponent’s face. It’s very difficult to be intimidated by your opponent’s hands.
  4. Focus on the matchup

    Again, who is sitting across from you is irrelevant. What they look like, what their name is, who they’re sponsored by, or what they’ve accomplished in the game doesn’t matter. What matters is the deck they’re using. That brings me to another phrase I love to use when it comes to this issue: “Play the matchup, not the player.” Don’t worry about who your opponent is or what they’ve accomplished. Worry about how many copies of Bristling Hydra they’re running or how many copies of Fatal Push could be left in their deck. If you’re playing Ramunap Red and your opponent is playing U/B Control, then whether it’s Luis-Scott Vargas or Reid Duke, the lines of play and the strategy for that specific matchup are almost always going to be the same. They don’t change because your opponent is a Hall-of-Famer or a Pro Tour regular.

Ryasuke Urase finished 3rd at the Magic Online Championships in 2016, taking home $9,000 in the process. Being a relative unknown going into the tournament, he was asked by an interviewer how he felt playing against some of the best players in the world and whether or not that would impact him. I thought his answer was brilliant:

“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against. Grizzly Bears are always 2/2s and Lightning Bolt always does 3 damage. So, no matter who you’re playing against, there’s always a chance you can win if you just play good Magic, and that’s all I’ve been trying to do all week.”

Whether your opponent is the kid down the street or a Hall-of-Famer, your Bomat Courier will always hit your opponent for 1 and your Scrapheap Scrounger will always come back into play from your graveyard when you exile a creature. So pay as little attention as possible to who your opponent is and always stay focused on what matters most: the cards.

What’s beautiful about Magic is that anyone can win. Everyone has a shot to take down everyone else on their day. But, that’s hard to do if you put your opponent on a pedestal. If you can make your opponent faceless, then you’re going to give yourself an edge over the players in the field who go into their matches intimidated by their opponents.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!

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