On Stress, Tilt, and Anxiety

Magic has a lot of useful-yet-generic advice on handling tilt and getting in the zone. Take it one game at a time. Focus on the match at hand. Get your head out of your Abyss.

This is all solid advice, but by and large Magic is behind where it could be. In League of Legends, some teams have started hiring sports psychologists.

Chess is another game where psychology plays a huge role, and it’s largely translatable to Magic since so much of it is based around avoiding tilt. Consider the following quotes:

A chess game is a confrontation between two partners. The struggle is going on not only at the board, but between their identities. Mistakes are inevitable, and the one who manages to keep his cool has higher chances of winning.

Never blame yourself for blunders during a game. Otherwise you may become so obsessed with it you will make matters even worse. Take the game as is, re-consider the evaluation of the position and try to play on calmly, as if nothing unexpected has happened.

Never resign too early and keep defending bitterly and tenaciously. A lot of totally lost positions have been saved even against world class players. When you are on the other side of this situation (i.e. winning), never relax until the game score sheet is signed in your favor.

Change a word or two, and all of these could be talking about Magic, but they’re from a Natalia Pogonina article on Chess Psychology.

Sports is another bottomless well of information, and has the added bonus of being lucrative, attracting the level of funding and research that competitive gaming hasn’t hit yet. One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from the legendary boxing coach Constantine Cus D’Amato:

The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with it that matters.

Now, boxing and Magic are different activities with different uses for stress. Still, the idea that it isn’t about what you’re feeling at the present moment, but rather what you do with that feeling, transcends boxing.

Magic is a meritocracy, and whoever plays the cards better is more likely to win, regardless of stress/fear/anxiety. Cowards can’t block warriors.

Controlling Tilt

Our brains are all different, and learning why we personally react to stress in a certain way is an important part of figuring out how to handle anxiety and stay consistent over the course of a long tournament.

For starters, there are genes in the brain responsible for regulating dopamine levels, and one gene in particular carries the plans for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. The brain works best when there’s a balance of dopamine—too much creates a paralyzing sort of anxiety, and too little makes it hard to focus.

The thing is, there are two different variants of the gene, and they have a dramatic impact on how we handle stress. One variant creates an enzyme that removes dopamine quickly from the brain, and the other drains it more slowly.

People with the “fast” gene do well when thrust into unfamiliar and stressful situations, but are more hyperactive and lose focus during day-to-day events. People with the “slow” gene have an easier time staying focused and studying, but have a rougher time in stressful situations when the brain has more dopamine than it can get rid of.

Most people carry some combination of the two, but you can see how genetic differences can lead to one person being a thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie and another being more of a scholarly type that breaks down during a high-pressure exam.

Now, if you’ve read my article on raising prodigies you’ll know that I’m firmly on the “nurture” side of nature vs. nurture, which would seem to go against this idea of being born with a certain chemical makeup that predetermines aspects of personality and ability.

Well, there’s hope, and it’s called stress testing. Back in 1972, researchers M.E. Goldberg and A.I. Salama published a mad scientist study in the European Journal of Pharmacology in which they tested the effectiveness of stress testing on adorable, innocent little laboratory mice who never did any harm to anyone. They found that when you regularly stress a mouse out (for 1 minute over 3-5 days) before putting it in a revolving drum, it handles the revolving drum stress better, and is more likely to survive an otherwise lethal dose of stress.

The study suggests that exposure to prior stress accelerates the turnover of brain dopamine, increasing tolerance.

I’m not advocating spending time in a mad scientist’s nightmarish revolving drum experiment to prepare for Magic tournaments, but rather that stress-testing might help you prepare for particularly rigorous events like Grand Prix, Invitationals, and Pro Tours, especially if you aren’t used to that type of competition. Many players prepare by playing Magic for long stretches of time, and it’s one reason that MTGO grinders transition well into live play. Queuing up for events after you’re already tired is great, especially if you don’t have a real job or value your health.

There’s an alternative, but unfortunately it’s not much better than hopping into the revolving drum. I’m talking about exercise, which is another form of stress practice.

Athletic coach James E. Loehr noticed that a large factor in the difference between the absolute best tennis players in the world and the lower tier is how they use and adapt to stress in the 25 seconds between points. While lesser players are more likely to work themselves up by contesting a call or showing emotion, the top tier players spend that time recovering, following routines that allow them to regain their energy and steady their heart rate, all of which are signs of better adapting to stress.

According to Loehr, interval training is the best form of exercise for increasing stress tolerance, consisting of low to high intensity workouts that oscillate with periods of rest. Loehr emphasizes the difference between long, sustained stress, which depletes stress hormones, and intermittent stress followed by recovery, which builds stress resistance, much like the lab mice from the revolving drum experiment.

Thanks for reading. I know this wasn’t a typical deck list article, but I’ll have one of those soon, as well. For now, I’ll leave you with a few generic tips that’ve helped me over the years:

  • Play a warm-up round with a buddy. People do this with their Sealed Decks to get a feel for it, but it’s a good tool to get your head in the right place before Constructed tournaments as well. It’s a sort of mental stretching, and I’ve found it helps in other games too.
  • Get a routine for between rounds that calms you down while keeping your focus. I like to get a drink of water, find a place to sit, and then play a softer game like Love Letter or Hearthstone or Big 2, something to clear my head while resting a bit, keeping me awake without draining energy.
  • There’s a ton of dead time while the opponent thinks, and sometimes you’ll be waiting for an opponent for far longer than a tennis player has in between points. If your eyes glaze over, you’ve lost focus. I think this is why some players shuffle their cards. Think about your next turn, about key cards and possible draws for both players, about win conditions and board strengths, and about corner cases where you might lose a winning game or win a losing one. Study the opponent’s expression, and try and puzzle through his thought process and what kind of decision he’s making. Sometimes you can reverse-engineer key holdings by simply asking, “what could he possibly be thinking about here?”

Caleb Durward

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