I was ninja timed out of a match during an MTGO Daily Event last week.

I was running my B/R/G control deck against U/W control in the fourth round of the Daily, and my opponent took game one, then burned pretty readily through their clock during game two. Although we retained board parity for much of the game, it seriously looked like they were going to time out.

This is where I made a mistake.

At some point my thinking shifted from, “Wow, they’re going to time out,” to ,”Yes, they’re going to time out,” and I started to treat that as my win condition. The natural consequence of this tunnel vision was that I didn’t successfully execute my “kill them with Bloodwitches” primary game plan.

And they F6ed me to death. Sad, I know.

As I’ve mentioned in the last couple weeks, I’m getting back into playing on MTGO these days, and part of that retraining process is familiarizing myself with the user interface, and how best to handle it. Much as experienced paper players have solid standard operating procedures, veteran MTGO players have a good handle on the interface and how to work around its more particular aspects such as stops and clock management.

Seeing what I’d done to myself and how my opponent helped set it up, I felt a little sting of having cost myself a match, and then filed away the experience for future reference. It will inform my game play from now on.

That said, I didn’t feel particularly tilted. I made a mistake, I’ve learned, I’ll do it better next time.

The difference between “serious” and “dire”

I really don’t like it when people say, “Why take it so seriously? It’s just a game.”

I touched on this before when I tried to sell you on going to PTQs. The idea that trying to be good at something is somehow the opposite of fun just doesn’t fly with me. It’s fun to learn, it’s fun to improve, and it’s fun to actually be skilled at something.

This applies across the board, whether it’s your career or that hobby where you meet up with people and play games with illustrated cards.

On the other hand, if you’re a regular reader of Magic strategy articles, you might start to develop the impression that being good at Magic is the most serious thing in the world. Writers tend to slip into a mode where they tell you what you must do to succeed, with the tone of a former Soviet-bloc ice skating instructor at the local mall rink trying to bully eight year olds into being Olympic champions.

I’m not a fan of this point of view, either.

First, although I like putting work into my hobbies, I don’t want my hobbies to be work.

Second, I think it actually makes you a worse player.

Going into things pre-tilted

If you ever watch an MMA match, you’ll notice that when a competitor returns to his corner between rounds, his corner guys give him proactive advice:

“Try out your jabs. He’s slowing down on the right.”

“Take this guy to the ground this time!”

“Just keep touching him. You’re winning, just keep touching him.”

If that last one sounds at all dirty, well, it’s a quote from B.J. Penn’s corner man during one of his matches, wherein Penn kept tagging the other guy’s head with jabs and the occasional solid punch, which generally leads to winning.

What you don’t hear them saying is something like:

“Man, if that’s all you’ve got, he’s going to kill you!”

Of course, they actually do say things like that during training, just like you might get down on yourself for misplays from time to time. But the thing is, when the fighter goes into the ring, they change to the proactive advice, and get his mind into the game and keyed to victory.

I’m going to guess you don’t have a corner team. The upshot of this is that if you build up the belief that learning how to play well is a dire need, then you may well carry that belief with you while you game. If you tell yourself that Magic is always serious business, and that you need to vigorously punish yourself for play errors, then, well, you’ll do that.

All the time. At tournaments.

The really good playtest articles will admonish you to “train how you fight.” This means no takebacks, no free mulligans, and possibly other things like not chatting during the game, or placing an emphasis on sideboarded play. To all this excellent advice I’ll add the suggestion that training how you fight should include training to approach all play with a positive attitude. After all, if you playtest for a week ahead of a PTQ and punish yourself for making mistakes the entire time, you’ve spent a week training to be on-tilt the moment you screw up at the PTQ.

Each new tool is a new toy

For the competitive player, play mistakes and game-losing errors should probably sting a little. After all, if you don’t care at all, you’re not going to have the motivation to win a tournament. Wanting to win always has the corollary frustration with losing, and that won’t ever go away.

That said, we don’t want to be “that guy.” You know the one. He’s brought a reasonably competitive deck to the tournament, won a couple rounds, and then loses. He grumbles. He goes into the next round grumbling, and loses again. Now he’s yelling about his bad luck, or how the metagame sucks, or just ranting incoherently while everyone at the tournament keeps a safe distance.

Even if you’re a model citizen and don’t externalize your gamer rage, you still don’t want to be “that guy” on the inside, seething in your shame at not realizing that Consuming Vapors has rebound and suiciding a second Baneslayer Angel as a result, losing you an otherwise winnable game. If the voices inside your head are still telling you how terrible you are, you’re not really going to believe you deserve a win in your next match, and it all falls apart from there.

The solution to this problem plunges us firmly into cognitive behavioral territory.

Cognitive behavioral psychology is all about the idea that many of our unhelpful behaviors are spawned by unhelpful emotional responses to the world. If we can reframe those emotional responses, we can reframe our behaviors.

In other words, you are never going to play perfect Magic. It’s unrealistic to think you can, and you will burn yourself out and start hating life if you try to. In contrast, by accepting that you’re going to make errors, you can avoid wasting time beating yourself up, which has the welcome knock-on effect of letting you focus on the game and win more often.

Based on watching a lot of very good players, I think that one of the most effective ways to reframe our mistakes and defeats is to remember that every setback is new knowledge.

And every piece of new knowledge is a new toy.

Imagine that you’re a new user to Magic Online, and you’ve been running it for a couple months using just mouse clicks, with all those obnoxious sound effects running in the background, and with your stops stuck on the defaults. Then a friend comes over and shows you the function keys, how to redo your preferences, and how to change your stops around mid-game.

You might kick yourself for all the time wasted and games lost. Alternately, you might just say “Cool!” and put together a crib sheet with the various commands until you have them memorized. It’s this latter attitude that I’m suggesting we embrace about the game itself.

Sure, I had that burn of loss when I was timed out of the last round of that Daily. But then I thought, “I think he tricked me into playing for time, then timed me out! It’s an MTGO rope-a-dope!” I can appreciate the coolness of what was done to me, even as I would have preferred to win that game. Should it come up in the future, I won’t just know what’s going on, I’ll have that joy of recognizing the technique that’s been used against me.

I’ve made it a tool in my toolbox, and the next time the situation arises, I can legitimately say “I have a tool for that!” and enjoy the fun feeling of having an inside track on the game, and of knowing that I’m prepared.

and since I know that’s what I’m going to do with the knowledge, I have that good feeling almost immediately. I know I’ve learned how not to get roped into timing out. The hapless owner of that accidentally suicidal Baneslayer knows how to play around the rebound on Consuming Vapors.

Instead of going on tilt, I acknowledge that I’ve received a consolation prize of knowledge from my opponent even as they were administering an unwelcome beating. I might even get to use my prize as soon as the next match, the next game, or the next turn!

By way of example, I played against Ben Seck in round four of a PTQ at PT San Diego. When he went for the Dark Depths combo, I let him pull the counters off of Depths with his Vampire Hexmage and then targeted Depths with Ghost Quarter. He sacrificed his other Hexmage, and I pointed out that that didn’t work the way he thought it would. After a quick judge call to confirm the interaction, Ben smiled, binned his Depths and both Hexmages, lost the game, and went on to win the PTQ.

I think it’s good to realistically ask ourselves how we’d react to that situation. Ben clearly accepted that he’d just picked up a tremendously useful tool for the remainder of the tournament – after all, he was never going to be outmaneuevered by a Ghost Quarter ever again.

Getting in the habit of good habits

It’s easy enough to say “Of course it’s unhelpful to go on tilt. Sure, I’ll treat lessons learned during play as new tools and appreciate them.” However, we can’t expect to just do this during the game, or even during casual play.

If you’re interested in reframing your thinking about lessons learned during play, you’ll need to actually (as odd as this may sound) make yourself do it during your playtest, casual,or practice games. If you’re part of an active group of players, this is the time where you all get to be each others’ “corner men” (or women, as the case may be). When a player in your group screws up, you could take a break from the default gamer stance of good-natured mocking and instead do something akin to a medical or military after-action report and actually talk about the play, potential alternate plays, and what to do next time.

If that seems weird to you, check out this video snippet:

In case you’re not familiar with the event, that’s the quarterfinals of Pro Tour Honolulu 2006, and Tiago Chan has just completely rolled Ruud Warmenhoven, 3-0 and out. Instead of stalking off in quiet frustration, Ruud wants to talk about the details of the match, and Tiago is happy to do so.

This kind of interaction can be a little difficult to get started with – it forces us to drop our defensive layer of sarcasm and irony and admit that we actually really do enjoy the game and care about how we do. But once we do that, we can have an exciting, collaborative experience of figuring out how to be better players, and this attitude shift will carry over into our tournament game play.

If you’re not working with a big playtest group – maybe you’re sitting at home grinding through MTGO queues – you can still set up tools to help you reframe how you treat mistakes and losses. The way I like to approach this kind of thought process on my own is to ask myself a reasonably structured series of questions, and then to actually make sure I answer them:

1) What happened just then?

2) What options did I have?

3) Were any of the options better than what I chose to do?

4) What’s my plan to deal with this in the future?

It’s really useful to have a structure and make yourself adhere to it, because otherwise our inclination is to try to avoid the self-loathing stage of having made a mistake by just forgetting about it entirely. That’s really nice in terms of feeling good about yourself, right up until the same damn thing happens to you all over again, and you get to feel twice as bad for making the exact same mistake you made before.

In contrast, if you actually have a set of questions, and genuinely take a moment to write down a real answer for each one, over time you’ll start to take a proactive approach to dealing with your own mistakes whether you meant to or not. Sure, the first few times around your answer may look like this:

1) What happened just then?

I sucked.

2) What options did I have?

Suck less.

3) Were any of the options better than what I chose to do?

Not sure.

4) What’s my plan to deal with this in the future?

Suck less.

Trust me that you’ll get bored of that after a while, and your answers will start to actually address your choices, and to contain ideas for what you might realistically do in the future.

Just one more tool

Following my own advice, I’m not going to suggest that it’s critical that you reframe your thinking so that learning to play better Magic becomes a fun aspect of the game rather than a dire need. But I do think it’s a good idea, and it’s a place where you can simultaneously get better at the game while also relaxing and just enjoying the hobby a lot more.

How do you think about mistakes, lessons learned, and the drive to be a better player? Do you have any tools you use to reframe your thinking? Drop by in the comments and share your thoughts.