The term “mental game” can mean a number of things. I use the term to refer to someone’s mental fortitude. In essence, I’m talking about their ability to remain mentally strong throughout a game, a match, or even an entire tournament. I’m talking about the ability to face the variance, frustration, and ups and downs of tournament Magic and come out the other side unfazed.
I have improved a tremendous amount in the past year of playing Magic. That’s not just a feeling. That’s objectively measurable. I’ve earned more Lifetime Pro Points this year than every other year I’ve played Magic combined. I hit Gold this year, my highest achievement. I’ve Top 8’d more Grand Prix this year (4) than every other year I’ve played Magic combined (3). I am playing at a much higher level than I used to. I’m not getting any younger or smarter. So then, what changed?
I improved my mental game. That’s it. That’s all that changed. The difference has been enormous. I see people fail all the time. Not because they’re not good enough at Magic, but because they just don’t have the mental strength needed to succeed at the grueling grind that is Magic tournament play.
Here are 3 ways to improve the mental game.
#1: Don’t Double Down on Dumb
Originally, the title for this section was “Stop Caring What Other People Think,” but I can’t resist some good old-fashioned alliteration. Don’t amplify a stupid mistake by making more mistakes because of it. Frequently, this goes hand in hand with caring too much about what other people think, or trying to avoid embarrassment over a misplay.
Here are some common ways people double down on dumb:
- They make a really obvious mistake in game, such as forgetting to use a Counterspell and letting an important spell resolve by mistake. Embarrassed over their mistake, they will double down on it by choosing not to use the Counterspell when the opponent casts another, weaker spell later in the turn, since they don’t want their opponent to know they made a mistake. They make a mistake, then care way too much what other people think, and make a second because of it.
- They make a mistake, and then they get so embarrassed or frustrated over the mistake that they start to tilt off and lose focus. I can’t tell you how many times an opponent has made a mistake against me, and then spent the rest of the match talking about how bad they are or how dumb they feel because they made that mistake. They care more about what I think of their abilities at Magic than they actually care about winning the match of Magic. Most of the time, they are still in a position to win the match, but they’re just not in the right mental place to win.
- They don’t take the right line of play, because it looks on the surface like a really bad play and if it backfires it makes them look dumb. Instead, they take the safer line of play that “looks” more acceptable in the case where it fails. I call this the “punting on 4th down at their 40 yard line” mentality, for anyone who is familiar with American football.
Good players don’t do this. Good players make a mistake, and then they move on. They don’t let the mistake bother them, and then they continue playing the game to the best of their abilities. They don’t care about what other people think. They don’t care if their opponent knows they messed up, they just don’t make that mistake again and still try their hardest to win the match. There’s more to a match of Magic than “who made the most embarrassing mistake.”
#2: Don’t Be a Slave to Wins and Losses
Winning the mental game is more than just minimizing mistakes in game. Winning the mental game means being able to deal with the ups and downs of a long tournament.
In the last section, I mentioned that to be successful in a game of Magic, you have to put mistakes behind you and not worry about them—just keep playing the game to the best of your abilities from that point on. To be successful in a tournament, you basically have to do the same thing, but on a larger scale. You have to put losses behind you and not worry about them and just move on to the next match.
It’s really easy to take a tough loss and then get discouraged. That gets amplified when they start to pile up. What about when you start a tournament 0-2? What about when you lose 2 matches in a row deep in Day 2 to get knocked out of Top 8 contention? How you choose to handle those situations is often the difference between a successful, consistent tournament player and someone who isn’t quite there.
In Grand Prix Charlotte, I started 10-0. I lost 3 rounds in a row, including throwing away the 3rd match by making a mistake to drop to 10-3 and out of Top 8 contention. I could have let it eat at me, but I didn’t. I got over it, moved on, and won the last 2 rounds to finish 12-3, good for a Top 32 finish. At Grand Prix Pittsburgh, I was 9-2. I lost 2 rounds in a row in really frustrating fashion where I drew quite poorly. I got paired the next round against my absolute worst matchup. I played by far the best match of my tournament and ended up winning it.
I’m not sure I would have been able to do that in previous years. I would have gotten tilted—I would have let it affect me. I would have been thinking about previous matches while playing other matches. .
This also applies to wins. Sometimes people start winning a lot in an event and they let it get to their head. They start to worry about “what happens if I start losing?” or they get cocky because they are doing so well. That can be just as harmful as letting losses cloud your judgment. Don’t think about things external to the match at hand.
#3: Stop Being Intimidated
I used to get intimidated when I played against better players. I let this affect my deck choice. I avoided playing decks with skill-intensive mirror matches because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to beat better players in those matchups. I also let it affect me in game. I used to have a really horrible win rate against top players.
This is a really bad mentality to have. I no longer think this way. Now, I approach matches against good players with confidence. They might be good players, but have they played these decks as much as I have? Probably not. I also try not to let it affect my deck selection. Playing the best deck to the best of your ability is almost always the best choice, even if you’re disadvantaged in a mirror match against a great player.
The truth is, that advantage is overstated anyway. There is a lot of variance in Magic, and often the skill gap between two players, even if one is a top pro, isn’t actually high enough to make a huge difference in who wins a match. That doesn’t even take into consideration specific matchup skills. I often feel disadvantaged against players who aren’t as dedicated to the game as I am, just because they have played this particular matchup a lot more than I have. They know it better than I do, and there is a good chance they will simply outplay me on experience alone.
This also applies to pairings. I’ll hear players say “oh no, I have the same record as all these top pros. I’m worried that I’ll get paired against one next round.” That kind of mentality just isn’t helpful. It creates stress for no reason.
There are so many factors in Magic that you have no control over. One of the biggest keys to having the mental game needed to succeed is to just ignore those factors. You can’t control variance, who you get paired against, or what cards you draw. It’s a waste of time, energy, and focus to think about those things. What you can control is how you deal with adversity. How do you handle mistakes? How do you bounce back after losses? Those are things you can control. And learning how to control those things is one of the easiest ways to elevate one’s game. I know it made an enormous difference for me.