You can playtest, prepare, pick the best deck, and do everything right on a physical level, but if your mind is in a bad place when you go to play, none of that stuff will matter.
Today, I want to illustrate this by providing a real-world example that everyone can utilize. Over the weekend, a follower of my work by the name of Tom Murray competed in an RPTQ to try to qualify for Pro Tour Dominaria. He ended up winning the RPTQ, and he attributed his improvement in the mental aspect of the game to being the key difference maker in allowing him to be successful.
Using his own words, I’d like to walk you through how he managed to play with the right mindset throughout the entire tournament, from the moment he walked through the doors until he finished his last game, so that perhaps you can use the same mental blueprint that he used be successful at your own tournaments. Let’s get to it.
Going into the RPTQ
I wanted to qualify—there was no doubt about that. But I knew that I couldn’t stress it too much. I was aware going into the tournament that it would detrimental to both my performance and my mood leaving the tournament, after whatever my performance would be, if I told myself I needed to or had to qualify. Staying away from this mentality definitely helped because it primed me for a more beneficial discussion with myself. The farther away I got from the strict expectations and putting pressure on my game and performance, the closer I got to a more detached approach for the day.
I was also happy to be there. It was such an opportunity that I was grateful for. I give a lot of credit to the mental edges of positive, happy self-talk for having success at my PPTQ, in which I lost my first round in the 5-rounder, yet still made Top 8 and got the win. I wanted to replicate my mood and self-talk I had that day going into the RPTQ. Since I was happy to be there, I found it easier to adopt a detached attitude going in. I imagine that if I was scared or nervous that I’d be giving a lot of resistance to the self-talk. It’s a lot easier to execute on telling yourself, ‘I’m here to have fun and my results will come from my performance and attitude, not my expectations’ if you want to believe that in earnest and happily adopt that paradigm.
This was the perfect mindset for Tom to have going into the RPTQ. He managed to strike that perfect balance: He wanted to be successful and qualify for the Pro Tour, but he didn’t allow himself to focus on that due to the unnecessary and unhelpful expectation and pressure that would create. He instead focused on the things that would create that outcome he wanted: to have fun, to play to his best level each game, and to maintain the right attitude throughout. This allowed him to enter the tournament without feeling any pressure, nervousness, tension, or stress over the situation.
Early Part of the Tournament
Through the first three rounds, I was 3-0. I was also very impressed with myself. I realized the pressure would only increase from then on from the outside, from the competition I’d be facing in the end, and from my friends supporting me (they had expectations of me that I couldn’t let myself adopt), but I knew that having continuity in my head would be the best thing I could be doing despite increasing external pressure. So in effort to continue my attitude, I asked myself ‘What did I do to get to this point?’ I answered that with almost zero MtG talk or specifics. My answer was all about the healthy mind I had going in and kept up through the day so far. After I established continuity in my head and stayed on the same self-talk I had going into the RPTQ, I found myself at 4-0. The fourth round flew by in my perception. My self-talk and my performance had become the same.
After such a great start to the tournament, it would have been easy for Tom to allow himself to get wrapped up in his good results. He could have become overly excited about his winning start and started thinking about the potential outcome of the tournament. But he understood the importance of avoiding that and maintaining the correct mindset, so he utilized his self-talk and inner-voice to channel his focus in the right direction, keep himself focused in the moment, and not allow his mind to wander and think about where he could be, come the end of the tournament.
Later Part of the Swiss Round
Drawing round 5 was the best thing I could do for my standings. There were only two of us at 4-0, so drawing this round and playing out the next and final round seemed like a good idea. I drew that round and had nearly an hour of downtime. I knew this would be dangerous time. I thought of how similar this time could be to staring at the ceiling trying to sleep for the night when I’m trapped in my thinking: just a man and his thoughts. I had to stay away from dwelling on win-streak results or trying to answer the what-ifs of the tournament from that point on.
I knew four invites were going out, and the biggest fear I had was achieving an undefeated record going into Top 8, then losing my match and the invite. I stuck a big DO NOT THINK ABOUT sign on that fear for the hour downtime, and kept practicing my internal environment’s continuity despite not actively playing Magic that round. I knew that the pitfalls of a winning streak can be just as damaging as the pitfalls of a losing streak, and the best way to combat both is to stay in the present moment. I had constructive, happy chat with the player I drew with and the judges, got a water and a snack, and stayed focused on the here and now.
By drawing the final round of the Swiss, this gave Tom a lot of downtime until the Top 8 began. This downtime can be dangerous, because as Tom mentioned, you’re left with just you and your thoughts with no game of Magic to occupy them. In the world of professional golf, we have a saying: “The round is won between shots.” Golf isn’t won by hitting the golf ball. It’s won in the mind of the golfer during the downtime between shots. It’s won based on how they mentally react to the shot they just hit, whether good or bad. Tom was in the same situation. He needed to make sure that his thought processes and focus didn’t become warped during this downtime, and he did that by refusing to think anything outcome-related and kept his mind occupied by talking with others, eating, hydrating, and staying in the present moment the entire time.
Clinching Top 8
Continuity, continuity, continuity. I was able to double-draw the 5th and 6th round Top 8 with the option to be on the play. I couldn’t change my internal environment or the self-talk. I had an invite to the next RPTQ locked in, so everything beyond that point was just a plus. Realizing I’d be happy no matter what my outcome definitely helped me stayed calm. I also straight out refused any ‘just one more match’ self-talk. I find that creating any kind of narrative is detrimental, despite how literally true the quantified statements are. I’m drafting to play, and playing to perform. Results will come whatever they are, and my expectations would not guarantee results. This was an easy part, since whatever small sliver of expectations I had held on to through the day were now completely gone. I was happy already no matter the outcome.
It’s at this point where Tom could have easily felt the most intense amount of pressure, being only one match away from qualifying for his first ever Pro Tour. But like he had done throughout the tournament, he handled it brilliantly and exactly as he needed to. He didn’t think about the fact that he only needed “one more match.” He didn’t allow his self-talk to be outcome-oriented. He said, “I’m drafting to play, and playing to perform. Results will come whatever they are, and my expectations will not guarantee results.” This kept him focused on the process and, most importantly, it completely diffused any feelings of pressure or nervousness, allowing him to enjoy the match and play his best.
Playing for Top 4
My match for the invite was, mechanically speaking, the best match of Magic I played all day, and I think that’s a result of my mind being in the best place it had been all day. I mulliganed to 5 game 1 and 6 game 2, and still took it in two games. My demeanor could not be dampened at all. I knew that for a fact. I was happy and solidly established in healthy self-talk and nothing was going to make me move out of that. ‘I am Tom Murray, and this is exactly what I do and what I love doing,’ I told myself. I loved the process as much as the game that day. Battling my fears and pressure with self-talk was just as fun battling my opponents with Magic cards.
Once again, Tom did everything right from a mental standpoint. He kept his mind in the moment. He made sure his self-talk and inner-voice was as positive and supportive as possible throughout the entire match. Most importantly, he enjoyed the process and allowed himself to have fun playing the game he loves, despite the intensity of the situation.
In the end, Tom was able to make the Top 4 and qualify for his first ever Pro Tour. But he was only able to do that because he made sure he maintained the best mindset possible throughout. At each step of the tournament, from the very beginning to the very end, he maintained his mental game and gave himself the best opportunity possible to play his best each round because of that. I would encourage each of you to utilize Tom’s approach and apply it yourselves in whatever your next tournament may be.
Thanks for reading, and all the best!