Today, I’m going to talk about a topic that is very cliché. But despite how often it’s discussed, it’s something that players easily lose sight of as they progress through the competitive aspect of the game.

It’s having fun.

As players move higher and higher, enjoying the game tends to get sacrificed for the sake of ultra-competitiveness. The logic is that because the competition gets tougher and the stakes get higher, a player has to stop having fun so that they can take it “more seriously” and have the ultra-competitiveness necessary to compete. There’s no time for any “fun” nonsense, right? This is serious business now! Playing PPTQs, playing Grand Prix, and playing Pro Tours—having fun and enjoying yourself at important events like this isn’t good for you because you need to be ruthlessly competitive in order to be successful, right?

This logic is faulty, and in some ways backward.

The simple fact is this: Having fun and enjoying what you do is essential to playing your best and achieving success. You simply cannot play to the best of your ability or win consistently if you don’t enjoy what you do and if the game doesn’t make you feel good. In fact, the tougher the competition gets and the higher the stakes become, the more important it is that you have fun and enjoy yourself. The issue is that people tend to draw a line between having fun and being competitive.

For many players, they see having fun and being competitive as mutually exclusive. They think that you can only have one but not the other. But those things are not mutually exclusive. At least, they don’t have to be. It’s more than possible for someone to play with a sense of ruthless competitiveness, while at the same time allow themselves to enjoy the game and have fun when they play. As mentioned, that’s the best way to get the best out of yourself as a player—to strike a blend between competitiveness and fun.

There is a fine line between having fun and being careless. And it is important to be able to understand and identify that line. As with everything, balance is always the key. It’s not good to be on one extreme or the other. When it comes to competitiveness versus having fun, think of it in terms of a 0-10 scale. You don’t want to be a “0” where you completely goof off, don’t think about your decisions, and just carelessly cast spells. But you also don’t want to be a “10” where you’re too overly competitive, too tense, and too serious. You want to be a “5” where you strike that balance between having fun and having competitive intensity.

When you allow yourself to have fun and enjoy the game, you can play more relaxed and with more calmness. Feelings of pressure, nervousness, and tension are far easier to cope with. Even something as simple as smiling when you’re playing is an enormous boost for helping you to perform your best. Smiling activates the release of neuropeptides that work toward fighting off stress and tension. Neuropeptides are tiny molecules that allow neurons to communicate with each other. They facilitate messages to the whole body when you are happy, sad, angry, depressed, or excited. The feel good neurotransmitters of dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin are all released when you smile. This not only relaxes your body, but it can lower your heart rate as well as your blood pressure.

Having said all of that, the biggest mistake that many players make is that they tie their ability to have fun and enjoy the game to the results they experience. When they’re winning, they love the game and they have fun playing it. When they’re losing, they no longer enjoy themselves and don’t have fun anymore. Now let me be clear. It goes without saying that when you win, Magic is more fun. And when you’re losing, it’s not as enjoyable as it normally is. I’m not going to diminish that and make it seem like that’s not the case. That’s perfectly normal.

Notice the wording I used. When you’re winning, Magic is more fun. When you’re losing, Magic isn’t as enjoyable. Results should never be the main determining factor as to whether or not you have fun and enjoy the game itself. Winning should be an accessory that adds to your enjoyment of the game, not a foundational requirement. Losing should be a mere inconvenience to you having fun, not a permanent detractor. When you make results the determining factor as to whether or not you enjoy the game and want to play it, you’re putting your ability to have fun and enjoy yourself completely out of your control. You’re putting those things under the control of a specific condition.

As long as you’re winning, and the condition that you’ve prescribed as the main source of fun and enjoyment is being fulfilled, then you’ll have fun and enjoy the game. But what’s going to happen when you’re losing? If winning is the condition that needs to be met in order to have fun and enjoy yourself, then what happens to your ability to have fun and enjoy the game when that condition isn’t being met?

It’s obvious. You’ll stop having fun and you won’t enjoy playing, and all because this arbitrary external condition you’ve set for yourself hasn’t been met. Always remember that results are temporary, whether they’re good or bad. When you base your ability to have fun and enjoy Magic on results, you’re making your ability to have fun and enjoy the game temporary.

It shouldn’t be temporary. It should be as permanent as possible. That means it should come not from external factors, but from the game itself. I always have fun and enjoying playing Magic, regardless of whether I’m winning or losing. You know why? Because I love Magic’s design. I love the act of casting spells, attacking with creatures, and finishing off my opponent. I love figuring out combat math and trying to visualize the lines of play I need to make. That’s always present, whether I win or I lose.

Brad Nelson once wrote a brilliant article titled “Mental Mindset” where he discussed topics related to the mental side of the game and why they’re important. One of them was the topic of having fun. Here’s what he had to say, in his own words:

“Magic is a game. I know this can come to a surprise to some of you, but it is just a game. We spend our weekends in convention centers with like-minded individuals who enjoy doing the same things we do. We get to hang out with our friends and not worry about the stress of everyday life. We get to have fun! Too many players put unneeded stress on themselves based on their tournament results, whether it’s about a tournament finish or even before the event starts. Their level of happiness is solely dependent on their results.

This is bad! So very, very bad!

Magic is just a game. It was created for people to enjoy their time while playing it. Nobody gets upset when they are playing Magic with nothing on the line, but once the tournament gets underway, everything changes. The stress of accomplishment changes your perspective on things and forces a shift in priorities. Instead of enjoying yourself and wanting to get better, the only thing that matters is winning. If you win you’re happy. If you lose, you’re sad. You can never get better at Magic if you’re not enjoying it. If at any point you don’t enjoy playing, then stop. It is as easy as that. If you don’t want to stop but also don’t enjoy it, then you need to reassess your priorities. You could very well be playing Magic solely for the rush of winning.”

To help strike that balance between competitiveness and fun, here are some things you can do to help with that.

  1. Ask yourself what needs to happen in order for you to have fun and enjoy the game. In order to have fun and enjoy the game, you have to be able to identify what it is that allows you to do that. That starts by figuring out what sources within the game bring you the largest amount of fun and enjoyment. Is it results? Is it the game itself? Is it the community? Is it the challenge? Is it playing against great players? Is it playing certain kinds of decks? Is it playing certain formats? Once you know what the biggest sources of fun and enjoyment are for you, it’s then about prioritizing them in the correct order. For example, if results are your main source of fun and enjoyment, then it’s important to reevaluate that and transition away from drawing most of your fun and enjoyment from results, because results are too temporary of a condition to be relied upon as a main source for fun and enjoyment.
  2. Focus more on the interactions and quality of the games, not the results of them. Ben Stark was once playing some Amonkhet Limited on Magic Online, and he posted video gameplay to ChannelFireball.com. In one of his matches, he lost an incredibly complex and drawn out game 1 to his opponent after being in what seemed like an unassailable position. But he wasn’t at all upset. While sideboarding for the next game, he quipped, “Wow, I didn’t think there was any way I could lose that game. What a fun game that was.” A great way to have more fun playing competitive Magic is, whether you win or lose, don’t focus on the result, but rather the interactions that happened during the game and the quality of the play itself. As mentioned previously, you can still lose and enjoy yourself because some games are interactive, challenging, and fun, despite losing.
  3. See competitive Magic as a whole experience and not as individual competitions. Competitive Magic is more than just a Grand Prix, a PPTQ, or a Pro Tour. It’s a unique experience all the way around. Each tournament, you’re surrounded by friends and people who have like-minded interests. You get to play a game you love and spend time your time doing something that (usually) brings you happiness. At larger events, there are vendors and artists. You get to hang out at a large convention center, and after the tournament, go site-seeing or exploring. To help yourself enjoy competitive Magic more, see it for the experience it really is. It’s more than just a tournament. It’s a celebration of what the competitive game is really about and what makes it so great. To play the game at the competitive or professional level, you don’t have to pick between being competitive and having fun. You can blend and balance the both of them together. You’ll be doing yourself a major favor if you do.

What is it about Magic that gives you that biggest sense of fun and enjoyment? Let me know in the comment section below. Share your story and let’s chat about it.