During the week of the Pro Tour, coming up with content to write about can be quite difficult. It is pretty easy to just phone in an article, which I have certainly been guilty of in the past. The issue is that all of your focus is on a format that tends to not be relevant to the majority, at least at that moment, and even if you chose to write about said format, you have to watch what you talk about as to not spoil an entire teams work in a public manner. Until about 2 hours ago, I was in this very boat.
A few days ago, most of the members of our team had the pleasure of dining at Sauc. The restaurant is well known and ranked and it was an honor and a blessing to be able to eat there. At the end of the meal though, I was the unfortunate fellow walking away with the bill in mind hand. Again, complaining is mostly to play along with the game, but losing a substantial amount of money is never fun, even though having the ability to do so is something I never take for granted. Life went on though and testing continued. Two hours ago though, the same scenario played out at another fine restaurant, leaving me in a similar position as the previous.
As I walked away from the restaurant through the cool Barcelona air, I had to restrain myself from making a bigger deal of the situation than was actually appropriate. I sat on a bench and collected my thoughts. Though difficult at times, the following article is a summation of the lessons I gathered from that experience.
I do not want this to devolve into some sappy article where people feel sorry for me, so I will try to avoid any details that go down that route. I have nothing that others should feel sorry for in fact, and that is partially the point.
Magic, like most contests, is a very involved game. You put a lot of yourself out there each and every time you play a game. When you brew a deck, it is essentially an extension of yourself. It is something you have created, which in and of itself is a vulnerable thing to do. And when you play a match of Magic, you are putting yourself out there to be judged, not only by your opponent, but by the statistics at the end of the day, by the W’s and L’s that sit next to your name. Also consider, that unlike some games or sports, Magic is almost entirely mental.
When you play a game of basketball, your mental state definitely influences how you play, but at the end of the day, other factors, like your physical fitness level or general athletic ability, can sometimes outweigh any mental deficiencies you might have. Magic has chance involved, which can certainly swing things beyond what you influence with your thoughts, but as you cannot control that chance, lets focus on what you can control.
When all is said and done, Magic boils down to a mental contest. Your plays, thought process, deck decisions, or sideboarding ideas, all hinge on having a clear and sharp mind. Emotional boundaries can certainly clog this process though, which is why going into any tournament with the best possible outlook is going to allow you to play better than not.
But we all know that the best possible outlook is a bit of a idealistic approach to anything. Life happens, and to ignore that fact would be foolish, so how do we manage to remove ourselves from the reality of our lives and focus on the games and decisions at hand? I wish I could now present you with some fool proof ways to accomplish this, but realistically, the following tips are only ways to help clear your mind for the tournament at hand. There is no magical method that will completely blank reality, but we also do not need to do this. We simply need to free our mind up for a day or two, putting ourselves in a mental state that promotes the best chance of success.
Remove Yourself from the Situation
One issue I think that a lot of people face when they are going through a rough time in life, or when they are facing any kind of adversity, but also have something they need to prepare for, no matter what that may be, is that they try to convince themselves to only focus on said event. It is a noble goal to attempt to channel all of your energy toward the task at hand, but our brains, and specifically emotions, hardly play fair here. Often, when you try to concentrate on some contest, tournament, or event during a time of hardship, your brain does nothing but continuously remind you of the struggles you face when you return back to “life.”
The reason this happens is similar to the other concepts you may be familiar with. If I told you to not think of the number 8, naturally, all you are going to be doing is thinking of the number 8. In your mind, you might be trying to concentrate on numbers 1-7 and 9, but your brain recognizes that something of importance is missing from the equation and you end up fixating on the one thing you were not supposed to. Because of this, the best way to actually focus on the task at hand is to try to remove yourself from any situation at all.
It is going to be more beneficial to “forget” everything, even if that means you are not focusing on the tournament, than it is to narrow your focus to a specific thing. One might ask how it is possible to “forget” everything, and to be fair, that term might be misleading, but when I reference it, I mean to remove all aspects that might be clogging up your mind. Every person is going to have a different method that works best for them, but some of the more common ways include things like:
Reading a favorite book or piece of literature
Going for a walk
You might think these things sound cheesy, but they actually serve a very real purpose. The goal is to involve yourself in some, usually solitary, action that occupies your mental space but does not relate to any stressful situation, whether that be the upcoming tournament or the struggles you might be having. To help illustrate this, consider the scenario of a cross-country drive.
You are traveling from the east to west coast and hours are waning on you. You become fixated on the clock on your dashboard, constantly staring at it, which only serves as a reminder of the long hours ahead of you. If you simply tell yourself to not look at the clock, you are almost bound to look at it still, and if not, the idea of looking at it will still constantly be on your mind, occupying mental space even without committing to the action. But what happens when you occupy that mental space with something else? Your favorite song comes on the radio and you zone out, singing the song and enjoying the next 4 minutes more than any other along the trip. You are likely to actually forget about the clock altogether for that short period of time, just as you are likely to forget about almost everything else. Your mind is enjoying the moment and the stress that should be associated with the long drive seems to fade.
Your goal going into a tournament when your mind is clearly occupied with stressful situations is to reach this level of content. A care-free mental state is going to be significantly more valuable than one that constantly is reminded of whatever struggles you must return to after the tournament. Again, it would be great if you could narrow your focus to just the tournament, but tournaments are stressful in and of themselves, so our mind just cannot work that way. If you are one of the lucky few who can, then feel free, but the most practical solution is to remove stress entirely.
Eliminating Extraneous Factors
It is not realistic to think that you are always going to be able to separate yourself from the stress of your everyday life when it comes time to perform on the big stage. You can take steps to attempt to avoid that, like the above suggestion, but at the end of the day, there is always the chance that your struggles catch up to you and will have some influence over your performance. The first and foremost question you should be asking yourself, is whether or not you should even be competing in the first place. Just because there is a Pro Tour, or a dance recital, or a game show appearance does not mean your world stops. So if you feel it is in your best interest to step aside and deal with your issues, there is no shame in missing the event. But, if you have asked that question already, and come to the conclusion that participating in the event is still in your best interest, it is now your responsibility to eliminate any other stress factors that you can.
People mention things like obtaining a solid sleep schedule all of the time, but it often gets blown off as generic advice. Whether that is true or not, if stress is a concern for the tournament due to life situations, securing an optimal sleep schedule should actually become a priority. Eliminating any factors that might bring you additional stress is so important here, because stress seems to multiply rather than just add to previous stress. Only sleeping for 5 hours might not be enough to cost you success in a tournament in and of itself, but when it is stacked on top of the stress caused by your life situation, it can often feel like an immense weight on your shoulders.
I knew that after that night, when my stress levels reached a higher point than I would have liked, that I was going to have to take precautions until the pro tour to avoid additional stressful situations. Eating healthy, sleeping properly, and avoiding conflict with others should become a priority. At times, it will be difficult to keep these things in mind, but that does not make them any less important. So if you can avoid these traps, it is most certainly best to do so.
Prepare in Advance
One thing that players often overlook is the advantage that mapping out situations ahead of time can provide. When everything is going fine in other areas in your life, the advantages from comprehensive preparation might often be lost, but when things are not going well, doing the legwork ahead of time can provide you with a nice cushion during the actual tournament.
In Magic, this will often mean taking steps like mapping out your sideboard plans ahead of time. You do not want to be faced with intense decision making that is not necessary when you are already under stress. Magic is hard enough that making it as easy as possible on game day can be a life saver. Other things to map out might include general match up philosophy or maybe if your deck has an involved sequence in it, like a combo deck, writing down how the combo actually works so that the chance of messing up when it counts is minimized.
You can even take this a step further and show up to the tournament with deck lists for all of the popular decks, to limit the amount of guessing you have to make. Your decks might not always be the same as the list your opponent is playing, but that is a necessary risk to take when you are trying to minimize your stress levels.
I understand this type of article is a difficult one to write, as it will resonate with some people and not with others, as we all come from so many different places. That said, for me, I definitely feel that when I have been cognizant enough to put these measures into action, I have felt better on game day than when I have not. Stress happens, and life happens, so it is certainly worth remembering that and knowing what your plan of action is when those situations come up.
I think it is important to reiterate than in no way are you obligated to actually compete if it is not the best thing for you to do. At the end of the day, Magic is still a game, just as basketball is a sport, and dance is a hobby. You may value those things very highly, but sometimes life has different plans for you, and taking care of loved ones, or watching out for your health, are things that most people should value higher than competition. If you find yourself in any of these situations, I wish you the best of luck both in competition and in life. As for me, time to get myself together and take down a Pro Tour! Thanks for reading!