In Development – Your Number One Weapon

Are you ready for tournament play?

You have your deck, right? And you’ve playtested too?

And in a very theoretical way, you know that you’re supposed to get enough sleep and eat something before you try to take down that PTQ or GP. In fact, if you’ve been reading In Development long enough, you know I’ve already written something about that.

But why? I mean, you know things kind of fall apart when you don’t get enough sleep or when you’re hungry, what really happens? Is it such a big deal? I mean, people win tournaments on zero sleep, right?

This week, we’re going to take a look at what it really means to fine-tune your number one weapon… or to let things slide and take your chances.

The mistakes we make

Before we delve into what it means to fine-tune your brain, or not, let’s consider what our mind actually does for us during a game of Magic.

Your brain is obviously your most important tool for playing a game like Magic. This is clear in the kinds of accommodations that can and can’t be made for players. For example, if you have certain body challenges – maybe you’re a little kid who just doesn’t have the hand size and dexterity to shuffle quickly – and the judge staff accommodate you by having someone else handle that aspect of the game, that just shows that judges are cool. In contrast, if you have a cognitive issue with Magic, having someone a handle that cognitive part of the game for you would be cheating.

Or to put it another way, the point of Magic is the thinking part, so mistakes which impact that area matter far more than others. Naturally, dexterity and other issues still play a role – the last Warning you picked up for drawing extra cards was probably because you had a sudden case of fat fingers and grabbed one more card than you meant to. But all tolled, our mistakes of cognition matter most, so we want to have a handle on what those are.

Errors of omission

We can think of errors of omission as the classic “ah, missed that” mistakes. In a lot of attention tests, errors of omission come in the form of a cue you’re supposed to respond to, but don’t. In driving, accidentally blowing through a stop sign because you didn’t see it is an error of omission.

In Magic, errors of omission are killers, naturally.

A classic Magic error of omission involves missing an on-board kill. You had the game, it was right there, and you just didn’t see the play. As a consequence, you did something else, your opponent gets another turn, and maybe they take you down, or that gives them space to recover. Errors of omission also lead to bad trades in combat, and as a notable example, losing the game to your own Pact when you forget the upkeep “pay or die” trigger.

Perhaps the true classic Magic error of omission is the dread “missing a land drop.”

I’ve written before about the OODA loop. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It’s a model of attention and decision that tries to keep us from making errors of omission (among others). That first “Observe” step is key to this, as it’s meant to make sure that we take in our entire situation (again) each time things change or we need to make a new decision.

Errors of commission

This category of mistakes involves doing something that you should know is incorrect. It differs from an error of commission in that it involves making an active choice to do something. In attention tests, errors of commission usually involve anticipating a cue and then leaping early, before that cue actually comes – like the jumpy opponent who snap plays [card]Cryptic Command[/card] when all you were doing was dropping a land, because he’s been anticipating countering your first spell of the turn.

Errors of commission in Magic can also involve gems like drawing an extra card or playing an extra land because you’ve lost track of whether you did either of those already during the turn. Similarly, accidentally trying to cast a spell with the wrong color mana is a big-time error of commission.

Not all errors of commission involve rule violations, of course. Sequencing cards in the wrong order can be one. Maybe I meant to cast [card]Lightning Helix[/card] before I attack with [card tarmogoyf]Goyf[/card], to make Goyf bigger…and then I simply lost track of things, did my attack, and only after damage did I realize my failure to cast Helix. I jumped ahead in my own plan and rushed through the attack…and that’s an error of commission.


This is assuredly a weird term. It looks like “perseverance,” which we tend to think of as a good think. After all, that word means persistence in the face of difficulties or obstacles.

In contrast, perseveration means doing something long after the initial trigger is gone.

Did your opponent [card]Mana Leak[/card] a spell in your first game and then you spent the rest of the match assuming they “have it” all the time? That’s a kind of perseveration. Essentially, you’re not rethinking the situation in light of new information. You’re just repeating the same plan – whatever it is – over and over again.

Response time

This one is obvious – response time is how long it takes you to react to things.

Response time itself is not an “error” as such….but sometimes things we do can increase or decrease our response times. This, in turn, tends to generate the three errors we just discussed. If your response time has increased for some reason, it’s just taking that much longer for you to notice things before you act. Sometimes, you respond to this by missing things (errors of omission), by anticipating things (errors of omission) or by simply defaulting to the routine (perseveration).

Hunger and thirst

Yeah, so being hungry and thirsty sucks. Maybe it gives you a headache. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you’d rather not bother with eating ahead of the tournament…or during. So does it matter?

Too thirsty, can’t think

Staying hydrated may not seem so extremely important until you, you know, consider what happens to liquids that you drink. Following some filtration, the water in that liquid ends up in your blood stream, and then out of it later. So as you dry out, you actually effectively lose blood — at least as far as your blood pressure is concerned. This, in turn, can make it harder to get enough blood to your brain, which is a big deal since your brain is a resource hog, sucking down a good third of all the oxygen and energy your body uses.

So it’s no surprise that dehydration causes problems. Specifically, dehydration leads to increased errors of omission, slowed reaction times, and reduced sensitivity in general.

Or, in simpler terms, stay hydrated or you will miss things.

Too hungry, can’t think

Hunger does a lot of the same things thirst does. If you go without eating, anything based on attention – like playing a card game – suffers. You will make more mistakes. Notably, hunger has been looked at in “gambling tasks,” where it doesn’t make you pick the riskier option, but it does correlate with making the earlier option.

In other words, when you’re hungry, you kind of shortcut your thinking and pick the first option instead of the best option.

Notably, if you let yourself get hungry and then eat something, that doesn’t solve the problem. Even as your blood sugar levels are reducing to normal, you still remain impaired for a while after that.

So, keep yourself fed continuously. If you let yourself get really hungry during a tournament, even that food you hammer down between rounds will not fix the problem, at least not for the next round or two.

Sleep, fatigue, and you

Ah, sleep.

This is the biggie in terms of attention. Lack of sleep obviously messes with your game – we have quite a few matches from the top eight of GPs and other big events that attest to that. But what does fatigue do, and what can we do to fix things?

What it means to be tired

Sleep deprivation studies tend to look at extreme sleep deprivation, like not sleeping for sixty hours straight. Most of us manage not to mistreat ourselves quite so badly ahead of a tournament. Instead, our issue involves a stupidly long drive right ahead of the event, or just not getting enough sleep every night by default – getting 5-6 hours instead of 7-8. I’m certainly in that latter category.

Being sort of tired is enough to get you into mistake-making territory. Moderate fatigue leads to making more errors of commission. In other words, when you’re kind of tired, you’re going to proactively make the wrong plays and jump the gun.

Once you’re really tired, you transition from jumping the gun to simply missing things altogether. That is, errors of omission take over as the major mistake once you’re very tired. Extreme fatigue has also been shown to make you worse at problem solving and word recall.

So those blind [card cabal therapy]Cabal Therapies[/card] really won’t work out for you if you’re very tired.

For a lot of us, the issue isn’t one-of sleep deprivation, of course. It’s the fact that our sleep schedule is simply kind of terrible. Maybe we’re staying up late for one more MTGO draft and then stumbling into work the next morning.

Well, first of all, you really want to avoid driving to work under those circumstances, since being very tired is pretty much equivalent to being drunk, except that you actually make more errors of commission when you’re tired than when you’re drunk.

If you’re on a schedule where you’re getting not enough sleep each night for a while, you make more errors of omission. If you’re trying to solve that issue by sleeping in on the weekends, you’re out of luck, since you’re still going to make mistakes of both commission and omission. This is true even if you’re getting enough sleep per night on average across the whole week.

But I didn’t get enough sleep, so what do I do?

Obviously, the core answer to all fatigue issues is “sleep more.”

But just as obviously, that isn’t always realistic. Sometimes our work week was pretty rough ahead of a GP, or maybe we’re in another country and jet lag is kicking us around.

If you’ve just been a little sleep deprived – a day or two – then one full night of sleep will actually do a lot to correct the problem. So if you can get into town a day early and then rest, you’ll avoid a lot of cognitive mistakes when you’re actually playing.

Military research on the topic suggests that a full night’s sleep is always the best answer. If you can’t do that, 10-20 minutes naps are the next best thing – but expect to be groggy for 5-30 minutes each time you wake up. Perhaps most relevant to the true tournament grinder, you can prepare for a period of disrupted sleep by getting in a full week of 7-8-hour nights of sleep.

If you haven’t been able to take care of your sleep needs, there is at least one other thing you can do. One study showed that if you make a practice of immediately correcting fatigue-induced mistakes, that actually helps you make fewer errors of omission in the future. Of course, this means you need to know what mistakes you made…so it might be helpful to ask your opponent, “Did you notice any misplays, or anything I could have done better?” at the end of each round.

Other things that mess with your head

Even if you’re rested, fed, and hydrated, there are, of course, other things that can get between you and a clear, match-ready mind.


Duh, right?

I don’t think anyone really needs to be told that being intoxicated will cut into your ability to play top-tier tournament Magic, but it’s certainly true. For example, intoxication and having to remember things don’t mix well at all, leading to all sorts of errors.


This would be duh part two, the sequel. Pot makes you dumb. Anyone who went to an American high school should know this one.

As you’d intuitively expect, that’s not just while you’re high, either. Even with a day or so of being not high, habitual pot users had trouble remembering word lists, had issues sorting cards, and showed a significant increase in perseverations.

Being out of shape

I’ve seen a lot of my friends in the Magic community challenging each other to lose weight, and this is a generally a good thing (and since they’re gamers, couching it as a challenge is a great way to go about it). This is good for you in general, of course – being in shape has benefits like “not dying quite so soon” and “not getting type 2 diabetes.” But it also directly impacts your game.

Because, as it turns out, being heavier kind of makes you worse at Magic.

There’s a significant and growing body of evidence that shows that obesity impairs what’s known as “executive function” – that is, the parts of your brain that tell you to do or not do things. In other words, the parts of your brain that keep you from making all those mistakes and misplays.

Fortunately, exercise does help with this, even before it induces actual weight loss. Just putting in one day of exercise doesn’t do the trick, but a longer-term exercise plan does help.

Benefit from their playtesting

One of the upsides of trying to keep yourself in good condition as a Magic player is that, unlike figuring out whether your new deck design works or not, a lot of people have already done the testing for you. Although there’s no one true way when it comes to personal health and fitness, it’s useful to know not just what you need to do – eat enough, drink enough, sleep enough – but how and why missing out on those things will get in the way of your game.

And as we know, gamers like to game, right? No reason not to level up your own stats while you’re trying to grind your way to victory.

magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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