The past few months have been a cavalcade of unsavory MTG narratives. I won’t go into specifics here, but cheating in high-level paper events continues to be a growing concern with players and fans alike.

There are any number of reasons an individual might cheat—greed and profit spring to mind. Yet, in the competitive gaming community a third option—pressure to get results—seems equally plausible.

I won’t defend cheating or dishonest behavior. Cheating is wrong and the decision to cheat is indefensible. But I want to explore the pressure that grinders put on themselves and the negative consequences that result.

Magic is an insanely difficult game at the competitive level and if you are feeling the strain and frustration of falling short of achieving some of those long-term aspirations, you are not alone—everybody goes through dry spells.

The worst thing you can do is to let the pressure mount and compound your problems. It may sound like a new-age cure-all, but sometimes when the chips are down the best solution is to let go of expectations and play for love of the game. You’d be surprised how quickly things can turn around when you stop pressuring yourself to get results and start enjoying yourself instead.

In the Beginning There Were Fun and Games

For me, as with most players, Magic started out as an activity with my friends for fun. It wasn’t about winning—it was about the joy of gaming. I didn’t know I was a gamer until I discovered Magic, but since then I’ve made countless friends and developed an elaborate social network centered around a mutual love of gameplay.

Learning a new game is a sublime experience, a discovery of how various pieces and mechanics work together. Win or lose, it’s a learning experience. My recent obsession with streaming Arena is related to a fondness of my early MTG memories: playing with the cards I crack from boosters and making new friends. The priority isn’t winning, but creating a positive experience through gaming.

There are a lot of parallels between starting Magic and an RPG campaign. When you first start, advancement in the game is rapid. It might only take a week to race through the first ten levels, but each subsequent level becomes a larger, longer undertaking. Where a player may breeze through the first several levels, later individual levels may take weeks to complete.

Becoming a better Magic player is a similar experience. When you start it’s easy to see obvious improvement in your play, since every interaction you learn is a useful new skill in your toolbox. Once you’ve acquired all the basic building blocks, advancement becomes more subtle.

In what observable way did you improve at Magic this week? I played at least 200 games on MTG Arena, but that’s really just a drop in the bucket of my overall Magic knowledge.

In a video game or RPG it’s easy to track exactly how much XP is necessary to reach the next level. In Magic, how do we know when we’ve leveled up? We don’t. Instead, we measure how good we are in terms of our accomplishments. We equate “leveling up” to earning specific tournament results.

Results-Based Thinking

Reaching those milestones means a lot to players. If they didn’t, players wouldn’t put so much pressure on themselves to win. We put blood, sweat, and tears into carefully honing our decks and skills, and it feels good to achieve a goal.

At the very least, I think a lot of players simply want to be perceived as being a “good player” by their peers and hitting those milestones provide validation. It stings to be the last person in your play group of friends who hasn’t achieved that milestone. Even though it probably isn’t the case, it can feel like being left behind.

At a certain point of stacking up accolades, players believe that their peers would collectively agree that a player “doesn’t suck at Magic.” After a decade of leveling up, playing on over a dozen Pro Tours, and winning a couple of Grand Prix and Open trophies, a player can presumably reach a point where everybody sort of agrees: “that player doesn’t suck.” I’m here to dispel that myth outright. I’ve done all those things and people still write that I’m terrible at Magic.

The reason I’m slipping that humble brag into the article is to illustrate a point: what other people think doesn’t matter. Caring about whether other players think you are good or bad is such an exercise in futility because it just doesn’t matter. There are plenty of things that do matter: your attitude, effort, concentration, and preparation, for instance.

Also, generally speaking, competitive gamers are some of the stingiest people when it comes to giving respect. For instance, Chris Pikula isn’t in the Hall of Fame. The guy led a crusade to clean up the game during the dirtiest period of tournament play, but the Magic elite would still like to see another Top 8 before they acknowledge him as Hall-worthy.

Is it any wonder players feel extreme pressure to get results when this is the kind of “only results matter” example that is constantly reaffirmed?

The moral of the story is: don’t put pressure on yourself to reach any specific milestone right now and don’t feel insecure about what other people think. Instead of feeling pressure to achieve this or that, focus on learning and playing to the best of your ability. Focus on enjoying the experience of playing Magic. It is so much more difficult to be objective and learn from your matches when you are frustrated.

Yeah, being mana screwed isn’t a fun gameplay experience, but it could be worse. I mean, you’re at a gaming convention hanging out with a bunch of friends. First-world problems. Perspective is important. Easy tiger, you’ll get ‘em next round!

If You Can’t Make It, Fake It

Another aspect of the tournament scene that really heats up the grinder’s pressure cooker is that the circuit rewards spiking one tournament much more than playing consistently well over an extended period of time, which has a tremendous impact in a game with a lot of variance.

I’m not in favor of giving everybody a participation trophy, but I would like to point out that it has become increasingly difficult for the average player to attain what used to be touchstone milestones of Magic, like qualifying for a Pro Tour. When I started playing Magic, PTQs had 40 players, and Grand Prix were around 400 players with invites going to Top 16.

When there is so much riding on a match, it’s a lot of pressure to put on a person. Especially when you consider that 99% of the people grinding and competing in these events are not hardened professionals but weekend warriors who love the game and are trying to achieve a dream.

With the odds so improbably steep and the margin of error and advantage paper thin, how are we even surprised that cheating has been on the rise in events? When the odds of making it to the top are so minuscule, you’ve either got to be unbelievably good, unbelievably lucky, or an average cheater.

At the end of the day it’s all just noise and static. We can feel angry. We can feel frustrated. We can feel stressed. We can feel disappointed. Yet, none of those feelings are why we started playing and none of those emotions will carry us to the promised land.

The milestones have become more difficult to attain and will take more work and effort than ever before to achieve.

It’s not enough to want it really badly, because everybody wants it really badly, and unfortunately there is only enough for less than 1% of the people trying to accomplish the same thing as you. You’ve got to do something more than want it—you’ve got to love it, regardless of whether you are winning or losing. There will be plenty of losing, but hopefully it’ll be balanced out by some timely winning as well.

Competitive Magic is a journey you participate in over the course of your lifetime. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. There will be dry spells and hot streaks. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to reach that milestone every time you sleeve up, but rather treat every time you play as an opportunity to do and experience an activity that you love.

If you are feeling pressure to win at the grind, be honest with yourself about what you are trying to accomplish. It’s an insanely difficult challenge to undertake. You need to unbelievably good, unbelievably lucky, and the judges need to continue doing a good job of weeding out the cheaters who are taking away chairs from honest, hard-working lovers of the game.