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Learned Helplessness

I want to drop you into a specific scenario.

You’ve been playing Magic for quite a long time now. Over that time, you’ve enjoyed some great success. You’ve made plenty of Day 2s, Top 8’d multiple bigger tournaments, and have even won some prestigious events as well. Over the years, you brought yourself up from a fledgling new player into a competitive spike who is either a professional player or someone who is playing competitively in order to become one.

But out of the blue, you start losing more frequently for the first time in your career. Your luck just seems to have completely turned against you. Every time you sit down to play, it always seems to be against your worst matchup. You think you notice yourself having to mulligan more often than you usually do. In your mind, your draws are just nowhere near as good as they used to be, and your opponents seem to keep drawing the nuts when they need them.

As a consequence of all of that, you practically throw in the towel and run up the white flag when it comes to competitive Magic. You don’t playtest as much as you used to. Your daily ingestion of the latest metagame analysis and research slows to a crawl. You’re no longer staying up to date on the latest strategy articles or game play videos. Watching coverage of tournaments doesn’t even remotely interest you. You’re just going through the motions without putting in any real commitment, passion, or enthusiasm into your game. Your motivation has been all but zapped.

As a side effect, your results begin to tank even more. Previously, you were just getting unlucky. Now, your lack of passion and commitment to the game recently has caused you to lose a bit of your edge and sharpness, dampening your skills and causing you to play at a level far below your true best. Instead of seeing that for what it really is and being honest about your situation, you connect that with your previous bad luck and associate them as the same thing, cursing yourself and the game for more continued bad luck and variance.

It’s as if the game itself is conspiring against you. It’s as if the Magic Gods have specifically chosen you to be their most recent recipient of awful luck, terrible variance, and constant defeat. No matter what you do, nothing seems to be working. You convince yourself that things will likely never get better, and you don’t do anything to try move the process along and make it better. At this point, you consider walking away from the game and moving on with your life. You’ve just had enough.

Sound familiar? Maybe it has happened to you personally. We certainly know of stories like this happening to other players. They’ll go from riding a sweet high, hit what should be a temporary rough patch, respond to that temporary rough patch improperly, and then allow it to turn into a downward spiral of prolonged poor results piled one on top of the other. But that downward spiral doesn’t have to even start to begin with. You can prevent it by understanding one simple, core aspect of psychology:

It’s called “Learned Helplessness.”

Learned helplessness is a mindset people develop with which, after experiencing repeated painful experiences or persistent failures, a person conditions themselves to believe that a situation is unavoidable or unchangeable. Eventually, the person will behave as if they are utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when presented with opportunities to change the situation, their mindset of learned helplessness prevents them from taking any action. When a person believes that things cannot or likely will not improve, they may also begin to behave helplessly, lessening how much action they take, or ceasing altogether. This inaction can lead a person to overlook opportunities for relief.

How does learned helplessness apply to Magic? Let’s look at some examples.

Scenario A: Losing

You go to compete in a PPTQ, and immediately things fall off the rails. You lose your first two rounds. Logically and realistically, from a mathematical standpoint, you’re still in contention to Top 8. You’re fine. All you need to do is win your next 4 matches and you’re in, which is perfectly doable. But you develop a mindset of learned helplessness where you convince yourself that, because you lost your first two rounds, today is just not going to be your day and that you’re probably just going to continue losing no matter what.

“I did all of this preparation and I really felt like this PPTQ was my time. I don’t understand why this happened. I should have won those matches. Based on how the first two rounds went, the rest of my day is probably going to be the same, so there’s no real point in even trying to keep playing. I’m just going to drop. Forget it.”

In reality, is it 100% absolute truth that, because you lost your first two rounds, that means “today just isn’t your day” and that you’re guaranteed to keep losing? Of course not. But by responding incorrectly, a mentality of learned helplessness kicks in and you convince yourself that’s true, causing you to lose the desire and motivation to continue playing and so you drop out early.

Now that you’ve developed learned helplessness, that mindset carries over into your next tournament. You walk into that tournament convinced that, because of what happened in the previous one, you’re likely going to experience something similar. As a consequence, your attitude and mentality is poor. Naturally, you play far below your true ability level, getting yet another bad tournament result.

Now your learned helplessness has intensified. You’re now convinced that you’re definitely in a losing rut and things will continue to spiral downward. For the next several tournaments, you walk into the competition expecting to lose. You assume it’s guaranteed to happen. Because of that, you naturally play poorly and lose yet again. Next thing you know, two bad tournaments turns into two years of bad tournaments.

“I just can’t seem to get any good results. I just keep losing and losing and losing. What is it? Is it me? Am I becoming a bad player? Has everyone gotten that much better than me? Have I lost what I used to have? What’s the point of even playing if this is going to keep happening? I don’t see why it would get any better. I’m going to stop playing. I’m just wasting my time and should do something else.”

How can you stop losing from causing you to form a mindset of learned helplessness? Remind yourself that the past has nothing to do with the future. Just because you lost previously doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to continue losing. Each game, each round, and each tournament is its own unique situation. Every single game, round, and tournament is a clean slate. You have to approach it as such. Don’t let the emotions of losing cloud your logical thoughts.

You have to mentally disconnect all of your games, rounds, and tournaments from one another. When you lose, it’s all about asking yourself the right questions. “What caused this to happen?” Find the solution. If it’s simply down to variance, toss the memory of that experience in the trash and move forward. If it’s a technical play or a deck issue, find out what’s missing, find the solution to the problem, commit to applying that solution going forward, and prepare yourself for the next go around.

The process is always the same: Play, learn, reset, go again. Play, learn, reset, go again.

Scenario B: Variance

We all know this one. It’s such an easy trap to fall into. It always starts with one game of Magic.

You have to mulligan into oblivion. Or your draws are just terrible. Or your opponent has the nut answer every single time you go to cast a spell or do something productive. Through nothing but sheer variance and bad luck, it happens again in the next game. Your opening hand is trash, you have to mulligan down to 5, you draw nothing but lands, and your opponent just curb stomps you by curving out for the win for the second game in a row. Instead of just seeing the situation for what it is, a one-off game of terrible variance, learned helplessness sets in. You convince yourself that your luck has run out and that you’re guaranteed to go on a run of terrible variance for the foreseeable future.

“Wow, I’ve been nothing but unlucky recently. It just keeps happening and happening. I keep having to mulligan, I keep drawing badly, and my opponents just seem to always have it. My variance is probably just going to be terrible from here on out.”

Because of this Learned Helplessness mindset towards variance, all logical and reasonable thinking goes out the window. Like with losing, you simply expect to get unlucky in all of your games. This loss of reasonable perception causes you to see things that aren’t even there. You start forcing yourself to see “bad variance” that doesn’t even exist. A fierce cognitive bias sets in. You create your own reality where you’re always unlucky and every little less-than-ideal hand, draw, or spell confirms this supposed new rut of horrible variance the game has decided to curse you with.

As a consequence, you create even more bad luck for yourself. You figure there’s no point in trying to play correctly because you’ll “probably just get unlucky anyway,” and so you start keeping opening hands you shouldn’t. You keep 1-landers and hands with no plays until turn 3 or turn 4. When you don’t draw that second land or spell to cast before turn 3, you think to yourself, “See? I just always get unlucky. It never ends.” Instead of looking to yourself for keeping a hand you shouldn’t have and possibly mulliganing into a better 6-card hand, you blame the ghost of bad variance instead.

How do you prevent learned helplessness towards variance? Remind yourself that woven into the game of Magic is a huge element of luck. Variance is part of the very design of the game. By making the voluntary decision to play Magic, you agree to experience bad variance whether you want to or not. It’s part of the contract of being a Magic player. When bad variance happens, you have to acknowledge it, accept it, be at peace with it, and move forward from it.

Just like with results, every game, match, and tournament is a unique situation. There are no Magic Gods plotting against you and cursing you with bad luck to follow you from one game to the next. You can have the worst variance ever in game 1, and have the best variance ever in game 2. Anything can happen. You just don’t know until you play. You might get unlucky 5 tournaments in a row. It doesn’t mean you’re automatically guaranteed bad luck in the 6th tournament. Every game, match, and tournament is a clean slate. Don’t connect the past to the present or the future. Leave it in the past where it belongs.

Tennis player Vitas Gerulaitis lost 16 times in a row to Jimmy Connors. On the 17th game, he won. After winning, he said this:

“And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”

Don’t ever allow yourself to develop become a victim of learned helplessness in Magic and convince yourself that your bad situations are permanent. Those situations will only get worse if you do.

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