Recently, someone emailed me to ask me the following question with regards to an issue they’ve been experiencing when playing:

“Often, when I play, I will over-ask myself if a line of play is correct. I will then end up taking too long to make a decision. That leads me to realizing that I’m taking too long, which leads me to rushing my decision and generally making a huge blunder. How do I prevent that?”

The term for something like this is generally called “analysis paralysis”. Essentially, a player gets stuck over-thinking or over-analyzing something, and this process of over-thinking/over-analyzing “paralyzes” them, rendering them unable to make a decision or take action. In Magic, this paralysis puts this player in a stressful, hurried state that often leads them to make decisions and take actions erroneously.

Magic is such an enormously complex game. When thinking about the complexity of Magic, I often think back to the match played between Brian Braun-Duin and Marcio Carvalho at the 2016 World Championships, particularly the fourth game of their match. At one point, both players had upwards of 8-10 creatures in play, leading to a game-state that was extremely clogged up and convoluted. Either player could have taken a million-and-one different lines of play during each turn of that game, and BBD being able to navigate his way through such an unbelievably tricky board-state to carve out a plan without paralyzing himself mentally was a huge part of what led him to victory in an extremely complex game.

That’s what I want to discuss today: how you can prevent yourself from falling into the trap of analysis paralysis and allow yourself to have the mental clarity to think through your games clearly and efficiently without locking up. Let’s take a look.

1) Practice, practice, practice.

As complex as Magic is, the complexity of Magic can be mitigated slowly but surely through repetition. The more games you play, the more complex lines of play you’re forced with having to analyze, understand, and figure out. The more times you’re forced with having to analyze, understand, and figure out complex lines of play, the easier, more stream-lined, and less-overwhelming that process becomes, and as a consequence of that, the less likely you are to freeze in those kind of situations in the future.

I know it’s a bit cliché, but it’s cliché for reason: because it’s true. Magic is a game of skill, and, like any skill, it can be developed and nurtured the more you play and the more you practice. Along with that, it’s important that you’re patient with yourself as you’re learning and allow yourself to fail. Don’t be afraid of being put into complex games/situations and making mistakes, as it is through those mistakes that you will unearth the valuable lessons you need to carry with you moving forward.

2) 5-5 breathing

Practicing slow, deep, intentionally controlled breathing has a large range of positive benefits that are great for playing Magic competitively. For example, controlled breathing can alleviate fear, anxiety, and stress in tense situations by triggering the release of endorphins. Controlled breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system and triggers a relaxation response in your body. Controlled breathing helps to enhance your ability to focus, concentrate, and memorize information by activating your limbic system, the area of the brain responsible for these skills. And, most importantly in the context of this discussion, controlled breaking can improve decision-making by improving the functioning of your brain’s decision-making centers.

If you’re in the middle of a complex situation during a game and feel that you are or might begin to lock up with analysis paralysis, there’s a simple exercise you can do on the spot to help with that. It’s what I like to call “5-5 Breathing”. It’s simple–you breathe in slowly and deeply for 5 seconds through your nose, and exhale deeply and slowly for 5 seconds through your mouth. You can do this for 2-3 cycles (In through the nose, out through the mouth is one cycle) or until you feel more calm and relaxed. This exercise will trigger a relaxation response, helping you slow things down and think more clearly through the situation. On top of this, I’d also recommend doing it before the start of each game as well as in between rounds throughout a tournament.

3) Trust is a must.

As skill-intensive and mathematical as Magic can be, there’s also a signification portion of Magic where feeling and intuition are equally (if not more) important. This often goes along with what we discussed previously with regards to “practice, practice, practice.” Practice, intuition, and trust go hand-in-hand. The more you practice and the more you play, the more you develop your intuition or “feel” for how certain situations will play out. The more you develop your intuition or feel for how certain situations will play out, the easier it becomes to trust in your decisions and actions. The easier it becomes to trust in your decisions and actions, the less likely you are to freeze up and become paralyzed when playing.

The fact is, in most situations during a game of Magic, you’re working with incomplete information. You don’t know what’s in your opponent’s hand, what’s in their deck, what’s in their sideboard, etc. You’re having to analyze situations, make decisions, and take actions based on an incomplete picture. Trust in your intuition. Trust your feelings. And trust your analyses. You’re better off being fully committed to a bad decision than holding back and being paralyzed by a good one. The worst-case scenario when being fully committed and trusting in a decision is that you do in fact make a bad decision and lose, but that’s fine. Through that experience, you will learn, grow, improve, and therefore strengthen your skill and your ability to make better decisions moving forward. The best-case scenario is that you end up making the right decision and win. Either way, you benefit in the end.

4) Create a decision-making system.

For the more practical folks out there who like to have directly actionable things they can do to help with something like analysis paralysis, you could create some kind of decision-making system where you can, step-by-step, follow a process for making in-game decisions in order to streamline the process and make it more predictable. For example, you could come up with an outline of something like this:

  1. Analyze the game state and formulate a sequence of lines to take.
  2. Figure out which is the best line to take.
  3. Evaluate what your opponent could do to hurt/prevent that line.
  4. Determine the possibility of your opponent hurting/preventing that line.
  5. Decide on your line.
  6. Execute your line.

Again, this is by no means an exact, foolproof system. However, it’s a simple starting point to figuring out a step-by-step decision-making system that you can follow to help walk you through complex games and prevent you from paralyzing yourself.

Is there anything else you specifically like to do to keep you from succumbing to analysis paralysis during games? If so, sound off below and let me know. I’d love to learn the various ways in which other players out there tackle this topic.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!