As human beings, our actions and behaviors are dictated by our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. Take someone who believes in living a healthy lifestyle. What are their behaviors and actions like? They eat healthy foods. They don’t slam sodas or Monster energy drinks. They exercise and keep themselves fit. Their beliefs drive those actions.
When playing Magic, this same law of psychology applies.
I recently had Melissa DeTora as a guest on my Mental Mana podcast where we talked about the importance of having fun as a competitive player. In it, she talked about how, at one point, she believed she “wasn’t an aggro player” and shied away from playing aggro decks at premier tournaments. Her belief about a certain archetype dictated her actions and caused her to stray away from playing a certain kind of deck, even when it was the best deck to play. Eventually, she ended up running a mono-red deck at a Pro Tour, and she did really well with it. It was then that she realized, all along, she was holding onto a limiting belief that had a direct effect on her ability to succeed.
You might be doing just the same.
I want to go over some of the most common limiting beliefs that many competitive players tend to hold onto, and describe why it’s important that you dispense with them moving forward. Let’s take a look.
Limiting Belief #1: “I can’t win against a bad matchup.”
In 2013, Craig Wescoe playing in the finals of Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze. Going into the finals, most people thought that Craig was the underdog, including his opponent. In a post-match interview following his semifinal win, his opponent was asked about how he felt playing against Craig’s green-white aggro deck in the final. He said, “I feel much more confident against that deck than the red deck, so I’m pretty happy about it.” Craig’s opponent was playing an Esper Control deck, so he felt he was the overwhelming favorite going in, as did many others. Well, as it turned out, Craig won the finals 3-0, and not only that, he won the entire match in 30 minutes.
Despite the odds, Craig was not only able to win, he did so in comfortable fashion and in what is likely one of the fastest victories in Pro Tour final history. How was he able to do it? Well, Magic is a high variance game, and at times, that high variance will work in your favor. There were times in the match when Craig needed to draw exactly the right land or he would fall out of the game. He ended up drawing exactly the land he needed. His opponent had one or two occasions where he got stuck on lands that had the wrong colors and he could never get things going. Craig certainly played well and earned his victory, but there’s no doubt that he was aided by great variance too.
Where does this false belief come from? It comes from a player consistently losing to what they perceive to be bad matchups multiple times in the past, as well as perhaps the culture of negativity that other players perpetuate about bad matchups. As a consequence, they create a limiting belief in their mind that “playing against bad matchups = losing”. This means that every time they have to play against a matchup they perceive to be bad for them, they go into the game assuming that they don’t have a chance to win, and that belief completely changes the decisions they make and how they play.
Get rid of this limiting belief. Magic isn’t won on paper, statistics, or percentages. Magic is won on the table by playing the game, and in a game of Magic, absolutely anything can happen, especially the unexpected. If you play your deck well and get a bit lucky here and there, there’s every chance you can win against a matchup that is perceived to be bad for you. But you can’t make that happen if you believe that a bad matchup is automatically a lost match. You have to approach every bad matchup with the attitude that if you play your best and take care of the things within your control, anything can happen, and you have every chance of winning a match you maybe, technically, have no business winning.
Limiting Belief #2: “I can’t lose against a good matchup.”
In 2013, Craig Wescoe played in the finals of Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze. Going into the finals, most people thought that Craig was the underdog, including his opponent. In a post-match interview following his semifinal win, his opponent was asked about how he felt playing against Craig’s green-white aggro deck in the final. He said, “I feel much more confident against that deck than the red deck, so I’m pretty happy about it.” Craig’s opponent was playing an Esper Control deck, so he felt he was the overwhelming favorite going in, as did many others. Well, as it turned out, Craig won the finals 3-0, and not only that, he won the entire match in 30 minutes.
Did I just write the exact same thing that I wrote with limiting belief #1? Yep! I sure did. That story doesn’t just exemplify that you always have a chance to win against a bad matchup. It’s also a great example of the fact that, no matter how great you think a matchup is and how confident you feel going into that match, there are absolutely no guarantees that you will win. Again, there was no question that Craig’s opponent was well-positioned in the finals. Did he get too overconfident in thinking he was the favorite and allow that overconfidence to be his downfall? Perhaps, who knows? Despite the matchup being favorable, as discussed before, Craig drew pretty well and his opponent got a bit unlucky, swinging some percentage points in Craig’s favor and making it much easier for him to win.
Where does this false belief come from? It comes from a player consistently winning against what they perceive to be good matchups multiple times in the past, as well as perhaps the culture of bravado that other players tend to perpetuate when it comes to good matchups when playing. As a consequence, they create a limiting belief in their mind that “playing against good matchups = automatic win”. This means that every time they have to play against a matchup they perceive to be favorable for them, they go into the game assuming they’re going to win, causing them to become complacent, lose focus, and get sloppy with their play.
Get rid this limiting belief. Once again, Magic isn’t won on paper, statistics, or percentages. Magic is won on the table by playing the game, and in a game of Magic, absolutely anything can happen, especially the unexpected. If you go into a match thinking you’re entitled to win and you slack off, there’s every chance you can end up losing a match you shouldn’t realistically be losing. But you can prevent that from happening if you believe that every great result is earned, not given. You have to approach every good matchup with the attitude that, if you think you’re entitled to win automatically, anything can happen and you have every chance of losing a match you maybe, technically, have no business losing.
Limiting Belief #3: “Succeeding in Magic is based purely on talent/luck.”
Success is the end product that people see. But what they don’t see is the enormous amount of dedication, commitment, sacrifice, and perseverance that players at the highest levels in the game had to apply to Magic in order to succeed at it like they have. None of the most successful players in the game were handed anything. Every single one of them had to start at the bottom, work their way up, and grind through the inevitable downs that Magic always inevitably presents to every player that decides to play the game competitively. To say that their success is based purely on talent or luck cheapens and degrades the amount of time, energy, and resources they put into Magic to get where they are.
Of course, it goes without saying that the more talent you have, whether natural or learned, the easier it is to be successful at the game. It also goes without saying that you also do need a lot of luck along the way to succeed too. But those things are never the defining factors that make the difference. There are many talented players within the game who never reach the highest levels of Magic or achieve any meaningful success. There are also many players who have gotten lucky at various points throughout their careers but never managed to maintain any success they were able to garner. If success in Magic was simply down to having talent or luck, then those players would have been more successful more consistently.
Where does this false belief come from? It comes from a player trying to find excuses to explain away why they haven’t been able to be as successful at the game as others have been able to. Instead of looking to themselves for why they haven’t been able to succeed in Magic and instead of analyzing their own technical and mental game, they create a limiting belief in their mind that “talent/luck = success” so that they can deflect away from their own shortcomings and not have to force themselves to acknowledge the weaknesses in themselves and their game. As a consequence, they continuously blame their lack of success on bad brain genetics or bad luck, and never realize that it’s themselves that’s holding them back.
Get rid of this limiting belief. Success, in anything, is never gotten or sustained through talent and luck alone. Those factors can certainly expedite the process, but they never make the difference at the end of the day. In sport, we have a saying: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” No matter how talented or lucky someone is, if they don’t work to refine and master their talent, and if they don’t take advantage of the luck they’re fortunate enough to be given, those things will count for nothing and that person won’t be able to obtain success, much less manage to keep it over a period of time. Success comes from doing something, failing, learning, going again, and repeating this process until you succeed.
Interested in learning more about the mental side of the game and improving in that area? Check out my book Mental Mana – Mastering The Mental Game Of Magic: The Gathering, which you can find on Amazon by heading here. Also, you can check out my Mental Mana Podcast, where I bring on various professional players as my guest to talk about how to improve at the mental side of the game.
Do you have any other limiting beliefs you think players can suffer from? Share them with me below and let’s have a conversation about it!