The Best Way to Win

Apolo Ohno is the most decorated Winter Olympian in American history. He’s a speed skater who has won 2 gold medals, 2 silver medals, and 4 bronze medals. He also owns 4 World Championship titles. He once said this:

“It is not up to me whether I win or lose. Ultimately, this might not be my day. And it is that philosophy that I really truly live by. I am emotional. I want to win. I am hungry. I am a competitor. I have that fire. But deep down, I truly enjoy the art of competing so much more than the result.”

Arthur Ashe is one of the greatest tennis players ever. At one point, he was ranked #1 in the world, and is the holder of 3 Grand Slam titles. He also won 33 Singles titles and 18 Doubles titles in his career. He once said this:

“Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome. You’ve got to adopt the mentality that going for it is more important than winning or losing.”

Ben Stark is one of Magic’s greatest players. Ben has 1 Pro Tour championship, 4 Pro Tour Top 8s, 1 Grand Prix championship, and 19 Grand Prix Top 8s. He’s a Hall-of-Famer, and is also considered to be one of the best Limited experts in the entire world. He once said this:

“The accolades are nice, but winning has never been what’s motivated me to play Magic. I love gaming. I love thinking and mental battles. I love high level competition. The reason to play Magic is not to chalk up victories. It’s to play a great game.”

As a competitive Magic player, every time you sit down to play a game of Magic, or compete in a tournament, you want to win. You want to achieve things. You want to succeed. You want to come out on top.

But when it comes time to perform, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to not care about the results. In fact, I’d go as far as to say this: The less you care about results, the easier they are to get.

Many players will choke in important matches or competitive tournaments, especially at higher levels, because of the pressure, nervousness, and tension that they feel as a side-effect of the emotional need to win. That pressure, nervousness, and tension they feel impacts their ability to perform and causes them to play at a level far below their best.

The fact of the matter is that you could walk into a tournament, not care at all about whether you win or lose, and still finish in first place. You could also walk into a tournament with the mentality that winning means everything to you and end up going 0-3 drop. Why? It’s because results don’t care who wants to win. Results don’t go to the player who wants them the most. Results go to the player who plays the best. And the most effective way to play your best is to remove all expectations from your mind so that you can perform without the mental burden of the results weighing you down as you play. Results are nothing more than a natural consequence, or side-effect, of performing at or near your maximum ability. If you simply do that, then more often than not, the result will just happen naturally and take care of itself. That’s why there’s no need to worry about playing to win. If you just take the best approach possible that allows yourself to perform at or near your maximum ability, then the results will just happen.

What’s the best approach?

Instead of prioritizing the results, prioritize what I like to call the “Five Performance Priorities.” You want to achieve each of these 5 focal points every time you sit down to play. They are as follows:

1) Have a strong, healthy mindset and attitude throughout the entire duration of the tournament.

Mindset is the catalyst of all results. Again, results are nothing more than a consequence of performing near or at your peak. In order to perform near or at your peak, you have to draw out and use your full ability as a player. And, the only way to draw out and use your full ability is to be in the right mindset and have the right attitude every moment of every game. The stronger your mindset, the more of your ability you’ll draw out, the better you’ll perform, and the better the results will be. The weaker your mindset, the less of your ability you’ll draw out, the worse you’ll perform, and the poorer the results will be.

2) Stay in the present moment. Play one single game of Magic at a time.

In your mind, you don’t want to view a PPTQ as 10 rounds or a Grand Prix/Pro Tour as a 2-day event. For you, there’s only game 1 of the first match. There is no round 2, round 3, or beyond. Once you finish game 1, you immediately erase it from your mind and shift your focus to game 2. If there’s a game 3, then you completely erase game 2 from your mind and shift your focus to game 3. Once the match is finished, you erase it from your mind and immediately focus on game 1 of the next round. You do this until someone eventually tells you to stop or the tournament is completed. Throughout the tournament, don’t look at the leader board. The only time you need to care about your standing in the tournament is if you’re in a position to draw into the Top 8. Otherwise, your position in the tournament is irrelevant because, regardless of where you are in the standings, it doesn’t change your objective for each game, which is to perform your best. Once you start obsessing over the leader board and your position in it, you’ve immediately left the present moment and fallen into the trap of worrying about past or future rounds completely beyond your control and creating future scenarios in your head that don’t even exist yet, which can have a negative impact on your performance in your next game.

3) Have fun! Play with a smile on your face. Let yourself relax and enjoy the game that you love.

It’s amazing how many players lose sight of why they play Magic in the first place. It’s an easy trap to fall into. For many players, especially the pros or those that are on “the grind”, it’s easy for Magic to feel like work or a monotonous task that’s nothing more than a means to an end. Scientific research has shown pretty conclusively that, when an activity you used to do for intrinsic pleasure becomes something you do solely for external gain, then the desire and motivation to continue doing that activity will decrease over time. Of course, you’re serious about your performance and you want to do well. But the moment you stop having fun and enjoying the game, you’re finished. Melissa De Tora said it best:

“Once you know how to have fun playing Magic, the wins will just come to you. You will be under much less pressure and feel more relaxed and less stressed. I can tell you firsthand that once I started having more fun playing, I no longer felt the burnout at Grand Prix and Pro Tours and I became a more well-rounded Magic player. Soon after I learned that Magic can actually be fun, I ended up making Top 25 of Pro Tour M15 and then made Top 8 of Grand Prix Orlando a few months later.”

4) Commit to a personal standard and demand the absolute best of yourself each game.

One of the most common things someone will say to me is, “I perform better when there’s more on the line” or “I tend to not care as much once I know I’m out of contention.” You don’t want to have that kind of outlook. Every single time you sit down to play, you should hold yourself to a high standard and demand from yourself that you try to produce the best performance you possibly can, regardless of how much or how little is on the line, regardless of how good or bad your opponent is, and regardless of how big or small the stakes are. Every game you play, it matters to you that you try to produce the best quality Magic you’re capable of. You take a great deal of pride in the quality of your performance.

5) Learn something from every performance so you can continue to grow and improve as a player.

Once the tournament is finished, go back and evaluate your performance. What are the things you didn’t do well? What are the things that you did great? What mistakes did you make? What plays did you get spot on? Always evaluate every performance so that you can continue to grow and improve as a player. Take all of the emotion out of it when you do. Too many players are hard on themselves unnecessarily. There’s nothing noble about beating yourself up. Every mistake has a solution, so all you have to do is identify that solution and commit to applying it going forward. That’s it. Now that you have the solution and you know how to play better next time, there’s no reason whatsoever to be upset.

If you’re able to put a checkmark next to each of these things after your performance, then you have every right to be satisfied with yourself, regardless of the outcome. The fact is you don’t have complete control over whether you win or lose. All you can control is the process that determines the result. In Magic, a game where variance plays such a massive role, that’s very important to always remember.

In the end, your approach to competitive Magic should be no different than how nature or life is inherently designed: Balance is the key. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, wanting to achieve, wanting to finish on top, and wanting to succeed. But once wanting to win becomes needing to win, then you’re in trouble. You’re setting yourself up for an emotional trap. As Arthur Ashe said:

“Success is journey, not a destination.”

Focus on the process and let the results come to you.

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