The Concept Of Kaizen

When it comes to the mental aspects of competitive Magic, one of the shining examples in the game we have is Reid Duke. Recently, he tweeted something that I thought was magnificent and very well-said. It’s something all players should take in and adhere to:

The part of his statement I want to focus in on today is this: “self-improvement.” There have been a ton of articles written over the years on the concept of self-improvement in Magic, even by me, so I don’t really want to produce another regurgitated article of the sort. I’m going to try and discuss this important concept from a slightly different angle, and that is by sharing with you the Japanese concept of “kaizen.”

The history of the concept of kaizen begins after World War II, when car manufacturer Toyota first implemented quality circles into its production process. A quality circle is a group of workers performing the same or similar work, who meet regularly to identify, analyze, and solve work-related problems. This revolutionary concept became very popular in Japan in the 1950s and continues to exist in the form of “kaizen groups,” as well as similar worker participation schemes. The term kaizen actually became famous around the world through the works of Masaaki Imai.

In short, kaizen is the Japanese philosophy and science behind CANI—constant and never-ending improvement. Beginning in the 1950s and straight through to today, the culture of kaizen and the concept of seeking CANI is a very deeply-held and prevalent philosophy that many Japanese people and business operate by. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Japanese electronics (SONY) and Japanese cars (Toyota, Mazda, etc.) are and have been some of the best products in their market in the world for many years.

The concept of kaizen is comprised of 10 core principles. Those 10 core principles are as follows:

  1. Improve everything continuously.
  2. Abolish old, traditional concepts.
  3. Accept no excuses and make things happen.
  4. Say no to the status quo of implementing new methods and assuming that they work.
  5. If something is wrong, correct it.
  6. Empower everyone to take part in solving problems.
  7. Get information and opinions from multiple people.
  8. Before making a decision, ask “why” to get to the root cause of it.
  9. Be economical. Save money through small improvements and spend the saved money on further improvements.
  10. Remember that improvement has no limits. Never stop trying to improve.

Can we apply these 10 core principles of kaizen to competitive Magic? Well, let’s take a look and see if they fit reasonably enough.

1) Improve everything continuously.

Part of what makes Magic such a wonderful game is its intricate complexity—the never-ending combination of lines, plays, decisions, numbers, permutations, situations, and combinations. This means that, no matter how great you become at Magic, you can never perfect it. Since the game can never be perfected, there’s always room for improvement in some aspect of the game, whether technical or mental in nature. Constantly be seeking out the areas of your game where you can enhance yourself and improve. Always be learning. You can never be too good at Magic.

2) Abolish old, traditional concepts.

I remember when I first started learning how to play, everyone around me was telling me, “Make sure you always play your land for the turn before combat so that you have more mana to play spells mid-combat if needed.” Over the years, I slowly learned that this old, traditional concept that perhaps many players thought was fine was actually worse than simply holding your land before combat and giving your opponent less information to work with. There are other concepts as well, but as you evolve and improve as a player, be careful of dogmatic ways of thinking and be willing to let go of old, deeply-held concepts if they prove to be less beneficial or incorrect.

3) Accept no excuses and make things happen.

I know this one can sound a bit “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” but there is certainly merit to it. It’s natural, as human beings, to shield ourselves from the truth if that truth is painful. I’ve certainly been guilty of it at times, making excuses for poor tournament performances or bad decisions I’ve consciously made. I would perhaps blame bad luck for a tournament result when, in reality, I put myself in a position to experience consistent “bad luck” because of certain decisions I made during my games.

If you do poorly at a tournament because of your own poor choices, accept no excuses and own up to them. If you play badly at a tournament because you didn’t prepare adequately enough, accept no excuses and be honest about it. If you claim you want to improve your game, make it happen and begin implementing a scheme for self-improvement. If you want to be more committed to the game, make it happen and begin taking the game as seriously as you need to do.

4) Say no to the status quo of implementing new methods and assuming that they work.

This principle is similar to #2. In essence, it’s about not simply accepting certain methods or ways of thinking and making sure that something is actually sound and correct before implementing it. This applies after you’ve tried and tested out a particular method or way of thinking, and especially if that method or way of thinking is mainstream, popular, or a “new fad” of some sort. The best example of this would probably be new decks in a metagame. Be willing to give them their fair shot, but if they don’t work, be just as willing to move on from them, even more so if it’s a deck of your own creation and something that is perhaps a bit of a “pet deck.”

5) If something is wrong, correct it.

Speaking of pet decks and self-creations, this is a big one, and one I know I’ve certainly been guilty of. On Arena, I love to build decks and create brews to see if anything I come up with can be competitive. I have a tendency to get locked into refusing to let go of certain cards in a deck, even when that card being in the deck is clearly wrong, isn’t working, and needs to go. But this can also apply to mainstream decks in a quickly-changing metagame. A card may be great one week and the wrong choice the next week. In either case, if something is wrong, be willing to let it go and seek out the necessary solutions to correct it immediately.

6) Empower everyone to take part in solving problems.

This one is great when looked at through the scope of a group. Whether you’re part of a playtesting group, teaming up with a few other people for a tournament, or part of a bonafide competitive team full-time, encouraging and empowering everyone to take part in solving problems is highly recommended. Not only does this help and improve everyone within your group, it also brings the group closer together and helps to foster a tighter, closer bond.

7) Get information and opinions from multiple people.

In today’s world ruled by the internet, this one is extremely easy to implement. You’re reading this article on ChannelFireball, a site loaded with tons of free content where you can learn how to improve both your technical and mental game. There are many other sites that offer the same. Read, watch, and learn from as many sources online as you can. On top of that, never be too insecure to seek help and guidance from those around you. It only makes sense to get information and opinions from players around you who are better than you.

8) Before making a decision, ask “why” to get to the root cause of it.

Are you going to mulligan an opening hand? If so, why are you doing it? What’s the reason or reasons behind that decision? Are you going to attack with only 3 of your 5 creatures instead of all of them? If so, why are you doing that? What’s the reason or reasons behind that choice? Are you going to include a specific card in your main deck or sideboard? If so, why are you including it? What’s the reason or reasons behind including that card? As often as you can, before making important decisions, whether in game or outside of it, take a second to ask yourself why you’re making that decision so that you can make sure it’s a reasonable choice to make before you make it.

9) Be economical. Save money through small improvements and spend the saved money on further improvements.

Do you need to spend $100 on 20,000 gems on Arena? Do you need to buy an entire case of a set when it releases? Do you need to have Japanese foil versions of every card in your deck? What if, instead of spending money on things you didn’t need to spend money on, you saved that money and channeled it towards things that can help you improve your game, such as books, coaching, and courses? I know that throughout my time in the game, I’ve certainly needlessly overspent on Magic, and I’m sure you’ve probably done the same at some point! Be economical, and consider how you’re spending your money when it comes to MTG.

10) Remember that improvement has no limits. Never stop trying to improve.

Earlier in this article, we talked about how Magic is an intricate, complex game that can never be perfected. You can pursue perfection with the aim of getting as close to excellence as you can, but that must be done so with the understanding that consistent, long-term perfection can never be attained. That means that there’s no limit to how much you can learn and improve as a player. Throughout your time in the game as a competitive player, at all times, always be seeking ways to continue to improve, learn, and grow. You’ll never reach a point where you’ve figured it out or completely solved it.

Kaizen is a very interesting and thought-provoking take on the concept of self-improvement, so I encourage you to consider to take some or all of its core principles into your own process of self-improvement as you move forward.

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

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