The Mental Game of Magic: August Q&A

One of the things I’m always trying to do is find ways to expand my content and create new methods for talking about the mental side of playing Magic. Having said that, I’m going to be doing something new here. Once per month, I’m going to do a Q&A article here on CFB, with questions from Twitter, and my answers.

There are a few different questions being asked here, so I’ll parse them individually and go through each.

Should you try to help at all? Or just let them be?

This depends on the individual person, as well as the severity of their tilt the moment you think of talking to them. If you know your friend is not receptive to encouragement or advice in difficult moments, I would leave them be. You’ll also want to leave them alone if their tilt is really bad at that moment, because in such an extremely emotional state, you’re not going to be able to get through to them in a meaningful or reasonable way.

Now, as for the flip-side of that, if your friend is receptive to encouragement and advice in difficult moments, and if you feel comfortable providing that to them, go for it. Also, if their tilt is mild and they’re simply annoyed/frustrated as opposed to angry/raging/despondent, then it’s fine to approach them when they’re not in a highly emotional state.

How is it best to help a friend who is tilting off?

The best thing you can do is two-fold: First, stay away from criticisms or play advice. This is especially true if their tilt is a consequence of a punt or mistake they made that led to losing an important match. The moment when they’re tilted and emotional is not the time to try and discuss with them the mistake and where they screwed up. You may have good intentions by doing that, but you need to wait until they are going to be receptive to constructive criticism and advice.

Second, be compassionate. Think of how you would treat a teammate in a team sport if they made a mistake or failed. What would you say to that person? You’d probably try to encourage them, inspire them, and lift them up. That’s what you want to look to do. Also, expressing empathy is also helpful. “Listen, everyone makes mistakes sometimes/gets unlucky sometimes. You’re not alone in that.” It will help them to gain a healthy perspective and bring them back into a more rational way of thinking.

I always tell people that sport/gaming psychology and the mental aspect of performance is exactly like gravity—it’s real and it impacts you whether you believe in it or not. Gravity doesn’t care whether or not you believe in it. It still impacts everything you do regardless. The mental side of the game of Magic is the same. It doesn’t matter whether or not a person believes in it or thinks it’s important. Your mind, your thoughts, your emotions, and how you mentally approach the game impacts you every single time you sit down to play. There are zero exceptions.

But having said that, you can never force people to be aware of it, to pay attention to it, to care about it, or to work on improving it. The desire to improve a toxic mentality or to better control their emotions and mental state during a tournament has to come from them. If they refuse to believe those things are important, or if they refuse to acknowledge that they have a deficiency in that area that needs improving, then no one can help them. It’s going to take them personally experiencing something painful that triggers something in their mind that shows to them, in no uncertain terms, that they need to make a change. Until that happens, you just have to leave them be. You can try to talk some sense into them initially, but if they’re not receptive of the help you’re trying to give them, then leave them to their own devices. As much as you want to help them, you can’t force people to change. That has to come from within.

Books. Books, books, books! Warning, incoming plug—I wrote a book on how Magic players can improve their mind and become better players by strengthening their mental game, which you can find here. Also, one of my all-time favorite books on sports psychology is a book called The Golfer’s Mind by a colleague of mine, Dr. Bob Rotella. I’m a huge fan of his work, and The Golfer’s Mind is a fantastic book that even Magic players can benefit from reading. Just simply replace the golf lingo/terminology with Magic lingo/terminology and it can be equally applied to Magic. His book can be found here.

Overall, devote time to studying and learning about sport psychology, whether that be from books, articles, podcasts, videos, or any other kind of medium. I’ve written a ton of articles over the past several years on the subject here at ChannelFireball as it applies specifically to Magic, which can be found here. I recently started doing a podcast on the mental side of playing Magic called the Mental Mana Podcast, which can be found here. The guys over at the GAM Podcast have also started doing episodes specifically for the mental side of the game, which you can find here. If you currently can’t/aren’t playing Magic, but plan to come back to playing in the future and want to improve your mental game in the meantime, then use resources like these to study the subject, work on the concepts that resonate with you the most, and go from there.

Oddly enough, I’m a huge fan of peanut butter at tournaments! Peanut butter is great because it’s light, has unrefined carbs for energy, and has a high satiation index, meaning it makes you feel full for longer, helping to eliminate unhealthy food cravings. I was at GP Orlando a few weeks ago and while I was playing in the main event, all I ate was the crunchy peanut butter I brought with me in my backpack. As a general rule of advice, if there’s food for sale at a GP, you probably shouldn’t buy it. Most of that food is hot, heavy food loaded with refined carbs that sits in your stomach and takes a ton of extra energy for your body to break down and digest, energy that is being taken away from your performance. Your best bet is always light food with unrefined carbs: fruits, vegetables, and nut-type snacks such as peanuts or almonds, etc.

As for drink, you can never beat plain old water. Soda, energy drinks, and others like them are dreadful. They’re loaded with refined sugar and caffeine, both of which cause huge crashes towards the end of the day. If you want the energy to play during a long day, make sure that you sleep really well the night before. If you do that, you don’t need sugar or caffeine to keep you going. Healthy foods and water will take care of the rest. Otherwise, natural juices are fine too.

For those who are wondering what “flow” means, flow is a mental state where you’re experiencing a heightened sense of focus and concentration and are completely in the moment with clear, uncluttered thoughts. This is obviously the ideal mental state you want to achieve when playing games, and to get there, most of the work needs to be done away from the Magic tables. The best way to learn how to achieve “flow” is by intentionally practicing focus-building exercises on your own. The more you practice working on your ability to focus outside of Magic, the easier it’s going to be for you to be super focused and “flow” when you sit down to play. Here’s an example of a great focus-building exercise you can do on your own:

  1. Take a stack of 5-6 quarters.
  2. Point your index finger upwards and place one quarter on it. For 30 seconds, balance the quarter in your finger. Focus on the weight of the quarter and how it feels on your finger.
  3. After 30 seconds, place another quarter on your finger on top of the previous one. Again, balance them for 30 seconds. Focus intently on the weight of the quarters and how your finger feels with the heavier weight.
  4. Repeat this process every 30 seconds with each quarter until you run out.

This exercise isn’t thrilling or exciting, but it’s awesome at getting you to learn how to zero in your focus and sharpen your concentration.

Honestly, deep breathing is the best thing you can do when you’re feeling nervous, anxious, or stressed. Deep breathing (I like to do 5 seconds in through the nose, 5 seconds out through the mouth, slowly) activates the parasympathetic nervous system and creates a very powerful relaxation response. Another great thing you can do, and don’t underestimate the effectiveness of this, is SMILE! Smile and laugh. Think of something that brings a smile to your face or makes you laugh and let yourself smile and laugh. Smiling sends a signal to your brain that triggers the release of very power brain chemicals called endorphins, which are essentially “feel good” chemicals. Lastly, change your inner-conversation and self-talk. Talk yourself through your anxiousness by reciting confidence phrases or affirmations that calm you down and relax you.

There are several things you can do:

  1. Physically relax during your matches. Have good body posture.
  2. Get outside of the playing space between rounds or after every 2-3 rounds. Get some fresh air, as the tournament space can become really heavy and thick with so many bodies in a small space.
  3. Do some light, non-intense physical movement. Go for a short walk. Do 10 pushups. Pump out 10 jumping jacks. Physical movement fires up the areas of the brain responsible for focus and concentration.
  4. Get good sleep the night before. Seriously, this is the most important thing. Get 7-9 hours of sleep the night before the tournament.
  5. Do some mini-meditation every couple of rounds. Find a bench, sit by yourself, and do 30 seconds – 1 minute of deep, controlled breathing.
  6. Eat and hydrate appropriately. What you eat and what you drink is your body’s fuel. Bad food and drink means bad fuel. Good food and drink means good fuel.

Thanks everyone for the questions! If you have a question that you’d like answered on next month’s Q&A article, then simply follow me on Twitter here and when I ask for questions for my next Q&A article, ask me your question and I’ll answer it in my next article. If you have a question you’d rather have answered immediately, just ask below in the comment section of this article.

Thanks so much for reading, and all the best!

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