My dad played first board for his high school chess team in the 1970s. His senior year he didn’t lose a match all season. Beyond his movement, positioning, and sequencing, there was something peculiar about his game.
You sit down against undefeated Dan Woo for an important match. You’ve heard about him. He’s good. No one has beaten him. After he moves his first pawn and hits the timer he pulls a science fiction novel to his face.
Is this game really that easy that Dan can read a book while you’re thinking? After moving your pawn and passing it back to him, without even looking up from his book he makes his next move and passes it back to you.
He is a savant. How can you possibly beat a savant?
Dan’s secret is that he was never reading the book. He was thinking about his next move. It was just a prop to tilt his opponents.
Today we’re going to talk about tilt. We’re going to talk all about it – the good and the bad. How it might happen to you, and how to defend from it. But first, what is tilt?
You have an important decision to make. Time is running low on the clock. A ring of people is suffocating you. Your opponent’s staring face cuts through the clutter. You can hear the judge’s wrist watch ticking right behind your ear. You have a decision to make. Your forehead is sweating. You reach your shaking hands towards your lands and pick them up. You can’t even think about the play. You’re wondering what your friends are going to say to you after the match. You can feel the eyes on the back of your head.
“You have to make a play.”
You have an important decision to make and you are going to guess. You tap your lands, and play your spell on the table reluctantly. You hear murmurs from all around you. Your opponent quickly moves through his turn and passes back to you.
You have an important decision to make.
Say you could give this feeling to your opponent. Would you do it? No? What if the stakes are high enough? No? What if the glory and money on the match is unbelievable? No? What if you didn’t have to sacrifice your principles in order to do it? What if you could do it while treating your opponent with respect?
Whatever your answer, you should know what it is, how it works, and how to stop this from happening to you.
Tilt is a mental state of broken confidence and of broken concentration.
Tilt is also the physical state of anxiety.
Maybe you play sports or you grew up playing sports. Traditionally, tilting your opponent is accepted and sometimes even encouraged. Take Michael Jordan, the most heroic basketball player to ever live. In game one of the 1997 NBA Finals (a Sunday), with a handful of seconds on the clock, Karl “Mailman” Malone went to the free throw line with the game tied. While Malone is preparing for his shots, Scottie Pippen, playing for the other team says:
“Just remember: the Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays, Karl.”
Malone missed both free throws and Michael Jordan scored the game winning basket on the ensuing possession.
(check out the full clip here)
Controversy in Magic
Magic tournaments are unlike other competitions. Matches are almost fully self-regulated. There are no referees watching your game. It is your responsibility to call a referee for a ruling. Enforcement of the honor code is extremely important. It is extremely hard to catch a player cheating, so when it happens, that player is punished to the fullest.
Sportsmanship goes along with this. In basketball if you bully your opponent until they turn the ball over you are a tough competitor. In Magic, if you bully your opponent until they make a mistake you are SCUM. Even handshakes are a touchy subject. Thousands of words are written about the proper use of “good game.”
So where is there room for tilting your opponent in Magic? That is a question with a complicated answer. You will get an overwhelmingly negative response from the community. “Tilting your opponent intentionally is BAD.” I wouldn’t say I disagree with this. But you are going to face opponents who are going to do this to you. In order to stop them, you first have to know how they are doing it.
How Your Opponent Will Tilt You
Tilt has two components- broken concentration and broken confidence. If your opponent succeeds in breaking either of these the other will follow.
The first time you go into the tank, your opponent will do something to distract you. It could be a friendly statement. It could be a guess at what you’re going to do. For a moment, you might shift your focus from the play at hand to what your opponent is doing. Your concentration has already been broken at this point. Your opponent might continue to do this over the course of the match.
Every time you go into the tank, your opponent does something. This makes your play take longer. Your opponent will find ways to point this out to you.
You go into the tank and your opponent tells you that there are 13 minutes left on the clock. You go into the tank and your opponent calls a judge. You go into the tank and your opponent sits up in his seat and looks behind you, drawing attention to the crowd that is gathering.
You play slower and slower. How could it be any other way? Your concentration is broken. He tells you to pick up the pace. It becomes harder and harder to make the right play. Eventually your confidence is broken.
Eventually your confidence is broken. All of your testing is moot. It is impossible to see even the most accepted plays.
Your opponent is talkative but not particularly friendly. He takes his time shuffling. He shuffles your deck forever. He is quick to call a judge. He is constantly talking. He tries to call your plays. He tries to make you walk into things. He points out your mistakes. He points out when you take a really long time. Occasionally he takes a really long time and you don’t say anything. Maybe he will talk to his friends and you want him to stop but you won’t say anything.
How can you focus when you have to deal with this person? He is invading your thoughts when you are trying to go into the tank. How can you get him out? Your confidence is broken.
Eventually you might blow up at him in attempt to regain it, but it will be too late in the match. The damage will have been done.
How Tilt Will Happen To You “Naturally”
Tilt might happen to you without your opponent doing anything. After all, the definition has to do with confidence and concentration. You can break your own. This might start with simple prematch jitters. After all, you are playing against a big pro. This is an important match. You start off by making a bad keep. You realize it as you’re doing it, but that doesn’t stop you. You attack a 2/2 into a 2/3 early in the game and lose it.
Every time you go into the tank you start to think about the mistakes you’ve made. You start to think about how you are already going to lose. You start to think about what you are going to tell your friends after the match. You think about how many lands drawn.
Your concentration is all over the place. It’s not on the play at hand. It’s on your bad luck. It’s on your bad plays. It’s on signing the match slip.
You play a few more turns but you know you’re going to lose, so eventually you just concede.
How to Prevent Your Opponent from Tilting You
Whether he is going to try to break your concentration, confidence or both, his key is talking to you when you go into the tank. You have two ways to defend yourself, mirroring and boundary setting.
If your opponent points out when you play slowly, point out when he plays slowly. If he points out your mistakes, point out his mistakes. And so on. This will let him know that if he does something to you, he can expect the same thing done to him. This will keep the power dynamic between him and you even. Whatever mental state your opponent will be in, you will be in, and vice versa.
Boundary setting is simple. This doesn’t mean it is easy. The very FIRST time you catch your opponent doing something to disrupt your concentration you stop him. It is important that you do this early in the interaction, because if you don’t set your boundaries early you won’t have boundaries at all.
You go into the tank for the first time, your opponent starts talking, you simply “shh” them. Maybe you call them out more aggressively. Whatever your method, it is important to set boundaries.
How to Prevent “Natural Tilt”
Focus only on what matters. Don’t let yourself break your concentration. Don’t let destructive thought loops into your head. You are going to make mistakes. It’s going to happen. You are going to get lucky. It’s going to happen.
You have to realize you only have so much time in the match to think about all of the plays. ALL of that time should be used productively. Every time a wasted thought enters your head beat it out. Practice it, learn to do it.
Do you want to be the player who complains to their friends about drawing 9 lands? Or would you rather be the guy who lost because of an interesting play x, who asks his friends what they would have done? What you talk about the match after reflects what you were thinking during the match. Do you think the top players even know exactly how flooded they got? Maybe a couple. The rest are too busy focusing on things that matter.
All it takes is practice.
Again we will revisit some Grand Prix stories. I don’t think I’m particularly incredible, it just so happens that I don’t have that many tournaments on the big stage, so the few that I do have stories that stay fresh in my mind. I am not flying to a Grand Prix every weekend. I am not going to every Pro Tour. I am lucky if I fly to two events in a year. Anyways, let’s move past this quick glimpse into my thoughts, and delve into some personal stories on tilt.
I play against Ari Lax in Grand Prix Seattle. We are both 9-1 or something like that. I have no clue who this kid is or how good he is. It doesn’t make a difference to me. He’s playing Faeries and I’m playing a cascade/command land destruction deck. On the fifth turn of the game I have an important decision to make. The board is already complicated and I am holding Incendiary Command and Primal Command. I have a ton of modes to consider and I need to plan out what he might be holding, what he can play, and my future turns.
So I go into the tank on the fifth turn of the game, and Ari calls a judge. Really. So my concentration is broken. I’m wondering what the judge call is for. Ari tells the judge to watch for slow play. On the fifth turn of the game! Back to the modes. I’m right where I was before. And the judge sees how long I’m taking. He’s standing next to me. I can feel him breathing.
“You have to make a play.”
Great. I play a couple modes of Primal Command, and the next turn he makes a play that I didn’t see coming at all. I break into my own head and start thinking about how I should have seen that. I dedicate my thoughts to how I have already cost myself the game. But the game is not even over!
I make some more shaky plays throughout the match. I try to Primal Command a Mutavault. Ari animates it and my Primal Command falls straight to the graveyard. I Deny Reality into Rain of Tears on the same land. I keep a six land, one six drop hand. I am tilted and I quit the match.
The Foreign Pro
I am playing Living End. A home brew. And if I win this last round I will be in the top eight of a Grand Prix. This is every little Magic player’s dream. Here I am. I cut through to the pairings and see that I am playing against Foreign Pro. He is playing Hypergenesis. I don’t think he knows what I’m playing.
The Hypergenesis matchup is not too difficult for Hypergenesis if they know what they are doing. They aren’t in a particular rush. Their first Hypergenesis only needs to put in a Progenitus, and Akroma, or something else threatening, and I will be forced to expend a Living End. They can then Hypergenesis a second time, unloading the rest of their threats. If I Living End a second time, the massive threats I wiped away the first time come back.
Of course, I am playing a rogue deck. If Foreign Pro does not know what I am playing, what is going to stop him from putting everything into play on the first Hypergenesis? At that point I can clean his board and win the game.
Before the match starts FP tries to get a glimpse of my sideboard. He leans forward like he’s wiping some lint off the table and looks over at the 15 cards I’m counting. Did this happen? Yes. Did I call a judge? No. I didn’t call a judge because I don’t want to deal with a he-said-she-said situation with a player who doesn’t even speak English. The judges won’t be able to resolve it in my favor.
I hand him my deck to cut. And he holds it perpendicular to the table and looks down. Like he is trying to see the bottom card. Do I call a judge? No, for the same reasons. I don’t want to have another argument about whether I should or I shouldn’t because I have had enough drama over that decision for one lifetime. Think whatever you want, that’s okay.
I decide to set my boundaries in a different way. I shuffle FP’s deck, and I stare him in the eyes. And I don’t look away, and I don’t stop shuffling. FP stares back, with his big glassy eyes. And I never look away. His eyes tell me everything. They tell me he’s scared. They tell me he doesn’t know what I’m playing. They tell me he knows that I know. My eyes tell him that I am watching his eyes. They tell him not to try anything funny. I keep staring. Eventually I hand him his deck, confident that I get the message across.
I start off the game without cycling anything. It’s important that I don’t show him what I’m playing. I lead with a couple Verdant Catacombs. He goes for Hypergenesis, puts everything he has into play, and I sweep him with Living End.
We shuffle. He gets to think about his mistake. He gets to stew on it. He has a lot to think about, and it shows during the next game. It’s a complicated game for even the most concentrated players. He plays slowly and when he tanks, I call a judge. A crowd starts to gather. The judge watches FP. He gets a warning for slow play. His mind is foggy. He tries to focus.
He starts to miss obvious plays. He stacks Terastodon and Oblivion Ring incorrectly so that my permanent is exiled and returned quickly. I walk him through the stack he set up and show him what happens. He screwed up a basic interaction of his deck, and he knows it.
We go to the third game. Time dwindles, and he slows down more and more. I urge him to play faster. I urge the judge to make a call. The judge urges him to play faster. The judge doesn’t want to have to give out a DQ. FP misses his second land drop. He labors over what to discard. He never makes his second land drop. But he never stops laboring over what to discard. Is he stalling for time? I don’t think so. His mind is clouded by tilt.
So let me ask YOU – I tilted my opponent. You can see that. Was I in the wrong? Did I not respect him?
We shook hands after the match. We shook hands the next time we met. Magic: the Gathering is a game played with cards. But it is a game played between two human beings. It is an emotional and rational game by nature. Is it unreasonable to create tilt? Does it make you a bully?
I have a lot of trouble answer that question and I could go either way, depending on the details of the specific situation. It’s a personal question, and I am not going to tell you one way is right and another way is wrong. I don’t really believe that. It depends what you want to get out of this game.
Are you playing for relaxation? Are you playing to win? Are you playing for glory and money? Are you playing to make friends? Are you playing for acceptance within the community? To each their own path.
Tilt is a part of the game. It happens for a lot of reasons. It has cost you games and matches in the past and it will cost you more in the future. Practice such that you can minimize it. Understand what it is and how it works. Understand how it can be applied. Only then can you understand how to stop it. You can perfect your mindset. Your mindset is malleable. You can be whoever you want to be. Your mind can be as Zen as you want it to be. All it takes is practice.
Have fun practicing, friends.