New Year’s resolutions don’t work.

This has been studied. Psychologist Richard Wiseman, who appropriately enough for a Magic article spends most of this time studying our perception of luck, has kept track of how people in the UK perform on their New Year’s resolutions. The success rate is an abysmal 10% or so, which is pretty bad. I’m not particularly surprised, though. We rarely succeed by simply willing ourselves to do so – it’s simply very hard to adjust how you operate just because you want to.

So is my title this week a sort of cruel trick?

Not really. Although the rollover from one year into another is essentially arbitrary and resolutions tend to live on a vapor of hope and dreams and little else, our situation is not the same. Here in the universe of competitive Magic, we have some entirely non-arbitrary time points. There’s the start of an Extended PTQ season. There are other major event series kicking off. And, to cap it off, we’ll have a new set in Standard in the very near future.

Any one of these events represents a good time to check in with yourself, to see if your process and approach to the game is serving your goals. Heck, you can also check in on your goals!

This week I wanted to use the start of the Extended PTQ season as a chance to review my own goals and approaches to the game, and to use that as the basis for helping you reevaluate your own goals and approaches. I’ll cap it off with one take-home suggestion that I think will help you have a more enjoyable event season, whether it’s PTQs, MOCS (Magic Online Championship Series), or anything else under the sun.

What are your customer’s needs?

I’ve read rather a lot of marketing material in the last year. I don’t mean marketing copy, but educational material about marketing. One of the key insights in all of that reading is that marketing doesn’t start with “I have this stuff, now I need to figure out how to sell it to you.” Instead, it begins with, “What do you need?”

So, in figuring out how we want our process to work for a new event season, we need to start by addressing the customer.

(That’s you.)

What are your goals?

This is why we lead with our goals. As our own customer, if we really want to make changes that will genuinely help us, we need to know what we need.

How’s that for some tortured phrasing?

One of the biggest flaws in sales of any kind is an emphasis on features over benefits. In Magic, we’re especially prone to this error. We like tech, whether that’s deck designs, identifying cool under-used cards, or even the application of psychological tools. Especially given the truly prolific nature of contemporary Magic writing, it’s really easy to end up with an enormous armamentarium of Magic tools with no real idea how they’ll make our Magic experience better.

It’s all feature, with no understanding of benefit.

What are you trying to get out of Magic? What are you trying to get out of a specific event series, such as the current Extended PTQ season for Nagoya?

Are you trying to qualify for the Pro Tour?

Are you qualified, but want to take down a free flight?

Do you want to keep playing to help your friends get on the tour?

Do you just enjoy playing in PTQs?

It’s pretty natural for us to kind of cruise through life, accepting things as they come and making decisions on the fly. When we do this, we’re making choices, of course, but we’re doing it using some unspoken rules in our heads and without taking the time to figure out if those rules were laid down in a way that’ll make us happy with the outcome, or if they’re just kind of leftover from our random encounters with life along the way. It can feel weird to put this passive approach aside and actually write down a list of goals for something like a PTQ season, but it’s doing exactly that which will let us, at the end of that season, look back on the whole thing and declare that we’re satisfied.

So if you haven’t actually written out your goals for the PTQ season, some other event series, this week’s FNM, or your next month of Magic – go do it.

To help you think about your goals, I’m going to share mine.

My goals for the Nagoya PTQ season

So what are my goals for the current PTQ season?

This may seem like a total gimme – they’re called Pro Tour Qualifiers after all. What would we want out of them other than qualifying for the Pro Tour?

Well, I’ve spoken before about how much I like PTQs. Even in the absence of that mythical blue envelope at the end, a PTQ is a high-level event with all the awesomeness those bring. I’ve known many players who, even knowing their schedule won’t let them go to the PT, want to play in PTQs just because they’re fun. So if you just want to crack some heads in Extended, that’s a perfectly valid goal, and more power to you.

However.

I’m thirty-four. Although this puts me on the (very) young side for a research scientist in my position, it disconcertingly makes me “old” as a Magic player. That would mainly be a curious trivia point except that it also means I’m looking at having kids in the next few years. And you know, those critters are pretty high maintenance, especially in the first few years before they learn how to forage.

So, given that, I decided that I need to explicitly say that my goal for every major event series that has a qualification aspect is to qualify for the damn thing.

In my case, we’re looking at impending kids – since many of you are kids, this won’t apply. But to generalize, it’s good to check in on your non-Magic life to see if there are any major changes coming up that will markedly influence your ability to play.

After all, the thing that got me “out” of Magic in the first place, back in 1996, was college. Following my freshman year, coursework and martial arts ate my time and the absence of my old high school gaming group removed any influence that would have strongly pushed me to play Magic. I don’t regret that change, but you might…so wouldn’t it be nice to see that life change coming in advance and plan around it, one way or another? If you’re going to college, stuff changes. Once you leave college, stuff changes. Likewise kids and other small moving hazards.

So, we have enjoying as many PTQs as possible, and qualifying. On top of those two, I’d like to add “improve my average event-on-event performance.”

Although I’ve always wanted to “do better” since returning to the game, especially since I was transitioning from being very, very good at another game, I want to more consciously “level up” as a player.

So those are my three goals for the current Extended PTQ season, reordered in terms of priority:

1. Qualify
2. Improve average event-on-event performance
3. Enjoy playing in PTQs

This is a good time to mention that humans are pretty bad at balancing more than a few major projects at the same time. Goals are essentially projects, so having more than 2-3 goals per event season would probably be too many.

Are those really goals?

After we write down our goals, let’s do a last check to make sure that our goals are actually, you know, goals.

It’s tempting to write things like “Attend every PTQ in the Midwest!” when we write this kind of goal list. Except that’s not actually a goal – it’s an action. Well, it can be a goal in the same sense that “eat at every Denny’s” is a goal, but it’s probably not your actual goal.

In addition to wasting some of your capacity to keep track of goals, incorrectly labeling methods as goals can lead to the unwelcome outcome of achieving those wacky goals. In other words, if you write “Attend every PTQ in the Midwest” as a goal, you may well achieve that goal rather than your real goal of qualifying…because every time you check in with yourself, you’ll remember that after today’s PTQ, you have one in a week 200 miles away, and the another the week after that 100 miles in the other direction, and so forth.

Insidious, really.

Choosing your means to an end

Once we have a set of goals in mind, we can turn to reconsidering how we’re approaching those goals. As with the setting of goals, the emphasis here is to develop our approaches consciously instead of by accident.

Just as with the goal setting process, it’s our nature to kind of let things fall together as they will. Why do you playtest the way you do? If you’re a normal person, it’s probably because you just fell into it. Someone started you on it that way, or it was comfortable and you didn’t reexamine that comfort. This kind of “structure by accident” is all over the place. Think about how you arrange your cards during a game – do you do it intentionally, or did you just kind of adopt your layout from the people you play around?

I’ve written before about really thinking about your standard operating procedure at the game and tournament levels, but really, planning and “doing things on purpose” both matter at all levels, even up to deciding how we’re going to spend our gaming season or year.

As with goals, I’m going to share some of the approaches I’m trying to apply to this coming Extended season, and then one idea that I think everyone can benefit from.

Applying structure to those functions

In reviewing his last year in Magic, Paulo talked about how he has successfully managed to combine school and gaming (the full detail on it is actually in his replies in the comments, if you’re curious). Whether you’re in high school, college, or working a job, this attempt to juggle an intense hobby with whatever else you have going on is a legitimate challenge. It’s possible to get yourself tied up into knots if you attempt to emulate the output of your favorite players without giving real thought to how you’re going to structure your life to make that possible.

Like most of you, I’m not a full-time gamer, so tournaments aren’t my “day job,” and have to scheduled around my career. In the past few years, I’ve mainly done this kind of scheduling in the same ad hoc way that most of us tend to do it.

“Oh, hey, this weekend seems free. What’s going on? There’s a $5K? Cool. I guess I need to find a Standard deck.”

As I wrote two weeks ago, this approach undercuts our ability to do well and have a good time. The gist of that piece was that actively planning for major events well in advance generates all sorts of win for us.

Combine that with the fact that we already have access to schedules for most of the PTQs for this season, as well as major events in general, and we don’t really have any excuse for having major events sneak up on us.

In fact, it was this consideration that led to my article on tournament prep. I realized that if I seriously wanted to serve my goals of (1) qualifying and (2) improving my performance over time, it wasn’t enough to just be generally aware of the metagame and generally trying to make my game better.

With that in mind, I’ve been comparing the PTQ season, as well as other major events, with my work and family calendars to generate a unified schedule for my upcoming year. Ideally, I may be able to combine work travel with, say, GP travel, but I’m not sure on that count yet. Nonetheless, this more structured approach means that I can actually plan not just time for each PTQ, but time in the weeks ahead of the PTQ to carry specific, focused testing.

This is also a good way to find out in advance if you have travel, a family obligation, or school assignment that currently conflicts with a major event you were counting on attending. With enough lead time, you may be able to reschedule those obligations and make it anyway…and with enough lead time, most people won’t care too much why you rescheduled.

So I am, effectively, plotting out my full 2011 combined work, personal, and gaming calendar to optimize my ability to reach my goals in all three areas.

The rule of two

No, not talking about Sith Lords here.

I’m a big-time detractor from the idea of ever, ever doing a last-minute audible to a new deck before a major tournament. At the same time, I recognize that sometimes the deck that you’ve tested and have ready to go turns out to be a pessimal match with the metagame – dead money going into the event.

In reconciling these two positions, I thought of what Rich Hagon likes to call the “backpack deck.” Typically, this is your backup Plan B deck that is more consistent across more of the metagame, but which is not as explosive or exciting as your Plan A deck. It’s a hedge against your Plan A turning out to be terrible – or, more honestly, it’s often your admission that your Plan A is cute but actually not good.

I’m not as interested in the pure “having a fall back plan” approach to a major event – I would hate to switch decks on the morning of a tournament, even if I knew both reasonably well. However, I would like the option, one week out, to pick between strategies that attack the metagame in different ways. This should help reduce the impact of metagame shifts destroying my ability to do well at a given tournament by undercutting my deck choice.

For the coming Extended PTQ season, and for other major events, my plan is simple – I’m going to always maintain knowledge of and competence with two deck archetypes that use distinct ways to attack the metagame.

Effectively, I want to support my “qualify” and “do well” goals by excising one of the major risk points in Constructed play – terrible matchups. The only way I can do this without sacrificing big chunks of the rest of my ability to do well is by making sure that the backup plan is being practiced as I go along.

Note that I always get some incidental practice with every deck in a format as part of my playtest process, and that’s not what I’m talking about here. Instead, I’m talking about making sure that I have practiced with a specific build of each deck, with both being tuned to the ongoing metagame, such that I could quite reasonably pick one at random on a given day and perform well with it.

It’s a little bit more work up front, but I expect it to pay off well over the season.

One word…planning!

My external advice, unsurprisingly, mirrors what I’m doing to try and reach my own goals.

I’ve written about how to think your way through a turn, about the value of planning, and I’ve provided tools for preparing for tournaments.

These aren’t the product of a mind that has some tedious desire to organize. Actually, if I don’t apply these kinds of structures, I’m a pretty disorganized guy. However, what I’ve learned over the years is that putting in some planning ahead of time pays of so much more – so very much more – than putting in a lot of effort later on.

Planning is a lot like having good posture – it feels like too much work up front. But then you have to actually do something with your body, like move boxes all day or hike the Grand Canyon, and suddenly you really wish you’d done all that development on your posture already, so you weren’t tiring your muscles out because you’re in one big, perpetual slump. If, instead, you’ve developed that good posture already…well, you’re going to motor right past all those tired hikers (or box movers, whichever) and outperform them like crazy.

It’s the same with Magic. Having some amount of planning also has the advantage of not having to scramble for a ride, no stupidly dangerous high-speed drives on interstates, no pleading for key cards five minutes ahead of the tournament start time, or any of the related nonsense a lack of planning causes. Instead, you buy yourself a smooth, safe lead-in to the tournament, which can only lead to a better performance on the day.

And then once the tournament is in the bag and you’ve done well, all that planning buys you the free time to play Ascension, hit up a karaoke bar, or chat with a transgendered Dutch prostitute. You know, whatever your ideal tournament postgame looks like.

Two easy pieces

This all boils down to a pretty simple two-part suggestion.

First, take some time up front to figure out what your actual goals are for the tournament season.

Second, take a little more time to figure out how you need to change your process to achieve those goals.

I’ve done that for the Nagoya PTQ season, and you’ve seen how it changed my plans.

So what are your goals? What will you change to achieve them?