“Magic presents compelling changing problems with many stages of sophistication while at the same time maintaining an appealing physics. Social creative and logical skills are called upon in a variety of ways and are rewarded. Typically understood these things are what make it a good game. However these aspects also speak to the potency of the game and the potential for pathological obsession—i.e. the drive to commit oneself beyond the pall of good sense to mapping out the higher strategic echelons of the game in order to fully conquer it. This is necessary to compete among the best—to become great at anything one needs to obsess about it—indeed to love it—but in such a game this leads one toward even more inbred types of engagement problem-solving and socialization.”Jeff Cunningham, “The Grind: Part 2”

Because I devote so much time, money, and mental energy to Magic, losing causes a unique pain that is both nebulous in its definition and acute in its intensity. This is not to say that a bad tournament will send me into depression, but merely moderate introspection. At worst, a mild malaise. Since I’m back at work at 8 a.m. Monday morning, I don’t have an abundance of time for self-pity.

That being said, a prolonged stretch of failure, a “slump,” can cause negative emotion to extend into other parts of my life. At 27, having played Magic competitively for approximately half my life, I’m now better equipped to identify this wildly unhealthy phenomenon and take steps to correct it. There are two obvious and common remedies to this particular malady.

First, I remind myself, and try to understand, that despite the considerate emotional and tangible investment, Magic is still just game. Second, I resolve to either play less Magic (and thus assign it a less meaningful place in my life) or rededicate myself to Magic (hopefully breaking the slump). This dynamic is what led me to tweet:

Here is what the Twitterverse opined, along with some relevant and hopefully entertaining parsing:

It’s Not Really a Slump

“I can’t believe you’re a professional golfer. I think you should be working at the snack bar.” – Bob Barker, Happy Gilmore

Some questioned my definition of a slump, pointing out that I won the Team GP with Matt Sperling and David Williams in San Jose last fall. While that was great, here are my individual results of late (actual matches played, no byes):

• Grand Prix Boston: 6-5, drop
• Pro Tour Seattle: 5-8, drop
• Grand Prix Philadelphia: 2-3, drop
• Grand Prix Chicago: 2-3, drop
• Grand Prix Indianapolis, 7-4-1, squeak into the money.
• Grand Prix Denver: 1-3, drop

Overall: 23-26-1. An extremely expensive and disappointing stretch, and worse than any 6-tournament run since I came back to the game in 2009. During my best stretch of Grand Prix ever, when I posted finishes of 1st, 2nd, 6th, 9th, 9th, and 11th from the Fall of 2011 to the Summer of 2012, I felt like I was in total control. Now, I’m lost—from what deck to play to which plays to make during the games.

Give Up

“People should know when they are conquered.” – Quintus, Gladiator

David Williams suggested I try a new hobby. Ted Knutson noted that sports betting might be a fun way to spend my time rather than slinging cards. More than a few think it’s time for me to retire. Maybe I don’t have it anymore.

I discussed an interesting proposition with Brian Kibler in Vancouver.

What if we just stopped winning? If you believe in multiverse theory, there are infinite universes in which I never win another match.

I was embarrassed by how badly I played in Denver. At one point, I had [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card] out and activated the [card]Brainstorm[/card] effect. After considering my options, I decided to [card]Thoughtseize[/card] my opponent and then cast [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]—which I promptly put back on my deck with the Jace. I then had to cast an actual [card]Brainstorm[/card] to un-Brainstorm from my Jace. I had to laugh to stop from crying.

We travel to all these tournaments with the expectation of a good finish, but there is no guarantee of success. Is it possible to play so poorly, suffer interminable mana problems, constantly fall short, until we just give up? I hope not, so I’ll set this one aside for now.

Snap Out of It

“Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.” – Winston Wolf, Pulp Fiction

Many, including Michael Hetrick, suggested I just stop losing. While obviously overly simplistic, there is some merit to this approach. I’m not a big believer in specious metaphysical phenomena such as “The Zone,” but there is something self-supporting about a slump. Perhaps by just increasing focus, wanting it more, no longer allowing take backs (a bad habit been in lately), Stella can get her groove back.

Splash some water on my face and get back to winning?

There is a reason Saito slaps his face.

Get Luckier

“Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker EVERY YEAR? What, are they the luckiest guys in Las Vegas?” – Mike McD, Rounders

Luis Scott-Vargas, who has recently broken out of a similar slump, explained: “The only thing I’ve done correctly the past year is open [card]Pack Rat[/card] and [card mizzium mortars]Mortars[/card] twice. I’d look into that.” Others were more blunt and suggested I just “be luckier.”

Obviously, this advice was intended tongue-in-cheek and the inherent variance of a game with shuffling can get you occasionally, but I’ve still decided that this is something I am going to look into.

Maybe I can start playing with a lucky playmat or wear an old Your Move Games shirt. If anyone out there is an expert in luck, please feel free to leave additional suggestions in the comments.

Relax

“Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun. “ – Charlotte, Lost in Translation

Some suggested playing more casual formats, like EDH and Cube in order to rediscover my love for the game. They surmise that I’ve gotten worn down by the grind and need to rekindle my passion.

There’s something to this, obviously. Since the massive expansion in volume of Grand Prix, the only Magic I play is designed to prepare me for the next tournament. Moreover, I only play on Magic Online, which lacks the essential human connection I love about the game. When I was a kid, I begged my parents to let me head down to the local store to play casually against all comers. It seems like an eternity ago.

The truth is, these days I play Magic for two reasons: to see my friends at the various stops of the circuit, and competition. I still enjoy the game, but not as much as I used to. I don’t have time to form a play group where I could play the casual formats, and I don’t usually spend the time in cities before and after tournaments where this sort of activity occurs.

I like battling mentally, “mapping out the higher strategic echelons of the game in order to fully conquer it,” as Cunningham so adroitly describes, and ultimately, I enjoy the winning. I don’t think this is something I can change.

Double Down

“I’m good at it. Better at doing this than I ever was at doing anything else.” – Nick Naylor, Thank You for Smoking

“More MtGO” was a frequent recommendation, to sharpen my game—more playtesting. Has my preparation been lacking? Sometimes. For a tournament like GP Denver, which was Legacy, I was extremely limited by card availability online. It made it difficult to get meaningful volume in testing. But my preparation for the preceding tournaments was relatively normal and I still bombed out.

I could just blast my way through the problem. If 40 playtesting matches isn’t enough for me to get a grip on a format, try 100. Sometimes when baseball players are in a slump they just go in the batting cage and hit balls forever.

Take a Break

“I’ve been working steady for the past twelve years, minus the last three.” – Johnny Drama, Entourage

This was probably the most common advice that I received. Take a few weeks off to “recharge the batteries” and then come back to test for the Pro Tour.

The problem with this theory is that I’ve found one can get rusty at Magic with extreme celerity. One day your autopilot is a solid B+ game, the next you’re forgetting to play a land on turn 3. My game in particular relies heavily on intuition, experiential knowledge, confidence, and what I call “mental tempo.” When I can safely rely on my first instinct, my game can be dominant, when I can’t it ranges from pedestrian to disastrous.

Nothing to Be Done

“I’m scared of everything. I’m scared of what I saw. I’m scared of what I did, of who I am… and most of all, I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you.” – Baby, Dirty Dancing

Good players don’t have an edge anymore, or it’s smaller. Formats are just bad. This was the theory from more than a few.

I reject this out of hand. It’s not like good players have stopped winning. Look at the Pro Points leaderboard: Yuuya Waatanabe, David Ochoa, Josh Utter-Leyton, Shuuhei Nakamura, Brian Kibler, Ben Stark, Reid Duke, etc.

I want to feel like I’m in the same class as these guys again, to go into each match assuming I’m going to win again. I want to be one of the best players in the world. This theory doesn’t help me get there.

Get in Shape

“Attention campers, lunch has been cancelled today, due to lack of hustle.” – Tony Perkis, Heavyweights

Diet and exercise. This is what we always read about in those “How to win Magic tournaments” articles that pop up every four months, but I think it’s probably uniquely applicable to me. Most of my hot streak was centered around the time I was dedicated to the P90X lifestyle. The last three months I’ve strayed from the path.

Game three, round 10, at 11 p.m. on the East Coast after taking a red eye in—can I possibly expect to play my best if I’m not treating my body right?

Cheat

“Thank you for playing ‘Should we or should we not follow the advice of the galactically stupid!'” – Lieutenant Kaffee, A Few Good Men

Cheating was jokingly mentioned as a way to bust out.

Not only would I never cheat—I can’t empathize with those who like to help themselves with unnatural advantages. It’s a form of stealing (the equity you take during the match), it’s morally bankrupt, and I couldn’t live with myself.

There’s a singular high involved with submitting a winning match report slip. As ill-gotten gains, that feeling would be null.

Get a Coach

“You’re making a huge misstep.” – Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood

Zvi Mowshowitz suggested: “Have people watch your play and have them savage you over every little thing. #ToughLove”

This was the best suggestion I received. Whenever people used to ask me how to get better at Magic, I always answered: “Play with people who are better than you are.” Growing up playing at YourMoveGames, there was never a paucity of Pro Tour veterans willing to point out a flaw in my reasoning or just flat out tell me I was making mistakes.

This is something that has really been lacking recently in my development as a Magic player, especially now that Matt Sperling has moved away from Los Angeles. If I’m going to continue taking this game seriously, I may need to consider moving to more of a Magic hotbed like Denver or the Northeast so I can play with top players and be humbled.

Too often players assign blame for losses to external factors. “I got manascrewed.” “He ran insanely well against me.” “It was an unwinnable matchup.” Sometimes, without a harsh and critical eye, we can miss that the answer to improvement is often within.

Go Back to My Roots

“There’s enough bang in there to blow us all to Jesus. If I’m gonna die, I want to die comfortable. ” – Staff Sergeant William James, The Hurt Locker

Deck choice. Get back to my roots and play beatdown. Eric Froehlich said to wait for Gatecrash and the promise of playable Boros in Standard, Block, and possibly even Modern. Matt Nass said to focus on simply playing good decks more often.

I think there is some meat on this bone as well. I can’t shy away from the fact that I’m at home playing beatdown. Although some of my best early finishes in my career were with [card]Psychatog[/card], the truth is that I’m not sure I’m capable of playing control or combo decks at a world-class level anymore (if I ever could). There’s no shame in this. Major League Baseball pitchers who lose velocity from their fastball either fade away into oblivion or adapt by improving their control, pinpointing the corners, and focusing on off-speed pitches.

In a similar way, I play aggressive decks not just because I think they are well-positioned, but because they are well-suited to my style of play, preparation schedule, and personality. I’m already excited about some of the new offerings Gatecrash spoiler season promises to the Boros Legion. I’m excited to get back to playing decks that are in my wheelhouse again.

Seriously, [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jaces[/card] and [card]Brainstorm[/card]s? What was I thinking?

The Plan

“Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t.” – Eli, The Royal Tenenbaums

My plan is a combination of these pearls of wisdom:

1. I’m taking a short break. I didn’t take a red eye to Atlantic City and am going to spend the weekend thinking about football rather than Magic.

2. Starting next week, I’m going to be playing Standard on Magic Online. A lot. Although Gatecrash isn’t out yet, this will give me a good foundation for testing before the Pro Tour.

3. No more take backs. I’ve got to start being more of a stickler on the rules. While the potential edge gained is minor, this goes to mindset. I’ve got to really want to win.

4. Back to the gym. Hey, it’s January, everyone’s doing it.

5. Look into having some of the young, hungry wizards watch my play. Maybe I’ll start recording my Magic Online play and have you all rip me to shreds.

What I won’t be doing is giving up. And neither should you.

Happy New Year!

Thanks for reading,
Paul