PV’s Playhouse – The Fire and the Zone


Today I’m going to write about something I’ve been meaning to cover for a long time: “The Fire” and “The Zone”. We’ve all heard of these mental states, like how Brad claims he has “the fire” back every time he wins two games in a row, or how Conley says he was in “the zone” whenever he does well at a tournament; but what do those things even mean? Do they even exist? Are they relevant? If so, how do I get there? Today I’ll try to do my best to answer those questions.

Let’s start with “The Fire”. The fire could best be described as a strong desire to win. When we say someone has the fire, it means they are trying their best, because this game or tournament really matters to them. Do I believe such a thing matters? Yes, of course it does, it’s evident that when you care more about something, you will go to greater lengths to achieve it. Is it necessary? I don’t think so. I’ve had tournaments for which I really cared and it showed in my results, but the correlation does not always exist—it’s hard to say I could possibly care less about GP Baltimore last year, and I ended up Top 8’ing it; whereas I really cared about GP Malmo and I promptly went 0-3. The one match of Magic I’ve cared the most about in my entire life, the finals against Kibler in Hawaii, I also lost. The fire will help, but it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition.

Having the fire will generally do two things for you: it’ll make you dedicate yourself more, and it’ll make you pay more attention. Having it as you playtest is way more important than having the fire at the actual tournament, since it’s the point where caring matters the most. If you really want to win, then you will playtest more, you will acknowledge flaws and try different decks, rather than settling for one you know is not optimal. I attribute a big part of our failure in Barcelona to the fact that we were all pretty much fireless—we had almost everything locked up, so the tournament mattered less for us. We settled for an inferior deck because of that. During the match, the same thing will happen; if you care more, you’ll settle for less—you’ll try to figure out how to beat cards rather than walking right into them.

The biggest problem with the fire is that there is no way for you to simply get it—either you want to win or you don’t, and how are you going to force yourself to feel otherwise? There have been many tournaments in which I knew I should care, that they were important no matter what. Barcelona, for example, was worth 40 thousand dollars, and I obviously care about that—but I couldn’t make myself care more. Most articles on the subject will say, “you should care about it,” but that is pretty useless. Everyone knows they should care, the problem is they just don’t, and what can they do?

Take Brad’s example: you could say Brad had the fire during the year he was PotY. The more he won, the more fiery he got, because when your dedication pays off, then you are prompted to dedicate more and more—after all it’s working! I believe this is a considerable factor of those “streaks” we see, where people just go and win tournament after tournament. Winning does create momentum, and it does so in part because you have more incentive to work harder once you see that your hard work rewarded.

The following year, Brad started slowly. Maybe he felt like he had nothing more to prove, and therefore winning didn’t mean as much. Once he did badly at first, for whatever reason, then he probably felt like his dedication wasn’t paying off as much as it once had—so why would he dedicate more, why would he care if it was not being appreciated? That snowballed into a year that was much less successful than his previous one. I’ve heard Brad yell multiple times that he had gotten the fire back, but that was just not true—he only wanted it back. He’d say that, and then drop a round and completely “lose” it again; or he’d say it and immediately skip a GP for no reason, obviously not caring as much as he once had. For all his effort, he never managed to force the fire unto himself. I believe this season he’s working towards it again, though now it’s coming more naturally—i.e., he simply wants to win, rather than wanting to want to win.

That said, there is one thing that I think you can do to help you care more—if you want to do so (though if you don’t care about caring then, well, stop reading)—which is, ironically, to dedicate more. You cannot force yourself to care, or to want to win, but you can force yourself to spend time working on something, and the stronger you work towards something, the more you’ll want it to succeed, because no one likes to have worked for nothing. So, even if you find yourself not fully invested in the tournament, try to force yourself to work for it anyway, and maybe you’ll eventually commit so much to it that you’ll want to win, even if only to make sure you weren’t wasting your time. You’ll also likely do better as a bonus.

Now, “The Zone”. The zone is a bit trickier to explain. When people say they’re in “the zone”, it means they automatically see all the connections, sort of like in a web. Most things in Magic have a reason—why did my opponent attack? Why did my opponent keep this hand? Why did he leave the Mountain untapped and not the Swamp? When you’re in the zone, then all those answers come to you, without you even asking the questions.

If this is the case, being in the zone is obviously highly desirable—you’ll play the best Magic of your life while you’re there. When you understand what is going on at that deep a level, it makes playing Magic a pleasure. Not only do you win more, but you feel like a sort of god among mortals, reading into your opponent’s very thoughts and actions as if he were speaking them out to you. When you play around something that you know 99% of players would walk into; or when you make a risky play that you just know is going to work because your opponent will almost surely play in a certain way, and you win because of that, it’s the most satisfying feeling in Magic. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, since otherwise it’d be irrelevant), you can’t really achieve that state at will either—believe me, I’ve tried.

People have varied strategies to get into the zone, and I honestly think none of them are particularly effective. This is clearly a personal thing—if you think listening to the same song over and over helps you concentrate, then who am I to say that it doesn’t. But, for me, none of those things cut it. Yes, yes, sleep, food, blah blah—obviously those will help, but I find even those factors to be overstated. I wish I’d be able to sleep more, but often I get no more than four hours of troubled sleep before a tournament, and it’s never the end of the world. Food is the same, and many times I just have breakfast before the tournament and dinner after. Obviously this is not the ideal scenario, but I don’t think those things have as big a correlation to doing well as most people think they do—in the end, if you don’t know what to do, having slept for 15 hours will not help you, and if you do know what to do, then the chance you will forget or miss it because you haven’t eaten in five hours is not that big.

One widely accepted piece of advice is that you should play “one match at a time”, focus on the present. At first, I also believed this, but with time I learned that what you should do is simply what you do naturally. It would be better to think exclusively about the match, yes—and you obviously shouldn’t spend the entire hour thinking about your birthday party—but the occasional “man, just another match until I Top 8” thought is not harmful.

In fact, if you try to force that out, you’re actually hurting yourself more, as you’ll not only think, “man, just another match until I Top 8,” but also, “alright dude, focus on this right now, the rest doesn’t matter,”—you don’t actually stop thinking about other things, you just add more things that are not the match to think about. I don’t think you can make yourself stop thinking about how that match relates to your life, and I don’t think it’s a problem if you can’t. It also goes without saying that focus is an internal thing, and making weird faces, narrowing your eyes, or staring blankly at something are not necessary for you to achieve it.

For me, there is only one thing that correlated to being in the zone more often—playtesting. Everything else is mostly irrelevant, and it shows very clearly in my tournaments. The ones I’ve been more invested in are the ones in which I was able to see everything without effort. The reason for this is mostly pattern recognition—the more you playtest, the more situations you encounter, and then you start drawing parallels to other situations automatically. Your brain is very powerful, and it will do a lot of the thinking on its own if you give it the right tools, and in this case the tools are: talent, which you can do nothing about; and practice, which you can.

At some point, it becomes sort of an intuition, though there is nothing supernatural about it, just subconscious, and you should trust your first instinct if you’ve practiced a lot. It’s usually correct, even if you don’t know why. The goal is to find reasons for actions, and you can more easily do that if you’ve been in the same position before, or if you’ve played against that position before—when my opponent or I did this, what was our reasoning? Why did we not do that the other time? This time, it’s probably not so different.

The zone will also not happen if you don’t have a background. For the fire, that is not the case, since you don’t need to learn anything before you decide you want something very badly. For the zone, however, you actually need to know things, as there can be no subconscious or intuition if those things are not actually inside you (i.e., it’s the act of automatically applying things you’ve already learned, even if you aren’t necessarily doing it “manually”, it’s not a sudden surge of knowledge you’ve never had, this is not the matrix). It’s also worth noting that, if you don’t know what to do technically, then understanding what is going on is not going to help you—you might instantly “see” that your opponent’s keep and failure to play spells in the first three turns means [card]Day of Judgment[/card], but if you don’t know what to do when facing Day of Judgment that is not useful information.

Though it’s no easier to slip into the zone because you want to than it is to get the fire, I feel like the effects are easier to replicate. The zone is the mental state where things happen automatically, but they don’t need to happen automatically. Contrary to popular belief, you’re allowed to think. If you try to make sense of your opponent’s actions, it’ll have the same result, even if it’ll take you longer, and it will eventually lead to a point where things are automatic. I think Ben Stark is a great example of this—a long time ago, he was a PT player, and I’m sure he was able to make sense of his opponents’ actions just fine. Then he stopped playing, and after a few years came back. When I first met him, he didn’t have much recent practice, so he just said all his thoughts out loud, which made playing against him highly annoying. You’d make an attack and he’d say, “so, you attacked with this and this but not this, so it means you maybe have that and that, but not that other thing, because if you did you would have attacked this way, ”which would often prompt, “yes dude you’re a genius, now can you just block,” thoughts from me, but in time I understood that this was his way of getting back to a mind state where those things were automatic. It took him some time to get back on track, but right now he doesn’t have to say anything. I doubt he even has to think about it, it’s instantaneous, because for a while he made himself think, and it stuck to him. If you want to be like Ben, you don’t have to say things out loud, but you do have to try to understand consciously before you can do it subconsciously.

This is about all I have for today. This is a complicated topic, one I don’t think anyone knows much about, and it’s very possible that what works for me doesn’t work for you, but I still think it’s worth talking about in practical terms. To sum it up:

• The fire is the desire to win. It is important, it will make you test better and play better. You can’t force it, but the best way to make sure you care more about winning is to commit more of your time to it.

• The zone is the state in which connections happen automatically, and you understand everything that is going on. You can replicate the results of being in the zone by thinking “manually” about the same things, and with time it’s going to come to you more automatically as well.

• In the end, playtesting is the best thing you can do, and everything else pales in comparison to it. Sure, get sleep, get food, focus on your match, but above all make sure you test enough for an event!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this, see you next week!


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