This post was originally going to be about Modern and why I don't like the direction the format has been moving in over the past year, but I realized that this is a topic that lots of people (myself included) are tired of hearing about and discussing. I do believe that if Modern is going to survive as a format long-term, Wizards is going to have to make some pretty big changes to their design philosophy when approaching the banlist and the printing of new cards. I also don't think the solution is simple and it just isn't productive for me to spend too much time thinking about it, since what I would prefer to see Modern be is clearly much different from Wizards' vision of the format. Instead, this post is going to be about something I've been doing quite a bit of in Modern recently: losing.
Losing is something every competitive gamer, myself included, has a borderline unhealthy relationship with. Even though the conscious, rational part of my psyche tells me to take my losses in stride and learn from them, it sometimes is not enough to keep my lizard brain in check. A large part of me absolutely hates to lose at anything, and attempting to achieve mastery over this mentality has been challenging. In the past my hatred of losing had led to trains of thought while I'm in games that I haven't even lost yet that are at best unproductive, and at worst, quite crippling. No one actually likes losing and I’m not trying to paint myself as some statistical outlier, but there are some important things to keep in mind when it comes to winning and losing at any game.
#1: Losing is inevitable
One secret to becoming good at any game, Magic included, is to lose. A lot. I took a look at my earliest tournaments on my Planeswalker Points page before writing this article, and while I don’t remember the games very clearly, I managed to win exactly zero matches in my first two tournaments. Despite hating to lose, I was internalizing lots of information that I thought would be important to analyze if I wanted to start winning. What mistakes was I making game by game that if I cleaned up, would improve my results? Short answer: too many to reasonably discuss. Was there something inherently wrong with the decks I was building and playing that led to poor results? Short answer: yes, there was. A few weeks after my first tournament however, I placed 2nd at Flights of Fantasy's FNM with a U/G Tokens deck that I had been working on all week leading up to the event.
Shards/Zendikar UG Tokens by Nate Barton
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Llanowar Elves
2 Noble Hierarch
4 Elvish Visionary
4 Nest Invader
4 Kozilek's Predator
4 Sea Gate Oracle
4 Garruk Wildspeaker
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2 Eldrazi Monument
2 Bestial Menace
4 Khalni Garden
4 Misty Rainforest
The deck’s basic plan was to put five creatures into play and cast a lethal Overrun or Garruk ultimate. Every creature in the deck either produced mana, drew cards, or produced multiple bodies to make Overrun better. Plan B was to ramp out a Planeswalker and ride it to victory. I ran over all of my opponents until I lost in the finals to Jund, because in game 3 I didn’t realize if I sacrificed my Eldrazi Spawn token with Maelstrom Pulse on the stack I would keep the rest of my tokens. On the following turn I drew an Overrun, which was 6 points short of lethal - exactly the amount of damage I lost by not understanding the rules correctly on my opponent’s previous turn. But more importantly, I was happy with the progress I had made since day one. Having a positive result to verify that the things I was learning were valid gave me the motivation to continue playing and growing, and this motivation was amplified by the fact that I came just short of first place due to my own correctable mistakes. Five years later, I'm still in the learning process. Realistically, anyone who claims that they aren't is lying. Every loss gives me food for thought, and every new format or deck I encounter brings with it its own new set of information for me to digest. This is a large percentage of the reason Magic is so addicting: it forces you to learn and grow if you want to keep up. It just also happens to be true that losing is a big part of this learning and growing process.
#2: Bear no attachment to any outcome
I have a history in competitive gaming that dates back long before I signed up for my first competitive Magic event. As a teenager, I was quite good at Warcraft III: the Frozen Throne, at one point holding a top 10 spot on the US East 1v1 ladder, which to boot was the highest rank of any Undead player on the server. I bring this up because of one specific match where my hatred of losing led to a fear of losing, which led to me actually just throwing away an essentially won game which would have qualified me for the World Cyber Games USA final LAN tournament in California. It was the summer of 2006, and I was grinding through the online WCG qualifiers: a multi-week affair where to qualify for elimination rounds you had to grind WCG's private ladder and be ranked in the top 16 when all was said and done. I managed to make it to elimination rounds, and eventually the finals of the qualifier. My opponent in the finals was a somewhat well-known Night Elf player whose playstyle I knew from playing him on the ladder several times.
I lost the first game in our best of 3. “I'm better than this guy”, and “this should be easy; why does it feel so difficult?” were the thoughts going through my head. I managed to win game 2 pretty easily on Lost Temple, a map that was unfavorable for Undead. Game 3 was on Turtle Rock, a map that favored neither Undead or Night Elf. I pulled pretty far ahead of him at one critical point in the early-game where I caught him out in a greedy play for one of the high-level creep camps in the middle of the map where I killed most of his army, forced him to use his town portal to escape, and stole the creep camp from him. But after that, I choked. I didn't press my lead because I was afraid I would mess up and throw it away. 40 grueling minutes later (for those unfamiliar with WCIII, average game length was about 18-20 minutes), he clawed back into the game and won with superior economy and army composition. I knew I had thrown the game away long before I actually lost, and talking with spectators and my opponent after the game confirmed that I had lost a theoretically unloseable game.Despite this loss being quite crushing to me at the time, it was a valuable learning experience that I carry with me to this day. I learned how important it was to not attach any meaning to the outcome of a game you are currently playing. Maintaining a mindset of outcome-independence while playing any game helps keep your head clear while playing, so you don't have to focus on anything except the task at hand. This in turn also at least partially cushions the pain that comes from a loss, because when you are in the mindset of outcome-independence, there is no egoism or pride attached to the outcome of the game, at least not immediately.
Staying in this mindset requires discipline and a great deal of humility, especially when you are a competitive Magic player. One thing that is especially true about Magic compared to other popular competitive games is that occasionally losing to players who are technically worse than you and have worse decks than you is something that is basically unavoidable in the long-term. Variance is part of the game and sometimes your opponent will draw their one-outer after getting outplayed the entire game, or you'll draw too many or too few lands and won't participate in a game at all. That is not to say that the outcomes of games of Magic are random, but the small randomness factor is something that I believe everyone who wants to play competitive Magic should understand and be OK with.
#3: If you aren't having fun, don't play (or play other formats)
It's interesting how competitive gamers continuously push themselves to grind even when they aren't enjoying themselves. Playing games - unless it's your only source of income - is completely voluntary, yet people who aren't enjoying the game they are playing grind like it's a bad habit that they can't kick. There have been times when my Magic winnings made up a significant enough portion of my income for me to consider it a part-time job. When Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise were legal in Modern, I went to every local Modern tournament I could to cash in on how insanely broken those cards were. During Caw-Blade Standard in 2011, I did the same thing. But the important thing at the end of the day was that I was enjoying every moment of it. I could have made more money doing something else, but instead chose to play Magic out of my love for the game.
I realize that it's easy for me to say I was playing out of my love for the game when I spent most of my time playing the aforementioned formats winning, but that is part of maintaining a healthy relationship with my Magic habit. Capitalizing on being ahead of the curve is only logical and will lead to more enjoyable tournament experiences overall. Conversely, learning to identify when I'm simply not enjoying playing a format and why has been important for me when it comes to maintaining a high interest level in the game. For example, I haven't been enjoying my time spent playing Modern over the past few months. Deck and card choices feel pretty cut-and-dry in the format, and the games don't typically play out or develop in a way that I find interesting. My solution? Shelf my Modern decks for the time being and play other formats before playing Modern turns into a miserable grind. There is more to life than spending time doing things you don't enjoy, even if doing so means admitting defeat to a degree.
Once you move past the first hurdle you encounter as a competitive Magic player – the hurdle of your own technical errors and poor deck/card choices, the learning curve gets harder to climb. You will lose a lot, and you will have to learn from your losses. Figuring out how to simultaneously want to win while still being able to accept a loss is an important mental trick to master if you want to play the best Magic you possibly can.