Mistakes Were Made
I’m on a Greyhound heading out of Atlantic City. A low-grade hangover long since expired and replaced by that flat soda feeling that follows a day or two of excess and irresponsibility. My wallet thinner following a few bouts of bad calls, and the wrong side of rivered two pairs. My clothes drenched in the stink of stale cigarettes and faded dreams. Mistakes were made. I close my eyes and breath deeply.
There’s a magnet on my refrigerator that reads “Don’t find yourself, make yourself”.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, we all have. In life and in Magic Cards we have a choice - we can choose to face the hard truths, and learn from our mistakes, or we can make excuses, we can ignore, and we can stagnate.
Accepting and Confronting Our Mistakes
I was playing against mono-red stompy a few weeks ago. It was game two on the play and my opening hand was three Infernal Tutors, Lion's Eye Diamond, Swamp, Chrome Mox, Lotus Petal. This is usually a turn two win. I played Chrome Mox imprinting Infernal Tutor and used a second Infernal Tutor to search for a second Lion's Eye Diamond. I played both Lion's Eye Diamonds and passed the turn. That is where I fucked up. I didn’t cast the Lotus Petal, which left me weak to Trinisphere. Ultimately, I couldn’t find another land drop and I lost. Handshake, good game, good match. I like mistakes like this. They are frustrating, but they are easy to define, easy to wrap your head around and easy to try and remedy.
We can’t be perfect and we can never play perfectly. But if we want to be good at this game and good in life, that doesn’t mean that we get a free pass. We must grow and we must evolve. We need to level up, and we need to be a little self-critical. Not self-abusive, but accepting of our mistakes.
There was a girl I used to see every now and then who once told me that we can’t make people like us (romantically), all we can do is make ourselves the best that we can be. I often think back on that advice, in some ways it’s a shit outlook that flies in the face of "find someone who loves you for you". But at its heart, I believe it. The notion that we can choose who we want to be, and that we can self-actualize that reality, is empowering. It’s uplifting. I once heard that Reid Duke writes down every mistake he makes in a game of Magic, that’s the ultimate implementation of this kind of self-reflection, he wants to make himself as close to a perfect player as he can.
I was playing against black red reanimator. It was game three, we had exchanged volleys of discard spells, and my opponent was hellbent. I ripped a Burning Wish off the top, but was one mana short of casting Past in Flames out of my sideboard. The correct play was to cast Burning Wish for Past in Flames and pass the turn. This would insulate me from a discard spell, and ensure that I could combo off the following turn. However, I didn’t have the mental presence, and instead of making the obvious play, my mind went to “any land or ritual next turn and I win”, and I passed the turn without wishing for Past in Flames.
There was the proximate mistake of a misplay, but there was a deeper mistake; I lost perspective on the game. Part of this was due to lack of mental bandwidth. As we practice repetitive tasks they become rote conserving our mental energy. Separately, I lost focus on the game. I moved out of the moment and fixated on one path of the probability tree, ignoring that I had an out right in front of me.
There’s a well-known poker pro named Tommy Angelo whose expertise is in the mental game and mindfulness. Have you ever been in a conversation, and so focused on what your response would be that you missed half of what someone is saying? That’s living out of the moment, that is the opposite of the Tommy Angelo way. Take a breath and center yourself, become this moment and let this moment become you. I won’t go into detail on mindfulness here, but encourage anyone who wants to improve their mental game, avoid tilt, and be more present in Magic and in life to look into Tommy Angelo (I’d start with his Thinking Poker Podcast interviews).
Blind to Our Ways
About a week ago, I had a personal dilemma, that was causing quite a bit of consternation. So I picked up my phone, I called my brother, and we talked it out. I am better off today than I would be if I hadn’t called my brother last Saturday, and I hadn’t benefited from his experience and his insight into my tendencies (thanks, bro). Our personal experience is limited, it is biased, it is charged with emotion, and often it is pretty damn irrational. And what is even scarier is that a lot of times we’re blind to our own flaws. Without leaning on our friends, family, or therapists we don’t even know what if anything we need to work on.
About a month ago I was playing against blue-white control online. My opponent had two unknown cards and a blue mana untapped. I had the choice of sculpting my hand or going for it. Six months ago I wouldn’t have questioned this play. I would have just jammed. However, over the past year, I’m fortunate enough to have gotten coaching from some great storm players. And I now know that my natural inclination in these situations is, a lot of times, wrong.
Magic is at its core a community, and there are a plethora of resources to illuminate our own tendencies and the weaknesses that we don’t even know that we have. Record your games if you can. Ask your friends to critique your play (and don't get defensive). Hire Bryant to play through a league with you. Read the Infernal Tutoring series. Play along with a stream and post about situations where you would have made a different play. We can only go so far by ourselves.
Mistakes Will be Made
Last summer a friend introduced me to a relatively well-known pro at GP Vegas; I told him my tournament was going well, I hadn’t played perfectly, but overall I was content. At first, he was surprised that I was sanguine about my misplays - but ultimately this game we play is hard. None of us can or will play perfectly. It is an interesting place to be, where we can find satisfaction despite accepting our mistakes as a cost of doing business - both holding ourselves responsible - while also striving to improve.
So here I am, on a greyhound bus to New York City, watching a grey-green New Jersey flow past my window. It’s been a long weekend, a long month, a long year. I take a deep breath and collect myself. It is time to decide where I want to go from here. To learn from my mistakes and to become who I want to be. I text my friend Dylan about hitting the gym tonight, I take out my computer and start writing an article about fucking up, but really about learning and evolving and self-actualizing. Tomorrow I’ll be a better man than I am today, and that gives me hope.
So, until next time, keep on storming.