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How I Got Better At Magic By Becoming Dumber At Magic


Gideon's Reproach
I've been winning a lot more lately. I've also been a lot dumber at Magic.

The dumbness is the reason I am winning.

Now, let's flash back to a few weeks ago when I could not buy a win in a Dominaria draft -- I mean, seriously, I'd drop cash on several quick-drafts and 1-6 'em, then leap back into another queue, convinced I'd knock 'em dead this time. I was pouring money into Magic Arena, to no avail.

And I was very, very clever.

I'd hold back mana to undercut my opponent with the Gideon's Reproach at the perfect time. I'd sculpt my opponents into getting down to two cards and then -- oh yeah -- fire off that Caligo Skin-Witch and strip them bare. Sure, I'd walk into a combat trick that destroyed my Slimefoot, the Stowaway but now they were down a combat trick and I had a Soul Salvage ready to go!

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. It didn't matter what they had. I had an answer.

Except when, you know, I didn't.

Because what happened all too often was that they saw I'd cast nothing this turn and said, "Screw it, I'll hold back and cast another creature." And suddenly my Gideon's Reproach would still be in my hand while I was facing down another creature. Or I'd cast that Caligo Skin-Witch and they'd have no cards in hand, but the damage they'd gotten through because I didn't cast a blocker on turn two was enough for them to win on the board with a topdeck or two.

Or I'd be too busy congratulating myself for anticipating the trick that destroyed my Slimefoot that I didn't realize I'd cost myself a round of tempo getting it back and recasting it, and all the while they were just building up, building up, building up.

But seriously, how stupid is building up? It's frickin' easy math. You got a turn two creature? Cast it. You've got a turn three? Cast it.

Anyone can curve out. It's just plopping stuff down.

Where's the satisfaction in doing what any schmuck can do?

And what I realized, after an truly embarrassing number of losses, was that I was attaching way too much of an emotional high to Doing Something Nobody Else Would Have Thought Of. I liked outwitting my opponent more than I did winning --

No. I lie.

I liked my perception of outwitting my opponent more than I did winning. Because if I'd truly outwitted them I would have won the game.

Instead, I was winning a minigame: can I pull off this unexpected ploy?

And I often could. It didn't win me the game, but it did press that big Skinner box button that said "YOU ARE VERY CLEVER, FERRETT, MUCH CLEVERER THAN THIS PERSON WHO JUST KNOCKED YOU OUT OF THIS DRAFT."

Then I'd be sitting there with an 0-3 in my hand, wondering why the heck I was in the losers' box when I'd accomplished everything I'd set out to do.

So, I was constantly building up to big, flashy plays that would pay off huge if they went off the way I'd planned. Except they usually didn't. Because my opponents weren't concerned with doing these flamboyant tapdances around me, they were just doing their damndest to steamroll over me.

And flatten my face they did.

Then I thought of something a very wise man named Chad Ellis had written almost twenty years ago, a Magic article from 1999 entitled "The Danger of Cool Things."

And what Chad said back in the days when "manaburn"was still a thing (go ahead, look it up) is still very much relevant:

"Few players are immune to the 'cool things' problem. We all love to come up with combos or brilliant plays, but (from a competitive standpoint, at least) we need to remember that what matters is winning the game. If Living Death is enough to win, cast it. If you come up with a plan that wins and at the last minute want to improve it, think for a moment about whether there were any reasons (like mana burn, in my case) why the original plan might be better. If you are close to pulling off a win, think about whether your opponent might have a way to disrupt your win (like Consulting for Diabolic Edict) and if you find one whether you have a better chance of winning through a different path. Above all, take the time to check what you are doing, make sure you aren't giving unnecessary chances to your opponent and don't be fancy for its own sake."

What I was doing, whether I realized it or not -- and I did not -- was prioritizing the unexpected play over the obvious play. Sure, maybe, the greatest Magic players in the world had spent the last quarter of a century devising the guideline of "Curve out unless you have a really good reason not to" -- but no! I, Ferrett Steinmetz, author of four books you should probably read sometime, would outdo Kai Budde and Luis Scott-Vargas and Owen Turtenwald and, well, all of them!

Because the game I was playing was not whether "Can Ferrett win?" but rather "Can Ferrett satisfy his bloated ego?"

And I could!

Just . . .  not and win games at the same time.

So over the last two weeks, I've been playing much dumber Magic. It's way less satisfying to go "Caligo Skin-Witch on turn two because I know this is an rg deck and I'll need early blockers." It doesn't give me the same electric charge to plop down a Tolarian Scholar on turn three instead of holding back for that Unwind in case I might be able to surprise them.

But here's the uncomfortable truth about Magic, and about life:

What's satisfying is often not what's good for you in the long run.

Being a grownup often involves doing the less satisfying thing for long-term victory.

And I'm gonna stretch a little here, because Unca Ferrett is gonna lay down some life advice, which is something he tries to do occasionally in between cheap plugs for his books and teaching y'all about Magic:

Most self-improvement comes when you realize you're rewarding yourself for the wrong actions.

If you've got mental illness -- I do -- there's often this stinging pride about getting professional help. "Other people don't need medication," they mutter. "So why should I need it?" And they wander around congratulating themselves on being strong, on not needing therapy, or -- in the case of a lot of sadly-misplaced artists -- on staying true to your art, which comes from a place of sheer misery.

In Magic, the microgame I was playing was "Can Ferrett make unpredictable plays?" and as such I was giving myself high-fives for actions that weren't actually doing what I told myself I wanted in the long run.

With mental illness, the microgame people are often actually playing is, "Can I be strong enough not to need anyone's help?" And I mean, sometimes you can be -- but is that getting you what you want in the end? Is the bitter satisfaction of "I'm doing fine, just fine," worth the long-term cost of continually wrestling with unthinkably horrific emotions alone, when you could find something or someone that makes life easier for you?

Put another way: is your end game to be strong, or is your end game to be happy?

There's all sorts of other weird microgames people play, too. Some classics are:

  • Can I get a girlfriend who'll impress other guys, even if she's not necessarily good for me?
  • Can I avoid risking my hard-won reputation as a person of Great Potential by avoiding all situations that might prove I'm not as talented as I think I am?
  • Can I convince myself that other people are unreasonable, rather than examining my own communication patterns?

And sometimes, once you realize you're playing the wrong game, you find ways to reward yourself correctly.

In my case, "rewarding myself correctly" means dropping 'em down on the curve -- 2, 3, 4. Maximizing my mana spent each turn unless I have a better reason not to, just like Patrick Chapin told me. And that action doesn't have that same spicy kick of "Hey, I'm smarter than Patrick Chapin!" -- but it wins me a lot more games.

And isn't that the real end goal?


Ferrett Steinmetz

@Ferretthimself on the Twitters

Crawling out of his Seasonal Affective Disorder to bring you the depressing hits

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