This current Standard format has plenty of problems, as various Magic writers and personalities have pointed out in recent weeks. The high price of staple cards, such as fetch lands and the aforementioned Planeswalkers, has created a huge barrier to entry for newer players. This is unquestionably the most expensive Standard format we’ve ever experienced—but rather than dwell on its financial ramifications (because, I’ll be honest, Magic finance is not exactly my specialty), I want to discuss the effects of “solved” Constructed formats on player psychology and how we can combat those effects.
I was moved to write this article after a friend told me she was hesitant to start playing Standard again this season because she thought she’d grow bored playing against the same decks over and over again. Players historically dislike Constructed formats with a small handful of dominant decks; this is why I found Pack Rat and Gray Merchant of Asphodel so irksome earlier in my career and why the mere mention of Caw-Blade still makes some players cringe. Naturally, when I told my friend I was playing a ton of Abzan mirrors on Magic Online, she asked if playing against the same deck repeatedly bothered me. It hadn’t bothered me, strangely enough, and after a moment’s thought, I realized why: With each successive match, I was growing better at playing my deck and at playing the mirror.
About two months ago, I joined a rock-climbing gym in an attempt to overcome my lifelong fear of heights. Years of practicing yoga had given me the strength and endurance to climb increasingly difficult routes, but my lack of proper technique was a hindrance. I asked a more experienced climber for advice, and she suggested choosing a route I found easy and climbing it again and again to build up muscle memory. Sure enough, when my climbing partner and I took our first lesson with a trainer this week, we spent most of the time doing drills: using our big toes, pointing both our heels in the same direction, and sinking our hips low so we resembled sloths instead of crabs. Our final challenge was to traverse an entire wall in silence; every time one of our feet audibly slipped on a feature, we had to come down and start over. After we finished our drills, we went down to the top rope area and each had to choose a route we’d been working on. Tired and sore as I was, I found that, with improved technique, I could finally complete a route I’d been working on for over a week.
As I told my friend last week, learning muscle memory benefits us in physical undertakings, like climbing rocks or playing a musical instrument—but drills and repetition can help us in mental activities as well. If you’ve ever learned a second language, you know this to be true. When I studied the Russian language in college, my professors often shared an old adage to motivate us: “Povtorenie—mat’ ucheniya.” “Repetition is the mother of learning.” Repetition leads to pattern recognition, which helps us make faster, more accurate decisions.
That being said, I would like to conclude this article with a brief word of caution to readers about the importance of always challenging ourselves, even when formats seem stale or solved. Yoga and rock climbing aren’t the only extracurricular activities that helped me improve my self-discipline and focus: I also acquired some transferrable skills from the web-development courses I took over the summer. The instructor for my Ruby class liked to give us bonus assignments, most of which involved watching motivational videos—TED talks and the like. The first video we watched, wherein the psychologist Daniel Goleman discusses the importance of focus, gave credence to a concept that many of us know as “The Zone.”
“The relationship between stress and performance is very well known in psychology,” Goleman says. “It’s curvilinear. It’s an inverted U.” When you’re under a certain amount of stress, you’ll find yourself in a state of “maximal cognitive efficiency”—a state in which we consistently outdo ourselves. Being in “The Zone” requires a certain amount of stress, a challenge to undertake; when we don’t have that stress, our performance still suffers because we’re bored. I’ve begun to notice that I perform better and make fewer mistakes at Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers than I do at Friday Night Magic because I play much more carefully under stress. (Keep in mind that the amounts of stress I’m referring to here are relatively small—too much stress can overwhelm us and cause us to perform worse, as Goleman points out.)
Playing against the same people with the same decks week after week may negatively affect your win percentage, so try to create small challenges for yourself every week. Seek out different people with different ideas to test and discuss your matchups. Make small adjustments to your deck each week, adjusting numbers and sideboard slots. If you have a slightly out-there idea, don’t be afraid to try it (and don’t be afraid to be proven wrong and go back to your original decklist).
Until next time, rise to each challenge you set for yourself, even when you aren’t playing Magic. I guarantee you’ll benefit from it.