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Competing Constructively


I have always enjoyed reading articles about dealing with tilt and losing. They tend to be some of the more psychologically-focused articles out there, and it is intriguing to see how different top players deal with it. The most recent is Brian DeMars' article, focusing on bouncing back from a losing streak, and Gathering Magic's own Darwin Kastle did one last year. Jackie Lee actually did two—one on losing in general and a recent one specifically on the neuroscience behind tilt. Interestingly, though, I noticed that these articles rarely focused on the dynamics between players (apart from pointing out what a poor loser looks like.)

We don't operate in a vacuum. When you're losing, you're losing to a person. It might be a stranger, it might be a friend, or it might be someone you can't stand. But one way or another, this will often bring up emotions—and if those emotions aren't dealt with, they can have unwanted results.

In her article on team play, Melissa DeTora talked specifically about a bad experience with a teammate becoming jealous after she won a Pro Tour Qualifier, apparently spoiling both the partnership and the friendship. Jackie Lee talked about players turning anger outward, failing to acknowledge their own roles in their defeats.

We all have stories of overcompetitive people whom we have played against or known in our playgroup, but we don't talk as often about going through the experience for ourselves. It's really not a comfortable thing to talk about—I find that it feels petty and vaguely embarrassing. But knowing an emotion is unreasonable is not the same as being able to suppress it.

Coldsteel Heart

I ran into this almost a year ago—not on the battlefield or in a tournament hall, but in a single Facebook message. “Hey, look!” one of my friends said. “It's ‘how not to tilt week!'” A link to my recently-published article on playing poorly was posted, alongside one on a similar topic by someone I had vaguely heard of but not paid much attention to. That somebody was Jackie Lee.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Jackie—in addition to writing great articles like the ones I cited above, she is also a pro player. Normally, I wouldn’t have even thought to compare myself her, as her focus is Magic with a side of psychology, while I’m the inverse. However, the coincidental intersection of timing and topic fired up an overcompetitive streak in me.

In his book Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession, Harvard sociology professor Francesco Duina talks about how one of the functions of competition is to separate ourselves from people who are seen as similar to us (Duina 21). The sense of rivalry intensified over time, as people commented on similarities between our writing and even our facial features.

I found myself disliking the situation. However, I disliked my own reaction even more. As a fierce perfectionist, I had been prone to overcompetitiveness from a young age, which I long pushed away by avoiding any kind of serious competition.

This was my chance to finally get a handle on it—if I was willing to take it. I wanted to learn how good competitors thought. Happy competitors. So, I did what I so often do in these situations—I began to read.

In doing so, I learned things that challenged the commonly-held attitudes that I had thoughtlessly adopted. Attitudes that I often see in other competitive people—about our emotional reactions, about what it means to win, about the very structure of competition. I learned about competing constructively.

Rethinking Emotions

When we're upset, our negative emotions can become balled up into an indistinguishable mass. If we're jealous or resentful of our opponent, that emotion can rise to the surface and dominate—but what is really under there?

In a study of Hungarian high school students, four major ways people responses to losing were identified (Fueloep and Berkics, qtd. in Fueloep 359):

  • Aggression toward the winner ((S)he doesn't deserve it; what a jerk.)
  • Self-devaluation (I am a failure; I'm worthless.)
  • Denial (I'm tired of this game; who cares?)
  • Sadness and frustration (I'm so disappointed; I'm mad at myself.)

After becoming aware of these various categories, I was able to tease apart the various emotions I was feeling when I saw Jackie as outperforming me. Clearly, I was feeling negative toward her—I found myself searching for a reason to dislike her. “She's really good at things,” wasn't a particularly compelling excuse, and I had to admit that anything I did come up with would be an unkind and uncalled-for stretch.

Upon reflection, I realized that part of my malaise was intense frustration with my own limitations. Looking at my article next to one I saw as much stronger was like seeing my own “in-progress” areas circled in red ink. But—and this was critical for me to realize—those weaknesses would have been there even without the contrast shedding light on them.

While sadness and frustration are not particularly enjoyable, the authors referred to them as energizing reactions. They motivate us to keep active instead of giving up (Pekrun, qtd. in Fueloep 357). Looking at a poor finish in a tournament and vowing to playtest more or do a Fearless Magical Inventory—that is getting energized.


As the researchers predicted, I did in fact find my frustration energizing. The fact that I could see my areas of weakness meant that I could improve them. My emotions served as a catalyst, driving me to throw more effort into my practice.

Being defeated in a tournament can be especially aggravating because of the role of chance. Brian DeMars recently wrote an article touching on how you can do everything right and still lose. But on average, is your loss really about your opponent or about your own areas-in-progress? What do you need to do differently next time—and how can this painful defeat inspire you to actually do it?

Rethinking Winning

That said, it can be really hard to let go of reactions that aren't constructive. When looking at reactions to losing, the authors of the aforementioned article discovered something fascinating—they were linked with reactions to winning. (Fueloep and Berkics, qtd. in Fueloep 359)

People who felt frustration and sadness at losing tended to feel joy and enthusiasm at winning, while people who felt aggressive toward the winner when they lost were more likely to look down on their opponents upon winning (Fueloep and Berkics, qtd. in Fueloep 359). Although the authors don't speculate on the reasons behind these connections, the pairings appear to make a certain intuitive sense—superiority and aggression in particular.

In his book on winning, the Harvard sociologist has a chapter fittingly titled “I Win, Therefore I Am Right.” Duina suggests that we often generalize victory in a specific arena into an overall sense of personal validation (Duina 38).

Alpha Authority

To me, this helps to explain why it can be so hard to let go of resentment toward people more successful than you. What’s more, feeling outdone in writing may have been much harder for me than losing at Magic because academics have always been a big part of my self-image.

If we don't want to feel as though the person who defeated us is overall better than we are—which can lead to resentment—we may also have to let go of the fantasy that winning means we're overall better than everyone else.

Giving up that rush is hard, but I have found that keeping my wins in perspective really helps me do the same for losses. What does it really mean to us to win? Are we taking it as a sign that we are superior overall or for what it really is—a combination of skill, hard work, and the specifics of that particular event?

Rethinking Rivalry

As I mentioned in the section on emotional reactions, I felt very conscious of the fact that my negative feelings toward Jackie were petty. I only saw the situation as a competition because it had accidentally been framed as such; it’s not as though the field of Magic psychology writing was exactly saturated. It’s a very new area that benefits from every contribution. In addition, her article was actively helpful to me by demonstrating how to implement some of the skills I was still working on.

Rivals' Duel

So, how did I stop seeing Jackie as a rival? I actually didn't. Instead, what helped me was an article that redefined what rivalry means. You see, when we feel competitive with someone, we often see them as obstacles or challenges to be overcome. This view is not universal (Fueloep 354).

One of the researchers behind the previously-discussed study on winning and losing is Márta Fueloep. Fueloep is a professor in the Cross-Cultural Psychology department at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and in a recent article, she explored differences in how various cultures looked at competition. (The full article is available online and rather neat, although I think some of her conclusions are a bit of a stretch.)

Fueloep looked at how Canadian, Hungarian, and Japanese young adults described various aspects of competition. Most relevant to the current topic, she found cultural differences in how people viewed the role of the rival.

Many participants looked at opponents in a negative way, describing competition as “ . . . beating your enemies” or “fighting against your rivals” (Fueloep 354). However, others paradoxically saw the competition as a cooperative process—they saw the competitors as motivating and improving each other (Fueloep 355).

While this view was a minority in every culture studied, it was mentioned significantly more often by Japanese participants than by people from the other two countries (Fueloep 354). What this suggested to me is that our view of rivals is learned rather than innate—and thus can be changed.

Primal Plasma

Just as I had started thinking about my frustration as a motivation to challenge myself, I reframed Jackie as a potential ally. I could focus on the ways her successes felt threatening or I could look for how they could be inspiring and even helpful.

This can be a bit more difficult when you’re actually playing a Magic tournament, given that you are placed in direct competition. There can only be one winner, so one person’s ranking going up means another person’s going down.

But what about after the tournament? What can we learn from the people who defeated us, to improve our chances of returning the favor next time?

The Good Competition

Last month, I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours with Jackie at Grand Prix: San Diego. She thanked me for a book I had recommended to her, and she gave me some pro insights on the developing ideas that eventually became my Understanding Complexity article. Even better, we had a really good chat and left as friends.

As Márta Fueloep charmingly put it, people who are able to compete cooperatively find that “[p]eers who fulfill this role are precious . . . as they are the ones who guarantee that the person in question doesn’t stop the process of self-perfection” (Fueloep 355). When people compare Jackie and me, I no longer find it stressful—I find it inspiring. I look forward to more people joining us at the intersection of psychology and Magic.

Getting to this place wasn't easy. As the research showed, many destructive aspects of competition are ingrained in American or Western culture. I had to take a close look at some uncomfortable emotions and let go of some cherished beliefs about my own self-image. Reframing the concept of rivalry required completely restructuring how I thought about competition.

As Magic players, many of us are inherently competitive. We play—or write—or make fan art, cosplay, podcasts—because we like doing well. Maybe we even want to be the best. And as long as “many of us” is more than one, that just isn’t logistically possible. But realizing that fact, and turning that drive toward a constant effort to be better—that is something that we can do.

Works Cited

  • De Tora, Melissa. "The Truth About Teams."TCGPlayer.com. Ascension Gaming Network, Inc., 05 Apr 2013. Web. 11 Apr 2013.
  • Duina, Francesco. Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. Print.
  • Fueloep, Márta . "Happy and Unhappy Competitors: What Makes the Difference?." Psychological Topics. 18.2 (2009): 345-367. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.
  • Lee, Jackie. "Learning to Lose."TCGPlayer.com. Ascension Gaming Network, Inc., 28 Jun 2013. Web. 13 Apr 2013.

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