Star Wars: Unlimited Spark of the Rebellion available now!
   Sign In
Create Account

Explanations for Success


Everybody handles setbacks differently. Some people bounce back quickly, with a new plan or redoubled effort. Some surrender entirely. Some people ram into the same obstacles over and over, cursing their bad luck and convinced that, this time, their approaches will work. Similarly, in times of success, some people prefer to stick with what works while others constantly push for improvement.

Magic lends itself particularly well to a variety of reactions, given the ambiguity of most wins and losses. Was your deck powerful? Were you unlucky? At a glance, it is nearly impossible to tell. This gives us plenty of room to insert our own automatic thinking patterns.

Our perception of an ambiguous situation is influenced by what is called our explanatory style. Because it comes so easily to mind, we may accept our interpretation automatically. But in reality, there is a lot of variation in how different people make sense of the same situation.


My main pitfall (to the best of my knowledge) is discouragement. Too often, I assume that early failure means I’m not capable of mastering a given set or format—and when I quit trying, it does. Elsewhere in the range of mindsets is the opponent who complained bitterly because I drew the perfect answer to his threat, until an onlooker pointed out how many cards he had let me draw in order to find that “top-deck.” And if no one had pointed that out to him, he probably would have had the exact same experience with his next opponent.

Research on explanatory styles often focuses on three aspects. Internal vs. external describes whether we think the outcome was caused by our actions or by something outside our control. Stable vs. unstable describes how likely we think it is that the outcome will continue happening over time. And specific vs. global describes whether we think the outcome was specific to these circumstances or is representative of situations in general (Wadey).

Given the complexity of Magic, we will never be able to definitively say what led to a win or loss. We can expect that our explanatory style will always play a role in how we make sense of the results, and we will be wrong some of the time. But by really checking out whether our assumptions match up with the evidence, we can recognize patterns that might be holding us back.

Internal vs. External

In Magic, whenever we go into an event, there are a lot of factors that are largely outside of our control: good or bad draws, the skill level of our opponent, the number of strong or weak matchups that we’re paired against. There’s a point at which randomness asserts its presence quite aggressively, such as drawing several no-land hands in a row despite a reasonable land ratio and adequate shuffling.

That said, we are given a huge number of ways to reduce the impact of luck. When I first started playing, my G/W creature deck repeatedly was crushed by my friend’s U/B control decks. I was constantly frustrated by watching him cast the same detested spells over and over while I helplessly waited for my best cards to show up. He seemed impossibly lucky to me, and it was quite a while before I came to understand the power of card advantage and library manipulation.

Learn from the Past

Quentin Martin wrote an extensive article on deck-building and play decisions that reduce the impact of randomness, such as card-drawing and playing to your outs. In his words, “We do [our] best to reduce the variance of chance and it is how successful we are with minimising it that dictates how good we are at the game” (Martin). While a situation such as a Magic match is clearly influenced by both internal and external factors, our mindset determines which factors we tend to focus on.

Research on a similar topic, the internal vs. external locus of control, ties resilience to believing in personal power (summarized in Benard 21). Focusing on the areas you can control and taking action may not be enough to outweigh random chance in every game, but what about across the course of an event? A season? A career?

That said, always attributing outcomes to your actions has its pitfalls. Taking responsibility for a losing streak can inspire you to do something differently, but it can also be demoralizing. Research on children’s academic success asserts (unsurprisingly, to me at least) that the most constructive attitude is to attribute success to effort or ability and to attribute failure to lack of effort. In contrast, the researchers report that the least constructive attitude is attributing success to luck and failure to lack of ability (summarized in Glasgow et al. 509). “Internal” is not necessarily the same as “controllable.”

Stable vs. Unstable

While “I’m good at Magic” and “I’m bad at Magic” may sound like polar opposites, they have something in common: They both imply a certain persistence and inevitability. Contrast those with “I’m not good yet,” “I’m experienced,” “I’m out of practice,” and “I’ve mastered this Draft format.”

A lot of the Magic players I know are very bright. As kids, many of them learned that they could master some skills without much need for effort. Other activities—activities that took hard work and patience and tolerance for setbacks—were rather unappealing compared to frequent, reliable success. In this situation, it is very easy to end up dividing the world into “things I’m good at” and “things I’m not” without any real consideration for the possibility of improvement.

Youthful Scholar

In the research that I mentioned, ability is considered an internal/stable attribution, while effort is internal/unstable (Glasgow et al. 509). Changing your level of ability, particularly if you perceive it as inherent talent rather than developed skill, can seem difficult to impossible. On the other hand, if you weren’t giving your best effort, that is something you can fix immediately.

There is also value in adjusting how you think about your skill level. Thinking of your abilities as set vs. changeable is another area where results tend to meet expectations. When students are taught that intelligence can be improved, their grades tend to be higher or improve more than those who don’t receive this message (Aronson, Fried, and Good, qtd. In American Psychological Association; Blackwell, Dweck, and Trzesniewski, qtd. In American Psychological Association).

I do assessment for neurodevelopmental disabilities, including IQ tests, and one of my favorite supervisors taught me to never write that someone’s ability is average/impaired/etc. Instead, his score was in the average range. Her performance was impaired. Even if the score were a perfect representation of the child’s present ability, we are urged to keep in mind that an IQ score is a snapshot of a moment in time (Webb). A single game or match or event, like any other success or failure, is the same.

Specific vs. Global

There is a range of conclusions that we can read into the outcome of a single incident. An experience can be written off as a one-off fluke or as emblematic of our whole life. “I’m successful at drafting Khans of Tarkir” is narrower than “I’m successful at drafting,” which is narrower than “I’m successful at Magic,” which is narrower than “I’m successful at life.”

Battle Mastery

For the previously discussed reasons, many have assumed that it is best to focus on effort as the explanation for success or failure (Rees, Ingledew, and Hardy 191). However, this explanation can also be demoralizing for people who are giving the maximum effort and continuing to fail (Rees, Ingledew, and Hardy 191). Instead of signaling a lack of effort, repeated failure can be a sign that the approach needs to be adjusted (summarized in Rees, Ingledew, and Hardy 192).

The constant changing of Limited and Constructed formats means that we can never rest forever on a given set of conclusions. Aggro decks might dominate for a while, and then, suddenly, they’re completely unfeasible. If the new format isn’t a good fit with your established strategies (commonly known as “this format sucks”), and you are interpreting situations as global, this can be very disorienting. “I was so good at drafting. And now I’m not.”

Is this about effort? You might be trying just as hard, practicing just as much, as you were with the last set. Something has changed, and it’s not you. But, the fact that the change is outside your control doesn’t mean continued failure is inevitable. To address this, some sports psychologists have advocated moving away from a focus on effort and toward a focus on strategies (summarized in Rees, Ingledew, and Hardy 192).

Aven Tactician

Figure out what it is about this situation that makes it different from previous successes. Just as Quentin Martin’s suggestions reduce your vulnerability to single chance incidents, this approach can reduce your vulnerability to changing situations.

The Best Explanation

Magic is a game of rapid, complex decision-making in ambiguous situations. The uncertainty can lead to interpretations based on our personal tendencies rather than the situation. What part of the game was fortune/misfortune, and what was the outcome of our own actions? What do we need to accept and work around, and what do we have the power to change? When we do make change, are we taking a blanket try-harder approach or tailoring our strategy to the situation?

How we interpret an experience heavily influences how we react to it: how we feel, what we expect from the future, and what actions we take to avoid or encourage that same outcome happening again. Careful attention to patterns, feedback from others, and self-reflection can help us find the clarity we need to keep moving forward.

Works Cited

  • Benard, Bonnie. Resiliency: What We Have Learned. San Francisco: WestEd, 2004. Web. 21 Mar. 2015.
  • “Believing You Can Get Smarter Makes You Smarter.” American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association, 28 May 2003. Web. 14 Mar. 2015.
  • “Explanatory Style.” Positive Psychology UK. n.p., n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2015.
  • Glasgow, Kristan L. et al. "Parenting Styles, Adolescents' Attributions, and Educational Outcomes in Nine Heterogeneous High Schools." Child Development 68.3 (1997): 507–529. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.
  • Martin, Quentin. “There’s No Such Thing as Luck.” DailyMTG.com. Wizards of the Coast, LLC, 27 Nov. 2007. Web. 14 Mar. 2015.
  • Rees, Tim, David K. Ingledew, and Lew Hardy. "Attribution in Sport Psychology: Seeking Congruence between Theory, Research and Practice." Psychology of Sport and Exercise 6.2 (2005): 189–204. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.
  • Webb, Nadia. “Making Sense of IQ.” Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted. SENG/Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted, Nov. 2006. Web. 14 Mar. 2015.

Order Dragons of Tarkir boxes and singles from CoolStuffInc.com today!

Sell your cards and minis 25% credit bonus