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Focus on Fearlessness


Pursuit of Knowledge
Have you ever hit a plateau in your learning, where you find yourself practicing for hours and never seeming to become any better? Have you ever started learning a new skill with a group and then watched as one or two people outpaced everyone else in the space of weeks or months? What separates those who master things from those who don't?

I started playing Magic at age nineteen, when my then-boyfriend Erik and I found a box of cards that I had bought during high school and never really used. Sitting on the dorm room floor, poring over the jumbled mess of Starter 1999 and Onslaught cards, we were hooked.

For the next two and a half years, Erik and I played hundreds of hours of Magic either face-to-face or side-by-side. We drafted together. We constantly built new decks to tried and outdo each other. We started a league in our hall. Our investment in the game was equal, but on reflection, our performance really wasn’t; his ranking at tournaments steadily improved, while mine tended to vary erratically. Despite our almost identical practice activities, he clearly got more out of the practice than I did—somehow, he was learning more efficiently.

Expert Learners

Accumulated Knowledge
In 2001, researchers decided to find out what separated expert varsity basketball players from non-experts, where expertness was determined by percentage of successful game free throws (Cleary & Zimmerman 190). Many people seem to assume that experts simply practice more. Surprisingly, the experts and non-experts were similar in terms of years that they'd been playing and hours practiced per week.

What turned out to be different was how they were practicing. Experts were more likely to choose specific strategies and goals while practicing, such as keeping my elbows in. Non-experts, on the other hand, tended to choose something vague like making the shots. In terms of Magic, this would be akin to goals such as “anticipating potential combat tricks” versus “winning the tournament.”

When they failed to make shots, experts were more likely to identify specific errors they had made in technique and make plans to correct the error for the next shot. This difference was in spite of the fact that experts and non-experts were similar in how much they knew about free-throw technique. Non-experts had the knowledge; they just weren't using it.

Now, the idea of setting specific goals and learning from your mistakes isn’t revolutionary. Pro player Sam Stoddard came up with the Fearless Magical Inventory almost half a decade ago. Even I’ve already talked about what Magic can teach us about mistakes. The important question isn’t what we should do to improve—the question is why we often don’t.


When reading about motivation and achievement, you learn about is a certain kind of ego-protecting behavior called self-handicapping. Self-handicapping is defined as anything that allowed the person in question to make excuses for his or her failure while still accepting credit for success (Berglas & Jones 406). By self-handicapping, you can protect your image of yourself as an intelligent/accomplished/skillful player—but at the expense of overlooking valuable information that you could be learning from.

If you think about it, Magic has a self-handicapping system built right in. First, let’s read the researchers’ definition of self-handicapping:

“…any action or choice of performance setting that enhances the opportunity to externalize (or excuse) failure and to internalize (reasonably accept credit for) success” (Berglas & Jones 406).

Now compare that to this tweet:

“From Richard Garfield's game design talk last night: Variance protects ego. Skill credited for wins, luck blamed for losses. Agree/disagree?” (Forsythe)

Think about the free throw study discussed earlier. Unless you’re playing in gale force winds, free throw feedback is pretty unambiguous: Ball goes in the basket, you are probably on the right track. Otherwise, you messed up. On the other hand, when you’re playing Magic, even the most abysmal deck can crush your opponent if he has mana problems. We have chosen a pastime that is, as researchers say, low in diagnosticity. It doesn’t give you clear feedback about your performance. Blaming bad luck is a form of self-handicapping. Another way to self-handicap is to only tackle relatively easy challenges, which is rewarding in the short run but keeps you from progressing.

Before inventing the Fearless Magical Inventory, Stoddard admits that he was “playing the role of a big fish in a little pond and having a blast at it.” Likewise, it was only when I switched to judging that I was motivated to push myself out of my comfort zone. When I finally did, I realized that I had a problem with self-evaluation—not just in Magic, but overall. I needed to stop guarding my ego so fiercely. I needed to be ready to learn.

Now, that’s easy to say but harder to do. Losing is painful, even for pros; admitting that it’s your fault is even more so. People don’t self-handicap for no reason—we do it to avoid having to face up to our weaknesses. However, there are some techniques that can make it easier to look at ourselves honestly.

Forget about External Benchmarks

Enclave Cryptologist
In one study, people who tend to choke under fear of failure were given two tests (Thompson & Perry 483). After the first test, they were randomly told either that they had succeeded or failed. Before receiving the second test, they were either told the average score on that test or were just encouraged to be persistent. It turned out that people who were set up to compare themselves with an outside average did just as poorly as people who were upset about failing the last test.

I have found this to be fairly generalizable. I work with some very good people. Being at their level of competence in certain areas feels downright unattainable sometimes—so dwelling on it is a recipe for tilting and holding myself back. By focusing instead on whether I successfully identified and worked on a weakness, I am in control of whether I feel accomplished at the end of the day.

Similarly, in his Fearless Magical Inventory article, Stoddard said, “I wanted to take my ego out of the equation and focus on playing better Magic for myself, not to impress others or to be thought of as good”. If you sprint for a far-off goal, you’re going to wear yourself out. Effort is often a more inspiring measure than performance.

Forget About Your Past

Dwell on the Past
We’ve all had some great successes in the past. You’d think that remembering those would make you more confident that you can be successful again. However, reflecting on past successes can actually increase self-handicapping (McCrea & Hirt 16).

In Stoddard’s case, focusing on the past led to overconfidence. He talks about how he initially “blamed the set and bad packs” when he began to struggle during Lorwyn, saying that he had “stopped trying to get better, because [he] was already there.” Although he had been away from the game for eight months, he refused to acknowledge that his skills had deteriorated. He said, “That would be admitting that I am no longer a ‘good player,’ that somehow I had returned to the ranks of chumps.”

In my case, my fears were external. When I began grad school and the frequency of my judging had to drop, I became reluctant to test for Level 2. I had done very well on my L1 test thanks to the copious free time I had for studying and practicing, and people assured me that I was going to crush it again. Unlike Stoddard, I was aware that I had become a bit rusty—and I was embarrassed. As my scheduled test approached, I became tempted to put it off until I was “ready.” Of course, that was unlikely to happen as long as I was still in school. Fortunately, right before the test, a friend/mentor asked me if I was comfortable with the idea that I might not even pass. Up until that point, I hadn’t been, but the simple relaxing of expectations was a relief. To move forward, you may need to get free of your past successes.

Remember Why You Play

In this last study, subjects were asked to write about a role that was important to them. One group was given extrinsic sentence stems, which focused on external rewards. For example, “I am driven to be a _____________ in order to measure up ____________,” or, “If I perform at a high level in __________ then other people will _______” (Schimel et al. 96). When given a math test afterward, people who filled out these sentences completed the fewest math problems out of all the groups. The researchers hypothesized that the people who wrote about external rewards became more cautious out of fear of failure.

The other group was given intrinsic sentence stems, reflecting their internal satisfaction with the role. These people received sentences like “My enjoyment in being a _________ comes from my own ___________,” and “Being a ____________ reflects my true ________________________” (Schimel et al. 96). When given the math test, these people self-handicapped less and performed better than not only the extrinsic sentence group, but the neutral sentence group as well. Reflecting on their internal satisfaction apparently had an inspiring effect.

This is why I was able to accomplish things as a judge that I never could as a player. Although I love the game, competing was never that meaningful to me. In contrast, I love being part of the judging community. I love helping players, and I love helping other judges. When things go wrong, I have a strong motivation to make sure they go better.

Stoddard, on the other hand, is a competitive player. He found meaning in trying to master the game. “Ideally, for each item I cross off,” he said, “I want two to replace it . . . Each addition is another item that I am taking control over.”

What do you still love about Magic even when you perform poorly? What is the constant? Hope of being rewarded can lead to fear of not being rewarded. Find something deeper.


Magic is a convenient game for people prone to self-handicapping. It’s easy to play match after match after match, never learning a single thing because you’re only taking on challenges that are too easy or writing off every loss to factors outside your control. It’s tempting, too—it protects us from feelings of failure. But just like recognizing your mistakes and correcting them is a key part of learning to succeed, recognizing your fears and combatting them is a key part of learning to learn.



Works Cited

  • Berglas, Steven. "Drug Choice as a Self-Handicapping Strategy in Response to Noncontingent Success."Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 38.4 (1978): 405-417. Web. 19 Jun. 2012.
  • Cleary, Timothy, and Barry J. Zimmerman. "Self-Regulation Differences during Athletic Practice by Experts, Non-Experts, and Novices." Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. 13. (2001): 185-206. Web. 19 Jun. 2012.
  • Forsythe, Aaron (MTGAaron). “From Richard Garfield's game design talk last night: Variance protects ego. Skill credited for wins, luck blamed for losses. Agree/disagree?” 8 Jun. 2012, 5:42 p.m. Tweet.
  • Harrington, Natasha Lewis. "The Magic of Mistakes."GatheringMagic.com. CoolStuffInc.com LLC, 26 Jan 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2011.
  • Kastle, Darwin. "Losing Sucks." GatheringMagic.com. CoolStuffInc.com LLC, 25 Jun 2012. Web. 24 Jun 2012.
  • McCrea, Sean M., and Edward R. Hirt. "Limitations on the Substitutability of Self-Protective Processes: Self-Handicapping Is Not Reduced by Related-Domain Self-Affirmations." Social Psychology. 42.1 (2011): 9-18. Web. 19 Jun. 2012.
  • Schimel, Jeff, Jamie Arndt, Katherine M. Banko, and Alison Cook. "Not All Self-Affirmations Were Created Equal: The Cognitive and Social Benefits of Affirming the Intrinsic (vs. Extrinsic) Self." Social Cognition. 22.1 (2004): 75-99. Web. 19 Jun. 2012.
  • Stoddard, Sam. "Creating a Fearless Magical Inventory."StarCityGames.com. StarCityGames, 04 Jun. 2007. Web. 19 Jun. 2012.
  • Thompson, Ted, and Zoe Perry. "Is the Poor Performance of Self-Worth Protective Students Linked with Social Comparison Goals?" Educational Psychology. 25.5 (2005): 471-490. Web. 19 Jun. 2012.

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