Most people realize that Magic is a game of strategy. However, many people don’t realize how big of a role emotion plays. Anger, joy, fear, and pride can all play vital roles in your success or failure as a Magic player. Even if you are an emotionless automaton, your opponent probably isn’t. Besides, you just might be better off with some emotion anyway—as long you know how to harness it.
I currently play a lot of Magic and a lot of Texas hold ‘em. From going on tilt to psyching your opponent out to bluffing, there are some obvious ways that emotions factor in to both games. I’ve found many less obvious ways as well. Before I started playing either of these games, I played chess in college. That was when I first realized how important emotion can be in a game that seems to be all strategy.
My most frequent chess opponent, Derek, and I were pretty evenly matched, and frequently, the deciding factor in my favor was my emotional control. It was crucial for me to remain calm and avoid giving tells as he would consider his moves. Remaining calm also helped me make better plays when it was my turn. Sometimes, when a move would work out poorly for Derek, he would emotionally implode, and his play would go into a downward spiral, leading to inevitable defeat. My serene exterior only seemed to provoke more emotion from Derek. Games ending in victory for me often included a board-flipping from Derek. Rage is just one of the emotional pitfalls of strategy gaming.
This is a major Magic-affecting vice. It’s shocking to me how many Magic players allow pride to limit their success. It seems to affect people very differently in Constructed than in Limited. In Constructed, many people take so much pride in deck-building that they aren’t willing to play a net deck when they really should be. Yet in Limited, people’s pride often prevents them from innovating because they want to avoid ridicule.
Magic is a very social game, and we all make social connections through it. In the case of serious Magic players, many or all of their friends are players, too. It’s natural to care what your friends think of you. Unfortunately, if your pride is too fragile for you to risk being made fun of, you may never become the kind of outside-the-box thinker needed to reach the highest levels of Magic success.
This is something I’ve had to learn to deal with. I’m not too proud to make unconventional decisions. In the 1998 US Nationals, I used a first pick on Soltari Foot Soldier. I knew that most people would ridicule me for the pick, but I also knew it was the right pick for the strategy I was using. Pride sometimes makes us try too hard to avoid embarrassment. The best way to avoid embarrassment is to win.
Controlling the negative effects of pride is harder for me in Constructed. For the most part, I’m pretty good about playing the same deck everyone else is playing as long as it’s the best deck—Necro, Survival, Affinity, Sligh, Ponza, Wildfire, High Tide, Buried Alive, Academy, and so on. I also recognize that the greatest glory goes to the innovators who break a format open. Since, on occasion, I have had success doing so, my pride has made me run bad decks in big tournaments at various times in an effort to do it again. A couple tournaments in particular stand out in my mind. At Pro Tour: Columbus in 1996, I made a last-minute decision to play Counterpost, was crushed, and then was forced to watch teammates Dave Dittmer and Brad Mennell make the Top 12 with the Necro deck I designed and was too proud to play. At Pro Tour: Chicago 2000, I cheered for my friend Rob Dougherty as he made Top 8 with a Fires of Yavimaya deck that I should have been playing, too. Instead, I struggled with a rogue U/B Mercenary/Mefolk deck that I had planned to shock the world with.
Pride is closely related to fear. Often, the problem with pride is the fear of embarrassment and ridicule. We wait for someone like Luis Scott-Vargas to play with Gnaw to the Bone, and only then will we overcome our fears and try it out for ourselves. Perhaps an even more devastating fear, though, is garden-variety anxiety.
When people are competing with something on the line, it’s common to become nervous. One of the best FNM players I know completely implodes at PTQs because of the added pressure. He gets so freaked out by the higher stakes that he usually altogether avoids entering PTQs at this point.
This kind of fear is fear of failure and fear of humiliation, but it’s also fear of the pain of losing. This fear extends to pro players as well. I have watched numerous Pro Tour Top 8s in which one or more players seemed to come completely unglued, making one astoundingly bad play after another. In cases like these, the pressure of the situation is almost certainly to blame. How else do you explain that this player who now seems completely inept made it to the Top 8 of a Pro Tour? There is variance in Magic, of course, but you don’t qualify for a PT and then beat out hundreds of other pros for a Top 8 slot on luck alone.
Conquering fear can be a big boost to your Magic success. If you can focus on winning and not what other people think of you, it will enable you to be an innovator. It can help you discover little-used winning strategies and overlooked yet useful cards. If you compete in events with a focus on winning without the fear of losing, it will lead to you making better decisions and achieving better results.
Anger is a double-edged sword in Magic. I actually feel that a little loss-fueled rage can be useful. I traveled to Grand Prix: Birmingham in 1998 with my good friend Chad Ellis. While I made the Top 8 with Survival/Living Death and Kai Budde arrived on the Magic scene, finishing second with a Tradewind/Awakening deck, Chad played a rogue Black deck that he failed to make Day 2 with. I am dedicated to helping my friends become better players, and I was surprised to see that Chad seemed unconcerned with his weak showing. I explained to Chad that, though he needn’t feel ashamed about his poor finish, he shouldn’t be okay with it either. I felt that it was not only important for Chad to be dissatisfied with his result, but that in his case, letting it show a little might be good, too.
When I explained this to Chad, he said that he understood my point, but that this just wasn’t the type of person he was. Losing at Magic just wasn’t the type of thing to make him upset. Chad was no stranger to competition either. He was a ranked chess player able to beat me blindfolded. (I informed him of my moves through chess notation, and he combined skillful play with an impressive memory to humble me.) Chess competitions have a rigid decorum, and as I mentioned earlier, chess play benefits from strong emotional equilibrium. I don’t know how much of that shaped Chad as a Magic player, but he seemed to think that a little loss-fueled rage was out of place in Magic—or at least it didn’t fit with who he was. Despite his protests, I was insistent that his lack of rage showed that he didn’t want to win badly enough. I also felt that this lack of drive was reflected in his choice of a fun rogue deck for a tournament that he traveled across the ocean to play in when he could have been playing the deck I had been crushing people with.
To the surprise of both of us, Chad actually did visibly vent some frustration after coming up short in a side event later in the weekend. At that point, Chad was forced to admit that maybe he wanted to win more than he realized, and perhaps he needed to take greater steps to avoid the pain of losing. To my delight, Chad went on to cash in multiple Pro Tours, including a Top 8 at Pro Tour: Barcelona in 2001.
For many Magic players, though, rage is a destructive influence. I have seen several promising players have to quit the game—or at least take a break—because the pain of losing exceeded the joy they were feeling from winning. This brings me to what I believe is the basic tenet of emotions in Magic: be in control of your emotions; don’t let them control you. Use them to your advantage, and don’t let them use you.
Rage is particularly an issue on the Internet. Whether it’s on Magic Online or in discussions about Magic, hate is everywhere online. The anonymity granted by the Internet changes people’s behavior. While emotions are internal, they are affected by your external expression of them. For example, my girlfriend Rada becomes much more upset when she loses online. This is because she feels more comfortable expressing her feelings of frustration when she plays online. If she loses a live match, she feels understandably compelled to show good sportsmanship and conduct herself with a pleasant decorum—even if she’s upset about losing. This actually helps her feel less upset. When Rada loses a match online, there isn’t anyone she needs to hide her rage from, so she lets it run wild in our apartment. Unfortunately for her, in the process of acting more upset, she actually feels more upset.
This manifests online in other ways, too. Perhaps the manifestation I find most despicable is the tendency of online players to show horrible sportsmanship way more often than in live games. I’ve lost track of how many times I won a match online—or seen Rada win a match—and then had the loser spout a bunch of unsportsmanlike venom. At least one pro I know has tried playing online with more than one account, only one of which has his real name for his username. He was unpleasantly surprised to find that when he won matches under his real name, his opponents were very pleasant and respectful. When he played under his alias, however, his opponents frequently berated him and called him a lucky scrub, or worse, after his victories.
Fortunately, Magic can bring great joy as well, which is why most of us play. Much of that joy comes from winning. When you win a match, it feels so good that it makes you hungry to win more. The same applies to tournaments, but magnified. Winning Pro Tour: Washington DC while playing on a team with my two best friends was among the greatest moments of happiness in my entire life. Much as how the pain of losing can provide useful focus and motivation, so can the pleasure of winning.
The pleasure of the game we love can also be a distraction from winning. Sometimes, the deck that’s the most fun to play or the most fun to draft isn’t the deck that will give you the best chance of winning. Sometimes, you have to ask yourself, What brings you more joy? Drafting or playing a certain way . . . or winning?
Exerting control of your emotions and using them to fuel your competitive fires productively is a powerful element of winning in Magic that is often overlooked. While you’re harnessing your rage and overcoming your fear, just make sure that you enjoy the game also. If you don’t, maybe you should reconsider whether you’re playing the right game.