This is a post about mindset.
I hope it will improve your mental game.
Recently I watched a video about negotiations. The expert negotiator (you would know his name) talked about how he went from making $38,000 per year to $1,000,000 per year in one year. This involved hunting down really successful businesspeople and convincing them to buy expensive training that would make them even more successful… A daunting task for a twenty-something with little formal education. What he said was that in these negotiations, the person who is more certain [certain of victory] will invariably come out successful. He credits his ascent to pure, unwavering certainty.
I have been thinking about this a lot.
There have been times in my life when I was playing Magic as well as anyone ever played.
I made the tightest reads, knocked off top players like tenpins, bit my lip until my mouth filled with copper in order to break myself of bad habits. The stretch of time between about Pro Tour Charleston until I won the New York State Championship, I was playing like I had never played before (or sadly, since).
I played so much MTGO in between those two tournaments. One of the things I am very proud of was the discovery of Skred as the best card in Standard (it would take almost two years for everyone else to figure out I was right). During this stretch I got really good at beating Solar Flare-type decks. My strategy revolved around attacking my opponent with Ohran Viper and drawing attention to Ohran Viper, manipulating with Scrying Sheets and Sensei’s Divining Top, and generally being a nuisance to my vastly more powerful opponent. I got him to worry about all these little cards and little things, devote his mana to my Viper; meanwhile I was concentrating on hitting my land drops.
A few turns later, the game would end.
Always the same way.
At the time, I thought that I was good at deception. I thought that the keys to victory were in misdirection, “tricking” my opponent into dealing with what was “beating them” right now, managing the battle but invariably losing the war (when they would only be able to win by racing).
I carried the same mindset to the New York State Championship, but with Brian Kowal’s This Girl deck. The path was similar: incremental card advantage. I bluffed Remands that I didn’t have all day. Lethal Demonfire. Over and over, Blue deck after Blue deck: lethal Demonfire.
But now I understand (or at least can concretely contextualize) that I was winning on account of superior certainty. I was certain of victory because I knew the path to victory. My opponents, for the most part, played improvisation-ally. They saw something, assumed it was going to kill them, and utilized their cards and mana to deal with that thing, not realizing the games were always going to end the same way.
First of all I have to thank reader kschreve for Mistveil Plains. This card has given the MWC deck a new layer of capability it didn’t have before. For example against Faeries in a long game…
The starry eyed Faeries player might think that he is eventually going to gain inevitability with Vendilion Clique. However the addition of two Mistveil Plains (might even go to three over the second Urza’s Factory… a suggestion by Bill Stark) allows the MWC deck to push the game to the exact same position almost every game.
It is the kind of game where only unwavering certainty can lift the MWC deck… but if it is there, victory is certain.
The power of this strategy is that Faeries is also certain of victory, and invests a tremendous amount of psychic energy into a recursive long game plan… while MWC chips away at its certainty until eventually winning with damage. Consider the decline…
- I’m winning! I have more cards! Plus, I’m Blue.
- That was annoying.
- I can use Riptide Laboratory to get out of this.
- Wasn’t I winning a minute ago?
- Okay, new plan: I have to use Riptide Laboratory and Academy Ruins to stay in this, eventually I am going to win with…
- I didn’t care about those permanents anyway.
- Okay, new plan: play for the draw. Come on Engineered Explosives!
- How much time is left on the clock again?
It is a lapse in certainty that will often cause us to err. There are matchups where we can see the light — the exact light — at the end of the tunnel; we need to get to that light. We know if we get to that light, that victory is certain… But the opponent presents us with a bump, another bump, in the road. Sometimes I say things like “Their cards only matter if you let them.” This is what I am talking about: When you start bleeding certainty, you make uncertain — often strategically ill-advised — moves.
Do you ever find yourself varying your plays because of something the opponent did? Suddenly you feel like something else is the right course of action. You get distracted and two LEGO pieces come un-hitched in your mind. You stray from the plan.
Brain fart? You made a move because you were — however momentarily — uncertain of the way to win.
I remember when I won 28-of-34 matches over three tournaments with The Rock (GPT win, undefeated in game wins; 6-2 GP finish; PTQ win). One of the things that I held like iron in my mind was that Trix could not win if I had Pernicious Deed in play and I had four mana untapped. Sometimes I missed a land drop and desperately wanted to play Yavimaya Elder. Sometimes I was frightened of all the cards that the opponent drew and had to dig half-moons into the palms of my hands to stop myself from casting Duress. Do you know how hard it is to ignore a Morphling on the board?
Those cards in hand…
Those missed land drops…
What could he have?
Any or all were potential chinks in my certainty. I won because I never let them penetrate. Once you pass the turn with less than four mana in play… That is when you can lose to their combo.
Will certainty win you every game of Magic?
But there are some games, some matchups that go for a long time and settle into the same card sets each and every time. They are won by the same deck every time, without variation, provided that that player holds true. When the opponent wins, it is because the other guy was mana screwed, well before Stage Three; that, or when the favored player gave up too much certainty and spent too much time and mana on things that had no bearing on the outcome of the game.
Sorry if this seems a little vague right now… I will flesh it out as the PTQ season progresses.