n.b. this post, alongside all the others titled ‘From the Vault’ were written by Ceri for the LilianaMarket blog. This one was originally posted 19 December 2018.

Team LilianaMarket vice-captain Ceri Taylor reflects on GP Liverpool, the pressures of competitive magic, and discusses some ways she’s trying to focus on non-results-based achievements as a way to enjoy Magic, and ultimately, improve as a player.

Like many Magic players I’m a competitive person; it’s not just about competing with others, it’s as much about competing with myself – trying to improve on previous performance and results.  I’m also not very good at being kind to myself when I don’t do well, as I have a tendency to mentally beat myself up about it. Something I suspect many other competitive Magic players also struggle with.

Apparently I’m not the only one who needs to remind myself of this. GP winners do too!

GP Liverpool ended with my worst GP result ever… Yet despite that it was also the Magic I’ve enjoyed most for ages.  I came away from the GP happy and ready to play more Magic, rather than miserable and contemplating giving up. So, what happened? It wasn’t just that I was teaming with friends – although team events certainly have an advantage in the fun-stakes – it was also because I’ve been working on trying to change my attitude to Magic, and particularly to try and shift my focus from results to other aspects of my game.

In this article I’ll reflect on why I decided I needed to adjust my attitude, some of the things I did to try and do this, some reflections on GP Liverpool itself, and finish up with some practical tips for things you can do to try and shift your attitude from results-focused to appreciating your other achievements.

The run-up to GP Liverpool – shifting my attitude

I’ve been a bit down on Magic recently.  Part of this has been the challenge of trying to balance work and ‘real life’ with finding time to go to Magic events, let alone practice properly for them.  Guess what? When you don’t have time to practice, you don’t tend to get good results. Of course, all Magic players know that even when you do have time to practice sometimes you just have a bad run and things don’t go your way.  Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure my recent mediocre results are mainly because I haven’t had much time (or energy) to play or practice Magic. My problem is that I like winning and I like getting good results, so if that’s not happening I tend not to enjoy Magic so much.

With this in mind, I had been dallying with the idea of giving up Magic – what’s the point of spending time and money on something I’m not enjoying?  But, the more I thought about it, the more I realised I couldn’t give up something that had come to have so much meaning in my life. Magic, and the people I’ve met through Magic, are now a major part of my social life and the routine of events has come to shape the limited spare time I have.

First, I tried my usual go-to approach… work harder in the hope of getting better, but this didn’t work – I just simply don’t have the time to practice as much as I’d need to get the results I think are ‘good enough’.  So, I decided that instead I need to look for other ways to get enjoyment and satisfaction from competitive Magic. This ‘decision’ wasn’t something that came easily, it was actually the unintended result of an exercise I tried in order to improve my game in a more traditional sense.

The unexpected benefits of the ‘Fearless Magical Inventory’

One of the most influential non-format or deck-specific ‘how to improve at Magic’ articles is Creating a Fearless Magical Inventory, by Sam Stoddard.  If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend it.  The TL;DR is that one of the things you can do to improve at Magic is be honest about your weaknesses in the game, and he publicly shared a list of 31 weaknesses he’d identified in his own game.  By going through the process you can identify areas you need to improve on (and things you can control), rather than blaming bad luck or your opponent when you’re not doing so well.

I made a fearless inventory for myself, which I found extremely useful.  I’m too fearful to share it in full! However I will share some of the items on my list, the relevance of which will become clear.

  • If I make a misplay I find it difficult to let it go and it then affects my game play and concentration for the rest of the match (or even the rest of the tournament)!
  • When being watched, particularly by a judge, or people I perceive to be better than me, I worry more about what they’re thinking than the in-game decisions I should be focusing on.
  • I allow my opponent to set the pace of the game (even if that’s too fast or too slow) rather than playing at a pace that enables me to make good decisions, whilst still being an appropriate pace to complete the match.
  • If I have an early loss in a tournament I find it hard to regain a positive mindset for the remaining matches.
  • I’m not always able to control my nerves, particularly in the first round, and any high-pressure match (e.g. win-and-ins).

Working through my inventory helped me identify the things I’m not good at. Obviously identifying is not the same as solving, and I’m still working on the above, and more!  However, an important and unexpected side effect of thinking through my fearless inventory is that it gives me more than just results (and misplays) to focus on.  I think that’s the key thing that led me to enjoy GP Liverpool despite our bad results.

Things to be proud of at GP Liverpool

The happy losers, and Nathan, who doesn’t look particularly happy here, but did enjoy himself, I promise!

It turned out that by focusing on things I need to improve on in my fearless inventory, I managed to identify lots of non-results based achievements during GP Liverpool to be proud of, despite not doing much actual winning.  Most importantly, I didn’t let the losses ruin my day, or weekend, but I think that was a result of identifying other achievements.

For example, in round two, I had a complicated match against Storm.  Game one involved a long complicated judge call which resulted in a warning for my opponent and a rewind in our game, and in game two I lost focus for a turn and made a silly misplay that turned a game I was winning into a loss.  Now ordinarily, those two things would combine to make it difficult for me to concentrate in game three, but I managed to put both out of my mind to win the third game.

Later on, I had a really grindy match against Counters Company.  I was managing to keep my opponent off his combo with Spell Queller, Reflector Mage and Path to Exile, but I wasn’t winning quickly either.  Turns out Reflector Mage is not a great beat-down card… who knew?!  With our teammates on one win and one loss apiece, my opponent and I started game three with only a couple of minutes on the clock and a judge hovering to pick up our slip.  Usually, the combination of time pressure and a judge watching our game would stress me out and lead me to misplay, but this time, I was able to maintain my composure and concentration, whilst my opponent did what I would normally do – panicked and misplayed.

There are still plenty of things that I’m not so happy about.  I was ridiculously nervous in the first round, and let the fact that we were paired against pros affect my game.  But this article is not about saying I’ve solved everything – it’s about sharing some of the things I’ve tried, and encouraging people to think beyond results as a way to rekindle their love of Magic.

Ideas to try out yourself

Appreciate the small achievements: Create your own Fearless Magic Inventory. Whilst it might seem like a potentially negative way to go about enjoying Magic – focusing on things you’re bad at – it does shift focus from results to individually-manageable issues you have more control over.  Once you’ve made your Fearless Inventory, make sure to notice and appreciate when you successfully do something you find challenging, however small.

Work on skills that are beneficial to more than just Magic: If, like me, you have limited time to devote to Magic it can be tempting to dismiss activities that aren’t directly practising Magic.  You may also be struggling with guilt associated with spending time on Magic when you could be working on other aspects of your life. If that’s the case try and think about whether there are activities that are useful for both Magic and other aspects of your life.  For me, that’s been working on trying to improve my confidence and self-esteem, which helps both Magic and my career, but it could include things like making sure you eat well, or get enough sleep.

Think about the people you spend time with: Be reflective about who you spend time with at Magic events.  Do they energise you or bring you down? Do they encourage a holistic attitude to Magic achievements, or do they only care about results?  Try and spend time with people who you enjoy spending time with, but who will also encourage you in your aims, whether your aim is to top eight or to make sure you drink plenty of water and eat healthily between rounds!

Manage your expectations: Most of us have demanding jobs and/or personal lives.  It’s difficult, but try and manage your expectations regarding how well you can do at competitive events, given the amount of time you can commit to practicing and preparing.  Keep in mind that time you have to prepare may vary by event – you can’t expect to be at the same level all the time.

Schedule time for fun: Plenty of successful pros have talked about the grind, and the struggles of combining paid work, personal life and Magic, but I think burnout can affect any Magic player, whatever level they’re at, as long as they’re pushing themselves to get better results.  It was noticeable in the run-up to GP Liverpool that the other competitive players at my LGS were getting tired of testing tier one modern decks and itching to kick back and play some ‘fun’ decks. Even if you only have limited time to play Magic, make sure you allocate some of that time to organised fun, not just organised practice and testing.

Check for underlying issues: If you’re struggling to find the energy and motivation for Magic and you’re not having fun, double-check whether there’s something else going on that’s stopping you having fun. I’m a social scientist doctor, not a medical doctor, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the kinds of people who enjoy competitive Magic are also disproportionately susceptible to illnesses such as depression. Issues like perfectionism, and dissatisfaction with your achievements, could be common to both. A quick google will show you that mental health and Magic is something that the pros (see for example, posts by Gerry Thompson and Brian Bruan-Duin) are gradually becoming more open about.

Read up on how to improve your psychological game: Finally, in addition to the reflective pieces by people like Gerry Thompson and BBD (which help remind us that even pros have wobbles about Magic), have a read of Mental Mana, by Will Jonathan, and look at his articles on Channel Fireball.  I’ve found these really useful.  In particular, his suggested use of affirmations, and focusing on things you can control rather than the things you can’t.

Conclusion – learning to love Magic again

By taking a practical step to trying to improve my game, I accidentally stumbled on some ways of thinking about Magic performance that shifted my attention away from results. GP Liverpool was bad results-wise but marked a turnaround for me with regard to enjoying Magic. I’d been down on Magic for the last six months or so, but by looking for small achievements that may or may not lead to good results, I regained my love of Magic and had a great time at the GP. Roll on 2019, and more Magic(al) fun!