Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sorrow’s Path

“You sat in a chair for how long?”
City Champs was a grueling experience. None of the City Champs events were in Seattle; they were in far-off suburbs, requiring many hours of sitting in traffic. Taking time off was suicide, as I found out when I took a month off, only to find myself in tenth place by a wide margin. I had to kick it in overdrive, driving over 200 miles a week to play Magic. I had to go 3-1 or better in each of those events to claw back into top eight. There were days when I wasn't feeling well, but I had to go and draft or I would be out. In one event, I went 2-0-1 drop because I was physically unable to play another round of Magic. It was a physically and mentally exhausting experience to get to the top eight for the area. But after all that effort, I succeeded and was invited to the top eight for the area. The winner of City Champs got an automatic invite to Nationals.

I did well that day, making it to the finals in a field against seven very good players. I lost game one, but pulled it out to win game two. Heading into game three, I was thinking, “If I win this next game, I go to Nationals in my first season of competitive Magic.” I mulliganed into a shaky but somewhat keepable hand. My opponent had an amazing draw, and those watching the finals assured me that there was no mistake I made that would have mattered. But I lost.

And that was it. I was so close. I could taste it. But I didn't do it. I was devastated. I was wracked with pain. All I could think about was that third game in the finals and how awful it felt when I lost, waves of pain and humiliation and suffering washing over me. Unable to do anything else, I sat in my chair and stared.

For twelve hours.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks later to Regionals. As the runner-up for City Champs, I got two byes to Regionals, a luxury that was exclusively mine. Starting out 2-0 with perfect tiebreakers set me up with a dream situation for making top eight. I won my first two matches to start out 4-0, and then it all came apart.

In round five, I had a favorable matchup, but mana issues arose at the wrong time in both games. In game two, I lost despite hitting a Persecute for all five cards in his hand. I drew absolutely nothing over the next six turns that affected the board in any way, and he killed me.

Two losses meant elimination from top eight, so I had to win out until I could draw in.

Round six was against Pickles, as a friend had scouted for me. I resolved a turn two Dark Confidant, which helped my chances immensely. Dark Confidant revealed the following cards with the corresponding life totals:

Reveal Mortify (17)
Reveal Ghost Council of Orzhova (13)
Reveal Temporal Isolation (11)
Reveal Faith's Fetters (7)
Reveal Crovax (1)
At one life and with six white cards in hand, I revealed…
Martyr of Sands (0)

Crovax was a one-of in my deck. My opponent played two spells that game, countering Faith's Fetters on my land and Ghost Council of Orzhova.

In game two, I resolved a turn two Dark Confidant. Bob did it again:

Reveal Ghost Council of Orzhova (16)
Reveal Mortify (13)
Reveal Castigate (11)
Reveal Mortify (8)

Bob died chump-blocking Teferi, and the next turn my opponent swung with Phyrexian Totem and Teferi for eight.

And that was it. Regionals was over for me after starting 4-0. My friend, whom I had convinced to run essentially the same deck, won Regionals. He made one last-minute change by putting one Liege of the Pit (!!) in the singleton slot occupied by Faith's Fetters. He never flipped Crovax or Liege of the Pit all day.

I went home and sat in that same chair.

For two days.

“I'm a failure.”
“A better player would have top eighted with a 4-0 start.”
“I'm an embarrassment to myself, to my friends who somehow tolerate me polluting their testing group, and to the Seattle Magic community.”
“Martyr of Sands?!”
Two months later, I went to GP: San Francisco. I did poorly, scrubbing out in both the Grand Prix and the following day's PTQ. I played awful, abysmally bad Magic in the PTQ. I spent hundreds of dollars in airfare, hotel and food to lose. And I had a pretty good time.

What was different?

Changing my mindset
Initially, I had a plan to deal with this. I hated losing, so to me, the solution was obviously to improve my play and stop losing. This didn't work. I did improve my play, and it's something that I constantly strive to do (as should every Magic player), but no Magic player wins every match every time, so this was met with utter failure. If anything, it made things worse because I felt like I wasn't achieving anything. “I'm still losing; I'm not improving,” I would say to myself. Despite the fact that I was improving, to me the net result was the same; I was a loser, and therefore I'd accomplished nothing. This only made things worse, though it was entirely unnecessary.

I sought out advice. A friend pointed me in the direction of Noah Weil, who was a really helpful resource. Over time, I slowly began to internalize what he and others told me, as well as things I've figured out for myself.

The thing about advice is that sometimes it seems really obvious; you may know cognitively that it's true, but without internalizing it and making it part of who you are and how you think, then it doesn't do you any good. Studies have shown that even though certain ideas may be “common sense,” having someone remind them of the ideas serves to reinforce and strengthen the ideas. If we all thought and felt logically, we wouldn't have irrational emotions.

You don't have total control over the outcome of games
Magic contains an element of luck. Far too often, people blame luck for losses when it was something else that was the deciding factor, but the fact remains that luck exists in Magic. Mana issues contribute to it. Your opponent may get that one topdeck they need to win. Dark Confidant may flip ten consecutive non-land cards in a deck running twenty-two lands (I'd like to know the odds of that happening). It happens.

There's a delicate balance between identifying what is truly luck and what are actually mistakes masquerading as luck. I tend to err strongly on the “skill, not luck” side of things, as it forces me to evaluate my plays in order to cull out mistakes and address them. But this can be dangerous when taken too far. After Regionals, I still believed that my Dark Confidant-fueled loss was due to my own mistakes, even though I was unable to identify them. Those watching the matches assured me that it was simply a matter of spectacularly bad luck, but I didn't want to believe it.

But how do you prevent the pendulum from swinging too far the other way? My goal is to constantly improve as a Magic player, and if I run into mana issues due to a bad mulligan decision, then I should acknowledge that and realize that I'm mulliganing incorrectly. One way is to look at the overall trend, and not just what happened in one specific game. If I get manascrewed in one game in particular, then that doesn't really mean much. If I get manascrewed over a period of time, then there may be something that's causing this pattern. It's really hard to detach yourself emotionally from the game you just lost, but I've found it helpful to take a deep breath, write down what happened, and look at it a couple of weeks later.

When genuinely bad luck happens, there's nothing you can do about it. It's best to move on.

There will always be more Magic
Every time I lost, I felt like there was a sense of finality, especially after a Constructed tournament for which I'd tested a great deal. All that testing had gone for naught, and it was all over. I was never able to look beyond the day of the tournament itself, harping on the fact that I'd worked hard for something and didn't win.

But there's more Magic. There will be PTQs. There's one next week. And in a few weeks after that. And some months after that. And there's a Grand Prix nearby in my neighborhood. And more PTQs and more Grand Prixes and on and on, ad infinitum. And I can keep playing until I die, or until Wizards of the Coast goes out of business. There is no finality. And whether I realized it or not, the experience I got was valuable and I was able to apply it in an abstract sense to future tournaments. It's an ongoing process, and as long as I take lessons from each step of the way, every tournament is a valuable one.

I needed to stop thinking of it as a series of isolated stops, with each tournament's result representing either success or failure. Instead, viewing it as an open-ended progression helped take out that feeling of despair.

It's not just about winning
Perhaps it's clichй, but it's so true. It's so easy to get into that binary mindset of winning/losing and not getting past it. Looking at my City Champs experience, I initially viewed it as a failure. In retrospect, this couldn't be further from the truth.

Prior to City Champs, there wasn't much of a Magic community in Seattle. People went to their various card shops and did their various things, but I never got the sense that there was a core group that worked to help each other out. There was no feeling of a team, save for very small, isolated test groups. City Champs changed that. Because we were traveling and seeing the same people day after day, people from far-off locations were given the chance to make new friends. Isolated pockets throughout Seattle began to blend together, and within six months we had a unified community that seemed genuinely interested in helping each other. I've felt like a big part of that community, forging close friendships with many of them, and becoming a much better player in the process. Were it not for City Champs, I'd still be in my isolated pocket, not knowing some of the amazing people I've met, and I would be much worse off as a result.

Despite not going to Nationals, this can hardly be construed as failure. I'm a much better player and a person as a result, and I've had a chance to contribute to something bigger than my own individual interests.

And hey, even though it's not all about winning, the winning's nice. By befriending better players, I've become a much better player in the process, and yes, that means winning more. So I get to have my cake and eat it too.

Dealing with depression
Just because I've found and tried to take to heart some helpful advice doesn't mean it's all happy fluffy fuzzy bunnies for me. I still struggle with it, and there is no special button to press. It's a process.

Focus on the positives
About twenty-four hours ago, I lost in the semifinals of a PTQ. I was hundreds of miles away from home, and I'd spent essentially three days on this trip, only to come close – and then fall short of my goal of winning a PTQ. It's the closest I've come to winning a Pro Tour slot.

I could focus on the failure to win the PTQ, which is my natural instinct. I could second-guess myself, beating myself up for not drafting better in the top eight, wondering how I could have failed so miserably (the semi-finals were a bit of a blowout), and come home and sit in that same chair. But instead, I forced myself to push those thoughts out and I made a mental list of the positives. It's the best I've done at a PTQ yet. I put myself in some bad situations earlier in the day, then had to play out of them in order to win, which I did. I learned a lot about the format. And a lot of people would be quite happy to make top eight at any PTQ. I was fairly content within an hour or two after my loss.

Take your mind off it
When I got home, I forced myself to think about other things than the PTQ loss. That chair wasn't going to get anything out of me this time. I immersed myself in Denver Broncos football (my favorite thing in the world, even more so than Magic). I went outside for a walk. If I found myself getting dragged down in those negative feelings, I immediately stopped what I was doing and found a way to distract myself. And it's helped.

Socialize with someone
After the loss, my friend and I found a nice pizza/pasta place near the PTQ venue, went to dinner, and just talked. Unlike Regionals and City Champs, I didn't go straight home and mope. There were no earth-shattering revelations or any such things over dinner, but getting it out and discussing what happened felt like a big relief. I didn't feel like I was being consumed by the event. Instead, I had a sense of perspective and was able to deal with it a lot more easily. When we got back to the hotel from dinner, I was in a pretty good mood. My friend was a big help – having pleasant company to hang around with was really, really nice.

As you might imagine, this was a very difficult topic for me to write about. Writing about anything leaves you open to scrutiny, and there's a certain sense of vulnerability that comes along with being published on a website such as TCGplayer.com. Talking about something that's so personal and so deeply emotional intensifies that a hundredfold, and it's a terrifying experience. But I do so with the hope that this helps the Magic community, just as others in the community have helped me. Magic is a great game, and it's a shame when it's the catalyst for such destructive and self-consuming feelings. It doesn't have to be that way.

by Zaiem Beg