Friday, November 9, 2007

Sucking Hard and the Art of Self-Improvement

Charles Darwin once said "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge," and a study in this area of social psychology[i] found it to be largely true. People are poor judges of their own ability. But what does this have to do with Magic?

Magic is a complex game. It's also heavily influenced by chance. These two factors combine to create a game that is very difficult to become good at. It's hard for our brain to correlate correct plays with winning; many decisions are made in a game, and for each decision there are many variables that must be accounted for. This, along with our natural tendency to overestimate our ability, particularly in the areas at which we are least skilled, means that most Magic players think they're a lot better than they are.

You're probably not a very good magic player, and if you are a good magic player, it'd probably serve you well to believe otherwise anyway. I'll tell you why.

One of the most important routes to becoming better at something is abandoning the belief that you are good at it. People who think they're skilled in a particular area have less desire and less ability to become better. It is perfectly reasonable to stop working on improving at something you're already good at in order to become better at something at which you're not. This helps us become balanced individuals. It becomes a problem when you think you're good at something that you actually aren't, so stop trying to improve. People have less ability to become better at things when they think they know what they're doing, because they assume that they're right. This makes sense. Once people get the hang of something, scrutinizing their performance all the time is unnecessary effort. Again, the problem is when a person isn't actually proficient, and doesn't scrutinize their performance because they're under the mistaken impression that they don't need to.

If you truly want to become better, you need to start thinking that you suck. After playing a match, question how you could have played it differently, even if you believe it was not possible to win. It may not have been possible to win, but did you give yourself the best chance for a better outcome? Should you have mulliganed? Did your opponent signal the card that wrecked you, thereby giving you the chance to play around it? Instead of trying to salvage the game with the cards you had, should you have been playing for the only top-deck that could possibly save you? Perhaps you won easily. Did you give your opponent as few draw steps as possible to find his answer? Was his only way out a top-deck that you should have played around?

It can be difficult to start thinking you suck at something. Very few people want to think it. How can one get past this intrinsic property of humans? Well, in knowing thy enemy, you are better able to fight it. The enemy at hand is known to social psychologists as the Fundamental Attribution Error. People are far more willing to blame external factors rather than internal factors for their own failings, and, conversely, far more willing to blame internal factors rather than external factors for the failings of others. Keep this in mind and you'll be more likely to correctly evaluate the cause of a situation. Most magic players suffer from the aforementioned attribution error, particularly when it comes to why they won or lost. When they win, they were good; when they lose, their opponent was lucky. This sort of thinking greatly interferes with the learning process.

The failure to self-assess accurately manifests in ways other than just attributing your win to the wrong factors. People over-confident of their ability tend to have too much certainty in their beliefs. You'll see plenty of this in IRC. Dogmatic statements such as "Goblins smashes Affinity[ii]," or "You're an idiot if you don't think Grand Arbiter is awesome[iii]," are often indicators of poor self-evaluation. Those types of statements are often evidence of unwarranted conviction in one’s own assessment. Another warning signal for self-assessment error is the vehement refutation of another's opinion. That an opinion is radically different to your own is not just cause for dismissing it. Opinions aren't random, as they come from observations. There are many opinions that can be quickly discounted, but if you find yourself discounting pretty much all of them that don't match your own, you're probably being too quick to judge. Even players who typically finish below you in tournaments can teach you new and better ways to play.

An excellent tool for the self-improver is the Magic Online replay function. Every game state and decision is there to be analyzed. Many of the situations in a long game will bear examination. As long as you’re prepared to admit you may have been wrong, you’ll see other avenues you could have taken with the game. If you’re struggling to put a finger on where you went wrong, get a friend to watch it, they might question something you took for granted.

Once you start to realize some of the things I’ve mentioned above, you’ll begin appreciating the amount there is to improve. You’ll see decisions where before you saw a seemingly obvious choice. You’ll replace the rules that you’ve learned with a set of loose guidelines that allow you to react more appropriately to unusual situations. There are still going to be plenty of times where you couldn’t do anything, but you’ll feel less comfortable thinking so. You’ll want to find where you went wrong, to isolate bad plays, and you’ll experience the feeling of getting better at something you’re putting effort into. If all those positives sound good to you, all you need is a little self-doubt. Take a leaf from Darwin’s book and don’t be the ignorant one.