What does it mean to lose in Magic and what’s the best way to handle it?

Hi All, in this article I’m going to talk about the psychological elements of ‘Losing’ in Magic as promised. This is a follow-up to fellow Master, James Wise’s article How to be Gracious in Defeat. It explores some aspects in more detail and in the context of playing Magic competitively. Before I dive in though, I have a couple if quick things to mention!

Firstly, last weekend I missed out on English Nationals, but I am at least able to open this article with a congratulations to Autumn Burchett for becoming back-to-back National Champion! Autumn will represent England at the World Magic Cup alongside Francesco Giorgio (Pro points leader) and Chris Orchard (who I heard was undefeated until the finals of Nationals itself). We wish them all the best for when the WMC comes round!

Secondly, I’ll advise that I kept the hand in the keep or mull question in my last article. As we are playing against Affinity and have the chance to deploy a turn two Kataki, War’s Wage on the play, turn three Reflector Mage and turn four Mantis Rider, I’m fine with this hand not having a one drop and the mana being a little awkward in that I have to use one of the rainbow lands to name “Spirit” (unless I immediately draw a Horizon Canopy, Plains or Seachrome Coast, which wouldn’t be great as we do want more spells). This is because Kataki is so strong in the matchup and we can use it to respond to even some of the strongest openers from our opponent!

Losing in Magic

Where to begin? This is a very extensive topic and can be approached in many ways, but I’m going to start by being clear about some facts about what losing in Magic means. Then I’ll explore some of the associations people make about losing – this will explore how losing affects players psychologically and I’ll use some of my personal experience to illustrate some of the things in these sections. Having looked at some choice aspects, I’ll bring it together and summarise the broader techniques I’d suggest you can employ to help cope with losing and bolster this with a collection of pieces of advice or suggestions in what I’ll call a bit of a ‘checklist’ which might give you ideas to help you make sure you don’t suffer from some of the psychological effects that losing can have on players.

At this point, please know that I’m not a psychologist, psychiatrist or coach in any capacity. I’m just someone who plays competitive Magic events regularly who has reflected on the subject consumed some content on the subject (which I’ll reference at the end) and thinks it would be of value to share some of these ideas. 

Facts

I’m going to start by providing a definition of what losing a game of Magic means:

One of the following things has happened:

  • An effect stated that your opponent wins the game (104.2b)
  • You conceded from the game (104.3a)
  • Your life total became zero or less (104.3b)
  • You were required to draw more cards and none were left in your library (104.3c)
  • You received ten or more poison counters (104.3d)
  • An effect stated that you lose the game (104.3e)
  • A judge issued you with a penalty which would cause you to lose the game (104.3k, but see rule 100.6 for more details)

I want to emphasise that the main reason you lost any game of Magic ever played probably involved one of these. At this stage I know you’re probably thinking that this isn’t helpful and probably just going over what you mostly already know about the rules of Magic. Yes, this information probably seems quite elementary, but a reminder of what it truly means to lose a game of Magic will help distance you from some of the dangerous associations you might encounter with losing games of Magic which we’ll explore in the article.

Associations

Now let’s look at a variety of statements conveying what losing a game of Magic can mean to some people:

  • I messed up during the game, it was so embarrassing – all my friends saw me make that mistake! Now everyone thinks I’m terrible at this game!
  • I don’t like my deck, it’s so bad, I should have brought the other one to this tournament!
  • I got so unlucky, drew five more cards than my opponent and never saw a fourth land all game. I thought Magic was supposed to involve skill!
  • Can’t quite remember what mistake I made, but I must have done something wrong – I’ll figure it out soon!

These are common immediate reflections from players expressing their feelings about their loss. Naturally, when a player reflects on a loss, it will go way beyond the literal causes for losing a game as most Magic players are intelligent human beings and it’s pretty much a reflex to try to attribute some kind of understanding as to how the literal cause for losing the game (as per the list of Facts above) was reached. There are many more associations players make with losing but I’ve picked these four because they embody some key elements that I’ve chosen to to explore in the article. They are:

  • Your personal image
  • Confidence and determination
  • Variance
  • Self-improvement

One other thing that’s going to make a surface at points throughout the article is the concept of ‘Using mental energy’. I’ve touched on this in a previous article where I shared tips on how to stay focussed at competitive events. It should therefore be no surprise that ‘Staying focussed’ and ‘coping with losing’ are interconnected.

Your personal image

It’s pretty much inevitable to subconsciously wonder what others think of you based on your performance. Whether it’s in Magic, in your job (if it’s not playing Magic) or maybe if you play some other kind of sport, music etc, we are all put into positions where we need to perform, and it’s natural to want to be assured that we’ve performed well. However sometimes the mind wanders and thoughts about this can creep in during the time you’re performing (e.g. playing a game of Magic), especially if people are watching. 

When it comes to Magic, the way losing a game reflects on you can really play on your mind. Feelings like upset or embarrassment and  associations with personal failure are very common. This is only natural, but its very important to uncover some fundamentals about it in order to come to terms with it more readily.

All Magic players lose at some point, and although I used the analogy of ‘performance’ losing a game is not quite the equivalent of a wholly disastrous performance – nor does it necessarily mean that you played poorly. Good players frequently win more than they lose but players of all skill levels lose games of Magic, even when they play well. It is therefore fundamentally quite dangerous and often inaccurate to associate the results of a game or match with a measure of your skill level.

As for the conclusions spectators might draw that is a bit different, and there’s not a lot you can do about what judgements another person makes about the result of a game of Magic you played in. However, I think it’s important to consider the real significance of the opinions of others. I used to care a lot about what my fellow Magic players used to think of my play skill level or ability. This was quite a few years ago and I was at a very early stage in my competitive Magic playing career when I didn’t know that many other competitive players in the UK. I aspired to connect with more of them, but I remember often thinking “If they don’t think I am a very good player, they won’t be interested in talking to me or helping me”. However, I quickly realised that this wasn’t really the case. There are so many events and so many other players that making connections to help you find more events, make friends, improve at the game, form testing teams etc is actually not a difficult thing – plus Magic is all over social media. There are more people out there in the community who are willing to help you than you might (and I used to) think! Effectively, I realised my concern was largely irrelevant and instead of wasting mental energy on thinking about this, especially during games if others were watching, it was always better to devote all attention to the game at hand, not what others think of you.

Confidence and determination

I’ve talked about confidence previously including a reflection of a personal experience where I brought a deck to a tournament that I didn’t really have much confidence in at the time. I won’t repeat the story but maintain that confidence is important for maintaining a positive mindset. It’s pretty easy to stay confident when all is going well and will be harder if, for example, you were to lose the first rounds of an event. However it’s important not to let that loss affect overall confidence. Negative mindset, on the other hand, will adversely affect your determination to win. Lack of determination doesn’t mean you will definitely play badly, but you will lose percentage points. For example, a game you are playing unfolds into a complicated board state and you fall slightly behind. If you have a negative mindset you will more likely slip into a state of ‘learned helplessness’ and dub the situation ‘unwinnable’. In the alternate, where you have a positive mindset you might be able to summon the determination to find the winning line of play in an ‘unwinnable’ situation – find those weird attacks and blocks that aren’t immediately obvious, or what your opponent was expecting. Cast spells that play to certain topdecks. These kinds of lines of play aren’t often easy to spot and it’ll be harder to find them without determination.

Another aspect I want to cover in this section is fear. Nobody wants to lose, but many players ‘fear’ losing which is a different and much more dangerous thing to have in your mind. Being afraid to lose can tie in with concerns of how losing reflects on you. However, more commonly it causes players to take conservative lines of play when it is more correct to take riskier lines of play to achieve a match win. Playing conservatively can be correct at times, but it’s dangerous to let the fear of losing be a bigger motivator than the thrill of winning and be closed off to make riskier plays. The best example I can give is from one of Magic’s most iconic moments.

Craig Jones has the option of using Char on the Hand of Cruelty. However he realises that although killing the Hand is the more conservative play and will improve the relative board position for him slightly, to give himself the best chance to win he should play to the  top of his deck. With his back to the wall he had the determination to make what was probably a riskier, but winning play as opposed to a play that gains him ground and ensures a bit more that he ‘doesn’t lose’ the game.

Variance

Magic is a game of skill, but its random elements mean that variance is a core part of the game. It’s never a good feeling to be on the side of ‘bad variance’ – you may even sometimes have sympathy for opponents who fall victim to it. However, acceptance of variance as part of the game will serve you well in coming to terms with losses where it was the biggest factor – for example not drawing a number of spells/lands that you are 97% certain to draw. In cases like those, understanding that, no matter what happened, this may have been one of the 3% of possible games where that simply happens is an important part of coming to terms with variance.

One thing I want to introduce at this point is something that goes a bit wider than variance but I think now is a good time to mention it. It is the common misconception we have about ourselves when we play in Magic tournaments. We commonly go into them with a narrative surrounding us that the tournament is a story, we are the protagonist and all our opponents are the adversaries in the story. For this story to have a happy ending we must triumph. Elimination from the event through ‘bad variance’ is like an alternate version of the story of the Sword in the Stone where Arthur trips up on the way to whatever rock the sword was in, hurts himself badly, tragically dies of his injuries having never pulled the sword out of the stone and the story abruptly ends. (Would have definitely won and not been eliminated from the tournament, but for that random event that couldn’t be helped). It’s easy to have a mindset like this in a tournament, whether actively or buried deep in your subconscious. The reason I’m flagging all this is because it shields you from the reality that Magic is a game with another side to it, not just yours. It takes a winner to cause you to lose – sometimes that other side of the story is just a bit luckier than you or plays better than you.

Self Improvement

A common method used by many aspiring competitive players to come to terms with any losses suffered during a Magic event is an honest evaluation of mistakes you make during the game, or indeed things that happened that had an impact on the game. Being introspective in this way can help you improve at the game while helping you develop a more rational approach to understanding your losses. You’ll see it being deployed throughout the articles where I provide event coverage. I mainly share them in the articles because they provide examples of learning points, but whether I’m writing an article on them later on not, I habitually reflect when I lose a game – I definitely make sure I can potentially learn from it. The crucial things I’ve learned to be mindful of in relation to this process are:

  • Be honest with yourself: It may hurt yourself more to admit that you lost because you made a terrible mulliganing decision rather than because you didn’t draw enough lands, however you’re undermining the point of evaluating mistakes if you’re just going to falsely evaluate the ones you don’t like or don’t want to admit to.
  • Be proportionate: What I mean by this is to not go too far down the rabbit hole. It’s important to be honest with yourself, but if you go too far and say ‘I lost, so I MUST have made a mistake’ you might sometimes find yourself searching for mistakes that do not exist! You also risk setting off a dangerous chain reaction of results oriented thinking (where you analyse your results allowing the result itself to be a driver in the analysis).
  • Find the right time: Being rationale about your losses is helpful, but there’s a time and a place. For example, imagine it’s game two of round one of the event, you lost game one from a position in which you thought you couldn’t lose the game and you’re still thinking about how you allowed the game to slip away from you. Thinking about this instead of the game at hand is taking some mental energy away that could instead be used to ensure you make tighter plays during the game. While you might think you’re taking steps to learn from your losses, it’s potentially doing you harm at a time like this.

General techniques

So what are the broader things to note about handling losing? Some of these may have surfaced through exploring the different aspects, but these are the two main things I would try to do in general during an event:

  • Stay focussed on what matters: Hopefully looking at the different aspects has at least implied that instead of worrying about what the spectators will think of you if you lose, or why you lost game one which you thought was impossible for you to lose, you should just focus entirely on the game at hand. This will increase your chances of winning the current game and doing this in every game you play is more likely to result in more wins than if you’re potentially distracted by focusing mental energy on other things.
  • Have a positive mindset: This will help maintain confidence, keep you determined to put 100% into the game and help shut out fears you have about losing be they rational or not. The fact that the result of a game/match that happened earlier is literally negative should be focused on less than more positive aspects of any process used to reach that result. For example, focusing on playing to the best of your ability will help safeguard against frustrations dredged up by poor variance. .

Other resources

I was inspired to write about this subject, not only by my fellow Master James Wise who put it firmly in the headlights with his article about it last week, but also the following:

Checklist

A list of quick tips or statements that may help you maintain focus and positive mind set. Hopefully, I’ve made it really obvious which ones to try out and which ones to avoid.

If you lose a game (e.g. you have just lost game one and it’s time for game two)

  • Remember that you can lose game one and still win games two and three
  • Don’t think about what happened in game one – you can’t change it. Distract yourself by sideboarding and mulliganning properly
  • When you’re in game two, focus on what  it will it take to win this game – Ignore everything else for now (same applies when you are in game three)

If you lose a match (e.g. you have just lost and are in between rounds)

  • Remember that you may have just lost that match but you can still win the tournament
  • Caution: Unprompted ‘bad beats’ stories are overrated – less people want to hear them than you’d think
  • Maintain perspective. Will you care about losing that match you just lost in two weeks time?
  • Getting angry is natural but very unhealthy if not rationalised – Consider asking yourself why you are angry. It may help calm you down a bit if you talk yourself through.
  • Try to look at your loss from another point of view – for example, what did my opponent do correctly?
  • Did I play well? What good plays did I make that I need to make sure I repeat if I face the same scenario in the future?
  • Most importantly: Ensure you come to the next match calm, cool and collected. Allow time to cool down if you are a bit emotional about the loss. If there isn’t sufficient time, perhaps don’t delve into trying to thinking about the loss more positively – instead get some fresh air, listen to music, have a drink of water – whatever works best for you in blanking thoughts about that recent loss for now and keeping you prepared for the next match.

If you’re ‘on a losing streak’ (e.g. The event is over and you lost too many times, or you’re reflecting on multiple bad events)

  • This can be a better time to be a bit more reflective because you’re not taking part in the event, but it may be harder to remember everything that happened.
  • Don’t create a tragic narrative/ convince yourself ‘something is wrong’. Avoid the following
    • Thinking that because you went 0-2 you MUST have been playing badly/It just wasn’t your day!
    • Being a results-oriented thinker when you evaluate your losses. Going 0-2 in an event and drawing too many conclusions from it is like roll a six sided dice twice while trying not to roll any ones, but then rolling two ones and concluding that “something’s wrong”.
  • Keep yourself accountable when it comes to variance. Losing to variance shouldn’t be an excuse but it can happen.
  • It’s a war not a battle, a marathon not a sprint. Everyone has bad events – sometimes multiple events. Some very prolific Magic players, for example Luis Scott-Vargas (LSV), have talked about tough times where they had long periods of time where they did not get the results they know themselves to be able to achieve. 
  • Don’t worry about what others will think if you lose, even if you lose repeatedly, even if you have a reputation for winning a lot at Magic. Just try to block this out and continue to focus on the matches you don’t want to make this an influencing factor of any in-game decisions or take mental energy away that could be used on making better decisions.

Conclusion

Losing affects players emotionally but it’s an inevitable occurrence for all and will happen to you sooner or later. This means you need to be able to manage the way you handle losing to succeed consistently at Magic events over time. Yes losing at Magic is a bad experience, nobody wants it to happen, but worse is letting the psychological effects that the experience of losing can have on future games, matches, tournaments etc. I hope to have highlighted many things you can be mindful of to either avoid ‘bad stuff’ affecting your game or apply ‘good stuff’ to help minimise impairment to your mental game.

Although it’s still Modern PPTQ season, my mind is now more focused on a Standard RPTQ which will take place in just under two weeks. Some intel from Nationals will likely inform my preparation on top of the current Standard GP results. I’ll bring you some coverage from that event for sure.

My fellow Master James Wise will be covering the other side of the coin to his previous article when he looks at how to be a ‘good winner’ next week so look out for that.

You can find me on Facebook, Twitter (@Chris54154) or at most PPTQs in the North of England, RPTQs, GPs in England and some other large competitive events like Mega Modern and Legacy Masters that arise during the year in the UK.

As always, thanks for reading, good luck and have fun in your next event!

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