I’d like to introduce this article by giving credit where it’s due. I decided to write about this topic because I was recently inspired by some things discussed by Gerry Thompson and Noah Weil on an episode of the Arena Decklists podcast aired on 20 November 2019.
The podcast episode goes quite deep into the subject with both Gerry and Noah sharing stories about their relationship with mental health through their lives, a good portion of which includes playing competitive Magic. In this article, I’ll focus on a couple of things that this podcast reminded me were key in terms of my Magic journey and in consideration of my own mental well-being. I am confident in labelling them as key to my biggest ‘level-ups’ in Magic.
This isn’t a practical guide per se. The points I touch on may help Magic players who have a poor relationship with mental health, but I’m not purporting them to be the keys to success – just paramount to my own experience. I am not a health professional, nor do I have a diagnosed mental health condition, so I’m not preaching or advising in any capacity. I’m just another Magic player who has made a change and benefited from it.
My fellow Master James Wise bravely shared his mental health story in a previous article and shares some advice on the subject. I’ll start by briefly sharing some of the things I’ve put my mental well-being through as a Magic player.
Becoming addicted to competitive Magic
I got into Magic when I went to university and it is there that I progressed from a kitchen table player to someone who attended events. After tasting some event-based success I quickly fell into the pattern of treating Magic tournaments as a bit of a proving grounds – an environment where I could test my skills, potentially emerge victoriously and, when I did, I felt good about myself. To start with, FNM was my proving grounds, and I gradually got to the point where I was winning or frequently doing very well at these events. Then I found out about Prereleases and I went to many of these with a burning desire to win – exploring the new cards was only secondary to defeating my opponents. Then the hunger to prove myself started to snowball. Regionals/Champs, GPTs, Nationals Qualifiers, monthly Eternal events, PTQs, Nationals, GPs, then PPTQs and RPTQs, and maybe the Pro Tour. I would prove my worth at all of these… because it made me feel good about myself when I won. I looked forward to every tournament – winning games of competitive Magic was my drug.
It wasn’t all upside though. I didn’t win all the time, maybe slightly more than I lost. I felt really low whenever I didn’t do well at events, especially as I built a profile for myself, at least in my mind, that I was a ‘competent Magic player’. I had a bit of a yo-yo relationship with Magic. I’d even start developing format biases based on how well I was doing at different types of events – for example, if I said I loved Modern but hated Standard, it was probably because I’d Top 8’d or won a bunch of Modern events recently and 0-2’d my last three Standard events, rather than any discerning thoughts about the cards and strategies. My results dominated my level of enjoyment of the game, and I’m perhaps very lucky that I have a history of winning more than losing, otherwise I might have quit Magic in a ball of frustration. I’ve been going to Magic events for about 12 years, and I can confidently admit that probably for about the first five of them, this was my prevailing mindset, and while it was probably diluted a bit over the latter years – I’ll admit it’s definitely had a significant presence until maybe the last few.
I think the epiphany for the sake of improved mental wellbeing probably happened a couple of years ago.
Dialling back to 2017, I had some very good results in the first six months of the year, winning several PPTQs and Top 8ing an RPTQ, which left me feeling very good about myself as a Magic player. Then I went to GP Vegas in the summer and did a lot less well than I had hoped in both the Legacy and Limited GPs, going 5-3 twice. In the Modern GP I managed to go 7-2 on day one but crashed out, going 1-5 on Day 2. I returned to the UK and although I immediately won a PPTQ, I crashed out of GP Birmingham at 5-3 again and then went on to struggle to win a Temur Energy mirror for the best part of four months. It felt absolutely horrible and definitely affected my mood and the way I felt about Magic. The straw that broke the camel’s back was going to an RPTQ in December feeling real pressure to squeeze out a good result, despising the current Modern format, and playing a deck I didn’t really want to play. Unsurprisingly I ended up 2-4.
It may have taken a long losing streak to beat the results-focused pride out of me, but I made the decision to just resign whatever thoughts I had about performance and basically prioritise my own fun and be more conscious that there was more to Magic than prizes. This didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t a ‘zero to hero’ transformation. By this point in my playing career, I had learned to appreciate several things which had previously been of low priority, at least in my mind. I enjoyed exciting games, even if I lost; I told my opponent when I thought they had played well; and I found that tournaments can still be a good day out with friends even if I had posted disappointing results. However, I see my 2017 ‘losing streak’ as something that simply accelerated the rate at which I relinquished putting any pressure on myself going into an event or allowing negativity to overwhelm me after losing a match.
The overarching point I’d like to make by sharing this story is that I went from treating Magic as a means to an end (Prizes, feeling of accomplishment) to treating it as an end in itself (just enjoying playing Magic). Being solely driven by prizes without much enjoyment of playing the game (for what it is, as opposed to ‘something that needs to be won’) was a slippery slope to poorer mental well-being during my Magic journey, and I can wholeheartedly say that I’ve had much fewer ‘low’ moments in Magic since I’ve played Magic predominantly for the enjoyment of the game rather than chasing a ‘high’ or a feeling of accomplishment by slaying other wizards.
The standout line or phrase for me from the Arena Decklists podcast episode appears at 27:15 where Weil says:
…if you tie your emotional health to something outside your control, it’s a recipe for disaster…
These words provided me with a moment of realisation, articulating very clearly the underlying principle behind my experience. I hadn’t, until then, been able to explain the change I made, but this particular phrase underlines things very well.
Here are few examples of some things that started to happen a lot more after that dismal RPTQ back in December 2017.
- I was less frustrated when my opponents won (internally and externally)
- I was less disappointed in myself if I didn’t make Day 2 of a Grand Prix or Top 8 a PPTQ
- I was less upset when my sealed pool had no playable rares or Mythics
- There was less pressure to stay in an event in which I wasn’t doing well ‘for value’. If I dropped it was with confidence and if I stayed in, it was because I definitely wanted to play more Magic.
Since then, I’ve just felt better at Magic events. Although I couldn’t articulate it this way at the time, I had (at least in some ways) stopped ‘tying my emotional health to things I couldn’t control’, whether it was the outcome of an individual game, a tournament, or the contents of some booster packs.
At the same time, my passion and desire to win hasn’t exactly plummeted. You could argue that I don’t go into events with as high a level of ruthless hunger that I used to. However, I realised that, in terms of Magic, perhaps I just don’t thrive off taking a high-pressure and fully competitive approach. I’ve actually enjoyed some of my greatest tournament success since I’ve changed my approach – for example, I have more strong GP finishes in the last two years and have qualified and played on the Pro Tour/Mythic Championship.
In any case, I’d like to discourage others from getting emotionally invested in things beyond their control, be they outcomes of games of Magic, a whole tournament, or trying to open specific cards in a booster pack. Avoiding approaches like:
- If I don’t win this game I’ll feel terrible because I think I am much better at this game than my opponent
- If I don’t at least top 8 this tournament, I’ll be disappointed in myself
- If I don’t open enough of the chase rares/mythics in this booster box, I’ll be unhappy
Perhaps these aren’t things you think, but maybe you know someone who does or has done this. A former self of mine is definitely guilty of all of them at some point, probably with a distorted perception of how much I thought these things were within my control. Looking back at it now, I see it very much like playing Russian Roulette with my state of mind. Once I developed an understanding that even the best players in the world still lose around a third of their matches and the contents of booster packs are random, the prospect of tying emotional value to any of these things became a lot less appealing.
The variance element of the game of Magic can be frustrating, but it is a key part of what keeps it interesting and ‘unsolvable’ in parts. Every game played inevitably includes elements beyond the control of either player. Ultimately these will line up well or not so well with a player’s strategy and affect the game accordingly. My hot take is therefore that winning games of Magic is actually quite a poor thing in which to emotionally invest, even if you are a ‘good player’.
I actually think refraining from tying your emotional well-being to things you can’t control goes beyond Magic and is something that might be a useful heuristic for life itself, but I’ve tried to keep it Magic-focused in this article.
In this article, it may seem like I’m encouraging people to have a less competitive mindset in Magic. This is not my intention, and I believe players can be passionate about competing fiercely and also mindful about the risks of being emotionally invested in win rate – the two are not mutually exclusive. I still embrace the challenge of playing in events. Every event I take part in, I believe I can win – and want to win – but it’s about being accepting when I don’t win. Coming to terms with losing has helped this, and I have written about this more extensively in the past. However, I firmly believe emotional investment in win-rate goes hand in hand.
My story has been set in the context of a competitive player, but I am aware that, for many people, Magic is a non-competitive escapism from the daily grind. Emotional investment in casual games can still carry the same pros and cons for mental wellbeing. If winning or losing the kitchen-table games is going to determine your mood and materially affect your mental wellbeing, then it’s possible you are in the same boat as I was, just not at an event or in a competitive environment, and you may be open to the same risks.
I hope that this article has offered some perspective to help put into context some things you might see around you or experience yourself. As I said before, this has probably been my biggest Magic level-up, so I thought sharing my experiences on the subject might be of value to others and lead to an improved experience playing the game they love.
I’ve started to play some Pioneer and intend to share my thoughts on the format after I get maybe more than one event under my belt. There’s also some WNPQs to see out before the end of the year. Look out for some content on these from me in the coming weeks.
You can find me on Facebook or Twitter @Chris54154. Feel free to hit me up with your thoughts on social media or if you see me at an event in the UK.