Thoughts on being a very experienced very bad player

You know how it is often stated, that you need to train 10.000 hours to be really good at something? I mean REALLY good. It is often mentioned in relation to things like learning to master playing an instrument or to be good at some kind of sport.

Well, if we believe it to be true, that 10.000 hours of training is what it takes to be a least half-decent at something, I should probably be rather good at playing Magic, right? I mean I have been playing almost continuously since 1996. Not at a high level – not even competitive – the whole time, but I have been sharpening my skills, learning new tricks, studying rules and scrutinized interactions on/off for about 25 years now. With all this effort put into an inconspicuous hobby like this, I should be in the very elite of the game, one would think.

But, alas, I am not. Not even close, actually.

After 25 years of playing Magic I still sometimes play like a sack of potatoes – Wait! That’s a bit harsh. A sack of potatoes would probably outmaneuver me way more often, than I care to admit.

Point is, I still make hilariously stupid blunders, and I still play cards in a completely arbitrary order, only to throw away a certain victory. Sometimes it is because I play loosely and don’t care too much, or because I am drunk. But not always. Sometimes it is also in playoffs or other important games, that I simply confuse myself and throw away games.

I know that no one ever claimed that as long as you just spend 10.000 hours doing the same thing, you would become a world-renowned master of said thing. I am not really crying “Why am I not a world-class player, now that I have played so many kitchen-table games.” It is not what I am trying to do. I am trying to investigate my own behavior. And my own failure. Maybe I could learn a thing or two about myself and my playskills. Maybe you can too? Read on if you would like to follow a few thoughts on being a very experienced, but still very bad player.

Failure to actually rehearse/train

Playing Magic with your friends in a casual setting with beers and snacks, is not training nor sharpening your Magic skills. You are probably having a great time, but it will not count towards your 10.000 hours.

For years, when I was playing a lot of Legacy, one of my closest Magic buddies, Andreas Petersen (a very capable card-slinger with several impressive finishes to his name!) fiercely tried to teach me to play well – or at least make sure, that I would stop throwing away games.

At one point he simply gave up on me, I think. That was probably for the better, seeing as there is no point in getting old too early. My constant lack of getting his points and actually learning what he was trying to teach me, must have been wearing him down… Well. The point is, I have never actually sat down and spend a lot of time on really trying to learn the deeper levels of playing the game well.

If you really want to become good at playing this game, you should look at every mistake you make and optimally discuss it with someone better at the game than you. You should do the same thing with all major game-defining plays. Whether you won or lost the game. It is the individual plays, and the thought-process behind these plays, that you should analyze, so you can make them more general rules to play by.

I am way too lazy for that.

Laziness is one thing, but there are complete layers of the game, that I simply can’t wrap my gigantic head around. I know how cards interact; I am pretty well-versed in the rules, but trying to figure out, what the opponent may be playing, or what cards he has in hand, or even sometimes what spells to try to play, to bait his counter? It is literally some next-level foo way beyond me; I simply don’t know how to even begin to learn that. And it was especially hard, back when I played Legacy – a vast format with many different decks, thousands of playable cards and an ever-changing metagame.

And then there is this: using your body-language and facial expressions to get an advantage? I don’t get it! We are talking actual Jedi mind tricks here. I know it is possible, because I know some of the very brightest and most skilled players use it, but I have no clue how.

I am not sure why I suck so much at this part of the game. Often I trap myself in extreme overthinking and overcomplicating situations. For example when I played against Andreas Hirszhorn in the DOOM Tournament June 2020 where I tried to play around three different cards at once, at a point in the game, where I should simply finish it. Sometimes this overthinking of relatively uncomplicated situations happens because I get nervous, that I will look bad in other players’ eyes, if I don’t execute correctly. Yep, you are right, that is some really idiotic thing to think about. Especially when it makes me play worse. Damnit.

How to get my head out of my ass? Well, it is difficult, but I think the main thing is to play my own game, and realize that even the best players sometimes make mistakes.

Line to live by: “Play your own game, and don’t overthink it!”

Playstyle and deck strengths

I think every Magic player has their own playstyle. Some plays very fast, some plays slowly, some enjoys combat math and some simply just loves to watch the world burn. We are all different. There are some players, that are able to pick basically any deck at the beginning of any given tournament, and then go on to win the entire thing. It is a rare gift and I only know a couple of guys who can do it. I most certainly can’t as it requires a way to grand understanding of the game.

Throughout my Magic “career” I have always played a host of different decks. Not only decks but different deck types – I have played Storm and Belcher combo, I have played midrange Maverick, Stax in every color, Infect, Zoo, Burn, Tempo, Standstill, Reanimate and classic Draw-Go control. I have basically seen it all and tried it all. I love to have a lot of different options to choose from, when building a deck.

But it is not always an advantage. When I was playing weekly tournaments I almost never played the same deck two weeks in a row, I wanted to try out different things. But it meant that I could not really play my own game and harness my own playstyle nor really master any deck’s strengths.

To be able to play my own game, and play in a manner that reduces overthinking, I have to play something I know. I have to play decks where I understand the interactions, where I know what to fear and play around. My deck has to fit my playstyle, or I will never be able to win.

And that takes us to another line to live by: “Play what you are comfortable with, and/or adjust your expectations.”

Afraid to win

Many years ago I wrote an article named something along the lines of “10 ways to not be a dick, while playing Magic”. I have tried to find it, but the google-foo with this one is simply not strong enough.

In this, now forgotten, masterpiece of wordplays and good manners, I wrote that it is important to remember what Magic is: It is a casual game where one of the pivotal goals is to have fun. My point was basically, that playing casually is a lot better way to ensure a friendly environment and community than playing very competitively and for example not letting your opponent backtrack some obvious mistake or something like that. It is not truly important if you win or lose. The important thing is that you and your opponent both had a good time.

There was some more advice for players, to ensure the friendly and casual environment (for example: greet your opponent; wish him good luck etc.). One of the very best and most accomplished Danish Magic players, Thomas Enevoldsen, wrote an answer to my post, where he laid some foundations on how to play competitively and be a better Magic player (while still not being an ass). Unfortunately I can’t find his post either, but one of his main points, that really struck me as something I should think about, was his claim, that often he meets players who are “afraid of winning.” Of course he didn’t mean actual, realized fear, but many players lack that killer instinct that takes the last couple of matches home. I was surely one of them.

It is rather difficult to explain – I am sure there are some philosophers or behavioral scientists that have a lot to say about it. But Thomas’ words struck me, because they rang a bell. It was true. I cannot claim that I have lost many finals, nor event attended many Top8s, but I have been at some. And I have made some very big mistakes in several of them. Or headless blunders. Sometimes even playing like I didn’t know what my own cards did or how the rules of the game worked.

It has something to do with fear of failure – fear of showing that I don’t belong among the brightest shining stars in our hobby: the other seven players in the top8. And therefore, because of idiotic psychology, I sabotage myself, and make the fear come true… Damnit. Again!

The easiest way to get out of this crazy train of thought is simply to never board it. If you are in the top8 of a tournament, you obviously deserve to be exactly there. It is one great thing about how we conduct our tournament business: It is not always the best/most expensive deck that wins; it is not even always the best player that wins! Sometimes you just have a really good day, and your deck loves you. Having a good day is not undeserved. Even luck is not undeserved. So this will be the last line for me to live by for today: “If you are in the top8, you deserve to be in the top8!”

So have I actually trained 10.000 hours?

Not. Even. Close. !.

I have attended two GPs (Legacy), four Danish Masters (Legacy), four Danish Old School (DOS) tournaments and several other competitive or at least in-it-to-win-it events in both Vintage, Legacy and Old School. Those all count. I have been brewing and tweaking and playtesting before most of those events, and also for some other stuff. I have discussed strategies, sideboards, central plays as well as many relevant aspects of the game in a competitive sense. That also counts.

But 10.000 hours is a really long time! A whole year is about 8760 hours. That is a whole year. Every hour of that year, you have to train competitively (some of us needs our sleep!). Even though I have been playing and enjoying this game for 25 years and at some point played 4-6 tournaments a month, I don’t think I will get to much more than maybe 2500 hours.

Should I just quit?

I have been playing this game for 25 years, and I still suck at it. If I was a stand-up comedian, every time I would enter the stage, someone would shout “BOOO, YOU SUCK!” And they would be right. I am not though. A comedian, that is.

I play Magic. And the great thing about Magic is that if you suck, your opponent probably likes you even more. You spread some great vibes. Good for you and your opponent.

My lack of skill and lack of will to prioritize to actually become better, was one of the things that made me quit Legacy. That could have been the end of my Magic-playing years, but luckily some of my friends started playing Commander out of the blue, and then I found the Old School format and the rest is history.

But then again, not quite, because I have noticed something: Even though I still don’t exactly top8 all the tournaments I attend, I seem to have a better track record in this fine format, than I ever had in Legacy. There are several factors weighing in here: First of all, I actually have at least a small clue about what to expect in the format and the metagame. I only have to know about a thousand different cards. That is way easier than Legacy or Vintage. I also own the best cards in the format, which is a very big deal.

But I would argue, that one of the biggest reasons why I normally fare okay in Old School tournaments, is because they are almost exclusively casual in their foundation. My fear of failure has evaporated. Why would my imposter-syndrome go through the roof in a setting that literally has as one of its premises that everyone is welcome, and that we don’t have any standards to live up to?

So no, I am not about to quit. Why on earth would I?! But I will try to remember my lines to live by. Not necessarily to win more games, but to have more fun while playing the games.

I hope my thoughts were useful to you also. Maybe not? Maybe? Anyway, I would recommend you to ponder what your greatest weaknesses are in the game.

Until next time (where we will be back with some MEGA-greatness!)!

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