Two weeks ago, a Christ Kallas article from The Meadery showed up in my newsfeed. “The Complete(ly Serious) Guide to Pre, Post, and Mid Game Social Interactions” lampoons awkward interactions between players by blowing negative stereotypes out of proportion. The article had me laughing out loud, and not because its jokes are funny – they aren’t – but because the “exaggerated” depictions of socially inept players accurately resemble many Magic players I meet.
An infinitely more readable (if as flowery) article from Christopher Morris-Lent, titled “The Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour Sucks,” struck a chord with me on a similar level. Every step I’ve taken in my Magic career has brought me to higher levels of competition, and in each setting I’ve perceived toxic behavior. With GP Pittsburgh one day away, I’ve elected to spend my column tackling a little-discussed aspect of Magic theory crucial to optimal tournament performance: productive attitudes.
Productive vs. Toxic Attitudes
Productivity implies working towards a certain goal. I’ll assume that your goals as a Magic player are to have fun and improve. For many, including myself, “fun” includes winning; I’ll have a bad time going 0-9 on Day 1. I’ve heard players complain about peers trying to win at the cost of fun, but one doesn’t obstruct the other. The sense of security provided by friendly competition helps me focus on the game instead of worrying about my opponent trying to screw me, and ultimately generates more wins.
For nonproductive attitudes, I favor the word toxic. This more aggressive term underlines how these temperaments disadvantage the perpetrator, but also spread malaise to others and weaken the community as a whole.
The following five in- and out-of-game areas ask you to choose between a productive and a toxic attitude.
1. Friendliness and Respect
Someone other than Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I urge you to be the change you wish to see in the Magic community, or even in your local playgroup. If you’ve never played with someone exceptionally unpleasant, this section may not apply to you. Otherwise, here are some ways you can cultivate a milieu with less of “that guy.”
Magic’s very name conveys a convivial gathering of like-minded individuals, despite its themes of otherworldly conflict. During a match, help newer opponents remember their triggers, and if they don’t get why your Huntmaster of the Fells keeps flipping back and forth, stop steamrolling them for a minute and explain. Encouraging opponents to play Magic with you, and not some weird, insecure mind game, forges an addictive sense of camaraderie. When players have fun, they play more, they improve, the scene expands, your store gets better, Wizards jacks up its Modern support, and new decks show up. Being courteous even has strategic applications. After an opponent resolves Inquisition of Kozilek, I always leave my hand open for reference. Then, when I retaliate with Gitaxian Probe, my opponents invariably do the same.
I don’t mean to denigrate mind games. Still, if you rely on them as part of your Magic arsenal, it’s vital to understand their implications. Getting paired with an ostensibly nasty opponent can scare players away from competitive events, which should embrace everybody from jet-setting pros to curious newbies. Play the game how you like, but if that entails employing a belligerent persona, you can counteract this side effect with affability after the match. Since mind games are a part of Magic, judges can’t punish players for engaging in rudeness that evades the sensibly tiny umbrella of unsporting conduct. We players have to take it upon ourselves to recognize and purge antagonism from the community by calling it out.
Courtesy also extends to an opponent’s intent. If he topdecks a bomb and giddily mis-taps, you could hurriedly say “resolves” and call a judge as he recalibrates, or you could cede a couple of dick points and figure out your recovery plan. An opponent forgetting to flip his Delver, but immediately showing you a fresh Mana Leak after saying “draw,” greets you with similar choices. With a lot at stake, empathizing with an opponent’s intent might not prove appropriate – at a GP, for instance, the high stakes don’t allow players small mistakes, and many players attend premier events for their hyper-competitive spirit. At lower levels of play, however, considering intent deeply impacts the atmosphere and whether people will want to play with you again.
Give Your Opponents Credit
I spend a lot of time perfecting decks. Consequently, it doesn’t discourage me when salty opponents blame losses on my lucky draws or their crummy ones. It’s still frustrating; part of the joy of deckbuilding is showing cool builds to other players, and impressing friends with wacky ideas. It disheartens players to have their carefully crafted 75 dismissed as garbage by someone who can’t name half its cards.
Grumbling, “of course you won with $200 cards in your deck…” after losing to Tarmogoyf ensures a surly vibe. So does insulting an opponent’s brew at all, let alone after it crushes you. After all, your own deck exists because somebody brewed it up (possibly even you). Section 3 covers some boundlessly more productive post-defeat rituals, like analyzing the loss.
If an opponent builds a competent deck, plays tightly, or wins, earnestly congratulate him. To beat you, he must have done something right!
Practice Respectful Attitudes
Respecting other players ranges from not ripping people off in trades to meeting an opponent’s comfort needs; if he asks you twice to stop flicking your cards, you’re probably annoying him quite a bit. It also extends to an awareness of acceptable demeanors.
Pretentiousness doesn’t qualify as “acceptable.” In the Top 8 draft of GP Las Vegas, Pascal Maynard first-picked a foil Tarmogoyf over the “correct” Burst Lightning. The ensuing outrage of fellow pro players, dubbed #GoyfGate, succinctly illustrates the dangers of impudent elitism in Magic. I’ve observed similar strains of superiority among amateurs, when people sneer at those that pimp their decks, or have the means to purchase expensive cards. We don’t know if those pimps spent daddy’s money on foil Jund or worked their asses off to save up for the Lilianas, and it’s not anyone’s place to pass judgment either way. Whoever the miscreant, snobbiness is always toxic. Pascal was able to good-heartedly laugh off his detractors, but their comments breed hostility regardless.
If I were an aspiring Magic player, nervous and excited about going to my first GP, I’d like to believe that should some fantastic luck whisk me into the Top 8, I won’t have to fear being publicly ridiculed by people I admire for drafting such an iconic and valuable card. Moreover, if I were struggling to pay for time off work, a hotel, and a flight to Las Vegas, I wouldn’t appreciate other players taking veiled stabs at my financial situation. Pascal Maynard had trouble affording other GPs that season, so criticizing him for not passing $400 exhibits prickly entitlement.
Such overtly exclusionary behavior hurts event attendance and makes Magic players seem ignorant, which brings us to the natural extreme: our responsibility to disparage racist and sexist conduct. If an opponent cracks off-color jokes about Invoke Prejudice or Disruptive Student, or uses sleeves showcasing half-naked anime babes, politely let him know how his actions injure the community. If you’re not sure how they do, or if you’re at all committed to making every player feel safe in your presence, check out these articles. Their authors aren’t well-known players, but an individual’s competitive record should have little bearing on that person’s concerns about community dynamics.
Magic, like all hobbies, demands some level of commitment. Actively studying helps players reach their goals. Better yet, well-informed players infrequently take part in toxic blaming wars with their decks or other people.
Whether you have a pet deck, a favorite writer, or a soft spot for Blood Moon, there’s plenty of Magic writing out there relevant to your interests. Reading articles by pros or format analysts keeps your mind on Magic while you aren’t playing. Plus, there’s always the chance you stumble across something really enlightening.
Learn Your Deck
Mastering your deck keeps you from getting discouraged after a loss by guiding you in analyzing your games. Articles can teach you plenty, but the best way to learn a deck is to use it. We don’t always have opportunities to play Magic. Fortunately, even goldfishing a bunch of games should reveal its basic lines. In lieu of a flesh-and-blood opponent, free programs like Magic Workstation and Cockatrice let you test online at your convenience.
Share With Your Opponents
Make a habit of discussing strategy with your adversaries (but wait until the match ends!). Fearfully “hiding” sideboard tech after a match won’t do you any favors, as the odds are pretty low your opponent will copy the tech and win the next GP with it (worst-case scenario). It engenders distrust and suspicion while discouraging intelligent discourse. On the other hand, I’ve gleaned invaluable information from sharing my board plan. If I’m bringing in something questionable, opponents won’t hesitate to offer, “that’s not so good against me. Here’s what you should run instead….” Thanks to the contagious spirit of sharing, it’s also common for opponents to disclose their own plans, giving you insights into the matchup for the next few rounds.
Aside: Sharing with opponents also improves your odds. In larger events like GPs, many players with similar records find themselves helplessly waiting for the standings sheet while their breakers compete for Top 8 spots. If you give your opponent a key insight into beating your deck, and he goes on to face it twice more and win with this new information, your breakers ameliorate, no matter whether you lost or won your match against him.
3. Taking Responsibility
Humans have a tendency to point fingers when things go wrong. Blaming outside factors does little for personal development, while looking inwards fosters growth. The overwhelming majority of toxic behaviors I notice in competitive Magic involves players not taking responsibility for their actions.
Own Up To Your Mistakes
Imagine losing a match. You mulliganed to four, or kept a promising two-lander with Serum Visions and somehow never found land number three. Instead of pleading “bad luck,” focus on the areas you did have control over. Did you mulligan too aggressively? Could you have played differently at any time? What might have happened?
Even in no-control scenarios, we can think of a few productive questions about the deck. Does it mulligan too much for your liking? Do you often fail to find that third land? Can you squeeze one more into the list? Asking these kinds of questions is integral to refining builds.
Another usual mistake is overlooking a certain matchup. If you lose to Infect three times at the GP, but went 3-0 against it in testing the night before, maybe you didn’t grind enough to properly comprehend your role. Perhaps you tested against an inexperienced player, or need need to dedicate more sideboard slots to beating Infect. All three scenarios provide tangible tasks that will help you improve (test more, play with better pilots, and tweak your sideboard). One thing’s for sure: blaming sacky opponents for your losses won’t help you beat Infect next time.
Take Your Losses In Stride
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen players furiously walk away from losses and loudly blame everyone but themselves to anyone who will listen (often friends, or the regretful guy who split gas for a ride to New Jersey). Ironically, these players are often even more at fault for their losses than others are for theirs. Consider this tweet from Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa:
Paulo’s petulance lands him firmly in the “toxic” camp. At GP Porto Alegre, he played Jeskai Twin, arguably the worst Twin variant in Modern. Instead of owning up to a poor decision, Paulo lashed out on Twitter, learned nothing, and continued to hate Modern. His unwillingness to learn how Modern works guarantees more failures. If he takes responsibility for his losses, he may come to enjoy this incredibly rich format.
Aside: I find this sort of saltiness especially destructive when it comes from hugely talented players like Paulo. Pros don’t have an explicit obligation to promote good sportsmanship, but many players look up to them, and they do the community a great disservice by setting such an example.
Don’t Get Tilted
Mark Nestico defines tilt as “what occurs after you experience something that jars you during or after a game and completely alters your state of mind, causing your thoughts to jumble, your attitude to change, and your emotions to do their best Hulkamania impression: they run wild, brother.” In light of this definition, my suggestion not to get tilted might sound a little presumptuous. What authority do I have over your visceral emotions? What if you can’t even stop yourself from descending into a fit of rage when you lose to Slivers?
One painless way to not get tilted after losing is to analyze your games. The more you blame outside variables, the more upset you get and the worse you play over the course of an event (and a Magic career; old habits die hard!). Taking responsibility for mistakes opens the door to improvement, and discovering even part of why you lost will calm your nerves. You can at least have some confidence you won’t repeat the same mistakes again.
Constantly analyzing the current game state can also prevent in-game tilting. Let’s say you’re flooding out as an opponent beats you with a flipped Delver. Chances are you have no control over your draws, so don’t get upset about them – variance is a part of Magic, and one of the reasons we even play it over something like chess. It’s far more productive to examine the game state each turn. When you pray for Lightning Bolt but topdeck land number six, instead of cursing and slamming your fist on the table, re-examine things. Try to think of all the cards in your deck that can save you. That sixth land opens up new outs for the future; Serum Visions into Snapcaster Mage targeting Electrolyze costs exactly six mana. The game state has also changed – now, you have one less turn to find an out, because Delver will attack for three more damage before your next draw step. This example is fairly straightforward, but when you have multiple lines available, continually appraising the game state often translates to the difference between winning and losing. Keeping you from psychotic fury is icing.
As Nestico describes, the tilt is governed by irrational emotions. Not getting tilted doesn’t come naturally. Luckily, the work players put into overcoming this inclination pays them back tenfold.
4. Goals and Time Investment
Every Magic player has different goals. Each goal requires a certain amount of time and energy to attain, which varies between players. Establishing and meeting feasible goals sharpens your discipline while providing measurable ways to track improvements. Conversely, not having specific goals leads to unjustified disappointment.
Understand Your Goals and Budget Your Time
Do you want to stomp your longtime rival? Finally win an FNM? Cash a GP? Break into the pro circuit? Or become a renowned deckbuilder?
Misevaluating goals yields a wealth of misery, as players condemn themselves for Magic shortcomings. Truthfully, if you join ten dailies and lose them all, it’s likely you just haven’t played enough to realistically meet the goal of winning one. The same goes for more illustrious goals. In this game, time investment – whether spent reading, playing, discussing, or deckbuilding – directly equates to success. Sure, variance exists. But we see the same pro players doing well in so many events because they all sink enormous chunks of time into Magic.
Be Realistic About Your Priorities
Just as it’s easy to attribute losses to bad draws, some players fall into the trap of blaming their schedules for an inability to meet Magic goals. Modern boasts a particularly diverse set of viable decks, and at a nine-round event like GP Pittsburgh, you could encounter any one of them. Nonetheless, “I don’t have time to test all those matchups!” simply indicates that you’re not prioritizing Magic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s still toxic not to take responsibility for the way you spend your time. To remedy this issue, brainstorm how much time you have, the amount you’re willing or able to allocate to Magic, and what goals you can reasonably achieve with that investment.
5. Money and Expected Value
Money’s a touchy subject for everybody, not just for Magic players. It represents a fundamental dilemma: Wizards is a business that can’t continue cranking out new expansions without moving product, but Magic is a game that would potentially evolve faster if players had unrestricted access to the extensive, expensive cardpool.
EV, or expected value, denotes the prospective monetary benefit of participating in a given event. Playing Magic does cost money, and I can understand a drive to hunt down events with high EV. Unfortunately, I think such efforts are misguided, and that the notion of EV does Magic players more harm than good.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job
Magic is not a career. It’s a hobby. Relative to other adult hobbies (golfing, playing poker, working out), it’s not even an expensive hobby – if you don’t believe me, Google the monthly fees at health clubs or rock-climbing gyms. Add up a few of those bills and you can buy yourself a top-tier Modern deck. Plus, players can use eBay to cash out at any time, and their collections and Modern staples steadily rise in price even while not in use. I’d like to see a rock-climbing gym that refunds all your money when you give it up.
Since Magic isn’t a job, it’s entirely unrealistic to expect the game to sustain you financially. Even “professional players” secure most of their Magic money writing for websites and wearing Face to Face t-shirts, and many return to 9-to-5s after a weekend GP. Winning first place at the Pro Tour, a seriously laudable accomplishment, pays a measly $40,000, the same as many entry-level salaried jobs. (For some loose context, first place at the International DOTA 2 Championships pays over five million dollars.)
It subsequently bewilders me when people stop playing at FNMs or going to qualifier tournaments because of “poor EV.” Two weeks ago, a friend told me he was out. “It’s five dollars entry, and they give you a pack. Then if you go 3-0, you win three more packs, or ten dollars in credit. So best-case scenario, I’m paying for packs, or just buying myself more FNM entries!” What did you expect, a check? Do you receive promo cleats every time you play in your soccer league? Or a rebate on your gym membership for breaking a deadlift PR? Of course not! We only earn packs for entering tournaments because stores need to compete with each other for our precious patronage, and it works in a store’s favor to preoccupy us with EV.
Online retailers that also host events and publish articles, like StarCityGames and TCGPlayer, contribute to this unhealthy obsession with value. This obsession leads players to drop from events early and miss out on the game they came to play in the first place.
I’ve had friends who look forward to playing Magic all week, then drop from FNM after losing the first round. Why did they come? To win three booster packs? There have got to be better ways to do that, like working minimum wage for one hour. Even stranger to me is when people drive five hours to a more competitive tournament, lose the first two rounds, and then drop. In doing so, these players deny themselves a golden opportunity to test their decks and skills against competent opponents in the highly competitive environment they enjoy enough to drive five hours for.
Crumble to Dust has all but replaced Sowing Salt in Modern sideboards, and it’s time Magic players stopped sowing salt themselves. As toxic attitudes wane, the community becomes more accessible, causing an increase in players and heightened support for Modern. It’s also important to me personally that everyone feels welcome. Hopefully, other players share that view, and we can work together to rid the game we love of negativity.