Keeping It Together

As rounds come to an end in tournaments, other players who have already completed their games grow restless and so they hunt for active games to watch - sometimes for entertainment, sometimes for knowledge. First it might just be a few, and within a few minutes that few can become a small crowd of spectators; perhaps that sounds like a euphemysm for what you consider a pack of wild dogs.

If you've had less than a lot of experience in tournament settings, this might start to take its toll on you. Audible whispers heard faintly in your ear that aren't quite loud enough for your to make out - what could they be saying? Quiet laughter after a play has you questioning what you or your opponent just did.

You begin to feel slight perspiration on your hands, some flush tingling in your cheeks, less of you is focused on the board and more is wondering what everyones talking about, why your deoderant is failing you and if you've just made a huge play mistake.

Does this scenario sound familiar to any of you?

If not, let me let you into a glimpse of my past to give you a clear idea of what I'm talking about...


The following is not for the faint of heart - it includes extreme play mistakes that may cause you to become angry, embarassed or simply disgusted in my play - parental discretion is advised.

It's the Spring of 2006 - Eudemonia in Berkeley, California holds an annual Power 9 Vintage Tournament. It's a 10-Proxy tournament and the prize is a piece of power, some high-end goodies and duals, etc. The player turn-out is usually anywhere from 30 - 40 players and it can be fairly cutthroat. Well-known players are known to participate throughout the summer at each event so there's some extra expectation for me to make a name for myself.

Now that the stage is set - see me playing U/W Fish, sitting at the top table after winning my first game. I'm paired up against Tendrils Combo, but I've come prepared. I'm maindecking two Arcane Laboraory. After resolving one early game, my opponent has a hard time attempting to bounce this evil bane. Our first game takes us all the way to time as I can't seem to find any pesky creatures to swing with and with the rest of the games around us have come to an end; sitting at the winners table still on game 1, we look pretty important.

This Picture Still Haunts Me Today...
More than twenty people surround the table as best they can to observe what's going on.

He's resolved Old Man of the Sea so my Cloud of Faeries has been stolen from me. Seeing that he only has three combat phases left before we draw out, though, it's nothing I can't endure. This game should draw out pending no insane top decks from my opponent.

Throughout all of this, something is happening to me, though. I'm really being affected by all of the people surrounding the table. I've never had so many people examining my play and it's starting to bother me. I even become insecure about my non-foiled cards or my poorly proxied power, the outfit I wore today and how my hair looks. It's an elitist club, as you might imagine, and I'm an outsider. My opponent doesn't seem to be feeling the same effects though. He's a seasoned veteran and it shows.

Turn five comes and I'm holding Force of Will with Daze in hand, seeing that the Lab is on the board the game is over and we are drawing. Or are we? My opponent casts Chain of Vapor and I decide I'll counter it - but not before I cast Daze, first.

Yes, I just said that. You see, this wasn't a blatant mistake, although it was, I did this thinking there was no harm in it - I could still Force it after his one mana was tapped down. Makes sense, right? Frown The truth is, I was thinking a million random things that were completely irrelevant to the game at that time and while I watched the next 14 spells resolve before Tendrils hit the board I realized I had just failed because of the pressure.

To say the least, I was extremely disappointed with myself. I should have had a draw but instead I lost the match and a bit of my dignity in front of all of my fellow players. This loss could have been avoided - but I didn't keep it together, I lost my cool and my focus.

I've spoken with many players about this and they all agree that it's easy to lose sight of what's going on and make play mistakes when the heat is on. Everyone is different; some people can't handle the pressure of the actual game, some people can't handle the pressure of the people watching the game, and others feel as if they don't deserve to win and consistently fail when any kind of decision making takes place.

So what can you do to avoid mistakes like this? Rather, what can you do to Keep It Together?

1. Stay focused on the game. There can be many distractions while playing a game. Don't let them affect you - or remove them if they do.

For starters, no cell phones, no beepers. The last thing you need is your phone vibrating in your pocket and wondering who it is, what they want, and if it's important or not. Turn it all off, throw it in your bag, and stick to business.

Spectators are often the worst of all distractions. Never allow anyone watching the game to make you feel insecure or question your plays. Don't even look at individuals around your game - their smirks, their whispers or even laughs should mean nothing to you. Many times people will react to a play their watching and that may make you want to question what they are responding to - but don't. Who the hell are they? They may have no idea what you're up to, or what you plan to do, so don't be fooled!

If spectators are being in any way disrespectful, obnoxious, loud, or distracting, call a judge immediately - have them moved or silenced. Don't feel bad for it, either. This is your tournament life, not theirs.

2. Leave your emotions at the door. Regardless of the relations you have with your opponent, friend or foe, you cannot allow your emotions to distract you.

We all know people at our local or even regional events that might rub us the wrong way and because of that we can be distracted by the way we feel about them as a person, or player, rather than focus on the game.

The same pertains to friends. When we play against friends we tend to assume things, perhaps be almost too friendly in some cases, and this may lead to basic play mistakes simply because you were chattin' it up with a friend. Save it for after the event. You need to remember that during a match that "friend" is still your opponent and this is still a match you are both trying to win.

Magic can be just as psychological as it is strategic. I know it sounds a bit hokey, but I assure you: when a player who sits down to win plays against a player who sits down expecting to lose, the results tend to end up just this way.

So, did you come to win, or to lose?

3. Don't over-think the play. It's just as easy as it was at home with friends, so do it!

It's very easy to turn something very simple into something extremely difficult when the pressure is on. You've probably noticed that when you're practicing or casually playing, decisions come to you like second nature because there's no concern in your mind. However when you're at a tournament and your record's on the line, everything seems a lot harder, doesn't it? Don't let your nerves and stress turn something small that you've done a hundred times turn into something monumental that you're afraid to act on.

4. Make the right play. It's easy!

I know, it's not always easy - but the truth is, it can be if you simply evaluate the board and proceed correctly. Remember what Finkel said:

There is only one right play. There's no such thing as a "good play. "

If you live by this rule then you'll be able to rule out a lot of plays you might have otherwise made and always make the right play. This stems from the fact that if you allow yourself no concessions (such as "good plays") and hold yourself to perfection, you'll know to make the right play each time.

To make the right play you should always evaluate the situation at hand. Don't over-think the play (remember?), just recognize the board and do everything as you know you should. Making the right play each time leaves no room for you to regret a play mistake you make later in the game, or even the tournament for that matter.

5. Don't dwell on play mistakes. No matter how bad they were.

We all know how bad it can be when you've made a terrible play mistake, especially when others have seen it and are probably questioning what in God's name you were thinking. The truth is, though, that everyone has been there - everyone does it and everyone gets through it. It's not the end of the world, maybe just the end of that game (at worst, the end of the tournament).

Regardless, you cannot let a play mistake ruin your game, your match, or your tournament. You have to recover mentally so you can continue on. When you make a play mistake and it's apparent and public, just accept it and say it "Ya, that was a bad mistake." A lot of times being vocal and public about it can help. If the mistake is not apparent, sometimes you'll get away with it - in those cases, mentally note it and let it be.

The below is another clear example of how the pressure can get to a player - it comes from a Friday Night Magic tournament three weeks ago, and it's a sad story to read indeed. Perhaps not as sorry as my own, but they are of the same breed...

A friend of mine is sitting at the winner's table, 2-0 facing his final opponent and looking to win. This group of players is decent, but he's the better player and should be winning as he typically does. The remaining players and traders at the small tournament start to circle the final match to see who's going to be victorious this FNM and the pressure is beginning to get to my friend.

On to the game...

The opponent has passed the turn and in hand he's holding Dust Elemental. His board yields Benalish Cavalry and Castle Raptors. The opponent has a mediocre board and so there's no rush, except for maybe the tick-tock of the clock, but even that's not an issue right now.

Unfortunately, the people around him are an issue to him. He feels expectations starting to mount in his mind - they know he's the better player at the event and he's got a bomb in hand. He begins to manifest echoes of their anxious cries for the game to end in his mind and now the challenge is much less between him and his opponent and much more so against himself.

The Third Musketeer.
The distractions have taken his mind off the game and the cards themselves, so when "I pass the turn" is announced by his opponent, he decides it's time to play a card at end of turn. What could he possibly play in this situation, though? Perhaps something to bounce the opponent's creature? Nope, he plays the almighty Dust Elemental.

The surrounding players are, well, surprised and more or less embarrassed for him, I'm sure. Elemental hits the board and all three creatures return to his hand, his board is now clear and he's free to take his turn. No combat tricks, no point in this whatsoever, simply a major play mistake that ends up causing him a loss.

Had my buddy kept it together, this would not have happened, but instead distractions from onlookers broke his concentration and thus he walked away with third place instead of what should have been first.

So again you can see how losing sight of what's going on can lead to quite embarrassing losses.

I know, I'm simply telling you what to do. In fact, I'm simply telling you what you know you're supposed to do, but I'm not really explaining how you can do it that well, am I? There are a lot of ways you can calm yourself when it's game-time and you're feeling anxiety run through your body. Some may work, some may not - but they're worth a shot if the pressure has been getting to you.

In order to avoid this, I suggest trying any and/or all of the following:

- Make sure you're well-rested and well-fed for an important tournament. I've found that when you're tired you aren't able to focus as well on the game which can easily lead to mistakes. The same goes for not having some decent food in your body - and that doesn't mean a Mc-Stomacheache Value Meal, either. You shouldn't be anxious to grab some food during a match; this tends to lead to people making concessions or playing too quickly. The same goes for fatigue which tends to give people the "whatever" attitude.

- Breathe! It's just a game! Trust me, I felt guilty saying that as I take magic very seriously and many of you do, too. However, sometimes getting too worked up and too serious about a match or tournament in general can create unnecessary worries while you play. It's one thing to do your best and play your heart out, it's another to go overboard and psyche yourself out.

Sometimes what works best for people is to simply play it off like it's no big deal. This can alleviate some of the pressures of a tournament and simply allow you to have fun playing your favorite game. (No, I don't mean WoW!) If you choose to do this, be sure you don't play too loosely, though, as that may end up backfiring in your opponent's favor. Find the median.

- Practice, Practice, Practice, Experience, Experience, Experience. You may have noticed that some pro players seem quite comfortable in the spotlight and are always able to make the right plays despite spectators and large prizes at stake. This is no coincidence and most of them probably weren't born with the ability to keep their cool under pressure - they're able to do this because they've been in the same situation many times over.

Tournament experience may be the best way to overcome the butterflies in your stomach. Every tournament you participate in gets you a little bit more comfortable with the setting and gives you that much more experience to handle stressful situations appropriately. So keep attending tournaments and pushing yourself to be comfortable at the table.

An especially important thing to do is play for first place at all times. Many players will draw their final match to be nice, to guarantee their prize and DCI points - but this gets you no where in terms of high-pressure experience. Play it out and win. This is the only way you'll get better in these situations.

- Fake it. Even if you're nervous as hell inside, talk to yourself and overcome it with some self pep talk. Tell yourself you deserve to be there and you deserve to win. The person sitting in front of you is no better than you in any way unless you allow them to be - so the only question is, do you want to win or don't you?

I'm sure there are other random suggestions that might suit your personality and play type as to how you can stay focused on the game - everyone is different and we all need to find out what works best for us. The point is, you have to keep it together when it's game time if you hope to come away with prizes and, more importantly, respect in a tournament.

I really hope some of you are able to take away some ideas from this article that will help you succeed in future events. You should never lose a game of Magic because of things that have nothing to do with the actual game of Magic. Lose because you were out-played, because you had a bad matchup, or because you drew bad, but never lose to a mental hiccup.


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