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How to Make "Luck" Useful

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Hey everyone!

For some time, I've been wanting to write an article about a topic that I consider very important in Magic and at the same time overlooked, or at least not talked about the way it should be. Since Standard seems fairly stable now (the top 16 of the latest SCG Open featured only four non-B/G Delirium, non-U/W Flash decks and even these were mostly not particularly innovative) and Modern just received in-depth coverage at the World Magic Cup, the time seems right for that just now.

The topic is probably very well known to everybody who has ever played Magic - all of us who are not machines (so excluding the hidden Cylons among us) have felt happy when we won because of a miraculous topdeck and frustrated when we just couldn't draw that fourth land to lock the win and instead lost, stuck with uncastable game winning spells in hand. I think that it's also well known that instead of complaining and blaming bad luck, we should focus on playing well. And still, the vast majority of players is prone to feeling bad when they think they're unlucky and have this feeling affect the way they play. Recently, I've seen several talented young players in my area being held back by the fact that they see the game through the prism of good or bad luck. So today, I'd like to offer more than the usual piece of advice "don't let luck distract you": a way how to change your mindset, how to nurture a different approach to the whole phenomenon of luck in Magic. To a big extent, all this is based on my own experience with how emotions affect my plays and how I've learnt (and am still learning) to deal with it.

The first time I started realizing that I might want to reconsider how I deal with luck (mostly of the bad kind) was actually several years ago. For the past couple of years, I've been in a position where I play less than I used to. I still play on a weekly basis, try out new decks I'm interested in, read a lot of articles and follow the newest trends in the world of Magic, but since I graduated from university in 2012, I've never been able to find just as much time as before and have never been grinding and learning mostly from the mistakes I make. But not making the mistakes in practice games means that I frequently make these mistakes at tournaments and get angry with myself. And there's more to this. Also, since playing in a Magic tournament is now part of my free time, which is increasingly scarce, losing because of bad luck feels a lot more frustrating than when I used to have all the free time in the world. Before, losing a crucial round of a tournament just meant that soon there would be another tournament where I could try again. Now, every time I do badly (because of my own mistakes, bad luck or both), I can't help but think "What am I doing here? Shouldn't I be spending my free time in a different way?". Again, this boosts my frustration, because it's not so easy to swallow. I'm writing all this just to show why I felt the need to think more about the concept of luck, but perhaps some of you might be in a similar position and know the feeling that I'm talking about.

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After a lot of thinking (and trying to control my emotions during tournaments), I came to several realizations that I'm now trying to put to good use. First of all, the essential thing is to understand that good and bad luck are just concepts, just names we give to a sequence of cards stacked in a random order. Is drawing three lands in a row good luck or bad luck? By itself, it's neither - calling it this or that is just giving it emotional meaning which it has for us, but it doesn't mean anything for the "mathematical" logic of the game. When we care about good or bad luck, we just project our attitude into that particular game, but that's something which doesn't help at all when trying to play well. In fact, it hurts us every time we do it - thinking about good or bad luck just distracts us from what we really should be thinking about - the optimal line of play. On one hand, it's logical that we try to put labels on the games, because that's what creates stories - and seeing a game through the prism of a story gives it some "sense". Most people wouldn't find talking about sequence of numbers (which a game of Magic essentially is) enjoyable. Getting luck involved means we project emotions into the sequence and turn it into a story - we say what's good and what's bad. If creating stories is what playing games of Magic is for you, feel free to think about luck and get distracted. It's similar to letting flavor affect the way you play. I know people who would make certain plays because they think they're flavorful. Granted, these people are not very competitive, but if flavor is what they care about, there's nothing wrong with that. However, if you want to improve your game, you shouldn't take flavor into account at all during the games, just like you shouldn't think about good or bad luck. The only difference is that what we interpret as "luck" directly affects whether we won or lost, which makes it harder to ignore. However, if we accept that variance is part of the game and that not all games are winnable, it can have a dramatic impact on how well we play. This doesn't mean not trying to win games that seem lost, but quite on the contrary: trying to find the best way out of every situation regardless of what has preceded it (not drawing the land you needed, etc.).

Acknowledging bad luck as such will result in you being aggrieved after losses that came from the cards not cooperating, and in general will leave you feeling depressed or tilted whenever you lose. I think that there is an important distinction between caring whether you win or lose and being frustrated by your losses. If you accept the losses that are inevitable, it doesn't mean you don't want to win, but it means you "cross them out" in your mind from the list of potential wins. The approach that I have right now is to try to win all the games that are winnable. If I go 3-3 in a tournament and I'm positive that there was nothing I could have done about two of my losses, I try to look at the result as if it was a "3-1" record instead of 3-3. This is a bit tricky, because often, the things we can do to win a game go a lot deeper than it would seem at first glance. Even a game that seems unwinnable could actually have been won if we had chosen a deck that was better positioned in the metagame, or if we were better prepared with our sideboard. Mulliganing into oblivion and losing as a result certainly is something you can't influence, but you can play a more consistent deck rather than one which has a ton of unkeepable hands for example. "Eliminating" unwinnable games from how you see tournaments can help you get a more healthy perspective of things, but at the same time, it can be misleading and an excuse to blame luck rather than other factors, so be careful with it and - above all - be honest with yourself.

I'd say that the difference between me now and a couple of years ago is that back then, when I registered for a tournament, what was mostly on my mind was to do well enough that I could feel good about it (winning a FNM, finishing in the top 8 of a bigger tournament, etc.), while today, I try to be more analytical, try to take the result as something I can learn from and I'm prepared for the possibility of variance and play errors affecting the result. There's a saying "hope for the best, be prepared for the worst", which I think describes this attitude fairly well. Or, to put it in a different way, I'm more interested in how the games play out than how they finish. As long as I'm happy with how I played, I'll try to feel good even with a finish that doesn't meet my expectations, because in the long run, this is what produces the best results. I'd say that I'm trying to shift my "drive" from doing well to playing well - and these two are not always connected. We hear all the time that being driven and focused on winning is necessary for doing well, but I don't think that's completely accurate. Yes, you do have to be self-confident if you want to win, you must believe that you have what it takes to win a tournament, but that doesn't mean getting frustrated when you lose. It's very common that people mistake "wanting to win" for "feeling that you deserve to win". And while the first basically means "not being lazy" - either when preparing for the tournament or during the games - the second often translates into distracting the person by negative emotions when variance doesn't work their way. I know a handful of cases where a player won a major tournament after a really bad start. The 2007 Czech national champion won the tournament after a 0-2 start, ironically bouncing off of the young Lukas Blohon at the 0-2 table. I don't know how Lukas dealt with the 0-3 start, but his opponent - Thomas Langer - managed to stay focused and keep winning until there was no more winning left to be done. I think that many people wouldn't be able to keep playing their best after such a bad start.

I've mentioned before that I know some players who actively hurt their chances of winning by letting what they see as "luck" affect their perspective. So what are the most common mistakes in the attitude?

The most common - and likely also dangerous - mistake is probably the one that comes from the feeling of being mistreated by luck. It either applies to people who think they deserve to win (because they are the best, duh) or to the ones who feel that because they were unlucky once, it can't happen for the second time in a row. Obviously. both of these mindsets are wrong and they lead directly to making a lot of mistakes: not mulliganing a two-lander on the play, because if it didn't work out last time, it has to now (no, statistics don't work that way). Relying on a topdeck when you can take a safer route, just because the opponent topdecked like crazy and luck owes you some topdeck too (no, it doesn't). Playing right into the opponent's trick because they "can't have the perfect answer again" (of course they can). All of these are examples of how looking at an in-game situation through the prism of luck can cloud your reasoning, which would work in a completely different way if you ignored what happened before and just focused on the game right there and then. And all of these situations happen all the time. So if you're, by any chance, a person who tends to think along these lines, please don't. Variance doesn't owe anyone anything, and the only person you hurt by thinking it does, is yourself.

That's it from me for today. I hope that you found this topic interesting and perhaps that the article made you think about how you deal with the issue of luck yourself. I know some people who take this very well, some who tilt way more than they should and some who are too relaxed about losing, to the point that they don't care enough about winning. The best approach is somewhere in the middle and I hope that I managed to explain my reasoning for the mindset I think is the best. 

Thanks for reading and see you next time with a more "Standard" article again!

Adam

Adam Koska
Adam Koska

About Adam Koska

Adam is an experienced player from the Czech Republic who has a number of high-profile finishes under his belt:

  • 14th at Pro Tour Portland 2014
  • 9th at Worlds 2009
  • 9th at Pro Tour Kyoto 2009
  • 64 Lifetime Pro Points
  • Three times Czech Nationals Top 8
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