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By: oraymw, Matthew Watkins
May 19 2010 12:58am
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On Losing

I had an important realization about the game of Magic when I looked up the win percentages of players on the Hall of Fame. Here are the win percentages of six of those players: Jon Finkel, 63.39 %; Kai Budde, 62.86%; Olivier Ruel, 61.97%; Zvi Moshowitz, 58.58%; Tsuyoshi Fujita, 58.53%; Antoine Ruel, 57.72%. These are some of the best Magic players ever, and their win percentages hover around 60%. Keep in mind that this win percentage is on the Pro Tour, so it doesn’t accurately reflect their play against regular Magic players, but it does reflect their win percentage in high stakes environments. The fact of the matter is that for about every six matches they win, they lose four. When I saw this, I realized that to become good at Magic, I need to be just as good at losing as I was at winning.
Because Magic is a game with random elements and hidden information, there is a good chance that you could lose any given game, even against inferior players with inferior decks. Sometimes you just don’t draw lands, sometimes you draw too many, sometimes your opponent gets a lucky top deck, and sometimes you made what would have been the best decision in all but 1% of the possible situations. But most importantly, sometimes you just make mistakes. Many Magic players do not see any opportunity in defeat. They see their losses as simply a factor of bad luck, or they get angry at losing, or they say that your deck was just a net deck, or any other number of things. But they don’t want to examine themselves for a flaw that may have led to failure. Often, they are willing to look critically at the factors that led to their win, but they are not willing to look critically at the factors that led to their loss. The key problem is that they only see value in victory.
            However, a truly competitive Magic player needs to be able to find victory even in defeat. For this kind of player, the true goal is a mastery over his or her own game play. In order to gain this mastery, a player needs to see every game as an opportunity to improve, whether it is a win or a loss. Once I saw this, I decided to take a more critical approach to my results. Because of this, I am now able to learn from 100% of my games, rather than only from the ones that I win. This means that I am going to be getting better about twice as quickly (or more) than the people that I play against. While the edge this gave me at first was marginal, it has led to a very pronounced gap between my ability and that of the average Magic player. Learning “how to lose” results in a dramatic increase in learning, which makes a player more capable of winning, and the key to capitalizing on your defeats comes from being positive in the face of defeat, taking responsibility for your own decisions, and reviewing your game play with a critical eye.
Being positive
When you lose, you usually feel a strong sense of frustration. Frustration itself is not the enemy, but uncontrolled frustration often leads to anger, fear, and aggression. The Dark Side are these. The first thing that you need to do when you feel this frustration is calm down, and there are actually scientific reasons behind this.  Strong emotions such as those above are triggered by stress. Stress is not necessarily bad; it can help you make correct decisions if harnessed correctly, and it can be the impetus to do something outside your comfort zone. But, stress is an enemy of learning. When you lose, it isn’t time to be stressed any longer. It is time to start taking advantage of your loss, and to start learning.
            Recent scientific research has found that the ideal state for learning is when the brain is relaxed and focused. Scientists have taken to calling this state the Alpha State. When you are in this state, you are receptive to new information, your brain is better able to assimilate new information and experiences into what you have already learned, and your brain is better able to store this information for later retrieval. Essentially, being in this state helps you look at a situation objectively, learn what you need to know, and then be better able to recall this information when you need it.

            Here is a trick to calming down. The most important time to use this is after you lose a match, but it is also helpful after you win, so that you can focus on the most important things. First, close your eyes. Then, take a deep breath, not in your chest, but in your abdomen. Let the deep breath fill your lungs all the way to the bottom, and then exhale slowly. This sends lots of oxygen into your system and your blood cells, and it helps your heart decelerate. This also helps your body stop producing adrenaline, which allows your body to become more relaxed. If you need to, take another deep breath and let it out slowly. This will help you calm down, and it makes your brain better able to respond with reason instead of passion.

Another key to being positive after losing is to be gracious in your loss. This means having good manners. For example, whenever I lose a match, I take a deep breath, and then I offer my opponent a “good game.” It doesn’t matter if I lost because I took a mulligan to three, or got mana-screwed, or my opponent got a lucky top deck. Whatever. What matters is that I have good manners, and I offer my opponent a good game, because this helps me more than my opponent.
            There are a few benefits from doing this. First, it makes it easier to look at a loss in a positive light. Secondly, it helps show respect for your opponent’s decisions. Plenty of people have cursed me because I was lucky in drawing three removal spells in a limited game, but what they don’t realize is that I worked hard to have lots removal spells in my deck. Offering a good game allows you to think about what your opponent did correctly. Thirdly, it helps you develop friendships. I have made several friends on Magic Online simply by doing this, especially when things go really poorly for me. I might say good game, and sometimes my opponent will come back and say, “Looks like you were just unlucky. I am really sorry about that.” And then I tell them that they still played well and didn’t let me come back from my unlucky situation. Soon, we are having a nice chat about the format or about Magic or life in general, and then I have another buddy added to my list.

While good manners should be its own reward, there are actually several ways that it can benefit you personally as well as improve your game play. It can let you get more information about why your opponent made a decision the way they did, and it helps with networking. People who get along with others are better able to get their feedback on decisions, which leads to better game play.
            Finally, another key part of staying positive is to see defeat as an opportunity. Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Those who are able to lose graciously and stay positive often find that losing is hardly of consequence. Losing gives you an opportunity to look at your game critically and figure out what decisions you made wrong.

            One important part of turning defeat into an opportunity is to gather as much information as possible. For example, if you are playing against an opponent and your defeat is inevitable, it is sometimes tempting to just concede and get on to the next game. But, if you keep playing, you may be able to draw out a little more information from your opponent. Perhaps you will be able to see more of the cards in your opponent’s deck, and know what to plan for. You might see something that you have a good sideboard card for. You might see some little quirks in their deck that are different from the typical net deck. These little bits of information might not seem like much, but you never know when you are going to get that kernel of information that will make all the difference. Another good tool online is the game replay feature. Sometimes it is difficult to open up a replay of a game where you lost horribly, but you will usually learn more from replays where you lose than from those where you win.

            In any case, the first step after losing is to stay positive. Let the loss roll off your back. Everyone loses at Magic sometimes; it is just part of the game. The second step is to take responsibility for your decisions.
Taking responsibility
            One of the greatest symptoms of a player unable to learn from losing is the one who blames their losses on luck. These players are perfectly fine with claiming that their wins are a result of skill, but whenever they lose, it is because they got dumped on by the universe. This is taking the easy road. It is far easier and more comfortable to blame all losses on some outside force that controls all the luck in the universe. It’s not their fault that they lost! Luck, or fate, or the universe decreed that they should lose ahead of time. They didn’t have any choice in the matter. They have no fault; therefore, they have no responsibility. This is a sign of a poor loser giving themselves a pat on the back. “Of course I am awesome. I only lose when I am unlucky.”

Unfortunately for them, these players have a skewed view of reality. Magic is a game of chance and hidden information. In any such game, there is a certain element of luck that affects the outcome of every match. It would be easy for any player to say that their losses are purely the result of luck. Yet, good players consistently perform well in the face of the random elements. The truth is that skill in Magic is the ability to reduce the effect of random chance and hidden information. With every decision, a good player is trying to alter the odds in his or her favor. That is why these players seem to be able to rip exactly the card that they need to, or why they seem to know exactly what is in their opponent’s hand. They make enough correct decisions to tip the balance in their favor.
            Another factor that makes players unable to see past the effect of luck is that humans naturally notice the patterns of negatives. It is easier for me to see a pattern in the way my opponent’s always pull the right cards then it is for me to see a pattern when I pull the correct cards. This is the essence of Murphy’s Law, which says that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” This is actually a symptom of the nature of humans to easily find patterns in negatives. This is why it seems that every time you wash your car, it just rains the next day. It is easier for you to notice the times when it does than the times when it doesn’t. This affects Magic players when they believe that the “shuffler” has it out for them because they always seem to get the wrong cards or any other time when they can only find negative patterns.

Once a player has the presence of mind to choose to look at a loss positively, the next thing they need to do is stop blaming luck and take responsibility for their own decisions. Even the best Magic players tend to make several mistakes throughout a tournament, and the vast majority of Magic players make at least one or two bad decisions in every game. Taking responsibility means accepting the fact that your decisions led to your loss, and then looking at those decisions critically. Improvement requires that you stop blaming luck and start focusing on your decisions. Take the time to see any mistakes that you made, and try to learn what caused you to make that decision and why.
            Your goal in any Magic game should be to make as many correct decisions as possible. Remember that decisions are more important than results. If you win a game, but you made 17 mistakes during the game, then the match was a failure, especially if you do not learn from what you did. If you lose a game, but you made 0 incorrect decisions, then that game was a resounding success.

            After learning not to blame luck for results, there is another essential lesson. It’s this: Learn how to blame luck again. Luck is a heavy element in the game of Magic. If Magic was purely a game of skill, then the best players in the world would not have a win percentage of 60%, they would win much more often. Some players have the tendency to go too far in looking for their mistakes, and they start to see mistakes where there weren’t any, simply because their decision led to bad results.

            But the real secret to taking responsibility is that you aren’t really taking responsibility for your results. You are taking responsibility for your decisions. Sometimes you make a play that is the correct decision in 99% of the cases, but your opponent happens to draw the one card that can save them. Sometimes your opponent will make an incredibly risky move that will pay off; although it wouldn’t work in most cases. Because there is so much random and hidden information in Magic, you cannot anticipate the outcome of ever situation. When this happens, it is important to analyze whether you made the correct decisions based on the information that you had, compared to the most likely outcomes. If you made the right decision, then that is all that is really important. If luck really was the reason why you lost, if you just got bad beats, then go ahead and blame the results on luck. But, remember to look at the decisions you made and figure out whether they were correct. Finding a balance between blaming luck and blaming yourself is a skill that takes a lifetime to master.
Critical review
            In order to figure out this balance, and to learn any other important skills in Magic, is to review your game play with a critical eye. This means that you need to review your game play, and work out what the correct decisions are. This requires you to review your games and keep some kind of record of what you do. It also means going to other people for feedback. But most importantly, it means taking the time to think about the game and figure out the why behind your decisions and your opponent’s decisions, and why these decisions lead to certain results.

            For any magic player to review his or her game play, it is necessary to keep some kind of record. We can go into different kind of record keeping for Magic purposes later, but for now, here are a few ways. First, Magic Online has the option of watching game replays. Watching a game replay is probably the most beneficial form of review. It allows a player to look at each decision with more time and with a better understanding of the overall concept, in a less stressful time where learning is easier. For limited, Magic Online also has a draft recorder. You have to turn the recorder on in the settings, and then you can find a text file in the drafts subfolder of the Magic Online folder. It records each pack, and the pick for each pack. For testing a metagame, I keep a spreadsheet that documents my experiences against certain matchups. After tournament games, I make a brief set of notes about the game, which is very useful because it forces me to process a match critically very soon after the match is over. Keeping a record allows you to compile a set of results over time, which helps you find patterns and analyze your decisions in an appropriate context.

            Another part of critical review is getting feedback from other Magic players. There are lots of people in the Magic community who are willing to help build up other players, and this is because we have found that helping other people improve their game teaches us how to play better and gives us more support when we need to get feedback. The first, and perhaps the best recourse for feedback, is to ask your opponent. Your opponent knows your games better than anyone else will, and they will have more insight into what they were thinking about certain plays that either one of you may have made. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to be polite to your opponents.

            Also, when you have kept records of your game play, it makes it so that you can turn to your friends for help. Maybe you can let them look at your game replays, and ask what they would do in a similar situation. Maybe you can show them your notes from your games, or discuss your draft picks with them. The most important thing is to reach out to other people and get their opinion. Use the internet; go to the Wizards forums and post your deck lists there and ask for feedback. When I take notes on my drafts, I post those notes online and allow people to give me feedback, which has given me a lot of insight into different limited formats.

            However, whenever you are getting advice from other people, remember to take it with a grain of salt. No Magic player has a perfect understanding of the game; all of our perceptions are skewed by our experiences. Just because someone says something, even if they are a very good player, does not mean that it is true.

            Finally, the most important skill that you can apply to your losses is to just take the time to think about what happened. This means making an actual commitment to improving your game play. Each Magic player has to decide whether he or she really wants to improve, and if so, that player needs to think about their decisions and how to improve them. Some people don’t have that much time to commit to the game, and that is fine, but remember that you cannot truly improve without some kind of commitment.

            When you are thinking about the game, remember to react with reason instead of passion. Don’t just accept your gut instincts. Ask yourself why you lost, why a certain card was good, or why it was bad, or why your opponent made a certain decision, or why you did. They key to critical analysis is to ask why. The more you ask yourself why, the faster your game play will improve.
Losing is hard, I won’t deny it. I don’t like losing any more than the next person. Something about human nature makes us hate losing. But the fact is that you are going to lose, and in a game like Magic, with randomness and hidden information, you are going to lose a lot more often than you like. Take that opportunity to improve our game. Keep your perspective and remember that this is just a game. Take responsibility for the decisions that led to a loss. And remember to review your game play with a critical eye. The Magic player who can do this will find a victory in every defeat, and these Magic players will find a significant advantage over other players who cannot see past the sourness of a defeat to find the opportunity that is always within their grasp.


Yikes. by oraymw at Wed, 05/19/2010 - 02:37
oraymw's picture

Wow. That went up faster than I expected. I was expecting it to take at least a week to go through. Better not post my next one too soon.

Funny when I read your last by Paul Leicht at Wed, 05/19/2010 - 01:24
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Funny when I read your last article I was thinking there should be one titled as this one is.

Good work, just like your by The D.K. at Wed, 05/19/2010 - 02:24
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Good work, just like your article on winning. I agree that losing helps make a better player when you take the time to learn from your mistakes.

Nice article and I mostly by LOurs at Wed, 05/19/2010 - 08:18
LOurs's picture

Nice article and I mostly agree on the points you wrote about. A deck playtest is the basis of any comptetive building attempt. This is not a random fact : you put your deck in every possible situations and see how it works. And, by far, the most important matchup analyzis are the loss analysis. Just because doing that, you will know how to optimize answers to your worst MU. Once again, to loose is the basis of the competitive spirit. If you never tasted the loose, you will never appreciate the win as it should be.

Firstly, a question : you said "Here are the win percentages of six of those players"
That is pretty interesting but could you precise if these pourcentages are based on 'round wins' or 'match wins' ? This is important because match wins pourcentages are strongly more interesting than round wins as it takes count of the SBing skills (a dredge player in a heavy "hatedredge" meta could get a nice round wins pourcentage as the 1st round is often an auto-win although he also could get a bad match wins pourcentage ... Pretty important for the analysis.
Secondly I would add something to your article : to identify good & bad decisions is the key of the analyzis. That seems simple when written, but it is much more difficult than we could expect it to be. A bad decision is a bad analyzis of the current situation involving a bad card play/a bad block ... ok. But to be sure that it was a bad decision, you also need to know what impact would have provided the other spell at your disposal at this moment AND which answers your opponent could have provided. That is why it is pretty important to share informations with the opponents : to be sure to well read the situation.

Just a comment about this article : for the next time, I would prefer to read articles with a bit more pictures ... 4 balls anyway

Thanks for the comments. As by oraymw at Wed, 05/19/2010 - 14:40
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Thanks for the comments.

As for the win %, that is the Match win %.

As for the pictures, I understand, and I was working on it, but I had some hardware problems, which I am working on getting fixed. Not sure exactly what the problem is yet, but my computer gets all psycho on me about pictures. I did have about 10 pictures to go along with the article, but I just couldn't get things to work, and I thought this article would take longer to go through, so I just submitted it anyways.

Next time, I take a break from the General strategy stuff to discuss RoE Limited, and then I will be talking about Resource Management.

You don't really need to by Paul Leicht at Wed, 05/19/2010 - 17:05
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You don't really need to supply them yourself and the easiest thing to do is just place (pic=Card Name) in various points of your article to a) emphasize a particular paragraph or just to break the wall of text and maybe add some aside humor or commentary. In addition there is plenty of stuff online magic related that you can search for using google. Again no need to involve your own machine. Just make sure the hosts are OK with you linking to their graphics.