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By: CZML, Cassie Mulholland-London
Dec 20 2016 12:00pm
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This week, I'm taking a break from Pauper to start a second article series. Sculpting the Mind will run at the same time as Pauper to the People, albeit probably less often. I will most likely only write one article per week, so some weeks you'll see Pauper and others you'll see Sculpting. Sculpting the Mind will focus on theory, mindset, and tournament best practices, so it's great for general improvement even if you don't play Pauper.

In order to set the stage for the topics in this article, I have to provide a bit of personal context. Don't worry, it's still gaming related. In middle and high school, I was an avid chess player. I loved the game because it was one hundred percent a game of skill and preparation. There was no luck involved, so I knew that whenever I lost, it was an opportunity to get better. I started regularly attending my school's chess club and went to tournaments with it, and my skills grew steadily. I got to a point where I was moderately competent at the local and state levels. It was during my sophomore year of high school that I ran into a problem: I wasn't getting better. My weakness was tactics--on-board tricks and traps. No matter how many puzzles or how much studying I did, I couldn't get better at them, which made it difficult to get better at the game as a whole.

My coach back then suggested I didn't spend enough time analyzing my moves and thinking through all the possible outcomes. I tried it and it worked, but it was difficult to sustain. I often found myself slipping back into playing by rote, which inevitably led to me making mistakes and losing. Nonetheless, flexing my analytical muscles, however infrequent, did result in me internalizing some concepts I had previously failed to grasp, which helped me improve at a slightly faster rate--a trickle rather than my previous drip.

I eventually grew tired of chess--mostly because I started playing Magic, which interested me even more. The deckbuilding aspect and the fact that different games of Magic played out in different ways (not because of variance so much as because of the difference in resource management between archetypes) made it more entertaining to me than chess, which was mentally stimulating but often repetitive. I only spent a few months as a casual Magic player, quickly becoming more and more interested in competitive play.

Fast forward to five years later and I have the same issues with Magic I had with chess: I struggle with relying on concrete analysis over pattern-based intuition. While my Magic intuition is significantly better than my chess intuition, as Magic is a more intuitive game overall once one internalizes the rules, I still haven't been able to consistently go beyond the IQ/PPTQ level because of my failure to analyze. The issue doesn't just extend to my in-game play, either. It also means that when I lose games, I struggle to understand why. If I made a mistake, my lack of careful analysis often makes it difficult to know where that mistake was and what I should have done better.

This issue has led to many frustrated days and a few sleepless nights, as well as contributing to me "quitting" Magic (let's be real, it was only a break. Nobody ever quits Magic). I have tried pretty much everything to get better--changing decks, sticking with a deck for a long time, changing formats, brewing. Nothing worked. Up until a few weeks ago, if I was getting better, I didn't notice it. Fortunately, I recently figured out how to correct this issue.

The primary method I use, which you can likely use as well, is establishing a focused, systematic internal monologue with myself. My big struggle with playing on autopilot is that it has a lot of inertia--once I start, it's difficult to break the pattern and switch gears to concrete analysis. Thankfully, my internal monologue often works the same way: once I start it, it's relatively easy to keep up.

Establishing an internal monologue is a less-than-concrete term, so let me elaborate. What I mean is that I start talking to myself as if I were explaining my decisions while streaming or simply justifying them to a friend who is watching, but I don't talk out loud. I keep a running monologue inside my head, making myself my own audience. This forces me to explain my decisions, which in turn forces me to have concrete reasons for those decisions.

Now, that isn't necessarily enough to help me make good decisions, which is where the systematic part comes in. In my monologue, I list all the possible lines I could take for any given decision. I won't analyze any lines that are obviously unreasonable, such as killing my own creature without provocation or making clearly horrible attacks. I cover all reasonable lines, however, and I consider how they fit into both my plan and my opponent's. This allows me to make much more thorough, well-considered decisions, which both improves my play and increases my win rate.

I feel compelled to stress that this method will not turn you into a great player overnight. What it will do is allow you to function at your personal maximum capacity, which will sharpen your decision-making considerably and will highlight your areas of opportunity with regard to improving your overall game. The point isn't always to make the right decision--that will come with time. The point is to have a concrete reason for each decision you make so that you can identify your mistakes if a situation doesn't go the way you expect. If you consistently have issues with the same type of situation, you know that you have found a hole in your game, and you can take the necessary steps to identify why it's there.

One of the benefits of establishing a monologue on Magic Online as opposed to in paper Magic is that you can narrate your decisions aloud, which I find makes it easier to think through the more complex lines. This also allows you to combine your monologue with video recording, enabling you to go back over your matches and find your mistakes. When I was playing chess, the primary way I improved was by going over records of my games and figuring out the thought processes that led to my mistakes. I think this is an underutilized aspect of Magic-related improvement, especially for players who play on Magic Online.

If you have trouble establishing an internal monologue, try streaming on Twitch or recording videos--either for yourself, for an article here on PureMTGO, or to post on YouTube. This will help you get used to the out-loud approach, which you can then internalize for your paper tournaments. Soon enough, you'll be monologuing without giving it a second thought.

One of the potential issues with establishing an internal monologue is decision fatigue. When you play Magic on autopilot, you are expending very little mental energy. Concrete analysis is the exact opposite; you end up expending a tremendous amount of energy, especially at the beginning. Fortunately, once you get used to concrete analysis as your default approach, it will not only get easier, but you will be able to make certain decisions on autopilot with absolute confidence in order to save brainpower for the more difficult decisions. If you doubt this, watch footage of Brad Nelson playing. His pace of play varies wildly: he will spend fifteen seconds on one turn and five minutes on another. This is because he knows which decisions he can make by instinct and which he has to think about. He has developed this understanding through years of practice using focused, concrete analysis. You too can get to that point if you put in the time and energy--none of us may ever be as good as Brad Nelson, but it's definitely possible to get onto the Pro Tour with enough work.

I think establishing an internal monologue is potentially the most important breakthrough I've had in my Magic career. I hope it helps you all as well. Let me know if you try it out and how it works for you!

3 Comments

I think everyone plateaus at by Paul Leicht at Wed, 12/21/2016 - 08:09
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I think everyone plateaus at chess at some point. Mostly in that inexorable gap between A level player and Expert. I blame it all on Nimzovich. (OK it's not his fault but I did get stuck on a plateau after digesting Chess Praxis for the 2nd time. I suspect for many players each real ratings jump (+200) is a huge space of not improving for a while. But there is definitely a point where it becomes work to leap to the next level.

For me, tactical was mostly the easier part of the game if not easy. The harder part was visualizing the win. Not so much about thinking ahead but seeing how the board should eventually look if I am achieving my strategic goals. I think that's not as easy to translate in Magic whereas tactical thinking is. As to intuitiveness, I see that as different than playing "by rote". If you know a line thoroughly, you might skip some steps mentally in an intuitive like way but you are still playing by rote. That's called "chunking" if I recall correctly. But to be intuitive you need to make a leap without complete information (a constant tension in MTG) and that I think is only learned by playing and experiencing the possibilities. Your Rote knowledge helps a lot with that but it is an underpinning to the leap rather than the muscle. What powers you forward is your imagination and discipline.

The most interesting thing I got from this article is the idea of breaking your routine by developing a counter-routine, internally. I definitely think to surpass your limitations controlling your mindset is key. Being positive is part of it of course but being able to instruct yourself on how to properly pilot without letting it go to automation is a bigger part. I think you could really flesh this out with examples and getting inside that thought process for your readers to witness what you mean in detail.

Also I think where your use of intuition might come into play more than any other part of the game is the use of time, as you mentioned with Brad Nelson. That *knowing* when to slow down/speed up can't be taught. It must be intuited through experience. Just as Blitz players know how to play the clock, so too, magic players need to even if there is no timer in front of you waiting to be hit.

internal monologue by stsung at Wed, 12/21/2016 - 10:08
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note: I'm not someone using intuition. I'm someone who sees a decision tree and tries to decide what is the right play at the right moment with having a goal in mind. I'm saying this because my flatmate is the right opposite and his thought processes are totally different but he comes to the same conclusions as me often.

I think that playing on auto-pilot is fine sometimes^_^, saves energy. The definition of playing on auto-pilot might come handy as well. I know this is something that should be clear but what does that mean? For me it does not necessarily mean that one does not think about what he's doing, usually the player just does what seems to be the best play under similar conditions. But what if you play a deck you don't know? can you play on auto-pilot?

I think the internal dialogue or rather monologue needs to address few more things. It's more about knowing when to stop and think and when it is not necessary and also take your opponent in that equation (and all the relevant information. (I'll ignore Paul's part about visualizing the win for now). When I was playing 100CS I used to think very hard during my first turn. It usually took me about 1-2 minutes to actually play my first land. Many players just played a land and said go. I couldn't since I was running a 4 or 5 color deck and I needed to figure out which is the right combination of lands and possibilities how to fetch the lands. Because this also had to line up with my ideal or possible game plan. Many trying to play my deck usually ended up color screwed and deemed the mana base bad, but it was their decision to fetch those lands that resulted in their loss. Often the deck required to play two fetchlands and simply wait for a third land so I could make the right decision. Cracking those fetches and playing a card that was susceptible to die anyway wasn't the best play because it could have easily 'bricked' me for the rest of the game.

Lately when I played in few PPTQs I also had to stop and think on turn 1. I did not need that at local FNMs since I just 4-0ed without even much thinking (Emrakul was good enough to ruin everyone's day), and I was rather observing what my deck can do since I wasn't the one who came up with it. (I was too preocuppied by reading what all the cards do). At the PPTQ it was different, sitting across a former pro. It was me who had to navigate through the game and if possible win. Seeing my opener I thought my brain would burst. I was on BG Delirium and my hand featured a fetchland (erm Evolving Wilds), Hissing Quagmire, Forest, Tireless Tracker and Vessel of Nascency. There were several things I started to wonder about. How important is Vessel of Nascency? Should I play it turn 1 and possibly crack it turn 2? What land should I play first? Quagmire? Evolving Wilds? I decided to ignore Vessel of Nascency because I usually can have 3 different card types in my graveyard the missing ones usually land that I had in my hand and Enchantment that I had there as well. If I would play Wilds I could possibly get it back with Grapple with the Past if I were in need of land which was most probably going to happen. If I would keep it I could get two clues from Tracker. But still I would have to wait till turn 4 and draw additional land. I have seen many scenarios but I couldn't decide which was better. No internal dialogue could have helped me with it. Only experience could have given me the answer but I was too lazy to pay attention to such situations in the previous tournaments.
When I played against another former Pro being on BG Delirium, he did not even consider what I describe above and just started with Hissing Quagmire. (he was in the same situation because some spectator decided to comment on his hand). He just continued playing while keeping one thing in mind - greed. This way he got most out of his Tracker and Vessel of Nascency later but it was not necessarily the best what he could have done against some decks. I was about to win the game but then his top decked Emrakul decided the game and all I could do was show a sad face and scoop. Anyway I brought my original thoughts from round 1 up because I really wanted to see what others would tell me about it. I knew I was the least experienced Standard player there. But I also knew that I was hardly the worst player there. The players stared at me in wonder at first and then a heated debate started and no one had an answer.
While I was progressing through the tournament I decided to keep it simple. I tried to envision what my role possibly is in the matchup and hopefully I was right sometimes^_^ This helped me see how I want to win. Often it came down to few things - how much removal is important (side removal out against mirror), how much early drops are important (not much against UW Flash for example, because one needs to have delirium and land Ishkanah), how important is Emrakul in the match up translating into do I want Mindwreck Demons in my deck (yes if Emrakul is needed)?. After figuring this I could envision a path to victory and this made all my decisions way easier. Since I had NO idea about this round 1, I couldn't even see the right line of play. So I just picked one and knew I would have to bear the consequences.

What is needed is to ask the question 'why do I do it'? 'Does it makes sense'? Many players actually struggle with this and often ignore the fact why OPPONENT DID something. I used an example from a Vintage Daily recently somewhere (in my report I think). My opponent Forced my Delver of Secrets. That is something that does not happen often (Delver is not a threat for many blue decks). Even though I asked myself why my opponent did that I did not come up with an answer. Many players do not even ask this question when they see a player do something odd. Often they just think 'that player just made a mistake'. But what if the play wasn't a mistake? If I would have been awake enough to figure out an answer I would have known that I'm facing a deck running Tendrils of Agony. If my Stax opponent from P9C would have thought why I let Ensnaring Bridge resolve or why I played my Mox and not kept it in hand he might have figured what I fear or what cards I have in my hand (or just outright think I'm stupid).

Maybe I wasn't really clear in conveying my thoughts but this is something to consider. Internal dialogue is certainly a good thing but has many ifs. You could describe the factors that actually play a role. I came up with many already and could write an article about every single one of them. You obviously are aware of them too but you should make it clear to the readers of this article and also give some examples people would understand or rather see your thought process. Seeing this is invaluable information. I'm quite stubborn and have my own point of view on things but I knowing how others think is something I've very interested in. I like to observe players play and see where they aim. This way you can also sway them and earn and edge in the game. Give the readers more insight to your thoughts similarly to what I did above (or in some of my reports or other articles).

ugh...um...get my point?

BTW: while I stream I can't even concentrate on what I do in a game of Magic...it certainly is a good exercise and is probably helpful in some way, but it is very different from playing normally. but maybe I'm an exception :-)

Thanks! by CZML at Wed, 12/21/2016 - 13:09
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Thanks for your responses, guys! Or should I say essays?

Paul: Yeah, chunking is different from playing on intuition. They are both forms of playing on autopilot, but chunking is like what I described Brad Nelson as doing. I didn't make that distinction as concretely as you did, and I should have.

I've found that habits are much easier to break if you can rewrite them rather than simply just deleting them. Doing nothing is often harder than doing something productive, at least for me.

Stsung: I definitely agree that playing on autopilot is helpful with regard to saving energy/avoiding fatigue. I think that only really applies to "chunking," as Paul described it, rather than playing with blind intuition.

In general, I define playing on blind intuition as playing based on abstract pattern recognition rather than concrete analysis. This often manifests for me in two ways: blindly maximizing my mana usage and grouping cards based on functional fixedness. For the former, I will simply figure out how to best utilize all my mana rather than figuring out how to best further my game plan even if that means leaving some mana unused. I think this is a fairly common mistake PPTQ-players make. As far as functional fixedness goes, in Pauper, if I have a Glint Hawk in hand and a 2-CMC artifact in play and three lands, if I am playing by intuition, I will almost always play Hawk, bounce the artifact, and then replay the artifact, because it's the Hawk's job to draw me a card combined with the artifact. If I am analyzing concretely, I will find those situations where it is correct to bounce the artifact and then play other spells to the board (usually two removal spells or a removal spell plus a Thraben Inspector).

My overall focus was on why the practice is useful and how to get into the habit of it rather than on the specific factors to talk yourself through. A large part of that is because different people approach situations differently, and I don't think a certain approach (a certain ordering of the factors or having different factors on the list, for example) is necessarily better than any other. I mainly wanted to give readers the tools to implement the practice of an internal monologue and let them apply it to their personal approach to the game. I do agree that there are some universal factors that everyone should consider, and I'll probably do another article on those soon.