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By: spg, spg
Sep 17 2009 11:05am
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Explorations #41 - On Focus

A while ago I wrote an article called Importance vs Urgency.  I think that this is probably the best article I've written, and it's certainly the most useful one.  If you haven't read it yet, then I'd really recommend that you do so - the prioritization model described is something that I can't imagine living without.  I'm not just talking about Magic here, or even games - I'm talking about life in general.

I'm a big fan of applying the thinking that I utilize in my daily life to Magic.  Magic is a fantastic platform to explore a huge number of strategic and tactical processes. As complicated as Magic is, it's not nearly as complicated as life.  In a lot of ways this makes it a great microcosm testbed for different thoughts, theories, and processes.

Thinking about Magic in terms of importance vs urgency has not only significantly increased my awareness of what's going on during your average game, but has also given me a deeper understanding of this model that I use in my every day life.

If you are interested in maximizing the long-term output of your efforts, then it's extremely important to avoid the allure of urgent tasks and instead focus on the important ones.  This sounds really simple and obvious, once you've grasped the basics of the theory - but it's not as easy as you would think.

If you're up to it, then try this exercise some day at work: at the beginning of your day, create a list of tasks and then ONLY spend your time on important tasks.  Do not allow a single urgent task to slip into your day.  Don't check dailymtg.com, no checking last night's baseball scores, and no goofing around with your buddies at work.  All that you're allowed to do is spend your time on tasks that carry a real importance behind them.

If you attempt this exercise, expect to realize two different things: first you'll be astonished at how much you can accomplish, and secondly you'll be amazed at how difficult it is to actually stay on task.  It's extremely difficult in this situation to maintain your focus.  I'm sure you all know this feeling.  You start off on task and getting things done, then out of nowhere something else pops into your head and before you know it this outside thought has completely taken over your head.

Thankfully, there are a number of things that we can do to improve our focus/concentration.  I'm going to discuss a bunch of different tactics below, which range from knowledge and awareness through to specific actions that you can take in order to help improve your focus.  This batch of information is designed to capacity for concentration both in Magic and in life, with some added info about MTGO's unique set of challenges.

As a quick disclaimer, the information below is something I've put together based on my own experiences plus a whole bunch of reading that I've done.  If you check out the appendix at the end of this article, I've included some reading material to check out if you're hungry for more information.

Let's get down to it.  Want to learn how to improve your focus?  Here's some advice I can offer you.

Always Aim High

High Tide

This meta-rule may seem obvious, but it can be surprising how often it is overlooked.  Your goal is every single game of Magic is flawless play.  Your goal at all times is complete focus and concentration.  Strive for absolute (and impossible) perfection in order to achieve maximum results.

Having a goal that is fundamentally impossible to achieve in the real world like this really helps to increase your practical output.  Think about taking a test in school.  Does it make any sense at all to shoot for a C on a test?  No, you go for the 100%!  If you're interested in improving yourself then it's unbelievably important to decide that your goal is flawless perfection.

Of course you'll never achieve perfection, but that isn't the point.  The point is that this is the way to get as close as possible.

Reduce External Distractions

Solitary Confinement

The most universal piece of advice that comes up whenever someone is interested in improving their concentration is probably this straightforward gem: remove as many external distractions as possible.

While playing real-life competitive Magic, it's almost impossible to make any headway in the reduction of external distractions.  Anyone who has gone into the tank to figure out the ideal block towards the end of a crucial game three with half of the players milling around awaiting the next round can attest to this fact.  Good luck getting those guys to keep it quiet, unless you're in the top eight.  Many players end up bringing headphones in an effort to somewhat standardize the external distractions, I guess this is better than dealing with random conversations - but it still isn't great.

Magic Online is a whole different beast in this regard.  Theoretically it's much much easier to reduce external distractions.  I often play Magic Online on my laptop while sitting in bed next to my sleeping girlfriend.  That's a whole lot less busy and noise than a room full of restless gamers, right?  Well sure, except for the fact that I also have access to a web browser just one click away.  I've also got a television that's one button-press away, and a whole horde of other available distractions.

MTGO provides a lot of excuses to not focus, but also gives a unique opportunity to focus.  If you are really interested in reducing the external distractions then you should be able to get it done.  Close the web-browser, turn off the TV.  Keep all of your attention pointed directly at the task at hand in order to maximize your output.

Understand What You Are Trying to Accomplish

Careful Study

Magic involves a gigantic amount of information to process.  If you want to stay focused in life, then the first thing you need is a task list.  You need to decide what you want to do, and how badly you want to do it.  This list needs to be prioritized through some internal heuristic before you can even think about executing on it.

One of the easiest way to lose practical focus is when you don't even know what you should be focusing on.  It's very easy to become overwhelmed and either spend time thinking about the wrong thing, or just losing focus altogether.  If you read my Importance vs Urgency article, I described a prioritization system that helps to fight this problem.  There are plenty of others out there, but that should be a solid starting point.

Garbage In, Garbage Out


There are many studies that indicate your concentration level can be manipulated in a serious way by the way you fuel your body.  This isn't surprising, but it's not something that people are fond of admitting.  If you want to achieve true focus, then stick to simple foods before the tournament.  Try a chicken breast with asparagus or carrots instead of pizza with pepperoni and sausage.  Don't overeat, but make sure to keep your stomach from rumbling.

Stay away from sugar, caffeine, and beer.  Bummer, I know.  Not exactly the mantra of your average Magic player.  The glucose spike from eating candy or something may give you a quick short term rush, but the long term effects are miserable as you'll soon crash down.  This type of roller coaster ride is not the way to balance your focus.

Rest and Exercise Your Body and Your Mind


If you have a tournament coming up, then one way to increase your capacity for concentration is to get some exercise beforehand.  I'm just as guilty as anyone as rolling right out of bed into the 8 AM Classic PEs, but if you do this then you're not giving yourself the best chance of success.  Go for a jog, a walk, do some situps or pushups - get your endorphins flowing.  Studies have shown that this can help to increase your focus.

The other painfully obvious, yet not-usually-followed piece of advice here is to make sure to get proper sleep.  Don't watch TV or use the computer within an hour or so of going to sleep, keep your sleep pattern as regular as possible, and get enough hours of sleep.  Buy a quality mattress and pillow, memory foam is the best and makes a huge difference in how you will sleep and feel.  If you have to take a nap, then don't sleep for more than 20 minutes.


Blessed Breath

There are a million different breathing exercises (for a million different goals) that you can consider if you find this topic interesting, but if not then you can keep it simple:  breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and then exhale through your mouth for a count of four.  Repeat.  This is totally simple, but surprisingly difficult to do in the heat of battle if you haven't worked on training your body a bit.

Holding a steady breathing pattern does a lot of different things for you.  Forcing yourself to keep an internal breath count will help to keep your mind from wandering.  Steady breathing promotes relaxation and helps to keep your heart rate under control.  This body state is very conducive to focus.

One of the most important times to maintain proper breathing is when the shit really starts to hit the fan, so to speak.  You know those situations where a removal spell screws up your plans or your opponent Counterspells your Counterspell.  These are inflection points of a game with a huge amount of leverage to take things in one direction or another.  It's especially important at these moments to focus, breathe, relax, and make the proper choices.

If you're interested in reading more about different breathing exercises, I've attached some links in the appendix at the end of this article.  If you really want to learn more than sign up for a Yoga class!  I used to take Yoga classes multiple times per week and it really is a great way to tune up your mind, body, and soul.

Understand When You Are On Tilt

Crazed Goblin

This is one of the most important things to master if you want to increase your focus.  Chances are you're familiar with with the concept of going on tilt, most likely from the game of poker, and it's always a tragic tale.  Some wanna-be rounder hits the no-limit table and plays smart cards all day long.  He avoids risk and doubles or triple his stack, throwing his money in when he has the best of it and running for cover when he's beat.  Things don't go his way and he gets busted on a big hand, maybe he gets his aces cracked.  All of a sudden his game goes flying right out the window.  He bets big on the next hand and can't get away from a losing proposition, giving away another stack of chips.  Now he's down and starts betting big to get back in the game, but just ends up giving away the last of his cash.

Sure it sucks to lose the big hand that ends up sending you on tilt, but it's a million times worse to allow this bad break to start a chain reaction of crappy decisions.  This it NOT something that you can allow to happen if you want to maintain any sort of focus on the game.  It's very important that you learn how to identify this situation in order to recover from it.

Everyone is different, and you'll have to learn your own personal signs or triggers that you're heading on tilt.  For me, the strongest sign that I'm on tilt is when I end up making a play that leaves me immediately scratching my head and thinking, "Why the Hell did I just do that?"

A while ago I was playing a Counterbalance/Painter's Servant deck in Classic against Dragon Stompy.  I had made a misplay that lead to a loss in game one, and my opponent started off game two with a first turn Blood Moon - which is a huge beating for my deck.  I had Force of Will in my hand, but just decided to allow Force of Will to hit the table for some unexplainable reason.  This decision immediately confused the Hell out of me, which is an awesome indication that I was on tilt.

Why didn't I use Force of Will to counter Blood Moon?  I have absolutely no idea.  I knew it was a must counter spell and just decided to let it through for no reason whatsoever.  This is the type of play that people make when they are tilting.  One thing to remember about Magic is that you can't always win, there are plenty of game situations that are just impossible to work your way out of.   But you can ALWAYS figure out some way to lose if you really want to.  ALWAYS.  I had subconsciously decided that I wanted to lose the Blood Moon game, and went ahead and did it.

Bring Yourself Back

So what do you do when you figure out that you're on tilt?  Well, you bring yourself back of course!  There are lots of different ways to do this, but basically you need some sort of jolt to your system to reset your psyche and knock your brain back on track.  Techniques designed to accomplish this goal are always based in some sort of sensory shock.

Pro Tour mainstay Tomoharu Saito loves to slap himself in order to restore focus.  If you've watched any of the webcasts featuring Saito in a top 8, I'm sure you've seen him slap the crap out of himself at the first sign of lost focus.

Another common technique is to appeal to your body's sense of smell and carry around something that provides a strong odor to breathe in deeply as you start to slip away.  Magic tournaments in real life are notorious for their odd odor, and a sharp contrast to this is a great way to regain focus.  Bring an orange or a piece of ginger, use your fingernail to scratch off a small piece and enjoy.  The odor situation probably isn't quite as big of a deal while playing MTGO (depending on your living situation I guess), but the technique is definitely still valid.

My personal favorite technique is to use my hands as blinders.  I cup my hands at right angles and block out everything from my view other than what I'm trying to focus on.  This is a great way for me to bring myself back to a world where I'm focusing on what matters.

Any of the techniques above are valid, and different ones will work for different people.  There are also plenty of others that I didn't mention that are perfectly valid.  Do some experimentation and figure out what works for you.

Admit Mistakes, Avoid Negativity

Double Negative

One of the best tactics to use while trying to get better at anything is to freely admit your mistakes and do the best you can to learn from them.  Magic players as a whole are notorious for only losing when either they get screwed (either land or spell), or their opponent lucksacks into exactly the topdeck they needed.  This is a very bad way to look at the games you're playing, and it's really important to understand why you are winning/losing if you hope to improve your skill.

Not only does admitting your mistakes help to improve your playskill, but it also really helps to stay focused.  This is sort of a proactive "bring yourself back" technique from the section above.  If you make a mistake then admitting it, bringing your head back into the game, and moving on is the ideal way to deal with it.  It's not productive to let this mistake bring you down.  Don't give up!  Understand your mistake, refocus, and start working out a plan for how you can work towards a win within this new game state.

One mistake intrinsic to Magic Online that often goes without true admission is the misclick.  Many players have a habit of blaming bad decisions on misclicks.  This is very unhealthy, and just basically a way for players to save a little bit of face due to the fact that misclicks are viewed as lower class mistakes that aren't TRULY your fault.  Misclicks should be viewed on the same level, for example, as attacking into a slaughter because you didn't notice your opponent had a Mutavault with enough mana to activate it.

Every once in a while a misclick happens that really isn't your fault, but that case is relatively rare.  Magic Online does lag on occasion.  Double clicks can happen that send you right through the combat phase instead of giving you a chance to send lethal power into the red zone.  This isn't really a mistake, but there are things you can do to minimize the risk.  Whenever I'm in a crucial time of the game, I make it a habit to move my mouse off of the "Ok" button so that I don't accidentally or instinctively click through something I didn't intend to.  The risk of this is much lower when you have to move the mouse AND click instead of just the click.

But, like I said, more often than not misclicks can be attributed to lack of focus or just simply a bad decision.  You see this in paper Magic a lot too.  Players push three creatures into the red zone and then quickly pull one back when they notice their opponent's Mutavault.  From here it's a bit of a fuzzy situation, and often the attacking player is able to remove their creature from combat without penalty.  This never happens in Magic Online.

Consider Meditation


The ability to focus or concentrate is often viewed by people as something in the "talent" realm.  People tend to think that you either have focus or you don't, that you are able to concentrate or you're not.  In many ways it's similar to the ability to play an instrument.  Lots of people watch someone like Eddie Van Halen wail away on guitar and think, "MAN he's talented."  Well sure some of it is talent, but most of his guitar ability is from years and years of playing and practicing.

Check out this interview brief snip from an interview with Eddie Van Halen:

Guitar World: "So how did you go from playing your first open A chord to playing Eruption?"
EVH: "Practice. I used to sit on the edge of my bed with a six-pack of Schlitz Malt talls. My brother would go out at 7 P.M. to party and get laid, and when he'd come back at 3 AM, I would still be sitting in the same place, playing guitar. I did that for years - I still do that."

If you want to improve ANYTHING from your math skills to your capacity for focus, from your capability to program a computer to your ability to lay down a facemelting guitar solo - then you need to practice.  Lots of people want to be rockstars, but what you really need to want is to be really badass at guitar.

If you're interested in improving your ability and capacity for focus and concentration then one way to train these muscles is through meditation.  Just as with breathing above, there are many different types of meditation, many different variations.  If you're interested in reading more about this then either go ahead and do a google search or check out the links in the appendix below.

For those of you who just want a simple technique to get you started, I'll describe one here.  Find a comfortable place to sit, that can be completely free of distraction.  No TV, no music, no possibility of your phone ringing, nothing.  There can be NO disturbances.

Sit comfortably and breathe in.  Visualize the number one in your head and breathe out.  Breath in while visualizing the number two in your head, then breathe out.  Repeat this process, increasing the number by one each time.  Continue this exercise until you hit a predetermined number, say 100.  You must retain complete focus during this.  If your mind wanders and you think of anything OTHER than the number is on - you need to start the whole thing completely over.  Start from 1 again.

This is a great starter meditation exercise, and if it's something you do regularly then it will get easier.  As you perform these exercises, you will probably also see an increase in your ability to focus on day-to-day tasks and games of Magic.  I know that I certainly do.  If you want to take your meditation further, then check out some of the links in the appendix below.


Hopefully this article has given you a few ideas on how to improve your focus and concentration both in and out of the Magic world.  I want to also point out here that I realize many people just play Magic for fun, and aren't interested at all in information like this.  I totally get this mentality, and I'm all for embracing it.  If you're one of these people then forget about utilizing this information during games of Magic, and instead consider applying it to your job or school work.

Magic is a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but information like this has applications throughout life in a million different areas.  I'm sure that just about everyone reading this article can find somewhere in their life to utilize this information.  Let me know what you think through comments/email!

Thanks for reading!

Steve Gargolinski
th1ckasabr1ck on MTGO


Appendix: Stuff to Read

I am not any type of doctor!  The advice I give above is just based on what works for me.  Feel free to do as much or as little research as you're comfortable with.  Here are a few links to get you started.















interesting read...im by ShardFenix at Thu, 09/17/2009 - 11:36
ShardFenix's picture

interesting read...im actually in my junior year at college and think these tips may help me more in studying than magic but that might end up better for me

Definitely man, I used these by spg at Fri, 09/25/2009 - 06:43
spg's picture

Definitely man, I used these techniques all through college and still do at my job today - so there's at least some anecdotal evidence that they work.

Recognizing when you are on by Mugaaz (not verified) at Thu, 09/17/2009 - 15:00
Mugaaz's picture

Recognizing when you are on tilt in Magic is not actually a useful skill. It's useful in poker because you can leave the game at little or no cost.

From personal experience I'm not a big fan of the "bringing yourself back" section either. I think it's make believe. If the person had the ability to bring themself back from tilt they would not have gone on tilt in the first place. I know of no one who truly goes on tilt, then goes back to purely rational in 60 seconds. I know plenty of people who don't go on tilt very often. However, even these people don't recover from tilt much faster than hothead. They don't have magic powers, if they get a call saying their parents died in a game they can't go back to expert play in 2 minutes, that's pure fantasy. Going on tilt is the mistake, the answer isn't going back to a rational state of mind in record time, but instead not going on tilt in the first place.

My advice to people to people is not to focus on anything except correct play. Not winning, doing damage, trick plays, etc. Just correct play, regardless of what game you are playing. If your opponent gets a nut draw and crushes you this shouldn't tilt you because you didn't make a mistake. The only thing that should tilt you is incorrect play on your part, which is a good reason to get mad...

actually... by Katastrophe at Thu, 09/17/2009 - 22:19
Katastrophe's picture

> The only thing that should tilt you is incorrect play on your part, which is a good reason to get mad

No! Don't get mad. If you screw up then you need to sniff an orange, breathe to a 4-count, and approach the game state anew.

Steve made a good point about going on tilt. Being on tilt is about screwing up twice (or more) in succession. It is preventable. Even if you don't recognize that you're on tilt until your second mistake then it's still not too late to prevent your third.

I think Katastrophe's by spg at Fri, 09/25/2009 - 06:45
spg's picture

I think Katastrophe's response is 100% correct, and I'm actually really surprised to read that an experienced player believes that recognizing you're on tilt in Magic is not a useful skill. Maybe this means I need to think about it some more, but to me it is fairly obvious. Just because it's not like poker where you can get out at any time, you can certainly try to bring yourself back to Earth and not make any more dumb mistakes in the near future.

I love these types of by hamtastic at Thu, 09/17/2009 - 21:50
hamtastic's picture

I love these types of articles.

The interesting thing I kept seeing in this is how universal the recommendations truly are. They've been in effect for as long as humans have interacted and had desires. The first time I got introduced to these concepts was "How to Win Friends and Influence People", which is so far the best approach to this subject I've ever read. Another great book (but much more work) is "7 Habits of highly effective people". To anyone truly interested in improving every aspect of their life, those two books will do wonders if read and applied properly.

Awesome book recommendations, by spg at Fri, 09/25/2009 - 06:46
spg's picture

Awesome book recommendations, I've read and enjoyed all of them. The advice is applicable to pretty much every person in pretty much every walk of life.

What I Use by Katastrophe at Thu, 09/17/2009 - 22:31
Katastrophe's picture

This is kind of dorky/appropriate, but I have this playing in the background sometimes:

(and more)

I download those videos from YT using a tool, then I rip the audio. Then you can cut the random applause and stuff. (I haven't done that yet.) Playing Magic while people shuffle cards is better than just non-distracting. It puts me in the mindset. It's like they're playing at the next table.

Other times I just play techno.

Interesting ideas by Paul Leicht at Fri, 09/18/2009 - 01:18
Paul Leicht's picture

Interesting ideas particularly about focus and meditation. I find that my guitar playing (Ive been doing it for 31 years) is much better when I have no distractions though I am no Eddie Van Halen. I also find that focus helps in writing code too (though I am not a programmer by trade). I used to smoke and when I would go to a tourney Id go outside between rounds to smoke and refocus. Smoking is entirely unhealthy but there is something mindless about doing it.

I agree on the mistakes section. Owning them is important to changing them. I don't think it necessary that you tell anyone else about your mistakes but I do think it helps to have a sounding board sometimes. But in a game you have no time for that. Just make a note and try not to repeat it. I have had misclicks that happened because I got distracted and then missed the opportunity to counter something etc. I do consider those to be MY mistakes and not simply bad UI. But the fact is online the UI is such a crutch that it does lead sometimes to bad mistakes. (Have you ever hit F6 and then realized you needed to activate something later that turn? I have. Thankfully a spamming of F2/F3 (not sure which actually) saved me. One of those asks for priority back.)

As far as getting angry and going on Tilt goes, well its a game. It is easy to get that competitive feeling going and lose perspective. It is not easy to objectively see yourself doing this and stop it. It is possible. I know I have done it as I have also turned mid-argument and realized the person I was arguing with was right and just stopped. But it is a painful thing to do. I suspect the best players never go full tilt because they avoid the pitfalls of getting too emotionally involved in the activity and merely concentrate as Mugaaz talks about on making correct plays. Of course for us mortals even recognizing the absolute perfect play is not always so easy.

Katastrophe...really? Card shuffling? Intriguing. I never would have even considered that. Though sometimes music does help. Particularly for me classic rock/early metal.