(Metagame Archive) Two Turns Ahead – Mr. LuckyFace

By Tim Willoughby

I feel that the whole optimism/pessimism argument sways way in favor of the pessimists, and that makes me a little sad inside. If you think about the long, fruitful life of your average glass, it will inevitably spend more time being empty than it will being full. On a Friday lunchtime, you don’t zip down to a nearby publican for a spot of hot food and the pleasure of watching the landlord filling some glasses. Well, I don’t. I revel in the act of emptying them. While you are in the process of emptying something, it will be half empty. Most of the time, the glass is half empty.

Does this make me a pessimist? No. I’m just someone acutely attuned to keeping track of where the next round is coming from.

There are plenty who prefer to think of themselves as realists. That’s all very well when you are talking about the present and probably quite wise when looking to the future. However, I am all in favor of optimism where possible. It makes the lows seem lower and the highs insanely good.

Another topic that seems to divide people in a similar manner is that of luck. There are those who really believe in luck as a force that can be manipulated with trinkets, little rituals, and perhaps a black cat.

I’m sorry, but this is a wakeup call to those people. Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck? Not so much. Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have a penny. The reason? There’s really not a whole lot that you can buy in this day and age with a penny. As time goes by, this effect will only get worse. With inflation, your penny will be worth less and less, while the cost of repairing the hole it’s wearing in your pocket will get higher and higher. And then you’ll die.

So, Tim doesn’t believe in luck? Well, not quite. I love luck. It seems to me that having a nice, healthy relationship with chance is the best way to have a great life in general. I celebrate my good fortune when things go right, and when I am genuinely unlucky, I am able to satisfy myself in the knowledge that the fates didn’t conspire against me; it was simply that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is no reason to “turn luck around,” as there isn’t actually a rule that says it’s going in one direction to start with.

Last week, I wrote about deck choice, which is certainly a very important consideration when preparing for any event. This week, my plan was to talk a little more about the Draft day at the Pro Circuit and the merits of deck selection (after a sort) while drafting. Then I went to a PCQ this weekend—a different format than the Pro Circuit and a slightly smaller cash prize, but still a money tournament that I wanted to win. Unfortunately, I was in a bit of a battle with my own body to do so. While I feel that my deck construction at the start of the day was excellent and my initial level of play beyond reproach, this trend did not last. My head cold (rather bizarrely) started somewhere in the middle of my chest and spread to the rest of me as the rounds progressed. By round 4, I was pretty unwell but conveniently already in a good position to make Top 8. I continued my trend of losing coin flips and winning games for the majority of the Swiss and entered the Top 8 Draft in good position in the standings, but I was utterly wretched standing as a human being. In fact, “curled up in the fetal position trying to keep warm” would be a closer description.

To cut a long story short, I drafted the most mindless deck I could (big numbers with Morlocks and Brotherhood Physical Mutants), filled it with ways of making those big numbers even bigger (three Kill or be Killeds, anyone?), and smashed a little face with it. Only a little, though, as my brain imploded before I could reach the finals. But along the way, I did attack for the win on my opponent’s initiative on turn 5, thanks in no small part to some Very Big Monsters and more blues than even a film with Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd could lay claim to. I got lucky. My opponent got unlucky.

These things happen.

This got me thinking about something potentially more important for tournament play than picking the right deck or even practicing with that deck enough that you know all its little tricks in time to show them off on the grand stage.

Prepare your mind.

People are, I’m told, quite often found working on their physiques in gyms. They do weights, they run a bit, and perhaps they do a little Tae Bo. I don’t know. By comparison, I’m not of the opinion that a great many of us really actively work on improving our minds—on forcing ourselves to think. I’ve had seventeen years or so of school, and a lot of that didn’t feel particularly thinky to me. Maybe I wasn’t doing it right. For the second time in this paragraph, I’m forced to say that I don’t know.

Vs. System is a mind sport and it deserves the sort of preparation that you would put in for any sport.* A lot of this will be practice. This is good. Play more. It will definitely help. Tennis pros play a lot of tennis. But that is not all they do. They also go to that place called the gym. They probably run on the machines a bit. Do some weights. If they do Tae Bo, they don’t talk about it, but conceivably they might. If doing something other than tennis can help a tennis pro, perhaps doing something other than playing Vs. can help your Vs. game? I would move to suggest that is the case.

At the most basic level, there are various common games that have elements you can learn a lot from. Chess and Go are great games for helping one learn to assess all the important elements of a situation and plan ahead accordingly. The analogues with Vs. apply most directly to the formation step and planning out combat, but in terms of making a plan and following it through from start to finish, there is a great deal of scope for improving your game with the classics. From the world of card games, all kinds of poker and the Chinese game Big Two (my personal favorite card game where attacking for 2 is not an option) are fantastic for improving one’s ability to “read” what an opponent’s plans are based on facial expressions and mannerisms. There are also lessons there about dealing with pressure and applying it to others.

Beyond games, though, there is plenty that is really positive for your mind if you don’t mind putting a little work in. My personal favorite is to read a lot. Watching TV or film is fine, but it is very passive. Is your brain doing anything while you watch something? Maybe. It doesn’t need to, though, and sooner or later, given the opportunity, it will probably just have a little break. Reading is like watching TV, only it requires enough focus to translate the words into images. This is why people read in bed to go to sleep. The imagining is like brain exercise. If your brain can imagine things better, it can probably move a little faster. If it can move a little faster, that can only be a good thing when you’re playing, right? It sounds like a small point, but trust me—if you read a good book every week, you will feel better for it.**

Thankfully, the meat of my article was not just that last paragraph. The big bit of mental preparation I was thinking of was what is often referred to as “mental resilience.” Really, the only differences between tournament play and any other type of Vs. play are the prizes and the variety of people you might face. It’s amazing, though, how once you put a big enough prize up, people’s demeanors change as they feel the pressure. Technically, there shouldn’t be a whole lot of pressure, but when there’s $40,000 or so riding on a single match, it is pretty much inevitable.

There are those who say that it is best to try to ignore pressure and go on as if business were rolling along as usual. I don’t really agree with those people. Sooner or later, the pressure you face in tournaments will reach a point where if you do this, you simply won’t be prepared. That is a horrible feeling. Be it at job interviews or when playing cards for lots of money, I have long thought that feeling the nerves is a good thing. It shows that you care about what you are doing, and it is a motivator to do well. Because pressure tends to get higher as you get more successful, if you are doing things to avoid pressure, you are also trying to avoid success . . . which is not good business, be it usual or otherwise.

All of a sudden, I am back to the way that I perceive luck. Chance is an amazing thing. I really enjoyed Olav “The Rok” Rokne’s little series on how to shuffle, which boiled down to “make it seven riffle shuffles at least, and learn to love the random.” Random decks are a great thing. If you have a truly random deck, then you get used to a few feelings that are great for mentally preparing you for tournament play. The first and most important is the Rotten Draw.

We’ve all had games where we’ve drawn complete garbage. Get used to them. In a completely random world, bad draws will happen. Sure, statistically you should be able to expect maybe one horrible draw per tournament with your deck, but that is not real life. The chances of a draw being beyond dire do not vary from match to match. Just because you have had eleventy billion of them lately doesn’t make it any less likely that you’ll have another. I find this thought strangely comforting. It also means that on occasion, you will have insanely good draws in horrible matches. This is the sort of thing that makes me an optimist.

Luck is not a factor that you can alter. So you don’t need to worry about it. As practicing is a prerequisite before any big event, not knowing what to do with your deck shouldn’t be too big a worry, either.

I like to set myself lots of little targets at a tournament on a game-by-game or turn-by-turn basis. You can bet that if I hit them, I will do quite absurdly well, and it means that I won’t ever be in a position where I feel that my target is so far from my reach that it causes undue pressure. If I miss on a few, I’m only missing small targets. Sweat is both unbecoming and a little smelly, so I advise that you never let them see you do it.

I can’t magically give everyone a Confidence Monkey to hang around with them and make sure they remain confident at all times. What I will suggest is that if you are going to the Pro Circuit, you deserve to be there. If you know your deck and know what you are doing, then you are doing yourself a disservice by going into any match feeling like an underdog. That sort of thinking cannot be helpful. Instead, just make sure you eat and drink plenty; avoid too much caffeine or sugar; and if you face a bad beat or two at the hands of Lady Luck, take solace in the fact that you aren’t the only one.

Have fun and be lucky,

Tim “Confidence Monkey” Willoughby


* If you want the big article on games vs. sports, I’m more than happy to write it; just email me and let me know. Personally, I consider it a rather overdone topic, but then, I read a lot about this sort of thing. Something isn’t old if it’s new to you. Tell me what you think.

** If you can’t find a good book to read, email me. I will recommend something that I have read and enjoyed. If you like what I write, you might like what I read, right? If you don’t like what I write, then I can only smile, think about apologizing, and then come to the conclusion that I’m a little confused as to why you’re still reading. It’s not like I’m being controversial and Howard Sterny.


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