Blessed, or maybe cursed, with the inability to play PPTQs for the foreseeable future, I’ve thrown myself wholeheartedly at Modern for the past few months. I had one of the most miserable Magic weekends of my life playing Storm at the SCG Invitational, then followed that up with a bunch of surprisingly enjoyable matches with Grixis Death’s Shadow at the Ultimate Showdown. While winning is, obviously, inherently fun and good, there’s something to be said about the psychology of deck selection in Magic, especially for the less neuro-typical among us. I’ve come to discover over the past few years that I absolutely can’t win at the game unless I’m enjoying myself. If the games aren’t fun, I can’t focus, and my win-rate drops. Even if you have emotional fortitude to spare, why play a game if you’re not trying to have a good time? There are other competitive endeavours out there, and I’d wager that none of them have turn-3 Karn Liberated to sour your experience.
I traveled across the continent to Santa Clara last weekend to play the first Team Trios Constructed Grand Prix of the season with an old high school friend who now works in Palo Alto, as well as his coworker. Neither had played at Competitive Rules Enforcement Level (REL) before, and our Standard player had never played a single game of the format. He spent the week before the tournament with a friend of his on Magic Online, grinding games with Hazoret Red, sending me screenshots and asking questions. When he sent me the first “keep or mulligan” question, I had a feeling in the back of my mind that we had a reasonable chance of actually doing well. We set a modest goal of making Day 2, and actually managed to get there! Our Legacy player kept crushing people with Elves, and we ended up one win short of cash. Despite my personal 5-9 record, losing game-after-game in increasingly frustrating ways, from turn-3 Wurmcoils against Tron to missing crucial lands against Affinity or flooding out in the Grixis mirror, I actually had a ton of fun. Being personally invested in not only my own matches, but also those of my friends, made for an exhausting and yet very satisfying weekend.
I had been disillusioned with Modern, and the game as a whole, for a little while. I love playing Standard above all else, but the repetitive gameplay of the 4c Energy mirrors was hardly the creative outlet that the format has historically been for me, and there was no point in grinding Magic Online leagues with no events to prepare for. Ixalan limited featured a high density of frustrating and non-interactive games, and overall I found that I had a pretty reasonable grasp on the format after so many events. There wasn’t any Legacy to play, so I found myself in a bit of a rut. Luckily for me, I had the foresight, or luck, rather, to have planned this fun trip to California to play casual Magic with some friends. It gave me a new perspective: for people like me, Magic is only fun if it’s a challenge. I’ve explained my love of the game repeatedly as finding a lot of joy in attempting to solve the ever-changing puzzle of finding the optimal way to win the game.
For someone with ADHD, it’s great that the game relies heavily on intuition and creativity rather than necessarily finding the optimal mathematical solution to a situation, thanks both to the massive complexity of independent variables as well as the pressure of the clock. It’s why I don’t enjoy multiplayer Magic, or casual formats where people aren’t necessarily trying to win. There’s no challenge, nothing to overcome. Grinding Ixalan draft leagues when you feel like you already understand the format gives you nothing. Rolling up to a Modern event with a linear deck gives me no joy, because I’m bringing an uncomplicated puzzle to the table.
That’s why team events are so fun. Even if your match sucks, even if Standard is stale, you’re put under the pressure of being aware of up to three matches at a time. You’re invested in the results of several games, and there are just so many puzzles to solve. If you’re at all like me in regards to this, then there’s a lot we can extract from this.
Lesson 1: Improve the quality of the gameplay puzzle by playing decks that you find fun.
One of Magic’s greatest assets as a game is its versatility. There have always been countless viable strategies across formats with a wide range of gameplay. Every time I register a linear deck in Modern, I regret it. I’ve realized that I need some hard interaction —more than just Remand in Gifts Storm — to enjoy myself. I want those epic, long games that are back-and-forth and full of exciting, close interactions — not just a deck failing to execute its game plan for 10 turns in a row. That means that I’m incentivized to play a Thoughtseize deck, or maybe UWx Control in Modern.
On the flipside, if you find, say, The Scarab God to be a dreadful Standard card that creates long, but one-sided and oddly un-interactive games, then consider trying out my new boo, Hazoret (sorry, Nissa, you’re a side fling now). The puzzle to be solved in versatile aggro decks like this Standard’s red deck is far from simple. There are a lot of abilities on cards like Earthshaker Khenra and Rampaging Ferocidon, and the answer is not always to do as much damage as possible as quickly as possible. Look to play decks that create the game states that you’re interested in solving.
And never play Tron.
Lesson 2: Don’t feel obligated to play Magic that you don’t enjoy.
I took a last minute road trip to GP New Jersey in December despite knowing that I’d have a terrible time playing Ixalan Limited because, well, I felt obligated to. I was offered a ride, and I’m pretty desperate for pro points, not wanting to miss Silver again this year. Road trips with friends are always fun, and I still had a good time, but the tournament itself was fairly miserable. I limped into Sunday’s drafts with a mediocre 6-3 record, and barely scraped my way through to a single point from a 10-5. This was at the back-end of several weeks in a row of important events, and knowing from the get-go that I wasn’t going to have fun playing more Ixalan limited, I definitely shouldn’t have gone. It burned me out.
This lesson applies in a broader sense, as well. If you’re a competitive Magic player, but not necessarily an aspiring pro, and you hate Modern for whatever reason, then, well, don’t play Modern. You’re not obligated to play every event, and with the recent proliferation of Trios, you’re gonna end up with a lot more opportunities to play Legacy or Standard.
Now I just have to remember to take my own advice next time I’m drunk in a hotel room and someone insists I play Commander. “It can’t be that bad, can it?” – Me, ignorant of the fresh hell that I’m about to partake in.
Lesson 3: Don’t place undue importance on your own results.
This is something that I’ve struggled with a lot. Even at comparatively meaningless local events, I struggle a lot with persistent poor results. It triggers a sort of imposter syndrome: if I can’t even win a Sunday Showdown, then how will I ever win a Grand Prix? (This is clearly a hypothetical, since I win tons of Sunday Showdowns, which are Very Important and Good Tournaments #nothinghumbleaboutthisbrag #storecreditrich).
Magic is inherently a game of high-variance, arguably more so these days than ever before. Even the best player in the world will lose a significant amount of the time. Just because you’ve failed to close out your last five PPTQ top 8s doesn’t mean that you’ll never make it to the Pro Tour.
Make sure you’re having fun in your matches, make sure you can learn from your losses, and keep working on solving that puzzle.