The Grinding Stone – Focus, by Chris VanMeter
So, I am sitting at a table with Gerry T and Adam Cai and some number of other masters. As per usual I am just being quiet, taking in everything they are all saying. Some kid comes over to Gerry, very red in the face and obviously tilting over something and starts to go on and on about how his opponent literally drew the 3 cards that he needed in the exact order that he needed them to win. Mid-sentence Gerry stops him and says “If you didn’t win this I don’t really want to hear it.” “Of course I didn’t win, he drew his outs!” The kid replies. “Oh, so your opponent drew cards that were in his deck?” says Gerry. The kid leaves visibly upset. I completely understand what he is feeling. That used to be me. While I have been playing Magic for a long time, I am just now learning some of the best lessons to keep your head straight and help you stay focused while playing “higher level” Magic.
Hello! For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Chris VanMeter. I currently live in Wichita Kansas, but I am originally from the Seattle/Tacoma area. Until the end of last year I would constantly lose my focus while playing in the later rounds of Magic tournaments. I would still make plenty of PTQ and local cash tournament Top 8’s, but most of the time I would lose my win-and-in round or just lose in the quarter finals. I would always be so happy, telling all my friends that all I had to do was win one more and I could just double draw in. I would also be extremely devastated when I lost the next round and the ensuing tilt would carry me right through my next loss, knocking me out of the Top 8. After years and years of this same practice, I decided that I was going to step my game up. Test more, and test more effectively. Most of all, I would start to only focus on a “one game at a time” mentality. This became my Mantra. In between rounds I would chant it in my head to start focusing, much the same way Brian Kibler does with his “song of the tournament.” I would do this while shuffling for game one. I would do this while side boarding. Even after the match was over, be it me or my opponent turning in the game slip, I would go right back to “one game at a time”. This helped me to push out thinking about how many more rounds I would have to win to draw into the Top 8. It would help me to overcome tilt when my opponent runner-runners me. More importantly, it would help me keep a fresh mind when making it to the Top 8. When you are so focused on getting there and how many rounds you have to win, once you make it to the Top 8, your mind just relaxes and you aren’t playing at the same level as before.
I am not sure why it took me so long to realize this and actually implement it into my Magic game. I played at a very high level of Chess from 6th grade through 12th grade, and this “one match at a time” mindset helped there as well. It may not be effective for everyone, but my results since implementing have shown me that it works for me. This game is more about percentages than I ever thought it would be. Here is an example to explain what I am talking about;
Given optimal play from both parties, let’s say that the match-up is 55% in your opponents favor. It is very rare that you see optimal play from both parties. You give and take percentages here and there. Playing lands in the wrong order, playing lands when you shouldn’t because you have, playing brainstorm or Jace, the Mind Sculptor in your deck (or any other reason), playing spells/abilities in the wrong order, or not playing a spell at all each have an impact on the actual expected win percentage.
As you see, there are lots and lots of decisions that are made during a game that affect these percentages. Sometimes you or your opponent will lose the game because they fetched the wrong equipment with Stoneforge Mystic or fetched the wrong dual land with Polluted Delta. Playing tight does reward you. Making fewer mistakes than your opponent can turn that 55% deficit into your favor. The next time you get mana flooded or get stuck on 4 lands and lose, ask yourself if you played optimally at every turn. Odds are that there was something else that you could have done to hedge those percentages. Look at pro circuit players like Owen Turtenwald, PV, Brad Nelson, LSV and Starcity circuit players like Gerry T, AJ, Alex B, Drew Levin, Edgar, etc. Do you think that they never get mana flooded, get mana screwed, or have to mulligan to 5(which most people don’t do as often as they should)? You probably will not be able to play this tight if your head is already focused on double drawing into the Top 8 and not focused on the opponent in front of you.
Here are some focusing tips that I would urge people to implement if they already haven’t done so:
1. “One game at a time.” This doesn’t have to be your mantra, but it should definitely be your mindset. When you sit down to play your opponent, you shouldn’t already be signing the slip an ID for your next round.
2. Don’t tilt and tell everyone your bad beat stories. This only makes you focus on them more and lets it carry over into your next round. Not to mention people don’t really want to hear you complain endlessly.
3. Slow down your play. Some people might get annoyed by playing a methodical player, but that’s their problem. Good examples of these types of players are AJ, Christian Valenti, and Gerry T. There is definitely video footage of them available in the SCGlive.com archives and I would suggest that you check them out. Going over your plays and taking time to make them is one way to really help you focus, play tight, and win games.
4. Eat and drink throughout the day, especially if you aren’t feeling well. Water and juice are great for you, and playing on an empty stomach is not optimal.
I hope that these tips can help people step their game up. The Open events are great opportunities for people to play great magic, have fun, and make money while doing it. I have enjoyed every aspect of being able to travel around to these events.
With the banning taking effect and M12 coming out soon I’m sure everybody’s mind is on the new standard format that will be showcased in Cincinnati and then at Nationals. Look for my next article going over some of the possibilities for the upcoming standard!
- Chris VanMeter