Over the course of the past few years, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to write an article about how I have leveled up in Magic. I've avoided it many times in the past because self-reflection is hard. And while it is simply hard for most people, I take it a step further. I'm notoriously bad at it, especially for someone who spends so many hours in self-reflection as I do. There are many problems I ran into repeatedly and mistakes that I made time and time again over the course of my life that I'm positive I could have avoided if I had any sort of clue about how to evaluate myself and understand what flaws I possessed and why they were causing my failures. But for one reason or another, it was like I had this giant mental block where I could never figure it out and everything would just get jumbled and confused in my head whenever I'd try. To be fair, I still tried, constantly. I just never really succeeded.
In fact, it's only recently that I've begun to finally unravel some of the reasons behind why I fell into the ruts I did. A random thought I had one night sparked a moment of discovery, and here I am at age 30, finally figuring out the answer to questions that I've been asking myself since I was 18 years old. And in the process, I've been thinking about myself as a Magic player, and trying to actually understand my progress in that arena as well.
To be quite frank, I've never really understood the how and why and what's that changed to transition me from being an unknown PTQ player to a grinder playing in SCG Opens to someone with marginal GP success to the Grand Prix Master to eventually World Champion. I've come up with many platitudes and throwaway answers when put on the spot before. None of those answers are false, but I always know I'm being disingenuous when I give them out because they never tell the full story, or even most of it. I don't really know what that story is, anyway. Changes are generally gradual and hard to notice as they are occurring and there weren't exactly moments along the way where a lightbulb went off along with some epic music and a deep voice calling out from the heavens, “Hey, Brian, you just leveled up. Invest your skill points.”
Sometime last year I wrote an article about the mental game in Magic, and how my improvements in mental fortitude were the source of my newfound success. At the time, I attributed these mental game gains as the sole reason for my increase in performance in Magic events from 2015 to 2016. While it is true that they did contribute, they were only one cog in the wheel.
I want to talk about another cog, and maybe the most important one.
Yeah. I attribute a lot of my success to a tautology. What of it? I told Brad Nelson that I was planning to write this article and had a list of things I felt I had leveled up on. I asked his opinion on what he thought I had improved on. Brad has known me through most of my progression as a competitive player, and this was the main thing he said.
He was completely right. Or was he completely correct? I can't tell the difference anymore.
While being correct and being right may sound like they mean the same thing, and in many senses they do, I actually mean different things with those terms when I say that I'd rather be correct than right. Allow me to explain how I perceive the difference.
Caring about being right means that you care about your ideas being the best ideas. I wanted my decks to be the best decks and my card choices to be the best card choices. I wanted to prove others wrong when they said that my deck wasn't very good or that I was making flawed card choices or that I had built my deck wrong or should play something else. I wanted to win with my own creations and my own ideas. Being right comes with an ego attached. I wanted recognition for having a great ideas and validation that I was smart and awesome and cool.
Turns out that when you're a balding 30-year-old man who likes puns and dad jokes, you can never actually be awesome or cool, but young BBDeezy was still naive in the ways of the world and had much to learn. Older BBD also has much to learn, but at least I've learned this one important trick. Doctors hate me!
The mentality of caring about being right introduces a lot of biases in reasoning. When you desperately want a certain result to be true rather than approach a situation objectively, you find data that supports your hypothesis and ignore data that disproves it. That's a flawed methodology for finding the truth. It's very easy to do this, and it's very easy to not know that you're doing this. It's also very easy to shut yourself off from great opportunities by biasing yourself against them if they come from other people.
A better way to approach things is to instead care about being correct. Being correct means that you've made choices that are giving you the best chance to succeed, even if it goes against what you wanted to be right, or initially believed to be right. Being correct means adopting other people's ideas when they are better than your own, and it means looking at information objectively when making choices. Being correct means swallowing your pride when someone tells you that your deck isn't very good and being willing to explore their reasoning for why they believe that and admit that they were right and you were wrong in cases where that is true.
Now, being correct doesn't mean that you can't also be right. There are going to be times when your intuition, your logic and your opinions are going to actually be correct and others are going to erroneously try to tell you that you are wrong. It won't always be easy to know when this is the case. You can be a completely logical, emotionless robot who only cares about being correct and never about being right, and you can still end up playing the wrong deck for a tournament, or taking the wrong line of play, or making the wrong card choices because Magic is extremely hard and complex and sometimes it is impossible to know the right answer ahead of time.
We can certainly never be correct 100% of the time in Magic, but the key is to change our methodology so that we can be correct as often as possible, and one big step is to avoid the kinds of biases that creep in from caring about being right.There is one example I can immediately think of where I swallowed my pride and cared more about being correct than being right and it paid off.
Brad Nelson and I traveled to Costa Rica to play a Grand Prix last year. We invested a lot into that trip, so it was important to us that we succeed and not make the trip a waste. I had been testing my versions of Bant Humans on Magic Online in the week leading up to the event and believed I had the best deck. I was winning a lot and it felt extremely powerful. Brad, however, felt like my deck wasn't good enough and regular old Bant Company was better.
It would have been easy to say “No, you're wrong, my Bant Humans deck is better. Look at all this testing I've done and all the winning I've done. This is the best version of the best deck.” It would have been easy to react negatively to hearing that Brad didn't validate all the work I put in. Instead, I was willing to indulge Brad, listened to his reasoning, put in some testing using his plans and his ideas, and came to the conclusion that he was ultimately correct and I was wrong.
I made a last-minute switch and we both played Brad's Bant Company deck in that tournament.
We met in Round 10 as the last undefeated players. I ended up making the Top 8, and a week later Yuuki Ichikawa won another Grand Prix with the same 75.
Even if it's clear that being correct is way better than being right, there remains one small issue. How does one tell when they are seeking to be correct or seeking to be right? It can be very easy to think you care about being correct while you actually just care about being right and aren't noticing the small biases you have developed to protect yourself from being wrong.
There is one huge indicator I have noticed for whether someone cares about being correct or is still stuck in the rut of needing to be right. That indicator is taking things personally. In Magic, we often consider our ideas to be extensions of our intelligence. If we come up with a deck or an idea and someone tells us “I think there are a lot of flaws with your deck” we tend to take it personally and consider it an assault on our intelligence.
When we care about being right, we take challenges to our rightness personally. The most important thing to us is being right and being recognized for being right, and when someone challenges us on that, they are introducing to others the idea that we are actually wrong. We don't want to be wrong, because we conflate being right with being smart, so we reject implications to the contrary, regardless of their validity. We assume malice in someone challenging our ideas instead of taking those confrontations at face value. We think someone calling us wrong is the same as someone calling us stupid.
The truth is that being wrong is not synonymous with being unintelligent and if our ideas are flawed it doesn't mean that we are stupid or incapable of having good ideas or that we should stop trying to come up with ideas. It just means exactly what it means, that this specific idea wasn't good enough.
It also goes beyond just taking things personally.
When I was planning to write this article, I had attributed this flaw of needing to be right to stubbornness. And while I am stubborn, that does not tell the whole story. Examining why I was stubborn is more useful than just acknowledging that being stubborn is bad.
There are a couple of reasons for why I fell into this trap. One was ego. I thought I was smarter than other people, and when people would challenge my ideas, I would reject their thoughts because I believed that I was smarter, or more knowledgeable or that I had more information than they did. Looking back, it's easy to see how dumb I was being. I was a random grinder surrounded by Roanoke's finest, and I was too bull-headed to just shut up and listen, at least initially.
Another was a desire to prove myself. I had a huge chip on my shoulder. I felt like I needed to prove that I belonged and that I was good and smart and awesome and had a full head of hair and wasn't just an imposter on the semi-pro or pro Magic circuits and so forth. Feeling the need to prove oneself is an easy way to fall into the trap of being right instead of being correct. When you have external motivations beyond simply succeeding, those motivations can create biases. It's easy to overvalue your own ideas relative to others when you consider your own idea being right a bigger success than winning with someone else's idea because you also get some “proved yourself” points in the mix as well. That can skew perception to what we want rather than what actually is.
As an aside, I don't think having a chip on your shoulder or needing to prove oneself is necessarily a bad thing. I read an article once about how Tom Brady, who is one of the best quarterbacks of all time, never forgets any of the times people have slighted him and he uses that to fuel his competitive fire. I am much the same way; I have a long memory and love to prove people wrong, and it's a large part of what drives me and drives my competitive nature. With that said, it's important to not let it spill over into how you go about trying to succeed. It's a fine line, but you want to be fueled by a need to prove yourself but not blinded by it.
Lastly, this kind of mentality can be driven by a desire for fame and recognition. A lot of players are driven by a desire to be known and recognized as a good player rather than having the desire to actually be a good player. This can manifest itself into the flaw of being right instead of being correct. Good players have good ideas, so there is a pressure there to always be the one who comes up with a good deck or a good idea and that pressure can skew us into thinking that our ideas are better than they are because we have this self-created pressure to produce something memorable.
The reality of the situation is completely different. Having good results and having genuine success, regardless of where the idea came from, creates fame and recognition. Those end results are a product of being willing to put one's pride away and listen to the ideas of others and recognize when their ideas are better. Simply trying to make correct choices over “right” choices and working to be the best player you can be will produce results and generate recognition, far more than any active attempt to achieve it.
Over the course of the past few years, I have made great strides in this area of my game. I used to put a lot of stock into being right. I wanted to be the one who made the great deck, or the one who got everyone to play the deck I supported. I wanted people to recognize me for being right about cards, and I was stubborn about accepting help and advice from other players.
These days, I just want to make the correct choices, regardless of whose great idea they were. I'm still going to build decks, come up with ideas, and push for my ideas, but I'm also willing to listen to criticisms of my ideas and I'm willing to invest time and consideration to other people's ideas instead of my own. I'm just as happy to register a deck that someone else developed as I am to register my own concoction.
I strive to approach situations objectively, ignore my natural biases, and focus on doing what is correct, even if I have to swallow my pride and admit that I was wrong in the process.
- Brian Braun-Duin