Three Lessons Magic has Taught Me

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
11/17/2017 11:01:00 AM
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“Everything I've learned about life I learned from Magic: The Gathering!” *Cue Infomercial music*

So, yeah. Of course that isn't actually true. I have learned a lot of things outside the scope of this game. However, that absurd statement is still surprisingly not that far off from being correct. Most people tend to learn a lot of life lessons while they are in college or in their early 20s, but that wasn't really the case for me. I spent most of that period thinking I had everything figured out when in actuality I knew pretty much nothing. The worst thing isn't that I was completely wrong about almost everything, it's that I was completely wrong and also stubbornly convinced I was right. That horrid mixture of blind confidence and stupidity really hindered my growth as a person. Who would have guessed? When I compare who I was and what I believed 10 years ago to who I am now and what I believe now, there is a massive difference and in many ways a complete reversal in thought.

When I finally gave up on college, back in 2012, I had spent eight years off-and-on in school by that point and I still left without a degree. Not only did I fail, but I failed spectacularly. I kept coming back again and again and failing in the exact same ways again and again while trying to motivate myself to do what it took to graduate from college. Clinging onto college for eight years and not even picking up a bachelor's degree isn't just bad, it's embarrassingly bad. Most people would either finally push themselves hard enough to get it done or have fully given up by that point. Not me. I found a way to keep going and keep failing for far longer than most people would be able to stomach.

By the time that chapter in my life concluded, I was a depressed, self-loathing mess of a person. I was up past my bulging eye-sprockets in debt, had no job, had no prospects, had no skills, and was alone. I had almost no friends and barely any relationship with my family. The few friends I hadn't pushed away yet had no clue what was going on in my life because I made sure to put on a good face around them. I played a lot of Magic, but I can't say that I loved it, and I certainly wasn't winning at it. I was bitter, angry and entitled. My life sucked and I wasn't sure what I hated more, how bad my life had gotten or myself for letting things fall apart that much.

I also felt incredibly lost and clueless. I no longer knew what to believe, what I was supposed to be doing with my life, or how I should view myself or other people. That stubborn kid who thought he had all the answers got a second helping of life stew and realized that he actually had none.

In 2013, I was able to turn my life around. I got a job working for StarCityGames, and I began the slow grind of pulling myself out of my financial debt. I also started to make a lot of positive life changes. I started going to the gym, eating healthy and losing weight. I transformed from being a depressed lonely person to a more confident, happier person. I couldn't believe how much of a transformation was possible within just one year. I don't think 2012 me would have believed it to be feasible.

In the five years that have transpired since then, a lot has changed in my life, but one thing has remained constant: Magic. Magic has been my hobby, my career, my passion, and my near-singular focus over that period of time. In these past five years, I've learned so much about myself and about life from observing, interacting with and learning from the countless other people I've had the pleasure of interacting with in the Magic community.

So many people in our community are incredibly smart people who have a lot of valuable insight and simply being exposed to these brilliant minds and how they conduct themselves and what they say has had a profound impact on myself. Even just watching myself and others fail and make mistakes has been illuminating. You could say, in some ways, that I've basically reinvented myself over these past 5 years. I don't resemble the Brian from 10 years ago in any real discernible way. Not even looks. Male pattern baldness hadn't kicked in that far back.

I'm going to talk about some of the major things I've learned over the past few years that have had an enormous impact on my life.

I Shouldn't Give Importance to Things that Don't Matter

Magic is a game full of countless minor frustrations. You miss your fifth land drop for six turns in a row with a Glorybringer in hand and your opponent at four life. Eventually you lose a game you didn't think was possible to lose. You are 6-1 and playing for Top 8 and you get paired against the only person in the room playing your nightmare matchup. You finish 11-4 at a Grand Prix but get 68th on tiebreakers when they pay out to Top 64. You mulligan to three in an important match and lose yet again. Yet another win-and-in turned lose-and-out. What a tilt!

Life also has countless minor frustrations. The person stopped in front of you at a red light isn't paying attention and doesn't realize when the light has turned green. Their delay means you have to wait another full light cycle to get through the intersection. The lady in front of you at the grocery store decides to pay by check. By the time you finally get out to the parking lot, you realize you left your car lights on and your battery is dead. The person you set up a date with doesn't show up. You've just moved into a new place. You step outside for a second and even though you opened the door from inside the house the door still manages to lock behind you. You left your key inside and don't have your landlord's phone number on your phone. You have to call a locksmith and wait an hour to get into your own house the day after you've moved in. Well, maybe that last one was less of a hypothetical and more of a recent reality for me.

Annoying and frustrating stuff happens all the time. There is really no way to ever eliminate these toe-stub situations from our lives. They will always be present. However, we do have full control over how we perceive these annoyances and how we choose to react to them. We can choose to let some inconvenience affect our mood negatively or ruin our day, or we can think about it and make the active choice to not let it tear us down. Most of the time it really is just as easy as stopping, thinking about it and then saying to yourself “I'm not going to let this moment ruin my happiness” and then carrying on afterward. If we don't give importance to this event, then it cannot control us.

Even beyond just choosing to not let inconveniences influence us negatively, we can also choose how we perceive and react to the actions of others. People I know constantly do things that upset me or frustrate me. They make plans and exclude me, or say something mean and insensitive, or act selfishly in a way that creates problems and inconveniences for me. It's really easy for me to take one of those situations and stew on it and let it sour my mood for the rest of the day. Sometimes I still fall victim to this. However, my life is way better when I don't fall into this trap and instead actively make the choice to not make a big deal out of it.

I learned how to deal with these situations from having to deal with the constant and never-ending frustration of losing in Magic. When I lose a big match, I usually go somewhere by myself for a few minutes, allow myself to be frustrated and get it all out, and then choose to not let it bother me anymore. The easiest way for me to convince myself to stop caring about these tough losses is to take a step back and think long-term about it. I usually ask myself the question: “In six months, am I going to care that I lost this match?” The answer is almost always no. If it's not important for me to remember or care about in six months, then why am I letting it negatively affect my mood right now?

“In six months, am I going to care that I wasted an hour on a Thursday evening because of this traffic jam?” No. It seems unlikely I would even remember the event. So why am I making such a big deal out of it and allowing it to ruin my mood?

I also used this method to help me lose weight. Any time I would be tempted to eat something I wasn't supposed to eat, I would ask myself “Am I going to care that I ate this piece of cake two hours from now?” The enjoyment from eating that delicious morsel only lasts for a brief, fleeting moment. It provides no lasting happiness. On the other hand, the setback of breaking my diet has far longer-reaching implications. It usually takes days to recover from a bad meal.

I know that I have no control over random circumstances or the actions of other people. There is no value in worrying about things beyond my control, because no amount of worrying will actually change anything, and only generates negativity in my life. There are only a few things that actually matter in life. For me, this list is basically just my job, my personal health and well-being, and the people that are close to me. In the wise words of Metallica: nothing else matters. Therefore, there is no absolutely no reason to give importance to these other things and let them create negativity in my life.

I have a small list of things that I care about, and a huge list of things that I just don't care at all about. If I get frustrated over something that isn't on the list and I let it affect me negatively, then I've failed. I've given importance to something that has no importance. I've been way happier as a person ever since I figured this out and trained myself to just not care about almost everything.

I Am the Center of My Own Universe, but The World Does Not Revolve Around Me

Everyone's reality is centered on themselves. Everyone is the protagonist in their own story. Everyone sees and experiences life through one perspective only, their own. As a result, we often think of other people as NPCs in the game of our life rather than actual separate autonomous beings who also have a reality centered around themselves. This often means that we are often completely oblivious to what is going on in other people's lives and the effect we can have on other people. We consider what is happening in our life to be of far more importance, regardless of whether that is actually true. We are living it, breathing it, experiencing it, so it is only natural that we would consider it the most important thing, because it is the realest thing to us.

“I can't believe all these people keep getting in my way. This has been such a bad day.” We consider every situation from a very me-centric viewpoint like the above. Every thought we have starts from a point of view of how it affects us or how it relates to us. The reality of the situation is that perhaps we are actually the ones who are getting in their way. Maybe these people are actually having a worse day than we are. Maybe we are actually the bad guy in this scenario.

“I've lost three win-and-ins in a row, I deserve to win this one,” we think. Maybe our opponent has been playing Magic for 15 years and this will be the first time they've ever Top 8'd a high-level tournament and it would mean so much more to them than what it means to you. Maybe our opponent's cousin needs money for a medical procedure and our opponent needs to win this match to get enough to pay for it. Are we still the one who “deserves” this win?

I'm not trying to make the point that every time you sit down for a match you need to determine which player would get the most out of winning the match, or anything like that. Even if my opponent would get more out of winning the match, I'm still going to try to beat them. I'm just saying that our base instinct is to only think about things from our own reality and our own perspective, rather than consider the perspective of other people. We are the center of our own universe, yet the world doesn't revolve around us. Our opinions and interests sometimes just don't matter at all, even though they seem like the most important thing to us.

I'm also not trying to make any moralizations here. I'm not trying to say that you must put other people first. I'm not leading up to some grand reveal about not being selfish. Hell, I even think selfishness is good in some instances. You're the only person that truly cares about your own wellbeing, and sometimes you must really put yourself first and fight for things that benefit you.

What I'm trying to say instead is that we often have a huge hole in how we see things because our perspective is so skewed toward ourselves and how things impact us, and that can really mess with our relationships and interactions with other humans. Once I started realizing how me-centric my viewpoints were in situations and started thinking about and understand situations from other people's perspectives, I noticed a marked improvement in my life.

Turns out, people treat you a lot better when you can look at things from their viewpoint and not just your own. I noticed a huge improvement in my relationships with other people and my interactions with strangers once I started taking the time to really prioritize considering things from other people's eyes.

One of the common situations we run into in Magic events is a big part of what made me start to think about these kinds of things. Let's say I am really far ahead in a game of Magic. Then I draw five lands in a row, and somehow end up losing. After the match, I think “Wow, I can't believe I flooded out so hard” or “My opponent got so stupidly lucky” or “this is so unfair, I deserved to win this match.” I then start to complain to my opponent about how unlucky it was or how if I had just drawn this one card I would have easily won, and so on and so forth.

This is a very me-centric approach to take. The only perspective in my mind is my own perspective, the reality in which the match was a loss. I'm not thinking about it from my opponent's perspective, the reality in which the match was a win. I'm not thinking about how they played to their outs. I'm not thinking about how well they sideboarded. I'm not thinking about if they are happy to have won the match and if my actions are ruining their happiness. To me they are just an NPC involved in the frustration of my recent loss.

It's important to consider that maybe in their universe, we are the NPC who is ruining the enjoyment of their win. We may be the protagonist in our own story, but at this moment, we are the antagonist in theirs.

The World Owes Me Nothing

This has been a tough lesson for me to learn. If I'm being honest, I would go so far as to say that I haven't actually learned this one yet, it's still very much a work in progress. It's so easy to think that because of some situation in the past where we didn't get a fair shake that we are therefore owed something by life in the future to balance it out. “Yeah, yeah, we get it. Life isn't fair. What a novel conclusion to arrive at.” It's pretty easy to say that life isn't fair and that we shouldn't expect things to resolve fairly for us, but it's actually a lot harder in practice to realize when we are still clinging on to this notion subconsciously.

One area where I've felt like I am owed something is in regard to the Pro Tour. I've now played in 18 Pro Tours, and my best finish is a handful of 10-6 finishes and a lone top 50 result. If you play in your first Pro Tour and finish 11-5, you will have had a better Pro Tour result than I have ever had in 4.5 years of playing on the Pro Tour. It's safe to say that mistakes were made in some of these Pro Tours, but there were also many events where I also just got extremely, almost unbelievably, unlucky. I had a great Constructed deck, I knew the draft format well, I played good Magic at the event itself, but absolutely nothing would break my way. Each successive time it happens it pushes me a little bit more toward bitterness and entitlement.

I can't help but think: “When is it my turn? When am I going to actually get lucky at a Pro Tour for once and have a good finish?” As each Pro Tour comes and goes and the number of failed events ticks up by one, it becomes more frustrating and more unfair to me that I haven't been able to break through even a single time yet. My expectations continue to rise as I think that eventually things will balance out and I will have a good finish, but the reality of the matter is that this isn't actually how the world works. I'm not owed this.

I could really notice this affecting me last year. It was affecting my mood and my enjoyment of Magic. I ran cold for about six months straight, until I finally realized that if I just wore a jacket, I wouldn't be so cold when I went out for a run. That was a life-changing realization for me and ever since I've been a huge jacket advocate. They are great for providing warmth.

In all seriousness, though, this mentality was really affecting me negatively during that six-month stretch where I was struggling. When you're in the funk of entitlement and thinking that you're owed something or wondering “when is it going to be my turn to experience success” it can really sour your perspective on things. It can put you in a mindset where playing Magic becomes a bitter pill to swallow because the crippling despair of losing is so much more potent than the temporary joy that comes from winning. It can also make it so that you can't appreciate or celebrate other people's victories. Instead of being happy for your friends who are doing well, you're stuck thinking “This isn't fair. That should have been me. It was my turn.”

How I managed to rid myself of the entitlement that I was feeling when it came to Pro Tour results was interesting. I'm generally a very optimistic person. I have positive expectations for my future and I tend to think that things will generally work themselves out. This mentality has helped me in a lot of ways. It has given me the motivation to keep grinding at Magic over and over again despite repeated failures.

It was failing me in this situation, though. I decided to instead approach the situation with the most pessimistic viewpoint, and it gave me some clarity about my future in the Pro Tour. The fact of the matter is that I may never do well in a Pro Tour. I may go the rest of my Magic career without ever making a Top 8. I might never put up a good finish the rest of my life. Just because I've been unlucky in the past doesn't mean that I will necessarily be lucky in the future. Just because I feel like I've paid my dues with 18 failed attempts doesn't mean that I'm owed anything in return or that I deserve for the 19th attempt to go my way as a result.

When I came to this realization, I decided to put myself to the test. I asked myself: “Am I okay with continuing to play professional Magic knowing full well that I may never succeed at the Pro Tour no matter how many times I try?” If the answer is no, then I should just quit, because this path can only lead to bitterness and pain.

My answer was yes. I realized that even if I never succeed or live up to the goals and expectations I've put on myself, that I am still happy playing Magic, I still love my job, and I still enjoy the struggles, challenges, and people that are part of competitive Magic and the community. I may never get what I want, but I'm still happy trying anyway, and I greatly enjoy the process.

Coming to this conclusion did wonders for me. My mood and perspective greatly improved. I've been way happier with competitive Magic recently, even when I'm not doing well at it. I noticed myself at the last Pro Tour being in a way better mental state than I have ever been in at a Pro Tour in the past. I had a really rough stretch during the middle of the tournament, but I just shrugged it off, and won my last four matches anyway. I didn't get the result I wanted, but I was actually pretty happy anyway, because I was pleased with how I played and how I approached the event.

I may never amount to anything as a Pro Tour player. I may never achieve my dreams. But thankfully I've learned that I can still find happiness in Magic anyway, amidst all the failed events and broken goals. Arguably, that's more important than finding success, anyway.

Well, it isn't...but you could argue that.

- Brian Braun-Duin




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