The Pressure to Be Relevant

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
8/23/2018 11:04:00 AM
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I encountered the above conversation on Twitter last week, and it really resonated with me. There is a lot to think about from both of those statements, and they involve things that I have wrestled with a lot over the years I've been pouring my life into competitive Magic.

I have played Magic for a lot of my life with a chip on my shoulder. I don't talk about this very often because it isn't something I am proud of, but I have a long memory when it comes to ways that people have slighted me in the past. I still remember mean comments on articles and videos from years ago.

I remember a time I played FNM at a game store I was visiting a decade ago, long before I played competitively events or anyone knew who I was in Magic. One of my opponents made fun of how bad my homebrew deck was after I beat him. That moment stuck with me so much that I still recognized that player many years later when he came up to me at a tournament and talked to me as a fan.

In 2012 I was going to quit Magic because it was a negative influence in my life and I couldn't afford to play anymore, but I ended up making Top 8 of what would have been my last event, an SCG Invitational, which gave me the money to pay people back for debts I owed and be able to afford to keep playing Magic. In the last round of that event, my opponent and I were going to draw and both miss Top 8, but I had the game locked up and would have won a turn or two later.

My opponent chose to graciously concede. I later saw a prominent Magic player say on social media that I should have conceded in that spot instead, even though I had the game locked up, because my opponent was better than me and had a better chance of winning the tournament. I'm not proud of how long I harbored animosity for that player over that one statement made. All I wanted was the respect of other players and I took statements like that extremely personally and didn't easily let go of them.

I remember when after I won the World Championship, there was a discussion among professionals about whether the Grand Prix Master slot, the slot I used to qualify for the World Championship, was fielding strong enough players for the World Championship. They questioned whether players who qualified via that slot and similar specialty slots deserved to be there. I took personal offense to this and lashed out. I wanted recognition. I wanted people to think I was good. I wanted to be respected, to be relevant, to remove any doubts of whether my results are a fluke or not. Winning the World Championship and then still having people question whether I was even good enough to be there in the first place there hurt deeply and played into my own personal narrative about needing to prove something.

While the chip on my shoulder – my burning desire to prove people wrong about me and to prove I belonged here – has been a powerful motivator over the time I've played, it hasn't been healthy. These situations, and the many other situations where people have slighted me in the past, real or perceived, have played through my mind hundreds of times, driving me to invest more and more of my time into this game. I wanted to be the best. I wanted people to look at my results and think “wow, he is really good” and not “he's gotten a couple of lucky finishes.” I wanted to be able to throw my successes in the faces of everyone who said I wasn't good enough. Thinking back on it, I don't like how I have handled these situations and my mindset related to them.

This isn't exactly the same as what Kat is talking about in that tweet, but it ties in. What many of us want in this game is to prove to ourselves and others that we have what it takes to succeed. After a lot of my big successes in Magic, instead of cherishing the result and being able to celebrate in the accomplishment, I would instead feel pressure to replicate it. Showing others that I could do it again was a receipt I could use to prove that I deserved to be here. I tried to collect as many receipts as I could and I went to as many events as possible to get them. When it came time to pay taxes, I was prepared, at the very least.

When I scrubbed out of my first Pro Tour, I felt a lot of pressure to qualify again. I put in a crazy amount of hours driving to every possible PTQ to try to get back on the Pro Tour. After I won Grand Prix Louisville in 2013, my first Grand Prix Top 8, I felt pressure to Top 8 another Grand Prix and show my win wasn't just an isolated lucky finish. When I won the World Championship, qualifying for the World Championship again was my driving motivator for the next year. When I failed to requalify, I was devastated.

While I should have been trying to qualify for Worlds out of a healthy desire to succeed and thrive in Magic, I would be lying if I said that was my primary driving force. No, what I wanted was to prove myself to others. I wanted to show that even without a Grand Prix Master special slot to rely on, I was still good enough to get there. In hindsight, this wasn't great.

I believe that I have succeeded in Magic despite this mindset, not because of it. My obsession with proving myself has ended up working out for me. I am now a professional player, a Platinum level pro, and I did manage to qualify for Worlds this year. I made it. Those countless hours spent grinding away, testing, preparing, driving 10 hours to tournaments by myself eventually paid off into something tangible. I get to play and write about this wonderful game for a living, and I am so thankful that despite all the harmful mindsets and bad decisions I've made, things did still work out.

It wasn't without cost, though. Pouring everything into this game to prove that I could be good and that I could be a Pro Magic player has cost me friendships, relationships and a normal life. I might have thousands of “friends” on Facebook or followers on Twitter, but the number of people who I am close to is extremely small, and with every waking hour that I spend playing Magic instead of spending that time on fostering relationships, that number gets ever smaller.

I went all-in on Magic, and I shudder to think about where I would be if I had failed. There was no guarantee of success. I always thought that if I worked hard enough at it, success would eventually come, and while success would not have come without the hard work, there are plenty of people who work hard at things and fail all the time. We only see the ones who made it, not the many that fell short trying and failing. Survivorship bias.

Thankfully, my mindset has changed over the years and is still changing. I've spent a lot of words so far in this article talking about my past flaws – flaws in my mindset and my approach to the game. I'd like to spend the rest talking about things that I've learned.

The Danger of One Good Finish

In Matthew's original tweet, he says “A good finish at a big Magic tournament is one of the worst things that can ever happen to a non-professional Magic player.”

I don't want to put words in his mouth about what he meant, but my take on his statement is this. A good finish can create false expectations. We do well at one event, and that creates an expectation that this is something we can regularly do, and we start aggressively chasing chances to do it again, while deluding ourselves about the realities of competitive Magic. Results do not come easy. No matter how good we are, it still might be a long time until we put up another good finish. It might never happen again. That is just the reality of Magic.

It's easy to take this too far. We make sacrifices to chase these fleeting successes and these sacrifices can hurt us in the long run. It's easy to invest too much time or money into chasing the temporary high of a good finish and throw away everything else along the way. That's what I did, and it was not smart. I dropped out of college. Outside of things I've learned from Magic, I have no marketable skills. Chasing Magic success at the expense of other important things in life is simply not worth it. Properly balancing Magic around other important things life is much healthier.

Sometimes we can also let a good finish develop into an inflated ego. That hurts our development as a player and helps ensure that we won't be able to replicate these successes because we aren't learning, growing, and improving anymore. A good finish can also develop into a poor mindset about losing. We travel to events chasing the high of success, but we can also start to expect this success and get irrationally upset when we don't get it. We start to think that we deserve another good finish, when the reality of the matter is that we don't deserve anything, and all we can do is just play our best and accept the outcome.

Having said that, I want to go back to the initial point.

I think a good finish at a big Magic tournament for a non-professional can actually be something truly wonderful. I love hearing stories about how someone who has been playing for years finally gets that breakthrough result that they've always wanted. It makes me happy to see someone who shares my passion for this game finally experiencing success at something they care deeply about. I think a good finish for a can be one of the best things to happen to them.

It all comes down to perspective and expectations. I think the best way to handle a good finish is to take it for exactly what it is. It's something to be proud about, something to cherish and something to make us happy. It isn't more than that, and we shouldn't make it into something it isn't.

A Change in Perspective

In her response to Matthew, Kat says: “The pressure (even if mostly self-inflicted) to keep doing well and to stay relevant is a lot. The feeling of that one result being a fluke and the fear of people finding out I'm not as good as that result can be overwhelming.”

I spent far too many words in the beginning of this article talking about how I have struggled with exactly those same feelings over the course of my time playing competitive Magic. I no longer feel that way. That's not to say that those feelings won't surface again in the future, but right now I no longer feel any pressure to prove myself when it comes to Magic.

It might be easy for me to say that, considering that I have accomplished a lot of things over the many years I've played, but the truth of the matter is that no matter how far we progress and no matter how much we achieve, there is always something more to attain and there are always people who will doubt us or think we aren't as good as our results. I may have won a World Championship, but I've never Top 8'd a Pro Tour, and that's still something left for me to prove and still something people can use to suggest I'm not as good as my results. Even if I Top 8 a Pro Tour, then I need to prove I can do it again. Even if I Top 8 a dozen Pro Tours, after enough of a drought, I would still need to prove that I'm not old and washed up, and it's pretty impossible to prove that I'm not old when I'm looking at a copy of my birth certificate right now.

There is always more to prove, regardless of whether you have one good finish or 50.

What made a big difference for me was to take time to reevaluate what I cared about in Magic. If I care primarily about how other people view me, then I will always have that chip on my shoulder. After failing at yet another Pro Tour earlier this season, I spent a lot of time soul searching about the role of Magic in my life.

I concluded that even if I never get another result in my life, I am still happy that I get to play Magic and for all the experiences, friends, and memories I've made. Yes, that's right. You made it this far into the article for me to say that the best part of the journey is the friends we make along the way. Get wrecked, nerds. Get absolutely destroyed. Get ****ed.

Seriously, though. I'm happy that I get to play and write about Magic, even if I don't put up another finish ever again. I no longer care if people think I suck at Magic or that I'm overrated or my results are better than my skill. The people that are important to me care about me as a person, not my stat sheet in Magic.

My mindset right now is to just go to events, play my best, and not worry about the results. If I'm playing good decks and playing well, the results will hopefully come, but I'm not too worried if they don't. I try to focus on enjoying what drew me to Magic in the first place. I fell in love with this game because of the competition, puzzles and strategy. I didn't get invested in this game so I could fret about how many more wins I need to Top 8 or how many bad events I've had in a row, or how long I can go without another good finish before people question my relevance. I choose instead to focus on the things about the game that make me happy.

I also think there is something to be said about internal versus external validation. Tying my validation in Magic to how other people view me will never be a recipe for success. I'll never be good enough for other people. At the very least, I will never match up to my personal perceptions of how other people view me, even if those perceptions are inaccurate. Trying desperately to chase an unattainable goal is unlikely to pan out, to say the least.

Instead, I'm choosing to get my validation in Magic from other things. I'm choosing to get validation not from results, but from the process itself. If I prepare adequately for an event, play my best, conduct myself professionally and give myself the best chances to succeed, then I can find validation in that even if I don't get the result I hope for. I think that's the best I can do, and my happiness and results in Magic have been way better since I made an effort to force myself to think about Magic this way.

The Flaws in How We Evaluate Each Other

I think there is a real problem in Magic in how we evaluate each other. We measure someone's relevance based on their results. Someone is relevant if they are currently putting up results, and they are not relevant if they are no longer are putting up results or can't match their previous results.

I think that is messed up. We as players put way too much of our own personal identities into our skills as a player, rather than who we are as a person. We measure other players not by how great of a person we think they are, not by whether they are someone we want to spend time with or hang out with, but by how great of a player we think they are. We value skill and results to the exception of everything else, and I don't think our community is better off for it. Skill and success is not irrelevant, but we shouldn't tie our own self-worth or others worth to things like this.

My favorite people to play and interact with at tournaments are people who are more casually invested into the game. This isn't to say they are bad players or not competitive, but rather that they have a healthier approach to Magic. To them it is a game, and their personal identity is not tied to it. There is value in being well-rounded and not putting all your eggs in one basket. I say this, realizing full well that I'm a complete hypocrite. My identity is inextricably tied to Magic, and nothing about my approach is casual. However, do I think it would be healthier for me if that wasn't true.

In the past, I've tied a lot of my self-worth to fickle and fleeting things, like my results in a card game with a lot of variance. Nowadays, I'm working on changing that mentality. I'd rather put value, not on what others think of me or what my stat sheet says, but to being the best player I can be and being the best person I can be. To me, that's what is truly relevant.

- Brian Braun-Duin




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