Failure and Persistence
It's late in the day at Pro Tour Kyoto.We're starting Round 8, the final round of the day, and I need a win here to advance to the second day of competition. My head is pounding. I've been nursing a killer headache for the entire second half of the day. I sit down. I look at my opening hand. Unplayable. I send it back for six cards. Opponent keeps seven. I look at my six-card hand. Playable, but not great. I keep. I hope my opponent isn't playing the Ramunap Red mirror match; my hand isn't great in the mirror.
My opponent leads on a Mountain. Gulp. Big Gulp. Double Gulp. Is this tournament taking place in a 7-11 or is it just me? I get smashed.
I sideboard for the mirror match, but deep down I know that it might not even matter how I board. The only card that truly matters in the mirror is Hazoret the Fervent. Everything else is just posturing in case neither player draws a Hazoret. I can Hazoret cheezburger?
I look at my seven-card hand. Unplayable. I send it back. I look at six cards. Unplayable. I send it back. I look at five cards. It's not pretty, but this will have to do. My opponent keeps seven. He curves out beautifully and I'm too low on resources to fight it. I try to push as much damage as I can, but it's not enough. I shake his hand, sign the match slip and stumble out of the building. It's swelteringly hot outside, and I'm not looking forward to the 15-minute walk back to the hotel.
My headache has reached a crescendo. I just lost three rounds in a row to excessive mulligans and egregious flooding. Need one spell in three turns to win. Don't find it. Need my opponent to brick once. They don't. Just need an opening hand with lands and spells. Don't draw it. 3-2 to 3-5 and dead in the Pro Tour. I missed Day Two. I was frustrated, but my head hurt too much to really focus on it. I sweat my way back to my hotel room and sleep for 13 straight hours. I was dead...both in the tournament and physically. The pain from my headache numbed the pain of failure, at least temporarily.
Another Pro Tour, another disappointment. I've grown accustomed to the disappointment from Pro Tours. I've never Top 8'd a Pro Tour, but then again, I've also never made Top 16 or even Top 32. My best Pro Tour finish is a handful of 10-6 results, which isn't particularly great. My lifetime win percentage at Pro Tours is 51%. For as much Grand Prix success as I've had, I can't seem to ever muster even a reasonably good finish in a Pro Tour. Each year goes by and each year I look back on another disappointing year of Pro Tours.
It gnaws at me. How many times can one person do the same thing with the same result and not give up? I've played 17 Pro Tours now. When is enough going to be enough? I can't even get angry anymore about it. All I feel now is the dull sense of frustration, a lingering tingle of doubt telling me I'll never be good enough, and depression that my dreams of making a Pro Tour Top 8 might die unfulfilled. I've suffered so many bad beats at Pro Tours that I can't even remember most of them anymore. They just blur into one big bad beat. The bad beat is no longer individual stories or plays. My Pro Tour career is the bad beat now.
Will I get that good beat? Will I get that one Pro Tour where I get really lucky for a change? Am I so bad at Magic that I have to rely on getting really lucky to do well at a Pro Tour rather than just beat people with skill? These thoughts flow through my mind unfiltered. I can't control them and they come to me out of order so I can't even make sense of it all. It's just an endless stream of jumbled consciousness.
I've scrubbed out of a lot of Pro Tours. All of them, to be precise. This one hurt particularly hard, though. I scrapped as hard as I could at Grand Prix Kyoto the week before to finish 12-3, which netted me exactly one additional Pro Point to put my total from 43 to 44 Pro Points on the season going into the Pro Tour. That point was hugely relevant, as an 11-5 Pro Tour result gives 10 Pro Points, which would boost me to 54 total, and the cutoff to make Worlds this year ended up being 54 Pro Points when it was all said and done. If I could have gone 11-5, I would have made Worlds.
I put myself in a position where my first good Pro Tour performance would come exactly at the right time to also qualify me for Worlds. This entire year, my goal has been singular in nature. Requalify for Worlds. I did not want to be the first World Champion to not have a chance to defend the title, and despite a rough season I was still in striking range of being able to make it back.
But I failed.
And it hurt. It cut deep.
It sucks to dedicate yourself to something and fail. It sucks to give it your all and have that simply not be good enough. We talk a lot about making goals as Magic players. We talk about working toward those goals, trying to achieve those goals, and how great it feels when you ultimately do. We don't talk as much about missing your goals, about failing to achieve what you set out to achieve, and how to handle it.
How we deal with failure says a lot about us as players. The thing is, Magic is a game of losing. For every good result, there are a myriad of mediocre results mixed in. For every win or Top 8 or tournament cash, there are always so many more events that end in nothing.
I had a particularly rough year. Since Kaladesh came out, I haven't earned a Pro Point at a single Standard tournament. That's a full calendar year where I got effectively dead last in every single Standard tournament. All four Pro Tours were busts, and I didn't go 10-5 or better in a single Standard Grand Prix over that period. This is the worst year I've ever had in Standard in my history of playing Magic, even including the years when I was first starting out and didn't know what I was doing.
It's been frustrating. I can't even say that I've been making poor deck choices. Twice I played the same 75 as the tournament winner. They won the event. I went 2-4 drop. Some of it is the nature of Standard this past year. So many high-variance broken cards that have needed to get banned. Sometimes you spin Aetherworks Marvel into Ulamog. Sometimes you brick on Marvels. Sometimes you just never draw a Marvel. I've been playing Roulette Magic, and the House kept winning.
Am I making poor play choices? Well, I have to be making mistakes, that's clear, but just how badly am I playing? This is extremely hard for me to evaluate, because I had a really good season if we look exclusively at Legacy, Modern and Limited, where I have three GP Top 8's and a handful of close misses. That suggests to me that I'm still capable of playing good Magic, so it's hard for me to figure out how much of my Standard failure is based on my play or if I'm just actually hitting a really bad pocket of variance.
It's become harder and harder over the course of the year to remain positive, upbeat and passionate about Magic when every successive event is just one more failure to add to the pile. “This tournament is the one where you'll do well” feels like a less and less believable lie the more it fails to pan out. “You'll get them next time” rings hollow.
Magic is a long-term game. To be successful, you have to handle the swings. You have to be able to deal with the struggle of a number of failures between every success. But what if the success never comes? How long do you tolerate failure looking for that next big spike? How long until enough is enough?
I wish I had the answers. I don't. I know that it takes a special kind of person to be able to brush off constant failure and keep coming back for more. It requires the knowledge that you know you can succeed, you just haven't found the right mixture yet to do it. It requires knowing that given enough time and enough attempts, success will happen. It requires patience, dedication, and a strong willpower.
It's been a week now since the Pro Tour. I'm still disappointed that I missed out on playing Worlds, but I've mostly gotten over it by this point. Maybe I'm insane, but I can also feel something else rumbling up inside of me. Fire. Passion. Hunger. It's been 10 hours since I've eaten. I could really go for a burrito right now. Oh, and also I can feel a desire to rebound, to get back out there, to start crushing tournaments, to put fear in my opponent's hearts when they see my name on the pairings board.
I'm nothing if not stubborn. I'm persistent. I'm a virus. You're going to have to work harder than this to get rid of me. I don't know if I'm the kind of person who can handle the repeated failure. I don't know how long I can go. I don't know if I have the constitution required to go out there over and over again and fall short, only to brush myself off, get back up, and try, try again. I don't know if I'm strong enough to last year in and year out without catching some big breaks from time to time.
But I know I haven't hit the wall just yet. I'm not going to give up this easily. I've taken a beating this year, but it's going to require at least one more year of beatings for me. And then at the end of next year, if I'm still beaten down and defeated, I'll ask myself “Am I game for one more year of beatings?”
Failure is a tough pill to swallow.It's tough to look yourself in the mirror and say “I wasn't good enough. I didn't get the job done.” But the one thing worse than failure, is letting that failure define you. And I won't do that. The enemy of failure is persistence. Failure is going to win sometimes. It may win most of the time. But it's pretty unlikely that failure can win every time. At some point in time, failure is going to slip up, make a mistake, mess it up. At some point, failure is going to fail. You just have to be persistent enough to last long enough to find it.
My favorite movie is The Matrix. There's a scene from the third Matrix movie, The Matrix Revolutions, which, admittedly, wasn't a great film and easily the worst of the franchise, but this scene resonated with me. In this scene, Agent Smith is beating up on Neo, but Neo keeps fighting and keeps coming back for more in a fight that he can't win. Agent Smith doesn't understand why Neo won't just give up on a lost fight.
Agent Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why, why? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you're fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can't win. It's pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?
Neo: Because I choose to.
Why do I persist? Because I love this game. Because I refuse to be defined by failure. Because I am competitive. Because I hunger for victory. Because I want to be the best and I won't settle for less. Because I'm stubborn. Because I'm angry. Because I care too much.
Because I choose to.