The Mental Game of Magic


by Erik Henriksen

As a former semi-professional poker player, I would like to share some thoughts and opinions about the similarities of the mental game in Magic the Gathering and poker.

First things first, let my clearify that I'm no expert, but I have gathered some experience on this matter by playing magic and poker on many semi-competative levels over several years. I just want to scribble down some thoughts about this subject, and hope it will be of use to someone.


As anyone who has played either of these games a lot on a higher level than «fun» knows, sooner or later you will reach a point when you feel that you stop to progress as player, maybe even feel you're taking a step back. This is completely normal, and happens to even the best of us, trust me. You will probably feel exhausted, angry, want to quit etc. You might also think that everyone is luckier than you, the shuffler is rigged and so on. This is obviously wrong, but I've been there myself, multiple times.

What I did in the beginning was to throw things, shout at the screen, and destroy a couple of keyboards, but did this help? Maybe for a few seconds, but it didn't help to improve my game. This is called tilt.

Lets go back to my first period of playing magic on a semi-competative level in the early 2000s. I had played Magic for fun since 95, but when I moved to Oslo to study, a new world opened up to me. People here were playing on a pretty high level almost every night of the week. The Friday drafts especially, were loaded with pros and some donks like me. Being a pretty competative person, I wanted the join this party, and started to play Magic almost every day. I quickly became a pretty solid player, not one of the best by far, but solid. I racked up a few wins here and there, both in drafts and constructed, and started to attend the PTQs. They hit me hard at first, as the level here were even higher, but by time a became better and had quite a few top8s. Then the decline started. I never got further than the semi-finals, and this started to get to me. Why couldn't I win one of these, was I actually a bad player, or was everyone just luckier than me? I reached a point where I got so tired of this game that I just quit, didn't answer my friends messages or calls when they asked to play, and sold most of my cards for a terrible price. What a tilt.

This move I was to regret later and here's what I should have done:

What I learned late in my poker «career» was to take a break from the grind when things got really rough and it affected the game in a negative way. I stopped playing completely for a while, read some poker books and basically took some time to cool off and try to improve my game in other ways than just playing. This worked wonders, and every time I did this, I started with a newfound joy and spirit for the game. My playing had also improved, even when not grinding every day. One thing that also helped my mental game was to play new things like micro-limit cash games, omaha etc. These games were played just for fun, with a calculated loss of money.

What I'm trying to say here is that when playing Magic is starting to feel like crap and you feel like crap, it's time to take a break and do something different. I'm not saying you should do something radical like selling your collection for a lousy price, but try something else like a new format or just watch other people play. That's the beauty of old-school Magic. There are tons of formats to play, even on a budget. And lots of fun videos pop up on Youtube every day.


Another similarity between Magic and poker I would like to talk a bit about is varience. This is one of the most used words to describe up- and downswings in the poker world, and can translate pretty well to the Magic-world. You may feel like you never topdeck the card you want, or that you always manascrew in important matches. Meanwhile, your opponents always seem to have that one restricted card in hand, or always makes their landdrops. This is an illusion. The human mind is kinda funny that way, it seems to remember bad stuff better than good stuff.

Say you have played 1000 games with your deck vs the same opponent playing the same deck as you. Chances are that after that many games, you will probably have manascrewed close to the same amount of times. If not, maybe one of you are better at taking mulligans than the other? Point is that in the short-run, luck is a big factor, no doubt about it. But in the long-run, the smaller the luck part of the game becomes, and the bigger the skill part becomes. And who's into Magic for the short-run anyways, haha.

Winning vs having fun

Lets face it, we all want to win most of the time. But say you're playing in a tournament with no entry fee, and no prize pool. What do you feel is most important, winning or having fun? Most people would probably say having fun here, and for your mental state, this would be the right answer. If you go into every tournament with the purpose of just winning, you're in for a hard time sooner or later. This is probably what happened to me during my years of playing Magic in Oslo, and the first year of playing poker on a non-casual level. I would go to home-games at a friends house, expecting to win, wanting to win at all costs and when it didn't happen, it ruined the entire evening. Poker just wasn't fun when I didn't win. The same thing was true when I gunned for a PT invite. Trying to win every match ruined all fun, and eventually led to me quitting. Nowadays I still want to win obviously, but not at the cost of having fun. That's what so great about old-school Magic. If you want to test your competative side, there's a few tournaments on a higher level where you can do that, but there's always a ton of other formats and tournaments you can play when you just want to have fun. I've come to terms with that competative Magic is not for me, I just want to have fun and score a few wins here and there. This is better for my mental state as well as my personal life. 

I hope this article can help out when you feel like the worst player ever and feel like quitting is the best option, it probably isn't. Just do something that makes you happy for a while, and see if things will turn around when you play in a big tournament again. Cheers!