Let’s imagine a scenario that will sound at least vaguely familiar to most Magic players. You’re at Friday Night Magic, and it’s a close game. The board is evenly balanced with a small creature on each side. You each have plenty of open mana, and both of you are running low on life.
Your creatures could trade in combat, but you have a piece of instant-speed removal. It’s an opportunity to chip in for damage and take the lead. So, you tap out to destroy your opponent’s creature, move to combat and attack.
“I animate Shambling Vent and block,” your opponent says. Clearly, you missed something. Or you forgot. Either way, the Vent will eat your creature, and next turn, your opponent will swing in and take the lead.
“Oh, wait… Shoot. I didn’t want to do that, did I…” you mutter, realizing your mistake.
“It’s okay. You can take back that attack, if you want,” your opponent offers. It is just FNM.
What would you do in this scenario?
Whether at Friday Night Magic, a Grand Prix or the kitchen table, I would wager that nearly every player has been in a situation like this. Mistakes happen, and I think we’ve all winced at our absent-minded misplays—particularly when the move is glaringly obvious.
In a more casual environment, it’s almost unspoken that a few take-backs here or there are fine. It’s a common courtesy as to not punish an opponent for slipping up in a low-stakes game. No one wants to see their opponent in a bad mood, and sometimes its easier to let it happen than cause a stir or sour the experience.
I would argue that we are often dishonest with ourselves when these situations arise. When you make a substantial punt, you often know right away. Knowing the right play was there and feeling like you would typically follow that line can lead to a gut feeling of injustice. It’s like a momentary loss of agency, and it can almost make you feel like a victim.
We’ve all tapped our mana incorrectly, or passed the turn before casing a post-combat spell. So what’s the big deal with take-backs? A split second lack of judgment should not cost me the game.
What’s the big deal with take-backs?
Let’s re-frame the issue to get a better understanding of what has gone wrong. When you notice a particularly heinous punt, there is likely no argument that you did not know the best play. There is an argument to be made, however, that you weren’t paying full attention to the board state. Or perhaps you were distracted. Or maybe you assumed incorrectly that you remembered what a certain card did.
However you arrived at the mistake, you made an incomplete or incorrect assessment of the game—which is your core task as a participant. If an opponent will let you walk back a poorly considered decision, you’ve robbed yourself of incentive to grow as a player and avoid making that mistake again. (That’s not even to mention that you’re likely taking advantage of an opponent’s goodwill in a manner that undoes the leverage they should have gained from your punt.)
Breaking the Habit
Humans are creatures of habit, and sloppy habits hold you back as a player. But how do we get over bad habits like this?
Tip #1: Own your mistake.
The absolute first step is to recognize the decisions that were made, and live with them. Blame yourself, not the mistake. Your instinct may kick in, attempting to rationalize the situation, but remember that you alone have control over your actions.
It is okay to feel bad when you make a mistake. Just try to keep in mind that it happens to everyone, even at the highest level of play. Now, how can we leverage this scenario and make the best of it?
Tip #2: Say “No” to take-backs.
It may be obvious based on the title of this piece, but you need to suck it up and move on with the game in it’s current, post-mistake state. No matter how much of a rookie blunder you feel you’ve made, acknowledge it, and reassess the game.
Your opponent may very well offer to let you undo an attack or tap your mana differently. Tell them “no.” It has been difficult at times, but for the last year or so, I have rejected offers to take back obviously bad moves that I made in error (even in casual games). Doing so only provides positive reinforcement to be sloppy again in the future.
If no one will punish you for bad behavior, take it upon yourself. Personally, I would much rather learn from my mistakes in order to win more games in the future than get a pass in order to win a specific game now.
Tip #3: Avoid compounding the problem.
Once you have made the mistake (and importantly, are not taking it back), ensure you don’t make the problem worse in an attempt to save face. It is entirely okay for your opponent to know you made a mistake.
In a recent article on the sunk cost fallacy, titled It’s Better to Make One Mistake Everyone Sees than Two Only You Know About, Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa wrote,
Magic is a complicated game, and you’re always going to make mistakes (…) That part can’t be avoided, no matter how hard you practice or how talented you are. What can be avoided, however, is doubling down on your mistakes—making more mistakes because you made an original mistake.
The mistake is in the past, so reevaluate the state of the game based on your best possible outs now. Avoid compounding the problem by playing in a way that makes you look better rather than the best play in this post-punt world. Paulo Vitor Dama da Rosa continues, “Since it’s a given of the situation now, it should not impact your future decisions.”
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Tip #4: Learn from the mistake.
Perhaps most importantly, take a step back from the situation for a moment. Ask yourself these questions:
- What action did I take?
- In hindsight, what action should I have taken instead?
- What about the board state did I miss or misunderstand?
- Did any bad habits contribute to making this mistake?
- What am I going to do in the next game or match to avoid encountering the same problem?
You may find it helpful to actually keep track of these situations, how you react and what course correcting efforts you take. Your brain does an incredible job biasing the world it sees to make you feel better, so it is easy to forget about or otherwise diminish the extent to which take-backs and small mistakes affect your play.
Remember, the general goal of this exercise is to become more alert during play. You may get swept up in an exciting game and miss details—that’s okay. How you bounce back in the moment and improve over time is most important, however.
Next time you tap mana poorly or attack when you shouldn’t have, I hope you’ll remember the mantra “no take-backs.” Improve your skill over time by owning the consequences of your actions. Every new board state is a chance to learn something new about Magic: the Gathering!