For many, Pro Tour Dark Ascension was a tricky one to prepare for. The set has not been out for long, and is not online to test with at all. That doesn't mean to say that players haven't been able to look at one part of their game from a ways out though. Following Conley Woods' performance at Worlds in 2011, it has become increasingly evident the importance of getting into the right frame of mind to play your best Magic if you want to succeed at the Pro Tour.
Woods at Worlds was quite simply a different player to anything that we had seen of him previously. While he had seen success prior (indeed his first Top 8 was at the last Pro Tour in Honolulu), this was a new intensely focused Woods, who was reaping the rewards of greater discipline in every part of his game, from picking a deck to making the right play again and again and again.
The way that players achieve the right balance of focus and calm varies greatly from player to player, but the results speak for themselves.
For some it is all about creating a routine that they stick to, such that it is easier to be unflappable in the face of bad luck or bad matchups. A great example of this school of thought is the now classic Brian Kibler plan of listening to the same song while shuffling up before each and every game. Not only does this mean that he will always have gone through a thorough and effective shuffling process, it centers him ready to play, and lets any concerns he might have about where he is in the tournament fade.
This show his song is Concrete Angel by Gareth Emery, but really what the song is doesn't matter so much as what it does for Kibler. It is just part of what affords him a consistency that pays dividends across a long tournament like a Pro Tour.
Back at the last Pro Tour Honolulu we saw an impressive swansong from Zac Hill before he finally went across to working for R&D. Zac made Top 8 at that Pro Tour, and part of what helped him get there was maintaining control of his own head-space in order to maintain composure and play at his best. Throughout the tournament Zac had a note written on the back of his hand throughout, that simply read, "FOWYDRN". A little cryptic, but it told him exactly what it needed to – "Focus on what you're doing right now". That's what Zac did, and that little note took him a long way.
However, all was not plain sailing for Hill. At 9-0 he was superbly close to locking things up early on Day Two. At that point, he went 0-3 in his next three matches, suddenly exposed to the chance of losing it all. Hill, in a pivotal moment for his tournament, knew he could "tilt": let his emotions take over and wreck his chances in the final stages of the event. Rather than allowing himself to fall into this trap, Zac went out of the venue and took a breather away from the event after his third loss. That pause to refocus was exactly what Zac needed to power on through and crash into Top 8. Recognizing when your mind is not in the right place is part of the battle, and Zac caught himself before he went into freefall.
Not everyone is looking to be a calm Zen master in the way that they play though. Raph Levy has been doing plenty of martial arts recently, which has added a certain intensity and hunger to the way that he plays which makes him among the most exciting players to watch in the game right now. When he finished second last year at Grand Prix Milan, he looked hopping mad, and that fueled a fire that has not stopped burning. He romped to victory at Grand Prix Austin in January, and seems to come to every event now ready to prove to everyone why he is in the Hall of Fame.
Artificially creating tension does not work for everyone in terms of getting them thinking clearly. There are a number of players who seem to play their best Magic when simply relaxing and enjoying themselves. Paul Rietzl always seems to be having a good time, whether playing somewhere in the middle of the pack, or in the finals of a Pro Tour.
There is not a formula for getting your head in the right place to win, which makes a lot of sense. We're all different, and while we might be playing with the same cards, there are plenty of ways to play them. A little introspection can go a long way towards building a better player, and in a game where small edges are worth a lot, doing a little work on the mental aspect of the game is certainly worth it. Conley did it at Worlds, and with a little island living it will be interesting to see who has relaxed into their A game, and whose fire threatens to consume them here at Pro Tour Dark Ascension.