This entry is part 40 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


Strategy is a fundamental part of the human experience. The ability to analyze a situation and take advantage of it is our birthright as a species. It’s the one thing that we can do so much better than every other form of life that we have encountered, but we don’t get it for free. Strategy is a skill that you need to learn and, like all new skills, learning it can be a process. To help guide you through the pitfalls of acquiring such a crucial ability, I’ve gathered together some ideas to help you learn to strategize. Internalizing these ideas and repeating them will allow you to become great at just about anything you want. Sound a little too good to be true? If you don’t believe me, just watch.


“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” -Sun Tzu


The ancient Chinese tactician is trying to tell you that if you use tactics without a sound strategy, you will be making moves without knowing how they contribute to your overall plan. This is a surefire way to apply your brilliant tactics in all the wrong ways. A strategy without proper tactics is just theory. You still need to execute the proper moves to bring it to fruition. You must use both in their proper measures if you want to improve.


Growth Mindset

Without a doubt, the most important tool for learning a new skill–any new skill–is a growth mindset. The belief that you are what you make of yourself will ensure that you’ll make progress in that direction. If you want to achieve a goal, you’ll have to work at it. Some may have to work harder than others to attain the same level of proficiency; this is what people usually mean when they talk about talent, but in the real world we care about results. The athlete who wins a gold medal at the Olympics is the one who had the best performance. No one cares if that athlete had to practice for a thousand more hours than their competition. Working harder, overcoming difficult circumstances, that all makes for a good story, but no one is going to remember that you weren’t as talented as long as you win.


Internalizing the growth mindset means that you have zero doubt in your mind that you can be like your idols. You can take the same actions, learn the same skills, and achieve the same successes. I’m a firm believer in the work of K. Anders Ericsson, a world famous professor of psychology from my alma mater, Florida State University. He has spent decades researching expertise: the study of how people become skilled at a discipline. And after all that time, do you know what he recommends to people who want to learn new skills quickly?




That’s right. His conclusion is that the people who achieve mastery in a skill aren’t the ones with the most talent or the biggest head start. The secret to getting better is just going out and doing it. His research centers on how people reach the top of the fields by applying their efforts to “high concentration practice beyond one’s comfort zone.” Specifically focusing on practicing skills that you don’t have will make you feel uncomfortable because we yearn to show off the skills that we’ve already mastered, but you simply can’t get ahead by only doing what you have already done. If you want to master a new skill, you will have to practice new things. Everything I said in my article about Challenge-Seeking Behavior applies here.


Anders Ericsson is the originator of the “10,000 Hour Rule,” the idea that the only thing separating a novice from a master is a prolonged period of focused practice. So remember: be positive and stay open minded. There really aren’t any universal tricks or shortcuts. Put forth the right effort and you will see results.



So you’ll have to practice… but that sounds boring right? Nobody likes to practice. Dead. Wrong. You’ll have to work, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be painful. The “trick” that growth mindset people have is that they know themselves. They know what type of activities they like and what type of life changes they can make easily to get results. Finding little ways to alter your life that will allow you to practice your strategy skills will pay big dividends without being disruptive or feeling like work.


When we talk specifically about improving our ability to strategize in Magic, I recommend gamification. I’m a Libra, so I like to make lists.


At the very first sign of stress or discomfort, I make a short form plan on a sheet of paper to tackle items in order of priority. This setup plays on my innate love of games, crossing words out, seeing progress, and imposing order on a system. The point is to get my baser animal psychology fully engaged and enjoying the process of whatever task I’m trying to accomplish. That unsophisticated part of my brain that connects to the top of my neck was really only meant to make lizards feel good when they ate something, but I’ve trained it to provide me positive feedback when I get things done at the office. Everytime I finish a checklist, I have one of those “achievement unlocked” moments and I feel great. It satisfies me by giving me both a sense of accomplishment and also a tangible measure of the progress I have made towards my goals.


I can build one to-do list on top of another in an Inception-style dream ladder. Creating and finishing to-do lists is often an item that I include on higher-order to-do lists. I scale this nonsense up until I have weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, and five-year plans. If I sound a little crazy about this stuff, it’s because I am addicted to getting things done. This can be dangerous if people are trying to interfere with my insane level of productivity, but it’s better than a lot of other things I could be addicted to… I use lists to help me gamify everything in my life. Even things that could seem tedious, like practicing the order of phases in a Magic turn, can be made much more fun by adding a checklist, a practice method that I discussed at length in my article “Magic’s Core Gameplay Loop.


Other good examples include: giving yourself “points” for doing something strategic – say executing a tactic correctly or analyzing a situation more deeply than you normally would. Tracking those points on your whiteboard at home can give you a big positive emotional boost when you see how much practice you have done. I used this same technique to build the “fast food budget” that I discussed in a previous article. By keeping my fast food spending down to a bare minimum, I can compete against my own “high score.” An elegant and fun way to transition my diet away from unhealthy foods. In the end, you’ll need to find a gamification technique that works for you, and apply it to your strategic thinking and behavior. Enjoying the practice and keeping it measureable will help you sustain the habits for the long term.


Sidenote: The Checklist Manifesto was a revolution in my life. All puns super-intended, comrade.


The Devil Victory Is in the Details

It‘s critical that you have a sharp attention to detail. You need to be actively looking for the differences that other people miss; that’s what gives you the edge. Moreover, you have to care. Others may not understand nor appreciate why something is such a big deal to you, but if a tiny detail plays a part in you improving your strategy, that detail is not tiny at all. Think beyond the immediate, consider a situation from multiple angles. Analyze everything, even if it seems like a waste of time, there’s something that you can learn from every exotic pastime. The idea that revolutionizes your strategy may be hidden in an unlikely place.


Now, it can be a little embarrassing to feel like a nerd among nerds. Trust me, as the guy who counts the steps it takes to walk across the parking lot to my car, I know first hand that optimizing your strategies can sometimes make you look a little silly. I have a laser focus on refining every aspect of my life to its most optimal state and in that endeavor I don’t feel like there is anything to be embarrassed about. Back when I was born, the popular thing to do was have a nonchalant attitude about everything, even if you were really passionate about it. That’s what made you cool. But if there is one thing I’ve learned from the twenty-first century: it’s cool to care. We live in an age where the people that know more, see more, and do more hold the most power. So dig deep, stretch yourself thin, and get after this thing. Care as much as you possibly can about as many things as you possibly can and don’t ever feel any shame for looking to improve yourself.


Data And Methods

Based on what I’ve said so far, it’s clear that I advocate using a well-designed process to regulate your activities, but this is doubly important when it comes to collecting and analyzing data. I don’t trust gut feelings and I rarely trust the word of third parties. If I want to know something, I try to get as close as I can to the source, which often means collecting my own data and testing my assumptions before I make a conclusion.


When it comes to Magic, I’ve found that the best process to find new information and integrate it into my strategy looks like this:


Identify a Pattern

Look for the pattern, whether it is profound or mundane. If you’re seeing a scenario occur over and over, or you’re getting a certain feeling about how a card or matchup is leaning, start making observations: track when an event occurs and what the circumstances were, detail the events leading up to a pattern and how it proceeds. Once you’ve identified something interesting and documented it, we’re ready to start analyzing.


Example Pattern: “Every time my opponent casts Bribery, I lose.”


Ask An Expert

When I think I’m on to something, my first move is to ask a person who might know more about it than me. If you aren’t sure why your opponent always waits until the end of your turn to cast their spells, ask a player who’s more experienced at the game. If you pick the right person, they’ll be able to give you a solid explanation of what you’re seeing. You don’t have to trust them implicitly; people are flawed, after all, but some insight is all you need to get working on a hypothesis. As you progress, the questions you ask will become more complex and nuanced. At the same time, the pool of people who can give you concise and accurate explanations of what you’re seeing is going to shrink. Don’t be discouraged.This is a good sign. It means that you’re outgrowing an old resource and you’re going to become the expert that others can consult.


Example Explanation: “You lose to Bribery, because it allows them to use your most powerful creatures against you. Playing the best threats isn’t wrong, but you need to play comparable answers, too.”


Leverage New Information

Use the hypothesis to create a experiment. Make some changes to test out whether doing things a different way can improve the situation or let you capitalize on what you are seeing. Again, be open to the idea that there’s a better way to do things and don’t be afraid to admit that you can be wrong. If you can’t overcome that defensive urge to think that you’re perfect, you’ll never grow. Epictetus said, “It’s impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”


Example Experiment: “I will change my deck so that it plays a larger suite of removal cards that can interact with my own threats.”


Follow The Data, Not Your Heart

It’s critical that you rigorously track your data to make sure that you get accurate results. Resist the urge to fudge things or cut corners. We want the purest information that we can get, free from our own personal biases. That’s the only way we’ll be able to trust the conclusions that we draw. And when you look back at that data, don’t try to second guess it. It’s okay to decide that you need to go back and collect a bigger sample, but don’t dispute your own findings just because you don’t like what they say.


Example: “After changing my deck, I was able to consistently power through a resolved Bribery.”


If this all sounds simplistic, good. That’s as it should be. The beginner should be able to do this with zero problems when approaching a new discipline. Becoming a master strategist doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a long process that requires consistency. You must be willing to make changes and look for every opportunity to improve.


So start with a growth mindset, learn to enjoy the discomfort of practice, and let the scientific method lead you to new new successes.


What’s the craziest way that you try to optimize your life? What’s one area where you’re an absolute perfectionist? Share your thoughts in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support on Patreon.



“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

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