Intuition and the Pitfalls of Overthinking

Many people who play Magic: the Gathering, myself included, pride ourselves on being very intelligent. Specifically, we tend to think highly of our own logic and reasoning abilities. This makes sense, since once you factor out luck as zero sum, these are the inherent abilities that best convert into match wins. Therefore, by seeking out then making the most logical decision that you can discern at each point in the game, you maximise your chances of winning. Right?

Maybe not.

“Feel, don’t think. Use your instincts.” Liam Neeson generally gives good advice, so let’s look into it.

Your instincts, or your intuition, is your subconscious using an incredibly deep bank of your previous knowledge to make a decision far faster, and often more accurately, than your conscious brain can do. A common piece of advice for people taking multiple-choice tests is, when you’re not sure, go with your first instinct. If Answer B looked right to you at first glance, but you can’t quite remember, and now thinking about it more and more, you’re starting to think Answer C might actually be the right one, it’s often correct to stop thinking about it, circle B, and move on.

What does this mean for decision-making in a game of Magic, though?

When you’re playing a familiar deck and a familiar matchup, you will reach a decision point. Your gut response, your intuition, is based off of your memories of having made this decision before and how each time worked out for you, and how each time you’ve seen this decision made by someone, how it worked out for them. Your conscious brain isn’t going to be actively accessing all of these memories, but your intuition can. When you freshly reason every decision you make, you’re opening yourself up to making the same mistake that you almost made on that multiple-choice test.

Our brains are very suggestible. It’s part of what makes us able to learn so effectively. We absorb information, we draw conclusions, and we attempt to reconcile new information with previous knowledge. When new information and previous knowledge are in conflict, we either double down on the old knowledge, rejecting the new, or discard the incompatible parts of the old knowledge as we accept the new. More logically-wired people tend towards the latter. The reason for this is that while emotional attachments to your current view will cause you to reject conflicting information, if your current view was achieved through reasoning, conflicting information will, naturally, merit a new conclusion.

In Magic, this will most frequently happen when you are in a situation very similar to one you’ve faced countless times, but some slightly-different factor has caused your brain to notice an upside to doing something different. Maybe you’ve thought about this and before and disregarded it; maybe you haven’t. It doesn’t matter. The point is, you see it now, and your very logical mind is hard at work, starting to rationalise this new idea.

Examples of rationalising a bad idea frequently surround the card Surgical Extraction. The classic case is the Legacy RUG Delver mirror. To cast its very efficient spells, this deck contains eight Fetchlands, three Volcanic Islands, three Tropical Islands, and four Wastelands. Eight of its twelve threats, the four Nimble Mongoose and four Tarmogoyf, require access to Green mana. So, your logical mind considers, if you Wasteland one of their Tropical Islands and then Surgically Extract them, they can no longer cast their Green creatures. This leaves them with a grand total of four Delver of Secrets in their entire deck to contend with, and that’s easy! Therefore, you bring in your Surgical Extractions, patting yourself on the back for being so clever.

Surgical Extraction Wasteland

The game starts, and you’re on the draw, since you won Game 1. Your opening hand has a Surgical Extraction and Wasteland. Your opponent casts a Turn 1 Nimble Mongoose off of Tropical Island. You Wasteland it and then Surgically Extract them, just like you planned. Your opponent then proceeds to Stifle and Wasteland your mana development, Brainstorms away their stranded Tarmogoyf, resolves a Delver to complement the Mongoose, and eventually just clocks you out of the game. Huh.

Nimble Mongoose Delver of Secrets

Most holes you will reason yourself into are much more subtle, but just as punishing. These sorts of plays are caused by over-thinking, often described as being “cute,” and are usually motivated either by the emotional high of “getting them,” or by the fear of “getting got.”

Obviously, when you encounter a new or different situation, your logic and reasoning abilities are your best friend. Use them: analyse the situation, come up with a plan to win the game, and execute the plan. In a familiar matchup, I’d estimate that I make maybe a dozen reasoned, deliberate decisions per match. The rest of the time is just letting my intuition make the decisions.

Letting your intuition drive the majority of your play provides a number of benefits:

  • It helps avoid the over-thinking pitfalls, like the Surgical Extraction example from earlier.
  • It keeps your brain fresh for when you really need it, like quickly and accurately figuring out how to approach a new matchup, or how to weasel your way out of a really tough spot. If you show up to a 9+ hour tournament with the intention of thinking hard the whole time, you’re going to be feeling some serious tournament fatigue by the midway point. By giving your conscious brain a break when you don’t really need it, you can still be on your A-game when you’re playing your win-and-in, and again when you’re in the finals. Congrats, champ! Now unwind by playing a few for-fun games of Magic with your friends because you’re not even tired.
  • You will naturally play much faster. If your goal is to win a tournament, avoiding draws should be toward the top of your priority list. It just so happens that when you don’t consciously belabour every play you make, you take much less of the clock. Pretty cool.

There’s an important caveat, though. If your brain is on autopilot, how are you going to recognise when situations are different enough to merit a manual override? Okay, so you can’t completely let your brain turn off, but you can essentially put it in power-saving mode. One of the best ways of doing this is to make sure you have a reason for each play that you’re making. You don’t need to go all the way through and fully articulate it to yourself every time, and I wouldn’t recommend you do so. That would take far too long and would be extremely mentally taxing, which is the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve. Once you let your intuition lead you to a decision, quickly check with yourself that it makes sense, and try to have an abstract understanding as to why you’re doing it.

With these tools at your disposal, you can hopefully start to let your intuition take the wheel when you can afford it, but still keep enough awareness that you can recognise when you need to turn your well-rested logic machine back on.

By Max Gilmore

Max Gilmore is a Legacy enthusiast hailing from Southern California. A lover of all things fair, Blue, and greedy, he enjoys the process of discovering powerful and interesting new ways to cast a Brainstorm. You can find him on
MtGO as Maxtortion.

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