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Knucksie’s wise words

October 11, 2012

I watched a movie last weekend that I really liked. It was called Knuckleball! and it was about the past, present and future of knuckleball pitching in Major League Baseball and the men behind it. It was very well produced, touching and fascinating and I would recommend anyone who has remotely any interest in Baseball to watch it.

That said, I wouldn’t just make a blog entry on The Exploration about an arbitrary movie that I liked. This blog is about Magic and everything that I have written about here and intend to do in the future is at the very least Magic related. So, that begs the question; What does knuckleball pitching in Baseball have to do with Magic?

Since most people in the world who doesn’t live in the Pacific Rim doesn’t know too much about Baseball more than the very basics and that it’s something “those Americans likes to play”, I feel like I have to give a little background before jumping to my point.

The pitcher in Baseball is a important player in a teams defense. To put it shortly, it’s his/her pitch towards the homeplate where the batter stands that instigate every sequence of play in a game. Depending on how well the pitcher can throw the ball is directly correlated with how good of a hit the batter can make, if at all, and thus minimizes the number of runs (points) the other team can score.

Since basically forever, the general accepted idea is that the harder the pitcher can throw the ball (while still having control over it), the tougher time will the batter have trying to make contact with it. The fastball is the basic pitch that typically is the type of pitch that any given pitcher can throw the hardest. There are a couple of alterations of grips and different angles of the pitching arm a pitcher can utilize to make the ball behave a little differently but even so, throwing it as fast as possible is generally what you want to be doing. A typical pitcher in MLB can throw a fastball somewhere between 85 to 95 mph (that would be about 137 – 153 km/h in more civilized ways of measure) and some of the real “power pitchers” can throw the ball at 100 mph or more (>161 km/h !).

So, where does the knuckleball fit into all this?

In matter of fact, not at all.

Unlike mainstream pitching, the idea with the knuckleball is not to throw it as hard as you can. The idea is to throw the ball with almost no rotation at all, which under a controlled form means that the ball is thrown at a relatively meekly 60 to 70 mph (97 to 110 km/h). When a baseball is thrown with almost no rotation at all (we are talking about less than a single revolution(!) from the release to it reaches the batter), the ball will become incredibly affectable to the resisting wind and the resultant is that the ball will twitch and move around like it have a mind of its own. When a knuckleball is thrown perfectly under good conditions, it’s almost impossible to hit. It’s like trying to eat soup with a fork. However, when it’s poorly executed and/or the conditions are unfavorable, you will have to look for the ball on the other side of the fences more often than not.

Every ballplayer have good days and bad days in their careers, but knuckleball pitcher are even more prone to have “rollercoaster careers” where they can go from being worldclass to scrub and back again several times over the course of a season. That means knuckleballers have to cope with losses and bad days probably more so than any other ballplayer, particularly considering the importance the role of a pitcher have for a team.

That might have been a mouthful for you but please bare with me.

Having such ups and downs is something that we as Magic players all have to experience, no matter if your name is Random McRandom or LSV. Because of the inherent variance in Magic, it’s hard to have a better lifetime winning percentage than ~70% even if you are considered “a good player”. Heck, Jon Finkel, one of the games all time greats “only” have a winning percentage of about 64%.

Sidebar, you who are reading this might laugh at that number and say your lifetime winning percentage is higher than that, but don’t forget that Finkel has played most of his recorded matches at Pro Tour level events while you have probably played mostly at your local scene. The skill level of the average opposition is way different in comparison, so you have to factor that in before making any judgements.

Very much like in Magic, the success of a knuckleballer in any given game is somewhat tied to factors that the player can’t control. The temperature and the humidity in air and wind speeds are all factors that changes how the ball will behave while airborne and thus will determine how hard or easy it will be for the batter to hit the ball. Then there are also a ton of tiny factors are nigh uncontrollable, like the exact length of your fingernails and being a couple of millimeters off in your grip, that will impact how good of a knuckleball you will be able to throw.

Thus, we can draw a comparison here between the every day challenges a knuckleballer have to deal with and what we as Magic players have to deal with as well; Losing.

What really got to me while watching Knuckleball! and what prompted me to write this blog entry was a quote that I think its teachings are very applicable to Magic:

Learn how to accept losses without being defeated.

Those are the words of legendary knuckleball pitcher and MLB Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, also known as Knucksie by the people in the business.

There have been several articles over the years now that have addressed the mental aspects of Magic, including the dos and don’ts. It’s somewhat of a fuzzy subject but I think most articles I have read about the subject have been worth reading at the very least. If you haven’t read any Magic article within this subject and would like to do so, I recommend googling “mtg mental aspect” and you will be greeted with a wide array of articles to choose from.

That said, from what I can recall the focus of these articles have mostly been about how to think and feel before and during matches and tournaments. For example, I think most of you who are reading this have at least read or heard about “the zone” concept, i.e. finding a “winning” state of mind and then trying to stay there. What to do with yourself after (and to a smaller extent during) matches and tournaments is something far less covered but nonetheless very important for a player’s personal growth.

Like Mr Niekro put it, it’s very important that losses, be it in Baseball or Magic, are processed correctly. It’s commonly known that the best teacher in any given game is the opponent and that losing is the peak of learning. Although losing might be mentally rough for you, it’s the point in time where you potentially can grow the most as a player.

For the great mass in Magic, I believe losing is undervalued…or underappreciated I should say. What I mean with that is not that I think people should enjoy losing more, because being nonchalant and stop caring about losing is dangerous in another way. What I mean is that people aren’t taking the chance to learn and improve when opportunity knocks. It’s far too common that I see people losing and then they simply lament the loss on something like mana flood, mana stall, color screw or the classic MTGO shuffler. Instead, do yourself a favor and man up and ask yourself; Could I have played that game differently and/or did I make an error in deck selection/construction? It turns out that people usually get exactly what they deserve.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are losses, where even if you did all the correct plays according to math and logic, that are inevitable. They do exist (although they are probably more rare than you care to admit). Sometimes the cards simply aren’t there and/or your matchup is heavily unfavorable for you. It happens. When you lose because of factors beyond your control or I guess to be more precise, being victim of an unlikely chain of events, it’s also important to recognize that so you can shrug those loses off. It’s not going to do you any favors to carry around and thinking about lost games and matches when nothing can be learned from them.

In short, when you lose a match of Magic, evaluate and try to identify why you lost. If there was a mistake that you did or if you had an incorrect gameplan or whatever cause that can be traced back to a decision or factor you had control of, accept the loss, learn from your mistake and move on. If whatever cause that made you lose really was out of your control, just shrug it off and move on.

It’s okay to lose but you shouldn’t ever feel defeated.

Phil “Knucksie” Niekro seen pitching for the Atlanta Braves during his final year of his playing career.

I highly recommend you to take Knucksie’s wise words to heart. It will help you evolve as a player.

I guarantee it.


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