Winning and losing

angry-smileyHow do you feel when you lose a game of Magic? It hurts right? You are mad at yourself for making a choice somewhere that obviously wasn’t right. You are mad at one of the other players because they took you out when obviously another player was the threat. You are mad at your deck for not giving you that hail-Mary top-deck that would keep you in the game. How do you feel when you win a game? You are pretty happy right? For about thirty seconds. Or maybe you aren’t even happy because “It was luck that I beat you” or “I hate to win by decking” or some other reason.

In Magic, as in life, we tend to tie our own self-worth to winning or losing the game. The problem is that losing a game is far more damaging to our psyche than winning can repair.

Losing a game of Magic is one of those feelings that is hard to forget. We hate ourselves for losing a game, as if our own self-worth is tied to a stack of cardboard and how well it works against another stack of cardboard. Tell me how often you’ve had this conversation:

Player 1: “It’s been so long since I won a game, I can’t remember the last time”

Player 2: “Are you kidding? How many times did you win last week?”

Player 1: Shrugs.

Player 2: “You won two out of the four games! And the week before that you won more than half of the games!”

It isn’t the wins that we remember. Even the crazy, once-in-a-lifetime wins are forgotten quickly. Just last week I was playing Commander with a friend and I know that I lost three games straight. The next day I was playing another friend and, had we finished the first game I would have won, I think, but after that I lost repeatedly. The wins that stuck with me were with my Tiny Leaders deck because it won for the first time ever, after dozens of plays!

Winning and losing are primal feelings that we are built to have. Winning gives us a sense of pride in effort put into a job well done, and losing gives us a sense of shame when we fail, such that we will try harder to succeed in the future. We have to put things into a proper perspective though. These primal urges to win are meant to be for our survival in a harsh world where, if we lose, then perhaps we don’t survive. Then there’s Magic: the Gathering, a card game that we play for fun and for social interaction with our friends, particularly in the world of Commander. Sure, there are professional players out there who have to worry about winning because if they don’t then they don’t get paid, or perhaps they lose a sponsorship or something. Commander on the other hand, was originally designed for Magic judges to have something fun and crazy to play after a long day of judging a tournament. It was meant to be multiplayer, interactive, and fun. The urge to win shouldn’t be as strong… but it is. Even with nothing intrinsic at stake, we care, and care deeply about whether we win or lose.

Perspective is the key to everything here, so I’ve come up with a few things that we can keep in mind during our games that may help to alleviate some of that pain when we lose.

  • Always keep in mind that this is just a game. It is meant to be fun, and a way to spend time with your friends.
  • There is nothing at stake if you lose. Even in a “tournament” game of Commander at a Grand Prix, the prize is usually just a booster pack or two. This is not something to get bent out of shape over. You didn’t just lose your car payment or your rent, or your first-born child… unless you play with Rumpelstiltskin.
  • Playing “on tilt” hurts your ability to make rational decisions, and therefore hurts your chances of winning. For example I was playing at FNM a while back (see previous FNM rant) and had a bad interaction with another player. I tilted hard, and for the first five minutes of the next round I could barely see my cards. For the record, I wasn’t mad that I lost, I was mad at the other player for some of the statements that he made.
  • Remember, that as your opponent, it is my JOB to take you out of the game, just as it is your job to take me out of the game. Therefore I will be attacking you, and I will be removing your board presence as long as I can safely do so. There is nothing personal about this, it is one player interpreting the board state, and making a decision about what play to make.
  • Remember that your opponent thinks differently than you do. What you see as the threat on the board may not be the same thing that they see as the threat on the board. Of course no matter what board position you have, you see someone else as the threat, and therefore if a third player attacks you instead of the other player, your immediate reaction is that they didn’t attack the threat. But they did. They attacked what they perceived to be the threat to them.
  • Remember that if you typically play in a four player game, that you will, on average, only win 25% of the time. Bear in mind that this is an AVERAGE. As with the game of Magic itself, there is a lot of variance in the short term. When I say that you can expect to win 25% of the time, that is over a very long period of time, and a sample size of hundreds or thousands of games. If you’ve gone on a losing streak of four games in a row, welcome to variance. It happens.
  • On the flip side of that coin, remember that if you typically play in a four player game, that you will, on average, lose 75% of the time! You should go into every game expecting to lose. Another caveat to apply to this point and the point above, is that in addition to variance, there is also the possibility that the match-up of your deck to those of your opponents is bad. For example you are playing a voltron deck against three decks that are all stacked with pin-point removal.

I think the most important point to remember is that you are playing to play. You are playing to spend time with friends. You are not, nor should you be, playing to win. Winning is fun, and we all want to win, but at the same time, we should never expect to win. Playing to win just leads to anger, anger leads to hate… you know the rest.

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