I Don’t Believe in a No Win Situation - Part I

Posted in Feature on March 16, 2006

By Brian Rogers

It’s o.k. You’re among friends. There is nothing to be ashamed of. It happens to everyone sometimes. No matter what you do, sometimes, you are going to lose a game of Magic®. The important thing is how you face losing.

The Wrath of Khan

Without a doubt, the best Star Trek movie of all time, The Wrath of Khan comes to a climax with the death of Spock, Captain Kirk’s first officer, most trusted adviser and best friend. Sorry if I ruined it for anyone out there that hasn’t seen it yet, but you have had plenty of time to rent this classic by now, so get over it. As Spock’s remains are jettisoned from the Enterprise towards the newly formed Genesis Planet to the tune of electronic bagpipes playing Amazing Grace over the com system, Kirk begins to succumb to the guilt he feels for his complicity in the loss of his friend. It’s at this time that Kirk is reminded about something he told Spock during a recent training exercise, “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.”

Well, no one likes to lose, but when you are playing a game, much like death, it’s inevitable, someone has to lose, and sooner or later that someone is going to be you. There are countless strategy articles out there to help players learn new ways to win, build new decks, and try new techniques, but very few that help you lose correctly. I want to explore some of the aspects of Magic that don’t get quite as much coverage as others. Along the way, we will look at some other games and how they relate to Magic, and just take a peek at games in general. At times, it might seem that I have strayed off the path of losing, but somewhere, underneath the metaphors and the rhetoric, losing is exactly what I am talking about and precisely what I want to prepare you for. There is a lot to consider when you start to think about losing; the scope of the loss and the forum that it takes place in are certainly of import. Also, the ability to come back from being behind must be considered. All this will culminate in a look into how to prepare yourself for a loss and some real world examples of how different players deal with losing.

The Stakes: Calculating the Pot Odds

I always like playing games where there is something to win. Thinking about what you can win is an upside approach to viewing a game. Take, for example, a big game like the Super Bowl (and I don’t just bring this up because I live near Pittsburgh; well, maybe that does have something to do with it). At the Super Bowl, two teams compete to see who will be the national champion. With a championship comes a lot of great things: cash bonuses, a big party with a parade in your honor, and the pride and respect of having everyone call you the national champion. There is a lot riding on a game like the Super Bowl. Surely, this is enough incentive to make anyone want to win the game. With that comes additional pressure you place on yourself to do your best, pressure to win that prize, pressure that serves to make the game a more interesting competition.

Some games have far less at stake. For instance, my girlfriend and her sister are always trying to get me to play poker with them. However, they don’t want to play for anything with monetary value; instead, they want to play for chips and the only prize is that someone gets to be declared the winner. These games rarely go well, as my normal tactic is to repeatedly go all in over and over to push the other players into making bad choices and hopefully end the game early. The lack of a reward incentive makes my plays seem way less important in my mind. Because of the lack of any benefit for winning, I am seeking simply to end the game and I am willing to risk losing to make this goal happen.

The stakes in any game serve several purposes. The stakes help us to evaluate the importance of a given competition, determine the extent to which we may want to prepare for a competition, and decide what level of play and what tactics we are going to use while playing. With the recent conclusion of the Winter Olympics in Torino, I am reminded of the countless hours of curling that I watched on CNBC. After watching all that curling, I was still unable to determine exactly what the goal or win condition for the game was. In fact, the only thing I did learn about curling is that women’s curling is far more interesting than men’s curling. Yet, I am aware that the players I was watching were the most skilled and most prepared players on the planet. Furthermore, I know that the most advanced strategies available to them were being used (whatever they might have been).

In a friendly game, one where the stakes are low, there are often tactics that are considered taboo or banned entirely. Low-stakes games are rarely played “no holds barred.” This is the case of a flag football game where tackling is replaced with removing a flag from a player’s uniform. Because the level of play is less serious, rules are amended or added and removed to change the intensity of play. Players are generally less prepared for this type of competition and don’t place much emphasis on the game.

The value we place on the outcome of a particular game goes a long way towards determining the importance of winning or losing. Later, when we take a look at some players’ reactions to losing, evaluating the stakes of the games they are playing will go a long way towards understanding their reactions.

The Magic Difference

Going back to the examples of the Super Bowl vs. poker with my girlfriend and her sister, aside from all of the obvious differences between these two examples, the drastic differences in the results for winning, there is one less obvious difference. It is a difference in the types of games being played. Poker is a very simple game from a rules standpoint. Once you learn the order of which hands are better, you can do some simple mathematics to determine your chances of winning. Most of the intrigue from a high-stakes poker game is derived from the element of bluffing in the game. Poker is a game where betting strategy is used to try to either bolster or obfuscate your relative strength or weakness in the game. These bluffing tactics are then used in an attempt to override the calculation a potential opponent may perform concerning the probability of his or her hand being the best at the table and instead base that opponent’s decisions about the likelihood of victory on the stalwartness of your bluff, or lack thereof.

Football, on the other hand, is a much more complicated game. Though it does rely on some bluffing about a particular play being a running or passing play, and what direction a receiver or rusher may go, it is a game that relies on a more complex set of basic rules. Intrigue in the game of football can be generated without having to fall back on the social interaction of the participants. Football has one other additional element that separates it from poker, that being the physical element. Because, in poker, the only physical exertion necessary is looking at cards and manipulating chips, even more time can be spent utilizing bluffing tactics. In football, because so much of what is possible is based on the physical capabilities of the athletes, bluffing begins to become even less of a factor. Either the quarterback can or cannot throw the ball 70 yards to an open receiver.

The amount of effort and energy put into any game is often a function of what is at stake in that game. However, games are primarily played for enjoyment, and the ability to enjoy a game is sometimes also tied to what is at stake. I enjoy playing poker as long as there is something at stake. The simplicity of that particular game means that it is not particularly interesting to play unless something invokes all of the players involved to take the game seriously and bring the bluffing aspect of the game into play. Conversely, when I was a little younger, I would be outside just about every day playing football with my friends. There was never anything at stake in those games, but it was fun to play. Also, there was never any bluffing involved in our games. Rather, they were just a chance to run around and have fun. I have never been in a Super Bowl; however, I would have to think that the level of stress and training it requires to play any game at that level begins to wear away at one’s enjoyment of that game. Perhaps if you happen to see Jerome Bettis, you can ask him—I can only speculate. However, what it does do is introduce some of the element of bluffing into the game. At this high level of play, secrecy becomes very important, and trying to outguess one’s opponent becomes more integral.

Magic: The Gathering exists somewhere in the middle realm of these two extremes. The game is certainly complicated enough to be interesting. If you don’t think so, perhaps you should reread the comprehensive rules. However, the low physical exertion requirement of the game, combined with the ability of a player to reduce the potential card combinations available to his or her opponent based on what format is being played, means that the game is simple enough to allow for players to bluff. Hence, Magic has been able to combine these two factors into one game. Magic is a complex enough game to make it interesting without bluffing, but by placing additional pressure on players with incentives to win, we are able to increase the complexity of the game by opening up a deeper level of the game.

What does all of this have to do with losing? I mentioned earlier that looking at the potential outcome of winning a game was an upside approach to viewing that game. But if looking at winning is the upside, then looking at not losing is the downside view. When you are playing for nothing, there is no downside to losing. When I play poker with no stakes, I don’t care if I win or lose, because the game is less interesting. Let us now interject money into the game. Once there is something put into the game that you can lose, now I start to play a much more serious game. No longer will I be willing to go all in unless I am either fairly certain I will win or I am desperate.

Let’s think about Super Bowl XL from the perspective of the Seattle Seahawks. It’s just before game time. You have practiced as a team for 8 months, played a 16-game season, and defeated two rivals in a playoff to reach the Super Bowl, where you have been questioned by reporters about this biggest of games for 2 weeks. Moreover, you have trained since high school to be a great football player. You have experienced defeat and you have experienced victory. You are right now at the cusp of a great achievement, something you have worked for over many years. Soon, you will get to say, “I’m going to Disney World” to millions of fans around the globe. In your mind, you deserve to win and you are ready to win.

Defeat is not an option. Those words resonate as though they are from a speech by a general the night before a big mission. When the stakes are extremely high, then losing seems like an impossible occurrence. Partly because there is an inherent belief that your mindset is the correct mindset to have, in a broad sense, everyone always sees himself or herself as righteous, as good. Because of this inherent since of righteousness, the possibility of losing is often overlooked. The righteous individual does not prepare for defeat, losing comes as unexpected, and when loss is unexpected, then no benefit is derived from it. I wonder if the Seahawks were sufficiently prepared to deal with losing the Super Bowl, or if they had even realized this as a possible outcome.

Where Is This All Heading?

As predicted, I still haven’t gotten too deep into handling losing. I haven’t covered using loss as an educational experience, or gaining a strategic advantage from losing. I haven’t even started to think about trying to use a losing position to your advantage. In my next article, look for a lot more to come on this topic. I hope to end up looking at some actual games and seeing how some of my friends deal with losing in games that matter and games that don’t, as well as some more examples from other games, and I plan to continue entwining this Star Trek metaphor into the heart of the matter, so I hope you all like The Wrath of Khan as much as I do.

Also, I would like to invite anyone interested to send any comments, criticisms, or just spam to the following email address: bunny_maxx[@]yahoo.com. I don’t know if I will be able to read all of it, but I am interested in what you think about what I have written, and just what you want to spam me with. I am always looking for good ideas on topics to write about, so I am eager to hear what you think.

I Don’t Believe in a No Win Situation Part ll

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