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

Posted in Feature on March 28, 2006

By Brian Rogers

For my last article, I got a little off topic from Magic®, looking at some other games and some aspects of those games that affect what happens when you lose. I plan on doing exactly that same thing over the coming paragraphs. So, to get started, I turn back to the cinema classic, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

In The Wrath of Khan, we learn about a Star Fleet training mission called the Kobayashi Maru. This training mission presents a situation where a starship captain is supposed to rescue a stranded ship only to find that the ship is being used as bait for an enemy ambush. Once an attempt is made to rescue the ship, the starship is attacked by an overwhelming force of Klingon Birds of Prey. The simulation is intended to test how a candidate for captain would deal with imminent loss and destruction, and to prepare them for the possibility of losing.

Playing Not To Lose

Nothing irritates me more than the prevent defense. It seems like this is the reason for more come from behind victories than anything else in football history. It never fails—a team reaches the fourth quarter of a football game, they are 13 points up, and they enter the prevent defense. This is a defensive package designed to allow short plays for little yardage while attempting to stop an opponent from getting a big play to quickly alter the game’s state. However, what it generally does is allow an opponent an opportunity to gain momentum and reenter a game they were previously down in. If your strategy for the first three quarters resulted in you being ahead, why would you change that strategy at the end of the game?

I see players at Magic events do this all the time. In the last couple of rounds, when they are close to winning, they change their style of play. Instead of playing to win the game, they start playing not to lose the game. They change the thinking behind the decision about whether or not to mulligan, resulting in many more mulligans in the latter rounds than in the early ones. They change the way they play, playing around certain cards they think an opponent may have, trying not to overextend.

This change, I believe, has to do with some of the issues we explored in Part I of this series. As you near the end of a tournament, your ability to win changes. At the start of the tournament, you are one person out of 100 who entered. Your claim on winning is no greater than anyone else’s. As you near the final rounds, the picture begins to change. If the tournament is seven rounds long, and you have won your first four matches, you begin to realize that you only need to win one more round and then try to draw into the finals. Now, instead of playing your best, you start thinking about getting just one more win. Already, by doing this, you have discounted one of the next two rounds as an acceptable loss. Your mindset and with it your play style changes.

Let us assume now that, instead of being just any player in the tournament, you are Lance Armstrong. Every year, Lance Armstrong goes to France and wins a bicycle race. From the outset of that race, Lance Armstrong is the favorite. At the beginning of the race, you don’t have 100 bicyclers who all have an even chance to win, you have Lance Armstrong and 99 other guys. From the start of that race, he has been under the same pressure you are after round four of the tournament. He doesn’t change the way he rides for two critical reasons. One, he expected to win since the very beginning of the race, and two, he has been there, done that and got the yellow shirt to prove it.

How To Lose And Not Lose Doing It

Sometimes, there comes a point during a game when you know you are going to lose. The game may have been going well, all the dominoes falling in your favor, and then one unexpected change in the game turns the tables and you find yourself with no way to win. Perhaps you got a slow start but you are about to stabilize the game; however, your opponent’s pressure is just too much and you realize that that is not going to happen. One missed opportunity, one incorrect block, one miscalculation and now your struggle ends with a loss. Even a game in which you make no mistakes can result in your losing the game. With so many ways to lose, it’s best to take some time and think about how you want to do it; think about how you would handle the Kobayashi Maru test.

Imagine that you are a candidate in a political debate. You are on an unpopular side of an issue and someone asks you a question designed to make you show your resolve to further that issue. “Why are you in favor of the wholesale slaughter of kittens?” If you answer “because I hate kittens,” you will lose votes, because most people like kittens. Instead, you might say, “The unfortunate cost of providing a better life for all kittens everywhere requires that drastic action be taken to more adequately enable ourselves to supply the needs of kittens everywhere. I do not take pride in what must be done, and it is only with great sadness in my heart that I recognize what must be done.”

My example may not be the best out there, but what I am trying to show is how those in politics often reject the premise of a question. This is best done with the expectations game played before a debate. Both candidates try to lower viewer expectations for their performance in a debate. Basically, this means they can lose the debate, but still exceed expectations in an attempt to win a bigger game: the election.

I have a friend who recently attended his first prerelease. His goal for that prerelease was to win one game—not one match, but one game. By playing the expectation game, he was able to leave the prerelease with a win, as he actually won one match. Moreover, he was about to derive one of the primary benefits that losing has to offer: losing is a learning experience.

Genesis: A World Where From Death Springs Forth Life

Since it is almost spring, this is a great time to bring up one of my favorite sports, baseball. One of the things that I love about baseball is that it is never over until it is really over. As long as you have one out left, you could come from behind to win, no matter what the deficit. Unlike games such as soccer or basketball, which are dictated by a time limit, baseball only ends once the losing team has made 27 total outs.

In Magic there is a time limit at tournaments, but the greater limiting factor in the game has to do with the size and capabilities of your deck. Very rarely do you reach a point in a game where you will lose unquestionably if you can convince your opponent to make horrible plays. Certainly, there are often times when you will definitely lose if your opponent doesn’t make a big error, but much like baseball, winning with only one out/life is still possible.

Giving It All Away

Perhaps the most disheartening form of defeat is the concession. Yes, sometimes you know you are going to lose and nothing you do can change that, but in Magic, sometimes what your opponent does can. It is always safest to assume that your opponent is a very good player; underestimating a player can be very dangerous. However, it is also dangerous to overestimate him or her when that overestimation assumes they will make a winning play they have yet to make. I always try to make my opponent go for the kill.

In a game that will not end the match, forcing an opponent to play out the game will at least have the effect of letting you see some of the other cards in his or her deck. Also, keeping pressure on them for as long as possible may force them into future mistakes. Another thing I sometimes see players do is do something stupid to kill themselves, like mana burn. This is much the same as conceding; however, it has the added negative reaction of giving your opponent additional information about your deck if it requires hidden resources your opponent doesn’t know about.

Not In The Cards

Commonly, we see TV interviews with competitors from various games saying “I gave it everything I had, but today my opponent was just too good.” However, it is much more common in Magic to hear someone complaining about how his or her deck didn’t give him or her the cards they needed to win. Sometimes it almost seems like no one ever loses due to a play mistake.

While it is very possible to lose a game in which you don’t make any errors, it is much more common to win a game in which you make several. Nothing irritates me more than after a game when a player starts to talk about how they got mana screwed, or mana flooded, or they didn’t get that one critical card. In every game, there are decisions we have to make. Sometimes, we make the best choice the available information allows. Other times, we miss things or make errors. While getting a bad draw may contribute to losing, focusing on that as your reason for losing doesn’t do you any good. It is much more effective to look at the aspects of the game we can control and work on correcting those things.

This Must End

It’s about this point in the article that I start to look for a good way to wrap things up. I hope to explore many more aspects of Magic as they relate to other games in the future. I still have a lot of things I would like to write about. For now, I just want to leave you with a little extra insight into The Wrath of Khan.

If you are really a Trekkie, you might know that there was actually a novel named The Kobayashi Maru that looks at how some of the different characters in the Star Trek universe dealt with this simulation. Kirk is the only candidate to ever defeat the no-win scenario, but he did so in a way that many others consider cheating. Captain James T. Kirk reprogrammed the simulation so that when he informs the Klingons that they are facing THE Captain James T. Kirk, they allow the ship to leave rather than risk defeat at the hands of the greatest starship captain in the galaxy.

As a final note, I would like to thank everyone that took the time to send me an email at Bunny_maxx[at]yahoo.com. If you have anything to say about this article or ideas you might like to see in the future, let me know. I am looking for a way to change the focus of what and how I write, and your input is critical to make that happen!

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