Saturday, July 14, 2007

All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Magic

I'll continue my Talecrafting experiment in later posts, I suppose. I don't have that much time to write tonight, and I might as well get this out of my head first.

I started playing Magic: the Gathering back in 1996, stopped in 2000, rediscovered the game in 2003, and have been engaged in it both on and off ever since. I don't maintain any expensive decks for tournament play, and I don't meet up with a regular playgroup like the normal gaming crowd. I do, however, join new-release tournaments for the game's expansion sets. I'm even proud to say that I've amassed some respectable win-loss records in this way.

This morning I found myself playing in another of these new-release tournaments, the Tenth Edition game day. This is a new iteration of the game's basic set that gets released about every two years, and this reorganizes those cards that make up the backbone of serious tournament play. The cards in this set, moreover, are familiar to virtually any Magic player, no matter how long they've been engaged in the hobby.

The big news isn't that I posted a three-win, one-loss record for the day; It's that, somewhere in the middle of eleven tense games, I realized that I still remembered playing in the release tournament for the Fifth Edition set.

Fifth Edition.

Considering the two-year gaps between these sets, that means that I've developed my play style over ten years.

Ten years ago, I was one of those young college kids who barely knew what he was doing when it came to making random decks and playing strange opponents. Now I consistently do well in those few tournaments that I play in, and have developed an odd Zen-like attitude when playing people who have far more experience with modern Magic than I do.

There are more than a few people who will belittle the game for being an abject curiosity, a virtual money pit, and a complete waste of time. I know that I can hardly be called one of those people. Rather than learning absolutely nothing during my tenure in Magic, I ended up learning quite a few things. I ended up gaining more than a few insights that weren't merely limited to the game, but which I felt applied to life as a whole.

I share some of those realizations here right now. Some of these insights may be permanent and some may just be fleeting, but no matter which ones are which, I know that I still carry them around. It could be that I'll have a completely new set of realizations ten more years into the future (if the game lasts that long), but at least I'll have noted these ones right here.

Be courteous. When you enter a game with another person, you see each other as an opponent. One of you will have to win, and the other will have to lose. You will have to fight, you will have to argue, and you will have to contend with each other.

That, however, doesn't mean that you can't be civil.

The fact that you sit at the same table having made the same preparations for the same tournament implies that you are at around the same skill level. You are both craftsmen, you are both strategists, and you are both players. You each have strengths and weaknesses, and you both know that you don't play this game because you like winning all the time. You don't. You can't.

So you don't see it as a cutthroat competition where one person triumphs and the other person goes down. You see it as a game between two people who merely wish to test their skills. You talk, you laugh, and you compare notes. You're not monsters trying to destroy each other; You're just people playing a game.

Wait for the right moment. It's extremely tempting to burn through whatever advantage you have in terms of game position and resources. This, in gaming parlance, is known as "going for the quick win".

The problem is that "going for the quick win" isn't necessarily effective. You can pull it off, I suppose, but what does that mean in the long run? A win is still a win, no matter how long the game takes. You can rain blows upon your opponent for the first three minutes of the match, but it'll tire you out in the process... perhaps long enough for your opponent to seize the advantage, figure out that one weak spot, or hit you right where it hurts.

I find that patience is a virtue in most games. It is often far better to scout the field first and see what your opponent is up to, than to charge into the field at first light and get smashed in the face for all your troubles.

Focus. You don't come into a game and play a bunch of random cards from your hand. You look over your available resources and enter it with a specific plan in mind. It's much like any endeavor out there.

Once you're fully engaged in your plan, you keep your eye on the prize. Players who think at least a couple of moves ahead will inevitably be better and more consistent than players who are susceptible to knee-jerk reactions. Reactivity is overrated where proactivity tends to be more worthwhile.

Adjust. There is, however, something to be said for flexibility. You may approach things with a specific strategy in mind, but you must remember: No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.

The best plans, then, are those that allow for contingency. You may be prepared to do something when Event A happens, but you also have to consider what you should do if Event B happens instead. Or Event C. Or maybe some unholy combination of Events D, E, F, K, and X.

Everyone has their own vague plans, I suppose. The key lies in being able to work around them if necessary.

Hang on. So what do you do when you're on the verge of defeat? What happens when you find yourself in a situation when it's difficult for you to win? When you're likely to lose next turn? When that plan you've been working on has been shredded into absolute tatters and you're tempted to just throw in the towel?

Most players will just pack up their cards and start a new game. Some players, however, just stare at the board and throw in those few chips that they have left.

Why give up? I mean, if you're going to lose everything, then you might as well put everything into the pot. Would we prefer to just lose more slowly, I mean?

If you haven't lost yet, then you haven't lost yet. Let the chips fall where they lie; If you know that you're still in the game, then you must act that way.

Look for an opening. And sometimes you'll find these openings in the strangest of places. There are few situations that are completely airtight, or completely foolproof.

There's always a hole somewhere. It doesn't matter how bad your situation is; There's always a gap that you can find and exploit. If you're getting beaten down and all hope is dwindling fast, then one of these last openings may just be enough.

It's not merely sufficient to find one of these openings. You have to prepare yourself for them; You have to know that they exist, and you have to see them as they appear. And once you find that all-important opening that may just save your hide and salvage what looks like an untenable situation or an unwinnable game, you have to make it large enough to slip through.

Games are not just won by those who can execute the perfect plan. Games are also won by those who see the rare opportunity, and who seize it at the moment it comes around.


kyutbabe said...

If you happen to face an opponent named Lewie, say hi. He's an officemate who also joins Magic tournaments. :)

Sean said...

Kyutbabe: I'll say hi. There are quite a few old Magic players who have gotten back into the game recently.

Charles said...

I wrote a similar-themed post years ago:

We should gather these "All I Really Need to Know" essays one day...

Sean said...

Charles: Whoa... I didn't notice that. What're the chances of that happening? I mean, we even have about the same title and all...

Charles said...

I think we have the "same title" because we're drawing on the same body of work. Robert Flughum wrote the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and since then, the title has been used and parodied by a lot of people. Mine was a conscious homage to his work, I guess for you it was zeitgeist?

Anyway, it's nice to know that people really learn something from Magic, especially if we're coming up with the same "lessons learned". =)

Sean said...

Charles: Come to think of it, I probably did take the title from the same book. While I'm definitely familiar with it, I'm sure that the book didn't enter my mind when I was writing this post. I'm not sure if that counts as zeitgeist, though.

For the record, people do learn something from Magic. People should learn something positive from anything they pursue, I think. Otherwise... well, then we just wouldn't be human.

Charles said...

I was listening to an interview with comic writer Brian Bendis and whenever he comes up with a new idea, he wonders if it's really a new idea or an old idea he unconsciously remembered (thus not being able to pinpoint the source and think "hey I came up with that").

Sean said...

Charles: Personally, I've always thought that my ideas tend to be rehashes of old ideas, only mixed with other thoughts and considered from completely different viewpoints. I'll even go as far as to say that there are probably no new ideas anymore -- just fistfuls of old ideas that people put in a new light.