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Lessons Competitive Games Can Teach

Lessons from competitive gaming can be broadly applicable to life in general.

Hearthstone just launched on iOS. Hex enters beta soon. SolForge recently released its first expansion. Even the rebooted Netrunner’s been in gaming media lately, despite using non-virtual cards (which is ironic, given its subject matter). In light of this confluence of CCG activity, I’ve resurrected an old draft of an article I planned but never wrote back when I was working on Legend of the Five Rings in the early 2000s. It’s a simple list of lessons that one could take from playing competitive board games, CCGs in particular, and apply to life in general.

1. You can't simply try anything you want and expect success or credit because you worked hard.

Some approaches to a problem simply work better than others. Some don't work at all. No amount of self-confidence, wishful thinking, or repeated attempts can change these facts. No matter how much you might wish it worked, insisting on a strategy with a proven poor track record will only result in a chain of losses for as long as you stick with the game.

2. You need to understand your goals.

Make sure you have an accurate view of what you’re trying to accomplish or you’ll misdirect your efforts. Blackjack isn’t about getting as close to 21 as you can, it’s about getting closer than the dealer does. Poker isn’t about getting the best hand, it’s about winning the most money. (Furthermore, note that “the most money” is distinct from “the most money per hand”.)

3. There is no single key to success. It's a mix of several factors.

Inexperienced players who decide early in their studies that they've isolated the most important, and therefore only significant, aspect of a game invariably do poorly in serious competition.

4. It’s all on you. Success is your responsibility. Failure is your fault.

You can copy the techniques of two top-tier players, gather advice from five friends, and read a dozen strategy blogs. You can try everything they said would assure victory and find their advice anywhere from slightly off the mark to dead wrong. It's still not their fault you lost. It's yours. You implemented their suggestions. You chose to listen to them rather than consult other sources or make more first-hand discoveries. And you're the one who has to deal with the repercussions of losing.

5. You’ll never be able to just show up and win.

Not even the best players can win automatically or at will. Improving your skill will make success more likely, but never effortless or guaranteed (with the possible exception of facing vastly less-skilled opponents, but that holds true at all levels of play and isn’t often under your control).

6. Approaching a problem with minimal effort at first, with the expectation that you can simply apply yourself extra-hard later if it becomes necessary, is a horrible strategy.

The flaw lies in convincing yourself that you can pull out some last-ditch miracle by dint of sheer willpower; that anything is possible if you just try hard enough. In realistic situations, there is a limit to how much skill, attention, and effort you can apply in a given time period. You cannot give 110%, by definition. If a task is so difficult that success requires near-100% effort — for example, beating an opponent who has put full focus on winning since the starting whistle blew — you can easily accumulate an insurmountable loss in position if you coast out of the starting gate.

Start before the beginning. Don't stop until the end.

7. Winning fair and square requires being knowledgeable about cheating.

It is an inescapable fact of life that some people break the rules. Tournament judges cannot watch every table constantly, just like the police can't station an officer in every dark alley 24/7. Unfair though it may be, some level of defense against unethical behavior must rest with you. This vigilance doesn’t only help you win the games you should. It also avoids jeopardizing your very ability to play. Not all cheating methods involve giving the cheater an unfair advantage. Some techniques are based on deliberately putting the cheater behind, then reporting the honest player to a judge for being unfairly ahead. If you don’t watch for this sort of behavior, you could find yourself disqualified from a match or even ejected from an event for something you didn’t do.

8. It's not what the rules say. It's what the judge says.

It is impossible to craft a set of rules that covers all possible situations and that everyone interprets the same way. Games — at least, the face-to-face sort — will always have disputes that require human adjudication, and their resolutions will always be arbitrary to some extent.

9. Do things because you want to, not to gain acceptance.

Plentiful are the immature opponents who will beat you, then deride you for being unskilled. It’s tempting to think they’ll respect you once you work your way through the ranks and prove you’re good after all — tempting, but delusional. A far more likely outcome is that they will dismiss your success as the result of luck, unethical practices, or the abuse of alleged game imbalances.

If you’re striving for greatness to garner respect, stop. Just stop. Spare yourself the wasted effort and future heartache.

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