The Ivory Tower: Rational Thought in Prisoner’s Dilemma by David Brannon

The UK Magic scene from a cross cultural perspective by David William Brannon


Something has been irking me about some articles that I have read in the last week, namely the suggestion that players are rational. This view is very self-defeating, and it would in effect be the end of the game as we know it. Simply put, based on the last weekend’s National no players other than Channel Fireball crew should have played in the US Nats as statistically, and thus rationally, speaking the Channel Fireball crew were the most likely to win. This sounds like a horrendous claim but when we actually consider what rational thinking implies, it is not far from the mark.

In classical terms, rational thinking implies that people have full access to all information, that they are highly skilled logical thinkers and that they are not influenced by politics (e.g. gaining favour), power (e.g. proving oneself) or emotion (e.g. fear). For example Channel Fireball, who are widely considered the best US players, should logically have won Nats. It would thus have been illogical for someone who is not part of their team to have par taken in Nats as the odds of them winning is much much lower (notable exceptions obviously for Kibler, Brad Nelson etc). In reality while several made the top 8, e.g. LSV, Webster etc, non of them won US Nats, thus an illogical outcome was recorded, i.e. in fact a relatively inexperienced player won. Needless to say rational thought is no longer the accepted view in management literature, nor as I will explain should it be the view in Magic.

Firstly, as players we do not have access to full information, unless you are cheating by stacking your deck, your opponent’s deck, know all the cards in players hands, graveyards, sideboard, etc while also telepathically reading your opponent’s mind and processing all this data into information while applying this to knowledge. Deep breadth! I feel I do not need to explain why it therefore seems unlikely that we have full access to data. We can however account for this and the next point by adopting a bounded rational approach, namely that humans are fallible, do not have perfect information nor are they necessarily equally skilled in decision making. This view however still suggests that players make this decision for the best possible outcome and most likely without additional considerations such as power or emotion.

Secondly, unless players suggest that Magic is no longer a game of skill, an interesting thought maybe, a player’s ability to process data into information in order to apply this to strategy is the game’s central theme. The difference therefore between player’s skill levels starts with their rational thought process. Or at least as I will describe in this series of articles, merely their ability to process data, not necessarily even to form information or apply strategy. The suggestion therefore that players think rationally seems to paint all players with a similar brush, which is in itself a dangerous proposition. If skilled players assume that less skilled players will see certain plays, they may start building their own strategy around this. When less skilled players do not respond accordingly then the more skilled player may find that their game plan falls to pieces. It’s like a collision on the motor way; as long as both cars are driving at similar speeds then bumps will be less problematic. Only when the speed between them is significantly different, is a crash likely to be serious.

Finally, the preceding assumption that rational thinking beats emotional thought is also troublesome. Let us be clear, tilt, although occasionally winning games, is on the most part not something that will be beneficial to you. Tilit is in affect a state of data processing which has bypassed thinking and is driven purely by emotion e.g. fear. I sadly speak from much authority on this matter. But is the opposite, i.e. rational thought without emotion, any better? Let us use some simple historical examples to test this theory.

During the Battle or Britain, the British were vastly outnumbered and rationally should therefore have lost, they however won. Nelson Mandela and Ghandi, turned the tide of their respective countries not by violence but peaceful protest, which logically might have been ignored but they won. The Taj Mahal was built not based on some logical thought process but deep devotion of love, which resulted in one of the world’s most beautiful buildings (I think we can call that a win). Finally, (being a Liverpool fan you must forgive me) in the Champion’s League final of 2005 Liverpool were 3-0 down against AC Milan, they still won. Okay this is a trick example as we did have Steven Gerrard and thus should have logically won.

One final case, when Columbus sailed to the West Indies, he was told that logicall he would fall off the end of the world, but needless to say disregarding the logic of the time but focusing on his emotions instead e.g. adventure, the new world was found (although several others such as Vikings etc had already been there before). The point is that history shows us many examples where logical thought was simple meaningless and where emotion won the cause.

In Magic we can recall similar tales of logical defiance and mostly emotional wins. Two such examples include Gabriel Nassif’s called shot with Cruel Ultimatum off the top and Craig Jones’ Lightning Helix top deck. In both cases the players were down and out with few purely rational outs. The odds of drawing these very cards were not substantial, but once they had logically worked out the actual sequence of events, they forgot percentages and reason, and simple went with their gut. I am sure most of us have seen movies where the protagonists explains it’s a “gut” feeling, well that is precisely the difference between a player acting purely rationally and a player who combines their logic with their gut. They can win games that should by all reason have long been dead and over.

I think a very relevant example is the decision which deck to play for the upcoming UK Nats, and can be applied to any tournament. We can analyse this by using the prisoner’s dilemma, which is a simple decision making matrix. Here it is…

Prisoner A and B have both been instructed by the FBI, that whoever talks first will receive a lesser prison sentence. If both prisoners talk however they will both receive longer sentences than if no one spoke at all. Thus if prisoners A & B both do not talk they will receive 2 years. If prisoner A or B talks then they will receive 1 year but the other will receive 5 years. If they both speak, they will both receive 3 years which is a year longer than if neither speaks at all. Both prisoners are unable to communicate however to determine whether the other will turn on them.

What should they do?

How does this example relate to Magic? Simple, right now for the upcoming UK Nats, everyone is asking one question everyone: Whether they should play Caw-Blade or something that beats it? Rationally, Caw Blade is proposed to be the best deck in the current format (disregarding the US top 8 and Swiss results). Let us assume that both Player A & B rationally reason that Caw-Blade is the best deck. They reason however that playing Caw-Blade does not however offer a distinct advantage over the field of other Caw-Blade decks. Player A or B thus reason that its advantageous to play something that beats the field of other Caw-Blade players. In playing something that beats it, they stack their win % in favour of beating Caw-Blade–but also –in so doing, they decrease their win % against other decks e.g. Twin, Valakut etc. Assuming that all players are rational and that increasing one’s win % is rational, it only stands to reason that all other rational players will follow this argument. Thus the field changes from Caw-Blade to decks which beat Caw-Blade but loose to each other.

Player A & B both thus choose not to play Caw-Blade but something that beats it in an attempt to win the match. They have however in the meantime decreased their chances of beating non Caw-Blade decks assuming that the field has not arrived at the same logical outcome. Final result, both players A & B have decreased, rather than increased, their win % against the overall field as other players stop playing Caw-Blade and start playing something that beats it. The only solution to this conundrum would be to develop a deck that beats Caw-Blade and the remaining field as well. This would therefore replace Caw-Blade as the best deck and start a new fresh cycle. Rationally there is no logical outcome to this argument, unless you include emotion. This might include what deck you enjoy the most, your style of play, your temperament or other simple preferences.

So next time you sit down opposite an opponent, keep a few things in mind. Neither your opponent nor you are rational players but instead complex combinations of emotions and logic. While going on tilt will lose you games, you might find that you will lose an equal number of games by staying purely rational. Studies have long established that both your emotions and your logic when competently combined offer the greatest results. So once you have rationally worked out your data, practice using your emotions to push for one step further namely strategy, i.e. “listen to your gut”. This may take time to develop, but it seems unlikely that countless studies as well as several Hollywood movies are able to be simultaneously wrong.

But bear in mind as well that rational thinking is a skill that has not been equally developed by all players. Their actions may seem less logical, the reason being that they are actually less experienced. Or for that matter not all players draw on logic but may instead base their decision on their emotions instead. In both instances, be careful when assuming that certain situations will occur and basing your strategy around this.

Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing,


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