Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge – What Do Other Games Teach us About Magic: the Gathering?
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin
Following the comments section on my last article, I began thinking about one of my biggest strengths; the ability to apply skills learned in one content into another. Most people I know who have been playing Magic: the Gathering for a long time have taken break from the game because of frustrations such as difficulties in attaining their goals within the game, disenfranchisement due to extensive bannings, bad formats or simply getting bored of doing the same thing for so long. I’ve never actually stopped playing since I started 21 years ago, instead opting to play a little less, but still keep my hand in the game, and because of the natural affinity for it I mentioned above the time hasn’t been “wasted” from a Magic: the Gathering point of view. Hopefully by reading about how I learned, you’ll be able to develop your ability to do this, too, and avoid burning out of the game we all love so much.
It’s a bit of a strange article in that it doesn’t discuss Magic in a particularly direct way, and I feel like I should say that early doors.
With that caveat out of the way, let’s get going…
4 Other Games That Helped Me Improve at Magic: the Gathering
1. Blood Bowl
Blood Bowl is an old school Games Workshop game – which has recently seen a rerelease – loosely based on American football, but situated within the Warhammer Fantasy universe. Almost certainly the best game made by Games Workshop, the game still has some major problems. There are glaring discrepancies in power level between teams; as you might expect, the highly agile Dark Elves and the brutish Orcs vastly outclass the Haflings and the Goblins. Also, oddly worded skills like “block” which is a skill which means you can ignore your part in “both down” dice rolls, on both defence *and* attack, but it sounds like it should be purely defensive. Attacking other players is called “throwing a block”, to muddy the waters further. There are 22 teams, each of which has unique rules, and each player on each team will develop additional skills over the course of a league and this is naturally very confusing.
These problems are negligible compared to the major one though: the game is incredibly frustrating to play if you don’t know what’s going on, and mistakes are crushingly punishing because of the Turnover rule. Turns are taken on a per player basis in which a player is activated, completes its actions (moving, passing, throwing a block, etc), then another player is activated and the previous player is done until the following turn. If at any point a player fails a dice roll, the turn is passed over, and you opponent takes his turn.
Needless to say, bad sequencing will lose you game after game after game in Blood Bowl. It’s very important to evaluate the risk involved in each action, and take the lowest risk actions first to minimise the effects of turnover. Moreover, it is important to make it as difficult as possible for your opponent to take actions, placing players in such a way that they must make the most dice rolls possible to accomplish anything. Sometimes it is incorrect to throw a favourable block, because forcing your opponent to roll more and more dice to accomplish anything is incredibly powerful.
I bought this game shortly after it came out for the PC, played it a bit against the AI, didn’t really know what I was doing, and gave up in frustration. A few years later, Larry Martin – the master of obscure games – asked if I wanted to play a bit online, and after crushing me a bit, he explained how to do some basic things, and I improved drastically. The game is incredibly frustrating, but very skill intensive…more so than Magic: the Gathering, in my opinion.
This game, more than any other, taught me the humility required to learn from my mistakes. Virtually every time something bad happens to you in Blood Bowl, there was a way you could have sequenced the turn to be in a slightly better position. Because I knew I was bad at Blood Bowl, I was far more open to the idea that my misfortune was the result of bad play, often because Larry would just point out what would then seem a glaring error. I’ve played a lot since then, and continued to reflect on the outcomes of a given turn.
Incorporating this into how I approached games of Magic: the Gathering was a fairly natural process, probably aided by maturing somewhat. This was the big take away from Blood Bowl but it also helped me with calculating odds, and with the idea that often it’s worth passing up a favourable trade (paralleling with blocks, above) in order to complicate the board somewhat in Limited, allowing for options down the line, but also getting a middling opponent out of their depth.
You might be interested in this group: Manaleak Birmingham Blood Bowl Group
I haven’t played poker in a couple of years, but I used to play fairly frequently. I was never much good, and I never took the steps to fix that. That said, I did once come 6th in a 150 man tournament (having never been in a casino before) on what must have been almost entirely transferable skills from Magic: the Gathering.
I learned to be something close to middling at this game by playing at Martin Cairn’s semi regular game. A little scene setting might be required, here. Martin is a good friend of mine who was living in in a one bedroom flat in a rough(ish) part of Glasgow. He drives a cab, so it would be the middle of the week we played as weekends are premium time in that job, but midweek is like the weekend. So we’d meet up at 9pm, and the room would be full of smoke and he’d be getting his drink on by 10pm. He’s a wind up merchant at the best of times, and competitive. He was also way better than me at this game. He’d play aggressively into me, over and over, taking the piss the whole time, showing me the crap he’d raised with and taken my chips, and hitting his 9’s and 8’s when I called. This would, in all cases, be accompanied by loud, terrible music (Scooter was a favourite), roaring laughter and exclamations about how bad I was at poker.
Like I said, I never actually got good at this game, but what I did learn was how to ignore his crap. We’re good friends, and it was all good natured, so I don’t feel bad about any of it, but of course this sort of thing is annoying, and intended to tilt. He was the same in Magic, and it was easy to see the effect he had on people, especially those who took themselves too seriously.
What I learned from it was how to deal with opponents and circumstances which might otherwise be tilting. Part of it is just experience, of which this was a distilled course, but part of it is understanding how to control an engagement. For the most part, people who act like this are trying to get a reaction, so ignoring it and asking about something to do with the game state is effective because it denies them the reaction and forces them back into the space you want them in. Sometimes, they’ll be acting out because *they* are tilted, and when you blank their frustration, or snarky remark, they become aware of their behaviour, and become embarrassed. The exact way in which you want to do this is linked to what makes you comfortable when you play, but I try and create a situation similar to a doctor’s appointment, or a job interview. I alter my language slightly so that I give the impression that *I* am the expert, and my opponents behave accordingly. This all suits me because I like it to be quiet when I play, and if you’re the sort of person who does better when there is a greater degree of back and forth with your opponent, then you should try and force those situations.
None of this stuff had a great deal of impact on Martin, but it definitely helped me when I played games against him by mitigating his behaviour.
3. Civilisation Five
Sid Meier’s Civilisation is a turn based strategy game in which you control the development of fledgling settlement and oversee its development into the epicentre of a sprawling empire. The game takes forever to play and it is exceptionally intricate and complicated. I have 1504 hours logged on it, and while perhaps a third of that is time I’ve had the game running but been away from keyboard, it’s still a prodigious amount, and I have only played perhaps 40% of the factions.
Initially, I couldn’t beat the game or make any real progress at all on medium difficulty (4 of 8). Ross Jenkins explained to me that it was very important to micro manage virtually every element of the game, and that having a clear plan at any given point was very important. Before this point I was automating my workers, and just trying to build everything in every city as it came up.
With a clear plan, I was suddenly making a great deal of progress ramping into medieval swordsmen in 2500BC and destroying my neighbours, thus allowing me to expand into their territory without threat of military reactions. Alternatively, I was building the Library of Alexandria and Stonehenge as soon as possible, and overwhelming my enemies with scientific advantage.
I never beat the game on difficulty 8 before Civilisation Six came out, but I beat it on 7 consistently. The takeaways from this to import to Magic: the Gathering are twofold. Just as managing workers well is important in Civilisation, taking care of the little optimisations in Magic is, too. Often it seems like these things won’t matter and it’s better to just keep playing and get through more games, but they certainly contribute to win percentage. As a result, I slowed down quite a bit in testing and to a lesser extent in tournaments to make sure that I was taking care of these issues and not just making the first decent play that came to mind.
The second lesson was one of opportunity cost. When I started with Civ I built all the buildings because they all seemed like they’d be worth having. The problem with this is that the game isn’t designed so that there is time to build everything. In general, a military civilisation isn’t interested in a cultural building, and a science civilisation isn’t interested in a faith building. It doesn’t matter if they’re good buildings… although, it might if they are exceptional.
The same goes for Magic: the Gathering. Cards need to be appropriate for the deck you’re attempting to build, not simply good cards. For me, the first lesson was more important than the opportunity cost one, as I already largely understood this, but it might not be for you.
4. World of Warcraft
In Blizzard’s epic Massively Multi Player Role Playing Game, my main character was an Orc Warrior. I was in the best guild on my server, got to fight the most difficult content in the game, content many people wouldn’t ever even see because the content you needed to defeat in order to progress to that point was way too difficult for the vast majority of players. Sounds like I was a winner at that game, right? I was in a way, but the problem was I wasn’t actually *that* good. I was always a little behind my peers. We played a 27 hour raiding week, over 5 nights. The fights were difficult, intricate, and often one mistake on the part of the main Warrior would fail the encounter for the entire 40 man team. It would then take about 7 minutes to get everyone ready to go again, so that mistake was costing your guild 4.5 man hours. These were people who spent loads of time together each night, both inside and outside of raid hours. They were my friends.
The pressure was massive, and often *that* would be the cause of a fatal error. Naturally this caused more pressure, and then more potential failure. I worried a lot about what people thought and so on, and naturally some people got annoyed if I messed up. I spent a lot of time trying to prove myself, and never really did to some.
Eventually, I quit because of changes to the game, but came back again when a new expansion came out. By this time Kirsty – my partner- was playing in a new guild, having left the one we both played in to find a better one on a different server. Kirsty was way better than me; the new guild was in the top 150 in the world, so it’s likely she was in the top 500 Shaman in the world. I rerolled Rogue, and played casually with their extra, “fun” characters (alts). To my surprise I was able to keep up with these players, playing a class which had way, way less pressure on it to perform.
The take away from this is that you can’t let people push you around or let pressure get to you, or you’ll choke. Part of the mistake I made with playing warrior was not telling people where to go at times. I took the blame for everything, and it crushed the confidence required of a player in a class like Warrior. There are some people who will pick away at you to make themselves feel better. It’s important to recognize them, and stand up to them quickly, or they’ll get in your head and mess you up. That goes for teammates, opponents and ultimately anyone you meet. Never let people do that to you.
I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood on this, so I will say it clearly: if I had spent the time playing I did on these games playing Magic: the Gathering, I would definitely have learned more about Magic. With that said, I like to play other games, and it was definitely helpful to learn the things I did from them. I’m pretty deep in on Overwatch now, and I’m definitely learning things there about team work, tilt and communication, and I’m playing the game with the guys I play Magic with so it’s definitely been super helpful even just as a bonding experience…. but I wrote about teams very recently.
That’s it for this week, though. I hope you found this useful!