(NOTE: This was originally supposed to be published on Monday, but being the webmaster, things got a little out of control. I’m still fixing the multitudes of issues right now, and I appreciate your patience. In the meantime, have the article that got lost with the server transition.)
Playing to Win is a book that teaches you how to win Magic tournaments, but the author has never won a Magic tournament in his life. In fact, I’m not sure he’s ever played a tournament-level game of Magic.
He is, however, a national Street Fighter champion.
I imagine some of you are surprised to find that there is a national Street Fighter Championship, where grown men play the Capcom line of Street Fighter videogames to win cash prizes. I’m sure many of those men would surprised to hear about the Pro Tour, too.
Over in a parallel universe, there are people talking about the Street Fighter metagame, discussing whether there’s any way to get an edge in the Chun Li vs. Sagat matchup, trying to find a way to stay on top of their game for ten hours straight so that they can win the finals of their local qualifier. There are casual players who find the repeated throw to be a cheap move that real men don’t need to use, and guys who get obsessed with characters who nobody else uses, and the coldly efficient guys who only care about winning the next match through whatever means necessary.
“Every gaming community is a weird mirror image of every other gaming community,” David Sirlin reminds us Â— and there in the parallel Street Fighter universe is Timmy, Johnny, and Spike staring at us with neatly-trimmed goatees, the Agonizer in their hands.
One of the major points hammered home in Playing to Win is that there are a lot of tournaments involving complex games. Chess, Starcraft, Scrabble, you name it Â— and someone is always struggling to be the champion. The mechanics of the game vary, but the mentality it takes to master those mechanics (and then consistently convert strategies into wins) remains constant.
What David Sirlin is trying to do in this slim tome is to define that constant.
It’s an ambitious idea: he wants to boil the essence away from these various games, and reduce them into one tournament-winning mentality. There is a mindset that serious players of any stripe all share, and that is what he is trying to define.
Are you that person?
Do you want to be?
“Do you want to be” is actually a valid question, because the first third of the book is devoted to “What it takes to win tournaments.” What David discusses is the fact that there’s a “casual vs. professional” gap in almost every game you care to mention. And David, in perhaps one of the greatest essays on the philosophy of gaming ever written, outlines the tournament mindset.
“Doing one move or sequence over and over again is a tactic close to my heart that often elicits the call of the scrub. This goes right to the heart of the matter: why can the scrub not defeat something so obvious and telegraphed as a single move done over and over? Is he such a poor player that he cannot counter that move? And if the move is, for whatever reason, extremely difficult to counter, then wouldn’t I be a fool for not using that move? The first step in becoming a top player is the realization that playing to win means doing whatever increases your chances of winning. That is true by definition of playing to win. The game knows no rules of ‘honor’ or of ‘cheapness.’ The game knows only winning and losing.”
David dissects the differences between casual players and tournament players with precision, neatly anticipating the arguments of casual players and explaining how tournaments are merely a different mindset.
Yes, it’s not as fun for you, but for us fun is winning regardless of the obstacles. No, you shouldn’t cheat. Yes, you’re too quick to ban cards (or characters, or strategies) because you don’t put in the time to come up with counter-strategies. And yes, being a jerk can sometimes steal matches from lesser opponents, but the top players at almost every level have benefited more from concentrating on their game play and not cheap psychological ploys.
If I knew of a player who said, “Wow, I’d like to win a tournament some day,” this is what I would hand him first.
Because, as David says, not everyone’s cut out to win a tournament. That’s not a bad thing; “winning” is a very specific skill, and it’s merciless in what it asks of you. Some of the things you have to do may be so unpleasant to you that it’s not worth your time just to beat everyone else in a room. I know I can’t stand playing Constructed, since I find it repetitive and boring, which is no doubt why I’m not the World Champion right now.
The problem is, of course, is that if you already know this, then thus far Playing to Win has spent the first third stating what is (to you) the obvious. Which is a marketing issue, not a true problem with the book, but it’s still relevant — by the time you’re motivated enough to spend money on a book about winning, chances are you’ll already know everything described in the beginners’ section.
That might not be a problem if the rest of the book was as strong as this philosophical discussion… But sadly, it’s the next section that starts to weaken.
The middle third of the book is an analysis of The Art of War, which is not an original idea but is carried out with both style and substance. And when it works, it works well.
For example, David discusses discipline and experience, because the whole goal of winning almost any game is to focus on the things that matter. A chess board has thirty-two pieces, but only a few are actually important at any time. Being able to screen out the irrelevant bits in order to focus on the two or three key segments that will actually make the difference in the game drastically improve your strategy.
Computers might be able to figure out every possible move that the twenty pieces left on a Chess board can make, but humans can’t. So your goal should be to find the important moves, and once your goal becomes as simple as “take out the Queen without losing two more pieces,” then you can start to win.
There are a lot of other good theories here, including talk on how to win meta-metagame Â— that Princess Bride-like situation where your opponent knows that you normally would have put the poison in his glass, except that’s what you were expecting, so clearly you put it in your glass….
Unfortunately, this section suffers from inconsistency. It’s fascinating to see the various theories of the Art of War put into practice in, but the problem is applicable theory: simply showing you how Sun Tzu’s theories on mismatched forces are used in Starcraft does not necessarily spark the inspiration on how to use them in Magic. What you come away is often not a wealth of ideas on how to improve your game of Magic, but “Wow, that Sun Tzu was one smart guy!” You often wish that Sirlin would spend time in, say, a sample game where he takes this principle and walks you through the thought process required to join Sun Tzu to you.
But it’s the third part of the book that makes this the best half-book ever written.
Sirlin breaks down the types of winning gamers in both Chess and Street Fighter, showing how gaming archetypes are similar across all spectrums. He then goes further and breaks down the ten traits of a winning gamer, discussing which traits are the most important:
Familiarity with tournaments:
You do need the experience to know what to do and the stamina to play for hours at a time.
Deep knowledge of the game at hand:
This seems like a gimme, but David notes that the players with the deepest knowledge are usually not the very best players, meaning that there’s something more than just mere mechanics.
Love of the game:
Or else why would you bother?
Winning takes a commitment, and David admits Â— as will I Â— that more than once, he’s thought that it would be a lot easier to lose this next round and go home.
Not as important as you’d think. The fastest and most dextrous players aren’t the ones who win championships in Street Fighter, and the Pro Tours are not dominated by Level Four Judges in their off time.
Suddenly, you’re playing a rogue deck that you’ve never seen before. How quickly can you figure out how to beat it? Can you do it before your opponent takes the match?
Knowledge/Ability in other games of the spectrum:
This isn’t necessary to win, as he notes, but the champions of a given game are really good at other games more often than not.
Sometimes, you’re in the zone where you just know the next move your opponent is going to make, every time, before he even makes it; that’s Yomi. People with great Yomi skills win an awful lot.
Magic is a game largely based on appraisal, since you have to figure out what cards are better than others in any given environment. That is, in fact, how you build decks. But players with good appraisal skills are usually the groundbreakers, finding gold where others have found chaff, creating new strategies from places that everyone else has dismissed.
At the end of this, he implies that a few skills are really critical: Yomi, Appraisal, Adaptability. Which makes sense: if you can see what your opponent is going to do next, judge whether it’s important or not, and then change your style to match it, why wouldn’t you win every game?
But here’s the frustrating part: This is where the book ends.
There’s next to no discussion on how to improve these skills. He mentions that Virtua Fighter champions tend to have great Yomi skills and Magic players are excellent at Appraisal, but aside from that you’re left with the burning question: If I don’t have a talent for Yomi, how do I gain it?
If Playing to Win had then gone on to take those three talents and discuss methods for improving them, I would have given this book the most raving review you could have seen. But Sirlin seems content to list them. If they’re important skills to have, shouldn’t a book truly devoted to Playing to Win talk about how to flex those weakened muscles and turn them into rock-hard strengths?
Unfortunately, the book peters out a chapter or two later, leaving you with the impression that you either have it or you don’t. And if it’s true that some players are just going to be capped on their talent level, then Sirlin should have ended by talking about that. And if it’s not true, if you can improve these skills by some means, then that should definitely have been on the agenda.
This is an excellent book on pure theory. What it lacks is often a sense of how to put those theories into play. There’s probably a really great follow-up to this book that will talk about training these skills hard, and when that happens it may well be the best twin books on gaming ever written.
Until then, you have a really fun read that may or may not improve your game. If you’re already at the top of your game, you can skip it. But if you’re struggling to win the Top 8 at that PTQ or are trying to break out of going 1-2 at the Pro Tour, you might wanna give this a shot.
Incidentally, I should add that if you’re at all interested in game design, his articles on game balance and rule design are among the most invaluable ever written. He’s that good.