Winning Sucks: In Defense of Defeat

My sophomore year of college, I had this hypercompetitive roommate named Stephen. Before we met, Stephen hadn’t played Magic: The Gathering in something like seven or eight years, but he picked it up again easily. As a casual Magic player, I thought the situation was ideal: I suddenly had someone to play against within 10 feet of me at all times!

Over the course of that year, though, a pattern emerged. Stephen hated losing more than maybe any human being I’ve ever met. If Stephen won a game, we’d both walk away having had a good time, but if I won, we’d both be miserable. Invariably, losses for Stephen resulted in demanded rematches, usually under threat of punishment. I remember one time where he’d bought an entire 36-pack box of booster packs for us to draft together, but when I beat him in our first game, he demanded that we play again until he won or he’d open all the packs by himself.

Also, he threatened to punch me in the face once.

The cognitive dissonance between how good he thought he was and what was happening on the battlefield seemed to kill him.

Gradually, I started to dread winning. Whenever the tide of the game would shift in my favor, I could see the frustration on his face and in the tone of his voice – the whole thing immediately became less enjoyable. To me, Magic was about having a good time and when I was winning, he wasn’t happy, which meant neither of us was happy. It never changed the way I played the game or anything – I never once threw a match to keep things pleasant – but man, was I relieved to lose. This experience helped crystallize a realization: I just don’t like winning very much.

In any competitive game, you’re someone else’s villain. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Stephen felt, as the hero, that he was supposed to win every game of Magic we played. He was owed victory and the cognitive dissonance between how good he thought he was and what was happening on the battlefield seemed to kill him.

Part of the problem might be the game itself. See, every deck a Magic player will ever build is constructed in this theoretical bubble wherein there exist no opponents, no threats and no chance of drawing anything other than the perfect card each turn. Sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised by card interactions, but for the most part, the reality of the deck you’ve built is inherently disappointing. Similarly, it’s so, so easy to be screwed over by luck of the draw in Magic. It’s a huge part of the game and one of the only aspects you have no control over. In your mind, you’re the hero, but in reality, you’re not destined to win. Hell, you’re not necessarily destined to draw a single playable card.

It is so satisfying to let go of the need to win because then situations beyond your control are no longer as frustrating. Getting ‘mana screwed’ or ‘mana flooded’ is always gonna be irritating, sure, but when your enjoyment isn’t solely tied up in the game’s outcome, it’s a lot easier to let go and accept that it happens to everyone.

Likewise, once you deprioritize victory, it becomes a lot easier to appreciate the cool moments that happen on both sides of the table. Case in point: I suffered a pretty spectacular defeat last month. It was the last game of the match, and I had my opponent down to one life. I was one turn away from winning when he pulls off the craziest, most convoluted combo I saw all day, dealing exactly the amount of damage needed to kill me. It was unexpected and devastating – I loved every second of it.

And I didn’t love in the masochistic, Al Pacino in Two for the Money way – more in the “that was amazing and both of us know it” way. The dude who beat me seemed as stunned as I was that he’d pulled it off, and the resulting moment we shared was probably the best part of the tournament for me. (For those curious: he Joint Assaulted, Rush of Blooded and then Ghostformed a Galvanic Alchemist he’d already double Timberland Guided the previous turn, swinging for 11 unblockable damage. [I am pretty sure everything in this sentence is spelled correctly, but unsure of pretty much everything else – Editor])

As I watched Stephen dump hundreds of dollars into buying single cards in order to have the most competitive decks at the tournaments every Friday night, I couldn’t help but feel he was missing the point. Having close, dramatic games of Magic is (or ought to be) about a trillion times more important than winning. When you embrace ultracompetitive play, you end up immersed in the personal narrative that you’re the hero and each other player is the bad guy.

Once you buy into that idea, loss is no longer simply one possible outcome of the game: it’s something that generates an actual sense of, well, loss.

That sucks. Don’t do that.

———

Nick Robinson wants to yell his opinions at you about plenty of things other than Magic! If you’re interested, simply follow him on Twitter at @Babylonian.

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  • kunzelman

    This article is really great. I know this looks like spam, but I promise it isn't, and there is something really interesting going on with the idea that players are being trained to believe that they shouldn't lose.

  • http://twitter.com/chrisfurniss @chrisfurniss

    I prefer helping other people win by supporting them in some way. Which is why I played a Bard/White Mage in Final Fantasy 11.

  • Phil

    Great article Nick. As a competitive player myself I understand the compulsion to win, but much like you I have come to find that my favorite games of Magic are often the ones I lose.

  • http://twitter.com/Rirath @Rirath

    Well written and interesting, but the 'winning sucks' angle is a bit much. Everything else I agree with. I frequently tell people about a 6 hour game of Talisman with my family where it all came down to a single roll of the dice as to who would ultimately win. My brother-in-law beat me, but the game was no less epic.

  • Everton

    I admit I'm a bit of a sore loser, but how pissed I get by losing varies according to the opponent and the situation. When I lose to human opponents, I usually keep my cool, especially when my opponent is talented and skilled in whatever we're playing. But I get quite angry when I lose because my human opponent used cheap, stupid tactics instad of elaborating more. A good example of this is when someone spams the same move nonstop in a fighting game.
    Now, when my opponent is the AI, I only keep my cool when the game *is* hard, like Dark Souls or Touhou for example, or when I'm fully aware that I'm not skilled enough at that moment. But when I know I can win, and that I'm losing due to lack of focus or sheer bad luck, then I get angry, really really angry.

  • tommtg

    Your right about physical cards being alot of money.
    But that feeling when I open up a brand new MTG booster box just gets me every time.

    I want to go for digital games but it doesn't have the same sense of collectability.

    Other than that. Awesome article I enjoy roleplaying while playing magic too. Sometimes a blue wizard raining death from above, but also sometimes as the army commander.