"This is what's great about sports. This is what the greatest thing about sports is: you play to win the game. Hello? You play to win the game. You don't play it to just play it."
For many of us, Magic is more than just something we idly play. It's something we care about, obsess about and work to improve at. We aren't playing to just play, we're playing to achieve something, to learn something, to prove something to ourselves. We're playing, not to just play, but to win the game. However, sometimes these platitudes and simplifications are nothing more than that: simplifications. They don't tell the whole story.
I want to begin by stating that I'm talking about my own opinions and experiences here. This is about how I now choose to approach Magic and less about a moralization of what one should or shouldn't do. With that said, I've been much happier in Magic since I've found a balance between playing to win and not, and I hope others can find a happy balance too.
Many years ago, at least 10 years at this point, I came across a publication called Playing to Win, by David Sirlin. Playing to Win, according to Sirlin, is basically the idea that you always try to take the actions that give you the best chance of winning and never take the actions that reduce your chance to win. To this day, Sirlin's work remains something that is read, followed and talked about by competitive gamers of all kinds of different games. I recently saw it referenced once again a few days ago, which is actually what motivated me to write this article.
At its core, the principle of Playing to Win sounds very simple, and of course, obviously correct. Why would you want to do things that reduce your chance to win? Nobody wants to do those things, willingly, at least. We all do punt from time to time, some more than others, but we aren't intentionally doing so. However, many of us, or in the case of MTG, nearly all of us, still do willingly choose to do things that reduce our chances to win, whether we realize it or not.
Sirlin wrote about "the scrub" who he described as someone who places unnecessary rules and boundaries on themselves. The scrub is the opposite of the expert, and in this case, the scrub is the example of someone who is not playing to win. In MTG, Sirlin's scrub character would be someone who refuses to play Mono-Red, or refuses to play Counterspells, or who thinks Nexus of Fate is a cheap strategy. A scrub might be someone who refuses to play aggro because "it doesn't take skill" or refuses to play "mindless combo decks" because they think they are above those kinds of decks. That player is limiting their options artificially, and thus reducing their chances to win. Sometimes Mono-Red is the best deck, and if this player refuses to play it, they are not really Playing to Win, they are playing for some other reason, and thus "a scrub."
To embrace the Playing to Win mentality, you should play the best deck that gives you the best chance to win in every event. If that deck is Nexus of Fate with exactly one win condition that takes 45 minutes to win with, play that deck. If it's Lantern Control, play Lantern Control. If it's Burn, play Burn. If playing to win means saving every Counterspell in your deck for specific spells in your opponent's deck, even if it means the game will take 30 extra minutes to complete and will be extremely miserable and boring to play, then you should do exactly that. Sirlin posits that if you're a competitive-minded player then you should be playing to win, and by playing to win, you should not be placing unnecessary restrictions on yourself, no matter what they are.
Sirlin touches several times on the concept of fun vs. Playing to Win. Fun is often the counterpoint to playing to win. "I'd rather have fun than do everything possible to play to win" says someone who isn't embracing the mentality of Playing to Win. According to Sirlin, playing to win is the most fun you can have, and he argues a number of times that the amount of fun that someone can have who isn't fully maximizing their Play to Win potential, is less than someone who does. In other words, Sirlin believes that someone who is playing the most competitively they possibly can is going to have a deeper and more meaningful level of fun with a game than someone who is just along for the ride.
Many years ago, I agreed wholeheartedly with that point. I thought playing to win was fun, winning was fun, putting external restrictions on myself was simply self-delusion, and people who didn't see it the same way I did either didn't understand how to have the most fun playing Magic or weren't good enough to do so. If they weren't good enough to thrive under the Playing to Win mentality, they had to put external restrictions on themselves to protect their ego. According to my thoughts, I played Magic at a deeper, more strategic, and thus more fun level than they would ever reach. "These scrubs didn't know how to play Magic the right way."
Nowadays, that's one place where Sirlin loses me. Fun is an extremely subjective argument, and I don't think fun and the level of competitiveness at which you approach the game are two things that directly correlate to each other. In fact, I've found that I've enjoyed playing video games a lot more now that I just try to enjoy the game and story and not bother about playing perfectly or doing everything optimally. Playing exclusively to win, quite frankly, doesn't necessarily mean that you are having the most fun you could possibly have playing Magic. It might mean that, depending on who you are, but it doesn't have to mean that.
In a lot of ways, and in fact, in most ways, Playing to Win is entirely right about approaching a game competitively. You shouldn't put restrictions on yourself if you care about winning. Complaining about netdecking or refusing to play tier 1 decks or needing to always put your own pet cards into decks isn't doing you any favors if your goal is to win. There are a lot of ways in which those concepts are still relevant and true to the idea of playing Magic competitively today.
However, when you begin to dig deeper into it, I'm not sure that Sirlin's words apply properly to the context of Magic: The Gathering in their entirety, and perhaps he would even agree that a lot of it isn't directly applicable. Sirlin was from a fighting game background. He played and worked on developing games like Street Fighter. Fighting games have a number of very big differences from Magic, and I think the differences in those games invalidate some of what he says in the context of MTG.
One thing that Sirlin is clear about in his work – and it's something that I fully agree with – is that you should play within the rules. However, he is also clear that if there is something within the rules that you are allowed to do, you should do it, even if it seems exploitative. That's where I draw the line in the context of Magic.
In the context of the games that Sirlin is most familiar with, fighting games, this makes complete sense. Choose whatever character gives you the most chance to win, and if there is a certain combination of button presses that allows you to exploit game mechanics with those characters, do it as much as it benefits you, even if it wasn't the original intent of the game designers. If that's not how the game is supposed to work, they can patch or fix the game.
The problem is that Magic exists on a depth so far beyond the level of fighting games and there is an extra interpersonal dimension to Magic that creates a lot of grey area that doesn't exist in fighting games. In fighting games, what is within or outside the rules of the game is controlled by the game's programming. If the game allows you to do something, it is legal, and you should do it if it maximizes your value. Rules are programmed into the game.
Magic isn't quite like that. The rules are often ambiguous and whether or not something is allowed or not allowed in the rules comes down to subjective measurements like how long someone paused between saying words, or how they gestured at something or what word choice they had when talking to their opponent. Those kinds of things aren't easy to make rules about, and the rules aren't always clearly defined or definitively black and white about whether something is or isn't allowed.
This isn't the fault of judges or the rules committee that develops the Magic Tournament Rules. In fact, I am continually impressed at how great the rules are for handling nearly every situation imaginable and how knowledgeable a lot of the judges I interact with are about how to properly apply those rules. With that said, there are a lot of situations that come down to "he said/she said" or the judgment calls of the people involved.
In other words, Magic has a lot of room for angle shooting. Angle shooting is basically doing something that is technically within the rules, but that either stretches the legality of the rules, tries to exploit ambiguity in the rules, or that otherwise doesn't exemplify great sportsmanship.
Here's an example of angle shooting that happened to me once at an event. I was playing in a razor-thin close game at a Grand Prix. I had taken my opponent down to one life on the previous turn and they were dead on my next turn, regardless of what they drew. However, I was also very close to being dead myself. On their last turn, my opponent flashed me an Ajani's Presence from their hand, which represented lethal damage if they were able to cast it on their creatures. However, they couldn't cast the card, since their last source of white mana was a Mana Confluence and they were at one life. They showed me the card to suggest they had lethal with the intention of drawing a concession out of me if I forgot about or overlooked the Mana Confluence, even though they couldn't actually win if the game played out to its natural conclusion. When I pointed out the Mana Confluence, they conceded. Their chance to win was a premature concession from me, not actually dealing me lethal damage.
According to Sirlin's mentality, you should use these situations to your advantage because they will maximize your chance to win, so long as they are technically within the rules. Sirlin's work promotes angle shooting, although even Sirlin himself argues against some of the more extreme examples, like attempts to intimidate or bully an opponent.
I honestly don't know whether the above scenario is right or wrong, and my goal isn't to argue one way or the other. However, the more and more I play the more and more I realize that this particular theory of Playing to Win doesn't fit my own goals and mentality for Magic. I'm not interested in trying to shoot every angle or trying to extract every possible benefit from milking the rules to my favor.
I genuinely think the game is worse off if everyone is trying to "get" each other or exploit the rules to get edges over each other. Sirlin believes that people pushing games to their extremes makes those games better, and maybe in fighting games with programmed in rules engines, that is true, but I don't think it holds for Magic, which has a level of interpersonal interactions, relies on communication in tournaments as one of its core rule structures and has so many grey areas and ambiguities that the sheer amount of areas in which you can exploit things or abuse rules is astronomical and frankly exhausting to keep up with. It also creates a downright miserable experience for opponents who have to play against someone who is doing this or trying to do this at every possible situation.
If the Play to Win mentality means that you should try to maximize your value at every opportunity to win, which even means doing technically legal but generally considered unsavory angle shooting, then I guess it's time to admit that I've finally become "the scrub." And I'm okay with it.
Another way that Playing to Win doesn't seem to fit Magic: The Gathering particularly well is in regards to the idea that Playing to Win represents the most fun one can have playing. In regard to fighting games, the game itself is generally a relatively confined parameter. You sit down, you battle against someone else and that's it. Playing at the highest possible skill level in a match might simply be the most fun someone can have playing a fighting game, and the same could reasonably be argued in Magic about the match itself.
If Playing to Win only applies to the in-game aspect of matches, then it stands to reason that giving yourself the best chance to win and playing your best is generally going to also result in you having the most fun in your matches, though perhaps not always. Making good plays and outplaying your opponent simply is fun.
However, Magic has a significantly broader range of things that are incorporated into the game, and therefore I don't think the analogy holds across the board. Magic has metagaming, deck selection, and other things that, while they can be present in fighting games, are a much bigger, if not the biggest, part of Magic. These can be the best way to overcome the inherent variance in the game, and those outside of the game itself considerations don't exist in some of these other games at nearly the same level.
Furthermore, if you're going to a Magic Tournament, there are a lot of ways you can get extra edges that I simply don't see people actually doing. If you're truly playing to win at the most extreme understanding of the term, you should be walking around before the tournament trying to figure out what decks people are playing. You should be hanging out around the vendors seeing what cards people are buying so you know what the metagame is likely to look like or what decks individual people are playing, and after each round of the event, instead of talking to your friends, you should be walking around taking notes scouting the decks and card choices of people who are around your record in the event so you have a leg up if you get paired against them. Many people consider this unsavory behavior, but it isn't actually against the rules.
I'm sure there is a lot more than these examples of things you can do to gain edges and increase your chance of winning. But frankly almost nobody does these things. Why? Because it's a lot of work for extremely marginal value, and it's annoying, monotonous, miserable work. It's simply not fun. It's way more fun to instead spend the time between rounds talking to friends, hanging out with people, obsessively scrolling through social media (maybe that's just me?), or even just relaxing and listening to music.
I'm someone who has played at the highest level of competition possible, and I find there are times where playing to win involves doing something incredibly unfun, and there are times where I will sacrifice some amount of my equity at an event to avoid doing things that I consider to be incredibly unfun. I don't think I am alone in that, even among the hyper-competitive professional community.
Personally, I think it's ok to choose fun over winning. I think it's healthy, even. And while winning is fun, I reject the notion that doing everything you can do to win is also necessarily fun. Sometimes it is downright grueling, miserable, and a real slog. To technically be the absolute best possible, you should slog through it, but not everyone who plays Magic cares about eeking out the tiniest edges, and you can appreciate and try to play Magic very competitively and still realize that there are situations and places where you can tone down the competitiveness a little bit and just relax, have fun and enjoy the game.
I think it's possible to care about being competitive, care about leveling up in Magic, and care about reaching the highest levels of competition and still choose not to "Play to Win" in some areas of the game that turn the game from something fun into something that feels like grinding through a work-week of a hapless job. It's okay to (tig)tone it back in some areas. I'm not saying that you have to but pouring too much into the game and focusing on min-maxing your equity in the nittiest grittiest areas of the game is one of the quickest ways to burn out and harm your enjoyment and engagement in the long run.
If choosing to say "I'm not going to do that because I value my enjoyment and I don't find playing to win in that regard fun" is the scrub mentality, then once again I guess I'm forced to admit that I've become the scrub. I'm still okay with it.
Another area that Sirlin touches on in his work is the area of bans. Sirlin believes that people too often call for things to be banned rather than learn and develop ways to defeat them.
That, I agree with. There was a hilarious period about a year ago where for a month or two straight whenever someone won a major Modern event, each time with a different deck, there was a sudden outcry of people calling for that deck to be banned. The most recent ban, Krark-Clan Ironworks, hadn't even fully broken out yet. Modern is a format that is extremely good at adapting to the current best deck, pushing those decks back down into simply being good-but-not-oppressive parts of the metagame.
However, Sirlin pushes further to basically suggest that something should only be banned if it is oppressive and realistically unbeatable. While once I agreed with that, I no longer do.
I value fun more than purity. I believe that if something is not fun and detracts significantly from people's enjoyment of a format, it should probably be removed from that format, even if it technically isn't overpowered enough to warrant a power-level only ban.
For example, I think Nexus of Fate is toying this line in Best-of-One play on MTG Arena. Is Nexus of Fate too good? No, I don't think so. It's beatable, and cards like Unmoored Ego exist that are powerful answers to it – as are some strategies like Mono-Red that can often go underneath it. However, Nexus promotes extremely unfun, repetitive, and abusive gameplay. Games with Nexus of Fate can go on indefinitely, if the Nexus player runs out of win conditions. Those games end up relying on one of the players in the game to select to concede the game rather than come to a natural conclusion.
Recent bans that were for reasons beyond simple power-level reasons are cards like Krark-Clan Ironworks in Modern or Sensei's Divining Top in Legacy. These cards, while also being extremely powerful, were also contributing to negative and unfun experiences in those formats. KCI pushed the rules to a place they weren't meant to be pushed and involved KCI players having to explain how esoteric corner case scenarios of the rules worked during each round to their opponents, while eating up sometimes 15 minutes in a single turn to combo off. Sensei's Divining Top also ate an extraordinarily amount of time in events, especially when played by less experienced pilots.
I was in favor of both of those bans. Magic isn't a purity test. Imposing restrictions like how cards should only be banned purely for power level reasons and only if they become extremely oppressive might reflect the correct stance to take from a purely competition-only mindset, but once again, Magic is meant to be fun, and if a card remaining legal is pushing people out of the game, it probably shouldn't exist, even if it's within the realm of acceptability from a competitive perspective.
Giving people time to adapt and learn how to beat a card or strategy before demanding a ban is a good thing, but once enough time has elapsed, if that card or deck is still powerful and still strongly harming the format, get rid of it. I choose fun over competitive purity.
When you boil things down, I mostly agree with the various mantras present in Playing to Win. Take the actions that help you win and avoid the ones that don't. Don't self-impose external rules and restrictions.
However, and it has taken me years to come to these conclusions, I don't agree unilaterally with the Playing to Win mentality. I find that fun and sportsmanship are simply things that I personally value over the pure cutthroat atmosphere of competition. Magic is a game, meant to be fun and enjoyed, and I'm not willing to throw away the enjoyment of Magic to pursue the cold, robotic grind to perfection, and I don't believe such a thing is sustainable for almost anyone, long term.
Sirlin seems to believe that fun and competition are interlinked--that competition is the height of fun. I don't agree, necessarily. Competition and fun are often intertwined, but there are times where competition comes at the expense of fun, and I think one can be competitive minded, strive to be the best you can be, and still willingly choose fun over competition in spots where competition is particularly onerous.
It isn't an all or nothing exchange. It's not that you're either playing to win or you're a scrub. It's not black or white. There's an in-between. There's a grey area. You can value competition and value fun and choose between the two in the ratio that maximizes getting the most out of Magic that you want out of it. That's not being a scrub. That's being realistic, knowing what you want out of Magic and taking it.
Now that's what I call playing to win.