Let me set a scene for you.
Regina and I are at Arctic Con (Oregon Coast Comic Con) in March this year. I’d taught her to play Sushi Go: Party and we had a fairly good round going. The lead passed back and forth and going into the final hand of the round I was ahead by about five. I had a card in my opening hand that I knew could rob her of some points, but taking it would not really advance my board state. I took a card that helped me and passed her the card that would help her.
The rest of the round spiraled out of control, and I lost by passing her a card I shouldn’t have.
Another scene. I’m at a Magic: The Gathering draft recently and I’m undefeated going into the best-of-three championship match. It’s game one and my opponent is quick to fill his board with some small threats, but I’m not too far behind. I notice that if he hits his land drop on his next turn, he’ll have enough mana to cast a Colossal Dreadmaw, one of the beefiest threats in this set. I’m holding a counterspell and one of my own big creatures in my hand, but I only have enough land to cast one, not both. If I hold up countermagic and he doesn’t have the Dreadmaw, then I’ve basically skipped my turn for nothing. I take a gamble and play out my creature. On his turn, my opponent, right on cue, resolves his Colossal Dreadmaw.
My opponent wins that game 4 or 5 turns later because I can’t beat a giant, stupid dinosaur. We go about 20-25 turns into game 2. Consolation matches have concluded and people are now watching every turn we take. It was an epic back and forth battle that ended with me presenting lethal damage to him next turn, and he wins off an extremely lucky top deck to take the best-of-three match and the championship.
The difference between these two scenes is my attitude. When I played Sushi Go: Party against Regina, I consciously knew that she’s an experienced gamer and intelligent person — two things that typically make a formidable opponent. I’ve lost a bunch of games to Regina and only heard the legend about how she razes the land and salts the earth in 7 Wonders. However, SGP was also a game that she had not played before; I thought her inexperience with this particular game gave me an easy path to victory. It was an arrogant and stupid assertion. I severely underestimated her ability to pick up on the game as quickly as she did, and she outplayed me. I didn’t expect to lose, and I punted away the game because I got cocky.
At the MTG event, it was my first time drafting the new set and only my second time at this particular store. I’ve never won a draft tournament before. The experience level of the store’s regulars is a mystery to me at this point. I go into the draft straight up expecting to lose. However, I also go in with a growth mindset. My goal wasn’t to take down the draft; it was to observe, make smart plays, draft good cards, read signals, and thoroughly analyze my counter-strategies for games 2 and 3. I did most of these things and ended the night at 4-2, good enough for 3rd place behind our 6-0 winner and 5-1 silver medalist.
What did I learn from this? I learned a good deal about MTG that night, but I also learned that I treated my friend with less respect than I gave to a perfect stranger. Am I proud to admit that? No, not really. But what it does do is help to reframe a lesson that I learned as a lifelong gamer: you should go into any game acknowledging the possibility that you could lose. Always try to win, and always think of what lines you can take to snatch a victory from behind, but always acknowledge that you might lose and that there’s learning in a loss.
People like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov lost many games of chess, and they’re widely considered the two greatest players of all time. Kasparaov even famously lost to a computer! Victory is guaranteed to no one, and a responsible gamer understands that. When I focus on that lesson, the possibility of loss immediately frames every aspect of the game as a learning opportunity that I should pay attention to. And when I lose a game, even a game that I expected to win, the loss is just another step in the long narrative journey of the decisions that I’ve been keeping track of since turn 1.
Tracking my decisions throughout the game is a skill that I’ve been actively trying to hone for a few years. It requires active attention and a lot of repeating what’s happening to yourself. Some people look at you like you have 3 heads, but it works wonders for cementing sequences of events and actively fills your brain with information that you can do with as you will. When you get arrogant and immediately coast your way to victory, you aren’t paying attention. And when you don’t pay attention, that’s when a 100% expected chance of victory starts to slip away from you.
If you pay attention, play smart, and track your decisions, every game teaches you something, even if that something is “Dad likes to build hotels on Baltic & Mediterranean Ave.” Remember, acknowledging loss is a possibility ≠ tell yourself that a loss is imminent. Acknowledging loss opens your mind up to learning, and that makes you a better gamer every time you sit at the table, win, lose, or draw.
Bring a growth mindset to the table and you will always walk away with more knowledge, and what’s a better prize than enriching your mind for the future?