Disclaimer: Not a Merfolk article!

When we step into an LGS or convention center, it’s fairly obvious who the Big Fish are. These are the players in the room who have the most experience and the most practice. Perhaps you are already a Big Fish or maybe you are a new player who is just learning the ropes.

I’ve had two unrelated but interlocking experiences over the past few weeks that have led me to challenge the way I think about playing Magic. The first was learning a new competitive game and the other was a conversation with a friend about the nature of being a competitive gamer.

Learning a New Game is Hard

I’d wager that most people reading daily Magic content are not new to the game. If you are new, welcome. If you’re a regular, welcome back.

When I think or write about Magic, it’s with an extreme bias. I’ve been a competitive player for over 15 years, and it’s difficult to disengage from that perspective since it’s so deeply ingrained. In many ways, I’ve forgotten what it was like to be a new player. There are people in the world who have never heard of Jace, the Mind Sculptor

I recently started playing Warhammer 40K with my brother. When we were in high school, we used to hang out, paint models, and try to play games without really understanding the rules. He came up with the idea that we should dust off his old minis (I traded mine for dual lands) and try to learn how to actually play.

My first experience with 40K back in the day was bad. 40K, like Magic, is unbelievably complicated and requires a lot of experience and game specific knowledge to play. You have to play a lot of games to really understand how to play. We tried going to game stores on 40K nights, but the players were too spiky. We’d both get destroyed. It wasn’t fun. We didn’t learn much other than our opponent’s models had a bunch of broken abilities we barely understood and we got easily tabled every time we played.

I never expected to win, but I was hoping to learn. As a newer player, I needed help with the basics of the game and I continually played against opponents who treated our games like inconvenient auto-wins that were keeping them from talking to the other good players in the store. After a couple of times, we both lost interest and quit trying.

My recent experience with learning the game was different. The local players are awesome, super nice, and extremely helpful at showing us the ropes. One local player went so far as to make me a cheat sheet of commonly looked up info and left it at the store for me. I talked to this person exactly one time and they went to that trouble. It makes all the difference in the world when people are engaging and inclusive rather than arrogant and standoffish.

I realize this story has little to do with Magic so far, but it has a lot to do with gaming in general. If you are a Big Fish in your pond, the way that you interact with others (especially newer players) has a huge impact on the environment and the experience.

What Was Once Cheating and Is Now Just Great Play?

The rules of Magic change over time. Islands may always tap for blue, but other aspects of the rules work differently.

At various points in time the same play might be great or outright cheating! Consider how missed “may” or mandatory triggers are enforced. There were times when all “may” triggers were mandatory. There was a time when all mandatory triggers were enforced as “mays.”

Dark Confidant is a mandatory trigger that belongs to Dark Confidant’s controller. The card says to reveal the top card of your library at the beginning of your upkeep, but what happens when a player forgets to do that, and draws for their turn? Well, that depends on the current rules for enforcing missed triggers.

At various points in time, any of the following fixes might have been correctly applied: The person who forgot to flip to Bob loses the game, the opponent gets to decide whether or not to put the Bob trigger on the stack, or the Bob trigger is placed on the stack and some number of players get warnings for failure to maintain the game state.

Throughout time, there have been varying levels of “how much do I need to remind my opponent about their cards?”

Under one set of rules, not reminding your opponent to flip for Bob was cheating. Under a different set of rules, it was a positive EV play.

I’m not debating whether the rules are good or bad. The rules are the rules, and there are undeniably moments where it can be beneficial to let your opponent miss something.

As much as I try to be a nice person, I don’t like being required to remind my opponent to use their abilities, especially when I’m traveling great distances and at personal expense to compete in tournaments. On the other hand, it also wasn’t fun to be a new 40K player getting crushed by spikes who used my inexperience of the rules to do so.

In a competitive setting, the more experienced player should have an advantage over an inexperienced one. In a casual setting, less so. It makes a ton of sense to have separate rules for casual and competitive events, like we do now.

Being a Better Big Fish

One of the lessons I’ve learned from tackling a new game is how much influence a “Big Fish” can have on a new player’s experience. I’ve always been aware of this effect, and I’ve been conscious of trying to set a good example, especially for newer players.

But I like to compete and enjoy winning. I’m competitive person and sometimes it’s hard to shut it off. At least, it doesn’t feel natural to shut it off. It’s like years of conditioning myself to use every nuance to gain advantage has left me predisposed toward that kind of behavior…

Perspective is important. I need to be clear and honest with myself about what I’m trying to accomplish before I can hope to achieve it. I regard weekly local events as practice and recreation and I make a distinction between how I play in these events as opposed to larger travel events. Weekly events are about learning first and winning is an afterthought. I don’t throw games away on purpose but I try to focus on not caring about whether I win or lose.

Does it really matter if I go 2-2, 3-1, or 4-0 on a Tuesday night and win some small amount of store credit? It matters some. Sure, I’d rather win $25 than nothing, but in the grand scheme of things the reason I’m there has nothing to do with winning a prize. I’m there because I enjoy playing Magic and because I want to learn new information I can use to help me gain an edge for larger competitive events.

There is a big difference between saying you don’t care about whether you win or lose and actually not caring about whether you win or lose…

It is easy to help an opponent set up a better, but irrelevant, chump-block after you’ve got the game locked up, than it is to point out a missed trigger that could cause you to actually lose.

Don’t get me wrong. Helping a newer player with anything (even irrelevant chump-blocks that won’t impact the result) is a net positive that goes a long way. It would have gone a long way toward helping to keep me engaged in 40K back when I was a teen if I had even gotten that much positive interaction from the regulars! Any time a player is learning something, it goes a long way toward creating a positive and worthwhile experience.

Knowing When and How to Turn It Off

The conversation I had with my friend was about trying to get past caring about winning when it doesn’t matter. We both agreed that winning wasn’t important in a casual setting but it also became clear that I still cared about winning, even when I knew it shouldn’t matter.

There’s a lot of personal ego tied up in being good at something and winning. Imagine sitting down against an opponent who is fairly inexperienced at a local Tuesday Night event at the LGS. Let’s assume that you’ve been courteous and chatted with them a little bit and they’ve told you that they’ve been playing for about a month. They’ve got some sweet aggro deck and get some really strong draws, and suddenly you’re behind on the draw in game 3.

“I don’t want to lose to this person’s busted draw…” So, after some buckling down and tight play your opponent starts making some inefficient plays and lets you back into the game. The opponent caps it off with a really bad attack or block that loses them the game. The kind of attack where they play the last card in their hand (a land) and attack two Wild Nacatls and an unprowessed Swiftspear into two Tarmogoyfs… guess I’ll take uno.

You can win the game because your opponent doesn’t know what they are doing. Or you can help teach them something.

I think these are both good lines of play depending upon what you are hoping to accomplish. Any takers on backing them up and explaining why they shouldn’t make that awful attack?

There is a cost. The cost is potentially passing up some store credit. I understand not wanting to lose a match and giving up a few bucks that you’ve earned. But I’d hope that in a playtest game that most people would back the kid up and explain why they should hold the extra land and not attack in that spot.

There is also the potential to become a stronger player by passing up the low-hanging fruit of letting inexperienced players make obvious mistakes. If you are there to learn and practice, what have you learned by crushing somebody who is making obvious mistakes? It’s like practicing on easy mode.

It’s also possible that it’s more fun to play when you don’t care about wins and losses. I’ve been toying with this concept of letting go of caring about winning and losing for a couple of weeks, and the experiment I’ve been working on is simple:

In any casual REL or playtest game that I’m playing I will actively help my opponent at every opportunity I have because I believe the outcome is irrelevant as long as I enjoy myself and improve at Magic.

I’m not showing my opponent my hand and how I’m sideboarding, but if I see a mistake or something missed, I point it out.

It’s funny because I assumed I’d lose a ton, but it hasn’t made that big of a difference overall. It doesn’t come up a ton and when it does it’s not a huge deal. It feels good and I feel like it has made a difference in how I approach games.

I’ve certainly had periods of time in the past where I had very little interest in giving anybody an inch for any reason and cared very little about my interactions with strangers. “I’ve worked very hard for every edge I have and I’m not giving it away to anyone for any reason” was the motto. If a player wants to show up and compete hard within the limits of the rules, it’s their choice and right to do so.

For me, I’ve come to a realization that sometimes there are more important things in life than simply winning. In fact, sometimes winning is irrelevant.

One thing that occurs to me: There have been many times where I watched a Big Fish playing against a Small Fish where the Small Fish has an advantage in the game. More often than not, the Big Fish is able to cause the Small Fish to make some mistakes and take the match. I cannot recall many instances when the Big Fish helped the new player understand what was going on at the peril of possibly losing.

Yet, I can’t help but feel that I’d be more impressed and have more respect for someone who cared about helping somebody learn a tricky line than one who simply “outplays” somebody who doesn’t understand what’s going on.

It was a strange experience to be the little goldfish inside the bowl of a new game where I didn’t really understand what was going on, but it’s turned out to be a great overall experience thanks to some kind Big Fish at the LGS. It has certainly been a perspective changing moment for me, and I hope to continue to pay it forward even more in the future.

Just don’t expect any freebies from me at competitive REL event!