Magic players: “How do I lose?”

An ex­cel­lent habit that I’ve no­ticed among pro­fes­sional play­ers of the game Magic: The Gather­ing is ask­ing the ques­tion “how do I lose?”—a sort of strate­gic look­ing into the dark.

Imag­ine this situ­a­tion: you have an army ready to de­stroy your op­po­nent in two turns. Your op­po­nent has no crea­tures un­der his com­mand. Vic­tory seems in­evitable. And so you ask “how do I lose?”

Be­cause your vic­tory is now the de­fault, the op­tions for your op­po­nent are very limited. If you have a big army, they need to play a card that can deal with lots of crea­tures at once. If you have a good idea what their deck con­tains, you can of­ten nar­row it down to a sin­gle card that they need to play in or­der to turn the game around. And once you know how you could lose, you can plan to avoid it.

For ex­am­ple, sup­pose your op­po­nent was play­ing white. Then their card of choice to de­stroy a big army would be Wrath of God. That card is the way you could lose. But now that you know that, you can avoid los­ing to Wrath of God by keep­ing crea­ture cards in your hand so you can re­build your army—you’ll still win if he doesn’t play it, since you win­ning is the de­fault. But you’ve made it harder to lose. This is a bit of an ad­vanced tech­nique, since not play­ing all your cards is coun­ter­in­tu­itive.

A re­lated ques­tion is “how do I win?” This is the ques­tion you ask when you’re near to los­ing. And like above, this ques­tion is good to ask be­cause when you’re re­ally be­hind, only a few cards will let you come back. And once you know what those cards are, you can plan for them.

For ex­am­ple, sup­pose you have a sin­gle crea­ture on your side. The op­po­nent is at­tack­ing you with a big army. You have a choice: you can let the at­tack through and lose in two turns, or you can send your crea­ture out to die in your defense and lose in three turns. If you were try­ing to post­pone los­ing, you would send out the crea­ture. But you’re more likely to ac­tu­ally win if you keep your forces al­ive—you might draw a sword that makes your crea­ture stronger, or a way to weaken their army, or some­thing. And so you ask “how do I win?” to re­mind your­self of that.

This sort of think­ing is highly gen­er­al­iz­able. The next time you’re, say, pack­ing for a va­ca­tion and feel like ev­ery­thing’s go­ing great, that’s a good time to ask: “How do I lose? Well, by leav­ing my wallet be­hind or by hav­ing the car break down—ev­ery­thing else can be fixed. So I’ll go put my wallet in my pocket right now, and check the oil and coolant lev­els in the car.”

An anal­ogy is that when you ask “how do I win?” you get to dis­re­gard your im­pend­ing loss be­cause you’re “stand­ing on the floor”—there’s a fixed re­sult that you get if you don’t win, like call­ing a tow truck if you’re in trou­ble in the car, or can­cel­ing your va­ca­tion and stay­ing home. Similarly when you ask “how do I lose?” you should be stand­ing on the ceiling, as it were—you’re about to achieve a goal that doesn’t need to be im­proved upon, so now’s the time to be care­ful about po­ten­tial Wraths of God.