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"Stuck In The Middle With Bruce"

54 Post author: CronoDAS 09 April 2009 12:24AM

I was somewhat disappointed to find a lack of Magic: the Gathering players on LessWrong when I asked about it in the off-topic thread. You see, competitive Magic is one of the best, most demanding rationality battlefields that I know about. Furthermore, Magic is discussed extensively on the Internet, and many articles in which people try to explain how to become a better Magic player are, essentially, describing how to become more rational: how to better learn from experience, make judgments from noisy data, and (yes) overcome biases that interfere with one's ability to make better decisions.

Because people here don't play Magic, I can't simply link to those articles and say, "Here. Go read." I have to put everything into context, because Magic jargon has become its own language, distinct from English. Think I'm kidding? I was able to follow match coverage written in French using nothing but my knowledge of Magic-ese and what I remembered from my high school Spanish classes. Instead of simply linking, in order to give you the full effect, I'd have to undertake a project equivalent to translating a work in a foreign language.

So it is with great trepidation that I give you, untranslated, one of the "classics" of Magic literature.

Stuck In The Middle With Bruce by John F. Rizzo.

Now, John "Friggin'" Rizzo isn't one of the great Magic players. Far from it. He is, however, one of the great Magic writers, to the extent that the adjective "great" can be applied to someone who writes about Magic. His bizarre stream-of-consciousness writing style, personal stories, and strongly held opinions have made him a legend in the Magic community. "Stuck in the Middle with Bruce" is his most famous work, as incomprehensible as it may be to those who don't speak our language (and even to those that do).

So, why am I choosing to direct you to this particular piece of writing? Well, although Rizzo doesn't know much about winning, he knows an awful lot about what causes people to lose, and that's the topic of this particular piece - people's need to lose.

Does Bruce whisper into your ear, too?

Comments (93)

Comment author: jimrandomh 09 April 2009 02:30:54AM *  27 points [-]

I'm going to take a stab at explaining/translating some of the examples from that article. The first is about "mana screw". In Magic: the Gathering, each player has a deck of 60 cards, of which about 2/5 are "land" or "mana", and the rest of which are "spells". Each turn, players draw one new card, put down one land card if they have it, and play spells whose total cost is less than or equal to the number of lands they have. Costs are typically distributed in a bell curve centered at about 3.5. If a player has too few lands relative to the cost of his spells, he can't play them; this is called "mana screw". If he has too many lands, he won't have spells to play with them; this is called "mana flood". Lands and spells also have color; to play a spell, some number of the lands used must be the correct color or colors.

At the start of the game, each player draws 7 cards, looks at them, and decides to either keep them or mulligan, which means he puts them back, reshuffles, and draws a new hand with only 6 cards. (If the 6 card hand is also bad, he can do it again, getting one less card each time.) If the initial 7 cards are worse than average (too few, too many, or the wrong color lands), then the player chooses between a small certain loss (one less card) and an uncertain large risk (you might not draw the lands you need, and be mana screwed). In practice, most players are strongly biased towards keeping hands they shouldn't, which means accepting the uncertain large risk over the certain small loss.

The second issue is "netdecking". Players can either choose the cards in their deck themselves, or get a deck from the internet, usually by looking at a recent tournament and copying the winner's deck, or if they're really serious about it, guessing which decks they're likely to face, choosing a pool of candidate decks, looking at win/loss statistics, and choosing the deck which gives the best chance. Copying a deck that's known to win is much more effective, but making a deck yourself is more fun. As a convenient side-effect, making your own deck gives an excuse for losing.

The third issue, which the article alludes to but doesn't tackle directly, is that MtG involves a large number of easy decisions, with a small number of hard decisions mixed in but not clearly labeled. Players who think too long about all of their decisions are chided for stalling; on the other hand, players who fail to slow down and think will often lose the game because of doing so. Most players can't tell the difference between a hard decision that requires thought, and an easy decision that can be made quickly; instead, they make all decisions quickly until they know they're on the verge of losing; then they switch to thinking carefully about every decision, but at that point it's usually too late.

Comment author: CronoDAS 09 April 2009 05:47:30AM 13 points [-]

Note: playing your own deck, as opposed to netdecking, is called "going rogue" and an original, unexpected deck is a "rogue" deck.

The advantage to going rogue is that your opponent will not be prepared to play against your strategy. As a result, he will be more likely to make mistakes when playing against you, and his deck will not be optimized for beating yours. (Plus, as designing an effective deck that hasn't been discovered already is extremely difficult, winning with a rogue deck is very impressive.) The downside is that rogue decks tend to be weaker than netdecks, because, well, you and your friends aren't smarter than the entire rest of the Magic playing world.

Comment author: thomblake 09 April 2009 01:09:32PM *  13 points [-]

That's funny. I haven't played Magic seriously since pre-Google, and not building one's own deck from scratch was commonly known as 'cheating'.

ETA: this is because deck construction was considered most of the game, so playing someone else's deck is like having a more experienced player play the game for you

Comment author: Emile 09 April 2009 03:42:21PM 5 points [-]

Same here - there might have been a few people around playing decks from the web or magazines, but they were a minority and not very highly considered.

But then I never took part in competitions, and don't know anybody who did, that probably explains.

Comment author: CronoDAS 09 April 2009 01:40:44PM 0 points [-]

That's something I've never heard, oddly enough.

Comment author: chesh 15 April 2009 08:41:13PM 1 point [-]

I started playing very early (around Legends) and quit around Ice Age; this was the standard belief at that time too. Of course, we didn't really have the internet anyway. Winning decks occasionally got published in magazines, but the resources simply weren't there for netdecking to be an issue. I suspect as it became easier and easier it moved from taboo to the norm. When I initially played, I never would have thought of buying a premade deck; now I can pick up any of the ones that are sold and have a fun game with them, without any of the commitment that caused me to quit, and the deck will be better than one I could make myself.

Comment author: CronoDAS 09 April 2009 06:26:28AM 5 points [-]

There's one thing in the article that even I had to use some Google-fu on, although it's not really significant. "The Ron" is Theron Martin, who was suspended for five years for cheating - his DCI rating had been artificially inflated because someone had been sending the DCI bogus tournament results in which he won games that never happened. Theron Martin claimed that he was innocent because he didn't know it was happening.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 October 2010 02:29:11PM 22 points [-]

I don't know how "Bruce-like" I am in issues of personal goals and so on -- probably about average. But I have a freakishly bad case of the Bruce when it comes to competitive games.

I don't win games. Ever. I played Catan every week for a whole summer -- never won. I haven't won a poker game since I was seven. You don't want to know what happens if I try Mario Kart. I used to go bowling a lot -- I never, ever won. I run slower in a race than when I time myself on my own. Come to think of it, I don't believe I've ever won an argument.

The variety of games I suck at is too broad for it to be a simple matter of lacking a skill: I lose at competitions of strategy, probability, hand-eye coordination, and fitness. No. I have some kind of hang-up against winning. I've won "competitions" that involve taking a test or mailing in an application, but I just can't win if I can see my opponent face-to-face. On some level, I really don't want to.

It's got to be psychological. I suppose the cure would be to find a "game" of something that I actually am skilled at, and defeat someone face to face. The weird thing is, that sounds terrifying. Unlike MOR:Harry, I know how to lose; I don't know how to win.

Comment author: Swimmer963 30 June 2011 01:52:59AM 5 points [-]

Interesting. I used to have a similar thing going on with competitive swimming. Don't get me wrong, I wanted to impress my parents, I wanted my coach to be proud, I wanted to earn my place at the team...but when it came to actually standing on a block beside seven other swimmers, the pressure would build until something snapped. I don't think I ever really believed I could win, and thanks to my body type I rarely did. (I seem to almost completely lack fast-twitch muscle fibers; I once swam 17 km straight, at age 14, and I don't think anyone else on the team could have done that, but even much slower swimmers would beat me easily in a sprint.)

Comment author: Aleksei_Riikonen 09 April 2009 06:07:31AM 10 points [-]

Damn, it appears I haven't read the off-topic thread where Magic players were sought after.

So let me state here that Magic was my number one passion between ages 14-20 or so. I sold my collection (including the Power Nine and other goodies) in order to donate to SIAI, though.

(Haven't regretted it, even though Magic is such a hugely fun game.)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 10 April 2009 12:41:24AM 10 points [-]

I hated Magic, because it took over the roleplaying community and replaced a lot of good games; and I was excluded from it because I couldn't afford it.

Comment author: jackk 07 July 2015 01:05:38AM 0 points [-]

Not a M:TG player (any more) but I am fairly keen on Android:Netrunner, a reprint of one of Richard Garfield's other designs.

Comment author: mitechka 10 April 2009 12:15:13AM 0 points [-]

Yes, I played magic a lot some years back.

Comment author: Emile 09 April 2009 11:13:44AM 0 points [-]

Same here, so it seems there are more Magic players here than CronoDAS thought.

(I don't think there is any causal relationship between "plays magic" and "is interested in rationality", it's just that both correlate with "is a geek")

Comment author: zslastman 26 September 2012 03:45:09PM *  5 points [-]

There's one example of the Bruce Effect that immediately jumps at me because it

a)Has been incredibly active in my life

b)Squares so well with the adaptionist explanation of the Bruce Effect

My chief form of self sabotage has always been with the opposite sex. Someone will hit on me, or my own advances will begin to go somewhere, and I'll do something to bring things to a halt. On present reflection it feels very much like I'm afraid of the challenges that would follow - that flirting with someone I find really attractive feels like embarking on some terrifying balancing act, and the failure is a return to the natural order of things - reassuring and predictable. The kind of thinking that might lead someone to avoid seeking higher status within a peer group which he didn't feel capable of maintaining.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 April 2009 12:01:50PM 13 points [-]

In another thread, PJEby wrote:

So, as of now, I'd say that story was one of the top 5 most valuable things I've gotten from LW.

Seconded.

Comment author: Hul-Gil 24 July 2011 10:10:46PM 8 points [-]

I'm curious to know what you and PJEby got out of it. I didn't get anything, except "don't sabotage yourself" and "think your decisions through" - not really anything groundbreaking.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 08 September 2011 04:27:32PM 7 points [-]

What's distinctive about it is that it makes certain kinds of self-sabotage vivid rather than just offering an abstraction.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 08 September 2011 03:50:00PM *  4 points [-]

Technically, I agree it was "don't sabotage yourself". (EDIT: For a non-player of MtG.)

But writing "don't sabotage yourself" just wouldn't have the same impact.

I care about the impact. I would rather spend my time reading one article that makes an impact, than hundreds of articles that don't -- even if they contain more information (that I will quickly forget). I am just a human, and I need to take it into account when optimizing for myself.

Comment author: John-Henry 13 May 2009 07:56:49AM 4 points [-]

It's possible that naming the part of us that makes us lose is oversimplifying the problem. We can consciously come up with rationalizations for why achieving one result counts as a "win" and another result as a "loss". But clean win/lose states don't exist in real life, which is much more messy. Instead winning and losing is achieving different results.

Is it possible that Bruce is just playing a different game, rather than solely attempting to make "me" lose my game? Bruce may actually be the person who wants things that we can't easily rationalize that we (me and Bruce as one person) want.

I can play a game of bowling against a beautiful woman and tell myself "I want to win this game". However, if Bruce has reason to think that losing is going to help my cause with the woman more than winning, and Bruce knows he wants that woman, then he may try to win his game at the expense of me winning mine. My lazy brain can't come up with the reasons why Bruce want's to throw a gutter ball (to get the woman) and Bruce can't figure out why I'm trying to throw strikes (to achieve my conscious win-state). If Bruce wins then my conscious mind is mad at Bruce for causing the loss without understanding why he did it (my brain is too lazy to figure it out).

Maybe if I beat Bruce then he may similarly be able to make my victory bittersweet without me being able to rationalize the reason for it, thus giving more reason to cave to Bruce in the future.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 08 September 2011 04:47:21PM 8 points [-]

You made me think: Is there some possible evolutionary advantage of having a Bruce? Or more precisely, is there an instinct that would do something useful 100000 years ago, which makes us self-sabotage today?

Perhaps there is an instinct "not to appear much more successful than the rest of your tribe". Because there is a competition inside your tribe. Success is good, but it also brings enemies, any you may not be ready to face them. So unless you are ready to fight them all and become a leader of your tribe, it is better to sabotage yourself sometimes.

This instinct was fine-tuned to an ancient environment, and is not so necessary today (unless there is a Khmer Rouge revolution around the corner). But if you are smarter that the average, sometimes the instinct may kick in after an unconscious decision that you are already "dangerously successful".

More precisely, the instinct is somehow valid today too (success still brings you enemies), but it sometimes mistakenly assigns too much danger to relatively small success. Maybe it is related to the size and degree of specialization in our "tribe" -- in ancient world, when you were in top 1% at something, you were probably the best in your tribe; nowadays just studying something or doing some sport or game easily puts in top 1% of population with regard to that specific thing.

Comment author: pjeby 09 April 2009 12:49:16AM 5 points [-]

Interesting connection here with "Breakdown of Will" (which I finally received and read yesterday): Ainslie hypothesizes (rather convincingly) that pain and negative emotion are also associated with a burst of "reward" -- i.e. attention and interest. This might be where "Bruce" comes from... not to mention other forms of drama addiction.

(I'm tempted to link to this article from my blog as well, but the jargon really does make it a tough read. Maybe I'll wait until it can supplement a more substantive Bruce-related post of my own.)

Comment author: Emile 09 April 2009 06:26:35AM *  6 points [-]

I also read about some similar research on video games: when hooking machines to the brains of people playing Super Monkey Ball, they found that the biggest burst of reward was when the players died. They explained this by saying that that's when the most learning occurs.

I notice that myself when playing some games - "awesome, I just died ! I have to start over". For some games, Losing is fun.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 April 2009 12:31:31PM 10 points [-]

I... honestly feel like I have no clue at all what this emotion feels like. I wonder if my brain would actually show that burst of reward.

I read the article and thought, "Hm, I have an inner name-of-loser-relative", which was a very frightening thought; but I didn't parse that in terms of enjoyment, that seemed to me like needless psychoanalysis. It was just a loser side with bad habits, probably formed mostly by hyperbolic discounting or poor impulse control. And it occurred to me that I should give this side a name and separate it out from my real me.

Now I'm wondering if the part about "enjoyment" wasn't mere psychoanalysis but something I either unusually lack, or which is unusually obscured from my sight. I know there are men who get sexual pleasure out of being kicked in the balls but I don't really know what goes on in their minds. I'm trying not to sound boastful here, but losing, generally speaking, hurts like a bastard. I can imagine other minds in which a little flash of malicious enjoyment or self-flagellation or something is tacked on, but I have no idea if that imagination is the right one.

Comment author: pjeby 09 April 2009 03:55:22PM 20 points [-]

Now I'm wondering if the part about "enjoyment" wasn't mere psychoanalysis but something I either unusually lack, or which is unusually obscured from my sight.

Enjoyment isn't the right word, I don't think. My wife and I both described the "Bruce effect" sensation as being more like a sense of recognition or rightness -- like confirmation of something that you expected, something that's just the way the world works. That, upon successfully losing, it's like, "yep, this is where I'm supposed to be". Not enjoyment... more like satisfaction... though that's still too strong. Closure, maybe? Relief? It's a brief and subtle reward, not a conscious pleasure.

It was just a loser side with bad habits, probably formed mostly by hyperbolic discounting or poor impulse control.

Anosognosia. Don't speculate, investigate -- observe the automatic thoughts in action, rather than adding voluntary thoughts on top of them.

And it occurred to me that I should give this side a name and separate it out from my real me.

Be careful of how you do that... dispassionate separation is okay, rejection is not. When people actively reject parts of themselves ("that's not me; I would never do that"), they make it more difficult to observe or change the actual motivation involved. ("After all, I would never do that... therefore it's irrational/bad/whatever.")

The way to remove something like this is to imagine what it's like when that part of you gets its wish, so you can get a glimpse of what the reward is. Then you imagine having that reward, and find out what, if any, reward is behind that... and so on, all the way to the root reward emotion, fully experienced in your body, and chain backwards through the same path by which you came, re-experiencing as though you already have the root reward... noticing the difference in available choices, i.e., "If I already have this feeling, do I really need to do X? Is it easier to get X?"

Once you've fully worked back to the starting point, you'll have changed the response options for the original behavior context -- i.e., the original response will no longer be compulsive.

This is a very short sketch of the technique; my shortest training on it takes over an hour and assumes at least a little prior mindhacking experience. (The technique itself can be applied in about 10-20 minutes after some practice, or with the assistance of an instructor/guide.)

There are a few subtleties, not the least of which is that you need to be able to actually pay attention to your autonomous responses without injecting conscious interpretation, speculation, or critique (e.g., "that's stupid, why would I want that?" etc.).

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 April 2009 04:23:37PM 8 points [-]

Enjoyment isn't the right word, I don't think. My wife and I both described the "Bruce effect" sensation as being more like a sense of recognition or rightness -- like confirmation of something that you expected, something that's just the way the world works.

Okay... I understand that, but only because of my struggles with my diet.

Comment author: pjeby 09 April 2009 04:25:06PM 7 points [-]

Okay... I understand that, but only because of my struggles with my diet.

Now you've got me curious: where have you experienced that in relation to diet?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 April 2009 04:48:48PM 12 points [-]

That when it fails, it feels like the thing that was supposed to happen has happened.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 December 2010 12:35:17AM 0 points [-]

I recall you were trying paleo/primal at one point. What failed? Didn't/couldn't stick to it? Or even with eating completely paleo, you failed to lose weight and don't know why? Did you keep a food log and/or track calories? Any intermittent fasting experimentation? Are you currently trying anything in particular?

Comment author: patrissimo 11 April 2009 01:42:25AM 0 points [-]

Heh. Reminds me of Big Mind Technique a little bit. Acknowledging and integrating all your voices, including the self-destructive ones.

Comment author: pjeby 11 April 2009 02:31:52AM 0 points [-]

Reminds me of Big Mind Technique a little bit. Acknowledging and integrating all your voices, including the self-destructive ones.

Techniques for working on brains are similar because brains are similar. ;-) Do you have anything you can point me to that's a brief introduction, though? I'm always curious about new techniques. There are a lot of techniques that involve integration of multiple points of view, both in NLP and other branches of psychology, so it wouldn't surprise me to find more of them that I haven't heard of.

Comment author: patrissimo 04 May 2009 02:10:14AM 1 point [-]

http://www.bigmind.org/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Mind

My wife (who is a life coach) has been to a couple of seminars and liked it. As wikipedia says, it evolved out of the "Voice Dialogue method created by Hal Stone and Sidra Stone".

BTW, your work is very interesting and I look forward to your upcoming book.

Comment author: Emile 09 April 2009 01:35:37PM *  6 points [-]

I don't think the "reward feeling" for losing at a video game is the same thing as what our "Inner Bruce" goes after. They may be related, I don't know. But losing as a video game can be fun, more than losing in real life. Fun in the same way the rest of the game is fun, it's not a special kind of fun.

I get that a lot in Spelunky, where you often make a small mistake and splat blood flies and you have to start over again. but it can be fun.

That's an important distinction between hardcore and casual games. Some players don't mind getting killed horribly and having to start over again - it's what they expect. But other players will be discouraged and feel bad if the game tells them that they suck. That's why most casual games are very nice to the player, and often you just can't lose at all. A decade or two ago, the game industry was mostly focused on hardcore players; recently they have found out you can make a lot of money with casual games (targetting "middle aged women"), but you have to make the games differently.

Maybe it's because hardcore players expect to die over and over in video games, and they know viscerally that it doesn't matter at all, so when they lose, they don't have any negative associations. On the other hand, new players haven't made that dissociation, and feel bad about losing.

I never thought much about the relationship between "self-sabotaging to lose in real life" and "enjoying losing in video games", it's interesting ...

Comment author: loqi 09 April 2009 04:23:46PM 5 points [-]

Personally, I've only really noticed this reaction in myself in an academic setting with moving goalposts. If I'm putting effort into something I find at least mildly stressful, and success is "rewarded" with heightened expectations and further obligations, I develop a desire to prove that I'm capable of melting down and failing. The hypothetical satisfaction derives more from the thought of specific individuals observing my failure than from the failure itself.

Perhaps you've haven't optimized much against pathological incentives?

Comment author: patrissimo 11 April 2009 01:41:08AM 2 points [-]

Most poker players, even the losing ones, don't like losing, but I think it is sometimes a driver for losing players continuing to play. Sometimes it is self-hatred (vindicating the feeling that you don't deserve to win). Sometimes it is the desire to whine - to have something bad happen to you that can plausibly be blamed on someone else.

Actually, from what I have read, feeling like one doesn't deserve to succeed, and self-sabotaging, and feeling some kind of sick satisfaction when one fails, is pretty common.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 10 April 2009 05:05:36PM *  1 point [-]

I propose a good word to use instead of enjoyment would be "drama" or "intensity". If losing has become a personal narrative, an instance of losing feels like a turning-point in the plot.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 18 January 2012 02:55:26AM 1 point [-]

Interestingly I have the opposite response. I genuinely don't understand how some people get so much pleasure from the act of winning, to the extent they will cheat or subvert the game (or in the longer term memorise moves by rote). Generally I enjoy the process of playing the game and will be annoyed at myself if I make particular mistakes that cause me to lose, but if I play to the best of my ability, enjoy it and my opponent simply plays better I wouldn't be upset.

[Standard disclaimer about difficulty of self reporting internal states and the possibility of rationalisation applies, its possible I have a strong self image as someone uninterested in winning.]

Comment author: thomblake 09 April 2009 12:43:09PM 8 points [-]

It should be noted that death is funny and pretty in Super Monkey Ball.

Comment author: CronoDAS 09 April 2009 06:33:22AM 1 point [-]

I'm definitely a gaming masochist - I often like extremely difficult games the most, as long as the deaths seem fair. Having played games most of my life, I've gotten quite good at them and frequently get bored when a game is too easy.

Kill me more, please! ;)

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 10 April 2009 12:41:46PM 4 points [-]

Kill me more, please! ;)

Have you ascended in Nethack?

Comment author: CronoDAS 30 April 2010 11:05:58PM 4 points [-]

Yes.

Comment author: lix 09 April 2009 03:27:22AM 3 points [-]

I am curious about how you see Bruce.

It seems to me that avoiding fear is one of the major motivators of humans and animals. Winning is scary because it creates the expectation that you will continue to win - and therefore the fear you won't. And that fear is justified.

In this highly-connected and competitive world, it's virtually impossible to be the best in any endeavor. Therefore, winning just delays and worsens your ultimate failure. Since you are ultimately going to lose anyway, you would often be better off learning how to be content with losing rather than striving to win at all. In this sense, Bruce is your true friend.

Of course, this only applies when you are playing competitive games. When your definition of winning is something like growing a beautiful garden or stopping children dying of diarrhoea, Bruce is your enemy.

Personally, I feel I get along better with the inconsistent parts of myself when I acknowledge that they have reasons for existing. So I don't hang up on Bruce... I ask him why he wants to lose in each case, and sometimes I decide that he is right. But this may just be a feature of my own psychology.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 18 January 2012 02:48:44AM *  1 point [-]

Looking back at my own game playing experience I would often do a move I considered "interesting" or fun rather than playing conservatively or thinking through the consequences of the action.

This may be because I have never particularly valued "winning" in and of itself, games are a form of entertainment, so I optimise my play for that not winning. Or that could just be me rationalising.... Would be interesting to see if that habt generalises into things I genuinely value the results of.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 April 2009 01:26:25AM 4 points [-]

I removed the "Recommended Reading" part from the title; I feel this can be implied and I'd hate to see lots of "Recommended Reading" every time something was linked. Hope that's okay, if not you can always edit back.

Comment author: CronoDAS 09 April 2009 05:09:50AM 2 points [-]

Fine with me.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 09 April 2009 03:18:37AM *  2 points [-]

I play magic. Well, at least I used to. Never competitively though, at least not in meatspace (or magic online, apprentice ftw). And I agree - there's a great connection to rationality. One problem with the game though: to truly enjoy it's dynamic nature, which is one of the great things that sets it apart from other games, it takes a significant continuous financial investment in new sets. It's the reason I never played competitively.

I'd wager that there's at least one other mtg player here. How many people are named Zvi?

There's a set of 3 (I think) articles on starcitygames that performed an act of reduction in magic theory. It was a great example that I kept going back to when reading Eliezer's stuff on reductionism. For those that know the terms, the author reduced tempo to a more general notion of card advantage. I'll try to track the articles down.

Edit: here are the articles. If you don't understand magic terminology... sorry. If you do, I think the articles are great from a theoretical perspective. However, from a practical perspective, the traditional notion of tempo may be more useful. I'm probably not a good judge of that, however. For one, I haven't read the articles in a while.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Comment author: BethMo 03 May 2011 11:59:07PM 0 points [-]

Don't know how many M:TG players are still around, since I'm replying to a two-year-old post, but I found this thread very interesting. I used to play Magic (a little) and write about Magic (a lot), and I was the head M:TG rules guru for a while. The M:TG community is certainly a lovely place to see a wide variety of rationality and irrationality at work. For seriously competitive players, the game itself provides a strong payoff for being able to rapidly calculate probabilities and update them as new information becomes available.

Comment author: CronoDAS 09 April 2009 05:25:59AM 0 points [-]

Agreed, a big problem with Magic is that it's really, really expensive to play when compared to other types of games. It's not as bad as golf, but staying current can cost over a thousand dollars each year.

I'd be really impressed if we managed to attract THE Zvi to our little community blog. So, are you THE Zvi?

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 09 April 2009 06:09:20AM 0 points [-]

Playing on apprentice or magic workstation are interesting solutions, but there's nothing like having actual cardboard in front of your face for keeping you motivated. Same goes for paper vs. digital books. Well, these both apply at least for me.

Comment author: CronoDAS 09 April 2009 06:41:52AM 0 points [-]

I used to play on Apprentice a whole lot; there were some popular IRC leagues whose weekly scheduled tournaments would routinely attract over one hundred players. Unfortunately, Apprentice proved incompatible with some newly released cards and there were various programs, most notably Backwash, that allowed players to cheat. After the release of Magic Online, the best players migrated there, and the IRC leagues became much less popular. I used to play on Magic Online until I gave it up as too expensive.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 09 April 2009 07:00:55AM 0 points [-]

I frequented e-leauge for a while, forgot the irc channel it was in. I didn't know apprentice had those issues. Magic Workstation is much more aesthetically pleasing and user friendly, but I don't know if it's robust against cheating and quirky cards

Comment author: CronoDAS 09 April 2009 01:42:11PM 0 points [-]

AFAIK, Workstation hasn't been cracked yet, and the specific cards that were incompatible with Apprentice (the Wish cycle from the Judgment set) work in Magic Workstation.

Comment author: Alicorn 09 April 2009 01:43:26AM 2 points [-]

Arguably, card games in general can be a good tool for learning rationality. I knew that there was no point to dwelling on inaccessible options before I learned cassino, but when I learned cassino, I got to see the good ten sitting on the table and a distinct lack of tens in my hand and really understand that there would be no ten of diamonds for me this time and I should focus on the spades or something.

Comment author: timtyler 10 April 2009 10:46:13AM 4 points [-]

Sorry, but Rizzo's writing style is absolutely awful, and the content is no better.

Comment author: Hul-Gil 24 July 2011 10:25:04PM 2 points [-]

Sorry, but Rizzo's writing style is absolutely awful

Agreed.

Comment author: swestrup 09 April 2009 06:25:27AM 2 points [-]

I have a Magic deck, but I don't often play. That's because Magic is not only an interesting game, its been carefully designed to continually suck more money out of your pocket.

Ever since it was first introduced (I happen to own a first generation deck) the game has been slowly increasing the power levels of the cards so that older cards are less and less valuable and one needs to buy ever more newer cards just to stay competitive.

Add to this the fact they regularly bring out new types of cards that radically shift the power balances in the game and one finds that it becomes a very expensive hobby to keep up with if you want to play with a random assortment of your friends.

So, like Warhammer 40K (another game known for being designed to be a money sink), I've deliberately stayed away from being competitive at. Oh, I have a few decks back from when the game was launched and recently was gifted another few by a friend who wanted to play, and I really do enjoy playing, but I'm not going to let myself get sucked in.

Comment author: thomblake 09 April 2009 01:06:50PM 4 points [-]

its been carefully designed to continually suck more money out of your pocket.

The game was actually designed without the 'collectable' element, which emerged naturally from the design process since everybody always wanted access to more/newer cards as they played. See any of the various histories regarding Richard Garfield's original concept and playtesting.

Arguably, the focus on sucking money out of your pocket came about the time the cards began to develop aftermarket values, it became widely popular, and events like sanctioned tournaments and the 'pro tour' began ('94-'96)

Comment author: swestrup 09 April 2009 07:35:51PM 0 points [-]

I find it 'interesting' that we've both had our posts voted down to zero. Could it be that someone objects to pointing out that the game is a money sink and therefore one might have perfectly rational reasons to avoid it?

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 09 April 2009 07:54:17PM 2 points [-]

Posts now start at zero, with self-voting no longer allowed.

Comment author: swestrup 10 April 2009 02:29:04AM 0 points [-]

Ah, interesting. That was not considered important enough to get into the RSS feed, so I never saw it.

Comment author: MrHen 10 April 2009 01:24:27AM 0 points [-]

In addition to what Z M Davis said, I voted both of your posts down because I felt they added nothing useful to the discussion. Thomblake's was just information responding to yours, so I left it alone.

This comment isn't meant as arrogant or aggressive, just an explanation since it seems you've asked for one.

To directly answer your question:

Could it be that someone objects to pointing out that the game is a money sink and therefore one might have perfectly rational reasons to avoid it?

I do not object to the comment, but I think it is less valuable than other comments. Hope that helps.

Comment author: swestrup 10 April 2009 02:31:45AM 5 points [-]

That, of course, is your opinion and you're welcome to it. But I thought that I was (perhaps too verbosely to be clear) pointing out that this the original article was yet-another post on Less Wrong that seemed to be saying.

"Do X. Its the rational thing to do. If you don't do X, you aren't rational."

I was trying to point out that there may be many rational reasons for not doing X.

Comment author: taw 10 July 2011 11:48:56PM 1 point [-]

I think you're overstating how rational Magic is. Maybe it was 10 years ago before Internet came along and changed everything, but these days everybody netdecks, brute force optimization of decks by playing a lot (online or not) beats any creativity, and number of viable deck types in a typical format got extremely limited (before JTMS/SFM ban, there was exactly 1 viable deck type in Standard, with everybody playing some variant thereof or losing).

The good old days of rogue decks stealing tournament wins are long gone. Feedback got way too fast for that.

Much larger monetary investment necessary to play competitively also stops people from doing funny things. Even the best rogue deck in Legacy needs $1000 worth of duals, FoWs, and whatnot or it will be beaten by differences in card quality - and few people are willing to spend that much on a wild shot at winning.

I'd say that these days Magic requires about as much thinking as go, chess, or any other game. Learn basics, practice a lot to avoid stupid mistakes, learn more, keep repeating until done.

There might be some lesson here. Or probably not.

Comment author: lasagna 04 January 2013 03:03:53AM 1 point [-]

There's a lot more to magic than just the deckbuilding part. Personal skill in piloting a deck is extremely important.

Comment author: Annoyance 09 April 2009 05:42:04PM 1 point [-]

Winning matches isn't necessarily the reason people take up card games like Magic: The Gathering.

It's not that difficult to imagine someone holding a purpose for playing that's at cross-purposes to building a more 'effective' deck. As a sort of trivial example, consider a person who has the resources available to exploit an infinite-power-loop that was unintentionally created when cards from the latest edition are combined with old cards from several editions back... and refuses to use that combination on the grounds that it makes the game less fun to play.

Comment author: jimrandomh 09 April 2009 06:26:52PM 3 points [-]

As a sort of trivial example, consider a person who has the resources available to exploit an infinite-power-loop that was unintentionally created when cards from the latest edition are combined with old cards from several editions back

MtG includes many infinite-power-loops, and by design. It also includes highly general defenses to prevent your opponents from setting them up. In fact, MtG theorists often treat decks as falling into a rock-paper-scissors structure, with combo decks being paper, control decks being scissors, and aggressive decks being rock.

Comment author: thomblake 09 April 2009 05:50:00PM 0 points [-]

I agree, but I think the article was talking primarily about competitive play. It made references to past celebrities in the world tournaments and pro tour.

Comment author: MrHen 09 April 2009 06:28:25PM *  1 point [-]

To possibly clarify, you cannot do what Annoyance suggests in most competitive play and, if you can, people do.

Comment author: Annoyance 09 April 2009 05:56:19PM 0 points [-]

Certainly, but I can think of lots of reasons why people would participate in such play without necessarily trying as hard as they can to win.

Needing to lose, and lose big, is probably why some people lose big, but I am skeptical that there's an actual need for major failure in most people for most actions.

Comment author: SeanMCoincon 28 May 2015 06:58:58PM 1 point [-]

@CronoDAS - I used to play a very long time ago, but attempting to keep up with the expansions became too expensive, so I let the hobby lapse. This decision was made when Ice Age came out, so... there's your timeline. However, I did manage to acquire the old 2004 "Shandalar" PC version, which has been delightful both tactically and strategically (the overland game - defeating NPCs and ganking their cards - may be even more enjoyable to me than the card game itself). While I haven't tried the more recent multiplayer video game version, I'd definitely be amenable. So let me know. I can be reached at DarianSentient@gmail.com if you prefer, or if anyone else reading this would like to reach out, as well.

Comment author: stcredzero 25 May 2011 04:32:16PM *  1 point [-]

The next time you lose a match you feel you should have won, or just lose any match, ask yourself if perhaps instead of thinking the entire combat math through you just said"screw it" and ran all your dudes in.

I am reminded of Robert E. Lee's uncharacteristic frontal assault at Gettysburg. I keep thinking that the pressure got to him, and he just convinced himself, "Screw it. My men can do anything!"

It would seem that Vince Lombardi is the Anti-Bruce.

I wonder if the underlying mechanism is something evolved for the regulation of groups? Is there some sort of winner/loser switch in our brains which is there to facilitate the leadership of a single winner?

Is this the reason for Biden's slip of the tongue, and for Al Gore's gracious capitulation?

Comment author: CronoDAS 20 May 2012 09:46:24PM 1 point [-]

I wonder if the underlying mechanism is something evolved for the regulation of groups? Is there some sort of winner/loser switch in our brains which is there to facilitate the leadership of a single winner?

Robin Hanson has asked the same question.

Comment author: FeepingCreature 09 January 2012 09:00:33AM *  0 points [-]

Is this the reason for Biden's slip of the tongue, and for Al Gore's gracious capitulation?

Is there a name for the bias that makes us turn to explanations in order of popularity/awareness/excitement instead of actual likelihood?

In my opinion, this is almost certainly not the reason for either.

[edit] Wow. Belatedest answer ever. :D Sorry for the alert.

Comment author: stcredzero 20 May 2012 09:25:45PM 0 points [-]

It's not popularity that drove my thought. It was a bit of introspection. I have an idea that something in me is trying to be a flop when this happens to me.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 09 April 2009 02:36:30AM 1 point [-]

Slightly off topic, but I doubt Magic is especially good for teaching rationality compared to other board games. There are a lot of games besides Magic and Poker that are about decision-making under uncertainty, although most aren't nearly as popular. One way to measure ones progress in rationality might be to play a wide variety of these games and keep track of one's win/loss record.

Comment author: loqi 09 April 2009 03:05:56AM 5 points [-]

One thing that sets Magic apart from Poker and most board games is that it evolves as new card sets are released and older ones retired. In other words, there are static and dynamic components to the game, and accounting for the changes in the dynamic components means carefully "letting go" of some previously learned lessons while trying to preserve and improve your more general knowledge of the game.

In a way, your suggestion to play a variety of games is already encapsulated in Magic, with the distinction of maintaining a very complex set of static rules in the background.

Comment author: patrissimo 11 April 2009 01:44:04AM 2 points [-]

The key thing about poker is not just decision-making under uncertainty, but that money is at stake and you are competing against other people. Together, (plus some other characteristics) this makes it particularly good at evoking irrationality.

Comment author: Technologos 09 April 2009 02:42:42AM 1 point [-]

Perhaps true, but I agree with CronoDAS that a key strength of Magic is that your uncertainty isn't just statistical in the sense of "which cards am I going to get" but structural, in the sense of "can I understand the rules in a way that other people haven't thought of in order to get an advantage."

I once was in a small Magic tournament where I came in the top 4 almost entirely on the basis of my knowledge of the rules; I had far fewer cards to choose from than some of the other players, so I should otherwise have been at a substantial disadvantage.

Comment author: Nominull 09 April 2009 02:53:52AM 0 points [-]

Magic is the Hardest Game Ever, which on the one hand suggests that it contains a lot of angles for one to apply rationality and gain an advantage, but on the other hand suggests that the advantages of rationality may be drowned out by the effect of raw brains and the ability to systematize.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 09 April 2009 03:24:15AM *  2 points [-]

The thing about magic which sets it apart in terms of rationality training is that you can't go at it with theory alone. It takes hours of experimentation to get your deck built right, testing a variety of maindeck* and sideboard* permutations until you find one which is optimal against the current metagame**. As soon as the metagame changes, it's back to testing. Since magic is never "solved," at least not permanently, it forces you to become good at coming up with guesses and testing them, at least within this specific domain.

terms for the bewildered:

*maindeck and sideboard: your deck consists of at least 60 cards in the maindeck and exactly 15 in the sideboard. During a match (at least 3 games, sometimes 5) after the first and second games, you can trade cards from your maindeck for cards in your sideboard.

**metagame: the game outside the game, in other words, the different decks you are likely to face. In any given format, there are usually a handful of strong decks which dominate the field in some variation or another. As such, you end up playing against them more often then other decks.

Comment author: loqi 09 April 2009 03:16:21AM 1 point [-]

the advantages of rationality may be drowned out by the effect of raw brains and the ability to systematize

If this is true, I'd be skeptical of it faring much better elsewhere.

Comment author: CronoDAS 09 April 2009 01:06:07AM *  1 point [-]

If three different commenters ask me to do it, I'll go to the trouble of translating it into English. Anyone interested?

Comment author: jimrandomh 09 April 2009 02:54:00AM 3 points [-]

I've beaten you to it, and added some of my own analysis as well. Feel free to add anything I may have left out, or which may need clarification.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 April 2009 01:34:15AM 5 points [-]

I strongly suspect that people who can't read Magic can read this.

Comment author: smoofra 09 April 2009 01:25:56AM 1 point [-]

I'd read it.

Comment author: CronoDAS 09 April 2009 06:30:27AM 0 points [-]

After looking over the article a few more times, it's actually not as bad as I feared it might be. Rizzo manages to get his point across, even through the language barrier.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 09 April 2009 01:46:49AM 0 points [-]

I've never so much as seen a game of Magic, so the terms were all gensyms, but I could follow along.

However, I'm curious now about the translation.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 October 2011 11:22:45PM 0 points [-]

Hmm, didn't really get anything out of this. Maybe you need to be able to be competent at stuff in the first place to sabotage yourself?

Comment author: michinsarang 09 April 2009 10:02:34AM 0 points [-]

I agree card games can be a decent training mechanism, but I think the efficacy increases with the games complexity. I played MTG in my youth and a number of other card games like L5R. In actuality I think MTG is one of the least complex card games in the market, lending to its wide popularity. Certainly it could be argued to be more complex in some ways then poker, but less then other games. At some point complexity makes a game overly convoluted or turns off more casual players if it reduces the ability for an average person to understand its basic facets (one advantage of games like chess/go is easily understandable basic rules, yet very complex and worthwhile strategical depth).

I tend to think any game can be construed as a means to train your thinking/brain, and in this case more specifically rationality, depending on the content. I also think things with a time metric allow more complex decision making due to the inherent time/thinking management issues. However, depending on the specific details of how our brain functions with respect to solving problems in specific games, it's hard to say what exactly is being improved unless tested.

An interesting fact is that I use to be an extremely competitive starcraft player, and some of the skills used in this game have a good correlate with games such as poker. A number of my fellow professional starcraft players moved on to poker where they now play for a living.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 April 2009 12:39:28PM 2 points [-]

Which card game thus far encountered is the best rationality training mechanism, in your opinion?

Comment author: steven0461 09 April 2009 04:43:27PM 7 points [-]

I don't think "card games" are a natural kind -- consider that in poker, the only thing that cards actually do, is provide a mechanism to incrementally give players private and public information on the binary variable of whether or not they get whatever ends up in the pot.

Comment author: MendelSchmiedekamp 09 April 2009 08:37:21PM 2 points [-]

Well, we do call Call of Cthulhu the thinking man's CCG (even though it's no longer collectable). The resourcing decisions, the combat math, and the overall slower pacing, now that some of the "quick" combos are gone, are all positive qualities. While the decisions are more textured than in magic - and in play decisions are at least as critical as deck design decisions, it's not too difficult to trace back out where important decisions occurred.

Although sometimes it's "I shouldn't have resourced that support destruction card when my odds of drawing another one were too low." Which then teaches you to evaluate your decision within the local information you have available. All in all a decent help, I'd say.

I am of course biased. I play the game weekly with the 2007 world champ. Which will be happening in about an hour, actually...

Comment author: Lawliet 09 April 2009 12:59:58PM 2 points [-]

Echoing this, but dont limit your reply to solely card-games, if you have anything else to add.