The Cowardly Gamer, or Why I Regret Buying Some of the Games I Love (Tactical Competitive Games)

Years ago, I had been away from RPGs for a while when a co-worker introduced me to Magic the Gathering.  It’s not that I wasn’t aware of the game before.  I had seen ads in Dragon Magazine, and even seen the game played at the local convention before I just gave up on my RPG habit  (for a while).  But I had never played.

We played over lunch breaks.  We worked second shift, so sometimes we would play after work as well, if our wives weren’t expecting us home right away.  I picked up a lot of Ice Age cards, and started to collect Alliances as well.  I was having a lot of fun.  I wasn’t great at the game.  But having a regular opponent that got lucky from time to time at least made it so that my coworker could practice a bit and got to use his collection as well.

Full disclaimer before I go any further:  I’m not very bright.  No, really.  I come across as a nice average intelligence, but I’m not.  I’m out of my depth a lot, but without intending to be particularly deceptive, for some reason I sound smarter than I am.  If you already don’t think I sound that bright, well, okay, you’re probably close to the mark, and I’d be happier if I made that impression on everyone.  But beyond my general lack of brain power or processing speed, I’m not a good strategic thinker.  It’s not just that I miss obvious moves, it’s that I can somehow pull off the most boneheaded, least effective move in the game and not even realize how dumb it was until the whiplash of my defeat sets in.

But I forget the above when I see a shiny new game.

Back to the story I was telling–I was enjoying Magic quite a bit.  I bought one of Wizards of the Coast’s snazzy official Magic strategy guides, learning how I should be building my decks, and reading about how the organized play circuit worked.  I was interested enough that I started buying Magic magazines, and that’s when I started to realize that I was a fool to have even started down this path.

I read about deckbuilding advice that contradicted the articles I read in the (now outdated) WOTC strategy guide.  I read about an ever-changing landscape of what deck is dominant.  I read about rules interpretations that technically were true, but never would have occurred to me, and yet were the basis of nearly all winning strategy. In fact, part of the competitive atmosphere seemed to be coming up with rules interpretations of your own about how the rules interacted, arguing that it would work, and then taking advantage of your interpretation until word came from on high that it shouldn’t work that way.  Then find a new interpretation.

Remember when I said I’m not very bright?  This didn’t just remind me of that fact, it made me feel as if I shouldn’t be attempting to eat cereal in the morning without protective eye wear.  I had wasted a lot of money–money I should have been much more careful with, on a game that, should I get lucky, I would be below average at, and should I run true to form, I would be wasting my time and my opponents.

I’ve never really looked back on Magic the Gathering.

But I fell for the same thing all over again, and I’m getting the same feeling of being a sub-par idiot that probably needs a power of attorney, at least for his gaming purchases.

I really enjoy the Star Wars Living Card Game.  I’ve had a lot of fun playing it with friends.  Similarly, I love the minis for the X-Wing miniatures game, and I enjoyed the whopping one game that I’ve played.  Unfortunately, the more I read about strategies and what works and what doesn’t, and the more I see the local Star Wars LCG and X-Wing scene grow, the more I am reminded that I shouldn’t have gone down this path.

Strategies, combinations, builds, meta-games, seasonal changes to what should and shouldn’t work . . . I’m starting really feel like this stuff isn’t for me.  I’m stubborn.  I want it to be for me, both because I have invested some cash in the games, and because I love Star Wars.  But I am wondering at what point I should become more of a realist.  The games themselves still seem fun, but there is this whole other layer of complexity and interaction that exists if I want to actually play with a larger group of people.

It’s not that I’m afraid of losing.  I’m good at losing.  I expect to lose.  The problem is that I don’t really want to waste anyone’s time.  I’m afraid that I’m so bad at all of the above that not only will I lose consistently, but that I will actively frustrate people and ruin their enjoyment of the game with how bad I am.

Is it just me?  Are there any other gamers out there they get drawn into the shiny bright light of a tactical competitive game just to have reality fry them with the Bug Zapper of Truth?


  • You should read the Penny Arcade cartoons about their experience with Hearthstone.


  • Wow, I read that, and I so totally and completely understand where they are coming from. And now must make sure I stay the Hell away from Hearthstone as well.Thanks for the suggestion!


  • Raising my hand high! Me! Me! I love X-Wing. I love playing the Rebel Alliance. Am I very good at it? Nope. But I play anyway. Even against the guys with the uber builds. How smart does that make me?


  • So I've been thinking about this article. Some thoughts come to mind.1) Many players look back on old Duelist articles with some degree of, je ne se quoi, derision? scorn? a recognition of how little some of the writers knew of the game. (Same goes for the WOTC strategy guide.) My son has some of the original duelists that he reads for humor value from time to time. 2) I can't speak to Magic in 1994-1996, but these days there is no \”interpretation\” of the rules. One of the things Wizards has gotten right with the game is that the rules (while at times complex) resolve down to a matter not in need of interpretation or argument. The rulebook is long and huge (resembling early Star Fleet Battles with the number system), but if you want to know how one card interacts with another, the rules define in bright lines how this is so. (And this from me, who looks to exploit rules ambiguities…)3) Magic these days is not about interpretation, but about finding synergy. Cards that on their own are good, but when combined with other cards become much better. Well, that's the essence of one of the three arms of magic – combo. There is also Agro and Control. Magic has traditionally been compared to Rock Scissors Paper in that Agro generally beats Control, Control generally beats Combo, and Combo generally beats Agro. (Not even going into hybrid type play like Combo/Agro or Combo/Control or any of the other possibilities). 4) While you might feel that your experience points you out as less than the sharpest crayon in the box, it doesn't. It points you more towards being suited towards a different play style. (In magic terms, you might be more of an Agro player). This is no way inferior to any other type of play, it simply is a preferred deck type. The problem with Magic really comes down to a need to stay current on the state of the metagame. It's like chess, and knowing \”the book\”, but with a \”book\” that is continually shifting. Right now certain decks are dominant, and if you build a deck that is aiming towards tier 1, it needs to have answers for all the other tier 1 decks. With every release (every 3 months) there is a disruption in the metagame that requires a competitive player to understand. (I am not a competitive player. Which is why I seldom play anything approaching Tier 1 decks.)5) I'm pretty sure that most players don't mind you losing to them. As long as you are not frustrated at your losses.


  • I'm terrible at anything that requires strategy OR tactics. I just can't think more than one or two moves ahead. I'm really bad at understanding the synergy or combos. It doesn't stop me from trying. (TIME does)


  • Umm… The Star Wars game was a lot of fun. I do agree though, that the game itself should have been more rebellion thwacking the Empire, the dice didn't like EITHER of us. As part of a larger, Star Wars focused game, I could see X-wing being used for \”custom pilots\” (i.e. players) in dogfights and such. The miniatures are very well done and are excellent prepaints (thus far). As to M:TG and all the various living card games:I loved the Warhammer Fantasy LCG, and it was a lot of fun depending on the army you fielded. M:TG has a lot of great art, which would be fun in miniature format, but less so in non-miniature format for me.As to strategy/tactics for me:M:TG: Played 15 games, lost 13.Warhammer LCG: Played 80 games, won about 38 (I played Dark Elves/Skaven. A lot. Friends at work supplied the cards… it was a lot of fun).Mega Man NT Warrior Card Game: Played 8 games, won 5. Very odd game.Middle Earth Card game: 1 game. One loss.Warcraft Card Game: 8 games with the kids, none played to completion.Star Wars X-Wing Minis Games played 3: Won 2, played empire all three times.40k (second edition): Played 5 games, won 4. Playing Marines vs. orks w/my brother.D&D Miniatures (3.5 era): Played somewhere around 250 games, won about 65-78 of them. Primary faction was Lawful Evil. Yes, I could win with LE.Warmachine: Played about 87 games. Won 29. All MK2.Yep, I'm in the games for the fun and the models, definitely not going to be top tier in anything anytime soon, and I don't care. I buy the X-wing minis to play with the kids.


  • You can take solace in the fact that the truly incompetant do not know that they are incompetant. :-)It sounds to me like that you are talking about playing in an open competitive environment and that is really rough. I tried magic back in the 90s and also lost a lot in that environment. I also did not have infinite resources. A friend of mine, before the tournament rules really had set deck limits, built a deck out of 50 Wheel of Fortunes, 20 Black Lotuses, and 4 Feldon's Canes. How can you compete with that?After decades, picked up magic again with my daughter and we now play in a controlled limited environment. Everyone has roughly the same pool of cards. Living cards games try to solve that problem, by making all cards available to everyone. No rarity. I only have passing experience with these and none in competive play. I have played the Call of Cthulhu, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars LCGs once or twice each. I do not know how the large number of expansions affects the open environment. Players who have more expansions, do they have better access to better combinations? I have played a bit of Dominion, which ensures everyone has the same cards and leads to a more level playing field.It sounds like I am saying the guy with more stuff always wins. I think that gives those players an edge, yes, but if you play in a truly open environment, you find that there are a lot of really good players out there. It can be humbling to see how low on the totem pole one really is. The other game I play competitively is Advanced Squad Leader. There I have managed to improve over the years and come close to an even win-loss ratio 31:33. If you want to be really good at something, you need to put in your 10000 hours of practice. If you do anything for 10000 hours you will be a master.Most of us are not willing to put in that kind of time. Hence my win-loss record. I as a gamer do not focus on any one game. I play a whole spread of games: rpgs, tabletops, eurogames, wargames, ccgs, computer games, the list goes on. I have a few regulars, but nothing in which I become an expert. My advice to you: * Play to have fun. Don't stress the meta game. Perhaps this is what frustrates your opponent. He or she senses that you are not having fun.* Play in a more limited environment. Your friends will be more understanding of your strengths and weaknesses than strangers in open play.* Focus more on the games you enjoy. Put in the 10000 hours.


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