From Life Lessons to Magic Lessons

Some of the concepts below I dragged from life into Magic, others I learned from Magic and found useful in life. For some of us, Life and Magic aren’t that cleanly divisible, so it’s hard to tell which is borrowing from the other. That is a lesson for another article.

1) Just because someone can’t explain it, doesn’t mean they don’t understand it


The Unexpected Ignorance of Virtue

A lesson I first recall learning simultaneously in Magic and poker. Friends I regarded as better than me at Magic and/or poker were worse (in some cases much worse) than me at explaining the logic behind their decision making. In poker, it was always possible the person was playing their meta-cards as close to the chest as their actual cards (though with my close friends, I doubted this could explain the entire effect). But after noticing the inability in some people who played Magic well and had more incentive to share than to keep secret their logic, I realized that the ability to play well and the ability to explain well do not occur with the same frequency in Magic players or people.

Ask player A why she mulliganed in game 3, and she might be able to explain the balance between having access to her colors of mana but not having enough early plays. She might cite an estimate of the average quality of a six-card hand drawn from this particular deck.

Ask player B, and he might tell you “it didn’t feel like a keep.” When pressed for details, player B might withdraw a bit and not appear to be able to produce the answer you’re looking for.

The two vignettes above are likely familiar to you, so who cares? The light-bulb moment for me was realizing that I could have these two conversations and yet “confused black box of information” player B might be much, much better at mulliganing than eloquent player A.

I’m not saying I would rather be unable to communicate than able. I’m not saying I would necessarily rather team with player B than player A (or vise versa). What I am saying is that it is easy to underestimate someone based on abilities that don’t perfectly correlate with the abilities you care about.

The same holds when someone isn’t even worse at communicating in general, you’re just worse at understanding them, at being on their wavelength or at making the effort to listen. Perhaps they don’t understand all the lingo that you do, or they have a different approach to thinking about, discussing, or solving a problem. Or perhaps you have wrongly formed the habit of disregarding or discounting what they have to say. Any of these ways in which communication may have broken down do not necessarily imply that the communicator is of lesser skill at the underlying activity. Don’t forget it.

2) “Agreeing to disagree” should be painful—Testing is an alternative

There is a somewhat controversial position advanced by economist and rationalist Robin Hanson that rational agents should not agree to disagree (or at least they are dishonest in some way if they do).  I’ll try my best to summarize the lesson I took away from the research and teachings of Mr. Hanson in this domain.

Being rational means demystifying your beliefs. When two rational people are discussing something, their assumptions shouldn’t be mystical. Each participant should be able to unpack their beliefs in a way that lets their counterpart in the discussion understand the underlying assumptions and locate their confusion or disagreement (disagreement which starts the unpacking process over again —at a lower level). If we keep unpacking, we should not be forced to resign to an “agreement to disagree.”

Let’s say Paul Rietzl (I’m feeling generous today with my “rational” label) and I disagree about whether UB control is favored against Abzan Aggro in Standard. Our first step could be to locate the disagreement right there and “agree to disagree.” But I hope we can do better. If we each state our assumptions, like “typical games plays out in one of three ways, and here are their associated likelihoods” or “Abzan Aggro doesn’t need to overcommit in order to threaten UB, which does not allow UB to catch up often enough to be a favorite.” We may need to break things down even further, but now we are demystifying the assertion “UB control is favored against Abzan Aggro” into something either a) more specific, or b) testable.

We may actually resolve the disagreement by recognizing that the other has pointed something out that we didn’t consider. Something that really matters may have been overlooked. Or, we may reach something testable and devise a test to resolve the dispute. In Magic, maybe “UB is favored against Abzan Aggro” is already testable. That doesn’t mean you have time to test it, but you might. Where you don’t have time to test it, that shortage of time should hurt, it should be painful. You should feel like “we should know this, but we don’t have time” and not “oh well, reasonable people can disagree.”

This is why I have backed off “rational agents shouldn’t agree to disagree” and landed on “Agreeing to disagree should be painful.” You won’t always have the time or communication skill or patience to unpack everything or to gather the information you need. The failure mode I’m addressing is when you do have the time and don’t try, or when you make a habit of “agreeing to disagree” and feel like you have accomplished something meaningful that doesn’t need to be revisited.

Anyone active in the Magic community will frequently encounter:

Player A: My deck beats your deck 65% of the time.

Player B: Not so, my deck beats your deck 60% of the time.

Part of the failure here is rounding off differences in specific lists or differences in skill level (or average skill level). These things can be unpacked. When a sufficiently specific claim eventually emerges (e.g. “I am a favorite with this 75 against you with that 75), the players might not even care anymore. If they do, the specific claim can be tested.

3) If you don’t find your voice, you won’t find your way

I’m not sure that this is generalizable to those of you with very different social interaction and motivation patterns than my own, but for me it has been an important lesson. Here is a second nod to the “rationalist” community so far in this article, this time on how we don’t all have the same feelings about leadership vs. support.

As I’m fond of pointing out, even though Magic is a solitary competition, top-level preparation requires collaboration. In those collaborative problem-solving exercises, it is easy to fade into the background. The same thing can happen at work in a “real” job. As a team member who has not located his voice, you may have questions but not ask them. You may have ideas, important ideas, but not feel comfortable sharing them.

When you don’t feel like you’re engaged, in the foreground, and in possession of a meaningful voice within a group, it is all too easy to put in less and take out less. I think it’s really important when you feel this coming on to have at your disposal multiple tools for finding your voice and being heard.

It is key that team members realize that standing on the table and shouting is not the only way to be heard. You want everyone to be engaged, but of course 12 people shouting is worse than nobody shouting—so that isn’t what I mean. In preparation for Pro Tour Fate Reforged, Justin Cohen, Sam Black, and Matt Severa created multiple spreadsheets aimed at capturing, storing, and communicating various ideas. Sharing a spreadsheet isn’t the first thing I bet you thought of when you read “find your voice” in this section title, but it can work.

Patrick Chapin gets a lot of communication done in successive 1-on-1 conversations. There is nothing inherently wrong about talking to 1 person instead of 11. Each method has its drawbacks, and you and I are probably not as skilled at navigating the drawbacks of 1-on-1 chats as Chapin is, but it works for him.

Again, the key realization is that there is more than one approach, and the main action items are 1) trying a new approach when you feel frustrated and unheard, 2) making sure you are empowering other people whom you sense have drifted into the background.

I recall with mixed emotions certain Pro Tours where I felt like I didn’t have my voice during preparation. Maybe I hadn’t established myself with this group or that group as someone with valuable ideas (or more importantly in this case—I thought I hadn’t and thus lacked confidence). Maybe I had to arrive a few days later than others and it felt like things were already underway and speaking up to ask a question would have felt to me like someone late to a lecture forcing the professor to repeat herself. In any event, I should have found a way to catch up, to be heard, to prove my worth, etc. Not coincidentally I suspect, these were the Pro Tours at which I ultimately performed poorly.

4) To Teach is to Learn

Related to the above ideas about teamwork and the roles involved, several years ago I encountered some research suggesting that if you hand people new information and ask some to teach it, and some to just learn it, the teachers learn more (they can recall more of it when tested later). This resonated with me based on my experience in Magic. This relates right back to doing vs. understanding vs. communicating being different skills, but it suggests even though they are not perfectly correlated, they are in many ways related.

It also relates to unpacking your ideas, demystifying them. “This feels like a keep” might be working for you, but it’s hard to communicate and hard to improve. It’s hard to improve because a mystical belief stands somewhat in isolation, rather than standing on the solid foundation of other ideas you borrow or refine. The mystical belief “you just have to know how a house fits together” isn’t the same as a blueprint.

When you go to teach someone, it forces you to think about details, framing, and underlying assumptions. Find more opportunities to teach, and you can’t help but encounter more opportunities to learn.

There is a concept here in Silicon Valley called “pair programming” that also struck me as somewhat familiar as someone who prepares for Magic events in large part by speaking to one other person nearly every day about Magic. Look for opportunities to explore problem solving alongside someone else’s thoughts and approaches for an extended period of time—as close to start of problem to end of problem as you can manage. Sometimes you will hit a stride that feels like it far outreaches the sum of the two participants’ individual reach.

Enough Serious Stuff

Finally, for anyone who missed my tweet about this, check out this song I used to listen to growing up on my way to Magic tournaments with my friend Shane. We would always laugh at how many accidental Magic deckbuilding references were in it (it just seems to capture a lot about obsessive deckbuilding), and the funny thing is that infect and Sword of Body and Mind weren’t even invented at that time!

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