Treatise on Competitive Philosophy
Book 1: Reasoning Like a Competitor
Book 2: Fighting Like a Competitor
Book 3: Persisting Like a Competitor
Book 1: Reasoning Like a Competitor
In this chapter I continue to discuss mental hurdles to improvement. In chapter 2, I introduced the first two hurdles: cheapness and fatalism. In chapter 3, I discuss hurdles #3 and #4: the netdecking fallacy and the player preference fallacy. I explore the origins of these ideas and identify why they are unreasonable beliefs for the individual who wishes to improve as a competitor.
Chapter 3: The Imaginary Code Part II
3. Netdecking, Originality, and Overuse
7. There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.
8. There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.
9. There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.
10. In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack--the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers.
-The Art of War, 5:7-10
Have you ever seen an online player use “those aren’t your real cards” as an excuse for losing? Or perhaps “you copied your deck from so-and-so?” The “netdeck” complaint is a rather silly one, and one of the greatest indicators of the flawed mentality of the hive mind in this game. In most respected forms of competition, the equivalent of netdecking isn’t just acceptable, it’s mandatory. To complain about it is so laughable in sports that not even beginners dare do it. Why originality is held in such irrationally high esteem in the particular game of Yugioh is in itself a very interesting sociological question, one whose answer likely pulls from a combination of culture (which includes influence from the television show), game design, demographics, and the structure of organized play.
The “those aren’t your real cards” line is a simple idea to refute. Does possessing Yugioh cards change the skill demand of any given play? For instance, let’s say I’m playing an online game. I summon [ccProd]Rescue Rabbit[/ccProd], activate its effect, make the read on [ccProd]Torrential Tribute[/ccProd] (based on previous information), and play [ccProd]Mystical Space Typhoon[/ccProd] on the set TT before resolving Rabbit. Sick read! Now, let’s say I make the same play, except this time after I activate Rabbit as chain link 1 and before I activate MST as chain link 2, I take a chain link 1.5 where I type “brb” to my opponent, go and pull out my physical copies of Rescue Rabbit and MST, and give them away to someone in the room with me. Now, as I make the read and play MST, I no longer physically own the cards I’m making my play with. Is my read suddenly less skillful since I don’t own the cards I’m using online?
Once it’s spelled out, the entire notion sounds ridiculous. Yet, this complaint was so common in my YVD days that at one point I made a YouTube video of my deck just so I could instantly link people who tried to excuse their losses, leaving them with no defense.
The second variation of the netdecking complaint, which is to copy the majority or entirety of a deck list, is every bit as illogical an excuse for losing, but is not as overtly ridiculous as the first one, hence why it’s still used so much. When I stated in the previous chapter that one of the most important things I could ever say about improvement is that “Yugioh is two people playing cards on a table,” I wasn’t stating the obvious. A lot of players don’t really believe this to be true. You can see it in their language and their way of thinking. Those who hide behind the “originality” of their deck as an everlasting shield to excuse their results don’t see Yugioh as playing cards on a table. They see the game as a competition of who can turn in the most uncommon or unusual decklist at registration. The Swiss rounds that follow are not the game of Yugioh to them, they are almost an afterthought, a formality. In their minds they have “won” at Yugioh by turning in their special deck list at the registration booth.
Why is such a toxic mentality so widely accepted by the hive? As I mentioned, the answer is multifaceted. The television show and manga could very well play a part in this element of Yugioh culture. To give an extreme example of this, there was a user back in the mIRC/YVD days named “solarpsy” who was notorious for his self-righteous principles. He refused to play certain cards because he treasured his cards and didn’t “disrespect” them, a philosophy that could only have come from being polluted by the imaginary ideals of the Yugioh anime.
The structure of organized play may play a slight role in shaping this culture as well. Things like Yugitube and event coverage form the more “Hollywood” side of Yugioh, where we have “celebrities” and whatnot who glorify individuality. Personally, I don’t think that side of Yugioh (mostly Yugitube) helps a player improve any more than reading tabloids and celeb gossip helps an aspiring thespian improve his acting technique.
The sheer diversity of the game and its vast cardpool is perhaps the dominant thrust behind netdecking stigma. I asked my friend and MtG theorist Eric why he supposes that specifically in Yugioh, netdecking is despised and originality is valued to such an extreme length beyond what one sees in other forms of competition. He suggested, “Sports is like: no diversity. You play tennis with a racket, and that’s it. You can’t play tennis in some other fashion and win.” While there are ways to play tennis differently, they’re just obviously ineffective. I could try to hit between-the-legs shots only, or play without spin, or serve underhanded, or any number of things different from “correct” tennis. Playing differently could also mean choosing different brands of equipment. I played with Federer’s racket because I considered it the best racket in tennis. However, this decision wasn’t met by backlash. People just understand that what one does with the equipment is much more important than the equipment itself; actions are the true determinant of skill. In Yugioh and certain other games, it’s rather different. Whether it’s choosing Fox in Melee or choosing the best deck in a TCG, the element of technical play is often overlooked by the masses and only appreciated by a minority. I dream of a day when technique will come to the forefront of all modes of competition, a day when sound theory takes center stage.
Timmy is trying to teach tennis to Andy. Timmy wins whenever they play, and one of the advantages Timmy has over Andy is that Timmy can use topspin. Although Timmy knows that using topspin against Andy makes an already difficult matchup even more difficult for the newcomer, he also knows that forcing Andy to play against topspin is a positive investment in Andy’s long term skill. Andy notices how badly he is losing to topspin shots, and he complains about either a) the unfairness of topsin (OP) or b) that Timmy is dependent on a cheap maneuver to win. Of course, neither thought process is correct. If you’ve ever been in Timmy’s shoes, trying to teach someone anything, you understand that you have six ways to Sunday to beat them at it. Timmy could crush Andy with well-placed flat balls if he wanted to. The topspin is not Timmy’s dependence, but rather an additional tool. Unfortunately, Andy’s invisible code of morals dictates that topspin is unfair, OP, and cheap. His failure is threefold:
1. He doesn’t realize that his beliefs are limiting his own growth.
2. He doesn’t notice the difference between a challenging layer of the game and something that is genuinely “unfair” or “cheap.”
3. He doesn’t realize that even if Timmy started hitting flat shots 100% of the time, the matches would still have the same outcome.
The game becomes more intricate, more skill-based, and more exciting when it’s a battle of well-rehearsed top techniques. Rather than take interest in the depth of tennis and explore how to counter topspin and use topspin of his own, Andy has decided that topspin is just cheap. As long as he believes topspin is overpowered, he will fail to notice the three limiting factors above.
The most common real-world example of this in Melee is wavedashing. Wavedashing inherently isn’t OP. Bad players will lose using it, and good players don’t need it to beat bad players. However, it’s the most commonly cited technique scrubs use to denounce the competitive game. Much like the topspin/flat shot example, the players who lose to wavedashing thinking it’s cheap are the same ones who would lose to those players if those players stood still and used a total of three different moves.
Do you see where the analogies are leading yet? For some reason, and this is the strangest thing that stands out in the Yugioh community, all the fallacies about OP come full force in Yugioh. Players take aversion toward a deck simply because it’s widely played. Picture how silly this sounds in any other competition. Oh, you use breaststrokes when you swim? How original of you. Oh, you opened pawn to E4? Why don’t you learn to think for yourself, you bandwagoner. Oh, you attended a top tier university? Enjoy your free success, you sheep. Oh, you majored in something practical? Must be nice to have your future handed to you. The equivalent sounds ridiculous in other competitions, but there is this peculiar stigma in Yugioh that makes it acceptable to hate a top tier strategy simply for being top tier.
The kicker is that, just like how Timmy could in reality beat Andy at tennis standing still, the players who seem so reliant on their netdecks are often the ones who would achieve the same results in Mecha Phantom Beast mirrors. Patrick Hoban is a figure many noncompetitive players despise for his adherence to the top deck and lack of innovation (which should in itself should read as hilariously ironic to most of you). The grand irony is that he and other players would win most mirrors using those tier 4 decks against the originality elitists who hold fast to them. This is because any sufficiently competitive art is driven by technical play. What I personally suspect is that the players so dogmatically opposed to meta are the way they are because they fear what mirror matches could imply about their level of skill. If you can go through an entire tournament facing only decks that aren’t the same as yours, it becomes very easy to fall back on deck choice as an excuse for your performance.
The last thing I’ll say on the idea of originality deals with what I call the “hipster” fallacy: the belief that something is better strictly on the basis of it being less popular, and for no other reason. It’s a fundamentally flawed way of thinking (and also why I don’t like hipsters). Let’s say there are 15 archetypes in the TCG I play. For simplification, the names of these archetypes are 1, 2, 3...all the way to 15. 1-3 are top tier, 4-10 are decent, and 11-15 are unplayable/just for locals decks. If I subscribe to hipster mentality, if you play 1-3, you are a bandwagoner, 4-10, you’re uncreative, and 11-15 you are actually cool. Again, keep in mind that, like actual people in the Yugioh community, I make this call not on the basis of the nature of the decks and how interactive or skillful they are, but simply based on their popularity. If you are into what’s popular, your deck is not interesting - this is my central dogma.
Now, if I am one of these individuals, my ideal would be to see decks 1-3 completely crushed by the ban list. It would be nice if 4-10 were decently hit as well, so that my deck #14 can make it to the top 5 when the list drops. One day, a miracle happens, and the banlist fulfills my wishes. My deck is now top 5! But wait - what just happened? I’ve become what I hate. I am now faced with two conclusions, both of which make me contradict myself. I can keep with my reasoning that my deck was interesting and original, and live with the contradictory notion that it is simultaneously NOT interesting or original since it is now mainstream. Alternatively, I can keep with my reasoning that mainstream decks are always uninteresting and unoriginal by switching to the new #14 deck, and live with the contradictory notion that the first deck I played must have been uninteresting and unoriginal all long since it is now a top contender.
No matter what we’re talking about, the hipster fallacy leads to nothing but paradoxes. For instance, let’s say I refuse to listen to mainstream rap. I only like the underground stuff. So what happens when my favorite artist becomes popular? Does song X lose a little bit of its musicality every time another person listens to it? Then, by my definition, if I share my favorite artist’s music with someone else, I am personally responsible for making his or her music worse in quality. A lot of people will argue that there is a distinct difference between mainstream and underground musical technique. While this may be true, the difference between a correlation and a causation is often thrown out the window in such discussions. Oftentimes the true differences in quality are hand-picked after the conclusion has been established prior, much like Yugioh players will first decide that popular decks are “bad,” and then seek to support this with evidence of the “bad” things popular decks do in an effort to support an illegitimate conclusion with legitimate claims.
We are now led to this somewhat tautological conclusion: It is impossible to judge a deck on the basis of its popularity, unless you’re judging its popularity, Q.E.D.
Speaking of tautologies, here is one that sets up for the coming chapters. “In the game of Yugioh, you use whatever cards exist and are legal to perform actions in a game state compliant to an objective set of rules until a winner is so determined.” This quote comes from Matthew Ferguson Cashiola’s masterpiece, “God of Yugioh,” a metaphysical treatment on the game. This definition of how Yugioh is played is foundational. It’s useful in addressing the definition of cheating, as well as highlighting what truly determines a winner - notice that there is no mention about turning in a decklist or playing only the highest rarity of cards or owning a Spellground mat.
4. Player Preference, “I’m entitled to my Opinion”
If the game you play is sufficiently popular, you will inevitably find yourself following, or even engaging in, community discussion - be it a forum, Facebook group, tournament gathering, or whatever else. And where there is discussion, there is also inevitably discord and disagreement. When disagreement occurs, there are two outcomes a user can initiate. The first is that the user believes there is one correct position. Whether the user takes the correct or incorrect position, whether the user can adequately defend the correct position, and whether the user can keep the discussion civil are the many factors that affect the sub-outcome of this outcome. The second outcome is that a user can reject the possibility of one correct position. A competitive player should instantly identify the latter as scrub mentality (with some very rare exceptions).
Discerning this position isn’t as straightforward as I’m making it sound. People don’t usually say, “I am taking the position that there is more than one correct choice in this scenario.” People are emotional and usually not self-aware. Therefore, it is your job to interpret the meaning behind what they ACTUALLY say. In Yugioh, the most common manifestations of this position are “player preference” and “it’s my opinion.” The former is often said innocently enough. Most people who use the term “player preference” sincerely believe their choices are not particularly important, that their role is but to make a choice and stick to it.
However, you the competitive player must take the standpoint of the skeptic. With few, few, few exceptions, there is no such thing as player’s preference; there is only good, better, and best, which ultimately distills into incorrect and correct. The belief in player preference is usually the result of insufficient testing. There is not enough data, or there is enough data but it is being interpreted incorrectly, and thus the player chooses the card choice he likes for arbitrary reasons. These reasons can include playing the card because you tested no other cards, playing the card because it performed in isolated incidents, playing the card because it performed in previous formats, playing the card because it was hyped up in an article or forum post, or even playing the card because you have the expensive Champion Pack rarity of it. The last one may sound silly, but these excuses are all used often. One of the most technical players I know (his grind game fundamentals are excellent), with two YCS tops, has run cards on the basis of having them in a shiny rarity. Is he bad at Yugioh? No, he isn’t. But his approach to player preference when it comes to card choices can be a mental hurdle.
True player preference should be over things that do not (under normal circumstances) affect the outcome of games in any tangible way. This can include the type and color of mat you play on, how many dice you roll to determine who goes first, playing 1st edition vs. unlimited edition cards, and so on. In some rare cases, there is not an optimal card to fill a space in your deck because two cards do nearly the same thing. An example would be playing La Jinn vs. 7 Colored Fish during MRD format. While La Jinn is all around better because of its DARK attribute and higher defense, both of these items never came up during the format, so the cards would effectively bring you equal results. Another more common exception is when two different cards or strategies are so complex and their differences so minute that it would be an irresponsible use of time to test both against every major deck repeatedly until the better of the two is found. When the investment is not worth the slight difference, you pick one given the facts you have and go with it. This may sound like player preference, but it isn’t. It’s a calculated decision under time constraint. In most formats, you have to do this at some point, you have to make the best decision you can based on evidence and acknowledge that there is insufficient time to identify the correct choice.
The “I’m entitled to my opinion” approach is often used less innocently and more in willful ignorance. I won’t hash out a detailed psychoanalysis of this phrase, as you should see it shares similarities with the fallacy of player preference: the most important being that it’s an express rejection of objective truth. The very definition of opinion is a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty. Beliefs formed on non-factual grounds hardly seem like the type of reasoning we want to use when we make plays, build decks, shoot free-throws, practice volleys, or whatever else. Yugioh is a very diverse game with a wide cardpool, but that doesn’t mean there’s a diverse set of correct answers as well. Seek hard, and you shall find that there are grounds sufficient to produce complete certainty.
Randall Munroe, xkcd author, quotes, “Someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.” I find that the same is true about the, “It’s my opinion” defense. Using “It’s my opinion” as an argument for one’s stance is conceding that the only thought you can offer to protect your point is to reiterate that you believe it.
Well, I hope what I’ve said has given readers solid food to chew on. The road to ruling competition begins with ruling thought. I am not advising you to play to win, but I am here for you if you do.
The Circuit Series comes to Washington, D.C. on May 31st - June 1st, 2014! Click the picture below for all the deets!
Until next time,
Play Hard or Go Home.