Treatise on Competitive Philosophy – Chapter 2

Johnny LiTreatise 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 lay the groundwork for the objective approach to competition.  I deconstruct the imaginary code people often compete under: a code that is often self-contradictory and halting to player improvement.  The subjective perception of cheapness is a common topic when it comes to game morality.  It’s important to take improvement into your own hands rather than be wrapped up in the unfairness of the game, or life in general.

Chapter 2: The Imaginary Code

Now that I’ve shared about myself, we will delve into the rules of logic that govern competition.  Again, I remind readers that we are not yet ready to directly discuss practice - that is, how to actually play the game.  Instead, we take a bottom-up approach wherein we train ourselves to think objectively, laying the groundwork of theory before we begin practice.

Why do we talk philosophy at all?  Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to jump right into the topic of playing better?  The answer would be yes, but only in the short term.  If I have two newcomers interested in learning basketball, and I spent a day with one actually playing basketball and a day with the other only discussing theory and fundamentals, the one who actually played will start out better at basketball.  However, I’m not interested in quick fixes; I’m interested in long-term growth.  It’s the difference between blowing your life savings on lottery tickets and investing it in a diverse portfolio.

There are a couple of reasons we start with modes of thinking.  First, if you take a top-down approach of playing and then forming rules based on experience, you risk missing principles that never came up as well as creating skewed principles that aren’t actually true.  In addition, the philosophy we discuss will help you identify where you personally are at with your game of choice.  You’ll have a more accurate understanding of whether you actually want to get better.

“Of course I want to win!” you may object.  Well, to quote Patrick Hoban, “There’s a difference between wanting to win and wanting to want to win.  A player who does not take the time to learn the intricacies of the game, but proclaims a desire to win actually just wants to want to win.”  I would expound on this description by adding: a player who creates mental hurdles for himself from an imagined set of competitive morals may proclaim a desire to win, when in actuality he only wants to want to win.

Sirlin describes such a player as a “scrub.”  Before this word sets you off your rocker, keep in mind that the theme of my writing is always objectivity, a theme which makes no room for bashing or name-calling.  I don’t mean what you think I mean when I say scrub.  “Scrub” is one of those words that have evolved over the years to mean so many things that it means nothing.  Like many words with broad meanings, it ends up being applied in internet flaming, usually carrying the same connotation as a word like “noob,” or new and inexperienced player.  I do not use scrub in a derogatory way, but rather as a way to classify a very defined type of thinking.  If “scrub” means “new” or “bad at the game,” then everyone starts out as a scrub.  We all start somewhere.  That definition is redundant and not conducive to discussion.  I propose an alternative: a way to use the word, but not intended as an insult.


In Sirlin’s objective definition, a scrub is someone who allows mental hurdles to prevent his own improvement.  These hurdles are usually the product of his own personal “code,” an invented set of rules that aren’t actually the rules of the game.  However, the scrub will live by his code, sitting atop a high horse.  The scrub is both unwilling to acknowledge the success or skill of competitors who don’t follow his code, as well as willing to use his code as an excuse for his own lack of success.  Keep that sentence in mind, as we will come back to it.  You will see the behavior I’ve bolded time and time and time again.  Strangely enough, you can actually be good at the particular game or sport that you play, yet still have scrub mentality.  You can even be a YCS champion, and generally know what you’re doing at Yugioh, yet still have faulty, scrub-like thinking when it comes to a particular aspect of the game.  Scrub and newbie are not synonymous.  However, in the long run, the way you think will impact your longitudinal success.  There are endless varieties of the scrub mentality, and in this chapter I shall touch on some of the more common variations.

The word “scrub” itself is not important.  I could call it “non-competitive” mentality, “Topher the Gopher” mentality, or “zzzzzz.”  I’m not arguing what a word should mean, but rather I am arguing how a particular mentality hinders improvement.  In the past, I have seen much backlash against Sirlin’s writing because of offense taken at the word scrub.  People debate what the word means and don’t realize that the same idea is there regardless of what word is used.  In the process of being hung up over one word they are sensitive to, readers miss the overarching point, and (ironically) become the very thing Sirlin describes.  Pay no mind to what I actually call it.  “Scrub” is just easier to type than “non-competitive.”  As you read the following, consider how these philosophies can become mental hurdles to improvement, for both new players and veteran players alike.

1. X is Cheap

I’ll begin with the mental hurdle as old as competitive gaming itself.  Cheapness is a ubiquitous matter in competitive gaming.  It is also perhaps the one imagined moral that is most universally overused and stunting to player growth.

In 2005, I attended a Melee tournament where I took a stock off a Sheik player by edgehogging.  At the time, only a minority of players were aware edgehogging could be effective in competitive play, and fewer still knew how to apply it to the correct matchups (Marth v. Sheik was one of them).  My opponent and his crew raged at the unfairness of my tactic and tried to intimidate me into not using it.  We broke out into argument, and in a flustered state, I used the reasoning that “the rest of the tournament scene approves of it” was justification for me to use the strategy.  While I was correct that edgehogging isn’t cheap, I was incorrect in the point I made to rationalize it: argument from the majority (argumentum ad populum).


In Street Fighter, the scrub mentality often leads newer players to label throws “cheap.”  This is because the scrub’s impression of blocking is that it should be some imaginary sanctuary of invincibility, an unbreakable defense.  What they miss is that throwing is an integral part of the game’s design: it is a move programmed to work through a blocking opponent.  It does exactly what it is supposed to do.  It is like edgehogging in Melee, where grabbing the edge prevents your opponent from grabbing it.  This function carries out its exact programming; it is integral in the entire game’s checks and balances.

Oddly enough - or perhaps predictably enough, the scrub has no objective parameters for cheapness or unfairness.  Most often, “cheap” refers to “whatever I happen to be losing to at the time.”  Did you win the entire match by spamming projectiles and keeping me at a distance?  Then projectiles are cheap.  Fight fair and come up close to my character.  That’s how fighting games “ought” to be played.  Did you win by throwing me five times in a row?  Then throwing is cheap.  You should only try to attack me when I block.  Did you win because you grabbed the ledge while I tried to recover?  Then edgehogging is cheap.  You should get your kills by knocking me off the stage and into the blast zone, not grabbing the edge.  That’s how stocks “ought” to be taken.  Did you win by hitting drop shots I couldn’t reach?  Then drop shots are cheap.  We should be hitting back and forth with groundstrokes from the baseline.  That’s what tennis “ought” to look like.  Did you win by Baton Passing infinite stat boosts to your sweeper?  Then BP teams are cheap.  Real Pokemon is played with “normal” moves.


Now let’s bring the examples closer to home.  Did you win because your one face down was Torrential when I went for game?  Then Torrential is cheap.  Did you win because you sided in Rainbow Life and made Thought Ruler in time?  Then that is cheap.  Did you win because you played a better deck?  Then your entire deck is cheap (even if it’s expensive).

Sometimes people’s thinking gets so twisted that it crosses over to the realm of hilarious.  Circa 2010, I played a good, grindy game with someone.  I thought he was a cool opponent until the very end, when he lost to my Chimeratech Fortress Dragon.  He said he liked that I used all skillful cards, with the exception of Chimeratech Fortress Dragon.  What made Chimeratech particularly cheap?  It’s what he happened to be losing to at the time.  More recently, I played someone who used a permissions deck that ran all the stuff that says “don’t play Yugioh.”  Spirit Reapers, Golem Sentry, Gravity Bind, and the like were all there.  I comboed out each turn, setting up for a big push through Bind on a later turn.  His response?  “Your deck is so boring I want to die.”  Coming from someone who literally built his deck so that neither player could play Yugioh.  It was extra funny that his deck had no actual win condition; if I had done nothing he would never have dealt 8000 damage.  While it’s nice to regale ourselves with stories that likely every player has his own share of, the take home point is to be on the lookout to see if you have any of this kind of mentality yourself.  Do you dismiss a deck because of the nature of its mechanics; do you create invented standards for yourself?

Chimeratech Fortress Dragon

What do all of the above examples have in common?  They’re all integral parts of the game, with checks and balances.  In a lot of cases, the examples I gave even make the game deeper.  Projectile spam has punishes, throw spam has punishes, edgehogging has various counters and counter-counters that make recovery a separate game in itself, drop shots are high risk-high reward and situational, and Baton Pass strategies fall apart like a house of cards in ways no other good strategy does.  By prematurely labeling a tactic as cheap, you’ve closed yourself off from exploring the depths of that tactic and the game it belongs to, and prevented yourself from learning the many layers of counters and counter-counters that actually keep the tactic in balance.

2. I’m not in control

The next mental hurdle deals with belief in Fate (not the Spellbook).  This is expressed in the thought that, “I am not succeeding because ___ exists.”  The blank is filled by the parts of the ban list you don’t agree with, cards you think are overpowered, your opponent topdecking answers, your opponent having a private coach in the sport you are playing him in, SkarmBliss, steep difficulty curves, infinite ROM, chaingrabs, wobbling, topspin, slam dunks, glitches, the temperature of the room, really just about anything you have no control over.  It’s very convenient to attribute losses to things you can’t change.  Too convenient.


It’s a medical fact that a person’s attitude toward his recovery will affect his recovery.  The same can be said about all walks of life.  If you believe you are in control, you will influence the world around you more.  If you believe the environment determines whether you’ll be successful, you will succeed or fail depending on your environment.  We call this self-fulfilling prophecy in psychology.  Yugioh players with the propensity toward calling “cheap” and “OP” only shut themselves out from the vast array of skills they could be developing to counter those “OP” strategies.  One of the easiest ways to detect which camp someone falls in is the way he discusses the forbidden/limited list - or whether he discusses it much at all.  Those who believe in cheapness take the viewpoint of, “What is the game’s effect on me?”  They are more fatalistic in thinking, and are more concerned with what new changes the banlist can make to accommodate their desires.  Those who take a more competitive approach take the viewpoint, “What is my effect on the game?”  They are not so concerned which deck is the top deck.  They are not interested in the banlist accommodating their desires, but rather are interested in accommodating their technical play to the metagame.  It’s really unfortunate how often I see players make comments like, “I’m not going to play Yugioh until the next set” or “I can’t believe they didn’t ban x.  I’m quitting until the next list.”  These players are wrapped up in how the external environment affects their play, unwilling to recognize that technical mastery, which is internal, can affect their environment.

There are infinite examples of the “world happens to me” vs. “I happen to the world” in everyday life.  It’s all about fatalism vs. control.  Think about it.  Who is more likely to lose weight: someone who believes his genetics will keep him overweight no matter what he tries, or someone who believes his lifestyle has a direct effect on his weight?  Who is more likely to get the grade: someone who believes he will only get A’s in the subjects that he’s good at, or someone who believes that, with effort, an A is possible in any class?  Adapt to the environment, don’t use the environment as an excuse for not improving.

A long-term friend of mine I attended both high school and college with comes to mind.  Chad is one of my best friends yet also someone I look up to.  He and I took several classes together over the years.  We both shared similar academic propensities, being good at the sciences and taking less interest in other subjects.  However, a key difference was that Chad believed with all his heart that there is no such thing as a subject too difficult to get an A in, regardless of one’s natural (in)ability.  I agreed with him verbally, but I didn’t want to confront that truth.  What ended up happening?  I ended up performing the worst in my non-science courses because I believed they “weren’t my subjects,” and in the long run, Chad never failed to get an A, even in the rigorous engineering program he eventually graduated from.  Imagine taking such a mentality to a YCS.  “The only way I will fail to top this event is if I do something wrong,” as opposed to, “The only way I will fail to top this event is if I get sacked/lose the dice roll too often/draw badly.”  While the first statement is not always true, it is true more than people want to admit.  If people think it’s true 60% of the time, it’s actually more like 80% of the time, etc.  If you believe it to be true, you WILL win more games, matches, and events.  You are your own self-fulfilling (Spellbook Magician of) prophecy.

maxx c

There are only so many ways I can restate the same idea: you have to believe the results are in your control.  The default person you blame for your losses has to be yourself.  If you aren’t sure how the events of a game led to your defeat, try to identify where you messed up.  If you are certain how the events of a game led to your defeat, still try to identify where you messed up.  Did I lose because I drew Maxx “C” the turn after my opponent developed his board?  Most players would want to say ouch, sorry that happened.  Instead, consider whether Maxx “C” was even worth siding in.  Perhaps if you had run a different card in its place, it could have helped you to break the developed board.  Did I lose because my opponent topdecked his boss monster: BLS, Tidal, Blaster?  Maybe the odds were in fact 3% that he would draw it for turn.  It doesn’t matter; I’m still going to think back and try to find an unnecessary turn I took during that game.  If I could have cut the game one turn shorter, I wouldn’t have given my opponent that 3% chance of robbing me of my win.  I never like to say “there was nothing I could do” when I drop from a tournament or finish without topping.  Somewhere among the many rounds and games, there was a different play I could have made, a different card I could have sided out or left in, that could have led me to make the top cut.

Consider: which is better, to overestimate how bad you are or to underestimate?  If I assume that all of my losses were uncontrollable, then I risk missing critical moments I could have converted a loss into a win.  If I assume that all of my losses were controllable, then I risk…nothing.  Even if I’m wrong and tell myself that it was my fault I lost when it really was dumb luck, what do I have to lose?  It will only make me more humble and more on the lookout for my own mistakes.  OVER-estimate how often you mistakes.  I tell myself I’m bad constantly.  I dwell on my errors (but try not to let them put me on tilt).  I scrutinize where something was my fault.  If I lose an unwinnable game 3, I think about whether I could have closed the match in the first two games to avoid game 3.  I look for the answers.

The same goes for cheapness.  Overestimate how fair everything is.  Perhaps you really are losing to unfair cards.  Assume they’re balanced anyway.  This way, you will be more inclined to research and practice and find the answers to that card or strategy.  If you err in this direction, the worst thing that can happen is that you will get to a dead end but at least confirm your suspicions.  If you err in the other direction, the risk is higher – you may end up never discovering how to counter strategies that turned out to be fair all along.  There certainly is such thing as an unfair strategy, but at this stage we are entirely focused on improving what we can control ourselves.  We can discuss actual brokenness in a later chapter.

The game of Yugioh takes place with two players playing cards on a table, period.  This definition does not make room for things like lamenting the ban list, lamenting improbable losses, or turning in a deck list.  Yes, it is cool when the ban list is good, it is disappointing when you lose to a 1% scenario, and it is neat if you succeed with an unusual deck list.  But at the very core of this game, you are playing cards on a table, and that is the domain in which you will study, practice, and improve the most.  Yugioh is two players playing cards on a table.  This is one of the most crucial things I have to say about improving at this game.

Until next time,

Play Hard or Go Home.




Photo Credits: Bulbapedia, Rubbermaid

Johnny Li

Johnny Li

Houston, TX
Johnny Li

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