Magic is a Sport and Requires Good Sportsmanship

How to Have Fun When You’re Not Winning

When I first started playing competitive Magic, I competed in the FNMs at my local game store. I was a new player with limited skills and an even more limited budget. But I could scrape out wins against a lot of tough matchups, except for one person. It was one of the owners of the LGS. He was an enfranchised player who played competitive Magic since Standard was called “Type II”. He played the best decks and regularly won the FNMs. It was hard not to be a little salty about it, but he was one of the partial owners, and we had to respect his space where he hosted us and his ability to play there.

But there was one FNM when I finally took the win from him. I played well, and unfortunately, my opponent stumbled on mana in game three, and it cost him the match. I was so excited for myself. I took my subpar 8-whack goblin list against some tough matches that night and finally won against a person I’d never beat before. I reached out my hand for a handshake (how 2016) and offered him a heartfelt, “good game”.

He stood up and scoffed and said as he walked away, “I guess if you call that a good game”. I was happy about my win but felt deflated by my opponent’s comment. Unfortunately, this isn’t an entirely uncommon occurrence. Just about any Magic player can tell you a similar story. 

We’re all guilty of being salty about a loss before. But in Magic, and especially in EDH with four players, that poor attitude ruins the experience for the rest of the players at the table. In a format where having fun is the primary function, it’s essential to learn that winning isn’t the only way to have fun. Let’s take a look at how we can develop better sportsmanship skills at the EDH table. 

Losing With Grace

If you have read my previous blogs, you’ll know that I write a lot about how you can increase your win percentages in Magic. Winning is fun. Most players would agree that they would like to win. But if winning is the only thing you care about in a four-player game of Magic you’re setting yourself up for a miserable time. 

On the sheer statistics of having four players, you’re only bound to win 25% of your games on average. A game where you only have fun 25% of the time you’re playing it sounds like a miserable prospect. And for players who only value winning, it is miserable. But when you have a miserable time losing, it’s also miserable for the other players.

Art for Captive Audience by Dmitry Burmak and is property of Wizards of the Coast LLC.
Captive Audience art by Dmitry Burmak for Magic: The Gathering

A four-player game requires interaction, politics, and sometimes even teamwork. But if one person is mentally clocked-out, checking their phone, arms crossed and just waiting for it to be their turn again, the other players lose 25% of their gameplay experience. 

Even though Commander is usually a free-for-all, it is still a team activity. It requires four players who all share a common goal: maximizing the fun for all parties involved. You can’t only be invested in a game when you’re winning. If that’s how we all played, we would be better off playing Solitaire on our computers.

Why Losing is Important

The other problem with that “miserable-if-I’m-not-winning” mindset is that winning only lasts a few minutes out of the hour or more that your game typically lasts. Putting so much value in such a finite part of the much broader experience of the game is only ever going to lead to salty feelings. Your wins won’t last forever, and your losses will add up a lot quicker.

That’s why learning to lose gracefully is so vital to maximizing your fun in Commander. You don’t have to be excited to lose. I think few people ever are. But there’s a lot to understand from our losses. Magic is a game of wide-branching decision trees. A lot of the time, we can follow those branches back to the roots of our loss.

Stuffy Doll art by Dave Allsop for Magic: The Gathering
Stuffy Doll art by Dave Allsop for Magic: The Gathering

Sometimes a single wrong play or threat assessment decision can enact a Rube Goldberg machine of you losing a game. It doesn’t feel great, but losing a game can be more important than winning for one reason: losing makes you take a more critical look at your plays. 

It’s also an opportunity to assess your deck in action. What card is in your deck that you wouldn’t want to draw in this position? What card could dig you out of it? Are there more of those effects? How can you find them faster? 

Losing can inspire you to find out where things went wrong and improve your deck. It doesn’t have to be improved to the point of getting a 100% win rate. That would be impossible if you’re playing in a meta with an even playing field. But enhancing your deck can help you work towards another aspect of improving your sportsmanship skills: playing to the best of your ability.

Playing Your Best for the Benefit of the Table

Sometimes you can tell you’re not going to win a game. I’ve been in a game where as early as turn three you could see one player was clearly going to win. There’s a part of me that thinks, “well, might as well scoop it up and move on to the next one.”

But what fun would playing Commander be if we all just scooped to a turn one Sol Ring? Scooping isn’t automatically bad form, in my opinion. I think asking the table if they would like to scoop in response to overwhelming advantage can be acceptable. Sometimes a player has everything they need to end a game and asking them to play it out only prolongs a game that is decidedly over.

The action that is in worse form is to concede a game because you are individually behind. We’ve all been in scenarios where we’ve missed a few land drops, discarded a couple of six-drops and sighed as we passed the turn. It’s challenging to put on our most optimistic face in that scenario and do nothing while the rest of the table goes off. 

But even though you are clearly the weakest player, you still serve a vital role at the table. Would you start playing three-player pods if you knew no one would ever get mana-screwed? Most players would probably say no.

Variance is one of the central pillars of Magic. It’s also one of the factors that make players the saltiest the most often. Many players carefully design their decks to be consistent, and when you’ve got ten lands in a row on top of your library when statistically you’re due for a draw spell, it’s frustrating. 

Even though it’s a little disappointing, your life total and library still matter as a threat to your opponents, no matter how far behind you are. Kingmaking is the act of making a play or action that probably doesn’t benefit you and allows another player to win the game. Scooping early isn’t as pointed as using your Path to Exile on your opponent’s only blocker and not on the other opponent’s Blightsteel Colossus. But it has a similar effect: Conceding early because you have fewer resources completely warps the game for everyone else involved.

Kenrith, the Returned King art by Kieran Yanner for Magic: The Gathering
Kenrith, the Returned King art by Kieran Yanner for Magic: The Gathering

Simply stated: if you have outs, play to them. The table took this time to sit down and play a game with you. Play to the best of your ability no matter what the situation is.

Do you have the least fun at the table being the potential punching bag? It’s a pretty safe bet. But this is the social contract we sign to play Magic and Commander. Winning is not the only part of the game we get to experience.

There must also be losers for there to be winners, and statistically, you’re going to lose 75% of the time. So if you want to have fun playing this game, it’s vital to learn how to have fun while not winning.

Respecting Your Opponents and Yourself

It can feel like a waste of time when you fall far behind the table. It can be frustrating, and it can make Magic feel less fun. Another thing that makes Magic feel less fun is a table full of opponents groaning because they didn’t win. Magic and Commander, in particular, are group experiences

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is the most simplistic: Magic is fun. You don’t need to be the pilot to be excited about a spicy play or a big win. You don’t need to win the game to have fun playing the turns. Respect the time that your friends have taken to sit down with you to have fun. Respect yourself enough to remember that you don’t need to be the star of the show to have a good time. Find some good friends, make some good plays, and shuffle up and run ‘em back when someone wins.

3 thoughts on “Magic is a Sport and Requires Good Sportsmanship

  1. I never understood poor losers. The game is meant to have fun, where’s the fun in winning 100% of games? The games I’ve had the most fun playing are usually the ones I lost or narrowly won.

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  2. You are so right. Thank you for this. Honestly, I need to work on being a better loser in games I do lose. Its the variance thing. I guess it annoys me to lose games that I clearly could have won if I had drawn one extra land. Its hard for me to feel good about that kind of loss and congratulate the other player(s)…however I will work on it. Thanks.

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  3. Pingback: We Need to Stop Gatekeeping Fun in Magic: The Gathering | Moderately Anonymous MTG Blog

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