Fun and Competition…Not Mutually Exclusive

by John Wright

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” — Cersei Lannister

For the past week or so, our little (well, not so little anymore) community has been having the same argument, with varying levels of vitriol – what is the purpose of competitive play? Is it to have fun or to win at all costs? At what point does a strict adherence to a timing structure change the game from being a leisure activity between friends to a battle between bitter rivals?

These are important questions to be asking, and they’re not easy to sort out – particularly in a fresh and blossoming game that is subsuming new players into a pre-existing base. We need to have these conversations and sort these matters out. The fervor and intensity with which people express their opinions on this subject demonstrates the need to have at least a mutual understanding of expectations for tournament play. (Though, let’s be fair; this discussion began on Facebook, which guarantees everyone’s voice be extra loud.)

Now, I’m sure no one really needs to read another 1.0 player saying, “No takebacks!” Frankly, I’m not interested in writing that article. Instead, I’m going to examine some of what I think are the base presuppositions on each side. After that, I’ll be closing with a description of how we generally approach things in my AGoT hometown of San Diego (and let’s not forget that the SoCal meta has produced several card designs) with the hope of demonstrating the possibility of both being extremely competitive while having an enormous amount of fun.

It seems like a lot of the vitriol aimed at players enforcing mistakes during play comes from a dislike of a win-at-all-costs attitude. Players do not like the idea of an opponent using potentially underhanded strategies to affect the board state or power total. However, in my experience, this behavior is actually quite rare in the Thrones community. Now, that is not to say that people are not trying to win; I would argue that even the person bringing the jankiest of decks is doing so with the hope of having the glory of saying they won with their Targaryen-Banner of the Watch pile. On the contrary, I’d say an overwhelming majority of these players (bringing janky decks or T1’s) are trying to win within the normal parameters of the game – mistakes included.

So, if I am right and the players refusing takebacks are generally not doing so solely for the increased advantage it gives them to win a particular match, why is it such a constant factor in tournament play? I believe these players – which represents a decent percentage of the competitive player base – gain satisfaction from winning the battle of wits, rather than being reliant on the random chance of having every answer in-hand or the most bombs on the table.

See, I believe that AGoT, more than almost any other card game, is a game of skill. The balanced cardpool of the LCG format means you cannot simply buy your way to a top deck and therefore keeps the financial barrier for entry low. The consistency of plot-deck construction means that you have at least some part of your gameplan that is reliable – not to mention the mind game during the plot phase. Oh, the dreams of hitting a Trading with Naval. Or the dreaded double Marched. Game of Thrones to your Sneak. I could go on and on. And, finally, yes: the rules are intricate, the timing of play matters, and taking the wrong order to your gameplay can quickly turn momentum against you. Because of these factors and more, I’ve always said that Thrones is a game that rewards practice and preparation.

Moreover, the players who adhere strongly to gameplay decisions do so because they view them as an integral part of the competition between minds in an AGOT match, which takes into account the game state itself.

Now, having said all that, I would really like to be able to say this is not because each of these players feel that they are truly better at the game and that they want to feel superior in their victory. However, I cannot really say that because it honestly is often quite true. I can say, however, that the desire to prove oneself is not the same as attempting to twist a rules structure to one’s own personal advantage. As such, I think you’ll find that the same players who want to win the battle of wits are also quite stringent in the application of the rules. For example, I personally enjoy high-level competition. I want to be pushed and tested. I want games to feel like tight contests, where the consequences of a wrong step have weight. This is not to say that I don’t sometimes get salty or get frustrated at myself or the game when I lose. I have, in fact, felt compelled to send an apology Facebook message to a friend when I worried that my reaction veered too far towards unsportsmanlike conduct during a tournament loss. But, these emotions are natural byproducts of competition. As long as you are able to leave them on the field of play, they should not adversely affect your ability to sit around and enjoy the gift of spending time playing a card game with your friends.

Finally, a word about my local meta. (Note: this is not because I feel like our approach is intrinsically better than everyone else’s and so you should all get in line. I just feel that a concrete example is beneficial following the somewhat abstract discussion above.)

Southern California is a very competitive environment. We’ve got World Champions and long-time Thrones veterans – players who are good, who know what they are doing, and who know how to win. The release of Second Edition brought with it a great batch of new players who have quickly taken to the game and become quite competitive. Even at our casual gameplay nights, each game has a sense of healthy competition to it. There are no easy wins here. When we get together for a more formal tournament structure, there is no quarter nor takebacks given. And, they are one of the most friendly, welcoming, and inclusive groups of individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend time with.

I think that the reason we are able to be so competitive in our gaming and still enjoy one another’s company before, during, and after intense contests is because we have an established sense of how to approach competitive play. More than once, I have heard our regular T.O. and longtime San Diego organizer John K. announce before a tournament something along the lines of “This is going to be a competitive tournament. Please, do not ask for takebacks. Do not force your opponent to refuse you.” I think this precaution is brilliant (and comes from John’s years of experience), because it sets expectations for how that event will proceed. Not every game needs to be that closely adhered to (after all, who wants to live in that intensity of competition all the time?), but by setting the tone for a particular tournament lessens the likelihood that players will take certain decisions personally; after all, it’s not personal – it’s the structure of this particular event. By frontloading expectations, players are able to enter an event and enjoy the competition without feeling that something is being directed personally against them, or that their opponent is somehow taking advantage of a situation that falls in a gray area. It is my hope that this mentality is adopted by our eternally growing community on a national and international level. Then, as the dust settles, we can reach a place where everyone is aware and comfortable with the fact that, at high-level tournaments, rules and the finality of decisions will be enforced strictly. Know your cards, know the rules. You’ll be fine.

Once this understanding takes hold, rather than feeling that someone has been slighted by not being allowed to undo a misplay, we can commiserate together, unified by the misfortunes we have made by our own hand. Because, after all, we all make mistakes. This enables us to come together as equals after events, to celebrate the victor and to wonder together, What if I had just done this play a little differently…? Because, ultimately, it is not really winning or losing that is most important, but the camaraderie found in a mutual hobby and the competition that it brings.

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