Luck vs Skill



  • How much variance is there in a game of Vintage? Had a salty player sign off that I was lucky person (or slightly less polite internet slang to that effect). I didn't feel particularly lucky at the start of game 3 when my opponent on the play opens with mox mox, shops, double sphere of resistance,

    I was playing GG Oath. boarded in 4 nature's claim a 2nd ancient grudge and an abrupt decay. I kept a hand with three land (including orchard) lotus, mox, Emrakul and ancient grudge. I play land go. opponent follows up T2 with smokestack. turn 1 I draw claim. Turn 2 I play lotus and claim stax.

    Over the next 5 turns draws include another claim, grisselbrand ponder, brainstorm and oath (through ponder). 2nd Claim deals with third sphere which then lets me ancient grudge steel hellkite. I then play Oath, and with Oath on the stack brainstorm to put Grissel back. Looking back in 20 cards I drew a half of my sideboard cards plus 4 restricted cards which happened to line up with my opponents draws card for card. This is clearly < 50% chance but doesn't feel too outlandish.

    How unlikely do the odds need to get before the outcome of a game is down to luck rather than skill?



  • This is one of those questions that can never be adequately answered. On a micro level, any 1 individual game can come down to luck - did I draw an opening hand of sapphire, tolarian, lotus, ancestral, jace, FoW/random blue back up? I just walked into a win (yeah, that happened 2 nights ago I think against stormanimagus on cockatrice during some play testing). Did both players just deplete their hand in a counter war and enter top deck mode? Then who got lucky enough to hit their top deck first?

    Did my opponent mull to 5 without seeing any lands and still have a poor opener while I have a decent full clutch? Again, luck.

    That micro level is where luck rears its ugly head most often.

    Then there is the macro level of game play - do you win more often than you lose? Do you make very few mistakes? Do you make good decisions on when to use counters or how to bait out counters from your opponent? These are all skill based components of game play. But amazingly to your opponent they can appear lucky. Holding a counter and letting a spell resolve then having that counter 2 or 3 turns later can appear to your opponent to have been a 'lucky top deck,' when it fact it was a skilled decision on when to use it. And this is why its so difficult to separate skill from luck within a game.

    Then there is a whole other aspect of skill - deck building. Yeah, that one game you got mana flooded and just lost because you drew no action. It happens. But when it happens in 3 or 4 different rounds in a 5 round tournament maybe its not bad luck. Maybe you aren't as skilled of a deck builder as you think.

    If you never have a mental misstep around for your opponents ancestral recall because you let them bait you into using it on a sol ring or preordain, maybe its not 'unlucky draws' on your part or lucky draws on your opponents part. Maybe its just that you need to use better judgement with limited resources.

    This again is why 'skill vs luck' is so difficult to decipher at time. Some times its blatantly apparent. Others not so. There is no real way to answer that question.



  • nobody has a right to complain about lucksacking when they sit down to a game of magic. It's part of the game, not the player, and a known phenomenon. It's very rude to blame a player for an artifact of the game, which you both agreed to play. That said it is very irritating to be beaten by someone's draw rather than their skill; if your opponent makes mistakes and still wins then I understand being annoyed. But again, you really have no right to bring that to the game since you conceded it was a possibility before you even started playing.

    In this case I don't think you made any mistakes. You both had good hands -- Lotus + Grudge + Lands is a pretty nutty opener against any shops opponent, especially a hard prison strategy. Your opponent also had a strong hand and was annoyed that he didn't get to win with it, basically. It's not his place to complain to you about it, though. Just ignore those people and move on.

    To the broader question, it's really hard to answer; I think only a really sophisticated mathematical model of the Magic game universe could attempt to approach a meaningful answer to it. Until then I think it will remain, within the universe of Magic playing, one of those mysteries we aren't supposed to know the answer to.



  • If you consistently open with mox, orchard, oath, you are being lucky. If you have to mull often because you open with 0 lands despite playing 16 or more, that's bad luck. Bad luck is playing chalice for 0 in your first turn and then drawing 3 moxen in first 4 cards, or drawing all the creatures while playing oath.

    If you draw 2 claims and 1 grudge among your first 12-15 cards, that's moderately lucky, same as when MUD players get the strip mine when you have fetched your basic land, or when they had first turn golem.

    In fact, there is luck when you draw the misstep instead fluster against opening sol ring,or that land top deck after having a land wasted. You can be unlucky if you draw the misdirection just after your opponent played his ancestral. Luck exists, but on the long run it's not that important.


  • TMD Supporter

    @xouman I am very lucky apparently. :)


  • TMD Supporter

    you needed a hand of exactly land land lotus natures claim in your opening 2 turns otherwise you lose.
    that's why I called you a lucky pos, because it was pure luck to defeat my opener.
    why do people get ego damaged in magic when people call them lucky?
    there's no skill involved in drawing black lotus in opening 7 unless you're stacking the deck.



  • I get most frustrated when players don't ACKNOWLEDGE their own good luck and call it skill. I don't get butthurt about my bad luck. There's a difference.

    -Storm


  • TMD Supporter

    the correct thing to do is just accept that you got lucky rather than making a forum post about feeling disrespected for being called lucky while you elaborate over several paragraphs how you believe you outplayed your opponent instead of getting lucky.

    every time I win a match it's entirely due to outdrawing my opponent and getting lucky, I'm honest enough to accept that, why couldn't you?



  • I'm actually going to say that there is zero luck involved in magic, which is audacious... but let me explain.

    The other night my wife beat me "on luck." (She plays Gush/Mentor, and I play an Oath/Standstill list with 12 counter spells. Her top decking was insane. Her topdecking was nuts. She drew exactly enough mana to play everything, then threat after threat after threat. After countering a ton of stuff, she landed a Jace and ground me into dust. Woof.... But I really lost on turn two. I played Ancestral on her upkeep, she Missteps, then I crack Black Lotus for blue. I'm sitting on Mana Drain, FoW (with Jace to pitch) and Flusterstorm. I've got the goods... but I get clever. I want her to Force something, so I can Mana Drain it and use the 5 mana to drop Jace on the next turn to win the game... so I get cute and Flusterstorm her Misstep. Boom, she lets the stack clear out and then Flusterstorms my Ancestral and I can't save it. Now I'm in defensive mode. I have to pitch my Jace to my Force next turn to stop Mentor and go on to lose, after she topdecks insanity for seven turns. By the end of that... I'm super pissed, but really its just pissed at myself.

    Is there luck? It seems crazy to say no. But what if she just hadn't been playing Flusterstorm? What if she just played a worse deck or something. I mean, she put the card in there to do pretty much exactly what it did. Same goes for all the threats she had. Over time, all these things come up at a predictable rate. And we know that. That's probability... yes, but not luck.

    Luck is a completely invented human concept. What if everything in the universe is predictable down to the sub-atomic level, and everything we do that we think of as choice, is already destined to happen...? How much luck is there in MTG then? We don't know... It really comes down to what you want to believe. So I choose two simple things. Namely, don't believe in luck, and don't be a jerk. I'd say your opponent did a terrible job at both of these, and while dealing with that in the short run might be a pain for you, in the long run it will certainly harm your opponent more than anyone else, especially his magic play.

    What players are doing when they tell someone else that they got "lucky", is subtextually claiming that the reason that losing and winning happened, isn't just because you made good decisions and they made bad ones (or more specifically, that the sum of your decisions was of winning value, and that the sum of your opponent's decision resulted in losing). That would fall into the being a jerk category. I mean, they've printed over 10,000 unique cards... someone is making the claim that among that variety there was no line of choices that would have lead to victory... among deck selection, card choice, sideboard, mulligan, and then play choices... there was no path to victory because the other guy got lucky...? What an amazing claim! It's really an incredibly narrow view. It makes it sounds like the guy saying it can calc out all the probability of the universe in his head, and figured out that you didn't win on skill... but luck. Yet Leonard Nimoy over here couldn't use this savant-like knowledge to actually find a way to win. An incredible claim indeed.

    I'm pretty sure that a lot of players do that because they're emotionally lashing out. Losing hurts emotionally, and since they figure that you hurt them by winning, it's ok to lash out back, and try to stick you with the "you got lucky" tag... But the result of this, and maybe the main reason people behave this way, is that it prevents them having to address the fact that they are actually losing because of real things that they do... or don't do... like not dealing with the fact they're bad at cards.

    So if it's all a matter of perception anyway... I suggest you choose not to believe in luck at all. Or rather, choose to believe that a series of choices is out there, that causes you to win. It's there. Try to find it. If it's not there, then pretend it is anyways until you're dead. Then think about what you could have done different. Don't believe that you are subject to luck. Believe instead that you are an awesome magic player... better than the dude on the other side of the table. You can notice details and consider subtle alternatives and find wins. Because your job, ultimately, isn't to tease out the true nature of the universe and luck, its to play cards well. And this belief makes that happen more... and finally, if at all possible, we should all try to not be jerks as much as we can.


  • TMD Supporter

    If someone gets lucky, why does it need to be acknowledged at all? It's obviously part of Vintage.


  • TMD Supporter

    @joshuabrooks by that rationale the question of why someone takes offense to be calling lucky also applies. Self confidence has just been propped up so much it's an affront to their persona when not praised for "skill"



  • @Stormanimagus I don't know about that. People get lucky or unlucky all the time while playing magic. I don't think you're supposed to acknowledge this every single time you get "lucky" in a game of magic. It's simply part of the game and should not frustrate anybody.



  • Ahhh. One of my favorite topics of all time.

    This is actually one of the most complicated topics in Magic, and there are many.

    The fundamental problem is that the framing of the question suggests a zero-sum dichotomy - that as luck increases, skill decreases, and as skill increases, luck is reduced.

    In fact, the relationship between luck and skill in Magic, and Vintage in particular, is far more complicated. My view is that the presence of luck actually makes Magic a more skillful game than if Magic were entirely deterministic. I don't have time at the moment to get into it too much, but the basic reason for this is that many of the "Skills" in Magic - or the traits that we regard as skill - would not exist if Magic were deterministic.

    Not only have I written several Starcitygames articles on this topic, but there are huge posts on the old themanadrain in which Kevin and I broke out the various elements that people regard as skill (mulliganing, in game decision making, metagaming, etc.), and demonstrated how almost each depends on random elements.

    If this analysis is correct, then it suggests that the presence of luck or variance doesn't make Vintage less skillful, but rather more. Obviously, this may be a matter of degree, because of the luck element was too much, then it would be hard to call Magic a skill game, but I think Vintage is almost always determined by skill, even when luck is involved.

    The main problem that people have - and the reason they get frustrated - is because when they lose because of a bad top deck, they fail to recognize that there were other decisions they could have made that would have rendered that luck irrelevant (like deck choice).



  • What if a player rolls 7 times mana crypt and gets hurt 6, when he has lethal on board? and if your opponent has T1 twister against your fowless (playing blue) hand and new hand has 0 manasources? And if your only out to BSC is swords and you draw it from the top, without manipulation? Or when you are playing MUD, all the lands you draw are ancient tombs?

    Magic is a game of probabilities, and if you get killed by your own crypt is because there is a chance you can die to it, or if you draw swords from top is because you are playing it. In some way, when you win, you have been lucky enough to draw the right cards for the win. If you mull to 1, you have been probably unlucky. But if that card is a mindbreak trap and your opponent wastes all his resources on a T1 lethal tendrils without duressing you, you actually have been pretty lucky.

    Our decisions when choosing the 75 cards, when mulliganing or not, in which order we play our threats or keep mana to interact, affect the game. Gitaxian probe gives more information, sensei divining's top filter your draws, reducing uncertainty. But there are times when you cannot rely on anything else than that 3% of chances to draw the right answer. And if you succeed, you have been lucky. And if you need a third mana source and you don't draw it after 6 turns (assuming normal manabase), you have been unlucky.



  • I don't quite understand how the whole luck vs skill works (seems very complicated). What I've found however is, that it is very humbling to acknowladge it's there and learn how not to get frustrated by it. It's one of the most challenging things I've experienced playing magic. Obviously, people are different and approach this issue differently. But ultimately, I believe one has to learn how to deal with that to enjoy magic properly.



  • @Juggernaut-GO thanks for clarifying. The reason I wrote the post was that I think a bit of introspection on my part was in order. There's been many times I know I get lucky e.g. Winning crucial mana crept flip, hail mary gush intro fow or using last point of life to draw the one card you need of bargain, and I'll be the first to acknowledge it.

    In this case the difference was, at the end of the game I didn't feel lucky. By listing plays I was not trying to imply it was skill that won that game. I was doing a thought experiment - given your sequence of plays, were my draws particularly unlikely ie lucky. I think I concluded that yes if you define a luck as a sequence of events occurring more often than would be dictated by chance in that sense I did get lucky. And given it was the opening 8 that won it I could even work out the odds of that happening. Sorry it came across the other way.



  • There is also nice recording from Magic Cruise 2012 with Dr. Richard Garfield on topic "Luck Versus Skill" : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSg408i-eKw



  • There is also the whole concept of turning nominal draws into SKILL. ie, a skillful player would know to bluff or something where as an unskilled player would do nothing with his nominal draw and ultimately the "hidden" information that the opponent does not have.

    Its minor things like these, as well as capitalizing on every incremental advantage you can get. Vintage, in my opinion, is some of the tightest unforgiving magic one can play. Because of that, if one wants to do well, they need to turn incremental advantage into momentum then use that momentum to cripple an opponent, often in a quick fashion.

    The opponent may look at this as he got lucky with his draws or I got unlucky with my draws etc etc however, after looking at matches, I found that most often enough, the loss/win can be tracked and for the most part directly correlated to the amount of incremental advantage (basically CA in general terms, includes trading other resources for opponents resources such as life or cards in deck)


  • TMD Supporter

    Let me spin this another way for a second. How do players feel when an opponent admits to luck? For instance ("yeah, I drew that wasteland last turn," or "lucky you didn't have FoW, I just decided to go for it," or "yeah, I'd be dead next turn if I didn't draw this Tinker."

    Is this annoying, validating, or helpful. Just curious.



  • I generally dont pay much attention to anything an opponent does, comments on etc etc. From what I found, not caring about them and focusing on the game is better for me to focus.

    When i do get lucksacked, i usually acknowledge the loss and take it like a man. Shit happens what are you gonna do.



  • @joshuabrooks I don't like to pay attention to how lucky my opponent got. It's very easy to ignore all the mistakes you made in the game if you focus on the fact that your opponent got lucky. In general, I find it helpful to just accept that there is variance and to take every loss as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes.


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