The Lineage of Thought

A few days ago I watched the first official Elder Scrolls Legends tournament. ESL is a card videogame, and one I had basically no idea about anything in it about up until I opened the twitch stream. I have little interest in card games, but I have some general ideas about the styles of play. Partly because people play card games and I have some ideas about people, partly because a friend of mine likes card games and tells me the ins and outs of things. This friend was interested in ESL. This friend was why I was watching the tournament – he was playing in it for $20,000.

In card games there are two styles: “aggro” and “control”. Aggro is whittling down the opponent’s health at every opportunity possible, “control” is about “card advantage”, having more cards than the other guy does, which generally also means playing slower and doing more concentrated moves near the end. Whether aggro or control style is stronger depends on the mechanics of the particular game and the cards in it. New cards can move the overall favor of everything available (you can only bring a certain number of cards), and with the advent of the internet and “balance patches”, old cards can be made to do the same.

I largely stopped playing online competitive games because of these “balance patches”. I don’t like having to relearn the entire game every time something changed. Reading the “patch notes” which say this or that changed by this or that much in this or that way isn’t enough, even when they aren’t hiding changes (something else that’s made possible in videogames), because you don’t know what that number means until you play it. Many field shifts have arisen from changes that look small on paper – shifts which might not even arise until much later. To say nothing of things which look large on paper. Games have died on the spot because of such changes (Blacklight Retribution, “Recoil Update”, Jan/Feb 2013).

Not that anyone admits it at the time. The most common defenses can all be distilled to “git gud”, which means “just adapt to the changes”. There will always be a most competitive strategy, the good players will find that and use it. And if there are multiple competitive strategies, then it’s good because the game is balanced among many different styles. The problem is not with the game, it’s with you, etc.. Everything I said that was technical would be refuted, and I never had anything much to say that could be generalized. So I just stopped playing things I stopped liking. And then stopped playing changing games in general.

Watching this card game tournament I had no idea about gave me an idea. It’s not so frequent I spend a decent chunk of time with something I have no technical knowledge of. And while I did catch onto a few things, I largely relied on the casters and the twitch chat to tell me what was going on. Showing the board and even the players’ hands meant nothing to me. The only part of the video that was useful was the face-cams, showing players’ reactions.

The faces told me that the decks are extensions of the players.

A couple of people I couldn’t read, but for the majority, I couldn’t see them playing in a different style than the way that they actually played. Perhaps professional players decide on which style or cards to play based on whatever happens to be strongest at the moment. But I imagine those players think of the game the same way a regular person thinks of their job. They wouldn’t feel at all.

These players didn’t play certain cards and styles because they were good. They played cards and styles because it fit them. Certain cards and styles being good was the cause of these players being here.

If other cards and styles were better, different players would have been here instead.

(There’s also luck of the draw and life circumstances and all the other things that change results that can’t ever really be accounted for; we’re talking about what can be here.)

The idea that this or that thing becomes stronger or weaker through balance patches is true, but only from the game’s point of view. It assumes the game’s existence. It assumes you are already going to play it, and will play whatever happens to be the wining strategy. This perspective is useful to the creators and the media, but not much to anyone else. Whether this or that thing is strong is a large part of why people play things in the first place. It’s probably the only thing that has any staying power – after 10 or 20 hours, the pretty music and beautiful art or big name is not going to matter as much as how the game flows.

What flow is right depends on the player. A competitive player doesn’t become competitive because he uses something that everyone already knows is strong. He is competitive because he thinks and plays a certain way, found something in this game that fit that existing way, and demonstrates through winning that something in the game happens to be stronger than the rest. If he doesn’t find it, he’s not competitive. If he does, then he is. The information available presents a certain story, which needs to be filtered backwards through survivorship bias. If a man is playing a card game and he dominates, the inclination is to think it’s because that card is strong. But that’s only the visible part of the equation. That’s the “card” part of card game. The players of the game existed long before the cards came into existence.

This idea was demonstrated at the Elder Scrolls Legends tournament. In one of the highlight plays of the event, my friend failed to use a card effect to deal the finishing blow to the opponent, opting instead to do something that would increase overall survivability. He lost the round right after he did that – but that’s not the point. The move probably did increase overall survivability. He played that move because he’s always looking for increasing survivability. This is what the redundant “winning by not losing” and “winning by just killing the other guy” and similar sayings mean. Personofsecrets is a control player: he favors “winning by not losing”. And that means not seeing “winning by just killing the other guy” things.

Once the casters explained the technical details of the card effect, I thought it made sense just fine. But that’s because I know how this guy plays games. I have an idea of what this guy is capable of. People “can” do things that they “aren’t” capable of, but generally, they can’t.

“I’m not sure why there is a theory that I would be deliberate and not go for a win if I see it. To clear up the wrong theories, if I had ever targeted my own creature with Black Hand Messenger, then that would have been the very first time.

“My tendencies as a player likely leave me with some blind spots when it comes to trading versus pushing damage. Maybe if I was a little more well rounded, then I wouldn’t have made such an error. One other thought is that perhaps a reason that I got to where I got to has to do with such idiosyncrasies and focus on making trades that I have.

It’s a blindspot.

Managing them is a skill, but that too requires a method, and any method has its blindspots. There will always be blindspots, because you can’t see everything, and you can’t keep everything in mind. One can say players are good because they win and bad because they lose. That’s one way of looking at things. I don’t think it’s a very useful one; it’s pretty clearly circular. But it’s how many people think about it. Including game developers, who often are only looking at overall win rates.

The important part of balance patches isn’t that they change the game.

It’s that they change who plays it.

You are attracting, and repelling, certain kinds of people, by “balancing” the game in certain ways. Players come and go depending on what the balance of the game is, and that “balance” they are looking at and feeling through isn’t the four sigfigs percentage on some spreadsheet.

It’s obvious enough when comparing one game to the next, this game is good and that game is bad, why, because “I don’t like it” i.e. ‘It doesn’t fit me’, or “It’s toxic” i.e. ‘I don’t fit in with the other people who play it’. It’s still obvious when comparing a game to itself from one year or title to the next. The realm of confusion grows the smaller of a scale it goes, but it’s still the same pattern. One person only has one mindset to bring with them everywhere – from life, to that game, to this game. If they’re going to play this game, that mindset will have to work there too. If it doesn’t, either they change the mindset, or they stop playing. The normal outcome is they stop playing. There’s so many other things in life that mindset is used for.

And it is “one person” that plays the game. Not “the fans”.

“Git gud”? Yes.

But that is also how a game dies. Getting good at something is finding out how to make something work for you – and some things won’t. People have their tendencies, people have their limits. Personofsecrets left Hearthstone because it was or became too favored to aggro. It so happens Hearthstone is still king of card videogames – but that’d be because aggro is “right”, not because it’s “balanced”. Balanced doesn’t mean anything unless you know what it’s balancing against. I left Blacklight Retribution because it stopped being about strategy. Blacklight was an FPS that favored mid-range thinkers, not long-range campers or short-range twitchers. It balanced that. So the people who were there for strategy left. With that, Blacklight not only had a small playerbase, it also had little to differentiate between it and any other FPS.

And so it died.

It’s a principle.

Why do companies succeed or fail? Not because they’re profitable, but because they have a structure behind it that happens to survive and succeed with how the world works at the time.

Poke it here, poke it there, whether it’s already in “the” law or not; make it do things it normally doesn’t in enough ways, it will die. Balance patches, or “forcing innovation”, doesn’t mean that whatever desired will actually happen. The government or “public” may want something to happen, but other than the laws of physics and other limits of technical implementation, the structures of companies also determines whether something will exist. Or whether the company exists. Which, the more you look into history, you’ll find that’s frequently the original intent; the technical details are just followthrough.

But, just like with games, these presume that civilization will still exist after the change. And, just like with games, people won’t admit it if it so happens that it doesn’t.

Why do people succeed or fail?

Not because they get a big job with big money, but because they have a structure behind it that happens to survive and succeed with how the world works at the time.

Liberalism is the currently popular paradigm that “everything can be discussed”. This idea excludes anyone who thinks there’s some things that can’t be discussed. There’s actually quite a few things many people don’t think should be talked about. When they’re forced to say and believe they can, they naturally respond with depression, drug addiction, and any number of delusional contradictory ideas.

Recently there was also a theft of a plane from the Seattle-Tacoma airport. The guy ended up doing “nothing“: he killed only himself. There’s a lot of words going around, like “we need to talk about mental health”. But what does that mean? What does it mean to anyone?

Nothing. Nothing is what it means. It’s a replaceable line with “we need gun control” and all the other ones is what it means. To say bad mental health causes suicides is like saying bad players don’t get wins. It means nothing to anyone, it’ll be forgotten in a week, because that’s what things on TV mean, and TV is the only thing that exists outside of toiling to get money. People don’t have the correct lineage of thought, or even the idea of a lineage of thought, so they can’t predict anything, nor can they figure out why it happened after it has happened. What’s probably going to happen, if anything is going to happen, is some nonsense thing like mandatory checkups with a psychiatrist for anyone that’s around planes. No, it’ll probably be cheaper, like annual rewatching a couple of hours of training videos. Why? Because that’s the structure that exists in companies today. And that’s the structure people have put up with.

But they don’t have to. That’s what the SeaTac guy did.

Is life under an existentially disgusting structure better than quitting?

The game assumes its existence. The game will change its players so that only “fans” will play.
Those that disagree, stop playing the game.

So yes.

It is.


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