Outcome Blind

I’ve used to play the Magic: The Gathering (Magic for short), a collectible card game. I’ve played it from summer of 2004 to late 2013 (for magicians reading this - from Fifth Dawn to Theros). Magic taught me to be outcome blind.

Two players usually play a game of Magic. Both have decks of cards and use those decks trying to defeat each other.

The image for this post you can see above is from the game. It’s an image featured on my favorite Magic card - Gifts Ungiven. With it, I would choose four distinct cards from my deck; then my opponent would have to pick two out of four - those I would get, the other two would get discarded. It’s a fun exercise to find the right combination of cards and to play mind games with your opponent.

As you can see from the Gifts Ungiven example, Magic is an imperfect information game. Players don’t know what cards are in each other’s decks. That’s entirely different from perfect information games. In games like tic-tac-toe, checkers, chess both players see all the pieces participating in the game at all times.

Imperfect information introduces uncertainty. Decisions need to be made based on the information available and trying to guess/estimate what the opponent might do next. I could think to have the perfect plan, only to promptly be thwarted by my opponent.

When I started playing Magic, I used to get frustrated. Despite playing to the best of my ability, I would still lose. I would explain it to myself by thinking “I just got unlucky.” Naturally, when I would win, it would be because of my skill, no luck involved. Or so I would think.

I was used to playing chess - a game with perfect information - where the outcome was entirely under my control. I didn’t have the skills and mental models for imperfect information games. I’ve received help in the form of an article from Chad Ellis called “Myth of the Single Correct Play.” I’ve learned the concept of imperfect information and all that goes with it.

The fact is that all Magic games involve imperfect information and a bit of luck. The best I could do is to maximize my chances. I learned that I will always have imperfect information and outcome will not be entirely under my control. But I will always control how I make decisions.

These days, I no longer play Magic, but I do sometimes play Texas Hold’em (a variation of poker) with friends. It’s also a game with imperfect information and the same rules apply.

Whether I lose or win, I reflect on my decision-making and try to figure out how I could’ve made a better decision. The habit to review my decision-making comes to me from chess. I don’t judge my performance based on outcomes but on my decision-making and my effort.

These lessons translate well to my career.

When I write code, I operate in a world of perfect information. The whole system can be enormous. I would be impractical if I tried to comprehend it whole. I can limit myself to some part of the system, understanding its boundaries and how those boundaries interact with the rest of the system.

But when I don’t write code, I operate in a world of imperfect information. I can’t know precisely what’s inside people’s head. I can’t know what our competitors are planning. I can’t know what our customers are going to do. I can only do my best and improve my decision-making.

These lessons translate to life in general.

I’ll always have imperfect information. I won’t be able to control outcomes fully. I will however still be in control of how I make decisions and my reaction to results. I’ve learned these lessons while trying to crush my opponents with dragons, casting Gifts Ungiven and slinging fireballs.