Lightning Bolts to Playing Cards

As the birthplace of Magic the Gathering, Seattle is a heck of an awesome place to play. The shining star is definitely Card Kingdom, which might be the most terrific place on Earth. There is also a great collection of other game stores scattered around the Seattle area collectively offering MTG events every night of the week. Like many others who got into MTG, I gradually played at more FNMs and then tournaments and then got interested in the competitive scene. I’ve even driven and flown to other cities just to compete in a MTG tournament.

Throughout this period, I’ve also encountered some things that are less appealing about the hobby. It’s a for profit enterprise and decisions are made with the intent of maximizing profit rather than maximizing its potential as a competitive game. I had concerns about conflicts of interest in strategy articles paid for by a company that wants to sell as many cards as possible. The two formats that make the most money and get the most attention can be tough to keep up on if you have other interests. Even non-rotating formats have some peril if WotC doesn’t fully support it like Legacy, or you have a deck that gets banned like Birthing Pod in 2015 or Splinter Twin in 2016. Finally, WotC can just plain wreck a format with a mistake like we see right now in EldraziModern.

Enter the game which SUCKS at advertising but is amazing in almost every other aspect: Bridge. Yes, you’ve probably heard it’s for old ladies. I DID mention they suck at advertising right? Your grandmother might play it but so do many of the smartest and most successful people in the world. I’ve never run into Bill Gates at a MTG tournament but I did run into him and a variety of other extremely successful people at a bridge tournament.

Gates and Buffett playing Bridge (AP)

Bridge and MTG have a lot in common, which is why I’ve enjoyed playing both and traveled to play in tournaments for both. Sequencing your plays correctly can matter significantly in both games. Both games offer the ability to use the tried and true (netdeck/standard) or invent your own deck (MTG) or system (Bridge). Both games reward the ability to deduce what your opponent has in their hand by how they play and likewise both games reward the ability to bluff. The ability to anticipate possible situations a few plays ahead is rewarded in both games. Both games are dynamic, with a mix of known and unknown, unlike Chess where everything is known. Both games offer more relaxed events (FNM/clubs) and increasingly competitive events. MTG has PPTQs, RPTQs, GPs, and the Pro Tour, while Bridge has sectionals, regionals, Nationals (3x per year) and Worlds. If you enjoy MTG, there is a high likelihood you’ll enjoy Bridge. Bridge also builds on other games like Euchre, Spades, Hearts, and 500, so if you have experience with those (or any trick taking game) you are already ahead of the curve!

What’s so great about Bridge? I’m glad you asked! Let’s start with the scoring. When people think of traditional card games like Hearts, Poker, Spades, etc there is a lot of luck involved especially in the short term. If someone is dealt all the aces and kings in Spades or a four of a kind in Poker there’s not a lot you can do about it; they win that hand and you don’t. While some MTG players will blame variance instead of analyzing how they could have done better: sometimes it really is just bad luck that you drew 10 lands in a row and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Being on the cusp of victory and then losing the match due to crazy mulligans or flooding or mana screw is a crappy ending that no one enjoys.

Bridge improves on this with the concept of duplicate. Instead of random dealing, each deal is played by everyone present and your score depends on how well you did with what you were dealt compared to how everyone else did with the exact same cards. It doesn’t matter if your opponents had the better cards: your goal is to bid slightly better or play slightly better than everyone else who was in your position.

The scoring segues naturally into another great advantage: everyone played the same hands! In MTG when a buddy comes up to tell you about a hand and describes the board state and their hand and is really excited: most of the time people pay attention out of courtesy or for friendship with the hope that they too will listen when the situation is reversed. Its not as interesting because each person at a tournament had a different experience and they are relating something that was interesting to them but the listener lacks the context and shared experience that helps make the excitement mutual. With everyone playing the same hands, now you can BOTH be excited about it and that’s frequently what happens over a pitcher at the nearby pub after the game.

MTG also plays out as a solo game. It’s you vs an opponent and the best (or luckiest) person advances. Bridge is a partnership game: it’s you and a partner working together vs another partnership. This makes the game more social and also adds an important element to the game: teamwork. Not only do you need to make optimal plays for yourself, but you need to communicate to your partner in your bidding and play to help them out. Do you tell your partner about spades or hearts? What questions might be going through their mind? What is the most important question for you to answer right now? What are they trying to tell you about their hand? This constant need to attempt to see through their eyes at the same time makes everything more interesting and is also a great life skill.

One smart thing that WotC does is they constantly add new cards and rotate old sets out. This constantly resets everything and prompts excitement among the players trying to figure out the new “best deck” along with dozens of articles from MTG writers trying to share their thoughts on what to do now that everything has changed. Sealed sees the biggest reset, but even in legacy there can be shifts in the meta that most decks will need to be aware of. One of the great benefits of Bridge is that the game and strategy is so deep that there is no need for these resets to keep things fresh. Rather than needing to constantly discard previously developed card familiarity and meta awareness, instead you can continue to grow even when life adds distractions like kids, work, other hobbies and other natural interruptions. The learning and skill is cumulative so you can learn at YOUR pace instead of feeling like you need to dedicate X hours to have a shot. Rather than restarting or revising your deck every rotation or meta shift, you can continually add card play experience, bidding conventions and other tools to your arsenal.

If interested in learning, I would highly recommend starting with the Audrey Grant iPad app or download (I have no relationship with the developer). The early lessons are free and the paid part is awesome as well. The ACBL also has a site that lists various ways to learn here. There are also usually bridge classes taught in most areas and you can find ones in the Seattle area by filling out the form here.

Once you understand the basics, you are ready to play! The ACBL does a great job of providing venues for people of all levels of experience and there are special games and tournaments for people who are new to the game. You can also play online, with BridgeBase being by far the most popular platform. Many universities also have a club, which is how I learned to play. If you have questions about the game or how to get started, please ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to help out.