A Nerd, Playing to Win

Hell hath no fury like nerds playing to win


tl;dr: Getting good at a nerdy card game is making me a better at other stuff too

Nerds vs Athletes

In his Stanford Lectures and awesome book Zero to One, Peter Thiel divides personalities along a spectrum of nerds to athletes. Nerds are in it for experimenting, collaborating, and celebrating awesome achievements. Think of the Apollo missions. Athlete personalities are in it to win it, like clear standards of success and failure, and are used to situations where there is a single winner. Think of any professional sports team.

This is Part I of a two-part post. Part II, on the power of having exactly one Serious Hobby, is here.

The Joys of Being a Nerd

Nerds vs. Athletes is one of the defining conflicts in pop culture. I’m trying to cultivate both traits in myself.

Thiel knows that everyone is a blend of the Nerd/Athlete extremes and, furthermore, claims you need a mix of personalities on a startup team. That said, he claims that Nerds usually form the core of innovative organizations like startups. This is partially because startups require a nerd-like optimism and fascination with whatever technology or industry you’ll be working in. But any nerd will eventually find themselves in professional situations where they must Play to Win. This can be a point of failure for nerds who are unaccustomed to winner take all games.

As a proud nerd, I love the Pleasure of Finding Things Out, as Richard Feynman put it, and found Playing to Win disconcerting and unfamiliar. All my life I had been able to Play to Learn, which was very forgiving and full of do-overs. I was getting good at stuff, exploring, and learning random things. Shifting to a win/loose situation with no do-overs requires a big change in mindset. Luckily for me, I found a nerdy card game that happens to be perfect for that.

Netrunner

Netrunner is my nerdy competitive pursuit of choice. It’s a two player card game where you buy and construct decks (similar in some ways to the card game Magic, a nerd mainstay I have somehow never played). It’s also the most strategically rich game of any kind that I know of. As in, even better than three dimensional chess.

Netrunner cards in play. The face down blue cards on the left are known to the player on the left but not the player on the right.

Before moving on, here’s a little summary of the game’s design and rules so you have a sense what I’m talking about. I’ll try and highlight the key features that excite the nerd in me and reward a competitive approach. For more on Netrunner’s design, see this excellent piece by game reviewer Quintin Smith in none other than The Guardian.

The theme of the game is compelling, I think: a hacker, the Runner, is attempting to steal information from a Corporation’s servers, which is trying to protect and score its Agendas. The Corporation can install protective programs, called ICE, to protect its servers, while the Runner installs Icebreakers and Viruses to break though these programs. But the theme is just a bonus wrapped around an amazingly well designed game mechanic: the Run.

A ‘Run’ is an attempt to break into a server, which usually has a mix of facedown and faceup cards. The Corporation knows what programs the Runner has, while the runner usually has significantly less information about the Corporation’s defenses.

This design yields several excellent strategic dynamics:

  • The Corporation’s face-down ‘Advanced’ cards in the root of their servers could be secret Agendas (victory points) or Traps that damage or kill the Runner
  • Both the Corporation and the Runner must choose whether an aggressive or conservative style or pace will suit them best in a particular match up.
  • Players build their decks from a selection of hundreds of cards, yielding potentially infinite variations. The nerd in me loves this part, though like most similar games there are a small number (5–10?) of most competitive deck ‘archetypes’ at any given time.
  • New cards come out roughly every month, often changing the game’s dynamics significantly. This also leads to the discovery or resurrection of deck archetypes over time
  • Each player builds both a Corporation and Runner deck and a match is two games, giving a great variety of play experiences

Nerds like me who start playing the game usually spend the first few months exploring the large possibility space of cards and deck types. But I’ve found that changing to an explicitly competitive playstyle has been a perfect way to cultivate my competitive side. Most importantly, it’s helped me build a mental toughness that I’m able to use at work every day.

If you’d told me I’d be getting real value in my professional life from a video game player I would not have believed you.

Playing to Win

My thinking about competitive play in games has been shaped by David Sirlin’s blog posts and his book Playing to Win. David is an internationally competitive Street Fighter player (yes, the Super Nintendo game). If you’d told me I’d be getting real value in my professional life from a video game player I would not have believed you. But here we are.

Sirlin identifies the ‘Scrub’ mentality as the opposite of playing to win. Distinct from Thiel’s nerds, ‘Scrubs’ are playing for some other reason than winning.

Everyone’s a scrub in something. It’s not something you are or you aren’t it’s something you choose to be or not within a given activity.

“The scrub mentality is to be so shackled by self-imposed handicaps as to never have any hope of being truly good at a game.”
- David Sirlin

There’s nothing wrong with playing a game for reasons other than winning. In fact it’s quite annoying when someone plays *every* game only for the purpose of winning (think: an adult beating a child in a one-on-one basketball game). That said, Sirlin is un-repentantly negative towards anyone who claims to be playing to win but is in fact playing with some other objective in mind. Scrubs will often complain about aspect of the game that they’re playing that are ‘cheap’ or ‘unfair’. Instead of accepting the game and playing in light of its characteristics, they imagine some ideal version of the game and wish it was that way.

Sirlin’s book helped me recognize that I was a Netrunner Scrub and didn’t want to be. I loved the game and, for instance, had a dream of inventing a unique play style that others would recognize as mine. This desire to figure out something unique was making my decks pretty ineffective and I was losing a lot. Even worse, I saw elements of the Scrub creeping in to how I was running my startup. It was time for a change.

Learning to Love Account Siphon

In almost every game there’re a few cards, moves, techniques, etc that are so powerful they change the game. Think of the well-timed foul in basketball: it’s legal and it can often be the deciding factor in a game. Scrubs tend to dislike things that have a drastic impact on the way a game must be played.

In Netrunner, no card symbolizes aggressive, effective play more than Account Siphon.

The reason it’s so powerful is that this card lets the Runner take money from the Corporation while gaining twice that amount. In certain situations, the Runner may be able to do this for several turns in a row, preventing the Corporation from doing anything useful while gaining more and more money and accessing servers for free. This technique is nicknamed ‘Siphon Spam’ and it’s particularly frustrating for the opposing player. Given this technique exists, you must know it and play around it or you will lose.

Account Siphon is a powerful card that changes the shape of the game. Skilled players know how and when to avoid it- that’s part of what makes them skilled. Scrubs love to hate it, precisely because it changes the game. Scrubs think it somehow noble to not use Account Siphon even if it might make their play stronger.

Inspired by Sirlin’s posts and a post by Netrunner player Stephen Wooley, sometime around a year ago I decided to use an Account Siphon deck. The goal was to keep the corporation too poor to be able to accomplish anything and subsequently walk all over them. Using this technique I was able to make it to 7th place out of almost 70 players in our Regional Championships event, far better than I’d done before. I also had a lot of fun. I’d started playing to win.

A Winning Mindset

You’ve probably heard before from Athletes that the primary determinant of the outcome of a game is often something like ‘mental toughness’. This is absolutely true for Netrunner. Especially in a Tournament setting, where you’ll play 6 or more hour+ games in a row, keeping a competitive edge is crucial. This is the most pervasive benefit I’ve derived from playing Netrunner, and playing it to win: familiarity with the must-win moment.

When I was first playing the game it was a relative mystery to me why I won and lost. I kind of enjoyed not knowing- it was relaxing to not know the full complexity of what was going on and be surprised by the outcome. Classic scrub. I wasn’t the scrub who was deluding himself about playing to win, the kind Sirlin rails agains, but I was a scrub.

After making a decision to play to win, everything changed. I saw layers in each game that I hadn’t known were there. I could tell when I was going to beat someone handily and when I was in danger of being beaten. I started learning exponentially more from practice matches. It was more work, required more energy, and was the most fun I’ve ever had playing a game.

Where’s the fun?

A potential objection to all of this is that it sucks the life out of a game. Are fun and playing to win mutually exclusive or inversely correlated?

David Sirlin has an interesting observation about the belief that fun and winning are inversely correlated. For some games, they are. Tic-tac-toe, for instance, always ends in a draw when played between two sufficiently advanced players. In the case of Tic-tac-toe, the game is only fun to unskilled players who don’t know the correct countermoves for any given board state.

But the best games aren’t like Tic-Tac-Toe. Sirlin claims the best games become “more fun as you get better at them, rather than less fun.” That’s true of Netrunner and it’s also true of most worthwhile pursuits in business and life.

If games become more fun and rich as skill level increases and skill level increasing means you win more, then fun can coexist with excellence.

The Serious Hobby

Netrunner has evolved into a serious hobby for me. I play every week when I’m able/unless I’m traveling. I’m in a league at our local game store Atomic Empire (which is awesome and serves delicious draft beer. Stop by sometime). I make time for tournaments whenever I can.

I’ve found that the mental toughness I’ve had to develop to get good at the game is something I use every day as CEO of a startup. In a competitve game there are no do-overs. Making decisions in a state of uncertainty that really count is exactly what being a startup founder and a leader is all about. The more time I spend doing this, the better I get at it.

Netrunner Resources

If you think Netrunner might be a game you’d like to play, there are lots of great online resources.

Regardless of whether Netrunner is for you, I highly recommend developing a serious hobby outside of your job or primary pursuit.

This is Part I of a two-part post. Part II, on the power of having exactly one Serious Hobby, is here. Other stuff I’ve written is here.