Luck and Skill in Card Games

We, as card game players, deal with elements of luck and randomness on a daily basis. Sometimes it's difficult to come to terms and cope with the role good and bad fortune play in the outcome of games. Let's break down the factors of luck and skill in games and look at the implications.

This article is heavily inspired by Richard Garfield himself and his presentation on this very topic.

If you've been playing any card game for some longer amount of time, you must have come across statements such as "They just got lucky," "Variance got me," or "There was nothing I could have done." All of them relate to inherent elements of randomness in the design of those games. It does not just apply to Magic but also to Yu-Gi-Oh!, Duel Masters, as well as poker or other card games. The fact that games have an element of luck to them is something we accept when starting the game—but maybe still not fully understand or embrace. Today, I want to delve a little into what luck and skill are in games, and why they might be misunderstood.

Luck and Skill as Independent Characteristics

Players often dichotomize as far as luck and skill are concerned and think of games as either full of luck or full of skill. However, I'd like to show you that these two features are independent. Before we go into examples, let me provide two simple definitions that I'm using below.

  • Skill: the ability to act with strategic and tactical foresight, planning, or execution. Having control over the outcome.

  • Luck: variables one cannot control, experienced as random and unrelated to skill. Changing or affecting the outcome through means out of players' control.

A lot of skill, little-to-no luck: Chess is commonly cited as the primary example of a game with perfect information and no randomness, luck, or variance. Players appreciate full agency and that each and every game boils down to the quality of play by either player and nothing else. It rewards expertise and punishes mistakes. There are no get-out-of-jail-free cards. Another infamous example that is way more popular in Asia than in America or Europe is Go.

A lot of skill, a lot of luck:
  • Poker is the most popular example in this category. We all know that being a good poker player requires a ton of skill, knowledge, and experience. We know that poker is high in skill by looking at the player base and seeing that there is a portion who consistently does best. Immense amount of luck cannot be denied either. At the end, if all cards are shown, the player who was dealt the better hand wins.

  • Another example is a made-up game of "Rando Chess." Let's imagine a game where you play a normal game of chess, but afterward the loser gets to roll a die. If they roll a two to six, nothing happens, but if they roll a one, they win instead of losing. For the chess portion of the game all the game theory, tactics, openings, and endgames from chess books apply, and the better player will almost always win. However, the second part is entirely luck and there is a one in six chance that the better player loses and the worse player wins—something that neither has control over. Clearly, there can be games with a ton of skill and luck at the same time.

No skill, no luck: Yes, you read this right. There could theoretically be a game with no skill but also no luck. An example of such is "Pickanumber." Both players pick a number of fingers on their hand, display the hand, and the player with the higher number wins. Well … the optimal and only strategy is to always pick five, or however number of fingers your hand may have. Each game will end in a draw as there is no reason not to choose the maximum.

No skill, a lot of luck: Rolling dice. You throw the dice in the air and wait for the outcome, hoping the number is as high as possible. However, you've got no control over the final outcome.

Full control over the outcome, yet still only luck? Rock paper scissors can be cited here. While yes, there are better and worse RPS players, game-theory-wise there is no best strategy. What's interesting here is that you actually have full control over the outcome, but you have no idea whether that outcome is going to be good or not. In the end, luck shall decide the winner.

As we can see, games can be both random and skillful, can be neither, or a mix between both. Where does Magic place on this spectrum? It's probably somewhere in the vicinity of poker. In Magic, better players win consistently more than worse players—skill clearly matters. However, we cannot deny the existence of variance and elements of randomness in the game, be it flood, screw, or wrong-half problem.

Why Do Games Incorporate Luck by Design?

Now that we know what luck and skill are, let's discuss their presence in games. When people design games, they include elements of randomness on purpose. There must be a reason to do so.

Before I list off the arguments pro luck, let me briefly describe why players may dislike its presence. First, it trivializes expertise. Using the Rando Chess example, I'd be taken aback if it turned out that Magnus Carlsen accepted a die roll after a match. This random element can invalidate all the effort put in by the players. Presence of overt luck could mean that a player who's at the intermediate level can beat the world champion at that very game—think a beginner who pilots Monored Aggro beats Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa piloting Blue-Black Control. It might be infuriating to lose to people who have put much less effort, time, and dedication into a game.

Let's flip the coin now and look at the good. The first good I shall mention is literally the argument I cited above but this time as a positive. While it may be annoying for good players to lose to a newbie … it's super inspiring for the newbie! The fact that you can just have learned the basics and still actually play the game start-to-finish with a nonzero chance to win is exciting, exhilarating, and, most importantly, encouraging. I remember trying chess for the first time—after playing a bunch of games against a friend who'd already had some experience, I quit the game. What was the point if I lost every single time and it wasn't even close? On the flipside, if you are the best chess player around, it also feels almost pointless as you know you'll win each game before it starts. This is a huge win for games with elements of luck. The sheer fact that I myself could win against PVDDR, LSV, or Jon Finkel at a Grand Prix is unbelievable. I have in fact won against Reid Duke, Javier Dominguez, and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa when playing Magic Online! This being possible gives me that much more motivation and creates so much more excitement around the game.

The next point is that luck increases variety. With the deck randomized, each game will pose different challenges and demand a different approach. From a player's perspective, it requires constant adaptation and navigating through new environments. There is a reason why people love keep/mull puzzles so much. This is the first fully randomized challenge you have to face. Yet, despite the random base material, the whole decision is in the pilot's hands and it's crucial to the outcome of the game.

Finally, luck promotes a better viewing experience. We all know the legendary "It's Lightning Helix!" clip or the Bonfire of the Damned topdeck against Brian Kibler. Neither would have been possible without the luck element in the game. It's exciting to witness a game go from a losing to a winning position in a matter of seconds. It does not have to be a benefit purely to the viewers—plenty of people play games for the excitement rather than for the razor-thin edges you get by making a slightly probabilistically better decision.

They Were Lucky, but I Played Well

Who hasn't heard the phrase? It's a classic mindset: When I win, I won because I played well; when I lose, I lost because my opponent was lucky. This dichotomy is very harmful to your perspective on games in general. Of course, this argument cannot be used when talking about chess but can absolutely be deployed when it comes to Magic, poker, and so many others.

Nevertheless the statement can absolutely be true. Sometimes you will find yourself in a situation in which you actually played well and they actually lucked out. The key here is not to overuse it.

When playing games with inherent variance, the best advice I can give is to try to harness that variance by being as good as you can in all other areas. What areas exist? So far, I've mainly talked about two, luck and skill. There is so much more to games though.

  • Physical Condition
  • Focus
  • Preparation
  • Deck choice
  • Risk aversion
  • Mental game, stress

Even if you are a brilliant technical player, you can still choose a bad deck, not play with it enough, and not sleep enough before the tournament. Before luck comes in, you may have failed in many other areas.

One last thing I try to remember when I find it difficult to accept a game decided by luck—for every game you lose due to variance, you've probably won that many due to variance affecting your opponent. Remember it goes both ways. Nobody gets angry over their opponent's mana screw though. You take your win and leave. You should do the same when you get mana screwed: take your loss and leave. Try to think of all the areas you can improve, and improve those. Don't dwell on things you can't control.

I hope this article helped you see the world of luck and skill a bit clearer. Even if you don't realize it, luck is likely one of the key reasons you—yes, you—have been playing Magic for as long as you have. What do you think? Leave a comment below and let me know. And as always, hold my hand and let's pass the turn together. Cheers!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.

9 Commenti

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sal196(14.01.2022 12:07)

In my experience most players feel that there is slightly too much luck in M:TG because luck favours the weaker player - and they aren't quite as good a player as they think they are, so they think the luck is always helping their opponent but in reality it's helping them more than they think. Also, you need skill to benefit from the luck. Craig Jones topdecked a lightning helix, sure, but he only won because on the previous turn he decided to Char his opponent down to 3 life instead of killing a creature and deliberately play to that out.

Northstar1978(13.01.2022 16:49)

Funnily enough, I never felt that way.

Interestingly, I was much more annoyed by the fact that it takes mana to play the game. Say the first hand can decide the whole game, and too many mulligans reduce your options. I was a lot more annoyed with the "method of shuffling" game than really worrying about whether I should draw a certain card at the right time.

I cannot count how many matches I have already lost because I lacked mana or often drawn too much mana. I like this aspect a lot less.

But to get back to the topic:
I believe that it is precisely the skill / luck based part of the game that has brought me back into the game since I was 14 years old.
Sometimes it is also good to do something in life that you cannot or do not have to influence. Sometimes it just feels good to follow a path and make the most of it. If it just doesn't work, mix it up again and try a restart.

So I'm convinced that Magic teaches many players the important quality of sometimes just taking a situation as it comes, making the most of it, and when you lose, get up and move on.

Great article btw.

eternalphoenix(12.01.2022 21:57)(Modificato: 13.01.2022 19:29)

In fact the existence of luck in MTG can be frustrating at times, but at the end of the day, I feel a lot better, when I can say "if the cards have come slightly different, I might have taken it all". As much as it frustrated, the fact, that you can do the right play and still end up losing (which happens a lot in poker for example) ceases the feeling of "not being good enough" to compete.
Also amateurs that have a chance to beat experienced players "with a bit of luck" is also a motivating factor which is especially important when we look on the more casual side of things. Imagine a friend playing since beta just beats the heck out of you every single game unless he (clearly) lets you win.

Great article!

Skura(13.01.2022 12:14)

I fully agree! The fact that anybody can compete makes the game thrive. In the long run, the better player will win more anyways but it does not stop the amateurs and aspiring players to take part in events and do relatively well from time to time - all thanks to the `luck`

Eaniss(12.01.2022 17:27)

How would be MTG without the random factor? Just choosing every turn the card you draw. Skill, strategy, forecast, uncertainty and no luck presence. I like it.

Skura(12.01.2022 17:40)

I disagree.
First - it would get repetitive much faster. Second, combo decks would get an immense boost and it might devolve into some degenerate combo vs hard counterspell control all over. Last, it would be a nightmare to set-up every game, as you'd have to manually stack the cards. Hard no

buchmand(13.01.2022 14:23)

To support skura's argument: In our community, we occasionally do puzzle quizzes in that vein.

For example: Assuming no interaction from your opponent whatsoever, how fast can you win with a perfect M20 draft deck (no limit of 4 cards) if you can chose your hand and stack the deck? A T3 solution is

T1. 2 Leyline of Abundance & Rugged Highlands
T2. Mountain, Leafkin Druid
T3. Plains, Glinthorn Buccaneer, Batallion Foot Soldier and find 26 more Food Soldiers, then discard to handsize for lethal.

I don't think i would want to play that as a game though. It is fun to puzzle, but would not be an interesting game at all.

Berice(12.01.2022 16:21)

Great article, gives a lot to think about how MTG works and how to be better.

FutureH(12.01.2022 13:22)

Great article and elaboration on the topic!