Life Tip: Reflect on Odds, Not Results

(Disclaimer: this is not a 'simple trick’. It takes time and effort to actively apply this approach, and the difficulty of doing this depends on your own life experiences. Everyone has different goals, too.)

If you want to grow as a person, you need to self-reflect on your behaviour. However, there’s a lot of ways that self-reflection can actually make you drive out of alignment with your goals instead of towards them. Here’s one way to improve your self-analysis skills below - courtesy of JoINrbs, Slay the Spire and online poker.


I often watch JoINrbs play Slay the Spire on YouTube. He comes from a background of online poker, so his approach to the game is very cool. I assume he’s not the first person to focus on odds more than results, but his cross-application of mindset into Slay the Spire inspired me to apply the mindset from there into to real life. I pasted the snappy version above, but here’s a slightly elaborated version of the life tip below:

"When you self-reflect, ponder if you had made the best decision with the info you had -- not whether or not your decision ended up being successful."

How did we get here? Let's start by talking about games, since this is obviously good game advice too.

What builds suspense in pretty much every element in life is when you care about something but are missing crucial information relating to it. And hey - it turns out every challenging game has unknown outcomes everywhere! You don't know if you’re fast enough to hit the ball. You don't know if your enemy has a trap card. You don't know if you’re going to roll something amazing or awful. You don’t know if your teammate is going to pull through or fail.

The problem is that you usually need to make decisions without being 100% sure what the outcome will be. Let’s use a scenario to exemplify this.

- You’re in a room with a fountain.
- You only have 1 health left.
- The only door leads to a room with a difficult boss fight.
- Drinking from the fountain will either:
> heal you to full health (60% chance).
> deal 1 damgae to you (40% chance).
Do you drink?

Let's say you drink from the fountain… and die. The immediate player reaction may be "Jeez, I shouldn't have drank from that fountain."

But... nope, you had still made the right decision! There's no way you could have killed the final boss with only 1 health. Fate/luck didn't go your way this time, but if you found yourself in that situation a second time, it’d still be correct to make that decision again if your goal was to actually slay the boss instead of just making it to the boss room.

Joinrbs frequently explains this concept in Slay the Spire, when he takes what look like "risky" plays such as fighting difficult Elite enemies early on. As he explains it: while fighting hard enemies now increases damage taken in the next fight (therefore looking riskier), it's actually way better odds for beating the game than taking the 'safe' path.

To oversimplify it, you can think about paths A and B.
Path A: 60% chance of surviving this fight, then a 60% chance of beating the game.
Path B: 90% chance of surviving this fight, then a 20% chance of beating the game.
New players, due to lack of experience, can’t exactly predict what the second percentage chance will be for winning, so they naturally gravitate towards the strategy of dealing with the most immediate threats only. To improve, though, you’ll eventually have to shift towards being okay with taking short-term risks.

Q: What does this have to do with the idea of thinking about odds instead of results?
A: It’s easy to self-reflect on a good decision that went wrong, and erroneously think you had made the wrong choice. Usually when this happens, it’s because you had taken an earlier risk that technically had a better overall chance of meeting your goal, but it didn’t pan out this time.

The focus of your self-improvement should be making good decisions under present variables rather than making decisions that would have worked for last time’s variables. The latter informs the former, but they’re not the same.

Anyway, time for real life.
In real life you'll also have to make difficult decisions without a clear outcome. And sometimes… things will really not work out for you. I’m sorry.

“Do I look like a 0-damage boss to you?”

“Do I look like a 0-damage boss to you?”

But what's been useful to me, and hopefully to you too, is to consider all of the information you have at the moment of a decision, and knowing that with the options in front of you, you may have still done the right thing. What matters in self-improvement is optimizing your ability to make judgement calls.

The actual outcome of your choice (ie succeeding or failing) is most useful as a suggestion as to whether or not your original calculation of odds was correct. For example, if the risk you took in your essay or proposal was shot down for a reason you hadn't thought of - it doesn't necessarily mean the risk wasn't worth taking, but rather you had miscalculated the risk in the first place. You can re-calibrate your ability to assess odds, and your ability to execute a strategy. Similarly, if things went great because someone misinterpreted something in your favour, try to have the humility to recognize that you had technically made a sub-optimal choice but lucked out this time.

And, in general, it’s good to know there's always tons and tons of unknowns. You'll kind of always be hit with random stuff that can be accounted for but never circumvented or alleviated. The best you can really do is play the odds, and get better at reading them. Over time, if you're great at self-reflection, you may find that things will start looking just a little more in your favour.

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Stay lofty!

(PS: One important thing to remember is that different goals will change your decisions. For example, the goal of “maximizing your chance of seeing the boss” is different from “maximizing your chance of killing the boss”. Your goal may be to optimize consistency instead of optimizing maximum gain, and that’s just as valid.)

Guide: Deckbuilder Tips for Beginners + Prompts for the Experienced (Part 3/3)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

So you're already a strong builder of decks thanks to the past two tips. I've only got one left to give you, one that will (hopefully) keep you improving forever. It's only listed #3 because I like the narrative structure of it being last - IMO, it's actually the most important of all.

Tip #3: Don't Play Every Game to Win

Don't click away! I promise this is still about optimizing your win rate and getting better at deckbuilders. This isn't me saying "remember to have fun, it's just a game. :)" Because while yes, that's true, I know that's not why we're here.

This tip should IMO apply to everything you do in life, but deckbuilding is a good place to start because their design rewards experimentation much more than other games.

Dedicate games to experimental strategies that you'd normally avoid. In order to grow, you must view cards/strategies from new angles, in case you discover something better than what you're doing now.

i understand the fear of trying something strange

i understand the fear of trying something strange

There's a kind of tension for players who are concerned about playing well, and it's this: if you care a lot about victory and defeat, and you're grinding out lots of games to try and improve, you'll naturally start adopting patterns of play. Developing patterns is mostly good: save mental energy by formulating frameworks and strategies to follow, right? You had a great run with a specific card, so every time you see that card, you remember what synergies generally worked and try to replicate them. 

But adopting patterns creates problems when you start to accept too many things as a given. For example, "thin decks can be good with certain cards" can easily become "always keep your deck thin". Or "This card combo is pretty strong" becomes "I see this combo is available, so I'll ignore other potential strategies".

My theory is that some games cause humans to generate a lot of inaccurate 'rules' whenever game variables have a massive influence on your outcome but are ALSO so numerous that it's hard to account for each variable at once.

For example: what if your OP card combo five games ago only worked because there wasn't another card in the available pool that your opponent would have otherwise grabbed in response to your strategy? That one game 'proved' that your strategy was strong, so now you're stuck with a big head and a big miscalculation of power level.

No good.

If you're like me, it's ridiculously hard (and kinda boring) to look at every single card combiniation available and ascertain all of the theoretical synergies and counters that are possible. And to do such a thing every turn would make your playgroup hate you. It's arduous to perfectly logically think your way through this stuff. (Which is by design - if you could, the game would be "solved" and become stale.)

experimentation doesn't always pay off, but it's always worth trying

experimentation doesn't always pay off, but it's always worth trying

So what do you do instead? The answer is, essentially, the scientific method: just play through a bunch of games and try out different strategies in different contexts, and make internal note of your observations. If you keep your attention open, you'll start to formulate (almost subconsciously?) the nuanced contexts that make a certain strategy better/worse in different scenarios. And that's how you get better.

Whenever you play to win, you'll find yourself kind of "locking in" a set of rules for yourself to give you what feels like a consistent game. But if you never have experimental games, if you never try out something new, you'll never open yourself up to evolving layers onto your strategies. On the obvious level, you might learn that you undervalued a certain card. But on a less obvious level, you might learn that you had overvalued your go-to combo and can produce an equivalent effect by doing some other thing.

Finally: yes, if you can give yourself "win conditions" such as having fun or seeing how far you can take some janky strategy, you'll probably just have more fun with the game overall and avoid burning out. So that's nice too.

Now get in there and do some science! :)

+: Seriously, Keep Experimenting

This one's going to be short because, by design, this third tip is something that you'll probably be doing 'forever' if you really want to get good.

In any half-decent game, you'll never really stop benefiting from experimentation. Yes, after a point you'll get diminishing returns. But if you always do the same things, you'll always get the same output. Sure, you won't get lower results by staying the same... but you give up the chance of higher results too.

At a higher level of play, your experimentation just gets more complex and nuanced. For example, maybe you'll start testing the quickest turn that the opponent's strategy can adapt to a change in your own strategy when doing x deck vs y deck with abcd cards in the pool.

You get the idea - there's always something to experiment with. Just introduce more contexual variables and you'll have a new experiment. 

BUT. This only works if you keep an open eye to your results. Trying an experiment multiple times is important to see the same strat across tons of contexts. Taking internal note of what you see - more than once, ideally - is the key to improvement.
I guess just in general, that's how you learn in real life too.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading this series, and hope this information can be useful to you. And I especially hope that I've made you excited to play some deckbuilders!

Good luck out there. :)

Guide: Deckbuilder Tips for Beginners + Prompts for the Experienced (Part 2/3)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Whether you're getting into Slay the Spire, Monster Hunt, Dominion, Star Realms, Hero Realms, To Arms!!, Ascension, Legendary, or any other deckbuilder, I've got some sweet tips for you. Even if you're already good, some of these tips might help reframe your approach if you've hit a plateau in your skill level.

Tip #2: Know Who's Faster

answer: buy a blender, never use it, buy a smoothie every week

answer: buy a blender, never use it, buy a smoothie every week

For the sake of transparency, I must disclose that I learned this from a Magic: the Gathering article a few years ago. You can find it here if you'd rather hear it from the source instead of my sultry writing tone.

I should also say that I found this article about Dominion right before publishing this blog post. This is also a fantastic source of knowledge about understanding deckbuilders. I'm going to go broader than the above article, but it's worth a read if you care about Dominion specifically.

Anyway. The moment you make a different decision from your opponent in a deckbuilder, the God of Chance and Tactics (Let's name them "Pag") has already decreed who is fated rush faster and who is fated to scale farther. You must know your relative position to your enemy, and lean into the advantage you've been given to secure victory.

Here's my shot at the most broad explanation possible:

In any competition, one person is always fated to have a better return on resource investment than another. If your long-term resources won't be as good as your opponent's, your only option is to finish the game before you get outscaled.

Outracing your opponent means focusing more on acquiring cards that are easy to obtain/use (but tend to be weaker). End the game before the opponent's plans come to fruition. You'll likely still invest resources in early scaling, but you need to be able to switch gears before your opponent has time to outscale or outlast you.

Outscaling your opponent means focusing more on acquiring cards that are stronger (but tend to be harder to obtain/use). You must predict how "greedy" you can be with investing your resources in scaling effects before your opponent wins. You must plan to start cashing in on powerful card synergies/effects before your opponent closes out the game on their terms. Some games provide block/heal effects that slow down the enemy long enough to get your own engine rolling.

With either strategy, some deckbuilders let you disrupt the opponent through effects that make their plays worse (like curse or discard effects). If your aggressive opponent would get in that last trickle of damage/points next round, or that slow-rolling opponent would slam down some massive combo next round, disruption makes their plan (whatever plan it is) get delayed by a few turns, giving you a window to sneak in a victory. 

I bet you already have an intuitive grasp of this concept. Let's invent a game to demonstrate an example of how you already know this:

You’re dueling a computer AI. Both of you have 10 health. The computer deals 1 damage on round 1, then 2, then 3, then 4, etc. This means you’ll lose all of your health by round 4.

Now let’s say on turn 1 you can either play “deal 5 damage” or “deal 1 damage every round, starting next round”. Since the opponent deals more damage every turn, you can’t afford to be slow. You KNOW you’ll lose if you let the game go on too long, so you need to sacrifice the cool long-term damage to just deal 5 damage right now. 

In this example, you’ve successfully identified yourself as the aggressor. You’ve recognized your opponent will win a long game no matter what, so you have to win before that happens.

During a game, you must constantly compare your plan against your opponents'. You must ask yourself: "if I let the game continue on for a few more rounds, will I become more likely to win or will my opponent?"


Recognize what round your opponent's deck will reach its "peak" over yours, and when yours will "peak" compared to theirs. End the game before their deck becomes stronger than yours - or, stall out until your deck becomes stronger than theirs.

Every deckbuilder makes you decide between quicker payoffs now or stronger later payoffs later. Knowing if you're aggressive or not will help you make those decisions.



irl deckbuilding.png

That's all for beginner tips. Destroy your enemies!
(Or read on for gritty details.)

+: Moment-to-moment planning

Here's a problem: the god of Chance and Tactics decrees that your deck' relative power and speed are actually quite difficult to figure out, especially because the variables change from round to round. Maybe you were the aggressor before, but your opponent just made a weird card acquisition that made you realize you really need to slow down and establish a long-term plan. This is especially tough because you need to track not only yourself, but each opponent as well. It's tough knowing whether you should be acquiring a card that pays off in the future vs now, and it's also tough knowing whether you should be playing a card that (pays off later/now). Here's some prompts that I've found around the internet and through talking with players.

- Calculate the relative number of deck shuffles left before the game's over. For games where you can buy stuff, if the game will end after 2 deck shuffles, that means you'll only draw that +$$ card twice, meaning you'll only draw whatever it could purchase a single time! In this case, you might as well just start buying pure damage to end the game. The extra $$, in this case is useless. For games where you directly buy victory points or play single-use cards, clogging your deck with victory points or exhausting your one-use cards around <2 shuffles definitely seems worth it, since they'll hardly get in the way that much.

- Calculate the minimum amount of setup needed to consistently execute your plan. The manifestation of this depends a lot on the specific plan, but basically what I mean is this: if you're planning on going aggressive, you already know that even fast decks need to buy a few +$$ cards. But when do you stop?
The answer: only buy however much you need to afford your planned "capstone" cards.
The next question: how do you figure out the "capstone"?
The answer: the most expensive thing you can afford to buy AND get to play for a few turns before your opponent outscales you with their own plan. The % of health total per attack card is the vague calculation you'll need to make.

In games like Slay the Spire, swap out +$$ with block cards and "purchase" with "safely play".

The above is my example if you've realized you're the aggressive player. If you're the slower player, you must think these resources in reverse. Even a terrible aggro deck that buys total junk and hardly scales has a "clock": for example, a "4 round clock" means that your enemy's average damage will kill you in about 4 rounds (if you do nothing about it). If you think they'll win in about 8 turns through early damage, you better have a plan to either stall them out so you can slowly ping them down, or assemble a "win the game instantly" combo by turn 7. People who like to build their card synergies (like me) have a problem where we spend too much time assembling our card engine. In doing this, we neglect to realize that we passed the window where we *could* have had a power spike and steamrolled our opponent. I'll build a $50-per-turn deck that's perfectly ready to transition into buying attacks/victory points... but then turn it into a $100-per-turn deck instead of getting around to actually winning.

- Every turn, re-evaluate if you need to start racing your opponent or not. Regardless of anything else you've read in this article, variables and unforeseen combos and weird circumstances sometimes mean that you very suddenly NEED to race your opponent to victory to have any shot at winning. Leave your fate to Pag, because "playing it safe" after a certain point just means "losing slowly" instead of playing risky for a shot at victory.

The following infographic can hopefully help illustrate the relative power curves of different strategies, as well as how disruption (theoretically) works to slow the opponent:

Disruption can be useful for any archetype if used correctly.

Disruption can be useful for any archetype if used correctly.

I hope some of this knowledge comes to good use! It's not necessarily stuff you can just plug into your games and directly reap rewards from, but from knowing some deckbuilder theory you'll hopefully find yourself being more self-assured with your choices and more adept at recognizing your areas of improvement.

Good luck out there! :)