Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, playwright Tom Stoppard’s surrealist quasi-sequel to Hamlet, opens with the two titular characters flipping coins. Rosencrantz bets heads 92 times in a row, winning every flip, prompting Guildenstern to declare they must exist outside the laws of probability. In the face of Rosencrantz’s blind luck, Guildenstern feels powerless, and can’t really do much but complain. Meanwhile, his unfazed cohort just keeps winning.
Luck is an important tool for game designers. It’s a way of ensuring spontaneity even after countless hours of play. It leads to memorable moments while simultaneously making a game more accessible to newer players—with luck on their side, even the most novice player can, potentially, topple a veteran. This chance encourages new players to keep at it even in the face of more experienced opposition.
Luck is an important tool for game designers.
But problems arise when luck is seen as an interruption of skill. By their nature, esports are competitive, and even an amateur player places something, whether it’s time, rank, or ego, on the line each match. It’s irritating when luck snatches a victory away at the last moment, and games that were intended to be fun can leave us feeling like Guildenstern in a lobby full of Rosencrantzes.
In these situations, luck can feel like antithetical to skill. Not so. Luck is the product of a compromise between widely varying levels of player ability and rulesets that demand complexity and variance. Luck and skill are complimentary. But by invoking luck where it does not belong, we concede our autonomy in order to explain the results in a way that fits with our limited perspective of the game. Knowing the role of luck in a game is in fact a skill in and of itself, and learning to harness that luck is a skill that separates good players from truly great ones.
“A good player is always lucky.” – Jose Raul Capablanca
It’s the semifinals of Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour Honolulu 2006. $16,000 is on the line. Olivier Ruel, one of the most successful players to ever shuffle up a Magic deck, is up against the less decorated yet still intimidating Craig Jones. They’ve both been playing aggressively, trading haymakers back and forth all game. Craig’s at a dangerously low six life. Oliver’s not much better, at seven. On Craig’s turn, he draws Char, a double-edged card that deals four damage to a target and two to the player who casts it. Craig has a big choice to make here. Does he hold the Char to preserve his life, or does he point it at Oliver in hopes of ending the game?
Craig targets Oliver with the Char. The commentators are torn by his choice. If Craig draws another way to deal damage, he wins. But it seems much more likely that he’ll draw something else—anything else—and will die to Oliver’s army. The room goes quiet. He taps the top of his deck and draws. It’s Lightning Helix, a direct damage spell. Craig wins. The room erupts.
That draw, the “$16,000 Lightning Helix,” is perhaps the most iconic example of luck in a high-profile Magic match. There’s no denying Craig was lucky, yes, but by targeting Oliver with that Char, Craig placed himself in a position where he could get lucky. Had he played differently, that Lightning Helix would have only delayed a loss.
Hard work and success do not exist in a 1:1 ratio.
Looking back on that moment six years later, Craig told StarCity Games luck will always be a factor in Magic, but the best players set themselves up for success.
“I’ve seen a lot of players get extremely frustrated. They put a lot of work in understand a format but then they make the mistake of thinking that entitles them to a PTQ win or a high finish. That’s not how it works. There is still a luck element. What the hard work does do, though, is put someone in a much better position to take advantage when luck does break their way … Working hard and being good at something won’t guarantee success, but you have to work hard and be good at something to give yourself the chance at that success.”
Craig points to a frustrating but poignant truth here: Hard work and success do not exist in a 1:1 ratio, but hard work is a necessary process on the way to success. Preparation only gets you so far, and ultimately, the final gatekeeper is luck.
“Luck is used as a convenient explanation for any event that we don’t want to believe was caused by another person’s effort.” -Marc Myers
Luck is less of a factor in League of Legends than in Magic. Nevertheless, browse the League forums and you’ll find post after post lamenting bad luck in ranked play.
“Let’s pick a normal ranked game, it doesn’t matter which one,” writes one irate poster on the West Europe League boards in a topic titled “LoL Isn’t About Having Skill, it’s About Having Luck…”
“I went top with Irelia, and won the lane,” the post continues. “When I looked at the scoreboard everyone’s dead, the enemy team is fed, and there’s no possible way for me (and for my team) to win this game, since I can’t carry them no matter how hard I try, no matter how fed I am and no matter how good I am.”
Although League is a team-based game, most players take to ladder climbing either alone or in small groups. This poster’s “luck” enters the equation before the match begins, with the game’s matchmaking client. But is this the same luck that goes into a die roll or the drawing of a card?
“I’ve played 6 Nidalee top games today,” begins another poster’s story in a thread titled “How Does Luck Not Affect Ranking?”
“5 I won lane, had amazing cs, 2 of them were godly fed including a 7/1/4 at 20 minutes with 180 cs game, and I lost all 5,” the poster writes, sparring no jargon. “I had constant feeding fucking teammates who tried to lose.”
“How is your team not 100% based on luck, deciding whether you win or not?”
If you define luck as anything outside your control.
Definitions like these make luck feel ephemeral. Here, luck encompasses the skill of other players. It’s true that a player cannot control their teammate’s skills, but skill isn’t randomly assigned. Skill is the direct result of hard work, natural ability, and constant improvement. Your teammates’ skills are the product of luck only if you define luck as anything outside your control. In defining luck in this way, players heighten the role of chance in games and reduce their own agency. Instead of describing a relationship between a player and a game, luck begins to describe the relationship between a player and their opponents, their teammates, their environment, and any other factor outside of their control. When luck is considered in such broad terms, it cannot retain any meaningful definition.
Make no mistake: Luck is still a factor in League of Legends. The Blue team has a statistically better chance of winning than the Red, and the buffs awarded for slaying the randomly spawned dragons vary in quality. Additionally, some champions rely on random number generation, or RNG, more than others, and critical hits can change the tide of a fight. Still, though luck is omnipresent, by describing the strengths or weaknesses of a teammate as good or bad luck we separate their ability from the game’s results.
“Any fool can have bad luck; the art consists in knowing how to exploit it.” -Frank Wedekind
Pokémon is a game about opportunities. Crafting an acceptable and competitive team is an exceedingly complex processthat takes place long before the competitors even head to the stage. Battles themselves are just as grueling. Players pore over their options, biding their time, switching Pokemon in and out while baiting their opponents into creating an exploitable opening.
Often, these openings are said to be the product of luck. Nearly every action in Pokéemon, whether it’s a chance to miss, a chance to land a critical blow, a chance to put the opponent’s Pokemon to sleep, or whatever it might be, comes accompanied by some sort of virtual roll of the dice,. It’s like fencing with slot machines.
The Pokemon Smeargle is a prime example of how luck factors into the game. Due to an ability called Moody, Smeargle’s stats shift wildly every turn. One stat receives a massive boost while another drops significantly. To make matters worse, it can learn nearly every move in the game, so players are often left guessing as to what an enemy Smeargle has in store for them.
Yet dominant strategies have weeded out all but a few particularly synergistic move suites for Smeargle, pointing to a greater trend in the relationship between luck and competitive Pokémon: The best plans don’t avoid luck, they exploit it.
The best plans don’t avoid luck, they exploit it.
At the 2016 US Nationals, finalists Chase Lybbert and Aaron Traylor found themselves in an endgame at the mercy of luck. Aaron’s Smeargle boosted its evasiveness in an important Moody boost. Suddenly, Chase’s chances looked slim. He needed to not only hit Smeargle, but also preserve his Groudon by landing two successful Protects in a row, a move that actually always works on its first activation but decreases in potency as it’s used. Essentially, three two die rolls stood between Chase and the title: a thirty percent chance at successfully Protecting, and a seventy-five percent chance at landing a hit on Smeargle. Still, Chase had to do something. His chance at victory, however slim, was ripe for the taking, and relying on luck seemed to be his only option.
The gambit worked. Chase’s Groudon safely Protected two turns in a row, and despite Smeargle turning fortune’s favor towards Aaron, Chase came out on top.
“It’s your only play. You have to go for it,” Chase said while reflecting on the match. In that moment, under so much pressure, it wasn’t about crunching numbers; it was a question of playing to the only out available. “You just … click the move and go for it.”
It was a controversial moment, but it’s not as if luck hadn’t played a major role in everything else that had happened up to that point; sleeping Pokemon that wouldn’t wake up, frequent criticals, situations dripping with random chance. “It happens all the time in Pokemon,” Chase said. “This was just the finals.” In a risky situation, risky plays are sometimes the only option. Chase played luck as a mechanic to be exploited and won.
Luck is nebulous and unforgiving, but it’s also unflinching, and that’s what makes it so fun to challenge. A “good” player has just as much a chance to get lucky as a “bad” one, but the best players are able to recognize the role of luck and harness it as a tool. We can’t control luck, but we can control how we react to it, how we observe it, and how we define it, taking advantage of the moments when it breaks in our favor. Luck and skill are not two competing sides of a coin. Instead, they’re interwoven threads, ending harmoniously at the same point, success.