Welcome to our journey down the Sodium River that is David Sirlin’s Playing to Win. I highly suggest you go and read it for yourself, as I don’t cover everything and there’s plenty to take away from what I don’t.

I originally wrote this during a time of steady growth on the Crucible Playbook subreddit, which at the time, in one humble scrub’s opinion, taken a nosedive into the dirt. It was time for the gloves to come off and to let you know that you aren’t special, you don’t need someone to hold your hand, and there’s a reason for the wonderful phrase “git gud scrub”.

First, some background. David Sirlin is an MIT grad and former professional Street Fighter II player who went on to become a writer and game designer (Yomi, Flash Duel, Puzzle Strike). He’s also my favorite kind of person: an asshole with valid, outspoken opinions.

For Playing to Win, I will be skipping the introduction and “beginners” portion of the book. Very few people here I would consider to be part of this category.


Sirlin begins with his definition of the scrub:

A scrub is a player who is handicapped by self-imposed rules that the game knows nothing about. A scrub does not play to win.

Let that sink in for a second. Now, let’s highlight the most important phrase in that first sentence.

handicapped by self-imposed rules

You wanna win? You use the best. Period. I’ve played more than my fair share of sanctioned MtG to know that if you pick the metabreaker deck that beats the format’s boogieman/best deck and miss playing that deck, you are screwed. One hundred and ten percent. Screwed.

Another example? NFL wide receivers don’t rely only on their bare hands to catch even though it takes way more skill to catch a pigskin thrown at 50mph, they use their god damn gloves.

Scrubs are not playing to win.

Scrubs are:

  • playing to ruin some other guy’s day.
  • playing to punish.
  • playing because you can’t get off your high horse and use the most efficient tools in front of you.
  • playing because moral high ground superiority makes them a “better person” (whatever the hell that means).

Games have no morality or ethical code outside of cheating. And don’t bring up the “for the love of the game” argument. Win or lose, that’s it.

So what are these rules you say? Refusing to use max range Shotguns or high aim assist snipers. How about not taking Thorn/TLW into sweaties. Not using Grenades and Horseshoes Rockets. Playing Defender instead of Striker.

“Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” –some imaginary guy in that weird Chuck Palahniuk book.

Some of you are going to say, “but Keen, what about sweaties? Aren’t they self-imposing restrictions?” To that I say, they are not even playing the same game. Their game has completely different rules. Think of sweaties as another game mode. A skirmish with certain skulls turned on, if you will. What I’m talking about, most specifically but not exclusively, is Trials.

I used to get mad at getting killed by final round in Trials. Then I quit peeking down sniper lanes. I used to get mad about Thorn. Then I learned how to disengage or take different approaches. I would get mad about shotguns. Then I…ok, fuck shotguns, they’re still broken. OR YOU COULD JUST STOP GETTING IN MELEE RANGE WITH YOUR HAWKSAW. JUST SAYING.

Now, everyone begins as a poor player…there is the mistaken notion, though, that by merely continuing to play or “learn” the game, one can become a top player.

You aren’t a competitor. You aren’t even in the same realm as them. And until you accept that playing to win is a completely different game than the one you’re playing, you will forever remain a scrub.

In reality, the “scrub” has many more mental obstacles to overcome than anything actually going on during the game. The scrub has lost the game even before it starts. He’s lost the game even before deciding which game to play. His problem? He does not play to win. The scrub would take great issue with this statement for he usually believes that he is playing to win, but he is bound up by an intricate construct of fictitious rules that prevents him from ever truly competing. These made-up rules vary from game to game, of course, but their character remains constant.

Do you know what the Dunning-Kruger effect is? Take a minute and go educate yourself. Back? Ok, the average player suffers from this. The scrub suffers from this.

You know what is the number one thing I hear that I absolutely abhor? I deserved to win. I deserved to win because he’s using a shot package Matador. I deserved to win because I’m using Praedyth’s and she’s using an LDR. We deserved to win because we’re all using Fusion Rifles and they’re running Thorns.

You never deserve to win. You either win or you don’t. That’s all there is to it. History doesn’t recall the almost winners. The deserving winners. It remembers the actual winners.

The first step in becoming a top player is the realization that playing to win means doing whatever most increases your chance of winning. That is true by definition of playing to win. The game knows no rules of “honor” or “cheapness”. The game only knows winning and losing.

You are not a scumbag for using a shotgun with shot package. You are not a scrub for playing a Sunbreaker with Forgemaster and Cauterize. You saw the sheer number of percentage points you were gaining by choosing your loadout and you played to win. Good for you.

This is why we see Thorn/TLW never leaving the sweaty scene. Without rehashing the topics that have been played out over and over again since Y1, (And yes, they fucking have. There’s no new knowledge on these guns. Stop asking about it. Use the damn search button and find the answers for yourself, lazy scrubs) Thorn/TLW are still fantastic and they’re here to stay until Bungie decides to reset everything.

You might say Thorn is cheap. I might say that you’re a moron that’s only upset because Thorn counters your playstyle and you’re too ignorant to figure out the proper way to counter Thorn. Or too stubborn to adapt to a different approach to that particular match.

Trust me, Thorn users sleep just fine, if not better, if you have a sodium eruption all over a subreddit or in a hastily sent message. They won. You didn’t. Boo. Hoo.

The good players will find incredibly overpowering tactics and patterns. As they play the game more, they’ll be forced to find counters to those tactics. The vast majority of tactics that at first appear unbeatable end up having counters, though they are often quite subtle and difficult to discover. Knowing the counter tactic prevents the other player from using his tactic, but he can then use a counter to your counter. You are now afraid to use your counter and the opponent can go back to sneaking in the original overpowering tactic.

Shotguns are perceived as overpowered. Average player picks up a shotty and just warriors the enemy team nonstop. Average player cries when they get bodied by said shotgunner. Goes to Bungie forums to tearfully beg for a nerf. Good player knows that backpedalling and hip firing counters shotgun rushes. Good player guns down shotgunner. Good shotgunner knows that if backpedaling and open space is effective counter, then a route forcing the enemy into CQC or with little room to maneuver will strike fear in enemy good players’ heart. Goes back to warrioring while creating situations where shotgun is still good.

I can continue that example ad nauseum. Layers on layers on layers of tactical decision making. Something the scrub severely lacks. Something that separates the Poshys of the world from the KeenKoalas.

Good players already know what’s good. They know why it’s good. And most importantly they know how to counter it and how to counter the counters. That’s why Thorn is perceived as overpowered. Top tier players already know how to cover its weaknesses.

And as is quite common in competitive games, many new tactics will later be discovered that make the original cheap tactic look wholesome and fair.

See: final round.

[Scrubs] don’t know the first thing about the depth I’ve been talking about. Their argument is basically that ignorantly mashing buttons with little regard to actual strategy is more “fun”. Superficially, their argument does at least look valid, since often their games will be more “wet and wild” than games between the experts, which are usually more controlled and refined.

Have fusion rifles “yet to be discovered”? Absolutely. Blueberries don’t know the skill ceiling for fusion rifles. That’s why everyone is bandwagoning on them as some sort of second coming. Good players already know that they have no place at the highest level. Why use a fusion when you can just shotgun someone in the mouth with no chance of counterattack? Why use a fusion when you can just dome the self-rez/revive with a high impact sniper? Fusion rifles are exponentially more efficient as player skill level decreases. That’s what you’re finding out. Take a fusion rifle into sweats. Get moist with one. Tell me how many kills you get versus how many times you get picked off by a guy dodging in and out of cover with a Thorn.

The only Fusion worth using is either Plan C, or a fast charging legendary with Hot Swap/Hip Fire/Quickdraw or Kneepads/Rifled Why? It can counter shotgunners. It also forces you to rely on your primary. Which the vast majority of people do not do judging by people bitching about every special weapon this side of Saturn.

Throwing together some circus act of a win isn’t nearly as satisfying as reading your opponent’s mind to such a degree that you can counter his every move, even his every counter.

If you get the chance, you should watch some highlight clips of Daigo Umehara. For the uninitiated, his nickname is “The Beast” and he has some of the clutchest matches you’ll ever see in the fighting game community. The best part? He always has the appearance that everything was planned from the get go. He wasn’t behind, he was just setting a trap for you to get completely bodied.

Can you imagine what will happen when the two groups of players meet? The experts will absolutely destroy the scrubs with any number of tactics they’ve either never seen or never been truly forced to counter. This is because the scrubs have not been playing the same game. The experts were playing the actual game while the scrubs were playing their own homemade variant with restricting, unwritten rules.

I really don’t have much to say here other than see every Trials carry by any carry streamer(s) ever.

[Scrubs talk] a great deal about “skill” and how he has skill whereas other players – very much including the ones who beat him flat out – do not have skill.

I’m going to finish with this. No one cares about your KD, your precision rate with snipers, your win rate in Control. If you start by providing these as your ethos, your credentials, smarter people than I are going to label you as a scrub and move on. You’re a nobody, and the somebodies don’t flaunt their stats like they’re the second coming of Christ.

And the next time you bitch about the “no-skill high Aim Assist sniper/super warrior with the quest Conspiracy Theory-D” take a look in the mirror. Sometimes there’s a plank in your eye when you point out the speck in theirs.

Want to not be a scrub? I’m sure I’ve already put you through most of the Seven Stages of Grief, but how about try starting with #7 Acceptance? After that? You’re smart, you can figure it out.


You can gain some standing in a gaming community by playing in an innovative way, but that should not be the ultimate goal. Innovation is merely one of many tools that may or may not help you reach victory. The goal is to play as excellently as possible. The goal is to win.