Engine and deck building: how to assess opportunities


When playing a trading card game, how many cards are you able to take per turn from your deck? How many different decks do you have access to? Do you leverage your present turns such that it reinforces the you already have?

Today we explore the concept of evaluating life similar to how trading card games are played.

This blog explores three concepts you can apply in trading card games, and in life:

  • Accessibility – Different tiers of cards, different tiers of decks.
  • Timing and Resource management – Playing cards at the right time: when to conserve and when to fight
  • Reinforcing activities – Playing same-type cards or cards that boost each other multiplicatively or exponentially.

Today I’ll try to make today’s blog post short and straight to the point. I hope you like it!

woman in green long sleeve shirt holding brown and white ceramic cup
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com


If you’ve played trading card games like Yugi-Oh, Pokemon, or Magic the Gathering, you’ll know what turn-based trading card games are like.

If you’re unfamiliar but you still want to continue reading this blog post, here’s a short, 3 minute introduction to the Pokemon Trading Card game (The Official Pokémon YouTube channel, 2015):

You draw cards- some of them require resources to play, and you strategize to defeat an opponent.


You can look at life similarly as a trading card game.


Drawing each card brings about new opportunities to defeat your opponent- it might be a new monster or a new item that you can use to power up your existing monster, or something that changes your environment. Whatever the card may be, it is something that you can potentially use to get an advantage.

This is the same as exploring an opportunity in real life. Note that drawing a card or finding an opportunity is not the same as playing the card or taking the opportunity immediately (See Timing and Resource management). Some opportunities have prerequisites. For example, getting a white-collar job often requires some educational degree that assists your credibility in being able to perform the tasks of said job.

However, take note that opportunities are not equally or equitably made available for all players. For example, a young white kid Aaron might have access to two base Pokemon decks and ten booster packs that have special monsters in them, while a young Asian girl Mariya may have barely a single base Pokemon deck, and some left over booster pack cards from her close guy friends.

In our example, Aaron’s Pokemon deck may not have good cards that jive well with his existing deck, but work well with Mariya’s. It is possible that Aaron either generously lends or gives it to Mariya since he is unable to use it anyway, or maybe Mariya can potentially play Aaron a game to win it from him. In either case- value is created: people play games and have fun which is short-term value. When trust and friendship or competitive rivalry is built, long-term value is created.

This is the exact same thing when it comes to life, and having access to job opportunities, or promotions at work, availability of leadership roles, or even the very subtle tug-of-war for attention from parents, friends, or significant others.

Opportunities are naturally scarce. When you have plenty of opportunities coming your way and you’re unable to use them personally to gain an advantage, you may be able to indirectly gain value by forwarding these opportunities to others who can better leverage those opportunities. You lose little, while another gains plenty. Especially when you have enough, it doesn’t always have to be about you, or your tribe. It is possible to find opportunities where the net value overall for you, your tribe, and surrounding societies is positive.

Broadening your access

In case you are in the situation of Mariya with bad cards and a small deck, one might ask, what can I potentially do?

Note that not everyone is privileged to have enough space to ponder and think about this. Some don’t have the space (i.e. working double jobs, or extreme workloads) and some don’t have the resources (i.e. no time, no energy, no money, no education).

But in even in the most desolate of situations, I believe people subconsciously cry out with a question of: Until when will it be like this? Is this it?

If you do have the space and resources, I recommend you play a game between you and your future self (See: The past, the present, the future me). You have little space and little time now, but if you consistently spend it wisely over the next years or decades, that little space can become bigger.

Here are some examples that enable you to broaden your access to cards:

Drawing from new decks

Learn a new skill or a language. Depending on your affinity for the skill or your interest in the language (I’m looking at you K-Drama stans), this opens up a new set of opportunities.

For example, a Filipino person learning English broadens their access to so many new things: They can learn a lot of new information from Wikipedia which is in English, or learn tech because majority of languages on Stack Overflow is English. You may have limited opportunities (cards) you can draw from Ilonggo or Bisaya deck, but dedicating time to learn English opens you up to job opportunities and even meeting and dating a bigger pool of people. The diversity enriches and excites ones’ life: what kinds of people will you meet?

Buying booster packs

Lean further on the skills and game playstyle your cards already have. This has a big prerequisite of knowing oneself (i.e. knowing your own cards, and what style you want to play). Assuming you have already explored oneself thoroughly and know what you like and don’t like, you’ll be able to leverage your natural tendency to be attracted to the things that you like.

Just as an actor doesn’t see theatre as work or repetitive skill, you will simply fall into your own passion for the things you love to do. You can see this from great masters who effortlessly do what they do: Freddie Mercury, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dave Chapelle, Marc Rebillet (See: I don’t want to make a goddamn song today).

Finding out who you are and what you are truly like is a great and terrifying undertaking- but it is well worth your while, knowing that you’ll be playing as Yourself for the rest of your life. You might as well know the right things, so you can play the right cards.

Opportunities are naturally scarce. When you have plenty of opportunities coming your way and you’re unable to use them personally to gain an advantage, you may be able to indirectly gain value by forwarding these opportunities to others who can better leverage those opportunities. You lose little, while another gains plenty.


Timing and Resource Management

Often times in trading card games, you have a limited number of moves or actions that you can do: for example, you can only place one Pokemon per turn, or you can only use one potion.

This topic is about optimization: knowing when to play a card at the right time allows you to choose which set of actions (and in what sequence) gains you the most value for your game at the least cost. For example, swapping your Grass-type Pokemon for a Lightning-type Pokemon after your enemy placed a Ground-type Pokemon is shooting yourself in the foot (Grass beats Ground, which beats Lightning)! However, placing a Lightning Pokemon after your opponent placed a water Pokemon allows you to have a natural advantage. In a similar way in life, knowing when to play cards enables you to maximize advantages.


One key thing that many people forget to acknowledge is that sometimes, inaction is the best action. In the example above, NOT swapping your Pokemons is the way to retain the advantage. Sometimes, accumulating cards and not playing it yet is the right thing to do.

For example, one might be heavily investing time to work hard at your company, impressing your bosses and your team leaders, and being consistent in your work. Later on after 9 months comes in the performance reviews, and you leverage your stellar performance to negotiate a better salary or opportunity to work in a different job, specific field, or country. It is being hard-working and persevering during the harsh months, and being tempered and calculated when you negotiate during the appropriate time.

In video games and competitive e-sports, Jenkins talks about how high ranking players in DotA 2 gain advantages against other players, and he breaks down the concept of “not doing anything” and calling it woodsmanning:

Knowing what to play and when to play it comes down to knowledge (research, studying) and experience (execution and intuition). You can gain knowledge by watching the game, playing, or studying it, but you can only gain experience by playing your game with your stakes.

Reinforcing activities

Gaining more opportunities

In card games, usually you are able to only draw one card (or one opportunity at a time). If you’re able to play cards that enable you to draw one additional card per turn early in the game, this allows you to survey more opportunities as compared to other players (they’re drawing 1 opportunity per turn, while you’re drawing 2 opportunities per turn).

This has a plateauing effect, if you play that “+1 card per turn” late into the game, because the game will end soon. You want to take actions that that enable and empower your succeeding turns.

Invest in yourself, and in broadening your opportunities. You do this by keeping your eyes open, being humble enough to ask questions when uncertain, and asking for help when you need it. Knocking on a door sometimes gets it opened. Standing by it idly or hanging by the gates rarely does.

Building an engine

In engine building/optimization table-top games, you normally have short-term benefit and long-term benefit cards that you can play. Short term cards give you a significant boost immediately, but don’t have long term benefits. Long term cards usually are very expensive to invest in at the start and don’t have an immediate benefit, but in the long run, it provides a stable passive benefit (e.g. earning free gold per turn without spending any actions).

If you know what kinds of cards are in your deck and what kind of playstyle you are attuned to, you can clearly decide what engines to build up to, even from early game.

In life, choosing an activity like studying math and logic gives you an edge when it comes to a profession like Software Engineering or Data Science. Practicing theatre and writing might give you an edge when it comes to becoming a movie producer or a social media influencer. Find out what you are attuned to, and choose activities that build up your engine.

Multiplicative or exponential gains

The engine topic talked about having similar activities that build on top of each other. In math, that would be something that looks like 1a + 1a which gives you 2a. Similar things that have additive bonuses over time. This specific concept on multiplicative or exponential gains talk about finding activities that reinforces each other multiplicatively or exponentially.

In an example fictional deck building game, one might have a set of cards (we’ll call it Boomers) that contains self-destructing monsters that you own bringing it to the graveyard. This might be the limiting constraint for the strength or power of that deck. However, if you can mix it up with a deck or a set of cards (we’ll call it Reanimators) that enables you to bring monsters and used cards from the graveyard back to your hand, you effectively remove or reduce the limitation of your strong self-destructing monsters.

You gain multiplicative bonuses for the cards, because you removed the deficiency from the Boomers deck. You can think of that constraint or deficiency as some kind of limiting power (e.g. restraining the power of Boomer decks by 30%, because you can only use monsters once). Given a pure Boomer deck, your deck power has reduced strength by a factor of 0.7.

You can just pick out any deck of cards to pair with your Boomers deck. You’ll get the benefits of the other cards (which is additive) but it did not mitigate the 0.7 limiting factor for your Boomer deck.

If you can find cards that not only gain you the natural card benefits of new cards, but also mitigates the downside of your Boomers deck, then you might be able to bring that factor from 0.7 (30% decrease in strength) to maybe 0.9 (only a 10% decrease in strength).

The above is only a fictional example, but let’s see what that looks like in life.

If you love to learn, then you know you have to do the activities of reading and studying. However, if you want to find reinforcing activities with multiplicative or exponential bonuses to learning, you might find that communication is a skill to invest in: writing sharpens your precision of language, and teaching sharpens your discourse with students, fellow learners, and grand masters.

While others toil away trying to gain experience by reading or working separately, teaching and mentoring (with great standards) can challenge and inspire you to get better at what you love to do, which is learning your craft and sharing your thoughts.


I hope you enjoyed the blog post for this month. If there are things you would like to read more about, feel free to send me a message on Twitter.

Stay safe during these difficult times.

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