Back in the olden times of late 2020, I, like many of us, saw Jan and Ben get really into mahjong, so I started to learn alongside our hosts. Thanks to them vocalizing their process, I was able to latch onto the basics, enough for me to download Mahjong Soul, to train for the next episode.
For some time, I restricted myself to playing in the room with artificial intelligence (AI). My thought process was that mahjong has existed for a long, long time, so even people in the lowest rings of the player rooms were likely to have been playing the game for a while. I, on the other hand, was a greenhorn who learned everything they knew two weeks ago, from parsing a stream where two others had just started gleaning the material. That sizable gap in knowledge would surely get me chewed up and give me an instant aversion to a game that genuinely seemed interesting. I took my time and, eventually, figured out why I didn't have a Yaku, which is the win condition, while having all the basic steps completed. After I learned the basic Yaku list, like getting three honor tiles of the same winds or dragons, I dipped my toes into the real stuff. Only later, much later, I found out that I can't Chii any player that would align my tiles in a sequence of three. Instead, only the soul to my left can have that happen, while everyone has the risk of a Pon, which are attaining three of a kind, hanging above them. This lack in fundamentals would lead to a lot of unwinnable games, but eventually I was able to get some podium spots. Mahjong was good, but it still felt like I was stumbling into my hands, through luck.
Gradually learning every Yaku is what separates the novices from the adepts. There's a win condition for not having any honor tiles, only having sequences with terminal numbers or only using one kind of tile. Rules all make perfect sense, once you stack these bits of knowledge on top of each other. While it's daunting at first, mahjong really is evident and the depth comes from the wide variety and the shifts that draws can trigger. This is where diving into the community helped a lot. Giant Bomb has a small, dedicated Mahjong Soul group, which is more than happy to explain some things and bounce ideas around. Join today! Once I started looking at games from members who sent friend requests, I figured out some huge gaps in my play. The road to victory is different for all of us, so these varied approaches will both be entertaining and educational. Soon enough after, I graduated from my beginner puddle, which grants access to a higher room tier. From here, Mahjong Soul asks for a buy-in to play, like the game of chance that it is. Once again, these new stakes manifested some anxiety, because what if I bottomed out? What if I'm actually so bad at the game that I no longer have the digital funds to play? Luckily, I eventually found out that there's an incredibly low chance of that happening. These days, I don't look at my free copper pieces at all.
With my book of possible plays now almost complete, there came my first dip in momentum, as well as motivation. By having too many options at hand, I would try to force the best case scenario every time, which led to frustrating traps and losses. If I have five wan character tiles, why wouldn't I try for a half flush? Why wouldn't I try to get a straight? Abandoning tiles and strategies can actually help open up possibilities. Unless opponents are actively dumping a specific option, it's often more prudent to not rely on a single condition. Especially since the Dora wall, the ten tiles taken out of the game, can hide several of your picks, having more drops is just a raw increase in winning potential. The biggest hand isn't worth anything if someone else gets to the finish line first.
Eventually, I overcame some of this compulsion to hold onto hope until the last critical moment. Instead, I settled on low hands that advanced the game. It's not glorious, but there are four rounds to get that magic set, so let's at least not lose. The problem here is that your precious rank won't be booming, because even with a victory, fewer points mean a smaller climb. It's hard to measure progress this way, but it did successfully get me out of the funk of stubbornly going for bust every time. One of the coolest things about joining the community in playing the game is that we all pretty simultaneously got to the same ranks. We win and lose together. Some lucky streaks later, I busted into 3-star Adept, which I didn't think I'd get to at all. Perhaps that self-doubt was warranted, because I lost that rank some time later. Losing a tier is an incredible gut punch, because Mahjong Soul will not just put you on the lower end of that bar, it will half your points completely and make you earn your place once more. Ironically, the game does not believe in chance.
Fighting my way back required a new tactic. Now, instead of just abandoning a tactic, I would start to plan one approach and think of a backup on the spot. That way, should one method suddenly appear a lot more viable, I could switch more gracefully. Additionally, this fluidity allowed me to unlock one last thing that I was missing, which was a stronger defence. Admittedly, I still try to win too much. If a player had a powerful hand, however, like announcing their win with a Riichi, I'd at least feel like it would be time to eat into my own hand. Unless I'm only a tile or two away from my own victory, there would be no real reason to pursue one. Again, there's no glory in it, but throwing away good tiles that emboldened players have already discarded guarantees that they cannot get a victory. You can't get your winning tile from others if you threw that specific one away yourself. That's called Furiten, which you can only draw yourself, for a Tsumo. Otherwise, stealing victory from an unsuspecting victim is called Ron. I promise you, it sounds a lot more daunting than it actually is. It's just words.
Not only did I get back to three stars, I was now living in the upper echelon of that bar. You need 1000 rank points in an Adept tier to get promoted. I was comfortably in that upper half. Yet, nothing could prepare me for the hell that was about to go down. I went up to over 900 points once and then immediately got booted back down. Then, I was knocking at that door again. The same sobering event occurred. In total, I got to the finish line five times, only to get the biggest beat down in the next game, like clockwork. My will was shattered. No matter what I tried or what I learned, I'd get cornered into a last place. Eventually I lost any motivation and bumped down to 700 points. At this point, I feel like I'm not even learning anymore; I'm just getting my teeth kicked in, so what's the point? Again, the community continuing to talk about their experience is what held my attention, to put in the bare minimum and go do my daily quests. It's one of those games, too. Before I knew it, there I was again, at that fateful moment of truth.
It is possible to play ranked in the starter room as an Adept. The payout is lower, but it is, technically, a lesser risk. So, for those 70-ish last points, I wanted to grind away in the Bronze trenches. I won a game, by a lot, but Mahjong Soul knew me well. There I was, at 997 points, just three short of becoming an Expert. "Beg for it," the jaunty anime waifu seemed to say. Agony; this is pure agony! With how my games have been going, there's no way anything else but instant karma is headed my way. The only thing I can do here is to play so defensively that I don't take any risks.
Unfortunately, there's no way to succeed by turtling up. My next game, I was in the last East round with the least points, again. I wasn't getting stomped, but everyone else left me in the dust. Then, suddenly, the potential winner disconnected. Mahjong Soul can have some connection issues from time, but none have ever been this fortuitous. With no one at the wheel, the AI was sabotaging the absentee's hand, long enough for someone to win off their demise. The game was going to overtime, which are South rounds, where the first to reach 30000 points will win. I was no longer last, but a third spot is still a drop. Our leaver continued to give out freebies through their AI replacement. The main attacking player now popped the second spot below me. There was a chance. My poor nerves hadn't been this shot since being one of the only two left in a solo game of PlayerUnkown's Battlegrounds.
The disconnected player is the real hero in this story. Thanks to their continued involuntary efforts, the momentum shifted to their opponent, who took it all the way to victory. I definitely didn't win, but everyone else lost and that was enough for me to get a few points. I'll take it. After so much suffering, I will claim full credit for this tainted victory. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm now an Expert at mahjong! I have the certificate to prove it. I can only thank Ben and Jan, as well as the community members, for carrying me on their shoulders. Together, we feast. I cannot wait to see the next person join me in the Expert rank. Seeing people stay excited about mahjong, despite the evaporation of streams, is a highlight in my day. We built something here and that, these days, is a beautiful thing. Once again, if you've been reading this far, why not hop into the mahjong thread and start your own journey? I guarantee you will have a good time. You'll be your own expert in no time flat, because if I can do it, anyone can.
This is the Ron!