I worked at Microsoft for 14 years (up to 2008) and was a manager for most of that period. The Vanity-Fair article doesn't really describe the system accurately, so I'll offer my own view. Given that I participated in it 25+ times, that ought to be worth something.
The first thing is that, as a manager of a small team, you do NOT have to meet a curve. That's only required at high levels with hundreds or thousands of employees in the pool. You DO have to rank your people in order and argue for them at a meeting with your peers. If you have a team of 6 or 8 people, I'll be very surprised if you don't know who your best person is--and who the worst one is. As a general rule, you ought to be able to rank your whole team in order from best to worst, with perhaps a few ties. (Generally, though, I didn't end up with ties.)
So together with your peers, you now try to slot 50 or so people into three rankings: 4.0 for the best 25%, 3.5 for the bulk of the people and 3.0 for the bottom 20%. (There is special handling for superstars at 4.5 and total losers at 2.5, but that's a post-process with no quotas.) The argument always revolves around strong 3.5 people who "ought" to be 4.0 and weak 3.5 people who "don't deserve" to be 3.0. Not a surprise; every manager overrates his/her own people. The pressure to meet a quota forces people to have hard arguments about how valuable each person's work really was. It can even help a manager see the importance of putting people on the highest-value tasks. At the end of it, there are typically two or three borderline individuals, but everyone else pretty much has the rating they actually earned. The General Manager takes the result up to the stack ranking at the next level, armed with appropriate arguments for the borderline folks.
One time, I worked on a project with high-visibility and lots of pressure. At review time, we told management we wanted to give about 50% 4.0 (instead of the usual 25%) and only one or two 3.0 reviews (out of a team of ~100). They pushed that up, and it was granted. We did exceptional work, so they let us blow out the curve. But it only happened once in 14 years.
What are the alternatives? Have a Union that gives everyone the same rewards regardless of the work he/she did? Doesn't seem like a winner to me.
So to answer the OP's question, how do you succeed in such a system, the answer is: work hard, do good work, help others who get stuck, and BE SEEN DOING IT. When your manager says "Jane is my best worker," you want all his/her peers to nod and say "yeah, Jane is great! She helps us out all the time!" When your manager says "Jack deserves a better rating," you don't want his/her peers to say "that lazy bum? He couldn't find his ass with both hands!" But most important of all is for your manager to actually see you as someone who gets stuff done. Whatever anyone tries to claim, most teams only have a few such people on them. They rarely go unrewarded.