Leaf nitrogen content (δ) coordinates with total canopy N and leaf area index (LAI) to maximize whole-crown carbon (C) gain, but the constraints and contributions of within-species plasticity to this phenomenon are poorly understood. Here, we introduce a game theoretic, physiologically based community model of height-structured competition between late-successional tree species. Species are constrained by an increasing, but saturating, relationship between photosynthesis and leaf N per unit leaf area. Higher saturating rates carry higher fixed costs. For a given whole-crown N content, a C gain-maximizing compromise exists between δ and LAI. With greater whole-crown N, both δ and LAI increase within species. However, a shift in community composition caused by reduced understory light at high soil N availability (which competitively favors species with low leaf costs and consequent low optimal δ) counteracts the within-species response, such that community-level δ changes little with soil N availability. These model predictions provide a new explanation for the changes in leaf N per mass observed in data from three dominant broadleaf species in temperate deciduous forests of New England. Attempts to understand large-scale patterns in vegetation often omit competitive interactions and intraspecific plasticity, but here both are essential to an understanding of ecosystem-level patterns.