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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Playing Competitively: the Vaguest of How-Tos

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In the wake of 'Ard Boyz here, I thought I'd share some of what I've learned about competitive play in gaming. While I can't claim to be any kind of big name in the 40K community (or, to be honest, any others), I lay the blame as much at the feet of lack of time and money as anything else. These are systems for improving your game, not actual gameplay tips; it's not something that's often discussed, but I think it's worth talking about, as plenty of folks go about trying to be better players in what I feel is an entirely wrongheaded way.

Step 1: Learn the rules
This can't be repeated enough: know the rules, inside and out. Read the rulebook. Go back and read it again. Read your codex, then read it a second time over breakfast. Far too many people play the game the way they think it works rather than the way it actually does. I regularly have to correct Space Marine players on how ATSKNF functions in close combat. Really? You don't know the defining rule common to every variation of your codex that has ever existed? That is, of course, a bit harsh- everyone, myself included, misreads rules; it's unavoidable. That's why you go back and read and reread- carefully, not just casually- so you understand what it is that the book actually says. Warhammer 40K is a game, and as a game what you are capable of doing is bounded by the rules. Understanding these boundaries is the first step of being able to push your game to the fullest. A smart player knows that being 25" away from most Rapid Fire weapons leaves him completely safe, whereas a less-experienced one might hold back for fear of something that can't happen. 40K is not the real world. Its rules are arbitrary and knowable. Since you can know the limits of what is possible, you should make every effort to do so, because it could be any one of these things that results in a game-winning move.

Step1a: Don't be a jerk
Knowing the rules is not the same as being self-righteous about them. Everyone makes mistakes, including you. Sometimes rules are unclear, and if you can't admit this, you are probably going to come off sounding like an asshole. Use that "1-3 my favor 4-6 yours" rule sometimes, or otherwise come to a compromise. Treat your opponents with respect and generosity as much as possible. Be friendly rather than contentious. Especially when you are playing someone less skilled than you, don't agonize over every single little detail; this doesn't mean let them outright cheat, but be aware that not everyone enjoys the same aspects of the game as you and may not like rules precision. If it's a casual game (i.e. not in a tournament), just roll with it; consider it a handicap on your part, if that helps. Just as chess grandmasters and golf champions usually play with a handicap so as to better challenge their abilities even when playing lesser opponents, you should be willing to do the same.

Step 1b: Back to basics
When I say "learn the rules," I don't just mean weird corner cases and army-specific rules; I'm talking the fundamental rules of the game. How many times have you forgotten a very basic rule to your own detriment? Practically every game, I would expect. Familiarize yourself with the basic rules of the game and insure that you know them intuitively. If you have to be thinking about every single thing that happens- rather than assessing them on a subconcious level, as an experienced player might- you're going to miss out on stuff that you otherwise might not. In objective missions, keep an eye on where your troops (and the enemy's troops) are. In kill point missions, be on the lookout for vulnerable units. In either case, be sure not to confuse what it is you're up to.

Step 1c: Mistakes are important
You are going to make mistakes. Lots and lots of them. Don't let it worry you, just keep playing and move on; the important thing is that you learn from those mistakes, because without them you may well never realize why a particular facet is important. This is one reason that taking pictures of your battles is important- you can go back and look over things later and try to figure out what you did wrong. You can also show them to other people later and see what they think you did wrong (perhaps in some kind of "battle report," say on some kind of websight), because it's very likely they will notice different things than you. (See #3 and #4, below.)

Step 2: Play, play, play!
This is a point where I often find myself lacking, in part due to the limited playerbase of my town, but that's a very half-assed excuse even from my point of view; everyone has friends they can ask or acquaintances from the FLGS. Internet theory is all fine and good, but nothing will improve your game like playing your game. Experienced generals know the ins and outs of their army and how it functions by virtue of having played it hundreds of times. If you haven't played at least ten games with an army against four different lists, you don't "know" that army and aren't going to do nearly as well with it as you otherwise could. And that's with one variation of your list- don't make the mistake of playing a single game and deciding "this isn't good enough" right away; play it several times before trading anything out or changing anything. What worked for your list before may not work now, so do some experimenting with your strategy and give yourself a little time to adapt to the way your new list works.

Step 3: Listen to good information.
As it happens, there are a lot of bright folks on the internets. I'm not going to name names here, since everyone is going to have their own idea of just who it is that is right and who isn't, but if you're trying to improve your game, you owe it to yourself to pay attention to these people. Some of them don't play the same army as you- doesn't matter, pay attention anyways. You may be surprised at how applicable Eldar Jetbike tactics are to your force, or how the proper use of Combat Squads can raise your game to a new level. Find these people- most of them have some degree of fame. Listen to them; read through their archived materials and try to grasp it all. And most importantly, talk to them; say what you think, ask questions, post your ideas, get criticized. You're simply not going to get any better otherwise. And, in the same vein, get to know your local players and get the opinions of the better ones after games; what you see is not necessarily what they see, and having another viewpoint and source of ideas is invaluable. Strive to find other competent players and find out what they have to say, even if you disagree. Especially if you disagree (and can be civil about it), because the discussions that result will hopefully illuminate your differences in strategy and tactics, and it is those different viewpoints that you are seeking to find the essence of.

Step 4: Ignore bad information.
On the other hand, there are a lot of really dumb people, both on the internets and in real life. Do not listen to them. Doesn't seem like a big temptation? Well, what blogs and forums do you read? I bet at least couple of them are... shall we say "less than talented" when it comes to playing competitively. Here I'm willing to name some names: BoLS and Warseer are both pretty terrible places when it comes to having actual good discussions about tactics. This is not absolutely true, but it is largely true. From espousing Foot Eldar to defending the virtues of Pariahs, both of them have more than their fair share of idiots. Such stupidity is poisonous- whether you like it or not, your opinions are shaped by the people around you, consciously or subconsciously; you aren't going to learn how to synergize a Marines list if you're still arguing over whether the Thunderfire Cannon is a good unit. Moreover, if you see a hundred people chiming in about how awesome something is, it's going to warp your perceptions, no matter how much you try to fight it. So unless you're getting something else from it (modeling tips, inspiration, etc), for god's sake, stay away from stupid people. The same goes for IRL morons, although you usually have less choice about avoiding them absolutely. If you are playtesting, do it against good players. Beating up on poor players does nothing to prove whether a particular build, unit, or tactic "works," because an unskilled player isn't going to react the same way that a skilled one is. This is the "orks are awesome" fallacy: something that works against bad armies (i.e. a tide of green dudes with Klaws) is going to get shot, redirected, or ignored by a skilled player, because they have ways of dealing with your Amazing Super-Strategy that a lesser player might not think of.

Step 5: Broaden your horizons.
When I face an army across the table, it's reasonably common for me to correct my opponent on his special rules, stats, etc. Why? Because I have taken the time to read the codices of all of the other forces and to study their tactics and options. Understanding your own army is only half the fight- if you don't know what your opponent is capable of, you are going to walk right into their traps and be unable to exploit their failures. Obviously, you cannot do this to the same depth and degree that you do with your own army, but you should, at the very least, be aware of how your opponent's army functions and how it breaks down. A truly exceptional player should be able to predict all of this just by looking at their list, and to this end you should learn to look at lists- especially lists for other armies- with this same critical eye. What is its plan? How does it want to deploy? What does it want to avoid? Learn to answer all these questions for all kinds of lists, not just those that you play. All of this falls back to the first point about the rules of the game: your opponents are just as bound by the rules of the game as you are. Just as with the broader rules that govern the entirety of the game, you must be able to understand these rules if you wish to leverage them to their fullest. Do you know the difference between a Bright Lance and a Starcannon? Then how are you going to make the decision which weapon you need to take out first? Are your units safe standing 26" away from those Necrons? Well, are they armed with Gauss Flayers or Gauss Blasters? Differences like that can cost you the game.

Step 6: There is no magic formula
At this point you may be starting to despair- look at that list of stuff! You don't do any of that stuff, and you don't have time for it! It's hopeless! Truthfully, you may be right- there are a million things to do to improve your game, and you can't do all of them. And it's not easy; you're going to have to be brutally honest with yourself and you're going to have to accept that sometimes you're just wrong and bad and dumb and it's time to go back to the drawing board with your idea. Improving your game is hard work, and it will not happen overnight. There is no article you can read that will spell out, in letters descended from heaven on high, the One True Way to becoming a master player. Anyone who promises otherwise- including me, as I write this for you now- is a dirty, stinking liar on par with all of the ridiculous television ads for miracle weight loss products and devices that promise you results without effort. Bull. Shit. There are no results without effort; the only thing you can hope for is more result for less effort than you might otherwise get. You are still going to have to struggle for it. Is that too much? Would you rather not go to that length, to dedicate so much of your life to playing with manbarbies? That's an entirely fine and reasonable decision, to be honest. There is no logical reason to do what we do; it's a hobby, and hobbies, more or less by definition, are entirely pointless and borderline insane. (More than borderline, in a fair percentage of cases.) If you don't enjoy that struggle, you shouldn't take part in it. Play for fun, or for the modeling opportunities, or for the fluff, or because you like hanging out with friends. All of those are equally valid reasons to be part of the game. But if you are interested in improving your skills with respect to the game of Warhammer 40K itself and the rules that govern it, you are going to have to invest time and effort into it, and there's no two ways about that.

So to summarize: learn everything, play as much as you can, talk with people, don't listen to haters, learn everything, and keep at it. It seems like an easy formula, but getting lost along the way is something that happens to almost everyone at some point or another. 40K, in the competitive sense, is a game still in its infancy, akin to the early days of Magic: the Gathering, when information on what actually worked and what didn't was scarce and no one had really codified the game in any kind of meaningful way. It's entirely possible to break the game wide open with things like this, and there's no reason that anyone who tries can't do so, so get out there and show the whiners what an "unbeatable" army really is.

11 pinkments:

The Wolf's Lunch said...

Excellent article. Looking at this, I'm now inspired to go read my Space Wolves codex. And you're right about the silly little mistakes. Had a game today and during a query discovered a paragraph that I had read many times but dismissed the second half of it which actually meant that I'd cheated a few times accidentally in previous games.

Always a good thing to go back over sections of rules, it's astonishing the bits that you miss without even realising.

P.S. Summarise not Summerize...we're not turning things into summer-like items, we're trying to tie everything together :P

Kirby said...

I think this is a great article, good job Puppy! Just to highlight the "magic forumla" and give you all some tomatoes to throw at me :). I played in the US with 3rd edition for over 3 years using tactics and lists that would make myself cringe. When I came back in 5th those perceptions were carried over (ask Vinsanity how bad my list was for our first 5th edition game w/Eldar) and it took an extensive amount of time to "fix" those perceptions and understand the dynamics of 40k.

Begin rotten fruit :).

Chumbalaya said...

Excellent article AP.

It takes a lot to realize that you've been doing it wrong, accept it then change. I played all through 3rd and 4th with the scrub mentality, me and my gunline marines. A bit after 5th dropped I started playing more, learning how the new edition worked, and reading sites like YTTH. Then I had my big revelation and now I'm still trying to turn my pile of outdated army into something good for 5th.

Practice and experience really do count for lots if you want to get better, but outside help from your favorite 40k blog (Blackjack and Hookers, 3++, YTTH, whatevs) can be very useful for giving you a push in the right direction.

AbusePuppy said...

@TWL
Argh, spell check, you have failed me!

Yeah, I do that all the time myself. Maybe one of my later articles will be a "Top 20 (50, 100) Things You Are Probably Doing Wrong in 40K"-type thing.

@Kirb
Unlearning bad habits is hard; it's one of the main reasons I think avoiding bad info, list-building, and advice is very key. Once you fall into a mindset, it can be difficult to break out of it.

@Chumb
Playing well only gets you so far, yeah; if you haven't found "the secret" (of which there are hundreds for any given codex/army), you're going to struggle. Having someone there who's made the mistakes and found a bunch of the secrets for you already is very key, but it's no replacement for play experience. There are good theorists/list-writers who are bad players (I would place myself firmly in this category, as my playskill isn't really up to snuff) and good generals who are terrible at theory and list-writing (not naming names, but some of the internet celebrities certainly fall in here.) You can win while lacking either, but you're still performing at less than maximum.

Vinsanity said...

Great article AbusePuppy!

I remember a few times while playing I would miss important things that could have swung the game around... Like forgetting to use Faith Points to make units invulnerable, or to make them fearless :( Remember also forgetting to throw a Holy Orb which would have won me a game with the Templars...

Also, one thing which I used to get wrong, and most 40K players still get wrong is that you obscure the front armour of vehicles with other vehicles, not full try to obscure them on the side or anything since the opponent can usually get shots off to crack the vehicle behind if you do it wrong...

Looking forward to the next one!

HolyCause said...

I enjoyed this article. 1b in particular is something I struggle with - I tend to get too careless during games and make even the most elementary mistakes. I still end up enjoying the game (providing it was with a good opponent) but man does the competitive half of me get pissed off. lol

Brother Loring said...

Careless, elementary mistakes FTW... oh.... no... :(

I suffer from a bad case of 1b-itis too HolyCause. But I'd like to think I follow most of the others. Not to the extent I'd like too, but I'd say I'm on the right path.

Nice article AP!

The Wolf's Lunch said...

@AP
Haha, spell-checker fails all.

That'd be a good idea. Had an opponent try to embark two units into a transport today, and I sometimes make mistakes like not moving a certain unit sometimes. The embarking one isn't that common, but some people forget that if a unit wishes to embark on a vehicle they must have all units within 2" as though they were disembarking. And I'm sure everyone sometimes forgets about units (and then they spend the rest of the match drinking tea. Especially reserves, everyone forgets reserves).

CKO said...

Excellent article

Jezlad said...

Holy shit mate!!! That was on par with Mel Gibsons speech in Braveheart.

Where are they? I want to fight every fucker now!

Great read, you have a gift there :)

warhammer39999 said...

Another good post--but seriously, when does Puppy put out bad posts? It's sad that it took a year for me to get around to reading it... YAY for Old Stuff Day for pointing it out to me.

Bullet #4 is really easier said than done though. Bad information is everywhere, you're going to hear it, you just need to be able to discern what's good from what's bad. Though I agree it's out there, I also suspect we'd disagree on what constitutes "bad information as well," but whatever you decide to rule out, I think it's important to keep an open mind to other option. After all, plasma was considered superior to meltaguns not all that long ago. Things change over time (including "bad information" sometimes morphing into "good information.")

Thanks for the read...

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