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Friday, July 16, 2010

Low-, Mid-, and High-Level Play: What Does It Mean?



I have, on occasion in my ranting and raving here and elsewhere on the internets, mentioned a concept that I have never really explained nor do I think is common terminology. So, in the interests of clarity- and because I think the concepts included herein are useful to more than just me- I intend to explain what I mean when I refer to "low," "mid," and "high" levels of play. The terms are somewhat mutable, being applicable (in my mind, at least) to not simply a given player's skill but also to the development of the game as a whole, something we'll touch on a bit more later. However, for now, let's focus on the three distinctions of skill tiers.

Low-level play is where everyone begins the game. It includes not just what might be considered "noobs," but also large segments of the gaming population that simply never make the effort- or don't want to, or can't- to advance their game. (There is nothing wrong with this, understand, just as not everyone wants to advance their painting technique or converting skills; it's a matter of what parts of the hobby one enjoys.) Low-level players are still grappling with the rules of the game; they almost certainly do not know them all, and if they do they have not truly grasped them in terms of how they can be used. A low-level player might not think to tank shock an enemy off an objective, for example, or that charging multiple units would allow him to prolong combat or hit targets more selectively. Low-level players will tend to focus on the raw numbers of the game, since these are the most easily graspable- to this end the units they will find most impressive and powerful are those whose raw combat numbers are very high, such as MCs, Nobz, Terminators, etc. Low-level play tends to focus on hard counters to units- if he's got Termies, you bring plasma, if he's got Land Raiders, you bring Melta, etc- rather than attacking the strategy or tactics behind a unit. "Rock" units are extremely effective in this sort of play, which is why Biker Nobz and such are so often regarded as unbeatable.

A mid-level player has mastered the basic rules of the game to a reasonable degree- though of course, being only human, they are still quite likely to make mistakes- and is primarily concerned with interactions. Where a low-level player sees a mass of individual units, a mid-level player looks at combinations of units acting in concert- a Carnifex with attached Tyranid Prime, or Inquisitorial Stormtroopers riding in an Immolator, for example. Mid-level play looks largely to the tactics of the battlefield and the armies involved- how can I push him off that objective, is there a way to lure those Berserkers over there, etc. Where a low-level player looks at his immediate goals in the game- even if advancing those goals forward several turns- a mid-level player is looking at a larger scope of how the battlefield interacts in various ways, such as whether denying one target will open another, etc. Mid-level players will often be concerned with efficiency in their lists: how good of a job does this unit do for its points, how much of something can I get in a Force Org slot, how many of a unit type can my list run? If mid-level players are characterized by a mistake, it is being unable to see the forest for the trees; units that are powerful in isolation will be unduly well-regarded, as will codices that offer a plethora of strong choices with little synergy between them.

High-level play is the theoretical endpoint of the game. A high-level player knows the rules and units like the back of his hand and has advanced to truly fighting at the strategic level- interactions of not just one or two units, but the whole army against the opponent's army. Seeing the strengths and weaknesses of a particular force- for example, noting a lack of long-range firepower, or seeing no effective countercharge units- is the bread and butter of high-level analysis. A high-level player will be fighting to win the game from turn one; they have a plan for how they expect the game to go, even if that plan is only generalized, and a strong enough grasp of the mechanics of the system to make it viable. Fighting a high-level player (if one is lower-level) may feel like getting led around by the nose- one can win localized battles, but it always seems that the tide of the game is against you and every step advancing results in a two-step retreat. Where a mid-level player attempts to dictate their opponent's actions, a high-level player will dictate the flow of the game by virtue of unit setup, target selection, etc, trying to force an opponent to play into their overall strategy. High-level list building will be notably different because they are sensitive to the concerns of sufficiency of elements, roles within the list, and the synergy of the different units in the jobs they do. For a high-level player, the opponent and their army as just as important as his own, and they will attempt to manipulate them in very much the same way.

Of course, these are all generalizations- nearly every low-level player will have some epiphanies when they realize that particular combinations work extrordinarily well together, or that certain "builds" just seem to work right and tweaking the units causes it come apart. It is, I think, these epiphanies that pave the way into leveling up of a player's game as they grasp the concepts that drive the higher skill levels. And, contrawise, high level play must still be concerned with all the factors of the lower levels- the process is additive, becoming more complex with each stage.

Likewise, not all players advance their game wholesale from one level to the next- almost never, in fact. More commonly there will be a patchwork of understandings across various subjects; a player might be excellent at strategic thinking but still have trouble in applying it to unit roles, for example, or be an excellent number-cruncher with very poor concepts of unit synergy (and thus give a unit both Storm Bolters and Lascannons, say.)

The idea of levels of play is also extendable to the game as a whole- the metagame or game culture, one might say. A game where the culture is still low-level has not really agreed on what is good and what is not; they player base as a whole has not really grasped what works and what doesn't, and "builds" (be they armies, decks, character picks, or what have you) will be very scattershot, with little agreement on what ranks as competitive. A mid-level of game culture has largely resolved these issues and is solidly exploring the boundries of its system, figuring out what can be done and what cannot. A high-level culture has fully realized the possibilities of what can be accomplished and is largely left to map strategies against each other. By this scale, I believe that Warhammer 40K is only a low-level game; the community, for the most part, does not even agree on what strategies/units are viable and there is (for the most part) no really good, concise information on how the game functions as is present in other systems. For comparison, Magic: the Gathering is a game with high development- each new set is quickly dissected, analyzed, and fit into the framework (or creates a new framework) of understanding for how the game functions. Amongst the most skilled players in the hobby there is a general consensus of which cards are good and which are not, and also such a consensus on which major strategies are viable within a format. ("Format-breakers," here, are a major flag for mid- or high-level play, as at lower levels there is no widely-present format to be broken.) WH40K sits where M:tG did back around the time of the the Ice Age expansion or thereabouts; interactivity of elements is still not widely understood and even basic game concepts (card advantage/suppression fire, tempo/mobility) are foriegn to most players, resulting in a highly fragmented tournament scene.

Why all these words explaining what I mean about "levels" and such? Because first, having a common vocabulary to communicate with is a prerequisite for being able to advance. If I can't tell you why I think something, I'm not going to be able to show you how I arrived at that conclusion and how my evidence supports it, nor will you be able to usefully argue your side against me. Secondly (and here I will narrow my view back down to 40K), not all armies are equally competitive across the various levels of play. There will be further words on this subject to come- indeed, this article itself was basically a setup for another article that I could not effectively write without first explaining what I meant here- but suffice to say that the learning curve and flexibility of various armies does not extend equally in all directions.

26 pinkments:

pika-power said...

"Low-level play tends to focus on hard counters to units- if he's got Termies, you bring plasma, if he's got Land Raiders, you bring Melta, etc- rather than attacking the strategy or tactics behind a unit."

I'm in this mentality. How would a high level player respond to a Landraider, if not with Melta?

AbusePuppy said...

Obviously melta is a useful tool against it. The key here is that a mid/high-level player understands what the Land Raider's purpose in the enemy's force is and that one doesn't necessarily have to destroy it to neutralize it. If that Land Raider spends the entire game trying to drive around your Piranhas and never delivers its cargo? Problem solved. It the Land Raider is empty or doesn't drive forward because your opponent mistook it for a firepower unit, rather than a delivery system? Problem solved. If he deploys his Raider on a flank and you simply outmaneuver it the whole game, rather than shooting at it? Problem solved.

The key here is that play skill is additive- the high-level player CAN just shoot a meltagun at it, but he can also invalidate it through other means as well, and against a lower-level player these means may not be something they understand how to fight.

Brother Loring said...

Lance weapons, pirahnas, land speeders, bubblewrap (the fearless kind) positioned in the correct way to surround the transport (I'm looking at you Termagants - Kirby you swine!)... etc.

I think AB is trying to list are built to come together and cover all bases. Yes melta is there to pop raiders, but Lances and blocking are also great ways of 'dealing' with them. If you can make them do nothing all game, you don't have to kill them after all.

Nice article AB.

Brother Loring said...

Oh... sorry AB, written at the same time... I was right though!! Yay!

grav said...

He would respond by killing everything around it, cutting away its support.
Letting its cargo eat something, then blowing the cargo away.

VT2 said...

Just need to understand that it's not the land raider that's dangerous, but the things it carries.

pika-power said...

Ah, I see. So the low tier thinking is "It's AV14, shoot it with melta" mid tier think "That thing was bought to deliver Terminators in the first two turns. If I can prevent that from happening, I have effectively countered it" and high tier think "That thing has terminators inside it, and they make up 50% of his army. He will want to get that into my lines ASAP, so I will feed it my stubborn blob guard unit and deploy the rest of my army away from it, so half his army is tied up."

Or something like that?

AbusePuppy said...

Pretty much spot on. It's obviously more complicated than that (otherwise you just went from low-level to high-level right there >.> ) but the concept is essentially correct, and likewise BroLo, grav, and VT's examples, although I would argue that Lances are just another low-level method of dealing with the issue.

Of course, it's important to remember that "low-level" tactics can be just as effective as high-level ones and have their place in the game. A truly high-level player will understand that sometimes you DO just want to shoot the damn thing with a 2d6 penetration gun and get it over with.

Meister_Kai said...

First of all, excellent article.

I completely agree with you on your level of play/culture philosophy as it is basically that of which I have witnessed first hand since starting this game 2 months ago. Low tier players seem very concentrated with a unit solely being able to make its points back in a game while a higher level player will think about how that unit truly supports their army (for example).

Unfortunately, I also agree with you on where 40K is right now as far as a "high cultured" mindset is concerned and its player-base compared to Magic. Having played competitive Magic for so long I was already very used to being able to see the good from the bad straight away (I didn't need anyone to tell me that Fire Dragons are Eldar's best elite choice) and that player thought on what is good or bad is very, very fragmented (people still groaning about Seer Council, thinking 20 TH/SS Termis in 2K is a balanced list.

It is interesting because I constantly argue with people who have played this game for years about what is good or bad (for the record I think term of play is a really, really bad measure of how good someone is in a game, for instance most long time Magic players I know cannot tell you the basic phases of the game) and they often rely on hilarious argumentative tactics such as "I've been playing longer than you thus I know".

Bullcocky.

I cannot wait for summer to end so I can get back to college and trounce these "old-timers" with my balanced list and strategies gleamed from sites such as this, thanks to all of you.

Chumbalaya said...

It's a tier list for players :P

Good to define things and I larely agree. Is it weird that I see a bit of myself in every level?

Brother Loring said...

Oh.. I completely agree that Lances are a low-tier tactic, but I think it would be considered 'high-tiered' to build a list with redundency of melta/lance weapons alongside other units that deal with such monsters in other ways.

A single weapon is lowly, but built within a well thought-out list is where weapon choices become more highly thought of. Just my opinion.

The_King_Elessar said...

BroLo - I agree there, to an extent. When constructing a list, the possibility to Rocks such as Raider spam should be in the mind, and you should make some effort to counter them, in as far as that doesn't go against the overall balance of the list.

A higher-tier player would also be confident in letting the opponent feel they are dictating the pace of the game, because they know precisely their own capabilities, and how to capitalise on the inevitable mistakes to maximum efficiency.

Still, I tend to think I am between Mid and high level myself - I haven't quite managed to put into practice my theoretical high-end knowledge. Essentially, that is something I feel would require me winning multiple events with multiple armies - or at least going unbeaten.

Sucks to be me, obviously!

VT2 said...

A blunt and simple approach is more effective and efficient than a more elaborate and complicated one.

A new player fears the land raider. A more experienced player fears the cargo. A good player knows how to deal with both.

There is no such thing as a 'low level way to deal with hard units.'
Players are of a lower level because they don't know how to deal with them - period. Once they figure out how to, they've effectively leveled up.

The Wolf's Lunch said...

I like to place myself in the medium level, but my ability to apply tactics and understanding mid-game is kind of lacking. Good article as always AP

Kirby said...

Excellent army puppy and can't wait to see what comes of this!

Brent said...

I'm not normally compelled to comment, 'cause you guys crank out a mile of type a day, it seems, but I liked this article quite a bit.

Like Chumby said - it's a tier system for players, and a well thought out one as well.

I think a lot of folks fail to think about this when they consider lists, or the 'lists alone' approach, as I think of it.

Good stuff, AB.

Extirpation said...

I have to say, as far as generalizations go, this one seems to fit.

It does also show the extent that a good list maker can actually start out with an inherent (albeit first tier) strategy. With a list revolving around simple A-B B-A counters.

However the advantage of a fundamentally sound list, would be offset by a more 2nd-teir approach, that would allow for more tactical variance. Providing the option for a skilled player to adapt to their opponent, rather than relying on simple points efficiency alone.

But that may be just me....

And I only see myself in the bottom half of the mid-tier.

VT2 said...

Those of you who have learned this secret can now challenge lesser players on their own terms.

I do this constantly, I think. We have some orks, that don't really grasp the game yet, and I manage to have great times with them, anyway. Bunch of less used stuff - scouts, 2+ tactical squads, vindicators, and so on.

Playing below your level still nets you experience and knowledge, and means more games for everybody.

Which is really the whole point of warhammer.

Myke. said...

Excellent article, hopefully following articles give some tips that help to level up, though raw experience is probably the most important thing for leveling.

AbusePuppy said...

@Myke
If I may toot my own horn, http://kirbysblog-ic.blogspot.com/2010/05/playing-competitively-vaguest-of-how.html would be a good place to start reading. The Back to Basics articles here as well as reading through the more explanative strategy articles here and on Yes The Truth Hurts detailing the hows and whys of army building are also good resources.

Play experience is, of course, a big part, but understanding the theory behind the application will help you learn a lot faster and make fewer mistakes along the way.

The followup to this article is largely going to focus on, um, Orks, so don't get your hopes up too high.

Marshal Wilhelm said...

Excellent article.

Stop speaking to pika-power. He learns too quickly!

VT2; perhaps I am splitting hairs and I think there are more than 3 POWA levels, but I disagree on there not being a 'low-level' solution to AV 14.
An incompetent player cannot deal with AV 14. I say that as someone who couldn't. I was playing WWIhammer.
Just because a player is anywhere from incompetent to high in a particular area, doesn't mean they are across the board.
I got other things, but AV 14 was too much for me.

According to the article, the low solution is 'melta trumps AV 14' therefore, shoot it with this. Just because something isn't eloquent/high brow/philosophically superb, doesn't mean you're a dummy for playing that card.
All it means is you played a simple solution to the problem.

Does that make sense?

But perhaps I am trying to slice the groupings into more than the 3 we were 'given' and am arguing about small fry.
Maybe we need more groupings?
0 - incompetent
1- Low
2 - Low/Med
3 - Medium
4 - Med/Hi
5 - High

clt40k said...

I think what Kirby was getting at is that for a low level of play, "shoot a melta at it" is typically the ONLY soultuion one can see... But as one progresses and gets the game better, they start to see other options than just "nuke it with melta" - Having 2-3 diff ways to deal with a problem will give you more flexability in how you play... and more = better

Kirby said...

Puppy not Kirby =p.

B.Hudson said...

Great article. I just happened upon this site and have spent the last 3 hours getting a 40K education and I've barely scratched the surface.

I've just recently become somewhat of a mid level player after a year of playing. Getting comfortable with the rules was the first hurdle, but what has really pushed me upwards is knowing my army, as in knowing how certain units work together and how they complement other units in my force. I think that took me the most time simply because I switched armies about 4 months after starting the game. I started out with Ultramarines, figuring it was the most basic army I could field, and it may be, but it never clicked with me. Only when I switched to Black Templars was I really able dig in and learn what makes them tick. It was around that same time that I got over the "gotta have all the toys" phase where I tried fielding just about every unit listed in the codex. After that it was a matter of getting as many games under my belt as possible. Luckily I found a good gaming group and (more importantly) a good group of guys within that group to play regularly. They're all much better players than me, but after every ass-thumping, each of them, to a man, explained in detail what mistakes I had made and how to correct them. Nothing beats experience on the table top to raise your game as a noob. You can read all the blogs you want but, when you're only just learning the game, most of what you read will either be forgotten or, more likely, misunderstood.

Thanks for all the work you've put into this blog. Now that I'm to a point that I can take value from what I read your site is a masterclass.

Desc440 said...

I agree that the 40k community is still "low level"... but why is that? It's not like the game hasn't been around for a while.

Sure, new editions have made significant changes in how we play and what we field, but still...

Kirby said...

Edition changes don't help and balance has always been an issue. 5th edition is easily the best in terms of game balance and even then, 50% of the books have limited or barely any application in a competitive setting. Furthermore, GW has always marketed their games as hobbies. Whilst the rules are made for the game, GW 'makes' a hobby. Compare to Chess, MtG or Warmachine which are finely streamlined with barely any rule changes or a rule turnover rate which ensures balance (think computer game patches).

In the end, the majority of players will always be at the low level. It's the same with any system. Whilst the above mentioned systems might have a more recognisable tournament base and be considered competitive games where tactical application is required (and there are many others), there are still far more players at the low level of play.

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