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"Pink isn't a color. It's a lifestyle." - Chumbalaya
"...generalship should be informing list building." - Sir Biscuit
"I buy models with my excess money" - Valkyrie whilst a waitress leans over him

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Email in: Three Levels, a Redux

Hello there AbusePuppy,

A while back you wrote a fantastic article about 3 levels of understanding 40k and Mike Brandt wrote one up about leaving the probability kiddie pool. It seemed to me that you both were basically talking about the same thing, just from slightly different angles. The articles made me think, which is something I really appreciate. I have my own 40k website, and I wrote up an article in turn with my take on the three levels of understanding. It’s a rather long series (6 articles, linked from one to the next) but If you’d like to look at it, I’d be interested in what you think of it.
Thank you for writing what you do, it makes a difference,

Charles Chowan
Heya, Charles, glad you liked the article. I apologize about this response taking so long (...more than two months >.> ), but I sometimes get overwhelmed with mail, writing, and real life responsibilities and I wanted to put up a proper response to your own article series rather than just a "cool story, bro" type of thing.

So, let's look at his articles and talk about what I think of them. I don't agree with all his conclusions or assertions, but I think he makes a good stab at explaining it in a different way than I did; while you're checking them out, you might take the time to browse around the rest of the site, as it has some neat stuff there.

Part 1: The First Level
The first level of 40k Generalship has a basic understanding of all the rules and tends to view units individually in terms of power and utility on the field of battle. Thus, they will use a few, powerful individual models or units, making it a very elite force. At it's simplest, this will be hero characters such as Chaplains or well-equipped Captains or Daemon Princes. They will also tend toward Uber-units that can smash things in close combat, such as large squads of Assault Marines led by a character. The ultimate expression of this style, however, is the Deathstar. Deathstars are essentially uber-units taken to an extreme. Almost no individual unit (with the possible exception of another Deathstar) can stand up to an assault from a Deathstar. Anything it hits will be wiped out, often with very little damage in return. Examples of Deathstars would be Thunderhammer Terminators in LandRaiders, Nob Bikers and some seer councils. Similarly, level 1 generals tend to look to hard counters for things. (If the enemy brings a LandRaider, you want to bring Meltas.) Although this sounds very basic and straightforward, it's an important step because there are a number of tactical concepts and ideas that are vital to an effective Level 1 army that are also important in the other levels. (Hence the term 'levels' rather than simply different styles of play.)

Excellent summary here- in all honesty, better than mine, especially as it relates to the tactical concepts here and understanding of broader ideas. Deathstars are indeed the bane of lower-level players, which is why you often see them decried on certain sites that will not be named as "cheap," "cheesy," "overpowered," etc.

The only thing I disagree with is the assault bias of such play- shooting can be just as devastating to players who haven't learned to hug cover, utilize vehicle walls, etc, and many guns can wipe out a squad wholesale if they are positioned poorly or isolated.

Part 2: Mid Tier

Level 2 generals want to maximize their damage output, but they want to do this for their list as a whole. They decide what, specifically they are looking for, then they take a look at each section of their Force Organization chart and find out the least expensive way to take that thing. Then take as many of that unit as they can. As an example, while making the sample lists for this update, I broke down the Space Marine codex for the most efficient Lascannons, mobile Multimeltas and Assault Cannons and fast Meltas. A Lascannon in a Tactical squad costs 180pts. If you take a 5-man unit (with no Heavy weapons) and give them a Razorback with a Twin-linked Lascannon, that Lascannon only costs 165pts. If you take the 10-man squad with a lascannon and attach a Razorback to them (you can do that, they just can't all be transported in it) you get 2 Lascannons for 255pts. 2 for 255 is cheaper than 1 for 180. Efficiency. If I needed to get the maximum lascannons out of my Troops section, the max squad with Lascannon and Razorback would be the way to go. If there were other slots in the army with more efficient lascannons (and there certainly are) I'd probably fill up my points on those, first.

Charles makes a solid point here- above and beyond "most efficient," there is "most efficient available," an important distinction. Anyone with an understanding of economics may remember the concept of comparative advantage- in short, even if, say, your Elites slots are better places to get both anti-tank and anti-infantry, if you can't get anti-tank anywhere else, you're better off ignoring the AI guns even if they're more efficient than your other infantry-killing options.

However, looking at his army lists, he makes a classic mistake- namely, focusing overly on anti-mech threats and forgetting that infantry are dangerous, too. One of the common brags by Ork/Footdar/etc players as that they're "playing the metagame," since no one brings guns to kill them anymore; however, this isn't really correct because a good list will be able to fight many different kinds of armies, not merely mechanized. Especially with the rise of Tyranids, Dark Eldar, and Blood Angels (as well as Space Wolves and Imperial Guard, to a lesser degree), it's important that a general be ready to fight a bunch of guys walking (or flying) towards him just as well as they fight a mech list. Sometimes this means the concession of otherwise-useless upgrades, like Heavy Bolters on a Vendetta, or sometimes it means taking specific units to fill the role (BBQ Sternguard squad, etc.)

His article, and the lists in it, also fail a major test of the mid-range general: utility. Both his SM lists include a Captain with melee upgrades; Captains are generally accepted as being inferior to Librarians in SM (bar bike lists) because they do nothing that other units can't do better. (Compare a 160pt fighty captain to the four TH/SS Terminators that could take his place and you'll see what I mean.) A Librarian, on the other hand, brings psychic defense, okay melee attacks, and your choice of two useful abilities. For a mere 100pts, that is a major increase to the flexibility of the army, giving it the option to shut down enemy psykers, kill multiwound monsters, and do other important things (AP3 flamer, free movement, shut down invulns, etc) that can't be gotten elsewhere in the list. For SM, the opportunity cost of the Captain is simply too high to include him most of the time, and the utility- that is, the ability to handle diverse threats to your list- of the Librarian in the primary reason for this.

Part 3
Tactical Concept: Sacrifices
Give the enemy a pawn so that you can take their bishop. Sometimes the best way to get the enemy to commit a unit (so that you can destroy it) is to give them some bait. Typically this works best when the bait is worth less than the unit you are attempting to destroy. On the other hand, if you really, really need that unit dead, it might be worth sacrificing a more expensive part of your army to make sure that it happens. One example would be putting a unit out so that the Assault Terminators will jump out of their LandRaider to eat it. At which point, your lascannons can rip them apart.

If a level three general sees an opposing unit he doesn't have the firepower or time to deal with on this turn, he uses a blocking unit to keep it at arm's length. The best blocking units are vehicles (since infantry can be tank-shocked by tanks or simply assaulted by enemy infantry.) The faster these are, the better they can respond and show up exactly where you need them. The classic blockers are Tau Pirahna. Slap one of them right in front of a LandRaider and watch the enemy general squirm to try to get the expensive unit inside some place so they can do their thing. Stop it for this turn and use the time to wipe out the rest of the opposing force. Then work on the LandRaider next turn.

Tactical Concept: Flexibility
Make sure you have the right tool for each job, and keep your tools in multiple places so the enemy cannot avoid them. If you keep all your antitank stuff on the left-hand side of your army, their tanks will go for your right. Unless you are planning on this for some sort of ambush, this will be very, very dangerous for you. One very effective way of doing this is to equip your units with both antitank and anti-infantry. (For example, look at the Tactical squads below with combiflamers and Lascannons on their Razorbacks.)

Tactical Concept: Redundancy
If something is important to your success, you can bet a good enemy general will try to kill it. If you only have one, you are done. Make sure that you have enough to get through the game. Most players think of this in terms of scoring units, but this also extends to your anti-tank or anti-infantry and possibly other factors as well. Know what you are likely to need to win and make sure you have enough of it.

Tactical Concept: Negation
While this is partially covered by blocking, this is the idea of making an enemy unit irrelevant in one way or another. An assault unit that can't assault until turn 5 or later is nearly useless. A Heavy Weapon team that has a tank parked in front of it is useless until they can kill the tank or they move (in which case they are useless for another turn since they have heavy weapons.) Basically, you don't have to have a hard counter for an enemy unit, as long as you have something to make it worthless.

Charles makes many good points here, but I disagree that these represent the pinnacle of play- certainly, perfecting them is important, but I think blocking, redundancy, and sacrifices especially are all lower-level skills that the best generals simply use to their advantage.

The real key, I think, to unlocking the highest tiers, is a concept that Charles touches on in a section I didn't quote (but feel free to check out): synergy. High-level list building is all about ensuring that every part of your force works together to maximum effect. In terms of generalship, high-level play is all about predictive action, i.e. moving (and using) units in such a way that you force your opponents into the decisions that you want. A top-tier general will be managing ranges and exploiting movement, shooting, and assault in ways that force the flow of the battle in the direction he chooses.

Leveling Up

(I'm not going to quote the last three pages of the article here, since they are not as relevant, but they are still worth reading if you care to do so. I feel that they somewhat miss the mark, however, and definitely more so than the first three part.)

So the real question is "How do I get better?" Unfortunately, there's no easy answer, because getting better at the game is a matter of overcoming your own mistakes and biases, so I can't tell you what to do unless I know what problems you have. However, there is one thing that everyone can do:


Learn, learn, learn. Being a good general is all about being able to do things by instinct- both the newbie and the old-timer know that a Bolter is S4 AP5 Rapid Fire, but the old-timer recognizes automatically how many casualties a squad is likely to cause, or the relative value of shooting Bolters vs. charging. He knows instinctively how many turns it will take to cover a distance on the table, eyeballs charge distances and decides if he should go for it, knows the probabilities of making a Difficult Terrain test and can weight risk vs. reward, and most of all has played an army hundreds of times against hundreds of different opponents and has data to work off of.

If you want to improve your list-building, write lists. Read other people's lists. Build at different point totals, get a feel for what you can do at each of them, and show your lists for critique so you can get an idea what the holes in them are. Defend your choices as appropriate, but be prepared to admit when you're wrong. Seek out other people's lists when they ask for comments and give your own thoughts- see how they build things, and how this may be different from your assumptions.

If you want to improve your generalship, play lots of games against good players. Talk about the game afterwords. Take pictures, and write battle reports; try and figure out what you did right or wrong, and see what other people think. Read battle reports from other people and learn the rules, inside and out, but first and foremost get experience with the game. Experience is what tells you what to do without thinking about it, leaving your brain free to ponder the higher-level problems (what will my opponent do? is it worth the risk to take this move?) that experience won't give you answers to.

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