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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Better Playtesting: Cross Training

Hello, Nikephoros here.  At least some of you are aware that I am a competitive cyclist and I train like a zombie.  As far hobbies go, bike racing is about as far from Warhammer 40,000 as you can conceivably get.  While they are very different activities from a physical and mental standpoint, a very lot of the lessons you learn from one can help you get better at the other.  I’d like to focus on some of those similarities today.  While your mileage may vary (pun!) I hope that some of the concepts resonate with you.

Cycling: Ride a lot
40k: Play a lot

The first step in training for an endurance sport is to build up a base.  This means simply riding a lot of hour and miles so that your body becomes accustomed to long distances.  It builds up a base of fitness and helps get you into shape.  This is a step you cannot skip.  If you go straight into practicing sprints or trying to race without having a base fitness built up, you’ll fail spectacularly and possible hurt yourself.  Therefore, it is essential to put in the long hours establishing a base.

In Warhammer, you have to play a lot to become good.  This doesn’t mean focused playtesting or list building.  It means just playing the game, regardless of competitive level of your competition or points levels of your game.  You have to do this for a few reasons; first is learning the rules.  You never want to lose a game because you were wrong about the rules and made plays that only worked if you were right about the rules.  Learn the rules until they are second nature.  Second, you have to establish the concept of the possible.  Playing a lot and experiencing the range of the game will give you a good idea of what is and isn’t possible.  Knowing the possible allows you to know what you have to do, or what you can do, in order to win a game.  This is fairly basic, but knowing your own codex and the other codices is important in establishing the possible.  How can you expect to be competitive if you have huge gaps in your knowledge about the game?  You can’t, and the only way to do it is to play a lot of games.

Cycling: Focused Training
40k: Focused Playtesting

In cycling, once you have a base in order to get faster you have to do high intensity interval training, and there is no way around it.  There are dozens of different types of intervals and the specific program you do should be catered to the type of skills you want to develop.  Need to work on your 40k time trialing? Nothing beats 2x20 intervals for that.  Want to get faster at criterium racing where there are tons of sudden accelerations?  Do tabata intervals until you puke.  The lesson here is that if you want to get faster you have to focus on that particular skill and do focused training to grow it.

In 40k, I’ve written a lot about the benefits of playtesting as well as how to do it better.  The bottom line is that when you playtest, each session should be focused on learning a particular lesson.  One playtest session might be about “how does my tournament list fare after I switch all the missile launchers to lascannons,” or, “can my current list beat a Necron flier list without radical changes?”  The point is you test for something.  Scientists don’t just random mix chemicals together just to see what happens.  They make a hypothesis, and then they test it.  Cyclists don’t just go on random bike rides and then expect to dominate sprints in races.  They train for sprinting to maximize their 20 second power output.  Competitive 40k players shouldn’t “playtest” by smash two armies against each other with no goal.  Rather, they should play games to see if particular concepts work in practice to confirm or reject their theory.  Focused training leads to specific results.

Cycling: Don’t innovate on race-day
40k: Don’t change your list the night before a tournament

One of the first lessons a cyclist learns, almost always the hard way, is not to change your diet on race day.  If you normally put watered down Gatorade in your drink bottles during training, that’s what you should do during a race.  A race is not the time to experiment with new foods or drinks.  Many an otherwise fit racer has been sidelined by an upset stomach resulting from trying a new energy drink, or eating a special energy bar, during a race.  It seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how tempted people are to try some new type of energy drink on race day “for a boost.”  The reward, maybe an extra 1% better output, is hardly worth the potential risk of getting totally blown out by an upset stomach. 

In 40k, players will playtest for weeks, get a tuned list ready, painted and modeled.  …and then they will get to the hotel the night before the tournament, see a guy carrying 5 Vendettas, panic, and then hastily change their list and have to stay up all night painting and modeling the changes to their list.  Like in the cycling example this seems to be a no-brainer, but we all know this happens.  People second guess months of playtesting only to panic at the last second and make irrational changes.  This is so obviously wrong that you don’t need me to tell you why it’s wrong.  The night before a tournament is when you should be getting plenty of sleep, not panicking about your list.  Leave the panicking and hand-wringing to the guys who didn’t playtest enough.  You playtested enough, so be confident that your hardwork will be rewarded.

Cycling: There is always somebody faster
40k: Set realistic goals

No matter how fast you are, there are people faster than you.  Lot’s of them.  You have to accept that no matter how hard you work, there are always going to be guys who are either genetically superior to you, willing to work harder than you, or often both.  If you’re ever totally satisfied with your current fitness level, or your current results, you need to seek out tougher competition.  So on one hand, you have to reconcile that you’re often going to lose to people who are just plain faster than you and you have to learn to accept it.  But on the other hand, you have to learn not to accept the status quo and keep pushing yourself.  It seems paradoxical to say “learn to like losing, and learn not to be happy winning” but it’s true.  If you ever get satisfied with your good results, you’ll get lazy.  If you get too discouraged by your defeats you’ll lose motivation

In the Warhams, much the same is true.  Unlike cycling where there is a category system and ways to rank riders, there is nothing so formal in 40k.  So you have to determine your own goals.  If you’ve never played in a tournament before, you should probably have a different set of goals before your first NOVA than a guy who has top 8’ed NOVA two years in a row.  Managing expectations properly will set you up for happiness.  If you’ve never played in a tournament before, and you end up going 4-4, I’d say that you should be pretty happy about that finish.  On the other hand, if you’ve top 8’ed two years in a row you have to avoid growing complacent.  You can’t test less than previous years, and you can’t take your competition for granted.  If you feel like you lost the competitive fire, don’t be upset when you get knocked off the top.  Resting in old laurels is not the best way to maintain continued success.

Cycling: Ride with faster people
40k: Play against better players

This is somewhat related to the above concept, but a key turning point in the development of a bike racer is when you realize that the fastest way to improve is to ride with people faster than you, who will push you to your limits and beyond.  If you ride with guys who can drop you, eventually you’ll stop getting dropped as you get stronger and able to handle the pace and intensity.  Plus, it’s great motivation.  On the other hand, if you are the fastest guy in your group it’s time to seek out a new group.  Riding with those slow folks because you’re friends with them is fine, just don’t consider it a work out or part of your training program. 

In 40k, you have to find players who are better than you if you want to get better.  Beating up on the same scrubs at your LGS is only going to teach you so much about the game.  Playtesting with guys who aren’t on the same level as you will hold you back.  You need to find a group that will push you.  If you can beat your normal crew without breaking a sweat, you will get lazy.  There will be nothing to force you to properly tune your lists.  There will be nothing to get you to play with perfect technical skills.  Playing with players better than you will do the opposite; you’ll have to bring the best lists possible and you’ll have to play without making mistakes.  The big obstacle is that you’re probably friends with the scrubs at the LGS and dumping them to go hang with a new crew is probably unappealing.  Without delving too deep into hypothetical issues I just hope you have enough social skills to maintain multiple groups of friends at the same time without alienating them.

Cycling: Train heavy, race light
40k: Playtest strictly, have fun at the tournament

If you’re rich (or insane) enough to own a $4,000.00 set of feather-light race wheels for your bicycle, you should only use them during races.  For starters, the lighter your wheels, the less durable they are and every day training rides will beat them to hell quickly.  But the main reason is the age old dictum in cycling, “train heavy, race light.”  What this means is, if you do your training rides with heavier equipment and you are used to going fast on a heavy bike, when you race on a lightweight bike you’ll go that much faster.  Not everybody has the option to flip between two bikes or two wheelsets, but you’ll find that among those that do this is a rule that people tend to stick to.  If you switch to a bike that’s 3lbs lighter than your training bike the day of the race, that’s like 3lbs of fat being sucked out of your body, and not an advantage to be scoffed at.

In 40k, this translates to you being strict with yourself during playtesting.  Don’t allow yourself take backs.  Be a rules lawyer… with yourself.  If you playtest strictly, your technical play will be tighter and you’ll make fewer mistakes.  During the tournament, the strict playtesting will pay off and you will play tightly while feeling at ease and having a casual demeanor.  Not being oppressed by your nerves, or by being obsessed with trying to maintain technical play you aren’t used to will let you appear to be playing casual, which goes a long way to both players having fun, and for you to be considered a good sportsman.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Questions?

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