Lesson 11: The Shoulders of Giants

Welcome back to Crit the Books! This week, we’ll be looking into other sources of gaming strategy. Over the years, a number of articles and books have been written on how to play games, and strategies to use within them. One of my goals with Crit the Books is to become similarly known within the gaming community as a place to look for depth of strategy.

I’ll be pointing you to some of these articles that I think are the most important, groundbreaking, or informational writing pieces in larger gaming strategy. I’ll also be explaining – in a brief paragraph or two – what makes the pieces so important, and what lessons can be gained from them. I’ll provide a quick summary, but of course, I think you should heavily consider reading the articles for yourself. Many of these articles are how I have built up my knowledge of gaming strategy myself!

The first piece of writing I’ll look at is one that has gone down in card game history as perhaps the most valuable piece of strategy writing ever done for the card game genre. While it focuses on Magic: the Gathering, it has uses in nearly every competitive game that I have ever played in one way or another. If you’ve ever been an M:tG tournament grinder, you probably know what article I’m talking about: Who’s the Beatdown? Written by Mike Flores!

Who’s the Beatdown? is primarily focused on how to realize when you are the aggressor or the defender in matchups of Magic: the Gathering. The article focuses on how to realize when you are the aggressor vs. the defender, and what that can mean for you in the matchup. The article characterizes the difference between the beatdown and control strategies as that between a strategy that wants to beat the opponent early via tempo, and one that seeks to outlast the opponent and gain an advantage through value or efficiency.

Who’s the Beatdown? itself is a heavily Magic: the Gathering focused article, but many of the lessons that it teaches can be applied to other games. In nearly every other game, the dichotomy between tempo and value is apparent in some way, shape, or form. Players can use the resources at hand to seek their victory condition early and lock their opponent into specific responses with their aggressive plays. Alternatively, players can make moves that individually are not as powerful but will gain them more power in the long game because their moves are more efficient engines. Knowing what side of this dichotomy you should be focused on is crucial for a new player.

Moving on, another book that I can’t recommend more is Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion by David Sirlin. Written mainly from the perspective of a fighting game player but incorporating a basis of chess knowledge, Playing to Win focuses on sharpening your competitive mindset through a number of examples from the larger gaming community as well as personal anecdotes.

Perhaps the most impactful thing from my reading was Sirlin’s differentiation between a poor player and a “scrub”. In introducing the latter term, Sirlin looks at the mentality that often causes players losses due to not wanting to make moves that are perceived as “cheap” or “no skill”. He asks of the reader, why would you not use all of the tools at your disposal to win the game? If you’re not using the tools at your disposal, you are either artificially handicapping yourself, or setting yourself up with excuses in case you lose. Either way, you’re not gaining any advantage by trying to avoid certain strategies because they are “cheap”. Sirlin is ruthless in dismantling this mentality in the reader, making it explicitly clear that he doesn’t have any interest in excusing poor play because one is worried about making the game “more fun”.

The final article we’ll look at today touches on one of the easiest ways to distill value out of game objects within games of all kinds. That article is The Philosophy of Fire, also by Mike Flores. The Philosophy of Fire is about breaking down your win condition into its constituent parts, then breaking down all of the components you have access to down to what they can do to propel you towards that victory condition. Then, you make use of the components that do the most for you along that axis.

The Philosophy of Fire is primarily Magic: the Gathering based, but you can apply the basic ideas to nearly every game you play. Let’s look, for example, at a board game: Ascension. In Ascension, players compete to gain the most honor, and they do so by buying cards from a central buy row, using card abilities, or by defeating monsters in the aforementioned buy row for rewards. Often times, I will see new players struggling with the game; they will spend most of the game trying to put together strong synergies in their decks or trying to get their masterful combo to go off. However, they start to see their opponents winning before they are. When players ask me why they are losing so often, I ask them, “What are you trying to do?” Occasionally they will answer with something like, “Get as many cards that draw cards so I can play more cards.” “Is that helping you win the game?” I ask them in return. Often, they’ll respond with something similar to “Yeah… wait, it’s really not, is it?”

The Philosophy of Fire is, put simply, another way to tell you to play to your outs. However, it is also a way to evaluate the actions and resources you are using during games and seeing if you are taking the right ones, or if you are engaging in what amounts to mental masturbation. It is very important to keep your eyes on the prize, and The Philosophy of Fire helps you do that.

When it comes to learning strategy in any gaming setting, it is important to remember that we stand on the shoulders of giants. While everything that someone else has thought of can be possibly reasoned out and thought of, that is a very inefficient way to learn. Instead, make sure to take advantage of the resources available to you, even if they are focused on games other than your normal ones. I am sure there are lessons you can learn. For this week’s homework, I would suggest you try to find a strategy article you haven’t read before and try to distill it down to its central lesson. Send your results to @CritTheBooks on twitter – I’d love to hear what you find!

A big thank you to my Patrons for this month: Alex, TicTac, and anonymous patrons. If there are specific subjects or concepts you’d like an article written on, I suggest you look at my patreon! For just $7 a month, you’ll be able to suggest article topics for me to write on.

As always, remember that it’s not enough to just hit the books if you want to win. You’ve got to Crit the Books!

 

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