Hello, readers, and welcome to another week on Crit the Books! This week, we’ll be departing from our usual direct strategic discussion and move into something that is a little bit more abstract. We’re going to talk about mental pressure, and the idea of “playing your opponent.” While some people might believe that this is a “cheap” or “unsportsmanlike” method of gaining an advantage in the game, the truth is that every game, on some level, is a mental game. If you can make your opponent start to go on tilt, it will be much easier for you to win the game.
At the core of the mental game, in my opinion, is the idea that you are in control of the game. When you are in control of the direction of the game, you will find that you can manipulate your opponent into playing less optimal moves out of fear that you have a response to them. In general, players try to avoid making moves that they believe their opponent has predicted. This is typically because they believe their opponent will have a strong countermeasure to their move and will therefore not want to put the game into a state where those countermeasures will be effective.
Stay calm and collected. If your opponent believes you have predicted their entire gameplan, then you are in the advantageous position. Sometimes, in fact, you can convince your opponent not to make their ideal play by spelling it out to them. I can’t tell you how many times I have half-jokingly said something like “So you’re going to attack for lethal now, right?” and stopped my opponent from doing just that when I had no response. My relaxed attitude led them to believe that it was the wrong play to attack, even though it was the correct play.
Just like how you can bait your opponent into making suboptimal plays by predicting the optimal ones, you can also do the opposite. If you act surprised or taken aback by bad plays that your opponent makes, they will be more incentivized to make similar plays in the future. A simple, “Oh crap. I didn’t see that coming.” can go a long way against a lot of players. Maybe they’ll be more incentivized to commit more resources against a piece that you pretended was very important, when you have actually made game plans around that component being expendable. Maybe they’ll think they can make a similar move, planning on you not predicting a move that you actually know is coming.
These tips might seem to give you a very minor advantage. You might say that in many games, the amount of hidden knowledge is so low that your opponent can tell when you are bluffing. However, it is important to remember that there is a part of the game that is always unknown to the opponent: your thoughts. Your opponent will never have the exact same thought patterns that you have, and you can take advantage of that by making them think that you are ahead of them. Like I said earlier – you should always act as if you are in control of the game. Fake it til you make it!
Another part of the mental game is patterns and upsets. Patterns refer to the common sequences of play that you will develop naturally as you play a game. Many players believe that they do not fall into patterns, but I am here to tell you that they are probably very, very wrong. Every player has play patterns that are more comfortable to them. Upsets, on the other hand, are times when a player goes against the patterns that they have established throughout a game. Knowing when to foresee upsets, or create upsets of your own, is one of the things that distinguishes players who are experts at the mental game.
I read an article by a fighting game player the other day – Unfortunately, I can’t remember the article – that said that one of the most important parts of the neutral game is establishing those patterns and preparing to create upsets once your opponent has started to recognize those patterns. Using the times when neither player has an advantage to start to lay mental traps for your opponent is a very smart idea! I found myself immediately making use of that idea when playing games myself, letting myself create play patterns that my opponents could recognize, then letting them figure out strong responses to it and use those responses once or twice.
Once they had a counterpattern set up to deal with my pattern, however, I struck. I changed the way I approached my opponent, going for a path that they did not expect. Not only was I able to avoid their counter by doing so, but I was also able to predict their response, countering their counter. It can get ludicrously deep at some point, but what the idea boils down to is this: create patterns for your opponents to predict, then include upsets to surprise your opponents and take advantage of your opponent’s reaction patterns.
When talking to expert players of many games, you’ll often hear them talk about the flow of their opponents and disrupting it. In essence, this is what patterns and upsets are – it’s about taking the flow of your opponent’s game and turning it against them. This is the mental game at the core of it all: use what your opponent knows and thinks to turn the tides against them. Next time you play a game, try to identify patterns your opponent falls into and try to disrupt those patterns. You might surprise yourself!
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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!