Lesson 20: The Mental Game

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!

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!

 

 

Lesson 19: Influence

Welcome back to another week at Crit the Books, readers! This week, we’ll be doing something similar to what we did last week – we’ll take an established strategic concept from a game, then distill it into its smaller parts and uses to try to apply it in other games. This week, we’ll be pulling a concept from the ancient game of Go, also known as weiqi or baduk. We’ll be looking into the concept of influence – what it means and how it can help your gaming improve.

Influence, in Go, refers to the potential impact a given piece can have in the game as a whole. It can refer to how difficult it is for a given stone to be captured, or how important the stone is to making certain groups unable to be captured. A stone’s influence also takes into account how much that stone helps you capture those of your opponent, or how it makes it hard for your opponent to score territory around that stone. In short, a stone’s influence is a rough measurement of how much it can affect the larger game state. A stone that saves a large number of stones has a high influence, and a stone that denies your opponent only a small bit of territory is a low influence stone.

For the purpose of applying the idea to other games, we’ll look at that first definition – how much a given game component can affect the larger game state. A component that the game will revolve around, and one whose fate will decide the course of the game moving forward, is a high influence piece. Even if a given piece ends up being important only once, it can still be a high influence piece if the game hinged on that piece’s position or even presence. An easy way to measure a piece’s influence is by asking how much of the game state it can directly impact.

When we are looking at a given game state and trying to analyze it, it is important that we not only look at the pieces themselves, but the influence that those pieces have. It is not enough to simply look at what those pieces are going to do this turn. What are they going to do next turn? The turn after that? Identifying which game components the game will center around is perhaps one of the most important skills that you can train when looking to improve your ability to comprehend the state of the game.

Just like identifying your outs, it is important to recognize that a piece’s influence can change drastically over the course of a given game. A piece that can be very aggressive early, but is fragile and easily answered, will have a lot of influence in the beginning of the game but much less influence as the game goes on. Similarly, components that look like they may not be very influential early can end up being very important later on in the game, as players’ resources dwindle and become harder to make use of.

When you can familiarize yourself with a component’s influence, you can also use that to present threats to your opponent. If you know a piece has the highest influence in a given area, you can use that piece to claim resources for yourself and threaten your opponent’s resources in that same area. For games where there is a free movement component, such as Warhammer 40K or Guild Ball, a model’s influence can be interpreted as an area around that model where they can impact the larger game. Oftentimes, influence and threat range are synonymous in games like this – the more areas a model can extend its threat and influence, the more influential that model typically is, especially in objective based play.

Also important is paying attention to the influence of your opponent’s pieces and how they interpret the influence of your own pieces. If an opponent thinks a piece is less influential than it is, they are less likely to spend resources on mitigating the effects of that piece. If an opponent overestimates a piece’s influence, they are likely to give up resources or efficiency to answer that piece. This will create an opening that you, the player, can exploit. At its core, this is what bluffing is – causing your opponent to misinterpret the influence of a game component.

Being familiar with the influence that a component has is also vital to planning ahead and making predictions in the game. By accurately being able to predict the way the game will go, you will be able to place yourself in better positions later in the game or force your opponent into disadvantageous positions. The manipulation of your piece’s influence hinges on your ability to accurately identify how much influence a given piece has.

Many of the metaphors and examples I’ve used are most useful in a tabletop or board game setting, but it is important to remember that these same theories of influence can be applied to card games as well. We’ll look at a digital card game as our example for this: Hearthstone. In Hearthstone, a 4/4 minion will have a large influence when played early – it is a quick threat that must be answered and will likely be able to influence the board state heavily. On the other hand, that same 4/4 minion will likely have a significantly lower influence on the board later on, since there will more easily be creatures larger than it or more powerful cards that can be played. Early on, it might be worth it to put more resources into getting the 4/4 on the board since it will be very influential, while later on you probably won’t want to make that 4/4 into a big resource sink.

Overall, influence and understanding it is something that will move your game to the next step if you master it. Try not to look as your pieces as what they are doing this turn, or what they are capable of at the immediate moment. Instead, focus more on what they can do and what they can’t do. That next step – thinking ahead and not in the present – will crystallize your strategies and strengthen them beyond what they are now. Know the potential of your components, and success will come your way.

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!

 

 

Lesson 18: Forking

Welcome back, readers, to another lesson here at Crit the Books. This week, we’ll be looking into one of the most important tools in the strategy toolbox: forking. Mastering the art of forking your opponent is one of the quickest ways to improve as a player, and it is a strategy that can be used in nearly any game effectively. We’ll learn what forking is, how to set up forks of your own, and how to deal with forks that your opponent has presented to you. If you haven’t yet, I suggest reading last week’s article on threats and answers – we’ll be using that terminology often throughout this article.

So, what is forking? Put simply, a fork is a place where you present multiple threats at the same time, choosing your opponent to choose between one or the other. The term originates from chess, where a fork is used to refer to a single piece threatening 2 or more pieces at the same time, forcing the opponent to give one up. However, when distilled into the most basic form of the concept, forking is a technique that can be found in a number of games and will often be key to the success of a top player.

Why is forking helpful? The answer is quite simple. Like we said above, when a player is put into a fork, they are often forced to give something up. Similarly, it is one of the best ways to deal with an opponent who has managed to present more threats than you have. By using your threats to threaten multiple opposing ones, you can gain in efficiency what you have lost in pure numbers. Forking is also very effective when you are on the back foot – by forcing your opponent to choose between 2 options that you have presented, you can take the tempo of the game back into your own hands and work towards a game state that is ultimately advantageous to you.

Setting up forks is difficult to distill into easy advice, simply because every game has a different way of setting them up. Ultimately, you want to be positioning your game components into positions where they provide as much threat as possible. In order to do this, it is essential that you look ahead in the game. Do not simply look at the state of the game in the moment, but rather work on predicting your opponent. Every now and then, you’ll be able to predict what your opponent does to the point where they will move themselves into position to be forked. Being able to predict how the movement of the game will go is crucial.

Another way that you can set up forks is by making sure that you are threatening your opponent on multiple axes of attack. If you are following a linear strategy, it is easier for you opponent to have answers that will deal with your main method of attack, which makes it difficult for you to fork effectively. Even in situations where a given line will be less efficient, it is important to consider that the effect that a fork can have on your opponent may outweigh the loss of efficiency. Many of these situations rely strongly on the context of the situation, so perhaps the most important skill to refine when learning to put together forks is reading the game accurately.

When you are put into a fork, it is important to note that it is not the end of the world. While you will often have to give something up, that choice of what to give up is yours. You still have agency in the position, and if you can consistently choose the loss that is less impactful to the overall game, you will find the impact of your opponent’s forks to be lesser than the worst-case scenario. Perhaps you’ve been put into a situation where you are guaranteed to lose one of your game components. Which one of those components will end up being more crucial to the game as a whole? That is the one you are concerned with. In fact, many times you can place a weaker piece in a position to be forked so that you can exchange a piece that will not be very effective with one that will matter a lot over the course of the game.

The other way that you can challenge a fork is to challenge the component creating the fork. In many games, threats are mutual – if their piece is threatening two of yours, it is not unlikely that you are threatening the forking piece as well. It is important to not be intimidated by the threats your opponent has presented! All too many times I have seen players wilt in the face of a piece that, while it had a high output, did not sufficiently defend itself. By attacking the forking piece, you can turn the situation on your opponent’s head, and put them into a position that they were not prepared for.

The final way to deal with a fork is perhaps the simplest: cut your losses. In a situation where you might have invested many resources into one of the threatened components, perhaps you will want to split those resources between the two, so that no matter which piece your opponent chooses to inevitably take, you have not lost all of your resources for the turn. When you are on the losing side, this is often the best way to mitigate your losses from a successful fork.

Let’s look at an example from a game that I’ve played quite a bit recently – Guild Ball. My opponent has won the first move of a turn and has spent the final move of the last turn moving Fillet – his captain – into position to threaten two of my models. Fillet is a very powerful killing model; the two models she is threatening are each likely to die if she gets a full activation on them. However, she is not in a position where she can kill both of them this turn. How do I deal with this?

Well, my first mitigating technique was to move my captain, Hammer, to threaten Fillet on my final activation last turn. Threatening Fillet meant that my opponent had to spend resources to assure he was going first this turn, resources that he would have spent elsewhere had I not threatened her. The second mitigating technique is to split my influence – Guild Ball’s main resource – among the two models threatened. There is a cost to this; I am very likely to lose at least some of those resources. However, Fillet is not able to invalidate all of my influence, because she cannot reach both of my models. By doing this, I present my opponent with a question: Do you want to trade Fillet’s full activation for a small amount of influence? I’ve turned the fork on its head by making Fillet a less efficient threat than she normally is.

Forking, as you can see, is a valuable technique in gaming. By forking intelligently, you can put your opponent into bad positions and make sure that your models are able to make relevant moves in the game. However, forking is not a free win; there are a number of techniques to mitigate the effectiveness of the forks. By learning these techniques and mastering forking, you’ll find yourself putting opponents into more and more no-win situations. As you know, any no-win situation for your opponent is a winning situation for you!

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!

 

Lesson 17: Threats and Answers

Welcome back, readers, to another lesson here at Crit the Books. This week, we’ll be looking at the old gaming adage, “There are no wrong threats, only wrong answers” and dissecting it piece by piece. You’ll learn what a threat is, what an answer is, and why one can be “wrong” while another can’t be. It’s an important part of constructing your strategy and learning how to maximize your ability to win.

First off, we’ll start by looking at threats. Put simply, a threat is any component of a game that directly contributes to achieving your win condition. We use the term because these components threaten to win the game on their own. Threats pose a question to your opponent: Can you either win the game before I do, or prevent my threat from winning the game for me?” Because of this, you’ll often hear threats called “question askers,” especially in tabletop miniature gaming.

In contrast, an answer is any component of the game that neutralizes a threat. Related terms include removal or control; all of these terms point to the same core idea. An answer is how you stop your opponent’s threats from winning the game for them. While sometimes you are able to present threats that win the game faster than your opponent, answers are more reliable, since they don’t depend on the overall tempo of the game moving in your favor.

It’s important to realize that, in many strategies, a single component can serve as both a question and an answer in given scenarios. Let’s look at Magic: the Gathering. A 1/4 creature can serve as a threat, albeit one that will not win the game quickly, because it can attack your opponent 20 times to put their life total to 0. That same creature, however, can block a 2/1 creature and kill it, removing the threat that the 2/1 presents. In this way, that 1/4 creature can serve as both a threat and an answer, dependent on the situation and the threats your opponent is presenting.

To look back at the phrase we mentioned earlier – There are no wrong threats, only wrong answers – let’s examine this same situation but with some of the variables changed. Let’s say we have that same 1/4 creature, but this time our opponent has a 4/4 creature on the board themselves. Our 1/4 is still presenting the same threat to our opponent; it still has the ability to swing in 20 times. However, it is no longer an effective answer to the 4/4 threat. While it can block and prevent the damage once – a point that could still be very relevant! – it will no longer destroy the creature. It does not answer the threat our opponent is presenting.

In addition to this, all but the most simplistic of games will have answers that are limited in some way. If a game has answers that are too efficient or universal, the game trends towards a static state, where neither player can maintain a threat long enough to achieve their victory condition. Because of this, answers often trade situations where they are useful for efficiency vs. threats, or vice versa. Answers that are efficient and useful in a variety of situations tend to be the cream of the crop when it comes to answers or can even present powerful threats themselves. The Magic: the Gathering card Lightning Bolt, for example, is both an efficient answer and useful in nearly any situation in a game. Even when there are no threats for it to remove, it can still deal damage to a player, moving the caster closer to their victory condition.

This is where the phrase we mentioned earlier comes from. Threats, no matter what, will always apply pressure to the opponent that they must respond to in some way. This is very important – by applying that pressure with threats, you maintain control of the game and can direct it to flow in your preferred way. However, there will be situations in which nearly every answer is all but useless – perhaps it is not able to deal with the threats your opponent has presented, or perhaps it is so inefficient that playing it would be an active detriment to you. This is how we come to the phrase that is central to this article: There are no wrong threats, only wrong answers.

When constructing a strategy, be it building a decklist, putting together a team composition, or deciding which class features to take on an RPG character, it is important to keep this adage in mind. In general, your strategy should be more focused on threats then on answers. While there are strategies that focus more on answers than threats – control archetypes of most games being the most well-known example – these strategies tend to be more effective in stabilized metagames, where the ability to predict what your opponents will bring minimizes the possibility of wrong answers. Even then, those decks can sometimes flounder by facing a number of threats that outweigh their answers.

When using strategies you have constructed, it is also important to keep this adage in mind. When your opponent presents a given threat, your first instinct may be to answer it as soon as possible. This is a mistake that I see many new players to control archetypes make. They will see something and acknowledge that it is a threat to be answered but will spend resources or answers that would be better spent later on to answer a larger threat, or more than one threat at once. Remember that your answers are not universal, and sometimes should be saved for threats that are only answered by a smaller set of the answers you brought.

Another point to remember is that if you are trading threats and answers on a 1 to 1 basis, the player who manages to have access to more threats over the course of the game will most likely win. Because of this, it is important for heavy answer strategies to have some way to make their answers more efficient or meaningful than the threats presented. Many ways that these strategies do this is by looking at 2 for 1s – using an answer to deal with 2 (or more!) threats. Answer-based strategies will have to keep this in mind and will sometimes make sacrifices in efficiency or universality to achieve this.

When constructing a strategy and when piloting that same strategy, it is important to keep in your mind which components will be answers and which components will be threats. It is important to have both and finding the correct balance between the two is often the most difficult part of constructing a strategy! However, by learning the differences between the two and keeping the strengths and weaknesses of each in mind, you can put yourself on the road to gaming mastery.

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!

 

Lesson 16: Playing Your Game

Welcome back, readers, to another week on Crit the Books. Today, we’ll look at the idea of “playing your opponent’s game”. This is a problem I see a lot among players, and I’d like to expand on what the phrase means, elaborate on how it can happen to a player, and give you all some tips on how to avoid falling into the trap yourself. It’s very easy to let yourself be led by the opponent into a game state that is preferable to them, and your job as a player is to avoid doing that.

“Playing your opponent’s game” is shorthand for focusing on gameplay patterns that suit your opponent better than they suit you. As an example, let’s look at Magic: the Gathering. We’ll look at a specific matchup you’ll see very often, especially in limited formats: a generic Red/Green aggro deck against a Blue/White control list. Each deck is looking to do very different things; the Aggro list is looking to do as much damage to the opponent as possible, beating down the control list before that deck can stabilize and defeat the aggro list with more efficient plays, which is what it is trying to do.

If the control deck starts making plays that lower its efficiency in favor of dealing damage to the opponent or saving other resources that are not important in the matchup, then the control deck is playing the aggro deck’s game – they are making moves that benefit the aggro deck and make it more difficult for the control deck to achieve their gameplan. On the other hand, if the aggro deck is focused on making sure that they have more efficient plays than the control deck – perhaps by spending their direct damage spells on inconsequential creatures instead of dealing damage to the control deck’s life total – they might be playing the control deck’s game.

It is important to understand that oftentimes, the plays that I listed above as playing the opponent’s game, such as dropping small blockers or dealing with creatures instead of hitting face, can be the correct plays. However, there is a large difference between making plays that benefit your gameplan in the long run and letting your gameplan become one that favors your opponent. This is the central crux of the issue – is your gameplan truly one that favors you, or is it one that helps your opponent?

How do you get into these situations? There are a number of ways that a player can find themselves playing the opponent’s game rather than their own. The first way is that the player may simply be new to the game and not good at knowing the ideal gameplay pattern for their deck. For example, I will often see new Magic: the Gathering players choosing to block a large creature with a smaller creature with another upside – perhaps it has a good ability or has evasion to close out the game. The block will save them a bit of life in the short view, but long-term, it may make it more difficult for them to win. They cannot properly identify that they are playing a deck which has other answers to the large creature, and trades away their win condition.

Another way is that a player may find themselves overwhelmed or intimidated by the strategy an opponent has presented. You see this strategy very often in miniatures skirmish games. The player who has more killing ability will move in close and attack the player who focuses more on scoring points in other ways. Oftentimes, the latter player will get caught up in trying to protect their models, grouping them up to make them less flattering targets. However, this is a perfect example of playing their opponent’s game – by making the central focus of the game about whose models deal more damage, they have put themselves in a losing position since their opponent is better at it.

The last way a player can fall into this fallacy that I’ll speak about in this article is that your gameplan may change throughout the course of a game. Sometimes, an event will happen that will vastly change the state of the board, and you must adapt your gameplan because of it. If you continue to play the same way, you risk helping your opponents. Let’s look at the popular board game, Betrayal at House on the Hill. In it, players play explorers who go through an abandoned house, discovering new rooms and items until one player betrays the group and becomes an enemy. During the early parts of the game, it is often advantageous to explore as much of the house as possible – you can find items and other tools to help you. However, after the titular betrayal occurs, there are times when the players may not want to reveal rooms, as it may help the traitor. Yet, some players still do, not realizing that they are playing the betrayer’s game.

How do you stop yourself from playing an opponent’s game? The answer is simple in concept but can be difficult in execution. Understand your opponent’s gameplan, so that you do not end up playing it accidentally. Focus on your own gameplan, so that you continue to play in a way that benefits your chances of victory. If you are struggling with understanding your opponent’s path to victory, I’d suggest reading my article on difficult matchups here. If you’re having difficulty focusing on your own game plan, I might suggest reading my article on playing to your outs here. It contains tips regarding the most important part of your gameplan – your win condition!

It can be shockingly easy to realize you are playing to your opponent’s strengths, rather than your own. Doing this, and playing your opponent’s game, is very dangerous and is one of the easiest ways to find yourself struggling to win games. However, by making sure that you don’t fall into this, you will find your victories coming to you easier and more consistently. Just remember: you’re not trying to win the game for your opponent. You’re trying to win it for yourself.

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!