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!

 

Lesson 15: Overcoming Barriers

Welcome, readers, to this week’s lesson on Crit the Books. This week, we’ll delve into strategies to improve specific matchups. Often, if you are new to a game, certain strategies can seem overpowering or stronger than any options you can think to bring. However, this is typically not due to the power of the strategy itself, but rather how you as a player are not well-adapted to playing against it. There are a number of methods you can use when you seem to be facing an insurmountable wall in your progress as a player, and we’ll look at some of them this week.

There are three central strategies I use when my own personal experience does not match up with the perceived strength of a strategy, or when I cannot seem to defeat a certain strategy. You can simply talk to players who use that strategy, using their expertise to try to figure out the weak points in their strategy. You might also consider looking for other players who play the game, trying to solicit wisdom or advice from players who have had success against that strategy, and what tricks they might have. Finally, you might try playing these strategies for yourself! In my experience, very little will show you the weak points of a strategy better than having those same weak points shown to you.

Let’s look a bit deeper at those strategies, each in turn. First, let’s look at the players who have previously had success with a given strategy. I find that, oftentimes, a player who has success with a strategy will be open to discussing what has led to their success with that strategy. Players want to have interesting, close to even matchups most of the time, and discussion will often get players closer to that balanced state. A player who plays a given strategy will be very good at telling you the strengths of that strategy, since they take advantage of those same strengths to win games.

Like every technique, there will occasionally be situations where this method of handling tough matchups fails. Before large competitive events, many players will be less interested in discussing their techniques, since their ability to place well in an event can often be directly influenced by how well people play against their strategies. In addition, many players will bring techniques or unique flavors of a given strategy to those tournaments in order to get a leg up on opponents or cover weak spots, aiming to disrupt their opponents’ play patterns by bringing something unexpected to the table. If the person you have spoken to is unwilling to give out their secrets, I’d encourage you to simply ask them to give you the most basic of basics or wait for them to be more accessible.

If talking to your typical opponents hasn’t been helpful, then I would suggest you start tapping into the deeper wealth of knowledge that is available to us these days! The internet is full of gaming advice and assistance for given strategies and looking for help here can be very fruitful. When I have had trouble in the past with given strategies, I have looked online for people who play the game and simply said, “I’m having trouble dealing with this. Do you have any advice?” Many of the more strategically-minded gamers out there love discussing the strategy and theory of their game, and will be more than happy to help you out. In addition, you might look for content on sites like YouTube, where millions of content creators are out there creating videos and tutorials that can help you as a player. Even if you’re not looking for specific advice, I would certainly suggest you look at general strategy guides for a given game. They can often be very helpful or give you a new perspective.

Like any other strategy, this method of improvement is not flawless. One of the most important things to keep in mind when asking for advice from the larger community is that not all of the larger community is highly skilled. It is a blunt way to put it, I know. However, it is important to remember that simply because someone is a content creator does not mean that they are skilled at the game. You need to be able to analyze the advice you are given and determine if it is truly helpful. I know that I have watched many live recorded Guild Ball games on YouTube and been shocked at how sloppy their play is. Simply because someone loves a game enough to create content of it does not mean that they are a good player! I’d suggest seeking out people who have accolades or results behind them that show they are consistently good players – a world champion will generally give more helpful advice than a novice! Keep that in mind as you seek strategic advice online.

Perhaps you are an autodidact – someone who finds that they can more consistently learn well by themselves. Perhaps you cannot find advice on the specific matchup you are having trouble with, or you are having trouble finding other people who are struggling with the same problems. In this case, I would suggest you turn things around and try playing with – instead of against – the strategy that you are having trouble with. Nothing will make the weaknesses of that strategy obvious to you like having them leveraged against you in a game. In addition, this method can give you a healthy dose of perspective. Maybe that strategy you are having trouble with isn’t oppressive or overpowered. Perhaps you are simply blind to the weaknesses of it!

The main weakness of this technique is that methods that might work against your method of playing that strategy might not work against your opponent. Every player has slightly different ways of playing, and different history and prior knowledge they bring to the game. In addition, perhaps the strategy rewards skill in that strategy heavily, and is not easy to pilot. Regardless, playing with a strategy that you are having trouble with will open the door to noticing cracks in the armor that you can exploit later on.

When you are having trouble against a given strategy, it can often seem overwhelming or like you are facing off against something that has many more tools at their disposal than you do. However, if a strategy is truly unbeatable, a game will quickly wither and die. More possibly, there is simply a weakness that you are not taking advantage of or a flaw in the other strategy that you are not seeing. By asking the player, looking to the community, or trying the strategy for yourself, you can find weaknesses that you will be able to take advantage of, or play to strengths you never even knew you had.

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 14 – Variance

Welcome again, readers, to another week of learning here at Crit the Books. This week, we’ll discuss variance in games, and the different kinds of variance that you will see in games. Variance, often called RNG or chance, is the element of games that adds interest to them beyond strategy. While many players curse games that have heavy variance, I am personally of the opinion that a healthy amount of variance adds a great amount of depth and interest to games. Let’s get into it.

First off, let’s look at exactly what variance is. Variance refers to anything in a game in which the outcome is not wholly predictable. In many games, variance is achieved through 3 main ways – In the case of digital games, a pseudorandom number generator is used to determine results, and in physical games, shuffling a deck or rolling dice are used. While these are the 3 most common, there are certainly other ways that variance can be added to a game. Some games will use coin flips, other social games will use the inherent variance of the human psyche. Regardless, variance does a lot to make games less predictable.

Now that we’ve established what variance is, let’s divide the concept up further to clarify some of our discussions. In games, there are two main types of variance – input variance and output variance. Input variance is variance that changes the options available to a player. The random order of the cards in a digital TCG like Hearthstone, and the cards that you draw, are an example of input variance. You can’t be sure at the beginning of the game which cards will be available for you to play, or what cards you will draw next turn and what options those might allow. You can take guesses and play the odds, but you will never be 100% sure what those options will be unless you have 1 card left in your deck. Since this style of variance changes the options that are available, we call it input variance. It changes what input you, the player, receive.

The other style of variance is output variance. Output variance refers to variances that changes the results of a player’s actions. Looking back at Hearthstone, cards that cast random spells or summon random minions are an example of output variance. You can take the same action as a player two different times – casting Unstable Portal, for example – and get vastly different results. Another example of output variance is the damage roll when you hit with an attack in Dungeons and Dragons. Your attack might deal 1 damage, or it might deal 6. Since you won’t know the precise amount of damage you are dealing, that is another example of output variance.

Many players have a love/hate relationship with variance. How many times have you hit the perfect topdeck and celebrated to yourself or thought, “Yes! Exactly what I needed!”? At the same time, I am certain there have been a number of times that you have made an attack and critically failed it, then looked down and glared at your dice in anger. Many players will say they dislike variance or feel that variance negatively impacts the amount of skill they are able to demonstrate in a game. This stems mostly from the fact that a player can take a strategy that has the highest probability to succeed, but still lose.

However, I am of the opinion that variance is incredibly important to a game’s health overall, and how interesting a game is to play. Whenever variance causes a highly skilled player to lose, it does another very important thing: it makes a less skilled player win. Variance makes games more accessible to newer players, and that is something absolutely critical for the health of a game as a whole. Games that have a low amount of variance – chess or go are wonderful examples – tend to be games that have a very steep learning curve and can quickly become uninteresting when a given play group has known disparities in skill level. If my best friend is a grandmaster at chess, and I am a new player, we are not as likely to enjoy repeated games. My best friend, because he finds the games boring and easy to win; myself because I find my attempts futile and frustrating.

However, games that have a higher amount of variance, such as Hearthstone or Magic: the Gathering, can create situations where even if my opponent is a better player, I drew better cards or had better results of my actions. These games are much more interesting, and while the more skilled player might generally win more often, the less skilled player still feels that they have a chance. This incentivizes both players to play more often and makes it easier for new players to enter the playgroup without feeling like they have a large cliff to climb.

In addition to this, variance makes games interesting. The faster that players can routinely determine the winner of the game from a given board state, the more deterministic the game is and the less interesting it is. For Hearthstone, it is one thing to know that when you are presenting lethal and your opponent has no way to respond to it, you have won. This is as the result of a game played. However, if you could sit down across from your opponent and determine who has won after 2 turns, the game becomes much less interesting and much less worth playing. Variance creates interest by putting players into scenarios where it becomes harder to determine who will win.

When looking at designing a game, I would encourage you to look deeply into what variance exists in your game, and what that variance provides for you. Input variance is a good way to introduce interest into your game without being overwhelming, and also serves as a way to limit complexity for a player on any given turn. When a player has 1000 options, they are more likely to suffer from analysis paralysis than when they have 4. This is also the “safer” type of variance, since players will very rarely feel let down.

Output variance, on the other hand, is the variance of high highs and low lows. This can be a very big negative, since nobody enjoys critically failing their attacks or spending resources to do nothing. However, output variance can also lead to exciting stories of triumphing against overwhelming odds, or of that one time you needed all of the dice to go right to achieve a win, and then they did! Output variance can add a lot of excitement to your game and create strong stories or memories that players will be hard-pressed to forget.

Variance is something that is central to both game play and game design. It’s a subject that I have some strong, and very controversial, opinions on. No matter how you slice it, variance is an integral part of gaming strategy, and learning to love it will get you more familiar with it. Being familiar with variance will open the doorway to being able to make the best use of it in your strategy. Love the variance. It’s here to stay.

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!