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 12: Wide and Narrow

Hello, my dear readers, and welcome to another week of Crit the Books! It’s been a few busy weeks, but because of that, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to some of my gaming companions and gotten a lot of interesting insights on different styles of game and how to look at strategies in those different games. In fact, this week I’ll be talking about one of the most common differentiators of strategies that I have seen across multiple games – Narrow vs. Wide strategies.

In a nutshell, Narrow and Wide strategies refer to how the game’s resources – be they mental energy, action points, or similar – are spent when there are multiple places to spend those resources. In a Narrow strategy, resources are more often spent on a single goal, model, or game component. In a Wide strategy, resources are distributed to different locations, allowing for more flexible play but less pure strength in a single aspect.

Narrow strategies are focused on putting as much power into a single objective as possible. These strategies tend to be very powerful in terms of raw force or numbers, but can sometimes fail when the objective or component that the resources are focused on is either defeated or otherwise made irrelevant. Narrow strategies are about trading pure efficiency in setup for maximum efficiency in output. Strategies like this are often called buff strategies or something similar. While putting all of your proverbial eggs in one basket can be risky, it can pay off very well if your basket is strong and safe enough to keep all of your eggs safe!

Wide strategies, on the other hand, trade away the incredible efficiency of one single output in exchange for a more widespread efficiency among the wider goal. Wide strategies tend to be more flexible, and are more difficult to dismantle because taking multiple components out of commission or making multiple pieces irrelevant is more difficult than stopping simply one. Wide strategies tend to be lower variance as well, since putting all of the odds into a single point can be dangerous. However, wide strategies often lack the pure power that narrow strategies can wield.

You can find examples of narrow and wide strategies in nearly every game imaginable and identifying the width of different strategies can be key in finding out how to beat them. Let’s look at some examples of narrow or wide strategies in a number of games and look at what makes them narrow or wide.

First, we’ll look at one of the oldest games of strategy still played today: Chess! In chess, you’ll often hear that some players specialize or pay extra attention to a given piece. Perhaps one player tends to favor the extreme power that their queen brings to the table, or another player tends to make use of the unique attack vectors that the Knights bring to the table. These players tend to favor more narrow strategies, where the majority of resources that they can spend – their movements each turn – are spent on one component. Players like this can have difficulty when their pieces of choice are removed. On the other hand, some players tend to play more evenly with all of their pieces, making use of whichever piece has the most efficient options at a given time. These players are playing a more wide strategy, which can be harder to figure out strong counterplay for. However, they will often not be able to take opponents by surprise as easily, and their gameplay can be more easily planned for.

Now that we’ve looked at an older game, let’s look at a game with more complicated pieces, such as Overwatch. In Overwatch of the past, two team compositions that we will look at are “el presidente” and deathball comps. In the former, a large amount of resources are focused on buffing or protecting a single character that has the ability to turn those buffs into a high output. Oftentimes, Bastion is “el presidente” of the group – he trades away his mobility for the ability to gain high DPS. Healers like Mercy or Ana, who have very high healing per second on a single target, can help protect Bastion, while tanks like D.Va or Orisa can protect Bastion to make up for the lack of his mobility. These allow the team to make full use of Bastion’s powerful, but narrow strengths, and those same strengths mirror those of the entire team composition. The comp deals amazing amounts of damage with significant durability, but if Bastion is removed from the equation, they can very quickly falter.

On the other side of the equation in Overwatch are deathball compositions. In Deathball comps, healers like Mercy are often passed up in favor of healers who lack the strong single target healing, and instead look towards healers that can heal – or offer other buffs – in an area of effect. Brigitte and Lucio are both pretty common to see here. These healers have significantly less healing on a single target, but when you add together the healing they can provide to 5 other players, their healing numbers very quickly approach or even outstrip those of more focused healers. While this is only looking at the support side of deathball comps, it serves as a good foil to the narrow “el presidente” strategies by pointing out the power of wider strategies, where it is harder to bring the team falling apart by taking out specific key players.

As you’ve seen, looking at and judging strategies on a narrow vs wide axis can be very helpful when it comes to analyzing weaknesses of a strategy. As well, knowing what playstyle you tend to prefer can help you focus on your strengths, something that we tend to talk about a lot here on Crit the Books – because it’s important! For your homework this week, look at the strategies you used in the past few games that you played. Did you use a more narrow strategy where you put many resources into a single component to squeeze the most efficiency out of it, or did you adapt a wider strategy which was more difficult to counter? Maybe your strategy even changed over the course of the game!

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 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!

 

Lesson 10 – Gaming Styles

Welcome back to Crit the Books! This week, we’ll be looking at a division between different gaming styles. Most players that I have known fall easily into one of the two categories I’m going to be bringing up in this article. In addition, we’ll be looking at how knowing what gaming style you fall into can help you get better at the games you are interested in improving at. Knowing your gaming style can be very valuable in figuring out what drives you to play a game as well, which can do a lot for making games more enjoyable overall!

When I talk about gaming styles, I mostly mean how a player approaches learning things within a game and how they are more naturally inclined to progress in different games. The two styles that I’ll be talking about are intuitive gamers and trained gamers. Neither of these styles is necessarily more skilled at gaming than the other inherently, but they have vastly different ways of approaching learning about the game and improving. They also have different flavors of learning that they tend to prefer in games.

The first category we’ll be talking about is the one that I would consider myself, since that is the one that I have a more personal view on. That is the intuitive gamer. Intuitive gamers tend to enjoy learning via discovery. An intuitive gamer craves new things they can discover – they will tend to gravitate towards strategies that widely vary in their path to victory and will adore seeing a new line of play that they have never seen anyone play before.

These gamers tend to have a steeper initial improvement curve in games – they’ll often be able to pick up new strategies easier and adapt their existing decision-making patterns – heuristics – to those new strategies faster. Intuitive gamers will tend to look at decision making in games from a very high-level or macroscopic perspective. Rather than getting themselves bogged down in minutiae, they will find themselves looking at their overall goal in a turn or in a period of time and trying to make that plan happen.

Because an intuitive gamer finds joy via discovery, they will often find themselves hopping between different strategies in a game. Maybe they’ll swap factions in a miniatures game, or swap decks often in a card game. Flexible strategies that can play different games based on context tend to be where these players shine, since they can adapt on the fly to different circumstances.

These intuitive games will often find themselves preparing for competitive settings like tournaments by trying to play both against or with varying strategies – this will help them develop rough heuristics based on varied matchups, and they will generally trust their skills to handle specific details in the matchups. These players tend to be very good when playing from a disadvantage, since they can focus on how to meet their high-level gameplan.

On the other side of the spectrum are trained gamers. The joy of learning that trained gamers tend to is that of mastery. Where an intuitive gamer craves discovery, a trained gamer looks to improve their skills with a given strategy. They will tend to enjoy more linear strategies that follow along a given, practicable path, and will enjoy seeing their plans come to fruition even when faced with difficulties along the way.

While intuitive gamers tend to improve quicker in the beginning of learning new strategies, trained gamers will find that their skill improves more consistently over time, and that their training and repetition will bring them higher rewards once the intuitive gamers tend to start to plateau in their skill improvement. Where intuitive gamers will focus on the high-level strategy, trained gamers will often find themselves looking more at ground-level strategy. Instead of looking at their big plan repeatedly, trained gamers will tend to sacrifice their flexibility at the high level in order to focus on the small details of a plan: measuring exact ranges, determining exact cards and amounts of mana that need to be spent, etc.

A trained gamer will find themselves sticking to a single strategy and trying to learn the ins and outs of that specific strategy. They will tend to prefer strategies that do not significantly change based on their interaction with their opponent, because it allows them to put themselves in situations that are practiceable. Strategies that tend to stick to the same basic gameplan regardless of matchup are where trained gamers will shine.

Trained gamers will look at tournament preparation as a chance to focus in on their strengths – while an intuitive gamer will look for breadth and try many different matchups, a trained gamer will typically look for depth. They’ll identify what is their worst matchup – or the matchup they expect to see most often – and play that matchup repeatedly, trying to explore and critique even the smallest parts of their gameplan against those specific decks. Trained gamers tend to be very successful when playing from a lead, since they can afford to direct less mental energy at worrying about stopping their opponent and more towards meeting their victory condition.

Both trained gamers and intuitive gamers can be successful at high level play – some players are familiar enough with a given strategy that they will pilot it regardless of the environment unless that strategy has a significant disadvantage. These trained gamers will often find success regardless of whatever the strongest strategy in the metagame is. On the other hand, intuitive gamers find themselves very comfortable in shifting metagames, since their flexibility makes it easier to pick up “the best strategy” and attain victory through the power of their strategy combined with their more generalized heuristics.

Knowing what gaming style you play as can help you determine where your weaknesses and strengths are as a player, which is key in improving your skills. As well, being familiar with your preferences will make it easier to know what to focus on and – crucially – what will give you the most enjoyable preparation experience when it comes to more competitive settings. As your homework this week, I encourage you to figure out what type of gamer you are, and the gaming styles of your gaming group. Are you a trained gamer that prefers to “one trick” a strategy, or are you an intuitive gamer that can never seem to decide what they are focused on?

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!