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 3: Playing to your Outs

Today, we’ll be looking at a topic I touched on last week. A lot of the ideas I bring up this week are ones that, in retrospect, might seem obvious. However, I see far too many players miss out on wins they could have gotten because they were focused on something other than winning. That’s right, folks! This week, we’ll be talking about one of my personal favorite topics: Avenues to Victory, or as some might call it, Playing to your Outs!

How do you win a game? It seems like a very silly question to ask, but it is the key to improving your odds of victory. Each game has a different win condition, and if you fall into the same habits in one game that you’ve developed in another, those same habits that led you to victory can lead you to defeat! Playing to your outs means determining what actions will lead you to winning the game and taking those actions, even when they don’t “feel” like the right ones.

Let’s, for example, look at one of the most well-known games of all time – chess! In chess, your victory condition is simple – capture the enemy king. We can extrapolate off of that, as well: to capture the enemy king, you have to make it so the enemy king can’t escape. To do that, you’ll want pieces that can threaten a large number of squares. To do that, you’ll want to keep your pieces alive for as long as possible. It’s not unusual for people to think to the top level of those goals, play while trying to keep all of their pieces safe, but miss the base goal: to capture the opponent’s king. Those other goals are secondary to capturing the king. They might make it easier, but the minute you prioritize keeping your queen alive over fighting for the checkmate, you’ve not played the best game you could.

Playing to your outs means always keeping your victory condition in mind. Always. You should be able to point to any action that you take, or any resource you spend, and be able to describe how that action pushes your game plan towards victory. Wasted moves are mistakes. A move might not always lead to immediate fruition – for instance, in our chess example above, a pawn moving forward might just be “to present a greater threat to my opponent than otherwise.” But presenting that threat, and taking that territory, opens options up for you later that you might not have had. You should always have that in mind.

Playing to your outs is also the key to attaining victory when you are behind. Oftentimes, when you don’t have the initiative in a game, you’ll find yourself put into a bunch of positions where you have to choose between 2 bad options. That’s when you can think to yourself, “What are my outs here? How do I win the game?” Sometimes, it will be a risky play that only pays off if you roll very well. Sometimes it will be a subtle, not-so-obvious play. Sometimes it will be a play that requires you to sacrifice resources that are otherwise very useful to you.

It’s important to remember that there are many games where, even if you play to your outs entirely, you still lose. Sometimes, you didn’t think to play to your outs for the entire game. Sometimes, you just got unlucky on a high-risk choice. Sometimes, you just plain get outplayed by your opponent. Regardless, you need to remember to separate your loss from your strategy. A play might not always feel like the “right” play. When you are looking to your outs, though, you’ll find yourself winning games you didn’t expect to win or find yourself in winning positions easier than you were finding yourself there before. That will happen because you are actively working towards your victory.

There are a lot of common pitfalls that will lead players to not playing to their outs. Some of the most common ones I’ve seen are lack of flexibility, playing for efficiency, and prioritizing fun over winning.

Lack of flexibility is one that you’ll see more commonly in games with multiple viable win conditions. Oftentimes, a player won’t notice when their best avenue to victory has changed and will continue playing towards a method of victory that is either less likely, or downright impossible. I personally see this most often in digital TCGs, since oftentimes decks there will have 2 main vectors to victory – value and aggression. (We’ll be talking about those in a later article!) Many players might play the early game as an aggressive player but fail to shift over to a more value-oriented game style later on in the game when aggression alone will not win. When you’re playing to your outs, you should constantly be reevaluating your options and trying to figure out the best path to victory.

Playing for efficiency is another pitfall I see often. I see this more often in miniatures games or other games where your actions are limited. Some players might opt to try to play their models in the most efficient way possible and might miss a line of play where their model does something it wasn’t quite designed for – maybe a model that is extremely good at killing is better suited to take an objective this turn, for example. Maybe your leader’s turn is better spent doing something a smaller model could do, because they are in the correct position. Don’t be afraid to make inefficient choices! Sometimes they’re the best choices.

The last common way I see players not play to their outs is prioritizing fun over winning. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, if your goal isn’t to win. However, I see far too many players in miniatures games who fall in love with the idea of dealing large amounts of damage to opponent’s models and neglecting other win conditions that their army might be more suited for. You’ll see it in games like chess as well – a player might be having fun taking out opponent’s pawns with their queen, while their opponent is setting up a checkmate with knights and rooks. Don’t let yourself be distracted by big numbers and good visceral feelings. Play to your outs!

It seems like something obvious, but I see so many players miss this and I can’t emphasize it enough – to win more games, you need to look at your paths to victory, and work towards making a game state where those paths are accessible to you. Play to your outs, and victories will come your way.

That’s it for this week, folks! Next week, we’ll be looking at some terminology that gets thrown around a lot in gaming circles: fluff and crunch! A big thank you to our Patrons, Alex, TicTac, and anonymous patrons. Thank you so much for your support!