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 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 5: Resources and Engines

Welcome back, readers! This week, we’ll be taking a look at one of the central parts of all games. In fact, I think it could safely be said that what we’ll be looking at today is the most important concept in gaming. If you can master the ideas that we touch on in today’s lesson, you’ll be ready to learn a lot of skills that will sharpen your skills beyond that you could even imagine. This week, we’ll be looking at resources!

Resources is a very open-ended word, so we need to sharpen down exactly what we mean by that. In gaming contexts, I define resources as such: a resource is anything in a game that meets 3 requirements. It must be measurable and defined. Players must have a limited quantity of it. Finally, a player must be able to interact with it or spend it.

First, something must be measurable and defined. Something that is fluid, changeable, or only vaguely defined cannot be a resource. For example, “advantage” in a game is not a resource. Differential between scores could be a resource of sorts – how much more life you have than your opponent, for example. To fit into our discussions on resources, it is very important that we avoid things that we can’t look at objectively, with numbers behind them. That is how we can accurately judge resources.

Second, players must have a limited quantity of the resource. If a player is not limited in something, then there is no reason to worry about managing it, and resource management is where most of our discussions of resources will be centered. If something is unlimited to players, then it is not something where you can attempt to reduce how much of it your opponent has access to, which means that it can be safely ignored in our discussions.

Third and finally, a resource must be able to be interacted with or spent. Resources need to mean something – if players can’t do anything about it but simply look at it, it is not something that needs to be discussed in gameplay scenarios or strategy because player actions have no impact on it. Because of this, when we discuss resource management in games, it needs to be something that players can interact with, even if it is something only one player can interact with.

Now that we’ve defined resources, let’s look at some examples of them, both ones that you’ve probably thought of as resources before and some that you might not have looked at in this light before. One of the most common resources you see in games of all sorts is gold, or another type of currency. As I’m sure you are aware if you have ever played a game with these, how much gold you earn and how you spend it is crucial to your victory. As we look at other resources, you’ll start to see that how you manage your resources is often central to winning your games.

Gold and currency are far from the only resources in games, however. Have you ever been playing an RPG and thought to yourself “I can afford to take an attack from this boss before I have to heal, so I can attack it this turn.”? If you have, you’ve been looking at your health as a resource! In fact, having to choose between attacking a boss and healing yourself points to another resource that, in video games, you don’t always think about – actions. Actions as resources are very common in board games and tabletop games, but you don’t always see it in video games. Just because you only have one action each turn doesn’t mean it’s not a resource that can be looked at as a resource – in fact, looking at your actions as resources will often allow you to analyze your play in a more helpful way. Even things like your movement each turn can be viewed as resources. Can you only move 5 spaces in a turn? Well, let’s see: it’s measurable, you have a limited amount of movement, and you can spend it by moving. Sure seems like a resource to me.

So, if just about everything can be looked at as a resource, how does that help you as a player? It can let you more accurately decide what resources are valuable to you, and focus on playing to your outs, like we talked about a few articles ago. It can help you predict future turns or figure out if you have the initiative at given points in a game. Most importantly, though, it clues us in to one of the central tenets of gaming – one of the most important things that you can learn as a player. It’s not true all the time, but it is true enough of the time that it should be kept in mind all the time – The player with the most resources is more likely to win. It seems pretty simple on its face, but it’s an important part of almost all gaming strategy.

You’ll notice that we said that the player with the most resources is likely to win, but not guaranteed. How can that be? After all, if I can just do more than my opponent, aren’t I going to win? That’s where we touch on another term, one that is just as important to resources: Engines! An Engine is anything in a game that allows you to turn one or more resources into other ones, in either a positive or negative value. Engines are everywhere in games, and again, you might not think of many of them as Engines. A basic melee attack in D&D? At its core, it is a way of changing one resource (actions) into another resource (negative health on your target). Engines are often basic game mechanics, but objects in games can also provide players with more powerful or more efficient engines. Arcane Intellect in Hearthstone is an engine that lets you trade 3 mana and a card for 2 cards. Casting a creature in Magic: the Gathering is an engine that lets you trade some mana and a card in your hand for a creature on the battlefield.

This leads into our other central lesson for this week: The player with more, and more efficient, engines is more likely to win. In many ways, these two tenets are intimately tied together. More efficient engines let you acquire more resources and give you more options with what to do with those resources. More resources let you make more use of your engines. Engines and resources are symbiotic parts of the central ideas of gameplay – they form the framework of a game, and they provide you with ways to manipulate the framework of that game.

Now that you know about resources and engines, start looking for them in your games. Start asking, “What resources do I have available to me right now? What resources does my opponent have? What engines do I have access to? How can I use those engines to minimize the resources that my opponent has? How can I use those engines to maximize my resources?” By asking yourself those 4 questions, you can focus your gameplay and make yourself a better player.

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!