Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Better Playtesting: Running The Gauntlet

Like many 40k players, I used to be a competitive Magic the Gathering player, and for a short time I was on the Pro Tour circuit.  I never won more money than I spent on the trips, so the whole thing was a losing proposition unless you think of traveling to exotic locations to play Magic as a real vacation.  Some do, I don't.  Tournaments I got eliminated on Day 1 were usually a blessing in disguise because it gave me a day to go out and sight see the place I spent so much money to travel to.

Regardless of my boring life story, there are so many valuable lessons I learned about competitive gaming that can carry over to 40k.  The biggest lesson in my mind is playtesting.  I've mentioned elsewhere that I seriously doubt anyone playtests enough to get useful quantifiable data to make the right decisions about their army composition.  There are two problems that cause this.

1.  The games take too long to play to play enough games to get lots of data.

Solution: Only play 3 turn games.  Play a 4th and a 5th turn only if the game is close.  If one player is clearly winning by turn 3, don't waste another 45 minutes finishing the game.  Consider it a loss in the tally and move on to the next one.  By using this method you can get double the amount of games in per time unit.  Also consider playing speed rounds where a player turn can go no longer than 10 minutes.  Yes, you will make mistakes.  But much like playing Blitz Chess will make you sharper at normal Chess, speed rounds of 40k will make you better at normal 40k.

2.  Difficult to find like minded competitive players with enough range of armies to playtest against.  

Solution: Proxy proxy proxy.  So what if they are Blood Angels, let them be Wolves for the purposes of playtesting.   There is no reason to limit your playtesting due to a lack of armies.  And while a playtest group of 4 is ideal, two people can garner useful results.  Heck, if you have the minis, playing against yourself is not a totally worthless idea if you can maintain objectivity and avoid biasing the army you want to win. 

So OK, you're on board with playtesting and have a group of 4 guys of like minds and roughly equal skill.  Between the 4 of you, you can at least proxy every army.  Great!  Now that you have the hard part out of the way, you have to do the easy stuff: creating a playtest gauntlet.

The fatal flaw most people make when creating an initial gauntlet is making the initial gauntlet armies fully optimized.  This is worthless.  The goal in playtesting your tournament army is not to see how it will do against ultra specific army builds.  It's to make sure it can handle all comers.  This is the 'proof of concept' stage, not advanced tweaking.

You create major army templates you expect to encounter with simple, unoptimized lists.  If your tournament army struggles to beat the simple gauntlet armies, there is no need to move that build forward against optimized lists.  If I were creating a gauntlet today it would look like this...

1.  Razorwolfs with 5 or 6 squads of grey hunters, 3 squads of Long fangs, Rune Priest, and a choppy HQ with some combat support Thunderwolves. 
2.  IG Chimera Spam list with lots of special weapons.
3.  4 Tervigon Nids
4.  Daemons
5.  180 Boyz Orks

Like I said, these lists don't have to be optimized, they just have to be representative of the army types you'll face.  They are varied enough to represent the range of opponents you'll face.  You play test your tournament list against each of these 10 times.  You want to average a 60% win ratio over the 50 games, and you want your worst match up to be no worse than 40%.  A bad match up where you're winning less than 40% of the time means your list is flawed.  Back to the drawing board, write a new list.  Let's assume you have a proper all comers list that have a win ratio vs. the gauntlet of 65%.  Great!  The list has passed the proof of concept stage, it works and is ready to go.

Now comes the tricky part.  You need to look at the data of your gauntlet against not only your list, but also the lists of your partners' armies and see which Gauntlet lists did the best.  If there was a gauntlet list that stood out as very strong.  Say, for example, that the 4 Tervigon nid list did especially well.  You and your three buddies' tournament lists only managed 45% against it combined average.  This is a sign that it's a very strong archetype, and an optimized version will likely show at the top tables.  If the gauntlet version did exceptionally well, you should seriously consider using an optimized version as your tournament list.

So second level of playtesting begins.  You take the top 3 performing gauntlet lists, and fully optimize them.  These will likely be the sort of lists you will see at the top tables.  You play 5 games against each list and note your win percentages.  Make tweaks to compensate for any of the three lists you were weak against.  Play another 5 games.  Hopefully the tweaks improved your list vs it's weaknesses without hurting it against what it was beating more easily.  Repeat this process until you do not have any bad match ups, only better match ups.  By the end of this process your tournament list should be beating all 3 lists with a 60%+ win ratio.  If your group is crushing any of the optimized lists in the gauntlet by over 75%, that list probably shouldn't be in your second level gauntlet as it is clearly too weak to be considered a legitimate tournament threat.

So what happens once your tournament list is beating your second level optimized gauntlet lists by 60%?  You're prepared to go compete to win the tournament with the knowledge that you play tested smarter than anyone else there (except your partners) and you've learned what is required to beat every major archetype.  Can things still go wrong?  Sure, you could get crushed unexpectedly by some random Necron list that happens to give you a bad match up.  Or perhaps there was a major gauntlet archetype you didn't consider testing against that you should have.  Nobody can playtest perfectly, but approaching it scientifically gives you an advantage over your opponents before the first dice is rolled.


  1. All really good advice. I'll keep it in mind for my "army testing school" idea.

  2. This is pretty good advice. Especially the 3 round thing. My buddy Chris and I did that for a couple of different builds that he wanted to try against my bikers before I went to NOVA. It helped him, it helped me, it was awesome. Hell, we even had a round 1 win at one point.

    The only downside to any of this is still the time commitment. Playing the amount of games necessary here requires you to start out really early if you want to actually get it done. Still a brilliant idea.