Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Better Playtesting: Improving Your Technical Ability

One of the most intimidating things you can face in a tournament is a player with drastically superior technical play skills.  You might be the better strategist and better on the fly tactician, but there is something intimidating about an opponent whose moves, language, and mannerisms are studied and precise.  It creates an air of confidence in himself, and forces you to question your own confidence.  Once you start quaking, all it takes is a few mental lapses on your part and a good turn of shooting on his part to throw you off your game completely and cause a match loss.

You need robotic precision

Anyone who has played in a lot of tournaments has experienced this, from one side of the table or the other.  My first ever M:tG Pro Tour I played against a Norwegian player who played technically perfect, and my comparative sloppy play was embarrassing, at least to myself.  At the '08 'Ard Boyz semifinals, I was at the top table going into round 3, and I faced a technically perfect player.  I had 2 Land Raiders immobilized by terrain on the first turn, and he blew up a 3rd with a Lascannon on his turn one.  Between his intimidatingly good technical play, and some (un)fortunate dice rolls, I was completely off my game.  I'm not saying I would have, or could have beaten him, if it wasn't for his technical ability, but it surely didn't help that mentally I was already on the long drive home by the end of turn two rather than doggedly trying to eek out a win.

Besides the intimidation factor, there is also the whole 'stop making play errors'  benefit.  Not forgetting to assault during the assault phase.  Not forgetting to move a unit.  Not forgetting to run a unit.  Not forgetting to shoot a unit.  These are mistakes that a good tournament opponent shouldn't let you take back.  I've let people make these mistakes and take them back.  In retrospect, I shouldn't have.  These mistakes are not "part of the game" they are an indicator of your technical ability, and since it's a skill that has to be cultivated.  If I spend time cultivating my technical play, I'm not going to give away that advantage by forgiving your bad technical play.

So clearly, strong technical ability is something worth cultivating.  In fact, I'd say that besides a strong list and practice with that list, it is the single most controllable and beneficial thing you can do to give yourself a chance to win outside of the game.

Technical ability must be cultivated
So how do you improve your technical ability?  First, it requires a lot of practice.  Playing technically well has to become a habit, and all habits have to be reinforced through repetition.  Luckily, when you playtest scientifically you will have lots of games to repeat it.  If you want to improve your technical ability without the playtesting aspect, you will just have to play a lot of games.  

We are prepared to play a lot.  Now what?

1.  Use Play Aids.  I find the easiest way to do this for 40k is using pennies, nickels and dimes.  At the beginning of each turn, each unit/vehicle gets a penny placed next to it.  When you move the unit, you switch the penny for a nickel.  You don't move onto the shooting phase until the pennies are gone, or unless you decide you aren't going to move a unit by physically removing the penny.

small change, big results
In the shooting phase, when a unit shoots or runs, you switch the nickel to a dime.  You cannot move onto the assault phase until all the nickels are gone, or until you decide to not shoot and voluntarily remove the nickel and place a dime.  During the assault phase you remove the dime when you charge into close combat.  You do not resolve any assaults until all the dimes are removed.

Lastly, keep one silver dollar on the table for your entire turn.  Do not pass the turn to your opponent until you remove the silver dollar.  This will prevent you from saying "alright go, your turn" before you're ready and before you've had a chance to consider the turn.

Obviously, using play aids in tournaments is frowned upon so eventually you will have to wean yourself off of them eventually.  After a few dozen games with play aids, start playing without them.  My advice would be to imagine the coins being present with each unit even if they aren't really there.  Before long, you will cease making phase errors.

2.  Negative Reinforcement

A less popular method of negative reinforcement
When you make a mistake in a tournament setting, whether it be a phase error or a glaring mistake in target priority, the punishment is an increased chance in a match loss.  That hurts.  Bad.  We want to avoid that.  The only way to avoid that is to make those mistakes hurt when you're practicing/playtesting, too.  There are two schools of thought, physical and financial.  I find both work, so long as you pick the one that hurts the most. 

If you and 3 buddies are hunkering down for a long weekend of practice before a GT, you could set up a rule where each play mistake costs a dollar that goes into a fund for gas on the trip.  Or the hotel room.  Or beer at the event.  Whatever works.  Just so long as it hurts.  You want to make each technical error sting.  If you and your buddies are well to do, make it $5.  Or $10.  Whatever it takes to get you to start worrying about the money you're losing will work.

Alternatively, physical punishment is great.  I suggest push ups.  Every time you make a play mistake, drop down and do as many good form push ups as you can do until you can't do anymore.  When I was in college, I had a crippling addiction to playing Solitaire (not kidding) and it came to the point where every free moment in my day I was playing solitaire.  I'd find my hand guiding the mouse to the start menu to fire up a game subconsciously even when I didn't want to.  So I decided to quit.  Every time I got the remotest urge to play or opened the game up to play, I would do push ups until exhaustion.  At the beginning I was doing several hundred pushups per day.  Eventually, I began to loathe Solitaire, and I haven't played it since.  It worked.

If you punish yourself with max rep pushups for each mistake, I assure you, you will cease making that mistake in a very short amount of time.  

3.  Positive Reinforcement

The rat knows where it's at

Positive reinforcement is tricky.  Humans respond most to money, food, and sex.  Not in that order.  I doubt any chick is going to give you a handy to commemorate a technically perfect turn.  And any good snacks or food you reward yourself with for good play you could just buy anyway.  And any money you'd give yourself is your own money so it's not really a reward.

My advice for positive reinforcement would be to set it as a meta-goal and not a mistake by mistake goal.  For instance, "if I play technically perfect for the tournament, I will treat myself to a nice steak dinner at Ruth's Chris."  Or, "if I can make it through a whole day of playtesting without errors I'll splurge and some craft beer for football on Sunday rather than Bud."

As you can see, positive reinforcement alone isn't going to be as beneficial because it doesn't force you to micromanage your playing, which is what you want to do.  But, when you combine the positive AND negative it will work better than either alone.  "I'm tired of fucking push ups, and I want that damn filet mignon, the players at this tournament are going to be playing against a 40k robot."


  1. Excellent article, as any should be with references to gaming, hand jobs and steak.

    I have a friend I play relatively regularly and when we play we don't allow the other to make actions that were forgotten. We do this in casual games to reinforce the importance of it when it really counts and it works. We're comparative skill level so it only takes missing a move or a shooting phase once to give the other the advantage. For me, knowing I forgot something that could have altered the outcome of the game in my favor tends to be punishment enough.

  2. The play aids are something I might steal now, even though I have no interest in ever being a competitive player. I just friggin' forget stuff, and that might help.

    Good stuff, man.

  3. Some interesting ideas you have here. I thought I might contribute by saying that positive reinforcement is much better than negative. You never want to focus on your mistakes, this can lead to repetition.

    I have found that a simple crib sheet can work wonders. You know, a note of all the things you often forget. Like repair rolls on immobilised rhinos, things like that.

    I find that mine tends to revolve around the more uncommon special rules that don't come up all the time.

  4. I want to add one more thing.

    When you're doing real playtesting, you should always get to take back mistakes and play it the right way. You have to assume your tournament opponents will play mistake free, so you should playtest mistake free. You do still your pushups, or put your dollar in the jar, but you should then make the correct play. You don't want your playtesting data skewed by mistakes.

  5. Play aids sound like a fantastic idea--though I don't think I'm disciplined enough to follow through with them.

    Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, sounds like something I can handle (as long as it doesn't involve curtailing my spending!)

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