Thursday, 16 January 2014

Building A Better You - Lessons With "The Professor"

Immediate apologies to players who are here to learn about a certain Shaper Identity - that's not what this is about.  Instead, in a rare moment of ego I decided to Google myself earlier today (come on, we’ve all done it).  Specifically I decided to Google “Sutcliffe Sligh”, which was a Magic: The Gathering deck I designed about 15 years ago and which a friend of mine played to become the first UK player to win a major Magic tournament, crushing the then-vincible Kai Budde in the final of Grand Prix Birmingham.  The first link that Google threw up was an article written by that very friend after he went on to carve out a successful spot as a writer for StarcityGames.com.

The article saw my friend summing up his Magic career, which had taken him from the kitchen table to Grand Prix wins, Pro Tour finals and World Championship appearances.  It was a series of recollections but each memory was also a lesson that he had learned along the way to becoming both a better player and a better deck designer. 


Although it was written several years before Android: Netrunner even existed, and written about a different game, many of the lessons apply just as well to competitive Netrunner as they ever did to competitive Magic and are well worth a revision session today.


This is well-timed for Netrunner because we've recently had major announcements about the structure of Store Championships and Regional Championships - the building blocks towards the National and World Championships.  Taking Netrunner seriously is not for everyone, and the same is true of Magic players, but with some premier tournaments on the horizon things are going to get a little more serious.  If you want to be a more successful player or deck designer it’s a good time to go back to college and learn from "The Professor".


No, not that Professor, THIS Professor… Craig 'Prof' Jones - the most successful UK Magic player ever to come from our sceptered isle.


You can find the whole of Craig's original article here.  Magic players may understand what he’s talking about a little more than those who’ve never tapped a Basic Land in anger, but for the rest of you I will pull together the most important lessons in Netrunner speak as best I can. 


PROF ON DECKBUILDING

When you’re used to building your own decks it’s easy to get too attached.”

This is a lesson that I think we can all learn from and if anything it applies even more to Netrunner than it does to Magic because fewer people pick up ‘netdecks’ off the internet than they do in Magic.  Most of the time you set off to build a deck with a great dream of what it’s going to do (I don’t think many people deliberately set out to make a crappy deck) and as you go through the process of building, playtesting, rebuilding, playtesting again, rebuilding again (you get the drift) it’s only natural that you will get attached to what you’ve made. 

It’s really easy become emotionally invested in your deck and that can just as easily blinker you to its shortcomings.  Partly this is because you like the idea behind it – that’s why you started making it, remember? – but also because through all the various iterations and refinements you know that your deck has got better.  Those 45 or 49 cards in your hand right now are the best they’ve ever been.  Sure it didn’t work last time but your deck is better now.  Right?

Nobody sets out to make a crappy deck, and actually in Netrunner not many truly crappy decks DO get made.  But an awful lot of get made that aren’t as good as the best decks.  That's not a terrible thing but it IS going to hold you back when you get to a tournament.  The moment when you recognise that the deck you’ve lovingly nurtured for three months has got better but isn’t going to be good enough is a key one, but it’s not always easy to have that perspective on your own creations.

One a personal note this is definitely something that I’ve struggled with in Netrunner.  I’ve done it twice, spending months refining Chaos Theory builds then jumped from Chaos Theory into Rielle ‘Kit’ Peddler and spending months fiddling around with Cyber Cypher builds and Gordian Blade builds.  Always improving, always refining, always enjoying exploring the card pool in doing so… in the end I realised they were never going to be the best deck I could play.  They're always going to be there for me to dip back to when I want some fun, but I won't be taking them to tournaments in the near future.


“All too often people make the mistake of thinking what their deck can do is what their deck will do

This is HUGE.  If every deck starts out with a great dream of what you want to happen it will almost always be a dream of something that is possible, but not necessarily something that is likely.

The example Craig referred to in his article was one that I remember well because I can still picture the hotel room we shared at Pro Tour Rome where he unveiled his deck’s grand plan, and I can still picture the look of incredulity that must have been plastered across my face as he did so.  Craig’s deck was all about the best case scenario – if things went the way he wanted them to go then he would obliterate his opponent.  Unfortunately if they didn’t go the way he wanted then his hugely unconventional and risky plan would collapse in a laughable pile and he had left plenty of opportunities for it to go wrong.

This is one of the key dangers of getting too attached to your deck (see the first lesson) and it’s one that I think is very relevant in Netrunner, especially for Runner decks.  Corporation decks tend to come with a bit of a straitjacket that ensures they can’t go too far wrong – you’ll need X Agendas, and Y Ice, and probably Z economy cards.  Runner decks are more freeform and players have much more opportunity to screw them up by assuming they’ll draw the cards they want when they want them.  It takes real mental discipline to recognise where you’ve drifted from the likely to the possible but it’s a key skill you’ll need if you’re to maximise your chances of success.

If you’re serious about winning as many games as possible then consistency is VITAL.  If you want to know why Andromeda is the best deck then you can stop right here, because this is the reason.  Kate McCaffrey may be able to make a better rig, Reina Roja may be able to shred the Corp with aggressive start and Keyhole runs, Gabriel Santiago might play the same cards as Andromeda but have more credits from HQ runs… but all those decks will randomly lose a certain percentage of games simply because they drew the right cards in the wrong order.  With her huge opening hand Andromeda is twice as unlikely to lose games to bad luck as any of her competitors, and that’s a big deal.

So am I saying you can only play Andromeda because she has more cards?  No!!!  Please don’t take that away from this lesson.  Instead take away that you should work really hard to play a deck that WILL do something, not a deck that MIGHT do something.  Make sure you can recover from bad opening hands, make sure you can find your key cards, make sure you don’t need to see too many cards in a specific order.  You might not draw them.  You might get them trashed.  You might lose them to some random Net damage you weren’t expecting.  Hope for the best, fear the worst, but plan for the likely.



 


“If someone has a better deck than yours, play it.”

Ultimately, this is the brutal bottom line of playing to win.  Build your own deck, tweak and refine it as much as you can.  Make it as consistent and sensible as possible, take out all the wacky combos that you’d love to do but you know deep down are just showing off.  And if, after you’ve done all that, you still have sufficient perspective to be able to throw away all that hard work and play somebody else’s deck… you’ve learnt the discipline to be a better player.

It’s not easy.  It’s often a bitter pill to swallow but the best medicines usually taste like crap – that’s how you know they’re medicine.

It’s a lesson Craig learnt just in time.  I met his Survival of the Fittest deck at a PTQ and beat him with my Sligh deck, even though he knew Sligh was a good matchup for him.  A week later we met at another PTQ and Craig had tweaked his deck to make it better against Sligh.  I beat him again.  Two weeks after that Craig won Grand Prix Birmingham playing my Sligh deck.  That’s not an ego-rub for me, BTW because I’ve dumped designs of my own for better decks many, many times.  It’s what you need to do in order to maximise your chances of winning.


“Don’t forget the obvious deck. Most of the time it wins.”

Obvious deck is obvious.  You know why it’s obvious?  Because a lot of people play it.  You know why they play it?  Because it’s good.


Stealth + Elephant In The Room = Stealiphant

Playing the obvious deck is often a dull and functional option.  It’s taking up all the creativity you can muster and flushing it down the toilet.  You won’t be the envy of your friends and rivals.  You won’t be the internet poster boy for a brand new deck archetype.  Strangers won’t stop you in the street to ask for your decklist.

But you might win more games.

“Boring + Efficient = Game Win” is a formula that holds true across a great many games.  Desperado is pretty much the poster child for this - a console that gives you a credit is hardly an exciting use of 9 Influence, but it's how you get your Kate deck into the Finals of the World Championships.



PROF ON TEAMS

“Teams are important.”

Teams are something that don’t really seem to be a big deal in Netrunner.  Yet.  With Store Championships and Regionals around the corner that could well change – it’s often the bigger tournaments that are the trigger for local rivals to team up to take on a common foe.

Teams don’t come naturally to players in CCGs and LCGs, not least because most of the time you’re sitting at the table alone, playing for you not your teammates.  That said, after 20 years in Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft and Netrunner I can tell you without hesitation that pretty much all the best moments in those 20 years involved other people – friends and teammates.  The nature of card games is that you’re going to get unlucky sometimes, you’re going to lose sometimes, you’re going to get bad hands or bad R&D accesses where the Runner scores 6 Agenda points with their first two runs.  Teams are a support network.  They’re there to help you build your deck.  They’re there to watch you play and will you on.  They’re there to talk over your decisions and help you play better in the future.  Teams are great.

When the UK’s Store Championships were announced earlier this week the first thing I asked was “who wants to team up and take down as many of these things as possible?” and that so many of the people who have been running my servers and trashing my programs were ready to team up was great to see.

Turn opponents into teammates.  It’s better that way.


  
“More people building a deck together = good.”

Oh.  Hell.  Yes.

More ideas, more points of view, more contributions from past experiences.  More playtesting, more decks played against, more options tested – more rigorously and more reliably.  When deckbuilding is a collaborative process and not a lone exercise you can achieve more, in less time, and with a greater chance of producing a result that is balanced against your likely opponents.

“What would you do differently?  Why?  Ok I see that but I was worried about Card X.  Have you played against that much?  Yeah, me either… maybe it’s not so important.  Have you guys needed Card Y much, I keep drawing it and it doesn’t seem to do much.  Oh it won a game for you?  Cool, maybe it’s worth keeping in.”

I know what it feels like to go into a tournament with a deck that I’ve built myself, tested myself, and has only my thoughts and experiences behind it.  I also know what it’s like to go into a tournament with three teammates whose opinions I trust, and with whom I’ve spent a month testing a deck, bouncing ideas around, and with whom we all agree we’re packing the right deck.  I’ve won games with cards that I know wouldn’t have been in my deck if I’d been running solo.

Teams make your deck better.


“Most of the time you should go with your team. Sometimes you have to recognise when to split with the herd”

It doesn’t matter how good your teammates are and it doesn’t matter how convinced they are that they’re right and you’re wrong, sometimes your Spidey Sense is going to tingle anyway.  If you just can’t get on board with what everyone else is doing for some reason then don’t be afraid to do your own thing.  Sitting there and playing a deck you don’t believe in will not improve your chances.

Why will your Spidey Sense tingle?  For a whole host of reasons.  Maybe you don’t think it suits your playstyle – it’s too controlling and you want to be more aggressive.  Maybe you don’t agree with your teammates about what decks you think everyone else is going to play.  Maybe you just don’t like Gabriel Santiago’s freaky metal arm.  

Teams are good – all the playtesting and experiences and discussions you’ve had in coming to the point where you play a different deck to them will still come in very useful in the tournament – but being in team doesn’t mean you joined the Borg and signed over your free will.



PROF ON PLAYING

“Be prepared to own up to your own bad plays rather than blaming poor luck.  Accept that some games are just out of your control, and you must be able to put it aside and move onto to the next round.”

These are two key skills.  Unless you’re a freak of probability math you’re going to lose games of any card game – that’s the nature of drawing cards randomly from your deck - but recognising why you lost those games and responding to those losses in the right way gives you the best possible grounding for approaching the next game.

It can be difficult to see your mistakes for what they are – you made the plays you did for a reason and you (hopefully) had a logic behind them that you believed in. Having the discipline to go back and challenge those decisions in hindsight is one of the best tools you have to improving your chances going forwards.  It’s tempting to see the Runner accessing an Agenda from the top of R&D to win the game as bad luck – and no doubt luck played a part in what they accessed – but did you really do everything that you could to minimise the opportunity to be unlucky?  It’s not a straightforward question – did you allow them to access easily as part of a calculated gamble to win the game?  Did you really need to make that gamble?

Some players are very good at spotting their own mistakes.  I have a Magic playing friend who can remember key decision points in games from several years ago, and he can tell you whether the line of play he chose was correct or not.   I don’t have that skill – once my mind is made up on a course of action I can be quite stubborn about accepting I was wrong.  For players like me it just becomes another reason why working in a team is so helpful.  If I can’t spot the mistakes in my own play I need other people to spot them for me.

The flipside of that self-analysis is to be able to recognise and accept that sometimes you can make all the right plays and have your opponent pull out a lucky win despite your best efforts.  There’s no point carrying that baggage around with you for the rest of the day - there’s nothing to be gained from loading extra importance onto the next game or from feeling as though the gaming gods are conspiring against you.  I’ve seen plenty of players go on ‘tilt’ after a bad game but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game where tilting actually helped.  You’re not a Jedi.  You can’t channel your anger like a Sith Lord and use it to hurt your next opponent, it will just get in the way of making good decisions.

Through working coverage for Magic: The Gathering I’ve been privileged to meet many successful players and talk about what the defining moments have been in their growth to the Pro level of play.  Time and again the answer isn’t about cards, or decks, or plays… it’s psychological.  Time and again the tipping point for great players is when they stop worrying about whether they’re 1-0 down or 1-0 up in the match, whether they’re 8-0 in tournament or a defeat away from being knocked out, whether they’re playing for thousands and dollars or nothing at all.  Stop thinking about all that.  Stop thinking about the last game or the next game.  Think about this game.

The key to this lesson.  Just because you lose doesn’t mean you made a mistake.  Just because you won didn’t mean you played correctly.  But if you make the correct plays every time you’ll win far more than you’ll lose.



“There are bad beats and bad drafts, but there are also escape opportunities for the alert….  you have to be able to spot where you can create the opportunities to be lucky

Don’t ever accept defeat, look for the way out.  We’ve all had Corp hands that just seemed unwinnable – Agenda after Agenda and no Ice.  Some truly are unwinnable, but some offer a glimmer of hope for those alert to it.  Sometimes you’ve got to play for that 5% chance of winning because the 95% play just prolongs the inevitable defeat – you’ve got to make the crazy play that shouldn’t work because if you play conservatively you’re just boxing yourself further into a corner.

This boils down to being another psychological lesson: as soon as you start thinking you’ve lost… you probably have.  As your game plan is disintegrating in front of you, as the Runner hits you with a second Account Siphon and installs Same Old Thing it can be really tempting to mentally throw in the towel and just go through the motions until you lose.  Draw cards, click for credits, try to rez Ice… it’s what you should do, right?  But if doing all that is just setting up a drawn-out defeat then don’t you need a Plan B? 

Sometimes you have to accept that Plan A is finished, and once that happens you’ve got to improvise.  What do you need to be true in order for you to win this game?  If it’s that the top of your deck is economy and Power Shutdowns, that the Runner doesn’t draw a Clone Chip and that none of your top 10 cards are Agendas then play as though that’s true.  However unlikely your winning scenario is IT’S YOUR BEST CHANCE OF WINNING.  There are no points for being a well-disciplined loser, but plenty of points for the winner who gave himself the chance to get lucky.


Craig’s greatest moment in Magic was precisely this sort of situation.  Faced with sure defeat in the semi final of Pro Tour Honolulu, Craig was moments away from being knocked out by Olivier Ruel in the deciding game.  His deck of aggressive creatures had been stopped dead – his gameplan called for him to keep removing Ruel’s creatures and attacking as best he could but there was no way through.  Craig analysed that his only possible chance for victory was to switch to the defensive, hope that his opponent wouldn’t be able to attack with all his creatures, then hope that the top card of his own deck was a certain card… Lightning Helix.

It was a lot to ask, but Craig had worked out that if he did what his deck was ‘supposed to do’ he could only stay alive long enough to lose a turn or two later.  If he risked it all he could win now.  It’s gone down as one of the most dramatic moments in Magic history…




 “Variance can work in your favour.”

Being lucky is essential.  It might sound odd to finish on this in an article about learning to play better but it’s true.  I don’t think many tournaments are ever won by a player who spent the whole day being unlucky, and in fact I think if every tournament winner was truly honest with themselves they’d accept that there were a couple of times when things definitely went their way – they hit R&D twice and pulled two Astroscripts, or an opponent couldn’t draw a Barrier breaker all game.  That’s the nature of card games: luck is a factor.  The best you can do is to play as well as you possibly can so that you’re at the top table when the good luck is being handed out and hope you get a little bit more of it than the other guys.

Everything about being a good player comes down to minimising how much good luck you need.  Play the right deck, playtest it enough to make the right decisions, work with other good players to incorporate their feedback and knowledge, analyse your own play for mistakes and good decisions, give yourself every chance to win every game.  You do all that just to mean you only have to be slightly lucky to win, not extremely lucky.  But at some point you’ll need the luck and if you don’t take any risks you’re denying yourself the chance to be lucky.

Relying on your opponent making a mistake is usually a bad idea (assuming your opponent is actually good) but sometimes it will be your only chance.  If you sit there and worry about everything he could have in hand, or unrezzed, you could avoid taking the very risks you needed to take to win the game.

You’re going to be faced with a decision.  Play safe and probably finish 4th, or take a risk and finish 1st or 8th.  If you really want to win then at some point you have to risk defeat, and recognising those moments when they come along is one of the hardest things to get right.  It's moments like those where you can get 5 of the best players around the table and never be able to get them to agree on whether the gamble was the right play or not.  They're the difference makers.

I guess what you’ve got to ask yourself is "do I feel lucky?".

Well do, ya, punk?