User Content Wednesday – The Two Skills of 40K

3++ is the New Black is a pretty amazing blog.  Good writers, a good vibe and a deep archive perfect for mining User Content Wednesadays from.  While Kirby is the front man and absolutely bends over backwards to make sure that the it’s 2 in the pink and none in the stink, he also has a pretty good team of writers to help him out with that.  This post by AbusePuppy is a perfect example of the all pinkness, non-stinkness that hangs around 3++ in almost the same way as thinly veiled allusions to the shocker hang around hastily written intros.

There are a lot of big names in the 40K internet scene- I’m not going to even try go to into naming them all, because I will inevitably leave someone out and there will be hurt feelings and crying and internet rage and a great and bloody war will start and the streets will echo with the cries of lamenting women and dying men and quite frankly I don’t want to have to worry about all that when I go out to do my laundry.

This brings up an interesting question, though: what does “being good at” 40K mean? I posit that it essentially breaks down into two very separate skills that tend to get clumped together, resulting in much of the internet arguments that abound.

Those of you who have played other games, especially Magic: the Gathering (which, yes, I will continue to mention in my articles because it is an excellent example of a “mature” competitive game system, both in terms of design and of player base) you may recognize this division, and I think it exists in many games where there is a major element of customizing a (list, army, deck, etc) from a range of available choices. Essentially, there are two kinds of “good” players- list-writers and generals; being a good general will help somewhat with list-writing, but not a lot, and vice versa. Many people are good at both to varying degrees, and the very best of players have to master not only each of the skills, but how to intertwine them. However, for a majority of players, we can differentiate them as two distinct abilities.

Generalship is the common perception of someone who is “good” at the game; we could further break it down into an incredible number of sub-skills, such as distance estimation, feinting, reading, general strategic awareness, etc, but for our purposes this single class alone is sufficient. It is the ability of a player to effectively utilize a list on the tabletop and bring it to victory, even in the face of poor odds, awkward dice rolls, poorly-placed terrain, unfamiliar missions, etc. it covers not only familiarity of one’s own list and the minutia of its capacities but also the enemy general’s and how best to defeat it.

A good general has a feel for how and when to move his units, and how to position members of the squads; of how far he can expect to move and thus how close he needs to be for various gambits; the rough probabilities of various rolls and how likely things are to go awry as a result of poor luck and thus what kind of risks any given move should entail; a thorough knowledge of the rules and how best to use them to his advantage in a legal manner; and many, many more. Generalship is an active skill, one gained mainly through play experience- all the internet talk in the world won’t make you any better at playing the game. It comes from layers upon layers of intuitive understanding built up over previous games such that the player does not have to consciously think about many of the details of what he is doing, greatly freeing their mind to consider more long-range implications or details.

To contrast, the skill of list-building has absolutely nothing to do with experience on the tabletop. (That’s a bit of a lie- there are limits to list-building skill born out of generalship because if you don’t know what works, you can’t build a good list. Still.) List-building is the other half of the game of 40K: creating effective armies from the options available in the various codices. Whereas generalship is an open-ended skill entailing vast numbers of interrelated choices, list-building is much more finite, but also much more precise; the addition or removal of a single Meltagun is a much more important decision when it is multiplied over the course of every game in a tournament.

List-building is a skill of interactions of a list of elements: do I have enough anti-tank to serve my purposes? Can I expect to move quickly enough to get to objectives? How do I deal with each of the major army archetypes in the game? (Metagame is a factor in list-building, but not to the degree that many people seem to think. You want to avoid being grossly disadvantaged against common foes, but building to beat them is just folly.) Do I have a sufficient selection of tools to allow me many solutions to different problems? Am I sufficiently resilient that my army will still be functional after a round of bad luck? Notice the repeat of the word “sufficient” above: wringing every last drop of efficiency out of a list is the goal of list-building, and that always involves making choices of balance of the different elements. There are no “perfect units” that do everything we need without weaknesses for minimal price; there are always tradeoffs to be made. Whether these trades are worth it or not is largely the determiner of whether a unit is good or not (in a particular list.)

Good list-building is born more out of theory than generalship is, although it still involves plenty of experience, albeit of a different type. Like generalship, it comes from extensive practice writing various kinds of lists and assessing their success on various fronts. Skill at list-building does not come without some testing, as it is important to determine what works and what doesn’t, but it is not particularly dependent on the actual quality of play involved. (Always remember: winning a game doesn’t mean you played well, and losing doesn’t mean you played poorly.)

Is list-building really a different skill than generalship? Yes, it is. You can have a strong sense of how elements interact with each other and how the game functions without having the presence of mind and intuitive knowledge to be a good general. Likewise, one can have acute strategic instincts and an exhaustive list of strategies to use without really understanding the numerics of how different units compare in terms of efficiency. Of course, in the real world you will virtually never find someone who is extremely good at one without at least some skill in the other, but in theory it is possible- more commonly, there will be varying degrees of imbalance between the two. A good general with poor list-building (and that refuses to use other people’s lists) will consistently win with subpar armies; a good list-builder with poor generalship will do mediocrely with good armies- undoubtedly most tournament players have met one of these people at some point.

So how does all of this result in internet arguments? In my eyes, it all comes back to the “I won therefore I’m right” fallacy, or in more general terms, “Army XX has done well therefore that proves it’s awesome.” Good generals can take poor (or, more commonly, mediocre) armies to victories, thus “proving” that they’re good. I have long said that I don’t accept the validity of individual results without a good structure of theory to explain them- this is why, despite CSM, Orks, and Daemons having taken many victories at top tournaments, I do not believe they are good armies. It’s not simply a matter of “It shouldn’t be good in theory therefore I must invent a new theory”- I am well aware that the factors that make for a good army are varied and complex; what is worthless in one codex may be gold in another, and what appears terrible may actually be quite useful. However, all too often these explanations boil down to “you just don’t understand my army,” with no further description of how these factors work- and I am a firm believer that if you can’t explain how something works, you’re not making a convincing argument about it and very well may not fully understand it yourself.

(And just to make things clear: this article is not intended to be an offhanded jab at Fluger, Jarelli, or any of the other people I have argued with recently or in the past. I am not trying to imply that they are bad at one or more of the above and thus, by elimination, that I am right. While I may consider myself to be a pretty reasonable list-writer, I am by no means the best and there are still many, many things I am trying to wrap my head around. I am wrong just as often as anyone else and my words should no more be taken as gospel than anyone else’s.)

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