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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Tactics over Toys and Tidbits

If you ever start to seriously study anything, you’ll find out that our reality is a pretty complex place. What may seem very simple on the surface quickly turns into some pretty difficult stuff. The thing about complexity is, though, that most of what makes something complex is hardly what makes it up at all.

You’ve heard of the butterfly effect? That’s the whole, “a butterfly flaps its wings….” And after a long, complicated chain of events, somehow that butterfly flapping its wings causes a hurricane to smash into the east coast of the US, causing billions in damage. People sometimes refer to this as Chaos theory. More importantly for this article, people also use that to show you just why even the smallest, seemingly inconsequential things matter. It makes us all feel good when we feel like any small action we take could have some sort of giant ripple effect.

The truth is, though, our butterfly flapping its wings was not the sole cause of that hurricane. Thinking that the butterfly was the direct cause, creating some huge, ripple effect, is just not true. The butterfly may have added just that one, last, little bit to the equation that equaled hurricane, but it certainly wasn’t the cause. Much bigger forces were already in play, just waiting on that butterfly to barely tip the scales between nice summer day and disasterous storm. Those bigger forces, be they atmospheric conditions, the tides, air masses, whatever… I’m not a meteorologist, are more like the CAUSE of the hurricane. The butterfly is more like a straw that broke the camel’s back.

When you study non-deterministic systems, meanings “things” in life for which there is no real solution, like predicting which horse wins the next horse race, you will quickly note that there is never just one, solitary variable determining the outcome of an event. There are many! In fact, Chaos theory above, with the butterfly example, truly exists to tell us that we will NEVER know all the small variables that went into something happening. (That’s right, it’s not a story to make you feel better about being an individual snowflake capable of creating enormous ripples in the world.) We may never know that it was a butterfly that was the last straw before the hurricane. What we WILL know is that the biggest forces in play, the atmospheric conditions, were present and a hurricane was likely. For another example, we may never know that it was a special type of grain Horse A was fed that just barely caused him to win, but what we can know is that Horse A is raised and trained by one of the premier horse trainers in the world.

In statistics, when you are faced with analyzing a scenario in which multiple variables are in play, like the creation of a hurricane, it’s often useful to know which of the variables are the strong ones, those that greatly affect the outcome of an event, and the rest, those that barely have any affect at all. You can study these mathematically to arrive at the conclusion that although a butterfly flapping may have contributed to the cause of an event, it’s statistical contribution was only 0.000000001% whereas atmospheric conditions were 95% of the overall contribution. Thus, if you really want to know if a hurricane is going to form, you should really be putting your effort into studying atmospheric conditions rather than insects.

In playing a game like 40K, the same principal should be applied. You should really be focused on the contribution of the biggest variables towards what helps you win a game rather than sweating the small stuff. This is the difference between an arm-chair general and a seasoned player. An arm-chair general focuses on the list. He focuses on how to squeeze optimization out of units, lists, and what have you in the world of “think games” where his reasoning comes from theory-hammer. A seasoned player draws his conclusions from games actually played.

A seasoned player recognizes that things like complete list optimization is generally the smallest variable in play. Why? Well, first, because you never know what you will need till you get there. Tournaments, games, armies, lists, players, and much more all effect “what you need”, and thusly, are all much greater factors than list building. A seasoned player will also tell you that rules usage, or tactics if you prefer, is much more important. Your ability to use the rules is the bigger variable in play over your ability to build a “balanced” list. You are much better off studying tactics and seeking advice on better play than you ever are on seeking advice about what to put in your list. (Indeed, I could argue that proper study of tactics will lead you to be a better list builder, not the other way around.)

This is why people always rattle off, “a good general can win with a bad list.” It’s because rules knowledge is the bigger variable in the system.

It’s also why players who have the time and capability to practice will always be better in the end. Likewise, it’s also why I will never be a great 40k player because I don’t have the time or capacity to practice, mainly because we live in the desert of 40K. I have plenty of time to “list build”, but that won’t mean a thing if the “atmospheric conditions” aren’t there for my list to work.

Another fine example I like to use on this point is that of owning your own bowling ball. What??? You've been bowling before, at least once I hope. You go to the lane, you select a ball from those the lane has available, and you play. Well, if you go bowling a lot, I highly recommend purchasing your own ball. You can get it drilled to fit your fingers, and it will help you get more consistent games. What I do not recommend doing is paying $300 for a professional ball and instead paying $40 for a cheap ball. Why? Because you aren't a good enough bowler for it to make a difference!

I will never be a good enough bowler to warrant a professional ball. I simply do not have the time or capacity to bowl that much because it's PRACTICE that makes you a good bowler, not the ball. I will wield a cheap ball and a professional ball with the exact same skill. A professional bowler will need a professional ball because he has so finely honed his skills that the ball is now actually making a difference.

With 40K, it's not different. Worry more about rules, practice, and game play. Like most, myself included, you will never be able to be part of a group of people who can practice enough 40K that fine tuning your toys and tidbits of information will make any difference. I recommend getting a ball if you play a lot because it helps, (getting a list you like), but beyond that, worrying about if your ball (army) is professional grade is all but meaningless.

My overall point? Study rules and the ways to use them to win games. Don’t sweat, “do I have a good list???” Optimized lists still regularly lose games. There’s tons of evidence to show that.

Instead, study rules. Join in on conversations about tactics and strategy. Stop worry about your list and start worrying about things like "how does someone best win a game with 5 objectives?" "How do you beat a Tau army?" "Does Logan Grimnar's abilities work when he's not on the table?" Much, much more important.


  1. Great article, thank you. I've been playing 40k now for about 8 months and the thought of competitive play is exciting although being surrounded by seasoned players is a tad intimidating. I've been through 5 armies in the 8 months and have settled on Blood Angels, this article confirms for me what the next step is to becoming a better player: studying the rules and codexes.

  2. One of the best articles I have read in awhile Neil. Just outstanding.

    To Wil above, I also suggest playing a variety of people that are better then you. Any good player will tell you they learn more from their losses then they do their victories. With that additude you shouldn't be intimidated by good players -- you should relish in the opportunity to play them win or lose.


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