Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Composers and Musicians

It's that time of year again for Havoc and I: the League of Legends World Championship. This means hours committed to hobby time in front of my PC, watching anxiously, hoping my bracket survives, and that my favorite teams are contenders, and not mere footnotes. Nevertheless, it has me thinking about composition. So often, I find myself wrapped up in the power, balance, or imbalance, of a single unit. But with this most recent world tournament, we've seen a number of upsets in the group stage already, owing to players and teams valuing strong, "OP" picks over the strength of a team composition. So, what does all this have to do with 40k?

I've heard it said and seen it read many times that in order to find success in a game where you assume you and your opponent are of equal skill, is that your force, or team, or list, must be able to dominate half the game, and contest a quarter of the game. Generally speaking, I feel that this rings true, even or especially in 40k. That's why today, I'm talking about balance on a quasi-macro scale. I'm not down to the nuts and bolts of one unit wrecking the game, or even at the level of looking at a codex and pulling a 'damaging' build out of it. No, we're talking about building a list, as a composer. Selecting your instruments carefully so that you come up with a victorious symphony, instead of getting drowned out in a cacophony of defeat.

Let's start with some self examination. When I sit down to write a list, I've got two immediate choices. I can play to my strengths as a player, or I can cover my weaknesses. Playing to my strengths means my victories will be decisive (typically), but my bad matchups get even worse. If I'm playing an aggressive army, and my natural tendencies are to overextend, then those armies that are able to bait me in, or present me with targets that are too hard to crack, I'm done for. Conversely, writing a list to cover my weaknesses can be uncomfortable to play, or make my play become disjointed. Writing a more reserved list if we as a player have aggressive tendencies can lead to under utilization of resources. Personally I've always tended to the former than the latter, but that's a matter that everyone has to sort out for themselves.

Next, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. When composing our merry band, we have to make choices. Decisions. We can compose a band of a little bit of everything, and make some basic harmonies, or we can dedicate ourselves to a genre, and sacrifice some instruments or harmonies for the sake of relying on the strength of our genre. In terms of gameplay and what this means when composing a list, is that we must question if we want a 'balanced' or take all comers list list, or if we're willing to throw ourselves into a more singular or binary direction, subjecting a list to counters and bad matchups. To this, there's no right answer. Self examination can't solve it, or at least not for someone like me, who tinkers endlessly, and is a relentless perfectionist. Talking about it with your opponent cant solve it, because every game is unique. New list, new opponent, new mission.

Nevertheless, here, I feel I can double back to the earlier point, and that is this: Out of flavor units, or off type units, can help define a faction without breaking it. Let's start with a few broad, yet easy examples of what I'm talking about. For my first trick: Pokemon. Every pokemon can be either one or two types, yet they learn other moves. Good game design means that mechanics are built in that reward matching a "STAB" (same type attack bonus) but you can still use off type moves, especially to shore up bad type matchups. Next: Magic. I keep bringing this game up, but I keep tying it back to 40k. Both games hold a similar place in my heart, and both are about the oldest thing in their respective niches. But, I digress. Magic made a whole off color set, it was called Planar Chaos. The design or intention was to look at those secondary elements which usually are overshadowed by one color's primary attributes, but find a home as the primary attribute of another color. And lo and behold, this otherwise discordant note didn't ruin the game forever, but helped the devs better define the colors, and build the game going forward.

So, what are these divergent harmonies? Well, the first, and arguably most successful element would, in my opinion, be Necrons. Here we see a faction that, prior to 5th, almost 6th edition, was infantry, supported by a vehicle (monolith) or two, plus a smattering of jetbikes in the form of destroyers and wraiths. Come 5th edition, the army was given a facelift, and the firepower was impressive, yet they posses(ed) one of the more potent CC units, wraiths. And yet, to me, wraiths were not a discordant note. Their design seemed to mesh a little too well with the concept of an army with limited ignores cover shooting, and large amounts of primarily close range shooting. Having something fast, and durable, which could get around cover saves, and deter enemy charges was no accident.

What else falls under this banner then? Banshees, Bullgryns, Wracks, and Farsight, just to name a few. Now, what's gotten me in a bind with the list, is that I have to concede that some of these are poor examples, either because they're all but irrelevant, or because they're all too good. The point wasn't, contrary to my norm, to highlight GWs balance issues, but rather to show that these 'out of color' choices can help people define and bring life to their games. After all, that so often seems to be the last bastion of argument for the 40k playerbase anymore. That we have choice. Flexibility. Options. But, that in turn evokes the question, are options for naught when they're 'unplayable'?

And this, for me, is where I draw it back together. This article has proven reflective for me. I haven't been respecting games or my opponents as I should, be it tactically, fundamentally, or from a list building standpoint. As stated earlier, I'm constantly tinkering, fiddling with lists. My restless mind wanders, pulling lists apart, tearing them down, and then building them back up, and in so doing, I find myself so rarely satisfied. At the end of an event or tournament I can celebrate victories, express gratitude toward opponents and organizers, but more than anything, I can be critical of my list. My play. Win, lose, or draw, I'm always looking to improve. And this, I feel, is why so often I'm dissatisfied with my marines. When fielding my Necrons, I know their limits, their matchups, and I can focus on my play as to reasons why I've done well or poorly. But with my marines, and the volume of options I have for them, I always second guess the pieces I've picked for a given day, or event, or tournament. My play can always be improved, to be sure, but am I kneecapping myself with my list? Did I write something with too many bad matchups? Was my core idea or premise doomed to failure from the start? In turn, I've tried to remove my biggest obstacle to enjoying marines. I've decided to put White Scars on the menu. Put them back on the roster. Maybe it's the wrong call. Maybe my marines will be even less satisfying to play against. Or, perhaps worse yet, people won't enjoy playing against them, causing them in turn, to be relegated to the same fate as my Necrons. Shelved. And herein lies no small part of the issue. My gaming roots are in the shark tank, or the fiery forges of battle. And so often I find myself circling again, unable to shake those thought patterns. So too, I expect I'll resist them less. Because as much as I love my Thousand Sons, we've all heard me lament playing them, and how badly they suck. Perhaps this is the biggest favor I can do myself and my opponents.

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