Welcome back, wargamers. In our previous articles on practice, we talked about preparing for your first tournaments and followed that up with a look at how you can step up your game in practice to improve your game and start seriously competing at larger events. This week, we’re talking about the next, least-discussed step: What happens when you win a few games.
I’ll admit, when I first pitched this article, I got some funny looks and “what??” reactions from other folks in the Goonhammer offices. But if my experiences playing at events – particularly in Magic where I was more successful competitively – have taught me anything, it’s that winning a few games at a big event is a real problem. Let me explain.
Before we continue, note that this article is part three in a series on practice. I’d strongly recommend that if you have read the first two sections, you go back and give them a read:
Here Come the Butterflies
You’re at an event and doing well. Day one went great – you’re 3-0 and even though you slept like shit last night you’re feeling a bit better as you start game four. This is a big deal. Suddenly though, you’re nervous. You’ve got butterflies in your stomach, and you’re twitchy as hell. You’re unable to concentrate and you’re second-guessing yourself. This game really matters — what if you blow it? Oh god, you are blowing it! Before you know it, you’ve made a stupid mistake. And you’re so pissed, you make another one. These things spiral out of control and suddenly you’re kicking yourself, telling anyone who will listen about how you could have totally won that game 4 but you blew it and now you’re out of the top 4.
Success can be tough! With each win you score at an event, the pressure increases. Each new round is more important than the last, and as that pressure builds, you start to feel it. The good news is, these feelings are pretty normal – almost everyone experiences something like this. The bad news is, well…
You Haven’t Been Here Before
There’s really only one cure for these jitters and unfortunately, it’s being in this situation often enough to make it routine. But even for top players, that’s not necessarily the case – many top players may win a few events during a year, but they’ll also get knocked out early of others, particularly if competition is tight. Doing this often enough to get used to it is a tall order, especially in the era of COVID where events are less common.
That said, there are other things you can do to mitigate this. In this third and final part of our series on practice, we’re talking to players who have been there before about their experiences and how they handle the pressure of being in contention on Day 2.
For this article, we’ve assembled a round table of some of Goonhammer’s best tournament players. Because past success is important here, let’s take a moment to meet the authors:
Shane Watts is a regular Goonhammer author and a tournament powerhouse in the US Mid Atlantic region. His recent accomplishments include a 2nd-place finish with Orks at the YHP Labor Day GT, a 4th place finish at the YHP Fall Brawl GT with Adepta Sororitas, and a 4th place finish with Grey Knights at the Maryland Open GT. Shane also had 1st place finishes at both the Carnage of Summer and Crucible of Winter GTs in 2019 and a 7th-place finish at the NOVA Open in 2018. He’s been at this a while, playing whatever army he thinks will get him wins without being too popular.
James “Boon” Kelling is a regular Goonhammer author and Aeldari player who is having a pretty great 2020, all things considered. After a string of RTT wins in 2019 with little GT/Major success to show for it, he’s been having a bit of a breakout year: His recent accomplishments include taking first pace at the Mid-MO Maelstrom GT and a second place finish at the Fargo Two Rivers Open GT. James also has first place finishes at three RTTs this year.
Cyle “Naramyth” Thompson is the crochety old man of the Goonhammer competitive crew, and don’t let his generally affable exterior fool you – beneath that breezy, easy-going facade beats the cold, black heart of a competitor filled with grim DETERMINATION. Similar to James, Cyle decided to make his breakout in the pre-COVID part of 2020, opening the year with some big wins. Cyle’s accomplishments this year include winning the Wheat City Open Major in February and top 5 finishes at the 2020 Renegade Mini and Two Rivers Open GTs, plus a 16th-place finish at the Iron Halo Con Major. Cyle also finished 4th at last year’s Spring Conflagration GT and a 3rd-place finish at the Iron Halo Major event.
Chase “Gunum” Garber is the wild card of the Warhogs team, frequently asking Cyle to “Hear Him Out” as he proposes insane plans and builds lists so crazy they just might work. It feels like Chase is forever toiling in Cyle’s shadow at events, but has had his share of success, including an 8th place finish at the Two Rivers Open GT with Harlequins. Last year Chase finished 14th at the Iron Halo Major and had moderate success elsewhere chasing Best-in-Faction for Dark Angels.
James “One_Wing” Grover is Goonhammer’s resident list wizard, doing weekly analysis on the meta for our “Competitive Innovations in 9th” series. Although COVID has limited the availability of UK events this year, he placed 12th at the Beachhead Brawl Major and 27th at the Winter Warfare Major. James’ 2019 accomplishments include top 3 finishes at the St. Georges Champion Major, the London Open GT, and top 8 finishes at the Blood & Glory 40k Championships Major and Seeds of Destruction GT.
Richard Siegler is a regular guest author on Goonhammer and is the reigning 40k ITC Champion, having put together a stellar 2019 campaign that includes wins at LVO 2020, NOVA 2019, Warzone Atlanta, and the Atlanta ProTabletop Open Majors. Add to that Top 8 finishes at nearly every other event he attended in 2019 – a list that includes six majors and a GT – and you’ve got someone who is better qualified than anyone on the planet to talk about what it takes to win games on Day 3. Although famous for winning events with T’au throughout most of 2019, he’s also been exploring the Adeptus Mechanicus and Necrons this year.
James “Boon” Kelling – A Sterling History of Failure
I think the first thing to keep in mind is that it’s the rare luck or talent that someone who isn’t well experienced just walks into a GT or Major event and wins it. The game is just too complex, changes too much, and there are too many great players to just allow that to happen routinely. Hence the previous article on practicing.
The thing about day one and going 3-0 is that it’s easy to think of yourself as shit hot while discounting how you got there. Did you dodge the bad matchups or the great players? Did you gain any systematic advantages (winning the option for first all three games),or did you overcome some legitimate challenges in your journey to day two contention? Reflecting on this a bit at the end of the day I think is helpful to put yourself into the right mindset for day two – own your strengths, examine the weaknesses, and acknowledge where you were lucky but don’t dwell on it.
My own history is one of plateauing and failing on day two for a couple of completely opposing reasons:
- Overconfidence and taking my ‘foot off the gas’
- Lack of confidence and psyching myself up
The former is perhaps the best illustrated by my experience at Adepticon a few years ago – sitting at 3-0 I rolled into my final game of the night feeling great. I had a great matchup against an Ultramarines player and felt confident in going 4-0 and making it into the day two top-16 finals. Indeed on turns one and two I cleared the vast majority of his army – but this is where it all fell apart. I got sloppy and careless and thought it was in the bag – I stopped doing the basic block and tackle types of things that would continually put me in the position to win the game or keep him out of it. By the time I realized that I was going to lose the game it was far too late and I was out of position to impact the outcome. I lost the game, I did not make top-16, and I felt like an idiot. I was overconfident, I stopped thinking critically and it cost me.I think the mindset that allows this to happen is one of hubris which lacks respect for your opponent. This manifests in other ways too, such as walking up to the table and thinking it’s in the bag before the first dice is rolled. I’d say it’s a cardinal sin of top-table play and may leave you stomaching a loss that could have very easily been a win and an opportunity lost.
At the other end of the spectrum is the lack of confidence or underselling your own ability. I think this is a common experience as someone who hasn’t been in the position before may believe they actually don’t deserve to be in the position they’re in and just got lucky. In my own experience this leads to:
- Overthinking a given matchup/situation
- Being overly conservative (lack of appropriate risk-taking)
Both avenues will lead to mistakes; either being unwilling to take advantage of a calculated risk/opportunity that you normally would, or talking yourself out of a plan or action by second-guessing. I think what is important here is to first realize and understand that luck is always a part of making top tables, but luck alone cannot take you to the top. If you made the top tables it’s because you played well enough to be in that position. That understanding is fundamental, you’ve earned it and you belong there. Go kick some ass!
The question is then how can you prepare? How do you prevent second-guessing or being overly conservative? For me, I prepare for the day two games by doing a little homework. In the typical tournament you will usually know who your matchup is and what the mission will be for the first game of the day, either explicitly or by looking at the placings. My first step is to review the list, or if there is some uncertainty, the likely lists and ask myself some questions:
- Am I familiar with this list?
- Are there any surprising choices or combinations?
- What does this list want to do?
- In what circumstances might the list struggle?
- What can I do to gain an advantage?
If I don’t understand the list or some of the choices it’s good to seek input from teammates and friends. If you can confidently answer the questions and have a general understanding it’ll help in forming a strategy that you want to pursue. Building that strategy is important, even if it’s just a high-level notion, because it helps to anchor your approach in an understanding of both armies. More than anything, this is a hedge against second-guessing and overly conservative play because it provides you with guardrails in approaching game-time decisions.
The first night is usually filled with booze, friends, and food, but if you can find the time this is a useful exercise to review with all potential matchups as you move towards the final, top table. This is especially important for any matchups that you think are particularly challenging or aren’t familiar with the units/lists. The less surprised on day two you are, the more confident you will be in playing your game, evaluating your options, and deciding on your approach.
At the end of the day you want to play your game. You should view any day two games as just a tournament game like any other and not allow anyone to put you off your game – if you win you’ll have earned it, if you lose then you’ll have hopefully learned something and be that much more ready for next time.
Cyle “Naramyth” Thompson – Projecting a Champion
Being 3-0 is a hard position, but it may not have actually been a hard path. When events have enough players you might not actually hit a hard matchup until day 2. It’s quite possible to submarine, accidentally or otherwise, and score low on your first couple games to avoid some of the blow out big players. Granted a blow-out player can also get blown out; such is life.
Regardless of how you got there, being 3-0 is rough when looked at from the “40k as vacation” lens we have to sell this dumb hobby as to our coworkers: you are now having to be smart. You have to be smart after a long day of travel, a night you were going to totally go to bed at a reasonable time and not finish the booze (Boon note: in the parking lot, at 3 am), and another long day of being smart. It would be nice to have a looser Saturday night with the crew. Maybe get a nice dinner and catch up now that everyone is on the same schedule but you can’t be up until the wee hours, and you should probably eat something that isn’t fried. (Gunum note: When the Warhogs gather, moonshine follows. Day two is always dangerous as some players don’t get out of bed.)
So here you are, a salad on the table, the single drink for the night in hand, scrolling through BCP. It looks like scores are finalized, you are certainly playing whomever. Maybe they are even sitting at the table with you. You talk shop. You talk shit. You listen to the rest of the team talk about their big plays, the narrow and “narrow” losses, while you mull over are missing something from this list, from this player. “Has anyone played this guy?” “Oh yeah she’s real good at…” “…be careful he slow plays… “…they got yellow carded for…”
But mainly the wheel grinds. What’s the mission? Are the tables numbered? “Anyone play on table 5?” “oh the terrain isn’t bad on that, two big ruins…” It’s exhausting but required. Honestly, game 4 is the hardest game precisely because you have all night to think it over. The next day probably has an abbreviated lunch break since paint judging has already happened so games 5 and 6 come much faster, and you can’t do much about them other than play the way you always play but game 4, that’s when the real galaxy brain stuff starts coming out.
The only thing you can do is the thing you’ve been doing the whole time. Make sure you treat your body well so your mind can do the work. Play your game, ignore who your opponent may be. Treat them with respect, regardless of what they may be playing, and as Narawife tells me before every event “Don’t get cocky.”
And probably bring a chess clock.
James “One Wing” Grover – Avoiding Mistakes
Boon and Cyle have already done an excellent job of covering most of the important stuff, so I think I’ll restrict myself to throwing in an example each of macro- and micro- level mistakes that have cost me dear when I’ve been in a good position.
The macro-mistake I’ve made more times than I’d like is coming up against what feels like a “good” matchup and putting together a needlessly risky early game plan to try and win on the spot. If you line up against an opponent with an army full of juicy targets it’s all too easy to start mentally ticking them off in your head, but what you learn over time is that going all-out in those situations doesn’t really win you any more games, but can open up ways for you to lose. All it takes is a low-rolled first turn, or placing a key model too far forward in your eagerness to get into range, and suddenly you’ve given your opponent a window to flip the game on its head and take you out. It’s vital to pace yourself even when you think your path to victory should be clear, and that’s more true than ever in 9th where staying on the board all game is vital.
For a micro-mistake that you can make in the moment – don’t let excitement about something you’re planning for later on in the turn cause you to forget other, less flashy steps you still need to tick off. When you’re about to spring the perfect trap in the shooting phase your mind naturally jumps ahead to that point – so when you’re about to hit that critical point in the game, take a moment to slow down and make doubly sure that you’ve moved all your units, brought in all your reinforcements and cast your psychic powers. Just like with making a risky plan above, if your big moment goes awry you’re going to be doubly screwed if you then notice that you forgot to put up your defences or move onto an objective.
Richard Siegler – Preparing for Day 3
The first thing you need to tell yourself is that you are there, undefeated sitting pretty in the single elimination bracket, for a reason. Confidence in yourself, in your abilities, game knowledge, the list you have designed are very important. For me, a good deal of this confidence comes from the amount of practice and preparation that I put into the event in the days or weeks leading up to it.
Having planned to attend an event, usually several months in advance, I am keeping a sharp eye on changes not only to the global or national meta, but also to the local meta in which the particular tournament will take place. Usually this comes in the form of searching through BCP each week or excellent resources like Goonhammer’s own meta analyses for the winningest lists and players in the area. What lists are winning or going undefeated? How are those lists changing over time? Have any of those players discussed their lists and playstyles on podcasts?
More introspectively, I am also focusing on my own list. Attempting to adjust it as best as possible to how the meta is shaping, particularly that local meta. If the meta overall does not have many high placing Astra Militarum lists, to use an example, but the best local players in the event area are running such lists I am going to think about how I can best fine-tune my list to especially good into those top players without completely changing my list design. Similarly, I am going a lot of internal testing with local practice partners. Now it’s impossible to completely predict what a player might bring, but based on their previous events you have a sense of their best faction at the moment and the design choices they typically make and you can test your own list into variants that could give you trouble. Whenever I do preparation for an event, I am always putting my list into the hardest possible circumstances. If I was playing Orks into a local meta with Guard players, I’d be prepared for that one player who might show up with Yarrick. Can I handle that or do I need to adjust?
Once I submitted my list and all of the lists are published through BCP, I do a deep dive on those being piloted by the top players in the area and other good players traveling to the event. What unexpected choices were made? I can’t change my list, but I could change how I might play that matchup now. And this is the period when I am especially focused on getting in as many practice games as possible against each of the lists I find most troublesome. Put yourself on the hardest mission against that list and if you can win that practice game, it’s very likely you can also win on a less disadvantageous mission (Take and Hold versus Domination, for example).
Another thing I do in these practice matchups, which are not full games but enough of a game to get a sense of how the matchup will play out, is test different strategies in that matchup or against that particular list. You might win your first practice game against it, but there might be an even more sound or reliable way of playing it that could be worth testing. It’s important to remember, though, that practice games are not about winning, but about understanding a matchup. So if wild dice rolls have Ahriman perils twice in turn one and banish himself back to the warp, I would play on as if that did not happen. Your practice partner is also unlikely to be as experienced or comfortable playing that list as the person you will be facing at the event so having an open dialogue and talking through strategies with them is very important. Both of you will want to do your best to understand how you expect that player to play against your list, but also what alternative paths could give you trouble?
Now is all of this necessary, no? But the more work you put into the preparation, the easier the day 3 situations will become. At a certain point very little will surprise you, and thus each game at the top tables is more about the little moves and synergies you can pull off to get an edge over another good player. It’s about adapting to the in game situations that arise and making the best of them, rather than focusing on what their list does and how the opponent might play it. Those things were the focus of your practice.
Chase “Gunum” Garber – Oh God, my list worked and now I’m here. What have I done?
I’ve finished what feels like a countless number of Day Ones of a GT 3-0 only to fall on my face or draw the first game of day two. When I’m going into that next day – potentially with a hangover whose severity ranges from “mild” to “oh god why” – I am rarely focused too much on the list that I am playing versus who I’m playing. As I so often find (and typically embody): A good pilot with a bad list can still be your fourth game of a six-game GT and being prepared for that ahead of time is really important.
If the person you’re about to play is a name that you recognize, you already know that you’re going to be in for a tough game and you can move on to focusing on their list and deciding on secondary objectives you’ll take between downing Rum and Cokes. If it’s a name you don’t know, look them up on the ITC score board. See where they are standing as a player, as well as their standing with the army they are playing. If they have zero scores with the army you’re going to play against, take some time to familiarize yourself with their army’s rules and stratagems. Because there is a real chance this player may not know how their own things work, or have been playing them wrong. Being aware of the timing of stratagems can really matter if they start attempting to use stratagems that need to be used in their movement or command phase, in their charge phase.
If they have scores in that faction, are moderately ranked, then we can start looking at their past scores and how the event has been going for them so far. Were their games blow-outs? Were they incredibly close? Being aware of their confidence level coming into the game is also a great thing to keep in mind. You’re riding high from your own victories, no doubt they are feeling the same and will be pretty excited that first game as well.
Finally, realize that very same player is also looking at you. This can be a weird feeling if you haven’t been there before. Suddenly, your Hear Me Out list is firing on all cylinders and you’re sitting in a great place, but at what cost. Now, your next opponent is talking about your list with all of his buddies at day one dinner, figuring out what secondaries to take, looking for the “Gotcha!” units that you’ve brought along. Take 5 minutes to take your previous opponents’ secondary choices against you into mind, and be ready for some of the worst case scenarios.
As Siegler said above, –You– got here. Your choices and your army. Have faith in yourself, take some time to celebrate with your bois that you are in a place to celebrate your success, just don’t go too crazy please..
Oh, and bring a chess clock.
Shane Watts – Keeping Level
Most everyone else has run the gamut on their experiences, so I will end up echoing some of these experiences and ideas.
The biggest advice I can give to anyone in this scenario is to try and “Keep a level head.” The more calm you are when it comes time to make judgement calls (deployment being a huge one) the better off you will be. You are more likely to make mistakes otherwise.
To walk through my own experiences:
- The night before day 2, I always try to go out to dinner with a group, in order to de-stress and have a good time. (You probably don’t want to be hung-over on day 2 as well, but your mileage may vary.) I’ll generally put some thought into the upcoming round 4 match up and mission, but I have found I tend to overthink it if I devote much time to it.
- The morning of, I try to get everything ready early, so I am not rushing to the table.
- During the game, I do my best to play as if I could lose at any time. I don’t try to size up opponents, any player can lose in any game at any time, so I play with that in mind. It helps me stay focused.
- The flip side to this is that I found I can overthink my options during a game, and this is one of the main reasons I like playing on a clock. If I look down and see I have been agonizing over a decision for too long, I know I have been overthinking it. Typically if I realize I am doing this, I will say fuck it and go with my initial plan. (And yes, usually I say “Fuck it” out loud at least once every event, haha.)
- Finally, it is ok to lose. I have seen a lot of players just tilt out if/when they lose. You have to think of it this way, with 1 loss at a GT/Major, there is still a good chance you’ll be in the Top 5-10. When this has happened to me in the past, I reach out to my friends and just talk to them, and try not to focus too hard on why I lost. It all circles back to Keeping Level, if you can calm yourself before the next game, you are in a significantly better position.
- At the end, you have to learn from your results and accept them. If you win, great. If you lose, why? Reflect on those games, and decisions you could have changed to improve the outcome, but don’t obsess with them. Try to find the largest mistake you made (if any) and learn how to mitigate it in the future.
- One of the main things I do for every event is to have a realistic goal beforehand. This helps manage my expectations, helps keep my head level as I progress through an event, and how I feel about the end results.
The bottom line is, try not to let the scenario impact your judgement, and have fun.
Next Time: Dealing with Bad Actors
That wraps up our look at this aspect of competitive play but we aren’t done yet! Next time we’ll talk about dealing with cheaters, bad actors, and opponents who might otherwise try to take advantage of you during a game and what you can do about it. In the meantime, if you have any questions or feedback, drop us a note in the comments below or email us at email@example.com.