My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: lmao git gud scrub
– with apologies to Wilfred Owen
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we’d all like to be better at 40k (and probably not at 40k as well, but that’s outside the scope of this website). It’s the reason Goonhammer keeps publishing the Start Competing series, and a major part of Warhammer chatter all across the internet. Some of us feel that need rather more acutely than others – the meta-chasers, the WAACers, anyone who’s ever tried to stuff an extra power fist into an overflowing list, sure, they have their own goals. But I’m talking about the real struggle, about how to deal with the fact that maybe you just aren’t any good at this. And, beyond that, how to keep doing something even though the universe is telling you that maybe your services are best utilized elsewhere.
My bona fides in that area are well documented on this hell website but, to recap: I’ve played 27 games of Warhammer 40,000 this year – I’ve got a few more lined up, and with any luck I might even hit 30 before the year is out, but just to focus on the ones so far – of those 27 games, I have lost 26. I’ve been tabled 17 times. I’ve gotten tabled by Guard, Custodes, Chaos Space Marines, Death Guard, Thousand Sons, Space Wolves, Grey Fucking Knights, regular and Dark Eldar, and Orks. I’ve lost to GT players with high ITC rankings, and I’ve lost to a guy brand-new to 40k, playing with an Ork army that I gave him. Records don’t exist any further back than this year, but I can assure you that I have been playing, and losing, for a long time. You could bet blind, before anyone even deploys, that any given game will end with me getting tabled, and you’d end up ahead.
Reader, I am bad at 40k.
So why do I keep playing this game? One that, by any objective measurement, you’d be hard-pressed to be worse at? I don’t actually enjoy losing, this isn’t some weird hang-up where I self-sabotage. For starters, this isn’t the only thing I’m bad at. I’ve had a Peloton for six months. I ride it 3-4 times a week, sweat like a pig, and I have lost about 5 pounds – most of which actually came off when I had wisdom teeth pulled and couldn’t eat solid food for a week. I haven’t set a PR in months, but I keep getting on the stupid bike, and I don’t know why. Maybe I’m hoping it’ll get easier, or i just enjoy the act of trying more than i want to avoid the sting of failing.
My first game at the NoVA GT this year seemed like a lay-up. Sure, I’d lost all of my practice games, but those were against Rob’s GT army of Vigilus-enhanced Chaos Space Marines, and a friend’s notoriously brutal Wulfen-heavy Space Wolf lists. This time would be different. I’d lucked out, and drawn Grey Knights. Who even brings Grey Knights to a GT? I visualized winning the game, even tabling this dude, and started telling myself not to gloat too much about being in the winner’s bracket afterwards. I got tabled, and the other guy ended up going 4-2, which is insanely respectable considering what the GK book is like. He was more gracious about it than I had ever seen myself being. I finished out the day getting tabled twice more, and after three games was ranked 295th out of 295.
I’m not here to tell you how to build better lists or win more games. We have other writers that can help with that. I’m here to tell you how I deal with losing, and how, if anything, you can get better at being bad. I’m also not going to tell you that the real W-L record is the friends you made along the way. I’m not here to patronize you, if you’re reading this it’s because you’re probably not happy with where you’re at, and I get that. It sucks ass to put yourself out there, invest your time and energy in something, and come up short every single time.
But why keep playing a notionally competitive game, if the outcome is pretty much a foregone conclusion every time? For me, it’s because Warhammer is pretty much my main outlet for screwing around with pals. I quit drinking about a year ago, so the default modern social activity is out the window for me, and 40k fills that niche of “an excuse to see my dudes, and something to do while we catch up”. Also, if I’m going to keep my job here at the Goonhammer factory, I kind of have to keep playing. And because two fully-painted armies playing on a built-out table full of terrain is a sight to see, and I’ll never get tired of that, even when I lose a hundred more games.
Let’s talk about coping mechanisms.
“You know, hope is a mistake”
– Max Rockatansky, Mad Max: Fury Road
It starts with picking an army you honestly enjoy. For the models, the fluff, whatever it is, as long as you aren’t picking it just because it’s good. This probably doesn’t come across in any of my posts, but I genuinely adore my Dark Angels, and I’ve never even considered running a different chapter. Yes, I picked up Tau, but that’s more to try out some new painting ideas, not so I can start running three riptides, quad-fusion Coldstar commanders, and a pile of shield drones. If you think the sole reason you’re losing games is your Codex, you’re not only never going to get better, you’re going to get madder and madder. It’s never just the book, it’s never just the dice, and that’s fine! You have to know, not only think but really know, that there are gaps in your game before you can start to come back from them. Or, do what I do, and develop a complex where you kind of hope you never get a good Codex, because then you wouldn’t have an excuse anymore.
Since we’ve entered the Hard Truths part of this post, there’s no easy way to put this, and I think the people who need to know this already do, but: once you get a rep for it, you’re going to get roasted non-stop for being The Worst Player In Your Group. It doesn’t feel great! Most of the time people are just messing with you, so don’t get too pissed, but if it crosses a line and stops being funny, you are absolutely allowed to ask them to knock it off. A bit of good-natured ribbing is one thing, but if you feel like a punching bag, tell them to pound sand, even take a step back from the group if you have to, and don’t feel bad about it. Fuck ’em.
The good news is, there’s plenty of ways to find joy in a game of Warhammer, even if “getting a positive result on the scoreboard” is off the table. For me, games are a reason to paint. My work isn’t amazing, maybe a 6/10, but it looks better than nothing and I’ve legitimately improved over time, so getting to put new stuff on the table is always a treat. Maybe you can get really good at trash-talking, or forging a narrative? Find something in the game that will give you a moral victory: kill that warlord, don’t get tabled, whatever you want! Regardless, try to remember that you are Having An Experience, and that’s always worth something.
Finally, I’ll say this for tournament play: at least with competitive smash-face games you know what you’re getting yourself into.
I had a ForgeWorld Warhound Titan that I’d bought years ago, and never painted. I speed-built it last year, to drive two states away and play in an Apocalypse game for a campaign I wasn’t in, but it was still covered in bare primer. Then Rob went on the 40k BadCast, and I got clowned on pretty hard about it, and blitzed through painting the thing in a few weeks out of pure spite. It hit the table shortly after, and exploded after a single Ork shooting phase – didn’t even survive to make it to their charges – while I was on the phone with my fiancee, who had just gotten into a car crash (she was fine).
I haven’t always been so zen about this.
I’ve thrown embarrassing fits during games, to the point where I’m surprised anyone in our local group still agrees to play against me, and at least one person – nicest dude I know, real stand-up guy, but some reason sets me off like nobody’s business during games, probably precisely because he’s so nice about it – has started running dangerously toned-down lists. I’ve quit games before, just started packing up my stuff and gone home. I know it sucks when you’re getting demolished and you have other things you’d rather be doing. Christ, anything would be better than getting tabled again, but you really, seriously, can’t bail on a game. It’s the most powerful Dick Move you can make, insanely disrespectful.
At one point, I legitimately considered quitting playing 40k, and just buying models and painting them. Part of this is the time investment – and I don’t entirely mean mine. We’re all adults, with families and jobs and errands to run: if I’m asking someone to drive an hour to play, and then they basically get 2 turns of a real game, before we shift to joylessly mopping my sorry army off the board, am I wasting their time? Are they even enjoying cruising to an easy win? This hasn’t actually been a problem yet, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t weigh on me every single time.
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
– Khalil Gibran
If someone actually is trying to help, don’t be a jerk about it. I can empathize: right after getting rocked, or even during the game, the last thing you want is for someone to twist the knife by telling you what you’re doing wrong. I maintain that most people are just trying to help with this. It’s understandable to think they’re being condescending, but trust me, they probably aren’t. It’s not great to feel like a) you’re being talked down to, and b) you deserve it, but you have to get over that and try to accept their advice. Easier said than done, I know.
Before NoVA, Rob and I were at our annual friend-cation, and we took over the pool table in the house while everyone else was playing Mario Kart or whatever, to get in some practice games, since I’d never seen the missions and he had the cards from the year before. During one of the games, he asked me a question about some rule or another that one of my units had – it doesn’t matter what it was, and I don’t remember anyway. What I do remember is snapping back with “Do you actually not know, or are you just being a dick?” , which, of course, he wasn’t being a dick. I instantly regretted it, both because I was being snarky to my oldest and best friend for no good reason, and because the entire reason we were even playing was because I needed the practice. Dude was doing me a solid even being there.
Do I get salty sometimes? Absolutely. Do I feel good about this? No. But some days the best you can do is recognize it and try to do better next time. Don’t be a jerk just because the game didn’t go your way. That said, if the other player actually is being a jerk, well, that’s different, but most people aren’t. I get it, it hurts when you roll up to a game, head full of hopes and army full of new paint jobs, and the other player easily picks you up and places you directly into the trashcan. Taking their army’s behavior out on the player still isn’t fair, and it’s not a good look.
What can you do, then?
Well, you can try ironic detachment, I guess, but that will more than likely wind up with you quitting 40k. Which, if you want to do that, you certainly can, but if you actually like the game in principle, and the only issue is you getting owned, keep at it. Taking a break to collect yourself is one thing, but if you want to keep playing, and want to improve, and you just can’t seem to get there, it’s unfortunately going to be a long road. Getting good, assuming your brain is even wired to keep track of all this noise and make strategy games something you even can be good at, takes time. Taking into account the shifting meta, the time to build and paint models, the small sample size dictated by the sheer length of games, and the random nature of dice, getting good is a slow ship, only able to turn at great effort, its course adjusted by slow degrees in a wide arc. I haven’t figured out how to get there myself, and I’m not sure I ever will. I’ve made my peace with that.
But if you want to, you have to be willing to learn from your mistakes – don’t wallow in them, but try to think after a game about which units and stratagems worked, which ones didn’t, and what combos might be out there that you aren’t seeing. Reading the Start Competing posts and tournament recaps on this very website may prove helpful. Ask for help! Goonhammer is a great resource, but we don’t know your local meta as well as you do, and one of the most useful things I’ve started doing recently is running through games with my opponent as we’re packing up and clearing off the table. Maybe they can point out where you went wrong, or confirm any thoughts you had about your list. If you’re not willing to own your badness, and accept a bit of vulnerability in trade for some assistance, you’re stuck. But if you want to get better, you’re going to have to work at it, and that’s going to take time and effort.
Or just enjoy the act of playing and don’t even worry about getting good. It’s never not fun to just roll dice, regardless of what the numbers or inscrutable symbols on them mean for your space marines. You don’t have to get good, and no one can make you. If you’re having a good time, keep doing what you’re doing. I’ll see you at the bottom tables.
Nowhere to Go But Up, Probably
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