Start Competing: Practice, Part 2 – How to Get the Most Out of Your Practice Games

Welcome back, wargamers. In our previous article on practice, we talked about preparing for your first tournaments and putting in the time and effort to ensure that you can confidently take your first steps and start competing at events. This week, Jon Kilcullen is talking about taking the next step, and going from your first games to winning bigger events.

You’ve read the articles, put in the time to build several (thousand) lists that suit your style of play and you’ve started attending events, but now it’s time to take your play to the next level. Maybe you’ve had some initial success, done some 2-1 or 3-0 RTT showings, but you’re looking to take the next step. It’s time to talk about how you do that, and a big part of the next step is getting more out of your practice games. In this article I’m going to give you a road map on how to maximize the time you have to play to improve. Note that if you haven’t read part 1 of this series, I recommend starting there (check the link above). The core concepts there are incredibly important – specifically, practice and time management. The simple fact is: If you want to get better at something, you have to do more of it. There’s no shortcut for hard work; players that win events do not just toss a list together and string together six wins in a row. It takes days, weeks, and months of thought and practice for it all to come together. But on that same note, not all practice is equal – while you have to practice to get better, just putting in the reps won’t get you to the next level unless you’re smart about how you’re practicing.

In part one we talked about practice as a way to understand the game and familiarize yourself with your army and its rules. Today we’re talking about how to improve the way you practice to speed up your improvement. We’re going to cover the following elements:

  • Attitude and Setting expectations
  • Playing the game(s)
  • Common Pitfalls

Practice vs. Casual Games

Before we dive in, it’s important that we make a distinction here between casual games and practice games. In Part One, we talked about playing more games – for most players, the volume of games they play (0-12 per year, or less than one per month) simply isn’t enough to ensure they’ll learn the basics of the game and their army, and so just getting in more games is the first major step. Going from 12 games to 24 or 36 is a big step and requires a major time commitment, but isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. When we start talking about practicing for events and getting in practice games, we’re not necessarily talking about playing full games where two opponents play a match through to the end – as we’ll discuss later, in many practice games we may plan on trying out different scenarios, experiment with choices we might not otherwise make, and end games early in order to “re-rack” and start over after the game has reached a state where one player is heavily favored to win. When we talk about Practice games, we’re not necessarily talking about “complete 5-round games of Warhammer 40k” – though those will happen – and one key way that we’ll jump from playing 36 games per year to 100 will be to set up scenarios where we can work through as many games as we can in a short time to understand important decisions and aspects of our armies. In contrast, we’ll define “Casual games” – which are also great for practice – as games where both players play with the intention of playing the game to its completion (and generally, it is expected that both players are playing to win, regardless of the power level of their list). Both are important to your process.


Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones


Attitude is the single most important aspect of practice. When you schedule a game or a gaming weekend with people one of the most important things to keep in mind is that you need to set expectations both with yourself and with the people you are playing. I touched on this in my previous article on Building a Team and leveling up your community – not setting expectations between players can really lead to a bad time for both of you and potentially even set back a community of players if things go poorly enough. No one wants that. We all want to show up and have a good time (whatever that means to each of us), and that means you have to talk with your opponent beforehand to set expectations of what you both want out of it. Just because your intent is to get in some tournament practice games with your new army doesn’t mean that’s going to align with what your opponents want, especially if they aren’t people on your team who already know the score. If you show up to a store with 2,000 points of pure dick-punch and want to grind some games but your opponent shows up with an army that has special names and lore for every character, chances are that neither of you will end up having a great time. Likewise, if you want to try and hammer out several practice games quickly rather than play a casual game or two, it’s helpful to have a partner who knows that going in and is ready to play quickly and work with you on that (and ideally has the same plan). Have these conversations before arranging a game; ideally if this is a tournament practice game you can find games with your team (wink) or other members of the community that have similar goals in mind.

Once expectations have been set and agreed upon it’s time to think about your own attitude and what you want out of the games. At this point winning or losing should have no impact on your feelings towards the game – in fact, while you should be playing to win, actually winning your games shouldn’t be your goal. If you want to get the most out of these games you need to take your ego and put it in your shame closest with the rest of your grey plastic before you leave the house. Yes, winning is fun and exciting especially if it’s early on in your 40k career, but losing has its own rewards. You must be able to objectively look at games and determine what did and did not work without letting emotion get in the way (easier said than done, I know). Often for me it is exciting to run into a person or list that gives me trouble on the table. This is where opportunity meets desire. If you can emotionally detach yourself from wins and losses and see the game for what it is, then you’ll have the opportunity to learn new things. Nowhere is this more true than for a hard-fought defeat.

If you can train yourself to focus on improvement over winning in these games, you’ll be able to find value in learning. In the great Before Times (Rob: Pre-COVID), I had a very intense matchup with fellow Goonhammer author James “Boon” Kelling in round 3 of a GT. The game ended in his favor by a few points and I had made a couple of mistakes during deployment and on a critical turn where he delivered an above-average Smite and killed some things that I did not expect to lose. Standard procedure here is often to get upset and blame the dice – certainly there was some bad luck in that moment. But getting tilted would not have helped me – instead I needed to focus on how to salvage the game from that point. Dealing with these swings is ultimately more important than the swings themselves – you’re going to have bad breaks and bad runs and there will be nothing you can do to stop them, only things you can do after they happen. Afterward, Boon and I discussed the choice I made after that pivotal moment and ultimately I left the game feeling great despite the loss. I had so much information to process and learn from and Boon was more than happy to share his thoughts on how I could have won the game (Rob’s Note: This is generally something that you’ll find good players are willing to do, and is something that separates great players from many of the shithead angle-shooters. Note however that no one is obligated to help you out, so it behooves you to be fun and polite so they’ll be willing to do so). By understanding his thought process and combining it with my game plan I was able to grow and become a much better player after the loss. This is the experience you’re looking for as a competitive player – win or lose, every game is a chance to learn, adapt, improve and grow. Your goal with practice games is to manufacture opportunities to learn, not win.


Playing the game

Creating the Time

Being good – never mind being the best – at anything requires hundreds, if not thousands of hours of practice and an immense amount of repetition. That’s it. If you want to be good at this, you have to put the time in. That’s true for everything in life and it’s true here. For those of you standing up and saying “I don’t have the time to play these games because of X,” I hear you. There are a limited number of hours in the week and if you want to get good at this you have to manage your time and create a schedule to allow for gaming every week. That may mean giving up something. Or you may look at this commitment and say “that’s not for me.” That’s fine too – not everyone has the time or dedication to do this and you aren’t less of a person because you don’t. But don’t use your other commitments as an excuse – the top players all have jobs, significant others, social commitments, kids, and so on. They’ve made a choice not to neglect these things but to make room and manage their time to put in the hours required to compete at a high level.

Rob: As with improvement, this is pretty much true of everything – including hobby. There’s also a certain amount of privilege we’re assuming here, such as not having to work multiple jobs and having the physical capability to play these games. Adam “Loopy” Fasoldt just wrote a great article for Goonhammer last week about the Myth of Motivation and being a prolific painter when it comes to the hobby aspect of tabletop wargames – you can find it here. In it he mentions that circumstance and privilege are both major factors in his having the time to paint – not everyone will be able to accomplish this. But he also mentions that one factor is that he only has a few hobbies, which means painting is one he can focus on. He’s also a parent, and the number of hobbies he maintains is a choice. Likewise, if you’re going to commit to being great at 40k, you’ll need to make some decisions about how to allocate your time accordingly.

This is no different from any hobby or participating in a sport. If you’re playing sports or even just exercising you have to make time for training certain times of the week and you need to make sure that works for you and the people in your life. Ultimately, if this is something you truly enjoy, then you’ll find the time to play – Desire must meet commitment here.

I am opening with this because the number one question I get after people find out that I play more than a hundred games a year is: How do you find time for games? do you have no life? Putting aside the aggression in that second question, the answer is: Yes I have a very busy life. I work 8-12 hours a day, I write articles for Goonhammer, I run a large team and a very large community Discord, and I have a significant other, so I have to deal with the same ups and downs of family life as most of the people who ask that question. From a very young age I was involved in sports and was always used to having to manage my personal and my professional lives while scheduling the required time for training and for events. Transitioning to 40k meant implementing a very similar mindset/process: Each month I make a month long schedule and I discuss it with my partner. We talk about when I am needed and not needed, what she wants to do this month, and together we come up with a game plan that makes us both happy. Now I know when I am free for games and am able to start focusing on maximizing the little free time I have.

Maximizing Said Time

So how do you maximize the hours you have and get the most out of your practice games? Well there are a few things you want to try and do with your games, whether they’re casual games (see above) or practice:

  • Arrange games with quality opponents, ideally people who are also looking for the same experience. This might sound like common sense but if you are looking to up your game, you need to look for opponents who are better at the game than you and play them often. You’ll get much more out of practice games against good competition than you will a casual game. There are several reasons for this beyond the skill gap and differences in expectations – in casual games it’s typically frowned upon to concede early or reset the board state but these are very important things that come up in competitive practice games and while they remove the narrative aspect of play, they’re helpful for understanding decisions and seeing outcomes. This style of play is not technically fun for many players but for the player looking to climb the ranks and improve, this is their home.
  • Be prepared to Concede, Re-rack, and Reset board states. Often while playing you will know a game is well in hand after turn two or three, and sometimes after the first turn. Maybe you put a list concept on the table and your opponent/partner blew it wide open because you deployed incorrectly or made a glaring mistake. Maybe you made a huge gaffe early on that crippled your army’s ability to score. It will very rarely be worth actually playing things out and spending another 2 hours to lose a game that you both knew was over 15 minutes in. Yes, there’s definitely value in trying to gauge how far you can push a list after a critical error, but often you will be better off calling the game and re-racking. What is re-racking? Exactly what it sounds like – start the game over from deployment. Keep all the same secondaries, missions, and terrain and retry the game. This allows you to quickly play through several scenarios such as allowing your opponent to go first, yourself to go first, being aggressive vs defensive, and so on. It’s quite easy to play two to five practice games this way in the same time it might take you to play a casual game and you’ll accrue a vast amount of information while doing it. Sometimes a full re-rack is not necessary if the game is close and something extremely improbable occurs or an extremely poor decision is made that shifts the entire game. At this point a simple board-state reset may be called for: Simply go back to just before the big event took place and reset the models and start from there again. Often when I play against people who are looking to learn I will first let them make the mistake, punish them for it in game and then reset the game allowing them to take back the decision and retry it with the new information fresh in their minds. This really helps both players improve as now both yourself and your opponent are getting the opportunity to learn in a safe environment, and to experience solid, mistake-free games. There is most certainly something to be said for playing practice games as if they were top table of a GT with no take-backs, but we will get to that later.
  • Use a chess clock. Chess clocks drastically increase your efficiency while at the table and keep both players on schedule. I refuse to play a game without one, whether it’s practice or in tournament play. They are a pivotal part of my competitive play. Humans naturally fill time so if you have 5 hours of free time a game will just seem to naturally take 5 hours; add a clock that same 5 hours can suddenly allow you to get two or even three games in. Always set your clock to less time than you would have in an actual tournament game so that you get used to making extremely fast decisions and sticking with them. Rob: Though feel free to build up from a tournament standard time and then gradually reduce your clock time). Indecision really kills players at the tournament level if they are not used to playing on a clock.
  • Practice Deployment and First Turn Movement. This is one of the most important things you can practice and is actually something you can do with or without an opponent.  When I was newer to the game I would often just time myself deploying any given list concept to see how hard or easy it was to manage and if the auras and abilities would actually function properly after first turn movement. Putting in a lot of practice on your deployment especially under a time crunch will really help increase your skill and improve the quantity and quality of your practice sessions. Rob: I used to do this a lot with X-Wing, where mastering deployment and movement on turn 1 with a TIE fighter swarm was critical to the list’s success. In 40k, this will help you understand the placement of your units, and help you avoid mistakes like not leaving room for a critical character or being unable to move your units correctly on turn 1.

So what does this look like? Here are some examples of how I would typically practice on any given weekend:

When I schedule a game with a teammate we will discuss what we want to focus on, so for example; a teammate is testing out Chaos Daemons and wants to know how it will handle a very aggressive combat army going second. We will set the game up and deploy normally than I will just tell him he is going second. We play a couple turns out in order to get the information we need and then we’ll re-rack the game and play it “for real,” as if it was a tournament. If either of us makes some glaring mistake we’ll simply warn the other, note the mistake and correct it and keep playing. As the game nears its conclusion there may be no point in playing it out; we’ll simply talk out the last couple of turns or phases and move onto the next game as soon as we feel comfortable doing so. In this environment we aren’t concerned about wins or losses; save those concerns for tournament play. Instead what we want to do is feel out how the lists play, build our game plans, and understand how to respond to specific situations. At this point it’s all about mental preparation and wins and losses only matter in the sense that they help us understand what decisions will lead to a win vs. a loss. Often what I will do is put myself in less than ideal situations and see how many points I can score. For example: At this point we all know that 9th edition missions tend to favor the player going first, so in most games I choose to go second once I’ve gotten comfortable with my list. I know what it can do going first and going second is going to happen in a 6-round event (roughly 98.4% odds of going second at least once), and it’s just as likely to happen against good players in later rounds so practicing playing from a disadvantage really helps me mentally prepare for when it will occur in an important round of an event.

It’s not all pseudogames however – it’s still a good idea to play games as if they were taking place on a top table every once in a while, especially if you find that you are making a lot of mistakes and making them more than once. Getting punished hard for a mistake and then having to play a game out can sometimes be beneficial but I typically wouldn’t recommend doing this if you have limited time. Practice games should be all about getting every last bit of quality out of the very little time you do have. If you are playing against opponents that want to play out full games then I suggest you start picking the hardest missions for your army and always choosing to go second. This will help you get the most value for your time investment.

Rob: The other value to playing out a full game every now and then is to make sure you know how to close games out. While many games are a foregone conclusion by turn 3, big swings are still possible and small mistakes can cost you points that affect your standing in the long run. One of your goals should be to make the process of good play as routine as possible, so even if you’re nervous or distracted you’re still able to make the right decisions because good decisions are a habit for you.

Once the game is over it’s important to have an open and honest discussion with your opponent about what both of you think went right, what went wrong, and what could be changed. Have them tell you what they were worried about and where you could have made better choices. Help them do the same – you will often learn as much explaining your own actions as you do hearing them explain theirs. This is critical information being offered to you for free by someone who’s playing a different list than yours. Something that can help with this is keeping a journal to take notes of specific outcomes or mistakes, and taking photos of the game at key moments such as deployment and first turn movement can help you to go back later and review things with an objective mind. Memory can often be clouded by emotion and bias and you may fail to remember important details of your deployment or first turn movement.  Using these photos or journal you can take this info back to your team or your preferred discord (maybe even the GH one) and ask for feedback.  Now you have the ability to truly deep dive on the minor details that make a major difference.

Rob: Even if you aren’t writing a battle report for Goonhammer dot com, there’s a lot of value in thinking about how you’d write the battle report of your game – what you’d say the important details were, what you did right, where you messed up. Thinking about games this way can help you identify the key parts of your game that need work, or the parts of your list that need tweaking.

Common Pitfalls

When you practice there are several things you may be doing that will hinder or hurt your ability to improve, both in game and outside of the game. Here are a couple common pitfalls associated with practice games to avoid:

  • List tailoring. List tailoring is when you and your opponent schedule a practice game ahead of time and you use your knowledge of what they’re playing to build your list. So for example, you may know that they are playing Space Wolves with mostly all Thunderwolf cavalry units, so you change your list to add Thunderfire cannons or high mortal wound output units/abilities that ignore invulnerable saves when you otherwise wouldn’t field those units at an event where you have to take on a broader range of armies in the meta. Make sure your list is based on the concept you’re building around (the list concept), not who you’re practicing against. You won’t be able to tailor your list against each opponent at an event so there’s no point in trying to edge out advantages in practice games this way. You’re just hurting yourself and making things tougher for your opponent in a way that isn’t helpful to them either, unless they should be expecting that particular type of list. One way you can avoid accidentally doing this is to avoid…
  • Playing the same person or group of players over and over. We all know it can be scary to go out and meet new players and take a risk to venture out to new groups but for competitive practice you really do need to try and get out and see a wide variety of players and get experiences with the community so you know what to expect and also so you do not start subconsciously list tailoring to your little bubble of players. Search out players in your communities that have the same mindset as you and get some games lined up, play a wide variety of team mates and make sure you are not constantly smashing into the same list arch-type.
    Rob: At the very least, you need to play against a variety of lists, so it can sometimes be helpful to have someone you know run a different list that you’ll expect to see, for another faction if possible. Doing this can help both of you understand that faction/list much better and helps with some of the problems of playing the same person over and over, particularly if your options in this regard are limited.
  • Don’t conflate win rate and self-worth. Or put another way: Don’t keep score on your practice games. It’s a dangerous road to go down and it can bleed into your personal life and mess things up – I’ve definitely seen this occur. Practice games aren’t about winning and losing, they’re about testing and learning in a “safe” environment. Don’t put stock in your wins and losses in practice games and if you can manage it, try to avoid it in your tournament games as well. You aren’t any better a person because you have a higher win rate and your sense of self worth shouldn’t be tied to that. When the only thing that matters to a player is a high win rate, they create perverse incentives for themselves – one way this might manifest is a player only taking games against easier/weaker opponents and bringing their strongest list every time in order to score “cheap” wins. They’ll avoid the hard matchups or playing with disadvantages in practice because winning the practice game matters more than the experience. They’ll avoid hard matchups to preserve their win percentage. But the reality is that there’s more to practice and even competitive play than wins and losses. Aim for personal growth and forget about win rates.
    Rob: Unless you beat JONK with your Night Lords. Then you should absolutely crow about that shit forever.


Next Time: Dealing With Success

Now that you have a road-map to success, a better understanding of what it takes and the mentality of this style of play I hope that you can put it all together and find value in the words written here.  As always, this will not be for everyone and I understand that some people will scoff at the idea of such hardcore practice but just remember, to the serious tournament players this is their idea of fun.  We are all in this hobby together, this article is aimed at helping give those players with the desire to be great the knowledge they require to get there. I have a supreme passion for honest discourse about this game and all the aspects of competitive tournament play, you can find me constantly answering Q&A in the Goonhammer discord.  I hope to hear from some of you soon on how your practice sessions are going.

Until next time keep seeking that saga

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