Wednesday, March 4, 2015

According to the Internets, Football is NOT Competitive and Balanced!

So, bit of a bugbear lately for me has been a rise again of the internet complaining about Warhammer 40,000 from a competitive point of view. As a result, this article ends up being kinda rambling ... but such is the way of blogs!

The articles and comments that got me going MOST in this direction have lately been on Bell of Lost Souls, but that's not a knock on BOLS ... just a knock on some of the comments / direction of the comments there.

Here's my $.02

Warhammer 40,000 is not a well-balanced Tabletop Wargame. This is VERY true from an "Internal" Balance perspective. It is somewhat less true from an "External" Balance perspective.

 - Sidebar: Internal, to my way of saying it here, refers to balance between the attractiveness competitively of the different units within a codex. As long as there are Pyrovores, there won't be that much Internal balance. There are NO codices out there that do not have subpar units in them which few people ever take.
 - Sidebar Part 2: External, to my way of saying it here, refers to balance between the attractiveness competitively of the different codices/factions within the game. With some glaring exceptions, the game is actually pretty well balanced right now from a Faction perspective, in terms of each Faction having builds that can be put together (especially with the use of other factions through allies) that *can* compete to win a national-level GT like NOVA, AdeptiCon, or the Las Vegas Open.

What bothers me is not the argument that the game is not Balanced. What bothers me is the large number of people who are arguing that the game is not COMPETITIVE, with Balance being their basis.

There has, for years, existed the popular cause argument that you can only do well at Warhammer 40,000 if you chase the meta; if you build the netlist; if you play what's currently the most "broken" or "powerful" army or faction or build(s). This has, for years, been broadly false.

Just recently, at the Las Vegas Open, Sean Nayden and Nick Rose took first and second, playing each other in the final round, with a Tyranid army loaded with Lictors and even spore mines ... and a Scout spamming army. There should be nothing surprising about this. Why? Because Sean Nayden and Nick Rose did well. These guys have been doing well at tournaments they attend for at least the past 6 years, through numerous editions and codices and "reigning" netlists. Each has been responsible for Net Lists even being a thing in the first place. For example, Leafblower Imperial Guard armies did not win very many GTs. Nick Rose, however, won Ard Boyz and BOLS blog posted his Leafblower success to enormous popularity, and a lot of people copied it (or were running something similar to begin with). Sean Nayden popularized Beast Pack Eldar (very quietly, mind you) and is now popularizing Lictors with Tyranids. Sean almost never posts much of anything anywhere, so people don't even realize he's the one popularizing it. To the point one commenter at BOLS argued that Sean was just copying a guy who won the 11th Company GT a few months ago with Lictors. Commenter didn't realize that guy was also Sean.

If you look at the players who routinely place at the top of nearly every GT, the same names do well everywhere they go. You will almost never see anyone in the "top tier," if you want to call it that, doing poorly. You will also almost never see that tier only winning with the current supposed netlist.

Since at least 4th Edition (when I started playing tournaments locally with regularity), I've never seen a time when the "meta" or the game's inherent imbalances prevented top tier players from doing well at tournaments with a wide variety of lists, inclusive of ones considered to be not good.

At the same time, since at least 4th Edition, I've never seen a time when the "meta" or the game's inherent imbalances didn't dominate the middle and lower tier of players. This brings up perhaps the issue at hand.

No matter how unpopular it might be to say, most people are NOT top tier brilliant tacticians capable of manipulating and understanding the rules and nuances of the game enough to win with the movement phase, mission, above-table "games," and the like. MOST people are not capable of applying tactical decision-making too far beyond target priority and basic mission understanding within the confines of a pressured tournament game. As a result, the greater a game's imbalances, the greater these imbalances take over as the level of play reduces.

Let's use a visual aid here:

The laundry list of players who've done well and/or won GTs with lists considered "not good" in times when everyone complained about how you had to shell out for the current netlist to win ... is extremely long. You will, however, also find a very long list of players who show up to a GT with the current netlist, lose a few games to those types, and crush their skill peers or inferiors throughout the mid-tables. Again - balance matters more as player skill reduces. That is a flaw in the game, for sure. It is not the same as the game being non-competitive. In fact, the better you apply your intellect and really, truly compete within the framework of the game rules, the better you'll do and the less balance will matter.

The long and short here is: stop conflating balance with competition. Also, stop conflating game mechanics with competition. I have a very close friend who by his own report is VERY, VERY competitive. That said, he really does not like the way the game of 40k is played from a "combat feel" and rules perspective, so he's not able to enjoy himself playing competitively within 40k. His resultant decision? He doesn't play 40k really anymore! Totally reasonable, self-respecting, grown-up response. What does he not do? Rip on people for "not playing the game how it's supposed to be played" as if his own idea of how a game should be played is somehow more valuable than other peoples'. AKA, he's not a douche.

On that note, let's talk about the subject line of this article. Aside from conflating "balance" or "mechanics I don't like" with "competitiveness," the common complaint people make REGARDING balance is that in order to win you have to spam certain units in certain slots for each Codex.

Yes, internal codex balance is lacking in 40k. That said, results from tournaments show a greater level of parity across a greater number of factions and faction combos than has been the case in years. Those who are addicted to angrily raging about the balance of the game thus are left with only the leg to stand on of "well, yeah but you have to spam key units!"

First of all, so what? Again, as above, if you can play with the Faction you own and do well, when maybe you couldn't in 5th edition, why not enjoy that a little bit and work on your game skill instead of complaining about some other thing you can find wrong? Regardless, let's draw some comparisons here.

"I want to field an army that reflects my impression of an Ultramarines combat deployment, and my idea is - regardless of whether there are other fluff and story examples which contradict this idea, and regardless of whether I could simply model on top of my unit choices however I like - that this is explicitly 1 assault squad, 2 tactical squads, a small terminator squad, a whirlwind, a vindicator, and a land raider! I'm upset that the game won't let me do well with this!"

Hmm, alright. That is unfortunate! Is it all that unusual for competitive situations? Let's take a look at professional football. If you go back 30 years, the rules and competitive setting of the NFL made power running games FAR MORE POWERFUL than they are today. In today's NFL, power running attacks will only take you so far in most cases (though some teams manage to get more mileage out of them than others by leveraging other creative components of their roster or redefining things by countering the prevalent meta ... sounds Seanick Naydenroseish to me, but I digress). The "dominant" meta in the game today is an elite quarterback-driven passing attack combined with constantly increasing emphasis on elite cornerback play. Does anyone really believe the Seahawks would have made back to back super bowls without elite cornerbacks to shut down passing attacks and incredibly clutch improvisational play from their Quarterback (even despite Lynch)?

What if there was a coach in the NFL who really yearned for the old days and he wanted to win by having a game managing quarterback, like a Trent Dilfer or something, a super power running back, like a John Riggins, and a run stuffing defense. What if that guy then complained about how the rules of the game aren't fair and don't allow his way of playing to work how it "should." Think most people would be agreeing with him and saying "shucks, you know what, that guy right there, he sure is gettin' screwed by the game's rules and the fact it ain't balanced anymore for running backs! Anyone who calls the modern NFL competitive and balanced is just a WAAC idiot chasing the meta!"

We could extrapolate this for days, of course, and there are a million examples. How come the rules of Football don't allow you to field a team comprised entirely of big ole linemen? I think it'd be SO COOL if there was a team where the ENTIRE OFFENSE was over 300 pounds each! That would just look so baller on the field! I wish Football weren't so imbalanced.

Truth of the matter is, the biggest problem is 40k lets you take just about whatever you want. Because of this, you get the age old problem of the entitled individual. This is the person that believes because he is FREE to do as he wishes, whatever he CHOOSES to do should be rewarded and lauded as fantastic. I'll empathize with ANYONE that their preference isn't as good as they wish it was. I'll empathize with NO ONE that complains about their free choices not panning out and blames it on those who gave them the choice in the first place.

Is 40k as balanced as it could be? Nope. Are all the units in the game given the rules they deserve to allow a perfectly diverse field of play? Nope. Does this make the game noncompetitive and render those who play it competitively into WAAC douches? ALSO NOPE.

Let people play how they want and live with the consequences of the playing choices you make.

What's doubly cool, because I have to plug of course, is most tournaments will reward you for WHATEVER choice you make. At NOVA, you can play in Highlander quickening events and enjoy truly diverse army lists. Or, you can play in the GT and find your way to brackets that embrace a more casual atmosphere. Or, you can play in the Narrative where we've built Codex Supplements for you that greatly enhance the # and variety of powerful units, explicitly targeting the poor Pyrovores of the game. Make the game what you want it to be for you, play the game the way you enjoy, but - really - stop attacking people who don't do it just the same way as you.


  1. I don't think it so much that people are locked into a concept of what an army has to be like with your Ultramarines example, It's that people look at what they own, then they look at whats winning (not just the big tournaments, but at the shop on Saturdays too) and they see a difference in hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours of hobby time.

    Yeah, there's some butt hurt and jealousy too. But unlike magic or x-wing, it's not always feasible to get what I need and try it myself. You don't get those games in where you find out it's not as easy as it looks. I get the same "that so broken" reaction in X-Wing as 40K when a good player pulls some new combo on me. In X-Wing there's usually something I can do about it next time, and it probably won't cost me more than 15 bucks. 40K on the other hand, I just didn't have the time or money for it.

    And it's a serious problem for 90% of players. If the top 10% can make it work, good for them. But the game doesn't look healthy to the majority of gamers that just get stomped on by the net-lists. Those negative experience hit us a lot harder than logic and reason.

  2. This also just came to me. Part of your argument is that good players don't need net-lists to win, but you go on and list as evidence the players that essentially create or inspire the net-lists.

    It's circular reasoning. Of course the guy who creates the net-list can't be a net-lister. But it's net-lists that go on to give midrangers trouble for the next few months So the top players in 40K are essentially the cause of and solution to all of 40K's problems.

    1. While in many cases a list that wins is subsequently parodied, it is often either not parodied, or parodied to failure. Leafblower did not win bunches of GTs in 5th Edition, but it was made nefarious and popularized by Nick. That's quite the point - there ARE no netlists that just dominate the GTs by crushing everyone in their path, only players who fail to defeat these lists outside of running one of their own.

      I also believe the negative experiences resulting from balance are REAL - 40k is NOT a well-balanced game (Though better balanced than some give it credit for). Ipso facto, it's not laudable that the "mid" players often struggle against netlists. It's just equally not laudable to misallocate the blame for why (i.e. by saying the game is not competitive or that competitive players are just WAAC douche netlisters, etc.).

    2. Disregard that last post I made, I mis-read that first sentence and thought I saw a "not" before the real.

    3. That's the problem really. You can't get past the perceived reality with real reality. Because it is impractical for most people to gain any personal experience counter to that.

      Most people can't just pick up a net-list and run with it, but most people probably have lost to a net-list once or twice at a local shop. And because the time it takes to play a game, or adapt your army, you just don't get the reps in to figure out how to beat each and every trick combo that comes up.

      A game this expensive and this time consuming needs to be more balanced internally and externally on average to justify itself.

      It doesn't help that the company that makes the game promotes a culture where trying to win a game is looked down on.

    4. CaulynDarr nailed it.

      If I get hit by a new combo in X-Wing, I probably either have all those same ships/cards already, or can get them for $15-30. If I want to keep up with 40K, we're talking hundreds of dollars in rulebooks alone, much less the hundreds of dollars in models and the time it takes to assemble/paint them before I can play.

      That time and money expense is a huge barrier to entry for anyone that wants to dream of making it into the top tiers at tournaments. So most don't bother. The ones that do commit themselves to competing at that level are maxing out their credit cards and giving up all their free time to do so.

      40K's lack of balance doesn't prevent competitive play, but it does drive away players that want to feel like they have a fair shot at winning. That's most people.

    5. It's another article, discussing the financial barrier to entry, but folks like Sean don't have hundreds lying around ready to go. I'll blog separately about the financial fallacy. Not everyone wants to modify their ideal, but finances are rarely the real barrier.

    6. You can tell yourself that if you want to Mike, but that doesn't make it true. Cost and balance are the two biggest factors driving players away from 40K, and it's what keeps most of those who remain from trying to play competitively.

      It's what former players tell me, it's what the shop owners tell me. But I guess we're all wrong and you're right.

    7. Hardly how I feel or think, but vitriol and sarcasm surely are the way to friendship and happiness. I'll share some points on this tangential topic in a separate post, and happily engage in that forum!

    8. I wish you the best with NOVA Mike, I really do. "But the pig Capt'n... she canna take any more lipstick!"

    9. I don't have a lot of love/interest in the nasty side of you. But I do wish you'd be happier online.

      As far as lipstick, I think you're reading posts through slime colored lenses. There's a difference between disliking toxic or misplaced Internet posts and loving GW. This blog post is more about the former. As evinced by your own posts here, even, our community is an immensely toxic place at times, often with blame leveled at some parent company, as if GW made you post with caustic tude on the Internets.

    10. Coming, as it does, from someone who routinely treats the least bit of criticism as license to condescendingly wave us all away as deluded misanthropes, I'll take your concern for my happiness with a healthy grain of salt Mike. Because I've seen the nasty side of you, and it's far more toxic to the community than anything I've ever written.

    11. It's sad when two people from the same blog need to high five each other in another blog's comment thread.

    12. I'm not allowed to agree with a good friend? That seems very toxic and divisive to me. Or does that "tone argument" sword only swing one way?

      Both of us are here commenting because we still care about this community. If we didn't, we'd just ignore the self-serving divisiveness of what Mike posted and go back to our own project. Think on that for a bit. Or don't. But I do still wish NOVA well regardless.

    13. Dang and I thought I was the troll around here!

    14. If you actually cared about the community, your blog would still be about 40k.

    15. More to the point, if anyone cared about Warstrike, people would actually bother playing it...

    16. Hard to play a game that's not actually been released. :P

  3. I quit 40k because of the vast internal balance issues. I love to play CSM and I think 1500 points of CSM is equal to about 750 points of Tau (at least it was when I quit). That is a pretty large gap.

    Now, 40k is inherently competitive... it's a game, after all. But, it is a poorly constructed game that often isn't fun to play in a tournament situation because of it's inherent balance flaws.

    I started playing Dropzone Commander because it's internal balance is excellent, it has a low barrier to entry, and I'm pretty certain the investment of money and time I've put into my army is going to be long lasting and not depreciate with each new release. It's also rare to get stomped playing Dropzone, too. Even for newer players.

  4. First of all, Mike, you really nailed this issue. This is exactly the counterpoint I have been thinking to all of this talk about "non-competitive 40K".

    The more I think about this issue, though, the more I reflect on the other competitive games I play such as Magic or MOBAs. I see this sort of rhetoric all the time. Why isn't this deck better? Why isn't this hero more powerful? Why is this card so broken? Why is this hero OP?

    So the question I come to is this: Is this a gamer culture issue that is amplified by the internet? Some of the most toxic gamers I have met are the same about EVERY game that features some element of choice. It's never their own shortcoming; it's the opponent and the creator's fault. I think we need a shift in the culture more than a shift in rules or models.

    1. My blog needs "like" buttons. You so get it.

    2. Agreed. I'd say more, but why not say it well? I'm personally happy that the most toxic 40k players have absented themselves from the hobby. I think the trick is to make a clean break, and to just quit and not to come back and try to tell people that enjoy it (and who budget accordingly) that they're doing it wrong.

  5. This was the most important part of the article and I feel most people missed it:
    ' I have a very close friend who by his own report is VERY, VERY competitive. That said, he really does not like the way the game of 40k is played from a "combat feel" and rules perspective, so he's not able to enjoy himself playing competitively within 40k. His resultant decision? He doesn't play 40k really anymore! Totally reasonable, self-respecting, grown-up response. What does he not do? Rip on people for "not playing the game how it's supposed to be played" as if his own idea of how a game should be played is somehow more valuable than other peoples'. AKA, he's not a douche.'
    If you don't like the way the game is played anymore then stop playing, but don't be mad/upset/disappointed/hurt/lonely because people still enjoy playing the game and dealing with GW.

  6. I realize I'm not the most popular around here but I had to comment. Those articles on BOLS were pretty bad and didn't really display any sort of deep thinking on the topic. (one guy was not complaining about competitiveness in the true sense of the word, just about how annoyed he is by the list-building phase; the other guy kind of rambled and lost my interest after two sentences).

    You know, clearly the game isn't always balanced. But its not always imbalanced either. Still, I think the biggest factor is determining the winner of games is practice and a degree of luck. Those who get more practice are generally going to better, regardless of the army of choice. This is why you see the same guys winning all the time, because they practice more, and on top of that they are reinforced by community and strong opponents that feed them greater passion for the game.

    Still I think if people are complaining about the game, they're doing it wrong! If you do not intend to practice in hard-core games a couple times a week then don't complain about not winning tournaments, but measure your expectations, and play the game because its fun competition with toy soldiers.

    There ya go.

  7. Mike, Your analogies are spot on.
    Many people in other places are comparing 40k to an A league team playing against a high-school team, and saying its unfair. But its not that at all; like you said, its people trying to be competitive without a quarterback and complaining when it doesn't work, and that people who do use a quarterback are WAAC.

    It seems that a lot of people have some idea of what a competitive army 'should' look like, what tactics 'should' be allowed, and it just happens to be the army they're running. Lists worse than that shouldn't be able to win and the generals should get better & use better tactics; lists better than that are 'cheesy', the generals are using crutches and winning proves nothing more than that they can netlist, real players can win without X to hold them up, yada yada.

    As someone tried to say above, a lot of people are now turning this in to a second argument about pricing: only the 1% can afford to play at competitive levels! This is having an extreme effect in my area where people are pushing quite a heavy comp system to 'keep the playing field level for everyone who can't afford to keep up'; and ironically its making the game more expensive for everyone as the comp system is constantly updating and invalidating people's armies or banning particular units, making people re-jig their armies to have a chance in the game.

  8. Agree with the article. Was a good read. I've found that as time goes on, tournaments are creating separate mini-Gt's (like Nova's narrative), which allow for players to just enjoy the game outside of the "whats the hottest new meta of the week". I recently attended LVO and participated in the "friendly" GT and had an absolute insane blast. The lists were not "friendly" by any means, just tended to follow a narrative, and have some other idea behind (lets take ad lance + this other thing I brought).

    I honestly think that most of the people who complain about the competitiveness of GT's and 40k in general, aren't actively participating in any GT's, but yet are extremely vocal about them. (not saying in this particular discussion, just in the internet in general).
    It's pretty rare when you are actually at a GT that people are complaining. Both last year at Nova, and this year at LVO (and I'll be adepticon and nova too), everyone seemed to be having a jolly time. I'm sure there were some people who didn't have the greatest time, but based on the internet, you'd think everyone would be screaming their faces off at each other, knocking over tables, and throwing kittens about broken rules and balance.

    One thing I've learned in the past two years...the internet has a lot to say about nothing.

  9. Mike, You make some great points in this post, but it kind of comes across as blaming gamers for the ways that they want to play the game. Your message seems to be for non-top-tier tournament gamers to stop complaining and better manage their expectations.

    That perspective is fundamentally valid if you accept the current paradigm for 40k culture in the United States, which is focused almost exclusively on tournament play. In this context, what you are saying to 40k gamers is, If you don't like the tournament style of play, go play a different game. This dismissive reaction may be the fountainhead for some of the misdirected rage against 40k tournament gamers and TOs that is growing increasingly louder in the US.

    You know from our conversations that I reject this paradigm. In my latest Cheatin' Steve's post I turn the discussion around. Instead of challenging players to adapt to the realities of tournament play within an imbalanced system, I challenge 40k TOs to shift the priority focus of gaming events from tournament play to narrative play (I will not get into the definition of narrative play here-that is a whole different kettle of fish). My point is that TOs are driving the culture of 40k gaming in the United States and, I believe, bear much of the responsibility for the state of that culture. Suggesting that players change their preferences or quit playing is the wrong approach. It is time for Tournament Organizers to step up and do their part in changing the culture of the 40k.

    This does not mean fewer tournaments. Tournament gaming is one of the easiest and most accessible formats for large gaming events, and many of the 40k events in this country, yours included, are excellent tournaments. Further, many players love the tournament style of play-they crave the satisfaction of exploiting game mechanics to solve complex problems and there is nothing wrong with that.

    This also does not mean limiting composition. 40k is what it is. As you have said, players who enter into a GT should know what they will see-meta lists designed to exploit rules mechanics to win. Again, nothing wrong with that. Tournaments identify game winners. Period.

    However, by including more narrative style gaming (the model I use is HMGS-style scenario and campaign based events like you will find at Historicon and, to a much lesser degree, at Adepticon), TOs can provide a simulation-based format that is more satisfying to the tactically-focused scenario gamer than the exploitative ploys that make tournament play exciting for tournament gamers. At today's 40k events in the United States, the handful of "narrative" gaming options are a diminutive side show. At HMGS events, narrative gaming is the main event and tournament play tends to be small gatherings of tournament-focused gamers relegated to "the back room." Judging by scale of participation in HMGS events, this format appeals to gamers. It's food for thought.

    Bottom line-It's not the game. It's the way we are playing the game, which is, in a way, kind of where you are coming from in your post. 40k can be fun, but the negative culture we have now is not going to change unless we all start to emphasize more gaming formats than GT-style tournament play.

  10. The Game of 40k is not competitive because of the game mechanics themselves. Only when people realize this can we even start to look unit balance. Having a game be competitive is about making decisions and reaction to your opponents decisions with your decisions. Get it? Its about player making decisions.

    lets stop and think about just one. First up the "game killer", right from 1990's cutting edge in game design the "I go u go" system. Right from the start the game has one player moving, shooting, playing while the other player just sits maybe roll a few saving throws. Alternating activation or even just alternating players for each phase would bring allot of the player interaction back into the game and tone down allot of the negative things that drive players away.

    Side note: Assault would work much better if you can play cat/mouse with moving units and getting you opponent to commit to a move before you. ie... you could react to an opponents move with your own move that he then reacts to... decisions. right now we basically just measure and roll a dice. Cover? who cares i have a better armor save, nothing to decide there. but that's a second issue.