Hacking the Cortex: An Unexamined Game?

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This week, I’m going to talk a bit about the ways in which I try to maximize practice (or should, if I followed all my own advice all the time). Back in April, I wrote an article which emphasized the importance of deliberate practice.  What I mean by that is that it’s not enough to simply be playing games – you need to be playing games in which the explicit, conscious goal is the improvement of your skills. You will of course gain benefits from games you play without that intent, but you won’t improve as quickly and you are likely to reach a skill plateau that’s difficult to overcome without deliberate practice.

But how, exactly, do you Do Deliberate Practice in Warmachine?

When you’re engaged in deliberate practice, there is a specific skill or aspect of your game that you’re targeting for improvement.  This could be general (Get better with X caster) or incredibly specific (Getting the best out of cloud placement with Lich2). I personally find that its good to go into a practice session with a short (4-5 items) list of specifics rather than being too general in your goals. The main benefit of specifics is that it lets you analyze the game better afterwards – think of it like stating your hypothesis pre-experimentally. Stating your goals focuses your thinking in the right places. If you play the game and try to analyse afterwards without a planned direction, your attention will be pulled in different directions and cognitive biases will take hold. It’s far harder to blame dice, or to otherwise rationalize away bad play on your part if you told yourself before the game that you were going to do X better.

It’s also a good idea to take  note of mistakes you make during the game.  The game’s result often distracts you from what actually happened during the game. Especially when you win. After a victory, its easy to just say “I won, job done”. You miss your own mistakes, and even those of your opponent, because you won and are already revising your memories of the event to make yourself look good (Self-serving bias, it’s a thing).

I think this is one of the main reasons that playing power casters can hamper your development. My first major “level up” came when I stopped playing eSkarre (we were primarily playing at 35pts, a level at which she is an absolute monster) – her feat in particular lead to me getting away with a litany of mistakes and winning anyway. I think the same could be said of eLich, and I’m glad I only picked him up in the past year rather than straight away.

Another good way to avoid missing mistakes is have a third party watching the game, especially if that third party is also trying hard to level up. An observer will notice where you were lucky rather than good, or where you lost the game in turn 2 but didn’t see it.

Making specific goals for your improvement, taking notes, and having a third party observer are all techniques used to combat cognitive bias in management psychology (and similar applied things for decision making types), and they all adapt well to improving your tournament play. It’s all to easy to have your analysis of the game tilted by the result, to go too easy on yourself or blame an opponent’s luck instead of your own mistakes (Of course, some times it was mostly luck, but no-one ever plays a perfect game of Warmachine).

As an example, there are a list of notes that VagrantPoet took while I was playing against Stu this weekend for WTC practice. The first notes correctly that I am bad at this game. Seriously,  I played that game terribly. Possibly because I failed to follow the first bit of advice I gave here and didn’t have any plan for what I wanted to improve. I just fell into eLich easy mode and got confident, cocky, lazy… and got away with it. My dice exploded in the most absurd eLich feat turn I’ve ever seen – I managed to murder his krielstone with the minimum number of attacks (not a single tough roll, lots of 7s on my part), put a bunch of damage on Doomshaper (who I was lucky to have LOS to after the KSB death and despite All of The Walls) which softened up Mulg nicely, then feated to kill an Earthborn, Mulg, Mauler, and Axer. There wasn’t a single damage roll without at least a 6 and a 4. Half of the banes hadn’t even gotten a 3″ charge.

Talking about the match with Eoin and Stu afterwards, I knew I had been insanely lucky. But I’d already fallen victim to the fact that human memory is a revisionist with a hell of a bias towards making yourself look good.  I felt sure I would have been able to reasonably expect to kill 2 of those heavies (not true) and that I might have been able to reasonably fight on from there to a win (really unlikely, if not impossible). I knew I’d played a bad game, but was forgetting to learn from those mistakes in the rosy glow of eLich’s absurdity combined with more jam than has ever been seen outside of a Robinson’s factory.

In summary – take pains to focus your attention on the facts of the game, and you will be rewarded with noticing lots of mistakes you never knew you’d made. But don’t forget to include “things you did right” in the game – a list of What Not To Do doesn’t end up being a guide to good play by negation.

Te Nosce


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3 thoughts on “Hacking the Cortex: An Unexamined Game?

  1. Think I’m going to have to start jotting down a learning plan, might focus my attention better. I see that self-serving bias a lot in wins and losses on both sides of the table, as bad in me as anyone else. I’ll have to keep an eye on that! It’s dangerously easy to say you lost because your opponent got lucky (even if you religiously avoid blaming dice) or that you won just because you were just so awesomely good.

  2. I’ve been reading these articles, and they’ve done a good job of helping me step up my game. My performance at L&L Masters this year was damn near embarrassing and next year I want to come in there like a bloody steamroller of cygnarian doom. Right now, my focus is Dice Mitigation Via Thinking Ahead And Planning For Failure, followed up with trying to cut down on the stupid, sloppy mistakes I make when I get cocky or lazy.
    I mean, I about got stryker killed turn 2 by a damn DESTROYER because I thought I didn’t have a worry in the world and let him hang out there in the wind. Only reason I came out on top of the game in the end was bad placement by my opponent and a lucky charger assassination.
    I didn’t DESERVE to win that game.
    No, these articles are great for self-analysis. Thank you.

    • Thanks, appreciate the feedback!

      It was my poor Masters performance this year that motivated me to start trying to level up. I went into the weekend thinking I had a decent shot at placing (or even winning, if I could stay in the game for 6 rounds) but I tripped in round 3 and went on an awful spiral of tilt and Being Bad At This Game, losing my caster to something I should have seen coming for 3 rounds straight.

      (Edit: Oops, posted as the Master account)


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