Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Going soft

As I stated in my previous post (Go Hard or Go Home), over the last 10 years or so I have been engaged in a constant struggle to reconcile my desires to use competitive and “soft” armies. This began with me being firmly in the camp of the ultra-competitive crowd, using hard-as-legal lists in an attempt to take out the tournament. However, over time my lists and I have mellowed and I have started to explore less powerful armies.

I have reached the point now where I don’t really want to field a list that opponents will see as really tough. I derive no real satisfaction from fielding an army that is harder than my opponent’s, and stomping them into the turf as a result. Unless I am going for a particular theme or performing some sort of grand experiment, I am most likely to aim for a comp score in the softer half of the field. I realise this sort of approach can affect my results, but by and large I don’t really care.

Deliberately selecting an army that is under-strength may be a foreign concept to some players. Why would you choose a weak army when you had better options available? Well, here are a few reasons why someone might choose to “go soft”…

Comp scores
Probably the most common reason for players choosing soft armies is the quest for good comp scores in tournaments. I have written before that I think comp scores are an important part of the tournament scene.

Fielding a soft list purely with the intent of getting a good comp score can turn the whole thing into a political game. You often hear people talking about taking “concessions” – things they consider to be a weaker choice, either to offset the selection of something else rather tough, or in the hope of improving the reception of their list overall. Sometimes it is said in jest, however often players are convinced of the validity of their “concession”, or on the campaign trail, trying to convince others of their argument.

This is the real problem with fielding a soft army in the hope of getting good comp scores. What one person will see as a dead-set concession, and something guaranteed to improve the score of the army, will go unnoticed by someone else (potentially an assessor of comp scores). People will often disagree over how good something is. Very frequently I have seen players get to the end of a tournament and be dismayed by their comp score when the results go up. Ultimately it’s not something the player can do anything about, regardless of whether their comp score was fair or not. Going into the tournament with your hopes and dreams pinned on a great comp score seems a good way to get doubly frustrated or upset when the final standings are revealed.

Planning a tournament around a good comp score is a gamble. You may not get the score you are expecting, or you may discover opponents with tougher lists getting more than you feel they deserve. Either way, this could mess up your plans. I think it’s far healthier to go into a tournament with a soft list for other reasons, and then you can hope to be rewarded with a nice comp score as a bonus. I tend to look at the score more as a recognition of the handicap I may have given myself, rather than a means to jump up the leader boards at the end.

Relieving the pressure
I have found that entering a tournament with a list that I know should be strong enough to win tends to put me under pressure. I go in with the expectation of doing well, and end up playing all of my games very competitively. When something goes wrong (be it a mistake, a bad match-up, or the dice), I will be frustrated and disappointed. It’s a good way to take the shine off the event. Even though I will probably still enjoy the tournament overall, I will be grumpy about when the wheels fell off and wistfully think about what could have been.

Don’t get me wrong – I will almost always try to win the game that I am playing, regardless of what I am using. However, if I know my own army is strong, I begin to feel like I should be winning every game. This sort of expectation is not really reasonable, and it’s not necessarily a conscious thing. But it means disappointment is almost inevitable.

When the list I am using is fairly weak, I feel it is far easier to meet or exceed expectations (be they mine or those of the people around me). This probably goes without saying, given that it’s far easier to finish midfield with a moderate army than it is to win a tournament outright with a strong force. However, that is not to say that you have played any worse.

When a Goblin wins a combat, it's cause for celebration!
It feels far easier to exceed an army’s perceived potential when people look at it and dismiss it as terrible, or at least only moderate in strength. In some ways this is not an illusion. For instance, a regiment of Daemons will never run away, and you expect it to fight well. If it holds its ground all game and kills lots of stuff, you might be satisfied with its efforts, but you’re not going to be blown away. On the other hand, most people expect a unit of Goblins to bugger off at the first opportunity, and they really shouldn’t be outfighting anything bigger than a large flea. So when they do hold all game, and even win the odd combat, you will be blown away! When your starting point is so low, there is vast room for improvement. Of course, if the Goblins do run off at the start of the game, they’re not doing much more than meeting expectations. If the Daemons lose a round of combat to moderate opposition and start to lose models due to Instability, you will probably be irritated at them – and all they did was lose a single combat.

In short, a weak army has little to lose and a lot to be gained. Realising all this untapped potential is the dream of every all-Goblin player. A strong army has trouble exceeding expectations, but it has a long way to fall. Even finishing on the middle tables will be seen as a disappointment.

Mixing it up
A player who enters each tournament to compete, and spends his or her time on the top tables, is likely to face much the same people and armies on a regular basis. Unless the tournaments are very large, or the people attending varies wildly, it’s inevitable that you end up playing the same players. After a while, this can get a bit old.

Unfortunately, the only way you can really break the pattern is to drop off these top tables. This probably also means not winning the tournament. It is difficult to win an event when you’re not winning your games, and if you’re not on the top tables, you’re not winning your games. Obviously this will be an unpalatable option for some players, however I found it rather refreshing to drop back into the middle of the field. I got to play people I had never met before, and fight a wider variety of armies. I also got out of the sometimes overly competitive atmosphere that can permeate those top tables. People who know they’re not a chance to win the tournament are a more relaxed bunch, and it can make your games a lot more enjoyable.

Your own army can also get a bit stale after a while, if you use it for extended periods without making a change. Some people seem capable of using the same list for ages, however I am not one of them. This is partly through a desire to use something different, but it’s also rooted in my use of tournaments as painting milestones. If I keep using the same thing, I will never paint anything new. If you have regular opponents, they may also get sick of you using the same thing against them. Variety is the spice of life – try mixing things up a bit.

Some players have a number of armies at their disposal, so when they want to try something different, they can change armies without necessarily fielding sub-optimal choices. However, those players who only have one or two armies to choose from may be forced to consider units in their armies that they have thus far neglected. It may even involve fielding something that isn’t all that great. This may not sit well with the player, but they might equally find that using something different helps compensate for the knowledge that they may have slightly handicapped themselves.

Challenging yourself
Some people are content to enter games with the expectation that their army will be stronger than their opponents’. In fact, this is really what they want. Army superiority is the first step toward winning the game, right? Whilst it’s hard to argue with this logic, it’s still not the preferred approach for everyone.

Creating competitive armies is indeed a skill – I’ll not argue with that. However, how difficult a skill it is to master is debatable, especially with the aid of the internet and the resources that can be found therein. I admit that I have little sympathy for players who base all of their plans around the things that they read on the ‘net. What satisfaction is there in copying someone else’s idea and then using it to ruin opponents? Players who do this are not actually embracing the “army building is a skill” mentality at all. They are doing… something else.

It could be argued that building a competitive list that doesn’t come across as particularly nasty is a more refined skill than the straight-up “my list is the hardest thing I could come up with” approach. It’s one thing to build a list that anyone can look at and declare to be filth. However, with composition the way it is in most of the tournaments I play in nowadays, lists like this will suffer massive penalties, and may not even get into the tournament at all. Building a list that will get you decent comp and still offer the tools you need to win is in fact a surer way of doing well in the tournament overall, but it is unquestionably more difficult.

You also get a lot of players going for the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” approach with their list, trying to get a seemingly soft list with some nasty combos in under the radar. There's probably not really anything wrong with this - if you're sneaky enough to come up with someone others haven't noticed, you should get some benefit from it. It does however, put a strain on TOs and comp panels. Trying to slide something cunning past the comp judges because their experience is finite, their knowledge has gaps or they're just too under the pump trying to score dozens of armies could be seen by some as underhanded.
My Goblin Warboss. I admit that when this guy takes the field, I am possibly not taking myself as seriously as I could be...
Sticking to a theme
A lot of players like to build their armies around a particular theme. Often this theme will dictate how the army is modelled and painted, but will have no real bearing on its composition or the way it plays on the table. However, some players take things a step further and select and omit units based on whether they fit into the character of the army. Sometimes this approach leads to an excessively powerful army, in which case cries of “it’s themed!” tend to fall on deaf ears (my all-Forest Spirit Wood Elf army accidentally fell into this category, and anyone who has ever tried to field an Tzeentch Daemon army – particularly last edition – will know what I’m talking about).

More often, selecting a themed army will involve leaving out units that most players would consider an automatic choice. You don’t often see Dwarf armies with no artillery, Vampire Counts forces without Ghouls, High Elves without elite infantry, and so on. Most armies have choices that are the first to be included in every list, so the omission of these units does not go unnoticed.

Basing an army around a theme will often not be about changing the strength of the army. It is just as likely to be to support a modelling project or background story, or a deliberate attempt by the player to mix up how the army plays. The result may be a soft army, but that is often a side-effect of the overall project.

In some ways, selecting a themed army is the most widely respected reason for fielding a below-strength force. The player is not accused of trying to boost his score with soft scores, and is not derided for being too foolish to be able to field a competitive army. Most players seem to “get” themed armies, even if it’s not something that they would do themselves.

Going too far
Much as I have largely embraced soft armies in recent years, I do believe that it’s possible to go too far. If you field an army with no teeth at all, the entire process feels like a bit of a waste of time. As much as I want to take an army that people are pleased to see on the other side of the table, I still want at least some chance of competing in the game. I’d like to think my opponent would prefer to at least be a bit challenged as well, rather than the whole thing being a procession.

Once or twice I think I have taken lists into tournaments that were too soft. Most notable was Cancon a few years ago, in which I took Ogre Kingdoms. I will be honest with you; the list was rubbish. As funny as I figured my Tyrant with a Thundermace would be, he disappointed at every turn and would often have been better off fighting with his fists. He was backed up by a very mediocre collection of units and no magic to speak of. I had modest ambitions for the tournament; I figured if I could win 3 out of my 8 games with the army, I would have been going OK. I failed in my ambitions – I only won 2 games.
Ah, Thundermace. We could have made such sweet, squishy music together. Alas, it was not to be...
The army was generally shot to pieces, although the most depressing game was against Khorne Daemons, where just by looking at the list, I knew that victory would be all but impossible. Even when my opponent played his list fairly poorly, I did not quite manage to draw the game. This was a little disheartening, however it forced me to the realisation that if I had run into more than 1 Daemon army during the tournament, the whole thing would have been extremely depressing. Having no chance in a single game could be seen as unfortunate, but I had left myself with such a pathetic list that it could have happened repeatedly. And had this happened, it would have been entirely self-inflicted.

To a certain extent, a list has to be pretty terrible before it will have no chance of winning games. Granted, you might run into an opponent you just can’t beat, but the Swiss Chess system employed by most tournaments should ensure that those lists head into the other half of the draw, leaving you to duke it out with the other weaker lists and/or opponents. If you’re not trying to win the tournament, you don’t have to have the means to defeat anything and everything. But I think it’s important that you give yourself a fighting chance in most games, or you might regret turning up.
A soft list will often have no answer to certain things. The potential problems are many and varied: large flying monsters, gun lines, steam tanks, overwhelming magic, shooty avoidance lists, strong fighters in Hordes and ethereal troops are just a few of the more common weaknesses a list have. More correctly, I should say you may have no answer to these things when they are used correctly, but you have to assume this will be the case. The key here is assessing how often these problems are likely to be encountered. If your main problem is Steam Tanks, you may well be OK – only one army can field them, and not all players will be using one. On the other hand, if your problem is strong combat units, strong magic or a lot of shooting, you are far more likely to have an issue in multiple games. If you’re setting yourself up for repeated beatings, it might be time to adjust the plan.

Something to consider
As I stated earlier, deliberately fielding soft lists is not for everyone. For some people, it goes against their whole mentality of playing the game and entering tournaments – they play to win. I agree that a tournament is about winning games; I believe that is the way it should be.

However, there are a lot of players at any given tournament who are not there expecting to win, or even to come close. I’ve found I can have a lot more fun playing with these guys than I do when I find myself fighting for places. If you’ve been playing in tournaments for a while and are ready to try something different, maybe it’s time to use something softer.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not a strong enough player to really comment on what it's like to take a soft list from that perspective, but there is a tremendous amount to be gained from taking a list that has enormous potential, but is unreliable. I mostly get into RPG or MTG these days, but I now always try to play any game with a character, army or deck which is fundamentally interesting to use. If you're going to take in a weak deck, don't take one full of boring, underpowered things, but rather a risky list which could just maybe succeed, and will always be spectacular.

    I remember in my earliest Warhammer days, I was playing Empire and had an (I know realise silly) idea that if I just fielded enough knights in a strong enough formation, it would be harder to beat. But they just cost to much. They were just too weak. It was never, never interesting. Same problem with Halflings in Blood Bowl.

    By contrast, something like a goblin army has endless entertainment (and I can't help but bring a few Orcs in for some actual toughness to peg them in with). I know I haven't played for years, but I think anyone taking in a soft list would be well advised to pay attention to how much fun it is.