You should seek out formal matches in the form of tournaments. The best way to measure your progress is to measure your ability to win, but matches you play outside of formal competition, real as they may seem, are rarely a good measure of much. The strongest steel is forged in the hottest flame, and fiercest competitor is forged in the most serious battle. Casual play is often for “fun” but tournament play is for blood.
In a tournament, even the same opponents you are used to facing may rise to a higher level of play. Players sometimes save their secrets—their best tactics—for serious competition. In a tournament, players tend to be more conservative. They also tend to find answers to tactics they have never answered before, because now they have to. They may cling to life in the game like the fate of Earth depends on it, whereas in casual play they freely give up a game in a position of disadvantage.
As you can see, playing for “fun” and playing to win are wildly different pursuits. Edward Lasker (who only coincidentally shares his name with the ultimate grandmaster Emanuel Lasker) summed this up at the beginning of the second half of his book Chess for Fun & Chess for Blood.
In the preceding pages, we have looked only at the pleasant side of chess—the kind played among amateurs for the excitement of a battle without bloodshed, in which the supreme command is in their hands, but the outcome of which is of no grave consequence to either player.There is another side to chess, however, which is quite different—tournament and match games played by masters or those striving to become masters, whose standing, if not livelihood, may be seriously affected by the outcome.Such games are no fun, even for the winner. They are the hardest work imaginable. You play for blood! You avoid the lure of beautiful combinations unless you see clearly that they do not endanger your chance to draw the game at least, if you cannot win it. For it is not the beauty of a combination which wins a tournament, but the number of points you make—a whole point for a win, a half a point for a draw, and an ‘egg’ for a loss.
I remember at one of my first game tournaments, I did not perform as well as I thought I should have. I entered with a friend who happened to be the one of, if not the, best players in the country, John Choi. (Yes, he won that day.) He counseled me “Don’t worry. You just aren’t used to tournaments yet.” I disagreed and responded, “No, it’s not that. I just didn’t play well today.” I now know that Choi was correct.
The tournament is a strange beast to those unfamiliar with its workings. There are many rules and nuances that have to do with running the tournament, apart from the rules of the game itself. Perhaps the tournament is single elimination format, or double elimination with a loser’s bracket, or round robin, or Swiss. Perhaps players are seeded based on past performance. Seeding ensures that the best players have early matches against the worst players. But why should this be? If you are new, how is it fair that you have to fight the best players right off the bat? You might be inclined to complain about this or challenge the entire concept. The purpose of seeding is to prevent the very best players from eliminating each other early in a single or double elimination tournament. This is an example of something that you should waste no mental energy on during the actual tournament. (It is a matter of course to the veteran.)
There are many customs in a tournament. How will you determine whether you are the 1st player or 2nd player in a game where that is meaningful? How will you pick your characters in a fighting game or your side in war game, or your color in chess? The newcomer to tournaments, even if he is an expert at the game, will find himself a stranger in a strange land of foreign customs. When others talk to you, are they genuinely interested in being friends? Or are they “scouting you out” to find out if you are a threat or which tactics you might use? If you have a thorough understanding of tournaments and how they work, this is a much easier question to answer and you will need to expend no mental energy on paranoia.
What is the format of a match in the tournament? A match is an encounter with an opponent that may take the form of a single game, or a set of games. In a single or double elimination tournament, the winner of the match (overall set of games with that opponent) is usually all that matters. Do you need to care about winning individual games, perhaps for tie-breaker reasons? Or is only winning matches important? What about the feel of a match? If a match is best 3 out of 5 games, you will need to have a feel for the flow of gameplay over the course of 5 games. Often, one player will be able to “figure out” the other, and the scales will tip more and more in his favor as games go on. You must be able to identify the moment that this is happening, and if you are the victim, then you better change things up one way or another. Does your tournament allow you to change what it is you control in the game between matches? In a fighting game, you can switch characters if you lose. (At least in America you can. In Japan, you cannot!) In a real-time strategy game, usually both players may switch “races” (sides) after each game. In the card game Magic: The Gathering, players are not allowed to switch decks between games, but both players are allowed to alter their 60-card decks by swapping in and out cards, one for one, from a pre-registered “sideboard” of 15 extra cards. It takes time to be able to identify when you should switch your strategy and when you shouldn’t. All these factors are tied up in the strange practices of tournaments and can really throw off excellent players who are simply not excellent tournament players.
The only way to truly test yourself is through formal competition. You should not become merely an excellent player, as that is a very subjective thing. You must become an excellent tournament player. You must win tournaments.
Preparing for tournaments
Depending on who you talk to, preparing for tournaments takes either an enormous amount of work unthinkable by the layperson, or it takes none at all. In college, I used to say that the more you prepare for a final exam, the worse you’ll do. The reason is that if the final exam is mere days away and you need to cram for it then your battle is already lost. Despite your best efforts, it will be hard to compete against students who have developed a natural understanding of the material and have been able to think about it and mentally manipulate it over the semester.
Gaming is not so different. Things learned at the last minute just aren’t as effective as things you’ve fully integrated into your play over a long period of time. If something requires physical dexterity, you’re much better off if it becomes deeply engrained in your muscle memory. If it’s a tactic, you’re much better off practicing it over time against a variety of opponents in order to gain a full, first-hand understanding of it. Basically, if you stay on your path of continuous self-improvement then you are prepared for a tournament.
However, an upcoming tournament is a way to refocus your approach to the game. There might be a few techniques you know you are bad at, but you usually get away with not doing them. If you are serious about the upcoming tournament, you will isolate those techniques and practice them by rote, no matter how boring or time consuming it may be. You might have a tendency to explore the unusual corners of the game. In a fighting game, perhaps you often play bad characters because you can. In a real-time strategy game, you play your “fun race” rather than your “business race” or you build “fun units” rather than “business units” in order to show off or have a little more variety. In a first-person shooter, you might develop skills with ridiculous weapons that are mostly useless. All of this may give a deeper understanding of the game, but in the tournament, you will not have the opportunity to explore every facet of the game; you will have just a few chances to show what you can do, and you better make them count. In a fighting game, you’ll be playing your best character so that is what you need to practice. In a real-time strategy game you will pick your best race, use your best build order and your best tactics. In a first-person shooter, you will use your best weapons and run your best routes on the map. It’s nice to have some backup options, but let’s be practical. Preparing for a tournament forces you to set aside your “fun” and develop the skills more important for winning. In a fighting game, you might be able to improve your skill at a certain character from a 20 to a 75 out of 100 (in arbitrary “skill units”) in the same time that you could develop your main character from a 93 to a 93.5. But your main character is what is going to win you the tournament, and you need every edge you can get with him.
Another aspect of preparing for a tournament is knowing the meta-game that you are facing. That means knowing the prevailing trends of how the game is being played now, and how it will be played at the tournament. In Warcraft, is everyone going to play Night Elves and rush with Huntresses? In Street Fighter, is everyone going to play Chun Li? In Magic: The Gathering is everyone going to play a mono-red Sligh beatdown deck? If you don’t know what you are going to face, you can be really thrown off come tournament day. Having an inkling of the meta-game lets you prepare for the right things. This is unusually important in a game like Magic: The Gathering where everyone brings their own custom-made decks to the tournament. If you know everyone is going to play a certain type of deck, you can make a deck that would ordinarily be bad, but is designed to beat what is popular. Being well-connected with your gaming scene and regularly attending tournaments gives you an advantage over the more isolated players.
In my own fighting game experience, I have seen that at high levels of play, the “meta-game” has an entirely different meaning. Top players usually don’t need to consider the prevailing trends of how the game is played overall, because they can easily crush the mid-tier and below players anyway. But they often do need to consider the “mini-meta-game” composed of the current tricks and techniques of the two or three other players in the tournament who can actually beat them.
Either way, you can see that knowing your enemy is part of preparing for tournaments. Time and time again, I have seen new players who think they are very good claim that they would do well in tournaments, and they basically never do, at least not right away. Part of being good is being plugged into the tournament meta-game, and it’s extremely difficult, and in some games impossible, to simply develop skills in a vacuum then waltz in and win a tournament.