Friday, 16 December 2016

Netlist & Chill

My last blog, about understanding the metagame, began a great discussion on Reddit about the validity of 'netlisting' - playing a squad you've seen online rather than one you created yourself - and it's such an interesting topic that I want to circle back around and cover it separately.
Fair warning: most of my articles are written from a relatively neutral journalistic viewpoint.  I'm sure my own opinions and preferences seep through but I'll usually make an effort to put all viewpoints across in a balanced way.  This one time I'm afraid it's going to be a bit more of an opinion piece.  If you disagree then fair enough, but this is going to be the world as I see it.

You're Playing It Wrong

The legitimacy of 'Netlisting' can be a very charged and emotional topic and bring out some very polarised viewpoints in people.  To some players the idea that you can shortcut the whole squad design part of the game and find success by simply copy/pasting somebody else's creativity is unacceptable and I even saw it described as 'plagiarism' by one commentor.  To others it's an entirely legitimate tactic in a game where the objective is to win, or perhaps even a vital tool for those who don't have time to burn on playtesting and refining their own unique squads.

There are a lot of nuances to this debate but at it's heart it reflects a schism in what people think X-Wing is about, both in casual play and in tournaments.
  1. X-Wing is a game about flying spaceships to defeat your opponent with superior tactics.  The best pilot should win.
  2. X-Wing is a game about building a fleet of spaceships with a strong strategy and then executing that strategy.  The best planner should win.

To some extent it's about the relative importance of strategy vs tactics, then, which is a classic debate.  You could also explain it another way by using an analogy, say: what is a car race about - should the winner be the fastest driver, or the man who builds himself the fastest car?

When you're playing X-Wing outside of a tournament the answer is, of course, whatever you and your friends want it to be.  

You can place the emphasis wherever you like to maximise your enjoyment of the time you spend playing the game, and you shouldn't have to worry about anybody judging whether you're playing it the right way or not.  

Want to insist everyone designs their own squad?  Fine!  Want to download the best lists from the World Championships and play them against each other to see how they work?  Fine!  Want to create your own house rules for squad construction, play more than 100pts, play scenarios rather than just dogfights?  They're all fine!  Hell, load the ships into catapults and fire them at each other to determine the winner by last ship standing, if that's what floats your boat!

In FFG-organised tournaments, though, there are rules and tournament guidelines that make it clear what the objective of the game is and what the players participating in the tournament are there to do.  In FFG-organised tournaments we are firmly in the camp of the tactics being more important than strategy - the winner is the player who wins more games, regardless of the provenance of the squad he used to win those games.

This is the official X-Wing squad registration sheet.  As well as the ships, pilots and upgrades you're using you have to fill in your name, faction, and the event you're playing in.  Do you notice what you DON'T have to fill in?  Who created the squad you're using.  Because it's NOT relevant in tournaments.

This is a hugely important distinction, in my mind.  I can completely understand that players might prefer to play with their homespin lists and creations, because building and perfecting your own unique lists is one of the joys of X-Wing.  I also can completely understand that they'd rather not put those creations up against killer competitive lists because they're likely to come off second best, and getting crushed in a few brief turns is no type of fun at all.  

There's plenty of places to find games of X-Wing like that, where you and your fellow players can agree to just have fun and enjoy exploring the game, using unusual ships and pilots. 

But that place isn't tournaments.

Remember this one?

If you object to players bringing the World Championship winning squad to a friendly little get together on a weeknight or the kitchen table then I am right behind you.  If you object to players bringing that same squad to a tournament, though, then I'm very much against you.  The tournament structure and guidelines explicitly explains what is expected of a player entering a tournament and nowhere in there does it say they have to bring their own creation.  You may have your own personal opinions on what is and isn't acceptable, but those personal opinions hold no sway in a tournament environment.  

There is no distinction between the provenance of a squad's design with the FFG tournament rules, and pillorying other players for not following your own personal value systems is deeply unfair.  It might not be the way you want to play the game, but when you enter a tournament you're no longer in charge of deciding how the game should be played.  You should respect what other players want from the experience of being in a tournament as much as you'd want them to respect what you want if you're playing them outside of a tournament.

Eating is Cheating

One of the strongest arguments players who oppose netlisting have is that it's 'cheating' somehow, or that it's 'easier' to just play the list that somebody else won a tournament with.  The players who feel this way see that you're gaining an unfair advantage over them by picking up the list that won the World Championships and bringing it to the tournament to play against their homebrew concoction.  

When you put it like that it can sound like they may have a point - the plucky homebrew designer up against the might of the faceless netlisting machine sure does sound like an unfair fight.  But let's examine that claim by looking at some of my own experiences in local tournaments:

I played a local tournament with a squad of my own that I had spent weeks fine-tuning.  Most of my opponents had never played against my squad before and they made a lot of mistakes - they misread quite how my list would operate and many of them decided to engage me as they would a different squad that they thought was similar.  In particular their target priority was frequently wrong and usually ships were allowed to get into endgame that needed to be the first thing killed.  

I won the tournament, receiving a challenge coin and some tokens/alt-art goodies.

I played a different local tournament with a squad that had won multiple national championships.  Most of my opponents had playtested against this list and understood it well, some of them even brought upgrades or had made squad decisions intended to help them in their specific matchup against my squad.  Ultimately I was able to outfly most of those opponents by making deliberate efforts to fly the squad in less predictable ways that they may not have seen in their playtesting.

I won the tournament, receiving a challenge coin and some tokens/alt-art goodies.

So was one of these tournament wins 'easier' to come by than the other?  Was it 'easier' to play against the opponents who continually made poor decisions or against the ones who knew almost every trick I had up my sleeve?  Was it 'easier' to spend time chasing down dead ends of strong squads before I hit on something that worked and finetuned it, or was it 'easier' to copy a list off the internet and then spend time learning to fly it better than anybody else?  

Which of those is most important is not an easy call to make and I wouldn't want to be the one who had to make it.  Where does the skill in X-Wing lie, then?  Is it in planning beforehand or playing on the day?  Is it a balance of the two?  

In the eyes of the tournament, at least, the two wins were rewarded equally - a challenge coin, some alt-art goodies.  As far as FFG's tournament system was concerned one was no better or worse than the other.  What many of the players who object to netlisting are doing, though,  is choosing to impose their own value judgements of which of these was the more valid type of skill.  

They want to see other players 'brought down to their level' to create what they're going to judge a level playing field, but in doing so they aren't really recognising that innovating your own lists, when you innovate well, brings it's own rewards in how many mistakes your opponents will make against them. To many of these players the act of innovating at all is more important than whether that innovation is actually worthwhile or not.  

The value of your innovation is inherent in the success they bring you, just as much as the value of your piloting skill and tactical decisions are inherent in your success.  If you don't believe me then just look at the players who first came up with Dengaroo.  

Therefore:  You don't lose because you innovated while others followed like mindless drones, you lost because your innovations weren't good enough.  

If your innovations were good enough you would have been successful, turning your opponent's unfamiliarity with your innovation into wins.  If that didn't happen then hiding behind the fig leaf of 'they cheated by copying a list off the net' is just a crutch to protect your bruised ego and, trust me, it IS an obstacle to you self-analysing and self-critiqueing to learn the right lessons from your defeats.

And that leads me onto my next point - we're going back to The Dojo.

The Dojo Effect

In the mid 1990s The Dojo was THE place to go for Magic: The Gathering strategy discussion.  It became the forefather of almost all games strategy websites as both Magic and the Internet were exploding in popularity at the same time - an example of kismet putting the perfect game into circulation at the perfect moment in time.  If Magic: The Gathering had been invented five years earlier it would likely have died without the internet to bring scattered groups of players together across the world into a single community, but if it had been invented five years later then there would have been a dozen websites instantly created to discuss, publicise and commercialise every aspect of the game.  But at that specific point in time there was only one place - there was The Dojo.

The Dojo was a meeting place for some of the greatest minds who have ever played Magic and the 'signal to noise' ratio was really high as this was a time when household internet was a rarity so it was centered almost exclusively around university & college campuses and their computer rooms.  As such that first group of Dojo denizens contributed many of the fundamentals of game theory that drive the modern board games we enjoy today (indeed some of them now design the games we enjoy today).

One of the most immediate and powerful impacts was what became known as 'The Dojo Effect', which transformed how players approached the customisation of their Magic decks.  

The articles that pushed me into studying, writing, using Alta Vista and doing research on Usenet, were Rob Hahn's intermittent series "School's of Magic" on the MTG scene at Neutral Ground in NYC and Paul Pantera's article on "The Deck". I loved Rob's precise writing style and I tried out the different decklists that he published (the "Kim" deck, Juz├ím deck, etc.). That's where I got the idea for the "Decks to Beat" feature and the so called Dojo-deck effect.  
- Frank Kusumoto, creator of 'The Dojo'

As the Magic community began to crystallise around a nascent competitive tournament scene the most successful decks began being avidly shared and discussed on The Dojo.  Where previously the discussion had focused on game theory and basic concepts it now turned to finding successful applications for those theories in the pursuit of victory.  

As the tournament scene exploded in 1995/96 The Dojo aggregated the most successful decks into what they called their "Decks To Beat" section, and those decks would spread rapidly through the global community.

Note the name, though.  It wasn't 'Decks To Play' it was 'Decks To Beat'.
Scott Johns and Mario Robaina of the first professional MTG team were some of the first people to comment on how The Dojo was the affecting the metagame. Robaina and Preston Poulter opinioned that The Dojo had created a type of group-think which would come up with good, competitive decks leading up to each PT qualifier and PT. They reasoned that it made it easier for them to know what to expect and therefore how to play against it and to sideboard correctly.
And there is the truth of it.  Right from the very birth of 'netlisting' it was a tool for innovators as much as one for those who wanted to shortcut the process of innovation. A good innovator LOVES working with a rigid metagame where he knows the squads he's going to have to play against, because he knows what he has to innovate a solution for.   If other people aren't netlisting then your local metagame is very uncertain, and it's very difficult to plan for an uncertain metagame.  

Case Study: right now Expert Handling is starting to see play for basically the first time ever, precisely because people are netlisting the Ryad/Vessery combination so often that being able to remove a target lock is really powerful.  Netlisting DRIVES innovation, it makes bad things good.

If you see yourself as an innovator and you still hate playing against netlists even though you know exactly what they are, how they fly, how they try to beat you... you need to learn to innovate better.  

Bringing Balance To The Force

Right now it sounds a lot like I hate people who design their own lists, so it's a good time for me to loop around to the start and round this up.
  • I LOVE it if you design your own lists.  I enjoy designing my own lists too.
  • I LOVE it if you and your friends find new and innovative ways to play and enjoy X-Wing.
  • I HATE it if you think this makes you morally superior to people playing netlists.
  • I HATE it if you bring a bad attitude to a tournament setting and try to stop other people from enjoying X-Wing the way they want to play it.
  • I HATE it if you avoid recognising your own failings by criticising others for succeeding.

In the end we're all X-Wing players.  We all fit into a pretty tight little demographic of very similar types of people.  What binds us together is so much more powerful than trying to find details to drive us apart.  

Be positive, be supportive - either rise to the challenge of fighting the popular squads, or find a place to play the game where you won't be exposed to them.  Either of those options are better than criticising or guilt-tripping your fellow players for wanting to enjoy the game in a slightly different way to you.

At the end of the day we're all still Star Wars nerds having fun pushing plastic spaceships around a table!  Sharing that is much more important than worrying about whether you're pushing the right plastic spaceships around in the right way.


  1. That last bit was perfect! "we're all still Star Wars nerds having fun pushing plastic spaceships around a table!"
    As always, great job. You keep writing them and I'll keep reading them.

  2. Great post as usual! Keep up the good work, sir