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Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Rant: Blame the Player, Not the Game

The internet tells us that competitive 40k is dying. The internet also offers various conspiracy theories to explain why this is so: Maybe it’s the rules? Maybe it’s GW corporate strategy? Maybe someone somewhere rolled 666 on the Warp Storm Table? But what is telling is that no one seems to have the balls to write about the real problem: Us. The players. We are killing the competitive 40k scene.

I have been playing 40k for a long time now. I have been playing 40k tournaments for a long time too. Let me share a few observations I have made over the years:
  • The game has never been balanced
  • One or two Codexes/Factions have always dominated the rest
  • The game has always rewarded skilled play
Plenty of others have written about those first two points, so I won’t dwell on them; I will just say that "what goes around, comes around" and remind players that while Tau and Eldar may be enjoying their moment in the sun in 6th/7th Ed, both cowered at the bottom of the food chain for a good seven years beforehand. And while the emergence of the Helldrake may have caused a temporary extinction of Power Armour (sans bikes), late 5th Ed was basically just five different colours of Razorback parking lots. If you are in the habit of flipping your tournament armies, the smart move would be to eBay your six Wave Serpents before mid-2015…

You Lost Because You were Outplayed

Let’s consider the third point listed above—the game has always rewarded skilled play. In other words, good players tend to beat mediocre (and bad) players, irrespective of relative Faction power, army lists or other rules-centric factors. Good players stay mindful of mission victory conditions, they make the best use of terrain, they deploy and move better, they can overcome runs of unlucky dice, they can adapt to their opponents’ actions. A good player with Orks can win against a mediocre player with Eldar. And when that happens, observers will hail the good player for their skill.

Now let’s reverse that scenario; a good player with Eldar rolls a mediocre player with Orks in only three turns. Observers denounce the Eldar Codex for being overpowered, denounce GW for writing such a broken ruleset, denounce tournaments for encouraging competitive play, denounce the Eldar player for ‘not playing the game how it should be played’ (behind his back, or on the internet, of course, since we’re talking about nerds afraid of confrontation). No one hails the good player for his skill—in fact, we are encouraged to believe that no skill was required, that the outcome of the game was pre-determined because of the rules.


40k is, and always has been, a game of skill. Yes, luck is a significant factor, but skill is required to win despite bad luck. Yes, army lists are a significant factor, but skill is required to build a good list that suits your individual play-style. No, just copying lists off the internet is not a shortcut to success—it’s easy to pick the player who didn’t write their own list, because they noticeably don’t understand how their list really works.

Player skill remains the single, dominant factor in 40k. Good players win. If you are not a good player, and you want to win, then you should try to improve. You improve by challenging yourself—play against tough opposition, and keep losing until you start winning. Sounds pretty simple, right?

So why is this attitude not promoted by the competitive 40k community?

The Game is Not the Problem

Instead of telling mediocre players the truth, we encourage them to blame the game:
  • “It’s not your fault you lost, Imperial Knights are broken.”
  • “It’s not your fault you lost, the game is not balanced for tournament play.”
  • “It’s not your fault you lost, his list was very unfriendly.”
Again, I’m going to focus on that last point. ARMY LISTS DO NOT HAVE A PERSONALITY. There is no such thing as a ‘friendly’ or ‘unfriendly’ army list. These terms can certainly be applied to players, but a powerful army list is not going outside to key your car after the game. If you are at a tournament, you should expect to face powerful army lists. If you want to win a tournament (or at least not get roflstomped), you must be prepared to fight and win against powerful army lists.

But what if you’re not prepared or capable of beating three Knights or five Serpents? Here are three emotionally mature courses of action you can take in response:
  • Acknowledge you were outclassed, decide you want to be a better player, and endeavour to improve so you perform better at your next tournament.
  • Acknowledge you were outclassed, accept that you will not improve to the point where you can win any tournaments, but continue attending tournaments because you enjoy their social aspect and the opportunity to play lots of games, even if you can’t win them all.
  • Acknowledge you were outclassed, accept that you will not improve to the point where you can win any tournaments, and choose to stop playing competitive 40k because it does not suit you.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking the second or third option! Casual players should always be welcome at tournaments, but it’s in everyone’s best interest for those casual players to be fully cognisant that they are not podium contenders—expectation management is important. Likewise, if you decide that you do not like the competitive scene, withdraw from that environment and continue to play socially in an environment that better suits your gaming desires. No one will begrudge you enjoying your hobby your way. Live and let live.

The problem is, the community is not encouraging these emotionally mature courses of action. Instead, when mediocre players are losing—badly—they are being fawned over by the community and reassured that they are not at fault. The community is blaming the game, not the player. Tournament Organisers respond by changing rules (e.g. changing/banning Invisibility), restricting army lists (e.g. banning Lords of War), interfering with player choices (e.g. ‘comp’ ratings), or de-emphasising the competitiveness of tournaments (e.g. big ‘soft scores’ like Presentation and Sportsmanship ratings).

What do these actions result in? For one, they do not make the game any more balanced, they just change the nature of the imbalance. But many others have written about that, so let’s dive deeper, and look beyond these first-order effects of TOs bastardising the 40k ruleset.


In the short-term, tournament attendance is dropping. When 7th Ed hit the streets, the knee-jerk reaction of some TOs was to ‘ban all teh new thingz’ like Lords of War and Unbound, in the hope that clinging to the familiar would entice more players to their events. However, it also pushed away the progressive players that embraced the changes to the ruleset, so tournament numbers dropped anyway. Other TOs saw these number drops and made other changes in the hope of luring players back—they may have succeeded to varying degrees, but also pushed other players away, and numbers stayed down.

Now we have a competitive scene wherein no two tournaments are the same. While it was historically common to have subtle variations between tournaments, such that the same army list might perform very differently in two tournaments, we now have a paradigm that can make an army list you take to one event is fundamentally illegal in another event due to arbitrary restrictions.

What does this mean? For one, it is costly to players, who have to buy/build/paint new models to comply with the different restrictions of every different tournament they attend. But deeper than that, it causes resentment and disillusionment in the player base, because they are being arbitrarily told by TOs that they can’t play with the toys of their choosing. Why did players hate Lash of Submission in 4th Ed and Puppet Master in 6th Ed? Because they allowed other people to take control of your toys, albeit on a small scale. Now TOs are taking control of everyone’s toys on a vast scale, and the player base is recoiling from this interference.

It is often said in the competitive 40k community, “vote with your feet”, and don’t attend a tournament if you don’t like what the TO is doing—and conversely, run your own tournament if you want it to suit you. Well, we are all getting our wish, because the player base is definitely voting with its feet and walking away from tournaments and all their arbitrary restrictions. And no new TOs are emerging, because no one wants to take the risk.


In the mid-term, the Luddite players and TOs are going to lose touch with the game completely. GW is churning out rules at an incredible rate, and all their new rules build on the rules framework they have established, because they assume that players are going to use all the rules, not an arbitrarily restricted subset. Special Character Lords of War are a classic example; the Luddites were quick to ban the Lords of War slot, on the assumption that only Super Heavies would fill that slot, and were left holding their dicks when the likes of Ghaz, Logan and Dante were made LoW. So the Luddites compromised and allowed the non-Super Heavy LoW, and now they are compromising and allowing Super Heavy LoW—but only if they are in your Codex—with total disregard for Escalation as a Codex, since a Codex is now defined as just a collection of Dataslates. And some will allow Knights, the only non-LoW Super Heavies, but others don’t—confused yet? Kinda puts you off building an army to take to a tournament, huh?

When Windows 3.1 was released, lots of people clung to DOS—where are they now? How about cassette and CD? Or VHS and DVD? History tells us that the Luddites always become irrelevant, because progress overcomes familiarity. If the competitive 40k community allows itself to be trapped in an anachronistic mindset, we are ultimately doomed. We need to adapt and survive, or die like dinosaurs. The banhammer will not keep tournaments alive.

I propose that we may already be at this point. Expect the dam to break when the first Super Heavy with Ranged D Weapon appears in a 'mainstream' Codex—I'm looking at you, Necrons and your pet C'Tan!


In the long-term, competitive 40k will ultimately die-out unless we address the biggest threat to the sustainability of our community: correcting player attitudes. As I wrote way back at the start of this epic rant, we the players are killing the scene. By blaming the game, not the player, we are building an undeserved sense of entitlement into the fundamental fabric of our community.

The paradigm we are building is one wherein every player at a tournament honestly believes they are a podium contender—and this belief is simply divorced from reality. Some animals are more equal than others, and some players are better than the rest. The best players should win tournaments, because that is what a competition is designed to do—identify and recognise the best.

But to pander to the entitled masses, TOs will compromise the competitive integrity of their events, so that playing and winning games of 40k ultimately becomes irrelevant to winning tournaments. We will end up with nothing but painting and creative writing competitions with a few dice rolled for teh lolz. Now there is nothing wrong with having hobby events and casual games days—but when all our ‘competitive’ tournaments morph into hug-fests the competitive 40k scene will be officially pronounced dead.

No one likes the guy who turns up to the casual games day with an Adamantine Lance and roflstomps cool modelling project armies—so why is it becoming acceptable for casual gamers to turn up to competitive tournaments, cry about losing, and push the competitive scene to become more casual with restrictions, comp and big soft scores?

If we the competitive 40k community want to rebuild, then we need to start with an attitude adjustment. We need to embrace progress, stand up for competitive integrity, and aspire to excellence not mediocrity.


  1. Take a reality check.
    Allowing everything, including unbound armies and (to a slightly lesser extent) SH/GMC LoW into tournaments is the surest way to eliminate the presence of casual gamers from tournaments because it simply is not fun to play a standard list against a min/max'ed unbound list. Neither is it particularly entertaining to watch your opponent's two Transcendant C'Tans vaporize 50% of your army in turn 1 because he rolled to go first.

    This is NOT to say that these things should never be allowed in tournaments, just that you need players to have a very different army builds and mindsets than in more traditional style tournaments.

    But... You will drive away attendance from casual gamers if you normalize tournaments with the 'anything goes' format of the BRB.

  2. That is the entire point. Casual players should be welcome at competitive tournaments, but those tournaments should primarily cater to competitive players.

    If a casual player cannot handle the full scope of the rules then they should stay away from competitive tournaments, not force the competitive community to compromise. If this reduces attendance in the short term, so be it, that's happening anyway. But continuing to allow entitled casuals to dictate to TOs will kill all tournaments in the long run.

    The reality is: tournaments are for competitors; if you are casual then feel free to attend, but don't cry if you lose.

  3. I don't play tournaments but I expect that TOs organize for the largest customer base. If the tournaments are changing where causal play is preferred then I suspect that TOs have discovered that is where the people are. On the other hand, casual players are less likely to attend tournaments regularly and have all of the latest models. The tournament scene will not be as grand when competitive players leave out of frustration with the deliberate neutering of armies. Is there no way to have a twin track tournament? Like having different classes or rankings where one is unrestricted and the other is restricted? Support both groups of players and give each what they want. I suspect that competitive players might field two armies with one being in the restricted group because there is a challenge in creating that killer list even with your hands tied and chains on your feet. Personally, I like the unrestricted lists but just find some of the allied lists I see on battle reports weird as they don't seem to fit the fluff at all.

  4. The reality is that most RTT level tournaments are social events where players from a broader region than just the local group get to meet and play. Catering to wider preferences is essential to their success and continuation. This means continuing to attract casual players.
    GT level can be different, but if you drive away a significant proportion of the casual players you will find the GT's become a lot less G as numbers dwindle.

  5. I accept that numbers will further reduce in the short term if the competitive community took the necessary steps to revitalise itself. But I believe it would be an acceptable loss.

    We need to build a tournament scene that is sustainable in the long term, and that means culling the compromises and striving for progressive, competitive integrity.

    I believe that numbers would grow again once a robust tournament scene was (re)established. But this continuing compromise to satisfy the casual masses at the cost of the dedicated competitors is just unsustainable.

  6. You are spot on, most TOs have to compromise the competitive integrity of their events so they can cater to the masses and get the numbers they need to be financially viable. It's a sad but practical reality.

    You can look at it like this: have a compromised tournament, or no tournament at all. I understand why TOs are choosing to compromise. But it is also understandable why numbers dwindle anyway, because the dedicated competitors are now sick of compromise and just choose not to play.

    It is true that "you can't please everyone" and trying to satisfy both casual and competitive players in a single event is extremely hard. That is why there have historically been both 'hard' and 'soft' events to satisfy both competitive and casual players—or more accurately, a spectrum of event styles to satisfy the spectrum of player preferences.

    However, these days there are very few hardcore competitive events left at all. Basically every major tournament is compromising in some way in favour of the casual crowd. You now have a choice between casual hobby events, and casual hobby events pretending to be tournaments. And so the competitors are walking away. The whole competitive scene is at risk of extinction, unless the community takes a stand and refocuses on making tournaments competitive again.

  7. I am well aware that casual players typically make up the bulk of numbers at a lot of tournaments, even the really competitive ones. But tournaments should still be designed for competitive integrity, not to pander to the casual masses. Having lots of casuals around for the social factor is great, but if a tournament compromises on competitive integrity then it should no longer be called a 'tournament'. It's just another casual gaming event.

    Yes I do consider casual players to be less successful at winning games and tournaments—by their very definition—and I am not sugar-coating that. I do not have a problem with casual players attending tournaments, but I have a big problem with them trying to reshape tournaments into casual hobby events to suit themselves.

    It sounds like you have chosen the third of the three options I presented for casual players who do not like competing—you have chosen to stop playing in tournaments. It sounds like you are having a much better time playing in a casual environment. So I have to ask, why do you feel the need to write so much advocating that tournaments near you should be morphed into hobby events to suit you, at the cost of the competitors?

    You can play casually at your local store, but how do competitive players in your area satisfy their desire to compete? If you reshape their tournaments into something more casual then you inhibit their hobby. Just because you don't enjoy the challenge of taking on an Adamantine Lance doesn't mean all players want the game dumbed-down to a lower level. This is what is killing the competitive community on a broader scale, and it needs to stop now.

  8. Hahaha, do you really not see your hypocrisy here? The majority of tournament players have always been casual players. It's not casual players trying to reshape the game, its you 'competitive' players trying to make 40k into something its not.

    If you want some uber competitive mindset to play in go play a different game like WarmaHordes. This has never been 40k.

    It's uber-competitive players ruining the game, at the cost of 90% of the other players.

  9. What I do see is your entitlement. How are competitive players ruining the social games of casual gamers? Are they gate-crashing your garage and crushing your fluffy Nids with an Adamantine Lance? I think not.

    What you—the militant casual player—are doing is ruining the competitive scene by throwing tantrums about everyone else not being fluffy enough to satisfy your delicate sensibilities. You are actively trying to change the way the competitive scene plays to suit yourself.

    While you may not enjoy competitive 40k, others do, and are perfectly free to do so. So saying things like "go play another game" really just highlights how you are the problem.

  10. *overly dramatic eye roll*

    No one is breaking into your garage and stopping you from playing super competitive games with your friends. You can't complain about other peoples "entitlement" without checking your own. Have you ever thought that those TO's trying to reign in the power gaming are doing so because they don't want to play ultra-competitive 40k either?

    Just because you have one conception of a tournament doesn't mean that everyone else shares it.

    If you don't like it then go start your own tournament, or just play with your ultra competitive friends. Or, seriously, try a different game. One that actually supports ultra-competitive gameplay (that's why I play Hordes, just like when I want a purely narrative game I play Malifaux).

    While this has been a suuuper interesting exercise in privilege and projection from you I think I'm done with this.

  11. Thanks for your input, it's been a great illustration of my points. Someone who professes no interest in playing tournaments, dictating how we should play tournaments to suit him best 😜

  12. I can see what you are thinking, but I think that you are wrong.
    40k is a game designed for casual/narrative play, not balanced competitive play (whether through deliberate effort or just laziness). It is one of the mirages of competitive gamers that there is a 'pure' form of 40k that is actually balanced and even. That does not exist because GW does not care to make it.
    If you want a truly balanced and competitive tabletop wargame, you are playing the wrong game.
    Drive away the casual gamers, who are the vast majority of 40k players, and you doom events to decline and a slow death.
    Don't misunderstand me, I wish there was a format for 40k that created a truly balanced competitive gaming environment, but it just isn't in the game structure the way GW has written it. GW's exit from the tournament scene pretty much shows this is how they intend it. I don't like that at all, but that is the decision they have made.

  13. Looking good! The weathering looks great, and helps keep your interest moving around the piece!

  14. Mad props for parasite as an HQ.

    One thing I've noticed at many events...they have "friendly", fluffy, or narrative style. That seems to embrace the type of play you used to enjoy, and it's what I am going to tournaments for now. For example, LVO allows unbound in the friendly tournament, but looks over the lists to make sure things are done in the spirit of the tournament. For example, I'm bringing an ork dread mob + ork stompa. That's pretty much my friendly list! lol Least competitive thing ever.

  15. Sadly this is only true of the major US events, and while it sounds awesome, isn't a huge help for me up in Canada. We only really have enough players to fill one event at a time where I am, and those are shrinking fast. On the plus FLGS store events are growing a lot thanks to picking up all the players like me who aren't heading to tournaments so mixed bag.

    Some day I would really like to go to the LVO. If only it was held the week before, or the week after, San Diego Comic Con, then I could rent a car and drive over as part of the same trip!

    Your Orks list sounds fun to play. I love Deff Dreads so much, I don't care how bad they are.

  16. That's a fair call, I agree that the 40k ruleset is not optimised for tournament play. However, that's not the point I'm making here. If a subset of the broader player community—the competitive gamers—want to have tournaments then we should, and we should strive for the most competitive integrity possible with the loose ruleset. I personally think that an 'all-in' approach is the way to go, because the meta would quickly find a new natural equilibrium once the floodgates were opened.

    I want to make it clear that I am not advocating a deliberate "driving-away" of casual players from the tournament scene. I want casuals to keep attending tournaments, but I want them attending with full knowledge and understanding that they will probably lose more games than they win if they bring a knife to the nuke-fight. Ideally, all players should have the emotional maturity to enjoy playing the game, regardless of if they win or lose.

    I accept that some casuals will probably flee the tournament scene if the banhammer buffer was withdrawn, but I expect that those who remain will be the ones we want to keep, the ones who are truly in it for the fun of it and don't care if they win or lose. Over time, attendance numbers would regrow as more casuals realise that they can still attend a tournament and have fun, even if they suffer a few crushing defeats in their early rounds before Swiss Pairing sorts out the competitors from the casuals.

  17. Knight_of_Infinite_Resignation24 December 2014 at 10:56

    I agree with everything he has said. 40K was designed as a narrative wargame with strong roleplaying elements. Briefly in 5th edition it worked as a competitive roughly balanced competitive game. Since then competitive types have been trying to make it back into that sort of game.

    Well actually that isn't how it is meant to be played. The ultra competitive players ruin it for everyone. It only takes one such player at a club and everyone losing to him and it starts an arms race which results in the loss of players and change in the clubs culture. I've seen it happen twice.

    There is such a thing as the casual tournament. In fact most local events are like that. It used to be impossible to 'break' 40Ks rules to the point that whoever goes first with their tricked out superheavy will win 99% of the time. It is possible now, hence the rise in restrictions.

    Go and see a completely unrestricted competition and it will come down to who went first most of the time as the Revenants and Warhounds battle it out. Not fun. Not skillful.

  18. I'm glad you like it. I've just posted the pics of the finished model.

  19. Just because some parts of the community do not think that 40k should be played competitively, does not mean that other parts of the community do not have the right to play competitively if they choose to. That's what tournaments are for: competition. When casual players attend tournaments with an expectation that gameplay will not be competitive that is when disappointment occurs.

    There is nothing wrong with casual games days and hobby events. The problem is when the competitive tournaments start compromising their integrity to appeal to the casual crowd—if this continues then there will be nothing but casual events, with nothing left for the competitive community.

    If you did actually see an unrestricted competition you would see that Revenants and Warhounds are only scary prospects to the deathstar builds that dominate the restricted meta. Titans really aren't very hard for good MSU builds to deal with. Like I said before, when restrictions are lifted the meta will quickly find its new natural equilibrium.

    By the way, skilled players don't fear going second.