Thursday, September 5, 2013

List Building: Critical Mass?

One of the online dictionary definitions for critical mass are as follows:
"an amount necessary or sufficient to have a significant effect or to achieve a result."

I've been thinking quite a bit about army lists. Much of it probably has to do with the amount of tournaments I have been to recently, the upcoming Michigan GT, and the not so distant one at U-Con.
I've been pondering today about"critical mass" in a list. The other day I was playing against one of SeerK's experimental builds. After the game, one of my criticisms of the list was that I felt like it was unable to attain "critical mass". Now, unfortunately, I haven't distilled exactly what I think gives this critical mass, what it actually is, or even if that is the best term to describe it. I can, however, notice when it isn't there. It's absence tends be most glaring when facing an opponent that has a list that just seems to be a bunch of units running around doing something rather than a cohesive force. There is some interplay I can't quite put my finger on between units doing useful damage, units taking/holding important ground, and a general momentum towards mission victory.

Part of the impetus for writing this post is to kind of think "out loud" and maybe get some feedback from you.
Perhaps the phenomenon that eludes me is based off of the general ability to reliably swing the battle in a positive manner. The force required to do this may be what I am meaning by critical mass, but also the ability to keep it from swinging back easily. Anyone can have a really good turn, but a good player with a good list will nearly always be doing well overall through both good turns and bad ones.

So let's look at the generalities that a good list can do reliably.

1. It can deal sufficient catastrophic damage to the things that can deal catastrophic damage to it.

**For example, a tank list that is adept at removing the enemies anti-tank assets.

2. It can run a quality damage surplus. In that it deals more quality damage than it receives.

* I would define quality damage as either succeeding against a target with the right weapons (Lascannons that actually kill a tank, Flamers on weak support troops in cover, etc.) or significant damage to very important units of the enemies (generally just making something roll a lot of saves and forcing wounds. While it lacks in efficiency, if every wound is particularly valuable, it's worth it).

3. Has enough resiliency built into the most important elements of the list as not to be crippled easily.

I think that a list that can reliably accomplish these three things should be able to attain a "critical mass".

What do you think? Am I close but missing it? Do you have a better term? General thoughts?


  1. Last Saturday I ran 4 serpents, 3 wraithknights and 6 bikes with a farseer, I tabled every single opponent by turn 4. Is a basic lit but it fulfills all three critical points.

    1. Wow. Yeah, that would indeed. If you can't get critical mass with that kind of wrecking ball, I wouldn't know what to tell you. And it would seem your recent experience supports my hypothesis.

      So, do you think those three criteria are good ones?

  2. I've been thinking about a similar topic, but using your points above I find it simpler to think of this in terms of redundancy:

    A) Target saturation (defensive redundancy) - overloading your enemy's ability to deal with all of one unit type - e.g. loads of FMCs, AV12 hulls, etc.)

    B) Threat saturation (offensive redundancy) - having multiples of various weapon types (anti-infantry/vehicle/flyer) and threat ranges so you can still effectively attack whilst taking casualties.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks, Sentinel! I can follow your logic of both offensive and defensive redundancy. Your "A" might be pronounced "spamming" in some parts of the world. :)
      I would offer that you may have distilled too far towards the simplistic though. Your two criteria could be stated in one sentence as "Take a load of good similar unit types and a good variety of weaponry". While I don't disagree with either of those sentiments, I also don't feel that A is mandatory. In addition, B might send someone down the wrong path of weapon selections because of a lack of focus.
      I think we all understand the concept but its hard to put into words. Really hard actually. That's why I love that people are helping me think!

    2. I do love a good discussion about game concepts!

      I'd agree that A) can be achieved through spam, but this isn't a prerequisite. I think it's possible to identify units that require similar weaponry to take down and use these. That said, I'd suggest that it may be more important to fulfil a key battlefield role efficiently than sticking with a particular theme (e.g taking cheap infantry as backfield scoring in a mech list can be ok if this is the best way of fulfilling the role for that codex/ally combination).

      Perhaps part of the difficulty is that there are a number of very interesting elements bouncing around in this discussion? Are we trying to establish and classify the requirements of a list to achieve critical mass as a 'tipping point in momentum towards victory' (result/game state oriented)? Is this assumed to be through a balance and synergy between basically damage dealers and resilient objective scorers (the list offers the potential, limited by codex, with the general, opponent, mission, dice and terrain offering the context and shaping the outcome)?

      Could it be that it's the synergy between target and threat saturation at list building stage that defines the army's ability to achieve critical mass? If so, couldn't we distil the discussion to ' take the right balance of scoring and threats to win the game'?

    3. I also love critical discussions like this. Too often, the Internet just descends into negativity and it becomes worthless to read, but I'm enjoying myself here.
      I think that you are asking a valid question when your propose two ways to distill this down. However, I kind of think that they are both more or less equally important. Further fueling my initial feeling that I couldn't quite put my finger on what was doing it, creating the critical mass anyway. I mean, you can see it on the board when it hits, even sense it sometimes when you're playing. For me at least, it is difficult to actually tack down and analyze what it is. Though, I am beginning to build a new framework on the concept based off of some of the insights gleaned from the comments here.

    4. Yeah, finding quality and depth on the net is a bit like panning for gold. That's one of the reasons for my Food For Thought posts on my blog, pointing people to the good stuff I find!

      Looking forward to seeing more on the new framework.

    5. More akin to panning for gold in the sewer quite often, unfortunately.

  3. Your list is fine but I tend to look at things from the opposite perspective. First off my guiding principles (based off my sports/coaching experience but applicable to most things)
    1. It is usually better to attack than be attacked.
    2. Simple is better than complicated
    3. Timing and setup are important
    4. Go with the flow
    5. Confidence and attitude are worth more than skill or equipment

    These all carry over to some degree to 40k as well. When building lists I focus on the damage output I can do (see 1). I need to be able to deal with light and heavy infantry, vehicles, assault and possibly flyers. Damage output does include a defense factor as a unit of wraithguard have at least equal if not higher anti-vehicle damage capability compared to fire dragons because they will survive more than 1 round.

    I also try to build armies that are complimentary but when thinking about if I have the resources to do something I don't factor that it. Any synergy I can get from the army becomes a bonus on the table. It is easier for the enemy to disrupt complicated plans or for me to just plain screw them up(see 2) so I don't count on them.

    Point 3 and 4 are related and are too complicated to get into much detail here but it relates to how you play the game. Tactics/strategies/feints etc. One thing that should be noted is they are much more about directing the flow of the battle than about developing a pre-game strategy. Pre-game strategies are useful until you exchange army lists and than need to be reassessed.

    Point 5 is the key however. If you doubt yourself you won't succeed, not because you can't but because you will panic. Staying calm is key to good decision making. Sure it helps to have good choices but the ability to make the best out a bad situation is very important

    1. I agree wholeheartedly that simple is way better than complicated. I see that you (and very rightly so) weight the player very heavily. So do I, as the old adage goes that a good player with a bad list will usually beat a bad player with a good list.
      Though, in my quest to understand the philosophic side of 40k, I am trying to break everything down into little bits for study. Perhaps I will have to start working on a player focused post.
      As far as having the units/weapons to deal with everything, I have been leaning more and more to taking u it's that are great at one thing and have a few other things that they are OK at and layering units together so that even if the list is limping, it isn't helpless in most situations.

    2. I think this last paragraph touches upon what I would describe as redundancy through duality!

    3. Redundancy through duality seems like a fair term to describe that, indeed.

  4. One other point is that when I build lists I try to make them as OP as possible, especially for tournaments. I guess if you're into the competitive side of the hobby, you automatically use a form of critical mass reasoning without even realising it.

    1. I agree. A beat face tournament list needs to be able to reach critical mass. I can't comment on the state of mind of someone writing a competitive list, not without reflecting on it more. But I'm sure there are all kinds of subconscious things going on.

      As a side note, I'm also an OP list fanboy. When I got into the hobby and was falling in with a game group, we all made the meanest lists we could. And as long as everyone was doing that. It was all fun for everyone. Trouble arises though when that style of play encounters people that don't follow that killer dogma.

    2. I'll take the other side of this. I like to think I make good lists but not overpowered. Lists like flying circus or 5 riptide tau are not entertaining to me. Are they good? Sure but so is rock in most games of Rock/Paper/Scissors.

      I don't begrudge people for playing the lists, but I don't think it is good for the game. Preparing a new army takes roughly 6-12 months. I'll follow netwisdom and assume that Tau are the best army out there right now. Assume a local field that includes one player of each army. This is all well and great until one of them decides that their codex sucks and in the interest of being as OP as possible switches to Tau. Now everyone else has twice as many losses and if they start to switch, those that can't get frustrated and quit. You now have a community of 5-6 players who win all the local tournaments, playing as strong of lists as possible. New players can't join because they aren't good enough/quit soon because they get frustrated. Their lists become crutches and eventually they move on from the game.

    3. I'd suggest that most of the issues you've flagged up (not everyone likes to powergame) can be resolved by asking/agreeing to play casually, rather than competitively. I much prefer to go all out, but I will always ask an opponent what sort of game they're after before we play. Finding like-minded opponents or learning to compromise/take it in turns avoids a lot of potential problems!

    4. It isn't an issue about liking to powergame. It is an issue about being able to. Not everyone is capable of switching armies every couple codexes. And forcing someone into a situation of do I want to get stomped or do I want to beg for mercy pregame isn't good. If GW had better balance this wouldn't be an issue, but the reality is they don't. And the excuse of but the codex allows it generally doesn't help the overall community.

    5. Agreed. Balance is good for causal and competitive players alike, IMO. I'd prefer it if games aren't turned into arms races where the winners are only those who can buy in and speed paint the fastest! Saying that, I'd guess there are a lot of games/sports/events where buying the latest and best stuff is required to compete? If our only fulfillment in the hobby is winning, rather than competing to the best of our abilities (resources included) or playing for the love of the game, we're gonna get disappointed sooner or later.

    6. I would say that if a person has to decide between getting stomped or switch to the newest army in as short of a time frame as you offer, then odds are that it is the player's lack of skill at the game that is defeating them. I've seen plenty of people switch to new armies hoping for victory on the backs of the new cool units. Often, it doesn't work for them because they haven't given themselves the time required to really master the codex.
      I will never shy away from wanting balance in the game, but it is what it is perceived to be.
      As a side note, I actually like playing in very cruel, cutthroat list building communities. When I first got into the game, I repeatedly lost. Not small losses either, huge disastrous defeats. It didn't sour my mood or turn me away. Honestly, if I hadn't been losing so much in the beginning, I doubt I would have stayed with the game. I liked the challenge of it. I still do.

    7. And Sentinel, I would be totally fine if many people even "speed painted" their army. It's not my favorite thing to face off against a horde of bare plastic/metal or black primer. Such is life though, :)

    8. On the same note, I'm delighted if someone turns up with a fully assembled army! I'm happy to play against proxies, part completed models and varying states of painting, but there's nothing like seeing two fully painted armies fight over a board with good terrain.

    9. Indeed, that is one of the finer things about this game. Sadly, not everyone puts in the time to make those cinematic little battles happen.

  5. Good stuff! I think there are a couple of other factors involed, though, things that I've been bearing in mind, with army lists and with Magic: the Gathering decks too. Even RPG characters, I guess, if you're focusing on mechanics!

    One: what are the kill conditions? How does this list/deck/character actually achieve anything? Too often do I see people mashing together mechanics that they happen to like and creating beautiful little synergies which... don't actually interact with the means by which the game is won or lost. Too often do I see people sinking their effort and resources into salvaging a poor choice, throwing good rules after bad. Taking stuff that's not optimal is fine, but I think breaking your balls to make bad stuff decent when the same effort could make good stuff great is seldom a smart choice. Unless you're doing it to prove a point, or as a handicap or experiment, I guess...

    Two: How many 'ifs' are involved in reaching the kill conditions? Is there something which has worked in one engagement and failed in nine others? Is that something a fringe case or something that the build is allegedly built to achieve? Case in point; my Golgari deck, in Magic, has several different kill conditions but frequently struggles to meet any of them because they all depend on it being about turn 5 and some losses having already been taken. Outside of exceptionally fortunate draws, the deck has too many 'ifs' to survive the early game in most encounters.

    I bring this up here because I think there's a critical mass of kill conditions (i.e. an army that has several different ways to achieve victory, either by tabling the opponent or last-minute objective grabbing or denying the engagement or through superior attrition capacity) that makes a build good, and a critical mass of 'ifs' (i.e. "if I get the first turn and if I bring my reserves on in turn 2 and if I roll lots of sixes on my Tesla Destructors I'm fine, otherwise I'm screwed") that makes a build bad.

    Your thoughts?

  6. " Taking stuff that's not optimal is fine, but I think breaking your balls to make bad stuff decent when the same effort could make good stuff great is seldom a smart choice."
    I really liked this sentence of yours Von, thank you for writing it. I think it puts into words something that I have been struggling to communicate to people.
    One your first factor, I think this is a solid point. All the good units/equipment in a codex won't help you much if they aren't being used to win the mission. And having the right mix of units to make sure that everything gets where it needs to be is crucial.
    Of your second factor, I think that is getting back to the idea of reliability. I was intentional in mentioning that in the original post because of many of the same reasons you stated. So we are agreed there for sure.
    I'm not sure of what the antonym of "critical mass" would be, but it would seem the "if's" would be a culprit in bringing it about.