Gitting Gud, Part 1: The Myth of “Playing a Lot”

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Guest contributor Philo dives into the mechanics of improving your day-to-day Gwent performance by working smarter, not harder.

People play a game like Gwent for various reasons.  Some play as a mere diversion. Others play to explore card effects and interactions.  Others play because their friends play. These are all great reasons to play Gwent. This series, however, is not specifically directed towards these individuals – though they still may find some value here.  Rather, the people I seek to assist the most here are those who seek to become more competitive and successful at Gwent by that metric, but are having trouble finding their footing. In other words, this is a piece more focused the Spikes, rather than the Timmys or the Johnnys, if you’re familiar with the Magic the Gathering-rooted terminology that has since been applied to many CCGs, physical and digital alike.

What I will cover in this series is first a general approach to improvement.  This approach applies to any kind of skill acquisition from learning a sport, mastering a musical instrument, or playing Gwent.  After laying down the general principles, I will then move on to show how these principles apply to Gwent. What I hope to do is to provide suggestions that will help make your time spent playing Gwent as efficient and productive as possible.

Much of what I say about general approaches to improvement comes from K. Anders Ericsson.  Ericsson is a psychologist at Florida State University. His main areas of research are in expert performance, practice, and professional development.  If you’re interested in learning about how improvement works, then I highly recommend that you check out his book, Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise.

All collectible card games involve two major components: gameplay and deckbuilding.  All of the examples and suggestions that I will make throughout this series will apply only to gameplay.  The reason for this is that I’m a pretty terrible deck builder and thus will have nothing useful to offer regarding improvement in this skill.  Others have applied the general principles described here in the form of useful suggestions and methods for improving deckbuilding.

Okay, now that we’ve gotten introductions aside, I want to address something that I find mildly irritating before we move into the nitty-gritty.  Every so often you’ll find individuals posting on places like Reddit asking for help on how to get better. You’ll find these posts on just about any competitive video game subreddit, from Starcraft, to League of Legends, to CS:GO, to Hearthstone.  The most common response by far is simply some variation of the axiom, “play a lot.” I find this answer to be dismissive, unhelpful, and also misleading.

It is true that in order to get better at anything, you have to put your time in.  However, just playing a lot by itself is not sufficient for constant improvement and eventual mastery.  If all it took to master any game was just playing a lot, then anyone who put in enough hours would be guaranteed to play at a professional level.  From what we see actually occur in the world of e-sports, this is obviously false.

People who believe that playing a lot is the only way to improve are misled.  Many individuals put in the hours, but show little to no sign of progress. Consider all of the posts you see that are entitled “I’m stuck at x MMR and can’t get any higher.”  These individuals get discouraged because they put in the hours but aren’t climbing. They conclude that either they are irreconcilably bad at the game, or that the game itself is fundamentally flawed to the point of ceasing to be fun – and at that point, they may give up. Not the optimal outcome for the player who’s put their time in, the devs who’ve worked hard to make the game, or the rest of the community that wants to grow and retain its playerbase.

This is unfortunate, and I contend that it’s in large part a product of this “play a lot” mentality.  In order to improve, you need to do more than just play the game a lot. In fact, you really don’t have to play the game for a colossal amount of hours to improve.  An individual who uses their time wisely for one hour will improve at a much greater pace than someone who plays mindlessly for eight hours. In Gwent especially, if you get stuck on one sequence of play, one permanently flawed goal, you’ll actually reinforce bad habits and you won’t just stagnate – you might actually even get worse!  Nobody wants this, so how do you avoid it?

Improvement requires that you do things other than just playing the game.  Consider sports and music. In order to perform at a high level, athletes and musicians do more than just play games or songs.  They perform drills, study film, learn music theory, participate in strength and conditioning exercises, listen to other musicians, etc.  It seems quite obvious that improvement in these areas requires more than just playing. The same should apply to games like Gwent. This can mean watching Twitch streams of professional players, and listening to their viewpoints. One of the benefits of Twitch is that – all memes aside – you can directly interact with the streamer for serious, helpful advice. You can also study analytical videos or gameplay highlights on YouTube to see key moments that outline essential principles to improving your performance. And you can engage with your most relevant social media platform to dialogue with other gamers on how to get better. This could be something like Reddit, but the echo-chamber tendencies and bandwagoning you can find there makes it less ideal than something like Discord, where you can find servers large and small alike dedicated to various aspects of Gwent, and engage with other players directly for a more constructive form of interaction.  

Now that we’ve introduced some of the basics, now we’ll be looking to move on to general principles on improvement.  In the next installment, I’ll discussing the idea of deliberate practice and how this can be used to hone your Gwent skills for tangible results.

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