In praise of (aggressive) mediocrity…

This is an article that I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but then I got sidetracked by heading to Origins, then by moving into a new place with my fiancée. With GenCon coming up as an opportunity to play in what might be the largest Transformers TCG event to date, I felt it was important to reach out to players who played at a casual level and who might be nervous about playing in a more “serious” tournament. Yesterday, I heard Cameron of Arbitrary Hero assuaging one of his viewers’ anxieties about convention play, and my power has been out for a few hours, so I might as well kill my laptop battery by getting some writing done. Strap in for some rambling.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is not a critique of players who take the game seriously at a competitive level. Instead, it’s an argument that you should consider participating in the larger-scale tournaments (ie. Origins, GenCon, PAX Unplugged) even if you are NOT a “serious” competitive player.

A little bit less than a year ago, there was a fairly benign opinion piece titled “In Praise of Mediocrity” in The New York Times that started to pop up in the various gaming groups that I’m active in. The core idea behind the article was that there is value in having a level of casual competence in the hobbies that you enjoy. Quite simply, it is okay to be mediocre and to participate in something solely for the purpose of enjoyment. In multiple groups, posts about it quickly devolved into an argument between people who “played for fun” and people who “played to win.”

In my tabletop gaming “career,” I’ve always focused much more on building and maintaining a local gaming community as opposed to becoming a strong competitive player within that community.

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…

For close to five years, I played the X-Wing Miniatures Game by Fantasy Flight Games at least two nights a week. When I first decided to get into the game around Wave 3, I reached out to our local stores and found that the local player base had mostly died off. I went on a crusade to revitalize that local community. Without getting too deeply into it, this meant that I spent a majority of those weekly game nights giving demos to prospective players, helping new players get their feet wet, and sitting out rather than playing so that other people had an opportunity to get games in (which is a much bigger deal when a game can take roughly two hours from set-up to clean-up).

Since I was mostly playing folks that were new to the game, I purposefully chose to limit the pilots/upgrades in my list so that they weren’t oppressive to someone that was still learning the basics of the game. I focused on the mid-tier cards that weren’t frequently seen it competitive play, since they weren’t clearly overpowered. I limited myself further by refusing to take turreted ships (which allowed you to shoot in 360 degrees rather than the forward-facing printed firing arc) or ships that were able to reposition after they moved. To make an analogy to sports, it forced me to become good at the fundamentals of the game (dribbling, passing, shooting).

In Magic terms, it solidified me into being a Johnny when it came to list-building and playstyle.

At the same time, near the end of my X-Wing “career,” it was becoming clear to me that my experience was much more akin to it being a job (promoting and maintaining a community) as opposed to a hobby (something I did for the pure enjoyment).

When TFTCG was released, I made an internal decision to better balance the need to build/maintain a local community with actually making time to play and enjoy the game. Joe and I were lucky to have friends at GenCon last year, and we were able to crack open the Autobot Starters and begin playing right off the bat. Between making gameplay videos for the channel and playing in our weekly tournaments over the past year, we have A LOT of games under our belts.

With that said, we have a lot of players in our local community who show up to our Wednesday night events who don’t play as often or who don’t have a complete pool of cards to deck build with. At our weekly events, the “regulars” usually handicap themselves by playing a jankier build, and bringing something more competitive to test with before or after the weekly tournament begins. This doesn’t mean that Bugs or Double Primes never rear their ugly head, but it just means that they are usually being run by people who have the opportunity to play less often. It gives us a sort of equilibrium that puts everyone on a mostly even playing field.

A side effect of doing this means that I have a significant amount of exposure playing WITH and AGAINST almost every card that’s been released (both character cards and battle cards). Someone once described my style of play compared to Joe and Frenchie as being casual, but I think the term “aggressively mediocre” is a better fit. I’m a pretty average player, but I play fairly often and have a breadth of experience playing with/against a wide variety of decks.

On the 8 hour drive to Origins, I killed some of the time by recording a travelogue where one of my main talking points was that my Origins prep was woefully inadequate and that it was a textbook example of how NOT to head into a major competitive event. Said travelogue never saw the light of day, since I had to make some space on my phone to try to record gameplay the next day, but these were my main points:

  • Because of work and a few other factors, I wasn’t able to meet up with the WnR crew for testing.
  • For the same reasons, I was unable to head out to our weekly event.
  • The day before leaving for Ohio, I elected to schedule a dental check-up instead of getting in some last-minute testing.
  • I was mostly undecided on which of 3 decks to play (for anyone curious, the options were Rogue Squadron, Orange Predacons, or some variant of Cars). Even then, I meant to strip apart the three decks to make some tweaks that I had been meaning to make for weeks.

On top of that, I really don’t prefer to play in “competitive” Transformers TCG tournaments. By now, I’ve played against Bugs or OPBL at least one hundred times. More recently, I’ve played against Orange Sentinels or Blue Aerialbots a bunch. The prospect of driving 8 hours to play against the same old decks I’ve played against for months wasn’t overly enticing.

At the same time, I decided that I was going to upend my work/life schedule to spend 4 days driving and playing Transformers. A few factors solidified my decision. For one, Siege booster packs were going to be handed out as participation prizes for the qualifying events and I wanted to get my hands on some new, shiny stuff. More importantly, I’ve been there since the beginning of the game, as a player, as a content creator, as a group admin on Facebook, and it only felt right to be there at the advent of this aspect of organized play.

I assumed I would go into each day of play and go down in flames. I ran Rogue Squadron on Friday and ultimately went 3-3, which was decently better than I expected things to go. On Saturday, I ran Fire Wheels and went 5-0 (and then drew the last round), which got me a spot in the Top 32 for the Sunday event.

Even if I did not qualify for the Sunday event, I wouldn’t have regretted making the trip, for a number of reasons.

  • By and large, the vast majority of folks I played against were a blast to hang out with (and they were also fun to talk to between rounds and while grabbing food afterwards).
  • It was great to talk to Ken Nagle (the lead designer of the game) and John Schork (the community manager for the game) in person instead of just through Facebook messages or email. They dropped some neat behind the scenes tidbits and were extremely open to feedback.
  • Not everyone was running “meta” lists. The Colorado crew were running a potent OPBL/Novastar combo and one of their players busted out a sweet Blue Bugs deck. Another gentleman made it into Sunday by running Dreadwing.

I didn’t spend a ton of time practicing for the event. I didn’t get a bunch of reps with the deck I qualified with. I certainly didn’t spend a lot of time practicing different match-ups or opening plays with it. I put approximately five minutes worth of thinking into my side deck. I was running on less than five hours of sleep each night and definitely not operating at my optimal level of awareness.

I still had a ton of fun and had an unexpectedly strong run on Saturday and Sunday. I essentially did nothing different than I’ve done since mid-August of last year and I was still able to claw my way into the Top 4 among a murderer’s row of competitors. If I can do it, you sure as hell can do it.

If you haven’t been able to spend a lot of time practicing, or if you just choose to play the game at a less serious level, you should absolutely still consider playing in at least some of the events at GenCon or PAX Unplugged if you enjoy the game.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s