What are the 5 fundamental principles behind building a solid tournament pair of warcasters?
:: Overview ::
Level 1: Know Thyself
Level 2: Consider Scenarios
Level 3: Know Thy Enemy
Level 4: Deal With Weaknesses
Level 5: The 50% Principle
:: Level 1: Know Thyself ::
For beginners, the most important thing is to sit down, figure out what our stuff does and come up with some cool combinations. It doesn't have to be gamebreaking, playtested thoroughly or anything, just see what kind of synergies you can find. My very first games were centered around Haley2 arcing spells through Thorn before a bonded Stormwall shot things up. I didn't know what half the things I played against could do but I won a few games from just taking apart heavies or casters with this strategy. I did lose Haley a lot, especially in killbox missions, as I didn't know anything else than my own models. However I learned how to use these combinations. I also experimented with Stryker1 Stormwall and Caine2 with hardly any jacks (where the idea was to create an ARM-skew list and a massive firepower list respectively).
Naturally this will lose you a lot of games as you fall to tricks you don't know but to be honest I don't think you can learn all the angles in this game from theory alone. Practice is a must. For this reason I think the start of a tournament pairing should solely be "what can I accomplish?". An important thing to keep in mind at this point in time is also that it isn't important whether your combo is very strong or not - the important thing is that you learn to execute it. There will be plenty of time to evaluate that later. Indeed, tweaking lists to get the best combinations and synergies is a never-ending journey in this game.
:: Level 2: Consider Scenarios ::
After you have started learning the various casters, combinations and synergies which exist in your faction it is time to build lists with scenarios in mind. Regardless of what you face in this game you can rest assured that a well-built list is capable of clearing areas of the map and start scoring scenario points. In my experience too many players delay playing with scenarios too long. My advice is to get started with this as quickly as possible. Learn all the 8 Steamroller scenarios. Play them frequently. Make sure you don't just play your favourites.
Once you start getting the hang of scenarios you realize that your lists need to have a strategy for how to deal with them. Again, at this point in time I'm not talking about evaluating how you stop a super-powerful control caster from forcing a scenario win on Outlast (that can indeed be impossible regardless of skill level with the right matchup!), but rather just have it in mind. If you build a list with too many shooters, chances are you will struggle to get across the table in Entrenched. The zone is simply too deep. If you build a tight list you could struggle in Incursion and Line Breaker due to the wide nature of said scenarios.
Learning to adapt to scenarios straight away keeps you from falling into traps later on. Considering the control points aspect of the game adds a healthy habit of not going for too one-dimensional skews without potential on paper, as you realize you will nearly auto-lose in too many situations.
:: Level 3: Know Thy Enemy ::
You've learned the basics of your faction, you manage to execute some of the combos and lists ingame and you understand the Steamroller scenarios well enough to build lists which keep them in mind and thus have a plan when you deploy. The next natural step is to widen your horizon and look outside of your own faction and beyond scenarios. What are other factions doing? How do they play? What can you expect to counter?
This is really a two-part step, in my opinion. The first step is to learn the other factions that are popular in your meta. You know, build their lists in war room pre-game (I still do this and find it to be an amazing habit), look through their things, and then when you're on the bus ride home or whatever just tweak around, look at their choices, discuss the list with your opponent etc. Basically just learn your meta. At this point in time I remember a lot of people told me: "But what do you do about <insert powerful list which nobody plays>?". Fuck that. Time for that shit later. This game takes forever to learn and you have to start someplace.
However, that being said, sooner or later you will be fairly well educated as to what your opponents bring and what those lists can do. It's time to dive deeper into the meta, try and understand what -all- factions can bring to the table. This is a very theoretical step because you have to research online. Check out DiscountGamesInc's tournament winner overview for example. Read reports. Watch YouTube channels. Discuss on forums. Set up these lists in War Room, try and understand them, think of what you would do about them etc. This never truly ends as the meta shifts constantly, but the initial task as a fairly new player is a one-time thing.
:: Level 4: Deal With Weaknesses ::
Sooner or later you feel that you have a pretty good grasp of what's out there and what can be fielded. That is not to say you can't be surprised, even the best players are often surprised with how a matchup really plays as opposed to how they thought it would play prior to experience. In any case, you'll find yourself having a reasonably decent understanding of what the meta is like, who the big dogs are. You are also well versed in the Steamroller scenarios and you know your own faction well. It's now time to sit down and consider what your strengths and weaknesses are. Based on your wins you should know your favourite caster(s) and their strengths pretty well. That is a good starting point. The question then, to complete a pairing, is how do you select a secondary list which complements the first list well?
There are two main approaches here: Either you have a roughly even split of intended matchups for each of your lists, or you have a main list and a supporting list. Regardless of which approach you follow, the main idea here is to ensure that your casters don't fear and love the same matchups. Let's take a fairly easy example and I'll expand it to show my train of thought: Haley2 loves playing the Protectorate but she is not fond of playing against Legion. Sloan is not a fan of playing against the Protectorate but she is fond of playing against Legion (assuming they don't bring Lylyth3). However Sloan doesn't like to play against Circle too well and playtesting shows that Haley2 isn't a big fan of this either. Haley3 however counters both Circle and Legion well. Thus, Haley3 is better at covering Haley2's weaknesses.
The example above is simplified but the principle is sound. How structured you want to go about this is totally up to you. I've seen everything from nothing at all, just a vague concept of "My caster X does not like Y I think", to spreadsheets with detailed codes for how playable a matchup is. For most factions in this game, achieving complete coverage is impossible. Chances are you will have certain weaknesses out there. My best tip here is to focus on the ones you expect to be popular and acknowledge that every now and then, you will be playing an uphill game.
:: Level 5: The 50% Principle ::
Let us say you rank your matchups in percentages. Your best matchup may be what you consider to be a 90% win and your worst matchup might be a 20% win. Obviously we want to create a pair which maximises this percentage across all the matchups. It's impossible to get 100% ratings across the board, short of playing Haley4 there's nothing even remotely that broken in this game. As such we have to make compromises. Personally I have the philosophy that each matchup should be playable. What this means in effect is that I'm more concerned with making matchups playable than making good matchups even better. To win harder is good of course, but I much prefer to have as many playable matchups as possible. Now, here's something interesting that might not be intuitive: I'll happily trade the mathematical maximum to make more poor matchups 50%+. Let's say I have a list in my pair that is supposed to deal with opponents A and B. If I go for option 1 with my list, I estimate the matchups to be 90% and 30% respectively for A and B, for a total of 120% over 2 matchups. With option 2 for the same list, matchup A drops to 60% whereas matchup B moves up to 50%. Although I've in theory dropped 10% for the matchups overall, I am much more happy with this latter distribution.
Why is this? If you have a 30% matchup and your opponent plays very well, there is hardly anything you can to apart from getting lucky. It is so much uphill that it may even overcome a significant player skill difference. I hate not even having a chance to play and I definitely hate losing to players who I feel I outplay but simply lose to because the matchup is so hard.
The implications of the 50% principle are many. First of all I rarely look at my really strong matchups in a pair. I almost exclusively try and look for matchups that are hard, which I know I'll struggle with and where I know I'll have to make tweaks to improve my chances in. Because of this I rarely play hard skews because most skews tend to be a win bigger kind of list: Get the right matchup and the game is effectively over before it's begun, but get the wrong matchup and you likely can't do much to avoid losing.
Most lists I write have fairly stable cores. At the time of this writing my Haley2 core is Stormwall + Thorn + Squire + Junior with a jack for example. This doesn't leave a whole lot of points to play around with, however the remaining points can and will change a lot of matchups significantly. What I try and do then is look at the meta and choose my points according to what matchups I feel need another boost to make them just a little more playable for me. In the near future I'll have a post which details my thoughts on the current meta and how my lists have been tweaked accordingly, but I want this article to be as meta independent as possible so forgive me the abstract nature of this part for now.
I hope this guide will help you build better tournament pairs. Understanding the meta, building a strong pair and knowing what to do is a process which never ends. This game is dynamic and the strong players constantly look for meta-benders. Don't try and find a static solution and rely on it. Instead, be a part of the chaos. Trust in your own judgement and experience. The time for analysis and re-evaluation is always post-tournament. Good luck out there!