Mindgames When Playing a 'Best of: X' Series



Thu 8th Nov 2012 - 4:44pm

When playing any strategy game in a tournament structure, there are a number of sets required to win to get to the next stage of the tournament. As opposed to a ladder/ELO environment, you are familiar with how the other person plays and you can make educated guesses as to what they will do next. I would even go as far to say that ladder and tournaments are completely different games. I have known consistent top 10 Grandmaster players that just play awful in tournaments.

I remember sitting in the audience, watching the I-Series 45 Final; dignitas BlinG Vs. Infused Fargo. I found the sets very interesting game after game. Fargo, at the time was well known for a highly aggressive TvP. BlinG; solid, passive. So naturally there were likely to be some early game fireworks. The tournament progressed, and Fargo was down 0:2, on the third set, on Entombed Valley, he went for a 1-1-1; a super aggressive all-in strategy that unfortunately for Fargo the game was won by BlinG, it was now 0:3 for the Terran, and the next map was Antiga Shipyard, a large map- perfect for BlinG-

I said to the person next to me "I am 90% sure BlinG will go for a Nexus first build" (The most economic build a Protoss could possibly do), "Fargo should do a 2 rax all-in, if he does, he will probably take this set". The fourth game played out, and Lo and behold, BlinG goes for the Nexus first build; a sure lose to the 2 rax cheese I mentioned. Fargo instead went for the standard TvP build of 1 Rax expand, which holds up very poorly to a Nexus first. He went on to lose that game and BlinG took the I45 Finals 4:0. 

To make wild, but correct strategic calls like this you need to beat a player psychologically, you need to be familiar with the following;

A. The player's past history (Looking at their replays before a game, etc).
B. Your Reputation as a player.
C. Where you are in the tournament. (First set, last set, etc.)

Point A) is fairly simple. The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. If you look at people's match histories and replays you get a fairly solid idea of how someone is going to play in similar circumstances. Every tournament I have been to, all the other pro players study match histories/replays as a ritual before every round. It's something you need to exercise yourself if you want to be strong in a tournament.

In a way, you are at an advantage if you are playing against a big name in a tournament, since their strategies are going to be out in the open; their replays and VoDs are there for you to study (part of the reason why I knew how BlinG would react in that set were from studying his replays). At the time, I concluded that Dignitas' Protoss players loved nexus first builds. You should always study how someone plays; you can often beat them simply by rock paper scissors, even if you are a weaker mechanical player.

You know you are good when you look like a chess player before a game. - Source:

Point B) Again, a very important factor, you need to understand that people can be using the aforementioned replay analysis on you and may of studied you, so they may play in reaction to what you normally do. If your match history/replays show you doing 2 rax cheese every game and they are doing economic builds every game, it's probably no mystery why they are well defended at the start of their games against you, they have caught on to what you like to do. If you feel someone is going to play reactionary to you, switch it up, go for an expand first build, and they will be prepared for a non-existent push, you are then well ahead of that player. It's a classic example of the 'You, think I think, you think...' strategy you would find in chess, those decisions only work against strong players.

In the case of the last set of I45, the thought process of Fargo must of been 'If BlinG recognises that I am an aggressive player, I am very likely to cheese in this tilt/'do or die' situation. So he will probably be well prepared for a cheese, so I should just expand'. While this is true, against most good Protoss players will expect an aggressive player to use standard play in a cheese/tilt situation for the purpose of surprise. BlinG is a step above a 'good player' and probably knew Fargo was thinking that, and reacted accordingly. Although this level of strategy is a dimension beyond what most of you are used to, this is what professional tournament situations are like, you are well aware that the other player is very intelligent; you just need to be thinking one step ahead.

Most good aggressive players playing will play passive when tilted; most good passive players will play aggressive when tilted. If you are a great player, you do the opposite of this when playing against a good player.

Point C) The stage/round/set you are in a tournament has a big impact on the feelings and strategy of the player. Generally, in the first set, you want to play passively to get a general feel of how the person is playing today so you can predict what will be coming up next, in combination with the other mentioned factors. The last set/tie break is the set that is the most psychologically involving, since you have all the information gained from the previous sets to work with. Not to mention that it is where the most stress comes out for the player and will likely be tilted to one degree or another.

Although, from my own experience, in tie break/last set scenarios, almost always, players will go for an economic, but not too economic build, since they are so afraid of cheese, and so afraid of being too defensive, they play exactly middle of the road.

There is a very similar mind-set to this in the game of the Poker. When people are playing in tournaments, and people are close to the prize money stages, people will freeze up when it comes to risky or aggressive play, and will be very conservative. It's very similar to StarCraft or any game involving strategy, people get scared at that stage- and you can often take advantage of it like playing hyper economically (As Bling did in the last set).

Hopefully this article has shone light onto what makes professional gaming different to being simply good at ladder/random games. It's a whole different ball game, and I am sure you have realised that if you have played in any decent sized tournament by now, the two are very different- and most pro gamers are good in the specific games themselves, but also in reading how people are thinking.

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