Hierarchy of Skill…?


Hey everyone, Reecius here with a quick thought and question for you all.

This is a topic we’ve talked about before, but as I think about it further and play more and my own style continues to evolve, I feel that it deserves bringing up again.

Basically it boils down to the stages a gamer goes through as his or her level of expertise increases in a game (or anything, really).

When you first start playing a game, we’ll use 40K as our example, you lack the knowledge to know what is good and what isn’t. You just pick things to use based on the way they look, they way they sound in the flavor text, their stats, etc. You’re basically choosing blindly and any success is largely based on luck. A player at this level will have a wide range of results, and almost always lose to a player at a higher skill level.

As you get better at the game though, you start to understand that certain units are better than others. You start learning the magic of efficiency and min/maxing. You start to see units in terms of how much punch they provide for their points. At this stage, you often see people spam units they identify as “best” based on math, advice from other players or experience. At this level you pay attention to detail and know basic tactics and will almost always beat a player at your level with an unoptimized list or a player at a lower skill level but will struggle with a player at the next level. This player will often think units are “bad” because their power level doesn’t jump out at you based strictly on their stats. You will frequently look at lists that work well and then see how to use them based on experience. You can implement tactics but aren’t really pioneering new ones yet.

The final level (as least as I visualize it in my mind so far) is a player that has become so saturated with knowledge of the game and experience that they don’t consciously think about things like rules and stats anymore, all of that fades into the background of conscious thought, and you then go beyond seeing things in terms of simple points efficiency but as moving parts in a larger whole. You start to see units for more than just how much damage they can do but in terms of how they can be used as a tool to win the game and their value to you may be hard to quantify to others. You start to see nuance that less experienced players miss and may not understand. Your tactics and ideas seem weird when in fact they are sound but require a great deal of experience to grasp. The reason for this is that you are now in the stage where you experiment and try new things backed by knowledge and experience. At this stage, you can consistently outplay players at lower levels even when playing an “inferior” list. This doesn’t mean you will use weird lists per se, but that you can, confidently. It also means that your tactics have gone beyond the basics and that you can set traps for your opponent, think outside the box, and do the unexpected while also expecting it. You are now winning based on skill as opposed to your list.

What do you guys think? Is this an accurate depiction of the evolution of skill or just me being dumb? I got a lot of these ideas from real world experience and thinking on the topic and also from a book I read. The name of the book escapes me at the moment (Thanks to Cameron for pointing out the books: Malcom Gladwell’s Blink and Outliers)–but the gist of which was that as a human cultivates more and more knowledgeable on a topic, their brain begins to process the information differently than a lay person. You literally think about it and see it differently. Examples of which are film critics that pan a movie that rocks the box office, of that praise a film that flops. They see nuance and artistic touches that are lost on folks who don’t know to look. Another example was the music industry, where brilliant artists hear something they think is amazing, but that subsequently fails with popular audiences. The skilled musician hears and recognizes things “normal” people miss. Finally, the example of an experienced cab driver that can find his way around his city from one point to any other point without a map, GPS, etc. where anyone else would struggle.

Cat scans of these cabbies’ brains show that their brains were physically different. They had developed huge amount of new dendrites and neural connections in the part of their brains associated with spacial relationships and as such, they could drive around easily but also, they were better equipped to learn their way around a new city faster and more easily than someone lacking their experience. Long story short, I believe these same concepts apply to 40K (or anything) and that you can see it in players as they gather experience.


About Reecius

The fearless leader of the intrepid group of gamers gone retailers at Frontline Gaming!

51 Responses to “Hierarchy of Skill…?”

  1. Avatar
    Merkur August 19, 2013 6:25 am #

    I’d add “training” as a secondary short term component to experience.
    If two players with even lists and an even level of experience play, it can matter a lot if one of them has played much less recently or if one is not as good in touch with the most popular builds in his area.
    This is probably more important for tabletop games than for the other examples you brought.

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 19, 2013 7:58 am #

      Good point, I agree. Training/practice is huge to keep things fresh in your mind. That makes a big difference.

    • Avatar
      bugsculptor August 19, 2013 7:58 am #

      With codexes dropping every month, being up to date with the latest books is a big factor also. If you don’t know what to expect you will make mistakes, no matter how good you are.

      • Reecius
        Reecius August 19, 2013 8:05 am #

        Knowledge is power. I always tell people the easiest way to get at 40K is to learn all the rules. Easier said than done, but it is true. If you know what’s coming your way, you don’t get blindsided by it.

  2. Avatar
    David Key August 19, 2013 7:39 am #

    “all of that fades into the background of conscious thought”

    Pass the bong bro.


    • Reecius
      Reecius August 19, 2013 7:58 am #

      Hahaha, for sure, brah, just let me finish watching Ancient Aliens and take my tin foil hat off, first!

  3. Avatar
    David Key August 19, 2013 7:48 am #

    Naw man. I actually agree with you. That about describes it.

    Ha! All I could think about while reading this is: “I like Swooping Hawks more than Warp Spiders, I like Swooping Hawks more than Warp Spiders, I like Swooping Hawks more than Warp Spiders”

    I hope I think this because I am on the “final level of consciousness”, but it might just be because I suck.

    • Avatar
      bugsculptor August 19, 2013 7:57 am #

      Nah, it’s because stealing a last turn objective with a unit that can drop grenades, deep strike perfectly, pump out thirty las shots and contest by running into the gap it creates is pretty much perfect.

      Nobody expects the bird men!

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 19, 2013 7:59 am #

      You definitely just suck.

      Hahaha, but no, I agree, I am using 1 of each because they both rock.

  4. Avatar
    bigpig August 19, 2013 8:38 am #

    Reese, what you’re referring to is a condensed version of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. Where you break it down to three levels, he looks at six levels which are described as (from the lowest level of mastery to the greatest) knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. At each level of mastery, a person is able to “do” different thing with their understanding of the subject matter. Bloom has verbs that apply to each level.
    As an example, look at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the different levels of mastery a person would use their learning and understanding of the material to (in detail); Knowledge-Answer basic questions about who, when, and where on the attack. Comprehension-Paraphrase the events of the battle. Application-Generalize the battle plan and show why Japan chose to attack the United States. Analysis-Analyze the impact of the attack on World War II and compare it with other wars/battles in history. Synthesis-Create an alternate strategic plan to attack the United States which would have dealt a more telling blow. Evaluation-Critique the Japanese Admiral’s decision making and use that critique as an example to support your position on an unrelated topic.
    There’s probably some teachers out there that can explain this better than me, but that’s a decent overview. Most schools now teach to the knowledge/comprehension level and it takes a good teacher to push students into the higher levels of learning. With most people trained for learning at the knowledge/comprehension level, I think most people operate at that level in other aspects of their life.
    To relate it to tabletop tactics and use your examples; A netlister would fall into the comprehension level and a min/maxer into application or analysis. They understand what units can do and why they are “good” or “bad”, but lack the subject matter expertise to consistently see the bigger plan and, thus, fall back on the things they know to be solid. At the higher levels of expertise, a player can evaluate not just if a unit is “good or bad” and has the firepower to get it’s points back, but judge how it fits in with the other variables of the tabletop such as opponent, meta, movement, terrain, objectives, and interaction with other units in your army. Just this weekend I had one of my friends lament about how I can consistently take a five man squad into his backfield and cause him trouble throughout the game with it, yet he takes the same squad ten strong and can’t do anything with it.
    That’s the best I can describe it. I’m probably only at the application level when it comes to my understanding of Bloom’s taxonomy. It was a component of the POST Master Instructor program (I know, for teaching cops…. who would think) Research it a little, Reese. I think it might add you thoughts on this topic.

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 19, 2013 9:07 am #

      Hey Vince,

      Yeah, that was what I was grasping for, I couldn’t remember the name. The book I read goes into a lot of depth about the biochemistry of what happens in the brain and then further into what it takes to reach master status (he touches on the 10,000 hours hypothesis, etc.). Super interesting stuff.

      I agree with your ideas though, and I think you said it better than I did, actually. It is really interesting how your perspective changes with knowledge and experience. You literally see things differently than someone does who lacks the experience.

  5. Avatar
    Chris August 19, 2013 8:57 am #

    There is a point, with anything really, that you’re not really thinking about what you need to do. That you just know what needs to be done.

    My day job is being a glassblower. Repetition of action cements the process to muscle memory, i.e. do it enough times and you don’t have to think about it. But at first, you’re really kind of struggling making sure you’re doing it correctly.

    What this allows me to do is think through any problems that arise because all the “normal” actions are on auto-pilot, i.e. something happened to the normal game plan how do I correct for it?

    I try to approach my 40k game the same way. It’s hard to “study” sometimes with so much to do for the hobby, but when things work because you thought on the field or your battle plan actually worked then it’s all good.

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 19, 2013 9:13 am #

      Yeah, that’s it, that is what I was driving at exactly. You no longer are consciously thinking about rules, stats, odds, etc., it all fades into auto-pilot as you said, and your conscious mind is focused on how to do what you intuitively know needs to be done to win. It becomes a case of seeing the table and what needs to go where and happen and simply putting your models in the right place to do it. I think back to when I was younger playing 40K and I would wrack my brain trying to figure out ways to beat the best guys in our club. I just couldn’t consistently beat them no matter how much I plotted and planned. It drove me crazy! I could beat all the players at or below my level but the top guys just seemed to magically know what to do to beat me.

      But then as I became more experienced and relaxed a lot (I think that is really important, too) it shifted to becoming a level playing field to the point where I could beat the guys regularly that used to beat me, even with a list or mission that put me at a disadvantage. The more you play through those crappy match-ups and force yourself to think about ways to play 40K laterally or unconventionally, your mind really expands and you gain little tricks each time that you can use again in a different context. After several years of that kind of application you become a really canny player that thinks differently about the game and is always looking for ways to win the game that are unexpected.

      • Avatar
        Chris August 19, 2013 3:53 pm #

        The relaxation part comes with experience, as you become more familiar with the proscribed actions you’re studying… you do relax.

        I also think you hit on something as well, playing through bad match-ups, how many people really try and do that? That they don’t concede right away if things go south? I think that as a society we have gotten to a point that “losing is bad, mmmmkay?” is actually not letting kids try new things, like creative thinking through problems. In a way, that’s all 40k is, creative thinking (army use) through a problem (the battlefield) to try and succeed (win).

        • Reecius
          Reecius August 19, 2013 6:30 pm #

          I agree. I routinely play bad match-ups as I feel it is the best type of practice. When you really get a list down, what good is it to play match-ups you know how to win? You need to push yourself to get better and that means playing bad match-ups and trying to find a way to win.

          • Avatar
            Chris August 19, 2013 6:48 pm

            If I ever get to a tourney (not likely but maybe!) you’re at I would like to buy you a beer.

          • Reecius
            Reecius August 19, 2013 7:31 pm

            I would like to drink that beer!

  6. Avatar
    Cameron August 19, 2013 9:30 am #

    You’re thinking about the Malcolm Gladwell books, I think either “blink” or “outliers”

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 19, 2013 10:09 am #

      Yes! That’s it, I couldn’t remember. It was Blink and Outliers both, I really enjoyed both books. I think I was blending the two in my mind.

    • Avatar
      bigpig August 19, 2013 4:21 pm #

      “Blink” was a very good read. I use the last chapter, “7 Seconds in the Bronx” for the emotional intelligence component of a class I teach. Check the link to totally cool promo video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmL1M5p4uZU

      I think the stuff on thin slicing and implicit decision making really only applies, though, in the way that you view the battle. Rather than getting caught up in the minutia, it allows you to see the table in a different manner, much like Neo viewing the Matrix. There is no spoon….. 🙂

      Where I really think you can find application is in thinking in new ways material. The discussion of Red Team and General Van Riper being the best example. Beyond that, though, I still think its about mastery of the subject matter allowing you have a deeper understanding. You can still thin slice and make implicit decisions and be dead wrong if you don’t know the material.

      • Reecius
        Reecius August 19, 2013 6:32 pm #

        I agree that making good snap judgement only comes from being knowledgeable enough of the material that you don’t have to compute a lot of the data consciously, you just know it. It allows you to free up brain power for creative solutions to new problems.

        And yes, the Red Team and Von Riper story was awesome! I really enjoyed that.

  7. Avatar
    Alex Yuen August 19, 2013 12:02 pm #

    I will just add one more level. The final level: A gamer is no longer enjoy the “game play/skills/tactical/etc etc” of any casual game but rather the social circle around the hobby. He no longer living with the 40k blood lust. It is ok if he is not on top of his game. more a semi-retired state.

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 19, 2013 12:25 pm #

      Haha, nice one! That is true, too. The older you get the more you relax.

  8. Avatar
    Hotsauceman1 August 19, 2013 3:36 pm #

    I think im just nearing the middle/middle end of the second stage

  9. Avatar
    Mercutioh August 19, 2013 3:38 pm #

    I think you just went all Bruce lee on me there Reece.

    When you have come to true mastery, you do not throw the punch at all. It just happens all by itself.

    I think I’m at the second stage. I know enough to know I don’t know Jack. maybe pawing cautiously at the third level but working it out.(in the six level model)

    It’s definitely an interesting concept. One that could truly be fleshed out on.
    As part of the Battle reports you could ask a few questions to foster better understanding based on the levels. It would do wonders to spread better understanding of the game.

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 19, 2013 6:28 pm #

      Yeah, I think it is one of the reasons why people have disconnects online. They assume the know everything, or a lot, and when they see a new idea it is easy to assume it is bad or wrong.

      • Avatar
        mercutioh August 19, 2013 10:37 pm #

        there`s freedom in admitting you need to learn more. like say when you deploy horribly versus a seasoned tourney vet. you can just claim ignorance or at least lack of experience

        • Reecius
          Reecius August 20, 2013 2:45 pm #

          Hahaha, funny and true. The first step to learning something is accepting that you have room to learn. Thinking you know everything about something means you have closed your mind to new information.

  10. Avatar
    Hippesthippo August 19, 2013 5:22 pm #

    Eh, it depends really. Battlepoint tournaments kind of force you into playing spam lists.

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 19, 2013 6:27 pm #

      One of the reasons I dislike them. They encourage you to play maximum offensive output armies which gets boring to me.

      • Avatar
        Hippesthippo August 20, 2013 9:08 am #

        I know, it sucks, but there’s a bp gt down the street from me, so this is all starting to come to light for me hahaha.

        • Reecius
          Reecius August 20, 2013 2:46 pm #

          Oh well, a tournament is a tournament, hahaha, got to enjoy them where you can! If BP is all there is then you make the best list for that format as I am sure you do.

  11. Avatar
    Mike Bass August 19, 2013 6:02 pm #

    There is no spoon.

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 19, 2013 6:26 pm #

      Correct, Neo =)

    • Avatar
      Spoonfunk August 20, 2013 2:10 pm #

      yes there is….

  12. Avatar
    Jason Brown August 19, 2013 7:46 pm #

    Being at best, a lack luster 40ker, I can only comment on my one true skill; HEMA. I have been doing it for along time and have to agree that the three stages are fairly correct. I would have added a forth, between 3 and 4 of your system. The one I would add would be the one where you begin to understand that there are possibilities past your current understanding. That perhaps the narrow confines of your need to systematize something to control it, are a ruse and that the world is really more than black or white.

    In HEMA, most people are stuck in rank 2. They believe that because the long dead masters said this guard beats that strike that its this rock, paper, scissors thing. To an extent yes, but there are so many other factors that come into play: measure, time, and footwork. At 42 I am still besting faster, stronger dudes because I just see things different.

    I would say I am at level 3 of my system on a good day, I dont even rank in 40K as I am still at one having fun with backasswards lists that are a blast to play with and against.

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 20, 2013 2:44 pm #

      That is a really good example of how gaining skill at something and seeing it differently gives you an advantage. You see the same thing in 40K all the time where people dogmatically stick to the ideas that only a certain way of doing things is right and everything else is wrong. It is too one dimensional. That is cool that you do HEMA, we have a lot of SCA enthusiasts out here.

      • Avatar
        Jason Brown August 20, 2013 6:17 pm #

        It’s true, I am a HEMAsexual.

  13. Avatar
    Tangentical August 19, 2013 10:09 pm #

    It works the same with painting too…

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 20, 2013 2:44 pm #

      Yeah, I bet you can find tangents in any skill, really.

  14. Avatar
    Mr E August 20, 2013 10:50 am #

    you lack discipline! lol

    As someone who is in the 4th or 5th the of the system, I like to bring the same can of spam for everything, dont really care whats in your army or if you have 3 flying monsters, currently toying with

    spirit seer

    9 striking scorpions

    4×10 dire avengers

    5 d cythe wraith gaurds, in wave serpent with all the best toys

    3×7 warp spiders


    I think the list is solid, but could drop some dire avengers for some bikes, and maybe even one spider squad for good old swooping hawks, the striking scorpions are a throwaway 153 points but 9 strong can tie up weak backfields or hold up a flank long enough for the deep striking stuff to occur, would probably drop the 400 points from Dcythe sraiths and spirit seer for bike seer or two and 30 bikes. or 3 3 man bikes and some war walkers, or kandaras and 20 more spiders infiltrating? 1750 (2nd wraithknight?)

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 20, 2013 2:47 pm #

      Damn, that is a nasty list! I like it.

      How to the Scorps do for you? My test games have left me feeling kind of bleh on them. Not bad at all, but not my top pick.

    • Avatar
      Jason Brown August 20, 2013 6:25 pm #

      I am playing around with a DEldar (mech) with lots of tank shocking fun. I think that a few units of wraithguard in serpents would be fun that way flanked by the knight and whatnot.

      • Reecius
        Reecius August 21, 2013 12:24 pm #

        Yeah, Tank Shocking is huge in 6th as you have to be out of a Transport to score.

  15. Avatar
    Mr E August 20, 2013 11:08 am #

    Reece I used to run 20 swooping hawks and 10 warp spider in 3rd ed, not points effective by any standard, unless you are getting str 6 shots on the back of expensive tanks. but was a blast to have that kind of mobility from infantry and I always though that the fact that hawks suck but have grenades was awesome, they where probably better last ed, but I would recant that statement if they had made it the one aspect viable to taking out flyers 🙁 way not happy that they cant haywire the bageeses outta damn flyers on 4+ int to hit when in skyleap, then you could take an autarch to purposley skyleap them turn 1 and then keep em out till the bugger comes on.

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 20, 2013 2:48 pm #

      Yeah, I agree. I love ultra mobile armies. My Eldar now are still (almost) all foot but are so much faster. My Crons are like that too, teleporting all over the table! I love it, so much fun.

  16. Avatar
    Spoonfunk August 20, 2013 2:10 pm #

    This is a great article!
    On the flip side, when thinking about the different levels of skill, one can begin to see why the game designers may have such a hard time at balancing units within their codex. The designers much like the player base, have a different perception of how the game plays and works. What they might see as an easy counter or balancing factor, the players may see as a negligible drawback or may just not see it at all.
    The point being as, it seems as time goes on and my own experience grows that I refer back to the codex’s when making lists and I discover a use for units that are universally thought of as bad or inefficient.
    Now I am not saying that the game designers are the best players in the world, just they have a different perception of the game, based upon their (assumed) in-depth knowledge of the rules they are designing.
    It certainly is food for thought however, I imagine that if you could learn to recognize the skill level of a player based upon their list composition and early game decisions that would be quite an advantage in itself…

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 20, 2013 2:51 pm #

      That is a great point. Game designers are human too and bring all of their prejudices and ideas on what a fun game is to the table. They also may not see how powerful something they made is, or weak, as you pointed out. And that happens to me too all the time, where you go back and read a book and then see something in a totally new way that you missed previously. It is awesome when that happens as that feeling of discovery is one of my favorite things about 40K.

  17. Avatar
    Mr E August 22, 2013 8:22 am #

    The scorpions die if they dont make their saves and they arnt even good for killing gaurdsmen because their chainswords are ap 6 DOH! but if they make their armour saves even average and you dont put them in a situation where they are goiung to end up charged by 20 or more guys they should stall a flank as intended and 9 should hold up for 3 or 4 rounds of combat, they cant win even on the charge though against Grey hunters.

    the ap 6 is just stupid, only 3 things in the game that have a 6+ armour that i can think of orks gaunts and kroot with the armour up.

    • Reecius
      Reecius August 22, 2013 12:20 pm #

      Yeah, the Scorps just didn’t impress me that much. Not bad at all, per se, just not a good fit for my list.

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