Sunday long read: Playing to win.

A few years back, I used to be heavily into competitive online gaming. There, I said it – the cat is out of the bag. Some of my fondest memories from those years are roleplaying with friends, chasing around after vanity items, or just sitting around idling while letting guild chat just be another skype window. When I strapped on my plate armour or lightsabers, however, only one thing mattered:


Whether it was chasing for realm firsts, preparing your gear for the next tier or dragging a new recruit though his attunements, the target was always the same: you play to win. You bring your A Game, you give everything, and you compete at the highest level the game can offer. And why? Because in the context you find yourself, that’s what you’ve committed to do.

Last weekend’s WargamesCon 2015 in Austin, Texas turned out to be a brilliant example of just that. Alan Bajramovic’s winning army list was a solid display of what the concept of playing to win entails; an army designed 100% to take advantage of the most pros possible, while negating as many cons that your overall balance shifts your favour before even rolling a single dice.


The list itself is fairly insane; the Ork formation with the Warlord not only give you a bunch of minor advantages, but most importantly, it means you get to negate Warpstorm from your Daemons CAD, removing a massive con from your list. The Chaos Space Marines are really just there to add some air superiority and more pros through Be’lakor. It’s an ugly, ugly list, but it does exactly what it’s designed for – negating cons, to help you win.

What’s more interesting, however, is the community’s reaction to a list like this. Reading forums and comment fields, it would appear that winning through extreme measures like this list is not only wrong, but plain out disgusting:

“This abortion of an army list gave me cancer. The fact that something like this is even legal exemplifies everything wrong with the state of 40k.”

“The list may have won.. but it’s soulless trash. Way to go. He combined powerful elements from 3 sources and built “an army”. He’s a hero! LOL.”

“I’ve experienced the pajama pants and I wouldn’t say he’s out to help his opponent have any fun. Seems like his 40k is more akin to a rugby grudge match or something.”

“I haven’t been a fan of watching his games. He’s like that over competitive guy that argues over everything. He argued with a judge in lvo to gain a huge benefit for sotw that was later overturned the next game by the head judge. Slow plays when it suits him. Argues about line of sight and blasts. It’s just annoying to watch. All of this gets brushed off in these types of events as just being competitive. Kinda why I like playing the narrative events since I find less of these types of players in those events.”

“The list is a mishmash of just stuff to allow for summoning. Thematically it’s trash.”

I may be wrong here, but isn’t tournaments about winning? Let’s go over the arguments presented in these comments;

– It criticizes the state of the rules, given that a list like this is legal.

– It labels Alan as an unsporting dick.

– It criticizes the thematic of the list.

Let’s look at the latter argument first; that the list is trash thematically. First of all – if you go to a tournament with a thematic army (for example a pure Daemonette Slaanesh army), then more power to you, but the long and short of the matter is that you are not playing to win. You are playing to show off your models, hopefully have a good time and enjoy the game. David Sirlin describes The Scrub Mentality as “…to be so shackled by self-imposed handicaps as to never have any hope of being truly good at a game,” and thematic lists fall under this category. They may be awesome to look at, but the moment your list is built around the premise of lore, looks or other thematic features, odds are that you have already lost.

The second argument is that Alan is an unsporting dick. Based on the experiences of the few posters that share their views, I can agree, yet I’ve never met Alan. What’s described, however, is an excessively competitive gamer that knows both the game and his own army to the tips of his fingers, and will use any and all legal means to gain the advantage. It’s certainly not a fun way to play, but again – this is about winning, about creating pros and negating cons. So long as he stays within the rules (and regardless of all the criticism he gets, I’ve not seen a single accusation of cheating), what he does is fair, and a part of the game. It’s not even remotely fun, and outside of a tournament setting I would shun the guy like cancer, but to criticize someone for playing to win in any competitive setting is flat out wrong.

Then finally, there is the state of the rules. This list uses three codices (Orks, Daemons, Chaos Space Marines), a campaign supplement (Sanctus Reach vol. 1), an eBook dataslate (Be’lakor) and even a White Dwarf (Issue #60, March 21st 2015) for rules, which in many ways sums up the largest problem with the current edition of Warhammer 40,000 – either you own all the books and rules, or you fall behind in the arms race.

Whether or not this is fair, or bad design, or something the average gamer can be expected to afford, however, is not what we’re discussing. We’re discussing the legality of the list, and long story short – it’s perfectly legal. It takes the state of the rules to the extreme, using every loophole and advantage of the core rules to fit in power elements from various sources. From a competitive gaming point of view, it’s pure genius – he knows the rules, he used them to the full, and he wins as a result.

From a casual point of view, however, I can fully understand how using terms as “abusing the rules” and “cheap tactics” are thrown around. That doesn’t make them any less wrong, however. Playing to win is, and has always been, about just that – winning. No one remembers that the Tampa Bay Lighting played the Stanley Cup final with an injured goaltender, and that their star center had a broken metatarsal in his foot. Because they lost.

It’s that simple.


5 thoughts on “Sunday long read: Playing to win.

  1. I have to completely agree. If you’re doing friendly play, it’s a dick move. If you’re at a tournament, you’re not there to ‘have fun’. We did all kinds of cherry-picking when we raided, not because it matched, or it looked pretty, but because it worked.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That exactly it, cherry-picking. Why go with the sub-par choice when something better is available?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Best in slot is just that.
        Now, we have played friendly games where we tried out cheese-dickish things to see if they work before going to tournaments, etc. And if everyone understands that’s the point, I see no harm, no foul.


  2. I really like the Sunday long read. May it live and prosper!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cheers!

      I think it’s a nice way to make commentaries of some of the larger issues and happenings of the hobby, without making a gazillion small posts and educated guesses left and right. Taking a step back to see the whole picture, then write a longer article, I think is more rewarding both as a writer and towards the reader 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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