Hacking the Cortex: The Road to the Top of the Mountain

When you see a True Master at work, their performance seems so natural, so effortless, that we are inclined to call it “talent”. After all, they make it look so easy. They must be generally smarter than us, more dextrous than us… more of something, anyway. Culturally, we underplay the value of practice in reaching those lofty heights of mastery. Here’s the good news: Talent is pretty much irrelevant. IQ doesn’t predict success at chess (for example). Time spent in effective practice does.

Now, about that bad news…

The path to true expertise is long and fraught with challenges. Common psychological wisdom holds that to attain true mastery of a skill, the budding master must practice that skill for 10,000 hours. By my count, that’s somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 games of Warmachine/Hordes (if we take games as lasting between 70 and 120 minutes). Even at a rate of one game per day, that’s 15-20 years on the road to true mastery. But what does that road look like? What are the milestones? What are the traits that True Masters have?

(Aside: Psychologists studying expertise love chess experts. They’re our favourite. Chess is a relatively simple game to model, with an objective ranking system to define who is a Chess Master. It’s also great for the purposes of this article, since it’s pretty easy to relate data on chess to Warmachine/Hordes.)

The Traits of a Master

First and foremost, Experts display superior memory in relation to their field. Chess Masters have a spectacularly good memory for arrangements of pieces on a board. If you show Chess Masters a series of board arrangements and ask them to later identify which ones they had seen in that series, they can accurately recall seeing as many as fifty thousand different arrangements. I wrote that number in word form so you wouldn’t think I accidentally added a zero or two.

But there’s an important and informative caveat to this recall – Chess Masters are incredibly good at remembering board states that are likely to appear in an actual game of chess played at a high level. Their memory abilities do not apply to random arrangements of pieces. In fact, Chess Masters are worse at recalling random arrangements than complete novices.

Experts don’t simply have superior memories – they have a superior ability to remember only relevant information. It’s about efficiency and experience, not capacity.

This also applies to the superior strategic processing ability of experts. When you record the eye movements on Chess Masters looking at a chessboard, they spend significantly more time fixating on tactically relevant pieces. In change blindness tests, Chess Masters are more likely to notice a single tactically important piece being shifted one square than the entire board state being shifted one square in the same direction. In chess, as in Warmachine and Hordes, the experts don’t think in term of absolute board position – they think in terms of threat vectors and relative position. Which position a piece is in is not relevant information in and of itself, and so the mental templates experts use to organise information don’t bother to store it.

(Fun Experiment You Can Do At Your LGS: When players aren’t looking, move an important piece one inch to the left. See who notices. They’re probably the expert. Check this by moving every piece on the board (including terrain) one inch to the left. The expert probably won’t notice. Please send your data and hilarious reaction pics to overload.online.blog@gmail.com)

The Road to Mastery.

As noted in the introduction, it takes a lot of practice to become a True Master of a game. More important that that, though, is how you practice.

“The mere act of regularly engaging in an activity for years and even decades does not appear to lead to improvements in performance, once an acceptable level of performance has been attained”  (Plant et al, 2004)

In order to improve beyond “acceptable performance” to “exceptional performance”, you need to engage in deliberate practice. That is, the explicit goal of the time spent at the activity needs to be improvement of that skill, and the practice session must be designed to train specific aspects of your game – it’s a good idea to play your bad matchups, folks. It’s also a good idea to target specific areas of gameplay in each practice game you play – “In the games today, I’m going to focus on optimal positioning of reach infantry. Once I’ve got that down, I’m going to pay particular attention to placing my models just out of threat range.” (This is why I like to run through my standard deployment and first turn on my kitchen table/ Vassal, again and again).

As you continue on your training, there is a shift from “know what” to “know how”. In essence, a shift from Theorymachine to being able to do it on the table reliably and quickly. In the early stages of learning, we form verbal rules to follow that guide our decisions. As you progress towards expertise, these verbal rules (and the conscious attention involved in following verbal rules) become unnecessary, and the correct plays become more and more automatic. The “level up” analogy is actually pretty accurate here. As a person becomes more expert, they improve performance by reducing a complex series of actions in one action. (e.g. “placing each model on the table in order” becomes “deploying” and is executed as a single, integrated behaviour.) When you “level up”, it means a string of related behaviours has become one behaviour. One more tool in your arsenal has become automatically and easily executed.

But beware. Expertise has its pitfalls. And its pitfalls lie in the very automaticity that makes it so powerful.

But that’s a story for next week.

Good Night, and Good Luck


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Author: I_Avian

Anthony began his Warmachine journey on the raggedy edge between Mark 1 and Mark 2, playing just enough Mk1 to be certain that Mk2 was a good thing, and just enough field test models to lament what might have been if Mulg had remained at 11pts and Stalkers could still Leap. Some of his early trials and tribulations were documented on Lost Hemisphere, which was also home to a short “Storytime with I_Avian” series which now continues on Overload Online. Anthony channels his constant urge to talk about Psychology into a series of articles about “the mind game” aspect of Warmachine and Hordes. For a brief moment in time, he was a Hunters Grim player, but WTC duties have brought him back into the cold, cold, embrace of Cryx.

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