Friday, January 21, 2011

Choosing not to Parachain

This is a repost about the game Warlocks, and the spell paralysis in general, which I've posted about before.

I was talking to a friend of mine recently about Warlocks and he asked me an interesting question: Do I think that the fact that I won the annual championship in spite of my decision to restrict my own use of paralysis is evidence that it's not a broken spell?

I think a lot of warlocks are aware of my feelings on paralysis, and some probably noticed that on my profile I declare my "personal rules", which include the fact that I won't gesture F more than 5 times consecutively (meaning 3 paras). Not only does this prevent me from abusing paralysis, I know for a fact that some of my opponents are aware of the restriction, and play on the assumption I won't parachain, so it also limits my ability to threaten with F's.

So am I providing evidence that parachains aren't needed to compete at a high level? Yes. Am I providing evidence that it's not an extremely imbalanced spell? I don't think so.

In order to explain why, I'll start with why I self-imposed this rule in the first place. When I started out, around the time I first approached elo 1600, I started to realize how powerful paralysis was, and though I never thought of myself as a paramancer, there was a time when I found myself using paralysis extensively. What would invariably happen is that in the middle of a match I would cast paralysis at some point, and then think "alright, I'll break the chain and do something else now" just before noticing that my opponent had some kind of spell he was threatening in two turns, and that if I kept up the para just a little longer, I could stop it. After I stopped that threat, I'd say "oh, but now if I para just one more turn, I can also respond to a second threat", and this would continue ad infinitum. I would end up using massive parachains even though by this point I had already begun to feel that parachains made games less dynamic and interesting. I remember Succat (a self-declared "paraholic") once saying that he pleased to see that I had a nice "para trigger", or something to that effect.

However, I felt like paralysis wasn't one of many useful strategies at my disposal, it felt like a crutch. I realized that if I left it up to how I happened to feel during a match I would always find an excuse to continue parachaining, so the only way to force myself to be more creative was to make a rule out of it, and by making it public I would feel pressure to keep at it. I was also hoping, I think, that other people would follow suite and I would see fewer long parachains coming at me, but that part never happened.

After I stopped parachaining (and charming hands to "-", and opening "D/P"), I found I really did explore a lot of different options, and was pleased with this decision for a time. Then when I got to around elo 1800 for the first time, over a year ago, I started to realize that I was going to be playing more often against the very best players in the game, and that they all used parachains and parafod extensively (some of them more than others, but every single one of them used parafod to kill me at one time or another). I felt like my own refusal to use parachains might be an insurmountable barrier that would keep me from being able to compete with them, and I honestly got to a point where I started playing very few friendly and ladder matches, and mostly just played in the League because the monthly rules were one surefire source of continued variation in play, which is what I wanted.

At some point I noticed that the players in the league, even ones who normally used parafod often, were less likely to use paralysis when a monthly rule was in play even if the rule didn't have to do with paralysis. In other words, the fact that we were playing in an unranked space where new strategies were encouraged made people drop their paraholic ways and try new things, and the results were sometimes brilliant. However, when they returned to ranked games, most players would stop thinking outside the box and play safe.

This encouraged me to try more seriously to take on the good players head on with my personal rules in play, and I could almost tangibly feel myself gradually getting the hang of beating paralysis. It's also worth noting, when I say something like "beating paralysis", that I actually used paralysis a lot myself. In fact, when I went on the warlocks archives recently, I was surprised to find that I apparently cast paralysis, per game, more often than average. The difference is that I don't cast long chains - I'll cast paralysis once or twice (or maybe thrice) and then break off into something else, and then come back and cast paralysis again a little later. It's a good spell that I like using, but forbidding myself from relying on it made my weaves more dynamic and forced me to be more creative, so I felt like I was getting the best of both worlds. In fact, in my final match against Xade in the tournament, I opened with paralysis on my left hand.

I really wasn't expecting to do as well as I did in the tournament, but if it's a sign of anything, I think it's a sign of how much I gained specifically by avoiding using paralysis as a crutch and trying to be just a little strange (Bio went so far as to call one of my moves in the final match "insane", which made me smile). That said, being the only player who doesn't use parachains has still been a serious restriction, and I've had a number of games where I believe I would have definitely won had I allowed myself to use a parachain. One of the other noteworthy aspects of the tournament was the appearance of a number of new players around the same time, some of whom experienced players found "shockingly good." The shock, I think, stems from the fact that these players haven't yet learned what the popular weaves are, and so make plays that are unexpected and hard to predict - experienced players would do well to try and learn a little from their games with these new players.

So my general point is this - once you've played warlocks for a long time it can become very comfortable to fall into regular patterns - go for charms and ogres as often as possible, and then when you have enough initiative advantage go for parafod or bolt an opponent to death. However, any time that a strategy becomes common wisdom, it starts to get stale, and forcing yourself to play in ways that are less comfortable is the best possible way to continue learning new things. To return to my original question, paralysis is an extremely powerful spell, one that I think is imbalanced, which is precisely why it, more than anything else, prevents players from developing creative strategies. If paralysis weren't so strong, my decision not to use it wouldn't have had as big an effect on my playing style.

In short, choosing not to parachain can be good for you.

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