Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Thunderstone, Or An Abbreviated Guide to Comp Climbing Treachery

Lately in my spare time I've been playing Thunderstone with my wife and an acquaintance.  It's a fantasy card game where players basically build up a deck of cards during the game in an attempt to vanquish monsters in a dungeon.  There's a lot more to it, of course, but the strategy and creativity of the game is really wonderful.

Anyway, our acquaintance is an avid gamer who's clearly spent an inordinate amount of time scheming about strategy, tactics and technique for winning at these games; he is a cunning adversary, and that's what makes it fun.  So it should have come to no surprise when he was dumbfounded at the complete lack of strategy some climbers demonstrated at a local bouldering competition.

The comp was fairly typical.  It has a qualifier phase where climbers could pick and choose problems to try from fifty to seventy five options of varying difficulty.  However, only the top three problems would be considered for a climber's final score during qualifiers.  Based on this final score, three climbers would proceed to finals.  The finals format was also fairly common: climbers were shown three problems, and given five minutes to attempt each.  Between attempts they were given five minutes of rest.

My friend inquired about these rules, and I explained them, as well as some of the tactics I generally employ (note these don't hold true for all comp formats).  In no specific order, during qualifiers:
  1. Warmup.  This gives me a chance to get ready for harder problems.
  2. The goal of qualifiers is to do the minimal amount of work to get to finals.  Burning yourself out in qualifiers is a sure-fire way to fail on finals problems, which are typically more difficult.
  3. Never get on a hard problem before someone else.  Best case scenario: your competitor is unable to finish the problem, in which case you've earned free beta ("beta" is info about how to do a climb) and you possibly don't even need to attempt it anyway.  Worst case scenario: they send and you still get free beta, hopefully enabling you to send it quicker and easier than them.
  4. Religiously track who's climbed what.  Even if your competition does do some problem more difficult than you, who gives a shit?  You need to get to finals, not thug it out with some rock-jock during qualifiers over a fake prize.
You'd think these rules would be obvious, but my friend seemed dumbfounded how the third rule could ever be feasible; he aptly noted that if everybody waited for someone else to get on a hard problem, then nobody would ever attempt anything difficult.  And this is true, assuming everyone there has considered strategy.

But the reality is they haven't.  Most comp climbers spend roughly five seconds considering the best approach to maximize success before throwing themselves at some stupid-hard problem.  For example, at this comp, I waited for my competition to solve a rather cryptic problem for me.  My two finals competitors did eventually climb the problem--but it took them a handful of costly attempts, whereas I was able to recycle their efforts unlocking this problem for a single-attempt ascent.  I believe this is a win not only from an efficiency standpoint (one try is way better than multiple tries), but for your competition it can be sobering from a psychological standpoint.

Even worse, both of them spent time and effort on problems that were irrelevant to getting into finals.  Had either of them taken a moment to survey the field, they would have realized they were virtually guaranteed a finals seat since the only other climber doing problems in their range was, well, me.  Instead, they both attempted a problem neither of them ultimately sent.  But had either of them actually succeeded at this problem, it wouldn't have changed the fact that they were still headed to finals, which is all that really matters during qualifiers.

In finals, the strategy is different.  You cannot leverage someone's beta in this format since you don't get to watch them climb.  But there's always strategy:
  1. With five minutes of time, realistically, you'll get three to four good attempts.  
  2. Your first attempt will also (likely) be your strongest.  Thirty seconds between attempts on a very hard climb simply isn't enough time to recover.  The first attempt is often worth the most since you get bonus points for climbing something on your first try (i.e. flashing).  Not in all comps, but most.
  3. This means you should have a damn good plan of how you're going to do stuff before you pull on the wall.  I generally take at least a minute surveying the problem before I pull on.
  4. Know when to cut your losses.  This can be hard to gauge, and also slightly heartbreaking to give up.  But if you honestly don't see yourself sending a problem, save energy for the next one.
Again, neither of my competitors seemed to realize any of this.  They spent seconds glancing at the problem before attempting, hurting their chances at first-attempt success.  They made too many attempts.  They did not save energy for future problems.

Combine their errors in the qualifiers with a lack of strategy in finals, and you end up with a commanding win by me.  Which, of course, I like.  But I have to wonder: did age and treachery simply beat youth and talent?  Is this really a legitimate part of "climbing," especially when many climbers would attribute this sort of strategic whoring (on plastic, no less) to pure foolishness?

It's not clear.  But I have to admit I really love strategy.  I love finding that chink in the armor, that little advantage that gives me some edge, my ace in the hole.  It's what I love about Thunderstone.  It's what I love about real stone.