The Art of Practice

The Art of Practice

In the next of his Series, Alex Jacobs takes us through the process of moving from novice to expert; practice, practice, practice.


“To become one with the sword, the practitioner must learn patience, perseverance, and humility.  To achieve this, there must be a hundred days of hand, a thousand days of spear, and ten thousand days of sword…”

Kakita’s The Sword

In the year 2000 Malcolm Gladwell became a celebrated public figure with his book  The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  Only slightly less popular was his second follow-up book in 2008, Outliers: The Story of Success which introduced many people to the Ten-Thousand Hour Rule.  The Ten-Thousand Hour Rule was based on research by Anders Ericsson and Gladwell claimed that mastery of any skill took at least ten-thousand hours of practice (link).

Since the publication of Outliers, however, Ericsson himself has taken issue with some of Gladwell’s conclusions.  While Gladwell found plenty of anecdotal evidence that supported Ericsson’s ten-thousand number, Ericsson’s original research was much more focused than Gladwell discussed in his book, or that many of his readers realized.  Ericsson’s research looked specifically at German conservancy students.  What Ericsson noted among these students, and what prompted Gladwell’s extrapolation, was that each of these high-performing students had put in over ten-thousand hours of what Ericsson termed, “deliberate practice,” and while their lower-performing peers often had an enormous amount of experience playing music, they didn’t use that time for that same type of deliberate practice.

It wasn’t simply enough to put in those ten-thousand hours; it had to be a very specific type of practice.

As we sit at home, constrained by the necessities of social distancing, this is a good time to get in practice.  We can use this time to not simply better ourselves but to get better at something we enjoy.  Whether one enjoys l5r at a deeply competitive level or simply as a casual hobby, the better one is able to play the game the more enjoyable it is.  This isn’t to say that every player must put in hours of practice each day, but any player that wants to improve their play can benefit by using the methods described in this article.


The Nature of Practice

“If a leader does not command his generals to study of warfare, they will become uncertain on the battlefield, and hesitate when the important decisions must be made.”

– Akodo’s Leadership

If there is one constant refrain among top players when asked for advice it is, without doubt, practice.  Get the reps in.  Play lots of games.  Then play more.

The premise, and it’s a good one, is that the more one plays, the more one will understand how to play better.  Experience will illustrate mistakes and as different strategies and tactics are used some will succeed, some will fail, and the player will come to understand the difference between successful and unsuccessful tactics and strategies.

This method does work.  New players, for example, are often confused about bidding strategies, but after several games they very quickly realize that it’s almost always better to bid high as long as possible; a few games playing without as many cards as one’s opponent make the lesson very clear.

But what if there were a way to learn those lessons beyond simply grinding games?  This is what practice is for.


Activity Practice

“When men are forced to make decisions at a moment’s notice, they make mistakes.”

– Bayushi’s Lies

Practice is more than simple repetition.  Baseball players don’t simply go out and play games; they run drills to practice each task such as throwing, catching, hitting, etc.  In addition, they go through athletic training to develop their physical abilities.  Musicians don’t just play songs; they practice the technical elements of their instruments (fingering for string instruments, voice training for singers, etc.).  Martial artists don’t just spar; they practice kata, develop their physical abilities, and so on.  Any of us can think of hundreds of examples of practice, across multiple disciplines, which consists of individual elements to make up a larger task.

A big reason is that when one practices a single element – say, a basketball player working on their layup – they are dedicated to that single task.  When one is engaged in a complex task – playing a basketball game – one is trying to accomplish that entire task.  Practicing the layup, the player can take their time to get each piece right, incorporate feedback, and drill it until it becomes automatic.  While playing the entire game, however, regardless of how any specific layup goes the player needs to instantly shift their focus to whatever is happening next

Practice, whether of l5r or any other activity one wants to improve, isn’t simply about doing that activity better.  It’s about doing each piece of that activity better.


Deliberate Practice

“The stance, the hands, and the eye must all be trained, allowing for the quick and correct response to any situation.”

– Kakita’s The Sword

Deliberate practice consists of several steps.  The first is to divide a complex task into individual components.  The second is to take one of those components and perform it in a focused manner.  The third is to get feedback on one’s performance.  The final step is to perform that component again while incorporating that feedback.  Repeat the process until the component is reliably improved (preferably with a specific metric in mind), then go on to another component.

We can divide l5r into any number of individual components.  Off the top of my head:

  • Muligan
  • Purchasing
  • Bidding
  • Playing cards from hand
  • Assigning to conflicts
  • Ring selection

These are just the most obvious.  There are also things that take place before the game (deck construction), tournament considerations (stamina), and even more ephemeral components (mindset).  The point isn’t to create an exhaustive list right now, but rather to look at all the different components that go into playing the game.  When one understands what the game’s components are, it’s much easier to both see where one needs to improve and know how to practice them.

Deliberate practice will involve taking one component and engaging with it in order to improve it.  We’ll go over several methods of engagement.


Types of Practice

Drills

“Practice as often as you can.  Then, when the need arises, you can do it without effort or concentration.”

– Mirumoto’s Niten

Think about a soccer player (sorry Baz. Footballer) running laps [?? Baz].  Soccer players aren’t runners but even so the average soccer player runs seven miles per game.  How do they practice that?  Easy!  They run!

Obviously it’s a bit more nuanced than that, as any runner can tell you, but the connection is still obvious.  Drills mean repetition of a single activity.  The purpose of drilling is to make an action automatic.  Take duelling, for example.  Trying to calculate the ideal bid in the middle of a match can not only take up a lot of valuable time but one is also more likely to make a mistake due to exhaustion, pressure, or just simple unfamiliarity.  Someone who’s studied duelling tactics ( https://imperialadvisor.com/2019/02/27/the-art-of-the-duel/ ), however, run the numbers, and then run a bunch of duels is a lot more likely to not only make the correct decision but also do so without hesitation or second-guessing.

Drills are probably hardest type of practice to do in l5r because the game is so dynamic.  We’re unlikely to see the same situation crop up in multiple games, but so what?  Drills are about practicing an activity, not practicing a specific situation.

Chess is a very dynamic game but masters still have to practice.  To do so, they drill principles rather than simply drilling movements ( https://thechessworld.com/articles/middle-game/7-most-important-middlegame-principles/ ).  We can do the same in l5r.

To practice your mulligan, deal yourself a bunch of hands and try aiming for specific cards or combos.  You can (and should!) use a tool to calculate odds ( https://stattrek.com/online-calculator/hypergeometric.aspx ) but you can (and should!) also try it out in practice.  See how it affects your starting position.  This is probably the easiest skill to drill since it all takes place before the game starts.

Other elements take more creativity.  A good way to do them is to have a practice partner and get together specifically to practice.  Then when you play, do so with take-backs.  For example, if one is torn about what ring to use to attack with, note the game state, play out the conflict with one ring, reset the game, then play it out with the other ring.  What happens differently?  The point of these drills isn’t to drill the attack but rather to drill the decision points.

Scenarios

“Spend little time on the plan, for the only thing that is certain is that everything will go wrong.  Spend all your time on contingencies.”

– Bayushi’s Lies

In the previously-linked article on chess, Yury Markushin talks a lot about principles, but he also ends every principle with a chess problem, a scenario to be played through that illustrates the principles.  We should do the same in l5r.

It should be fairly obvious that no given scenario will perfectly emulate what one sees in any given game – there are too many variables among card draw and decision points for any game to ever be an exact duplicate of another – but many situations are common because decks are designed to produce those situations.

One such common situation is bidding for cards while low on honor.  How one gets low on honor will vary immensely but is utterly immaterial; we all know that we can get low on honor.  Now how does that affect your bid strategy if your opponent is also at low honor?  What if they’re at medium honor?  What if they’re Scorpion?  What if you’re Scorpion?  What if they’re splashing Scorpion and they’re a Keeper role?  What if you have Duty in your hand?  What if you have Ebisu’s Blessing?  What if you have Ebisu’s but other cards in hand that cost fate?

Each of these is a scenario that you can practice, if only in our minds.

Visualization

“I do not believe I can win, I know I will.”

– Mirumoto’s Niten

Tangent time.

I’m a dance teacher – in fact, you should check out my original article for Imperial Advisor about the intersection of dance and l5r ( http://imperialadvisor.com/2018/10/01/how-ballroom-dancing-made-me-a-better-l5r-player/ ) – and at the time of writing this article, all my students are in quarantine.  While a number are still taking lessons over Zoom, many are frustrated by their inability to dance with another person.  To this end, I’ve been teaching them visualization.  We focus on imagining the sensation of holding another person, of moving with them, of feeling their body moving with yours, of balancing your weights and momentum together, and it does help.

I was first taught visualization by my sensei when I was studying katori shinto ryu, a school of Japanese swordsmanship, as a way to practice at home given that my apartment didn’t include space to swing around a katana. He taught me to sit in a chair in a quiet space, close my eyes, and visualize myself going through each and every movement of my kata, to mentally feel the weight of the bokken in my hands, the pressure of the imaginary mat under my feet.  When I returned to class the next week, I was shocked at how much I’d retained and, even more, that some of it had improved.

Years later when I was working a desk job in an insurance office I had a shocking amount of downtime which I used to study for my professional dance certifications, and I began employing the same methods of visualization.  Again, I made shocking progress.

Peer reviewed scientific studies have shown that visualization can have the same effect on the brain as engaging in an activity ( https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/flourish/200912/seeing-is-believing-the-power-visualization ).  This isn’t simply believing in yourself; our brains are just really bad at distinguishing hallucinations from reality.  As such, if you can’t actually do something, visualizing it is often the next best thing.

There are hundreds of scenarios that could happen during a given l5r game, and while it’s not feasible to set up a test of every single one of them, taking the time to visualize yourself in each scenario and see yourself coming through can prepare you for the actual situation.

Study

“In time, your daimyo will call upon you and your men.  You will serve and you will command.  But before this time comes, you must prepare and study.  Just as a child must learn to walk before he should run, you must study warfare before you make war.”

– Akodo’s Leadership

Don’t just practice your own games, practice other people’s games too.

We are extremely fortunate that our game has not just a strong online presence but incredible collection of videos of past games by players who are undisputed masters of the game.  These are fantastic resources and we should utilize them.

Don’t simply play the game, watch others.  See the situations they find themselves in.  What would you do?  Do they do the same thing or something different?  Does it work out for them?  Would your way have worked better?  Watch these matches and understand them.  Even better, watch games with commentary and compare your thoughts to those of the streamer.

And then study your own games.  One of the most helpful matches I ever watched was my own ( https://youtu.be/HTYVlW-zGoY ) because it gave me a chance to evaluate my own decisions and see whether they worked out or not.

Study may not seem like practice since it’s not engaging in the act of playing the game, but again, we’re not practicing the game, we’re practicing decision points.


Stats

“I have spent many years on the road, and I have fought forty-seven duels, and I have never lost.”

– Mirumoto’s Niten

In order to know what to improve one has to know what’s working, and what isn’t.  This is where statistics come into play.

I keep a spreadsheet for each of my decks that I update after every time I play.  It tracks that deck’s win/loss record against each clan, whether the games were casual, competitive, or as part of a league.  It also has notes so I can make note of my opponent’s stronghold, role, and splash, as well as anything unique about the match.

The point of the sheet is I can see trends very quickly.  For example, my deck right now has a 100% win rate against Crab over ten matches.  That doesn’t mean I’m invincible against Crab, but it does mean it’s not a match I need to worry about as much.  It also shows 100% against Dragon but that’s only out of three matches so probably more testing is needed there.  Only 50% against Crane, but all of those were with Scorpion splash, and the one Crane/Scorpion match I won was against a newer player; clearly that’s a matchup I need to practice more.

The point of metrics is that they tell you where to focus your efforts and what you need to practice.

Feedback

“There has never been a sword which was not forged until its steel was true, and there should never be a warrior who would wield a sword unless they, too have undergone the fires of the forge.”

– Kakita’s The Sword

The last part of deliberate practice is the most important: feedback.  Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent.  It’s important that no matter what one is practicing, one is also evaluating the practice.  Ericsson, when talking about those German music students, talks about how much of their practice was spent under the guidance of another master musician to act as teacher, trainer, and coach.  While a teacher’s job is to train new skills the coaches job is to guide practice to nurture and develop those skills.  These roles are often overlapping but they are both necessary.

So how do you get good feedback?  You ask for it.

When you win a game, be gracious but ask your opponent if there was a moment when they realized they were in trouble.  When you lose a game, ask your opponent what you could have done differently.  Ask other players to watch your games – one of other most instructive games I had was re-watching a match I played while discussing it with Arash ( https://youtu.be/rI8iHpXjqlI ) – and discuss your decisions with you.  Play open-handed with someone and talk your way through your decision points while they do the same.

You’ll be shocked what you hear.


Have Fun

“The truth of the world can be found sitting at the riverside, The river never begins, the river never ends. All of life is like the river, lessons never begin and lessons never end.” 

– The Tao of Shinsei

This might seem like a lot, and it is.  As I said at the beginning, not every player needs to use every practice method here, but any player can benefit from them.  L5r is a competitive game but one with low stakes where the most we’re usually playing for are pieces of cardboard.  We strive to improve ourselves for love of the game.

To that end, don’t be afraid to do things just for fun.  Try someone else’s deck, play a different format, or take a break and go play something else.  Give yourself a rest, then come back.  The game will be waiting.

Ericsson was speaking with an Olympic swimmer and asked him if he enjoyed practice.  “Do I enjoy getting up at four in the morning and jumping into a freezing pool, then feeling my heart pounding as my muscles ache, all while spending hours staring at a black line?” the swimmer answered (not an exact quote.  Check the previously-linked podcast for the full quote).  “No, but I do it because I love the sport.”

The greatest gift we can get from practice isn’t simply better tournament results or a stronger record; when I play better, I appreciate the game more.


If you have any comments or feedback please post them in the comments section below. Check us out on the Imperial Advisor websitepodcast, and YouTube channel for more discussion about the L5R LCG.

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One Reply to “The Art of Practice”

  1. Good article and an interesting read. I felt that putting in hours for one of my hobbies wasn’t taking me as far as I would have liked to, and I too started thinking about the kind of practice I should follow. I improved a lot and I enjoyed it more, certainly changing the mindset about how to approach different tasks from that moment on as well 🙂

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