The Improvement Cycle:
Static stage -> Frustration Stage -> Success stage -> ?? -> ?? -> ?? (to be revealed in part 3 XD)
The first stage of improving is the Static Stage. FilterSC, a Starcraft II youtube personality, introduces to us various builds that a Terran player can use while playing a 1v1 game in multiplayer. Evidently, those builds are very successful even up to Masters league, which is where FilterSC is at. So in order to emulate his success, it is recommended to learn his build orders, as well as his psychology behind the actions that he take. However, to actually get there, you must sit down and play a few games against the computer first to train your basic game mechanics. Even once you are ready to take on the world, you would have to consider your first few multiplayer games as “training games”. The Static Stage is where you do the ground work of familiarizing yourself with certain aspects of the activity that you pursue. In Starcraft, you would need to be familiar with “macro-ing”, which refers to building up your economy as well as your buildings, and “micro-ing”, which refers to the actual control of your army. Both skill sets require practice, during which you may not be able to really improve until you have mastered specific skills within the skill set. In fact, you may actually lose more games because you are more focused on a particular goal. But that is a good thing – you want to keep everything static accept for the one thing that you are trying to improve, because as FilterSC says, you can only handle one thing at a time.
One of the first lessons I learned from FilterSC is the idea of benchmarking. Benchmarking is essentially the act of recording a fixed, but important statistic that can help you track your growth objectively. You don’t have to worry so much about its accuracy in reflecting your skill growth, but it should relate to an important aspect of whatever that you desire to develop. In Starcraft II, FilterSC recommends that you track your worker production at the 10 minute mark. Workers form the entire basis of your economy, which in turn forms the foundations that allows you to build your army and technology to win the game. At 10 minutes, a standard build would have you at around 45 to 48 workers. FilterSC pushes that threshold by a bit, insisting that you should aim for 50 workers by the 10 minute mark. I was able to actually surpass that goal using some fast expand build orders, but at the very start, it took me tons and tons of practice to get anywhere close to 50. I was always straggling behind at around 44 to 47 workers. After awhile, I got the hang of it. My worker production skills improved, and that allowed me to move on to the next stage: building up production buildings, and thinking about army composition as well as technology timings. Those are very complex ideas that can also be broken down via benchmarking. For instance, by the 12 minute mark, I would want to have 5 barracks up and running (with 1 techlab and 4 reactors), a reactored starport, two engineering bays with +1 attack/defense finished, and stim/combat shield researched. I also want to keep up with my worker production, but because of the new requirements, I can afford to lower the benchmark slightly – 48 workers by the 10 minute mark.
I find that the idea of benchmarking is translatable to various fields of activity as well. In writing, you can keep track of the number of words written per hour. If you hate the pressure, you can also commit to maybe a couple hundred words a day. In exercise especially, you would want to track your strength by keeping close note of your maximum rep of a certain weight. If you can lift the same weight more times, you would have gotten more durable muscles, but if you can lift a heavier weight, you would have gotten stronger muscles. Benchmarking is a simple way of ensuring that your methods are bringing you closer to your goal instead of further away from it. But you have to be flexible, not every benchmark is useful for every goal! If you want to make sure that you are keeping in line with your plot points, for instance, you might want to be slightly more lax on the word count – you don’t want to be producing words just for the sake of producing it, instead, you might want to stop writing after you meet your target. The same goes for exercise. You want to give your muscles rest after strenuous activity, so you may not want to continue with your usual benchmarks after experimenting with a new style of training.
Now, when you’re going through the Static Stage, you tend to encounter one very major roadblock. The source of this problem usually stems with yourself! Some people tend to be able to deal with it better than others, but everyone struggles with it eventually. It’s the problem of frustration. When you’re practicing something that is fairly difficult to achieve, you will tend to make a lot of mistakes. Even after dedicating a lot of time and energy into the practice, you may find that you have not really improved much. This is extremely true of e-sports, such as Starcraft II. When I first began practicing the worker benchmark as mentioned above, I realized that I was nowhere near the target. I then learned that I did not even know the specific build order needed that could make the achievement of the benchmark possible in the first place. It took me a lot of trial and error before I realized that, and even then, I had to re-watch FilterSC’s videos again repetitively before finally got the correct build. It took some more time to memorize it and be able to pull it off in the game. Only then was I able to work on the specific mechanics needed to reach the worker benchmark! Imagine how frustrating it was for me then, doing so many things wrong at the start, and then having to put in so much effort just to begin the basic practice.
Yet, I’m sure everyone goes through frustrations, especially when you’re starting something. When we begin anything, we do not yet have the infrastructure necessary to get things going. And when I say infrastructure, I don’t mean physical infrastructure per se, such as money, property, or network. Those could be important in other things, but I also refer to the intangible infrastructure of the mind. It takes time in order to build certain habits of seeing and doing that puts you on the right track of success. For instance, in Starcraft II, I needed to understand how it felt like to press certain hotkeys to build buildings/units before I could fully absorb the build that I see in a replay video. I would also need to understand the basic tech tree, and prerequisite structures needed before I can appreciate the idea of a refined build order. To do all this, I need to have certain knowledge infrastructure already built into my mind, and to do that requires invested effort in acquiring that knowledge and memorizing it. Furthermore, I needed to understand where and what to look for when watching videos – the supply timing, the amount of minerals built up, the hotkey tab etc. If I do not know that, I could watch a dozen videos and not be able to benefit my own technique
All these issues arise when you hit the Frustration Stage. Often, we are frustrated because we do not have the necessary infrastructure build up, and we keep getting set back by things we do not understand. During this stage, pure perseverance is important, but often not enough to succeed. As it is like building a business, we need to set up the right infrastructure to overcome the frustration. In business, we need to have a source of capital, a way to liaise with our suppliers and customers, as well as a means of keeping accounts. Without any of this, our business is bound to hit a lot of roadblocks along the way. Especially when if we are struggling to build income, without setting up that infrastructure first, we will be unable to make it through with just perseverance alone. The key to overcoming the Frustration Stage is not only perseverance, but it is looking at yourself and understanding what needs to be developed first before moving on. It is usually the very minor things that trip us up, so at this stage especially, we should never underestimate the small things.
After pumping through the frustration stage, smoothening out all the crinkled edges and practicing over and over and over again, we’re bound to be met with success. It took me over a dozen games before I won my first victory in Starcraft II, Silver League. A score of 0 – 12 is not to be proud of, but to me, it’s my battle scar. The moment it turned to 1 -12, I felt as if every bit of practice was worth it, because it was a legitimate win. From then on, I began to improve my win rate, getting it much closer to 50%. Pretty soon, I could easily defeat all (non-smurf) bronze players, and a bunch of other Silver Leaguers too. I was on my way to the top 8 of my League, and I planned to fight my way into gold. It sure felt good.
But there was one thing I could not afford to forget: watching replays and analyzing my own games. By disciplining myself to watch the replays instead of jumping straight into another match, I’m able to see my own gameplay and troubleshoot them or reinforce them before the next game. Chances are, even though I’ve won, I would have made a lot of mistakes that deserve correcting. I am after all, only in Silver League. Even Grandmasters I believe watch their own replays to see how they can improve, much less I! In every game I take note of what works, what doesn’t, and what needs working on. It could be the general build order, or simple things like making sure I was producing units even while attacking, and it can even be more complex ideas such as timing the attack properly against the enemy’s build. All these aspects need to be worked on, although it is best that we work on it one at a time.
It is the same for everything else. In my exercise regime for instance, I may find myself successful as I’ve reached a certain running speed for a particular distance run. But if I looked back at my training session, I can look for more things to improve on. Should I have stretched before I ran? Is it possible to work on my posture instead of slouching when I get tired? Does my feet line up properly with balls of the feet touching the ground first, or am I slacking when it gets difficult? It is best to have a training partner whenever you do training so that they can spot for you, or if you run on a thread mill, you might want to record yourself (or run against a mirror). Self-monitoring works the best during the success stage to make sure that you stay grounded and realistic about what works and what doesn’t – the euphoria of success might sometimes also be dangerous if you let yourself slip up or compromise on basic principles.
In part 3, I’ll finish up the rest of the cycle, and conclude!