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The Art of Wushu: Being a master or an apprentice

Patrick Mackey

Fun facts for fans of the Art of Wushu: I wrote three articles about Age of Wushu for this week. I started off writing something lame, but I scrapped it because I didn't like the topic. The second is one about reaction times, perception, and brain chemistry. However, I realized somewhere in the middle of writing it that I used terms about "skill levels" that I have never really defined, and I figured it would be a good thing to do that before I went any further.

So this time, we're going to talk about skill levels and what they mean. All of them are fairly discrete, and they are pretty universal, whether you practice swordsmanship or carpentry (or do either in a video game). I have probably used the term "expert player" over 9000 times while writing for Massively, and I've held an opinion on what an intermediate player is since long before I was blogging. This is a good way to identify where you and others stand, which is how you'll know what kind of advice you need to get to the next level.

Noobs are newbs

I define beginners as anyone whose skill resembles a person who has never played Age of Wushu. "Beginner" is interchangable with "newbie" or its various synonyms, though I rarely use those terms myself even as insults. I prefer beginner, as it has fewer negative social connotations.

Beginners just need to have fun in whatever it is they are doing. No beginner actually needs to learn anything. Learning is hard and playing games is supposed to be fun. A beginner who enjoys himself and plays the game enough will pass the beginner stage on his own. Mousing the hotkeys or looking at the keyboard lasts only so long; there's so much to learn here that he will eventually pick up on some of it.

Advice at this stage is actually sort of detrimental, so it should be minimized. Some people want advice, but you really shouldn't give much other than pointing a beginner in a direction you think he'll have fun.

A beginner isn't a beginner anymore if he knows what his buttons do. In Age of Wushu, a person is no longer a beginner when he doesn't have to ask where to go to get new life skills or start school quests.

Everyone is a student

Most players (close to half) are novices. You automatically become a novice just by playing, but you don't automatically get out of novice-land without some training. Some people are just good at seeking out answers, and they'll escape into the intermediate stage without a person to teach. Others need outside guidance, whether it comes from lots of online resources or good teachers. How we get out of the novice state doesn't actually matter.

What does matter is whether we ever do escape this state. As I've implied, most people don't. Novices tend to build up pools of false information the longer they are novices, and this tends to build large barriers of misinformation that are hard to break down. If you want a real laugh, ask in school chat how getting cultivation in team practice works. Bonus points if you're a Scholar, for whom I've heard that being in the same school as the TP leader affects bonus cultivation (it doesn't, by the way).

A novice is someone who doesn't really know how to play the game. He's not a beginner; he knows how to hit buttons, how to use his life skills, how to make numbers go up or down, and generally what types of silver do what things and what he thinks is cool. He might even know a few useful tricks. However, these are the kind of players who fly untanked Mackinaws in EVE Online or play without dodging or weapon switching in Guild Wars 2. Novices are unskilled, and most importantly, most don't know they are bad.

Helping a novice is easiest when he is freshly minted. Novices who seek out help quickly rise above their rank, as the most defining point of an intermediate player is the ability to adapt to challenges. Teaching a novice situational things like punishing feints will slowly build him up, especially if he learns the most important skill: challenging "truth" he thinks he knows.

The number one thing I tell novices in Age of Wushu is "don't trust anything unless you've proven it yourself." I offer to give people testing methods to help them come to their own truths, and while I tell them what my conclusions were, I also tell them to test things and see for themselves whether I am correct. Proper testing isn't wrong, but I'm a human and I could have messed up my test or misinterpreted the results.

The Art of Wushu Being a master or an apprentice
Now we're really playing

The real fun begins at intermediate play. The majority of players who aren't novices are intermediates, and there's really nothing wrong with that. A lot of them kind of stumble into it by accident. People who have spent a lot of time in this stage are generally people who aren't spending a lot of effort learning new things in the game.

"Cheap" tactics dominate intermediate gameplay. At this stage, players are beginning to learn optimal strategies, and that means that offense is king and abusing broken tricks that appear unbeatable is the norm. Novices are usually aggressive too, but in intermediate play it's more controlled. People start to learn when they are strong and when they are weak; they learn to play conservatively while they're waiting on openings to perform their broken tactics.

Not all "cheap" players are intermediate players; many are novices who figured out some trick (it really isn't hard to run away and throw vertigo darts), and many are higher-level players who simply don't respect you enough to try to read you. Actually, "respect" doesn't mean what you think it means, either, but we'll come back to that.

Intermediate players are bad at defense because their knowledge is narrow. The reason why intermediate players tend to progress past that stage is that they start to learn counters to the other intermediate players. If you get beaten by RG chains 100 times, you start to notice patterns. A novice might overlook them. A beginner won't even notice the difference between attacks. An intermediate player can see them, and in time she'll learn to counter them.

OK, let's talk about RESPECT

Although the majority of players are below the advanced skill level, the advanced players are the ones we think about the most. These are the people who know their own game very well and understand the basic fundamentals of defense. They probably know a few counter matchups and have a good idea which ones they are weak in.

At the advanced level, cheap tricks tend to stop working. The most common ones are simply too well understood, so the counters are everywhere. Advanced players stop complaining about vertigo darts, and they start learning to live with pegasus. They stopped complaining about scholar spins a long time ago, and they've started to complain about kicks having multiple interrupts rather than doing tons of damage.

That's where "respect" comes in. It's a sort of antiquated term that didn't originate in Age of Wushu, and it refers to a tactic that shouldn't work on someone. Let me re-use an example: RG chains are so well understood that they are unreliable against good players. Using RG chains -- and only RG chains -- against someone is "disrespectful," as if to say, "I know you are not good enough to counter this, so I can get away with it." An intermediate player might not know the counter, so if an advanced player thinks his intermediate opponent is not familiar, he might just use RG chains in order to get an easy win.

Another example of lack of respect is something I do all the time. The Golden Snake feint, Swing the Tail, is very slow. It has about a half-second startup, so a good player will react to it most of the time. However, I use mind tricks to manipulate my opponent into thinking it will not come, so his brain is not prepared, and then I hit him with a very slow move that he should have seen coming. Other times I'll fight using only Swallow Flies Over the Pond, not using any other moves. It works better than you'd think.

The Art of Wushu Being a master or an apprentice
I wanna be the very best

Experts aren't the best players, but the best players are experts. The big thing that separates experts from advanced players is fairly complete knowledge of all common situations.

An expert knows what all the sets in the game do, more or less. He knows quite a few inside and out. No expert knows everything, unless we're talking about experts at checkers or tic-tac-toe. In Age of Wushu, there's a huge amount of possibility space, and nobody knows all of it -- even just the PvP side of things is enormous. However, an expert understands most things at a core level. He might not know exactly what the Rosy Cloud Stab feint does, but he does know the set has a feint, he knows that it sucks, and he knows the important stuff (e.g., Rosy has two heals and two lunges, and one of the heals is a dance super). If it's something that a typical person would encounter in 100 battles, he knows how to beat it.

Socially speaking...

There are "grades" beyond expert, but they aren't meaningful to most people. Two experts fighting is pretty incomprehensible even to intermediate players. The levels above expert are more about reading minds than it is anything else.

Being a beginner or a novice doesn't make you a bad person. These aren't value judgments; a person who is "bad" at playing Age of Wushu isn't less a human being. It's simply a hard marker that if you have a certain skill, then you're at a certain skill level. It isn't even about being in the top 10% or 50%, although those numbers tend to line up simply because "effort" is a fairly universal thing.

Skill, particularly at these levels, is also not about physical ability or execution. There is an execution gap between beginner and novice, and the expert can generally do harder things than a novice, but this is just due to practice and has almost nothing to do with talent. Anyone with functioning hands and eyes can play Age of Wushu at an expert level.

Age of Wushu is a wonderous place, full of hidden secrets, incredible vistas and fearsome martial arts. Join Patrick as he journeys through China, revealing the many secrets of this ancient land. The Ming Dynasty may be a tumultuous time, but studying The Art of Wushu will give you the techniques you need to prevail.

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