Crossposted from Steamcommunity guides
For some time now I have played competitive TF2; primarily Engineer in Highlander. Not usually being on the front line has given me time to think, and time to observe the front lines. And now, I would like to share a few of those observations and beliefs. But, before I do, a quick clarification. This article is not meant to be an authority opinion on competitive play, but rather just an enthusiast. I seek to enlighten, not inform. This article is full of my perspective and opinion. Objectively speaking, none of it is right, nor is any of it wrong. It is simply an enthusiastic Engineer’s perspective.
The contents of this guide are weighted towards Highlander play primarily, but are intended to be general purpose enough to be applicable to all types of play, both competitive and non-competitive.
Whether or not you’ve actually played competitive, surely you have heard people talk about “the meta”. It is not exclusive to TF2 by any means, but given the diversity of TF2, it serves a very special purpose to both conformers and non-conformers alike. Unlike other games, TF2 allows for very diverse gameplay in each of the nine classes–often times where one is not objectively better than the other. A good explanation and examples of this can be found by reading my Engineer’s Guide to Engineering.
Why the Meta is good
Anyone who knows me knows that I love to talk about thinking outside the box, and doing new things. That being said, this type of mentality would far less effective without convention. To even somebody who doesn’t wish to follow the meta, it is powerful to know it.
As the old saying goes, “Know Thy Enemy”.
Playing off Player Conditioning
A player or team that plays strictly by the meta suffers a huge vulnerability. These are the types of types that generally have difficulty adapting to different or unusual situations. For that reason, there is more to “breaking meta” than simply playing your own style. An informed alternative style is one that knows the meta, and capitalizes off of weaknesses. For that reason, to simply “do your own thing” is not enough and is ineffective. Even meta rejection takes careful calculation of the meta itself.
To get a fuller understanding of what I mean when I keep rambling about this “breaking the meta”, you can find a great example of this from an excerpt from the Social Engineering: The Unorthodox Engineer part of my earlier referenced Engineer’s Guide to Engineering
“A Social Engineer is also one who can play off assumptions. A man of mind-games, if you will. When looking for a sentry, many are trained to look in the conventional spots. But the world [map] is our sandbox. If it isn’t nobuilt, it’s fair game. However, so few take advantage of such simplicities, people so often are unaware of their surroundings and will walk right into a trap. However, very few Engineers will actually take advantage of this. Due to that, I am an Engineer who likes to take advantage of a particular element: the element of surprise. Being caught off guard by a level 3 sentry is a fatal mistake and can cost you a lot. Sometimes, that even means a Medic dropping uber, or an entire combo dying during a push or a hold. But you would think it’d be hard to miss a very large Level 3 sentry, wouldn’t you? Surprisingly enough, sometimes you can hide them in plain sight. Quite often, Engineer and other classes alike forget to just look up.”
In addition to it throwing people off guard and blunderously dying to a sentry, even an acknowledged gun can be troublesome. Even some of the best teams and players, when faced with an unusual task, will hesitate. I’ve made a video to accompany this write-up, highlighting my play during the UGC Gold Grand Finals — John Madden vs Squirtle Squad.
Before I go on, this is not meant to disrespect or show any sort of superiority over John Madden. As a team, and as players, they were all very capable and powerful. We won our rounds by a narrow margin, and a reality in which they were the champions instead of us was very close to being a real one. My methods, and the methods of Squirtle Squad in the end, were able to barely succeed. If these methods were to be overcome, John Madden was a prime candidate to be the ones who triumphed over them. I share this only to show that convention breaking knows no bounds.
This video is important for two reasons. It showcases two major plays. The first being unplanned. Squirtle Squad practiced a play in which we “park the bus” at 4th, and were able to play the game at our own pace. However, during the preparation time, we lost the 4th point and had to retreat to mid. Our team had not practiced this hold before, nor had I. So, instead of a play in which 9 players were unfamiliar, we had a play with 18 very confused players. In this sense, it was total chaos. As unorthodox as it was, our team did not know how to hold around it. The other team did not know how to play around it. For that reason, each team formed to their convention, playing almost as if it wasn’t there, a very dangerous move. John Madden was playing off forward momentum, just having capped their 2nd, and playing toward mid. Ubers were exchanged, and to an unpleasant surprise, we were able to sustain and inadvertently played the gun to our advantage. Their team lost valuable assets from both the flank and combo. In the end, with no plan in action, their momentum was killed.
When Squirtle Squad regained our momentum and recaptured forth, the initial plan was set into place. A sentry was played at 4th. The spot that it was set in was a powerful one, perhaps too powerful. The spot blocked off absolutely every access route that involved the point, making any sort of approach impossible sans uber. Through explosive jumping, it was unreachable and in a high location that offset certain classes. Spy was rendered moot as he could not sap this sentry. Heavy, a slow moving class, easily influenced by distance, had forced spread. Neither class was a threat any longer to this sentry. I had eliminated much of the combo play situations that were allowed with Heavy and Spy. Spy could not turn my 648 HP gun into a 216 – sapper damage. Heavy could not combo 500 DPS on top of a Soldier or Demo attack. Options were very limited.
Trial and Error
These players were heavily conditioned for conventional play. And yet, they were faced with having to trial and error new options. Many teams spend several hours each week practicing these maps. During these practices, strategies are developed to approach meta and conventions. That is what scrims are for: Trial and error. However, that is not what matches are for. Matches are intended to employ these practiced strategies. And yet, a fear unlike any other was realized–Trial was necessary, but error in this situation implicated a very grave cost. The play here on Process was unlike any other. John Madden was caught between a rock and a hard place. 5CP meta dictates to play off Medic charges and advantages. It becomes a combo v combo with flank support on either side. And yet, with a level 3 sentry in play, a new challenge was faced. John Madden was left with a two-front war. Instead of only having to focus a combo now, they had to focus an ominously towering level 3 gun on top of it. They had one uber, but two targets. Failing to take out either could spell disaster, and failing to take out both was certain doom. This ultimately lead to hesitation. Even with full uber advantage, John Madden was hesitant to push out. This too, was disastrous. With Squirtle Squad in a point lead, the clock was ticking down in our favor. To stall, ultimately, was their own demise. In the end, they were damned if they did; damned if they didn’t. Hesitation and fear turned a 9v9 into a slowly progressing 18v0. Still more, this type of advantage and safety net allowed for Squirtle Squad to have more of a footing and vantage. Psychologically, we were more apt to commit. We had less to lose by losing our holding as well. A worst case scenario saw us losing mid and our second. Failure was far less consequential to us than it was to them.
Subjectivity Vs Objectivity
The above is a very thorough example of where Objectivity VS Subjectivity play comes into light. Another excerpt from my Engineer’s Guide to Engineering provides another perspective to this:
“An Engineer is not about impenetrable defense, an Engineer is about delays. Stalling for time. A good Engineer will stall with a sentry until the enemy team has uber to take in on a conventional spot and take it out. A great Engineer will use a spot of his own creation and make the enemy team trial and error with multiple ubers until they figure out a method of approach.”
Much of my examples follow from the premise of an Engineer and his sentry. This is for two reasons. Firstly, as an Engineer main, I have the most thorough perspective through this. Secondly, Engineer is an unsung hero; one with an unexplored frontier with the potential to heavily impact gameplay; moreso than other classes. That being said, it isn’t to say this is an Engineer exclusive attribute. There are other classes that can just as easily benefit from playing off pros of subjectivity.
It takes more than DM
I would like to propose a mock scenario. We are on the map of Viaduct, a map in which both Sniper and Medic are high priority targets. We have a Sniper who is scoped in, and has eyes on two targets. The enemy sniper, the top of their team, absolutely denying our Sniper’s team. The Medic has 80% ubercharge. Our sniper has masterful aim, and has time for one shot. By the time he scopes out to reload for the second shot, he will not be able to take out the second target. The sniper is about to round a corner and be out of sightlines. The Medic is retreating and about to be behind house, also behind sightlines. The Sniper can take one shot. Which does he take?
The answer? It’s unclear in the end. Arguments will exist for both sides. In the end, it’s subjective. It’s up to player discretion. This is something we refer to as game sense. Separate from mechanics, in which our mock Sniper has down, game sense refers to the players ability to assess a situation and evaluate accordingly. Game sense is very important and can sometimes trump mechanical play.
Knowing Thy Enemy (Mechanically)
Game sense is very important, no doubt, but of course there is more to the game than simply having a feel for the flow of the situation. Sometimes, it comes down to knowing the mechanics of the game–what is and isn’t possible. Sometimes, it’s an attributes and numbers (health, move speed, DPS) game. Though I’ve only played my main throughout comp all of this time, I take it upon myself to play all nine classes. While I can read about them and what they can do–experience is the best teacher.
If you are ever having trouble with a class, it is always good to ask around, but above all else, playing the class itself helps immensely. Even if this is on public servers. What I recommend to most people is take a primary of the class that is bothering you, get a strange version, and level it. Most strange stock weaponry is inexpensive, most of them being able to be gotten for under a refined.
The same can be applied to a class you want to learn and main. For all intents and purposes, just grab a strange and start leveling it. And no, if it’s an idle server, it doesn’t count. Don’t ask for a how or what weapons to run with it, that’s for you to figure out on your own. The why is up to you, not others.
And just like how nothing gets done in a day, neither will this. When I insist upon leveling a weapon, I don’t mean to level it 100-200 kills. Instead, the goal is Hale’s Own. And once you’ve achieved Hale’s Own, are you a master of the class? Not even close. Instead, you’ve just familiarized yourself with a subsection of that class’s play, and are now ready to start ground zero. The training wheels have come off, so to speak, and it’s now time to formulate a proper strategy for or against.
Logs aren’t everything
So often, when people are checking out players, they insist on evaluation exclusively by logs. For some classes, this is fair to evaluate to some extent. For others, however, logs mean nothing. Logs are purely objective. They are calculated numbers and nothing more. If one were to look at my logs, often times they would show up inferior to the other competing Engineer’s. However, is it fair to say I was less effective? A single handed stall tactic, playing off fears and conditioning is something that prevents teams from moving. Teams are less likely to push into a leveled gun than a mini. For that, my damage numbers and kill count will be far less than the opposing team’s Engineer.
Other classes are susceptible to this as well. For instance, the Spy is a prime candidate to showcase. There are some Spies who focus on playing stealth distraction. They may not get kills often, but they forever will stay behind a team, avoiding detection and being killed by spycheckers. They exist only to heckle. They may occasionally pick off the low health player or priority target, but often times they exist to make the team uneasy. They make their foe check their back one too many times during a firefight. They cause hesitation in plays.
What of Heavy, for instance? Many claim that Heavy is an easy class to play. This is failure to recognize the two major aspects of gameplay however: mechanics and game sense. At a mechanical level, Heavy is lesser than his companions. He lacks the mobility possible in that of a Soldier or Demoman. His weapon diversity is less than that of a Pyro. He lacks the micromanagement that a Medic or Engineer must face. And yet, he is able to bring his own specialty to the table. Denial. Heavy is similar to that of a mobile sentry. His placement is a deterrent to others. To where and how he uses this ability is once again, subjective. Not all of which will reflect equally on a scoreboard. An instance of this could once again be explained on Viaduct. Two positions a Heavy can play on this map are on point with the combo, or on cliff with the Sniper. A Heavy on point is far more likely to be considered “Objective” for the sake of denying the point, or objective. A Heavy on cliff however, denies a vantage point and a flank area for the enemy team. This is a deterrent to the enemy Spy, Soldier, and Scout, and a benefit to the team’s Sniper for playing in this area. However, this being less objective comes as a detriment to the Heavy’s stats. Logs would dictate he’s an inferior Heavy, where the reality is not so.
Keeping an Open Mind
In my time of playing TF2, one thing I see from players is trying to stray away from certain stigma. Sometimes, we fear these stigma or roles so much, we rule out options needlessly. Players that overcome this fall into what I call the “Full Circle Philosophy”. This is an observation I have simplified that involves behaviors that separate three types of players: novice, intermediate, and expert. This simplification I like to call the “Full Circle Philosophy”
The Full Circle Philosophy
There are multiple examples to this throughout the game. One in particular I like to use as an example actually resides in Mann Versus Machine. Let’s take a Demoman during the startup of an MVM round.
Novice: A novice player with basic understanding of the game realizes that before the wave starts, he can set out stickies and reload. This means he will have the added damage of 8 stickies that he otherwise would not have had. He has the Medic Kritz him and sets these in a cluster, and when the first wave comes, he detonates them all for a small area of 2832 damage.
Intermediate: An intermediate player realizes that this area of damage is far too concise. It’s wasteful and ineffective to cluster everything together. Therefore, he has the Medic Kritz him and when he does so, spreads the stickies out across the opening area. When the round begins, he waits–and detonates all the stickies. The area then becomes a wider spread 354 damage blanket.
Expert: An expert player will recognize that the intermediate option is not necessarily wrong, but opens himself up to more opportunities. With more comprehensive game understanding, he knows that he can employ a longer hold with his critical stickies. Realizing this, he places all 8 critically boosted stickies right on top of each other. When the round begins, rather than detonating each, he instead places a 9th sticky on an on-need basis. Each 9th sticky detonates the 1st placed, during a concise 354. Unlike a blanket setup, the Demoman in this situation knows exactly where the 354 will come from all eight times. Without ruling out the cluster of stickies being set up, he allows himself to have a more prolonged and dominant denial.
This “Full Circle Philosophy” applies to many things–such as an Engineer who builds at spawn. A sniper who stands still, even if momentarily, during a Sniper v Sniper. Novice plays are often only done on basic principle, but are not always wrong. With proper evaluation, any method of playstyle can be used effectively. Whether deemed “noobish” or not, only the dead have time to complain.
Something some people sometimes glaze over are the logical implications that can be drawn from this game. Some implications allow for very crazy plays and others, powerful tactics. For example, in terms of an Engineer dealing with a Spy sapping his sentry. Logic dictates that a Spy cannot sap an Engineer’s gun if the Spy is dead. Therefore, most strive to kill the Spy. However, it is also logically dictated that a Spy’s sapper is limited by range. A Spy cannot sap what he cannot reach, therefore a spot in which the Spy cannot reach makes him incapable of sapping a sentry.
Perhaps not something people often thing about in this context, but in games such as TF2, players still express themselves. A player who plays passively during a fair number confrontation is likely lit. One who is aggressive likely has a buff or is close to full health.
However, this is not always the case. Sometimes players can give false impressions, just the same, you can as well. With exception of Spy and Solemn Vow Medic, players cannot see enemy Health. Because of this, it is possible to give off false impressions and stand your ground. The enemy knows no different that they’re fighting a lit player, and this allows for you to keep ground when it’s important. Just the same, one can also play this the other way around in order to try and bait the enemy team. A full health player playing passively and feigning an escape can provoke a chase into an unfavorable situation for the aggressor.
Countless examples of body language exist; more than can be expressed here.
Popular Opinion is not Always the Best Opinion
Often times, many people assume to go with popular opinion. This is a dangerous assumption to make, and sometimes breaking out of this mentality is what allows teams to go truly above and beyond. Once again, with my expertise falling into the realm of Engineer, I see this most often from the Engineer’s perspective as seen from another Engineer’s Guide to Engineering excerpt:
“One of the most important aspects of an Engineer is being able to determine build locations. An Engineer worth his weight to a team is one who is able to look at a map, and evaluate effective build spots. Though this should be an expectation of any Engineer. So often Engineers fall victim to the “monkey-see-monkey-do” mentality. Too often, I see Engineers who use build spots that are run into the ground from overuse. I’m not going to say that the spots are necessarily unsuccessful. However, bear in mind that even a strategic spot can become ineffective. Though a spot may be effective objectively, the more practice somebody has on taking down a particular nest–the easier it becomes. ”
More recently, I have taken it upon myself to try more classes in competitive. Among them has been Medic. In it, I have found extreme use in diversification of the Medic’s medi-gun usage, both in round and non-conventional Mediguns. One such example being the power that goes into using the Quick-Fix. Though it may lack full overheal and invulnerability on Uber, the drastic heal rate increase has proven extremely powerful in itself in several unlikely situations. I am far too inexperienced to elaborate further, as I am merely entry level myself. However, even as a novice with an open mind, I see new playstyles emerging from new classes. Surely more exist, many beyond my conscious knowledge and comprehension. It is up to you, as a player of this game, to find and explore them.
Theoretical vs Practical
While it is always a good idea to explore the theoretical, one must always assess the practical aspects of their theoretic concepts as well. Different situations allow for different possibilities. Some of which are less practical than others.
For instance, a Spy who runs invis watch on Process for the theoretical implication that is is an open map and he will have vantages to get around undetected is likely a good one. On the contrary, a Spy who runs Dead Ringer on the implication that he can take a rocket hit and surf it perfectly to a high vantage point not reachable by normal jumping means is likely a poor theory-craft and a wasteful choice.
There is no “black & white” to theoretics versus practicality. It is a spectrum, one that must be weighted by the individual.
It’s the Little Things that Count
Sometimes, all it takes to overturn a fight is a thought out premeditated play. Whenever I play a battle class, sometimes I like to take initiative to do small amounts of self damage and fire a few shots off from my ammo reserves. Taking ever so slightly from the health and ammo pool make me a candidate to pick up packs of either kind. In a firefight situation, sometimes having absolutely full can work against you, making you unable to pick up a pack that an enemy can go for. With a little bit of initiative, a fight can be turned ever more in your favor than before.
More than just ammo and health can be played out in a premeditated fashion. Just the same, a player’s positioning or approaches can be manipulated to also benefit their play.
Being a Good Teammate
Keeping Yourself at Ease
While it is good to always be on your “A-game”, that doesn’t mean you should set yourself up for a stressful situation. Keeping a cool head about yourself is likely one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your team. During most all of my games, I listen to music in the background. I have a large collection of favorites—much of it coming from my favorite games. OCRemix has a great collection of video game remixes as well, definitely worth a listen if you haven’t checked them out already!
Like any good team, communication is key. A lot is to be said about comms, and team cohesion, moreso than should be said here. With the amount of versatility that goes into it, I believe it’s better to simply refer off to a former teammate’s guide: hooli’s Team Cohesion Guide.
Giving your Life for the Greater Good
Good game sense is understanding the grand scheme of things. And, in the grand scheme, sometimes survivability is not always king. Sometimes it is worth sacrificing your life for a teammate, or if you’re in a practically guaranteed death situation, to go out big by putting out damage rather than attempting the minimal chance of maybe getting out. There is more to being a good teammate than simply “going big”. In the same light, there is more than forever holding onto your life above all else.
Other Things to Consider
While not full fledged sections, or something that fits well into the rest of this, there are a few things I believe are worth mentioning here.
Custom HUDs and Binds
Some people seem to consider these “cheating or unfair”. It is quite the opposite. Custom HUDs and binds for all intents and purposes are fair game. Valve’s engine was designed with this type of customization in mind. Leagues do not discourage these by any means–and have no regulations against using them. Custom HUDs have elements that add more information , or make the information you have more concise. To not use them is only a disadvantage to yourself.
Custom binds can also be useful as well. I write all my own binds so I am familiar with them at a very personal level. Personally, I have written quick build binds for my Engineer. However, even for when I offclass, I have binds available just the same to help as well. For example, when I play Spy, my entire numberpad is turned into a disguise kit. By default, 1-9 is a quick disguise for all the nine classes in loadout order. Hitting – will swap me to friendly disguises, and + back to enemy. This is infinitely useful for diversifying disguises on a whim.
Try out Competitive!
Countless times I hear from users and fans that they’re “not good enough for competitive’. Truth be told, I never thought I was either. Around UGC Season 6, I joined a Steel team as Engineer. I was reluctant starting out, and only did so as a favor to a friend, whose team did not have an Engineer and was desperate for a warm body. I was an enthusiast Engineer in pubs; nothing more. I never saw myself as a potential competitive candidate. It struck me as too foreign and intimidating–something I would never achieve anything in.
And yet, here I am today, an 11 season contender with the honor of achieving 1st place Gold. I’ve taken part in Community vs Pros and have been recognized as an Engineer Apostle. All of this has been achieved by somebody who at one point sought nothing from competitive.
If there is something to be taken from above, it is that anyone can achieve greatness. Whether you believe it to be in you or not, you have little to lose and everything to gain. You cheat yourself only by not trying. Entry level teams exist, many of which only seek people with initiative and enthusiasm. In the end, it’s up to you to try out.
Contrary to belief by non-competitive players, there are many fantastic and outgoing veterans in this community who are kind and welcoming. These people alone are the reason I keep playing. These same veterans have for sometime welcomed new players with open arms. Many coach and mentor entry level teams to introduce friends and enthusiasts alike to the scene. And while caustic players can and most certainly, will continue to exist–bear in mind that they are only a vocal minority. Much of the greatness found within the scene has gone unsung by humble veterans who can and will continue to make this a great game for a long time to come.