The idea to write this has been developing over my entire way through WoWs, from potato to unicum. I always didn't just want to get good, but also understand how that works. I hope I have finally gotten to that point.
The one fundamental difference I've observed in my own development as well as in other players is this difference in mindset:
Bad players think about opportunities.
Good players think about dangers.
So if you're not performing as well as you want to, let's have a look at how to get better by approaching the game from the right mindset.
How bad players fuck up
Bad players always imagine ways how they can succeed. That leads to all sorts of suicidal plays. From the very start they believe things like:
I will rush straight into this cap, win the fight there, take it for my team, and then we have an advantage.
Of course this usually just gets them killed. For the same reasons, bad players love torpedo rushes, trying to ambush enemy ships from behind islands, and generally pushing forwards. Whatever they do, they're certain its going to work. Until it doesn't and they're dead. And then they blame their team instead of themselves.
Most people seem to believe that bad players are bad for the opposite reason: That they always camp in the back and never do anything. But surprisingly, those are much less bad to have. Far and away most games are decided by which team loses more players early. If a team merely takes the caps without getting a kill lead, they will often get impatient and push into the camping enemy to throw the game, because they have too many noobs who keep imagining how their rush is totally going to work.
You can observe the truth of this even in high skill matches. Very early in a T10 ranked season at rank 2-5, when there are virtually no players below about 58% global winrate, matchmake monitors will let you observe a very persistent trend: The players with the worst winrates are always the first to die, even when you would generally think they're safe and competent players with their 58%+ winrates. In true top tier clan battles it is a bit different, but even getting into hurricane league takes little more than just knowing how not to fuck up.
How good players succeed
So what do good players think about if they don't think about what great play to make? They think about what plays not to make. They arrive at the best possible play by eliminating all the dangerous ones first. This is the priority list of what dangers to avoid:
The danger to get citadelled or focus fired to death. The number one remedy to this is to observe your concealment range. Good players rarely get closer to the enemy than the distance at which they can get undetected again once they stop shooting. Even if you are a BB, you want the opportunity to turn away in stealth, or to repair fires and wait out your damage control cooldown. Getting into a position that you cant escape from needs to be very well planned out. Your main tool to avoid this problem is to position properly relative to your team. In a DD you need allied cruisers and BBs to scare away enemy DDs or radars from rushing you. In a cruiser or a BB you need something in front of you to screen away enemy DDs from permaspotting you.
The dangers to get locked down and be unable to flee. If you aren't absolutely certain that the enemy is weaker on your flank, you want to have the opportunity to turn away savely and run before they get too close to you. This is why good players don't commit their ships early until they know more about the enemy positioning.
The danger of torpedoes and airplanes. Overall fairly similar to the risks above – as long as you can turn freely, you're usually going to be fine. Torpedoes are easy to stay safe from since you can use allies to spot for you. With planes… well better pray you have some good AA cruisers on your team.
The danger to deal no damage. Obviously just being safe doesn't win you the game, but a dead ship does not deal any damage either. If you followed the checklist to this point you are sure not to be dead, so you can get to actually doing something. You need to stay in a position that (1) is close enough to the enemy, (2) where you are not stuck behind an island, and (3) from where you can quickly move on to the next battle once your current one is decided. Going around all the way at the flanks has a high risk of leaving you useless, which is why good players tend to play to more central positions.
The danger to lose by score. Yes this is pretty damn far down. Ultimately the cap belongs to the last ship still afloat. Better to get the cap a little later than to die for it, which by itself can be a 100 point swing to the enemy's favour. Most importantly this danger means not to let the enemy get any free caps. If they take the cap, at least get an HP lead in return that you can use to retake the cap afterwards. This is also where specialties like radars come into play to deny the enemy. So you need to position around caps in a way that lets you defend them.
This is also the reason why good players rarely talk about great plays, but very often about bad plays. In their view games are decided by mistakes, not by heroic actions. Any heroic push is only possible because the other team allowed it.
Why does such a passive approach work?
Because every game starts evenly. The enemy has to struggle as hard to get a lead as you do. If you do nothing and the enemy does nothing, you still don't lose the game. Playing aggressive is generally a disadvantage. It means that you run into crossfires while the enemy can always angle against you. It means your shells need to lead further than theirs. It means that you run into enemy torps while your torps won't reach.
This means that your first priority should be to play defensively and punish any enemies who overextend – which is a regular occurance in random battles, but even in clan battles up to high typhoon league. Only if this yields nothing you should start advancing. But there is no need to be more aggressive than your enemy is if both sides have the same power. Having a standoff at 15-20 km is nothing unusual and should not worry you. Why should you make a move if the enemy doesn't? Instead, just trade as effectively as you can and gain a lead that way. This will soon open up the caps for you to take.
Caps generally are only a tool to force the enemy to play aggressively. You don't want to let the enemy take any caps, because having fewer caps means that you are forced to push. Your goal is to put the enemy into a spot where they are the ones who need to push.
Proper openings for aggressive plays are rare, unless the game is already decided one way or the other. The decision to make such a play should only be the result after you have evaluated all dangers. This is how you learn to see the highest % plays, the plays that are most likely to give you an advantage in the game.
A rundown of how this works in reality
Let's say you stick to the whole checklist of dangers. How does a game pan out if the enemy fails at it?
If the enemy fails at the first step, they overextend into your team's firepower, you get a ship or HP lead, and can slowly push the enemy away from the caps from there.
If the enemy gets into a position where they can no longer retreat against a superior force, for example because they hugged an island too far up, you can slowly move up and pick them apart without having to take much of a risk.
If they lose ships to torps or get aircancered… well, free win.
and 5. – if they aren't in a position to threaten you at the caps, take the caps and wait it out.
If they do none of these things, you are now locked into an even game. The caps are presumably covered by radar and/or nearby DDs. Some cruisers may hug islands to provide radar or AA, most of them are in the open water wth the BBs however and are free to pick their fights. Now its about coordinating the threat to take a cap, vision, and firepower support to get better trades on the enemy. You have a real game on your hands.
The fuck-up hierarchy of clan battles
This came to my mind towards the end of Season 1 of clan battles, when the meta had settled and only changed gradually anymore to this day. This is how most high-tier metas develop. In each state of the meta, a different type of ship would fuck up and lose the battle.
In the beginning games were decided by DD fuckups. Nobody knew yet how to secure caps, so the ability of DDs to decide how aggressive they could threaten caps was absolute key. Most games were decided because a team either lost their DD, or gave up a cap uncontested.
Next up were the radar cruisers who were supposed to secure caps. Many of them didn't know how to position, so now that the DDs no longer died randomly, most games were decided by the ability of radar cruisers to stay save and use their radar correctly. Their fuckups were what decided games. Dealing damage with such a cruiser was entirely secondary.
Once all of this had settled, the final step was about the flanking cruisers. With everyone playing nice and safe at the caps and neither side getting a lead that way, it was up to the ships which could threaten to reach around the enemy's flanks to decide the game by dislocating the enemy DDs and radars. In Season 1 this was all about Zao, which was able to fight in open waters and had the concealment to drive away bigger cruisers.
Back in season 1 these were the roles I went through in that order, since I was our shotcaller and dictated our setups. Whenever something didn't work and I didn't understand why, I tried it out myself until it worked. I've developed a bit of a Zao fetish since then and played little else. The meta has gotten a whole lot more varied since that time, as ships like Worcester, Minotaur, and Stalingrad have shaken it up a fair bit, but I still believe there is some truth in this model. If you're not in Hurricane yet, this may be helpful to you.
Other notes on getting good
To get through the list of dangers, you need 1) map awareness, 2) the ability to predict map movements, and 3) decent knowledge of all ships in the game to evaluate when exactly you are in danger. You need to know what type of DPS to expect, torp and radar ranges, have a decent awareness of cooldowns, and so on.
Never underestimate how long it may take you to kill an enemy. So many people die because they make this mistake and end up eating more damage or being spotted for longer than they thought. So do not overextend in order to chase a kill. Simply getting an HP advantage and forcing them to escape is usually all you need. Really being able to force a kill is not the norm.
Moving into the enemy half of the map is usually a mistake. Either you overextend into focus fire, or you don't deal enough damage because the enemy is kiting you, or it leads you away from the caps. After winning the battle for a cap, the right choice is almost always to stay on your half of the map and move towards the next cap.
The best position to be is almost always where the enemy is going to push next, i.e. a defensive movement. But its easily possible to overextend in a defense, keep the right distance and stick with allies.
Going solo can be an option if there is no CV, but obviously that restricts the abilities of what types of engagements you can take. Don't be afraid to wait for the enemy to engage your allies to use them as meat shields. If an enemy group is pushing through your half of the map, going wide to threaten their flank tends to be very powerful.
Your choices almost always rely on cooperation of your team. But unless your allies respond to you in chat like decently intelligent human beings, treat them as bots. Don't assume that they will react to your actions, rather arrange yourself so that they fit into your plans.
Not relying on your team includes to not get into any position from which your team has to bail you out again. Being able to escape when shit hits the fan is your responsibility alone – do not put your team into a position where they have to take a bad engagement to save your ass.
Lastly, keep in mind that your own gameplay is the only thing you can influence. WoWs is a random team game so others may fuck up and lose you games, but flaming them doesn't help you either, so let's try to stay civil. You yourself are the only variable you can change. I hope this helps anyone who wishes to improve.
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