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Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Visit to the 2015 North American Masters Tournament

By Mitch Reed with photographs by Sean Sarah

As the skies get darker earlier and the air becomes chilly another year of Flames of War tournament play ends with the North American Masters event.

The 2015 installment of what is billed as the tournament between of the best players on the continent was held at Games and Stuff, a gaming shop just south of Baltimore on 14-15 November.

The annual affair pits the players who have won a nationals level event or have played well during the year and have made it to the top of the North American rankings.  I had the opportunity to visit with the players and organizers during the first day of competition and left with a better understanding on what the Masters Tournament is all about.

The Organizer
The first person I spoke with is Dave Griffin who works for Battlefront and runs all of the events Battlefront runs during the year along with the master’s tournament.  Dave is running his third Masters event this year and tries to add some wrinkles to the game in order to create a more challenging environment for the competitors.

This year he limited lists to those that are contained in the 8 hardcover late war books; Dave explained how those lists which represent the early part of the late war period are “classical lists” and, as a whole, are very well balanced for players to pick from. This year Dave had each player develop a 1400 point base list and then create three 250-point task forces from the same list.

Before each game, a die was rolled and results could range from selecting one of the three task forces to add to that game, to having the player or the opponent chose to the final result in which none of the task forces are used.  Dave also limited the amount of times a player could use a particular task force during the course of the tournament, so if one of your task forces are used twice, they are no longer eligible for use in a later game.

To me this is an interesting twist that, while it does change things up, can also be manipulated when your opponent picks a task force.  With most of the players coming from two distinct regions (more on this later) you could have a buddy pick an already used task force that would cause your list issues in order to make it ineligible for a later game when you may have to play that opponent.

Dave also explained that all of the 18 players who were picked to play this year were able to make the tournament.  This year’s tournament had two players who hailed from Canada and others who traveled from places such as Florida and Texas.

However I did see something that was obvious about the hometown of the competitors that were in attendance.  While the region between Philadelphia and Washington DC has many “clubs” (I-95, Throck of War, Icehouse, etc), I would lump all these players into one group because as a player in this region I see all of these guys at tournament after tournament and have played all of the 8 who were at masters at least once in the last year.

With the Mid-Atlantic folks taking up 8 of the 18 openings the next major group came from Able Kompanie out of Indianapolis Indiana which had 5 members attend this year’s Master’s.  The two Canadian players were also from the same club in Regina. So 13 out of 18 players were from two major playing groups, which did shock me a bit, however I do not think it’s a major conspiracy.

If you were to use Morgantown, West Virginia as a ‘Ground Zero” then draw a 300 mile radius around it, you would find most of the largest FoW tournaments in that circle, as well as the home towns of most of the players at Masters.  Once again I am not alluding to a conspiracy at all; I just was surprised at the concentration and felt that game had more of a national appeal since only one of the players from the US hailed west of the Mississippi River.

The only other statistic of the players I noticed is at 7 of the 18 players were at their first masters tournament -- that's a good turn over and shows that there is some competition to those coveted spots at the top of the rankings.  Of the 11 who were at a Master’s event before the average Masters attendance was 3 events including this year’s tournament, with the high being 4 previous events. In fact if you look at the bios posted on the FoW website, most of the guys who attended looked forward in seeing some of the same guys year after year.

So if you want to get better at FoW and play against better players you now know where you either need to move to or plan a lot of road trips to in order to increase your rankings.

Dave did have a lot to say when it came to regional tournaments and a message to the tournament organizers out there.  Dave mentioned being bombarded from TOs wishing to know the point levels for 2016 as they plan their events, while he would not divulge what the totals were, he did say that TOs should set point levels based on what they think, not what is going to be played at Battlefront sponsored events.

I agree with him on this, and after playing the same 1900 point late war list at 3 events this year, I really do wish organizers changed things up.  Another issue he pointed to is how local organizers need to communicate and spread out their events where they do not step on each other. This is true especially here in the Mid-Atlantic region where the frequency of tournaments really exacerbates burn out.

The Players
Knowing many of the folks in attendance I was able to speak with them about their thoughts on the Master’s.

I first spoke with Jesse Schaeffer and Andrew Hopson as they wrapped up their 3rd round game before everyone else. Both of them are here for the second time and both them told me that it is a goal each year to play well and qualify for Master’s. They also agreed how much fun Master’s is and how they like coming to an event where they can test their mettle against what they call “the best” players. 

We also got into a discussion on a players skill level versus list making and both felt that figuring out your style of play and finding a list that fits it is more important than finding that perfect and unbeatable list. They also added that “a good player should do well with any list”.  This confirmed with a lot of what I have always thought, that the time spent in list development gets way more attention than it should.  I always find it amusing for the folks who comment on the list advice thread in forums.  Many seem to have a set cookie cutter answer such as “one template to smoke/pin and recce to remove GTG, etc” without taking into account what that players style is. Sure there are bad lists in the mix that provide historical flavor more than balance, but really, how many folks take those lists into a tournament?

One thing I changed in the last year was to start following what I learned in being a planner in my military career; before I made lists based on the threats I could encounter, and now I base my lists on what capabilities I excel at and need to have in order to win. Yes, I do love going online and playing with different list mixes, but most of them I will never use.

When I asked Andrew how they grow and cultivate the hobby I was impressed with what his club "Able Kompanie” does.  They hold multiple demos, local events, and well attended “Stalingrad” game at GENCON to spread the word about FoW.  They also work with newer players who wish to immerse themselves in the game and want to get better.  Based on the number of brown shirted club members at Master’s, you cannot go wrong in having these guys show you the ropes.

Another veteran player I spoke to was Ben Gobel, who is a teammate of mine in Throck of War.  Ben is one of those guys who is a great gamer and person, but until you get to know him he can get inside you head a little bit.

Ben mentioned to me that he had a “bad match up” and how the mission Fighting Withdrawal is "broken" since it favors certain types of lists. This led to a long discussion if a good player should know that the mission does favor defense and has a way to win when attacking; which we never really got resolved.  Ben also did not care for the use of task forces that Dave developed for the tournament, which then got us into the argument of “skill versus list creation” which we also left unresolved.

The last person I spoke to was Scott McLemore who was going to his first Master’s. While Scott said he was excited to be playing at Master’s he did elude to the fact that it was like every other tournament he plays in since it was the same group of local guys.

So who stood at the top when all 5 games were done?  It was Ron Wismer who is from right up the road in Newark Delaware.  Having played Ron in the past, I can assure you that he is a great player who understands the game and its mechanics very well.  Also if you get to know him he is one funny guy... so I love seeing him but I cannot say I am looking forward in playing him again.

Below are the final scores from the weekend’s games.

 Ron Wismer 29
 Joe Lewis 26
 Chris Jackson 26
 David Vigor 24
 Miles Cowart 24
 Phillip Messier 24
 Leo Colon 23
 Chris Fretts 23
 Ben Gobel 22
 Jesse Sheaffer 19
 Chris Novak 19
 Andrew Hopson 17
 Kurt Reese 17
 James Best Jr. 16
 James "Scott" McLemore 16
 Noah DeZwart 15
 Lance Matthew 15
 Sean Froc 13

So after leaving The 2015 North American Master’s; what is my impression of it?

First of all I think that Dave Griffin really understands the game and the community that plays it.  I like how he is not afraid to mix things up and create wrinkles to make Master’s stand out from other tournaments.  I did get to see some of his new tables that folks will be playing on in 2016 and I like the look of them.

As for the players, I felt that either by knowing them or by reputation they all deserved to be at Master’s.  No matter how they finished at Master’s they did win a ton of games to get to Master’s and that is an accomplishment that should be respected.

Are they the best?  Probably many of them are; however since not every FoW player does tournaments, the fact that different regions have more tournaments than others and how not every tournament is scored the same it is hard to tell who actually makes up the top 1% of FoW players.

I have met a lot of players whose main goal is to make it to Master’s; and my thoughts are it’s a worthy goal; but I would caution to not kill yourself trying to get there since it’s just a game. I can state that it’s never a goal of mine and I never looked to see what I am ranked.  If I end up in the top 25 I did vow to stop playing the game. (actually, you said top 50 buddy ~Throck)

So congrats to Ron Wismer the 2015 champion, and to all the folks who demonstrated superior play all year to get invited!

Enjoy some more pics from the event below!

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