Deprivation is an extremely powerful teaching tool. In High School Health class, we had to do a 4 week deprivation experiment, where everyone in class had to give up something that they did/used/ate/drank on a regular basis for 4 weeks and write entries on the effects that this deprivation had on them and what they were learning from it. As an avid soda drinker in High School, I gave up caffeine, and the subsequent experience was a bit of an eye opener. For instance, I learned that at that point in time, I was horribly addicted to caffeine and that after about three days without it, I started having pounding headaches. I also learned that caffeine, as a stimulant, along with the sugar in soda, keeps you awake for awhile and suddenly I learned that I could fall asleep before 2 AM if I wasn’t loading myself up with sugar and caffeine at 9 or 10 PM. Shocking, I know, but it’s amazing how bad we are at connecting the dots when you get into routines.
Fast forward to college, when I was trying really hard to get better at Smash Brothers Melee. At a smashfest in Philadelphia, I was routinely getting my ass handed to me by Cactuar’s Falco in the Falco vs. Falco matchup. After awhile, I started to notice that Cactuar barely shot any lasers at all with Falco, which stood in direct contrast to my own style where my whole neutral game strategy was to use lasers to control space. Noticing this, talking to Cactuar, and remembering my High School exercise led me to conduct a little experiment. Following this smashfest, for the next month, while practicing, I was going to try to completely deprive myself of lasers. For the first few days I found myself losing practice games more frequently, but after making a few adjustments, it seemed like I could be nearly as effective without lasers as I could with them. Once I lifted my self imposed laser ban, I actually found that my laser usage was much smarter and the net effect on my overarching approach to playing Falco was a large positive.
What I’m getting at here with this story is that when you identify yourself using something as a crutch in your gameplay, there’s a lot to be gained from depriving yourself of it. You may be asking what I mean when I say a crutch, and that’s a fair question, so let’s get into what a crutch is, and how to go about identifying crutches. A “crutch,” as I’m using the term, is a behavior in a game that you lean upon when you don’t know what else to do. In my example above, I had no idea what I was doing from the neutral position with Falco, and rather than taking an analytical approach to figuring out what I should be doing, I just fell back on shooting lasers. Other examples of crutches in other games would be opening 12 hatch every game in Starcraft Broodwar or rushing two doran’s rings, sorcerer’s shoes, and deathcap on every AP Carry in League of Legends. The point isn’t that falling back on your crutch is always the wrong play, but rather that always falling back on your crutch isn’t necessarily the right play.
Identifying a crutch is sometimes very easy, and other times very hard. Occasionally, you’ll notice yourself doing something extremely frequently and yielding poor results from it, and if that’s the case, congratulations, you’ve found a crutch! Other times, you need to take a step back and watch replays of yourself playing the game to pick up on your habits when they’re not working out for you. And other times still, you’ll discover a crutch from watching someone else play your character/race/deck differently from how you do. The point is that you just need to keep thinking about your play to pick up on your own habits to nail down when you’re falling back on a crutch.
Once you’ve zeroed in on a crutch, before going into full-blown deprivation mode, take some time to think about your alternatives. Maybe it’s time to try cutting the doran’s rings out of your build and instead opt for a Catalyst opening into Rod of Ages. Perhaps instead of opening 12 hatch every game, you can open 9 pool and experiment with early pressure vs. your opponents. Once you have a decent idea of how you’re going to fill the void, yank that crutch out from under you during practice. When your alternatives are falling short, it teaches you situations where your crutch isn’t actually impeding your play and is worth using. However, chances are that you’ll run into situations where your alternatives feel equally strong or stronger. In these cases, the deprivation teaches you how to diversify or even flat out improve your play. Regardless of whether you discover better options from this exercise, it will give you insight into what your options are, and the hows and whys behind the decisions you make, which is always preferable to blindly sticking to your guns without exploring the alternatives.