Well, today is a rather chaotic day in VEX-Land, especially for those teams attending Worlds in a few weeks.

In The Zone - game manual coverThe Game Design Committee released its scheduled game manual update today (April 5, 2018) with a major change in how the Division-level playoffs (“elimination matches” in VEX lingo) will be played at Worlds, with the simultaneous announcement that these changes will be carried on to next season. (Full In The Zone game manual here.)

In short,

  • instead of eight 3-robot alliances (total of 24 robots), there will now be sixteen 2-robot alliances (total of 32 robots); and
  • instead of each contest being a best-of-3 matchup, playoff matches will now be sudden-death (a.k.a. “single elimination”), with only 1 match between the alliance teams.

The game manual mentions using and “Elimination Match Ladder,” which is a phrase that is completely meaningless to me. However, if you look at the diagram of the new playoffs (below), it’s just a picture of the “Sweet 16” standard tournament bracket (think NCAA basketball or US Open tennis):

VEX Playoff Brackets

2-Robot Alliances

I am personally a huge fan of this change. Very small tournaments (17 robots or less) have always had 2-team alliances for the playoffs, but for the majority of tournaments, alliances consist of 3 robots. Why do I like this change? Because under the 3-per-alliance system, robots have an incentive to throw matches to finish lower in the rankings so that they can be that 3rd alliance member for one of the top teams (that is, far enough down the list that they are not a desirable pick for other captains). Throwing matches is extremely hard to prove because it can be done in subtle ways, but it definitely happens. It’s kind of suspicious when a team that finished the day 0-7 at State Championships gets picked for the playoffs. I just don’t see any other explanation to that scenario. In other instances, drive team members will openly state that they want to lose the match.

The other thing that my team has personally experienced is teams lying so as not to be chosen by one of the other alliance captains. At one Nothing But Net tournament, one particular team went around and talked to every single other robot team in attendance to inform everyone that their robot was broken and that they should not be picked for the playoffs. Well, Lo! And behold! That robot got picked for the #1 alliance, which won the tournament and proceeded on to the State level. 

2-robot alliances will vastly reduce the amount of unscrupulous behavior in this arena (still not totally eliminate it, but it will be reduced to a very small number of teams that still want to game the system). Teams will have a positive incentive to do well in match-play so they can be chosen by one of the higher-ranked alliance captains (or *be* one of the alliance captains).

Single-Elimination (“Sudden Death”) Playoffs

Anyone who has ever been to a VEX tournament can tell you that watching the playoffs—unless your team is in it and doing well—is excruciating. It really just goes on forever; throw in a re-do, some time-outs, and some technical system issues, and . . .

This new environment will possibly result in the same number of total matches played, but it will certainly be more lively. It will also allow more teams to compete in the playoffs. HOWEVER, random luck (either good-for-you or bad-for-you) in this setup is much more of an issue. With best-of-3, your alliance can have a bad match and have the possibility of recovering and winning the next 2. Here it’s now all-or-nothing.

There have been some posts on the VEX Forum in reaction to the changes advocating for having single-elimination in the early rounds, but reverting to the best-of-3 system for the semifinals and/or finals. That proposal seems entirely reasonable.

Consistency Is Key

The strategy of many teams that want to advance up this ladder will no doubt be to reduce randomness as much as possible by having an extremely well-crafted and consistent robot. And driving practice like you wouldn’t believe. Some teams of course do this already, but the new system will create a strong incentive for more teams to follow suit.

One complaint in this regard is that it discourages taking risks in your robot design or game-play strategy. 

The other major drawback to the sudden-death setup is that VEX components are not perfect, and glitches are a part of life—and 100% out of your control. Going forward, a glitch could cost you the trophy. There is the counter-argument that the upcoming V5 system will eliminate a lot of these issues, but then again, early-season tournaments will still be predominantly cortex-based, and there will be many teams that cannot afford to upgrade immediately, and will be using the more-prone-to-glitches cortex for some time.

Scouting

Scouting—evaluating other robots at a tournament to see if they’d be good alliance partners—becomes quite different. On one hand, the top teams will never again go around and talk to the lower-ranked teams, because the “3rd partner” no longer exists. On the other hand, I think that scouting becomes very important, but in a different way.

First, you only get one shot at picking a good partner; you’d better make sure that their skills complement your own and that you can work together as one team with a comprehensive strategy. You’ll want to choose a robot that can score in ways that are different from your strengths—there’s no sense in both partners going after the same scoring opportunities.

Second, now TWICE as many people will become alliance captains than there are now (16 instead of 8). That means that LOTS of people will be wandering around the pits trying to really, really size up the other robots or, alternately, really, really sell themselves as being a good partner.

Next Season

I imagine that the Game Design Committee will learn a lot from the experience of running this setup at In The Zone Worlds. While there will be no way for them to modify the game manual that comes out when the new game is announced—it gets pushed live just minutes after Worlds 2018 crowns a champion—we could certainly witness some modifications when the June and/or August manual updates are announced.

My next post, which I coincidentally started writing a few days ago, is about building tips for making a better-quality robot—an aspect of VEX that gains all new importance in the coming year.

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