Top 10 Dos and Don’ts for the National Cyber League Games

This week’s post is very special! (And not just because it’s almost 12 hours later than normal.)

This post was crafted by all the NCL Player Ambassadors, the NCL Commissioner, and the Game-makers at Cyber Skyline. We’ve collaborated to come up with the Top 10 Dos and Don’ts that YOU need to know to be successful in the NCL Games.

NCL Commissioner, Dan Manson, says,

DO Encourage Your Teammates and Friends.

One of my favorite parts of the NCL Games is the Community. There are so many resources for players to learn and interact. There’s Kait’s blog, the Facebook page, the Facebook group, the Twitter, the Slack Channel, the Live Coaching series that the Player Ambassadors run, Coaches Calls, and of course the NCL newsletter. With so many platforms, you would miss out by not getting involved.

The more you take advantage of the NCL Community, the more fun you will have!

“DON’T Share Flags, Answers, or Methodologies During the Games.”

It breaks my heart that every season, Cyber Skyline has to send me a list of evidence they’ve gathered of players they have caught cheating. The cheating audit performed by the Game-makers is very thorough.

The rules are simple. If any part of the Games (Pre-season, Individual, or Team) is open, you cannot talk to other players, coaches, or anyone else about the challenges. During the Team Game, you can only discuss challenges with the 1-7 players registered on your team. If your school has multiple teams, you cannot discuss anything between those teams.

Once the games are closed, Cyber Skyline hosts a Community discussion to go over different methodologies. Join that discussion on the Slack channel or hold your own event recap at your school.

If you are caught, you will be disqualified so DO. NOT. CHEAT.

NCL Chief Player Ambassador, CryptoKait, says,

“DO Read the Challenge Category, Challenge Name, and Instructions.”

If I told you how many times I got a question wrong because I didn’t review all of these things, you probably would accuse me of exaggerating. Hopefully, you will learn from my mistakes.

If you are a new player, this is a great way to get started. For example, my first season held a challenge that was called “Metadata”. At the time, I didn’t know what metadata was, so I googled “How to read metadata from an image?” The first tool I found was what I still use to this day for similar challenges. Without that challenge name, I would have never found the answers to that challenge.

Also, sometimes the directions give away MAJOR HINTS that don’t cost any points. One of the first challenges I ever solved was because the instructions said that it appeared to be a “shift cipher.” I googled that and found a tool that got me another flag.

“DON’T Stay Stuck on the Same Challenge.”

Don’t stay STUCK! This is the most common mistake I hear players make. They refuse to give up until they solve something. Sometimes you need fresh perspective. Walk away, take a break, come back to the challenge later.

This is another way players can fall behind in the games. Make sure you don’t spend more than 30 minutes per challenge on your first pass. Then come back for a more thorough attempt. Make sure you get all the points you can in the beginning so that you know what areas are going to challenge you and what will be easy.

Later in the game, players will spend hours on the harder challenges. Usually, if you don’t get it within an hour or so, you will do much better by trying something else for a bit. Hyper-focusing in on one thing will drain you and potentially cause burn-out.

Cyber Skyline Game-maker, Franz Payer, says,

“DO Make Sure You Have Kali Linux Installed.”

Most of the challenges can be completed with tools that have been pre-installed on Kali Linux.

CryptoKait adds “make sure you have Kali Linux installed on a Virtual Machine!”

“DON’T Waste Time Doing a Simple Brute-Force Attack on the Hard Password Cracking Challenges.”

Most of the password cracking can technically be done via brute force if you start soon enough. However, the last few hard password cracking challenges are designed be too complex to brute-force in a reasonable amount of time. Your time will be better spent trying to create your own wordlist to crack them (or other challenges!).

NCL Player Ambassador, Jeana Cosenza, says,

“DO Use the Gym.”

Do utilize the gymnasium as much as possible. While your score in the gymnasium doesn’t count towards anything, it is the best place to make all of your mistakes before the competition starts.

“DON’T Wait Until the Last Minute.”

Don’t wait until the last few hours that the preseason, individual, or team game is open to start doing the challenges if you can control it. If you have work/class/big project/personal commitment etc., try to dedicate a couple of hours each day the competition is open to work on the challenges, so that your score report reflects your skill level instead of the fact that you ran out of time.

Cyber Skyline Game-maker, Toby Lin, says,

“DO Join the Slack Channel.”

Do it. It’s a lot of fun and you get to hang out with us, the Player Ambassadors, and your fellow NCL players!

“DON’T Use Automated Scanners or Tools for Challenges Which We Tell You Not To! (We will know.)”

When we don’t indicate on a Web Application Exploitation challenge to use automated tools, it means that we designed the challenge so it can not be done with automated tools. Your use of automated tools will likely spam the web challenges with requests and degrade the experience for other players. We have our own systems in place to block you temporarily from accessing the Web Apps if you run automated tools.

NCL Player Ambassador, Web Witch, says,

“DO Read Up on Tools Before the Competition.”

Read up on how to use various tools (hashcat, Wireshark, etc) before the competition. You can find a ton of tips here on Kait’s blog, but there are thousands, if not millions, of other resources out there. Simply find a tool you want to learn, and GOOGLE IT!

“DON’T Get Stuck if That Tool Doesn’t Work.”

Don’t get stuck on one challenge just because you can’t get a tool to work. Come back and revisit that question after you’ve worked through some other challenges so you don’t get frustrated. You can also try other tools or try following YouTube tutorials or demonstrations.

NCL Player Ambassador, John “Mako” McGill, says,

“DO Use Virtual Machines”

VMs can help you quickly reset the environment. Sometimes starting over with a clean slate helps to recover the thought process.

“DON’T Make Assumptions”

Don’t make assumptions because of what you’ve seen before – treat each challenge as new. Often challenges are meant to draw you in by making it seem familiar – this is a great opportunity to introduce red herrings (false trails). If the approach you are using is not working, back off, and think about what you might have assumed.

CryptoKait also says,

“DO Keep Snacks and Drinks Nearby.”

When I first started as the NCL Chief Player Ambassador, this was my number one tip. I would pre-stock a box of my favorite snacks (healthy and not), water, caffeinated beverages, wine, and occasionally even stronger beverages. This way, there was no reason I would HAVE to leave my desk if I didn’t want to (except to go to the bathroom.) That leads to my most important “don’t” on this list.

“DON’T Forget to Take Breaks.”

Your mental health and well-being is the most important asset in the games. If you are overtired, frustrated, or in a bad mood, the best thing you can do for yourself is walk away. Take if from someone who accidentally threw a wireless keyboard out a window she did not know was open. When you need to, walk away!

“DO Give Individual and Team Everything You’ve Got.”

The Individual Game is the one that your scouting report is generated from. This is probably the most critical Game in the season.

The Team Game is your opportunity to learn from you peers, so take advantage of all the new knowledge you’ll receive.

“DON’T Forget to Prioritize. “

Your health (and mental health) comes first and foremost. But also make sure you know where school, work, your family, your friends, etc. fall on the scale vs. NCL.

Note: If you fail out of school because you spent all your time on NCL, you will not be qualified to continue to play in the games. Therefore, Schoolwork > NCL. My family and friends all know in advance when NCL is coming. They know NCL weekend > family and friends (barring an emergency.)

For example, I didn’t know that my now-fiancé was going to propose on our cruise when I thought, “NCL is more important than my vacation to me. I can definitely compete from the boat.” But when he did propose, I knew that celebrating our engagement was then more important to me than NCL.

It’s okay to adjust your schedule as priorities change. If you don’t do as well as you would like one season, make sure you allocate more time and energy the next.

“DO Use Block Tasking to Maximize Your Gameplay.”

Before the competition starts, I meticulously plan my time for the games. If I can get ahead at work or school, I try to do so. If I can take off from work, I do. For everything else, I carefully manage my schedule and try to find as many one-hour blocks as possible. I even block out 30 mins to eat dinner some seasons. During those blocks, minimize distractions.

John “Mako” McGill adds, “try to minimize distractions and let everyone know that you will be busy. One of the hardest things to maintain is the environment. I like to use a playlist of music that has a good beat and very little lyrics. I close the door and put up a sign, plan what I am doing for food and let everyone know that when I am concentrating really hard that I am annoyed by distractions. This helps the people in your life know how to support you better and ensures that you still have friends when it is all over.”

“DON’T Play for More Than 4 Hours Consecutively.”

Seriously. We’ve said it about a million times. TAKE BREAKS.

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