Teamwork Makes the Dream Work – Strategies for Teams


So, you’re ready to tackle the National Cyber League (NCL) Games with a full-blown TEAM, huh? Very impressive. There’s a whole lot to running a successful team, but there’s even more behind making your team stand out from the others. This blog post is a road map to inspire your team to be a well-oiled machine, working together flawlessly towards the common goal of CRUSHING YOUR ENEMIES feeling self-accomplished.

Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

Step 1 – Choosing the Team of your Dreams

“Okay, okay”, I hear you say. “But I don’t know anybody who’s good at insert category here“. This is often the first complaint I hear when I encourage players to create a team. And I always say the same thing: neither do I. It really isn’t as big of a deal as most people think to create a team based entirely around category specialists. Your team doesn’t have to have well-balanced skills across the board to stand a good chance in the team competition.

When you’re on a team, what’s being tested isn’t anybody’s individual skills, but the strength of the team itself. Besides, I’m not even sure if a person who is actually good at Log Analysis exists.

Now you might be asking, “Okay then, what should I be looking for in a teammate?” Just two things: passion and chemistry.

When I say passion, I mean a passion for cybersecurity, for all things nerdy, passion for the team, or for the competition itself. They have to want to play. This might sound obvious to point out, but it truly doesn’t matter how skilled a person is in a given topic; if they aren’t passionate about participating, its going to be hard to keep them engaged all the way to the team games.

Now, don’t take this the wrong way. A lot of people who have a passion for cybersecurity can have trepidation towards playing in a competition like NCL, especially if it’s their first time. This is normal. Not everybody is naturally competitive and they might just need a little nudge to get them onto the stage. Once these people actually start playing, they usually stop worrying so much about the competition aspects because they’re too busy having fun with the challenges! Learning to recognize the difference between apathy towards the sport, and normal anxiety before a competition is a key skill of anybody looking to assemble a great team.

When I say the team needs chemistry, I mean that the members of the team simply have to get along! You’d be amazed what a relatively inexperienced team can accomplish if they already have chemistry outside of the games. This aspect is often overlooked in favor of technical skills, but in my opinion, no trait is more valuable to the team than being able to communicate while under the stress of the competition.

As I often encourage people who are trying to round up team members for the NCL, just try asking your friends to join in, even if they have no real experience with cybersecurity! There’s no harm in asking, most people will be flattered that you asked. These teammates bring immense value to the team not with their technical skills, but with their ability to understand and communicate with the rest of the team. More often than not, you’ll have a better grasp of your friend’s skill sets than anybody else you could pick, avoiding awkward interactions like “hey, do you know how Wireshark works?” NCL is designed to provide a gentle introduction to each topic, so even players with no experience will often find themselves surprised at their own ability to answer questions in each category. More often than not, players with no prior experience get quite the confidence boost from how much they are able to contribute to the team.

Nice! So now you’ve chosen who you want on the team, but you aren’t quite ready to jump into the games just yet. Before your team can start running, you have to figure out how the incredible people you’ve just gathered are going to be structured.

Step 2 – Roles on the Team

Here’s the part where I tell you exactly how to structure your team to min/max your team work and win the entire NCL and come in first place with 100% accuracy…yeah, I wish.

It should go without saying, but there’s no “best way” to assign roles in every team there is. But your specific team might have a structure that is particularly suited to maximizing your NCL experience, depending on what your goals as a team are.

I’ll just list a few different team structures and their pros and cons so you can decide for yourselves.

Team 1 – Horizontal

This team structure is all about the lack of roles. Nobody’s in charge, and everybody just kind of tackles the challenges they feel like, without much consideration to what the others are doing aside from asking for help when necessary. This might sound like an anti-pattern, but its really the only structure that makes sense for really small teams (≤ 3 people) of similar skill level. Any other attempt at structure might just get in the way of doing what you love: competing.

Pros: ideal for small teams of individuals with similar skill level

Cons: really not a good idea for large groups or teams with large gaps in skill

Team 2 – Bigs and Littles

This structure divides the team into two categories, the seniors and the players. The seniors typically have more experience or skill on average, while the new players are usually less experienced or completely new to CTFs. This distinction is usually subtle in practice to not overtly rank your team members. Despite the distinction, the seniors do less actual challenges and the new players typically do more. This is because the seniors will be spending most of their time coaching the new players through each challenge. The goal of this organization is to provide the most overall gain in experience for the entire team.

Players get a team of mentors that watch over them, guide their steps, answer questions, and help them overcome their hurdles quickly. The seniors get to reinforce the content they already know with the more-engaging objective of teaching others and sharing their experience.

This is actually my preferred structure going into most Team games.

Pros: great for bigger teams with both experienced and non-experienced people

Cons: can create a power-divide that might not be necessary, takes longer to do challenges

Team 3 – The Delegater

This structure is usually the go-to for teams that are relatively new or comprised mostly of inexperienced people. In this configuration, one player is the delegated “captain”, and is in charge of each player’s direction as the team moves through the challenges. Think of it as an extreme version of Team Structure 2, where there’s only one senior player and everybody else relies on this player to direct them.

Pros: very efficient with small-to-medium teams of first-time competitors.

Cons: the captain can quickly become overstretched in larger teams, players get less of a chance for individual, one-on-one attention when needed.

As you can imagine, there are many more team configurations than the ones I’ve briefly mentioned. The most important point we could make is to avoid relying on any one paradigm, make sure you adapt to the structure that makes sense for the people that make up your dream team.

There is one point I’ll encourage regardless of your team structure: keep everybody on the same page. The “goal” is winning, but the real goal is having fun. Don’t leave any player behind, everybody should get the chance to learn how a problem is done. That’s how you not only win, but grow a team that keeps winning in the NCL Seasons to come.

Step 3 – Playing by the rules

Now you’re ready to jump in. You’ve created the ultimate team — you’re organized and ready to go. But now that the games have begun, you have to seriously ask yourselves.

What matters more to you? Speed, or accuracy?

Seems like a simple question. But for different teams, the best NCL strategies can be surprisingly different.

In general, smaller and less experienced teams tend to struggle with speed. They just need to finish as many challenges as possible in the time they have. Contrary to this, a larger or more experienced team is far more concerned with their accuracy. The team itself will probably end up with their maximum points long before the actual game timer runs out, but this team may also in turn end up dropping a few precious ranks simply because of their accuracy. These two common team archetypes should tackle the NCL with two different approaches.

Approach 1 – Divide and Conquer

For smaller teams that need to focus on getting as many points as possible, it can make a ton of sense to divide up the labor involved so that there’s no overlap. In other words, each team member is assigned a set of challenges (usually the challenges in that person’s category of preference). This person is usually the only person working on those challenges, so your team is multitasking to the greatest extent possible. This can be a great way to take on the entire board and have each person focused on a particular topic, but you might still need to band back together to power through the more difficult questions.

The downside to this strategy is a lack of fun! Doing this can make the team game difficult to distinguish from the individual games for the players. You can miss out on the collaborative experience of working together to conquer a problem. Because of this, I generally recommend a team that’s at least large enough to no longer worry about having to complete the content in time.

Approach 2 – Double Down

Ask for help. That’s right, this isn’t the individual games anymore! Make the most of your team privilege. Band together to solve the same problems, especially problems that are notorious for having more than one interpretation (I’m looking at you, Network Traffic Analysis).

Not every category benefits from solving multiple times. Generally, Password Cracking has a fairly singular interpretation (if what comes out looks like a password, then its probably the password). This is also the case for actual flag captures (if it looks like a flag, it’s probably the flag). But for challenges in the Network Traffic Analysis and Log Analysis categories, by having multiple people check your result independently, you will surely see an increase in overall accuracy for the team. See if players came to different conclusions on these problems. If you did, which answer makes the most sense? Did one of you make a mistake? Only submit an answer when multiple players are confident its correct. This is how many top-level teams play the game.

This is the beauty of working together. Use all of the extra eyes at your disposal. When you hit a brick wall, you hit it together. When one player figures out a way to inch forward, the entire team is propelled to the next level. And when you all work together to find an answer that none of you would have found individually, that’s when your team really, truly, wins.

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