You’re a National Cyber League (NCL) veteran. You’re climbing the ranks in the Gold Bracket, frequently making it into the top 100. That’s not good enough for you, though. You’re aiming for the stars, and you won’t be satisfied until you bring home the gold.
Disclaimer: there are thousands of players each season, and, as luck would have it, only one of them can come in first. Those aren’t great odds, but someone does have to come in first; maybe it could be you.
In the upper ranks, especially during the Individual Games, accuracy tends to play a bigger role than points. As a reminder, there are three criteria for ranking:
- Points (Score)
If two players have the same score, the tie is broken by accuracy. If they also have the same accuracy, the tie is broken by time—the first player to achieve their current score wins.
Top-ranking players tend to have comparable skill levels. While they may prefer some categories over others, they’re at least able to push their way through most challenges. It’s common for them to end up with similar or identical scores.
Accuracy doesn’t matter if your score is lagging behind. That fact lends itself to some easy advice:
- Get an early start; don’t wait until the last minute to compete. You’ll most likely need the full duration of the competition if you want to maximize your score, especially if you want to do so without compromising accuracy.
- Harder challenges often require multiple approaches. You may need to sleep on some challenges. All of this takes time. Look over the hard challenges early in the competition and brainstorm tactics. When you inevitably get stuck and aren’t sure how to proceed, move on to easier challenges; this way, you’re not wasting the down time between approaches.
- Don’t wait until the last minute to enter all of your answers, as one or two are likely going to be wrong. You don’t want to be stuck resolving such issues at the last minute. There’s little advantage to hiding your progress from other players.
- Don’t guess. Challenges have a limited number of attempts; if you exhaust your attempts, you’ll permanently lose your opportunity to obtain those points.
- Hints usually cost points. Once you’ve paid for a hint, those points are gone for good: you’ve effectively decreased your maximum score. Avoid using hints if you’re aiming for first place.
Maximizing both score and accuracy requires a lot more self-discipline than score alone. You’ll need to be methodical about answering questions: don’t submit answers until you’ve checked and double-checked everything, including the text of each question. Make sure you didn’t misread it and that corrections haven’t been published.
Work ethic is crucial. Get plenty of sleep before the competition; try to ensure you’re on a good cycle. Make sure you’re stocked up on healthy snacks. Once the competition starts, don’t burn yourself out at the beginning; you’re going to need all the brainpower you can get as you approach the finish line.
Personally, I do my best when I avoid caffeine during the majority of the competition; in the final hours, I may resort to coffee or energy drinks. In order for this approach to be effective, I need to avoid caffeine not just during the competition itself, but for up to a month prior—otherwise, I’ll be fighting the lethargy of caffeine withdrawal during the early stages of the competition.
Don’t stay up too late: your accuracy will suffer, and you’ll generally be less efficient. Sleep is crucial. Many of us think of ourselves as night owls; however, if you’re in the continental United States, that’s probably a suboptimal cycle for NCL. Try to align your sleep cycle so that you’re awake and alert at each end of the competition.
You should also take time to relax while you’re awake; I like to play videogames with friends and visit relatives. This helps me step away from tricky challenges and come back to them with a fresh approach.
Don’t Get Too Comfortable
If you’ve been competing in NCL for a while, it’s easy to neglect checking your answers. There’s also a risk of misreading or misinterpreting questions based on assumptions developed from previous experiences.
This is a difficult issue to address. Alertness definitely plays a big role here, but a good night’s sleep can only solve so much.
Everyone will have to find a technique that works for them. I like to rotate the primary operating system that I’m using each competition. I don’t have a strong operating system preference, so this works well for me; it changes my workflow just enough that I don’t find myself slipping into autopilot.
Another trick I use is to switch chairs. The idea is the same: if I get too relaxed, I’m likely to be inattentive and make mistakes. Switching chairs every few hours keeps me alert. In the days prior to COVID-19, instead of switching chairs, I would often switch locations: I’d sit in a coffee shop, park, or empty classroom, moving every few hours.
Team games require a slightly different approach to accuracy. The number one rule during Team Game is to agree on a strategy and follow it; don’t go against the wishes of your team. There’s no “I told you so” on a team. Good teams act as cohesive units; mistakes are the responsibility of the entire team.
Don’t submit answers without running them by your team first unless you have explicit permission from the entire team to do so. It may become necessary at the end of the competition to submit answers without checking them, but your team needs to discuss that strategy first and agree when that point has been reached.
Typically, strong teams won’t submit answers until multiple people on the team have arrived at the same answer. How you coordinate this is up to you, but you should ensure that the method you choose is easy and intuitive enough for your whole team. It only takes one miscommunication to ruin accuracy for the whole team.
If you find that you disagree with the rest of your team on the best strategy, you will likely need to concede. It’s far more important to keep morale high and follow a single plan than it is to follow the right plan. Being right is rarely important on a team.
There will be times when people make mistakes; they might fail to follow the agreed-upon strategy, they may submit a wrong answer, or they may go AWOL. There may even be times when you’re certain that you have the right answer for a challenge, but everyone else agreed upon a different answer. This is fine and expected: other teams will be encountering the same issues. What matters is that you’re able to get past them quickly. Don’t get caught up in how you’re right or how someone else is wrong; focus on unity. Otherwise, your overall accuracy will suffer.
NCL should be enjoyable. If you’re not having a good time, your accuracy will be the first to suffer. Don’t aim to win for the sake of winning; that isn’t what NCL is meant to be. Friendly competition and rivalry can be fun, but don’t push yourself to the point that you no longer gain value from NCL.