Gettin' Picky, Part 2: Alliance Selection

Hello! @Brian_Maher and Katie here!

Alliance selection is hard, and there are not many resources out there about how to navigate it. Given the positive reaction to Katie’s thread on scouting, we decided to create a comprehensive guide for alliance selection and everything that goes into it. If you missed it, we highly recommend checking out Part 1: The Picklist.

Picking is an art, not a science, so much of this advice is subjective and reflects our experiences. We would love to hear about other philosophies and methods in the comments.

About The Authors (a.k.a. “Why listen to us?”)

Katie Widen, self proclaimed Scouting Guru, has been making picklists since 2011. Some of her top hits include 1296’s Turing Division runs in 2017 and 2018. Her work has also been featured by 1675, 3928, and 253. She takes pride in her obsession with spreadsheets and seeing 20+ students working together to create the Ultimate Picklist.

Brian Maher was a mentor on FRC 2791 from 2016-2019 and helped the team overhaul its scouting and strategy processes. Smart scouting and picking helped them take home their first ever regional win in 2017, followed by three other regional wins, six offseason wins, and getting picked in the first round in three championship divisions. He loves getting students excited about analyzing data and scheming up winning strategies.


Before Alliance Selection:

Off Field Communication (With Other Teams)

Communications with other teams about alliance selection should be carefully coordinated by a small group of people.

  • Ideally 1 or 2 people
  • The more layers of communication between the ultimate decision-maker (usually the field rep or lead scout), the more likely there is to be a miscommunication that could interfere with efforts to coordinate with teams.
    • It’s like playing telephone but your relationships with other teams and chances of doing well in the playoffs are on the line.
  • To avoid miscommunication, we recommend directing your entire team (especially scouts and pit crew) to refer questions about alliance selection to one of those few people ensuring that everyone gets their facts straight from the horse’s mouth.
    • Other people may not have all the information
    • Other people might misremember things
    • Other people might say their own personal opinions as if they are the opinions of the team
  • Communications should stay polite and civil, especially during disagreements
    • It’s okay to say “I don’t want to talk about it” or “my team doesn’t want me to talk about this” or “I don’t know”
  • Scouting leadership should agree on how to weigh strategic interest vs transparency in picking-related communications:
    • It is usually but not always of strategic interest to keep things quiet
      • Some people believe it’s really important to not show their cards regarding who they plan to pick or their playoff strategy
      • It’s okay
    • Some transparency can make other teams’ lives easier and generate goodwill, i.e. telling them if you plan on picking them or not
    • Brian’s take: I generally prefer to be transparent with people unless I have a tangible strategic reason not to. I won’t just show anyone who asks our picklist, but I will answer most questions honestly. I’m not big on the mind games of being especially secretive about my picking plans, unless:
      • I am planning an unconventional strategy and hope to catch someone by surprise
      • I plan on scorching
      • I want to avoid being scorched
      • I have information about a dark horse pick others might not know about
    • Katie’s take: If I know early on Saturday that my team will be in the top 4, I want to talk to other teams and figure out what their plans are. I like having a good selection forecast so that our team isn’t put in an unexpected situation. Beyond the top 4, predictions get more shaky and I’m more on the “keep mum” side of things.

If you are the #1 seed, you can get a head-start on alliance selection once you have locked in your position by going to the team you intend to pick and telling them that you would like to pick them.

  • Wait until you have clinched the #1 seed to start AND are completely comfortable with your choice of who you will pick, at absolute minimum
  • If they say yes, you can get a head start on working on a combined picklist
  • If they say no, you can plan around it, though keep in mind that there is the possibility they say yes if invited on-field. Use your data to discuss how likely it is.
  • Keep in mind that if #2 off-field declines #1, there is no need to pick #2 on the field unless you think they might say yes. However, it can be advantageous to pick other teams who have declined you prior to selection, see the above section about scorching
  • Pre-planning picks is a huge advantage of #1 seeds at Championship divisions, since qualifications conclude Friday evening and alliance selection is Saturday morning. By communicating with the intended pick, the #1 alliance can work on a combined picklist together Friday night, with the possibility of meeting up in the same hotel.
  • The number 2 seed can also benefit from this advantage if they know #1 isn’t picking them/who #1 is picking.
    • Having a pre-selection discussion involving your pick list and strategies with other teams when you aren’t the first overall seed should only happen if you’re absolutely confident of how things will play out given competition context.
  • Pros:
    • There’s more time to talk about potential picks, which could prevent arguments during alliance selection
    • It’s pretty safe to count on an off-field acceptance
  • Cons:
    • It can expose who you plan to pick to the other teams you’re competing with
    • If a key match is replayed, it may change seeding

What About Scorching?:

  • What is it?
    • Scorching the field refers to a team picking multiple other teams with the expectation that they will decline to form their own alliances. Done enough times, it can be an effective strategy to break up powerful alliances, making it easier to win the event.
    • Scorching is ethical and within the bounds of Gracious Professionalism. It is a strategy that highly-ranked teams have earned the ability to use and there is no shame in using it.
  • When to do it?
    • When you are ranked significantly higher than you should be AND
    • When you are confident that other high-ranked teams will say no
      • This can be verified by asking them, but keep in mind that there is no rational (from a purely strategic standpoint) reason for a team who intends to decline to say so, unless they believe this would cause them to not get picked
    • When the top 8 is full of competitive robots - competitive robots outside the top 8 can’t say no, thus nullifying the full effect of a scorched earth
  • Don’t try to scorch anyone you wouldn’t be happy to play with, they can always say yes!

The textbook example is 2013 Curie. As 1678 was becoming the team they are today, they seeded first and picked 2056, 359, 1717, and 1310, who all declined. They then picked 148, who was outside the top 8. By separating the stronger teams in their division, they were able to pull off the win to kick off their ongoing Einstein streak.

What do I do if I’m a non-scorching captain in this scenario?
Katie: Trust your list. They can only scorch the top 8, past that teams have to say yes. Do you have multiple teams above them that aren’t in the Top 8? Is teaming up with them to be their seed more advantageous bracket-wise? Scorched earth leads to a lot of “what if” scenarios, so if it might be a possibility, talk out the scenarios with your scouting/strategy team. How many teams could get “taken” by a scorched earth? What you really want to figure out is “can we build a better alliance if we say no?” What is the best case if you say no? What is the worst case? Can you assign probabilities to certain outcomes?
Brian: I agree with Katie for the most part here, so I’ll try not to beat a dead horse. Your list is your best friend here. Just be mindful of what the worst case is if you decline, especially if the scorch continues after you. You may end up with significantly fewer options than you had at the time of your decline. Some teams seem to think that declining makes them “smart” or “strategic”, but the strategic thing to do is to be realistic about whether declining is likely to actually put you in a better position. On the other hand, if you don’t think you have any chance of winning/making finals/making it past quarters, there’s no reason not to decline (aside from potentially alliance selection district points)


During Alliance Selection:

Off Field Communication (Within Your Team)

Whiteboards and cell phones can be used to include more people in the alliance selection decision. It is not against the rules for the field rep to communicate with others off-field during alliance selection.

Brian’s take: I think cell phones enable more people to participate in the discussion, which can be incredibly valuable when:

  • There are multiple core scouting/strategy students
  • The ability to quickly reference scouting data on a laptop would be useful
  • This is especially helpful when coming up with a compromise with a captain with significantly different picking priorities.
  • The field rep would benefit from moral support
  • Picking from a low position, where the needs of the picks may change drastically depending on how earlier picks pan out

Katie’s take: I’ve done whiteboard and hated it because it’s so public. I’m also not a huge fan of people talking on their phone but I have no good reason for this.

  • Texting/Slack messaging is my preferred method, with limited amount of people. I like reducing stress and increasing ownership, but too many voices is chaos
  • Between game mechanics and the events I’ve been at, I’ve never found a real need to change our list based on other pick

Tips/best practices:

  • Some venues have issues with cell reception, have a plan B ready if using phones
  • Always have at least two markers for the whiteboard and test them well in advance of alliance selection
  • Always send your rep with a copy of the list: it will save them in the event of a cellular outage/white board shortage and will also give them the ability to discuss picks.
  • Test that the white board and writing is visible from where everyone will be during alliance selection. Write a familiar team number that will not be mistaken for the pick, such as your own, 1717, 254 (if you’re not at an event with them), etc.
  • If talking on the phone, ALWAYS ask the field rep to repeat the number of any pick back and confirm that it is correct
  • If reading a white board, re-read it and re-read it again before making any picks
    • Consider stating the team name AND the number into the microphone, as in “Simbotics, Team 1114.”
    • At IRI 2013, 1310’s field rep misread “3467” on a whiteboard as “3476” - both teams were attending the event.
    • If you misread a number and recognize it quickly, correct yourself.

During alliance selection, after making your first pick or being picked in the first round, it can be beneficial to find your partner in the stands so you can collaborate on the second pick with more people than just the two people on the field.

  • If you have time and a good sense for who will pick you or who you will pick, you should look around the stands before alliance selection and figure out where they’re sitting

When to say no:

  • When you are broken and don’t think it’ll be fixed for playoffs
    • If it’s something relatively minor you’re stumped on, help from other teams on your alliance might be the difference maker
  • When you can build a better alliance by saying no
    • Does not apply if you will not be an alliance captain
    • If you are confident you will get a better first round pick, decline. Bonus: Your second pick will be the same or better.
  • When an earlier second pick is advantageous
    • Sometimes the second round of picking will have more impact than the first round. See next point:
    • This requires an understanding of the “drop offs” on your picklist - spots on the list where the quality of potential picks decrease more quickly.
  • When accepting would put you on the tougher side of the bracket (1/4/5/8 vs 2/3/6/7)
    • This is especially important for regional teams hunting for a wildcard
    • A good rule of thumb for captain slot preference is 1 > 2 > 3 > 6 > 7 > 4 > 5 > 8
  • (District teams only) When it is likely that you will earn more playoff points than alliance selection points you give up by declining
    • If you are 99% sure you’ll lose in quarterfinals either way, you might as well accept and take the higher alliance selection points
  • (District teams only) If it is a third district event , and the time can be better spent working on improving the robot to prepare for the District Championship (very niche)
  • Keep in mind that declines are rarely anything other than strategic and are rarely personal. If you are worried that your decline may hurt a team’s feelings, a quick apology and clarification that it was not personal can go a long way, especially with less strategy-savvy teams.

General Notes

  • Take as much time as you need. Regardless of what the emcee says, there is no time limit.
  • Don’t let a team slipping later than you expected convince you they aren’t worth picking
  • Discuss with your first pick/captain about who to pick next. It’s likely you looked for different things when scouting.
    • Agreeing to pick one team and then picking another without discussing is legal but not a great way to start off your partnership. Friends don’t lie.
    • Don’t put the cart before the horse: before talking about who to pick, talk about what you’re looking for in the pick, and why your choice of team is the right one.
    • Again, there’s no time limit. Don’t rush, there’s no consequence for taking too long; losing due to bad picking stinks
  • Keep track of the alliances forming, and who you will need to beat to win.
    • This is easier said than done. Scouts in the stands should do this, not the person on the field.
  • You don’t always have to follow the picklist exactly, the people involved with picking should know the ins and outs of the teams on the picklist and be able to respond with the best pick for the situation.
    • Katie: I remind the alliance selection representative that they are the expert here and that I trust their decisions: if they make a pick that differs from the list it’s because they have new information/insight.
    • Brian: I have a similar philosophy to Katie. The list is a guideline, and the actual pick made may differ for the one called for by the list: alliance selection is a very dynamic process with many possible outcomes from other teams. There have even been times I’ve looked at our list right before alliance selection and thought “wait, the list says we should pick X over Y, that doesn’t make sense”.
  • For some additional reading, we recommend this summary of Anne Duke’s book, “Thinking in Bets.”

Q&A from previous Thread

Katie: This happens as teams have different data and different priorities. Figure out why each side wants who they want - is it data? A friend team? Are the teams in disagreement on the strategy? You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink: at some point, the pick has to accept that the captain is the captain and ultimately has the final say.

Brian: In addition to what Katie said, compromise is often necessary here. If they’re suggesting the 5th team on your list and refuse to consider your #1, try for your #2 since #1 is a lost cause. While captains should listen to their picks, there’s not much the first pick can do to make this happen besides respectfully asking the captain to hold their horses and take the time to listen to you. It’s worth nothing that becoming adversarial and putting the other team on the defensive is rarely the right solution.

Brian: I think the big question here is intentions. Being able to reliably shut down opposing climbs is a very sound reason to choose a defense partner. Was Team A sincerely looking for this information to inform their picklist? Or did Team A say this to game the rankings? Additionally, did Team B talk to Team C before the match and make sure this was okay, or did they go off script without permission? I’ve told teams before that their position on our list would improve if we saw them play effective defense, and I’m sure that this has at least once changed the outcome of a match. We weren’t trying to meddle in other teams matches, we just wanted to provide sincere feedback to teams who want to get picked.


What do you think? How do our opinions differ from yours? Let us know.
If you haven’t already, check out Part 1: The Picklist and stay tuned for Part 3: Getting Picked

36 Likes

I don’t think it’s necessary for a below top eight to accept, they have the option to decline.

good thoughts all around.

I will say though that we exclusively communicate with our rep on the field with a white board. They generally don’t even have a list to go off of either.

I’ve found it hard on Wave to find a student who wants to go out for alliance selection so not giving them anything to do besides read and say what they see makes it easier to get someone to go. They are already nervous I don’t need them to accidentally read the wrong team on their list and feel bad that they picked the wrong team.

Also we had a event in 2012 where (last event a field rep had a list) follow the list perfectly but we ( us and our 1st pick) were debating in the stands of which of the 2 left on the list to pick. Not saying that they student picked the wrong team or that we would have done better if the other team had been picked, however it lead us to our current process, which prevents anything like that happening again.

7 Likes

Of course, anyone has the option to decline, but why would you if there’s not a very serious problem?

3 Likes

Its not always worth the risk

This is a really nice guide and thanks for putting it together.

Just for the record - I have no idea what would or should be called on that hypothetical. I wouldn’t envy anyone who had to sort something like that out at an event.

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If you think that #2 is the best available team, I would flip this completely the other way. I don’t see what you would lose if they declined your invitation, so might as well.

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There is no strategic advantage unless you think they might say yes.

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From my perspective, I just think that since everything is being decided by humans, there’s always some chance that they accept. Maybe a meteor hits Earth and out of intense terror they instinctively say the word “yes.” But in all reality, even if they tell you that they will decline off field and are extremely firm, there are no downsides to asking on field. If they decline, you can just continue business as usual.

(Also thanks for putting these together! Not trying to undermine any of the work you all did because it’s really incredible, this is just a small disagreement I had)

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There is also a potential strategic disadvantage, because holding out for the #2 seed reduces the time you have to collaborate with your actual pick. Data should be used to determine if it’s realistic and worth it.

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One important thing imo is not adding on subjective, unproven data into the mix when you already have a plan. If you believe that a different defensive pick is better, you have to think about how well they showed in a defensive bout, whether thats pushing or being pushed, and not just “well their drivetrain sounded good when they told us about it on paper.” Another example is using actual scoring data instead of saying “well they are still getting used to their bot and might score better” just because you know them or they seemed better on paper with public data/data collected during pit scouting. Unless you can bring up some definite proof for the switch or its already extremely close, dont switch it up. For teams that dont use things like Slack or Discord, you cant really have a proper conversation and question all the points, and even if the team does, the rep may feel like they have to answer as soon as possible and might miss points in an online discussion.

That’s a good rule of thumb, but always be mindful, occasionally the second or third seed is the strongest alliance so you’d rather be on the 1/4/5/8 side of the bracket.

Another thing to note is that if you are on the strong side of the bracket and going for a win, or if you are the 7/8 captain, you should move the high-variance teams up on your picklist a fair bit. You’re probably not going to beat the strong alliances if you have “consistent” partners that are consistently worse than the opposing alliance’s robots. Spice it up and pick the team that had a few great matches and a few horrible matches. Then, if they happen to get hot at the right time you can beat the powerhouses.

8 Likes

This is huuuuuge. You have as much time as you need to make the pick. Relax, make sure the people that need to weigh in on the pick do so, and then make the pick.

6 Likes

You are 100% right and I realized that when we were doing our final review - @Brian_Maher and I have been struggling with these posts because there is so many different things that could be mentioned and we don’t want to publish novels.

Related to your interests - I’m interested in the concept of the “probabilities” of a scorched earth, do you think there would be any way to model that?

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If i was willing to pay, would your opinion change?

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No worries! Your posts are great. You’ll never be able to get 100% of the information in one post unless it were so long as to be unwieldy. I think you guys nail the most important 80% and then the rest of us can chime in on the thread and fill in any other side thoughts that we think are worth mentioning. :grin:

I’ve never done serious modeling of alliance selections. I’ll get there eventually though hopefully. What really bugs me is that I don’t have a good data source for declines, so modeling scorching is very difficult. I’d either have to scrape data off of the alliance selection threads, wait around until declines get added to the api, or build a model assuming declines don’t exist. My suspicion is that scorching could be relatively easily modeled by comparing the “strength” of the inviting team to the “best-case” team that the invitee could otherwise select if they declined, which is basically what you described above.

4 Likes

From this, you could also rank teams on the quality of their alliance selections and build a new metric called SPR (scouting power rating).

/s but only a little bit

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Another, kind of tangential, thing to keep in mind that I want to bring up on this topic is making sure that the on field representative is not the target of blame if things don’t go as planned. If they listen to the list and make the picks they’re told to/supposed to, there is still a huge chance that due to numerous other factors things could go wrong and your alliance could be bounced in quarters.

Too many times I see the blame go directly to the field rep or head scout, especially in the case of an upset. In my time as a scouting mentor I personally had a head scout almost quit the team after they made the picks they were told to make and then our alliance was eliminated in an upset in quarterfinals. Some students can latch on to the field rep because they’re a visible person in the scenario and blame them for being the sole cause of a loss.

This may relate more to team culture than alliance selection in general, but it’s something to keep in mind. Make sure the chain of command is established and that people don’t rush to blame (and if someone has to be the “blame magnet” a mentor is probably more emotionally equipped to handle it than a high schooler) but use these situations as learning opportunities to improve the team as a whole.

Hope that makes sense thank you for coming to my TED talk.

25 Likes

We consider our field reps puppets, because we don’t want them to be making split second decisions under the pressure on the main stage. We give them almost no info and all picks are reviewed by lead scouters and strategy mentors and then transferred via phone. This makes it so that if we lose because of a bad pick, it was something missed by everyone and was probably a scouting oversight. We learned this after our rep went up with the spirit award ranking list instead of the alliance picklist.

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In essence alliances, 1-4 have a good chance at winning a competition. So your team has a choice of being top 6 or being selected by Captian 1-4. Anything else is much harder to achieve a spot on alliances 1-4. “The surest way to play in the Championship” via game competition.

This is definitely a better chance of making it through the competition as a world championship participant. The stats don’t lie here.

So be top 6 potential top 4 captain -OR- be selectable in second or third rounds by TOP 4. To make it to Championships more reliably.

This is the goal, to have the easiest time getting that world championship entry as only the top 4 alliance teams reliably has the actual reliable firepower to succeed. So its hard be top 6, or last until picks 9-12 or be picked up in picks 20-24

The reason we go 28 deep is to have some choice at the back end.