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.
- It is usually but not always of strategic interest to keep things quiet
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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