Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ya Know the Rules: The Pack (Part I)

Alright Cadavers, it’s been over a month since our last little rules discussion. Much of this post was drafted weeks ago, but with the release of the WFTDA 4.0 rules, I had to do a side-by-side comparison to see what if anything I’d been looking at had changed. For the sake of clarity I will refer to WFTDA 3.1 rules as either the “current” or “old” rules, while I will call 4.0 the “new” rules – and where the new rules vary from the current rules I’ll note it below.

I have it on good authority that the remainder of the home season (including the Championship) will be called under 3.1 rules. RCR will begin implementing 4.0 for the 2010 home league season and ALL future WFTDA-sanctioned inter-league bouts.

What this means is that there shouldn’t be too many surprises in how the refs officiate the rest of the season – what this does not mean is that we can always predict how the refs will call the game. Not a knock on the refs, but officiating roller derby is far from an exact science. Randomly pick any two fans who just witnessed the refs whistle, and you likely will have different opinions as to whether the “right” call was made. Those same two fans, witnessing one team’s strategic pack control tactics might disagree as to the effectiveness or legality of said strategy.

Some of that is just the nature of sports, but I believe that at least part of it is a lack of understanding, on the part of even some experienced fans, of some of the rules. Better understanding of the game and the rules makes the game more enjoyable to watch, hence the raison d’etre of this column.

So, once again I ask, Ya Know the Rules?

What is “The Pack”?

Rule 4.1.1 (same rule number under both new and old rules) defines the Pack as “the largest group of Blockers, skating in proximity, containing members from both teams." The new rules adds the words “in bounds” right before the word “Blockers”, which adds a little wrinkle, but as I say doesn’t apply to the remaining RCR intra-league bouts, and shouldn’t change the application of the rule in most instances.

Rule and (identical under new and old rules) further clarify what is already implied by 4.1.1 – Jammers are NOT part of the Pack, and in order to form a pack there must be at least one blocker from each team on the track at all times.

So, we know that the Pack is only comprised of Blockers, and there must be at least one Blocker from each team for there to even BE a pack, but what does “skating in proximity” mean? Rule defines “in proximity” as skating no more than 10 feet in front or behind the nearest pack skater (the new rules delete the alternate measurement of “two strides” found in the old rules, and clarify that proximity is measured at the skaters hips).

Now, one of the obvious questions at this point is “what happens when two or more equally-sized clusters of skaters BOTH meet the criteria to be “the Pack”? While that is a HUGELY important question, the answer is rather complicated, made only more so by the significant changes in language (though not necessarily in the interpretation or application) between the new and old rules. I know some of you are dying to delve into this meaty topic, but you’ll have to wait for Part II of this topic (coming soon, I promise).

I first want to be sure that we are all on the same page as far as the Pack itself, and the consequences of skating outside of the Pack. Now that we know what “the Pack” is, let me ask you this question: is it illegal for a Blocker to skate outside the Pack? The answer: Not necessarily; it depends on how far outside the Pack the Blocker skates.

There really are two degrees of skating “outside the Pack”. The first we already know from the discussion above – skating more than 10 feet away from the nearest pack skater. This is your basic “out of proximity/out of pack” skater. What’s interesting about this is that skating outside the Pack is not illegal, and I can find no specific penalty that would apply to a skater engaging opponents or assisting teammates while out of proximity (i.e. more than 10 feet from the nearest pack skater). In fact, at various points throughout the rules (new and old) it is clear that skaters are allowed to hit opponents and assist teammates, even if they are outside the Pack, as long as they are “still in play”.

What does “still in play” mean? That is the second, and more severe degree of “skating outside the Pack”. If skating 11-20 feet away from the nearest pack skater is “out of proximity/out of pack” (though NOT illegal in any way), then skating more than 20 feet from the nearest pack skater is not just out of proximity, but “out of play”. Rule (identical under new and old rules) is where this is defined with the following language, “A skater who is 20 feet in front of or behind the Pack may receive an out of play warning…once out of play, a skater must yield the right-of-way to the opposing Jammer…any engagement, including passive/positional blocking, can result in a penalty.”

On page 9, figure 3 of the old rules (page 11, figure 1 of the new rules) there is a helpful illustration showing Blockers in the Pack, Blockers outside of the pack though still in play, and Blockers who are out of play.

Though nowhere (in the new or old rules) is it written quite as clearly as I’d like, there is a term that helps keep this straight that is referred to a number of times throughout the rules: the “engagement zone.” The “engagement zone” is that area of the track that extends from 20 feet behind the rearmost Blocker in the pack, to 20 feet in front of the foremost Blocker in the pack. Thus the “engagement zone” is the entirety of the pack, plus a 20 foot buffer on either end. It is legal and perfectly a-ok to engage opponents and assist teammates anywhere within this “engagement zone”, but once a Blocker leaves this area she becomes “out of play”, subject to penalty.

So, the key then is that Blockers need to stay within the “engagement zone” if they want to engage. Simple enough, but here is where our discussion moves from simple rules analysis to its actual impact on gameplay. When a Jammer is in the midst of the pack, the opposing Blockers will obviously be looking to stop her – hit her, knock her down, slow her momentum so a teammate can knock her down, or positionally block her. This is all beginner derby strategy.

But inevitably, with the help of her teammates, that opposing Jammer is going to make her way through the Pack and break through. Your Blocker (let’s use Sol Train as an example) wants to keep chasing and harassing her, even as that Jammer is trying to speed away. As long as Sol can stay within 10 feet of the nearest Pack skater, she’s still in proximity (thus still in the Pack) and can keep engaging that opposing Jammer. She can even keep the chase up outside of the pack, as rule says in both the new and old rules (“Skaters who are not part of the pack…but are still in play, may block and assist.”). But once Sol gets more than 20 feet from the nearest pack skater, she has to yield and return to the pack, lest she pick up a penalty.

But wouldn’t it be nice if Sol Train could keep harassing the opposing Jammer for a few more feet? Maybe one more hit would knock her down, or slow her enough for the rest of the pack to swarm up and devour her. Now is the time to implement what I like to call “extending the Pack”.

Recall that the “engagement zone” is measured not from some abstract center point in the middle of the pack, but rather from the “closest pack skater” (let’s say it’s Titania). Recall too that the Pack is defined by “proximity” between the skaters. So, you can extend the pack (and thus the legal engagement zone) by having Titania move up to the very limit of “proximity” with the closest pack skater behind her (oh, we’ll say it’s Mobi-Wan). That’s an additional 9 feet of engagement zone!

Not enough? Have your farthest away pack skater (the one all the way in the back of the pack; let’s say it’s Teq“Kill”ya) race up and skate 9 feet in front of Titania. Since Titania was still in proximity of Mo, Titania was still in the pack. With “Kill”ya in proximity of Titania, she too is still in the pack. BAM you’ve got ANOTHER 9 feet. Sol has probably destroyed that Jammer by now!

By having your Blockers leap-frog each other, but remain within proximity of the next closest pack skater, you’ve managed to extend that engagement zone 18 feet! Theoretically, there is nothing in the rules to prohibit a pack that looks like a single-file line of Blockers, each one skating 9 feet from one another – think bucket-brigade on skates! Obviously the opposing Blockers aren’t likely to help you extend that pack, but as long as your last Blocker (in our scenario we our last Blocker was Mo) is still within 9 feet of the opposing Blocker who is still in the Pack, then ALL the Heathers' blockers are still in the Pack.

Hopefully you can see just how a smart, coordinated team can control the pack to keep the opposing Jammer within the engagement zone, getting every last opportunity to lay a hit on her.

Conversely controlling the pack defensively (“shrinking the Pack”, as I call it), can literally yank the engagement zone right out from under the opposing Blockers, thus forcing them to yield or take a penalty if they hit your Jammer. You can probably already see how this might be done, but there are some twists and caveats – all of which I’ll address in a future Ya Know the Rules post.

As always, I welcome discussion in the comments!


JeLLyPiG said...

Nader, again a great post. I love this series of blogs and appreciate all the time you invest in helping make us smarter fans. I can't wait for the next installment.

~Z said...

Whereas the every changing rules for WFTDA can be confusing at times, I really do feel as though they (the folks making and tweaking the rules) really are trying to get it right. That being said, I also love the level of strategy that can be employed under the new rule set.

Many team sports have different offense and defensive strategies that they can empoly against one team or another. I like that there seems to be a movement in this direction in derby, too. Part of the excitement for me in going to the bouts is to see what new strategy a team will employ, and how it will (or won't) work.

The trick is to keep the level of play and excitement high, though. The HH vs. GnR bout earlier this year was ugly. I had a great appreciation for the use of the (then) rules, but it was not the most fun bout to watch.

Can't wait to see how the teams react to this new change - even if it means waiting until next season. Will the WoJ and AoA be skating under these new rules? Just curious.

the_mad_nader said...

Nice insight Z! From my own perspective, the HH vs. GnR bout was a VERY fun bout to watch. As a fan, when I understand what the teams are doing, and how smart they are skating, I really appreciate it. I'm a big fan of the NBA - and when you look at the playoffs the scoring is down, the play becomes more physical and defensive, and slower more methodical teams win championships - that's what I LOVE. If you want crazy, go for broke, tactics be damned, action you watch the NBA all-star game where nobody gives a whit about strategy or defense. It bugs me that when the game slows down in derby people see that as a bad thing - when to my eyes that's far more interesting to watch!

Finally, and again this is just my own perspective, but I am definitely NOT a fan of many of the WFTDA rules mods and changes over the years. I know they're trying hard to improve things, but I (and probably I alone) fundamentally disagree with some of their changes. Not to mention the fact that the rules are fairly poorly written (though getting better with each new version.)

Example of a poorly written rule:

Rule 4.3.1 says “once the Pack is in motion, skaters may change position, as long as they stay within the Pack.”

What the hell are they trying to say here? Maybe the last 2 words should be deleted and replaced with "in bounds."

It's obvious the drafters never took a course in Formal Logic, because if they did then they'd realize that the contrapositive of their statement must also be true - but it isn't.

Skaters are clearly allowed to change position, even if they are NOT in the Pack.