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I play lego since when I was 3 (without dark age), and my steps for a new set is still the same: main model - B models with instructions - back of the box builds without instructions - my own alternate(s).plastic.ati
Sometimes I don't afraid of using "illegal" connections, as soon as it was not "illegal" earlier. I agree that extreme tension can damage parts but I try to avoid those as they can make the MOC unstable. I also like to play with the geometry, an some of my MOCs seem to be ugly, because those were build because of this geometry play, and not for the nice look.
My favourites are the Classic Space sets, and making X-wings and Millennium Falcons from anything.