Monday, June 28, 2010

New Extended!

About a week ago Wizards of the Coast announced that they were truncating the extended format. Rather than being decks from the past seven years of cards, new extended only covers the last four years. There are two major effects to this change; first, the price of a number of old extended staples (Ravnica Block Dual lands, Dark Depths, etc), dropped like the economy. I'm generally fine with that, as I had very few of those staples, and quite a few more for new extended. Secondly, a whole new format for deckbuilding has opened up.

A whole new format you say? With very few known constraints? Excellent. Even if I don't have the cards to actually build most of these decks it's still a whole barrel full of fun to speculate about the format. So let's get to speculatin'!

First off: Faeries.

Faeries was the deck that dominated standard for the two years it was legal. While there were certainly other contenders, Faeries was the standard barrier to entry. If your deck didn't have a decent chance against the fey, then back to the casual room with you! The deck leveraged a punishing suite of synergies to work as either a fish deck when fighting control decks or a control deck when fighting aggro decks. At it's heart, Faeries is dependent on the interaction between Spellstutter Sprite, Bitterblossom and Mistbind Clique. All three provide bodies on the ground while disrupting the opponent. In addition, Faeries needs all four Cryptic Commands as a universal answer, and some number of Mana Leaks. From there you've got a couple more options in what you're using as a draw engine; Jace Berelen, Esper Charm and Ancestral Vision were all popular before. Jace the Mind Sculptor and Jace's Ingenuity are pretty obviously also contenders.

Faeries is the obvious contender, I don't want to go too much further into it. Suffice to say that whatever the metagame shakes out to be it'll have some percentage, and thus I'll be looking to include things like Great Stable Stag or Volcanic Fallout in any decks I'm designing to give them a better matchup.

Moving along, our next contender is the burn deck. This showed up in the last extended as a collection of the most efficient burn spells to give you a decent clock. Never really that good of a deck, it didn't lose much in rotation, so it's worth looking into.

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Shard Volley
4 Goblin Guide
4 Rift Bolt
4 Keldon Marauders
4 Lash Out
4 Searing Blaze
4 Flame Javelin
4 Staggershock
24 lands

Two creatures, a 2/2 haste guy for R and a 2 mana burn them for five that can have three of it's damage blocked. 3 3 damage for 1 mana spells. 2 4 damage for 3 mana spells. The only thing that even looks like an innovation here is Lash Out and Searing Blaze; as they will sometimes kill a creature AND hit the opponent they simultaneously buy you some more time to enact your game plan and make sure you don't need to use that time. There might be some nonbasics worth running too (Ghitu Encampment and Mutavault for manlands, Valakut or Keldon Megaliths for more burn, for example.)

Moving Along, what about Zoo?

Zoo loses a lot in that Wild Nacatl and Loam Lion will have a much harder time finding their appropriate lands since the Ravnica Duals rotated. But as long as there are worryingly efficient creatures they still have options. A couple possible shells:

1) Boros Deck Wins. Hasn't been doing that well in standard lately, but it's possible. Steppe Lynx and Plated Geopede powered by Zendikar Fetches and backed up by Figure of Destiny and a burn shell like the one I listed above.

2) Screw it, going Domain Zoo regardless. The burn of Tribal Flames and Exploding Borders being backed up by Prismatic Omen. Allows you to play Wild Nacatl, Loam Lion and Might of Alara. Seems janky.

3) Go Naya.

4 Tarmogoyf (how long did you think I could go without mentioning him?)
4 Quirion Dryad
4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Boggart Ram-gang
4 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Punishing Fire
4 Colossal Might
Lands (Including Grove of the Burnwillows)

Ok, that's obviously a pretty rough list. In particular the Quirion Dryad package might be too clever for it's own good. But each of those creatures packs a wallop, and everything else in the deck pumps Dryad, including repeated Punishing Fire. Knight of the Reliquary searches up redundant groves, and you can fit some pretty decent manlands in the mix. (Treetop village, Stirring Wildwoods are on color.)

Also on the contender list for aggro, we might see a resurgence of Kithkin. The little white men held their own in their standard format, splashing into black, red or green as the metagame called for it. The main engine of Windbrisk Heights and Spectral Procession is still very good, and there is plenty you can do with that shell. My guess is that the deck will be better as a black/white tokens iteration, if only because Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth makes splashing so easy. Turn three spectral procession, turn four drop Urborg and activate Mind Sludge from under your windbrisk heights, stripping their hand.

Moving into the realm of midrange, Jund will still probably be a contender. It always struggled against faeries, but a wider card pool will benefit it more. The Punishing Fire combo and yes, Tarmogoyf ought to boost it's power level.

Also, it might be possible to build a competitive version of Doran Rock. Doran, the Siege Tower benefits from having a relatively easy mana base (Murmuring Bosk is fetchable by Verdant Catacombs), and the non-linear nature of the deck benefits from recent printings more than, say, faeries. Wall of Omens in particular looks neat next to Mr. The Siege Tower. The deck has card drawing (Harmonize, Sign in Blood), efficient beaters (Putrid Leech, Doran, Tarmogoyf, Chameleon Colossus), excellent removal options (Path to Exile, Maelstrom Pulse, Doom Blade), disruption options (Duress, Thoughtseize, Fulminator Mage, Gaddoc Teeg), and generally anything else you want, 'cept counterspells. Unless you want to run Dash Hopes. Hmm...

Punisher Burn
The same shell as above, only substituting out Keldon Marauders and Shard Volley for Dash Hopes and Browbeat. Dash hopes will hopefully let you counter their spell, because they don't want to lose five life against a burn deck. Similarly with Browbeat, either three cards or five burn for three mana is a deal. Yeah, probably not the direction you want to be taking this deck.

Back on the midrange, you know what deck really gains from the new format? My Reveillark deck. (And part II). The final list almost entirely within new extended; swap out Eternal Witness and Ninja of the Deep Hours for ponders, maybe Venser as well, swap out a couple Ravnica Duals for 10th edition painlands (or redo the manabase with less Ancient Ziggurat and more filterlands) and we've got a fully functioning extended deck. Awesome

You could also make a traditional 5 color control deck, much like the ones that also faced off against faeries. As usual, the heart of the deck is the Vivids/Reflecting Pool package that lets your mana get crazy fixed. Previous versions included Cruel Ultimatum as it's haymaker, cryptic commands and cloudthreshers. Wrath of God for removal and Esper Charm or Jace Berelen for card drawing. As the deck can quite literally stretch for any card in the format, it gains a whole lot of new options with the addition of two more years of sets. Esper charm in particular has an unfriendly casting cost, and isn't the best card drawing. Ancestral Visions, for example, is a much more appealing option. All that as it may be, this deck is probably superior designed as a response to the metagame. As it potentially has the tools to overcome any sort of decks in the metagame, it's best designed in response to a known metagame.

Want one better? Future Sight saw the printing of Glittering Wish. While all the wishes got worse with the M10 rules changes (still annoyed about that particular change, by the way), Glittering Wish does allow us to construct a wishboard for a 5 color deck. Some notable cards:

Gaddock Teeg
Meddling Mage
Qasali Pridemage
Guttural Response
Maelstrom Pulse
Bant Charm
Ajani Vengeant
Cruel Ultimatum
Nichol Bolas, Planeswalker
Oona, Queen of the Fae
Wilt-leaf Liege
Figure of Destiny
Stillmoon Cavalier
Knight of the Reliquary
Behemoth Sledge
Dauntless Escort
Intimidation Bolt
Thought Hemorrhage
Zealous Persecution
Kitchen Finks
Branching bolt
Doran, the siege Tower

Or you know what? Take a gander through gatherer yourself; there were five sets with a strong multicolor theme in the past four years (Shadowmoor, Eventide, Shards of Alara, Conflux, Alara Reborn), and they offer some powerful and interesting multicolor cards.

The question remains, what's the best way to build this particular deck? Well, it's gotta have your traditional five vivids/pool manabase. Additionally, since you're expecting to cast multicolored cards rather than heavily single colored cards, the filter lands get slightly worse. Cloudthresher for 2GGGG and Cryptic Command for 1UUU heavily incentivizes you to play Flooded Groves since it can provide UU on one turn and GG on the next. Playing a deck with Gaddoc Teeg and Meddling Mage doesn't nearly as much, since you need the lands to make two of three colors, and therefore you need the right land if you're doing it off of the filter and not another source. I might have to go into that in more detail later.

As far as the rest of the main deck goes, it's gotta support 4 Glittering Wish at GW. The deck lends itself otherwise to a control deck, so you probably want four wall of omens and four kitchen finks in the main too. At this point I'm thinking it might be worthwhile to staple a wishboard onto a Doran Rock Shell, which would be awesome. But again, you can vary this strategy to whatever the metagame has. Also note that it gives you the option of leaving your clunky finisher cards in your sideboard, where they won't clutter up your opening hand.

Moving along, another Reveillark deck to note is Blue White 'lark, or UWr 'lark. Imagine this set of plays:

Turn one suspend Gargadon
Turn two suspend Riftwing Cloudscate
Turn three play Aether Adept, bounce a land
Turn four play Venser, Shaper Savant, bounce a land
Turn five Riftwing cloudscate comes into play, bounces something. Play Reveillark, sac Venser and Adept to the gargadon and bounce whatever permanents they have left.

Ok, Magic Christmas land, yeah, I know. Still, you can manage an astonishingly powerful series of plays with those cards, noting that there are others that slot in well in the mad bounce plan, or otherwise interact powerfully. Cryptic Command, Nevermaker, Body Double (the old infinite combo) or even wall of omens.

While I'm talking Combo, let's take a look at the combo decks available in the format.

First off: Seismic Swans. Use cascade cards to cascade into Seismic assault and Swans of Byrn Argoll. Direct land to deal two to swans, drawing you two cards and hopefully enough land to keep tossing it at the swans for more cards and eventually ten land to just burn out your opponent. Has game if it doesn't assemble it's combo; being able to use seismic assault to control the board and able to run numerous manlands. Gets better with Worldwake manlands.

As most combo decks, or at least combo decks that are allowed to survive bannings, Seismic Swans tends to be a trick deck to pull out when the metagame has forgotten about it. If people are starting their sideboards with four pithing needles, you probably want to move on to another combo.

Next up, scapeshift. This deck lost a lot of resiliency with the ravnica duals. Now to be sure to kill someone with scapeshift you have to run enough mountains in your main deck, while still being able to pay GG. One option that a slower extended might allow is using Prismatic Omen as a combo piece. Drop Omen on turn six, and immediately follow it up with a scapeshift. Search out six lands, two of which are Valakut. Since they're all mountains, each Valakut will trigger six times, burning your opponent out. The deck's still pretty weak to counterspells though.

Another contender is, well, anything that gets you Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play sooner than turn 15. Jhoira of the Ghitu, in Time Spiral block, allows you to suspend him for four, and it still counts as casting him. Or drop him under a hideaway land and fulfill the condition. (Hmm... spectral eldrazi? a mono white combo deck? Madness.)

Yet another option hinges on exploiting Oren Rief, the Vastwood and it's interaction with persist. Take a look at this:

4 Kitchen Finks
4 Woodfall Primus
4 Terastodon
4 Greater Gargadon
4 Dramatic Enterance
4 Summoning Trap
12 Ramp Cards
4 Oran Rief, the Vastwood
20 other lands, as necessary.

Or some such. Get finks into play, gain two life. Block with it, persist it, gain two life, and then put a counter on with the Vastwood. +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters cancel each other out, finks has another lease on life as a blocker, and another persist for even more life. You can reset multiple at once with a single vastwood too. This goes double for Woodfall Primus, which destroys a noncreature permanent each time it persists. At that point you'll have a harder time trading it away in combat, so you want a Gargadon suspended to sack and blow something up as desired. OR whenever someone tries to Path to Exile it.

Dramatic Enterance lets you cheat on the mana costs. Summoning Trap will very seldom whiff with twelve legitimate game ending threats. And if faeries are as played as people expect you might get to cast it for it's trap cost.

I'm going to end with an archetype near and dear to my heart: Goblins.

Lorwyn block being tribal provided quite a number of interesting goblin cards. In addition, there are powerful cards that have been printed in other sets surrounding. Let's take a quick rundown of options:

Stingscourger (yes, one of my favorite cards, as I've mentioned.)
Mogg War Marshal
Mogg Fanatic
Goblin King
Knucklebone Witch
Mad Auntie
Wort, Boggart Auntie
Marsh Flitter
Earwig Squad
Tattermunge Maniac
Vexing Shusher
Boggart Ram-gang
Murderous Redcap
Dragon Fodder
Goblin Chieftan
Goblin Guide
Warren Instigator
Goblin Bushwhacker
Goblin Ruinblasters
Fodder Launch
Warren Weirding

and all sorts of lesser goblins with more specific abilites. Additionally there's all that excellent red burn I listed above. Still not enough? Auntie's Hovel makes splashing for Black relatively painless, which gives disruption options: Thoughtseize, Duress, Inquisition of Kozilek, Thought Hemorrhage, etc. I've actually got a legacy goblins list (rogue build) that's fairly similar to what's available. Lemme list it quick.

4 Goblin Guide
3 Tattermunge Maniac
3 Goblin Bushwhacker
4 Mogg War Marshal
4 Stingscourger
3 Goblin Chieftan
1 Mad Auntie
2 Greater Gargadon

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Flame Javelin
4 Staggershock
24 assorted lands

The sideboard is metagamed differently, but most of the components can be found in new extended.

Those are all the decks I'm going to cover currently. There are doubtless more options out there, and more card interactions than I've heretofore thought of. Have fun brewing!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

World War I, only less Violent

After I spent so much time complaining about the Game Design Concepts guy trying to define what a game is, I suppose it's fitting I should tell you that so far as I've seen the rest of his blog is more useful. Particularly the third post, wherein he defines various elements of games. ...yeah, before I was complaining about him defining things, now I'm praising him for defining things. I think I should do some distinguishing.

The difference is that between Physics and Metaphysics. Let's take the most classical example of all. When Issac Newton penned his Principia he never defined what gravity was, merely how it acted. Newton tells us that if you have two objects they exert a force on one another. He'll even describe how two such objects will move. But he doesn't even try to explain why it happens. That's important; if he had waited to publish until he understood "why" then we'd still be waiting. "How" is the Physics question; "Why" is the Metaphysics question.

So what does that mean? Well, we'd know something significant indeed if we could ever nail down why gravity works, but we don't need to know why to know how. And "how" is really all you need if you're trying to derive practical results. Anyone can speculate about the nature of gravity, but that doesn't give you engineering solutions, the sort you want if you're actually, say, sending a spaceship to the moon. In the same way, it could be fun to argue about what makes a game a game but it isn't likely to produce concrete results.

What is much more useful is to define the various elements of games in such a way that you can describe a given game as a sum of the various elements. It gives you a way of organizing thoughts about games as well as scoping out what design areas have been done what ones may have been overlooked. It also gives you a checklist for designing new games in that you can go down the list and make sure you've thought everything through. Which makes Post 3 a whole lot more practical and useful than Post 1, despite the fact that they're both "theoretical".

Now that I've had my tasty, tasty meal of crow, let's get to the exercise at the bottom of post 3:

Most war-themed games have an objective of either territorial control or capture/destroy (as described earlier). For this challenge, you’ll be pushing beyond these traditional boundaries. You should design a non-digital game that includes the following:

[Easy Version]

The theme must relate to World War I. The primary objective of players cannot be territorial control, or capture/destroy.

[Middlin' Version]

You cannot use territorial control or capture/destroy as game dynamics. That is, your game is not allowed to contain the concepts of territory or death in any form.

[Hard Version]

As above, and the players may not engage in direct conflict, only indirect.

Ok? Naturally I'm going to skip to the hard version. Because I'm that overconfident. So we want to build a World War I game wherein players can't fight over territory or resources, and units can't die. Thing about war is, most of it is fighting. So what sort of World War I game could I make? Glad you asked:

Suggestion the first: The Zimmerman Telegram
Other than the fighting, what's the first thing we all know about WWI? That's right; entangling alliances. Once the first war began everybody was obliged to jump on in. I could make a primarily diplomatic game which wouldn't involve territory acquisition, death or direct conflict. I'm naming it after the Zimmerman telegram because I figure the latter diplomatic efforts to get America into the war on one side or another might be interesting.

Suggestion the second: Architect of the Trenches
After the initial pushes and all, battle in WWI settled down into the bloody stalemate of trench warfare. As time passed the trenches became more and more elaborate series of bunkers and connections and everything. We already know that it's fun to build up something, so why not trenches? I think I'm going to pass on this; if you're elbowing for space to put your trench in then you're pretty much fighting for territory, and if you're not then I'm having a hard time thinking of meaningful interaction with the other players.

Suggestion the third: Black Adder, the Boardgame.
Black Adder was a very funny British comedy set in various periods of British History. In the fourth and final season the eponymous character was an officer in the British trenches in WWI. The plot was based around the protagonists doing everything they possibly could to avoid being killed. If we can't make a war game about people being killed, what about a war game about doing your best not to be killed? I am assuming that death as a lose condition is different than death as a resource loss mechanic, and therefore allowed. But even if I assume that this game has problems. The show's dynamic is a struggle against stupidity and fate, which is really hard if you want someone on the other side of the board. (You get to play fate, and you get to play dumb. Excellent! You've got it already!) Moving along...

Suggestion the fourth: Kill Franz Ferdinand!
Again assuming a win condition of death is allowable, what about a game about assassinating Franz Ferdinand? I mean, killing him started WWI. Players form two sides, one of time travellers attempting to kill FF, the other of time travellers attempting to stop it. Sort of a cop out, I mean this sort of set up would work with pretty much any historical figure. Would be better with Hitler.

I intend to use the first suggestion, since the worst objection I have at the moment is "needs more research".

Ok, a little reading done, let's go down the list.
Players: 2 to six I'm guessing. Arranged into two teams, (Britain France Russia on the one, Germany, Austria Hungary and Ottoman Empire on the other). It might work poorly with an odd number of players, but that's not too worrisome. Many games do.

Objective: Get America to enter the war on your behalf. In mechanical terms, I'm figuring this to be a "points acquisition" sort of game; each player attempts to get to a certain amount of points representing diplomatic objectives achieved. The major one is to get America into the war on your behalf; there are going to be other objectives but America is the big one. The side (allied or central powers) with the most victory points wins the war, the player with the most victory points wins.

Rules: Ok, here it'll get difficult. It's easy to say "I want there to be diplomacy" but it's a lot harder to actually get your players to engage in diplomacy. I'd rather not get into all about how and what that entails. That, is, what sort of rules structures I'd have to implement for that to work. Just a generic outline.

There are going to have to be in game representations of real world events. The sinking of the Lusitania cost the Germans heavily on the diplomatic side of things. Either the players will have cards that let them use or not use the events as they wish, or they will be world events that get automatically played, one every turn or so.

Given that players represent different countries with various diplomatic objectives we need to make a structure that allows them to pursue different goals. This implies the existence of hidden information; probably expressed in the form of cards in hand. No better way to hide information. Also, diplomacy probably means that we need mechanics to encourage negotiation in the game. And things to barter. But let's keep moving.

Resources: Victory points and Cards in hand are the obvious ones. There are probably going to be cards in play type resources too. It's possible that actions in a turn could be used as a resource, but I'd rather not limit this game that way. No real good reason for that, just I'd like to see more games like that.

Game State: Generally gonna leave this undefined. It consists of all cards in hands and all cards in play and all victory points.

Information: As already stated each player will have a hand of cards which are hidden from all players. There will also be cards in play which all players should be aware of. If they're paying attention.

Sequence: I'm going to call this game turn based, with a stack. That is, with the possibility of actions being taken on other player's turn, in response to their actions. Among other benefits this allows people chances to bluff, which is important if we're going for mad diplomacy.

Player interaction: In addition to all the negotiation and trading I've been harping, it should be possible for players to use cards to counterbalance opposing strategies. Can't use them to destroy their cards in play (violates the condition of the example) but you can use them to negate or alter effects.

Theme: WWI Diplomacy. Already discussed.

And that's about it. While it might be interesting to explore this game concept further, I don't think I will, as Awesome Games is already producing a game that's very similar mechanically. Only that one is better, because it's got Richard Nixon.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why is this game so darn complicated?

Today we're going to talk about complicated games. Really, really complicated games. Or not so much about the games themselves as their status of being complicated and how they deal with it. Confused? Ok, let me try to start off more concretely.

When I say that a game is "complicated", I mean it has a lot of complex and quite possibly confusing rules. A game with simple rules can have surprisingly complex strategy. Witness Checkers, or Go. Chess is more complicated; you have to remember how each piece moves. In general the more accurately you want to simulate a war the more complex you have to make your rules.

I've been thinking about this ever since I spent the better part of a night trying to work out how exactly to play Tide of Iron. It's a very nice game, all sorts of clever strategy and interaction and all. The problem is that every single unit has a special ability that you have to remember, as well as move and two different range and damage stats (one against infantry, another against vehicles.) Oh, and there are four different kinds of ways to fire on your enemies, and every battle is different because of rules they set up at the start of the scenario. Oh yeah, and I hope you can wrap your head around different terrain types. Here, let me go down the list.

American units:
Basic infantry: Move of four. No special ability.
Elite infantry: More damage than basic against infantry, also squads with elite infantry gain +1 cover against suppressing fire attacks for each elite infantry in the squad.
Officer: Same as basic infantry, except he gives all squads in the same hex as him +1 cover against suppressing fire, gives his squad +1 move, allows pinned units to attack (at half value) and heals squads of being disrupted more quickly.
Mortar Crew: Attack of 4 on supressive attacks, 2 otherwise. Heavy weapons trait. (means it can't assault or move and attack, also can't get a squad specialization token.) Ballistic weapons; it doesn't need line of sight on a target so long as a friendly, non fatigued squad has LoS.
Machine Gun crew: Heavy weapons trait. Can engage in rapid op fire
Half track: Move of 7, 1 armor, can transport up to one infantry squad.
Truck: Move of 4, 3x that far on a road. Can transport up to 2 infantry squads. No armor.
Sherman tank: 4 armor, move of six, concussive fire (more range, damage against buildings and pillboxes. Heavy vehicle trait; allows them to trample enemy infantry and not to stop when it's lightly damaged.

Complicated, isn't it? Can you see why I spent the better part of a night trying to figure out what the hell is going on? Once you get the hang of how the game works, it's all a lot simpler. For example, I penned the above list without having to look anything up once. I could add in movement, ranges and attack values without grabbing my quick reference guide. All except for the vehicles, I'd have to look up the numbers for the half track and the tank. I could go on, explaining squad specializations, rapid op fire mode, the differences with German units, cover, terrain, line of sight, all sorts of stuff.

And you know what? Now that I know how to play the game I can't point you at a single rule and say "See! This! This one is unnecessary. The game would definitely be better off without it." Learning the rules behind your mortars is difficult, but once you've got it, they act in a way profoundly unlike the rest of your units and should be played differently. It gives you a wealth of strategic options. To put it in chess terms yeah, the way the knights move isn't exactly intuitive (L shapes? And they jump things?), but the game would be less interesting without them.

So what's the problem with rules complication? It's a barrier to entry. If I knew someone who knew how to play the game it'd be a lot easier to learn to play, but as it was I had to spend a lot of time and effort slogging through the rulebook. And that's with no assurance that all the rules knowledge acquired would be worth it. The game sat in a closet for months before I finally had an occasion to pull it out and eventually learn it.

Given the cost of buying a new game ($90 for that one) versus the costs of playing the games we already have (Axis & Allies, still playable after not having bought an expansion for the better part of a decade) there's already significant incentive not to purchase new games. So if you're going to be trying to sell games, then you probably want to make your rules as understandable as possible in order to minimize any further barriers to entry.

Naturally, there's a trade off here. Complicated games are really fun to play. They tend to result in unique play situations that don't get duplicated from match to match. I remember a series of twenty games of Magic where I was playing my Goblins deck versus his Elf deck. At the end of twenty games I was (I think) two games ahead. Thinking about that matchup now, I could easily go back and run another twenty games if his Elf deck was still assembled. So how do we make a complicated game without establishing a too terrible barrier of entry?

Well, let's take a look at some other complicated games. The Spawn of Fashan. Right, moving along, how about a more capably produced RPG. There are about a dozen GURPS source books behind me on the shelf. Or at least there would be if GURPS Basic Set: Characters and GURPS Robots (3rd edition) were put away. But that's the thing, GURPS is a game where rules may or may not be drawn from up to any of a dozen rulebooks. what about Magic? A game with something like 10,000 individual pieces has got to have complexity issues. Cosmic Encounter does it too; each player getting their own unique powers and the decks changing what with the different flare cards makes for complicated games.

The answer is, I think, that the players don't have to know all the rules at any given time. I played Cosmic Encounter last night, I got to choose between "Genius" and "Clone" for my race. I chose "Clone" and for the rest of the game I didn't have to know a thing about what the "Genius" do; their power is completely irrelevant to the game state. I run a GURPS game, which means that I have to know the rules, or enough of them. While it certainly helps if the players know the rules, they can get by with saying things like "I want my character to have goggles that do something like in the What's in the Box video".

Take Magic as an example. The basic rules of the game are fairly simple. You have to understand the different card types and when and how you play them, you have to know the parts of the turn, and the basics of how combat works (attacking, blocking, dealing 20 damage to someone kills them.) Oh, and you need the rudiments of the stack. (what happens when two people play something at the same time.) All that? It's not that complicated, at least as far as the games I tend to favor go. The trouble is that each and every card is a violation of those rules. Glancing at the stacks of cards on my desk, here's Madrush Cyclops: "Creatures you control have haste". See, that changes the basic rule that you can't use creatures right away as they enter the battlefield. Pulse tracker: "Whenever Pulse tracker attacks, each opponent loses 1 life" changes the basic rules of damage; that a blocked creature doesn't hurt it's owner.

Most of the time you don't have to worry about these variations on the rules; I've never seen pulse tracker in play, so up till now I could have been entirely ignorant of the cards existence with no loss to the rest of my magic playing. When you do have the cards in play then it's not nearly as hard to keep track of the game's vagaries; all the changes of the rules are printed in black and white in front of you. Magic also has the benefit of developing complicated game states only after quite a bit of time and effort getting to said state. When there are twenty different cards in play, but they all didn't get there at once, the board state developed bit by bit, with each bit being relatively easy to understand when it's added on.

The trouble with Tide of Iron is that, by and large, it doesn't use any of these mechanisms to reduce perceived complexity. Take, for example, the first, simplest scenario they give. The Americans get to use all those units except for the elite infantry, the half track and the tank. (They don't start with trucks, but they can acquire them as the game progresses). The Germans get Elite infantry and a Tank as well. Only the Tank doesn't work quite like it says on the quick reference sheet; special scenario rules tell us it only moves four spaces a turn instead of six. It also has most terrain and fortification types. You need to understand the majority of the rulebook before you can do the first scenario.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Solar Station Alpha

Been a little bit since I've updated the Terrible Secret of Space. If you don't remember, the Terrible Secret of Space is a game I'm designing expressly to be played over a blog. It covers a war between Earth and it's colonies in the solar system (played by you, the internet at large) and the evil invading aliens (played by me, the Dungeon Master. Mua ha ha ha.) Anyways, I've talked a lot about movement, and a bunch about the shields the ships will use. (Seriously, look up the Langston Field blog posts. They're very... wordy.) Today I'm going to do a little more traditional world building. Behold as I deploy Italics!

The sun never burned so harsh over Arabia as it did that morning over Solar Station Alpha. Of course Arabia had the advantage of position; located on the equator as it was it was still millions of miles farther out than the gigantic space station orbiting the sun. And "morning" is a deceptive term on a space station that never, ever turns it's massive solar panels away from the sun.

Orbiting perpendicular to the elliptic plane the planets all inhabited, Solar Station Alpha existed entirely to harvest the beating energies of our native star. It concentrates the energy into titanic beams of power that it shoots to relay satellites in other parts of the solar system which ultimately beam the power down to those who use it.

On Earth they don't use beam power. On Earth electricity is cheap. If you don't want to burn hydrocarbons or split Uranium you can fire up a fusion reactor to supply the demands of your cities. No, energy is cheap on Earth.

On the Moon it's a different story. On the Moon you have to pull your water up a gravity well at great expense, or mine it laboriously from the precious few ice crystals you'll find under the lunar dust. What water you do have is too important for drinking and bathing and producing rocket fuel to waste on merely generating electricity. No, that's why we beam power in.

We could set up the solar cells on the surface of the moon. The trouble with that is that the moon has a night that lasts several weeks; we'd need a lot of very powerful batteries supported by double the acreage of solar cells since you need to pull in twice the power every "day". On Solar Station Alpha, by contrast, there is no night. It beams it's power out continuously to relay satellites around the moon. The relay satellites also orbit perpendicular to the elliptic, but they don't orbit parallel to Solar Station Alpha. This angled approach lets them be constantly be in line of sight with the Sun and also intermittently cover the entire surface of the moon. It's that intermittent nature that requires there to be multiple satellites.

As every city requires power continuously, Solar Station Alpha cannot switch it's beams from target to target arbitrarily. So one emitter is built for each target. Currently there are three emitters for the relay sattelites around the moon, several for various space stations and space habitats and one brand new one for the colonies on Mars.

So we've got a massive solar power station orbiting the sun. It beams power out to other stations orbiting the moon, or other space stations and habitats directly. The question is, of course, what are the doomsday applications of this device? Let's ask Mr. Burns:

"Since the beginning of time man has yearned to destroy the sun. I will do the next best thing...block it out!" Monty Burns, Who shot Mr. Burns part I

Sure, if you could maneuver this into a different orbit you could block the sun out, causing owls to deafen us with incessant hooting and all. Still, there are much more interesting ways to show the world who's boss. Suppose that you had one of these and the beam missed. If you pump huge amounts of energy into stuff that isn't designed to accommodate it you're gonna have stuff melting, or fires starting or all sorts of neat stuff. But you knew that already; why else did you put all those elementary schools next to the microwave power plant in Sim City 2000? (Projecting? I'm not projecting. You're projecting!)

Anyway, yeah, you could redirect the beam from it's intended target and use it as a weapon. Unfortunately it won't work that well against spaceships; assuming that the spaceship is out past Mars you've got a real problem what with light speed delays and knowing where your target is, and where it's going to be when the beam hits it. You've got a much better chance at hitting stationary targets. Well, relatively stationary targets. I mean you can hardly say something is standing still when it's on a rotating planet which is also revolving around the sun. But the important thing is you can predict where the object is going to be, therefore you can hit it. (I'm assuming these beams can be targeted very accurately.) This won't accomplish much; in the case of an enemy takeover of Solar Station Alpha the cities of Earth would put up their Langston fields, and you couldn't do much. Sure, you could focus fire on one for an entire day, but it'd have a whole night to cool off.

What you could do is lay waste to the smaller, provincial towns. This won't accomplish much for destroying infrastructure but it would be a good way to get the people clamoring for the military to shoot you out of the sky. You could lay waste to a continent one acre at a time; starting wildfires and generally trying to overpower their firefighters. Seems sort of petty, actually.

Probably more interesting, how is this system open to attack? Pretty obviously if they take out Solar Station Alpha then a whole number of spots in the solar system are deprived of energy. We can presume they have backup generators for essential things like emergency lighting and Langston Generators, but it'll certainly shut down any heavy industry in the afflicted city or space station. You can get this effect on a more limited scale by shooting down one of the relay satellites.

Which of course means that Solar Station Alpha and the relay stations will all have Langston fields of their own, just like everything else. I mean, at this point I practically have one on my dog's collar. The satellites can all operate with shields up; the field allows holes to be punched in it to emit important things like laser blasts. Trouble is, that'll decrease the efficiency of the operation; wearing a shield makes it harder to tell precisely where your sending your beams of energy; increases the chance for a catastrophic failure. Or, if your target has his shields up it won't be much of a disaster, but the stream of power will be interrupted. The intermittent blackouts won't shut industry down but they will cut down on your efficiency.

Well, that makes enough for one post. Next time I might even get into the difference between space habitats and space stations.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Rebuilding Reaper King II: Attack of the Revenge

Let's finish rebuilding the Reaper King deck. Or perhaps building the Progenitus deck, depending on how you want to define it. But that's not important. Let's get down to strategy. The first question you have to ask when building a deck is "What exactly do I want to do with this deck?" More specific than just "Win", how do we plan to win, against what opponents? We should answer the "against what opponents" part first, it'll inform our further decisions.

I stated in my last article that I'm building this deck for generic EDH opponents, figuring on three at a time. I could build a deck with the express goal of beating my brother in duals but that'd require a significantly different strategy. (He plays Sharuum the Hegemon. Said deck would need a lot of artifact destruction and graveyard hate.) I don't know much about the EDH metagame proper, so I'll have to design with generic multiplayer in mind. Let's move on to the other half of the question.

How do I plan to win? With giant creatures swinging across the red zone, bashing people's faces in. Good, good. Last post I was referring to this as an aggro strategy. That's sort of innacurate. It's really hard to win with a true aggro strategy in multiplayer. Your creature rush might destroy one, maybe two opponents but then you'd be spent, and the rest of the table pick your teeth with you. What I'm building is a lot closer to a midrange deck; it's got bigger creatures and some control elements; stuff that deals with opposing creatures, stuff that draws you cards. The objective of an aggro strategy is to beat down your opponents before they have a chance to do anything about it. The objective of a midrange deck is to grind out card advantage over a long series of turns so when everybody's playing off the top of their deck you've still got a dragon in play. It's hard to gain card advantage in an absolute sense in multiplayer; one of your cards has to be worth more than each opponent's card. On the other hand though, your opponents will have to spend their resources on your other opponents as well, so it balances out. Still you want to practice your table talk to make sure they send most of their resources elsewhere.

So, more specifically, what constitutes a midrange strategy? The main point is that nearly every one of your cards has to have added value. The easiest place to see this is on kill spells. The card Corpsehatch is probably going to make it's way into my deck. Destroy target nonblack creature. Doomblade does it for 2B less. Corpsehatch also puts two manabugs onto the battlefield; 0/1 creatures that can be sacrificed for one mana. It trades one for one with their creature, but gives me the added value of the two Eldrazi Spawn tokens. If a card doesn't give added value, it ought to be very versatile or ultra-efficient. (Maelstrom Pulse or Terminate, for example).

I also want to put in as many Semi-soft locks as possible into the deck. "Semi-soft lock" is an excellent concept with a terrible name. Coined by Patrick Chapin, it refers to a card that will win you the game unless your opponent can neutralize it. This'd allow most any card (Grizzly bears only takes ten turns! That's a 2/1 advantage over Squire!), except that a true Semi-soft lock ought to be really hard to answer. Godsire (8 mana 8/8 that taps to put more 8/8s onto the battlefield) doesn't really qualify because he's actually not that hard to take down. Any kill spell that doesn't depend on damage, or low converted mana cost will off him. Progenitus, on the other hand does. There are only a couple things that'll deal with someone who has protection from everything, and a 10/10 body is enough to end the game on his own pretty quickly.

It might not be the right idea to use Semi-soft locks in multiplayer; they create really big effects and therefore enemies. If you Cruel Ultimatum someone then they might have trouble coming back from that, but someone else will see you don't get too powerful from it. I think it won't disrupt my politics too much if I leave them mostly on creatures. People are already planning their multiplayer decks to fight through waves of dragons so they'll be less unduly threatened by something huge hitting play or coming their way. At least that's how I'm rationalizing my already stated goal to play and swing with huge creatures.

One more question: What are they going to be doing to stop me? The first thing to know is that you don't strap them into the deathtrap and gloat; you strap them in, kill them and THEN gloat. Their bodies give much worse reactions but on the whole it's much safer. Not that I have much experience with world domination. But anyways. I plan to win through the red zone. The easiest way to stop me from doing that is by killing my creatures. I plan on midranging them until I've still got resources left and they don't. Since I can trade my creatures one for one with their removal spells (either directly with a terror or by forcing them to use a Wrath of God; I don't think I'll need to lay more than one dragon-sized creature at once with this deck)

More problematic are cards like Moat and to a lesser extent Ghostly Prison. Stuff that makes it really hard to attack them. I think I'll have to include some things that kill enchantments, but I don't want to include too many. Too many and I'm playing a control deck. I just want enough to kill the occasional moat effect and maybe disrupt a combo deck. Same sort of thing with artifact removal.

Speaking of combo decks, what exactly do I plan to do about combo decks? I plan on hoping that someone else will deal with them. Ok, not entirely, but I don't plan on putting too many resources to that effect. I could build a deck that could stop any combo at any time, but then it'd be a control deck, and wouldn't have nearly as much space in it for bashing with giant creatures. This goes against my primary goal of the deck. So I'm going to put in a few answers to combo decks, but nothing like the main focus. In particular I think I'll be ignoring combo pieces on the stack since answer require leaving mana up and I want to be able to tap out to drop huge creatures.

So now that I've gone over that, what exactly do I need to fit into the deck? Let's add them all up:

A lot of huge creatures
A lot of things to accelerate into them
A bunch of stuff that fixes my mana (five colors, remember?)
A couple things that draw me cards
A Couple ways to kill creatures, clear out blockers and let my creatures through
A couple answers to enchantments and other combo pieces.

Note that most of our cards ought to do two of these tasks. So let's take a look at what we've already got:

Big creatures (loosely defined): Worldheart Phoenix, Bringers of the Black and Green Dawn, Maelstrom Archangel, Lightning Reaver, Sedirs, the Traitor King, Magister Sphinx, Godsire, Malfegor, Meglonoth, Rude Awakening and Progenitus
Accelerants and fixer: 3 signets, all five obelisks, Fertile Ground, Prismatic Omen, Solemn Simulacrum
Card drawing: Etched Oracle, Life from the Loam, Fact or Fiction, Sylvan Library, Stroke of Genius:
Things that kill stuff: Austere Command, Nevinyrral's Disk, Obelisk of Alara, Bituminous Blast, Chandra Nalaar, Fire and Ice and Dominate.
Answers to combo pieces: Dimir Doppelganger, Puppeteer Clique, Aura of Silence, Night Soil

Total cards: 39. 100 less 39 is 61. Right now I've got 36 lands in the deck, I think I'm going to push that up to 40. I'd push it higher but there are mana accelerants too. Twenty one cards left. How am I going to spend those 21 cards?

I'd like at least one more card to deal with Artifacts and Enchantments. Austere Command and Disk should also be in that category, but they aren't exactly discriminate about their targets. Nantuko Vigilante makes the cut. Although not exactly the greatest answer it does leave behind a 3/2 body. 20 left.

I could use some more accelerants. Without putting too much effort into the search I'm pulling out Drumhunter. Drumhunter obviously has a lot of upside to this sort of deck. Also, I just got a Kozilek's Predator, which ought to make a great accelerant of it's own. And while I already expressed my dislike of shuffling in EDH, I guess I can't pass up one or two. Going to try Shard convergence, because if I'm going to be searching for basics I might as well get a couple at once. Also Ondu giant, because he comes with a real good size with him. I'm also going to play Khalni Gem; it's got a lot of potential downside as well as upside. I'd like to see it play before I reject it completely. Sacellum Godspeaker might get in depending on how many creatures top 5 power at the end. 15 cards left.

I think we're in a decent spot what with drawing cards; besides the cards that actively draw there are other sources of card advantage; the Unearth ability on the Traitor king or playing Worldheart Phoenix from the yard. I could use some more creature kill. There are always armies to fight through, and I'd rather be dealing my damage directly to people's faces. Adding Explosive Revelation, Corpsehatch and Word of Seizing to my deck. 11 left.

Anything else I want to put in? Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker and Ajani Vengeant get in. 9 left.

I've got a stack of giant, imposing creatures in front of me, and I've got to winnow it down to nine. Nine! Hardly enough. Paleoloth Charnelhoard Wurm make it in on the hopes of card advantage. Apocalypse hydra on the hopes of a truly epic size. Skyward Eye prophets because I might actually need to get more lands into play, even at six mana. Ulamog's Crusher because I can't have a huge creature deck without at least one Eldrazi. I'd have more if I owned them. Archon of Justice because it's hard to deal with, Kedereckt Leviathan because of the "bounce the world" trigger, Mindleach Mass because I'd love to see it in action and Deathbringer Thoctar because I love goblin sharpshooter so much. 0 cards left.

Done! That is, except for the mana curve, and the mana base, and all that. So not really close yet.

0 cards at converted mana cost 1.
9 at CMC 2
8 at CMC 3
10 at CMC 4
12 at CMC 5
8 at CMC 6
2 at CMC 7
6 at CMC 8
3 X spells
Progenitus at 10

That's entirely too much at 8. And not enough accelerating. A quick look at the cards at eight: Kedereckt Leviathan, Ulamog's Crusher, Nichol Bolas, Planeswalker, Mindleech Mass, Godsire and Rude Awakening. Guess which one doesn't fit. Goodbye Rude Awakening. I understand you make a decent EDH kill effect, but I need to switch you out for another mana accelerant. Something that doesn't cost me eight. What about Sacellum Godspeaker? I've got 13 creatures that'll count. On turn four when he comes down I'll have seen 11 cards. Rough calculation I'll have 11*13% appropriate creatures in hand, adds up to one or two. I think I'd like something better. Hello Harrow! The card I most regretted cutting earlier. Still not that happy with the curve; I mean I came into this knowing it'd be horrible but I'd like it to be... less horrible. I think I'm going to also include Fist of Suns. Lets you play anything for the low low cost of WUBRG. Seems good. Gonna cut Obelisk of Alara for it. Even though the obelisk is pretty cool it's not a creature and it is expensive.

Ok, what about the mana base, what distribution of lands do I need? First off, I intend to cast Progenitus as near to turn ten as I can manage. That puts a pretty hefty constraint on the distribution of colors. Secondly there are a number of things that need five colors on five. Bringers, Maelstrom Archangel, Fist of Suns activations. I'll want five color lands. Five color lands usually come with significant drawbacks. For example, Pillar of the Paruns is out; too many non-muliticolor cards/activated abilities. Same with Ancient Ziggurat, only creatures. Vivids all make it in. So does City of Brass; I'm more concerned about casting my spells than the one point of life, but this will be one of the first cards on the chopping block if it becomes necessary. Exotic Orchard comes in; random yes, but I expect it'll make at least three colors against three opponents. Rupture Spire makes it in easily; I can afford the two mana because my curve is so high. That's eight. I might take a reflecting pool out of reveillark if it turns out to be necessary.

I've got a cycle of Shards taplands to put in. 13. Nine of ten Ravnica bouncelands makes 22. Wish I could dig up a selesnia sanctuary. I'm going back and forth on including Terramorphic Expanse and Evolving Wilds. On the one hand they're great at getting the colors I might be missing, but they do involve shuffling. They fix for five colors, but only for one turn; after that you're stuck with whatever basic you searched for. Gonna put them in for now. 24. Need sixteen more. The deck is pretty evenly split otherwise, but there are green mana accelerators that could use some more support. Right now I've got what, 14 green sources? Sixteen if you count the fetches. I still need all five colors though, so I'm going to just go with 3 of each basic with an extra forest. I'm tempted to put a Terrain Generator in there, but I need as much color as I can get. 21 ways to get green mana by turn three, should mean I have at least one to start my other green accelerants.

Actually, looking at the low end of the curve, I've still got Night Soil there. It's a great card, mind you, but reallynot what I need here. I've already got stuff that hits creatures in the yard (Dimir Doppelganger, for example) and CC is a lot harder for me to produce than CD (That is, double green is harder than, say, green white). Replacing him with Knight of the Reliquary. He's not going to be nearly as awesome in this deck than most because I have much fewer sac lands and cycle lands and what have you to intentionally make him huge. On the other hand, him alongside ravnica bouncelands is pretty sweet. Can you say card advantage? I expect him to get killed rather quickly, but that's part of the plan. He gets killed, then I drop a lightning reaver which gets ganked, then I play a Paleoloth that obviously needs to be answered, and then they've got nothing left when I get to Godsire. Or if they get him than they'll miss Progenitus. Or if they get him then maybe they won't be able to stop Magister Sphinx, or Apocalypse Hydra, or what have you.

Also, upon reviewing the cards Malfegor, you're getting cut. Look, I know you're shiny and all, but you force me to discard my hand, which I don't want to do. Also, BBRR cost is a little hard to swallow seeing as you're a six drop. Replacing you with blood tyrant at 7. Resleeving and counting it out I'm consitently coming up with only 98 cards. Which is odd, because I've got two cards sleeved still from the old version. Ok, ok, I can't count. Checking again, and checking against the curve from up above I've still got 98 cards. Guess I was over by one in my previous iteration of the deck. Last minute janky insertion: Cream of the Crop. Cream of the crop is a card that I always figure is better than it's letting on. Odds are it isn't, but you can see the appeal of using it in a deck with creatures this large.

Call it first draft done. Still by no means sure that it'll work out. I'm going to goldfish it a couple times now, see how it turns out.

After goldfishing, I have my doubts. Certainly the huge creatures are all kinds of fun, but I'm suspicious my opponents won't leave me alive long enough to use them. I think I'm gonna have to actually play the deck a couple times before I change it again though. So here's where it's going to have to rest for now. The final decklist:

Vivid Crag
Vivid Creek
Vivid Grove
Vivid Marsh
Vivid Meadow
Dimir Aqueduct
Boros Garrison
Golgari Rot-farm
Izzet Boilerworks
Orzhov Basilica
Gruul Turf
Rakdos Carnarium
Azorius Chancery
Simic Growth Chamber
Seaside Citadel
Arcane Sanctum
Crumbling Necropolis
Savage Lands
Jungle Shrine
Evolving Wilds
Terramorphic Expanse
Rupture Spire
Exotic Orchard
City of Brass
3 Plains
3 Island
3 Swamp
3 Mountain
4 Forest

(Noncreature) Artifacts:
Obelisk of Bant
Obelisk of Esper
Obelisk of Grixis
Obelisk of Jund
Obelisk of Naya
Dimir Signet
Gruul Signet
Azorius Signet
Fist of Suns
Khalni Gem
Nevinyrral's Disk

Aura of Silence
Fertile Ground
Cream of the Crop
Prismatic Omen
Sylvan Library

Fire and Ice
Word of Seizing
Stroke of Genius
Bituminous Blast
Fact or Fiction

Life from the Loam
Austere Command
Shard Convergence
Explosive Revelation

Chandra Nalaar
Ajani Vengeant
Nichol Bolas, Planeswalker

Bringer of the Black Dawn
Bringer of the Green Dawn
Archon of Justice
Puppeteer Clique
Skyward Eye Prophets
Worldheart Phoenix
Ulamog's Crusher
Kozilek's Predator
Ondu Giant
Mindleech Mass
Dimir Doppelganger
Charnelhoard Wurm
Knight of the Reliquary
Nantuko Vigilante
Solemn Simulacrum
Sedris, the Traitor King
Deathbringer Thoctar
Lightning Reaver
Etched Oracle
Blood Tyrant
Maelstrom Archangel
Kedereckt Leviathan
Magister Sphinx
Apocalypse Hydra

Monday, June 7, 2010

Rebuilding Reaper King

In this case "Reaper King" refers to my Elder Dragon Highlander deck which sports Reaper King as it's general. This deck is underperforming, to put it lightly. Before, it was a five color deck packing all the biggest spells and effects I could find (in my binder; not that great a place to look but far cheaper than most others). Before that even it was three color Nichol Bolas, with much the same theme. The deck has never won very much, unless pitted against even jankier opposing decks. Towards the end I deliberately overloaded the deck with huge, interesting creatures that make me smile whenever I draw them. Still doesn't win, but at least I'm happier playing it this way. Still, it could use another rebuild.

So what am I rebuilding it to? Well, I'd still like it to be a five color "whatever I draw makes me smile" deck. I'd like to spend less time fixing my mana. And I certainly wouldn't mind if it won more often. Probably going to try to steer this as a high fat beatdown. Like that time I told the truth to health club members. Yeah, that was a painful day. But anyways, I'm going to also try to move away from cards that stick me too far in a control role.

Let's talk about what's in the deck. First up: Reaper King

Reaper King is actually a really frustrating general to play. You see, whenever he comes down people look and see a dragon sized creature that enables a steady stream of vindicates. So they kill him. So you replay him. So they kill him. So you replay him again. And then someone taps goblin welder to give you back your freaking rakdos signet and drive your general up past 10 mana to replay, and then they thing they're so clever for seeing that. Seriously? I get he's a 6/6, and he's black, but he's suprisingly easy to kill. I mean if you're playing EDH of course you're packing some way to deal with creatures that size, and of course you're playing something that deals with artifacts. Or if you're not, it's at a multiplayer table and somebody's got it. You know they're going to use it because Reaper King is theoretically powerful enough to cross the "forget it's card disadvantage" threshold. Y'know, the one that's usually reserved for things like Mirari's Wake and Mindslaver. It got so bad that I took out nearly all the scarecrows because I knew I'd never get the trigger off.

So I'm going to replace Reaper King. Already got his successor lined up; Progenitus. I expect Progenitus will make everybody nervous, but it's a lot harder to deal with a 10/10 protection from everything creature. I hope. And it'd be a shame to leave that foil copy just sitting in my trade binder, pining.

Ok, what else is there. Starting with the creatures.

All five Nephilim
The nephilim were a cycle from Guildpact of four color creatures. They got the shaft in development because the abundant mana fixing of the block meant they were actually really easy to get out on turn four if you wanted to build your deck that way, so the power level kept getting lowered. And since there haven't been any four color cards before or since they had to carve out their own section of the color pie, which left them abilities that are odd and unique. Abilities that ask you to build around them, not just throw them into your random five color deck. Yeah, these guys are gonna get cut. They'll make a neat page in my binder though.

Zur the Enchanter
Tutors up a nice enchantment package that is almost guaranteed not to be what I need. Actually, my main beef with Zur is that he's too well known as a general; it's hard to look clever putting him in a deck. Or non-threatening. In any case he takes up a lot of deck space and makes me shuffle every turn, so I think I'm going to cut him from this iteration.

Five color creatures (Maelstrom Archangel, Bringer of the Black Dawn, Bringer of the Red Dawn, Worldheart Phoenix).
I dunno. I mean, if I've got a five color deck then I figure I should probably be playing cards that need five colors. These guys are all credible threats on their own. Yeah, Mr. Black dawn makes me search every turn, but I figure he'll last about as long as reaper king in play, so I'll be surprised if I have to shuffle twice for him in one game.

Sabertooth Nishoba
Let's see, he's a 5/5 trampler with protection from blue and red. Protection is a pretty powerful ability, but blue and red aren't going to be the colors that kill him; it'll be black terror effects or white wrath of gods. In the end, I think he's an undersized dragon without enough added value to keep him on board. Shame, I hadn't ever heard of him before cracking him in an invasion Winston. Would be happier if he did well.

Dominus of fealty
Steal something every turn is neat, but his mana cost isn't. Gonna cut him for something that doesn't make me agonize over my mana so much.

Magus of the Mirror
You know what I said about wanting to play beatdown? This it isn't. I hope I'll be putting the hurt on enough people's life totals that I won't want to exchange with anyone. Nevermind that this guy is vulnerable to all sorts of incidental shocks and whatnot.

Puppeteer clique
I'm on the fence with this guy; he's never been as good for me as I've hoped. On the other hand, his effect is powerful, repeatable and allows for diplomacy. (Steal one player's creature, send it at another player). He's gonna get kept for now.

Sedris, the Traitor King
With hopefully a lot of giant creatures and hopefully less random graveyard removal, Sedris ought to be able to unearth something big to toss at somebody. Or Puppeteer clique to unearth someone else's something big. On the other hand he doesn't interact that well with a reanimation strategy I might try to run. Which is fine; I'd rather not put too much weight on graveyard recursion because it's pretty easy to hose.

Lightning Reaver.
This guy is either decent or terrible. My guess is he's going to hit someone for three, hit everyone for one and then get killed before the next turn. I think I'm going to keep him in until I've played with him more to know the difference.

Dimir Doppelganger
Would be great against this strategy. As it is he's in the "I havn't played with him enough to know if he's good or not" category. Or maybe I do know he's bad and am blocking that knowledge out because his flavor is so awesome. Either way, he's staying in. Provisionally.

Magister Sphinx
I had to look this guy up to make sure he wasn't banned. He's still seven mana, but when you start with 40 points of life then any effect that sets someone's life total to something reasonable for a 20 point game is suspect. See Sway of the stars, for example. Anyways, this guy is too awesome to not play. It's not like I'm going to Tinker him into play or anything.

Etched Oracle
Four mana for a 4/4 that will let me sac it to draw three cards? Ok, it requires four mana colors coming in for the effect, but I can handle that. He's staying in.

Solemn Simulacrum
Card advantage and mana fixing/accelerating. Also an invitational card. Staying in.

Meglonoth, Malfegor, Godsire
They're huge, they've got big effects, and two of them are shiny. However can I say no?

That's all the creatures I had originally. Let's take a runthrough of the noncreatures.

The Zur package:
All of these cards are worse without Zur. Unless they're good enough on their own they're getting cut.
Pillory of the sleepless: I can find better kill spells. Next!
Steel of the Godhead, Shield of the Oversoul: Combo with Reaper King. Cut!
Compost: Excellent black hoser, completely useless otherwise. Cut!
Tranquil Grove: Wipes the board of enchantments. Cut!
Sylvan Library: Awesome. Stays in.
Night soil: Hoses creatures in other graveyards. Might stay in.
Aura of silence. Top quality Artifact/Enchantment hate. Might stay in.

Crystal shard:
I hate this card. I've been so annoyed playing against it. I don't deny that it's powerful, but I honestly can't say I'm happy playing it. Cutting it. I'll just go stack it next to my capsize for the day the dark side overwhelms me.

Thought Reflection:
Draws a lot of cards. UUU is harder to get in a five color deck than UGR or what have you. Still, all it does is draw cards in a supposedly aggro deck, so I think I'm going to drop it.

Violet Pall
Makes a better-than-Martial Coup board wipe when comboed with Ink-treader Nephilim. If they ever came up together. And if I was keeping any nephilim. Cut!

Obelisk of Alara
Different effects in five colors? Decent effects at that? Gonna keep it.

Nevinyrral's Disk
Do I need a blow-up-the-world in an ostensibly aggro deck? Did Slim Pickens ride the bomb?

Austere Command
Do I need two? It IS customizeable. Maybe.

Violent Ultimatum
Ok, this one is neat, but three is definitely pushing it. Not that I'd ever get the proper mana to play that cost. Cut!

Brilliant Ultimatum
Or that cost. Cut!

Life from the Loam
On the one hand there's something to be said for a card that draws you more land in a deck that wants to hard cast progenitus. On the other hand this thing draws more graveyard hate than a zombie insurrection. And it does require a lot of fiddlin' to get your mana working properly. But all that pales compared to the fact that I love this card well out of proportion to it's usefulness. It stays.

Wild Ricochet
Stays in my hand, waiting for an appropriate target. Occasionally makes a story worthy of legend, not often. Maybe if I played against more decks with Time stretch. More often than not this sits in my hand while I wish it was something I could do something with. it goes.

Fact or Fiction
I love this card. Not in the least because I'm hardly skillful enough to play it properly, but using the card helps me achieve that coveted skill level. It's a draw spell, but I want one or two in the deck. I mean, even if I'm going aggro I'll need to refill my hand every so often. Multiplayer aggro decks are decisively midrange. Fact stays.

Stroke of Genius
I did say "or two", didn't I? Stroke provides the second. One full hand please, hold the Misdirection.

Crib Swap
It's a very political removal spell. Kill something, but at least they get a chump. I think it's gonna go; I don't want to leave any extra blockers. Also, I think it was left in to combo with Ink-treader Nephilim

Bituminous Blast
Cool. Card advantage. Probably hits a signet but still. Gonna stay in for now.

Memory Plunder
Plays an instant or sorcery from someone else's graveyard. In general, I doubt they'll have the sort of cards I'll want to play, especially at that cost. Cut!

Chandra Nalaar
A planeswalker. That burns things. She's going in.

Always disappointing, especially in a deck that runs this many signets. Cut!

Fire and Ice
Two damage or tap a blocker and draw a card? Gonna keep that one.

Rude Awakening
Throw all my lands at somebody? Eh, they probably deserve it. Keep!

Steals a blocker, which I can next turn use to rampage with. Yeah, gonna keep this one too.

Decree of Pain
Too much of a control card. Too much of a card that people will steal if they rifle through my deck looking. I don't want that played against me, it's gonna get cut.

Mana fixers, accelerants:
Birds of Paradise
classic, one of the best, but it's still a creature that'll get swept up in the occasional wraths of god that, well, sweep the board. Cut!

Prismatic Omen
This card doesn't do much of anything by itself, but I'm always really happy to see it because it means I wont' have to fiddle with my lands nearly so much. Stays. Also a Zur piece, but good enough on it's own.

Fertile Ground
Fine for now. Makes one of my lands more of a target than others, but that's not enough reason to cut it.

harrow: Too much time searching, shuffling. Cut!

3 Signets, all five Obelisks from Shards
Tend to get hit by the occasional artifact mass removal or the guy with a hull breach looking for an additional target. Still they make decent mana accelerants, so I think I'm gonna keep 'em.

5 Vivids
Good enough to keep. Annoying to keep track of the counters.
6 Ravnica block bouncelands
Where are the other four? These are good enough to put all ten in.
4 Panoramas, Terramorphic expanse
Would really like to cut these, what with the shuffling and all. We'll see what else is available.
10 assorted basics
To be determined how this number is going to change
3 Shards tap lands, 3 Coldsnap tap lands
Where are all the rest of my cycles getting off to? Anyways, nothing particularly objectionable about these cards. Wouldn't mind upgrade coldsnap lands to refuges, if I own them. A quick look through my land stack finds me three more Ravnica bounces and another shards land, which will probably go in.
City of brass
Five colors! no work! Only one point of pain whenever you use it. Means you gotta be really sure when you want to tap it. Not sure I'm happy about that.
Llanwar Reborn, Yavimaya hollow: interesting nonbasics, gonna have to earn their way in though. Colorfixing is the priority.

Right now I've got 24 non creatures and 14 creatures. Gonna need to find a lot more creatures. Unfortunatly, I've spoken entirely too much about what's already in there, so the rest of this is going to have to wait until next I speak on this.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Ships of Pirate's Cove

Over the previous week I've played a couple games of Pirate's Cove, a board game wherein you play the part of a pirate captain struggling to become the most infamous pirate of all time. Fair enough, although if I was making a pirate game you'd be more interested in maximizing loot than building your own legend. I like loot. A lot. But anyway, you get fame by raiding the different islands, by fighting off other players, the royal navy, and the legendary pirate, who varies from game to game but tends to be someone like Blackbeard.

Quick aside; if there already is a legendary pirate, isn't the "most famous pirate ever" role already taken? I mean, you can claim that you're more famous than Blackbeard, but for that to make any sense at all Blackbeard has to be the most famous. (It's the whole "exception proves the rule" thing. Claiming you're more famous than the legendary pirate really just means that the legendary pirate is still the most famous.)

The game is largely based around an Iocane powder mechanic. Think about that scene in the Princess Bride, what with the choosing cups. There's probably a better name for that sort of mechanic; I'm looking for something that describes how you have to guess what your opponent is planning in order to plot your strategy. Since you know he's from Australia, you can figure he's probably a criminal, and since criminals aren't used to being trusted you clearly cannot trust the glass in front of him. Or you, I can't quite remember how that logic ended up. But the point is, if he's going to guess rock then you play paper, and so on. In this case, you gotta figure out where your opposing pirates are going to sail to so you can either go somewhere else and avoid a fight or go there and blast them.

Y'see, each pirate sails to one of six islands every turn. The islands all have unique functions, four of which are associated with upgrades to your ship. You want some better sails? Head on over to sail island. Only watch out for anyone else who needs to upgrade their sails. Hmm... maybe I should explain how the ships upgrade and all.

Ships have four stats: Sails, Crew, Cannons and Hull. The person with the most Sail goes first in combat. More cannons allow you to more easily blast your opponents, but you need enough crew to man the cannons. Hull allows you to hold more treasure. Ok? Combat works by attacking other people's stats. If their hull is particularly low you target their hull, and a hit drives it lower. Players lose combat when one stat is driven to zero, forcing them to retreat. Straightforward enough, right?

There are a couple things this system does right, and a couple that it does wrong. Let's start with the "right". The best thing it does is it gives you a way to build up something amazing. Generally, that's a really fun thing to do. It's fun to watch your ship go from a dinky little barque up to something that'd make an ironclad think twice. If ironclads existed at the time.

Another convenient factor about that is that you don't have to track separate hit points; your ship doesn't need extraneous stats to track damage, it changes stats that you already have reason to care about. This saves player attention (how many things they have to keep an eye on. Even for very clever players it's advantageous to not have to worry about more factors than is strictly necessary.) It also provides a realism boost in that it corresponds pretty well with how a ship would actually take damage. As a whole the system is pretty intuitive.

The other thing this combat system does really well is that it gives you legitimate choices in your attack. You can shoot his cannons down so he can't attack you, or you can shoot his sails down so you get to attack first next round. Or maybe you want to hold off on finishing him so you can damage his hull and deprive him of his precious precious loot. Only if you do that you run the risk of him getting a hit off and evening the battle up. It means combat is more than just a formality.

Combat is really great--as long as you're on the damage dealing end. And now we're into the "things the game does wrong" section. The problem with combat is that when you take damage you do a lot worse in combat. Suppose your opponent gets the first shot, and a lucky one at that. He cuts you down from four cannons to three. Already you're firing at 75% strength, if you take another hit you'll go down to only two shots per round. If he still has four or five cannons, you're pretty much screwed. Well, not really, you can still do damage with only two cannon but you're facing two to one odds.

The problem is that combat is swingy-- that is to say, a few lucky rolls can decide a battle. Playing it the other night I felt great when I took down two legendary pirates one after another (you beat one, they get replaced) in lucky battles. Playing it a few nights before that I felt terrible when I my parrot got killed in a lucky shot by the royal navy. Yeah, I should probably explain the parrots.

You can acquire a parrot in the game, which grants you special abilities. Twenty points of sail, or an unlimited capacity to carry treasure chests. They're pretty awesome. They come associated with a particular stat, and if that stat takes two points of damage in a single battle your parrot dies. You lose the ability, you lose two victory points, and you get annoyed. Partly because it's a parrot; I attach more emotional weight to the loss of a faithful animal companion than merely to a powerful ability. Even though I beat that stupid royal navy ship I wasn't very happy about the outcome of that battle.

And that's the other problem; when you attack the stats directly (or the parrots) then you're tearing down the dreadnought I've been working so hard to build. My ship won that fight; I was still the better ship and still the favorite in that particular matchup. But I was still unhappy about the outcome of that battle (Call it a Pyrrhic victory) because the game tore down the ship I had carefully constructed over several turns.

In summation, the high points of the system are that it lets you build something amazing, it's intuitive, and it gives you interesting choices in combat. The low points are that combat is swingy, and that it tends to tear down your "something amazing".

Right here is where I'm supposed to say "If I was building the game this is what I'd do differently." Unfortunately, I'm not at all clear on that. If they changed combat so it didn't reduce your stats when you're engaging in it then it wouldn't be so intuitive and it wouldn't provide the same interesting choices. It might provide other interesting choices, but as I said that's difficult to do.

But think of the dead parrots! Surely we can do something to make losing battles less random and painful. Well, we could, but should we? This is a question of what you want out of games. I tend to prefer games that are less random; that let a player get ahead on skill more than they do on luck. There's another type of gamer that positively thrives on the luck. I tend to think of these as high octane gamers; they like their highs high and their lows low and whatever else happens that the games have a lot of action. I just spent a while explaining why I think the upside of combat is too "up" and the downside too "down". For your high octane gamer that's all upside; the gamble wouldn't have the same bite if it didn't risk something important.

So in the end, all I can conclude about the game is that it wasn't really designed for me. I won't mind playing it again as the situation warrants, but it's not going to be my favorite game. And you know what? That's fine.

On the definition of "Game" and why not to

Today I'm going to be ranting.

A friend of mine linked me to GameDesignConcepts, an online class in game design that apparently ran last summer. I've started reading through the back lessons. Normally I'm suspicious of this sort of thing; any two bit idiot can make posts on the internet about designing games, it doesn't mean they know anything about it. (You want an example? oh, say, my entire blog.) My suspicions are not at all allayed after the first couple posts. In his first lesson he spends the majority of the time trying to define exactly what a game is.

That's a worthless question. Let me repeat myself. It doesn't matter one whit what is a game and isn't a game.

The definition of "game" has to be some sort of grand, overarching categorization scheme. It's got to include D&D and pong and candyland and solitaire and craps and pin the tail on the donkey and chess and darts and warhammer and drinking games and what have you. Why? Because all those are games. We know they're games. But how do we know they're games without a proper definition? The answer is, we don't need a formal definition to know what a game is and isn't. The vague definition that we all share to one extend or another is generally good enough. If you take a corner case you'll get people disagreeing on whether or not it's a game, but whether that particular label applies to that particular corner case isn't really important.

Let me try an example. While I was in college I studied physics. When (and I'm ashamed to admit that this was all too often) when I wasn't studying physics I was playing World of Warcraft. When I WAS studying physics I was studying things that were quite obviously physics (balls falling off of cliffs, the motion of charged particles in magnetic fields, the laws of thermodynamics etc). The thing is, I noticed a problem in playing World of Warcraft that could be solved with the mathematics and methods I learned in the physics classroom. (If you're interested, it involved selecting items to maximize damage; I'll write it up here someday.) The question is, is it physics? I mean, it used the method, and it described the way the world worked, but in this case the "world" in question was "of Warcraft", that is not at all reality. I've wondered about that question, and came up with the same answer I have for the definition of a game. It's not really important. The physics techniques I applied let me solve the problem. Whether or not the problem exists in the realm of physics doesn't change the solution one whit.

So let's try that again, only with games. Take one of his definitional corner cases. Is a crossword puzzle a game? Well, maybe. I'm at that page though, because I'm trying to learn to design games. And hey, maybe the lessons learned will help me design better crossword puzzles. Whether they do or not doesn't depend on whether crossword puzzles are games. So in that sense it's completely useless to argue over the broad definition of games.

But whaddabout building a shared lexicon? For the most part our vague definition of game covers that. Not everybody's gonna agree that a crossword puzzle is a game, but everybody's gonna agree that RISK is. If I make some sort of crazy weird thing that may or may not be a game, it doesn't matter if I define it as such and you don't, as long as we know how it works. Sharing a lexicon is useful, but in terms of what a game is it's already as shared as it's going to be. You don't have to waste time trying to sharpen the definition.

Specific definitions become a lot more useful the smaller your general category is. "Tabletop Role Playing Games are a type of game where one person controls the game world and the opposition forces and the other people play as characters in that world." It's enough to give something to work off of as to why they are different and what that implies. "Unlike other games, players only need to know a few of the rules to get along, so long as the Dungeon Master knows how the game works." That's useful to know, but you don't need to know precisely what I mean by saying "other games".

A couple other notes about that first lesson and the associated reading material:

Katamari Daimacy: It's like Quake, where you're running around a 3D environment, only instead of shooting things you roll a giant ball around. You collect things like in Pac Man, only they come in different sizes and you can only collect things that are smaller than your ball. You gain experience like in RPGs, only instead of being expressed by levels and such it's expressed by the size of your ball, which gets bigger the more stuff you collect." There, that gives you the essence in the game by reference to different games. If I was actually pitching it for the first time to someone I'd probably have to follow up with "no, seriously, it works. It's surprisingly fun."

From the reading material: He's describing how the game requires participation. Ok, seriously? If you want to sell me on something, don't compare it to the works of John Cage. Yeah he allows his musicians more ability to participate in making the song,but he does so at the expense of such things as aesthetics and structure. In an effort to make interesting, unique music he got rid of everything that made the music worth listening to. If you're telling me that you know useful things about game design, don't try to give me the impression that you prize meaningless innovation over fun. Other than that (and getting caught in trying to define what a game is) the article is well worth reading, but I almost put it down at that point.

Oh, and one last thing before I go. Here's the fifteen minute game I created in MS Paint, in all it's glory:

Players advance one space for each quote of Lenin or Marx they know that their competitors do not know.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Weekend Highlights

This memorial day weekend I got to do a lot of gaming. A lot a lot of gaming. A list, if you will:

Games played:
2 Triplanetary
1 Cosmic Encounter
3 Clue
2 Pirate's Cove
2 Tide of Iron
Numerous games of Magic.

All in all it was a weekend well spent. As I sit here writing this it's ten in the morning. I've been up the entire night previous boardgaming. Yeah, I'm short on sleep, but I can sleep anytime. A couple random, disjointed thoughts that aren't at all affected by the caffeine and the lack of sleep, I swear:

That was my first time playing Triplanetary. I picked it up because I heard the vector movement system was really interesting, and in that aspect it didn't disappoint. Other than that I'm going to reserve judgment of the game for the time being. Won once, lost once.

Lost pretty hard in Cosmic Encounter. If you've played the game, it seems to me that the philanthropist power is pretty bad when you're the main player. Unless you also have your flare, in which case it's pretty good so long as you've got two appropriate encounter cards in hand. 'course, going through those double quick is an easy way to lose that flare...

You know, I think the last time I played Clue my age was in single digits. Back when I was a first grader I cleaned up at that game. Y'see, I always had pretty decent deductive reasoning powers, and really the only people I was cleaning up against were my brothers, who were just a year or two older than me. Now I find that it's a lot more difficult. The twenty somethings I was playing with were all skilled enough at deductive reasoning as to make no difference, and generally they were better at reading other people's tells. I'll say as well that I could have put more effort into playing optimally. I won one of those three games, but that was under unusual circumstances; everybody knew all but the room, and there were still several rooms to be guessed. You can't stop to research, you gotta be first. I was the last in line for the guessing, and therefore won by default. Whoo. Default.

After two games of Pirate's Cove, I'm still not sure if I've played it before or if I just read the rules once. The game was pretty fun, but it seems a little prone to variance. That is, the game can swing easily from one player winning to another. In some ways that's a good thing, but generally I prefer games that reward skill over games that reward luck. Again though, havn't had much experience with the game so I'd prefer not to comment here.

Tide of Iron was an experience. That was my second time playing, first for everybody else at the table. None of us knew how to play; my previous experience mostly let me know which parts of the rule book we could skip for now to actually start playing the game. Yeah, we played the first game largely incorrectly over a period of about six hours. The second game lasted half that length, and with very few rules played out of place, but still. That game has a learning curve so steep the Matterhorn is envious. I've still got rules questions, mostly about assaults. (What happens when units assault a heavy vehicle? And if a unit moves to the end of it's modified move but successfully assaults the next hex over, is it still able to move that last hex?). Lost game I, won game II. I've got some thoughts about the game, but I want to think them over a bit before I post them here.

(Yeah, that's three games that I said I didn't want to comment about. I meant what I said about the lack of lucidity over here. While I don't mind giving off impressions I'm not going to try anything like serious analysis.)

Let's see, highlights of the Magic games.
In a Rise of the Eldrazi Sealed pool I pulled the best card in limited (Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief), only to never see it in an actual game.
In a Worldwake Pack Wars game I very nearly got there on the back of a third turn Scrib Nibblers alone.
My brother switches to a new deck, pulling out a milling deck. Without knowing what he grabbed I pull out Gibralter. My six hundred some card highlander rock deck. He stood by his choice. It's a tribal merfolk deck, and his Stonybrook Schoolmasters could possibly make enough tokens to kill me off.
I won one game with that deck on a Spouting Phytohydra beatdown. I killed a burn deck with my five mana 0/2 plant. Y'see, at the point where I drew Phytohydra we were both pretty much on empty, Mr. Burn at 2 life. I had an Obsidian Battle Axe that I could keep equipping to Hydra copies and swing in with, eventually running him out of burn before he could find the sort of cards that'd kill me.
Different game; Chandra Nalaar activates her ultimate ability. With lethal damage on the stack, I cast Momentary blink on Reveillark, bringing out two Murderous Redcap which finished off both my opponents, leaving me the winner.
Speaking of which, the reveillark deck works really well. I cut Ninja of the deep hours (sad) and Venser, Shaper Savant in order to fit in some Ponder. I really needed something else to draw or filter cards besides mulldrifter. While the Mulldrifter engine is pretty awesome, you have to draw one of four mulldrifters before you can do anything at all with it. Ponder helps me there. At just U to cast, it doesn't mess up my Ancient Ziggurats too much.
I got an EDH deck to do what it's supposed to; take out another (competitive) EDH deck, and not even in a fair way. Huzzah!

Got to do some trading as well. Acquired some Goblin Guides and Warren Instigators. gonna build myself a Standard goblins list. Most of my Legacy goblins list is going to stay together so I can switch back into it given the need.

And seeing as this whole article is one long string of miscellainy, I'll add one more not at all related to this weekend's activity. I've spent quite some time this past week trying to relearn my physics so that I can actually write equations for orbital motion. Who'd have thought that Rocket Science would be so hard? I worked out the differential equations for a rocket accelerating in a central G field and you know what? I can't solve them. At all. Which is sort of relieving, actually. Just means i'll have to fake it, which is perfectly doable in a board game.