Friday, September 30, 2011

Rocking the Innistrad Prerelease

Before I get into anything else, a quick correction. In my last article I reported that it took Doyt three months at 8 hours a day to achieve the Insane. Actually, it only took him three months at five hours a day. Plan your achievements accordingly.

This previous weekend Fountain of Youth games held a prerelease for Innistrad, the latest Magic the Gathering set. Like many good things, this story starts with waffles.

At the Friday Night Magic before, I made an agreement with one of the locals to make waffles. At the prerelease. At 10:00 am, when the doors open. So I bring the wafflemaker, I get there at 10:00 and he's nowhere to be seen. At 10:40 I'm sick of waiting, and I haven't had breakfast yet, so I make a run to the local grocery store and pick up what's necessary. As usual, I forget some important components, so I'm mixing with a plastic fork and I have to send another guy out to find me some syrup. Luckily the gas station down the road had some.

At noon the other guy shows up. With 32 double stackers from Burger King. Turns out it's free waffle free burger day at the game store. Which is awesome.

This is critical to the gaming narrative because providing waffles to the populace at large seems to have given me a karmic boost that I rode the rest of the day. In my sealed pool I pulled a new Garruk, and plenty of red and green stuff to play along side him. I ended up with a super aggressive deck and I handily dealt with most opponents. My favorite play of the day:

Turn three I drop a Kruin Outlaw. He doesn't have a play. On my upkeep he transforms into a 3/3 evasive double striker. I play an Inquisitor's flail, equip and swing in four twelve. I won that game the next turn.

I went 3-0, at which point I was able to intentionally draw with the other players into the top eight. Now, I can go either way on that sort of shenanigan. On the one hand it seems cheap for me to guarantee my way into the top eight draft without any risk. On the other hand, well, drafting is pretty awesome. A free draft is even better, and if you can get into the prize support (Fountain of Youth has a very vertical prize structure; only the top 4 got prizes), the prize support makes things better. After drawing with my opponents I did play out the matches "just to see", and I would have ended the day at 4-1, which would have gotten me into the top eight anyway, so my conscience is assuaged. Maybe I'll go into more detail on this subject later.

In the top eight, I wanted to draft red. My brother tells me that red is going to be one of the more powerful colors in the format, and I tend to believe him. However the consensus around the store is that red is a weak color in the format. So I intended to force red, prove my brother right and take all of them down. Based on the packs and the cards available I went blue black tribal zombies. It turned out much worse than I expected. The blue zombies are good, but they require you to lose creatures from your graveyard. The black removal is ok, but it also wanted me to lose creatures from my graveyard. And I had a couple powerful raise dead effects, but that resource was pretty darn low by the time I got around to those. Best card in the deck was, unsurprisingly, Evil Twin. Which, incidentally, is my favorite card in the set. At one point I copied a 5/5 regenerator, and was having to block something else every turn and try to shoot the regenerator, holding them both off. I won one round and lost the next, leaving me in 3rd or 4th overall, and with 4 packs of prize support. Huzzah!

The other high point in the day (and a day that has both waffles and a prerelease ranks pretty darn high already) there was a wizards representative at our store. Mark Gottleib, of the Innistrad development team (and much other experience at WOTC) had other business in town, so he showed up to gunsling at the prerelease. For reasons which I can't fathom his table wasn't incredibly busy all day, so I got to hang around, take on his sealed deck (I won, like I said, my deck was good), and so forth. I got him to sign my Living Wish. You see, Mr. Gottleib was rules manager when the M10 rules changes were enacted. One of the changes took "removed from game" and replaced it with "exile". Since the wishes got cards that were outside of the game, they could no longer retrieve cards that were exiled. Instead you get stuff out of your sideboard or collection. As Mr. Gottleib physically wrote on my card "Exiled cards aren't really out of the game". Though I have some lingering resentments over the M10 rules changes (and not very many; really they did an amazing job with that set in general), I was glad for an opportunity to meet one of the developers.

On Sunday I came back, but made no waffles. My sealed pool pushed me into Jund colors (Red Green and Black), with three shimmering grottos to fix mana. I got a first round bye, and then proceeded to go 1-3 the rest of the tournament. Sad.

Not that many people showed up on Sunday, so the store had extra product, so they were able to schedule an impromptu prerelease draft. Cost more than usual, with some prize support, but most interestingly it's a chance to draft the new set. Once again, I tried forcing red. This time I ended up in red green, very aggressive werewolf deck. I didn't draft any of the enablers (moonmist, for example), but I did have a solid wall of creatures to keep dropping. I narrowly won out the first match against another werewolf deck. I narrowly lost the second match against a mono black deck. It came down in game three to him having the second Bump in the Night to burn me out the turn before I would have killed him. Round three I lost against a guy who had the Sturmgeist I couldn't deal with. I probably would have had him anyhow if I could have dealt with his Crab Fortress

Net outlay $80 on games, for a total of 22 packs. I beat the Wal-Mart $4.00 a pack price, but only just. While I enjoyed myself immensely, I'm frustrated that I haven't yet mastered the format. Looking forward to more drafts.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Joys of Meaningless Rewards

Today we talk about filling bars. The meaningless rewards that games give you to make you keep playing the game. I'm even going to go one step further than that. Your standard fantasy RPG, you get experience points until you level up, and when you level up you gain new abilities and get more powerful and all that. That's your traditional leveling structure. The thing about that is that it actually lets you play the game more efficiently. I'm going one step less useful. The Cheevos.

World of Warcraft rolled out achievements late in the Burning Crusade expansion. When you get your first honorable (read PvP) kill, you get an achievement. Then for 25, and 100, and 500, and 1000, I forget all the increments but it goes up to at least 100,000. So if you keep playing the game you move up the achievement scale. The further up you get, the more achievement points you have, and you can compare these things to the other players. You look at that link? That's Zerg_Rush's primary WoW character, clocking in at 8165 achievement points. You know what those points do for him? Nothing. They might earn him the respect of other players, but they might also earn their pity. If you check his Feats of Strength (pretty long list, actually) he's got "Insane in the Membrane" (and, I hasten to add, the hard version from before that also required Shen'dralar rep before they removed it from the game), which took him approximately eight hours a day for three months to manage. Impressive yeah, but it doesn't let him kill things any faster.

That's not to say that WoW is the only one that does achievements. Far from it. Pretty much everybody is dipping their toes into the field as "gamification" becomes the new marketing buzzword. Three minutes into that presentation and you learn that looking at three lolcats gets you a badge, and that the icanhascheezburger group awards achievements now. Frightening stuff.

This tends to make me unhappy, because I've got two conflicting desires on this front. On the one hand, I like completing things; I like getting trophies or badges or whatnot, and if I know that there's one for doing X task, then you'd better believe I'm going to be doing X task. 5000 damage from a single Hadouken? I'm on it. But I really don't like getting caught in these things with everybody. Lolcats? I'll stay away. Even in games I enjoy playing (Half Life 2 springs to mind) the achievements make me want to go back and make sure I checked every nook and cranny for the solution, but I don't always want that pressure. I've got time constraints like everybody else, and not every game is worth a second or third or nth playthrough.

This was mostly brought to mind by Magic's new rating system. I'm a level 31 Invoker! Have yet to see how that has any real world consequence at all. Even so, I'll probably check back from time to time to see when I hit level 31

I can't deny the motivational effects. If you've got a game worth playing I usually end up trying to max out the cheevos. As careful as I am to avoid this sort of thing I can exploit it myself if I find a good enough reason. Enter Mindhack. In the game of life I apparently made Will my dump stat (and Charisma, and Strength... you know what? let's move on.) To fortify a low score, I'm trying one of these reward systems. I wrote a calculator program with a simple experience and level system, and I award myself experience for doing things that ought to be done. Yesterday, I hit level two. And I was happy.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to award myself 100 exp for completing a blogpost.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Replays and Replayability

(No, this isn't going to be a what-if featuring Jane Austen playing D&D. -ed) (Hey, that's not a bad idea! -B) (No! -ed) (C'mon! -B) (Dammit, I said no! -ed)

Warning: This post will contain links to game wikis. If you are worried about spoilers, I suggest not following those links through.

So yeah, this issue's been bugging me for a while, and if I can't get a suitable discussion out of it, I can at least get some content in here. First of all, what makes a game re-playable? Using some of our standard examples, in Kingdom of Loathing, once you beat the final boss, you are given the option to ascend and start at level 1, keeping one or more skills from your previous run, and doing the new run in a variety of different ways. In Fallout: New Vegas, and the other Fallout games to varying extents, you can play through using different skills and/or make different choices, leading to other endings. Another option used in New Vegas is that of achievements, giving you some sort of boost to your fragile ego by giving you awards for things that you either might normally not do, or for doing a lot of the things you would usually do. If you have a couple spare hours, you might ask Zerg_Rush how he got the title "The Insane" for one of his WoW characters. I'm sure you've run across these tactics to squeeze more playtime from other games, I'm just using the examples I've run most recently. Some, of course, are more effective than others.

The more philosophical question is what actually causes one to replay a game? Havoc Jack just spent at least one post talking about how he's restarted Diablo II, but I can't normally seem to muster up that much desire to replay a lot of games, especially after I just finished it, whereas I've seen him finish a Starcraft I campaign and immediately start replaying the same campaign. Every once in a while, I will go back into the vaults and work up some game I haven't played in a while, but for the most part I don't replay games that much. Starcraft II was pretty awesome, but after playing it once I haven't really gone back to it at all, except for running a few missions trying to get achievements. I haven't actually finished Fallout: New Vegas yet, but I don't really plan on playing through again once all the DLC comes out and I actually do finish the game. I ran though Fallout 3 twice, although that was primarily because I got DLC for that and decided it would be simpler to play through again. On the other hand I play KoL all the time, and am constantly ascending. Perhaps it's just that easier accessibility to a wiki and easier character optimization makes me want to play it more, although according to Steam I have played New Vegas for 62 hours, so I guess that's a decent amount of time spent on it. And of course, I did end up reading a lot of the wiki, and sometimes I find that reduces my desire to actually play the game.

I'm not sure why this single-play tendency only applies to video games, though. I've played any number of board games any number of times, I've watched many movies as much as I could stand, and nearly all the books on my bookshelf have been read dozens of times.

Insofar as no one else can answer the question for me, perhaps if anyone actually reads this blog instead of it being a vanity project for us they can attempt to answer the question for themselves.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Diablo II and the Penny Box

My local game store buys Magic collections fairly often. They have a special table in the back where they sort the cards. The good ones go into the case in front, they've got a shelf of binders, and most importantly they've got a penny box.

A given magic block has about 550 cards in it, 1/3rd of which are commons. Commons show up in a booster pack at a ratio of 11 commons to 3 uncommons to one rare or mythic rare. So let's say that the shop has about 3000 cards from Alara block sitting in the back there. Assuming an even distribution they'll get about 12 of each common. Now, they don't need twelve of every single common. they hold on to about ten, but excess cards are dumped into the penny box.

Enter the cheap magic player. I love this game, I love building decks, and of course I don't have the cash to acquire all the cards I want. Or most. Or even many. And honestly, cards like Gravedigger are perfectly fine, if they aren't going to make the tournament decks anytime soon. You can still build a good, fun casual decks. And I do. And thanks to that penny box I've got 47 copies of Terramorphic expanse, waiting for decks. I've spent about $20 buying penny cards.

A couple weekends ago, a friend of mine proposed a LAN party. We'd all bring our computers over and play Diablo II in a networked game until the wee hours of the morning. Ok, it's a good idea, Diablo II still remains one of the best games of all time. I spent significant portions of high school playing the game when I should have been studying, but I got over the game, and in times past I couldn't really work up enough interest to get past halfway through Act I.

I bet you know how this is going to turn out, right?

My necromancer is level 81 now, and doing Magic Find runs in Hell. (Hell is the highest difficulty level. One thing Diablo II did right, they got the style down.) In the game one of the many randomized modifiers you can find on items is "% better chance to find magic items". So you can get items which give you a better shot at getting even better items. It's a cycle, and it's rewarding, and pretty soon you find you can't stop. I got my Blade of Ali Baba and my Goldwrap, but I'm still waiting on my Chance Guards and War Travellers.

The real interesting point about this is the feeling; I can slay my way through the legions of hell with relative boredom, but the minute that Unique Grim Shield drops the adrenalin rushes and I get that cold gambler's thrill while I take my portal in to confirm that it is indeed a Lidless Wall.

I get a remarkably similar feeling when I'm looking through the penny box. Sure, those terramorphics are nice, but every so often I find a card that the store owner undervalued; last time I dug through that box I got a playset of Life and Death, which the internet values at about a quarter, but it's still a much better reanimation spell than they've printed since, well, since about Life and Death. In later times they prefer to print better creatures and worse ways to cheat them into play. I've also found other good stuff in that box, a Zuran Orb and a pair of Animate Dead for example.

And then I think about my brother, Zerg_Rush. He spent more time magic finding in the old days of Diablo II than anyone, and even though he doesn't play much Magic anymore he'd still like you to know he pulled a foil Elspeth Tirell out of the booster packs from Wal-mart.

I usually don't go for casino games; I see the rate of return and decide that I have better games to waste my money on. But apparently the motivation still works on me.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Best deck in Modern

Ok, maybe it's not the best deck, but it's certainly the most awesome. From the pro tour this weekend:

To start with, the deck plays like your usual midrange deck; it grinds out incremental card advantage by trading up creatures with it's Birthing Pods. Start with a Wall of Roots, Take it's mana and sacrifice it with the pod to get a Kitchen Finks. Next turn, sacrifice the Finks to get a Murderous Redcap. For the investment of a wall and four mana (three if you don't count the one the wall produced) you get: 4 life, a 2/1 creature, a 2/2 creature and two damage to direct to any source you'd like. Next turn you can sacrifice the redcap to get a Reveillark or something. You're getting a lot of value for your cards. So even if the deck didn't engage in any other shenanigans you'd have a shot at taking your opponent down.

But does it engage in other shenanigans? It does. Oh yes it does. Take a look at Melira. Then read the fine print on Persist. Persist checks if the creature has a -1/-1 counter on it. If it doesn't, then when the creature dies it comes back, and persist puts one on. But if Melira is in play, then your creature can't have the counter put on it. So it comes back, but without the counter. So if it dies again, then persist will bring it back. Again. And again. So if you set up a Viscera Seer, for example, then you can keep sacrificing the creature and bringing it back over and over and over. To recap: Melira + Finks + Viscera Seer = Infinite life. Melira + Finks + Viscera Seer = Infinite direct damage. And if you've got the Finks combo, the Seer's scry ability even lets you find the Redcap.

So, in addition to the already solid midrange deck, you've got an infinite combo that doesn't even require bad cards to pull off. (Viscera seer is questionable on it's own, and Melira sans combo pieces really is only good against the combo poison decks that showed up, but finks and redcap are fine creatures even without support). Granted also that you've got effective tutoring methods (two different ways to search creatures into play) you can stuff your deck with all sorts of random creatures as answers to particular problems. It also gives you space to tune your deck for particular metagames. I can see how this deck went 8-2 in the highest level Magic tournament out there. (I presume Mr. Jaklovsky also had something to do with it).

Still, if I were to build the deck, (and you can darn well bet I will, soon as I get my hands on some more birthing pods) I think it'd be a little more... silly. To wit, there's another combo that you could easily shoehorn into the deck, but which Mr. Jaklovsky delclined so to do. Probably this was a deliberate choice tuning, which makes the deck more efficient, and therefore more likely to kill. But I'm too happy with the notion of the combo to dismiss it entirely. It uses Viscera Seer and Reveillark, which are in the deck already, to set up a stable loop with Saffi Eriksdotter.

Have Saffi, Reveillark and Seer in play. Sacrifice Saffi with her own ability, targeting Reveillark. Sacrifice lark to the Seer. Bring back two creatures with lark, one of which is Saffi and the other is up to you. Saffi's ability resolves, and brinks lark back from the graveyard to play. You're back where you started, but now you've got another creature in play. What that other creature is gives you a wealth of options.

Acidic Slime lets you destroy all their noncreature permanents.
Eternal Witness lets you return your graveyard to your hand
Tidehollow Sculler lets you force them to discard their hand (there's a trick to making sure the cards stay removed from game; it involves stacking the triggers properly and sacrificing Sculler again quickly. I'm not going to explain it here)
Wall of Roots lets you generate infinite green mana
And, of course, Murderous redcap can kill them and all their creatures in play.

Those are just the options that are already in the deck. Some more options:

Mulldrifter lets you draw out your deck
Elvish Pioneer lets you play all the basic lands you draw that way.
Nevermaker allows you to put all your opponent's permanents on top of their library
Merrow Witsniper lets you mill them all into their graveyard
Offalsnout lets you remove their graveyard from the game
Riftsweeper (along with Mulldrifter) gets you back anything that has been exiled
Siege-Gang Commander gives you an army of goblins
Essence Warden gets you infinite life

If you're keeping track, that allows us to draw all the cards in our deck, get back anything in the graveyard or that's been removed from the game, play out all our basic lands, play out anything in our deck that requires green mana, make infinite goblin tokes, kill anything your opponent has in play, or stack it on the top of his deck, mill his deck away, rip his hand, and exile everything in the graveyard. Leaving you with everything you could possibly have in play, a hand stocked with whatever you like, infinite life and mana, and leaving him with no permanents, no deck, no graveyard and only a couple land in his hand.

Furthermore, if you consider the Eternal Witness options, you can get back and replay any spell any number of times. For example, a Desperate Ritual played again and again gives you infinite red mana as well. Theoretically this lets you do even more things (rip those last lands from his hand, play out the nonbasic lands stuck in your hand, or possibly steal all his stuff) but I'm going to leave working out the details as an exercise for the student.

Or you could be boring, return a Murderous Redcap and just kill him. But if you do it that way, you'll never understand why Blofeld keeps investing in sharks and piranha traps.