Monday, October 08, 2018

Magic the Gathering Arena; thoughts

I have played Magic the Gathering (MtG) on and off since the 1990s.  I began around the time the Portal starter sets and Tempest card-set (part of the Rath Cycle).  To this day, the Sliver cards remain some of my favorite.  Post 2002 I shifted from paper to MtG Online (MTGO) as my gaming habits moved from physical games to the digital space. 

About this time my gaming focus became dominated by MMOs and my MtG cards were boxed (digitally and physically).  For years my only interaction with MtG was to wax nostalgic at players in my local game store while I played the new hotness of the moment (Dreamblade, World of Warcraft TCG, The Spoils TCG, etc).  In the late 2000s, MtG: Duels of the Planeswalkers (DotP) made its way onto the PC and it drew me straight in with the promise of a better interface (MtGO was not the best digital representation of the game at the time) and limited decks (i.e. you didn't have to know how to build a deck; you just focused on playing).

DotP was followed by additional versions in 2012 and 2013 and that annual trend of a yearly Duels versions continued in 2014 and 2015.   Each bringing a couple more features and continuing to nudge MtG into the digital realm further and further.  Duels was very much a quick to play version of the game that limited deck building so the focus was on playing the game.

After 2015 a shift was made to Magic Duels which was as close to paper magic as it seemed that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) was willing to get (remember, MtGO has been in existence since 2002!).  It featured its own unique rules (differing it from paper MtG) and there are over a thousand cards, deck construction, in-game purchases of cards, multiplayer modes, and a slew of single-player modes to play decks against the computer.  It seemed like Magic Duels was the go forward strategy for the casual player (specifically mobile gamers) in place of annual DotP releases.  It was the happy middle ground between MtGO and paper. 

Then up comes MtG Arena, a new digital offering that is 1-for-1 with the paper game rules and a plan to have simultaneous releases for new card sets going forward (cards will be limited to sets in the current Standard block as to avoid the idea that Arena is replacing MtGO which supports almost the entire MtG library).  Arena features a slick new user interface, speedy games rules engine, and a slew of bonuses for streamers to stream games via platforms such as Twitch.  Players can buy booster packs, play in sealed/draft events, construct decks the same as they would in paper, and there are discussions of opening the door for non-Standard game types (such as Singleton).

All of this to say; I am playing MtG Arena and I have some thoughts on it from the Open Beta.

The first thing that struck me about MtG Arena was the ease at which a new player can get into a game.  In fact; the game drops the player in a series of tutorial games before they ever see an options menu.  This feels like the right move as once a player is on the main menu they are on to playing competitive games against real players or dropping into a Deck Editing screen for a fairly complex game.  The current Standard block for MtG is no slouch when it comes to variety of mechanics and card interactions (heck there are keywords and card types I wasn't even aware of)!

The second feature that jumped out was how smoothly the game plays.  The games rules engine (being called GRE in the community) is a work of art and is supposedly built to read and interpret card keywords and rules and thus be able to adapt to any new cards added to it without having to program how each individual card should work.  The end result is a very quick to play game that handles one or a hundred token creatures with ease.

With that efficiency comes a problem though.  There is no way for a new player with no MtG experience to have any chance to understand what the heck is going on during some of the more nuanced parts of MtG.  The "stack" is fully and faithfully represented and players will spend time going card by card, effect by effect through it.  In many cases a new player will barely have the time to be able to read the rules text on some of the more common cards before they are overwhelmed with a "stack" of card effects waiting to be resolved.  Throw an Enchantment - Saga or a Planeswalker at them and good night my dear new player.  One of the things DotP did well was to limit some of the more complicated combos making it into the game and thus ensuring a new player didn't have to fret over some of MtG's more nuanced possibilities.

With that said, MtG Arena is clearly aimed at the serious MtG player.  While the game has cleaned up many of the laborious parts of MtG to make it bearable on a stream it has done nothing to eliminate the high complexity that is current state MtG.  MtG has 20+ years of development behind it and every new set digs into that backlog to bring forward bits and pieces.  This what makes much of the current MtG scene so exciting, but is also what can make it really, really hard to get into.  What is good for the veteran is not always good for the new player.  In paper MtG this is mitigated a bit by any number of custom play variants so I am hoping that Arena is able to execute on some more play modes to help step new players into the game (for example; a mode similar to Magic Duels where mythics, rares, uncommons are limited in a deck).

Now for the experienced MtG player; Arena is the dream digital representation of the game.  I cannot emphasize enough how well it handles the "stack" and walks the player through it.  Its not perfect (I would love to have a bulk resolve option for big stacks where no action is being taken), but it is light years ahead of any other digital version I have played (and from what I can remember of MtGO it puts it to shame).  Arena also does a great job of reflecting chains of effects; where they came from, what they are targeting, and if they tie into the stack somewhere. 

Anyone that has read my "Why Artifact has me excited" article will note that I was excited by the Richard Garfield statement about Artifact supporting any number of cards on the digital table at once.  I reaffirm my statement here.  Arena is great at handling any number of cards on the table at once.  I have played games with 30+ token creatures out at one time and it was easy to manage and didn't bog the game down; that is unless you get into effects that add an item to the stack for every card (see next paragraph).

Resolving large quantities of effects/cards in the "stack" can be a problem as there is no bulk option.  Players have complained of being "timed out" and thus forced to concede a game because it was taking too long to make assignments of blockers (which I can see happening with some of the token creature generating decks that are out there). 

Also having an audit log of cards/effects played would be useful as it is easy to click through whatever may have just been played and it can be hard to reverse engineer (just last night I had an opponent down to 1 life and the next turn they popped back to 16 and I have no idea how or where they did it even after exhausting a time out to read through all cards/token creatures they had in play).

Another area I would like to see Arena improve is the portion outside of playing the game.  There is no way to go back and see the last card or pack of cards you opened.  A stray click and it is easy to miss the rare/mythic you just received.  A "most recent cards acquired" log would be A+ awesome.

A big gap seems to be the inability to add or play casually with friends (something Valve is advertising as a differentiator for their upcoming digital card game Artifact).  Currently in the open beta for Arena players can only compete in competitive modes (single game ladder, best of 3 matches, special events, or buy-in sealed/draft formats).  Along these lines you cannot talk with other players or send them messages.  While this cuts down on the need to police such transactions it really kills the social aspect of the game.  I would love to be able to ask some of my opponents on how they built their deck, why they played a card in such a way, or to just pass time.

The deck edit screen also needs a lot of love.  It feels like it was built for a mobile user instead of a PC user.  Simple features such as hovering over a symbol to see what it means or "do you really want to remove this card from your deck?" messages are missing (seriously; whoever designed the Edit Deck screen to remove a card from your deck when clicking it should be shot... I click things because I want to see them!!!!).  This goes back a bit to the new player experience with MtG Arena.  I would be so pissed as a new player if I clicked a card to see it in my deck only to have it be removed and not having the knowledge to add it back. There is also ZERO explanation anywhere of what the symbols mean when trying to filter cards (fine for the experienced, terrible for the rest of us).

The jury is still out on other aspects of the game such as card acquisition rates, cost compared to paper, and the ability to stay "free 2 play" as a player.  It will be interesting to see in the long run how players feel about having their monetary investment in the game go to the wayside as card sets cycle out of Standard.  It is also not clear how a player that takes a break can quickly get back into the game at a later date without an expensive buy in (right now you get 10 starter decks through the New Player Experience).  I am hoping they will provide starter decks for new expansions at a discounted (or free) rate for returning players.

In my view; Arena is a natural progression from Magic Duels.  It takes the final step to put MtG into a modern digital format.  The game plays like a dream, the streaming integration is top notch, and all the cards and deck building capability that Duels/DoTP lacked is present.  The hardest of hardcore will continue with MtGO but for the on again/off again player such as me Arena will be the best option.

I have been playing a mono-white deck that I've pieced together from the few booster packs I've earned and the starter decks.  I also cashed in a few wild cards (MtG Arena's way of allowing you to pick a card instead of playing the booster pack lotto forever).  I'll post the deck if time permits.

I am currently playing open beta under "heartlessgamer" (not that you can add me).

And a quick shout out to my favorite card of the week:



Friday, September 21, 2018

Why Artifact has me interested

Artifact is an upcoming digital card game from Valve.  My initial reaction was that Valve was cashing in on the Hearthstone trend (the same reaction as the audience booing the game during it's original reveal at The International 2017).  While there are similarities it is becoming clearer that Valve is looking to differentiate Artifact from the Hearthstone-a-like crowd.  A quick look at the differentiators:
  • It is NOT free to play; players buy the game and buy the cards and packs
  • Focus on playing with friends and social gameplay; not on "grind" modes
  • Steam Marketplace integration for trading, buying, and selling individual cards
  • Lane-based gameplay (i.e. there are three game boards active at one time)
  • Any number of creatures in play
  • Any number of cards in hand
I want to tackle the "it's not free to play" first because it sets a tone for the rest of the items.  Valve could have made Artifact free 2 play and integrated numerous methods for players to "grind" away at gaining cards all while dangling a cash shop with loot boxes booster packs.  But Valve didn't and its evident that the other differentiators result from that decision.


Integrating with the Steam Marketplace enables the capability to trade and sell individual cards which brings Artifact closer to cardboard TRADING card games (TCGs) that made it's designer, Richard Garfield, famous.  Yes, there is a word in all caps there.  I am firm believer that the trading and collecting of single cards is a key component in the enjoyment of these games; physical or not.


Trading cards is just the first part of a return to more social-oriented gaming that Valve has planned for Artifact.  They are also very talkative about their social gaming approach.  They want to focus on players playing with their friends and not beholden to "game modes" in which players feel forced into the most efficient method to "grind" for cards.  This is why the ability to trade/sell/buy individual cards is key.  If players are going to play with their friends then they need to know they aren't losing out on progress that could be made towards something else.


The last three items on the list do not wrap themselves into the free to play or social aspects, but none the less are important to peaking my interest level in Artifact.


Lane-based gameplay is not new.  In fact; upon seeing Artifact's lanes it immediately made me think of another digital card game Richard Garfield was involved with; SolForge.  SolForge was played across five lanes and enjoyed moderate success after it's Kickstarter campaign (and is still going in an unofficial capacity). 

Artifacts approach to lanes is a step above SolForge's approach.  Where SolForge only offered a single card per lane; Artifact is offering an entirely new gameboard within each lane where any number of cards can be played to "win" in that lane.  This appears to create three games within one which means every match of Artifact will feel like three separate games.  This will really up the strategic level; especially as more cards are released with mechanics that influence other lanes.


Lastly I just wanted to touch base on the idea that "any number of cards/creatures" bullet points.  YES!  Finally; a digital card game that takes advantage of the ability for a computer to manage any number of cards for the player while still keeping the game organized.  In physical card games sprawl can be a real issue (as anyone having played a Magic the Gathering squirrel token deck can attest to).  In the digital space sprawl can be managed via a clean user interface and good mechanics that keep players moving along each turn.

Artifact is shaping up to be a Valve classic and like DOTA2 before it; Valve is taking a tried and true genre and giving it the Valve polish and common sense we've all come to expect.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Games Made Me: THAC0

Back in 2013 I had this idea to blog about gaming experiences that "made me" the gamer that I am.  I posted the first "Games Made Me" post and then failed to create any other (even though my mind is swimming with topics).  Real Life has gotten in the way of blogging for the last... oh... six years or so, but a recent jaunt back into Dungeons and Dragons with my son resurfaced a Games Made Me topic.  That topic is THAC0 (To Hit Armor Class 0).

THAC0, in it's simplest explanation, is a calculation to determine whether an attack hits or misses in 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).  Read more about THAC0 in this excellent Reddit post detailing it's history.  That post does it better justice than what I could write here.

Armor Class was a carry over wargames played by the creators for D&D; applying the "armor" of a ship or tank to the "armor" of a fantasy hero.  A method was needed to determine whether an attack could breach that "armor".  THAC0 was the answer and also a simplification of previous iterations of  "to hit" tables from those wargames.

As a simplification it to it's wargames origins it made sense.  Tables in the D&D books helped outline baselines across class and level.  Math was not required as the expectation was that THAC0 was a value that was written on the character sheet and referenced against the tables.  When rolling a D20 for an attack; players would know what they needed to hit.

The challenge comes in when you take into consideration the amount of shifting that occurs during a typical D&D encounter.  The player character's values as well as the monster values were subject to constant change.  Player's would receive buffs that increased attack strength or that changed armor class values for their target.  With each change in number came a new change in THAC0 calculation.  A good D&D group needed a proficient player that could calculate THAC0 reliably through any number of variable situations.  Otherwise the session would bog down as pencil and paper were whipped out (a hard to imagine scenario with the current state of tablets and smart phones).

For my D&D group in high school I was the THAC0 calculator.  My mind was built to focus on detailed rules like THAC0 and to ensure they were executed correctly.  A major difference between classes in D&D was their calculated THAC0.  It ensured priests were not going to be as effective combatants as warriors.  Screwing up THAC0 calculations (often purposely) allowed classes to be the combat hero.  Enforcing THAC0 correctly ensured that classes that were not meant to be hack'n'slash super stars relied on the other defining aspects of their "role".  The benefit being better "role"playing.

My THAC0 calculator mindset extended into other aspects of the rules.  I was known to crawl through class, weapon, and other rules to "keep the table honest" (as I was known to say).  With that approach I became known as the "rules lawyer".  That moniker followed me through numerous editions of D&D and even as THAC0 became a thing of the past and was replaced by much simpler "base attack bonus" modifiers I found other places to focus.  Most recently with D&D 5E and playing with 8-12 year olds (father/son group) I've stepped right in to make sure the barbarian is using rage in every battle, that the bard is providing inspirations, that players are using that inspiration when applicable, or that our rogue isn't forgetting to apply advantage on attack rolls.

This rules lawyer (or alpha gaming) approach has been part of who I am as a gamer.  It is likely evident to anyone that has followed this blog for any amount of time.  While video games don't require someone to stay on top of all the calculations and rules there is always the analysis of what is best combination of things that result in the best outcome.  I have the tendency to insert my opinion in those combinations from time to time.

It is hard to say whether having to be the THAC0 expert for my group made me into this style of gamer or whether I was destined to be this way.  I would bet on the latter, but at the same time I can trace my gaming roots back to THAC0 as it influenced my view on where I fit into games.  THAC0 made me the gamer I am today.


Monday, January 01, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review - The Pictures

In part one of my review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi I will use the following pictures to describe my thoughts:

In part two I will put down some words.  Until then; happy new year (apparently my new trend will be to post Star Wars reviews as the first post of the year).

Saturday, December 30, 2017

How I would change The Last Jedi (Spoiler Alert)

Warning; rambling and poorly organized thoughts below.  Lots of spoilers (duh!).

Top changes I would make to The Last Jedi (and that I honestly think could have been made keeping most of the key plot points and footage).  End result would have been a passable movie.

Lightsaber toss is changed into Luke handing it back to Rey and walking away.  Luke is really just testing Rey's patience as Yoda originally did to Luke.

Leia dies in space sparking Luke to cut the Yoda-crazy-act and train Rey.  Bonus points if Luke is lead to believe Kylo Ren pulled the trigger (even though he didn't).

Rose never happens.
Canto Bight never happens.
Dreadnought and bombers in space never happens.
Hacker guy never happens.
Slowest space chase in history never happens.
Super-super Snoke star destroyer never happens.  How about the First Order shows a bit of set back from having lost a planet-sized base!
Yoda never happens.
Frog people never happens.
Universe spanning mind link never happens.
Luke flashbacks to trying-to-kill Kylo never happens.

Resistance escapes directly to the salt planet and activate the defenses.

Rey/Luke sensing the impending doom of The First Order having the remnants of the Resistance trapped on the salt planet fly off to save the day.  However, due to being cut short on time to train together they have a disagreement on how to proceed.

As they arrive at the planet Rey jettisons herself from the Millennium Falcon.

Snoke sensing Rey's arrival tells Kylo Ren to bring her to him.

Luke and Chewie are forced to escape to the planet and meet up with the resistance.

Snoke pits Kylo and Rey against each other.  First, he trigger's Kylo's teeny-angst by planting false lies about Rey's parentage and how Rey is his better.  Second, he trigger's Rey's emotion by telling her that her parent's were nobodies and that she is just a pawn to the force filling a vacuum.

Rey and Kylo have an epic fight before realizing that Snoke is playing them.  They turn on Snoke to kill him but have to go through the red dudes to get it done.  Snoke is greatly amused by the fight assuming he can kill the weaker of the two and keep the other.

After Rey and Kylo finish the red dudes Snoke utters a bad ass one liner like "good, use your anger".  Then Kylo realizing he is forever limited by Snoke (the same as he was limited by the weakness that was his father, Han) turns and kills Snoke.  Before Snoke goes down he utters "if you strike me down I will become stronger than you ever could know" setting him up to return in the next movie.  Kylo slices Snoke's head off.

Rey can't convince Kylo of her viewpoint and vice versa Kylo can't convince Rey of his.  Kylo traps Rey and finds out Luke is on the planet.  In a rage he takes an invasion force to get Luke.

Rey escapes and heads to the planet.

Luke fearing that Rey has been turned to the dark side fights to the death on the planet surface. Kylo and Luke have the most amazing lightsaber duel all the while Kylo is taunting him about Rey.  Kylo takes a wicked face hit forcing him to forever keep his mask on in future movies.

The Resistance hope-o-meter goes bankrupt as Luke falls on the battlefield and they escape into the tunnels.

Surprise, Rey is OK and saves the day.  The Resistance's hope-o-meter is full again.
Ending scene is Kylo donning his mask and going "Noooooooooooooooooooo!!!!" as the Millennium Falcon zips into hyperspace.
End credits.

Where are Finn and Poe during this movie?  Keeping the bromance going and working to keep the remnants of the Resistance from imploding under the doom and gloom.

Phasma?  I actually sort-of-like Phasma being a running meme in each new Star Wars movie.  A slow roll of her trying to squash out the "bug" that is Finn would be epic.



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