Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tsabo's Web In Every Thing (Commander)

One of the cool things about playing for a long, long time, having a relatively extensive collection of Magic and perpetually updating decks is that occasionally I'll have something snap together in my brain. In this case, I saw something while I was putting away some cards in Invasion block and thought: that never really did work out, did it?

Two days later, I'm playing a Commander game with stonethorn and Merrick and getting my ass kicked by a Vault of the Archangel, wondering why land destruction isn't in every color. Then today, it hit me.

Why is this not the go-to solution for all the crap that we put up with in Commander?

Tsabo's Web never really found a home back in the day, despite doing exactly what it was supposed to as an effective hoser. It is cheap, it cantrips (replaces itself), and it can fit into any deck because it's an artifact. At the time, though, most of the cards that the Web had an impact on weren't in Standard and the cards the Web has an impact on now didn't exist, as lands weren't as well understood as card type as they are now. On top of all that, since the effect was symmetrical you could find yourself hamstrung by your own hoser.

None of those things matter in Commander. It's not difficult to make a deck that doesn't need or has minimal use of those kinds of lands, special effects are all over the format so the Web is always going to be relevant, even if it seemingly isn't the draw effect will replace it, and because of Commander's stronger multiplayer focus the impact on the board is going to be much bigger than the two mana investment. Since it's a symmetrical but largely not-gamebreaking effect and still allows people to tap lands for mana, the possibility that you will draw aggro from playing Tsabo's Web ought to be pretty minimal.

Yet I don't see anyone talk about how useful this card is and the price is only $.49 at Starcity. This suggests to me that there is an opportunity to get some pretty big bang for the buck.

On top of all of that, this provides me with a truly useful answer to the question: what else do I add here? Sometimes, decks just don't want to build themselves and it can be hard to see what goes in next. A card like Tsabo's Web interacts with so many cards in the format, there's hardly a reason to exclude the it. It's just less mental work that needs to be done on my part.

I've got close to twenty Commander decks and four copies of Tsabo's Web. Time to make some tiny adjustments.

I doubt there will be much Magic playing this week or next, as much as I might want to. Sporadic updates (if any) until Jan 7th, but I'll get rolling again after that. Happy holidays, everyone!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

I'll Try To Break Your Back

Finally, I can get back to improving the new deck!

I brought My Curse to a Monday night session of beer and cards with Noah and played two matches with it. The first was against a mono-blue control deck and it went about as well as I would have expected. My Curse has some good things going for it but, as with so many decks, it pretty much folds against one that can simply say "No, you don't get to do that." Blue is still setting the benchmark to answer the question: Is this deck viable?

That doesn't mean it wasn't worthwhile, though. I had issues with getting the right color of mana that I hadn't noticed when playing with Fuz, which is always worrisome. 

The second matchup was against a mono-black deck and I had mana issues here, too. In this instance-pictured, with me having a bear of a time getting out of the way of my camera- I found myself losing game 2 because of a timely Ghost Quarter, a card I never expected to have to concern myself with.

But Noah two-for-one'd me, hitting my only land with a Fertile Growth and that hamstrung my deck. I spent the rest of the games struggling to find the colors or the acceleration I needed to keep myself in the game. Fortunately, land destruction isn't very common but Ghost Quarter is an often used answer to popular decks and may keep My Curse in check from being feared.

So I'm cutting Mesa Enchantress: as the only creature in the deck it will simply draw all the removal and I cannot protect it. There's no point in spending a turn trying to play the Enchantress and then hoping to draw cards off that, when what I need to be doing is building the fortress. Opponents will just kill the Enchantress and I will have wasted a turn.

Noah suggested Sigil of the Empty Throne, which I like quite a bit. Since it triggers whether or not my spells resolve, it becomes, like some of my curses, a must-counter spell. However, when I went to check the binder, no Sigils were awaiting me. That's surprising and annoying but it's also probably a blessing in disguise.

I had mana issues in both matchups with Noah and I ought to address that first. No matter how cool your deck is, it still sucks if it doesn't work. So I've added in another Copy Enchantment and Verdant Haven, along with two Mana Cylix. Cylix can double as a source of green in opening hands where I don't have any, along with providing me with colors I need to fix in a pinch. Plus, it's cheap and that's definitely a boon in a deck where so much costs five mana. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Hearthstone With Others

I tried to spend a good chunk of my weekend playing in the online arena of Hearthstone to get a sense of how that worked but was only partially successful.

Since the game will occasionally give you different quests to fulfill in order to earn gold for packs, I ended up going back to the practice arena to play the AI and earn enough basic cards so I could play against people online and not be horribly outmatched. This is a good way to encourage players to understand the different strategic strengths of each character but it's a drag if, after putting all my time into Mage and Warrior characters, I suddenly have to fulfill a quest using a Priest. There are enough generic quests that this probably isn't an issue for most people, and it's only my quirk of OCD that pushes such tasks on me but that doesn't subtract from the drag that it represents.

The online game plays a great deal like the AI one: one where attrition against creatures is the surest path to victory, so the more removal or creatures that tie into removal you have then the better off you are. Drawing cards is good, so anything that does that is good. I have had the wonderful surprise of having players lay down cards that I didn't know existed, such as the 12/12 beast that destroyed all other creatures in play. That was very, very bad for me but I had removal so I killed it on my turn and lay down the creature I'd been holding back. Still, the sense of being surprised was a good one and not horribly losing because of it felt fair.

Another game had me playing from behind the whole time and I lost. As with many collectable games, the person who has the bigger collection has an advantage over the newer player and it was very clear that I was up against someone who had paid their dues.

There were some neat online only quirks though: my opponent played an effect that allowed them to copy a card from my hand--but I had no idea which one they got. There was also a creature that gave us both spells to put in our hand and these kinds of effects just cannot be reproduced in a real world TCG without some serious consequences.These tricks suggest that they really have put some effort into making their game work.

As a short, kind of throwaway game, I get Hearthstone. The ability to change characters helps broaden the options and change things up without giving the game too much depth-something positive or negative, depending on how you feel about that. I'm certainly pleased that they are trying to engage in mechanics that are media-specific; if all they did was replicate what a regular card game would do then there's a legitimate "What's the point?" question to be asked.

Still, at the moment Hearthstone feels a bit like a 'burner game', like Peggle, Plants vs Zombies or Bejeweled, where I'll play the hell out of it for a week and then not touch it for a year. Perhaps when it moves out of Beta and there are more players it will feel different and if I can get it on my iPad, I certainly will. It's a solid game, I just don't know that it's a great one, yet.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Hearthstone Beta Impressions

A buddy had an extra beta key to the Hearthstone online card game, and you know how it is: free is a very good price. So I spent a couple days going through the training section of the game and while I haven't knuckled up and gone online to play real people yet, here's what I think so far:

First, it looks very slick. The board is very clear but there are still different 'settings' to play on. They don't affect the game in any way that I'm aware of but the change of scenery is nice. Plus, you can click on the scenery and produce some kind of change in it; windows break, squash shatter and then are regrown by opening a water spigot, a kite is blown away in the wind, and so on.

There are actually a great many little details like this that help give it a very strong first impression: loading screens usually have different taglines like, "polishing the stones" or "placing the scenery", "wiping off the table" etc, etc. Sometimes they're clever, sometimes just filler and occasionally mildly amusing, so at on the load screens there is reason to pay attention.

As a player, you can choose from one of nine classes (Warrior, Druid, Hunter, Mage...), each with their own special power and their own deck to start with. Those classes act as their own character during the match and can, under the right conditions, attack or be targeted by spells. You start with 3-4 cards, depending on who is going first, and you get one 'mana' crystal. One you use the crystal, its gone but every turn you draw a new card, then replenish your crystals and get an additional one, up to ten, so once you've hit ten crystals, that's it, you are maxed out, ten crystals per turn.

As I defeated AI minions, I won cards that could give me more powerful and varied abilities which would allow me to go in and tweak my deck of cards. Certain cards are marked "neutral", meaning they can go in any deck, others are class specific and only available to that class. There are also quests to fulfill or online games to play, which provide 'gold' to purchase extra packs of cards, or I could put real money into the game to buy packs and expand my deck. As with most of these games, there are two major types of cards; creature cards, who go onto the battlefield to crush enemies. and spell cards, which have a single effect and are done. Eventually, I could craft my own deck that I'd take out into the world to play against other online people.

The goal is to reduce your opponent's character from 30 to 0, via damage from those creatures or spells.

It's a pretty easy game to get into and the games play at a very brisk pace. A CCG for the iPad era, if you will; something you can kill time with while waiting in line and be done.

But it's also pretty strategy-light, especially if you're familiar with these kinds of games. I lost very few games against the AI-one because I mis-clicked a spell's target on my last turn- but others because I just stopped paying attention.

The strategy seems to be: kill all the other creatures until your victory is inevitable. Every time I did this, I won. Every time I tried not doing that, or stopped paying attention, I lost. You kill all those other creatures by maxing out your crystal usage every early turn and targeting opposing creatures over the opponent.

This may change when facing real players and I'm interested enough in Hearthstone to see if that is the case.

Another potential issue is the sound cues. In AI matches, every time you've spent all your crystals, a voice says 'Job's done,' to signal the end of your turn. Every. Time. There are other little touches like this: characters will threaten each other with their declarations of power, taking something from a Street Fighter matchup at the beginning of each game but after I hear the tagline three times, I don't need to hear it anymore. While these cues can be a very useful thing for new or visually impaired players, I didn't see something in the settings that let me turn it off.

So it's engaging but it isn't amazing. I'll check it out online to see how that goes. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Problems Have Solutions or Blue Still Has The Best Everything

Carsten Kotter had a pretty great read on True-Name Nemesis, which is a card that I would have 100% expected to see ten years ago and never expected now.

Exxxxxxxxxxcept when Wizards is able to make cards without having to consider the Standard format and the modern design philosophies that have guided the past few years, which, as much as I criticize those sets, have often lead to some interesting, diverse formats.*

*Except when blue is involved. Hmm....

The color problem Carsten points out is the big issue: why is TNN blue? The argument that TNN should be white is dead on and rock solid.

He's blue because WotC, in the absence of other rules about balancing a format, will gleefully handwave away their own guidelines in order to make blue the best color. The place where they can let those guidelines slide? Legacy, which is a format that all the cards from the Commander sets are legal and blue is already insane. WotC has even suggested that Commander is an area where they can release cards that might be interesting in the Eternal formats, without mucking up the much more carefully balanced Standard and now Modern arenas.

So: all True-Name Nemesis is, is a throwback to the days of yore when they could throw all kinds of awesome at blue and nobody could really do anything about it. That's worrisome. And yes, I am aware that in the 2011 Commander product, the "best" card was a green one (also used in Legacy) but it's clear to me that the 2011 product was one where they used modern design principles in order to try and get a grip on a format they didn't entirely understand yet. The proof: Scavenging Ooze was printed in M14 and nobody batted an eye about design issues. Instead we were excited that a very expensive and difficult to acquire card would be widely available!

There is no way in hell TNN is printed in a Standard legal format. While I appreciate that the game isn't just about me, I do wish that colors that were not blue got the kind of boost to their repertoire that TNN gives to blue decks. White would have gotten a huge boost out of that card, helping to push Hatebears and White Weenie decks in a huge way.

On the other hand, when you have a deck that needs help and blue is even close to being in reach, then why not use blue?

In my games with Fuz, one thing I noticed was that on many occasions I wanted multiple copies of my enchantments. Duplicates under many circumstances could be helpful: more Fertile Ground to keep the mana production going, an extra Sphere of Safety to keep creatures off my back or even another Curse of Thirst. Sphere of Safety seemed especially useful to duplicate, because I cannot search it up with a Curse of Misfortune.

So I found a duplication device. It's perfect for this deck because it's splashable, cheap and has a swiss-army knife level of utility. It may even be worth cutting the Mesa Enchantress for multiple copies, because I don't know that I need the card draw in this style of deck, and having no creatures blanks so many opposing strategies, that it's possibly worth making that choice.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

My Curse

I've been involved in a flurry of deckbuilding but have had trouble getting time to test the new ideas. I may have to become a bit more active in the Reddit Cockatrice forum, so I can find more people to play with. Timing is hard though: I have a life too--all that beer won't drink itself.

Still, I have three new decks to talk about, only one of which I've played so far. Which means I really only have one deck to talk about.

4 Sphere of Safety
3 Curse of Misfortunes
4 Curse of Thirst
3 Curse of Inertia
4 Curse of Death's Hold
3 Opalescence
4 Fertile Ground
3 Verdant Haven
3 Curse of Bloodletting
3 Curse of Exhaustion

4 Mesa Enchantress

5 Swamp
6 Plains
2 Island
3 Mountain
7 Forest

Named after the awesome Afghan Whigs song for, I hope, obvious reasons. My initial plan was to use Sphere of Safety to hold everyone off, Curse of Exhaustion and Death's Hold to slow them down, Fertile Ground and Verdant Haven to ramp the mana up (and buff Sphere) then drop Opalescence and swing with suddenly appearing 5/5s, using Curse of Inertia to tap my opponent's best stuff. Worst case, I could hide and let damage from Curse of Thirst win the game.

This is not how it played out. This is a 'fortress' deck, hiding behind the Sphere and the Curses in order to get down a Curse of Thirst and Curse of Bloodletting to do massive damage. Opalescence is actually my backup plan. This means some tweaking is in order.

The mana still needs to be adjusted, swapping a Mountain for a Swamp because I needed to play a Death's Hold more than I needed to play Bloodletting, a card that is only key in the endgame. A Curse of Bloodletting and an Opalescence can also be cut; a backup plan only needs to show up in the late game, and a Curse of Misfortunes meas that I can just shortcut a Bloodletting into play, instead of hardcasting it. Mesa Enchantress is one of those weird cards that I feel ought to work in this deck but I'm not sure matters. I'm keeping an eye on you and disruption may be more important than card draw.

I have an idea for some replacements of those cuts but I need some time to break this deck down a little, and I need to buy a few cards (I'm sort a Sphere of Safety if you can believe it) so this can be sleeved up and played in meatspace.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Theros Problem

After the Theros draft experience, I ended up talking with Sean a bit about the Theros set. You may recall Sean from his work on the Soradyne set, a fan made MtG set that I helped out a little on.

Sean hates Theros. Hates it. I had my own views on the set which were also not that positive and the draft experience didn't really bring me around. Talking to Sean though has brought up a few ugly points about Theros that I think are worth talking about.

First: it's bland. They've turned Elspeth into Gordon Freeman, essentially. She's referred to by her name only sometimes in card flavor text, more frequently called the Hero and I believe they did it to have players project themselves onto her. The use of Archenemy-like challenges in the pre-release supports this theory, in my opinion: we can take the same actions she does and thus pretend, in some manner, to be her.

Except that by removing personality from one of the major Planeswalkers, they sacrifice the very thing that makes her interesting. Elspeth isn't interesting because she's a Planeswalker, she's interesting because she's a character. Worse, Elspeth is the lens that they want to shine Theros through! But if the lens is boring then what does that do to the plane?

This 'blandening' is what is behind Sean's biggest issues with Theros: According to him (and WotC, so he's not out on a limb), it's about heroes, gods and monsters. Yet those things aren't arranged in a compelling narrative so we don't have the political dynamics of Ravnica, the horror movie conflict of Innistrad or the war on Mirrodin.

We have heroes, who don't get to act very heroic and are frequently ill-defined. See Fabled Hero as a great example: we don't know who the hero is, nor the poet, yet apparently there's a story written about him. He's not the only issue though. When I take a look at the legendary permanents of Theros, I am unable to see who is in opposition to one another. What does Daxos want that conflicts with Tymaret? Forget the mechanics for a moment, just push this into what we know about Theros. Who is in conflict, and why? Theros does a very poor job of setting that up.

From a mechanical perspective, heroes cause another problem: Why do they only get bonuses when you target them? Why not any player? Heroes are defined by actions taken under dire circumstances in opposition to overwhelming odds. Let's just use that as a loose definition. Since the heroes don't trigger off the spells of opponents (or teammates!) you have a lost opportunity to have those creatures demonstrate some kind of heroic activity. They just do what every creature in Magic does which is get better when you do things to buff them.

Since we don't know what the central conflict of Theros is and why those heroes need to be arranged in opposition to it, why is it important that they get better, beyond this being the most bland expression of the Hero's Journey?

The monsters in Greek myth usually spawned from the naughty actions of the gods themselves and were sometimes sent to destroy or punish the citizens. Think of it like Batman's Rogue's Gallery: he has one of the best because the great villains are often reflections of him (and, as a result, his audience.)

Where does Polukranos come from? Hythonia? Does anyone know? I'm sure WotC does but I don't. These are the legendary threats and we as players don't know why we need to defeat them. Now, on a mechanical level, I've already gone into the issue of how I feel this mechanic is often unclear but from a story perspective, I don't know why these monsters are there, beyond; Because the audience expects them and I don't understand how monstrosity sets these creatures apart except that WotC didn't want to use Kicker. These are awful reasons. Hythonia is way less interesting than Visara the Dreadful, and Visara's only reason to be in Onslaught was as a pit fighter in the Cabal's fighting tournament. However, there were pit fighters! And a tournament! She was also one of two gorgons on the entire plane, so where did she come from?

There are questions that have answers and they are set inside a conflict that players understood. Elspeth is being pushed into a conflict of what or with whom, exactly?

The gods would seem to be the answer there but they don't seem to be fighting with each other. They don't speak at all in flavor text so there's very little way for players to understand why these gods need Elspeth at all and mechanically they don't clearly oppose one another, despite being very strong representations of their color.  

Which brings us to the issue with top-down design. A failure of flavor becomes, to me, a failure of design and even mechanics. If one doesn't properly express the world and its conflict in recognizable ways when standing atop the top-down mountain, then clearly there is an issue there. The heroes aren't heroic, the monsters aren't distinctive and the gods are just there. If that conflict was expressed mechanically or via flavor text, then there would be a basis for a story that is truly keyed into Theros's as a place. Instead, this conflict could be anywhere and that weakens the block as a whole.