Monday, June 27, 2016

Ten to the what?

I have been playing some Clicker Heroes these past couple weeks.  I abandoned the game a long time ago, but the new additions to it brought me back to investigate.  Why it is I am brought back into a game that is fundamentally absurd I don't know, but I can't seem to stop myself.

The latest update is interesting because it changes progression in the game in a couple of fundamental ways.  It used to be that the game had severe diminishing returns on progress pretty much no matter how far along you were.  The first Ascension you would collect perhaps 7 Souls, the next one 10 Souls, etc.  I eventually got to the point where I was collecting 50,000 Souls per Ascension but it was clear that the next run would be 53,000, the next one 57,000, and so forth.  The numbers would always get bigger, but nothing new would happen and the progression eventually became glacial.  However, now the new formulas have made it so that each run gets bigger than the previous - by a lot.  My past Transcension (different from Ascension) I collected roughly 3.7 Billion Souls, and the one before it was on the order of 300 Million Souls.  A huge change!  Each Transcension you will be collecting 10 times the Souls of the previous, or somewhere in that neighborhood at least.  It turns out that setting the amount of stuff you get to 20*x^250 gets pretty big even when x is roughly 1.01, and x gets just a little bit bigger each time. (Also the 250 value increases too.)

Of course Clicker Heroes is still just a game where you click once and then wait 20 minutes to click again.  I giggle when I imagine explaining this game to someone:

So what did you do there?

I clicked a button to do a billion times as much damage.

A billion times?  That seems like a lot for one button click.  Hit that button a lot?

Oh, it is good, but I can't hit it very often.  Look here now, I am doing something new!  This accomplishment will make me do .3% more damage.

Wait, so you click "Multiply damage by 1 billion" all the time, but get excited by "Increase damage by .3%?"

Yes, that is exactly it.  You see, the .3% bonus applies for longer than the 1 billion times multiplier.

So the .3% applies forever?

Oh no, it goes away too.  Mostly it just helps me hit the 1 billion times multiplier slightly less often for a short time.

So how much damage do you do now?

Roughly 10^170.

So you do as much damage as the number of molecules in the universe, SQUARED?  That is the damage you do, per second?

Yes.  That is how this game works.  My damage per second is the number of molecules in the universe, squared.  You know a game is awesome when the developers have a serious problem in getting computers to record the numbers in the game because those numbers are so large.  Love it!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A new game

One of the cards I love the most in Hearthstone is Fel Reaver.  I haven't used it a lot but I love it because it changes the game in a big way when it lands, by offering the opponent a new way to win the game.  It isn't often that you play a card that says "Hey opponent!  Want a new win condition?  Here ya go, try and deck me!" and that makes it a card that generates a lot of interesting decisions.

The thing about Fel Reaver that makes it so powerful is that people who play against it in a draft situation lose their minds.  It is +2/+2 bigger than a minion of its cost has any right to be and that is hugely powerful, but people make all kinds of mistakes when it gets played that makes it even better than that.  Usually this involves them trying to deck the owner of Fel Reaver by playing tons of cheap cards and leaving Fel Reaver alive, hoping to make the decking option work.

Look at the numbers:  Most of the time a Hearthstone draft deck goes through 15 cards at most in a game.  Often less, rarely more.  Given that decks are 30 cards this means that the first 5 cards you play against a Fel Reaver do literally nothing.  Oh, they look impressive, burning away the opponent's options, but they don't offer any useful advantage.  At the end of the game if you are dead it does not matter at all if the opponent happens to have no deck left, and it takes a couple of turns after their deck is gone before they really run out of options and lose.

The trick to fighting against Fel Reaver is to pretend it has no text.  It is just an 8/8 for 5, nothing more.  Sure, if you happen to pop off a few cheap cards before blowing it up there is a 1% chance it will help you win an attrition match but you are better off ignoring that.  The most important thing is just focusing on winning the game right as it is.

The same sort of thinking has to apply to the other side too.  When you have a Fel Reaver don't worry about your deck - just try to win the game.  Remember that if the opponent tries to ignore Fel Reaver and deck you then you can always just run Fel Reaver into their minions and get good trades, and if they throw their minions and removal at it then all well and good, it did its job of being a gigantic body.

More than anything everyone involved has to remember that although you *can* deck someone using Fel Reaver it isn't a quick process, and Fel Reaver probably kills you in three swings.  Unless something weird happens you need to focus on winning the game normally, not on the new win condition that just appeared to taunt you from a great distance.

It reminds me of a team Magic tournament I participated in years ago where my team was playing W/U Millstone.  We slowly ground away our opponent's decks and won convincingly, and at the end of the game the opponents tried to get us to trade them some Millstones.

We tried to explain to them that they didn't lose because Millstone is powerful - they lost because our decks dominated them and they sat there doing nothing.  We could have won with any card, and in fact I used Serpent Generator to much the same effect in later times.

However, they remained fixated on the awful feeling of their deck being ground away.  There is something very powerful about watching your resources drain off, even when that resource drain has little to do with actual victory.  Seeing cards flip from the deck into the graveyard is an emotional event from both sides, far more so than its effect actually justifies.

Fel Reaver and Millstone are the same in this way.  The takeaway lesson is to focus not on the cards flipping off the deck, but on what actually makes you win or lose.  In both cases the thing to do is ignore the milling effect and focus on winning the game right now, because that is what matters in nearly every case.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Difficulty, and lack thereof

In my last DnD session my group faced a difficult challenge.  We were in a city under siege, trying to rescue civilians who were holed up in a temple.  The temple was being attacked, and the attackers were using a battering ram to smash down the front door.

The brute force approach would be to simply run in, murder every single enemy there, and end the attack on the temple that way.  The other option was to open the back door of the temple and let all the civilians out the back.  We ended up making some really bad tactical decisions because we tried to talk to the civilians at the same time as we attacked the enemies battering away with the ram and split our forces - a terrible blunder in DnD.

What really got me giggling though was the way that the back door worked.  Clearly the enemies knew about it, since they had people completely surrounding the temple and patrols circling it.  However, instead of just going in that way they went through the heavy barricaded front door instead.  They were, apparently, stymied by the fact that the back door was locked.

The DC to pick the lock was 10.  That is, any random dork in the enemy army had a 50/50 chance of picking the lock if they felt like trying it by rolling 1d20.  In any case, having wiped out the enemies, we easily picked the lock and went in.  That we were able to break in seems completely reasonable - after all, we had a couple of trained thieves using lockpicks.  However, because of the way 5th edition DnD is structured there is no way to effectively make a lock that makes sense.  If my group has a decent chance to pick the lock, any idiot with no training can too.  We, being experts, only have a +6 on our check, so if the GM makes the DC high enough that the lock isn't pickable by any random idiot, like say 25, then we have almost no chance to succeed.  There isn't a DC that allows experts to succeed and novices to fail.

That kind of ruined the immersion for me.  I mean, if the enemies are going to just ignore the second entrance to the temple for no reason then how can I plan around what the enemies should or might do?  I don't mind planning around magic, even magic I wasn't anticipating, but when doors are just impregnable to NPCs for no reason and trivial for PCs to open everything kind of falls apart in my head.

This is one of the things that bothers me about the bounded accuracy of 5th edition DnD.  (Where hit and Armour Class bonuses are very restricted so that you can't be unhittable or unable to miss.)  Bounded accuracy makes sense in combat where you don't want people to be unhittable, but it generates some ridiculous situations out of combat when any random dork has a good chance to beat the greatest expert in the world when they compete against each other at a task.  If you can only really get +10 on somebody then any task you can easily complete they can manage half the time, and that really isn't enough differentiation between the best and the worst.

It comes down to scaling.  Combat with bounded accuracy works because people do more damage, take more actions, and have more health.  Even if you can hit the dragon when you are level 1, you can't *win*.  But things like lockpicking and stealth don't have hit points or damage.  All you have is a single die, so when you are limited in your bonuses on that die you can't really get good at anything.  If noncombat actions had way more rules (which would be unwieldy, you can't have a subsystem for everything) then this would work, but given that noncombat actions are simple you need to let go of bounded accuracy.

This does lead to weird results when you let people get big bonuses though.  In my Heroes By Trade campaign my character can knock open a heavy fortress gate just by smashing into it.  She is immensely strong, can use a Ritual to increase her Might check, has a Vessel that boosts her Might, and is a Master in Might.  Basically she is a wrecking ball, and it has lead the GM to despair that he can't put a solid object in our way because she will just smash through.  Essentially he is dealing with superheroic powers.  This could never happen in DnD because you can't get good enough to do anything powerful like that - bonuses are too constrained.

I really like the superheroic skills though.  I think it is cool to have the ability to become so amazing at Balance that you can dance on the top of a flagpole, or have such power over Animals that you can tame a rabid wolverine with a few whispered words.  This is the sort of thing that magical people in a magical world can do!  You can't manage this stuff at the beginning, of course, as you need to devote a lot of resources to it, but high level people can do some amazing stuff.

In DnD 5th that amazing stuff is limited to magic users.  Spells do have some astounding powers, but skills don't.  They just let you slowly get slightly better at things you could already do.  That isn't interesting to me, and it makes fighter types feel a lot less interesting.  If all I can ever do is be good at bashing, and the casters get to break the rules of reality, then I am going to feel like a secondary character.  Doesn't mean combat balance is off, of course, but it does mean that some people get to be superheroic when there isn't a fight, and I would like that option to be available to everyone.

Friday, June 3, 2016

A slow descent

I mostly play Arena in Hearthstone these days.  Drafting decks is tremendous fun and I really feel like I am getting better at figuring out weightings for my picks.  I used to end up with decks that simply didn't have enough late game or were too slow and I am balancing that much better, finding a good mix of costs and draw.  One thing I am finding though is that Arena feels more random than it used to, and I think that trend is simply going to continue over time.

I watched a video by Kripparrian where he talked about his new strategy for avoiding board clears by opponents, which is to simply ignore board clears and go for it.  Overextend!  Spew out dudes!  Of course sometimes they do have the board clear and you get blown out, but most of the time they don't.  This is a big change from previous eras, but it all makes sense.  Blizzard has not been publishing many new board clears, or even new removal spells.  The ones that do make it are situational or downright bad most of the time.  The classic board clears only appear in a single set, and as the card pool grows they make up a smaller and smaller fraction of decks.  As time goes by Arena is going to contain a greater percentage of minions and weird cards and a lower percentage of premium removal and board clears.

This has two major effects.  Firstly it makes Arena much more tempo driven.  You can't rely on board clears to reset the game because you probably don't have any clears.  That means you need a bigger focus on cheap minions and early game board control.  Missing a 1 drop is going to become a bigger deal because that 1 drop won't just get cleared out at some point.  Losing control of the board because you missed a 2 drop will be much harder to reverse.  There is obviously still skill involved, but against any moderately skilled opponent who actually gets a 1,2,3,4 drop sequence it will be extremely difficult to come back if your draw is awkward or top heavy.  The emphasis on early game will only get bigger and the quality of the opening draw will become more important as time goes by.  This also means that board clears are even better because people won't be playing around them and so they will get maximum value a lot more often.

There is also a general reduction in the ability of a good player to anticipate what the opponent will do.  Baiting out hard removal with a big minion in order to protect an even better minion becomes foolish when the opponent probably doesn't even have a hard removal spell.  Playing around a board clear is pointless when there are hardly any around.  Even just thinking about which 4 drop the opponent will use can be silly when the pool of 4 drops is ever increasing - at some point you just accept that you know nothing about what will happen next.  Of course there is still skill in playing the board, and you can still think about generalities like "what will I do against a big taunt?" without knowing which exact big taunt it will be, but the amount of skill that can be applied definitely fades.

The fact that websites like HearthArena offer really good advice on picks and are updated very quickly and the fact that predictability in games is going down means that win rates are almost certain to flatten over time.  This is a slow process, obviously, but I suspect we will see a situation where the best players see their win rates drift downwards while the medium players, especially those that use outside assistance for drafting, see their win rates rise.

This is not to say the sky is falling.  After all, there is always some luck and some skill, and now the balance is shifting slightly in favour of luck.  I am not claiming that Hearthstone is currently at the perfect spot, so a shift is just a shift, not necessarily bad or good.  However, I do think that the shift is unavoidable.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

A happy ending

I finally bought and played the final chapter in the Starcraft 2 trilogy - Legacy of the Void.  I was disappointed enough with part 2 that I waited until I saw Legacy on sale to buy it, because I sure didn't want to be let down again.

I wasn't let down though.  Legacy wasn't all I might have hoped, but it was all it could have been.

Which sounds weird, but let me explain.  Part 1, Wings of Liberty, was one of the best games I have ever bought.  I played through the campaign over and over and I absolutely loved it.  The missions were themed well, had lots of variety, and were balanced to give me all the experiences I wanted.  I loved the characters and the story.

Legacy couldn't have been all those things.  It has good variety in missions, nice visuals, all of that.  The technical elements of the missions were all well done.  But there were some things that it could never be because it was a protoss game.  You just can't get people invested in aliens as easily or as well as you can get them invested in humans.  Little things like random signs on the wall or a look of utter exhaustion in a character's eyes don't come across when you are looking at an alien.  Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan have appeal that Zeratul and Artanis just don't.  Blizzard could make all the great missions they wanted (and they did!) but it wouldn't tug at my heartstrings the same way.

The technical implementation isn't perfect though.  Part 1 was amazing in that it had four separate plot lines you could tackle at whatever pace you wanted.  Figuring out what to do next was actually an interesting puzzle.  Choosing what things to research was tricky.  Deciding what upgrades to buy took thought.  However, in Legacy those choices aren't there.  You can choose to do A first or B first, but you have to do AB or BA.  All the currency you gather for upgrades is refundable so all choices can be reversed on a whim.  The ability to make a hard plot choice, one mission or another, listen to Nova or Tosh, is not there.

Which is all to say that Legacy mostly just suffers by comparison.  It is a good game, and I liked it.  I will play through again on harder difficulties to hone my skills.  But it wasn't as good as the first.

Nothing would be though, really.  Just being about the Protoss made it certain that it would pale in comparison, even if the other technical bits were just as good.  And they weren't as good, though they were still quite solid.

When the Protoss campaign ended and the final cinematic was done I was just about ready to flip tables - where was the proper ending?  What happens to the characters?  But then I realized there was an epilogue where we finally get to see the threads tied up.  It was all kinds of nonsense, magic stacked on magic, but Sarah and Jim finally got their happy ending.  I loved that, nonsense be damned.

I feel a deep sense of relief.  The series is done, the story is over.  The characters I loved so much walked off into the sunset together.  The game pushed me to be better.'s about time.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Missing something

I have been playing a lot of N'Zoth paladin lately in Hearthstone and seeing the decks out there has made me wonder if I, and maybe everybody else, was missing some things in times gone by.  In particular I look at some of the cards in my deck that have been around forever and yet weren't seeing play and wonder if things have really changed, or if people have just shifted their perceptions of the game.

For example, in my deck I have the following cards:

Obviously these two cards work well together.  You can, for six mana, destroy any enemy minion.  Plus both cards are potentially quite useful on their own, as Kodo finds plenty of targets without any help and Humility can cheaply turn big drops into big sacks of nothing.

But go back a few months and I would have considered both of these cards junk.  They weren't in competitive decks and my opinion of them could be characterized as full of disdain.

So what happened?

There are some obvious answers, but I don't know that those answers cover it.  One of the most crucial reasons is that the game has swung away from powerful deathrattle minions.  Kodo may stomp on a Haunted Creeper, but that isn't actually helping much.  Using single shot removal on a Piloted Shredder feels terrible because even when it dies it still does something.  Creeper and Shredder were played a lot, so they have an influence, but does it really cover it?

I think there are other things to consider too.  One of those things is that the metagame has shifted dramatically away from aggro decks that flood the board with cheap stuff and then burn you out.  You can't play cards like Humility in a format where many decks don't run anything with more than 3 Attack and Kodo is useless at keeping direct damage from hitting you in the head.  Nearly all decks are running some big minions so that helps Humility's case, and the game is slower and people are winning by controlling the board with minions so Kodo is a lot more likely to be useful.

Likely another candidate is the massive nerfing of Big Game Hunter.  It was the go to card to deal with gigantic minions and has been nerfed so hard that people are looking for other options - enter Humility.  It used to be you would be silly to make a 7/7 into a 1/7 for 1 mana when you could use BGH and just kill it for 3 mana and get a 4/2 on your side to boot.  Now though Humility is really worth a look as big removal and when two cards both get noticeably better and have combo potential together it should be no great surprise that they see play.

I feel as though I want to go back in time and play a deck with Humility and Kodo in it to see for myself.  How would these new techniques fare in an different environment?  Unfortunately that experiment isn't available to me and I will have to settle for just wondering.

Thing is... what else am I missing?  What other cards are cruising on the edge of viability that are slipping past me right now?  I wish I knew.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A plan

The new standard format for Hearthstone has really changed the way people play the game.  Face Hunter used to be the gold standard for aggro, and if you couldn't live through their brutal onslaught your deck was pretty much doomed on the ladder.  Now, Face Hunter is almost nonexistent, in fact Hunter as a whole is nearly unseen in competitive play.  I like this new way of playing, and not because there are no aggro decks - they exist - but because the aggro decks generally focus a lot more on building a board fast and interacting with the opponent instead of just loading up on 1 drops and burn.  If you wrest the board away from them, you probably win.

I have been playing N'Zoth paladin personally and I am enjoying it greatly.  It feels decadent to play a deck with three 8 cost minions, a 10 cost minion, and a couple spells you often spend 10 mana on.  The deck plans to play really slowly and have super high value plays and I love it.  This kind of outrageously slow plan would have been totally unworkable not so long ago and I feel like I nailed that much about my prediction about the effects of the latest content patch - games really are being regularly decided by whose gigantic 10 drop comes down to end the game.

Funny thing I have seen about how decks are described though - they are usually categorized into aggro, control, or midrange.  I don't really think midrange describes them properly though, because I feel like they aren't actually trying to win in the medium term.  All they are doing is trying to use all the best cards.  Control decks have a plan, which is to last a long time and set up a situation where their victory is inevitable.  Aggro decks try to seize the board and end the opponent before they can lose their early momentum.  Midrange decks, on the other hand, are mostly just a pile of the best possible cards that hope to win based on quality.

That quality isn't a measure of raw card power.  If you just want the most powerful cards you play nothing but things that cost 8 or more, and you lose.  It is about efficiency, about selecting everything that a class has that is super effective for its cost and then hoping that those cards carry you to victory.

I think it is useful to think about decks this way because you can recognize when your deck has a particular plan and should use cards to forward that plan, and when your deck is just trying to have awesome cards and coast on them.  For example, Leeroy Jenkins is a card that you use when your plan is to do 30 damage before giving up the game completely.  On the other hand Excavated Evil is a card that you use when your plan is to just keep the board totally clean until you drop some gigantic monster to win the game.  Midrange decks don't use those sorts of cards generally speaking because they don't have such a concrete plan.

In my mind a better descriptor than Midrange would be Goodcard.  That is all those decks really are:  A collection of the most efficient cards a class has.  That isn't a criticism - nothing wrong with putting a bunch of good cards in a deck and just reacting to the situation instead of pushing your plan.  I do think it is a more useful way to talk about them though, because it makes it clear that there is a division between decks with a plan and decks without a plan.