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.

Hell...it'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.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Netting the decks

I have been wondering how much the collectible aspect of Hearthstone affects the prevalence of netdecking.  Especially since it is possible to play Hearthstone F2P, and a lot of people do, there are a ton of people out there trying to play the game without a full collection available.

I have seen a bunch of people complaining that the new expansion has only been out a few weeks and still everyone is using whatever decks they see go up on their favourite Hearthstone website instead of making their own.  That is undeniably true, but a lot of people attribute it to laziness and greed while I think it might be more reasonably attributed to poverty.

Hearthstone poverty, at any rate.  Thing is, if you aren't putting real money into the game your resources aren't going to be substantial.  The dust required to craft a legendary could easily take a month of grinding to get at 60 minutes a day, even if you are quite successful at arena.  If you try out something fun that requires a legendary and a few epics and discover that your experiment really sucks, that hour of trying could easily cost you all the dust you earn in two months.  People really don't want to get stuck with cards they regret crafting, especially when getting those cards takes so long.

So obviously they netdeck.  Which doesn't mean they copy the entire decklist necessarily, but they check to make sure that top players are using the cards they intend to craft, and then they make a deck very similar to one that they know is successful.  This at least guarantees that they have something solid to pilot while they grind up dust for their next purchase.

Sure, you could insist that everyone should just be creative and play their own designs, but that is easy to say when you have a full collection and being creative has no cost aside from the time spent playing.  It is a lot harder when you are spending a finite resource each time you want to try something new out.

It makes me wonder how the metagame would shift if Hearthstone were a subscription service.  If everyone was playing with a full collection it would be trivial to build the exact same deck as the pros, but it would also be easy to make whatever tweaks you want.  I suspect this would lead to most players being more willing to experiment and try out wild ideas, but there are pressures both ways.

For example, I want to build a N'Zoth paladin.  The list I found uses Eadric the Pure.  He is not often used and I don't have confidence that crafting him is a good use of my resources, so I will find something else to fit in that spot.  However, I will definitely craft the Forbidden Healing cards that the deck uses because they seem irreplaceable.  I won't be running the same list that anyone else is (except by accident!) but I will definitely be using some of the ideas I have found online, and I will be checking to make sure that if I am crafting something it is something somebody else tried and found useful.

I know back when I was playing Magic a lot I ran rogue decks all the time.  I really enjoyed finding metagame choices that crushed the popular decks but which were unexpected and often terrible against the things that I didn't expect.  I would love to do the same in Hearthstone, but I can't just experiment all the time with wild ideas without just running out of resources and being stuck.

I understand why people netdeck.  I do it, sort of, and it is a natural result of the resource system and financial model of Hearthstone.  While I think going to a subscription model would help with this, that obviously won't ever happen so we can't test.  Unfortunate, that, because I love to learn about whether or not my guesses about social dynamics pan out.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

And we doubled it

I am reminded of a quote from the Diablo 3 development team prior to launch "and then we doubled it".  At the time they were referring to how they made the highest difficultly level insanely hard to make sure everyone would die.  First they made it hard, and then they doubled it.

Doubling it was a terrible idea, and they screwed the difficulty curve up horrifically.

In the latest season they took most of the best sets for all classes and doubled them.  For my favourite class, the Witch Doctor, they increased the overall damage by double on the set, then added an extra 50% on top of that.  They they gave me 20% damage reduction, 15% elite damage reduction, and reduced the damage scaling in higher rifts.

The game sure feels different now.  Instead of treasuring each new level I get I end up levelling 9 times in a single run, and I do that in a rift that is so easy I beat it with half the time remaining.  It is almost an absurdity compared to the heinous grind that the game was at release where you would have to put in 100 hours to see any notable increase in power.

It is still fun, of course.  Mowing down monsters is a good time and the game scales infinitely so eventually I am going to hit the point where it gets hard.  But all these nerfs and buffs compound in powerful ways.  Although I do 3x times the damage of last season, that means I can go up 15 rift levels, which increases my XP gain massively, ranks up my gems, and gives me better loot.  Which means I go up to higher rift levels, etc.

However, you can't look at any numbers from last season and have them make any kind of sense.  I don't quite know what to think of it, really.  It seems almost ridiculous that gems have a level 25 ability, as though that is a challenge to meet.  These days that number should be set at more like 65 to be of equivalent difficulty to when gems launched.

I guess the real metric is "Is D3 fun?" and the answer is yes.  Smashing monsters to pieces is great, there are tons of crazy and interesting things to do, there are actually a lot of choices in how you build a character, and I have fun with it.

They finally have the game in a place where casual players and hardcore players play the same game, just with different numbers.  And that is a good thing, I think.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Always buffs

We played Heroes By Trade last night and while it was a good time it definitely illustrated that I have some more work to do on balancing buffs.  At the moment in the game I have buffs balanced as though you are casting them in the middle of a battle.  That is, if you decide to cast Power Infusion on turn 3 of a fight it is a pretty huge loss of tempo because you aren't actually killing anyone.  As such it adds a ton of damage to your attacks for 2 turns to make up for that loss.  This is all fine.

The problem comes in when people buff before a fight.  Last night our encounter had exactly that, a situation where a bunch of weak enemies came after us from a distance and we had the chance to all cast our buffs before they got there.  Power Infusion is perfectly fine when used during a fight, but when it is used before the fight even starts it is ridiculous.  Even more than that though was the problem that one of the characters used a 2 round buff and a 1 round buff so that on the round that the enemies arrived and we started fighting he was absolutely absurd.  This messes with combat balance in a huge way and although I have noted this in the past it was never quite so stark as it was last night.

I have to fix this.  It isn't right that such a huge component of character power is based on buffs, and I don't like that fight difficult varies so wildly based on whether or not the characters are deemed able to buff immediately prior to the battle or not.

But how do I fix it without making buffs absolutely useless when the fight is ongoing?  If a buff is really terrible (but still better than nothing) so as to make prebuffing not a big deal, it will never be worth using during a fight except when you really have nothing else to do.  I had to find some other ways.

One of the fixes I came up with is to make buffs less offensively oriented.  If a buff lasts 1 round and is half offensive, half defensive, it is a lot less of a problem because the defensive portion is not likely to matter at all for prebuffing purposes, but will be highly relevant for in combat use.

Another simple change I had to make was to get rid of buff stacking.  No class can have a situation where they can stack up several buffs at once because that is going to get out of hand.  Buffs either have to be exclusive or only last 1 round so that they can't be combined with prebuffing.  I definitely can't have a class with a 1 round buff and a 2 round buff.

I also need to consider the discount rate I am applying to buffs.  Normally when an effect happens right away it is more costly than a delayed effect.  For example, for 3 ranks you can either do 4.5 damage right now or you can apply a debuff to an enemy that will do 10 damage next turn.  That 10 damage might not matter because the enemy might already be dead, and even if it does matter it doesn't stop the enemy from getting one last action.  I was using a similar sort of discount rate for buffs, making them more effective because they were delayed.  Unfortunately that was a huge problem with prebuffing because the damage wasn't being pushed to later rounds, rather it was being applied on the first round or two of combat, which is exactly where you want it.  I think I need to reimagine my balancing of buffs such that they are useful when you are out of position or haven't got a great action, but that they are simply not a good choice when you have a good direct action you could take instead.

I went through all the Powers and made some changes in accordance with this new philosophy.  One good example of the changes is the buff Power Infusion, which previously added 2d10 damage to your attacks for 2 rounds.  The new version lasts only 1 round instead and it adds 2d6 damage and +7 Speed.  The change in the damage is just a shift in the discount rate and the change in the effect is to get rid of the offensive orientation of the buff to some extent.  It is still a great Power to use when you have the change to prebuff but the damage bonus is reduced from 21 over 2 turns to 7 in a single turn.  Much more reasonable.

The one thing that is really being a challenge is that there is one class whose theme is totally centered around buffs.  Marauders have a series of Powers that let them take on the Aspect of a particular animal.  Aspect of the Drone lets you hit enemies that a chosen ally hits, Aspect of the Cheetah makes you really fast, etc.  The problem here is that these are a core ability of the class and I expect them to use these abilities all the time.  One quarter of all of their Powers are Aspect Powers and so if they aren't really good except in niche circumstances the class loses a ton of its theme.  This is going to be a tricky thing, but I suspect I am going to end up having to slap on an attack to each of the Aspect Powers.  Right now when you use them you don't do anything else that turn, so they are pretty powerful.  However, if I just make all of them also include an attack then they won't be overpowered in a prebuffing situation because the attack is worthless, but they should be fine to use during a fight, which is definitely my intention.

This is a lot of work, and a significant rewrite for a lot of abilities, but I think in the end it will be worth it.  I don't like that characters always want to know if they have a round to prebuff, and I don't like how important the answer to that question is, so I have to get this fixed.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The oldest of the old

Whispers of the Old Gods is here, and with it a swarm of C'thun decks.  I played my own C'thun deck yesterday and went up against a bunch of others, and now I have reasonable idea of how that matchup goes.  My initial impressions of building C'thun decks weren't quite on, so today I am going to talk a bit about how that works.

C'thun decks are based around four things.  First is C'thun itself.  Second is cards like Beckoner of Evil that make C'thun bigger but which are weak on their own.  Third is cards like Dark Arrakoa, which buffs C'thun but is totally fine on its own and could easily see play without any C'thun interaction.  Lastly we have things like Klaxxi Amber-Weaver, which can only be played in C'thun decks but which is very overpowered in that situation.

The thing about C'thun is that you only have one of it.  If you draw it and it is buffed up to 20/20 or something like that you just win immediately, that is obvious.  The question becomes, what happens when a C'thun deck simply doesn't draw C'thun?  How bad is it for them, and can they still win?

It turns out that not drawing C'thun isn't that bad, and C'thun decks can still easily win games just off of cards like the Klaxxi above.  I don't know what C'thun decks will end up looking like, but I built one that seems quite effective and I figured I would examine the cards in it to see how good they are overall compared to other options.

I have 4 cards that buff C'thun but are good enough to use on their own.  (Dark Arakkoa, Disciple of C'thun)  Those I don't count.  I have 8 cards that are somewhat weak, and are a full stat point below what they should be, but they are in there to buff C'thun.  (Crazed Worshipper, C'thun's Chosen, Beckoner of Evil, and Twilight Elder.)  That gives the deck -8 stats.  Then I have 3 cards that are really overpowered, each of which is 4 stat points *over* budget.  (Emperor Vek'lor, Klaxxi Amber-Weaver)  However, these cards occasionally end up being played without their special buff, so I can't quite count them for the full amount.  I think counting them as 3 points over budget is reasonable.  That gives the deck +9 stats.

(I am aware that counting the Disciple as .5 stats under budget is reasonable, and the same could potentially be argued of Beckoner and Elder.  These sort of cancel out though.)

So when we consider the deck without C'thun we see that it has minions missing roughly 8 stat points and minions gaining roughly 9 stat points because of C'thun mechanics.  That means that even if you ignore C'thun, the deck is perfectly fine on its own.  You can definitely take this collection of minions and a bunch of other reasonable cards and beat people.

But when you consider that the deck gets to play a 10 cost monster that is a ~20/20 and does ~20 damage to the enemy board when it enters play, things get a wee bit nuts.  The deck isn't a pile of weak garbage hoping to hold it together until C'thun saves the day.  It is a collection of minions that overall are fine, but which definitely swing from a bit underpowered to seriously overpowered.  That collection of fine just has a hell of a kick to it at the end.

My guesses about C'thun decks ahead of time turned out to be wrong.  I thought that Warlock would be the C'thun deck of choice, and that definitely isn't true because Warlock didn't get an overpowered C'thun card, and that hurts them pretty badly.  Also C'thun decks are far less reliant on card draw than I had thought, and they run enough moderately priced minions that drawing cards as a Warlock isn't a particularly strong strategy.  You just don't have the time or the health to do that.  Fundamentally C'thun decks are far less focused on C'thun then I had guessed.  Which is kind of a funny thing, when you think about it.

I do think that the C'thun ramp deck is going to be the new default for Druid.  It has five big taunts, which is fantastic against any sort of aggro strategy, and tons of dumb minions it is happy to trade into other aggressive minions.  It also gets to C'thun faster than any other class due to ramp mechanics so in a C'thun vs. C'thun battle you get to slam down first and win.  I am quite sure this is deliberate as Blizzard nerfed the snot out of Druid Classic cards and now they get a very different path to victory.  Instead of winning with combo beatdown on turn 9 from an empty board, they get to win with C'thun on turn 10 from an empty board instead.  ;)