Tuesday, December 29, 2015

What a game is

This Christmas my family got involved in a couple games during our annual Christmas party.  The first one was Camp Nightmare, and the second one is a game called CLR.  (Or LRC, or RCL, or any combination really.)  Camp Nightmare is a strategy game (which I am currently Kickstarting!) that requires a lot of thought and consideration to maximize your score.  CLR is a long, complicated way to randomly roll a die to see who wins.

I consider Camp Nightmare a game.  As, I imagine, anyone else would.  CLR though, is just a collection of rules for rolling dice to move tokens around.  It is competitive in the sense that you play it against a bunch of other people, but it is only a game in the sense that you sit around doing nothing productive and somebody wins.  There is no decision made at any point.  You never have an option, you never make a play.  You just roll dice a lot until there is a victor.

I don't get the appeal.

Sitting around chatting, this I get.  Maybe with the aid of snacks, or maybe not.  I totally understand the appeal of games like Cards Against Humanity, not least because you can actually be good at that game, though obviously there is a lot of random.

But the desire to sit around and engage in an long duration not-game boggles my mind.  If I sit down to chat and socialize, I want to be able to talk.  I also enjoy the ability to leave mid game without wrecking it for people.  For me a totally random game has neither of these advantages.  People spend their time yelling about nothing, and are chained to the table while the game winds its way down.

I get wanting to play a strategy game.  I get wanting to talk.  But wanting to talk exclusively about a game where no one ever makes a choice?  Insanity.

To be sure, I can sit back and logically construct reasons for this.  If you don't want to talk to people about anything important, such a not-game can provide a way to say nothing and avoid controversial topics.  I sure don't want to do that as I am happy to be super controversial!

A not-game can also be a way for people who can't think of anything to say to pass the time.  Again, lacking anything to say is rarely an issue for me.

I suppose this is all very predictable given my attitude towards small talk.  I generally find small talk to fit somewhere between ridiculous and insulting.  Either have a real conversation or just say nothing!  Non-games are a form of small talk, providing an endless source of things to comment on that no one can object to.

Thankfully people don't often try to convince me to play such games, and my daughter is old enough that we can play games with some skill involved.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A world to believe in

Charles Stross just wrote about some of the shibboleths in fantasy that drive him crazy.  There are some things in a lot of fantasy writing that really break things for Stross, and he rightly attributes some of them to Dungeons and Dragons influence, but there are plenty of other reasons that fantasy writing ends up being bad.

I found it interesting to think about how some of the worldbuilding I did for Heroes By Trade looks in this regard.  Stross was bitter about how currencies in fantasy worlds are so often fixed, based on simple base 10 conversions, and which bear no resemblance to the chaotic mess that real world currencies have always been.  In the world of Heroes By Trade there are a lot of things that seem at first glance like they would be even worse than this in terms of violating immersion.  There is an international standard for units of measurement, and the base unit is the meter.  There are also languages strictly associated with fantasy races that are widely, nearly universally even, understood.

Both of those things I would consider unforgivable failures in worldbuilding if encountered on their own, but in the world I built they exist for a good reason.  Systems of measurement were literally handed down by the god of Learning when that god created the satyrs, a race devoted to acquiring, sharing, and maintaining knowledge.  Sure, a random upstart monarch could decide to start measuring things by their own units like feet or barrels or cubits but arbitrary measurements are hardly likely to take hold when a comprehensive system is already in place and the scholars of the world are all dedicated to maintaining it.

The prevalence of a Common language in DnD worlds has often frustrated me as it seemed so ridiculous.  Spain and France didn't have a common language, much less Spain and China!  And yet I am satisfied with having a Human language in my RPG.  The difference there is that again, the language was handed down to the first humans by the god of Growth when they were created, and that creation was not so long ago.  There is time for drift over the intervening couple of hundred years, but there are still going to be a lot of enough similarities that communication is possible.  Again this is assisted by the fact that the scholars of the world are far more thorough and dedicated than the scholars of Earth ever were - they were literally born to do just that.

Thing is, I recognize the utility of a common language.  It can be fun to have characters enter a new culture where they don't speak the native tongue, but sometimes it ends up being a real blockade to enjoyment.  If you have a dozen games sessions that span a few weeks of world time the characters still can't speak the new language reasonably but people are probably tired of months of pantomime and guesswork and would like to just *talk* to somebody please!  At some point roleplaying people who can't speak to each other gets boring and having a common language really cuts through that.

Personally I really like worlds that make sense.  I have often found that DnD based worlds were utterly ridiculous, so unbelievable that they ruined the experience.  I like magical worlds, but I want a world where there are some fundamentally different rules but then things make sense once you accept those different baselines.  Sure, people can hurl fireballs and jump over walls, fine.  But if so why is it that rulers still seem to think that fortifications and armies are useful when it is clear the only real threat is the super heroes running around who pretty much ignore such things?

I want to be able to list the impossible stuff about the world, then follow that where it leads.  Most fantasy worlds list the impossible stuff, then continually make up new impossible stuff to justify why the world doesn't make any damn sense when the first list of impossible stuff is fully thought through.

Makes me wonder if Stross would buy into my worldbuilding or if he would find it as ridiculous as all the other things he rages about.

*** Also in Kickstarter news, my game Camp Nightmare has nearly all of the big ticket items bought up, so if you want to get your name or your creative ideas into Camp Nightmare then get on that!  There are still tons of basic game buy ins left, certainly.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Big face, tiny butt

I saw a discussion about a Hearthstone card called Magma Rager on the Hearthpwn forums and got to thinking about it.  Right now Magma Rager is unbelievable garbage, which no one is debating, so the question that was asked was "How much attack would Magma Rager have to have for it to be good?"

There are lots of other 3 mana minions to compare it against, and usually the default for getting played is about 8 stat points.  There are a number of 3/4 and 2/4 minions, but none of them are played unless they have some other kind of benefit - and the 2/4 minions have some *big* benefits.  Given that, I think we can reasonably model a simple but strong 3 mana minion as having 8 stat points to work with.  I am sure that a 4/4 for 3 would be played regularly, but I don't think it would be considered overpowered by any means.

You have to combine that with the fact that attack and health effectively multiply each other in Hearthstone.  A 1/7 is garbage compared to a 3/5 because being tough doesn't matter unless you can deliver value and force people to deal with you.  Similarly Magma Rager baseline not only has only 6 stats, which is awful, it also has a wide split that means that it dies to anything and can rarely use its high attack for anything useful.

So how high would that attack have to be for this card to be good?  Let's go nuts for a minute, and assume 30 attack.  Enough to kill people from full health in a single shot.  The card becomes totally insane as everyone uses it in One Turn Kill combos by giving it charge.  Right, so we know that you *can* give it enough attack to make it broken - so how high is just enough?  We know that 3 mana minions that are strong have 8 stat points, so how about a 7/1?

Well, a 7/1 is a fair bit more dangerous, but I still think it wouldn't be good.  It will die to an AOE, or a single hit from any 1 or 2 drop, and even some hero powers.  To be fair, druid and rogue hero powers kill it but the player has to take 7 in the face, and that isn't nothing!  7/1 has enough stats to be playable, but the imbalance still makes it bad.  You just can't throw it down on turn 3 and expect it to do much of anything, and that isn't a good card.  3 drops either have to be super powerful situational cards or just solid tempo plays on turn 3 and a 7/1 is neither.

If we ramp it up a lot we can consider what it would look like as a 10/1.  I think this would be too much since it becomes a totally outrageous amount of damage if you give it charge and starts to become really nuts with things like Shadowflame (deal damage to all enemy minions equal to a minion's attack.)  It also just *feels* wrong for something so cheap to be such a beating machine.  Why is Magma Rager, a total dork, so much more powerful than Tirion Fordring or Onyxia?

My sense is that the card would see play at 8/1.  Aggro decks could use it as a threat that must be answered instantly, and which punches through any giant taunt wall.  Combos with Charge or Shadowflame would become possible.  You would clearly never see this new, terrifying Magma Rager in any midrange or control decks aside from as combo fodder, but I think people would end up using it for something.

It is all about the numbers.  There really isn't any card or effect out there you can ignore if you make the numbers right, and this is something we have seen in all kinds of different games.  The threat and scariness of an ability is in how much it makes you worry about dying, and at 8/1 I think Magma Rager suddenly becomes something you ought to be concerned about.

Also, my Kickstarter for Camp Nightmare is still going on.  There are a few big 'design a piece of the game' backer spots left, so if you want to have a hand in how the game is made, head on over!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


So I finally hit the giant red button.

(Unlike certain other giant red buttons, there was no "Do not hit this button" warning.)

My Kickstarter project for Camp Nightmare is live.  You can give me money and then I will turn that money into a co-op camping game for you.

Heck, if you give me even more money then you can build a card for the game, or just have your name immortalized in a card title in the game.  (Arash Prakash's Excessively Sharp Knife, for example, where the current card is just Knife.)

Here it is:  Kickstarter for Camp Nightmare!

You can see the page on Camp Nightmare here on my blog here.  The full rules appear there, if you are curious.

Feel free to support the Kickstarter, and to recommend to others if you like the idea and think they will too.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Follow me

Naked Man and I have been discussing the issue of melee vs. ranged at great length.  He really dislikes how in Heroes By Trade it is challenging for a melee person to stick to a ranged target and prevent them from effectively attacking with their spells / bow.  He likes the idea that a melee character can stay on top of a caster and prevent them from accomplishing much unless the caster outright flees and doesn't do anything.  Right now most of the time if a melee person gets adjacent the ranged person will simply step back, use their attack normally, and accept that the melee person will run in again on their turn.  Everyone gets to attack, and the melee person delivers relatively little disruption unless they are fighting in a very confined space.

There have been lots of suggestions to change this.  The default one is the one that DnD has had for a long time, which is to award attacks of opportunity (AoO) to people if someone moves away from them.  In DnD I often found this to be a mess because some classes had great single attacks, like fighters wielding 2 handed swords.  Other classes like rogues would often have completely worthless AoOs so people could just away from or past them with relatively impunity... which seems bizarre because leaving yourself wide open to a special attack from the person who specializes in capitalizing on openings seems like it should be terrible, not trivial.  It also lead to a constant arms race of people finding ways to ignore AoOs and then other people trying to counter that.  The end result was usually either that people were immune, which kind of defeats the point, or that they could never afford to provoke an AoO and they were stuck next to anyone who got adjacent.  I don't like static combat where everyone is pinned in place so I never much liked these options.

The latest thing we have been kicking around in this regard is a way to let melee people maintain contact without getting to pin ranged down trivially.  The idea is that you can spend a Move to Follow someone instead of actually moving.  This would mean that if they move on their turn you can follow them, which of course is capped by your normal Speed.  So if you are rushing up to a foe you can't just pin them in place, but if you are swinging away at someone who is just standing there you can forgo your Move to make sure that you stick to them if they try to run.

This has the advantage that it isn't going to change the equation *that* much.  It would give melee another useful option but they are often going to be unable to use it.  Unfortunately it does involve taking actions on other people's turns which is always a worry - readied actions and delaying have always, always been a problem in any game I have seen and this feels like it is going to be more of the same.  It is hard to predict what kind of crazy shenanigans are going to come up when a bunch of people all Follow each other in a chain but you know there will be brokenness and bizarre rules conflicts in there someplace.

So while this isn't crazy from a balance perspective it is messy from a rules perspective.  Right now there are options for melee people to punish ranged, and they are usually things like knocking the ranged person Prone or Grabbing them to keep them from getting away.  If you are just some random dork with no powers you are limited to swinging away and you aren't going to pin down that wizard effectively... not without help, at any rate.  3 dorks, one with a weapon specialized for Grabbing like a net, would actually be very effective indeed.  People with real abilities though can just make sure that they have and use powers that keep ranged folks from getting away.

It is a tough nut to crack.  I want there to be tradeoffs for ranged to counterbalance their obvious advantages, but I don't want those tradeoffs to be too punishing.  Doing so leads to really one sided combats that are over as soon as they start and that really isn't so much my thing.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Finding the level

I have been doing some laddering in Hearthstone, aiming to hit Rank 5 to get my free stuff each month.  Hitting Rank 5 isn't particularly challenging, but actually pushing past that to Legend has so far eluded me.  Mostly it is just the time committment - getting to Rank 5 and then winning 25 more games than I lose is going to take a lot of time even if I play well and have the right deck.

And that is not to say I am playing perfectly!  I still only have 30 games or so logged with my current favourite deck (Reno Handlock) and it is clear that I have a lot to learn.  I have all the cards for it, so I can't blame my collection, but it is a really complicated deck and requires a lot of practice to use correctly.

My brain doesn't quite read this game right.  I know that there are some matchups that I am going to struggle with massively and some I should find easy, but somehow my brain keeps suggesting that since I can reach Rank 5 I should be just steamrolling everyone at Rank 13 without any losses.  After all, I am better than the Rank 13 players!

But it doesn't work that way.

If I face off against midrange Hunter all day then sure, I will crush it big time.  They can't deal with a deck with a lot of big threats and 30 points of healing in it.  Even face Hunter seems like a good matchup because all I have to do is find Reno, play him, and laugh all the way to the bank.

Unfortunately I get totally wrecked by the new Entomb control Priest that seems to be a huge force on the ladder.  Even if I am better than the Priest player I doubt very much I can pressure them into making serious errors.  Their play against me is extremely straightforward.  When I face them, I just accept that I have a 66% loss rate at least.

I need to rewire my brain somehow, to make my instincts get in line with reality.  Even when I am only middling on the ladder there are still terrible matchups and terrible luck that can easily hand me a bunch of losses in a row.  I shouldn't expect to win each game, only expect to win enough games that I will slowly push my way up the rankings.  Even though my instinct says I should win until I face people that are better than me, reality says otherwise.

Hearthstone is definitely a game of skill, though clearly luck plays a big role in individual games.  Strange how I can't seem to convince myself of that emotionally, even though I understand it intellectually.

Friday, December 4, 2015

How hard

I bought the latest Hearthstone adventure and have bashed all of the bosses of the first three wings with little difficulty.  I beat all or them with homebrew decks of my own, though I did get some ideas for Lord Slitherspear while trying to figure out his mechanics.  While I want to sort out my own answers I do like to know what the bosses actually do without having to just guess my way through.  (Slitherspear supposedly has a hero power to bash for +5 but he doesn't actually do that.  Not sure why there is so much misinformation everywhere, nor why his normal and heroic are so different.)

The thing I have noticed about The League of Explorers expansion is that the single player content is really easy compared to earlier adventures.  In most of my previous experience I needed multiple deck revisions and 4-10 tries to beat a heroic boss.  Sometimes I got lucky and won quickly, but a lot of them took an awful lot of head scratching to solve, and even with an optimal deck I had to try many times to get lucky enough to win.

This new adventure though feels like with an optimal deck I win half the time and with a mediocre deck with some incorrect choices I win a third of the time.  Rather than agonizing over specific choices and trying over and over I just put in a bunch of stuff that makes sense, make a couple mistakes, and win.

What I am pondering is if this is the right level of difficulty or not.  I definitely can't just use a default deck for these scenarios, and I have to think about what exactly I am trying to achieve.  Once I get that strong concept together and execute reasonably I just win.  On some of the older fights it seemed kinda silly because it was obvious that no deck could ever put together a reasonable win rate.  Against Nefarian the first I tried over and over and constantly died on turn five or six, and when I finally did win it was kind of ridiculous.  Nefarian got a Shadow Word:  Death from his special ability, which kills a minion of Attack 5 or higher.  He dropped a huge dude, cast SW:D, realized that his dude was the only 5 Attack minion, and blew up the dude he had just cast.  Turns out that the opponent using an entire turn to do nothing really helps you solidify your position!  (Also wow does the AI not understand some particular cards.)

Some part of me is bored that the Heroic bosses in the new expansion are so easy in comparison.  I don't want all my content to vanish in an hour!  However, I also think that when you build the right deck, play it expertly, and then just die over and over again until you get the perfect draw and/or the AI does something unbelievably stupid it isn't really accomplishing anything.  It isn't as though all of those games trying to squeeze out a win and getting stomped were teaching me a whole lot.

I find myself on the fence.  I like the idea that heroic bosses require a weird deck and odd strategies.  I like that they require thought and innovation.  But I can't seem to get a hold on whether or not I like them requiring tons and tons of reloading just to get the right RNG results to actually get a win.  That seems kind of pointless, and yet the increased difficulty really does make you savour that win when it finally comes.  Probably the best compromise is to have the majority of the bosses be beatable with only a couple tries with the right deck and strategy, but to have one final boss that is totally ridiculous.  That bridges the gap between people bashing their heads against the RNG wall for days while still giving something really unforgiving and brutal for the lunatics to try for.  If Blizzard agrees with me then next week I will have something extremely challenging to try as the last wing drops next Thursday.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The endiest of endgames

There is a card coming out very soon in Hearthstone that has some big potential called Elise Starseeker.  She looks like this:
 So when she arrives, she shuffles the following card into your deck:
 Which then shuffles this card into your deck:
Which is crazy!  Filling your hand and deck with legendary minions is a nutty effect.  Initially I dismissed this card as fun but silly.  After all, the first minion you get is not at all good, you have to find 2 extra mana in the middle, and although the final minion is superb it is going to appear *really* late in the game.

But the benefit to Elise Starseeker is not that you play her in a random deck and try to sift through all of your cards twice.  No, she will appear in decks where you intend to go through the whole deck, don't mind having an extra card in the deck, and are just waiting till turn 20 to really get going.  She will be a card you plan your entire deck and strategy around, not a throw-in.

So how would you do this?  First off, you don't need any finishers in your deck at all when you are running Elise.  You also don't have to worry about getting access to a bunch of gigantic idiots in the endgame because your endgame will inevitably feature a pile of terrifying yet random legendaries.  When you arrive at that point not only will your deck be full of gas but any random card draw or filler you have left over in hand will instantly turn into monsters.  Given that you can just run a deck with a low curve and endless removal, taunt, and board clears.

For example, in a Control Warrior deck you typically run a couple of win conditions like Grommash Hellscream and Ysera.  However, you regularly have the issue that Grommash or Ysera is sitting in your opening hand restricting your choices in the early game.  You can also end up with cards like Acolyte of Pain that are great card draw engines in the early going but which are worthless once your deck is empty.  Converting that Acolyte of Pain into a Hogger is a big upgrade, because even though Hogger isn't great his swarm of gnolls requires a swift answer.  Cruel Taskmaster and Fiery War Axe are similar in this regard and although they might find a use in the endgame they would be much better off as random huge idiots instead.  Unlike Ysera or Grommash you can and should just throw down Elise on turn 4.  She isn't superb by any stretch, but having the option to slam her down is *way* better than having a 9 drop you simply can't use.  Most of the time you will have better things to do, but sometimes a random 3/5 that can fight a shredder and live is just fine.

That doesn't mean every control deck will run this of course.  Some decks like Freeze Mage rely on specific high cost legendaries and don't want to run to fatigue.  However, a deck that hopes to win by fatigue already can use Elise as a really strong win condition that isn't worthless in the midgame and which greatly strengthens the play against another control deck when both decks are almost out.  She isn't going to be seen much, but it looks to me like she will fill a very powerful niche role that no other card currently occupies.

Elise looks to shore up two specific things - one, deck consistency in the early game against midrange and aggro, and two making the endgame against another control / fatigue deck a much better proposition.  Knowing that your final few turns will feature an cavalcade of scary, unpredictable threats is a rough position for your opponent because they will have absolutely no idea what to keep to counter you.  They can't think "Well, I just have to deal with Ysera..." because while you *might* have Ysera, you might have King Krush, or Feugen, or Confessor Paletress.  Who knows!  And when your opponent is down to only a few cards remaining it is a tall order for them to be able to deal with all the random you are going to pour out.

Both of those advantages are real, and I think they will cement Elise a place in the metagame.  Plus control vs. control matches are going to have some absolutely stunning endgame situations that will make slogging through 20 minutes of trading minions totally worth it.  The craziness that will ensue in some games with Elise will make this one of the best cards Blizzard has ever printed even if she doesn't actually see a lot of playtime.  Low usage, big impact.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The things I can say

In Hearthstone player communication is strictly controlled.  The six things you can emote at your opponent are:  Greetings, Thank You, Ooops, Threaten, Well Played, and Sorry.  At first I was surprised that people couldn't talk to each other directly but after a few moment's thought I realized that allowing opponents to talk directly would be a disaster.  While there are definitely some conversations that would be fine, there would be far too much "You suck you lucky ass noob go kill yourself for playing that mindless deck" and far too little of "Hey, do you run 2 Brawls in that deck, or 1?  I can't seem to decide which is best."

The funny thing is that these basic emotes end up being used to mean all kinds of other things that might not be intuitive at first glance.  Greetings usually is used at the start of a match as a polite hello, but it also can be something like "Hey, check out that gigantic threat." from either side.

Thank You either means "Well, you sure did play into my trap there." or occasionally "My face got wrecked, so I might as well say thanks....?"

Oooops is a simple one since it just seems to mean Oooops.

Threaten I rarely see used, I suspect largely because the threaten emotes are pretty laughable.  Mostly it seems just to be there to pass the time.

Well Played though, now that has two extremely polarized meanings.  It is either used as a term of respect to mean "You played that match well, and deserve respect" or even a simpler "Good game."  However, just as often it means "You lucky bastard, you did NOT deserve that."

Sorry rarely means sorry.  It seems to be used to say "Well, I sure did have the right answer, so this is where you get blown out."  Occasionally it seems more like "I drew like a lucksack, so you lose.  That is how it works!"  or "Hah hah, RNJesus hates you."

It is odd how people seem to have consistently settled on both these alternate meanings and how often emoting is acceptable.  In all my games I have only met one person who emoted constantly and in an annoying fashion so I squelched them, but the great majority of people either don't emote or do so in a fashion that seems very appropriate.

Somehow even though these channels are very different from normal human communication we establish multiple meanings for things and social norms that percolate through the group very effectively.

It strikes me as a great solution, since Hearthstone really doesn't have a problem with people being gigantic assholes to each other and so many online games are absolutely plagued with that problem.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Culture shock

I spent a chunk of yesterday reading old roleplaying manuals. Partly this is a search for ideas for Heroes By Trade and partly it is just to stroke my ego when I look at the terrible design decisions made by the game designers of yore.

One of the things that really struck me when I was reading Heroes Unlimited (A Palladium RPG) was that they focused so heavily on lists rather than systems.  They have dozens of different guns in the book, pages and pages of rifles, shotguns, pistols, military grade machineguns, etc. and yet when I tried to figure out the mechanics of actually using one of those guns I came up empty.  You would think that if a book is going to devote several pages to listing all of the handguns in the world (keeping in mind that they mostly have identical stats except for the price tag) you would find space to tell me how to shoot one... or at least you would, in the modern day of gaming.

My theory is this:  Back in the seventies and eighties you didn't find out about RPGs and learn them from nowhere, you learned them from friends.  You didn't need much in the way of examples because the games were largely taught through a network and so it was reasonable to assume that players would simply ask the veteran how something worked.  This is especially true in a system like Palladium where somebody had probably played that same system in a different setting.  But you know what you do need?  Lists of handguns!  You can't just hop on the internet and type in 'list of handguns' and get 100 cool guns you can have your hero use.  That sort of information is tough to come by.

Fast forward to now, and having lists of guns in a roleplaying manual is kind of silly.  If they are all mechanically identical then I can simply Google handgun, pick something out, and go with it.  What I do need is really good examples of play so that if I just pick up the game from an online store or a recommendation on a website I can figure out how to play.  I certainly might learn the game from a friend, but there is a much greater chance that I stumble upon it randomly and don't have anyone to walk me through the basics.

So while I think it is pretty silly that old games so often had such problems with incomplete or unclear rules and such devotion to lists of gadgets I think that a big part of that really can be explained by cultural context instead of incompetence.  I know that in HBT I rarely bother with lists of things because I see little point in taking up valuable book real estate with such trivialities.  However, I make it a point to fill the book with examples after every rule so that people can easily see them in action.  If done right it can be both a way to establish clarity of the rules and also build in a bit of lore at the same time.

It is a bit like looking at a cylinder.  Look at it from the end and it seems like a circle.  Look at it from the side and it appears as a rectangle.  To my mind examples and rules are like looking at a cylinder from two different viewpoints so that you can fully understand the thing you are considering.  It is important to have *both* the clear statement of the rule to resolve cases in future that the example might not cover as well as the example so the obvious cases don't get misinterpreted.

Or, if you are Gary Gygax, you just put a Glaive-Guisarme into the rules, spend a good chunk of a page describing the history of it, and stick numbers on it so that it is never, ever used.  Either way.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Raynor, one last time

I am interesting in acquiring the last installment to Starcraft 2, but hesitant.  The story in the second part of the trilogy was weak and I didn't like the game that much.  However, I absolutely loved Wings of Liberty, the first part of the trilogy, both in terms of story and gameplay.  Has anyone out there loved Wings, was meh about Swarm, and tried Legacy of the Void?  Did you love it?  Hate it?  Meh?  Let me know if I should buy it.

Reno's big swing

Reno Jackson is a crazy new Hearthstone card.  He works like this:  When cast, if you have at most one copy of each card in your deck, you heal to full.  You can have cards in hand, cards already used, whatever, those don't matter.  So the crazy thing about Reno is that he is a heal for a potential of 29, and also he comes with a decent body.  If you are playing against an aggro deck and get Reno to work, you probably just win.  However, you either need to run a deck with only 1 copy of each card or accept that sometimes Reno is a big bag of bad.  Neither is an ideal solution.

I have seen this firsthand - I was playing midrange hunter and my opponent managed to stall for 2 rounds by using Ice Block to be invulnerable and then dropped Reno going from 1 to 30.  I couldn't come back from that position and quickly lost.  It was irritating to see an opponent use a bunch of doubles of cards in her deck and then manage to get Reno to work anyhow, but sometimes you gamble big and win.

There are a lot of people trying to use Reno right now, and although occasionally they will see a huge win on that basis I think generally it is a bad play.  While building a deck around Reno can generate a few huge wins against aggro it will also make your deck bad in general.  Using a bunch of subpar cards with weak synergy just for the off chance at one big play will lose you more games than it wins you.  Reno is strong, but sometimes your opponent is setting up to kill you when you are at 18 life and he will only be a 12 point heal.  Sure that is good, but if your deck is inconsistent and full of subpar cards it won't be hard for the opponent to get that next 12 damage in and kill you anyhow.

But things change with time.  Just as Secrets get more and more powerful as the total card pool grows, so does Reno Jackson.  Wait a year when there are another ~300 cards in the pool and it will be a lot easier to fill a deck with really good cards without doubling anything.  Just look at things like Quick Shot and Bash - not that they are overpowered or anything, but when they got released they increased the total pool of damage spells available to their respective classes and made it easier for people to load up on those.  When there are twice as many cards out there Reno will be a real problem.  You will still cost yourself some consistency but not as much.

Of course Reno is self correcting to some extent.  He punishes full on aggro like face hunter the most, but the more control decks there are the worse Reno becomes and the less it is worth running a suboptimal deck just to fit him in.  You won't see 100% of decks running 1 ofs and Reno because in that format a deck with 2 ofs and no Reno will be more powerful.  It will mean though that control decks will have a singular win condition against aggro and they will be regularly running that win condition.  Overall I expect it to mean that aggro will slowly lose ground over time, especially if there are any other cards that fill a similar sort of function.

Whether or not Reno is worth running right now is a tricky question to answer.  However, I think it is abundantly clear that in a year Reno is going to be a star and will probably garner even more complaints than other established cards like Shredder or Dr. Boom.  It is an inevitable consequence of printing more cards, just like the increased prevalence of combo decks.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Its good

Blizzard needed help.  They had a question that required an answer, and they wanted playtesters on the Diablo 3 PTR to find that answer.  The question was:

If a set makes players do 100 times as much damage as before, is that too much?

The answer was yes.

Doing 100 times as much damage is too much.  Now that they have an answer to their question, they have decided to make it 12 times as much damage instead.  This, one suspects, will actually get them into the right ballpark.

I won't complain about this change, in fact I think it is brilliant.  What Blizzard is doing is adding a set of two rings that have a set bonus of "If you are not benefitting from any other set bonus, gain 100% more damage and 4% damage reduction for every Ancient item you have on."  Ancient items take awhile to find so you won't start out with one in every slot by any means, but you will find them, and when you have a full set of them you can top out at 1300% damage bonus and 52% damage reduction.  The obvious great thing about this is it lets players build a character with all kinds of random items instead of being stuck using a single massive set.

That 100% bonus, by the way, was temporarily an 800% bonus.  Per item.  So yeah, that was too high, but 100% is going to be just fine.

This doesn't meant that sets in D3 will be obsolete when the 2.4 patch hits.  They will still be there, at the very least used as stepping stones into end game builds.  I suspect that some classes will use sets and some will use the ring set combined with a random mishmash of gear.  Maybe once people assemble the perfect set of ancient gear they will all use the ring set at endgame, but even then gearing will progress from random rares to random legendaries to set building to ring/ancient setups with a ton of farming required to actually get to the end of it all.

I like the change for two reasons.  First off, it will be nice to have more selection.  Being locked into a 6 piece set means that you have few choices remaining and this will make it feasible to run a build with a bazillion choices, and introduce interesting choices between one more ancient piece that isn't optimal and the perfect piece that isn't ancient.  I guarantee you will see a lot more variety at the top end.

The second reason to like this change is that it will make a lot of old stuff relevant again.  When everyone is using a set that gives 1000% more damage to a single skill, all other sources of damage are irrelevant.  Why would I use an item that whacks an enemy for 700% when my main attack is doing 40,000%?  However, when I have the option to multiply all of my damage then lots of currently useless items could potentially be worked into a build.  Some will be better than others, naturally, but we will still see a much greater number of items in rotation than before.

I am definitely going to be taking another run at D3 when the next season starts.  There will be so much more to collect and so much more to puzzle through when it comes to builds and gearing, and I love tinkering away at that stuff.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


The newest Hearthstone expansion called The League of Explorers has landed, and the primary new mechanic in it is something called Discover.  The ways these cards work is they give you 3 cards to choose from and you put the chosen one into your hand.  As an example:

Now people seem to be modeling this ability off of the baseline 'Draw one card' ability and presuming that they are similar.  I think that doing so is a mistake and seriously undervalues the power of Discover as a mechanic.

One of the things about Hearthstone is that hitting a really good curve and not missing drops is key to success.  Drawing a card is helpful in that it gives you more choices but Discover lets you find a card that will fit your curve much more precisely.  If you drop the Museum Curator above you can find the hole in your curve, or just look for a card that works really well against the particular matchup you are facing at the time.

If your hand happens to be loaded with cards that cost 4+ then drawing a card has a modest shot of giving you a good play on turn 3, but Discover is going to be a *lot* more effective at that.  Also there are many cards that are strong but which are situational and Discover is good at letting you sometimes use those deadly silver bullets.

It isn't all good though.  Combo decks almost certainly prefer raw card draw because they don't want random decent cards, they want to find their combo pieces.  However, a midrange or control deck that mostly just wants value will love the selection that Discover grants, and it also doesn't deplete your deck if things do end up coming down to a fatigue war at the end.

My suspicion is that the Museum Curator above is never going to be a power card, but it strikes me as really good.  It can kill 1 drops, be a speed bump, and help you find a card to fill in your curve.  It means that you have something decent to do on turn 2 and many priest decks struggle with that.

There are lots of other cards with Discover and some of them are of course pretty weak, but I think people are really underselling the power of choice.  One of the best examples of that choice is Dark Peddler.

The Peddler doesn't look exciting but he is effectively a 1 drop for 2 mana, which gives you another 1 drop for 1 mana.  However, you get an extra card and that extra card really only costs you 1 mana and that is a really good deal.  That extra 1 drop is a lot more powerful than it seems because although Goldshire Footman is not a good card, sometimes he is *exactly* what you need.  Being able to choose to grab a taunt minion for a single mana is great.  You don't want to be locked in to playing a taunt minion for 1, but there are so many times when that is the thing that will swing the game your way.  Maybe it will just give you 5 health, maybe it will protect your Knife Juggler for a critical turn, but being able to choose between that and other options is fantastic.

Discover gives you the power of choice, and there are so many cards that are generally meh but situationally powerful that I think people will really come around on Discover once they start seeing it in action.  If nothing else there will be tons of stories of people being in a losing situation and then Discovering the only card that can save them and those sorts of saves will stick in people's memories I think.  That will take time though.

So there is my bet for League of Explorers.  Discover cards will be underrated initially but will end up showing themselves to be powerful ways for good players to extricate themselves from bad situations.  Choice is extremely important, and can make up for a lot of raw power.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

For the men

There is a lot of (totally justified) complaining out there that gaming is targetted far too much at men.  Gamergate has become a mainstream thing, and indeed is still a raging conflict in many places on the internet.  It would be easy to imagine that things are terrible and getting worse, but I think it is important to realize that although there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed there has been progress made.

Today I was looking through my first roleplaying manual, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.  The game has a careers system where players can be a Rat Catcher, Bawd, Judicial Champion, Wizard, or even a mighty Labourer.  Each career has a picture associated with it, and I noticed that there were an awful lot of pictures of men and not so many women, so I went through and counted to see just how lopsided it really was.

The results were depressing.  It wasn't that there were few women, it is that there were 108 portraits of careers and 108 men.  Now, a few of those pictures are not 100% clear, so we could charitably say 100 men, 8 not clear, and 0 women.  Here is the worst part though:  There was a woman portrayed in the careers section.  She was a slave, being sold by a male slaver.  Because you can be a slaver, you see, as part of your career progression.  Needless to say, everyone in the book is white.

Now that is a wretched state of affairs right there.

In Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, released recently, there was an explicit passage explaining that characters can have any gender, including nonbinary identities.  They were clear that you could make your character have any sexual orientation you desire.  Diversity in pictures and examples was a public goal, and as far as I understand it, it happened.  (I don't own all books, can't confirm.)

These books were both efforts by big publishers on large budgets with real quality control.  They both had established brand names to protect.  The difference is that one was published in 1986 and one was published in 2014.  The improvement over time is real.

Which isn't to say we should rest on our laurels.  Quite the contrary!  My point is this:  Trying to raise awareness of the extremes of sexism and racism in gaming over the years *is working*.  Things are indeed getting better, and they are getting better because people are putting pressure on companies that produce the games to keep these things in mind when designing.  They are improving because people continue to point out the unconscious and conscious biases people have in game design.

Games are being made to better reflect the world in which we live and that helps them become more accessible to people that aren't straight white men.  Let's all keep it up... there is yet more to do.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A corner

Blizzard has written themselves into a bit of a difficult spot with regards to Secrets in Hearthstone.  Secrets are cards that you put into play but which only do something on a specific set of conditions during your opponents' turn.  Secrets are a great innovation in the abstract because it means that there are plenty of cool tactical choices to make when a Secret is in play and only one player knows what it will do.  This lets players 'do stuff' on their opponents turn without having the clunky mechanic of waiting to see if an opponent will interrupt you that Magic has.  All that is great, and I like it.

The problem is that Secrets are bad, so other cards were published to make them good, which means Secrets need to always be bad.

If you look at Secrets it seems obvious to me that they were balanced around the opponent having no idea what was going on.  That is, if you actually play around them properly they end up being really poor spells that few people want to play.  This isn't just true in constructed, but even in draft Secrets are generally poor cards you don't want in your deck.
Take Mirror Entity.  If you know that this is a possibility, you play your cheap, bad minion first to trigger it.  Or you play a minion that has a powerful Battlecry which the copy won't have access to.  Or you just play spells that don't trigger it.

No matter how you handle it Mirror Entity ends up being weaker than most other cards.  While there are circumstances where drawing it is amazing, there are far more circumstances where you desperately need to do something active and end up drawing dead into Mirror Entity, or you end up with a small, weak minion.

The solution would of course be to either buff Secrets or just produce better ones later, either of which could work.  Unfortunately, Blizzard instead went the route of making Mad Scientist and Mysterious Challenger which make secrets awesome because you don't have to actually draw the bad Secret - it just happens for free.

Putting two Mad Scientists in your deck and 2-3 Secrets means that you mulligan away the secrets, play them when you have to, and the Mad Scientist gets you insane value.  This has managed to make the Secrets playable, in the sense that they are overpowered when they pop out of a Scientist and weak when you actually draw them.

Here is the problem though - going forward Blizzard has to keep on making Secrets janky.  If they actually make Secrets good on their own these Secret synergy cards will become even more bonkers than they already are.  That will end up being a problem, as those synergy cards are already among the most complained about cards in the game just due to raw power level.

So what do you do in such a situation?  I think going forward it is a problem to have Secrets rely almost entirely on overpowered synergy cards and be bad in and of themselves.  Ideally I would like Secrets to be decent cards to play, or at least for some of them to be decent and others to occasionally wreck people because they weren't expecting the slightly subpar Secret.  That sounds like a great environment!

In order for that to work the two powerful Secret enablers (Mad Scientist and Mysterious Challenger) need to be reined in.  There are other Secret enablers but they are all pretty much garbage - if Secrets were just a bit better though they could see play.  The two offensive ones though would both be strong enough to play if they cost 1 more mana, but both would suddenly become a lot less brutal.  They would still be fantastic cards in decks that have Secrets, but there would actually be a reason to play lots of Secrets instead of just enough of them for your enablers to fetch for free.

As it is Blizzard has really put themselves into a bind where they can't make new Secrets that are worth playing and that seems like a really poor spot to be for a type of card that has so much promise.  There is one ray of hope though, if they ignore my opinion on this:  The more Secrets that exist, the better they become.  It is really easy to play around 3 Secrets when only 1 is good, but really hard to play around 12 Secrets when 3 are good.  The more there are, the better each becomes as they become more and more Secret and less and less "I know what that is!"

Thursday, October 29, 2015


In Heroes By Trade there are eight classes, each of which has themes associated with it both in terms of mechanics and flavour text.  Of course the most successful games are ones where the mechanics effectively reinforce the flavour, so I am trying to make that happen.  One thing I want to be careful of though is making classes too narrow in scope.  I remember what it was like in old DnD, where if you had a ton of enemies about you had to have a wizard because fighters could put out decent single target damage but were completely hopeless against groups.  I want to have themes, but I think it is good if people don't specifically have to rely on a particular class to fill a particular role.

AOE effects are the biggest thing here - in both DnD and HBT they iconically belong to the wizard.  My wizards use fire, ice, and lightning to blast huge areas and blow up tons of enemies at once.  That is their shtick!  However, I don't want them to feel like they are pointless when there is a single enemy to fight, nor do I want everyone else to check out when there are swarms of dorks.

My solution thus far has been to give everyone access to multiple target attacks, but to give most classes only a couple of options, and often to make those options fairly niche in application.  The Champion *can* AOE, but they can only do so while standing in the middle of a pile of enemies, and usually only by Grabbing all the enemies in the process.  They are meant to be tanks, so that is how their AOE effects play out.  Wizards on the other hand have a dozen different ways to AOE and can tailor their AOE to the situation at hand.  They will generally have exactly the sort of AOE the situation calls for which tends to make them the best at it.

The trouble I was having is that I wanted every class to be able to defend itself, AOE, have some mobility, deal extra damage, and more.  Also Powers are divided into ranks and if a class only has a single AOE ability that is found at Rank 13 that isn't any use to someone starting off who can only use Rank 6 Powers!  Balancing the need for individual flexibility with the structure of the Ranks was possible, but I ended up losing out on flavour.  There were just too many boxes to tick and I ended up with a bit too much homogeneity.

The structure I had was two Powers at each Rank from 5 to 13 for a total of 18 Powers per class.  By covering all the bases I generally only had 7 or so really thematic Powers per class, and 11 more generic ones.  My new plan is to keep all the Powers I had already built but add in 4 new ones to each class within the existing Ranks.  As long as all 4 new Powers fit the class theme really tightly I will raise my 'on theme' rate to 50%, which should be enough to make classes feel really different.

It is really tricky to walk the line between having classes be too narrow and forcing people into strict roles, and having classes be too flexible so that everyone is similar.  I think I am getting closer to the right spot in the middle, but it is a tricky thing to do.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

One dozen

I am all growed up as an Arena player in Hearthstone - today I finally got to 12 wins, which is the maximum possible.  I was so close to the perfect run, sitting at 11-0 with a super strong deck, but against my twelfth opponent I drew badly and missed my turn 2 drop.  That set me back hard on tempo and it took seven turns for me to struggle back.  I thought I had finally stabilized when my opponent dropped Avenging Wrath, clearing my board and dropping me to 3 health.  No problem, I thought - I can just drop a couple minions into play and then never take damage again!

I'll be fine!

Then my dastardly foe windmill slammed Tirion fucking Fordring into play.  (I can't see my opponent in Hearthstone, but I know they were windmill slamming it, interface be damned.)

I was not fine.

That guy is just not fair!  At least I can console myself with the fact that whether I played that game perfectly or not is absolutely irrelevant.  All my opponent had to do was trade well, put some pressure on, and perform said windmill slam.  Good game!  However, I can't be too sad.  At least I got beat by the greatest paladin of all time, and I do like me my paladins.

The next game got me my twelfth win without much issue though, as I managed to leverage my own completely unfair cards.  Turns out that Flamewaker x 2 plus 11 spells to trigger them leads to some pretty lopsided games.

I find comparing my deck's power score on the Hearth Arena system to my performance pretty interesting.  My score was 64.9, which is pretty average if you draft the way the site recommends, or just draft well on your own.  That score doesn't take into account your deck's synergies though and this deck certainly felt like by far the strongest I had ever drafted.  I had everything covered - great board clears, big removal, and a solid cast of dudes with a reasonable curve.  I didn't have any absurd legendaries but honestly Flamestrike fills the role of 'big cost card that just wins the game' pretty well.  Especially when you have +2 Spellpower and a Flamewaker in play!  PEWPEW

The thing that really put it over the top is that in addition to all the great removal and Flamewaker goodness I even had a lot of small stuff going for me.  I had dragon and mech synergies that both came home a lot, a Mad Scientist / Secret combo, and three mech sources of Spare Parts to fuel Flamewaker damage spewing.  It wasn't just a stack of good cards, but rather had all kinds of small things working together, and that package was *so* much more deadly than the individual card scores indicate.

Now I am back at it, hunting for yet another brutal set of cards that can let me ascend to the sky on a stairway made of shattered dreams and ragequits.

My decklist:

Zombie Chow
Clockwork Gnome

Amani Berserker
Loot Hoarder
Mad Scientist
Sorcerer's Apprentice
Haunted Creeper
Boneguard Lieutenant
Flamecannon x 2

Harvest Golem
Jungle Panther
Tinkertown Technician
Soot Spewer
Flamewaker x 2

Mechanical Yeti
Twilight Guardian
Dalaran Aspirant

Silver Hand Knight
Spectral Knight
Kvaldir Raider
Flame Lance

Drakonid Crusher

Flamestrike x 2

Force Tank Max

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Adding it all up

I have been thinking a lot lately about the way Blizzard costs cards in Hearthstone.  I have been looking to figure out my own formula and use it to describe why cards are powerful and get a grip on what a particular change to a particular card would do to its overall power level and its chance of getting played.  The really obvious card that makes this analysis interesting is Piloted Shredder, the ubiquitous 4 drop that is used in every kind of deck.

People love to hate the Shredder because for good or for ill it has nearly ended the use of all other 4 cost neutral minions.  The question is, how much better is it exactly than comparable other options, and what could be done to reduce the Shredder to similar strength to all of its compatriots like Chillwind Yeti, Sen'Jin Shieldmasta, and others?

My idea is this:  Cards should be evaluated based on what usually gets played.  For example, a 3 drop 3/4 is bad and isn't played - there needs to be something else.  Dark Cultist has a useful deathrattle, Spellslinger has a useful battlecry, Totem Golem comes out a turn earlier, Animal Companion has more stats, and Spider Tank can leverge its Mech type.  All of these cards I will assign value 3, as they are strong 3 drops that are regularly used.  A vanilla 3/4 isn't good enough to be played, so it has a value of 2.5.  It would be a crazy 2 drop, or a terrible 3 drop.  A 2 drop looks like King's Elekk, Knife Juggler, or Armoursmith.  5 stats and a good special I assign value 2.

So, given these benchmarks lets look at some cards.  We have vanilla minions that draw 1 card (1/1 for 2, or 2/4 for 4) and they don't see much play.  A 1/1 costs -0.5, and adding a card draw is worth 1.5 mana for a total value of 1 mana.  A 2/4 costs 2 and with that same value for the card is worth 3.5 mana.  In both cases they are weak for their cost, and as expected they see little play.  On the other hand we have Azure Drake, who is actually good.  4/4 is worth 3, spellpower is .5, and the card draw is 1.5 so Azure Drake is worth 5, and in fact it does see quite a lot of playtime as a result.

Now let's look at the family of minions that gives you an extra minion when they die.  Haunted Creeper is first up.  Those 2 1/1s are worth .5 mana, and a 1/2 is worth 0 mana.  However, you don't have to spend 2 cards to get those things, so we credit the Creeper with 1.5 mana worth of cards drawn.  This leaves us with a total value of 2, which as you would expect means that the Creeper is a solid 2 drop.

Harvest Golem gives a value of 1.5 for the basic 2/3 body and 0 for the 2/1 that follows.  Add in the 1.5 for the extra card we are getting and the Golem clocks in at 3, which is exactly its cost.  This suggests that the Golem is a strong 3 drop, and although it doesn't see a huge amount of play it is definitely worth including.  I think that is accurate, though perhaps a slight overstatement.

Now for Piloted Shredder!  A 4/3 is a bad 3 drop, so we value it at 2.5.  A random 2 drop is a lot worse than the sort of 2 drop people normally play, so it is only worth 1.5 mana.  However, because we are getting two cards out of it we again add 1.5 for the card and arrive at a beastly 5.5 total.  I personally feel like that is too charitable and that we should subtract another .5 from the total because the random 2 drop can actually be a huge detriment or just plain awful, and 4/3 is a really bad stat spread.  Even then, Piloted Shredder is a 4 drop minion with 5 mana worth of value baked in, which definitely makes all the fuss seem justified.

So, given that Piloted Shredder is clearly over the top compared to other 4 drops both by popular play numbers and by my 'scientific' analysis, what could we do if we wanted to make Shredder more in line with other cards?  My thought is that it should become a 4/2.  That preserves the Shredder as the go to choice for aggro decks as they want to bash hard or mech decks because of the mech type, but it suddenly becomes a lot more vulnerable to 1 and 2 drops and AOE effects killing the main body.  At that point it looks pretty mediocre for a control deck, and even midrange decks would have to consider if they actually want it over a Chillwind Yeti.  I suspect they still go for Shredder because of the strength against direct removal and board sweepers but it is a close call at that point, which is exactly what I was aiming for.

I should note that I don't think that the Shredder is a huge problem.  It is in a lot of decks but nowhere near all of them.  However, it is definitely the top of the heap and any new neutral 4 drop is going to have to be absolutely insane to compete.  You gotta know that a Mech statted for beatdown that appears in non Mech control decks has something sketchy going on there!  If I were in charge I would probably tinker with it because of that limitation.  However, I don't think that nerfing Shredder is necessary as Blizzard does want to have a light touch that way.

Dr. Boom though, that guy needs the nerfbat in the worst way.  (Boom bots should do 1-2 damage instead.  Still great, but less ludicrous in the extreme cases.)

Note that my formula just doesn't work when you get up to really high cost minions.  It seems to generate good results in the lower costs, but I think Blizzard really just eyeballs it when things cost 6 or more.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Mountains of trash

I decided that it was time to push my constructed ranking in Hearthstone.  I am kind of limited in this regard because my collection isn't best described as having some holes... more appropriately it would be described as a lot of holes that have a few cards.

However, even though this means that I can't really push for top rankings it won't stop me from trying to crush some dreams.  I can't win through most normal means because I don't have strong top end legendaries so my late game is wretched - control decks just don't work.  I lack a lot of the core aggressive cards too, but I am a lot closer to building a solid aggro deck than I am a control deck.  In any case it just isn't plausible for me to really accomplish much either way.  Everyone knows how to respond to face hunter rushes and if I play face hunter without the proper cards I won't have much success.

The only solution, it would seem, is to go rogue.  (Not rogue like using daggers, but rogue like doing something wacky.)

It brings me back to my Magic days, where I would look at all the core decks and get disgusted with rock paper scissors, leading me to build something crazy.  The crazy wasn't usually particularly good in and of itself, but it had the advantage that nobody knew what was going on and I could often lock in wins because my opponents would mulligan wrong or play into my traps because they didn't know what I was doing.

In that vein, I decided to defeat my opponents with mountains of trash.  I took a bunch of cards that leverage having a ton of dorks in play and combined them with a collection of cards that put a ton of dorks in play.  Specifically I am using Bloodlust, Frostwolf Warlord, Knife Juggler, Dire Wolf Alpha, and Flametongue Totem.

Since I am using all of these cards that leverage having a lot of minions in play, it was definitely prudent to make swarms of minions!  There are some genuinely good ways to make extra minions like Piloted Shredder and Haunted Creeper but I am also using questionable minions like Razorfen Hunter, Nerubian Egg, and Echoing Ooze.

Thing is, both of those cards have uses.  It isn't as though they are completely worthless, they just don't make the cut in real decks.  However, in a deck like mine they are pure gold.  The trick is that my opponents surely underestimate me when they see bad cards like those drop onto the battlefield but they end up being plenty effective when I manage to apply all of my force multipliers.

The way games inevitably play out is that I pile my load of trash onto the board and my opponents struggle to deal with it all, taking a bit of damage but slowly working their way towards the late game and their really powerful cards.  Then suddenly POW they are facing an army of buffed idiots and they fold like a gambler who missed a gutshot straight.

I tried lots of decks to get out of the Rank 15 doldrums from Mech Mage to Control Priest to Mech Warrior and nothing was able to win games consistently.  My Mountains of Trash Shaman deck though, that thing is tearing through people.

At some point I am going to start running up against people with enough skill and quality decks that this silly strategy isn't going to fly anymore.  I haven't hit that wall yet though, so I am going to keep on crushing dreams as long as the crushing is good.  Winning feels good in general, but seriously, winning with garbage cards like these somehow is even better.


2x Abusive Sergeant
1x Earthbiter Weapon
2x Zombie Chow

2x Haunted Creeper
2x Echoing Ooze
2x Knife Juggler
2x Flametongue Totem
2x Nerubian Egg
2x Direwolf Alpha

2x Hex
2x Razorfen Hunter
1x Tuskarr Totemic

2x Piloted Shredder

2x Bloodlust
2x Frostwolf Warlord

2x Fire Elemental

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Rolling dice

I have been playing Hearthstone drafts as often as gold will allow (since I am not yet good enough to go infinite) and it has been interesting to see both how my wins work and how it works for other people.  I see a lot of claims from people talking about Hearthstone drafting online that they expect to go 7-3 all the time and that doing so is standard for them.  I found these claims dubious - there cannot be enough people out there drafting for so many people to get to 7-3 in every match... after all, half of the 6-2 decks lose to another 6-2 deck at that point!

To be honest, it blows my mind how many people must be going 1-3 to support all of the really top notch players, to say nothing of people like me who generally get 5.5 wins per arena.

However, something I read about suddenly made these claims of constant 7-3 drafts make sense.  There was a thread talking about the Retire button that allows you to quit a draft partway through instead of playing it out to get all your losses, and a lot of people were talking about how they keep good decks and play them and just retire bad decks right away.  It strikes me that it is much easier to constantly go 7-3 when you retire all of your poor decks and only run the ones where the draft went perfectly!  I would never do that because I am gold limited, but someone who has a job and just pays cash for Arena runs has no particular incentive to play out crappy decks - it is just 2 bucks to start up a new one.

The simpler explanation is of course that people on the internet are just full of it, but I wanted to find something a little more complicated than that.

Not to say that there is nobody who can manage a 7-3 standard, but no way no how are all the people claiming that telling the truth.

My last two drafts were both with mage and they felt similar.  Each one had 3 removal spells, a couple of good lategame bombs, and a bunch of solid midgame cards with a couple of duds that I wasn't happy playing.  Deck 1 had better quality removal and a more reliable curve because Deck 2 had way too much in the four slot and not nearly enough in the two slot.  Hearth Arena ranked Deck 1 higher, and I certainly felt that way both after the draft and upon later inspection.  It wasn't a huge difference, but Deck 1 was a better deck.

So I went 1-3 with Deck 1, and 8-3 with Deck 2.  Maybe you can say that I am just a bad player and I don't know how good a deck is, but given that 90% of my picks agreed with the Hearth Arena picks I can't be *that* far off.  Basically what happened is good proof that there is an awful lot of randomness in Arena.  As much as anecdotal evidence can prove anything, at any rate.

I know that there is a lot of skill in drafting.  I am getting better at a tremendous rate and soon I won't need a website to help me make strong picks.  But what is clear is that very often in Hearthstone draft you just play things on curve and end up hoping that your opponent doesn't have Consecration because you can't avoid it.  Do they have it?  Lose!  Not have it?  Win!  You can play around things to some extent, but you are often left looking at the board facing either passing the turn or throwing down a minion that will just blow up to Consecrate and you get blown out if you guess wrong.  Of course you can substitute Flamestrike, Holy Nova, etc. for Consecration and get the same result.

It is fun as hell in the same way that Magic drafts were always fun, and I am feeling that familiar feeling of deep seated addiction setting in.  Must draft MOAR!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

To the ground, Commander

In the Hearthstone metagame there is a deck called Patron Warrior that has been a real fixture for some time now.  It focuses around (surprise!) a card called Grim Patron that is a 3/3 which makes a new copy of itself if it survives damage.  This effect is potentially really powerful and interacts well with all of the ways that warrior decks have to AOE the board for 1 damage or ping their own creatures.  The deck can just play for value and use its synergy to try to beat the opponent down, but usually they just sit around waiting for their big combo and kill the opponent in 1 turn. (OTK)

Nobody really has a problem with the interactive Patron play that focuses on getting good value.  It requires thought and strategy on both sides.  However, people really don't like having full health, a few minions in play, their opponent with nothing, and then dying to a OTK combo.  Players really object to having no idea what the game state is and then suddenly blowing up.

This is something that Magic dealt with back in the day when Counterspell decks, land destruction, and discard were all strong at various points.  People, new players especially, absolutely hate playing against hard control where they don't get to do anything.  They may not win against a superior player who just plays better creatures but at least they feel like they were playing the game.

Blizzard decided that the OTK aspect of Patron Warrior had to go and I think they were absolutely right in that regard.  The trick is to figure out what part of the combo needs to die.  Patron himself is iconic, has plenty of interesting tricks going on, and can be used in cool ways that aren't OTK so he isn't a good target for a nerf.  What Blizzard went with instead is Warsong Commander.  Right now she gives all minions that enter play with 3 or less Attack value the Charge ability so they can attack right away.  This is extremely powerful when played in a combo that hopes to generate a half dozen minions in a turn, and is the engine behind the OTK.  In a non combo situation like a draft she is playable, sometimes quite good, but never overpowered.

The new version of Warsong Commander loses her current ability and gains "All your Charge minions gain +1 Attack."  This isn't just a complete change of her function, it also reduces her from having a good ability to having a extremely weak one.  She is utterly finished in constructed play, worthless beyond belief, and in fact is so bad that she will crash to unplayable garbage status in draft too.  Was this nerf on the right card, and to the right degree?

My feeling is that the answer is yes to the first question, no to the second.  WC is a problem.  Any new minion is going to have to be designed with the idea in mind that it may have haste from WC.  If minions spawn more minions, everything has haste and keeps on beating.  If anything is fragile to make up for its incredible power, it can go right away and ignore that fragility on the first turn.  WC's current effect is a huge design constraint because Charge has consistently been a massive balance issue.  It always will be, I suspect, and WC is a serious problem in generating OTK decks or other more general balance issues.

So what is the answer?  To my mind the key thing is to make sure that WC is a powerful card in draft but not let it be a combo generator.  If Blizzard wants to keep the bonus to Charge minions Attack value then WC has to have better stats - Charge isn't a common ability.  If WC's cost was dropped to 2, she would be a 2/3 for 2 which is a totally reasonable pick in draft.  Similarly if her stats were bumped to 3/4 and cost kept at 3, she would again be a okay draft pick even without a bonus ability.  However, Warriors are absolute garbage in draft right now so I lean towards making her absolutely superb in draft to try to give them another powerful common card to use.

I would make WC a 3/4 for 3 with the ability "Your Charge minions have +2 Attack."  She would be a fine body to slam down in any case, reasonably survivable, and if you have a few Charge minions she would be fantastic at making them butcher the enemy.  In constructed my version of WC could end up becoming a staple in some kind of aggressive warrior deck, would be a great draft pick, and wouldn't cause any combo problems.

Blizzard is making a reasonable choice in nerfing WC to try to stop the current OTK frustration and to prevent it in future.  However, when considering the rest of the game I think it is clear they should take this opportunity to change Warsong Commander into something that will shore up one of the glaring weaknesses of Hearthstone at the moment - Warrior performance in draft.  Should they go forward with their stated intention WC will end up in the heap of worthless cards that nobody ever plays, and that would be a waste.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Enter the Arena!

Having acquired all of the Hearthstone adventures I am now investing all my spare gold into drafting.  Doing so introduces the question of whether or not I should be using automated deck builders to make my choices.  I am signed up on Hearth Arena where I can input each of my card choices and it tells me which of the three cards to pick.  It isn't just going off of a single rank - it actually figures out synergies between cards, tries to build a good curve, and works on building a strategy.  It isn't perfect obviously but I am actually really impressed with just how good it is.

Thing is, it feels like cheating.  I am not picking my own cards, but rather I am asking a computer to pick them for me based on a pro's theories.  I do overrule the site's suggestions, but not that often.  Once I get to the games I am on my own but while drafting I am a proxy for a robot in some ways.

Certainly I look forward to abandoning my cybernetic drafting crutch.  It will feel good to toss it aside once I am better than the algorithm, but at this point I am not.  I am focusing on using it to teach myself though so I figure out my pick before asking it for its opinions and then adjust my sense of the game based on what comes up.  Sometimes I end up being surprised at how wrong I am - I thought Ironbeak Owls were pretty good, and the computer does not! - but I pick the correct card about 90% of the time according to Hearth Arena.

I would like to test it thoroughly, to check its results in actual play when cards come up, but that is a tough thing to do.  After making a tricky pick I change my drafting in response so I can't just imagine that my Azure Drake is a Knife Juggler when I draw it because the fact that they cost 5 and 2 mean that I draft later cards differently after making that choice.  Sometimes I really do get smacked in the face with why a card is good though.  Today I used Mind Vision based on the advice of the site even though it looked totally janky to me... but I saw a Mind Control Tech in my opponent's hand and seeing that changed my game completely and let me play around his card.

My learning is progressing nicely.  Since I started recording drafts my win rate is 65.91%, which seems pretty great for only having ten drafts under my belt in total.  I am certainly not at the point where I go infinite yet and I will have to improve substantially to achieve that but I am definitely on my way.

Mostly I figure I shouldn't feel guilty for using external resources to draft.  I am learning quickly, enjoying myself, and using a resource that everyone has access to.  Add onto that the fact that the algorithm is fall from infallible and it is hard to see it as The Dark Side Of Gaming.

Someday I am going to be someone who can say "Pah, people who use bots to draft for them are noobs."  I look forward to my opportunity to be an elitist asshole.  Someday!

I must say though that I am so happy with the format of Hearthstone drafts compared to all the Magic drafts I did back in the old days.  I don't have to haul myself across the city to draft, it doesn't take tons of setup, and I can commit to it in fifteen minute chunks if I am so inclined.  I remember needing to devote several hours and ten bucks to a Magic draft and the fact that I can have that same experience spread out over several days for no money (or, I suppose, I could pay $2 for it) is just ... magic.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fired up, Inner style

I finally decided to give Blizzard some money.  I haven't done so in WOW for some time now as I can easily fund my play with tokens bought via in game gold but now they have collected money from me for Hearthstone.  They are going to get me one way or another, it seems.  Hearthstone's payment scheme is set up such that it is far more efficient to spend money on adventures that come with both cards and a bunch of single player challenges and then spend in game gold on drafting and buying packs.  I really wanted to get going with drafting as well as having all of the cards from adventures, so $25 got shipped off to Blizzard to purchase Blackrock Mountain.

Now that I have access to all the Blackrock Mountain bosses I have been grinding away at heroic modes.  In theory these are wildly variable puzzles that usually require figuring out which cards can beat a particularly challenging layout and then getting enough luck to win.  For many of the challenges that theory holds... but unfortunately a lot of the really challenging heroic modes are all solved the same way.  There is a two card combo that beats most of the hard stuff, and it looks like this:

So you get a minion with high health, double its health a couple times, then turn your 2/48 minion into a 48/48 minion and win the game.  Smash.  This technique bypasses all kinds of difficult situations and lets you ignore multi stage fights by simply killing the boss in one turn instead of letting them go through their stages based on how much health they have left.  This wouldn't be frustrating except that there are an awful lot of fights that depend on this single combo to beat them, so instead of a really tricky puzzle it just consists of using the combo deck over and over again because the AI doesn't have appropriate spells to deal with it and doesn't understand what is happening anyway.

The silly thing is that these spells are common but I don't own any of them so the encounters are nearly unwinnable for me.  Eventually I will get them, but for the moment is isn't really a matter of strategy but simply a matter of finding these particular cards and then blowing the enemies out.

Many times I have tried a heroic boss a number of different ways and come up short, having no idea what I could do to beat them with the cards I have.  Eventually I look up other people's ideas online and lo and behold, they are using cards I don't have to smash the encounter.  The cards I don't have are usually the common ones oddly enough and while most of the time it is Inner Fire I also could really use a Crazed Alchemist or two to beat heroic Thaurissan.  (Crazed Alchemist is also completely nuts vs. Razorgore, but I just beat that one without it.)

Overall the variety in the puzzles looks pretty big at first glance, but they do have the issue that most classes are completely hopeless at the puzzles.  The main thing is that the bosses start with a ton of health and usually have some crazy aggressive start so you simply cannot rush them down.  Doing 60 damage to an enemy with an aggressive deck isn't possible when you have 30 health and they are rushing you back and have some massive bonus stacked on top.  The only way to beat most of the heroic modes is to stabilize, clear their threats, and eventually find a way to win, and it is almost universally priest or mage that is ideal for doing that.  Mage for the fights where you aren't allowed to have minions, which is a common theme, and priest for everything else.

I don't know how feasible it would be to make a control oriented heroic mode that rewards rushing instead of controlling on the player's part.  Vaelestrasz is the closest to that model because he tries to blow you up by running you out of deck but he just wasn't that hard.  I put together a random deck with all the cheap junk I could click on and smashed him, so clearly it wasn't as hard as all that.  I certainly didn't need to reload over and over like I did on some bosses to get the perfect draw to keep myself alive against their starting brutality like Loatheb!

There is a lot of fun to be had working your way through heroic modes.  The general experience is good and I like it... but I do wish it wasn't quite so clear that there is one best way to beat a lot of the hardest encounters, particularly when those encounters are the endbosses and they have such interesting staged abilities.  I hope the next adventure contains a lot more fights like Baron Geddon and Vaelestrasz because I felt like I had to do some really cool stuff to deal with their abilities that wasn't just limited to a formula I had already figured out.

Friday, October 2, 2015

What is normal?

Blizzard recently nerfed a bunch of things in normal mode Hellfire Citadel, the last raid of the current  WOW xpac.  The previous model had been that Raid Finder mode was ridiculously easy and had many mechanics removed, normal and heroic mode were identical except for the numbers, and mythic mode was much more difficult both in terms of numbers and mechanics.  This xpac I never took part in mythic difficulty so I can't speak authoritatively on that point, but from everything I have read the mythic raiders were very impressed.

Throughout the xpac it felt weird to do normal and then heroic with no changes in strategy.  Aside from 'have better gear' and 'play tighter' there wasn't anything else to add.  It always felt a bit strange to have nothing more to learn, and honestly made heroic feel like a bit of a letdown.  I was always a lot less interested in heroic modes in Highmaul and Foundry and after seeing Hellfire Citadel through on normal I just had no interest left in pursuing heroic.

No however Blizzard has removed a bunch of mechanics, especially on the harder encounters, and I am sure people stuck on those encounters will rush through them now.  They defended the decision to remove mechanics entirely instead of simply nerfing damage by saying that it was silly to list mechanics that did so little there was no reason to pay attention to them.  Focus on a few things, make those things actually dangerous, and pull the rest out entirely.  I agree with that strategy completely.

I suspect I would have enjoyed raiding more this xpac if the entire thing had been done this way.  We would have proceeded more rapidly through normal mode for sure and the heroic modes would have felt interesting as new things would need to be incorporated into our strategy.  The fights always felt like a huge amount of information was incoming at the beginning and then to have nothing new arrive the second time around felt - off.  Certainly the numbers still have to go up, and the general tuning can be tougher, but adding a completely new thing to deal with would keep me interested I think, moreso than the old design.

In general going through the same content over and over again is going to have limited appeal.  Running the raid on Raid Finder, then normal, then heroic is a chore and burns it out quickly.  however, I really do think that ratcheting up both the complexity and the tuning for every difficulty setting is the right way to go.

Here's hoping they do this for the next xpac, whenever that is.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Sometimes when building a game you have to add in extra complexity to make things easier to learn.  Generally of course you want to cut out anything that adds to the learning curve but which doesn't really improve the game, but on occasion you can bulk up the document while simultaneously making the game simpler to grasp for new players.

Right now I am doing just that while altering some Powers in Heroes By Trade.  Initially the game had two different ways to alter enemy movement - you could Slow them or Immobilize them.  When a ranged person like a Wizard Immobilizes an enemy it is obvious what the point of that is - you are trying to pin them in place while you run away!  However, melee classes also had Immobilize effects and people seemed to struggle to figure out how to use those.  Because ranged attacks have disadvantage if the attacker is threatened by a melee fighter there are two good reasons for melee to Immobilize someone.  Firstly it means the someone can't get away, and second it means the someone can't use ranged attacks effectively.

All of that made sense, but sometimes new players couldn't figure out why they would use an Immobilize attack.  The issue was in part caused by trying to figure out what was happening when such an attack occurred.  It is easy to see how a frostbolt from a Wizard freezes people to the ground, Immobilizing them, but what exactly is a brawler with a club *doing* when they Immobilize an enemy?  This was especially true since the brawler with a club could Immobilize a melee opponent, walk away, and the opponent would have no way of striking back because they were still pinned in place... by what, we don't know.

My solution to this was to add more rules.  First off I needed two classes of things that prevent movement - Immobilize, which is iconically a frostbolt freezing you to the ground, and Grab, which is a brawler grabbing you and pinning you.  Grab has the disadvantage that you can't walk away from the target and maintain it - if you leave, the target is now free to move.  However, Grab has the advantage that you can drag the target around with you if you want.  It feels a lot more like what a brawler would do to an enemy, and doesn't encourage melee people to pin each other in place and dance around.  Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that, but such tactics felt bizarre given the descriptions and titles of the powers and I want the mechanics to line up with the flavour.

That doesn't mean that a melee class can't have an Immobilize... but it means that when I use that I can make sure that the feel of the Power in question really makes it clear what is happening and why it is that way.

While this means there are more rules to learn it also means that if anyone just starts reading Powers they will have a much clearer idea of what those Powers do and how they work.  In fact for Grab and Immobilize people would probably be able to guess what the effects of the Powers are quite regularly without even needing the rules text, which is obviously the ideal.

It isn't often that I feel good about adding extra rules to the game.  Extra content is great, extra rules, usually not.  But in this case I think the extra rules actually make the game simpler to learn, rather than more complex, which means I can include a steeper learning curve elsewhere when I feel I really need it.