Wednesday, November 17, 2010

GDS2: Utopia and Crutches

Color identity is my favorite aspect of Magic, so it's not surprising that my original set concept was about exploring the color pie in new ways. I wanted to depict the rarely-seen aspects, and the concept of a peaceful world adapting for war provided a framework for integrating these ideas into the gameplay of Magic.

This is not, however, an easy concept to design for. I struggled with whether or not it was doable at all, until I eventually settled on using enchantments as a mechanical touchstone to tie things together. The problem was that I quickly came to lean on enchantments too heavily, and they usurped the focus of my set. It was so much easier to design good "enchantments-matter" cards than "weaponized paradise" cards that it completely overran my submission.

Rosewater addressed this by deftly kicking the "enchantments-matter" crutch out from under me and telling me to start jogging. With the same update, my existing mechanics were condemned to the scrap heap and I was given four days to design 18 commons to show off my set's mechanics. Hoo boy.

I should mention that I don't think this was necessarily bad for my status in the GDS2. I was given clear instructions and a very difficult challenge, which is pretty much the perfect situation for trying to prove myself as a designer. It did make the process rather stressful, though.

On Wednesday, I narrowed my colors down to blue or black. On Thursday, I invented the Gold counter mechanic and shifted my focus towards black. I came up with the idea of life-payment Mercenaries late Friday and powered through the submission itself over the weekend. There was not as much time for playtesting or direction changes as I might have liked.

The end result is far from perfect, but I'm very satisfied with it. The mechanics are somewhat questionable, but they show my ability to adapt with feedback and convey a unified flavor. I made good use of collaboration with the online community, and I think it shows. I have no idea whether I will be eliminated this week, but I hope that I have demonstrated enough potential that some questionable mechanical decisions will be excused.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

GDS2 Chronicles: Finalist and Input

October was not a good month for this blog. I spent two weeks pouring all of my energy into my Great Designer Search 2 submission, a week recovering, and then a week banned from talking about the search.

The good news is that after all that, I am one of the 8 finalists. My full submission is on the Wizards page here and I've revamped my Wiki page here.

Up to this point, I've pretty much done all the creative and mechanical work on Utopia myself. My big theme for this week is trying to change that. As proud as I am of the work I've done, I know that I can't brainstorm an entire set's worth of mechanics on my own.

I still want to show off my vision for the set, but I need to demonstrate that I can do that by taking suggestions and accepting other people's ideas. So give me all the input that you can, and I will make Utopia as awesome as it can be.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

GDS2 Chronicles: Epiphany

I have all of my best mental breakthroughs at 2:00 AM. Really, I don't know why I bother trying to make serious decisions at any other time of day.

I've been very conflicted about the whole "Weaponized Paradise" theme for my Great Designer Search set. On the one hand, I feel like it's a very interesting concept with a lot of depth and available design space. On the other hand, it's very open-ended and difficult to implement. Feedback has been largely positive, but I agree with the concerns that the idea may be *too* high concept. I'd even gained some confidence with a few cool mechanics, but had been struggling with whether the idea was strong enough for a set. I considered just letting the theme go despite my interest in it.

Tonight's epiphany was that the best course of action is to give a set both a textured philosophical theme and a simple mechanical one. Invasion block's themes were "an epic worldwide conflict centuries in the making" and "multicolor." Zendikar had "adventure world full of deadly peril" and "lands." Now we have Scars of Mirrodin, with "a world corrupted by ancient evil" and "artifacts."

"Weaponized paradise" is the exact theme I need to drive the flavor of the set and determine how I want it to feel. But I also need a more basic mechanical concept to ensure synergy and focus my design. "Enchanments" is a strong (if obvious) choice that evokes a certain "powerful magic we had lying around" concept, but I'm not attached to the idea yet.

I'm pretty ecstatic about this breakthrough, though, and feeling like I'm back on track.

I've put up my page on the GDS Wiki here, but it tends to update a few days behind my thought processes on this blog.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

GDS2 Chronicles: Conceptualizing

To compete in the GDS2, I will need to design an interesting world that leads to fun mechanics and gameplay. I'm not going to commit myself to anything this early, but I wanted to share my thought process for a first attempt at a concept.

Step 1: What do I Like?

My favorite conceptual aspect of Magic is the color wheel. I love the philosophical and idealogical aspects of each color, and how that translates into mechanics.

My favorite set theme was Shards of Alara. It explored the color pie in a way that had never been done before, giving us five worlds that embodied different aspects (and absences) of each color. I like the way it gave each segment a distinct mechanical identity.

My favorite unexplored space in Magic is the color wheel aspects outside of their stereotypes. People forget that red is the color of passion and love, and black is the color of open-mindedness and dealmaking.

Step 2: World Concept

Imagine, if you will, a world where each color has found peace and lives in harmony with its ideals. Red is the color of artists and lovers. Blue is the color of teachers and philosophers. Black is the color of idealized Randian capitalists, living in a mutually-beneficial society of enlightened self-interest. Magic is powerful and widespread, but not used for violence.

Now, this world comes under attack by some horrible outside force, shattering the peace and prosperity. Utopia is under attack by violent forces they do not understand. Finally, here is the lynchpin of the theme: They fight back.

Step 3: Thematic Concept

In two words, "Weaponized Paradise."

What does it look like when red mages kill you with love and creativity rather than rage? How does blue act when it outthinks you with benevolent wisdom instead of callous arrogance? How do I get around the fact that black has been stereotyped as a bad guy for 17 years?

Each color has aspects rarely seen in Magic because they don't make much sense in a game that is fundamentally about conflict and combat. I want to take these aspects, and force them to fit. Let's make art and creativity and wisdom badass.

Step 4: Mechanics

"The colors like you've never seen them before."

I want to explore the boundaries of the color pie as thoroughly as possible without breaking them. I want the colors to explore new space in a way that fits with their ideas. All sounds good and shiny, but what the hell does that mean in terms of the actual game?

I want to take a page out of the Shards playbook and give each color a recognizable keyword or mechanic that really summarizes what I'm trying to show with the color.

Enemy color hybrid seems like it might be a good to show off some of their non-stereotypical interpretations. Improvisation and creativity represented by blue/red spells that draw cards with an emphasis on randomness, or black/white spells about power and authority.

Step 5: Skepticism

I'm not sure I'll stick with this idea. I'm in love with it right now, but I recognize that ideas have a honeymoon period before you start recognizing their flaws. Feedback is encouraged.

GDS2 Chronicles: Vision

Today we got our first taste of the Great Designer Search 2.

The contest hasn't even properly started, and it's already blown my mind and completely defied my expectations. In retrospect, it was silly of me to assume that Maro would want to run the same contest twice - he's a sucker the unexpected.

The biggest change is that instead of discrete design challenges for random set concepts, each contestant has to design their own world/Magic set and develop it over the course of the contest. Moreover, they have provided a wiki on which we can discuss and share our ideas, and receive input and ideas from other people online.

Maro said the most important sentence in the article was "If GDS1 was about furniture building, then GDS2 is about interior design." I think the most important concept is one word: Vision.

We can't just think up a silly new keyword or new template for a cool ability. We are essentially being asked to step into the roll of Lead Designer, conceptualizing a set from the ground up and adapting the ideas of others to fit our core vision. It goes without saying that this is no small task.

Designing a compelling and mechanically-relevant world will be key to advancing in the GDS2, and we don't know how much time we have to do it. Gentlemen, start your creative engines.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Grand Prix Portland: Competitive Gaming

I've played in quite a few Magic tournaments, and consider myself a pretty skilled player. I have a solid rating, consistently do well at local FNMs, and have won a number of 50+ player events. However, until this weekend, I had never really tested my skills at a competitive level. Grand Prix Portland had 1371 players in the main event and $30,000 in cash prizes, so it definitely qualifies.

It was a long and varied experience, but in the end I came to two conclusions:
1) I am skilled enough that if I want, I could play Magic at a competitive level.
2) I don't want that.

I love playing Magic, and would have no objection to putting in the time and effort it would take to get my game to a professional level. And winning money by playing a game you enjoy is awesome. But I learned that I don't like sitting down to a game with the knowledge that I've got hundreds of dollars on the line. Some people may like the thrill of competition that offers, but for me it makes the game feel too much like work.

I'm glad I tried it and pleased with how well I did. I considere making day two alone quite an accomplishment for my first serious tournament, and I finished 75th after going in 3-0 my first draft pod. (I would have made Top 64 for $200 if my friend and I had gotten the math right and drawn our final round.) But at the end of both days I was tired and only staying in for the chance at money, which is not what I want my gaming to be.

The GP had some other fun stuff going on that I would have liked to see more of - we had quite a few high profile Magic artists and Richard Garfield himself. (Another friend from Willamette got to draft with Garfield's kids, which is a pretty awesome brag.) There are infinite people there to play or trade with, and the various dealers present some unique opportunities for buying/selling cards. Playing for the big money was a fun thing to try, but in the future I think I'll be the guy who takes my 1950+ rating over to the casual tables for EDH and cubing.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Ethics of Trading

I love trading Magic cards. Acquisition is part of the game's appeal, and trading allows me to acquire new cards without spending cashy moneys. The last two evenings, I've turned quite a profit at my local game store, turning piles of old rares I wasn't using into spiffy cards for my Cube, EDH decks, and trade binder.

This raises a bit of a dilemma for me, as I occasionally criticize people like trade-guru Jon Medina who put a lot of effort into gaining value on their trades. I consider many of the strategies used in such trades to be unethical and bad for the game. Of course, Medina considers himself to be an ethical trader who makes an effort not to rip people off, so there's clearly a range of perspectives here.

After putting a bit of thought into it, I came to the following conclusion: For people like Medina, the bottom line is for both people to walk away from the trade happy. If both parties are satisfied, the deal is ethical. My standards are a bit higher. Let me illustrate with a story, embellished from a true story:

A casual player returns to Magic after many years and starts getting back into the game. He puts together an EDH deck and brings it down to the local cardshop. One of the regulars notices a Wasteland in the guy's deck and figures he can pick it up for cheap. "I'll trade you this Strip Mine for it," he offers, "The mine is strictly better, but I can use that Wasteland in an legacy deck." They make the trade and both walk away happy - the newbie has gotten a better card for his deck and the regular has made some easy money.

A week later, the player goes up front to see if he can get another Wasteland, and discovers that they are worth $25 to the Strip Mine's $2. He feels betrayed and ripped off by the people who claimed to help him out and decides not to trade any more. A while later, he stops showing up at the card shop at all.

For me, getting people satisfied with the deal at hand isn't enough for the trade to be ethical: People need to know the value of their cards. Yes, that value is subjective and largely "made up" by the happenstance of the market, but it is real value nonetheless. I'll happily walk away with a $25 card for a stack of 20 bulk rares, but only if I've been open and honest about the value of the cards involved.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Great Designer Search

A few years ago, Magic R&D held something called the Great Designer Search. It was an online contest for a job at WotC designing Magic cards, where thousands applied and were eventually weeded down to 15 finalists. Then, those finalists were put through a series of elimination rounds, the final-finalists getting a job interview for the position.

Watching the GDS was a pretty big deal for me. I was just finishing high school and had recently decided that I was probably never going to be a famous novelist or comic writer. But watching the GDS, my thought was, "I can do that. I could be one of the best at game design if I work at it." Since then, I've always considered game design to be my eventual calling. I designed an RPG System for my senior project in high school and have tinkered with it quite a bit since. I design board game rules and Magic cards when I get bored in class. I write this blog.

This January, Aaron Forsythe (the head of Magic R&D) dropped a hint that led me to believe we might see a second GDS this year. As I'm graduating from college this year and looking for my place in the world, it seemed all-too-perfect and I spent a few days fantasizing about the possibility before filing it away. Then, last week, Mark Rosewater ended his column with, "Join me next week when I rinse and repeat (plus I have some exciting news you are not going to want to miss)." It all came flooding back. Was there really a chance? I wondered, Could there be a second Great Designer Search this year?

This week, it was announced that the Great Designer Search 2 would begin this month. I nearly died. I was simultaneously out of my mind with joy at the opportunity and terror that I might screw it up after all waiting all these years. Now, a few days later, I have calmed down enough to discuss the situation rationally, but overwhelming joy/terror still describes my feelings accurately.

I'll be spending the next three weeks studying design articles and the previous GDS, practicing card design, and going through all my old notes. I might not succeed in the end, but it won't be for lack of trying.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Building an RPG Arc

I did a bunch of casual roleplaying with friends in High School, but it wasn't until college that I found people with the time and interest to run long-term games with ongoing plotlines. I've run a number of semester-long games with friends, but didn't have the time for much RPing last year. I've got a much lighter coarseload this semester, and I'm looking forward to running a game again.

Story arcs have always been one of my weak points as a gamemaster. My ability to create interesting antagonists and exciting situations has gotten me through a lot of games, but my campaigns tend to be very episodic with little overall plot. With that in mind, I want to try my hand at planning the skeleton of a story out now and see what meat I can put onto it later.

I'm starting the way all good RPG stories do, by plagiarizing everything within arms reach. Since I'm aiming for a plot that is both goal-oriented and character-driven, I'm borrowing heavily from computer RPGs in the vein of Deus Ex and Vampire: the Masquerade: Bloodlines.


Urban Fantasy borrowing heavily from D20 Modern's Urban Arcana and White Wolf's World of Darkness. Magic exists but is unknown to the common populace, protected by both an enforced conspiracy and inherently selective perception. Those who are aware of magic and supernatural creatures are considered "awakened."

Plot Summary

The PCs are caught in the middle of a three-way fight over a macguffin. Two of the factions present a moral choice between order and chaos. The third faction are one-dimensional antagonists to be fought without guilt.

Important NPCs

Victor - Local magistrate and chessmaster. Organized businessman/politician type. The PCs start in his employ. He is highly ambitious, but acts within the law and rewards loyalty well.

Janis - The PC's contact with those who oppose the magistrate's rule. 30-something street punk. Well intentioned and very anti-establishment. May become leader of the opposition if the PCs support her.

Roy - Runs a local bar with an awakened-only VIP room. A good source of friendship and information for the PCs, being one of the few major characters without an agenda.

Sariah - Knight Templar leader of the Hunters. Believes that all magic users and supernatural creatures serve Satan and must be exterminated. A primary antagonist throughout, and penultimate boss battle.

Six Session Breakdown

1) The PCs owe Victor a favor, and he's calling it in. He's heard stories of something big going down, and sends the PCs on a mission to find out what it is. The PCs recieve help from Roy, encounter the hunters, and uncover the existence of the macguffin. Victor tells them that if they bring him the macguffin, their debt to him will be more than repayed.

2) Victor sends the PCs on another macguffin-related mission. The encounter Janis, who warns them not to trust Victor and asks them to help her and the opposition. PCs can take any course of action without major consequences.

3) PCs get a mission where they will have to make a major choice between Victor and the opposition in the fight over the macguffin. Whatever they do, the balance of power will be upset.

4) Shit gets real. As Victor and the opposition fight openly, the hunters become a real threat with the arrival of Sariah. She knows the identity of the PCs and has no compunction about going after their friends and families.

5) The PCs must by themselves some time and and steal the macguffin from the hunters. Session ends with final showdown with Sariah.

6) Macguffin in hand, the PCs must defend it while they decide whether to side with Victor, Janis, or take a third option. The final showdown may consist of either side or of the macguffin itself, being some sort of sealed evil in a can.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Scrubs and Playing for Fun

My post "Playing to Win versus Playing for Fun" is probably the worst article on this blog. It's a subject I have strong feelings about, but they can be difficult to articulate. I'm going to take another crack at the subject, focusing on a different aspect of the issue.

Today my roommate was playing Storm of the Imperial Sanctum (a DOTA-ish game on Starcraft 2) and an opponent called him a "scrub" for choosing a character rather than playing on random, as the opponent had. I can only dream that one day that person will learn the irony of their words.

The term "scrub" refers to someone who tries to impose their view of the "right" way to play on other people. A scrub is someone who considers any tactic that can defeat them to be "unfair," or even, bizarrely, "noobish." They can be found in all walks of casual and professional gaming, whether they're complaining about grabs, rushes, combos, or builds.

Obviously, if you're playing to win (at a tournament or the like), scrubs should simply be ignored. The difficulties arise when people are playing for fun and have strong preferences in how they enjoy a game.

TV Tropes says, in its infinite wisdom:
"What ultimately makes the Scrub undesirable isn't the rulesetting; it is the attitude. What distinguishes the Scrub from someone who is simply trying to make their game fun without having to invest hugely into skill progression is that the Scrub believes that his way is the only proper way to play the game."

Wanting to play a game a certain way at your kitchen table should not automatically be considered scrubbish. There's a big difference between "Don't play character X because he's cheap," and "I don't enjoy playing against character X." The latter should be respectfully considered. The former should be ignored, or ideally retrained into the latter. This is not to say that any whim of your friends should be taken as law.

Obviously, different people within a group will often have different expectations and desires, but this is true in all areas of life. If you can decide where your group wants to go for dinner, hopefully you can figure out how they prefer to game.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hard and Soft Game Politics

Some people dislike competetive multiplayer gaming because they feel that the politics overshadow game skill. Other feel like multiplayer politics can be a fun strategic skill themselves. I appreciate the skill required to deal with a group of opponents, but can also understand frustration at getting ganged up on unfairly or losing to another player's poor decisions. Thus, I propose a distinction between two different types of politics within multiplayer gaming:

Hard politics are the spoken deals, alliances, and threats. "Don't attack me for two turns and I'll kill him," "If you leave me alone I'll let you have Europe/Park Place/whatever," or "Look at how powerful Devon is, we all need to gang up on him at once." The use of hard politics often includes mutually beneficial deals, vague threats, and chicken-little-style fear mongering.

Soft politics, conversely, are political decisions made within the scope of the game: Piling up your military to indicate a threat, or choosing to remain unthreatening rather than commit your full power to the board. Soft politics are all about shaping perceptions through gameplay.

Personally, I love soft politics. Considering the reactions of other players adds a whole new level to strategic thinking. The "right play" may well be a bad choice if it would draw too much ire from your opponents. Hard politics are not inherently bad, but they have much more potential to be problematic. Games like Risk and Twilight Imperium often slow to a crawl as everyone makes treaties with their nearby opponents. Some games or groups try to discourage this by banning "table talk," but this is hard to enforce and can easily ruin a friendly atmosphere.

Soft politics develop naturally, but the impact of hard politics needs to be considered in game design. I find Risk almost unplayable because treaty-making is both so necessary and so game-slowing. On the other hand, games like Munchkin work with the hard politics, making scheming, temporary alliances, and constant backstabbing are part of the fun.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Board Game Review Part 2 - Sci-Fi and Horror

Yesterday I covered Eurogames, full of indirect competition and family-friendly subject matters. So today I tackle a trio of sci-fi and horror games, complete with rampant infighting and backstabbing!

Betrayal at House on the Hill

Betrayal was published by Avalon Hill (now owned by Wizards of the Coast) several years ago, and I consider myself lucky to have played it. This is because it's been out of print for a while and now routinely sells for $150-200 online. Fortunately, a second edition is planned to be released his October, which should be much more attainable.

The game begins with the players exploring the house, flipping over new room tiles each time they enter an unexplored area. They move around finding various eerie items, events, and omens until eventually the "Haunt" occurs, moving the game into its second phase. When the Haunt takes place, one of the characters turns traitor and any one of 50 scenarios occur, including horror classics like zombie attacks, werewolves, zombies, or even the house itself coming to life. Often the traitor and other players receive different information about the situation, and they rarely know eachother's victory conditions.

Betrayal is practically proof that if you have an awesome enough concept, you can throw everything else out the window. Many of the scenarios are wildly imbalanced or luck-dependent, the rules can be frustratingly ambiguous, and the finite number of options may limit playability, but the game is just too damn awesome for any of that to matter very much.

My other gripe about the game is the packaging - it came with literally hundreds of little cardboard tokens indicating various items, opponents, and hazards. It was ridiculously excessive and largely unnecessary - it could have just come with three colors of tokens and specified what each was for various scenarios. Hopefully the new edition will reduce extraneous cardboard and improve the wording of the rules.

Verdict: If' you're looking for an in-depth strategy game to test your mettle, look elsewhere. If you're looking for an absolutely awesome casual game to play with a bunch of friends late at night, check this out next October.


Also by Avalon Hill, RoboRally is a game Richard Garfield pitched to Wizards of the Coast back in 1993. They turned it down for being too expensive to produce, instead opting to try out some idea of his called Magic. It worked out pretty well for them, so years later they had more than enough cash to make RoboRally.

The game mechanics are fairly simple. The players are racing towards a series of flags, and the first person's robot to touch them all in order wins. Each round, you program your robot with a series of five actions they will take over the course of the next five turns. Then, you watch as they happen to get pushed a square to the left by another player's robot, and continue following your now-deadly orders as they drive over conveyor-belts, industrial lazers, and gaping pit traps. As you take damage, you have increasingly limited movement options to program your hapless robot.

The game doesn't have a lot of deep strategy, but it can be surprisingly difficult and convoluted to maneuver around simple obstacles with limited commands. The wacky dark humor and simple gameplay make RoboRally a very good game for parties, families, and other casual circles.

My biggest complaint about the basic game is that the robot upgrades (things like "Mini-Howitzer" and "Breaks") are one of the more fun and versatile aspects of the game, but are very difficult to acquire in-game. We were very happy playing with the house rule that each robot starts the game with one free upgrade chosen at random.

Verdict: If you're looking for a fun and easy strategy game to play with friends and family, RoboRally is a great option. It's more checkers than chess, though, and not a game for competitive players.

Battlestar Gallactica: The Board Game

I don't normally pay too much attention to tie-in games, but this one seemed thematically appropriate as involves both insane robots and betraying your so-called friends. The game is published by Fantasy Flight Games and is based on the 2003 Battlestar Gallactica tv series.

The game centers around the human side facing various challenges while trying to maintain four gauges - Fuel, Food, Morale, and Population. If any of these fall below zero, they lose the game. Meanwhile, the cylon players try to subvert and sabotage the humans.

The game's most impressive aspect is how well it captures the feel of the series. The humans have to deal with so many different ways to lose, and argue about strategies and acceptable losses even when they actually are on the same side. And then there's the brilliant mechanic where half the loyalty cards are dealt out initially, and then half are dealt out later in the game, meaning that you often don't know how many traitors (if any) are actually among you, and players can turn out to be cylons without initially realizing it.

The sacrifice for this is that the game seems like it would be pretty impenetrable to people unfamiliar with the tv show. The mechanics could be understood, but they wouldn't feel very resonant without the background to understand them. The game also suffers somewhat from overcomplication, with dozens of different mechanics competing for time and attention.

Verdict: A great game for fans of the series which really manages to capture the feel. Other people should probably stick to more other political games.

I'll take a break from reviews for now, but feel free to contact me with your angry rebuttals and fervent disagreements.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Board Game Review Part 1 - Eurogames!

Contemporary board games are not my area of expertise, but I've gotten a lot more familiar with them over the past year. I will share my opinions on several of the games I've played as a relative newcomer to the genre. Today I will be covering several "Eurogames,"
a genre defined by resource-management, indirect competition, and non-elimination gameplay.

Settlers of Catan

Settlers of Catan is a staple of modern board games. It has sold more than 15 million copies and has dozens of spin-offs including expansions, a dice game, and videogames. It has come to define the Eurogame genre in America.

The core game involves players placing cities at the corners of randomized hexes, each of which provides a specific resource with a fixed chance of production each turn. As the game progresses, players use these resources to purchase more roads, settlements, and cities in order to harvest more resources.

Catan's biggest strength is the game's strategic depth despite simple rules - there are a wide variety of valid routes to victory and many economic and tactical mechanics going on at any given time. It is a popular tournament game for competetive players, but is still very accessible for families and casual gamers.

My biggest problem with Catan is the luck factor. Not that it exists, as almost all strategy games involve a large component of luck, but the way it feels. For most games, part of the strategy is figuring out what to do when you're down on your luck. In Catan, you can't do anything when the dice don't go your way. The game is completely out of your control and becomes frustrating and disappointing. There are many games where you can lose to bad luck, but in few does is it feel as unfun as Catan. Added to this is the fact that making comebacks is extremely difficult in economy based games, meaning that a run of bad luck early can leave you boxed in and undeveloped. The game's supporters seem somewhat aware of this, as the Wikipedia page laughably touts, "players who are behind can strive towards goals that are within their reach."

Verdict: Settlers of Catan is a very well-designed game, and can be enjoyed by casual players who don't mind its harsh nature and tournament players who appreciate that harshness. However, if you're a gamer like me who enjoys casual competition with friends, Catan is not your best choice.


Carcassonne is the top-selling franchise for Rio Grande Games, an American company who were founded with the specific goal of developing European style board games. It is a very simple game with a large number of available expansions.

Each turn, a player flips over a landscape tile and uses it to expand the board, then play place a marker to indicate that they are collecting points from one aspect of that tile. For example, a tile might have a segment of road passing by the corner of a city, in which case the player could place a knight in the city, a bandit on the road, or a farmer on the grass. They would eventually receive points based on the number of tiles eventually comprising the completed road, city, or field.

Carcassonne is fun and easy to learn, but doesn't have a whole lot of depth. Most of the strategic decisions are fairly simple and the interaction with opponents is fairly minimal. It is also one of the few games I have played which I like better as a two-player game than with three or more players. Multiple players can often cooperate to "share" very large territories, leaving the other players who were unable to get in on the territory extremely far behind.

Verdict: I've enjoyed playing Carcassonne casually and occasionally, but there isn't a lot of meat on those bones. A good game for playing with acquaintances and parents, but probably not the right choice for playing with avid gamers.


Also published by Rio Grande Games, Dominion is a much more complicated game than Carcassonne. There are a number of stand-alone versions available, which can be played on their own or mixed with the basic set.

As the game progresses, each player continually improves their deck by purchasing new cards, which in turn help them purchase even better cards the next time the go through the deck. Eventually, players begin purchasing "Victory" cards, which contribute to final score but do nothing when drawn. At the end of the game, the number and value of each player's Victory cards determine the winner.

Dominion is the best self-contained tabletop game I've played in a long time. I love deckbuilding for games like Magic, so I love the fact that Dominion has deckbuilding as a fundamental part of gameplay. The gameplay is both fast-paced and strategy intensive, with specific options changing each game.

My biggest complaint about the game is a seeming prevalence of "griefer" cards - effects that seem designed more to annoy or upset your opponents than provide actual strategic advantage. Most of the groups I've played with avoid certain cards that have proven particularly annoying.

Verdict: Dominion will almost certainly be the next game I purchase - I love pretty much everything about it. That said, the game is somewhat complicated and highly strategic, so I don't feel that it would be the best choice for playing with children or non-gamers.

Tomorrow in Part 2 - I review RoboRally, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and more!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Starting at "Heroic" - RPG Character Power Level

Many RPG systems have various tiers of character power. D&D 4E has Heroic, Paragon, and Epic levels. Savage Worlds has Novice, Seasoned, Veteran, Heroic, and Legendary characters. Even GURPS suggest starting point values for characters who are Average, Exceptional, or Heroic, all the way up to Godlike.

What power level characters start at is a huge thematic decision for a campaign, and in some cases for the system itself. For example, the original D&D was a much grittier system where a first-level character was basically a commoner with a sword who could easily get killed by a random orc or goblin in a fair fight. However, D&D 4E is explicit about the fact that even first-level characters are the best and brightest of the world, heroes in their own right with skills and powers beyond the ken of common soldiers and guards.

Games vary quite a bit in how powerful starting characters are, but they mostly fall into three categories:
1) Average - Normal people, who will be faced with exceptional circumstances and become special, or even heroic. This is an increasingly-rare starting point in RPG systems, and isn't the default for any system I can think of.
2) Exceptional - The best athletes, warriors, and scientists, but not yet heroes in their own right. Many systems have characters start out this way, including World of Darkness.
3) Heroic - Powerful characters with some adventuring under their belt, but a long way to go. This is the default for D&D, and the suggested starting point for GURPS campaigns.

I vastly preferred D20 Modern's advancement system to that of its partner D&D 3E, and it wasn't until I started playing GURPS that I understood why. D20 Modern starts characters at the "Exceptional" level, as individuals with great potential but no fixed heroic path. Characters take level in basic classes like "Strong Hero" and "Smart Hero" before they can advance in more specific roles like "Martial Artist" or "Mage." This was always much more thematically appealing to me than D&D's system where a level one Wizard was still an established adventurer with battle magic at the ready.

This realization came to me when I started running GURPS games and figured out how much I preferred running 100-point "Exceptional" starting characters to the 150-point "Heroic" suggested level. Personally, I find the story of seasoned cops and novice hedge-mages becoming heroes to be the most compelling starting point for a campaign. Of course, I'm much more likely to change things up in either direction for experiments and one-shot games.

My thesis here is not that some starting power levels are universally better than others, but rather that each has thematic implications that should be taken into consideration. Here are my opinions on what to consider before choosing a system/power level for you next campaign:

For the most part, players don't want to roleplay ordinary people. The only time I would suggest using this power level is for horror games when you really want the characters running scared, normal people in trapped circumstances beyond their control. Otherwise, let your characters be more awesome than this. Few modern systems default to this level, but many have rules for it or can easily be adapted.

This is the place to start if you want to run a long-term campaign with interesting characters and story development. It allows characters to be awesome and grow into heroes in a meaningful manner. On the other hand, it may not be the best choice for many short campaigns or action-centric games where heroes need to hold their own from the very beginning. World of Darkness and Savage Worlds default to this level, and GURPS is well-suited to it.

This is the traditional starting-point for action RPGs and casual games. It allows characters to "get right to the good stuff," using their rise to heroics as backstory rather than gameplay. D&D 4E starts here and GURPS 4E suggests it as the default level.

Personal preferences aside, these are all viable routes - just be sure to pick the right one for your campaign.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Starcraft II and Hard Mode

For those of you who have been living in a cave for the last few months, Starcraft II came out this week. It is an excellent sequel to one of the greatest videogames of all time, and makes stunning leaps forward while maintaining the spirit of the original. But I'm not going to talk about that: I'm going to talk about the fact that it has difficulty levels.

The original Starcraft had a single player campaign of 30 missions of increasing difficulty, but there were no alterable levels of difficulty. However, like many contemporary games, the SC2 campaign can be played at a variety of levels from "Casual" to "Brutal." This shift reflects changes in both how videogames are designed and the specific nature of the Starcraft franchise.

Setting a good difficulty curve is a very important aspect of linear game design. You have to ensure that the game remains challenging but fun as the player becomes more skilled, while accounting for different levels of talent, experience, and learning speed. Difficulty levels have become one of the primary tools the game industry uses to allow different players to challenge themselves.

SC1 managed to create a single-player campaign that effectively taught players the game while leading them through the increasingly-difficult challenges, culminating in a final battle where you had to use your full knowledge of all three races. It was able to spend most of the first campaign introducing us to the game because no one had played anything like it before. Some of us had played Age of Empires or Command and Conquer, but they couldn't compare to this new game that used three races based on completely different principles with no common units.

Starcraft II has a much wider variety of experience to appeal to, ranging from players new to the franchise to tournament players who've been making their living off Starcraft for years. Sequels and other games within well-established genres are much more likely to need difficulty levels to account for different levels of playskill. As videogames continue to develop as an industry, more and more games fall into this category.

However, difficulty levels afford another advantage: Increased replayability. While the single difficulty of SC1's campaign was fine for almost anyone the first time through, playing the early missions again was easy enough to quickly become tedious. On the other hand, even a player who has played SC2's campaign all the way through on "Hard" will be challenged within the first few missions of "Brutal." This is a good reason for even completely novel games to include difficulty levels.

One interesting method is to allow players access to harder difficulty levels only after completing the game. On the surface this may feel like unnecessary restrictions that prevent veterans from a challenging first playthrough, but I can see certain advantages. Resident Evil 4 is one of my favorite examples of a perfectly-wrought difficulty curve, and uses the unlockable "Professional" difficulty to continue the game's curve, transitioning smoothly from the end of Normal to the beginning of Professional.

Friday, July 23, 2010

3 DnD Tropes that Have Outlived their Usefulness

Now, I don't want to sound like I'm insulting Dungeons and Dragons. It was the first major RPG, and has kept pace with the industry over the years. However, no first attempt is perfect, and a few of D&D's imperfections have influenced RPG design longer than they should. This is my short list of RPG tropes that have outstayed their welcome.

1) Rolling for Statistics

I'm not sure who first thought, "Hey, what if some players had to start with characters that were randomly worse than those of their friends?" but I'm surprised at how enduring the practice has been since then. Fortunately, most systems are finally edging away from this method. Even D&D has largely abandoned this concept, listing it as one method among several in 3rd Edition and an openly-discouraged option in 4th.

I understand that the concept has some visceral and nostalgic appeal keeping it alive, but it's such stunningly bad design that it really needs to die out. Rolling dice for hit points at each level is a particularly egregious variant.

2) Overcomplicated Experience Systems

Let's look at a quick sample of the 3rd Edition D&D combat experience rules: First, look up the challenge rating for each of the opponents faced. Then, use these to figure out the total challenge rating for the encounter. Consult a table comparing the CR of the encounter and the average level of the heroes to determine the total experience for the encounter, then divide that experience between the heroes evenly. And even though you've already scaled the experienced based on the heroes' level, it's set up so that each level requires exponentially more experience to advance.

Now let me suggest an alternate system I came up with off the top of my head: You get one point of experience for overcoming minor obstacles or encounters, three points for difficult ones, and five points for defeating important opponents or completing major campaign goals. Characters level up every 20 points.

I get that there are reasons to use systems more complicated than the one I suggest, but lots of games still use ridiculously complicated systems that require multiple tables, multipliers, and scalers. These systems are fine for computer and console gaming where the numbers are crunched automatically, but are overcomplicated and completely unnecessary for tabletop RPGs.

#3) Loot-Based Economics

My first two points are easy targets - anyone can attack bad game mechanics. Looting is much more of a sacred cow, fundamental to many game designs. "Kill monsters, steal treasure," is one of the basic principals of the fantasy RPG.

In my experience, though, few things hurt drama or willing suspension of disbelief as much as looting corpses. It makes perfect sense in certain circumstances (post-apocalyptic settings, killing dragons with treasure hoards) but you don't see many books or movies where the heroes rifle through the pockets of every mook they kill.

Looting is a fine concept for "gamist" systems that aren't trying to emphasize storytelling or realism, but it has been far too widely-used in RPG design. Noble paladins shouldn't have to strip-search fallen opponents for loose change.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Some Postgame Thoughts on M11 Limited

I wrote a preliminary review for M11 two weeks ago, stating that I would follow it up once I had actually played with the set. Since then I've won two 40+ person sealed events and drafted twice, so I feel like I can revise a few of my previous statements.


I stand by my assertion that white is the least interesting limited color in M11. I played against quite a few white decks, and none of them were trying to do anything more exciting than curve Stormfront Pegasus into Wild Griffin into Assault Griffin. That said, Squadron Hawk remains one of my favorite cards in the set, and is worth playing even if you only have two.

Most Surprising Card: War Priest of Thune - I already liked this guy, but here's what I didn't know: You almost never want to play him on turn two. M11 limited has a lot of powerful enchantments at common and uncommon - Pacifism, Armored Ascension, Shivan Embrace, and Mind Control to name a few. Unless you have a good reason otherwise, you're generally going to want to save this guy for a juicy target.


Blue has some very good things going on, and even its common creatures are very playable. The only problem is that there are so few of them - in sealed you almost always have to run blue as a secondary color. I like blue having a few good creatures a lot better than the previous method of a bunch of unplayable little blue dudes. Along with red, blue has gotten a much-needed power boost in limited since M10.

Most Surprising Card: Scroll Thief - I questioned whether this new ophidian would ever hit anyone in limited, and boy was I wrong. Three toughness is enough to let this guy survive a lot of blocks, and I almost always saw him net a card or two when he was played.


Black remains a strong color, if not quite as strong as I thought. I don't feel like it has been weakened, it's just that some of the other colors have gotten stronger since M10. That's probably as it should be.

Most Surprising Card: Liliana's Specter - Another card where I knew it would be good, but I didn't realize quite how good. It's a relevant attacker that trades with most of the aggressive flyers. Liliana's Specter into Mind Rot is one of the best turn 3-4 plays I've seen in M11, netting you massive mid-game card advantage.


I will admit that I wildly misjudged red for limited. Yes, it does have quite a few unplayables, but these are necessary because otherwise the color would completely bonkers. Chandra's Outrage is a second amazing removal spell at common that makes the color a lot better, and Manic Vandal is quite powerful in a set with as many great artifacts as M11. I played red as a major color every time I could.

Most Surprising Card: Shiv's Embrace - I figured this would be a pretty good buff as long as you don't get blown out by removal. Turns out, this card is absolutely nuts. It just wins games. At four mana it may well be better than Shivan Dragon itself, and it's an uncommon. Put on Child of Night for maximum swinginess or Sacred Wolf to make your opponent cry.


Green is as solid as ever, providing us with a bunch of good groundpounders. Hornet Sting and Plummet give it a few more answers, and Cultivate can make 3-4 color decks much more viable. The color is as good as ever, but has changed less from M10 than most of the others.

Most Surprising Card: Sylvan Ranger - When I first looked at this card, I thought it was a bad Civic Wayfinder, putting the same ability on a less-relevant body. Instead, it has turned out to be one of my favorite limited cards in the set. It makes keeping two-land hands much more consistent than its predecessors. Moreover, turn 3 is much more important in limited than turn 2, making Sylvan Ranger do its job very well despite a small body.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Magic 2099

I'm starting a new project, designing a hypothetical Magic Core Set.

I'll probably be rambling about it quite a bit and talking about various card designs, so I started a separate blog for it. More information can be found in the introduction, here.

The blog itself is here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Flavor and Board Games

Anyone can design a fair game. I'll make one now: "We each roll a normal, six-sided die and whoever rolls the highest wins. In the event of a tie, we reroll." The challenge of game design is not to make balanced games, but to make fun ones.

Fun is extremely complicated, though. You've got to incorporate challenge, satisfaction, progress, unpredictability, and dozens of other variables which various people can respond to very differently. One of the factors that people often forget, however, is "flavor" - the aesthetic choices of name and identity that give reason to a game's mechanics.

Mechanically, Go strikes me as a much better game than Chess. Chess isrepetitive and quickly becomes more about memorizing move sequences than original strategizing, whereas Go is organic and plays out very differently each time. Go has more strategic depth and more big-picture creativity in its gameplay. Yet Chess fascinated me for years (including a solid amount of tournament play) and Go never managed to maintain my interest long enough to fully learn the rules.

I eventually figured out that it was the iconography of chess that made the difference: The mere fact that the pieces were identified as soldiers, knights, and royalty makes the game more interesting. You can bemoan that someone has killed your queen, or grin as you slowly force their king into a corner. The flavor may be cursory, but it gives you an emotional identification with the game that Go lacks. I've heard vague explanations of supply lines and armies, but Go never felt like anything other than stones on a board.

A lot of very poorly designed board games have become classics solely on the basis of their flavor. Clue is a silly little game of guess-and-check, but throw in a murder with a variety of suspects and weapons and you've got an interesting narrative. Monopoly is so flawed that no one plays by the official rules (does anyone actually bid for property?) but has stuck in our cultural consciousness because it's about buying property and paying rent. And Risk is an agonizing game that brutally punishes any attempt at action, but it's about taking over the world!

I don't think any of these games would have caught on if they were just about collecting unlabeled "points" or generic "spaces." Something worth thinking about.

Edit: By complete coincidence, I appear to have criticized Monopoly on its 75th Anniversary. Happy Birthday!

Monday, July 12, 2010

RPG Design and D&D 4E

Dungeons and Dragon's 4th Edition has been somewhat controversial among gamers since its release two years ago. Of course, there were also hardcore gamers upset about 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition, 3.5, and all the way back to the original D&D/AD&D split. So, are the complaints about 4th edition legitimate criticisms of a turn for the worse, or simply a stubborn resistance to change?

I'm not discussing the specifics like choices about which races/classes made the cut and which didn't, or whether classes and powers are balanced. I'm more interested in the design philosophy behind the changes. D&D has chosen to focus on its strengths. The thing is, as the most widely-played tabletop RPG out there, this focus has alienated a portion of its players who liked it for other reasons.

To explain all this, I'm going to have to backtrack a little. My first D&D books (purchased in middle school) were 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Having read through those books more recently, I can tell you that from a modern RPG design perspective they are laughable. Each basic attribute effects a half dozen traits, including various bonuses, percentages, and fixed caps. The chapter on equipment spends three pages discussing the subtle differences between 23 different types of polearms, which include the Glaive, Guisarme, Glaive-Guisarme, and Fauchard-Fork. Previous editions were even worse, with dozens of percentile tables for things like door-breaking attempts and 1-2 damage grappling attacks.

Third Edition was the first to be published by Wizards of the Coast after TSR went under, and it is the first edition that can really hold up as a contemporary tabletop RPG. Each basic attribute adds a single fixed bonus to applicable situations, and all checks and attempts are done with the same type of die. Classes level up at the same time, are theoretically balanced, and don't have random level caps for each race. Players can customize their characters with skills and feats, something that is now taken for granted as part of a standard role-playing experience. While there are still old-school gamers out there who will endlessly argue the superiority of previous editions, there is no question in my mind that 3rd edition was better than all before it and the first "modern" D&D system.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (or 4E) streamlines the game even further. Combat spells and special attacks are merged into a single "power" system that is used by all classes. The skill levels are simply "yes" and "no," rather than having new characters divide up to 50 skill points between 30 skills. Specialized high-level classes are now a basic part of advancement rather than an optional rule for specific campaigns. While this is largely a continuation of the advancements made in third edition, many people feel that 4E goes too far, blurring the classes together and making the whole thing feel "videogamey."

From a pure design perspective, I have to say that 4E feels a lot more elegant. The skill system dropped a lot of extraneous complexity while sacrificing very little gameplay. The classes all advance similarly and consistently, instead of the weird starts and stops of third edition. The presence of rituals and healing surges means that groups don't have to stick to fighter/caster/healer compositions to keep up. The rules for combat are much cleaner, which is good, because there aren't many rules for anything else.

D&D has always had a rules focus on combat. The important thing to realize is that this is not because they consider roleplaying unimportant, but because they consider rules for roleplaying unimportant. The philosophy seems to be that if you want to play an interesting and compelling character, you don't need a bunch of numbers and scores to define that - design fun rules for combat and advancement and let the players take care of the rest. To my eyes, 4E is the culmination of this design philosophy, and that is why so many people have problems with it.

Some players like to have their character's personality on paper. My love for systems like Savage Worlds and GURPS comes from the fact that I can look at a character sheet and go, "ah, this character is honorable but hindered by a rigid moral code," or "this character is a powerful warrior but struggles with social situations and alcoholism." Personally, I really like systems that encourage characterization by providing rules for traits and hindrances. But that means D&D isn't the system for me anyways, and they shouldn't be trying to cater to my preferences.

As the most popular and well-known tabletop RPG, Dungeons and Dragons has a lot of different types of players to keep happy. Even within a single roleplaying group, there will be people with a variety of different playstyles to appease. Many people who might prefer systems like World of Darkness of FUDGE will end up playing D&D because that's what their friends play.

4E is a better designed system than any previous version, and one that focuses best on the core strengths of Dungeons and Dragons. But as an RPG that must cater to more players than any other, it remains to be seen whether or not that was the right choice.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Magic 2011 Set Review

Last year, Magic completely changed the way they did core sets with Magic 2010. They moved to a yearly release, smaller set size, and named the sets by year rather than edition. More importantly, they changed the way they designed the sets themselves, printing new cards beside reprints and focusing on flavorful and evocative designs.

Magic 2010 was a huge critical and commercial success, and this year they're trying to recapture that success (or even improve upon it) with Magic 2011. So how does this set match up?

With the full set up on Gatherer, I can give a preliminary review and then describe any cards that surprise me at the prerelease. Onwards!

Overall Impressions

Magic 2011 (M11 for short) feels much more cohesive than its predecessor. The cycles are tighter, allowing new players to see connections between cards more easily. The Titans and Leylines are both beautiful examples that let new players see recurring elements while showing off each color's strengths and abilities. They double-cycle of spells named after planeswalkers are equally effective in creating the feel of a larger setting with recurring themes and characters. Even the cycle of color hate spells (Celestial Purge through Autumn's Veil) do a better job of reinforcing exactly what each color dislikes about its opponents.

There are quite a few returning cards from M10, many of which I am happy to see for another year but hope won't make it into M12. Lightning Bolt and Baneslayer Angel are both powerful cards that have helped to define standard, but I don't want them to define standard forever. Platinum Angel is cool, but after three printings in a row she is starting to feel less epic. There are other cards that I wouldn't mind seeing in the core set for years - Pacifism and Doom Blade are perfect common removal spells, Cancel is the solid baseline counterspell, and Gravedigger is the kind of card that really shines in the core set.

I'm going to cover each color as a whole and touch upon a few specific cards, then wrap things up with a few final thoughts.


White is probably the least interesting color in M11. The commons and uncommons aren't bad, they just don't really excite me. Snapping Drake gets printed in its third color this year, and we get a bunch of unexciting vanilla and french-vanilla beaters.

There are a few exceptions - War Priest of Thune is one of those great cards that seems like it should have been printed years ago. Squadron Hawk is probably my favorite common in the set - insane card advantage that takes some work to make useful, and a perfectly flavorful name. Roc Egg is a nice modern take on a weirdly-colored old concept. I can't even quite bring myself to dislike Goldenglow Moth - it's such a silly little card, and I've had some good times with it in Duals of the Planeswalkers.

I'm not too happy about seeing two rare slots eaten up by seven-mana flyers with defensive abilities, Angelic Arbiter and Vengeful Archon. I just think that in a core set, you want to use your rare slots as effectively as possible to show interesting variety, and instead we get two relatively generic big flying things.

Serra Ascendant is an interesting case - I'm pretty sure that it will be played almost exclusively in EDH, which leads me to wonder whether it was designed primarily for that purpose or not. It has been stated that several similar cards were designed with an awareness of EDH, but were not specifically intended for it. Serra Ascendant is such an extreme example, however, that I wonder if the growing popularity of EDH has led to more designs intended for the format.


If white is the least interesting color in M11, blue is the most. All the rarities do a great job of showing off all the things blue can do and I love all the new designs.

It's nice to see "fixed" versions of iconic creatures like Man 'O War and Ophidian - I hope they're good enough to see some constructed play. Harbor Serpent is a great take on the historic theme, and Diminish is a wonderfully simple conditional removal spell. Merfolk Spy is a classic body (1/1 islandwalk for U) with my favorite type of ability - the kind that makes the card 10% more powerful and five times as interesting. I also like seeing Jace's Erasure as something to enable a limited mill archetype, something I always appreciate for variety.

Scry was absolutely brilliant inclusion that gives blue a lot of identity. I love that there are three great blue commons with scry, giving people the opportunity to see the ability across several different types of cards.

Of course, blue's most discussed card is a powerful two-mana counterspell in the form of Mana Leak. I'm not sure what I can say about it that hasn't been said by many others already, but it's nice to see countermagic getting a balanced but powerful option for the coming year. In six months we'll see whether I want it in M12 or if I'm already sick to death of it.

I love all of blue's new rares - Conundrum Sphinx is a great beater-with-interesting-ability, Mass Polymorph is hilarious and potentially very powerful, and Stormtide Leviathan is bombtastically awesome and flavorful.

I'm slightly curious about implications of putting Redirect in blue and Reverberate in red. Red and blue have been sharing both spell copying and redirection for a while now, and I wonder if putting clean versions of both in M11 indicates a solid color-pie decision on which gets which.


Black was by far my favorite color in M10 limited, and if anything it looks like they made it better. Unplayables like Acolyte of Xanthrid and Soul Bleed have been replaced with interesting conditional cards like Viscera Seer and Quag Sickness. Looming Shade and Kelinore Bat have been given stronger cards in the form of Nightwing Shade and Liliana's Specter. I foresee another summer of first pick Bog Wraiths.

I was pleased to see Megrim's strict improvement, Liliana's Caress. The three mana version was always a bit wrong for discard decks - that's the turn you want to start playing cards like Mind Rot, Blightning, or various specters.

Phylactery Lich may get my vote for the most cool and flavorful card in the set. I'm not sure if he'll see much tournament play, but he certainly might. Dark Tutelage is solid but its hard to avoid unfavorable comparisons to the perfectly-balanced Phyrexian Arena. Nantuko Shade is a pretty cool card, but I'm a little scared he'll be a disappointment given the current power of creatures. It always makes me a little sad when iconic older cards get reprinted and just can't quite make the cut.

Relentless Rats is the one card in the set that I feel may have overstayed its welcome. It's excitingly unique and everyone loves the idea of the 22-swamps 48-rats deck, but I rarely see people go through with building the deck and the card loses its excitement after you've seen it enough times. Four years of core set printings seems somewhat excessive to me - I don't think many people are excited about it anymore, and it doesn't add much to limited or constructed.

As far as standard goes, I'm a little sad to see that black is losing two of my favorite cards from M10 - Vampire Nocturnus and Tendrils of Corruption. Corrupt is a fine card, but a bit too slow for the current standard. Captivating Vampire is somewhat disappointing - his ability is too restrictive for either limited or constructed, and he's not as cool or flavorful as Nocturnus. I can see the value in making sure the vampire deck has to change over time, but I would have liked another year with Nocturnus. On the other hand, Duress is my single favorite sideboard card in standard, so I'm happy to see it's sticking around.


Red's gotten some awesome rares this round. I love both dragons, Destructive Force as 125% of a Wildfire, and the new Fork. I like seeing some less-splashable beaters like Cyclops Gladiotor with interesting abilities. Even Wild Evocation seems like it will lead to some fun situations.

It looks like red may have gotten the shaft in limited, though. Bloodcrazed Goblin, Incite, Goblin Balloon Brigade, and Pyretic Ritual are all borderline-unplayable. As with M10, red's best cards at common and uncommon are very easily splashible, making them hard to pick up in draft and not providing much incentive to run red as a main color in sealed. Fling seems surprisingly good, though, having excellent synergy with fellow commons Act of Treason and Fiery Hellhound. I just wish Deadly Recluse had stuck around so that I could use the new deathtouch rules to kill things by throwing poisonous spiders at them.

Manic Vandal is a card I'm very happy to see - it's nice to have some artifact destruction you don't feel bad about maindecking, and will lead to some interesting decisions about whether to play it as a Grey Ogre early or wait around for a juicy target.


M11 Green looks like a lot of fun in limited. Both the common Craw Wurm and uncommon Enormous Baloth have been replaced with similar cards that add the much-needed trample. Cudgel Troll returns as a powerful beater and Garruk's Packleader strikes me as an exceptional source of card advantage in the right deck.

Cultivate bears special mention as a functional reprint of Kodama's Reach. This unassuming common is one of the most exciting parts of the set for me. It will be amazing mana fixing in limited and will go straight into all of my EDH decks that contain forests. I'm not sure if it's in the right place to play in Standard, but I'm certainly hoping it is.

The rares include both a demoted Protean Hydra and a promoted Overrun-variant Overwhelming Stampede, both changes that I approve of. Obstinate Baloth is a solid midrange creature and Mitotic Slime is amusing and flavorful. Fauna Shaman is a wonderful fix of the old favorite Survival of the Fittest.

My one disappointment with green's rares is a lack of solid beef. We've got a few 4/4s and an X/X hydra, but nothing that screams "smash" like M10's Kalonian Behemoth or the uncommon Duskdale Wurm. This is especially irksome because white gets the aforemented 5/6 and 7/7 at rare.


I like seeing some playable artifact creatures at uncommon to help smooth out limited decks. Gargoyle Sentinel, Stone Golem, and Juggernaut are all balanced creatures that can help fill out sealed pools and drafts.

The equipment is all passable and interesting in limited. Sword of Vengeance is definitely a better inclusion than Magebane Armor, and Warlord's Axe is the kind of good bad card which leads to fun decisions in limited. I'd like to see a little more "french vanilla" equipment in the future, though - simple cards like Gorgon Flail and Kitesail that grant interesting keyword abilities.

Voltaic Key is an interesting inclusion, and I was pleased to see the clever uses included for it in M11. In addition to the uncommon creatures and rares like Temple Bell and Steel Overseer, both Sorcerer's Strongbox and Elixir of Immortality are one-shot uncommons that Key can potentially get double duty out of. Triskelion is another fun reprint with a few silly combos - Primal Cocoon being the funniest.

My favorite artifact in the set, though, is easily Crystal Ball. It's a fun little card-selection engine that I will love playing in limited and EDH, and may even make a splash in standard. Moreover, the flavor is simple and absolutely perfect. What do you do with a crystal ball? You scry!

Mystifying Maze is an interesting and flavorful utility land. I like having enough useful lands in standard that tap for colorless that interesting deckbuilding decisions have to be made. Tectonic Edge, Dread Statuary, and the maze will all be competing for decks slots, and it will be interesting to see which ones make the cut. I also enjoy having a new version of Kor Haven/Maze of Ith, but the wording feels a bit clunky - I'm not sure why my defensive maze needs to reload Triskelions and be an act of absolute desperation against Titans.

Final Thoughts

M11 might not be perfect, but it's almost certainly the best core set so far. They made some very good changes with M10, and are still figuring out how to get the most out of them. M11 has made a lot of progress in capturing generic fantasy elements while starting to feel like a cohessive set, with mechanical and flavorful themes.

There are a few over- or under-represented concepts, but I feel like overall the set does a solid job of capturing the scope of Magic. The increased number of tighter cycles do a great job of showing of the various colors, and the card choices feel less arbitrary than M10.

I can only hope that M12 continues this pattern, feeling more like a unified "set" while still being Magic in a pure and simple form.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Playing to Win versus Playing for Fun

This subject has been brought to the forefront of my mind by some recent debates over the Magic variant Elder Dragon Highlander. EDH is an interesting case because it is a variant of a naturally competitive game that was explicitly created to be a casual experience where the goal is fun rather than victory. However, it retains the fundamental competitive format of Magic - the game ends when one player wins by eliminating all of their opponents.

This tension is far from unique to EDH - it exists to some degree in many (if not most) games we play:
a) The internal goal of the game is to achieve victory (often by defeating our opponents)
b) The external end goal for us in playing the game is to have fun and enjoy ourselves

Almost all "classic" boardgames are played this way - Clue, Monopoly, Scrabble, Chess, etc. These games are designed to be fun within the paradigm of everyone trying to win. Our competitive nature becomes the driving force that keeps the game moving forward.

The problem is that in discussion, the relationship of these goals is often misunderstood. Many people fail to realize that playing to win is something done in the service of fun, not an end in itself. Equally many can forget that competition itself is an important part of that fun for most players.*

So, understanding competition as means to achieving fun, what does this mean for the current EDH Debate? Well, players who are used to victory being the end goal of gameplay (as in tournaments) need to adjust their expectations and behavior to fit the end goal of an enjoyable game. However, it also means that casual players need to keep in mind that competition is part of that enjoyment, and for some people it is the most important part.

This doesn't mean that they'll be able to play with each other - their different ideas of "fun" may be too far apart to reconcile. In a format as infinitely customizable as EDH, I think the only solution is for people to find groups that enjoy a similar level of competition. But both sides should recognize that they're just playing in different ways, and putting more focus on victory is not a better or worse way of having fun.

*Obviously, this all breaks down if (b) isn't true. Sometimes we're playing for money, and sometimes we're just trying to put our little brother in his place. In these cases, we have a different end goal superseding "have fun."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Five Rules for Building Fun Magic Decks

I probably played Magic for five years before I learned how to design a legitimately good deck. You know what took me twice as long? Learning how to build a fun deck.

Obviously, “fun” is a pretty subjective concept. The list of Magic decks that some people hate to play against includes, at last count, every deck ever made. But I can give you a list of rules that will help you build decks that you can enjoy at your kitchen table or local card shop for years to come.

I've never much liked the term “casual” - not everyone who takes Magic seriously plays in tournaments. Let's call these decks FFF – Fun For Friends to play against eachother. Pureblood spikes and hardcore grieffers should look elsewhere for deckbuilding advice.

Rule #1 – Fun Decks are Interactive

The decks that are the most fun to design are often the least fun to play. Why is this? Because the decks that are fun on paper tend to be built around a Really Cool Plan (TM) and will win or lose based on whether or not their plan happens to work out. Unsurprisingly, this isn't very fun in practice.

Say you design a combo deck out of otherwise useless cards that are unbeatable if you get your combo assembled. You take that deck against your friend's pile of Forests and Big Green Creatures (TM), and games will go one of two ways.

a) You get your unbeatable combo together in time and win.

b) You don't get your combo together in time and they beat you to death.

Making the deck better or worse can change which of these happens more often, but it's still going to get old pretty fast. I have a few of these decks lying around, but I generally only pull them out once every few months, and retire them again as soon as they've “gone off” once and demonstrated their coolness. Getting beat by an epic combo can be fun, but generally only once.

A good FFF deck can have a plan, but it should be one that involves your opponents. “Use creatures like Sakura-Tribe Elder and Fertilid to accelerate mana and hold the ground early until I can play some large hard-to-answer creatures like Kalonian Behemoth” is an interactive game plan that will lead to interesting games. “Get out Hive Mind and play Intervention Pact” is not – maybe the rest of the deck can include some interesting strategies, but the win condition itself is not going to endear you to anyone.

Rule #2 – Fun Decks are Resilient

If you build a combo deck, it shouldn't lose to a single well-placed Counterspell. If you build a control deck, a third-turn Great Sable Stag shouldn't ruin your day. If you build an aggro deck, Teferi's Moat shouldn't be enough to make you scoop up your cards.

Ironically, this is one area where a chance to win is more important to FFF decks. Tournament decks can often afford to ignore anything that's not a significant metagame presence. A competitive aggro deck doesn't want to slow itself down by drawing Naturalize, even if it means losing to the occasional oddball Moat effect. Among friends, it's no fun if your deck doesn't have a chance against certain opponents, even if it means slightly worse odds against other opponents. Short version: Possible wins are more important to having fun than likely wins, and guaranteed wins aren't very interesting for anyone.

Resilience largely comes down to two things: Making sure you have answers for really problematic permanents, and ensuring that your opponents answers don't wipe you out completely.

The first part is the easier of the two – when possible, devote a few deck slots to dealing with problematic artifacts, enchantments, and creatures. All the better if you can make them multipurpose spells like Vindicate and Indik Stomphowler that aren't dead cards if your opponent doesn't happen to have anything of the appropriate type. Throw two Elvish Scrapper and two Elvish Lyrist into your elf deck, or replace two copies of Wrath of God in your black/white control with Austere Command. Be prepared for anything your opponent's might throw at you.

Not getting blown out by your opponents spells is a little more complex, but still very important. Don't depend too much on single permanents or spells if you can avoid it. If your deck is built around vulnerable cards, protect them with things like Counterspell or Fountain Watch. Don't build decks that need to commit too many creatures to the field, or you'll get blown out by Wrath of God.

Rule #3 - Fun Decks are Varied

Consistency is something to strive for in competitive decks – ideally, they should play the same way every time. Not so for FFF decks – playing the exact same game over and over gets old fast if there aren't any prizes on the line. So mix things up! Play 2-ofs and 3-ofs to make room for more cards. Throw in one copy of that kooky spell you've been wanting to try. A little versatility goes a long way to making a deck more interesting in the long term.

This rule should be taken as a statement freedom rather than a harsh requirement. You don't need to fill your decks with subpar choices, but the next time you're trying to decide between Death Baron and Lord of the Undead for those final four slots in your zombie deck, consider two of each.

Of course, if you really want to challenge yourself with a varied deck, consider imposing some deckbuilding restrictions on yourself. “Highlander” formats restrict all players to single copies of any card, but the same rule can force diversity into a deck if you are a compulsive optimizer like me. Some of my best FFF decks are Highlander decks I've evolved over time.

Rule #4 – Fun Decks have a Theme

This rule is the most debatable, but I think it's important. A deck built around some sort of central concept isn't just more powerful and synergistic, it's more distinctive and memorable. A theme can be anything from a mechanic that defines the entire deck to an unusual win condition. “That monoblue control deck” isn't nearly as interesting as “The Unspeakable control deck.”

Themes often come pre-packaged if you're building around a tribe or some exciting new card, but it can be harder if you're just trying to lend your new green stompy deck some flavor. When dealing with less specialized decks, consider looking for common threads to tie the deck together, or obscure cards you think are underrated or otherwise interesting. Perhaps Forced Fruition is the wacky win condition your Blue/Black control needs to stand out, or maybe Heartwood Storyteller is enough to justify cutting noncreature spells out of your Green deck entirely. Give yourself a theme that will set your deck apart.

Rule #5 – Fun Decks are Fun for You!

This may seem trite and obvious, but figuring out what makes decks enjoyable for you personally is important. Do you like smashing face with huge creatures? Smirking confidently behind your grip of counters? Gaining so much life you need a graphing calculator to keep track? Beyond any rules or suggestions, the ultimate test of a fun deck is how enjoyable it is when you actually play it. Now go out there and take a new deck out for a spin!

I hope my advice helps everyone to put together some fun decks that will entertain them for many games to come! Feel free to e-mail me back or voice your feelings in the comment section.