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.

Sharp Thoughts on Gaming

I think about games all the time - what makes them tick, why people enjoy them, and how they could be better. I spend at least as much time analyzing as I do actually playing them. Games always been one of my favorite hobbies, and these days they're also my primary creative outlet. I know they're my calling, and one day I hope to make them my profession.

Honestly, half the reason this blog exists is the hope that some day when I'm applying for a job at Wizards of the Coast or Steve Jackson Games, I'll be able to point to my posts here and say, "This is why you should hire me."

I've played my share of videogames and packaged board games, but my real passions are tabletop RPGs and that exemplar of CCGs, Magic: The Gathering. Both are amazing examples of game design that allow players to customize their experience, appealing to different players on many levels.

I don't know what this blog will become - I could well choose to focus on anything from nebulous game design theory to critical game reviews. I can only hope that some people out there will find it all as fascinating as I do.