Thursday, April 7, 2016

Magic Duels Patch Report: Controlling the criticisms

A few month ago, there was simply no way I could have recommended Magic Duels to anybody. It was too glitchy and featureless.

With the new patch for Magic Duels (PC, iOS) making some big changes and adding story content and card sets for both Oath of the Gatewatch and Shadows Over Innistrad, it seems like a good time to assess whether this game is getting the repairs it desperately needed. The big question: "Would I be comfortable recommending Magic Duels to a friend post-patch?"

I started playing Magic Duels for a couple weeks right when it first released, and quickly grew tired with the lack of polish. Setting aside that two of my friends couldn't even launch the game for weeks after release without it crashing, the problems were numerous:
  • quests that wouldn't complete unless you used a shoddy "deckbuilding wizard"-created deck, 
  • no rewards for playing 2-Headed Giant, 
  • rampant game-abandonment because of no incentive to keep playing a game you're likely to lose, 
  • no in-game chat or effective way to contact an opponent during or after a match. . . 

And this was just a short list of missing features. We'll get to the glitches and bugs in a bit.

So, what did this new patch change? Now, when your opponent concedes, you don't have to play against an AI piloting a player's deck all the way to the end to collect your win and coins. This is huge. When you queue up for player versus player, you will not spend half your time playing against doomed AI opponents anymore. Quite frankly, it should have been this way from the start.

That's good! What else?

2-Headed Giant now awards coins when facing random opponents. It's no longer going to be a total waste of time format that nobody plays, perhaps.

With the addition of the Oath of the Gatewatch and Shadows over Innistrad story modes, both of which will take around an hour for a skilled player to complete, the story now has enough gameplay to occupy you for 5-6 hours for free and the combined "starter box" cards you unlock from completing all the campaigns gives you more deck building options should you decide to stay around for the long haul and start playing against humans online.

Sadly, accounts still don't share between iOS and PC. This likely will never be changed because some customers have already paid into accounts on both platforms, and will continue to be a reason to not bother with Magic Duels for the foreseeable future.

More importantly, the patch seems to have added just as many bugs as it removed, if not even more. Here's the patch notes list just of the KNOWN bugs, and the /r/magicduels subreddit is already exploding with reports of new and exciting glitches.

Of course, if you want to play the same magic people are playing in the real world, all of this is a moot point. The card set doesn't actually match real-world Standard.

Magic Duels is still feature-threadbare compared to Hearthstone, but that's unfortunately not surprising. I can recommend the story mode to nearly anyone because it's sincerely 100% free, with nothing hidden behind a paywall. For any player vs player action, however, you play at your own risk. This newest patch has not changed that; the game has been out for many months now and the development team is perpetually behind schedule on fixing glaring issues.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Shadows Over Innistrad Prerelease: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I recently had the pleasure of attending two Shadows Over Innistrad pre-releases, the newest set for Magic: the Gathering. For those not in the know, the format of a pre-release event is always Sealed Deck. This means each player opened 6 packs of the new set (+1 random rare promo card) and constructed a 40 card deck using only those cards and basic lands provided by the shop.

There were some memorable back-and-forths, dramatic blow-outs, and weaselly under-performer cards. Here are some of the mental notes I took as I played, in the time-honored tradition of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Note that I'm only mentioning cards with which I had personal experience.


I didn't even open any copies of Archangel Avacyn, but I played against a few and  I am pretty sure that this card is good. Look at the text box on that thing! It's going to take you a solid minute just to read everything on both sides and absorb the information. You can be certain that well-running decks the country over were particularly likely to be packing a copy of Avacyn.

FLAVOR VICTORY: I cast Anguished Unmaking on an opponent's Archangel Avacyn the turn she came into play. Felt great, and not just because it was my only hope of survival, but because Avacyn is literally being melted by her dad in the card's art. Tough love.

Always Watching: I'm always watching for a good anthem board pump in limited formats, and this is a crazy powerful anthem effect, particularly if you're packing creatures that can block and survive the fight. It fits right in with an aggressive red-white strategy, but I had extraordinary results in a green-white build full of already stocky creatures like my new 0/4 Delirious Fungus Friend, Lambholdt Pacifist, and various werewolves. Just be vigilant about that first word on the card: "Nontoken". Your zombie and spirit friends won't be joining in on the fun. They'll just have to watch.

Sigarda, Heron's Grace: Add Sigarda to the list of creatures that cause opponents to panic the moment she hits the board. 
She doesn't protect herself except in fringe cases of opposing Diabolic Edict-style effects, but if she sticks to the board, the win is nearly inevitable. Swinging for 4 in the air and then turning the graveyard into brave chump blockers until the win is a line of play that's going to drive removal-light decks daffy for many months to come. An unfortunate friend of mine faced an opponent packing not one but two Sigarda, Heron's Grace. Even more unfortunately, I was not that opponent.

Wild-Field Scarecrow: The only thing scary about this scarecrow is how good he is. I had two copies for my GW delirium deck splashing red for a copy of Nahiri, and he consistently did work. He's a 1/4, so he makes a great blocker against aggressive decks. When you feed him 2 mana, he explodes into 2 basic lands for your hand and puts an artifact and a creature into your graveyard to turn on delirium, which can act as an (admittedly on-board) combat trick. I used him to fix for a missing color, hold the line against aggro, and enable delirium several times each across just 5 rounds. The power level on this guy really came out of left field for me.

Angelic Purge: Unlike the movie, this card is amazing exactly once per deck. It hits all three most-relevant card types in limited formats and exiles it (preventing delirium), which is pretty much the best a removal spell can aspire to be at common aside from being instant too. You can use the sacrifice to put another card type in your own graveyard for delirium to boot, such as a land. The cost becomes prohibitive to pay a second time in a single game, but I'm going to run two anyway if I open two.

Rabid Bite: A+ for the art alone. 

Moldgraf Scavenger: This is exactly the type of common I love. He starts out as a great wall for a deck with a few heavy hitters at the 5 and 6 drop slot, and if you can scavenge up enough delirium enablers, you are rewarded with a creature that is functionally way above curve, and at common rarity you could conceivably have 2 or 3 of these guys. I expect him to validate green+something delirium as an archetype almost entirely on his own. Also pairs great with our new scarecrow friend pictured above.

Kessig Dire Swine: You can be a big pig too! It's not flashy or exciting, but as far as big dumb green common beaters go, this is my favorite of the last few sets. By the time you're slamming 6 drops, you're fairly likely to have delirium online, and trample is a big deal on a 6/6. If you untap and can swing with this guy, then your opponent's chances of winning look dire. 

Ghoulcaller's Accomplice: A bear with substantial upside in black? Great! Works well in a "cares about humans" white/black deck, but can answer the call in any deck playing black pretty comfortably. 

Heir of Falkenrath / Heir to the Night: Against some removal-light decks, slapping an equipment or aura on this vampire and swinging in the air is going to end the game on its own. The heir is perfectly passable, though not exciting, as a 2/1 who threatens a madness card. The fact that sometimes you can use a 3/2 flier to win the game is gravy.

Lambholt Pacifist / Lambholt Butcher: This card can slaughter your opponents at an unfair rate, but she needs a little bit of help. A Gryff's Boon is particularly nuts here: turn 3, you swing with a 4/3 flier. If your opponent has no spell the following turn, she becomes a 5/4 flier, and your opponent is super duper dead. Other auras and equipment are equally acceptable ways to "convince" her to swing. 


Inexorable Blob: I want to clarify that this guy isn't actually "bad", persay. He's a 3/3 for 3 mana with only 1 green required, which is a fair rate in any color, although less impressive in green. What I'm more wary about, and want other people to realize, is that you're probably never going to live the Delirious Dream of swinging in with your blob turn after turn, popping out new baby blobs on the path to victory. Besides that scenario requiring Delirium (a task on its own), it would require your opponent to have nothing on board capable of blocking and killing a 3/3. An opponent that meets such criteria is already inexorably losing. Maybe a free blob would help seal that fate a turn earlier, but that's about it.

Prized Amalgam: There's a pretty nice prize for meeting this amalgam's deckbuilding demands, but there are far, far fewer ways to do so at common and uncommon than you might think. The creatures that exile themselves to put tokens onto the battlefield don't trigger the amalgam. If you have the good fortune of getting a Relentless Dead to pair with this guy, then you're probably going to grind out a few wins from that value alone. For the rest of us, this is the Blob again, but with 2 color requirements.

Root Out: This card will feel bad to have sitting in your hand occasionally, but you're going to end up playing it because of how many powerful enchantments and equipment are hanging out at uncommon rarity in this set. Pick one up while drafting if you can as insurance against shenanigans like Always Watching or Slayer's Plate.

Call the Bloodline: I'm going to call this card a trap that leads to deceptively bad lines of play. Turning cards into 1/1 lifelink chump blockers, even low-impact cards, is not something I want to do even for free. Similarly, although this technically enables delirium, compare the payoff here to other enablers like Angelic Purge, Wild-Field Scarecrow, or even that Shard of Glass equipment. There's a hypothetical black-red vampire deck that has enough madness outlets and vampire tribal to justify playing a copy of this card, and I sincerely hope I never play against it, because it would be nuts. Everyone else should avoid this card.

Thing in the Ice: This card is so fun and I totally understand the temptation to play it, but unless it's in your opening hand and goes completely unanswered, the odds of this Thing flipping are low. It's far too easy to build a bad deck for the sake of the dream of flipping this guy, throwing away game after game in the process. This horror is better left on ice.


Second Harvest: The win-more nature of this card is right there in the name: to have a second harvest, you need to have a first harvest, and I'd say the majority of games you're losing will involve a lack of first harvest i.e. board presence through tokens. I've never been more underwhelmed than I was when I saw this card played against me to zero effect right before my victory. I don't think this card is viable in any format besides Commander because it's so win-more, but I can tell you it's definitely never going to live up to the mana cost in Sealed. Don't put this card in your deck.

Equestrian Skill: Doesn't give Horsemanship, garbage card

(in reality this card is perfectly fine if you have cheap fliers, a lot of humans, a lack of playables, or all three).

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Magic: The Gathering - Duel Decks: BLESSED vs. CURSED review

This review can be found on the product listing on Amazon. I am re-posting it here with minor modifications.

The BLESSED vs. CURSED duel decks pit two opposite motifs against eachother: the holy and righteous defenders of the light against hordes of undead and their sadistic masters. The decks succeed in fulfilling the "fantasy" of these themes and create relatively even games with compelling decisions for maximizing the strengths of each deck. They also feature a few cards from the upcoming new set, "Shadows Over Innistrad."

However, they fail to provide longtime players and collectors with compelling and valuable reprints. The only card in here that has any chance of being worth more than $1 after this duel deck printing is Geist of Saint Traft, and that simply isn't enough secondary market value for the frugal MTG player. There were opportunities for eagerly desired reprints here that went ignored in favor of playing it safe. History has shown that "duel deck" pairings lacking in value find themselves closer to $10 given a few months. We shall see if Mindwrack Demon (a card from the next set) sees enough Standard play to prop up the value, but I would not get your hopes up.

On to the deck analyses!

BLESSED: This deck is BLUE - WHITE, with a theme of spirits, ghosts, and devoted townsfolk defending themselves from the encroaching darkness. The primary game plan is to stall out the game, letting your undead opponent get in some free early hits in exchange for a solid board position, then following through with some flying creatures to chip your opponent down to nothing. It is also capable of some fast starts with the right draw of cards like Champion of the Parish and Topplegeist, although more than likely the aggressor will be the CURSED deck.

CURSED: This deck is BLACK - BLUE, with a theme of undead ghouls, their necromancers, and demons. The plan is to grind down the opponent via creatures that can come back from the dead, forcing the BLESSED player low enough on health that they have no choice but to defend themselves by trading blows with creatures that they know will simply return. Inevitably, the forces of good will lose if they are forced to make 1-for-1 trades.

Overall, these decks are a great thematic battle and a way to ease players into the themes and gothic atmosphere of Innistrad. The problems are really in the details here: the contents of the decks struggle to justify the price tag on the product. While past entries in this product line have included "money cards" like Remand, there's simply not enough here, not even planeswalker cards (which have a notoriously high price floor). And as usual, the Spindown D20 life counters don't have a corresponding set symbol on them, and the flimsy cardboard deckboxes struggle to *actually hold the full decks*. The product barely squeaks by with 4-stars on Amazon due to the good follow-through on the fantasy of BLESSED vs. CURSED. . . but in reality, I'd give this more of a 3.5 because there are problems with this product that just aren't that hard to fix.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mobile games, Skinner boxes, and finding the fun in setting egg timers

Fig. 1: The foundation of an addictive mobile game
I recently needed a surgery that left me mostly immobile for two weeks. I invested in a Nintendo 2DS ahead of time in order to spend some of my recovery period playing the newest Pokemon game, but in reality a large chunk of my bed-bound time went toward trying out the many mobile games out there on Android devices.

Among the games I tried were:

    • Monument Valley
    • Pokemon Shuffle
    • Alphabear
    • Crashlands 
    • Magic the Gathering Puzzle Quest
    • Commute

I'll put the Electronic Arts lineup of mobile offerings in a separate category:

    Fig. 2: Pokemon Shuffle is not free,
    and neither is anything else on mobile
    • Tetris Blitz
    • Tetris
    • Bejeweled Blitz
    • Bejeweled
    • Peggle Blast
    • Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes
      SimCity BuildIt
The only games in these lists that have an up-front cost are Monument Valley and Crashlands, both around $5. I don't think it's a coincidence that these games feel much more complete and focused on providing a great game than the "free" alternatives.

Fig. 3: After every single game,
Tetris Blitz prompts you to spend
money for more points
if you didn't at the start.
That said, the task of beating down on mobile games for being deceptively un-free is not a new one. Most gamers and non-gamers alike understand that free* games come with many asterisks. 

Why would any developer create a game that doesn't make money? The real challenge for the gamer comes down to finding games that strike a good balance between asking for money and providing a game. 

To find an example of how NOT to do this, just download Tetris Blitz and try playing it more than a few games. If you want to play with the power-ups that far outstrip player skill in score importance, you will use up $20 of power-ups in a matter of a half hour. The game encourages you to do head-to-head score comparison "battles" that mostly exist to take advantage of people's competitive drive in a game where points are purchasable. The lottery-board that offers free game currency is enough to maybe play a single maxed out game every few days, if you remember to play the lottery several times a day, then close the game. Don't forget the ads between everything you do!
Fig. 4: Finishers are where you can
easily double your score. You get
3 games worth of finishers here.
Great value! Only $20!
It's an abusive garbage business model layered on top of a great game, ruining the game but probably making the creators good money.

You can't even play the older standard Tetris app without it prompting you, regularly, to go download Tetris Blitz instead. Perhaps that's because the old Tetris app didn't sell points.

Fig. 5: an actual Skinner box
The fairer of these mobile games rely heavily on setting digital egg timers. For everything. Particularly timers for your lives and timers for dispensing free in-game money, which is typically separate from paid in-game money. It all comes down to a simple concept that many college graduates learn about in an introductory Psychology class: the Skinner Box.

It's easy to think you're having fun with these set-ups, but realize that they're only a source of stress after you've spent enough time away from them. Some games are almost entirely a complex web of operant conditioning, with dazzling lights and "unlockable" items and currencies feeding into new ways to make a number go up. Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes is the most blatant offender in this regard; your input during battles matters very little compared to "how high your number is", and you will spend a huge amount of your time feeding currencies and items into systems that unlock new ways to acquire currencies and items, all to make that number higher. From my understanding, this is true of a large number of popular mobile games, like Clash of Clans and Boom Beach, compounded by the utter impossibility of remaining competitive without spending money.

Despite all this, I still have fun with some of these games. The key is not to get caught up in an abusive relationship with a game that is just waiting patiently for you to crack and throw $20, even $50 at it. It would be nice if more game developers would spend time in the middle ground. When a game is worth playing without spending money, I'm a lot more inclined to feel good about chipping in a few bucks.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Trigger Warning: Learning to live with Landfall

Fig. 1: A great card, if you remember it's there

When I first put Jaddi Offshoot into my Eldrazi Ramp standard deck (similar to this list), I knew, deep down, exactly what would happen. Unfortunately, it happened almost immediately upon bringing the deck to the Oath of the Gatewatch Game Day. . .

I missed a single Landfall trigger, and it cost me the game.

Staring down my opponent's board of angry dudes, I realized that he had precisely lethal damage on me, no matter what I did to defend myself. Sitting there with two copies of Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger in hand and more than enough mana to cast one the following turn to stabilize, I had no choice but to concede the win to my opponent.

Fig. 2: A great card, if actually played before dying
Counting up my mana sources after the game compared to the number of times I gained 1 life, it became clear that I had missed at least 1 landfall trigger. The difference between gaining 10 life and gaining 11 life had cost me the chance to climb my way back into the game.

And this was entirely my fault.

There are limitations of a physical card game like Magic that aren't immediately apparent. Casual players of Magic will breeze right past rules violations, and if a player remembers something they missed after the moment has passed, there's always "Takebacksies", "rewindsies", and "I -forgot-that-card-was-in-playsies". In a digital card game, you literally cannot break the rules, so you don't have to worry about forgetting a triggered effect. Your Knife Juggler in Hearthstone will always remember to throw a knife when a minion enters play under your control.

In a competitive environment in a physical card game, an opponent has no obligation to respect your take-backs or slips of memory. In fact, the rules in most cases explicitly state that its your job to remember effects under your control (which may sometimes include things that don't even benefit you!). This is a generalization, but useful to remember.

The moral of the story is that if you go "oh, and I gained two life from my landfall triggers" any time besides directly after playing those lands, your opponent is fully within the rules to say "no, you missed your triggers. Tough luck." Hopefully, they're a bit friendlier about the phrasing.

That's why when I took that exact lethal damage to the face, I was thoroughly dead.

At first, coming from a mostly casual CCG (collectible card game) background and spending many of my formative years playing Magic Online, I felt something next to a grudge toward opponents that made my life difficult over missing a trigger.

Now, I recognize them as another opportunity for a player to express their total awareness of the game state and the elements of the board that work in their favor. When you leave room for player error in a game, that raises the skill ceiling and gives experienced players more ways to earn the win over less seasoned opponents.

Losing this way can be frustrating. Then again, so can losing a game to the opponent's 1-cost healing plant-wall, but I don't hear any complaints from my opponents about that. The solution to my problem was simply to be more attentive and focused the next time I play competitive Magic.