Explorations #31 - Nine Different Things
Today I'm going to talk about nine different things. This is a departure from my usual article structure, so let me know if you love it or hate it!
1. Duels of the Planeswalkers Review
The first thing I want to cover today is a review of the new XBox Live Arcade game Duels of the Planeswalkers. I didn't want this to be 'just another review', so to give this one a bit of a unique flavor, I'll be writing partially from my point of view and partially from my girlfriend Kathryn's point of view - someone who likes Magic but isn't a fanatic like me. She fits the definition of 'casual player' perfectly.
Duels of the Planeswalkers is a fast-paced, arcade-style version of the game you love. It lets you play online duels, Two-Headed Giant, a cool puzzle mode, single-player campaign, and my pesonal favorite: the cooporative Two-Headed Giant campaign. This mode lets you team up with a friend to battle in Two-Headed Giant games against the computer while unlocking cards for your decks, and is pretty addictive. Kathryn has been saying as we're going to bed, "I want to stay up and just play Magic on XBox." - which is always a good sign. A game like Duels of the Planeswalkers is just infinitely more accessible to someone like her than Magic Online. On the other hand, Duels of the Planeswalkers seem like fun to me, and something I enjoy playing with my girlfriend (since we can play coop) - but this game will definitely not be replacing Magic Online any time soon.
Duels is a heavily simplified version of Magic. You don't tap lands yourself while casting spells, which means that the game doesn't contain any tricky lands. No Coastal Towers or Underground Seas, there aren't any lands that bring up questions of which ones you would choose to tap while casting spells. This also saves a whole bunch of card navigation, selection, and time. Card selection and manipulation is much more difficult with a controller than with a mouse in Magic Online, so I can definitely understand why they simplified this section of the game. Tapping seven lands for Multani, Maro-Sorcerer is not exactly the high point in casting out a giant creature - in Duels you skip all of that right to laying the big man down.
The other major simplification is that the components of a turn are squeezed down into begin, main, attack, block, damage, and main. Your begin phase is pretty muchuntap + upkeep + draw squished into one, and the rest function as you would expect. I think this is a very positive change that doesn't really sacrifice much, especially considering the selection of cards available. This flow seems much easier for Kathryn to understand, and it's fine by me. Good change for a game like this.
|Some major players in the Duels metagame
A relatively small list of cards is avaialble for use in Duels of the Planeswalkers, which really lets newer players like Kathryn get a grip on what exactly is going on. This is somewhat restricting, but a good tool for newer players to begin to understand the concept of a metagame. It's fun to listen to her talk about why she thinks the green deck is just better than the white deck due to which cards both decks can bring to the table. This may be primitive understanding of a metagame, but it's understanding nevertheless!
The stack is represented in a much more abstract way in Duels when compared to Magic Online. Priority is replaced with a small countdown timer, which appears on the screen when you would expect it to: after a spell is cast, before the game moves from main to attack, in response to abilities, etc. While this timer is counting down, any player is able to cast a spell or use an ability in response - and the first one to hit the A button is the first one to respond, there's no real concept of 'you get a chance, then I get a chance'.
This setup works pretty well, although Kathryn kind of panics sometimes when she knows she needs to use a Giant Growth to make her attack worth it. I've also missed my chance a few times and ended up with a horrible attack, and I've been playing video games for like a million years. Thankfully there is an option to completely pause the priority countdown when you need a minute to think, but it can be almost as hard to do this as it is to just play the spell/ability. This countdown seems to go way too fast when you're actually trying to accomplish something, and way too slow when you're just sitting through the countdown with nothing to do. There should be a way to cancel it when you have nothing, or maybe a way for the game to determine these situations and adjust the timer accordingly. Something!
The graphics in Duels are excellent, filled with solid HD art. Playing this game, I wish that Magic Online could look this good! One of my favorite features is the ability to zoom a card up to full screen. I've got a super powerful computer! Why can't Magic Online do this for me? Fill up my hard drive or download them in the background from a server as I play... I don't care! This is the number one thing that I find myself wanting as I move back and forth between these two games.
The AI in Duels of the Planeswalkers is decent enough, but makes some occasional questionable decisions. These issues range from always casting creatures before combat to wasting cards like Pacifism on a creature that isn't affecting the board state at all. I've even seen the AI regenerate their Drudge Skeletons seven or eight times in a row, I guess just to make sure that their 1/1 is REALLY regenerated? I guess it doesn't hurt if you've got the extra mana? I've also seen situations where my opponent will just play (Suntail Hawks) down into my Prodigal Pyromancer, with no real reason to do so. These issues are fairly jarring when they happen.
Kathryn and I usually play Two-Headed Giant games against computer opponents. This probably brings up some of the weirded situations and corner cases in the game, so it's not shocking that the AI does weird things in these situations. It's human nature to focus on the situations where the AI looks dumb, but other than some weird cases the AI does a decent job of making it through the game. It's definitely acceptable, and programming an AI for Magic is no easy task. Let's just be clear that you won't be mistaking the computer AI for Jonny Magic.
The most interesting thing in all of this to me is that Duels provides and awesome platform for a player unfamiliar with strategy to get some solid advice playing alongside an experienced player. Kathryn's game has definitely taken some major steps foreward, and she's definitely getting a lot better playing Duels than she was whenever we played preconstructed decks against each other. It's just so much easier for me to give her effective advice when we're on the same team, and the simplified set of cards definitely also helps. Now she totally grasps why casting Craw Wurm on turn six is usually better than casting Wurm's Tooth on turn six and then the Wurm on turn seven. We're making progress!
|It's turn six and you have six mana, which one do you cast?
I haven't played any games against online opponents, so I can't really comment on that section of the game - but I've heard that there's a real problem with dropped games. Unfortunately this is mostly just business as usual for any online ranked game.
The biggest bummer for me, by far, in Duels of the Planeswalker is the inability to really customize your deck. There are eight premade decks which you unlock as you play through the campaign, and you've basically got to choose one of those. As you play and win games, you unlock additional options for your deck. The first game I played was with the mono-green deck. I won and unlocked a Blanchwood Armor. I loaded up the deck editor with the goal of adding Blanchwood Armor and taking out something like Natural Spring or Wall of Wood... but all that you're able to do is add cards. You can't remove cards from the original deck. This was very confusing for both myself and Kathryn, with plenty of questions about how your land stays balanced as you add seventeen cards without taking anything out. I guess they balance the mana for you, but it's not very clear.
The functional interface design in Duels of the Planeswalkers leaves a lot to be desired. Cards on the battlefield (I'm trying here!) are pretty hard to identify, even on a high quality television. There are small icons placed on each card to represent abilities like first strike, trample, etc. These icons are a good idea, but in practice the icons are too small and too similar, and it doesn't end up helping out very much. I'm familiar enough with the cards to squint my way to identification, but Kathryn has to constantly zoom the cards up to full screen in order to tell what's in play. The one card modification that really works is flying, the cards actually hover up off the virtual table a bit, which is a neat effect. Too bad there aren't obvious heavy-handed ways to represent an ability like regeneration.
It's even difficult at times to even tell which player or team is active. The effect used for this isn't nearly clear enough, and Kathryn starts off pretty much every game by trying to lay down a land only to get a "You can't play land during your opponent's turn" dialog in about half of them. Ok I'll admit it, I do it sometimes too. The dialog box for selecting a player to target with something like Shock is also pretty weak, and it's very hard to tell who you are targeting. It's even more difficult when there are multiple "Garruk Wildspeakers" in the match during Two-Headed Giant, and I have to use brainpower in order to not Shock my teammate.
It's also difficult to tell how many lands you have in play. The game groups them automatically into piles, and I can't really figure out exactly what algorithm it uses. Sometimes there's a group of five lands, sometimes there are six laid out side by side... Maybe there's an option here or something I'm missing, but it's just really hard to tell. In addition, one of the simplifications in Duels is that your turn is automatically passed if you don't have enough mana to do anything. This has confused Kathryn a number of times. "Why didn't I get to play my Wolves?" After some careful counting, she was one mana short for Howl of the Night Pack. I've fallen for this one also, it's just hard to keep track.
The value of this game is pretty ridiculous - for under $10 you get the game plus a foil, tournament-worthy Garruk Wildspeaker. Which is cool, but should have been cooler. Listen up Worth! Would it really have been so difficult to give your players the option of taking a cool promo Garruk on MTGO instead of the paper version? Not only would this have cost them less than shipping out paper copies, but I bet a decent number of players would have taken them up on it. I know that I would have!
It's also very obvious that additional downloadable content for this one is coming out, so we've got that to look forward to. I'm envisioning more decks, more planeswalkers, additional settings and art, and more puzzles for the Magic: the Puzzling section. If Duels of the Planeswalkers appeals to you at all, then I'd definitely recommend checking it out. My girlfriend likes Magic, but if yours doesn't then I think this game is your last real chance to suck her in. Just don't expect this one to replace 'real Magic' at all.
2. Three Cards I'd Put In MEDIII
Recently, Necropotence was restricted in Classic. This severely gimped one of the biggest differences between paper Legacy and online Classic. I understand that they are two different formats, but the metagame is fairly similar right now and Classic plays a lot like Legacy-lite due to the reduced card pool. Personally I'd love to see the format get a shot in the arm. Here are the three cards that I would put into Master's Edition III.
These three cards should add a real shot in the arm of the three major archetypes (control, combo, and aggro) while helping to separate Classic from Legacy - which we know isn't too far off from being a fully supported format on Magic Online. I'd also love to see what these cards can do in a non-powered environment, and it seems like Classic is the only place we're going to see this. I know it's unlikely for Wizards to print the power 9, so maybe they'd consider printing some of the power 10? Please?
Vintage is also my favorite competitive Magic format (with Legacy a close second) and I welcome any step that Magic Online can take in that direction. Maybe Mana Drain is enough in MEDIII since it will give control decks some power to deal with the aggro and aggro-control dominated metagame, but I'd like to see the power level of the format taken up a notch.
The final bit of information that makes me want to see these cards in MED3 is that we're running out of Master's Editions. There are enough cards for maybe MED4 and MED5, but the card pool is drying up. I fear that if we don't get some of these cards soon, then we may never get them online. That would make me very sad.
Am I crazy? What do you guys think? Would any of these cards totally ruin the Classic metagame? Which ones, if any, would need to be insta-restricted? Banned? Would this totally ruin the metagame? Let me know in the comments! If you think my selections are nuts, then what do you want to see in MEDIII? Some more sweet cards from Fallen Empires? =)
3. M10 RgDW/Sligh/Whatever
So if you haven't heard by now, Lightning Bolt and Ball Lightning are coming back in M10. I wish they had used the original art for both of these cards, I think it was far superior to these new efforts - although it may just be the nostalgia talking:
This seems to take the ferocity of the R/x aggressive deck up to a pretty high level in Standard. Early on in new formats, aggressive decks usually take center stage as control players try to figure out which questions their decks need to answer. There are a few months between the release of M10 and the release of Zendikar, so I would expect to see a lot of decks that start off with a core of something like this:
That seems totally savage to me, and all it does is run obvious cards! There's got to be a crazy aggro deck in there somewhere... Maybe with Blightning? Bloodbraid Elf into Ball Lightning or Boggart Ram-Gang is definitely not something I'd want to see heading towards me through the red zone. Blightning is sometimes even worse.
If I'm working on competitive Standard decks post-M10, then this is probably the core of my baseline deck. Whenever I work on a competitive format, I take my best shot at figuring out the best deck that's likely to be played a decent amount - and then this becomes my baseline. Whenever I come up with a new deck idea, then I don't bother doing any testing at all unless it has game against the baseline deck. This disqualified a whole bunch of decks right off the bat without having to worry about running anything through a gauntlet.
In Classic, which is the competitive format I play the most, my baseline deck was NecroSpike up until the latest restrictions. Having game against NecroSpike was the barrier to entry for any deck I decided to work on. In Lorwyn Standard I would have used Faeries, in current Standard I would use five color Blood. To me this is helpful, since I come up with a million deck ideas every day and need some sort of quick and easy filter for which ones are worth persuing. Of course this is only really true when you're dealing with competitive decks, this all goes out the window if you just want to make something fun.
I'm not saying that this is the best deck out there (white weenie looks absolutely ridiculous also), or that R/g aggro is the best strategy, but it's a pretty solid gatekeeper for the format. Maybe it's just me or my inital gut reaction to this, but the core deck sketched out above seems like a pretty brutal, effective deck to have as a baseline for a format. When the default play for a deck is something like Bloodbraid Elf into Ball Lightning, then your deck is going to have to either fight that play effectively or bring some serious power to the table - something that can compete with that savage play.
Only time will tell how this all plays out I guess.
4. Manaplasm With Some New Fun
I was talking with my friend Tyroine on Magic Online the other day and he mentioned how he had been playing a version of the Manaplasm deck I wrote about a while ago with the new Cascade cards! Talk about an awesome way to grow Manaplasm! This seems like an absolutely awesome idea to me, and just a ton of fun.
I'm not sure of exactly the deck Tyroine came up with, I'm pretty sure his was Extended... but maybe try out something like this?
The idea here would be to get a Manaplasm into play and then hopefully start a Cascade chain that drives your Manaplasm up to huge sizes. Imagine Manaplasm and then cascading Enlisted Wurm into Bloodbraid Elf into Violent Outburst into Colossal Might? Seems like a lot of fun! How big is Manaplasm in that situation? I can't even calculate it!
Are there any obvious cards I'm missing? It seems like running so many Cascade spells may be a liability, but I'd really need to test to be sure. Also the manabase is just a sketch and needs some work. Maybe I'll develop this deck further in a future article.
5. Updated Thoughts on Stacking Damage
Is anyone sick of this yet? Is everyone sick of this by now? Well here's one more little bit.. The best discussion about the upcoming Magic rule changes that I've heard has come from super-genius Zvi Mowshowitz on the Top8Magic podcast. Here are some links to check out if you're interested:
Part 1: http://www.top8magic.com/2009/06/podcast-zvi-and-m10-part-1/
Part 2: http://www.top8magic.com/2009/06/podcast-zvi-and-m10-part-2/
Part 3: http://www.top8magic.com/2009/06/podcast-zvi-and-m10-part-3/
I've found this to be some of the most well-reasoned feedback on the changes out there. Does anyone have any articles or podcasts to recommend on the subject? I've read a few from both sides of the plate, but none have impressed me quite the way these Zvi podcasts did. I guess the closest from the 'this change is good' camp would be this interview with Aaron Forsythe:
Aaron takes the stance of 'this is painful, but trust me it's necessary in the long term' which I guess is ok, but pretty unsatisfying for me the consumer. Aaron also compares the changes to getting an immunization shot or having your taxes raised, which is not exactly the imagery that I want conjured up as I think about my favorite pasttime.
I've actually played a decent number of real life games with the new rules, and I have to say that my opinion hasn't really changed. From my point of view, the change is negative and takes away a level of strategy that I'm going to be sorry to see go. This is my initial reaction, and it's still my opinion after playing some games with the new rules. Here's the best way I can think of to sum it up:
Any rule change that makes Ghost Council of Orzhova SIGNIFICANTLY WORSE is a rule change that it's going to be hard for me to get behind. I just love that card, and that card being strong seems to summarize a lot of the different reasons why I love Magic.
Of course I'm still hopeful that these changes are actually easier and more intuitive for new players and the game will flourish. For what it's worth Kathryn finds the new setup more confusing than the old one, and she wasn't exactly deeply invested in the ways of pre-M10 combat. I was a little disappointed to not see any cards in the M10 spoiler that seem to use the design space opened up by this rule change, but maybe we'll see this somewhere down the line.
Update: This is coming in late, after I've written this article - but I found this op-ed piece on Top8Magic by Frank LePore, that was thought provoking nad extremely well done. I'll link it here. I recommend that anyone who is heavily invested in the M10 rule changes emotionally read this awesome piece:
6. Five Casual-ish Cards to Build Around
Here's a list of five casual-ish cards that I hope to build around for a future article. If you think that any of these are particularly interesting then please comment and I'll move it to the top of the list.
Ward of Bones seems like a strong lock mechanism that requires some real thinking to build around, but has the potential to totally shut out opponent out of the game.
There are a million different cards that play strong with Skill Borrower, and tons of cool effects to exploit.
Nightmare Incursion is like a crazy Jester's Cap, but it may be tough to work since modern decks pack such a ridiculous threat density.
Aven Mimeomancer may have a home alongside creatures like Llanowar Elves, turning them into 3/1 evasive beaters after their utility as mana generators has been taken advantage of.
Salvage Titan is a card that I really wanted to use when Shards first came out, and now there are two more sets to work with while trying to exploit this guy. Seems like there's gotta be something fun here? Thopter Foundry? Not exactly sure, need to think about it more.
7. What are Your Favorite Lands?
I've seen some discussion lately about which lands are your favorite, and what it says about you as a major player. Some people like Snow-Lands, some love Guru lands, Pete Jahn loves Tempest Mountains, but I always play with these babies...
The Unhinged lands are my favorites, and it's not even close. They're probably out of the price range for most players at around $2.50 each, but man is that full card art beautiful!
If I didn't have the cash or tickets for these guys, then I think I'd go with the Beta lands in the first Master's Edition. Serious nostalgia here:
Which lands do you guys choose to shuffle up in your favorite deck?
8. Players Reward Program
Speaking of cool lands, the new players reward program brings a few more awesome lands into MTGO. I've always loved these, and it's cool to see them coming to the online world.
This programs seems like a great idea with a decent implementation. Play Magic Online and get cool cards! You can read all about it in the link above, but here's the basic idea: If you just log into MTGO to play casual games and don't spent much money, then you'll get a random alternate art land per month. If you spend some cash or play in some tournaments then you can get foil alternate art lands, previously released promo cards, or even a new-ish promo card (non-foil Woolly Thoctar). If you spend a lot of cash or play in a bunch of tournaments then you can land different promos (Psychatog, Damnation).
Check out the link below to learn about the new set of lands that makes up the first tier of the first round of Magic Online Player Rewards.
9. The End
That's enough for this time around - hopefully I covered a wide enough range of topics so that there was something of interest for most. Let me know what you thought in the comments. Check in next week for a bunch of deck sketches and commentary of new cards in M10!
Thanks for reading!
th1ckasabr1ck on MTGO