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So it’s been a few years since I posted about games, (or even in general). I certainly haven’t stopped playing them.  My time has been more proscribed than in some times in the past. Consequently, I have played a lot of games that I can “fit in” during or between other activities. Hearthstone is definitely one of those. I can play it while I cook. I can play it while I walk to and from work.
So, how is Hearthstone these days? Well, right off the bat let me acknowledge that Hearthstone will never be as good or satisfying a game as some other CCGs that I play or have played.  This is for the simple reason that there is no interaction with your opponent on their turn.  Strategy can never be as deep, nor tactics as varied, as in a game like Magic: The Gathering (MtG) or Vampire: the Eternal Struggle (VtES).  But until technology advances just a little more, every digital implementation I’ve seen that tries for Magic’s level of interaction ends up feeling a little clunky.  So for now, Hearthstone is the best we’ve got without awkward interfaces (which can be as frustrating or more so than awkward game design).

So, Hearthstone is the best (that I’ve played in recent years).  How good is the best these days? Well… not very.  The past three expansions each have had a more stagnant and toxic metagame than the one before.  Why?  There are several reasons. Some quite simple. Some rather more complicated.  Some have been talked about extensively by streamers.  Others have either been mentioned in passing, or dismissed as trivial.  So what are all these problems?  Let’s enumerate them, then drill down for more detail:

  • The Jade mechanic, particularly as implemented in Druid is oppressive.
  • Aggro decks are getting faster and faster, often killing their prey by turn 5 or 6.
  • Control decks that can actually survive those aggro decks are getting more brutal.  If they survive past turn 6 or 7… they win.
  • Gadgetzan Auctioneer continues to spawn aberrant decks that dominate the metagame. This is currently related to jade druid… but this has been going on for a long long time, so it gets its own bullet.
  • The number of cards that are potentially game winning have increased dramatically. And not in a good way…
  • The deck prospects for a F2P or low money player are worse than ever before. There is not a single top tier deck that would qualify as “low budget” these days.

Jade

Let’s start with the first point I listed:  Jade Druid. I listed it first, because it’s probably the most noticeable.  First a tiny bit of background. Two expansions ago, Blizzard released the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan.  There were three “gangs” in the expansion, represented by a bunch of class specific cards, as well as something new: cards that could be used by three different classes.  Each gang had a different mechanic as its theme.   There was the “I only have 1 of each card in my deck, but I get special abilities because of it” gang.  There was the “I buff cards while they’re still in my hand” gang.  And then there was the Jade golem gang, which summoned jade golems of incrementally increasing power; the first was a 1/1, the 2nd a 2/2, and so on ad infinitum. It became quickly apparent that the themes were not at all equal in power. The Hand buff was terrible in warrior and hunter, and decent in paladin.  The one of a kind gang was good when it first came out, but the next expansion, one of the two most powerful “one of a kind” triggered cards rotated out of the format!  So the decks became far less reliable.

Jade was simple, and brutal.  The least strong jade class, rogue, was still “okay”.  Shaman was quite powerful, though usually with Jade as a auxiliary package to boost the power of an aggro strategy.  Druid… was a juggernaut. The jade cards for druid included a 1 cost spell, Jade Idol, that either makes a golem, or shuffles 3 copies of itself into the deck! So with a little optimization, Jade Druid ended up as a deck that is almost as fast as many aggro decks, due to Innervate + mana ramp effects.  In the control match, Jade druid crushes, because they just have to mana ramp and draw cards till they have a Gadgetzan Auctioneer, then cycle 4 or 5 jade cards in a single turn.  Then, even if the control deck clears the board, the unlimited supply of Jade Idols (plus the 2nd Auctioneer) can quickly run over any defenses. The only way to beat Jade Druid, is to do it quickly.

Aggro

This brings us to our next point: while Jade druid has almost a 60% win rate (this is pretty crazy, considering that includes everybody, skilled or not)… the aggro decks that have evolved as the only hope to beat it are also crushing.  Aggro shaman, aggro druid, pirate warrior.  All of these decks output a crazy amount of damage.  Aggro shaman and aggro druid can easily kill you on turn 5, unless you wipe their board completely… and then that buys you ONE extra turn while they re-flood the board. Aggro warrior is a (tiny) bit slower… but has the advantage that it’s damage is split between its minions and it’s weapons.  If they clear your board, your weapon still clocks them in the dome.  If they play a creature that destroys your weapon, your minions swarm them.

Why is this a problem?  It heavily limits the sort of decks that can be played.  By extension it is stifling creativity.  If you have a cool idea for a deck, but it’s mid range or heavier, scrap it.  You won’t get to play half the time.  Why is that?  In the past, mid range decks were the answer to aggro in Hearthstone.  They had enough tempo tools to deal with aggro, while being a little weaker against control since they diluted their late game.  That’s not the case anymore. If you spend your turn doing something mid range like killing one of an aggro druid’s creatures while developing one of your own, their turn will look like: develop another weenie or two, buff, buff, kill your creature and go face for 1/3 of your life.  So, to survive you either have to go full control with tons of taunts/board wipes/heals. Or you have to join aggro, and put in the pirate+ Patches package AND early game removal AND some random weenies. At which point you end up being a crappier aggro deck that sometimes draws all their late game cards early and loses.

My reason for pointing this out, even though Druid is so dominant, is to understand that even if Jade disappeared tomorrow, the metagame has far more deep seated problems. Which brings us to:

Control

What sorts of decks can survive against the sheer weight of damage that I described above?  Control decks.  But not just any control decks.  Control Hunter still isn’t a thing, no matter how much Blizzard tries to make it so.  Control rogue is something I’ve tried to make work for a while; my most successful uses a hybrid of C’Thun and N’zoth tactics, which is janky as hell… and it mainly works against other control decks.

The successful control decks are the ones with a ton of board clears, combined with strong single target removal for priority targets. Let’s call this Heavy(tm) Control.  The main classes that have had this consistently are Priest, Warrior, Shaman, and Mage.  We’ll just look at one to see the problems these control decks can cause, when they’re too strong.  Control priest is at the top of the heap.  The removal in priest has always been insane.  Between Shadow Word: Pain and Shadow Word: Death, they have 4 cards that answer anything but 4 power creatures. The base priest class has access to holy nova, which is so so, at 5 mana for 2 damage to everything, and Auchenai Soul Priest + Circle of healing, which is amazing at 4 mana for 4 damage to everything! The amazing thing is that priest has gotten so much better board clears that Auchenai+ circle doesn’t see much play. For years they had Lightbomb, and when that rotated out, they were given Dragonfire potion.

“Alright, so Heavy(tm) Control has the tools to maybe deal with the ravening hordes of aggro you mentioned before.  What’s the problem?”  Well, I’m glad you asked!  Well, when you can reliably and efficiently remove (for some value, X of reliable, this is after all a random card game) every minion that your opponent plays within a turn or two of them playing them, you create a problem.  The problem is that minions are what do most of the work in Hearthstone.  So if you’re opponent can’t have any minions he doesn’t get to play the game.  This isn’t fun, and it stifles creativity. Consequently, the thing that really seems to determine if heavy control is stifling the metagame is how much it gets played.  This in turn is determined by whether the Heavy Control classes have dangerous and efficient payloads to back up their oppressive board control. If they do, the decks are dangerous and oppressive to the metagame.  If they don’t, the decks are pointless and annoying, but don’t ultimately win a lot, and die away till the next sea change.

So here we have come to the crux of the problems:  The classes all have core cards that never go away… and those core cards create some bad dynamics.  Let us return to the example of Priest. Within priest’s core cards, the makings of a strong, bordering on oppressive removal package.  They have two of the most efficient single target removal spells in the game: the cheapest (tied with Paladin) board clear combo and decent aoe otherwise.  In expansions where they have good late game threats, they are strong. In expansions where they get better board clear they become stifling. In expansions where they have both they become stifling and strong, which means they affect the metagame and start killing creativity and fun.  Blizzard should be aiming for Strong, but not stifling.  Instead, they consistently “print” cards for these classes that are more controlling.  And in a sense, this is necessary because of the Aggro problem I mentioned before… but in a more real sense that’s like bringing in foxes to deal with your rabbit problem.  They may eat the rabbits if they can catch them… but they’re going to eat a whole lot more of your chickens.

This sort of brings this arc of the discussion to a close.  Now I’ll start talking about the power of specific cards.

Gadgetzan Auctioneer

Holy crap.  They nerfed the cost of the card a number of years ago… but it’s effect is so powerful that it didn’t matter.  The card is only really powerful in Rogue and Druid due to their free or cheap spells… but it is so powerful, it is game warping.  Some version of Miracle Rogue has been in and out of the competitive spotlight since the beginning.  In some periods (notably the current one), Druid uses is as well.  Even before the current focus of people’s rage came out, Ultimate Infestation, Jade druid was dominating the metagame with Auctioneer.

It is predictable.  Card draw in Hearthstone, much as in MtG, is a precious resource.  So, a single card that lets you draw 4 or 5 cards in a single turn is enormously powerful.  That Auctioneer is also a 4/4 creature and so demands non-trivial effort to remove it to prevent it drawing another 4-5 cards the next turn… well, the results speak for themselves.  Any time playing a bunch of cheap spells and redrawing can give you a big advantage, Auctioneer comes back. The fact that it only features in the decks it does is a testament to Blizzards restraint at printing low cost spammable spells. But that restraint is a product of the limits that Auctioneer has placed on the design space.  When, as in the case of Jade Idol, Blizzard steps over the line, the results are immediately visible.

Auctioneer should have been retired to the Hall of Fame.  It still can be. It boggles my mind that they retired Conceal, worried about combos with it… but left Auctioneer, that combos with everything… including Conceal.  It would be one of the steps necessary to help bring the game system to a place where cards can be developed and new decks played without feeling like you’re wasting your time.  Because that amount of card draw is too strong.

And I think that’s enough space donated to one card, so let’s talk about:

All the other overpowered cards

I was watching a video by Reynad ( a Hearthstone streamer) recently, and a thing he said struck a chord with me. “Games where Innervate is drawn feel so different from games where Innervate is not drawn.”

Innervate is really obvious.  It stands out because you find yourself facing a Turn 1 Vicious Fledgling, or a Turn 2 Bittertide Hydra.  But Innervate is not unique.  Over the past few expansions, the number of cards that have been printed that heavily swing the chances of winning, has increased drastically.

Hearthstone is nice, in that there are a bunch of places that collect data on hundreds of thousands of games played, and whether certain cards got played. HS Replay is one. Let’s take Patches the Pirate as an example.  The stats show that if you have Patches in your deck, and you don’t play him (i.e. you pull him directly onto the field using his special ability) your chance to Win the game increases by 12%! That’s huge. Playing (or in this case, triggering using one of several other pirates in your deck) a single card gives that big a jump in power.

But patches isn’t unique.  A lot of what gives ALL the dominant decks their power are a bunch of super cards.  For instance, even if you clear aggro druids first big board, They can refill their board instantly using Living Mana.  And then they can do it again if you re-clear. Murloc paladin can increase it’s murloc synergy heavily if they play Vilefin Inquisitor, changing their hero power to generate Murlocs, so when they play their Murloc Warleader and Gentle Megasaur, the number of buffed murlocs is higher. And they can finish off their opponents or clear their big minions with a well placed Sun Keepr Tarim. Similarly, after surviving the early game using spells they generated with Shadow Visions, clearing the mid game board with their Dragonfire potion, the priest can transition to their late game direct damage strategy playing Shadowreaper Anduin, which also clears all the big creatures at the same time.

I could go down the Top tier decks one by one, but the picture is the same; they are all loaded down with cards that, if you were to leave them out, would dramatically decrease the win rate of the deck.  And oddly enough, almost all of those cards are Epics or Legendaries.  More crucially, the power cards in decks are now Epics and Legendaries that are either class specific or, in the case of the Murloc synergies, only playable in a murloc deck.

So really my last point is two-folded:

  1. There are far too many cards that are being put out where if you draw them, you are at a heavy advantage (Shadowreaper Anduin increases your chance of winning from 52.1 to 62.5%, which is a increase of 20% of your wins).  This means the games feel more random.  It’s not a nice feeling to have your opponent play Raza the Unchained on Turn 5, and Anduin on Turn 8, when priest has no card draw.  For anyone with a statistics background, you know it’s not that likely to draw both (there’s only one each since they’re legendary) in your first 11 cards, especially since they’re expensive enough that you probably won’t keep them in a mulligan.
  2. The power cards that are swinging the game so much are, as I mentioned, expensive.  In my last post about Hearthstone, I believe I took heart in the fact that, while not terrible interesting, a F2P player could put together one of the top tier deck relatively cheaply.  That is no longer the case.  The control decks are made of masses of Rares, epics and Legendaries.  Even the aggro decks are quite expensive.  Take aggro druid, which might be the cheapest: It has Patches the pirate, 2 Living Mana and 2 Bittertide Hydras.  That’s 1 legendary and 4 Epics.  Almost every other deck has far more.  Also as I mentioned, with the exception of Patches, most of the power cards are deck specific.  I’m honestly not sure why they went out of their way to remove Sylvanus and Ragnaros.  They were seeing a lot of play because those were the only legendaries some people had crafted.

 

The Takeaway

Well, the ultimate message is that the Hearthstone metagame is a mess that kills creativity (if you like winning).  There are a number of underlying causes, some as old as the game itself, others introduced in the past few expansions. In the time it’s taken me to write this post, blizzard announced a handful of nerfs.  Innervate will now only produce one mana.  I’m not sure how this will turn out. It will hurt aggro druid far more than Jade. Heck, jade might still keep it in the deck, it will just make their crazy jade auctioneer turn happen one turn later.

Regardless of the outcome of these cosmetic nerfs, I think the systemic imbalances are far more deep seated.  The game will continue to be broken.

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Kazandibi literally means the “bottom of the pot”. It’s a mild pudding that then has the bottom caramelized.  It ends up being like a flan, but no egg.  It’s served rolled up with a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Just a note:  This is one of the tougher Turkish desserts to make.  It took me about 5 tries before I got it “right” according to Selen.  The texture and the caramelizing are tricky.  But don’t despair;  it is worth the trouble.

Ingredients and materials:

4 disposable aluminum pans, roughly 10″x 13″ (2 will be re-usable after)

1 pot, preferably non-stick

1 a silicone whisk or wooden stirring spoon

2 pot holders that might get a bit singed

1 liter of whole milk (you can use 2%, but honestly the whole milk adds a lot of creaminess)

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2/3 cup rice flour

1/3 cup corn starch

1 tsp vanilla extract

roughly 1/8 of a stick of butter

 

Pre-Cooking Steps:

  1. Grease 2 of the pans.  get a decent layer of butter on the entire bottom, and extend it up the side about 1/2 “
  2. Sprinkle the powdered sugar evenly over the butter in the two pans.
  3. Fill the other 2 pans roughly halfway with cold water and set them someplace out-of-the-way.

 

Cooking:

  1. Pour the milk into the pot, and set the flame between medium and high.
  2. Add the vanilla.
  3. Add the sugar, and use the whisk to dissolve it in the milk.
  4. Gradually add the rice flour and corn starch, using the whisk to break up any lumps.
  5. Continue to stir, to keep the consistency even.
  6. When the mixture starts to thicken, continue to stir for about 30 seconds.  Note: this is one of the delicate parts, as the mixture not only thickens quickly, but will continue to thicken after you turn off the flame.
  7. Turn off the flame, and immediately divide the mixture between the two greased, sugared pans.  spread it, so it forms an even layer.  It should end up being about half an inch thick or so.

 

Caramelizing:

  1. Disconnect your smoke alarm.  The following part will make a lot of smoke.  If you’re doing it right, your kitchen will smell like it’s on fire… but with a slightly sweet edge to it.
  2. Turn your flame to high.
  3. Using two pot holders, hold the pan directly over the flame.  I divide the pan into 6 sectors in my head: 4 corners and 2 middle sections.  For each of the segments, I generally count 30 Mississippis (you can count hippopotamus if you like instead).  Then move on to holding the next section over the burner.  The edges should show a bit brown, and you may have brown bubble up through any cracks.  This is the other part which took some getting used to.  There will be a lot of smoke.  Don’t panic.  This is normal.
  4. Take the pan and sit it in one of the cold water pans you prepared earlier.  It should look something like this:
    kazandibiPan
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 for the second pan.

 

After they cools down, put the pans in the fridge to chill.  I’d recommend waiting at least a few hours to serve.

 

Serving:

Cut the kazandibi in 4 sections, short ways across the pan.  Roll each section lightly and place it on a plate.   Or cut it in quarters and just flip it caramel side up.  Sprinkle a bit of cinnamon over it to finish.

Here’s a section just flipped:

KazandibiServed

 

Enjoy!

So, Hearthstone has been out for a while now.  I haven’t been playing it for the whole time, but I recently picked it up again and logged some hours playing over the last few weeks.  I had previously had the impression that the game might be “pay to win”.  With more experience, and having watched streams for a couple of weeks, I can now say this is both true and false.  Most good decks that I see have multiple legendary and epic rarity cards.  This doesn’t put them out of reach of a F2P player forever, but certainly unless you get lucky with your draws from your arena winning packs, it will be months or more before you can build even one.  However, there are a  couple of competitive decks that don’t require quite as much investment of time or money:

First up, the “Zoo” Warlock:  It’s called zoo because it’s almost exclusively creatures, and there isn’t a single creature theme.  It’s all the best, most aggressive, cheap creatures currently around.  This deck contains 4 rares, tops.  No epics, no legendaries.  This is what I’ve been playing lately.

Second, Hunter decks:  There are a few variants.  Some do run legendaries and epics.  The core, great cards are either common or rare, though.  At least one of these cards will be nerfed in the near future, so it’s possible that F2P hunter will drop in viability.

A caveat about the above:  The decks I’m talking about technically include more than the number of rares, etc.  This is due to the Naxxramas expansion that was released.  By beating the single player quests for the Undead Necropolis, a player can unlock “rares” and “legendaries”.  As it is considerably easier to farm the gold to unlock a Naxx wing than to even farm a single Epic, I’m not counting those.

So, does this mean the game is good?  Well yah, I’d say it’s a good game.  Is it going to hold my interest in the long-term?  That’s tough to say, still.  I would say the game still suffers from a paucity of deck options, regardless of your card collection.  I see the same few decks, with small variants, in every top-level game I watch.  Hearthstone is still in its infancy, in my opinion.  The card pool is nowhere near what I would expect from even the first set of a CCG.  Time will tell whether they can add cards to fill out the pool, without unbalancing the game.

 

Edit:  In few days I took poking away at this post, the metagame has changed once again.  Blizzard nerfed one card that hunters used pretty heavily.  It doesn’t look like hunters are crippled, but they are certainly more in line with other classes now.  What does that mean for your low-budget, or free players?  Well, I think it pushes the bar up a bit.  The card that was nerfed was a common, so it is likely that any competitive hunter deck will have a higher reliance than before on rares and above.  Zoo lock still looks viable though.  It’s certainly interesting to see how quickly the scenery can change in an online CCG.

 

So what’s the upshot?  Well, if you just want to play around and have fun for free, I think you can. You’ll either play arena, or work your way up to a certain rank and hover there.  If you like being competitive, you may have to spend a lot of time, or a moderate amount (for a CCG) of money to reach top end ranks.

So, last week I talked about the general form and theme of Smite.  This week I think I’ll talk about the various game options.

 

In terms of MOBAs, the only one I’ve played  is LoL.  LoL is fun.  I haven’t played it much in the last few weeks, since I’ve been both busy and trying out Smite, but one thing it doesn’t have is a variety of games.  They have started introducing fun alternate scenarios, but they’re still pretty rare.  Smite has a different, wacky scenario every day.  They re-use them sometimes, but still, it’s kinda cool.  Honestly, though, it’s not the oddball scenarios that make a MOBA.  A MOBA is an online team sport, so playing on the same field isn’t really a drawback.

 

For it’s core maps, Smite has 5 main ones.

Conquest:  This is a standard 5v5 MOBA map.  3 lanes, each defended by towers and phoenixes (the equivalent of inhibitors in LoL, but able to fight back).  A jungle with monsters in between, to provide gold, buffs, and cover to gank (surprise attack) your foes.  Beat down the enemy towers and phoenixes, and destroy the Titan in their base.  I feel like it’s a bit more labyrinthine than the LoL jungle, but that may be because I haven’t adjusted to playing in 3-D yet.

3v3 Joust:  A 3 player map.  This features a single lane, with patches of jungle to either side.  So far, this is what I’ve played the most.  I am enjoying it far more than LoL’s 3v3 map, Twisted Treeline(TT).  I think TT felt a bit too large for a 3 player team.  This, while small-ish, still provides some counter play through the side jungles.

Assualt:  Smite’s version of ARAM (All Random At Mid).  It’s a single lane.  Every player gets assigned a random god to play, though you can trade among your team.  I’m still sort of undecided about this one.  On the one hand, it accomplishes its purpose:  toss everybody a random character and have them duke it out in one long team fight.  On the other hand, it doesn’t have the bushes that the LoL version has.  This means there is absolutely no chance of surprise attacks.  On the third hand (hrm, anatomically improbable, but whatever), those bushes in LoL tend to favor the stronger team anyway, since they can take possession of them and not be dislodged.  So… yeah.  It’s different.  I have fun with it.  Still not sure which I like better.

Arena: This 5v5.  As the name suggests, it’s in a round arena.  There are some walls and pillars to dodge around.  Also a few neutral monsters to kill for buffs.  This is most comparable to “dominion” mode in LoL.  You want to reduce your opponents to zero points.  You do so by either killing their gods, killing their minions, or escorting your own minions from the portal at your end of the arena to their portal. Killing blows (on gods, minions, or monsters) give you points that eventually spawn a siege tower.  If you can escort that giant minion to the enemy portal, it will take a big chunk out of their points.  With what essentially amounts to a running team fight, even more so than Assault, I feel this mode favors burst champions, especially those with either range, or a solid gap closer.  Seems like a solid format, though not one that really plays to my strengths.

Siege:  This is a new map that they’re testing.  It’s a 4v4 map, a sort of cross between Conquest and Arena.  There are 2 lanes, with a giant jungle in the middle.  Much like conquest, your goal is to break towers and destroy the enemy base.  Like arena, though, killing minions, monsters or gods lets you eventually spawn a siege minion.  These giants are great at destroying objectives, but weak against gods, so escorting them is a priority.  Adding yet more difference to the flavor, jungle monsters add the most to building a siege minion.  In fact, there is a giant monster in the middle of the jungle that spawn you a minion when you kill it!  This monster, as well as the added emphasis on killing jungle monsters make jungling, if not a strategy in itself, certainly something your opponents need to worry about for more than just ganks.

 

So, that’s all for this week.  More to come soon.

I recently stumbled across a new Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA).    I was searching for images of Sun Wukong, from the Chinese classic novel Journey to the West, and Google images popped up a picture from a site about something called Smite.  The banner ads looked kinda dinky,but I checked it out, and the product was definitely not dinky at all.

First of all, the designers of Smite have decided to use existing myths and legends.  I heartily approve.  The world is full of rich stories and characters, developed over hundreds and thousands of years.  This could serve a dual purpose of engaging people with the game and also educating them about diverse cultures.  My fondest learning memories from my childhood are from well crafted games that made good use of background material.  So, you may have Sun Wukong, Zeus, Bastet, Thor, and Quetzalcoatl on a team (Actually, much like other MOBAs they are always expanding their character list.  They haven’t done Quetzalcoatl yet.)

So what design challenges did the Smite developers face?  First of all, they have to adapt mythological characters to a combat game.  Let’s go back to the character I originally found the game through: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.  In the story, he was hatched from a magical stone.  They reflected this by giving him a passive ability that makes him harder to kill when his life drops.  Later in the story, The Monkey King studies with a great Taoist master, and gains magical powers to transform himself, clone himself, and transform into many different forms.  This corresponds to one ability that allows Sun Wukong to transform into a bull, a tiger, or an eagle to either attack or retreat.  He also gained the ability to fly on clouds, which is his ultimate ability: he jumps up on a cloud, leaving a clone of himself to fight.  Lastly, Monkey stole a magical iron staff from a dragon (Ao Kuang, another god in this game), which can shrink or expand at will.  His 2 melee attacks involve this weapon. This creativity in adapting existing myths to a game world is admirable.  It isn’t always perfect, of course;  this is the second attempt they made at Sun Wukong.  The first was far more monkey themed.  His attacks were with monkeys, or in a monkey style.  This really didn’t match the literature.  While he is a monkey, Sun Wukong is primarily a chaotic elemental being, born of earth, and his fighting is more magical martial arts than animal instinct.  After they reworked him, he fits much better.

So, I haven’t said anything about the game play.  Well, I haven’t played it for long (a few times over the last couple of weeks).  I’m enjoying it right now.  Due to its 3rd person perspective ( as opposed to the isometric view favored by other MOBAs), the fights feel more like MMO arena battles.  The strategies are still MOBA though.  Push lanes (or not), pick off enemies, exploit weaknesses, take the towers.  One big difference from League of Legends(LoL) is that ALL of the objectives can fight back.  The inhibitors from LoL are replaced with phoenixes.  And the nexus is a giant Titan.  So assaulting the enemy base takes on the flavor of a raid boss.  It reminds me of back in vanilla WoW, when world bosses would spawn.  Often, you would have a guild from one faction attempting to kill, say, Azuregos.  Then a guild from the other faction would come and attack the first guild.  It became a balancing act of trying to fight the boss, and trying to not die to the enemy guild.  Fun times.

Another interesting feature Smite has is “Mastery Levels”.  Basically, every time you play a god, you get some experience with that god.  For the most part, this is purely decorative.  If you get mastery level I with a god, you can use the “golden skin” when playing with that god.  If you reach level X with a god, you get their “legendary skin”.  However, your overall Mastery level, or how many gods you’ve gotten to at least level I, determines whether you can play in League games (ranked matches).  I think that’s a nice system for ensuring that players don’t jump too far into the deep end, while still allowing anyone who wants to compete to do so, in time.

So, I’ll continue to try the game, and I think I’ll decide in the next week whether to buy the “Ultimate God Pack” for 30 buck… which gives you all the gods they have made or will ever make.  If I decide to keep playing, that will certainly come in handy.

This was originally going to be a Facebook post, but it was getting pretty long, so I figured I’d put it in here.  This came out of a discussion of the balance between different “clans” in the Vampire:The Eternal Struggle CCG (VTES).  For those of you that don’t play the game, it is far more involved that most other CCGs, taking up to 2 hours, and seating 4 or 5 players.  Consequently, discussions of game balance often get sidetracked (in my opinion), by comments of “but we don’t have enough data”.  This is my response to one such comment, and a (hopefully) helpful way for experienced players to think about complex systems:
I agree there isn’t enough empirical data to draw concrete conclusions. I think that there honestly CAN’T be enough, given the complexity of the system and the time constraints (the human lifetime). Think about it: there are all the possible decks, all the possible tournament sizes (and qualities), all the individual player styles. What I think we CAN hope for, and indeed I think we have, is enough data to interpolate a decently accurate power curve.
More informally, here’s some guidelines to help discuss power levels:

  1. What is the “best case” performance of a deck? i.e. your prey is either an idiot, didn’t pack any answers to your deck, or didn’t draw any. And you drew a bomb hand.
  2. What’s the “good case”? Sort of like #1, but you didn’t draw the best hand.
  3. What’s the “middling case” (i don’t want to use the word average, since that brings us back to hard numbers, as opposed to estimates and principles). i.e. your opponent has some answers, but only sometimes.
  4. What’s the “bad case” for the deck? i.e. your opponent’s deck trumps yours. You may succeed at a little of what you do, but not often.
  5. The “worst case” is kind of like #1, but in the other direction. Not only does you opponent’s deck have a lot of answers to you, but you draw crap.

Now, as you said, we don’t have enough data to firmly analyze all these, but there are some logical and some mathematical principles we can use.

  • A)The bigger the deck, the more likely probability clumps are: i.e. bad draws. This affects everything, but is especially #1 and #5.
  • B)Related, how good is the deck at what it’s trying to do? This is kinda vague, but basically if you need 5 cards to do your big bleed you will be much less likely to draw all those cards at once than the deck that only needs 3 cards. You’ll also need a much larger deck to accomplish the same pool damage, which points back to A.  I will talk about this using the terms effective, cost and efficient.  Effectiveness is the magnitude of the effect: e.g. bleed of 3 vs bleed of 6.  Cost is how many resources you had to allocate to the task: e.g.  How many card slots, how much blood/pool does it cost.  Efficiency is the ratio of effect to cost. (and yes, ratio is a loose term when you’re talking about a mixed set of resources).
  • C)How many “answers” are there to a deck, and how effective/efficient are they?  These are 3 different things that are all linked.  How many answers will affect how many different clans have access to them. How effective/efficient those answers are will affect how many decks actually choose to play with the cards they have access to.  An example of such a decision is Lost in Translation vs. Deflection.  All decks have access to Lost in Translation (it has no requirements), while only decks with Dominate have access to Deflection. They both redirect a bleed to another person, completely negating an attack on you. When it comes to cost though, Deflection costs 1 blood, while Lost costs 2.  Also, Deflection can be played on anyone, while Lost can only affect younger Vampires.  So, between reduced effectiveness, and higher cost, Lost is far less efficient.  Consequently, it is unsurprising that almost any deck with access to Dominate runs Deflection, while only a small subset of the decks that could theoretically play Lost actually do so.
    So when evaluating the strength of a deck, looking at commonly played answers and seeing how many of them hurt you is good.
  • D)  All of these things are aimed at the goal of figuring out how likely #1-5 are.  When trying to design a winning deck, you are trying to skew that curve towards Numbers 1-3.  Likewise, when trying to evaluate the system from a design perspective, you should look at a range of possible decks from a clan, and compare their performance to some benchmark decks, against other benchmark decks.

All of these may sound like common sense, but it’s important to go down the list and enumerate your strengths, your weaknesses, and how likely each of those is.  Decks don’t exist in a vacuum.  While the ultimate goal of playing is to have fun, the structure of that is trying to win the game.  So if the decks a clan can put forth are too far down the power curve from the successful decks, that’s an indication that they’re not competitive, and should probably be shelved until new cards are released or existing ones are modified.

The latest offering from Blizzard is an online CCG.  It’s themed from the Warcraft universe. Let’s go down the elements and see how it measures up:

Appearance:  Top notch.  As usual, Blizzard made a really professional and pretty product.  While you can’t re-arrange cards in your had, you can move the cards on the screen to cast them (or change your mind part way through the drag+ drop and put them back in your hand).  The cards are played on a sandy arena floor.  Surrounding this are a variety of settings, randomly chosen for each match.  There’s a jungle theme, a siege theme, and a town theme.  Each one is somewhat interactive, which gives you something to do while your opponent is thinking about his move.  For example, the siege theme has a catapult and a pile of rocks for you to play with if you’re bored.  Finding out what elements are clickable is a fun little process. As for the cards, the art is well executed, in the style of World of Warcraft, but possibly a bit cartoonier.  No complaints here.

Game Mechanics: Nothing too complicated.  The object of the game is to reduce your opponent to zero life.  Cards cost mana to play.  All your mana crystals recharge at the beginning of your turn.  You gain one mana crystal per turn, up to a maximum of 10.  You are playing a deck for a character class from WoW.  Some cards can go in any deck, others are class specific.  There are three types of cards: Creatures, Spells, and Weapons.  

Creatures are the staple of the game, and the main way to win.  Each creature will have an attack value, a health value, and possibly one or more special abilities.  Any turn after the turn you summon a creature, you may attack with it, choosing either the opposing player, or one of his creatures as a target.  Creatures with taunt are especially good defenders, as they force the opponent to attack them instead of you, thus protecting your health pool.  Some creatures have a battlecry special ability, which is a one time effect that happens when the creature is first summoned.    In essence, such creatures incorporate a spell as well.

Which brings us to spells.  Spells range from utility effects, like card draw, and buffing creatures, to offensive spells that deal damage to creatures or players, to defensive spells, which provide a shield, or healing.  For the most part, spells will have to take a supporting role to creatures, when it comes to defeating your opponent.  Still, with few exceptions, spells, especially spells that allow you to control the board (e.g. creature removal, debuffs, etc) play a key role in most decks.

Weapons are a small addendum, but can be useful for those classes that can use them.  Since creatures are your chief way to kill your opponent, you’d like to keep yours alive.  So, instead of sending them in to kill you opponent’s creatures you can attack them yourself.  The drawback is that the creature gets to hit you back, unlike offensive spells.  The advantage is that weapons have durability, which is how many times you can attack with it before it breaks.  So each weapon is like multiple offensive spells in one card, usually for a very affordable mana cost.

Game Balance:  Ah, there’s the rub.  Now let’s be clear:  I understand this game is in beta, so I won’t be talking about specific card or class balance issues, since those should probably work out by the time the game hits release.  What I will talk about is their card balance philosophy.  If you’re read my blog before, you may remember this article about how CCGs should be designed and balanced.  I won’t go over all of it right now.  Suffice to say, Hearthstone is currently looking like a “pay to win” game.  While there are plenty of good common spells, there are also numerous examples of rare or epic creatures that are just better than the same cost of lower rarity creatures.  If the game releases like this, I predict problems not too far down the line.

So overall, I’d say it’s a fun enough game, in Beta, with no money on the line.  If they don’t fix their rare to power problem, I don’t know.

Friday evening I played a couple of games of Louis and Clarke. I suppose, if I had to categorize it, it’s a hybrid between a worker allocation, role choosing, and resource management game. The core of the game involves pushing your “scout” up or down the progress track (which is laid out on a map of the northwest territory). At certain points, you will “camp”, at which point you reclaim all your used cards, and if your scout has progressed beyond your previous camp site, you will move your camp up to the scout. The first player to get their camp to Fort mumblemumble in Oregon wins. So it’s a race.

The base of most turns involves choosing two cards from your hand, one which will be played, and one which will power the first. So, even though all players start with the same cards in their hands, and they will likely play them all before they camp, they can have widely varying effects.  Some actions are autonomous, but most of the resource production actions involve looking at your own resource symbols, as well as those of your neighbors.  So the same order of playing cards on your part could produce wildly different results depending on what order your opponents played.

The optional parts of a players turn are deciding whether to make camp, and meeting people from the travel journal.  If you choose to camp, you will push your scout token backwards one “day” (space) for each card you haven’t played from your hand, and also spaces based on how many goods you’re carrying and how many Indian helpers you have along (more goods and people slow you down).  Assuming your scout is still ahead of your camp, your camp moves.  You then reclaim all the cards you’ve played, resetting your hand.

Meeting people from the journal is the method to upgrade the hand of cards you are using.  Each card has a base cost in tools (a resource type), which indicates how strong the card will be if you use it to power another card.  A 2 cost card will activate a job twice, a 3 cost, 3 times.  Since you start with all 1’s with a single 2, getting better workers can drastically improve your trip, since 2’s and 3’s essentially provide free actions (albeit the same action repeated).

My first impressions of the game are mostly favorable.  The mechanic of using one card to power another is a interesting variation of the role choosing mechanic, as a card you’re using to power cannot be played itself until you camp.  I also like the dynamic which ties your resource production to the cards that your opponents have on the field.  So the core of the game seems really solid to me.  The only things I feel unsure of are balancing issues within that system.

First and foremost, I must admit to limited sample size of two games played.  That said, in both games, it seemed like there was a dominant strategy to move along the river.  There are two main ways to move along the river: spend food, or spend canoes.  Canoes move you twice as far as food.  On the surface, that seems good.  However, it takes only one action to obtain food.  By default, it takes three actions to obtain canoes.  There are characters you can acquire that make canoes more efficient… but there are also characters you can acquire that make food more efficient.  Cory got a character early in the first game that allowed him to use food to either travel by water or over mountains… he won with no contest.  The second game, I saw the opportunity to pursue a hugely efficient canoe strategy;  I acquired one character who turned one canoe into two canoes, and a second who could change canoes into horses, to cross the mountains.  The startup time was still too long.  By the time I reached the mountains, Mac (who had been pushing ahead with food), and I both agreed that I couldn’t catch him.  He ended up making a huge blunder which cost him 3 or 4 turns, and allowed me to win… but barring that, his simple, unenhanced food strategy was beating the pants off my souped up canoe strategy.

That brings me to my second balance qualm. I don’t know if the characters are balanced against each other.  It would require repeated play to test it, but if the characters that aid canoes still don’t make canoes strong enough, then they are too weak relative to the other characters.  Another example is:  There were two characters that allowed you to take actions in the indian village (a region of the game board).  One cost 1 tool to buy, cost a resource to use, and only allowed you to take an action that someone had already taken.  The other cost 3 to buy, was free to use and allowed you to take any action.  On the face of it, that seems reasonable, as a higher cost card should do more.  I am unsure of whether they factored in the fact that costing 3 is an advantage.  In addition to the comparison I made, the 1 cost card will provide 1 action if you use it to power another card.  The 3 cost card will provide 3 actions!  As I said, my sample size is small, but my first impression was that there were some 1 cost characters in the journal who seemed tailored for a long term strategy… but whom you wouldn’t want to keep in your deck for the long term!

Still, I had a ton of fun playing the game, and I look forward to revisiting it soon.

A few days ago I noticed that Star Wars, the Old Republic went free to play (as it turns out, this happened a few months back, but I’ve been busy).  So, I decided to give it a whirl.  I’ll be taking notes here on my experience with it, as MMO’s are evolving experiences, and I’ll simply forget if I wait till I hit level 20 or something.  I’ll try to take notes at key levels, or just whenever I think interesting stuff has happened.

I’m level 10 The game starts off like most MMO’s;  you create a character.  This is a 5 stage process: 1.Choose side: Republic or Sith.  I chose Sith.  Normally, I put my first character on the “good side” in a game… but I switched it up. 2.  Choose Race/Sex:  Here we see the first limitations of F2P. The majority of the races are unavailable to Free players.   It probably wouldn’t matter for a first character, as it seems all but 2 races start off locked anyway. I chose to play a woman from the spikey headed red skinned race… I almost never choose human as my first character. 3.Choose class:  You get a choice of 4 basic classes to start off (you’ll specialize more later).  I chose Sith Inquisitor… basically a Mage fighter.  Yes, I know the normal term is Fighter Mage, but I would apply that to the other Sith class, which focuses on melee combat, with a smattering of direct force powers. 4. Customize your look.  Not the most flexible avatar creation in an MMO… but at least I got to choose between 4 or 5 different body types.  Since I generally try to avoid the stereotypes, I went for the least busty, least curvy model they had. So, I’ve got a character.  Now what? Well, right off the bat, the game starts off with narrative, and cutscenes… in authentic Star Wars Style, scrolling text and all.  The quest presentation is like that in Secret World:  cinematic.  As an added bonus, within the quests, your conversations have choices.  Indeed, I am reminded of Mass Effect.  Between this, and the fact that I noticed a light side /dark side meter in my character pane, I have decided to play a light side Sith!  It’s not easy so far… but I’m trying to be a force of good in the Sith empire.

Level 15 I spent the levels from 10-15 exploring my “advanced class”.  This advanced class is a choice you make at level 10.  For Sith Inquisitor, I had a choice between Sith Sorcerer and Sith Assassin.  Sith sorcerer was caster focused, and the tooltip informed me that it could damage or heal.  The Assassin was more melee focused, and they informed me the class could tank or damage.  Normally I would take tank immediately.  However, I had recently acquired a NPC companion who was a tank.  Plus, I again wanted to buck my previous trends; I almost always play a tank as my first character. Choosing your advanced class does a couple of things.  First, it gives you access to another set of skills in addition to your base class.  So  Sith Sorcerer gets extra heal and damage force powers.  The second effect is that it unlocks the skill trees for that class.  Much like WoW, there are 3, each of which focus on a role.  So, Sorcerer has 1 heal tree and 2 damage trees.  I’ve put a few points in healing so far.  Nothing major has changed, but I’m noticing a bit of difference.  I’m sure the higher tiers of the tree will be more dramatic.

Level 20 It was level 19 when I finally broke down and spent $5.  Limited customization is one thing, and slower leveling speed.  But having NO bank and a ridiculously small inventory just wasn’t working.

That got me 450 “cartel coins”, which I used to buy expanded inventory for all characters I will ever create.   It also got me “preferred status”, for having spent $5.  This unlocks the bank, as well as increasing certain limits, like how  many professions my character can learn, and how many auctions I can have on the auction house.  The game got substantially better when I stopped having to worry about inventory every 5 minutes.  I don’t think I can recommend the game if you’re not willing to spend 5 bucks on it.

So… what else happened in that time?  Well, I got a spaceship.  That really opened things up, sort of.  There were theoretically a bunch of planets I could now fly to. I still decided to follow the story line quest.  There are also space battles, which are kinda fun, as a change of pace.  Rail based shooters, with quests attached.  Your ship even has its own tab in your character screen, and you can buy upgrades for it.

I’ve continued on my light side path.  Don’t get me wrong… I’m still looking out for the interests of the ruthless empire I was born into.  Still, I don’t kick puppies and kill helpless people along the way, and I stop others from doing so. I don’t know if it’s the light side path I’ve chosen, or if all Sith get it… but there’s a Revan quest chain.  Revan is a character from Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR) who is both light and dark at various points.

Level 25

Its been brought to my attention that I haven’t really talked much about the game play so far.  I’ve talked about choices I’ve made or stuff my character got.  That’s probably because game play is much like many MMOs.  Bunch of abilities.  Level up, go to your trainer. Kill x thugs, collect y piece of paper.  I’ve been speaking only about the things which I feel distinguish SWtOR from other MMORPGS.  The most notable has definitely been the conversation system, which allows different choices that affect quest outcomes.  Other than that, It plays much like many MMOs, though very well done at that.

 

I’m going to wrap it up here for now.  I feel like I’ve gotten the flavor of the game.  I hope I’ve transmitted that to you.

About a week ago, an announcement turned up on the news feed of League of Legends.  It said that one of the qualifier groups for the European Championship circuit was being re-seeded due to disciplinary action against one of the teams.  I followed the link, since I’m an active participant in the Tribunal ( see an earlier post, if you’re curious).

Here’s the summaries of the Tribunal cases against the 3 people.

These guys were… abominable.  The least awful of these creeps was only guilty of  severe verbal abuse.  He behaved badly enough that he got reported for it in 20% of his games!!  To put that in perspective: he consistently treated complete strangers badly enough in 1 out of 5 games he played, that they felt the need to complain.  The others were even worse.  One actually threatened someone’s life, as well as using racial and anti-semitic epithets regularly.  The other admitted to engaging in DDOS (deliberate denial of service) attacks on top players to disrupt their internet connections.

 

So Riot banned them.  Not just their accounts, but the players.  If they make new accounts, Riot will find them and ban them.

The publicity of these bannings may be largely symbolic, but people are governed by symbols.  I applaud the banning of  high-profile people (on the eve of a major tournament no less).  It is one step closer to more people realizing that saying or doing things to people online that you wouldn’t do in person isn’t acceptable, nor is it necessary to have a good time.  And the small percentage for whom it is necessary for their enjoyment…  well I won’t miss them at all.

This is why I love participating in the Tribunal.  It gives you a running tally of how many “toxic days” you’ve prevented (from temporary bans), and how many players you’ve helped permaban.  I’ve noticed a difference.  When I started playing LoL, I couldn’t play more than a game or two without running into someone who “sounded” (in tone of typing), like a 12-year-old with Tourettes.  Now, while people still exhibit more anti social behavior than they would to a stranger face to face, it’s definitely better.

Tribunal contribution as of this post: 254 Toxic Days Prevented, 7 players Permabanned.  I’ll be logging back on to the Tribunal after I post this.  Gotta do my bit as a online citizen.

 

 

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