Ramp-le

I don’t feel a compelling need to keep commenting on each week’s various activities, not even my experience yesterday playing an online LARP (LAORP?) which was, on balance, negative, even though it was predictable that the rewards wouldn’t make sense to me.

I was trying to think of five V:TES cards that hate me.  Not cards I necessarily hate but cards that don’t work when I play them and work well against me.  Major Boon was the inspiration for trying to think of a list, but I was struggling to think of other cards, even though I know they exist.

I might have continued to ponder such, but I decided to read Mark Rosewater’s Daily Magic column for Monday, 5/23 – http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/mm/144

Mana Action is all about how the cost system in Magic makes the game what it is.  I find this topic interesting in two ways.  First, as much as Mark defends the system as making the game better, I don’t agree with some of the details.  Second, the article does bring up an area of CCG play that is worthy of a lot more consideration.

Difference of Opinion

Taking each of his sections, let’s begin with #1.  Mark is saying that the cost system is a necessary point to making Magic a CCG.  I agree.  When we look at CCGs, we typically see some sort of costing system.  CCGs that don’t try to tie power to cost (I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but I recall ones that at least felt that way.  Wyvern?) come across as primitive and/or broken.

Moving on to #2.  Here is a quote of a section I have problems with:

Now you can start to see what the mana system is preventing. Magic is more fun if only one or two cards get cast a turn, especially in the early game. The mana system allows a slow buildup as players get to cast larger and more powerful spells. The mana system serves as a release valve that helps ensure that something happens each turn, but not too much.

While I believe that there should be a control on the flow of the game, what I find to be the largest problem in my Magic games is how little happens in many turns.  Sure, there are times when flurries of cards get played that twist the game in all sorts of directions.  And, yes, certain formats where you see more cards, have more exciting turns.  But, I am completely against the idea that only 1-2 cards should be played a turn in a CCG.  That’s far too dull.

The question, though, is how many cards should be played a turn?  What other CCG is better for card flow?

For whatever reason, maybe because it’s the game I playtested the most, I tend to think about how Babylon 5 does things first when these sorts of questions come up.  Babylon 5 can easily have too many actions, if not necessarily too many cards played, in a turn.  That was less true earlier in the game’s history when influence replenishment was less common and there wasn’t the ability to do the “I gain 20 Shadow Marks in one turn” deck or a lot of the other engine decks.  I like Event cards.  I like how they make games unpredictable.  But, many are sufficiently cheaply costed that it’s reasonable to say that too many can be played.  At least card play is more interesting than the supporting/opposing/attacking mechanic that takes up numerous actions.

Anyway, I’m getting away from card flow.  Babylon 5 clearly has a problem with hand size, in that there’s no maximum, so it’s easy to have 30+ cards in hand.  The card draw rate seems fine, but if you think about how expensive it is to put permanents into play and how easy it is to have a lot of permanents in play, there’s something off in the math of the game.  Perhaps the problem with permanents is how hard they can be to remove from the board.  Still, I often find that I have too many conflicts in hand or other cards that I never have any need to play.

For comparison, as a relative of Babylon 5’s, there is Wheel of Time.  Wheel of Time was not a great CCG.  I never would argue that it was.  But, I liked it.  What I didn’t like was random resource generation.  That the early game generation was subject to very high variance was particularly a problem, at least for the enjoyment of the game, even if better decisions could mitigate the pain of the randomness.  That the first expansion brought in starting characters who were far more consistent was huge.  Anyway, at first, resource generation was massively important because certain cards were card drawing engines and fed off of extra symbols; as well, the game was always exponential in growth, so small differences at the beginning meant large effects by the end.  However, after the first expansion, I’d say the game was more about how many cards you drew or searched out.  Playing cards as fast you could draw them became easier, in general.

If I were to complain about one thing in Magic, it wouldn’t be mana.  It would be card drawing.  Magic’s one card per turn is a lot of the reason you see so few cards played.  Wheel of Time is far ahead of Magic in having two cards per turn, though card drawing or searching is easily the most broken thing in Wheel of Time.  Getting back to costing, that you should generally be able to play your hand in Wheel of Time shows that the costing system is wrong.  Constraints are mostly about card draws and the inequality of strength of cards, which also supports that the costing system is off.

What of Vampire: The Eternal Struggle?  Is the card flow appropriate?  While getting it right for different decks can be tricky, this area likely being one of the most crucial to building better decks, I don’t find that the flow seems off.  Perhaps the restrictions on when cards can be played are so great that there’s really no fair comparison.  Constant replenishment of one’s hand is to me one of the better ways to do card drawing, but that in certain ways there’s no resource cost associated to many card plays means that the game is highly reliant on game mechanics not relevant to Magic.

As for Ultimate Combat!, which is only minimally different from Magic in basic structure, it has a very similar cost ramping system, with similar issues of how hard it is to correctly cost cards so that there’s a balance throughout the curve.

What I find amusing about reading #3 in his article is that his description of how things should be sounds okay for a CCG, great for a RPG, and is pretty much the opposite of how most Magic games turn out.  There’s rarely a sense of things building up.  Rather, some early play may be so much better than another that the disfavored side struggles to ever get back in the game.  Or, one card pretty much decides the game.  On the other hand, I don’t really see other CCGs capture the idea of fights getting more serious with interesting twists in what is happening.  V:TES is more about attrition of resources to where the “fights” become more serious as blood and pool get taken off the table.  WoT may build and build and build, but without any sort of meaningful removal, the game becomes one of whoever has a more optimal build with not a lot of endgame surprises.  Actually, this is a case where Ultimate Combat! is clearly superior to Magic.  Attacks get more brutal, yet the ability to win off the back of a single card is so much less.

Too many options, #4, is overblown with other games.  Sure, Babylon 5 has too many cards in hand and can easily put too many permanents into play that may be used.  But, it’s far better to be able to play multiple cards in a turn then not.  Of course, the two games have very different types of turns.  In B5, early game turns are generally simple and boring while everyone is building and the heart of the game is only a small number of turns after everyone has spent time building an infrastructure.  Now, that might have only been two turns early in the game’s history when going from 10 power to 20 power might have been two conflicts, some cheese, and 5 power off of an agenda.  Or, it might have been many more turns later in the game’s history when the ability to stop people from winning was greatly increased.  But, on average, the turns you cared about in B5 were a few epic ones of many plays, while a Magic game had more turns with fewer things happening, even if epic things happened on occasion.

An interesting question, which #4 really brings out, is:  how many cards should be played in a turn?

To me, the breakdown in the article shows a clear flaw in trying to have fun in Magic.  Late game, there shouldn’t be few cards.  Playing off the top is one of the most annoying features of Magic as it smacks of randomness.  While I can see limits, I would think a correlation between length of game and volume of cards played would be better than trying to have some sort of flat curve of card flow.

Many a CCG has around 7 cards in a hand.  If I were to put a number on about how many cards should see play in a meaty turn (midgame on), I’d probably say about six cards in a turn.  Some games have mechanics where you end up playing more than you should; I vaguely recall Buffy seeming to be like that, but I could be mistaken.  Obviously, some games have different card types that have very different frequencies.  B5 has conflicts, which are usually no more than one a turn.  In a B5 turn, I figure I’d want people to play 1 conflict, 2 permanents, 2-3 events, 1 aftermath … rather close to that 7 number, even though those numbers are highly variable and fall under different types of game restrictions.

Another way to look at it, still keeping in mind hand size, is how much of a hand should change from turn to turn.  Should you essentially have a new hand every turn?  In which case, that’s again about 7 cards a turn.  Or, should there be some holdover?  In V:TES, at least with my playstyle, there tends to be quite a bit of holdover from turn to turn.  I played a tournament round where I averaged half an hour a card played.  On the other hand, with V:TES, easily the most common horrible situation to be in is being handjammed.  Seven combat cards, for instance, tends to be a pretty awful hand that will get you ousted.

A typical CCG sees 60 card constructed decks.  If a game lasts 10 turns, 6 cards a turn would see running through the entire deck (ignoring the opening hand or saying that your initial draw is a “turn”).  What does this tell us?  Again, with Magic, it’s easy for a game to be decided in the first 20-30 cards.  That’s clearly not going through enough of one’s deck.  On the other hand, the norm with WoT of drawing your entire deck may not be optimal, either, as it seems like a good thing to have some inconsistency in what you draw over the course of a game to where maybe about 25% of one’s deck being undrawn sounds more right.  So, with an average of 5 cards a turn, with a 60 card deck, that means 9 turns is about how long the game should last.  What does this mean?  I don’t really know.  But, it seems fairly interesting to see how different CCGs fall on number of turns and percentage of deck remaining as a way to back into how many cards get played on average per turn.  Of course, that still leaves the question of variance in card flow.

I don’t find cutting down on the number of unique cards in a deck, #5, being all that meaningful.  First of all, there is an argument that card limits are a crutch, not only in V:TES, a game that didn’t design with them in mind, but in any CCG.  Magic didn’t originally have card limits and it could have remained without them by designing new cards without card limits in mind.  If you look at pritnear any CCG with card limits, you will find that people max out better cards and only run inferior cards because of card limits.  I find Magic decks that are something like x24 lands and nine x4’s to be pretty boring from a deckbuilding standpoint.  On the other hand, I do agree that having 40+ different cards in one’s decks is too much text that people have to process.  Note that Magic, and other CCGs, could easily reduce the number of unique cards by having lower deck size limits.

While I’m all in favor of variance, #6, I find that Magic has far too little variance in good things.  Redundancy is a big deal in Magic because you will only see a third to half of your deck much of the time.  Really, playing lands is not interesting.  The reason I play CCGs is to play cards, and I don’t consider basic resource generation to fall under “playing cards”.  Games would have a lot more interesting things going on if it were actually reasonable to play 6 cards turn after turn.  Meanwhile, the game has far too much variance in bad things.  Mark is trying to suggest that mana screw is a feature, not a bug.  Whatever.  Not being able to play what you draw because it’s too early … and late will never happen because you have already lost … is not in any way fun.  Rather than the typical game where even something like a 6-cost card may never get played because you are dead (or essentially dead) by the time it would come down, I want to see the tradeoff being playing at least one high cost card and other stuff going on or multiple lower cost cards that have significant impact turn after turn.

I don’t dispute that understanding how cards flow in CCGs requires skill, #7, so I’ll move on.

The Right Answer

I got somewhat into questions of how things could be or should be done to make for better, more fun CCGs.  Given the length of this post so far and how much there could be to say on this subject, I think I’ll try to do a part 2.  Of course, how motivated I’ll be to continue on with this topic I’m not so sure.

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4 Responses to Ramp-le

  1. Brandon says:

    I find card flow to be one of the more exciting elements of VTES. If I’m playing a deck that needs to play some card in order to have a chance of getting the card I need to win or survive, there’s a risk-reward calculation you have to do. Taking a risk and having it pay off it sort of like winning the lottery. For instance, when my giovanni deck was down to three pool I had Regina go get Gregory Winther. This would have been a bad move if the next card I drew wasn’t a conditioning (the second copy of two in the deck), but it was. The reward? A vp and later another. That one card draw turned an otherwise gruesome and unrewarding game into my favorite of the three we played.
    The excitement I get out of dynamic games, ones were they are dynamic from good plays instead of bad ones, makes VTES one of the most interesting games I’ve played.

  2. Azel says:

    Magic and L5R both hit the reset button on resource acquisition speed. At some point, if you didn’t have Moxes or worked Corrupted Holdings just right and spam cheapo (broken) tech — often which were card drawers, opponent card discarders — you just lost. Crappy yes, but these were dynamic, heady early years.

    Nowadays, I don’t know if I could get back into either game. Sure 1st or 3rd turn wins are not as prevalent (or possible). But something really dreary seems to pervade when I watch modern matches. Granted I haven’t played Type 2, Block set, whatchamacallit versions now, but if MtG video games and peanut gallery at card shops is any indication, it’s a real drag. There’s no “everybody was kung-fu fightin’!” flurry of action. This might have to do with deliberately increased cost and slower pacing.

    So count me in with you thinking it is a dubious declaration that mana screw, greater resource generation threshold, is “not a bug, but a feature!” Set rotation kicked me out of those two big CCG lines. Sheer banality keeps me from returning, even tentatively.

  3. Andrew Haas says:

    I don’t have as much CCG experience as some others but I have to agree with Ian that my experience with Magic tends to be that the game is heavily limited in the “fun” department by the slow card replenishment.
    I think that Vtes got this right by having the fundamental mechanic of the game be one of resource allocation rather than generation. You start out with 30 pool and you have to make the decisions during deck construction and during the game how you’re going to use you limited resources to either attack (bring out minions) or defend. Other games that use this resource allocation paradigm seem to do well and provide interest compared to systems that use resource generation/production especially when a random element is involved.

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