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James Vogel
Sinistar is my patronus.
Sinistar is my patronus.

Variance and Card Games [Public]

If you've ever played a few games of Magic: The Gathering, you know that drawing a bad balance of lands and spells is one of the most frustrating ways to lose. You need lands to cast spells, and you need spells that are worth casting. Too few lands ("mana screw") or lands that produce the wrong colors of mana, and you end up with a hand full of uncastable spells; too many ("mana flood") and you quickly run out of spells, saying "land, go" every turn hoping to topdeck something relevant. Although both the Magic design[1] team and the Rules Committee have experimented with methods to reduce the number of "non-games" where one player essentially doesn't get to play any Magic, it's still one of the primary ways that games of Magic are different from each other.

Looking at games that exist in the shadow of Magic design-wise, this resource issue is something many have tried different implementations of. Let's look at an example that's both simple and popular: Hearthstone. In HS, you are not required to play cards to gain resources: you start at 1 mana and automatically gain 1 each turn up to a max of 10. Relatively few cards interact with this, though some do exist, and so barring a few exceptional circumstances it's impossible to get screwed or flooded with resources.

This ends up creating an entirely different feel to the game, and I'm going to ramble a bit about why.

Card games like Magic and Hearthstone involve some amount of variance, and this is generally considered a positive feature as long as it stays within certain bounds. Historically, times when Magic tournament attendence has dropped off have been environments that strayed outside those bounds, formats ruled by either degenerate high-variance combo matchups or extremely low-variance "chess-like" matchups where both players have tremendous control over their draws. The downside of the former is obvious: players feel like they have little control over whether they win or not. The latter is a more interesting case, but it turns out the ability of less skilled players to beat more skilled players sometimes makes the game more attractive overall.

Anyway that's a little bit of a tangent. The point is that by design, both Magic and Hearthstone have some level of "per-game entropy" they're aiming for.

Now there are a few other differences in Hearthstone. One is deck size: a constructed deck in Magic contains a minimum of 60 cards, of which generally 18-26 will be mana sources depending on the format and the deck, and other than basic lands, may contain a max of 4 copies of any single card. A Hearthstone deck contains exactly 30 cards, and is limited to two copies of any given card (or one copy for "Legendary" cards). Hearthstone decks still have a great deal of draw power though, so it's not unusual to draw most of your deck in any given game.

Finally, Hearthstone has "Hero powers", an innate 2-mana ability intrinsic to the class of your deck that you can always use once per turn.

Let's look at these decisions all together: You will always make land drops from 1 to 10, you have infinite copies of a 2-mana spell, and you'll see most of your deck every game. Magic players - does that sound like anything to you? Because it sounds like Caw-Blade to me.[2] But the designers accounted for this: in order to bring the level of variance per game up, Hearthstone has many more cards with nondeterministic effects. Some of them have a narrow range ("deal 2 or 3 damage"), some have a very wide one ("each player gets a random spell from among all spells in the game").

The Magic designers, meanwhile, have generally come down on the side of not printing cards like that, or at least not pushing them to the level of "constructed playable".

So what we have are not two games that might have very roughly the same "average level" of entropy per game, but with very different-shaped "curves". The average of Hearthstone games is very flat compared to Magic, but the spikes, both positive and negative, are more extreme.

I think this explains why I personally had a hard time connecting with Hearthstone and eventually gave up: my cumulative impression was long stretches of similar and unmemorable matches. The events with emotional reactions attached, that stick out in retrospect, are the times I got wrecked by a coin-flip card.

It also explains why I'm enjoying Eternal, another digital TCG, a lot more. It has a more Magic-like approach to resources and randomness, and for me, the risk of getting mana screwed is a worthwhile trade-off for the experience of playing 3-5 matches in a row that all feel different.

(Eternal also has a color system much more like Magic, which I like more than HS's class system, but for other, different reasons. And that's another post entirely.)

[1] I'm using "design" and "designer(s)" as synecdoche for the whole process of getting cards and mechanics into print; in practice the pipeline for a Magic set is significantly more complicated that a single team printing nonsense, or at least it has been ever since a single team printed Urza block because wow.

[2] The Standard season of 2010-11 was one of the low-variance "chess" formats I alluded to, and Caw-Blade was why. The deck had an absurdly high level of efficiency and control over its draws, enabling it to easily beat every tier-two deck, and so Caw-Blade mirror matches came to define Standard, a match that the more skilled player won nearly 100% of the time. As a result of declining tournament attendance, along with everyone except hardcore blue players basically hating the deck, Wizards banned Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic in Standard, and Caw-Blade disappeared behind a shed. We were later told it had gone to a farm upstate to frolic and play with other puppies.

Quick game roundup. Mostly thoughts I've already put on Twitter in various forms.

Samus Returns (3DS): Wow this game went from announcement to launch at some pretty high speeds. I love Metroid, but it's pretty inarguable that the first two installments have aged very poorly, and what Zero Mission did for Metroid, Samus Returns does for Metroid 2. It changes a lot more from the old version than AM2R (to which it inevitably invites comparisons) did. The gameplay and platforming are solid, the game structure is a bit less linear than the original M2 was, and there are some fun new upgrades.

Two major changes are free aiming and a melee counter. For free aiming, you hold down a shoulder button to lock Samus in place and get full 360° shot control. It's nice, and has some good quality-of-life features – for example, if you point at a grapple point while free aiming, you'll automatically use the grapple beam instead of shooting it instead of having to switch to grapple and back.

The melee counter is basically "hit X to parry certain heavily telegraphed enemy attacks". If you succeed, you stun and weaken the enemy so usually one shot kills them. I… don't love it. The idea is fine and it sees decent use in boss battles, but there are too many normal enemies that take a frustrating number of hits to kill unless you wait for them to charge and counter them. Not a bad concept, but overused it adds unnecessary tedium and ruins the fluidity of certain areas.

Still, it's a solid 2D Metroid game and I'd recommend it to any fans of the genre. Now if only I could stop trying to mockball.

Metroid Prime: Yeah I've been on a Metroid kick lately. And not just re-running Super over and over. In this case I realized I hadn't played Prime in a while and didn't want to set up the hardware so I downloaded the Dolphin GC/Wii emulator and imaged my Metroid Prime Trilogy disk.

And it took some doing, but I got my Steam controller set up for Wiimote emulation and I'll be damned if it doesn't work really, really well! (Anyone who wants to give it a shot let me know and I can share the relevant config files to save you some time.)

I'm enjoying Prime less than I did originally, I admit – compared to the 2D games it's heavier on the backtracking and lighter on precision gameplay. But hey, it's still good, and it's been a long enough time since I played through the Prime games that retracing my steps isn't more than a minor annoyance.

Eternal: This is a digital TCG from Dire Wolf Digital that's somewhere between Magic and Hearthstone. The interface is very Hearthstone-like, it has mechanics that only work in digital games, and it slims down the priority windows compared to MTG; unlike HS it does have instants, combat & damage are more like Magic, and it has a Magic-esque resource system of drawing and playing "Power" cards instead of HS's automatically gaining one mana crystal per turn. It also has five colors and some elements of the color/mechanics relationship are prettttttty Magic-y, but there are enough differences to matter.

(Unsurprisingly, it's developed by a bunch of Magic pros.)

Free-to-play, and pretty generously so, IMO. The crafting system for acquiring individual cards is identical to Hearthstone. Eternal generally discourages you from buying packs though by making drafting a much more efficient way to build your collection. Its drafting is more Magic-like (you are actually "passed" packs from other players in a way that even allows for some signalling, though certain booster draft techniques like hate-drafting and pass-cutting don't really make sense) and you get to keep the cards you draft.

And somehow a decent number of people are even worse at draft than I am (I will pause to let you boggle at that) so even rare-drafting for collection purposes you can win some games and the rewards are pretty good unless you completely punt.

I have some thoughts on why I find Eternal far more compelling than HS but they're probably going to go into a longer write-up where I talk about variance and why mana screw isn't the worst problem a game can have.

Just finished Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice.

I have only minor quibbles and overall loved it. Well put together, emotionally affecting, occasionally disturbing. Best experienced with headphones.

I'm finally admitting there's absolutely zero chance I get around to painting… not even all my miniatures, but basically any of them.

So I have a shitload of Reaper "Bones" minis from their first Kickstarter I'm looking to sell. No idea about price so best offer I guess? Or I'm putting them on eBay eventually.

I've only played an hour of Hellblade but it's already made some very positive impressions. And it looks gorgeous. The combat in particular is an excellent example of how smooth, clean animation and purposeful camera behavior can elevate simple fight mechanics to a memorable experience.

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I finally understand the appeal of Minecraft.

(Full headline: "This Guy Made a Fully Functioning Computer in Minecraft That Blocks @notch on Twitter")

((Backstory: Notch created Minecraft and sold it to Microsoft for lots of dollars. He's also a gaping asshole of a person.))

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We took it down! Deck did even better than I expected, considering how badly the list I brought last month did and it was only 3ish cards different.

List is linked here:

5 rounds of Swiss; went 4-1 beating the mirror, Eldrazi, Landstill, and Mentor, and losing to Ravager Shops.

In cut to top 4 I beat the same Shops deck then the same Landstill deck. Good for a chunk of store credit but, more importantly, free byes at Vintage Championships in October. Which is pretty sweet.

I play a lot less Magic than I used to but there's sanctioned Vintage up in LA today, the only format for which I'd brave the drive and the heat. And my deck is gas*. And playing Magic all day means not reading the news.

So, y'know, pretty good day planned.

* Drain Tendrils! It's back!

Horizon One Point Three Dawn
A quick round-up of the new patch, which is a good patch.

I wasn't planning to revisit HZD until the new content hit, because I didn't want to risk burning out on it, but 1.3 added a couple cool new things I wanted to try out.

Also an hour into it I remembered that Aloy is great.

So first off, I hadn't played after 1.2, and 1.2 apparently added a ton of good quality of life changes in the UI. Better indicators for crafting, inventory sorting, multi-select for selling to vendors, camera sensitivity control, and a few smaller tweaks. They're great. (On Twitter I credited these to 1.3, but apparently they were added before and I just missed them.)

On to the new 1.3 stuff.

Ultra Hard mode: AKA "if anything hits you, you will die" mode. Also if you start a game in UH you can't turn the difficulty down during the game, so make sure you're committed.

The getting-one-shot is frustrating. Maybe more frustrating than fun. But UH also adds some other changes that do make it harder in other, more interesting ways. Enemies are a little smarter, more aggressive, and tend to group up more, so Lure + Murderstab is much less reliable; also weapons and armor are quite a bit more expensive so you can't just rush to Sunhome, buy all the good gear, and laugh like a maniac. I'm currently a little stalled in the first Cauldron because it turns out Fire Bellowbacks are way harder on this mode and even Watchers are a legitimate threat.

I'm not sure I'd recommend UH to anyone but the most dedicated but I'm mostly enjoying it and we'll see how far I get.

New Game+: Might save this for the DLC so I can replay without having to buy the unlimited-fast-travels pack again. <_<

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Odin Sphere was an underappreciated release of the late PS2 era. Somehow, I'd either completely missed or forgotten that it got an update: not just HD graphics (which was easy because the original art assets had been done in HD because of course they had, look at this fucking game) but a significant gameplay and quality-of-life pass that helped round a few of the sharper edges off the original.

So I've been playing that lately. And it's good.
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