Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Two Major Updates

As much as I love both Standard Pauper and Hearthstone, I have to confess that I've been more or less taking a break from both recently. Instead, I've been playing several great video games. And two of those have recently release major updates. So I thought I would highlight those today.

Just today, the long-awaited Terraria 1.3 update has finally been released! This will more than likely be the final content release for the game, and it's a doozy! The change log is over 8 pages long, and many of the best changes haven't even been included. Yesterday I got a chance to watch several popular streamers play advanced copies of the update, and it looks amazing. If you're unfamiliar with this game, Terraria is essentially an old-school 2D adventure game that is probably best described as Minecraft meets Legend of Zelda. It's probably my favorite game to come out in the last five years. Check out my previous posts on it, and pick it up right away!

The other game that has recently been updated is a more recent one that is actually still on Steam Early Access called Offworld Trading Company. They just released the fourth beta iteration, which added a whole bunch of new ways to attack your opponent's colony as well as an alternate starting mechanic. As the brain-child of the Lead Designer for Civilization IV, this game has a ton of awesome gameplay even though it's still not complete, with a growing community of skilled multiplayer opponents. Best described as an economic real time strategy game, Offworld Trading Company puts you in the CEO chair of a major corporation racing against the competition to colonize Mars and turn a profit. You can find out more about it in my previous posts. It's definitely worth checking out!

As an aside, I also think it's awesome that both of these games are independent titles released through Steam and not through a major software developer. This bodes well for the future of gaming! See you next time...

Monday, June 29, 2015

Magic Origins: A Cycle of Numbers, Part Two

(It appears I forgot to post my latest entry this weekend. So sorry!!)

Spoiler season for Magic Origins continues! Last time, I took a look at the first three cards in a new Common cycle that emphasizes the concept of strength in numbers. Anyone who is familiar with cards like Relentless Rats or its ilk will immediate recognize how these work. Let's take a look at the remaining two cards.

My first thought when I saw Infectous Bloodlust was Squadron Hawk from Magic 2011, which also allowed you to chain multiple copies of the same card together. Of course, this will be significantly weaker, as it not only is a creature Aura instead of a creature, but it also only activates when the enchanted creature dies, rather than when the enchantment enters the battlefield. Still, this seems like a worthy addition to an aggressive tokens-style deck that has no issues with swinging in each turn and should easily have plenty of targets for the additional copies as they come. It's probably not that great outside of that specific archetype, but still should see some play.

Timberpack Wolf is actually a reprint from Magic 2013, but you can easily see why they chose it since it seems perfectly at home in this cycle. A vanilla 2/2 for 2 in Green is pretty subpar, and even with two of them in play, you're still only getting two 3/3s for your effort. In Theros block alone Green already has several decent to good 2 drop creatures, including Swordwise Centaur, which is arguably more consistent even if its potential is much lower, as well as the excellent Leafcrown Dryad. Timberpack Wolf is perfectly acceptable in Limited, where you'll happily play 2/2s for 2 most of the time. But in Standard Pauper, I doubt this will see much play.

Believe it or not, but we're only through the first official week of Magic Origins spoilers. There will be lots more to come, and I can't wait to see what else it has in store for Standard Pauper!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Magic Origins: A Cycle of Numbers, Part One

Spoiler season for Magic Origins continues! Last time, I looked at two new Commons in Green that look to improve upon that color's already impressive recent results. Today, I've got a brand new cycle at Common that emphasizes the concept of strength in numbers. In fact, each card is designed to get better in multiples. Relentless Rats, you've met your match!

Cleric of the Forward Order is the latest iteration of a White creature that grants some incidental life when it enters the battlefield. In this case though, it's a 2/2 for 1W that grants 2 Life, a strict upgrade from Venerable Monk and its ilk. Not quite as good as Lone Missionary, but a huge upgrade from the surprisingly similar Tireless Missionaries, which cost twice as much for only one extra point of Toughness. And obviously if you manage to get just one more on the battlefield at the same time, the extra life gained is quite significant. Nonetheless, the best part about this card is that a 2/2 for 2 in White is practically playable all by itself.

Faerie Miscreant is decidedly worse. Alone, it's just a 1/1 Flying creature for U, which isn't good enough at all to make the cut in Standard Pauper. You have to play a second one to get any value out the ability, which in this case is drawing an extra card. But unlike all the others, this doesn't really get better in multiples; no matter how many of these faeries you manage to get on the battlefield, you only draw a single card each time. If the first one drew a card itself, this might find a home in a heavy Blue control archetype. But as is, I don't imagine that this will see much if any play. A 1/1 for 1, even with Flying, simply isn't enough value.

Undead Servant appears to be the closest thing we're going to get to Gravedigger at Common. Once more, the first one doesn't actually get any extra benefit, making it merely a 3/2 for 3B, which is pretty marginal. Then, you've got to actually get it into the Graveyard before you get any value from it when the next one enters play. On the other hand, if you manage to draw all four copies and get three of them into the Graveyard, on that last casting you're getting 3 2/2 Zombies, which is about as powerful an effect as you'll ever see at Common. The upside here is amazingly good, but the worst case scenario isn't that great. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if someone comes up with a way to abuse it.

Next time, I'll take a look at the other two cards in this cycle. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Magic Origins: Feeling Green

It's spoiler season for Magic Origins, and we've already been given a surprisingly number of commons. Interestingly enough, Green has proven to be quite the contender in the Standard Pauper metagame right now, and out of the Commons that have been spoiled thus far, there are two Green cards in particular that have caught my eye. So I thought today I would spend some time looking at both of them.

The first card of note is Nissa's Pilgrimage. It's a ramp spell for 2G that allows you to search your library for multiple Forests, then put one of them onto the battlefield tapped. Even if you don't meet the requirements for Spell mastery, this is already strictly better than Ranger's Path from Magic 2013, and is one mana cheaper as well. Given that Green often relies upon Fight cards and/or power-boosting combat tricks, it doesn't seem like it will be too difficult to fulfill the requirements for spell mastery. At that point, this card ramps you for one and thins out your deck of three lands, which is a great effect for a mere 2G. Assuming you have decent spells to ramp into, this looks pretty solid.

Speaking of ramp targets, Rhox Maulers looks to be one of the better Green beaters we've had in some time. A 4/4 for 4G with Trample is already fairly respectable (I'm looking at you, Stampeding Rhino), with the four Toughness in particular being no small task for your opponent to deal with. But for the small price of having to deal combat damage to your opponent, these soldiers can grow into an impressive 6/6. Trample is particularly good here, since in this case it guarantees that even if it's chump-blocked it will still deal some damage to your opponent and thus still get the counters. While not quite as good as Stampeding Elk Herd, this is still one of the best Green creatures at Common in quite some time.

There's lots more Commons from Magic Origins where those two came from, and I can't wait to see what else this set has in store for us. See you next time!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Do Bad Cards Need to Exist?

As a proponent of Standard Pauper, one of the downsides of the format is that for any given new set, so many of the Commons simply aren't good enough to see play. Worse, a smaller subset of them aren't just unplayable, but are complete garbage. So why do these cards exist?

Interestingly enough, the same question has been asked in Hearthstone. A well known streamer by the handle of Kripparian recently posted a video discussing an idea that Blizzard should periodically go back and change unplayable cards to mix up the metagame and improve the overall health of the game. Surprisingly enough, Ben Brode, Senior Game Designer for Hearthstone, responded with a video of his own essentially debunking this idea. While I encourage you to check out this video for all the details, here are his essential points:
  • It's impossible not to have bad cards. Cards aren't judged in a vacuum, but in relation to other cards. Make one card better, and all you do is shift which cards are considered "bad."
  • Changing cards is bad for the game. Not only does it take a significant amount of time to rebalance a card for a new environment, it also penalizes older players who have to relearn how things work.
  • Different kinds of cards are good for different types of players. So-called bad cards may have marginal effects that are good in the right situation, may appeal to certain types of players, or help teach and illustrate concepts to new players.
Obviously in Magic, Wizards doesn't have the luxury of going back and changing cards once they've seen print. But otherwise, Brode's arguments are as true for Magic as they are for Hearthstone. Indeed, his comments are right in line with comments Mark Rosewater has made in the past.

Sorry, Kripparian. As it turns out, bad cards not only do need to exist, but are actually good for the game. Who knew?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Critical Role

If you're a regular reader of my blog, it should come as no surprise to you that I am a major fan of all things fantasy, and that includes fantasy roleplaying games as well. I have participated in all sorts of tabletop RPGs off and on since high school, and in particular have enjoyed Dungeons and Dragons in most of its iterations (including its red-headed stepchild Pathfinder).

One of the players in my current game recommended a recent webcast series put on by Geek and Sundry called Critical Role. In the past I've tried to watch various recordings people have made of their roleplaying sessions, and by and large I have found them tedious watching at best. So, it wasn't until recently that I finally decided to go check out the show.

If you've ever wondered just how good a roleplaying gaming session could be, you need not look any further than Critical Role. Of course, it helps that the entire cast is made up of professional voice actors who had already played together for quite some time before making the show. It also doesn't hurt that the show has quite high production values, with an animated intro and backstory for all the characters, an overlay that integrates three cameras as well as Twitch chat, and excellent audio not only for each actor but also for background music and sound effects.

But it is really the chemistry among the DM and the characters that makes this so compelling. With just their voices and some minis moving around on hand-drawn maps, the cast brings their sessions to life. The DM draws upon his rich repertoire of voices to bring various NPCs to life, and has an excellent command of the game mechanics as well as the world the characters are playing in. The rest of the cast are genuinely focused on playing their role, and at times you can see the tension and joys on their faces as they experience the highs and lows of their adventures.

All of the past episodes are available on the main page; sadly, they can only be accessed via this page, as they are not reposted to YouTube or even available on their Twitch page. Each episode generally runs between three and four hours, so you've got an incredible amount of content to view if you're just now starting to watch. You can also watch each week's episode live on Thursday nights at 10pm EDT on their Twitch channel.

And now, I really must get back to watching. See you next time!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Magic Origins: First Impressions

It's spoiler season once again, this time for Magic Origins. A couple weeks ago Wizards announced both their changes to the evergreen mechanics as well as some of the contents of the Magic Origins Sample Decks, giving us an early glimpse of several Commons in the new set.

At some point I will take the time to start reviewing some of the specific cards. But for today I just wanted to focus on my first impressions.

First of all, the slightly higher complexity level that we saw in Theros block seems to continue in Magic Origins. We've got multiple cards with interesting 'enters the battlefield' effects as well as activated abilities that aren't tied to specific mechanics in the set, which is definitely welcome.

Second, for being the last of the Core sets, the number of actual reprints seems low, at least thus far Even where similar cards exist, it seems Magic Origins will bring us new variations on existing cards rather than simply reprints. At least to me, this certainly makes the set more interesting.

Third, the trend towards expensive and/or conditional removal at Common continues. Based on everything I've heard up to this point, the days of getting multiple cards with cheap, Instant speed removal at Common are far behind us.

Finally, we actually get a decent piece of Equipment at Common, even if it is just +1/+1 for 1. While this probably is seen as marginal in Limited, for Standard Pauper this might actually see play. I point this out mostly as an indicator that Wizards is still willing to experiment somewhat at Common and test out exactly where the power-level is.

Based on all that, I'm pretty excited about the set so far. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Designing Magic Cards using a Neural Network

Today I came across a fascinating article that actually made national news about a PhD candidate researching deep neural networks in computer science. This candidate designed to create such a network, input the data of all current Magic cards, and have this network design new cards based on this process.

According to the article, about 2 hours into the process, the network was already generating such fantastic cards as:

Slidshocking Krow - U
Creature - Dragon
#Slidshocking Krow is ridiculously overpowered. A 4/2 for 1? In blue? With Mointainspalk AND Tromple? I see power creep is alive and well.


Grirerer Knishing - 4G
Instant - Arcane
Exile target creature you control.
#The price is a little steep on this one, but maybe it's worth it for the synergy with other Arcane spells...

Interestingly enough, by letting it run overnight, the network soon began to create actual meaningful and unique cards, such as:

Gravimite - 1(G/W)(G/W)
Creature - Dryad
1(G/W): Regenerate $THIS.
When Gravimite enters the battlefield, draw a card.
#I think this is a reinterpretation of Carven Caryatid.


Shring the Artist - 2BB
Legendary Creature - Cat
Whenever you cast a spell, you may return target creature card from your graveyard to your hand.

This of course amused me to no end. I think I actually giggled as I read some of the cards. But it gets better. Apparently a member of MtgSalvation named pickfifteen later created a Twitter account (named "RoboRosewater" naturally) that generates full cards using this network. It's definitely worth checking out.

Of course, the system still isn't perfect. It apparently also likes to generates cards like this:

I don't think R&D needs to worry about being replaced by this network in the near future. However, they may want to offer this guy a job...

Thursday, June 11, 2015

What To Do About Standard Pauper PRE Survey Results

Last time, I posted the final results from the Standard Pauper PRE survey that I ran for a couple months. By far the two major reasons why people don't participate more in these events is either because they are unaware of them or simply cannot play when they are offered. So, what should we as a community do in light of this?

First off, it's important to continue to promote the two major Standard Pauper PREs: Standard Pauper Deck Challenge (SPDC), which takes place on Sundays at 2pm EST / 6pm EST; and Monday Pauper Deck Challenge (MPDC), which takes place on Mondays at 2pm EST / 6pm EST. These tournaments are organized through pdcmagic.com, so that's another important place to point people who are interested in the format. When you complete a Standard Pauper game with someone in the Just for Fun room, and you don't recognize their username, it's worth your time just to let them know about these two events. And as I've said before, if you're on social media of any sort, take advantage of that by linking to our events.

Second, we need to continue to offer alternate ways for people to play Standard Pauper. "League-style" events where players have a week to play out a match may be the only chance that some people have to play. Some of these events in the past have attracted a fairly large number of players, so we should do these more often. For me, the biggest factor keeping me from running more such events is the lack of prize support. While some will participate in an event even without any prizes, a larger prize pool is an excellent way to motivate participation. If you're reading this and have the ability to sponsor an event like this, or have contacts with an organization that might be willing to do so, please let me know.

Finally, as a community maybe we just need to play more. Spend more time in the Just for Fun room looking for Standard Pauper matches. Don't be afraid to chat with your opponent after the match. Let's make it easier for new players to find the format, and make their experiences positive ones. I know I could certainly be doing more in this area. Something to think about for sure.

Once again, if you've got ideas, I'd love to hear them. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Standard Pauper PRE Survey Results

For the past couple months, I have been running a survey asking why people don't participate in our Standard Pauper Player Run Events, or if they do participate, why they don't participate more. The survey closed on June 1st, and I got a total of 120 responses, which is probably a good snapshot of the current player base of the game, at least those who are in some way connected to this community. So I thought I would share the final results with you today (click on the graphic below to enlarge it):

As you can see, far and away the two most common responses were that either people were not aware of these weekly tournaments (28%), or that they simply weren't offered at a convenient time (40%). Less than ten percent of the responders said they play every week, which is approximately the average attendance at MPDC or SPDC on a given week.

I also thought it was interesting to see what people said in the "Other" category. Here are the responses, in no particular order:
  • Boring meta
  • I am just returning and have no cards
  • I like to cast powerful spells. The only good spell to cast right now is Treasure Cruise.
  • I play but sometimes you are wrong in your hit or myth articles and you never correct yourself! and I keep missing events
  • I play every week but only SPDC and MPDC are Eurofriendly
  • I'd like to play, but I''m new and have a hard time getting into the format.
  • Maybe an event in Saturday evening?
  • New to MTGO and just discovered you.
  • The meta is boring sometimes or it gets boring soon
  • You talk from your ass at times!
Next time, I'll discuss these results and what I think we as a community should do about it. But for now, what do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Magicians

Please note that my review contains minor spoilers for the book. In this case, a spoiler-free review simply won't do the book justice.

I just finished the weirdest fantasy novel I've ever read.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman can perhaps best be described as literary fiction for grown-ups who enjoyed fantasy as kids. It clearly evokes both Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, blending them into a coming of age story full of angst, sex, alchohol, and drugs, capped off with a dose of nihilism. It tells the tale of one Quentin Clearwater, a high school genius obsessed with a childhood fairy tale series about the enchanted land of Fillory, who discovers magic is real, is admitted to the Brakebills Academy in New York to master the impossibly complex magical arts, all the while struggling with the sheer meaninglessness of it all. Upon graduation, he and his friends stumble upon the fact that Fillory is also real, and thrust themselves into a quest that they don't understand and is much darker and complex than they ever imagined.

If you read the Amazon reviews, you'll read plenty of negative reviews, which should come as no surprise. This book, despite its title, is not fantasy and is not popular fiction. This is truly literary fiction. It breaks just about every rule of plotting yet somehow is both compelling and absurdly idiotic. It meanders, plot elements appear and disappear seemingly at random, and at times it seems the author is more interested in evoking emotion than it is in telling a compelling story. It's everything I hate in fantasy and yet I couldn't stop reading it.

Approach this book looking for an entertaining fantasy novel, and you'll probably be disappointed. But if you're looking for an adult tale that will make you think, make you laugh at its sheer absurdity, make you feel numb from its bleak meaninglessness, and make you look at some classics of the fantasy genre in a new light, I would recommend this book.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

What's Missing At Common?

If you've been around in the Standard Pauper community long enough, you are probably acquainted with joekewwl. While he's a tireless champion for the format, he is best known for his ongoing involvement in the Magic Online Beta team as well as being a member of the 2011 Community Cup Team. Incidentally, he also controls the Prize Pool for MPDC, which means he's the guy to see to pick up any cards from our Prize Pool as well as the tickets for Top 8 finishers.

Due to his long involvement with the Magic Online Beta and his relationships with Wizards of the Coast staff from the Community Cup, joekewwl gets the opportunity to sometimes communicate directly with the company regarding what he's hearing in the Pauper community. As such, he recently posted at pdcmagic.com in the Standard forums that he has been approached by one of the developers asking for feedback about what's missing at the Common slot in recent sets. Specifically, he's looking for ideas about what should or could appear in future new releases.

So I encourage you to head over to this thread and make your opinion heard. But as you do so, it will help to keep a few things in  mind:
  • Commons have an important role to play in Limited, so future cards will have to function well in that environment.
  • Mark Rosewater has outlined some strict complexity guidelines regarding Commons that play a major role in what can and cannot be printed. While I have argued that recent sets have been pushing the boundaries of these constraints, these are still something you should keep in mind when making suggestions.
  • Even designers struggle to come up with appropriate Commons. Rosewater has stated that Commons are the toughest cards to get right. Take a moment and consider whether what you are suggesting is really appropriate for a Common.
Nonetheless, this is a great opportunity. There's been some discussion thus far, but I'd love to see more people make their opinions known. So what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Darkest Dungeon: Surviving the Early Game

After my previous post, Jorge Jacoh commented:

"This game is really rought to play... My chars always to week/depressed/paranoic/ to see a second dangeon. It's really frustrating dying all time."

This is a common response from new players. Darkest Dungeon can be quite punishing. And once things start to go wrong, they often continue to get worse and worse as your characters spiral down into madness and death. So today I thought I would share some tips on how to survive the early game:

1. Remember that your early characters are disposable. It costs you nothing to hire new level 0 characters from the Stagecoach, and these new characters only need to survive a single mission to reach level 1. As such, there is nothing wrong with taking them through a dungeon, having them getting completely stressed out in the process, and then discarding them and taking on a replacement. It costs you significant time and resources to restore a character's sanity, and early on it's usually not worth it.

2. Upgrade the Stagecoach right away to increase the number of new characters each week. Right away, you should have the resources to make two such upgrades. Don't worry about increasing your roster space yet; just focus on getting as many new characters each week as possible. Otherwise, you might get stuck with subpar classes or traits, but still be forced to take someone to replace a previous victim.

3. Stick to a straight-forward team of two tanks, one support, and one healer. While all of the different classes have their uses, some are more generally useful than others. For tanks, the Crusader, Man-At-Arms, and Helion are best. For support, choose an Arbelest, Highwayman, or Grave Robber. And for healing, you can't do better than the Vestal. Straight from the Stagecoach, these characters have access to the best abilities. However, since their starting selection is random, it's often worth a quick trip to the Guildhall to unlock the ones you want.

4. Dungeon survival is all about avoiding stress. Damage and status ailments are easy to deal with, whether through character abilities or items. You can even use food as stop-gap potions, topping off a character's hit points after each battle. But, outside of camping, there is almost nothing you can reliably do to reduce stress on a character. So, you'll want to do everything you can to minimize stress. This could be a whole post in and of itself. But here are some quick tips:
  • Back-line monsters usually have abilities that cause stress, so kill those first. 
  • Keep your light level above 75% to minimize the stress you take while walking the long hallways.
  • Never activate a curio if there is a chance it will stress out your character. In the same way, a few curios can reduce stress, so use those to your best advantage. See #6, below.
5. Early on, take short missions, and finish them as quickly as possible. Better to get in, complete the mission, and get out than try to explore everything and take on additional stress. Take advantage of your scouts to avoid enemy encounters in the hallways. Be quick, be efficient, fight as little as possible, and get back into the daylight.

6. Bring the right combination of items to deal with curios and obstacles to minimize stress and maximize your loot. One of the best resources at your disposal is this Curio Guide found on the Steam website for Darkest Dungeon. It tells you exactly what your odds are with any curio, what will cleanse it to make it safe, and what kinds of curios you can expect to encounter in the different dungeons. Familiarize yourself with it - or even better, keep it open and refer to it while you play. You will almost always get better loot by cleansing a curio before you use it, so it's a smart investment to make. Also, always bring at least one Shovel to clear those obstacles, and at least three if you're going into the Weald. 

Follow these simple tips, and you should see the odds improve in your favor.