Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Is It Time To Ban Self-Assembler?

Almost exactly a month ago, I wrote about the growing concern that Self-Assembler would be bad for Standard Pauper. Right from the start of the season, many players were calling for the card to be banned. Since that time, the card has been played in nearly every winning deck in our weekly tournaments, while attendance has been on a slow but noticeable decline.

So, in consultation with Chris Baker and rremedio1, the co-hosts of SPDC, we have decided to temporarily ban Self-Assembler for next week's events. The goal will be to collect data on how this shapes the metagame and gauge player reaction to these changes. It's also worth noting that to really collect some good data, we'll probably have to extend the ban for several weeks, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. To recap: Self-Assembler will be banned in SPDC on Sunday, December 4th and in MPDC on Monday, December 5th.

Also, for whatever it's worth, I offered my players this past Monday a single ticket bounty if they would drop Self-Assembler from their decklists and still make Top 4. Although one of the four players is having issues with Gatherling and as such I don't yet have that list, none of the other three players took me up on my offer. That alone says something significant about the perceived power level of this card. It might be time to change my mind on this card.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Week of November 20th in Standard Pauper

Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers in the United States. Even though it's Turkey Day, after falling way behind last week, I wanted to make sure I got my weekly Standard Pauper metagame update out in a timely fashion this week, so here we are. Attendance continues to be on a slow decline, and it's hard not to think that the growing frustration with Self-Assembler isn't somehow too blame. More about that in a bit. Anyway, neither SPDC nor MPDC had enough players this week to cut to a Top 8, so there are only eight deck that survived into the playoffs. Let's take a look.

Esper Artifacts was the big winner this week, accounting for half of the decks in consideration. Moromete's build took 2nd place in both events this week, with both Storm_blade and JackSlagel finishing in the Top 4 with similar builds. Interestingly enough, Storm_blade's build tried to have it all, splashing into Green for a lone Pulse of Murasa, with two more in the Sideboard as well as three copies of Root Out. But in all four decks, it's the recursion value generated by Aviary Mechanic and Ironclad Slayer that makes these decks so good.

First place in SPDC this week was won once again by DrChrisBaker playing MonoRed, which utilizes its aggressive creatures and Madness cards like Fiery Temper to push through for damage while quickly refueling with both Cathartic Reunion and Tormenting Voice. But the deck also includes the controversial Flame Lash, a card that is very difficult to get online unless one is willing to invest in the Planeswalker deck for Kaladesh.

Meanwhile, first place in MPDC went to AlwaysFace's Sultai Control, which adds Black to the mix of the more typical Simic Big Stuff deck popularized by littlefield and Storm_blade to give the deck not only a significant removal suite but also some potential for sacrifice synergies as well. This newest iteration included Prophetic Prism, a card that is increasingly popular thanks to its ability to cycle, turn on Artifact synergies, and fix for colors all at a very reasonable cost.

The other two entries completing the eight decks in the playoffs was littlefield's aforementioned Simic Big Stuff and an Izzet Spells deck piloted by frycek.

Not surprisingly, all these decks included a full playset of Self-Assembler. While I personally am still unconvinced that this card deserves to be banned, I do think its presence is discouraging a lot of players from participating. To that end, as I announced at MPDC this week, I think we should implement a one-week ban on the card and see what difference that makes in the metagame. I will be reaching out to DrChrisBaker and rremedio1 to coordinate our efforts so we can get data from both tournaments. More on that as soon as I have confirmation on the temporary ban.

Special thanks to this great community that keeps this format alive! You guys are the reason that I'm still playing this game!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Eternal Releases on Steam

After six months of closed beta, late last week the new digital card game Eternal released on Steam in open beta, meaning that now anyone who wants to can download the game. As part of the transition, all of the existing accounts were reset, putting new players and veterans alike basically on the same footing. Digital Direwolf also made a ton of balance changes to the game, which included removing a ton of marginal cards, tweaking a bunch of others, and even "nerfing" a handful of cards to help diversify the metagame.

I've already written quite a bit on this game, so if you're curious what I have to say, feel free to check out some of my previous blog posts on the topic. There's a great quote from Numot Gaming that summarizes my thoughts on the game quite well: "Eternal is the game we all wanted Hearthstone to be, and the experience we all wanted Magic Online to become.” 

There are also a ton of great resources to help new players get a feel for the game and hit the ground running. In addition to a surprisingly friendly and helpful Reddit page, there are also guides for players transitioning from Hearthstone or from Magic the Gathering as well as a great video series designed to teach you the basics.

I continue to really enjoy this game, and would love to see others from the Standard Pauper community get into it as well. Who knows, maybe someday I'll even organize a special all-Commons tournament!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Week of November 13th in Standard Pauper

Welcome back to this week's look at the Standard Pauper metagame, based upon the results of our two weekly Player Run Events. Once again SPDC is proving to be the more popular event, with just enough players to cut to Top 8, while MPDC fell short with only 12. That leaves us with 12 decks that survived the cutoff and made it into this week's metagame update. Sorry too for the delay in getting this post out, but it's been one of those weekends. But enough preamble. Let's take a look at this week's Standard Pauper metagame.

It seems that Izzet Control may once again be the deck to beat, winning 1st place in both events. Congrats to both Arctic_Ghost and Bubalix on their respective wins. Panoslennon also placed in Top 8 with yet another Izzet build. While there were slight differences among these three builds, each of them relief upon a strong base of removal spells and card draw, including Fiery Temper, Galvanic Bombardment, Take Inventory, and Tormenting Voice, all of which enable multiple activations of Thermo-Alchemist.

littlefield went right back to work with his Simic Good Stuff build, making the playoffs in both events by claiming Top 8 in SPDC and Top 4 in MPDC. This deck is all about the big creatures like Peema Outrider, Wretched Gryff, and Self-Assembler, backed up with a full set of Take Inventory and some removal.

Surprisingly, the remaining eight decks were all unique from one another. Reco91 took 2nd place in SPDC with his Bant tokens build that first made its appearance last week, while Storm_blade took 2nd place in MPDC with the Esper Artifacts archetype. For SPDC, Dimir Control, MonoBlack Control, Orzhov Allies, and Gruul Monsters made up the remaining decks in the playoffs, with Rakdos Control taking the final playoff spot in MPDC. Also of note is the fact that MonoRed did not appear at all in the top decks, despite taking 1st place in both events last week.

So now the question becomes whether or not Self-Assembler is constraining the metagame into only allowing certain decks to prevail, as well as whether or not its presence is causing a downward trend in the number of players in these events. Perhaps it is indeed time to seriously consider taking action on this card, even if it's just to try a week without it or even offering a bounty for winning decklists that don't include it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Writing Assignment - The Sphinx's Game

So my friend Phil and I have been working through the Master class episodes of Writing Excuses, which is a series of fifteen minute podcasts designed to cover the essential elements of what it takes to be a good genre fiction writer. Each week includes a specific writing prompt that connects to that week's topic.

Today I want to share my homework from Episode 6, where the prompt was to take a recent gaming experience where you lost and use the thought process behind that experience to inspire the elements of a story. I ended up with a piece that sounds almost like a transcript from someone's most recent D&D campaign. It's somewhat lighthearted, and I liked the way it turned out. I hope you do too. And at just over 1,000 words, it's a pretty quick read.

The Sphinx’s Game

            The beautiful ruby clutched in the hands of the jackal-headed statue made a stark contrast to the gigantic leonine figure whose sharp claws were, at that moment, shredding apart the remains of Bard and stuffing chunks of his corpse into the mouth of her shockingly beautiful face.
            “Guess that wasn’t the right answer,” was the best I could come up with at that moment. “Any ideas, Wizard?”
            My companion, robed in robes so purple they appeared black, had pulled out a musty tome from his pack and was quickly scanning the pages. “There’s got to be answer in ones of these books. Make yourself useful Rogue and help me look.”
            I shook my head, but she didn’t even notice, engrossed as she was. I doubt this monstrosity would ask a question whose answer could be found in one of Wizard’s books, but I’d been wrong about such things before.
            “We’re wasting our time,” Warrior complained, his greatsword gripped in both hands. “Bard may be dead, but we can still fell this beast. With the reward for that ruby, we can probably even afford a resurrection spell once we get back into town. What we need to do is come up with a plan.”
            At that moment, the large creature finished her meal and simply sat back on her haunches, her crystal blue eyes staring back at us coolly.
            “Let’s listen to the riddle one more time. Maybe the Divine will reveal something to me,” Cleric suggested. Without waiting for reply, he began approaching the magnificent beast.
            “Perfect! Cleric is the distraction, Rogue. When he gets close, strike from behind, and then I’ll draw her attacks. We can do this, but we’ve got to work together!”
            I glanced at Warrior, but shook my head. “You’re all crazy. Everyone knows that the best way to win is to cheat. And if you can’t cheat, you change the game entirely.”
            “Will you two shut up!” Wizard shouted. “I’m trying to concentrate!”
            And with that I dashed away, hugging the walls of the large cavern, hoping my cloak and hood might disguise my approach. Near the ruby, the monstrosity had just finished reciting her damned riddle again, but it seemed only Cleric had really been listening. She bowed before it, then slowly backed away towards where Warrior and Wizard were arguing.
            I reached the back of the cavern, and best I could tell the creature hadn’t noticed my approach. I slowly crept forward, thinking perhaps I could grab the gem and escape unseen. But all such hopes were dashed as the creature’s feminine head turned towards me and placed her two paws between me and the ruby. So much for that approach. Guess it was time to improvise.
            I threw back my hood and raised my hands, hoping the creature would interpret the gesture as meaning I was no threat. It was quite innerving to see her blonde hair, blue eyes, and perfect skin atop the body of an enormous lion, and the wings that soared above her only made her all the more intimidating. But I put on my most winsome smile and approached.
            “Such beauty is unexpected in a place such as this. Might this poor mortal hear the sound of your name, beautiful one?”
            The creature licked its teeth, and for a moment I feared it would attack. But then it replied, “I am Sphinx. You are either an intruder, or perhaps, a welcome guest. Have you an answer to my riddle?”
            “Sphinx? Such a name hardly befits one such as magnificent as you. One who is so wise, so beautiful, so fierce, and so strong. Tell me, madam, who has imprisoned you in this dark place? Surely you are not here on your own will. Would not the rugged peaks or the verdant forest be so much more to your liking?”
            Her face softened into a smile, and I swear to the Divine that I heard her purr before she replied, “You are well spoken for a human. Such fair words for such a small creature. I might ask the same of you. Why have you come to these depths?”
            “Great Sphinx, you must know that those who live above crave such trinkets as the ruby that stands before you. While I have no need of such frippery, alas I bound by my pledge to bring it back to the surface. But one such as you surely has no need for such a trinket. You are far more wondrous than any dirty stone.”
            “Little human, you think I shall simply give it to you in exchange for your kind words? I am not so easily charmed.”
            I gulped. “Of course not, magnificent one. Instead…instead I offer my companions. They are the ones that have forced me against my will to intrude upon you. Do with them what you will. Allow me to take this ruby, and if they cannot answer your riddle, do with them as you will. I only ask that you spare your humble servant.”
            I glanced back at them. Warrior and Cleric were closer than I thought, and Cleric’s eyes were wide. Maybe I hadn’t been as quiet with my words as I should have been. Wizard was now seated on the ground, a pile of books around him. He tossed another one aside and picked another one up, seemingly at random.
            “You amuse me, human. It has been a long time since I have enjoyed another’s company. You are certain, however, that you do not instead wish to answer my riddle?”
            “I am unworthy, Sphinx. For surely there are none who are as wise as you.”
            She smiled, and then her paw whipped out at me, knocking me off my feet and pinning me to the ground.  “Adventurers,” she said. “Have you an answer to my riddle?”
            They made no reply.
            Finally, she continued, “Then I propose a new bargain. Your friend here has decided to stay with me. In exchange for his service, I offer you the ruby you seek. Take it and be gone.”
            My three companions glanced at each other. Cleric shook her head, but Warrior just shrugged. Wizard quickly stowed his books, then approached. He slowly walked up to the statue and removed the gem. He bowed to the creature and then glanced at me.
            “Flattery works on dragons, Rogue. Not on a sphinx.”
            With that he turned and walked away. All too soon I was alone with this monster.
            “Now,” Sphinx said, releasing me from her grip with a wicked smile. “Let us talk.”

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Week of November 6th in Standard Pauper

Welcome back to this week's look at the Standard Pauper metagame, based upon the results of our two weekly Player Run Events. This week we had the unusual result that SPDC had enough players to cut to Top 8, while MPDC did not, leaving us with 12 decks that made the cutoff. So let's take a look at what these decks tell us about how the metagame is shaping up.

Probably the biggest surprise this week was that a MonoRed archetype captured the first place trophy in both events. DrChrisBakerDC's version from SPDC was very burn heavy, playing only twelve creatures, while bibbob's version from MPDC was much more balanced between spells and efficient creatures. But both relied upon a common core of Fiery Temper, Pyre Hound, Renegade Freighter, Self-Assembler, and Tormenting Voice. Congrats to both of them on their wins!

littlefield continued to innovate with his Simic Big Stuff deck, making Top 4 in SPDC and finishing in 2nd place in MPDC. The newest addition to this deck is Byway Courier, which is particularly good in a format with so much removal, since it always replaces itself when it dies. This archetype is proving to be consistently good despite whatever shifts the metagame brings.

Also noteworthy this week was a brand new archetype by reco91 called Bant Tokens, which made Top 4 in SPDC this week. This deck took the Eldrazi creatures from Simic and combined them with Glint-Sleeve Artisan to create a goodly sized swarm of tokens, which then get buffed via Borrowed Grace to enable a back-breaking strike against your opponent. It's always great to see new decks come to light and perform well in our events!

The rest of the field consisted of familiar versions of Izzet Spells, Esper Artifacts, MonoBlack Artifacts, and Gruul Monsters, with double entries for all but the last one. Not surprisingly, Self-Assembler continues to be an auto-include in every deck, which will only continue to fuel calls for it to be banned.

Let me remind you in closing that I am once again producing regular Standard Pauper Deck Techs over at PureMTGO on the winning decklist from each week of MPDC. Definitely check those out and let me know what you think! Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

"Pushed" Cards and Player Skill

As some of you probably know, I have been playing quite a bit of Eternal, a great digital card game by Direwolf Digital that is currently in closed beta. Today, I read an excellent article discussing the concept of pushed cards and why they are good for the game. Given all of the recent discussion around whether or not to ban Self-Assembler, I thought the concepts presented in this article were very timely. I certainly encourage you to read the whole article, but today I want to highlight certain key points and briefly discuss how they might be relevant to our discussion.

What is a pushed card? NeonBlonde, the author of the article, defines it this way:

A good definition of the term might be “a card that is obviously and deliberately powerful”, or maybe “a card that is significantly above average on purpose”.

Even in an all-Commons format like Standard Pauper, we certainly have had our share of pushed cards: Kor Skyfisher, Ghostly Flicker, and Treasure Cruise, just to name a few. Interestingly enough, I believe at one time or another players called for each of these three cards to be banned.

Now the argument could be made that such cards are bad for the format. That the very fact that they are so much better than the rest of the cardpool warps the metagame in unhealthy ways. Doesn't it make the game less skill intensive, since it all comes down to either who draws these cards first or who plays the best answers to them?

NeonBlonde suggests just the opposite:

An environment where there is a variable power level becomes much more skill intensive. Firstly, deck building becomes more challenging. Of course you want to jam as many pushed cards into your deck, and leave out the weaker cards, but there is a limit in the number of excellent cards that are hanging around. You need to identify what is best, which becomes harder and harder as you move down the list. In addition, you need answers to the best cards from your opponent’s deck. It isn’t enough to just have a random sample of cards that are good, since your opponent’s best cards may be much better than your answers if you are not careful. Game play becomes more interesting too. The value of cards will tend to move up and down much more depending on what is happening in the game. In flat power level world the most important cards will generally just be the highest cost card in play. In variable power world, this is often not the case, as context becomes more important. The skill of the game goes up as a result, since you must keep track of what matters and why, rather than just following what costs the most. You are also forced to come up with creative lines of play when you draw your less powerful cards and you opponents draw their more powerful cards. Sure they have the advantage, but is their a way to combine these low power cards to actually counter my opponent’s strongest threats? That leads to some of the most interesting games.

So in my opinion, this is the best question to ask about Self-Assembler. Does the fact that this card is so good contribute to increasing the skill level required for success in Standard Pauper? Or does it in fact lower the skill level, since games are truly only about either drawing Self-Assembler or finding the perfect answers for it?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Feel free to comment below.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Week of October 30th in Standard Pauper

It's Thursday, so it must be time for another installment of my weekly metagame update for Standard Pauper. The big news this week, of course, is the discussion on whether Self-Assembler should be banned now that almost every deck is playing it. If you haven't done so already, I encourage you to check out the discussion over at pdcmagic.com. You can also read my own ramblings about it here.

For this week, attendance was a bit lower at MPDC, leaving us with only eight decks that survived the cut to the playoffs between our two Player Run Events. Coincidence or not, this also resulted in a much smaller field of decks.

For SPDC, the trophy went to DownByTheRiverside's Izzet Control build, which as has been mentioned before is almost identical to last season's build save for the addition of Cathartic Reunion and, you guessed it, Self-Assembler. He also chose to include Pyre Hound, a card that didn't see much play despite being quite well-suited for this particular deck.

For MPDC, the trophy went to a new Dimir Artifact build piloted by cRUMMYdUMMY. This deck relies upon cheap creatures that synergize well with Artifacts, backed by a powerful suite of removal spells. It also utilizes Gearseeker Serpent as it's primary win condition, although of course it too includes a full playset of Self-Assembler.

Also noteworthy was littlefield's Top 4 finish in both events with the Simic Big Stuff deck, which is quite similar to the build he piloted to first place back in MPDC 35.01. During the event this week he joked that any deck worth playing starts with Take Inventory and Self-Assembler, and based on the finalists this week, he's probably not far off.

The rest of the field included Sultai Control, a Gruul Monsters style deck, Esper Control, and a Mono Black Artifacts list. And yes, each and every list included a full playset of Self-Assembler. Green, Blue, and Black are by far the most dominant colors in the metagame, but White and Red were also present to a lesser extent. Just goes to show that even with one card making every list, we still have a surprising amount of diversity, with no one deck yet rising to the point of being the best deck.

That's it for this week. Hope to see you online next week at one of our events!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Should Self-Assembler Be Banned in Standard Pauper?

We’re only a few weeks into the format, but some players are already calling for a ban of the card that has proven to be one of the strongest from Kaladesh: Self-Assembler. In response to these requests, rremedio, one of the co-hosts from SPDC, created this post over on the Standard forums on pdcmagic.com to allow players to discuss this issue. I already responded briefly over there, but today I want to offer a bit more explanation.

First, though, an important caveat. Our Standard Pauper Player Run Events, and by extension the entire format, is bigger than me. It’s bigger than the three of us who hosts these events. It’s a format that belongs to the great community that has grown up around it. While I may write blog posts, publish articles and videos, and host events, that doesn’t mean that my word is the final say. Ultimately, the decision on whether or not to ban any card will always come down to a decision made by the community, for the community, doing what is best for the format – all other things being equal, of course.

So with that out of the way, here are my thoughts on Self-Assembler:

Why does Wizards of the Coast ban cards? Here’s their explanation:

One key to the continued health of Magic is diversity. It is vitally important to ensure that there are multiple competitive decks for the tournament player to choose from. Why? If there were only a single viable deck to play, tournaments would quickly stagnate as players were forced to either play that deck or a deck built specifically to beat it. In addition, different players enjoy playing different types of decks. If there are plenty of viable options to play, there will be more players at more tournaments. …

Cards are usually banned from play if they enable a deck or play style that heavily skews the play environment. What does that mean? If the card were legal, a competitive player either must be playing it, or must be specifically targeting it with his or her own strategies.

Some cards are banned because they have proven to simply be too powerful in their respective format. While hundreds of hours are spent rigorously playtesting sets before their release, the complexity of Magic makes it nearly impossible to accurately predict all the ways the new cards interact with older ones.

Essentially then, Wizards will consider banning a card if one or more of these factors are true:
  1. It leads to one deck being the clear best choice no matter what other people are playing. 
  2. It skews the metagame such that every deck is either playing it or is specifically designing their deck to counter that card.
  3. It is simply too powerful in comparison to other cards in the format.
So does Self-Assembler fit any of these three criteria?

For the first, taking a quick look at the winning decks from the past three weeks, it is clear that there is still plenty of diversity in the metagame. There is not a single deck that is consistently beating the rest of the field. It is NOT the case then that one deck has become the clear best choice due to Self-Assembler.

For the second, it is the case that almost every deck is now playing Self-Assembler. It isn’t unreasonable to say that whichever player gets the first copy of this card into play the earliest gains a significant advantage. At this point, however, this has not resulted in decks that are skewed towards only beating this card. Additionally, the fact that Self-Assembler is colorless means that there is very little cost to including it in just about any deck, so while this DOES meet the second criterion, it would be a mistake to give this too much weight.

For the third, Self-Assembler on its own merits is just a vanilla 4/4 for 5. By itself, this would be fringe playable at best. The only reason this card is so good is the fact that it lets you search out a copy of itself when it enters the battlefield until you’ve pulled every copy out of your Library. While this effect is very strong, I would not argue that its power level is vastly higher than other cards in the format. This isn’t clear cut, but in my opinion Self-Assembler is NOT too powerful in comparison to the rest of the Standard Pauper cardpool.

At the end of the day, the best argument for not banning Self-Assembler is the fact that it does not actually lead to less diversity in the format. This card fits into a wide variety of archetypes and colors. It probably is too slow and expensive for a very aggressive deck, but should comfortably fit into either midrange or control. It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of Treasure Cruise as far as powerful level, but doesn’t force you to play any particular archetype or even color to include it in your deck. In fact, I would argue that its worse than Treasure Cruise, simply because it doesn’t actually help you dig for specific answers in your deck, but only gives you more vanilla 4/4s, which, depending on the situation, may not be at all what you need to actually win the game.

As such, I do not support banning Self-Assembler, at least not at this time.