Wednesday, February 27, 2013

MTG Constructed: Avacyn-Led Angels

When it comes to building constructed Magic: The Gathering decks, I tend to prefer working with cards I already own, rather than designing the optimal deck and purchasing the cards I need.  I see it as a different kind of challenge - it's an optimization problem given the constraints of my decently-sized collection instead of the full set of MTG cards available.  Plus it has the added bonus of being cheaper and easier to put together, since I don't have to go searching for $20+ cards.

With that in mind, my decks end up being unique specimens.  They may not be the best, and they may not work for other players, but they satisfy my goals using what is readily at my disposal.  I also tend not to worry about standard or legacy or whatever rulings; I just like to build casual decks to sling at my friends.

Most of my deck ideas come from one of two sources.  The more common is that I'll open some bomb that will inspire me to build a deck around it.  That's what happened with the deck I'm presenting here, as you will shortly see.  The other source, less common but probably more effective, is based on a draft deck that works particularly well.  For example, I'm looking at putting together a Simic deck based on my first Gatecrash draft, and I made a zombie deck after using Call to the Grave pretty effectively in an M12 draft.

This deck happened because I opened Avacyn, Angel of Hope at one of our sealed Avacyn Restored nights.  I wanted to put her to good use immediately, but as I kept opening rare Angels, it seemed like an angel deck would be a good move.

But there were some considerations that needed addressing.  The first is that Avacyn is a costly investment, requiring 8 total mana to play.  Ideally, I'd want some way of cheating her onto the field, so that needs to be built into the deck.  Secondly, Angels in general are pretty expensive, so I'd either want some sort of mana ramping (so mixing with green might be a good choice) or some good way of stalling through the first several turns.  Thirdly, although Avacyn is definitely a win condition, it's a little risky to put all hopes into managing to get her into play, especially if I'm going to be using tricks that make it a 2+ card combo.  Instead, I'd like to have several decent plans for finishing my opponent.

It turns out that adding some blue can work towards solving all of those problems.  I have a copy of Call to the Kindred, which has the potential to sneak Avacyn onto the board three turns before I'd have the mana to hard cast her (and generally lets me get angels in play for free, which is awesome).  Including some cheap control can protect me during the early game, and I usually prefer that kind of thing to straight removal anyway.  And as other win conditions, Call to the Kindred is a pretty big deal if it lasts long enough to slide some angels into play, but I also opened Bruna, Light of Alabaster, which combined with some useful auras (like Eldrazi Conscription, which itself is a nasty win condition) can be brutal.

To fill out the rest of the deck, some Humans work well, particularly with something like Angel of Glory's Rise to add some synergy.  Plus they're pretty cheap, so they make the early game a little easier to survive.

What we have is a deck with a lot of power, assuming you can mulligan into a decent starting hand if needed.  It's pretty dependent on being able to play something on turns 2 and 3 so you can survive, but it can get pretty rough for your opponent if you can start dropping Angels.

Gideon's in trouble...

Champion of the Parish
Doomed Traveler
Konda's Hatamoto
Tandem Lookout
Restoration Angel
Seraph of Dawn
Guardian of the Gateless
Angelic Skirmisher
1 Bruna, Light of Alabaster
Sunblast Angel
1 Angel of Glory's Rise
Angel of Serenity
1 Avacyn, Angel of Hope

Mystical Tutor
Turn Aside
Vapor Snag
Mana Leak

Detention Sphere
Angelic Destiny
1 Call to the Kindred
1 Eldrazi Conscription

Entreat the Angels
Temporal Mastery

9 Island
13 Plains
Seachrome Coast
Terramorphic Expanse

The Mystical Tutors are there to ensure the shenaniganry of Entreat the Angels and Temporal Mastery, which add yet another possible win condition.  It's not the greatest deck in the world, but it is one that I've spent a lot of time tweaking.  There's certainly room for improvement, but as I'm determined to get a deck with Avacyn and Bruna to work, this deck seems to be heading in the right direction.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Game Review: Zombie Driver HD (XBLA, 2012)

A viscerally satisfying experience, Zombie Driver HD delivers about what you’d expect: cars, gore, and tons of zombies.  Unfortunately, the game overextends itself a bit, with a few features that detract from the solid premise, but it’s still good for some mindless entertainment.

Zombie Driver puts you in the role of a taxi driver during the zombie apocalypse.  Given the skills of your trade, you respond to the undead infestation in the only way that makes any sense: by recklessly navigating the town, plowing through hordes of living corpses for fun and profit.

What follows successfully embodies the addictive quality of some of the best Flash games – simple gameplay with near-instant rewards.  You control your car from a third-person perspective using pretty fluid controls, racking up money for stylishly crushing zombies.  As you progress, you’ll get access to a few car-mounted weapons to aid in your zombie slaying.  You also get to spend your hard-earned cash on car or weapon upgrades.  The formula, while basic, is effective: kill a bunch of zombies to make it easier to kill even more zombies.  If you enjoy the first few minutes of gameplay, you’ll likely enjoy it all.

While the gameplay may sound good on paper, what makes it really enjoyable is its execution.  Although the graphics are far from perfect, they do a lot where it counts.  Piles of corpses litter the city, you get satisfying blood smears where you splatter zombies, and bodies fly as you charge through a densely-populated alleyway.  The sound effects have a similar effect, successfully adding to the impact the zombie killing, while being pretty lackluster everywhere else.

But the best part is the way your car responds to the zombies.  As you’re cruising along, small groups of zombies will have little effect on your movement, but the thicker the horde, the more impaired your motion.  This one simple feature has a surprisingly large impact on the game’s overall entertainment value, as it allows you to feel the bodies you’re running over.  It makes the whole process that much more satisfying.

Zombie Driver has three modes to maximize your brutal zombie murder.  The first is the story mode, which takes you through 31 missions with varying objectives.  The mission objectives are always some variation on “transport these things” or “kill those things,” but the different ways they’re presented and the enjoyable gameplay prevent them from seeming like chores.  The bite-sized missions are pretty short, too, with most being doable within ten minutes, and the rest taking under fifteen.

The story itself is disappointing.  With a game like this, the story either needs to be stellar or campy to avoid distracting from the main reason most people would play it.  Sadly, the plot isn’t very interesting (standard zombie fare these days), the writing is uninspired, and the voice actors sound bored.  What’s worse, the moments of exposition during missions are unskippable, so instead of smashing more zombie faces, you have to spend a minute listening to someone dispassionately explain that you’re violating protocol by driving around the city.

A second game mode, Slaughter, cuts the nonsense by giving you a series of arenas where your only objective is the highest score.  In these arenas, you’ll fight waves of undead, trying to string together epic combos as long as you can survive.  It’s everything that’s great about the game’s premise without any filler.  I love it!

The third game mode, Death Race, is terrible.  Really, really terrible.  It turns the basic mechanics into a competition between apocalypse survivors.  A couple of the contests aren’t totally unexpected, as they’re based on using your car and weapons to kill either zombies or other drivers, but the races are some of the most frustrating gaming experiences I’ve ever had.  The slightest impact with another car either sends you spinning away or locks you against them, preventing all movement.  Both have huge implications for your position in the race, making your overall performance seem to be 90% luck.

If you stay away from Death Race, though, Zombie Driver HD is a great stress-relieving romp through a zombie-infested wasteland.  Thoroughly satisfying, if you are looking for a mindless distraction for an hour at a time and aren’t bothered by the general lack of depth, Zombie Driver is worth a look.  If not, you’ll want to pass on this one.

My Rating: 6/10 – decent.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Casual Gatecrash Draft - Orzhov 'Till the Sun Comes Up!

In the spirit of continued casual Magicking, the crew from the recent Gatecrash bender got together last night to draft the set again.  There were only 7 people this time around, so there was a good chance that the guild of your choice wouldn't get nabbed by somebody else.  Unsurprisingly, nobody really went for Dimir, but whatever.

The rare in my first pack was Immortal Servitude.  Not exactly the bomb I was hoping to set the tone of my draft, but it gave me something worth using.  I was then passed a copy of Ooze Flux, which I grabbed in the hopes of shifting into a Simic deck (because I'd been so successful with Simic during our last draft).  I've been hoping to use Ooze Flux as a sort of perpetual-oozing machine, so I wanted to try to make that work.  Throughout the rest of that first pack, though, it became clear that both green and blue were being sucked up, so I pulled as many Extort creatures as I could.

In my second pack, the rare was Fathom Mage.  At this point, I was still hoping for Simic, so I got a couple more Evolvers, but it just wasn't sustainable.  I reluctantly shifted my focus to black and white... again.  This time it stuck, though, as I was able to get a fair number of Extort creatures and a decent amount of removal.  Whenever possible, I tried to get low-costing spells so I would have more Extort options, always prioritizing permanents with Extort over everything else.

Pack three brought a Watery Grave, which I would have rare drafted (for better or worse) even if it hadn't shared colors with some of what I'd accumulated to that point.  Fortunately, it gave me a nice option to splash blue for some of the Simic cards I'd hastily drafted, so it wasn't a terrible pick anyway.

In the end, I constructed a deck with just about everything I took that were black and/or white.  Despite not having anything particularly sexy, my deck did pretty well (confirming in my mind that Extort can be brutal).  Here's what it was:

Thrull Parasite
Death's Approach
Basilica Screecher
Gutter Skulk
Devour Flesh
Slate Street Ruffian
Deathcult Rogue

Dutiful Thrull
Shielded Passage
Syndic of Tithes
Court Street Denizen
Righteous Charge

Beckon Apparition
Vizkopa Guildmage
Kingpin's Pet
Immortal Servitude
Purge the Profane

8 Plains
8 Swamp

Since my basic strategy was to stall until I could Extort my opponent to death, I would always mulligan if my starting hand didn't have both an Extorter and the appropriate mana to play it.  I started most of my games with 6 cards in hand, but I was always able to start extorting by turn 3.  From that point on, the goal was just to stay alive; block with my non-Extort creatures and burn as much mana on Extort as I could.

With this modest little deck, I was able to win three best-of-threes, with a game record of 6-1 for the night.  My performance confirmed that Orzhov has a powerful limited presence, but I'm still not sure how it'll work in constructed matches.  I imagine that the slower, stalling play style will get obliterated by aggressive decks or decent removal, but I'm going to build a deck and what happens.

As a side bonus, we played a couple best-of-three Two-Headed Giant matches.  My team won both matches (we switched partners for the second), and it's pretty clear that Extort is God Mode for multiplayer-  draining life from each opponent hits twice in Two-Headed Giant, and coupling that with the Vizkopa Guildmage's second ability (any time you gain life this turn, each opponent loses that much life), a single Extort suddenly becomes an 8 life swing.  That's a pretty big deal.

Although Simic is still my favorite of the Gatecrash guilds, I think Orzhov just became a close second.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Game Review: The Cave (XBLA, 2013)

Double Fine’s most recent release, The Cave, certainly embodies their quirky reputation.  It has the high production value we’ve come to expect from the company, but by its nature as a puzzle game, it’s not likely to keep gamers entertained for more than a few days.  Here’s what it has to offer:

The Cave is the tale of 7 fortune-seekers (well, 8 really, as one of the seven is actually a pair of twins) who descend into the titular crevasse in search of what they desire most.  Each character has a backstory told through cave paintings, the game’s collectibles, and they’re surprisingly detailed and interesting for short series of still images.  The game’s narration describing the characters’ quests in the Cave is similarly entertaining, as it is both sharply written and fabulously presented.  The overall story is therefore quite impressive.

And the presentation is incredible.  Beautifully animated, the protagonists travel through a variety of gorgeous environments.  There are wonderful and subtle details adorning every room and corridor, making for a fantastic journey through the Cave.  The sound quality is equally high, with brilliant voice acting all around and sound effects that successfully accentuate the action.  The music, although also very good, is usually not noticeable.  That’s not entirely a bad thing because the ambient music does a lot to set the tone of each area, but it still would have been nice to get some epic tracks during some of the game’s emotional climaxes.

Sadly, despite the awesome premise and presentation, the gameplay is little more than ok.  The Cave struggles a bit against its genre in this respect.  It’s a puzzle game in the style of some old-school adventure titles, so it’s kind of a one-shot deal; once you know all the solutions, there’s not much left to experience.  What’s worse, the Cave is much shorter than those classic adventure games that have clearly inspired it because it can be completed within a few hours easily.

The Cave does mitigate some of those problems with the genre with a clever variability in what the game has to offer.  Although there are 7 characters, and each has his or her own puzzle to solve, you may only use 3 of those characters at a time.  It’s actually a pretty cool mechanic, as the Cave itself is linear, but you’ll get diverted to avoid some of the puzzles.  As a result, the overall experience is different depending on which characters you use.

Now, this format isn’t without its downsides.  There are, for example, a few generic puzzles that you’ll encounter whatever characters you select, resulting in a tedious and time-consuming obstacle in every playthrough.  Also, although every character has a special ability, those abilities are really only used in their individual puzzles.  There are very few opportunities to use one character’s ability to help with another character’s puzzle, eliminating a chance for interactions for the characters.  As such, the specific team makeup doesn’t matter, it’s just a question of which individual puzzles you’ll see.

My final complaint is that the puzzles themselves aren’t nearly as expansive as their areas might lead you to believe.  There’s a ton of backtracking covering large areas, which gets to be very annoying.  For the most part, the puzzles aren’t hard to figure out because there are only a few pieces to each.  The one really difficult puzzle I found was only difficult because I didn’t do something exactly as the game intended, causing me to go searching for another answer that didn’t exist.

In the end, the Cave is a decent game with excellent atmosphere and limited replayability.  Like most adventure games, the story (and humor) is the driving force, and the puzzles are just there to challenge you along the way.  If you’re interested in an amusing tale, it’s worth checking out; otherwise, you’re better off spending your MSP on something else.

My rating: 6/10 – decent.

Friday, February 15, 2013

What's New in the Kingdom - Avatar of Jarlsberg

Last night saw the introduction of the spring 2013 challenge path in the Kingdom, the Avatar of Jarlsberg.  Following in Boris’ footsteps, the avatar of the patron god of pastamancers and saucerors excels with the overlap of food and magic, baking enemies and summoning potatoes.  AoJ is the first of the special challenge classes to focus on mysticality, so it promises to give a great new Kingdom-dominating experience.

Along with a new path come two excitingly detailed features.  First is a more complex set of skill trees than any we've seen before.  Four skill trees, each with eight skills and a few branches, give the Avatar of Jarlsberg more skills and more options than any class that came before it.  The effects of most of the skills are pretty standard (elemental resistances, increased or decreased combat frequency, increased monster level, and combat skills), but a few are pretty sexy (like summoning food items, or turning those food items into familiar-replacing companions), so there’s a lot of potential.

AoJ also presents a new food-crafting system.  Instead of acquiring food in the usual way (“Jarlsberg didn't trust food he didn't make himself”), the Avatar gets access to Jarlsberg’s Cosmic Kitchen, complete with a cookbook showing how to combine summoned foods with combat skills to make consummate foodstuffs.  There are additional instructions, too, allowing for immaculate or even sublime consumables.  The interplay between the skill trees and diet provide for a new, thrilling perspective on the Kingdom’s normal diet mechanics.

It’s a bit too early to see if there are significant changes to the game’s story (although there’s almost certainly a new final boss), but I wouldn't be surprised if some of the main Council quests have interesting twists for the Avatar.

All-in-all, I’m eager to experience all the ins and outs of the new challenge path, so I'm going to get to it.

Leveling in Online Play and the Microtransaction Gaming Model: A Case Study

Although I'm about 11 months late, I have finally entered the modern age and started playing Mass Effect 3.  I dove straight into the multiplayer last weekend and was greeted with near-PTSD severity flashbacks.

The multiplayer itself isn't bad.  You and up to three other players fight to survive increasingly powerful waves of opponents, using many of the powers and abilities available in the single player campaign.  Even with a few powers at your disposal, it doesn't really feel worthy of the “Mass Effect” name (the overall vibe feels much more fitting for a Call of Duty title), but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the basic structure.

What caused my initial impression to be generally bad was likely overreaction, but it came about because this multiplayer experience combines two questionable trends in the modern gaming world.  Each trend has the potential to add something spectacular to an online game, but it must be handled carefully to avoid obliterating the experience.

Leveling in Multiplayer
The most obvious instantiation of one of these trends is the existence of multiplayer levels.  In each match that you play, you gain some experience towards unlocking more potent powers.  It makes sense in the context of Mass Effect, where a character’s innate skills grow more powerful with experience, but in other games, it doesn't fit with the narrative quite as well (assuming there is one).

What really frustrates me about multiplayer levels is the fact that, in many cases, a low level player simply can’t compete against a high level player.  This issue is particularly relevant for competitive multiplayer games (Call of Duty again comes to mind), where a level disparity translates to better weapons and perks for others to use to kill you.  It gives new players a bigger barrier to overcome to enjoy the game; not only do they have to overcome the experience gap, but they must also deal with fewer in-game benefits.

What’s worse is that these leveling systems tend not to reward skillful play, at least not in the long run.  While it’s true that you will get more experience points for better performance, many of these games will give you points just for completing a match.  During the first few days and weeks after a game’s release, these levels may accurately reflect a player’s success in-game, but they quickly become a measure of how much time a player has dedicated to online play.  Contrast that with the ladder system in a game like Starcraft 2 – when you lose a match, you lose points, which can drop your ranking.  After a brief stabilizing period at the start of each season, those ranks are pretty accurate representations of players’ relative skill levels.

These issues become less damning in a cooperative game, like Mass Effect 3, but they may still deter newer players.  When I started, I had a tough time killing any enemies or even surviving their onslaught, but I would see my teammates trotting around the stage destroying enemies with ease.  It was definitely a frustrating experience, but not nearly as frustrating as if I had been facing off against those trotting masters of destruction.

But, then again, Mass Effect 3 does some things to implement this system well.  First and most excitingly, the points you gain towards a new level are shared among all members of the team.  You don’t have to worry about kill-stealing or trying to outperform your allies.  Instead, the game rewards a successful team, so that barrier for new players gets smaller at a much faster rate.

Mass Effect 3 also does something impressive in terms of the unlockables that you earn while leveling up.  The biggest problem with in-game advantages based on player level comes from the fact that, in many of these games, you must reach level 37 before you can use this awesome weapon or ability.  On the one hand, it may motivate some players because they want to melt faces in the same way, but on the other hand, it can be downright degrading.

Ideally, I’d say that level-based unlockables shouldn't have effects on the game itself.  Superficial unlocks like new weapon skins or new character models would allow players to show off their high level without also crushing low-level players even more easily.  The next best thing would give players points to unlock items or perks of their choosing as they level up (last summer’s Hybrid is an example).  That way a player can tailor their unlocks to their particular play style; if you like using shotguns, unlock all the shotguns by level 10 and be set for life.  This sort of system gives high-level players an advantage because they have more options, but it doesn’t force low-level players to conform to the developer’s whims.  Mass Effect 3 uses this system, following the course of the series’ campaigns, as you get skill points for each level and can allocate them however you want.  That small bit of control over your unlockable skills makes a huge difference in the overall feel of the leveling system.

To this point, I haven’t mentioned the weapon system in Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer.  There are, of course, a number of guns with different statistics available, but you don’t unlock them as you gain levels.  Instead, you use the other recent gaming trend…

An increasingly common tactic in the development of online games is the use of microtransactions to allow players to purchase in-game items for small sums of real-life cash.  In many cases, the game itself will be free-to-play, but you can buy new gear or abilities to give you an edge.  Perhaps the most infamous example is the free-to-play MMORPG MapleStory, but the more recent MOBA genre has followed suit (League of Legends is likely the most popular, and Happy Wars is the most recent).

This trend terrifies me, as it allows players to bypass a large chunk of the game for a price.  It’s like buying cheat codes, which is fine by me if players want to affect their single-player experiences, but giving an advantage to the player willing to drop the most money on a multiplayer game is disturbing.

There are obviously varying degrees of in-game impact.  Some of these cash items are purely superficial, like special hats or color schemes, and I have no problem with those.  Some allow you to unlock items earlier than you might ordinarily earn by playing the game (by gaining levels, for instance); my distaste for this system is directly proportional to the difficulty of obtaining the items through “normal” play.  Occasionally a game will even give you otherwise unobtainable buffs (Happy Wars does some of that).  I’d say that one is universally terrible.

Mass Effect 3 uses one of the tamer microtransaction methods out there.  The in-game mechanic uses credits; you earn credits for completing missions, and then you can spend those credits to buy item boxes.  These item boxes contain random items, including consumables (like medkits) and new weapons and characters, with more expensive boxes containing rarer goodies.

If you’d like, however, you can bypass the credits altogether and shell out a dollar or two to get one of these boxes.  It’s not terribly offensive because you can earn enough credits for the most expensive box within a couple hours, and it would cost you $3 to buy it, so it’s not skipping too much game time to get this bonus now.  It’s also not a sure thing; you’re gambling, just as if you spent credits, so buying the boxes doesn't afford a huge advantage.  Of course, that’s not to say that I like the system as it is (I think the boxes should have been a little easier to come by in the game, or they should have had a slightly better selection of loot), but the microtransaction part of the deal isn't egregious.

Basically, Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer component does some things that initially make me cringe, but it does them about as well as is possible.  Many other games take these trends to silly levels, and I fear for the day that games take leveling and microtransactions to their extremes (“pay $5 to reach level 2!”), but with some clever design, I think developers can use these systems to enhance players’ experiences all around (or at least not to affect their experiences).  As with many things, though, it’s easy to screw it up.  Here’s hoping the easy cash-ins and high-level-preferred competition don’t become the industry standard.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Zombie Slayer Optimization - Step 1: Setting the Baseline

Between Bad Moon runs, I’m going to try optimizing the other types of ascensions I may attempt.  In each of the different challenge paths, my best runs are mostly between 4 and 7 days, but all of those runs were completed before the recent revamp of the Level 8 and 9 quests.  The Level 9 quest in particular seems like a massive barrier to the modern speedrunner, so I want to do a few runs to try to figure out the best way to handle those new quests.  I’m hoping to achieve 4-day runs across the board, so a lot of modifications will likely need to be made, assuming it’s even possible.

What follows is a day-by-day commentary on my recently completed Hardcore Zombie Slayer run.  The goal is to look at what happens each day and isolate some improvement that can be made.  I'll only mention the major milestones; once I have a more-or-less optimal run strategy down, I'll describe everything in a lot more detail. 

For the record, my relevant Items of the Month are the Reagnimated Gnome (familiar that increases item drops), Bear Arms (a vital item, these occupy my main and offhand slots throughout the entirety of my runs), and a VIP Key (vital for the Fax Machine and buffs from the Pool Table and Swimming Pool).  I have also completed enough Zombie Slayer runs to start with 30 skill points, allowing me access to every skill from turn one, and I have an Astral Belt, which I wear continuously until I hit level 13.

Day 1:
Hit level 8, completed all council quests up to 7
Received Stomach of Steel

Pretty well optimized:
Hovering Sombrero to start, fax lobsterfrogman on turn 1
Hovering Skull until level 6
Switch to Sombrero and rush to Stomach
Complete quests as possible

Notable ideas:
Run Reagnimated Gnome during Friars to increase chances of Hot Wings; will that reduce stat gains too significantly?

Day 2:
Halfway to level 10, completed all available council quests
Unlocked Hidden Temple (with spare Stone Wool), Haunted Ballroom, and Pirate’s Cove
Prepped GMoB
Completed Daily Dungeon run

Sad optimization:
Hovering Sombrero unless actively looking for item drops (like in the eXtreme Slope and Orc Chasm)
Hit the Shore when the timer expires to get all the Tower items and unlock Island
Complete Daily Dungeon run
Spend adventures between council quests by prepping for future – unlocking Hidden Temple, unlocking parts of the Manor, prepping GMoB, unlocking Poop Deck, gathering pixels, gathering and identifying DoD potions

Notable Suggestions:
Improve Orc Chasm quest –
Make the bridge more quickly?
Survive A-Boo Peak Map for an extra round?
Increase +ML above 100 to speed up Oil Peak?
Better/easier stench resistance for Twin Peak?

Can’t see a good way to get enough +ML to push above 100, so that may have to stay.
A-Boo Peak might benefit from waiting until level 11 and Black Market – Can of Black Paint gives extra elemental resistance, and extra HP may allow to survive one more round
Stench resist for Twin Peak benefits similarly

Build bridge and complete Oil Peak at level 9, wait until level 11 to finish quest

Day 3:
Just hit level 11, started Macguffin quest
Finished Giant's Castle
Got everything I needed from the Hole in the Sky
Made a Digital Key
Collected and identified all the Dungeons of Doom potions
Unlocked Haunted Gallery, Belowdecks, Hidden City, and Spookyraven Cellar
Completed Daily Dungeon run

Acceptable optimization:
Stubbornly ran the Sombrero for most of the day
Spent adventures between Council quests cleaning up future necessities (mainly unlocking areas)
Completed Council quests as they became available
Completed a bounty at the Airship - Score!
This day was mostly about preparing for the future and hitting level 11; not a whole lot to be improved there.

Notable Suggestions:
Run the Gnome any time that I need a drops (pixels, potions, Giant's Castle, Hole in the Sky, etc.)
Powerlevel after completing all future preparations

Day 4:
Finished the Macguffin quest
Finished the war, completing 4 sidequests, with just 3 adventures remaining

Excellent optimization:
Used Gnome while in Spookyraven Cellar, Palindome, and Oasis
Picked up a mojo filter in Oasis, allowing a second Astral Energy Drink
Hit the Gallery to reach level 12
Took nearly 20 adventures to get GMoB, but other sidequests went quickly
Finished the war 9 Muscle away from level 13

Notable Suggestions:
None, this day went about as well as possible, save for the RNG

Day 5:
Finished the run 50 adventures into day 5

The lair was just the lair, standard fare

So, I missed the 4-day goal by 50 adventures.  I think this run was representative of most, as the RNG wasn't particularly bad or good overall.

For the next run (which won't happen for a while, as the next challenge path should appear tomorrow), I should be able to shave a few turns off by using the Gnome more vigorously at various points (when going for the Friar's quest, Dungeons of Doom potions, and the Giant's Castle, most notably).  The place with most room for improvement is definitely the level 9 quest - my plan is to construct the bridge and complete Oil Peak at level 9, but then wait until level 11 to complete the other parts.  That way I'll have access to a Can of Black Paint for extra elemental resistance to make the other peaks easier.

There's definitely some room for improvement, but I'm still pretty proud of my 967-turn HC ZM run (my best one yet!).

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Glorious Gatecrash Bender

On the weekend of a new Magic: The Gathering set release, my friends generally have a big release party.  Between us, we spend several hundred dollars buying boxes of booster packs, and then play all night with various draft, sealed, and mini-masters matches.  Although we’re not terribly competitive, these casual Magic benders give a great opportunity to experience a set and think about awesome possibilities in constructed play.

Going into the new set (Gatecrash), I was pretty intrigued by a couple new mechanics, evolve and cipher, although I was also quite disappointed by the effects that were attached to cipher cards.  It seems like the dual effects of milling and encouraging dealing damage to a player were fundamentally at odds, and my experiences in the drafts didn’t prompt me to change my opinion.

Bloodrush sounds like a neat idea, but it feels a bit like a desperation move; I would usually prefer having a creature than a one-time, attacker-only Giant Growth, so it only seems relevant if you’re able to win on the turn you use it or if it buys you an extra turn or two from an opponent’s onslaught.  Extort has a lot of power and is a great way to burn extra mana when you don’t have extra spells to sling, but it’s not really my thing.  Battalion is nice, but the fact that it only triggers when you have three creatures attacking is tricky; you must have good board positioning to get it off, and your opponent will likely know that you’re building up to it, giving them plenty of time to apply some removal.

Anyway, my goal going into the first draft was to try to pull of a Simic (blue-green, that’s where the evolve mechanic lives) deck.  My first rare was Unexpected Results, which is in the right colors and has some interesting implications (getting to play a big creature for free and trigger evolve seemed really sexy to me), so I was off to a good start.  Here's the deck that I ended up constructing:

7 Forest
6 Island
1 Mountain

The basic strategy was to start the game with either Cloudfin Raptor or Experiment One on turn one, start pummelling my opponent as soon as possible, and evolve my creatures in the most intelligent way I can.  Hands of Binding and Last Thoughts get ciphered onto a creature with evasion (Elusive Krasis ideally, but Cloudfin Raptor was another good choice).  Pit Fight and Simic Charm are used as removal if absolutely necessary.  Rubblehulk is there as a great beneficiary of Unexpected Results, and Verdant Haven and Prophetic Prism are for mana-fixing to play or bloodrush him if desired.

All-in-all, this deck did pretty well.  I won all four of the best-of-threes that I played, dropping only two games in the process.  I found that evolve can be pretty nasty, as I expected.  Being able to extend the effectiveness of a one-drop creature well into the midgame is brutal; trading an Experiment One for a Guardian of the Gateless was one of my biggest triumphs.  In nearly every game I played, I was able to deal a few points of damage before my opponent got a creature on the board, and then I could effectively stall them with my continually growing creatures until I could outmaneuver them with the cipher spells or smash them with the big creatures.  Unexpected Results unexpectedly served as an awesome deck-thinner and mana ramper, making sure that I could use my Nimbus Swimmer to trigger evolve and have a beefy dude with evasion.  The game where I stole a couple of lands with Nightveil Specter wasn't too bad, either.

This first draft confirmed that Simic and evolve are beastly.  I'm excited to put together a constructed Simic deck, hoping to use the Ooze Fluxes I grabbed to great effect (have that with a few small evolve guys, and it basically becomes "1G: get a 4/4 creature").

The second draft didn't go quite as well for me.  There were murmurs from my friends about trying to build Simic decks after seeing how well mine was performing, so I though I'd have to change strategies to survive the drafting process.  In this one, my opening rare was Clan Defiance, which is a pretty rockin' removal/burn spell, so I thought I'd go the Gruul (red-green, home of bloodrush) route.  Here's my deck:

8 Forest
7 Mountain

There were a few big problems with this draft: first, I was a little bit schizophrenic.  While trying to stay in color, I ended up pulling a bunch of evolve creatures and not much removal.  That hurt, particularly against an extort-heavy deck.

Second, my win conditions weren't nearly as robust as in my earlier deck.  I could hope for evolve to keep me going, but I didn't have any low-costing evolvers to start growing early (a single Experiment One may have changed this deck quite a bit).  Aside from that, I was basically ramping into the Ruination Wurm or Clan Defiance, but I never got either of them off.

Third, the most superficial of the problems was a general lack of rares.  I only had two in this deck, as opposed to the five I had in the Simic one, so I didn't have as many bombs to drop.  I also sacrificed a first pick during the draft; on the second pack, I rare-drafted a Duskmantle Seer, which did absolutely nothing for me when the games started.

The few games where I did find myself in a decent position, I made some bad (or unlucky) decisions: pressuring my opponent when he had tricks to crush me, holding back when he didn't.

Amid the drafts, we did a few games of mini-masters, which meant that I came away with a few other great cards (Angelic Skirmisher is a monster in limited, Blind Obedience is a good way to get yourself slaughtered in a team game, and I think Ooze Flux has a lot of constructed potential).

I really like Gatecrash.  Evolve is definitely my favorite new mechanic of the last few years, and I'm excited to see how the Simic cards in the next set play off it.  In the end, Gatecrash is a lot more interesting and fun than Return to Ravnica is, at least in limited.  I'm excited to see how they all tie together when we start drafting the whole block, but that's a bit down the road.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Today in the Kingdom - The Joys of Bad Moon

I’m in the middle of my first Bad Moon run in the Kingdom of Loathing, and it’s been one of the most exciting gaming experiences I’ve had in a while.

For the uninitiated, the Kingdom of Loathing is a fantastic browser-based RPG full of pop culture references and gaming tropes. Bad Moon is basically the hardest of hard modes available: it restricts your interactions with other players, it removes all usual benefits of a New Game+, and it throws a smattering of unique content at you, most of which hurts in some way (there are a bunch of buffs you might receive that benefit you in one way, but hurt in another – for example, one gives bonus elemental damage, but it also causes you to take elemental damage passively).

I find Bad Moon so exciting because it’s taught me a lot about the game (or, perhaps more accurately, it has reminded me of a lot).

The Kingdom of Loathing is very detailed and expansive.  It’s easy to focus on only one aspect of the game.  I have spent my last 50 or so ascensions (the colorful name given to starting a New Game+) working on developing a speed-running strategy – how can I get through the game as quickly as possible?  There are plenty of incentives to do so: leaderboards, in-game trophies, and access to more skills (“ascending” allows you to mark a skill you acquired during that run of the game “permanent” so you can use it in future runs) are among the best.  But it’s still only a small fraction of what the game has to offer.

Of course, I also knew about some of the end-game content for non-ascenders – there are clan dungeons and a few areas that are only open for sensible exploration at higher levels than you need to complete the main questline.  And the rewards for those areas can be great, as some of the best equipment and consumables come from those dungeons.

There is also a growing number of challenge paths available to the casual (and hardcore) ascenders.  Each season brings with it a new challenge path, like “Bees Hate You,” where you are randomly attacked by bees and are penalized for each instance of the letter “b” in your equipped items, or “Trendy,” where only items and skills obtainable in the last year are accessible (which actually has a pretty serious effect, as some of the most powerful goodies were limited-time offers).

Plus there’s a thriving in-game economy, various PvP contests, and the hoarder’s dream of obtaining all the things.  There’s a lot that a player can do to keep busy in the Kingdom.

Even with all those other options, Bad Moon is in a class all its own.  It’s like looking at the game with fresh eyes, giving players a chance to re-experience that initial rush that you only get by playing a new game.  It’s a nostalgia miracle.  I love that.