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The Hearthstone Hole

Green Armadillo from Player vs Developer has a post up about the somewhat skewed incentives in Hearthstone. Essentially, Blizzard does not have too much of an incentive to do Matchmaking based on card rarity/quality, as not doing so allows the paying customers to get some easy wins against non-paying customers while hopefully encouraging the latter to spend some money to get out of the hole. Plus, queue times might go up if they segmented the audience too far.

I’m not really going to comment too much on the situation itself, because it is kinda true. Hearthstone is a CCG, and like all CCGs, it is Pay-To-Win until all the cards are obtained. Moreover, there appears to be a good chance that the Matchmaking algorithm is not even in place or functioning properly. And like I have mentioned in the past, Blizzard has stuck close to the CCG model of strictly-better cards being “balanced” around their rarity.

But let’s put all that aside for now, and start talking solutions.

1) Stick to Arenas

Hearthstone is basically the Arena for me; everything else is simply a means to more Arena games. The only real reason why I would care about opening more packs and whatnot is to get cards that will allow me to complete my daily quests faster. That might change at some later date – likely coinciding with me actually opening up something more than a Rare card – but for now it is more than enough.

If you are leery about the Arena, don’t be. It is the great equalizer. Sorta. It is still entirely possible to be screwed via RNG by facing opponents that got two Legendary cards whereas you barely have one Epic. Plus, sometimes you get little to no selection when it comes to removal or class-specific cards. I went 4-0 the other day as a Warlock, feeling good, and then got matched with a Mage that had four Fireballs. In a normal game, you can’t even have more than two of the same card. I ended up losing to that Mage, plus a 2nd mage that had a seemingly never-ending supply of Freezing cards (Blizzard, Ice Lance, etc), and some third guy that undoubtedly didn’t deserve to beat me somehow.

Hmm… I’m not exactly helping things, am I?

2) Basic decks can still be good.

Generally speaking, Basic Decks are not at too much of a disadvantage depending on the class you are playing. That means both your class and their class. So while the daily quest can basically dictate which class you end up having to play as to get rewarded, there are steps you can take to put the odds ever in your favor.

For example, this Mage deck is entirely Basic cards:

I don't even have any non-Basic Mage cards yet.

I don’t even have any non-Basic Mage cards yet.

By a complete coincidence, the two dailies I had sitting around were “Win 5 games” and both had Mage as one of the class options. I went 5-2 with the above deck in Unranked mode.

I am not suggesting that I am some pro player – my Arena matches usually keep me humble – but understanding the hidden depths to something simple like the above deck is key in turning games around. For example, Kobold Geomancer is not a particularly desirable card on it’s own, since it often (at best) trades with other 2-drops. And while you should absolutely play it early if you don’t have anything better, keep in mind its hidden power: turning Arcane Explosion into a Consecration on turn 4. Even if they play something with 3 HP, you can spend your 3rd turn sniping it down to 2 HP before likely wiping their Turn 1-4 board. Hell, it even works in the late-game considering you can Geomancer + Flamestrike to take out 5 HP dudes, or finish off a line of wounded guys with the 2-damage version.

If I had all the Mage cards, would I replace cards in the above deck? Of course. Mana Wyrm is a complete no-brainer, for example. Then again, most of the cards I would add would essentially morph the deck into something else entirely – Mana Wyrm, Blizzard, and Cone of Cold all have a much different feel to them than Arcane Missiles, Arcane Explosion, and Kobold Geomancer shenanigans. To say nothing about the non-Basic Neutral cards available.

There are absolutely certain classes that are much weaker than others when they do not have access to their powerful Rares/Epics – such as Warriors and Brawl – but the Mage really isn’t one of them. Even classes like the Shaman can win unexpectedly with just their Basic cards (i.e. via Bloodlust).

All that being said, yes, you can and will roll over and die to some Diamond+ League decks. One of the losses I had in my run was to a Priest, who only won because Blizzard knee-jerked buffed the hell out of them in the latest patch. Mind Control, in particular, is some major bullshit:

It's 2:1 Card Advantage, minimum.

It’s 2:1 Card Advantage, minimum.

I had two big blockers Mind Controlled in that match, along with facing some Shadow Word: Pain slowing my early game. “Playing around” the Mind Control is possible, sure, but it cedes control of the board to the Priest unless they haven’t been playing anything else this whole time. Flamestrike is certainly powerful and has to be taken into consideration when facing a Mage, but let’s face it, the Mage is perhaps the best class to deal with Mind Control – everyone else is screwed.

Even though that game felt completely awful to me, it is worth mentioning that I was 1 damage away from stealing earning the game at the end.

This would have felt SO GOOD, dammit.

This would have felt SO GOOD, dammit.

Fireball for 6 damage, Frostbolt for 3 damage, Hero Power for 1 damage would have left the Priest at 1 HP and frozen. Now that I think about it… holy shit, guys. I’m so dumb. What I ended up doing was Fireball the Lord of the Arena (my own, by the way), Frostbolt the Yeti, Hero Power the Priest, and then attack for 2. My logic at the time was that if I could bluff him into worrying about a Pyroblast (10 damage), he might play more defensively while I continued digging a way out of the hole. It didn’t occur to me that being frozen by the Frostbolt might have prevented him from using his own Hero Power to heal… letting me ping him for 1 damage and the win next turn.

Even if that doesn’t work – I’m honestly not sure – the point is the same: I had him to within 1 damage with a Basic deck. A minor decision at the beginning of the match or an errant attack against a creature I didn’t have to might have made all the difference. So while some cards are horribly OP and possibly locked behind a rarity wall, just keep in mind that a better player might have been able to steer your same deck and same draws into a win.

So… strive to be that better player.

3) Your cards only ever improve

This likely won’t feel like a “solution,” but your card situation in Hearthstone only ever improves. But more importantly, keep in mind that if you are feeling particularly weak without a certain card, you can craft that card specifically. Each pack of cards can be disenchanted for 40 Dust, minimum (+5 for Common, +20 for Rare). That is enough for a 100% assured Common card of your choice, per pack. Three packs would equal a Rare of your choice plus 20 Dust leftover. Ten packs would give you any Epic of your choice. And if you were crazy enough to do so, 40 packs will guarantee any Legendary card of your choice.

Again, those are minimum numbers. If you (digitally) crack open a second Rare, or an Epic/Legendary/Gold version of any card, the Dust payout increases substantially. Plus, you know, you might actually open the card that you were looking for to begin with.

What I am basically trying to get across here is that Green Armadillo (and others) are correct: Hearthstone is a “F2P” CCG whose principal purpose is to extract the maximum amount of dollars from you in a completely typical F2P way. The important difference here, and reason I am likely to be playing Hearthstone for a long time to come, is that Blizzard isn’t being particularly nefarious about it. Try playing Magic Online or the upcoming Hex by investing zero dollars while still earning actual cards. Try playing any CCG and having a predictable and free (!) method of eventually acquiring any specific card you want. I mean, everyone pretty much agrees that the best way to play Card Hunter is to throw down $25 on their Basic Edition, and that’s also a F2P game. A similar “investment” early on could make your daily quests in Hearthstone that much easier.

Or save your money, like I’m doing. Losing streaks suck, but the Matchmaking software will fix it eventually if going Live doesn’t do so by virtue of deepening the pool of players. The minute you hit 150g, you can buy a ticket into a cloistered realm where, even if everyone doesn’t have the same quality cards, you are at least not shackled to playing around with just your Basic ones. Plus, 7 wins before 3 losses means you can get back in for free. And even if you go 0-3 like I have on a few occasions, the minimum you walk away with is something like this:

Just be aware of the ego-bruising that accompanies it.

Just be aware of the ego-bruising that accompanies it.

What’s that? A booster pack plus almost as much Dust as you’d get disenchanting a 2nd pack.

Card balance isn’t exactly where it needs to be – beta is beta – but the one thing least deserving of criticism is Hearthstone’s business model. While being in the Hearthstone Hole is discouraging, it is not and will never be as bad as the same phenomenon in traditional CCGs nor even your everyday F2P app with a payslope. I mean, Jesus, I’m not sure how other CCGs can compete with this.

Beta Impression: Battlefield 4

I have been playing the Battlefield 4 beta these last few days, and I’m not quite sure what to think.

40 fps on High without current video drivers.

40 fps on High without latest video drivers.

It certainly isn’t the jump in quality from Battlefield 2 to 3, that’s for sure, although there are some interesting moves. For example, the default rocket launcher has a tracking mode that activates when the Recon class designates a target with their binoculars; this sort of solves the incredible power discrepancy between Engineers that had unlocked the, er, lock-on launcher versus newbie players.

Another interesting change was how they gave the Recon class (aka snipers) C4 charges. While this makes roof-top campers extremely annoying – they can drop C4 at the elevators and wait for the door opening sound for an auto-kill – it also creates an amazing tension in the class. Do you run out and C4 that tank while risking being caught in close-quarters with a sniper rifle, or do you hang back and try and snipe with a tank blowing you and your team up? Giving snipers claymore mines and assault classes C4 makes more thematic sense, but reversing those roles makes for more interesting gameplay decisions. Even better, the thermal Binoculars you get not only lets you lock on to vehicles for your teammates to kill (you get bonus XP when they do so), but it lets you more easily spot enemies running around that are too far to hit. Or, honestly, that you aren’t skilled enough to hit. Just spotting them is basically 1/4th a kill though, and it’s a useful service to do so.

Win-win.

However, some design changes have gone in the wrong direction. Technically, it was Battlefield 3 that “introduced” the concept of the medic class having to actually unlock their core ability, i.e. to revive people, but Battlefield 4 is taking that to ridiculous extremes. It takes 11,000 Assault-class XP to unlock the Defibrillator, which I hope to god is a placeholder value. Perhaps if smaller maps were available it might not be so bad, but actually getting that amount of XP on a class that otherwise brings nothing interesting to the table is a massive chore; not only do the other classes have easier ways of racking up easy XP, but remember that BF4 (and BF3) made the change to a regenerating HP model too. Between that and the near-zero Time To Kill numbers, the ability to throw a Med-Pack is only ever useful when you find yourself dueling someone from behind cover.

That tower is just bad news anyway.

That tower is just bad news anyway.

The unlocking situation gets even more ridiculous when you look at the Support class, aka the ammo guy. While I suppose it was annoying/immersion-breaking when a single Support dude could drop an ammo box and spam infinite grenades over the wall, putting the ammo box behind a 52,000 (!) XP grind-wall is an extreme overreaction. The most obvious trickle-down effect is that it makes every class weaker by extension: what good is an Engineer without rockets? Given how you respawn with full ammo, the smart move is then to play both aggressively and carelessly by spamming everything you have and then effectively suicide yourself for Round N+1.

While there has also been some grumblings over the idea of “Battlepacks” – random lockboxes filled with camos, dog tags, XP bonuses, etc – as someone who played Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer for a while, I don’t see it as such a big deal. Yes, it is a cynical cash grab given how you can pay money to buy those things. However, as far as I can tell, you do not actually unlock more powerful weaponry from these boxes. Which automatically makes them less of an issue than ME3’s lockboxes where opening a rare Widow or Carnifex/Paladin was basically the start of your game.

Beta is beta though, and this one is more restrictive than most. Overall, I can’t say that I’m too impressed. It’s honestly been so long ago that I uninstalled BF3 that I forget if being able to spawn inside a vehicle from the Deploy screen is something new to BF4 or not. And, really, that’s kinda what it comes down to: why do we need Battlefield 4 again? Once all the maps are unlocked, then perhaps we’ll see where the differences lay. Plus, supposedly Commander Mode is back.

But right now I do not see any reason why I would be compelled to purchase Battlefield 4 on Day 1 as opposed to when they bundle the game + first Map Pack together. Or, really, when they bundle the game + Season Pass.

Hearthstone Beta Patch Notes

All Hearthstone progress was wiped last Wednesday, and we are now Live for all intents and purposes; no further wipes are planned between now and (eventual) release. In addition to that news, a number of careful changes have been made to cards across the game. Perhaps too careful.

The full patch notes can be read here. Some examples:

  • Gold gained in Play mode has changed from 5 gold per 5 wins to 10 gold per 3 wins.
  • Arena rewards now give less dust and more cards.
  • More gold is guaranteed at 5 & 6 Arena wins.
  • At 9 Arena wins, you are now guaranteed an extra pack or a Golden card.
  • Pint-sized Summoner – The cost reduction has been reduced from 2 to 1.
  • Wrath can no longer be cast on heroes.
  • etc

There are a few surprising changes in there. Going from 5g for 5 wins to 10g for 3 wins is rather huge. As in, “literally a 33% increase in gold” huge. While I still doubt grinding out an entire Arena Pass in a single day is particularly viable (or sane), it will likely allow you to get a free Arena after every three days of dailies instead of four without too much extra grinding. We’re talking six extra games on average across three days instead of, you know, fifty. Plus, the Arena rewards are supposedly better, with less dust and more goodies.

The card-specific buffs/nerfs run the gamut of expected to boggling. Pint-Sized Summoner got nerfed down to (1)-crystal cost reduction from (2), Defias Ringleader is no longer inexplicably a 2/3 creature, and so on. Druid cards got an unexpected nerf, with many of their otherwise-too-versatile direct damage spells being unable to hit players any more. Rogues can no longer pump up weapon with their hero power, which probably has more long-reaching consequences than appears at first.

Then again, maybe not.

See, when I was browsing for more commentary on the patch changes, I ended up finding what lies at the bottom of the rabbit hole. Take a look at these Youtube “reviews” for some of the top Hearthstone decks, if you dare: Miracle Rogue, Divine Paladin, Pyro-Smith Warrior. Now, it’s possible that the Miracle Rogue deck was disrupted a bit by the patch, but the point is that that is what the game can be boiled down to. And that, quite frankly, scares me.

I have no illusions regarding my own competence level or willingness to compete on some higher level. Winning is great, but I would much rather win as a result of a deck I created than copy & paste a top-tier deck and harvest some tears. The feeling might be a holdover from my Magic: the Gathering days where I had an absolute advantage over my high school friends because I was willing to eBay cards; where was the fun in burying your opponents (who are also, you know, your friends) under piles of money? Skill in the form of tactical moves to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat or building decks that create esoteric, but functional combos is way more interesting to me.

These are the “Good Fights” that people like Gevlon despise, but at the end of the day, all you keep from your hours and hours spent playing videogames are memories. Will you remember winning those hundreds of games on Turn 5 against opponents who had no chance to survive make your time? Or will you remember the egde-of-your-seat victories and when you created an off-beat deck/strategy that actually worked in opposition to all logic and reason?

If you aren’t shooting the moon, you’re just killing time.

Beta Impressions: Path of Exile

That’s right, I’m all beta, all the time up in this joint.

Okay, Trade Chat being on by default in the opening seconds is a little immersion-breaking.

Okay, Trade Chat being on by default in the opening seconds is a little immersion-breaking.

For those not keeping track at home, Path of Exile is a F2P love letter to Diablo 2, and the Diablo franchise in general. It features six classes, a 1350-point talent tree forest, the Materia system from Final Fantasy 7, extremely gritty and realistic graphical style, and an outstandingly clever commitment to the game’s own setting. It is currently in Open Beta, and you can download it here.

While the central concepts of Path of Exile may seem strange at first, they are all pretty logical once you get past the unfamiliar veneer. For example, let’s talk about that 1350+ point talent tree. It is not an actual talent tree as you are familiar with, at least unless you played Final Fantasy X. The tree itself is entirely passive abilities and stat increases that act as nodes you activate with talent points you receive from leveling up or getting as quest rewards. The overall tree encompasses all six classes, with the difference being the starting location for each class. Thus, for example, the Witch starts on one corner of the board nearest all the +Intelligence and other magic boosting nodes.

Hey, remember when this was fun?

Hey, remember when this was fun?

The bigger nodes give bigger bonuses, and the extremely large ones are sort of capstone goals to help guide your character’s overall build. While your talent selection generally builds itself, it is possible to work your way across the board into other classs’ territories, if you are so inclined. That said, while the tree is certainly impressive the first few times you look at it, I’m not entirely sure of its practical use beyond standing out from the crowd. I spent 30 minutes mousing-over everything, decided which nodes I eventually wanted, and now will spend the next fifty levels getting variations of +10 Int or +20% mana regeneration. Woo, choice.

Meanwhile, the FF7-esque Materia system that Path of Exile emulates… is exactly what it sounds like. Basically, all the abilities your character has access to is governed by Skill Gems you socket into open slots on your gear. Want to use Raise Zombie? You need to fit that Skill Gem into an open blue slot. Fire Trap? Green slot. Shield Bash? Red slot. As you kill enemies, any socketed gems gain XP and level up just as you do, under the normal sort of hack-n-slash scheme (+1-2 damage, +1 mana cost each level). Later on, you will receive gear with Linked sockets which – again, exactly like in FF7 – let you link, say, a Fireball gem with a Multiple Projectile gem to (drumroll) shoot multiple Fireballs.

It is worth mentioning that, for the most part, any class can equip any Skill gem. I found a Shield Bash gem while running around with my Witch, for example, although I was unable to equip it because it required a Strength score of 16 (I had 14). While there will presumably be some +Strength gear somewhere, I could also raise that stat by navigating my way to a +Strength node in the talent tree. Pretty cool, IMO, although I believe the downside is a more limited selection of skills available for everyone overall. Shield Bash appears to be Shield Bash for everyone, so if X, Y, or Z skill is OP or garbage, you will likely be using the same skill loadouts no matter what class you pick.

The Hack-n-Slash is hack and slashy.

The Hack-n-Slash is hack and slashy.

What is beyond reproach and, frankly, goddamn brilliant is Path of Exile’s integration of the game’s setting into the gameplay. The premise of the game is that your character has done something or pissed someone off enough to be exiled to some hideous and hostile land to die (think: colonial Australia). So while the game looks understandably dark and gritty, it actually goes much farther than that. For example, when you sell items to a vendor, the currency is… scraps of an Identify Scroll. Five scraps equals one full scroll. Which you can then consume to identify an unknown magic item, ala Diablo. There are other barter currencies that double as actually useful items (Transmutation Orbs turn normal items into magic ones, other orbs randomize a magic item’s properties, etc) too, which sets up some interesting dilemmas insofar as using them as currency to buy better gear or use them to possibly make what gear you already have better.

Now, seriously, how amazing is that economic system? Every prototypical hack-n-slash would simply have used gold pieces as the medium of exchange here. Hell, I don’t think anyone would have cared if gold pieces were used as the currency in Path of Exile, even though it doesn’t make any logical sense for there to be a vast sum of wealth in a prison colony. It reminds me of Metro 2033 where your currency for buying guns and such were rounds of military-grade ammo, which you could technically load into your guns and fire.

Are there downsides? Sure. Since there is nothing worth less than a scrap of scroll, the beginning hours of gameplay highly encourages you to loot 100% of all junk since 5 pieces of anything = 1 useful scroll. This goes the other way too, wherein selling a magic item nets you a rounded-down amount of other material rather than 1400g vs 1100g. Vendor items get a bit goofy too, when they charge the same price for a necklace that provides 2 HP/sec regeneration with another necklace that provides 3.7 HP/sec regeneration.

Another example of the noble commitment to rational setting consistency? Instead of health/mana potions, you have health/mana flasks that use X number of Y charges for Z effect. And they recharge when you kill enemies. I mean, sure, there isn’t much of a logical reason why the Frost Elemental slime drops a wooden tower shield, but at least you’re not seeing more glass beakers full of replenishing liquid mowing down zombies as you’d find in an alchemist’s lab. Monsters drop less items as a result of this artistic/setting direction, but it still manages to feel similar to the loot explosions of Diablo (if less intense).

So, basically, I am having a lot of fun thus far with Path of Exile. While the devs have posted a sort of cash shop manifesto for this F2P game, they appear to actually be taking the “no P2W” mantra seriously. Hell, I don’t think they are even selling +XP potions, which is something I have simply come to expect from these games. The one lingering concern I have is the whole Ranged vs Melee (im)balance, which is something they do have on their roadmap to address. But beyond that? If you liked Diablo 2, play this game. Hell, if you liked (or disliked!) Diablo 3, play this game. It’s a F2P hack-n-slash, so what do you have to lose?

Other than your time, of course.

[Hearthstone] Remaining Concerns

My Press™ coverage of Hearthstone has been pretty glowing thus far, so I wanted to talk today about some lingering concerns about a few issues that cropped up in the last week. I do not believe these to be structural problems necessarily – I feel like they could be fixed within the Beta – but I also have no idea how Blizzard will address them, if at all.

1) Unbalanced Heroes

On paper, the nine Heroes you can pick between are balanced. Here is a rundown of their powers:

  • Druid – Hero gains +1 Attack until end of turn, and +1 Armor
  • Priest – Restore 2 health to target
  • Warrior – Hero gains 2 Armor
  • Paladin – Put a 1/1 creature into play
  • Rogue – create a 1 attack/2 durability weapon, or +1 Attack to weapon this turn
  • Warlock – Lose 2 Health and draw a card
  • Hunter – Deal 2 damage to enemy Hero
  • Shaman – Create a random totem (usually 0/2 creature w/ ability)
  • Mage – Deal 1 damage to a target

By the way, all of the listed abilities cost the same amount of resources (2 crystals).

One of the more annoying classes to play against.

One of the more annoying classes to play against.

The problem in reality is two-fold. First, there is a huge difference in synergy between a Hero’s powers and the class-restricted cards. The Priest’s ability, for example, combos ridiculously well with one of the default Priest cards: Northshire Cleric, a 1/3 creature that let’s you draw a card when a creature is healed. In fact, entire mechanics revolve around and/or become enabled by the Priest’s ability. Enrage, for example, is an ability that triggers an effect when the creature is damaged. One of the most common cards that uses Enrage is the Gurubashi Berserker, a 2/5 creature that gets +3 Attack each time it’s damaged. Smashing into a 2/2 will beef the troll up to a 5/3, which is nice… but also puts it within range of a lot of counter-attacks. A simple heal from the Priest though, puts it back to 5/5, letting it snowball further. Then you have goofy cards like the Angry Chicken, which is a 1/1 with Enrage: +5 Attack. Obviously you need to combine that creature with some other effects to boost its Health, of which the Priest has many.

By means of comparison, nothing combos with the Hunter ability. In Magic: the Gathering, the devs eventually created the Bloodthirst mechanic that boosted a creature’s stats (or some bonus effect) if it was played the same turn as the opponent taking damage. No such thing exists in Hearthstone, at least for now. And while Rogue decks need no assistance, the Combo system on Rogue cards have nothing to do with the Rogue’s ability; at least the Druid, Warrior, and Warlock are thematically consistent with their class cards. Then again, perhaps we should look at the Priest as an outlier rather than the bar that other classes should reach.

The second problem is related to the first: what class cards are available by default radically changes the strength of your deck. Now, sure, technically everyone will be able to unlock all 20 basic class cards by simply playing against the computer (assuming they didn’t want to challenge players). But take my word for it: many of those early games suck. Hard.

Through either a combination of the first issue or the second, I can already tell that some Heroes are being left in the dust by the Beta population. I would say more than 95% of the Ranked games I have played have been against either the Mage, Rogue, or Priest. For a good reason: they’re strong.

There are a few clever things Blizzard is already doing to (presumably) combat this trend. One of the types of daily quests is to win 2 games as a specific class. When I logged on yesterday, for example, I had to win 2 games as a Druid and Warrior (two separate quests, as I had missed yesterday’s daily). Having played neither before, I created custom decks for both and then went for a spin against some human opponents. Those games played out very differently than my normal games, and were pretty fun to boot, although I doubt I will be spending much time with them until I luck into some of their non-basic class cards from booster packs.

The other clever move to improve class experimentation, if not promote diversity, is how Arena mode matches start by forcing you to pick between three random class Heroes before you start the actual Draft process. The other day, I had to pick between the Hunter, Druid, and Shaman, all of whom I had never played with before. While they let you mouse-over their Hero powers from that specific screen, the more critical aspect of the Heroes is ultimately their selection of class-specific cards. Spending some time in your collection looking at all of the class’ cards – which, by the way, Hearthstone allows you to do even if you don’t own them – is definitely recommended.

For the record, I chose the Hunter. And went 0-3.

Worst possible Arena result, I think.

Worst possible Arena result, I think.

2) Unbalanced Cards

Beyond the Hero issue and the class-specific card issue, I have a problem with the card balance in a few locations. Basically, I don’t feel like strictly-better cards should exist in a CCG, especially not when it appears it’s being “balanced” around rareness. Take a look at the following:

Balance!

Balance!

There is precisely one scenario in which you might choose the raptor over the gnome: if you were playing some kind of Beast deck (e.g. with the Hunter). And actually, you might put in the gnome even in your Beast deck; por que no los dos? At least with the Ooze, you can convince yourself that there are certain scenarios in which blowing up the opponent’s weapon is better than whittling down their blockers for free.

By the way, only the Paladin, Warrior, and Rogue are likely to ever have weapons equipped. That Ooze is pretty much a dead draw 90% of the time in my experience.

A few other cards are simply ridiculous. Pint-Sized Summoner, for example, pretty much single-handedly caused me to lose an Arena game (I had no targeted removal at the time). Bloodlust is probably balanced, but 100% of the games in which I lost to a Shaman have been due to that one card… and a bunch of suddenly bloodthirsty totems. And so on.

3) Over-reliance on Taunt

This section is going to be short, because the title sums it up: Taunt is both ubiquitous and pretty much the only means of combat shenanigans.

This should have been a combo, dammit!

This should have been a combo, dammit!

In case you aren’t aware, Taunt is a creature ability that forces an opponent to only attack the creature with Taunt, as opposed to being able to attack any creature or just smash the opponent’s face in directly. Without Taunt, basically whoever drops creatures first is at a huge advantage since they can decide to attack any “special” creatures their opponents play with their own creature or ignore them. Pretty much the only rational strategy then becomes A) play special creature and then immediately drop a Taunt meatshield, or B) beef up a Taunt creature and control the board. An all-in-one package example of the latter is Ancient of War, which is an absolute bomb drop in Arena, by the way.

4) Playing first puts you at a huge disadvantage

Another shorty, but basically I never ever want to go first when playing Hearthstone.

Each player draws three cards before a game, and can choose to send any (or none) of the cards back and draw different ones. Whoever goes second draws a fourth card during this phase, and thus can fish for their deck combo cards or removal that much deeper. Plus, after the first player’s turn, they get a 0 crystal card called “The Coin” that will temporarily give you 1 crystal for a turn. So, basically, going second you can cast a 2 crystal card on your turn 1, or 3 crystal card on turn 2, and so on. What makes it even worse is that The Coin counts as playing a card/spell, which can trigger all sorts of nonsense, such as a Defias Ringleader suddenly giving the Rogue a 2/3 and 2/1 creature on turn 1.

Conclusion

Having said all that, I do feel like these are solvable problems. For the most part. Given the simplicity of the resource system and the mechanics in this first set, I am not quite sure how things will get balanced. The Knife-Juggler and Pint-Sized Summoner could be reduced to 2/1 and 1/1 respectively, and still be worth playing. But what about those Hero powers? The Hunter power can’t be reduced to 1 crystal or the damage increased to 3. Would they buff the Hunter class cards instead? What if a player doesn’t actually use those “balancing” cards?

Time will tell upon release exactly how broken some of these interactions are. Time will also tell how much we or Blizzard particular care. I probably have the most fun in Arenas (I went 8-3 and 9-2 this weekend, the latter of which resulted in 310g) where dropping game-changing cards is the norm, and Ranked matches sorta feel like 2v2 Arena in WoW somtimes. I would rather it be balanced of course, but this is also a CCG – there being only a few viable decks at the upper-end is pretty much par for the course. But if Blizzard wants to do some (more) groundbreaking things with their game design, they are going to have to fix the above four issues at a minimum.

Beta Impression: Hearthstone

Yes, I made it into the beta with that ridiculous email and Press™ credentials. It just goes to show you that with hard work and a can-do attitude Camus was right. Embrace the Absurd.

Anyway… Hearthstone!

Momentum is extremely fluid.

Momentum is extremely fluid.

For those not following along at home, Hearthstone is a free-to-play CCG made by a small team at Blizzard, all of whom likely had an awkward conversation with their bosses as to why they were apparently hiding their goddamn genius game development and UI skills under a bushel.

Indeed, that is exactly the first thing anyone should talk about when it comes to Hearthstone: it has perhaps the best UI in any game ever made. It is both visceral and whimsical, simultaneously. You know that feeling in a pillow fight, about ten seconds in, when you are just wailing on somebody and clearly winning before Jason knocks over the lamp and your mom comes upstairs and makes everyone go to bed? It is kinda exactly like that. Or close enough that I am going to continue using this ungainly metaphor for the rest of the post.

The basic premise of the pillow fight is that each player creates a 30-card deck, limited to 2 copies of an individual card, and then tries to reduce the opposing player from 30 life to zero in a turn-based manner. A few unique gameplay wrinkles show up immediately. First, players have to choose a Hero to represent them, corresponding to one of the original nine classes in World of Warcraft. Each class has their own unique set of cards that cannot be used by the others, although there is a large portion of “neutral” cards that can go into any class’s deck. In addition to the unique pool of class cards, each hero has a “hero power” which is an ability that costs two resources and can be used once each turn. The Paladin hero, for example, can create a 1/1 creature whereas the Warlock can pay 2 Health to draw a card (ala Life Tap).

The second gameplay wrinkle comes from the gameplay flow. Each turn, a player gains another resource point (aka Gems, Crystals, whatever), up to a maximum of 10, with them reseting at the start of each turn. While there are technically “Secret” cards with hidden triggers that can be played, there is otherwise no action possible during an opponent’s turn.

Finally, combat plays out a little differently than you might expect, coming from SolForge or Magic: the Gathering. Summoning Sickness and Haste (i.e. Charge) is all there, but there really is no concept of “blockers”; unless your opponent has a creature with Taunt, you are free to send your units to attack the player or his/her creatures at your leisure, in whatever sequence you choose. While the optimal move is sometimes obvious – sending your 1/1 into that 5/1 – the math becomes exceedingly fuzzy when you start having to compute whether it’s better to just send all the damage to their dome and hope you maintain enough initiative to win the damage race.

Here is an example of some strategery:

This Warlock is in for a bad time.

This Warlock is in for a bad time.

It’s turn 7, and the Warlock has a 7/7 mob. On my side, I have a 3/2, a 1/1, and a Young Dragonhawk (1/1 with Windfury, which lets it attack twice per turn). In my hand is Raid Leader (2/2, gives my other creatures +1 Attack), Blessing of Might (gives creature +3 Attack), Lord of the Arena (6/5 mob with Taunt), and Shattered Sun Cleric (3/3 that gives a creature +1/+1 when it comes into play). My moves? Blessing of Might on the Young Dragonhawk, Shattered Sun Cleric also targeting the Young Dragonhawk, and then playing the Raid Leader. Attack the Warlock directly with all my creatures, dealing 6 + 6 + 3 + 1 damage to the dome, bringing him to 8 life with more than lethal damage still on the board.

Why play this way? There are a few reasons I chose to, and a few more that argue for a more conservative approach. Warlocks have a lot of removal by default, including Hellfire that deals 3 damage to everything. As amazing as my 16 damage was the prior turn, a single Hellfire would have wiped my entire board and left the Warlock with a 7/4 creature wailing on me. I could have perhaps played the Lord of the Arena and then Blessing of Might on the Dragonhawk, dealing 12 damage and leaving a sort of Taunt barrier that would survive (and trade) a Hellfire. Or I could have done my big play like last time, and sent the 6/2 Dragonhawk into the 7/7 as its second attack and finishing it off with the 1/1, having dealt a total of 9 damage to the Warlock.

Having actually wrote all this out, it has become apparent that my original play was monstrously dumb. A single Hellfire would have wrecked me, to the point of not being able to recover. At the time, my thought process was that the Warlock had to remove my Dragonhawk or lose the next turn, so he’d send in his 7/7 targeting my 6/2, leaving it as easy picking on my next turn… which would be irrelevant because I’d have lethal damage available anyway. Shit, I was probably just too damn excited to contain myself. “Sixteen damage in one turn! Ka-Pow, right in the kisser!”

While there are moments of high excitement, there are also moments of extreme depression. Hearthstone, like many (most? all?) CCG games, forces one to become intimately acquainted with the Three Sisters: Tempo, Card Advantage, and RNG. Take a look at this screenshot which, days later, still causes me to groan:

JESUS, C'MON!

Seriously?! C’MON!

My opponent is at 1 HP, and it’s their turn. They send their 3/3 (which makes a 2/1 at death) at my 5/5, and then the 2/2, and then send a 1-damage fireball at my 1/1 creature. Approximately 247 days or five turns later, whichever is worse, the Mage wins. Wins. I never draw a creature with Haste Charge, or any “direct” damage (by Paladin standards), and nothing on my side of board lives long enough to attack. I created a 1/1 each turn only to have it pinged away.

You will have games like this, and it will suck. It is not quite on the same level as being Mana Screwed in Magic, but games possibly grinding to a halt is at least one problem that Scrolls solved beautifully – in Scrolls, you either turn a card into a resource or discard it to draw 2 new cards. With Hearthstone, some heroes like the Paladin have a severe problem with running out of steam. There are technically some Paladin-specific trickery to “solve” this issue – Divine Favor is a 2-cost spell that let’s you draw cards until you have as many as your opponent – but that is heavily dependent on actually having said cards in your collection, and drawing into them at the opportune moments.

Speaking of which…

The Business Side

So where are the Hearthstone F2P hooks? Well… it’s kinda weird. I mean, not really, but it sorta is. Here is how you spend money:

Almost... reasonable?!

Almost… reasonable?!

You can buy 5-card booster packs for 100g or at an escalating discount; they come out to be $1.50, $1.43, $1.33, and $1.25 apiece in the various quantities. Entrance into the Arena (which used to be the Forge) is 150g or $1.99. Purchasing boosters for 100g is almost always a waste of precious gold, considering that even if you go 0-3 in the Arena, you will receive a booster pack at a minimum in addition to some other prizes. Supposedly, if you win 7 or more Arena matches, you will make enough gold to purchase another entry. I went 4-3 and came out with 45g and some dust (used to create cards) in addition to the booster, so I technically “paid” a 5g premium for a series of fun games and dust instead of simply having a booster.

What are sources of gold? There are basically two: daily quests and winning matches against people. The “daily quest” is really just a random quest that asks you to win 3 matches, kill 40 creatures, play some games as a specific class, and so on, with a reward of 40g. Winning matches gives you 5g after you win a total of 5, e.g. 1g apiece. I think there might also be a gold award when you level a class up to 20.

So you can sort of see the outline of the F2P hooks. You are not going to be playing in the Arena every day without forking over some serious cash. Being competitive in the Ranked games will require Legendaries and other power cards, which come from random packs. All pretty standard for a CCG, really.

But honestly? Blizzard is pretty much doing everything wrong if their goal was pure F2P exploitation. There are no special classes of booster packs (more expensive versions that have guaranteed rare cards) like in SolForge or the upcoming Hex. You can play the equivalent of Booster drafts using in-game currency. And the biggest jaw-dropper once you think about it? You can manually create any card in the game via the dust. Including Legendaries. Yeah, it takes like 1600 dust to craft a Legendary and your sole source of dust is going to be from activities that involve money (e.g. boosters or Arena), but again, you can substitute in-game currency for the costs. So, eventually, a person that spends $0 can have a full set of all the cards in the game.

Probably around the same time a new set comes out, but hey.

Bottom line: Hearthstone has some legs. In fact, it’s about to have a few more pairs after it chops the current (and upcoming) competition off at the knees. The game is fun, the UI is a feast for the senses, and the few issues I do have with the game can easily be addressed by the end of Beta. This Impression post is already absurdly long, but you can be certain that there will be more to say about Hearthstone in the weeks and months to come.

Dear PR@Blizzard.com

Subject: Hearthstone Beta Press™ Request

Hello,

My name is    nice try, NSA        , aka Azuriel, and I run a gaming blog called In An Age (inanage.com) that has a focus on PC games. While the topic of my posts varies between what I’m playing, to game reviews, to MMO design critiques, I am especially passionate about my Beta Impression posts. I have wrote beta impressions about WoW expansions, Guild Wars 2, Darkfall, Card Hunter, and more. In fact, I just completed two more within the last week: Scrolls and SolForge.

I would be extremely honored if you allowed me to add Hearthstone to that list. By letting me in the Hearthstone beta. As a member of the Press™.

In return, I can promise you a minimum of one (1) brutally honest Beta Impression post, and possibly dozens more if the game is as amazing as it looks. In fact, since I would likely spend money in the store for the tournaments (as investigative journalism), you could almost say that I’m paying you for free advertising. Just think: a Hearthstone article by me could be seen by hundreds (!) of people! That’s a PR coup if I’ve ever seen one.

In any case, I want to thank you for your time, and stalwart support of the blogging community. Your willingness to give members of the Press™ (such as myself) beta keys is an inspiration to us all. Hopefully.

Shamefully yours,

don’t doxx me, bro  (aka Azuriel)

P.S. If you ever need to fill a slot on a Press™ tour of Blizzard HQ or on the WoW dev team, I am available.

Beta Impression: SolForge

After becoming increasingly disenchanted with Scrolls while still craving a card-game experience, I found out that SolForge was in Open Beta as a F2P game. On Steam, no less. Score!

I have to consciously not read that as Solf Rge.

I have to consciously not read that as Solf Rge.

SolForge plays a lot differently than many other CCGs (there is no trading that I’m aware of): it has the most distilled, fast-paced card gameplay that I have ever seen, outside of maybe Dominion. The basic premise is that you build a 30-card deck with the goal of reducing your opponent from 100 HP to zero. There are four “factions” that roughly correspond with certain card themes, and your deck is limited to having cards from only two factions. Each player draws five cards, someone is selected to play first, and then you see this screen:

*rubs hands together*

*rubs hands together*

The first big twist is that there are no resources to manage. On your turn, you can play two cards from your hand, be they creatures or spells. When you play any card, an upgraded version of that card is shuffled back into your deck. There is a combat step where all creatures attack, and you can trigger it at any point during your turn (before, in the middle of, or after you played your cards). At the end of your turn, any leftover cards in your hand are also shuffled back into your deck and you draw a new hand of five cards. Every four turns or so, your avatar “levels up” and then you are able to start actually drawing the upgraded versions of the cards you played previously (even if the original is still on the board).

A quick note about the leveled-up cards: it is way more strategic than you think. A lot of cards might have an especially weak Level 1 form, only to ramp up in power with Level 2 and Level 3. Others are strong Level 1 contenders, but feature a definite lack of scaling that almost make them dead-draws in the endgame. Still others sort of force you to use them early to keep them relevant at all. An example of the latter is Cull the Weak, a removal card which destroys a creature with 4 Attack or less, which ramps up to 7 or less and finally 14 or less at Level 3. Played early, Cull will serve you immensely well into the late stages of the game; drawing into a Level 1 Cull around Turn 15 though, and it may as well be a blank card.

Examples of the first two types of cards (late vs early game focus) can be seen here:

The Darkshaper is by far my favorite card.

The Darkshaper is by far my favorite card in my collection.

Where things really get (further) mind-bending is combat. Creatures you play have Summoning Sickness are “On Defensive” until the start of your next turn, meaning they won’t initiate combat. Creatures will also stay in the lane you played them in (unless they have the Mobility trait), attacking anything directly across from them. Once creatures are “On the Offensive,” they will attack every turn. As in, creatures will attack on your turn, and then attack again on your opponent’s turn. Damage a creature takes is permanent, as are most boosts and the like. As you might imagine, creatures die pretty quick; conversely, this means that any creature that does stick around (especially if they have a nice ability) start becoming increasingly dangerous.

What I am failing to get across in words is this: the tempo is SolForge is insane. And addicting. Let’s say that I play a 5/5 creature and my opponent then plays a 7/7 across from it. If I do nothing, my 5/5 will automatically run to its death, and my opponent will begin dealing 7 damage a turn with the now 7/2 creature. Before the attack phase, I might cast a spell that gives one creature +3 attack and another creature -3 attack, making the match-up a 8/5 versus a 4/7. On my opponent’s turn, if he/she doesn’t kill the creature with a spell or throw another creature in front of my now 8/1, it will attack again on his/her turn.

Goddammit, words aren’t working. Here was board position of the closest fight I have ever seen:

There has to be a way out...

There has to be a way out…

It is my opponent’s turn, late in the endgame. His creatures are the 6/10 Savant that let’s him give a creature -3/-3 whenever he casts a Level 1 spell, and “just” a 24/7 wurm. Mine are all just vanilla creatures aside from the Dryad, which gets +1/+1 each time a creature comes into play on my side. He just cast the +3 Attack/-3 Attack spell I mentioned earlier, targeting his wurm and my dryad, taking out one of my 2/3 Ether Hounds with the -3/-3 trigger. He then plays his own Ether Hounds, providing blockers for my Dryad and Marrow Fiend, using the Savant’s trigger to kill my last Ether Hound. He attacks, creatures die, and we go down to 7 and 4 HP respectfully.

What are my options on my upcoming turn? Well… the 6/5 is just a vanilla creature; the 4/6 will spawn a 1/1 creature in its space after it dies; the 14/14 creature has Mobility and gets +6/+6 when a creature dies across from it; the card Enrage gives a creature +5/+5; and the last card gives a creature -3/-3. Hmm. After I make my moves, the board looks like this:

Not horse-shoes or hand grenades, unfortunately.

Not horse-shoes or hand grenades, unfortunately.

I had tossed my 14/14 in front of the Savant because the -3/-3 triggers were generating insane card advantage, and would basically negate my center lane gambit. Said gambit was tossing in the 4/6 creature in the path of the 24/7, and relying on the 1/1 that spawned after its death to give me the reprieve I needed to win. And, in fact, I would have won on his turn, but he managed to cast either another Savant or perhaps a Gloomreaper Witch (kills a 1-power creature when it comes into play) to remove my 1/1 and block my 20/14, and then some other throwaway creature to stand in front of my 17/11. The wurm, unopposed, kills me. GG.

Whether all of that sounds like gobbledygook or a smashing good time probably depends on how familiar you are with card games, or with Magic specifically. Oh, did I forget to mention that? Richard fucking Garfield had a hand in SolForge’s development, along with the guys who made Ascension, who were already pro Magic players. Now that I think about it, Richard fucking Garfield worked on Card Hunter too. Dude gets around. Considering how everything he touches seems to directly trigger my nucleus accumbens, I’m going to say that this is a Good Thing.

Less so for my wallet.

Beta Impressions: Scrolls

I tried out Scrolls the other day, mainly due to this video. My initial impression is… mixed. Which is not good for a game that requires $20 to buy-in into a beta state.

The flesh is willing, but the mind is weak.

The flesh is willing, but the mind is weak.

For those who may have forgotten, Scrolls is the TCG follow-up project to Mojang’s genre-defining Minecraft. It is essentially Magic-lite with a few extra tactical considerations. Each player has five 10-HP totems at the end of five lanes, and take turns placing creatures or structures or casting spells/enchantments in an effort to reduce three of those five totems down to zero health. Creatures will attack down their lanes when their timer reaches zero, damage is persistent, and creatures can also be moved usually one “hex” each turn.

What I enjoy about Scrolls so far is its rather ingenious, nested card mechanics. At the start of the match, you draw five cards and thereafter draw one card per turn. Each turn, you have the opportunity to discard a card to increase your resources by 1 permanently (e.g. turning it into a MtG “land” essentially) or discarding a card to draw two new cards. As you can only have three copies of a given card in your deck, this immediately makes the early game exceedingly complex on a strategic level. Should you turn that high-cost card into resources now, or save it for later? Now that you’re at 5 resources, should you discard in order to draw two new cards or continue pumping up resources to allow you more options each turn? I doubt that Scrolls is the first card game to feature a system like this, but I am finding it extremely… delicious.

Really? That big pile of Minecraft money not good enough for you?

Really? That big pile of Minecraft money not good enough for you?

Now that I think about it, my mixed reaction basically comes down to the Store aspect. After you purchase the game, you unlock one of the three Starter decks to play with. Thereafter, you are stuck purchasing new cards in awkward increments using in-game gold earned from winning matches (either against AI or people). I made the unfortunate mistake of purchasing the Order deck and realizing that I don’t actually like its gameplay – a high emphasis on maneuverability and defense and so on. I am getting around ~300g for winning Trial matches (e.g. scenarios), but the other Starter decks are 6500g total. I started with 2000g, but foolishly purchased the 10-card booster packs at 1000g apiece.

So, essentially, I am stuck with a deck I don’t particularly enjoy playing while having to grind out dozens of games with no hope of actually seeing any new cards for that entire duration. Technically, I can also purchase things in the store for Shards, which is the RMT currency. However, the thought of spending more money on top of the $20 I already paid to play the game in the first place is repulsive. Scrolls is not a F2P game. Finding myself confronted with a payslope after the initial paywall is incredibly frustrating, especially with there being no way to undo the designer trap (having to choose a Starter deck with zero information) I fell into to begin with. This is a TCG, sure, but if your Starter deck isn’t fun to play, most rational people won’t be playing for long.

I am going to continue playing in the hopes that things improve, but at the moment I couldn’t really recommend Scrolls to anyone just yet.

First Impression: Firefall (Beta)

Downloaded the Firefall open beta client yesterday because, you know, Press™.

For those not keeping track at home, Firefall is… well, hell if I actually know. Without looking it up, I’m assuming it’s a F2P MMO set in an open-world, over-the-shoulder Borderlands 2 with bugs taking the place of bandits. After looking it up, it seems the devs want to emphasize the fact that it is a skill-based action shooter with sandbox MMO elements. Apparently the world is a not level-restricted, but the highest-ranked “dungeons” will need full groups with crafted gear. Which sounds like roundabout levels to me, but let’s play along.

One of my biggest fears with new MMOs – or any game which expects me to be playing for 50+ hours – is losing on the character select screen. How am I supposed to know which class will be the most fun months from now? And even if I luck into the best class for me, how will I know it won’t radically change (or get nerfed) years later? So, right away, Firefall got some major brownie points with me once I understood that a “class” means a Battleframe, which you can swap out at pretty much any time. Need a healer? Jump into your healer suit and go play.

In the future, even clothes are rationed.

In a twist, the Assault and Engineer classes have less armor than the healer and rogue.

Loincloth starting armor tropes aside, I think the whole Battleframe direction is pretty clever. Not only are you allowing people to play whatever role is necessary at the time, having independent frames means a player has to “level-up” multiple times while still allowing for quick catch-up. In other words, it’s horizontal progression. PlanetSide 2 has this same sort of thing, where you might have to purchase various levels of Flak Armor for each class (which is expensive with Certs), or you can just focus on playing Light Assault or Medic and save your currency.

In any case, from the extremely limited amount of time I spent playing, things seem fun enough. They certainly looked good, at any rate.

Borderlands 2 with an actual color palate.

Borderlands 2 with an actual color palate.

Some people might not like the sort of cel-shaded motif here, but this sort of thing has never bothered me. If the game runs better and has more options for crazy effects, then I will “sacrifice” ultra-realistic graphics any day. Plus: everyone has jetpacks, right from the start.

I can’t give much more of an impression beyond the above, as I was unable to progress past the second “quest.” The first quest was to follow a waypoint, and the second was to kill some bugs and then return to purchase your sidearm from a vendor. Unfortunately, either I am completely oblivious (possible) or the the game was bugging out for me (likely) seeing as how no menu would appear after interacting with said vendor:

How about you give me a gun and I don't shoot your face off?

How about you give me a gun and I don’t shoot your face off?

Since the mouse controls your aim, I know that I successfully clicked ‘E’ on the vendor because the crosshair disappeared and an actual mouse pointer appeared. But no menu. I tried highlighting the guns in the background, clicking on every on-screen icon-looking thing, reloading the client, and finally restarting my computer. Open beta is open beta, but I was left feeling pretty disappointed all the same. Hell, I couldn’t even submit a ticket because that interface wasn’t showing up either. I could probably submit a bug report on the forums… or I could go play some other game that works instead.

While I was clicking around, I did notice something particularly interesting:

Customizable interface right out of the box?!

Customizable interface right out of the box?!

That’s right, you can move shit around your screen and I think resize elements right from the start. It might seem like a small thing, and it arguably is small, but it begs the question of why some MMOs *cough* require you to download 432 mods to do the same sort of things. Artistic restrictions? General laziness? More of this sort of thing, please.

I might check back in on Firefall later to see if the problem resolves itself, or I might simply wait until release. Until then, feel free to try it out yourself.