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Designer Fun – Duels 2013: Odric and the Pinnacle

So, Duels 2013 is awesome, and I could spend 20 minutes telling you how awesome it is, but I want to focus on just one element of it today: the “Encounter: Spiraling Mana” with [card]Helix Pinnacle[/card].

In this challenge, the computer opponent plays a Helix Pinnacle and a pile of [card]Cloudpost[/card]s to charge it up very quickly. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, so you have eight turns to win via damage. The AI also drops a [card]Wall of Vines[/card] every turn, starting on its turn three. It’s a simple challenge, since the AI doesn’t do anything really proactive. It’s very quick and easy for you to rush forward with your deck and hope you can “beat the clock.”

This is an excellent challenge design, despite being so simple and seemingly non-interactive. I will tell you why.

For a regular two-player game of Magic this would be non-interactive and boring, but it’s not two-player. It’s one-player, and that one player is solving a puzzle, which is fun. There is a huge difference between what you can do in a single player environment compared to a two-player or multiplayer environment. When designing a single player experience you don’t have to worry about the computer having fun, you can cheat in the player’s favor, you can set up patterns for the player to observe and learn, and you can structure the challenges to engineer a more ideal experience for the player.

Due to the inevitable win of the enemy deck on its ninth upkeep, several decks in D13 can’t beat the Spiraling Mana Encounter. I have not been able to beat it with Obedient Dead (At least not without fully unlocking the deck.) Born of Flame can beat it, but not with every draw. Odric’s deck “Peacekeepers,” however, almost can’t lose. The flood of 1/1s and [card]Keldon Warlord[/card]s (Crusader of Odric) easily overwhelms a couple of Wall of Vines.

So the first thing this challenge does is show you that different decks are better or worse in certain situations. All of Duels does that, but this challenge shows it off the most acutely. It certainly accomplishes one of the things Duels wants to do: teach new players that one deck is different from another, and that if your deck isn’t working, an entirely new deck might be better suited against the “metagame.”

Even for experienced players this is a good plan—forcing you to play with a variety of decks, as each one is better for one challenge than another. This is an upgrade from D12, in which that U/G Eldrazi deck was far stronger than every other deck available, and could beat almost any of the AI challenges with ease. Playing with a variety makes your experience broader and more interesting, and gets you thinking about which deck might be better suited for each enemy—which is fun.

Since Peacekeepers is so good against this particular challenge, repeatedly playing this challenge is the fastest way to unlock all the cards of this deck. As you do this, you notice that certain cards are pretty bad to draw. You just want all the creatures, and maybe a couple of [card]Pacifism[/card]s. You learn to shape your deck not to make it the best general-purpose deck, but to make it ideal for beating the specific challenge you are facing right now. In previous Duels incarnations you simply had to pull the “bad” cards out, but here you want to tune just for beating this enemy. Plus, the deck doesn’t have many objectively bad cards—just cards that are better for one plan than for another plan.

This lesson applies much more to playing Standard than you might think. All the time we see a Pro player putting one strange-looking card into their deck, dominating a tournament because of it, and then never playing that card again—despite using the rest of that same deck at the next event. They are making these changes each week to deal with the current metagame. They’re not making the best all-purpose, beats-all-other-decks version of their deck. They are predicting the meta for that one event, and changing their deck to win on that day. Same thing here.

You modify Peacekeepers to beat this challenge (and you keep doing so every couple of new cards you unlock) to kick out all the cards that don’t help you win this specific matchup. Obviously, it’s a lot easier when the opponent plays the same deck and the same sequence of plays each game, but that only means it’s easier to know how to do it. Pros are doing the same thing, they just have a lot more variables to consider. If you never react to the environment, if you never change your deck to be “better today, but not better on every other day,” you won’t learn to be as good as the Pros.
A surprising thing to learn from Duels 2013, no?

Now for the Game Design Lesson:

If you’re designing Duels and you realize that one of the decks absolutely annihilates one of the challenges with ease, what do you do? Many people would try to fix this “problem” because they feel it shouldn’t be that easy. But it’s not so easy, and it’s not something you need to fix. The player still had to figure out which deck to use.

They might try with all the other decks first, and feel like the challenge was very difficult—because for them the challenge wasn’t actually playing it out, it was in finding the right deck. For others who played the challenge once and then immediately realized Peacekeepers would be the best choice, they simply rose to the challenge. They are experienced Magic players and they “deserve” to have a relatively easy challenge be easy for them to crush. You’d only have to change something if 100% of your challenges were easy for all players. In games, players need moments of superiority and crushing victory—times when they have mastered part of the game, and get to briefly show off that mastery and dominance. Feeling like a genius and a powerhouse for a moment is an excellent game experience to create for the player.

What about the ease of unlocking all the cards in Peacekeepers by grinding Spiraling Mana? Is that a problem? It can be, but I don’t think it is in this case.

Grinding in games is bad only when the thing you do to grind is not fun and when you do it for a very long time. Players want to advance, and often get so distracted by the goal of advancement that they’ll repeat a less-fun task instead of doing more fun things that are slightly slower paths toward the goal. It’s your job as a designer to find the most efficient path and make sure it’s also a fun path. In this case I don’t think there is any problem.

First, as I’ve pointed out, not all decks can grind this encounter efficiently. So far I’ve only found it “worth it” with Peacekeepers (but I haven’t unlocked all the decks yet). Second, once you’ve unlocked 30 cards you’re done. You can also leave it and come back to it later. You don’t feel you need to grind here to make forward progress in the game, because a fully unlocked Peacekeepers isn’t going to be the best deck for every other challenge in the game. Finally, it’s quite fun to play this matchup, casting a huge pile of guys and attacking with them in five or six turns.

This concept of “best path should also be the most fun” is critical in creating the play environment in other formats as well. Of course you want diversity in Standard, Modern, Legacy; but you also want the best decks to be fun to play with and to play against, over and over. Even while you are trying not to have one best deck or one best card, you still want to check on the best decks and best cards and make sure they are fun. (Something is going to be in the top five, no matter what you do.)

So [card snapcaster mage]Snapcaster[/card] is the best card? Well it’s a really fun card, at least. Same for [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card], [card]Gideon Jura[/card], [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card], and [card]Doom Blade[/card]. (I just picked very good cards, not saying those are the actual best—it’s an example.)

There are also several fun things you might be doing while repeatedly playing this encounter with Peacekeepers. Because you want to be efficient and unlock the cards fast, you want to beat the challenge as fast as you can. This deck sometimes wins a turn or two earlier or later, and that depends on both your opening hand and the way you sequence your plays. It trains you to count your damage and figure out which casting order maximizes your damage for the next two or three turns.

With the opponent doing the exact same thing each time, players will realize there is a lot of variance in their deck. One draw versus another can produce a kill two turns earlier, or occasionally not at all. Because of the safety of the environment and the ability to restart any time, some players will start to mulligan very aggressively. While this might seem bad, it’s actually very good training. You won’t learn the limit of too-aggressive mulliganing unless you cross the line. With such clear feedback under controlled and fast-paced conditions you can get a lot of experience in just a couple of hours.

Understanding variance, play sequencing, deck adjustment versus the metagame, choosing the right deck overall, and mulliganing are all important things for player to learn, and just this one Encounter in Duels 2013 has the potential to teach them all pretty efficiently. Impressive, no?

Oh, one last thing I learned from this: Odric is one heckuva card! Let me choose how you block: you don’t! Please die now, thanks. White four-mana 3/4s sure are powerful (and fun) these days.

@gregorymarques on twitter

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