Monday, September 30, 2013

Posting some custom cards!

I've obtained permission from some of the folks at deviantART for non-commerical use of their art, so I'm posting our card designs with art on the Custom Cards page. I'd like to thank all the artists who gave their permission. Having a piece of artwork makes this little side project a lot more fun.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What not to put in your Survivors' Cube

When putting together a Cube (for drafting or otherwise), you're playing the part of a game designer. You're not trying to "solve the puzzle", you're creating a puzzle for the player (who might also happen to be yourself) to solve. MaRo has written some great columns touching on this topic. We're not trying to create a situation where the player wins every time, we're trying to design a fun experience. The zombies need to be able to, occasionally, crest over the hill and see a group of exhausted and broken Survivors to eat.  Here are some things that will break the format, either instantly or only in large enough quantities, or will simply create "feels bad".

Useless Effects that will do nothing:
Due to the properties of Horde, a number of standard Magic effects do a whole load of nothing. While you'd still have a 2/1 creature, a Goblin Shortcutter will make the players feel like something was wasted. Just don't put them in the Cube. There are no shortage of vanilla creatures that will be effectively the same in the game but without the bad feelings.
  • Creatures with evasion: The Horde doesn't block, so this is a moot point. Flying, landwalk, unblockable, they all just read "useless text here" when fighting the Horde. Some creatures have additional text that makes them worthwhile, but when in doubt, edit out. 
  • Land Destruction: The Horde controls no lands, so a Stone Rain has no place, except to troll fellow Survivors. Some land destruction cards, like Maw of the Mire, also have another effect. These effectively become "sacrifice a land, do effect", and can make interesting includes.
  • "Can't Block": Goblin Shortcutter and other "panic" cards do nothing, as the horde can't ever block.
  • Artifact Destruction: most Horde decks don't have artifacts. Naturalize is fine since it also destroys enchantments, which the Horde DOES have. 
  • Doom Blade: All (or at least most) of the Horde's creatures will be black. "Target non-black creature" is really just a dead card. 
  • Trample: the Horde never blocks, so this is never relevant
  • Reach: There are very, very few flying zombies for this to be useful against. Most Hordes will have none.
  • Sorcery-speed bounce: a Silent Departure does almost nothing, as cards in the Horde's hand get cast for free the next turn anyway, and bouncing doesn't remove blockers because there are none.
  • Discard: Mind Rot and similar effects do little, since the Horde only rarely has cards in its hand. The situation won't come up often enough for anyone to put this as one of their 23 cards in their deck.
  • Infect: The Horde can only lose through running out of cards, so effects with poison counters do nothing.
One-hit KO cards:
Since the Horde is not at all like a deck for 1v1 duels, there are NUMEROUS cards that can single-handedly break the Horde. Don't put anything like this even in the same sleeve color as your Survivors' Cube. These cards can neuter the Horde in a single drop. You'll know them when you see them, because you'd say to yourself "Oh man, this would be GREAT against the Horde!". As a game designer that should mean "NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE". Remember, fun, not victory. Here are just a few examples of broken cards not to give to the players.
  • Moat: the Horde has no (or few) flying creatures, so this is pretty much an instant win. 
  • Eldesh Norn: Most of the Horde's punch is in the form of 2/2 tokens, which this continuously eliminates.
  • Platinum Angel: The players can't lose, and the Horde has no targeting ability to remove it.
  • Mind Grind : The Horde has no lands, so this is an instant kill
  • Win the game/Lose the game effects: As cool as Door to Nothingness is, these kind of effects are out of place fighting against the Horde.
Really strong effects to stay away from:
Some classes of effects are just really brutally effective against the Horde. They get big too fast, or are too efficient at shutting the Horde down with a single card.
  • Protection from Black or from Zombies: these creatures are just too hard for the Horde to deal with.
  • Lifelink: A creature with lifelink can single-handedly create victory for the Survivors. Not instantly, but the extra life round after round makes things too easy.
  • Storm: with three or four players working together to drum up a big storm, it's even MORE broken than usual.
  • Wight of Precinct Six: Creatures/effects that get buff based on the Horde's graveyard are just too strong, as it often has 10-30 creatures there.
  • Lumberknot: cards with "when a creature dies, do X" are just brokenly powerful in this format, since zombies die (a lot) and you chump block (a lot).
Things to use only in small amounts or cautiously:
In putting together your Survivors' Cube, you have a finite "budget" of power to spend on cards. If you overspend, the Survivors will be too strong and the experience will lose tension and balance (and thus fun). Some effects are strong, but OK in small numbers since this is a Limited format. Cards with these effects should be enough to pull someone towards that color.
  • Vigilance: In this format, vigilant  creatures are VERY good. 2/3 or bigger vigilant creature is a monster here. A Thraben Valiant, or Standing Troops, though, can be very fine includes.
  • Life Gain: Too much life gain really can suck the fun out of this format. Make it rare and weak. Cards that can reliably generate 2 or more life a turn on a continuous basis should be avoided. 
  • Graveyard Hate: Too much of this at too high a power level can really neuter the Horde's late game. Crypt Creeper good. Tormod's Crypt bad.
  • "Saboteur" abilities: Stealer of Secrets, for example, is much better against an enemy that can't block. These effects must be rated very highly, and thus used only a little.
  • Board Sweeps: Killing all the Horde's creatures is something that does need to be included, but not so much that it is likely that there is ALWAYS one on deck in someone's hand . Use sparingly.
  • Cheap instant creature removal: Too much of this and players won't need to save it for that Grave Titan they know is coming eventually. This should feel like a precious resource. Make removal spells more costly (4 or 5 mana) so the players really have to sacrifice something to remove a good zombie. If you've got too many Smites in your cube, it really dampens the fun. 
  • Counterspells: Stay away from cheap, efficient counters completely. Even Cancel. Spell Blast and Geist Snatch are good choices, since the Blue player needs to leave a good chunk of mana open. Two counters in your pool should be enough to pull strongly toward Blue in this format. 
  • 6 or more toughness: anything that can take a Zombie Giant on the chin should be used sparingly.
  • Cheap First Strike: First strike creatures are very valuable defenders. Don't make too many high-quality first-strikers a part of the Survivors' Cube. Warclamp Mastiff good. Porcelain Legionnaire bad.
  • Fog: Giving the Survivors a turn without having to worry about the Horde's creatures is very powerful. Necessary, but don't go overboard with these.
  • Cheap Deathtouch: a Typhoid Rats basically reads "kill the Horde's strongest creature for 1 black mana". Don't include too many. Maybe one Ambush Viper.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Scaling the Horde

In Horde, the Survivors get slowly stronger and build up over the course of the game, having more and more resources at their disposal as turns tick down. Due to the way the Horde works, the zombies don't have the same luxury. Also, other than changing the number of cards in the Horde deck or the starting life total, there is little once can do to smoothly scale the experience for more or less players. And changes in rules are a pain to remember and balance correctly. However, a few cards can be added to the Horde deck that mitigate these issues.

Ideally, the Horde's power would automatically adjust for the turn count and number of Survivors. To imitate this in a smooth fashion, a number of spells have an implicit form of scaling. .

Scaling in Time
A bad card for the Horde is one that is brutal early game but easy to deal with late game. We choose not to put a Call to the Grave in ours for this reason, if it comes out turn 3, the Survivors have little chance to win. A good Horde card is small early game and large late game, but by then the Survivors may have drawn into an answer and won't feel cheated

Big mass reanimation spells form much of the Horde's late game, where a Zombie Apocalypse can bring back ten or more creatures. An Unbreathing Horde can come in as a 20/20 creature late game. These cards are not strong early game. The graveyard may be empty or nearly empty. This lets the Horde ramp up its power level into the late game, as the players do.

A quick not, we choose not to include Soulless One for the following reason: its power/toughness vary every time anything happens, and that is a lot of counting and recounting to calculate its toughness. Unbreathing Horde needs the players to count just once.

Effects that depend on the number of creatures the Survivors control can also provide some late-game punch.

Scaling in Player Number
Cards that read "Each opponent" somewhere in their rules text can be very helpful on this front. Infectious Horror, for example, will drain a 2-Survivor team for 4 life, but a 4-Survivor team for 8. Since life totals are 40 regardless of the number of players, this card is substantially more deadly with more players. Vengeful Dead scales in the same way. Syphon Flesh also gets more powerful the more Survivors there are, giving the Horde an extra token for each player.

 I'm of the opinion that Horde should be more difficult with fewer players, and easier with more, but not too much easier. Having enough of these self-scaling cards in the Horde deck makes special scaling rules not as necessary.

Scaling for Comebacks
Every game needs some come-back-from-behind things, and the Horde needs them too. Some cards are very powerful when the Survivors have the Horde on the ropes, but weaker when the Horde is already doing well. Living Death, for example, can actually help an overwhelmed group of Survivors in some board states.

"Win more" cards aren't really necessary for the Horde. A slow, relentless onslaught, wave after wave of zombies crashing against your defenses and wearing you down until all hope is lost, that's what we want. The sudden 'Well, you all lose, this card came out" Horde wins aren't very satisfying. Games should be fun and satisfying to lose as well as fun and satisfying to win.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why Horde Sealed Deck?

This first article is an explanation of our motivation to begin playing Horde Magic in a Sealed-Deck Cube format.

For those who are unfamiliar with Horde Magic, the original article can be found here here . Another article about the format published on Wizards' site can be found here on Daily MTG . My playgroup began playing and had a great time, but after a while we noticed a few problems. Primarily, the power level difference between the Horde and the Survivors was simply too great. A typical Horde game with EDH decks is a blowout, once a good Commander deck gets rolling, it can simply break the Horde in half with almost no effort. Legacy or Modern decks do the same, even competitive, well constructed Standard decks are simply too much for the Horde to deal with. A single Kalonian Hydra will just stomp-stomp-stomp-win.
    A second problem is the "solving the format" problem. As numerous people have pointed out, it is completely trivial to assemble a deck that completely hoses the Horde. A Moat, an Avacyn, Angel of Hope, Eldish Norn, a Platinum Angel, any of these spells mean nearly certain defeat for the zombies, without any real effort by the players. All the tension is lost. Having an incredibly long ban list has been suggested and rebutted, because this is a causal format, and there are a LOT of cards that single-handedly BREAK Horde Magic. But Horde is still _fun_ . In the Daily MTG followup article, it was mentioned that playing some sort of Limited against the Horde could be fun. He uses a big blob of cards that he affectionately calls "The Stack".
    One could consider Draft, but Draft is an intrinsically antagonistic experience. You don't want the other player's decks to be as effective as possible, which doesn't square with the cooperative mode nature of Horde. Thus, one turns to Sealed Deck. Just get six packs worth of cards and assemble the best 40-or-more card defense you can muster. Ideally, the Survivor's _don't_ win every time. Zombie apocalypse movies rarely have the protagonist pick up their anti-zombie ray and simply waltz through the rest of the film. It feels like everyone could die at any second. And Horde should have the same tension. Which EDH decks and other well-made constructed decks simply don't provide.
   The first time we played Sealed Deck against the Horde, we had enough fun that we knew we had something fun on our hands. Our first "Cube" was simply random handfuls of common and uncommon cards, sitting in a box unsorted and unused. We passed out 90 cards (the equivalent of six 15-card booster packs, typical of Sealed Deck events) at random to each player and went to deckbuilding. Horde plays out very differently from a duel in Standard or an EDH game, so you have to evaluate cards very differently. A Pillarfield Ox is actually a very relevant body in this format (I'll write more on re-examining how you evaluate cards in a later post.) A good 30% of the cards in our pools were completely useless against the Horde. Sorcery-speed bounces, Goblin Shortcutters, Golgari Decoys. We simply left them out and built with what was left of our pool. And it was fun. Really fun. There were some very tense moments, waiting for someone to draw into a "clutch" card that could pull us out of a sticky situation with 10 tokens on the board and a Grave Titan staring us down. We won, but just by the skin of our teeth. Which is the experience I'd like to have every time I play Horde.
    We played a second time, using a different random set of rubber-banded stacks of forgotten cards, again taking 90 each and making the best zombie-killing machines we could. This time the power level was quite a bit higher. We slaughtered the horde twice in a row. And it was fun. But _less_ fun. You'd have to be stupid not to consider a card like Lumberknot as a snap-keep for this format. It quickly becomes an unstoppable murder machine that just chews through the Horde's cards. But having him available at all drains fun from the game. And this is casual Magic. Fun, not victory, is our primary export industry here.
    We spent the next weekend going through a _lot_ of those attic-banished cards, commons and uncommons that hadn't been in a deck in a long time, if ever. And we selected 400 to be our first Horde Sealed Deck Survivors' Cube. Useless cards that have no purpose in a Horde game were filtered out. There are a lot of these. Cards that can neuter the Horde by themselves were filtered out.  And, most importantly, _bad cards_ were let in. The temptation to make the Survivors' card selection of too high quality was one that had to be resisted at every turn. We (with our game designer hat on) need to limit our (with our player who wants to win hat on) choices to lead to a fun experience. This cube has had (at time of writing) a total of 7 games played with it so far, and they've all been a blast. Playing with lower power-level cards, but in a way that still encourages you to make the best deck you can, lead to a very fun experience. The Survivors' Cube is still in need of a lot of balancing, tweaking, and adjustment (white is too powerful at the moment), but if playing with an entirely random selection of cards resulted in fun, the experience is robust enough to withstand a bit of damage from amateur game designers like us. And this brings me to really great point about Magic. It's an incredibly robust, diverse, awesome system. The notion of power, toughness, mana, the color pie, these can contain competitive Standard, six-player mono-durdle EDH games, and Horde Magic, and they're all _fun_. Not every card fits in every format, but the base game system has really incredible versatility.