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This past weekend I finished playing Obduction, the latest game from Cyan, the folks who made the MYST series of games. I backed it on Kickstarter and played it on the Mac through Steam, starting with some of the, well, I guess post-beta but pre-final releases.

Not to bury the lede: It’s a fine game which I enjoyed thoroughly! But I wanted to write a little historical perspective about my experience with Cyan’s games.

A friend of mine introduced me to the original MYST back in the mid-90s, and I powered my way through half of it, got stuck, put it away for a few months, then came back and finished it. While I enjoyed the puzzles, to me it was primarily an experiential game, the first game I ever played where I had genuine moments of feeling like I was really there – in hindsight an amazing accomplishment since the rough edges due to the technology of the day (texture mapping, animations, etc.) were quite apparent.

I played the sequel, Riven, when it came out, and while the technology was considerably improved (the renderings were gorgeous), the story felt less expansive and a little more awkward than the first game. (I wrote a little about it at the time.) A few years later I picked up the third game, MYST III Exile (which was not made by Cyan), and felt that it shored up the deficiencies of the previous games, and despite the thrill of the new of the original game, I think Exile is the best of the MYST series. (A bit more here.) I was also a big enough of the fan of the series that I read the three novels they published (which were okay).

I thought things went off the rails a bit with MYST IV: Revelation (also not by Cyan), which, despite having a good story, had some puzzles that were very unintuitive and frustrating to try to get through without a help from a story guide. And then I only barely cracked MYST V: End of Ages (which was by Cyan), in part due to some serious problems it exhibited with a lot of Mac technology at the time (some graphics cards would cause it to freeze the whole machine regularly), and also due to a disenchantment with the rendered animated people, which felt like a big step down from the interleaved live action footage from other games. (Sadly, I bet it doesn’t run on newer Mac hardware, and it looks like the Steam version is Windows-only, so I may never return to it.)

Despite that finish, ten years later I was pretty stoked for Obduction!

It took me a little while to get into it, partly because the early releases seemed to have some bad performance problems on Mac hardware, requiring me to ramp down the resolution quite a bit to get decent performance, so I played a few hours of the game late last year and then put it away for a while. I picked it up again a few weeks ago and played a couple of hours per week before finishing it. The final version has much better performance and I was able to get pretty nice resolution out of it with only a couple of moments of stuttering (some of which I suspect involved loading resources from disk). For reference, I played it on a late 2013 model MacBook Pro, so it might play better on a newer Mac. (I did find that the “seed swap” devices were often tediously slow, though.)

Obduction has a premise similar to MYST but arguably a little more grounded: Rather than mysteriously arriving on an island, you-the-player are one of many people who have been plucked from your time period and dropped into a bubble of Earth in the middle of another world. The game’s title plays on the sounds-like word “abduction” as well as the dictionary definition of obduction (“an act or instance of drawing or laying something (as a covering) over”) and the tectonic definition (in which layers are flowing above or below each other), all of which are appropriate in the story. You find yourself in a nearly-abandoned town called Hunrath, with chunks of Earth from different time periods lying around, messages from the former inhabitants, and signs of a battle from the recent past.

As in the MYST games, you need to find clues to what happened and solve puzzles to get things working in the village again, until you eventually unlock the secret as to what’s been going on and how to get beyond Hunrath to start fixing things. There are a lot of clever bits, including ones that make you feel clever when you figure them out.

The game’s biggest problem is that some of the puzzles are still too hard, in the sense of being basically unintuitive: You need to stumble on the right thing, or put together pieces which don’t logically go together. I relied on the player’s guide which came with the Kickstarter reward for some pieces, because I just wasn’t interested in endlessly wandering around some parts of the world to look for something I’d missed. I also found the puzzles involving the alien number system a little too annoying. But, your mileage may vary. Unfortunately, the final puzzle of the game I found utterly unintuitive and ended up going onto the web to find out what I had to do to solve it the “right” way (as it leads to multiple endings). They do need to walk a fine line between making the puzzles challenging and making them understandable, and I think Obduction is just a tad over the line to not understandable, though better than MYST IV. The first three MYST games all nailed the balance, I think, but maybe they just made it look easier than it is.

Experientially, though, Obduction is a pretty amazing piece of work: Wonderfully envisioned and executed, with only a couple of spots that feel a little glossed over (in some cases by necessity, since you still can’t really interact with the few characters you meet in the game). The sense of history and tragedy conveyed in Hunrath is extremely well done, particularly the bits in Farley’s house.

So, while slightly flawed, I found it perfectly enjoyable and rewarding, and while I might not run through it a second time for a few years, many bits have stuck in my memory, as with any good story.

I hope that Obduction isn’t Cyan’s swan song with this genre of game (which has fallen out of favor since its heyday around the turn of the millennium), but if it is, then they’ve gone out on a high note.

(image from the Obduction web site)

Shadows Over Innistrad Prerelease

Yesterday I headed down to Isle of Gamers for the prerelease for the latest Magic set, Shadows Over Innistrad. After listening to the set review on Limited Resources, and poking around on the net a bit, my feeling was that this would be a complicated set, and that assimilating all the information in the sealed deck prerelease would be pretty daunting, trying to figure out how best to fit together the various moving parts.

Once I opened my packs, I had this card pool:

(click to embiggen)

(click to embiggen)

Notice the following things:

  • I opened 7 rares (well, one was the promo card), of which 3 were land, 2 were planeswalkers (yay!), and 2 were not really great in limited.
  • All five colors are somewhat playable – this is a pretty deep pool.
  • Unfortunately, red is the weakest color, and green the second-weakest, and both planeswalkers require red.
  • Black is both deep and has a bunch of removal, so I’m surely playing black.

My first inclination was to go white-black, splashing red for Nahiri, so I came up with this:

White-Black splashing Red deck

That’s not awful, but probably not worth splashing just for one card, even a really good one. And there isn’t really any other red worth splashing. The other thing I realized is that it often doesn’t start doing stuff until turn 3, and it doesn’t make great use of its rare, Odric.

So I decided to try again, with blue instead of white, which gives me a little more early options, and a little more flying power:

Blue-Black deck

I would characterize this deck as “unexciting midrange” (no rares other than the dual land!), but I hoped it would make up for that in consistency and evasion, and after some agonizing, it’s the one I decided to go with. Here’s how it played out:

Round 1: I played against a white-blue deck, and both of our decks ended up playing out as control decks against the other. I had more evasion than he did, but he had cards like Puncturing Light and Sleep Paralysis to deal with my Stormrider Spirits. I won game 1 mainly on the back of Daring Sleuth‘s flip side giving me lots of card advantage, and he won game 2 by grinding me out. Then we drew game 3 because we didn’t have nearly enough time to finish.

After this round I decided that Wild-Field Scarecrow didn’t do much in this deck, so I replaced it with the more aggressive Wicker Witch, which turned out to be the right choice. I also swapped out Merciless Resolve for the cheaper Macabre Waltz, which also paid dividends as I often had creatures in my graveyard I wanted to get back.

Round 2: Another white deck, this time white-black. In game 1 I recognized that my draw was much more aggressive than his and won by pushing through damage early, combined with overwhelming board position through my incremental card advantage. Game 2 was a squeaker, with me seemingly taking a big advantage and playing the Morkrut Necropod, but he had an answer for it in Murderous Compulsion. He took me down to 1, and he was also at 1. I ended my turn with 3 creatures to his 2, and with Broken Concentration in hand I countered his attempt to cast Bygone Bishop (I believe my spoken response when he cast it was, “No no, no no no – no.”) and that was enough to push through the last point of damage on my next turn.

Round 3: My opponent ran me over in the first game, playing a white-green humans deck which fired on all cylinders. Game 2 went much better as he never drew green mana and so stalled out in the midgame. He later told me his deck was mostly white, so this was a weird draw for him. For my part I was pleased that I mulliganed a hand with 3 islands, 3 black spells, and an artifact creature. Game 3 was the opposite as he kept a hand with 3 forests, 3 white cards, and an Intrepid Provisioner. He didn’t draw a plains until it was too late, and I won again.

Afterwards we chatted about his last game’s keep, and I told him that I’d had a similar scenario in game 2, where I’d mulliganed, and that I always seemed to do (and feel) better when I mulliganed color-mismatch hands like that. He pointed out that he had many more plains in his deck than forests, and he only needed one to get going. I don’t know what the answer is; if he had 10 plains in his deck, then the odds were he’d draw one by turn 4, but he really needed to draw one before that if my deck curved out (which it did). So it was a tough loss for him.

Round 4: My opponent here unfortunately also had mana problems, stalling out at 3 land in game 1, and I had just the right removal for the cards she could play (such as the ultra-annoying Sin Prodder). In game 2 she got mana flooded, and while she did play a big bomb in Flameblade Angel when she was still around 14 life, Press For Answers was exactly the answer I needed to push through a bunch of damage which she didn’t have any other blockers for.

So in the end I went 3-0-1 in my 4 matches, which was good for fourth place overall (and 8 packs!) in a field of over 50 people. I feel that my deck overperformed a little bit, and that my opponents’ decks underperformed – in some cases by a lot – so I’m not sure whether I truly “earned” my record. But sometimes you end up on the good side of the variance gods.

A few lessons I learned from the day as regards the format:

  • The removal doesn’t look impressive in this set, but a lot of it works well against a wide variety of threats. It seems like there are a lot of 2/3 and 3/2 creatures, and doing 2 damage does really well against the latter, while the former tend to be less threatening. As one person put it, there’s “not a lot of beef” in this set. (But – small sample size alert. There are a number of ways to make some larger creatures, and I just didn’t face many of them.)
  • Morkrut Necropod is a better card than it looks like, as there are not many things which can deal with a 7/7 with Menace in the format, and sacrificing a land by the time it comes down is not a big penalty.
  • It doesn’t take a lot of Investigate sources in your deck to enable cards which need them such as Daring Sleuth. I think I had 3 in my deck, and that was enough to pretty reliably flip the Sleuth.
  • Also, Daring Sleuth can be a horse in limited.
  • Gone Missing can do some work. One game when an opponent was struggling with mana, I put his tap-land on top of his deck, which not only blanked his next draw, but it meant even if he had anything to play with 4 mana that he hadn’t played for some reason (such as a combat trick), he would have to wait an extra turn to play it. Also great to enable an alpha strike.
  • Accursed Witch is a great card. If they decide not to kill it, then it hits them for 4. If they do kill it, then (most of the time) it turns into an annoying enchantment.
  • Thraben Gargoyle is also surprisingly good; by the time you can flip it, if your opponent hasn’t been careful to hold back some removal, a 4/2 flyer is pretty hard to deal with.
  • Bygone Bishop looks awesome.

Also, having a deck where only one card costs double-colored-mana is a nice incremental advantage since it makes it harder to be color-screwed.

Also, it turns out that my worry about information overload was unfounded; while I could imagine that having several good Madness cards could lead to struggling to figure out how to use it effectively, I didn’t have that problem. And there are several good ways to interact with discarding and sacrificing and the graveyard which don’t require Madness.

This looks like it will be a fun format, though I think there will be more to keep track of in draft than in sealed (“Whoops I forgot to draft a discard outlet”), but it also looks possible to draft a pretty straightforward deck if you prefer. I also wonder if it’s going to be a less bomb-y format than most (i.e., a pauper rather than a prince format, as the lingo goes).

Obviously I have fun – winning is usually fun! Definitely more fun than the Battle for Zendikar prerelease last fall, where my pool was both not good, and not fun to play. And it was my best prerelease showing since Journey Into Nyx (which featured a fairly meat-and-potatoes aggro deck, albeit one with two great rares).

I’ve been averaging a little less than every other prerelease for the last few years, for a combination of reasons. I’m hoping I’ll be able to make it to the Eldritch Moon prerelease in late July.

A Long Birthday Weekend

My birthday weekends get a little more low-key over time. Having a big to-do of a party seems less appealing than it used to. Maybe for my 50th.

This weekend I decided what I mainly wanted to do as play poker, so Friday night I had five friends over for an evening of our low-stakes game. Rooting around for the new deck of cards I knew I’d bought, I looked at my order history on Amazon, and found that it had been over two and a half years since I’d hosted a game. Probably almost that long since I’d last played no-limit, too. But it was a successful evening for me, more than doubling my buy-in. I was particularly pleased with a hand where I turned two pair with a 4-straight on the board, and realized no one had the straight when they didn’t bet the turn, so I was able to make a little more money on the turn and river.

(I’ve been listening to the Thinking Poker podcast, and find it’s maybe even more instructive to learn about hand-reading by listening to it than by reading a book about it.)

Saturday was my actual birthday, and I’d thought of going to the Magic Oath of the Gatewatch prerelease, but decided that poker was probably enough gaming for the weekend. Instead I opened presents, talked to my Dad on the phone for a while, and then watched the Patriots beat the Chiefs in the playoffs.

In the evening we went to Amber India with some friends for dinner. They moved a few months ago (I think their old strip mall is going to be redeveloped soon), and their new spot has a nice outdoor patio (not suitable for this rainy weather, but should be great in the summer). The inside feels a little cramped and warm, but possibly they just have a few kinks to work out. The good news is, the food is still awesome!

Sunday was had a relatively quiet day, though in the afternoon we drove over to Half Moon Bay hoping to catch some of the rain showers we were supposed to be getting. We stopped for lunch at Cameron’s British Pub, whose English pastie was exactly what I was craving. Then we drove down the side street the pub is on and ended up at the Wavecrest open space preserve, where we hiked around for about an hour, getting our sneakers muddy and (in Debbi’s case) soaked. But it was a pretty – if blustery – day, and we had a good time. We then drove up to Point Montara Lighthouse where we sat in the car and watched the waves crash on. Alas, we never got more than some drizzle on the whole trip, which was a bit disappointing.

In the evening we started watching Person of Interest, which I’d been curious about for a while, but it never aired at good time for us. (Now that’s a concern we won’t have in the future now that we own a TiVo.) It’s good stuff, a little over-the-top, but at least as good as other police procedurals, and I understand it gets more sophisticated over time.

Oh yeah: And my company’s “gift” to me for my birthday was that we have Martin Luther King day off for the first time. So today we took care of a bunch of chores in the morning, including having a plumber over to fix two of our toilets whose gaskets were having problems. In the afternoon we had some other friends over, who hadn’t been able to join us for cupcakes on Saturday, and I played with the kids for a bit, and they chased the cats and Debbi’s BB-8 robot around for a while. We wrapped up the weekend with dinner, some more chores, and some more Person of Interest.

A pretty busy weekend in a lot of ways, but also some nice quiet time. And we did get that rain I was hoping for, but it came in last night. Wish we could get a good solid day of rain during the daytime on a weekend. But for now it looks like I’ll have to be satisfied with another shower tomorrow.

Battle for Zendikar Prerelease

I’m writing this a few weeks after the fact, but on this day I went down to Isle of Gamers in Santa Clara to play in a prerelease for the new Magic: The Gathering set, Battle for Zendikar (BFZ).

You always head to one of these sealed deck events hoping to get a nice pool of cards that works well together. In the case of BFZ, that meant a neat Allies deck, maybe a grindy Ingest-Processor deck, a ramp deck which could power out some huge threats, or a strong aggro deck with some decent removal (this last one being what I got at the Journey Into Nyx prerelease). Instead, what I opened was this:

(click for larger image)

(click for larger image)

The first thing to notice in this pool is that the cards are spread pretty evenly across all 5 colors, which meant I was struggling to come up with 23 playable non-land cards for my 40-card deck in 2 colors. I don’t think it’s possible to do without playing really bad cards like Kitesail Scout. The second thing to notice is that the pool is very short on 2-drops. If you exclude the bad 1-drops (of which my pool had 4), the pool has 7 acceptable 1- and 2-drops, but again spread across all 5 colors. Which meant whatever deck I put together had to survive to turns 3 and 4 doing basically nothing – not a good recipe. Finally, I had three big Eldrazi which were nearly unplayable because I didn’t have a good way to ramp into them before I died.

It was, in short, a dismal pool. At least I got a foil Prairie Stream as my promo card.

I played my first match with the following deck, which was Blue/Red splashing a few White cards:

First deck - Blue/Red/splash White

This is basically the worst kind of Ingest/Processor deck – card which can Ingest, but with no payoff from Processors. And I couldn’t ramp into Breaker of Armies. I should probably have replaced a Sure Strike with Smite the Monstrous, but oh well.

My opponent for this match was a 9-year-old kid playing his first prerelease. His deck was so-so, but my deck struggled to fend him off and ultimately lost a long game 1 before getting run over in game 2. My deck just didn’t have enough payoff to play for the long game.

After that match I decided to upend my deck and instead go Red/White with a Blue splash:

Second deck - Red/White/splash Blue

This was a better deck, and I won my second match 2-1 against a woman playing a pretty good Allies deck. But her deck had left out a couple of very good cards – such as Sheer Drop and Felidar Sovereign – which after we finished our match I suggested she put in. So I kind of feel like I stole a win.

And ultimately my deck still didn’t have much oomph to it, so I lost my third match 0-2 to a guy who said he’d slept only 2 hours the night before due to working late. And my fourth match also went down, though 1-2. But both times once we got to the late game their plays were just much better than mine, and I didn’t have much of an early game. So it was a mess. With one round to go I decided to call it a day, not feeling like playing for another hour for the small chance to win a pack, and with a deck that just wasn’t much fun.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think BFZ is a rough format for sealed deck. Several of its best decks have a lot of synergy, and if you have the pieces but not the payoff (as I did), then they’re not very good. There are some decks which are more modular, but I didn’t have them. Ultimately I think my pool was just too diffuse. Maybe if I’d had some keen insight I could have put together something with a little more top end that could have survived to the late game – maybe a Blue/Green with some Eldrazi. But I keep looking at it and there just isn’t very much there.

Oh well, better luck next time.

Khans of Tarkir Prerelease

This morning I drove down to Illusive Comics for the prerelease of the new Khans of Tarkir Magic set. I could hardly top my showing at last spring’s Journey Into Nyx prerelease, but I was hoping to have fun anyway.

I chose Mardu – the Black/White/Red clan with the Raid mechanic – because I basically like to attack early and often, with removal to back up my charge. I opened my packs and my pool looked like this:

(click for larger image)

(click for larger image)

I was sorely temped by the three Abzan cards (White-Black-Green) to find a way to splash Green, but I decided to stick to my guns and go with Mardu. I did consider whether I could swap out Red for Green, but my Green cards were just pretty weak that it seemed like a bad idea. Anyway, I ended up a bit pressed for creatures, wishing I had one more bomb or one more solid 3-drop. I ended up following Marshall Sutcliffe’s advice and playing 18 lands (and zero Banners, because I think the Banner suck, much like the Cluestones from Return to Ravnica sucked).

So, here’s what I ended up with:

My Khans of Tarkir prerelease deck

Besides the three nonbasic lands, I ran 5 each Plains, Swamps and Mountains. I had ten Warriors with some useful cards to enable them.

The most stressful thing about playing these tournaments for me is my opening draws, worrying about getting color screwed or mana short or flooded. Working on choosing when to mulligan has been one of the main things I’ve been working on. And with Khans being a 3-color block, that just exacerbated my worry. I’d hoped to play a 2-color deck with a splash, but that just wasn’t in the (literal) cards. So I had to hope I’d make some decent draws.

Alas, it wasn’t to be.

My good deed for the day came after the first match, where I ran over my opponent in two games. I realized afterwards that it was his first prerelease and he didn’t realize that he should play a 40-card deck, and instead put together a 65-card, 4-color monstrosity. So I helped him cut his deck down to a 3-color 40-card deck. Maybe not the best it could be, but perhaps competitive. I saw him briefly at the end of the day and he said his deck had done well after that.

Anyway, so 1-0 to me, but I felt like I hadn’t really earned it.

I lost my next three matches, and each one was a worse beating than the last. I stumbled on colors a couple of times, and I got drastically mana flooded over and over. My fourth match, against another player with a 1-2 record, saw me get badly run over in two games while drawing land after land. 18 land is only 1 more than the usual 17 for a normal block, but it was hard not for my brain to think that it was responsible for my terrible draws. But I stuck it out.

My one triumphant moment was when an opponent played Sarkhan, The Dragonspeaker, hit me for 4, and then next turn I attacked with my 3/3 into his 0/5 wall, and then killed Sarkhan with Arrow Storm. Go me! I ended up losing the game anyway.

In the final match, I gave in and swapped out a couple of lands for another nonbasic and a Banner. I somehow managed to beat him in two games running, including the second game where we both ended up ridiculously mana-flooded. So my final record was 2-3.

I was pretty disappointed in Ponyback Brigade, because the core body is so weak, and the Goblin tokens are annoying because they’re not Warriors and so not affected by all the nifty Warrior cards in the set. And the Ankle Shanker looks nifty, but it also sports a weak body and was almost immediately killed whenever I played it.

I think there are a few lessons for me to take away here:

  1. Sometimes you just have a run of terrible luck.
  2. The most important thing in the prerelease is to have fun. I picked Mardu because I thought it would give me the best chance to win, but I think I would have had more fun if I’d picked Abzan.

Despite all this, I’m looking forward to drafting the set when it’s out. Maybe I’ll see if I can head down to Illusive to draft in person a couple of times over the next few months, in addition to playing online. Though it’s too bad that their only regular draft event is Friday night – a Saturday or Sunday afternoon would probably be more convenient for me.

Magic Draft: JBT #3

We didn’t have much planned this weekend, so I did two Magic drafts.

Saturday’s draft was a Black/Red deck where I first picked King Macar, The Gold-Cursed – and then lost my connection to Magic Online, and lost my next 3 picks. I ended up with a weak deck and got blown out in the first round. While some of it was poor drafting, there were some signals late in the first pack which make me wonder if I would have taken another approach had I been able to see those three picks.

For today’s draft I decided to try the new client (since the old one is being shut down this week). My initial experience is that the client is a small improvement over the old one, particular in the draft experience, so that’s pretty nice. Also, placing the cards during a game in the middle of the battlefield rather than on the left feels better, and clicking lands to pay mana is a bit easier (it seems like you don’t have to click on a specific Swamp, just “the top Swamp in your stack of Swamps”, which is usually fine). I think I can safely say that if you spend maybe half an hour familiarizing yourself with the client, it will feel pretty familiar. (Note that I’m not saying anything about its stability, although it hasn’t crashed on me yet.)

The results of today’s draft after the cut:
Read on, Macduff! »

Magic Draft: JBT White/Black

Finally made time to do another Magic draft today. Either I was extremely lucky (very possible, as you’ll see), or this could be a turning point for me in my drafts. Possibly it was just a very weak card pool which I took advantage of. But the outcome was good!

Read on, Macduff! »

My Favorite iOS Game: Ascension

My favorite iOS game – for several years now – is Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. It’s a card game by Stone Blade, but it has an excellent iOS implementation by Playdek.

Unfortunately, it seems that the lifespan of Playdek’s version is coming to an end (more on that below), so I wanted to write a post about it before the end arrives.

Ascension is a “deck-building game”, which shares some things in common with “trading card games” (such as Magic), but has the key difference that it’s not “collectible”, which means that you can’t build better decks by spending more money on cards, and you don’t need to sink money into it to stay competitive. Rather, each game starts with each player having a pre-determined deck of cards, and there’s another set of cards which the players can acquire in the course of the game. “Acquiring” a card usually means spending some resources and putting the acquired card in their discard pile. Then when they finish going through their deck, they shuffle their discard pile into a new deck and draw from it, so they can use the cards they acquired on their last time through the deck. But the key is that players are on equal footing – everyone’s playing the game with the same pool of cards.

(By the way, probably the best-known deck-building game is Dominion, which does not have an official iOS version.)

In Ascension, each player starts with 8 Apprentice cards, which provide points (“Runes”) to acquire cards, and 2 Militia cards, which provide points (“Power”) to defeat Monsters. The rest of the cards in the set are shuffled into a draw pile, and six of them are laid out in the center row. These are the cards which can be acquired (if they’re Heroes or Constructs) or defeated (if they’re Monsters). Defeating Monsters gains the player Honor. The game starts with a pool of 60 Honor to be gained, and once the two players have gained at least 60 Honor between them, the game ends. Heroes and Constructs acquired also provide Honor (but Honor which is not counted against the pool of 60), and the winner is the player with the most Honor from defeating Monsters plus Honor from acquired cards.

Each turn a player draws 5 cards. Heroes are cards (including the Apprentice and Militia cards) which are played once that turn to provide an effect. The effect can be to provide Runes or Power, or to do things like draw more cards. Constructs are played and remain on the board, and have a continuous effect, for example to provide 1 Power each turn. Defeating Monsters can have effects besides producing Honor, they can also produce Runes, or they can have effects like making the opponent discard a card, letting you draw a card, or making them discard some of their played Constructs. When you acquire a card from the center row, or defeat a Monster in it, it gets replaced by a card from the draw pile. There are also four factions, which the Heroes and Constructs in the center row belong to, and some cards’ effects have an additional impact based on their faction.

A mid-game turn, with some of the more interesting cards from the original set in the center row. (click for larger image)

A mid-game turn, with some of the more interesting cards from the original set in the center row.
(click for larger image)

When I started playing the game I thought it was going to be a pretty simple game and I’d give up on it before long, but I soon found that it had surprising depth. It took me a little while to realize that acquired cards provide Honor – this is key because Constructs from the Mechana faction in particular provide much more Honor than other cards. But I quickly learned that the principle of acquiring better cards (basically, investing in future turns) tends to trump defeating Monsters early on, while when the pool of Honor is nearly gone you want to make a mad grab for the most valuable cards. Sometimes I’d take a balanced approach, other times I’d focus single-mindedly on building up my deck. Some cards allow you to get rid of the less-powerful cards in your deck permanently, which I tend to prioritize, even above (most) card-drawing cards.

Another turn from the same game, with the cards currently in my deck exposed.

Another turn from the same game, with the cards currently in my deck exposed.

On our trip to Hawaii in 2011 I spent a bunch of our free time playing Ascension, and got quite good at it. Then they started releasing expansions to it, available as in-app purchases. I was skeptical that there would be a lot they could do to make it more interesting, but they’ve actually come up with a lot: New effects you can trigger, new Monsters, and even just new permutations of earlier cards.

Even when I felt I had gotten as much as I could out of an expansion, I would sometimes notice a card or two which I’d rarely played with because it didn’t feel very useful, and I’d wonder whether I could craft a winning strategy around it. And usually I could – the card was there for a reason, but you had to figure out how best to use it.

Treasures of the Study is a neat card to build around if you can acquire it early.

Treasures of the Study is a neat card to build around if you can acquire it early.

The iOS app is extremely smooth: It’s very clear in showing how much Honor is left to be gained, what Constructs each player has in play, what’s in their discard piles, whether a card has been modified in some way (e.g., having its faction changed), etc. And the online multiplayer support is excellent: You start a game where each player has a certain amount of time to play all their turns, and then you can either play a fast game (e.g., a 10- or 30-minute limit), or set up a game which lasts for days, if you want to play with someone over a long period of time. And you can set up a game for others to join, and then challenge them to a rematch after each game. You can also play 3- or 4-player games. It’s really well done. I’ve got some series of games against the same opponents going back months. I’ve even made a new friend who figured out my Facebook identity after befriending me on iOS Game Center (a trick which is harder to pull off now, since Playdek uses their own servers for player identity today). At my “peak”, I had over 30 games going at once. (These days I have about 10.)

It’s hard to imagine playing the physical card game – the app does so much bookkeeping for you, from tallying players’ Honor, to shuffling their decks, to making random selections where appropriate. Despite being a “card” game, it feels designed for computerized play.

Sometimes the board gets degenerate: Here the center row is all Monsters, but as usual I have no cards providing Power.

Sometimes the board gets degenerate: Here the center row is all Monsters, but as usual I have no cards providing Power.

Sadly, the number of people playing the iOS game seems to be dwindling – I often check new games and see very few or even none available to join, when a year or two ago there would have been dozens. I believe the reason is newer expansions of the print game have not been coming to iOS, probably because Stone Blade is pulling back the rights to the game from Playdek. Early last year Stone Blade ran a Kickstarter campaign to bring Ascension to Android and PC, and I bet they plan to eventually do an iOS client of their own, playable with the Android and PC versions. If that’s the case, then the real question is whether their implementation can be as smooth, easy to use, and bug-free as Playdek’s. It’s one of the best implementations of any game I’ve seen on iOS, and I am unsure whether iOS users would accept anything less.

(The comments on the Kickstarter from May and June of this year are not very encouraging – it sounds like development is behind schedule, the last update from Stone Blade is from March, and a number of backers seem unhappy.)

In any event, the iOS version of Ascension seems to be dying, and I think Stone Blade is missing out on the chance to keep people excited about the game by not letting Playdek bringing the newer expansions to it as they come out. If the environment dies out entirely, then by the time they bring out a new client for “Ascension Online“, players like me might look at it and think, “Yeah, that was fun to play, but I’ve moved on to other things.” It seems very shortsighted.

Anyway, I’ve been enjoying the game for about three years now, and it’s sad to see it dwindling like this. On the other hand, playing it less means more time for other things. Probably not what Stone Blade has in mind, but that’s the way it’s working out. If the end is nigh, well, it’s been a good run.

Magic Draft: JBT Green/White

I’ve been wanting to occasionally post about my Magic online drafts here, though I’ve been doing pretty poorly at them so there hasn’t been a lot to say. I did two drafts today, losing the first one 0-2 in the first round, and the second one in the second round. The second draft was interesting, though, so I’ve written it up behind the cut:

Read on, Macduff! »

Journey Into Nyx Prerelease

Today I went to Illusive Comics for the prerelease for the latest Magic set, Journey Into Nyx. I haven’t been to one for a year, since the Dragon’s Maze prerelease, since I’ve been out of town for the last two prereleases.

In the primer they explained that we’d each choose a color, and get a pack seeded to encourage us to play that color, and that one of the cards therein might be one of the gods which had the color we chose, as well as a promotional card in our color. I looked at the promo cards and thought the White and Green ones were probably the best, and that the Red/White god (Iroas) and the White/Black god (Athreos) would be the most fun to play, so I picked White as my color.

Indeed, I opened Athreos in my seeded pack – and then also got Iroas in another pack! I had really wanted to play White/Black, but it turned out that Black was my weakest color. Red, Green and Blue were all pretty good, so since I wanted to play a god, I played White/Red. (One person was surprised I didn’t try to splash black for Athreos, but I felt it would hurt my deck’s consistency.)

Here’s a picture of the cards I opened:

Card Pool

(click to enlarge)

And here are the cards I decided to play:

Deck List

Definitely an aggressive deck – not much of a top-end, but several good answers to threats, and a lot of the strong components from the Theros set.

I had a shaky first match, against a White/Blue deck. We split the first two games, and then he decided to swap his Blue for Black, but it didn’t matter since my army got off to a good start. His Blue and Black looked very similar in power when we examined his deck afterwards, but in both cases he was struggling to have 23 playables. I think his Blue was a bit better because he had some good flyers, and I think that’s what he went with.

The second match was against White/Green, and felt almost unfair, because he got badly mana-flooded. In both games he played Font of Fertility late in the game, fetched a land – and then drew another land on his next turn. And he was playing 16 land! He was thinking of cutting a land, but he had a reasonable top end of 5-drops and I suggested he drop some mana acceleration for more creatures because he wasn’t really accelerating into anything great.

My third match was against Green/Blue, which was a couple of really close games, but I managed to jump out to an early lead and put the game away with flyers even as I ran out chump blockers against Heroes’ Bane. I was worried that his Sigiled Starfish would dig to find the answers he needed, but it didn’t come to pass. The second game was the only game where I played Iroas, and it made a difference.

In the fourth match I got to sit in the comfy chair at Table 1. Whee! My opponent was playing another Green/White deck, and said he was playing all five events this weekend. I feel tired just thinking about it. This was the closest match of the day with us trading off weenies and removal spells, and if they’d called time one minute earlier we would have drawn the match, but I managed to win on the final turn. Whew! He also had Ajani in the final game, but it wasn’t quite enough.

The fifth match was an anticlimax, against a Green/Black deck. He didn’t draw very well in the first game, and in the second game I curved out perfectly and just ran him over.

Almost five hours after I arrived, I’d 5-0’ed the prerelease! Definitely my best showing ever!

A few card notes:

  • Non-combo of the day: Iroas (which prevents damage to your attacking creatures) and Archetype of Courage (which gives your creatures First Strike). They don’t quite do the same thing, but pretty close.
  • Successfully mulliganed a sketchy hand (5 land, 2 Magma Spray) after having not mulliganed similar hands several times in the past – and won the game, which decided that match.
  • Armament of Nyx is a tricky card to play. I was constantly resisting putting it on one of my mediocre enchantment creatures, and was consistently rewarded with using it to shut down a much bigger threat.
  • There’s a little debate about the value of Skyspear Cavalry. My experience was that as a 3/5 flyer it’s a good card, but not a finisher. As a 2/4 flyer giving a +1/+1 counter to something else, it’s about the same. Probably will be playable in most White decks, but a bit of a skill-testing card in tricky situations.
  • Not sure what I think of Constellation yet. Harvestguard Alseids were just a 2/3 body for me, and I didn’t see anyone else get value out of a Constellation card, either, though I did insta-kill Eidolon of Blossoms twice.
  • I got to see first-hand how ineffectual Archetype of Finality is: I had him on the ropes, he spends 6 mana, and just gets a 2/3 body out of it? You’d think it would be something that could at least survive a burn spell, which is what I used on it. I think Cyclops of Eternal Fury has a similar problem – I had one and didn’t run it. But at least the Cyclops comes with 5 power attached.
  • Someone at the store described Colossus of Akros as a “trap card”, which I can see, although I have also heard of it taking over some games. I only smelled 7 land, never mind 8 or 10, in one game, so I was happy to have sized it up as not right for my deck.
  • The guys at Limited Resources are not believers in Dakra Mystic. It’s a weird card, but I have a feeling that it’s going to a find a home somewhere in limited. Probably in some sort of control deck.
  • Heliod’s Emissary: Still awesome. Whether you Bestow it or not.

I like playing at Illusive. Even though I don’t go often enough to really know folks there, everyone is really friendly and chatty. And although I was delighted to win, I tried not to take it too seriously. I enjoy breaking down decks with people after each match. I certainly don’t feel like I know more about selecting cards or constructing decks than other people, but I think I have a few insights.

After the event I was chatting with a group of folks who had been there (one was the fellow from my last match), and they asked me how long I’d been playing. I said I’d gotten into it during Ice Age, and I’m pretty sure I could see the wheels turning that none of them had been older than 10 when that set came out. Maybe I look younger than I think!

I got pretty lucky with a strong card pool, but I’m pretty happy with choices I made for me deck, and my play overall. I could have gone 3-2 or even 2-3 if things had broken differently, but I also gave myself some opportunities to win. Maybe I’m turning the corner on this limited format stuff.

Illusive Comics

Apparently it can be expensive to take down a “grand opening” banner – Illusive has been around for several years now