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MTG Arena and the CCG Shakedown

Wizards recently announced they are working on a new digital client for Magic the Gathering called MTG Arena. While a lot is up in the air about a lot of the details surrounding MTG Arena, what they have shown to start looks promising – especially for anything with an “alpha” status. That being said – the devil is in the details as the saying goes – and as The Professor recently pointed out there is plenty of room for Wizards to get those details wrong.

People have been asking me for my thoughts on Arena since it spoiled so today I would like to share my thoughts about the most important thing a lot of the digital card games today mess up for me: How I can acquire cards to play.

Almost every digital card game coming out in the last couple of years has been copying the Hearthstone model verbatim. For those unfamiliar this means there is no trading. The only way you can get cards is by buying booster packs or by “crafting” the specific cards you want.

The frustrating aspect of this system for someone like myself who just wants to play competitive cards games is that you can’t actually give me a specific price on how much it costs to build a deck at any given point. The cost is going to vary based on how many of the cards I actually need, I am lucky enough to open from packs.

Not only does this make the system you have to go through to acquire the cards you want convoluted, it also often makes it expensive. While it is true that paper Magic and MTGO are also expensive to acquire cards, in reality these games only have a high up front cost. The cards in games that offer trading hold value. This means if I spend $100 on tradable cards that I know I can get at least $70 back for later, I have ultimately spent less money than if I put $50 into building a deck in a CCG. Even though it was a cheaper upfront cost for the CCG, it cost me more in the long term. So not only did I have to jump through hoops to get the cards I wanted to play with, but it ends up costing me more money as well.

Past all of this – what if I do not like the deck I’ve crafted in a CCG? What if I built it early in a new format and it is no longer viable as the metagame becomes established? Many who have played CCGs in the past know the “dusting” conversion rate is generally not kind. Often it is a 1/4th ratio – meaning that if I want to change to a different deck I either have to invest more money or lose 75% of the investment I have in the cards for my current deck.

The biggest thing I have heard over and over again from some Magic players when saying I dislike the Hearthstone system is that they dislike how MTGO handles things. There is no free to play option on MTGO so many take this to mean that no middle ground can exist. They think that trading and free to play have to be mutually exclusive things. They are not mutually exclusive though.

You can have a system that allows free to play players to grind the game for endless hours as they enjoy, while also allowing trading to exist for someone like myself. We have two working examples of how a digital card game can implement systems that involve free to play and trading in Pokemon TCGO and Hex TCG.

So please WOTC – if you are out there reading this – give us trading in Arena. Not only would this make the digital game feel more like a paper game, but it would allow more people such as myself to justify investing time and resources into it. It will show us that you are invested in giving us a full Magic experience with Arena and it is not just another digital offering that you are going to use to suck money out of consumers and then ditch down the line.

Improving Tie Breakers in Events

Something that has always confused me in TCGs is how we run events today with hundreds or even thousands of people the same way we used to run events with just a couple dozen. We play some Swiss rounds based on the number of players and then cut to the top 8 players because it squares a bracket nicely.

Because of the way this is done we often have spots in these single elimination rounds being decided by tie breakers which are determined by the strength of opponents played in the event. Because no one has any control over who they play, this makes tie breakers random. Because TCGs have enough variance in them I personally would love to see some methods tried that could reduce this often frustrating variance Today I would like to talk about one possible alternative method.

We start by playing a number of Swiss rounds based on our event size. We would use the current round thresholds minus one. So, for example, with 65-128 players we would play six rounds of Swiss. At the end of swiss we do a single elimination cut with all the players who finished with an X-1 record or better.

Because we are cutting based on record, we will often not have a perfectly square amount of players. Now we use tie breakers from the event to square the bracket by handing out byes to the players with the best records. For example, if we had a 125 player event we would likely have 14 players who are 5-1 or better after six rounds. This means we would need to hand out two byes in the first round of single elimination, so the players who finished first and second after the swiss would get a bye.

Folks who are familiar with brackets will note this creates an additional round of single elimination when we have nine or more players who finish X-1 or better. This is fine though because we removed a round from the Swiss portion of the event. This means events are at most the same length as we are used to them being for the players who make the top cut, while also being shorter for a majority of the people playing.

While I think my suggested method here would likely be an improvement over the current system which we have been using for ages, I would not be surprised if there are even better solutions out there. I just find it surprising, and kind of annoying, that we have been using the same tournament format for decades without ever exploring other options.

Returning to Magic Online

A little over a year ago I wrote a short post on this same blog talking about how I was taking a hiatus from streaming / playing Magic Online. Those of you who follow my Twitch.tv page know that I picked the application up again in May of this year and I have had more than a few people ask why – today I am going to answer that question.

First – while Magic Online is far from a perfect piece of software – there is no doubting that it currently offers the best competitive experience out of any digital card game. People often talk about games like Hearthstone, Eternal, and others being “competitive”, but when you look for actual events to play in you find none. Sure, they have competitive ladders where you earn in-game rewards, but a “normal” person can never pay an entry and win something that they turn into something tangible.

On Magic Online you can. In addition to playing in on-demand leagues for prizes Magic Online has five challenge events in five different constructed formats you can play every weekend. The entry fee is $25 and the prizes break down as follows:

Place Prizes
1st 500 Play Points, 100 Treasure Chests, and 1 non-foil set of the most recent Standard-legal set
2nd 500 Play Points and 75 Treasure Chests
3rd-4th 400 Play Points and 50 Treasure Chests
5th-8th 400 Play Points and 25 Treasure Chests
9th-16th 300 Play Points and 10 Treasure Chests
17th-32nd 250 Play Points

For those who are unfamiliar with MTGO prizing:

  • “Play Points” are essentially MTGO event credit. They are worth about 10 cents each, so the 250 Play Points you get for 17th-32nd represent 25 USD worth of new event entries.
  • “Treasure Chests” are tradable items that you can also open. They contain random cards, play points, and event booster packs. The average sale price of a Treasure Chest generally ranges somewhere between just over 2 USD and 2.5 USD.
  • A 1x copy of the latest set of MTGO is generally worth at least 40 USD.

For those who would like a rough estimate – low balling chests at 2 USD each of these challenge events pays out 900~ USD in items you can resell for cash to a vendor such as MTGO Traders and another 1000~ USD in prizes you can use to enter more events (even other challenge events).

As someone who has spent many weekends in the last few years driving two or more hours to play in events that paid out a 1000 USD to the top 8 only while charging a 30 USD entry fee – playing from my home, with optional pants, in an event with a lower entry fee and higher prize pool is fantastic.

Because I have managed to win two different challenge events in the last month – I am probably a little bit biased when I say this – but these events are great. They allow me to play a competitive card event from my home, without giving up my entire weekend or even entire day to do so.

This past weekend I played seven rounds of swiss, plus three more rounds in the top 8 and was done by 6pm so I could take my kids to the park. On the days where I have a less than stellar performance I am not stuck rotting in a convention center or LGS waiting for the rest of my car to be done playing so I can move on with my day. I can simply go hang out with family and friends at home or just jump in some on demand events if I want to game some more.

Now that my kids are a bit older I do not really want to travel 30+ weekends a year to play in a bunch of large Magic events like I have in years past. While I still encounter some bugs on occasion, the convenience MTGO provides while still allowing Magic to be a competitive outlet is one I am grateful for.

Summer Hex Schedule

Summer is almost here so I am pushing my schedule around a small bit to accommodate more time outside with the kids. Since I’ve expanded into doing some original YouTube content now as well, I am going to use some of that to supplement my schedule, with the goal being putting out some amount of new content every day.

My Summer schedule at a minimum will be the following:

  • Monday – New Hero Battle Video on YouTube
  • Tuesday – Live Stream on Twitch noon CST start time
  • Wednesday – New Hero Battle Video on YouTube
  • Thursday – Live Stream on Twitch noon CST start time
  • Friday – Live Stream on Twitch 9am CST start time
  • Saturday & Sunday – New Draft Videos with full commentary on YouTube

While I enjoy drafting like crazy, I think putting out videos every day was not only stretching myself a bit, but it was stretching how much content people had time to watch – especially on the days where I had stream archives posting as well. Only doing two pre-recorded drafts a week means I can make sure they all have full commentary for the draft and game play portions.

This schedule change will take place starting this weekend. Thanks everyone for watching and as always extra thanks to everyone who supports my content directly on Twitch and Patreon.

 

Draft a Day Week 3 Contest

I am posting a new HexTCG draft video every single day at midnight PST. To make the experience a bit more interactive I’ve added a small contest to the mix.

At the end of each week you can comment on a post like this with the record you think each draft deck performed at. The person who is closest to predicting the record of all 7 decks will earn a free draft set in client (3 packs + 100 plat). If multiple people are closest or exactly correct in a given week a winner will be chosen at random.

This week’s draft videos:

Free hints for this week:

  • Five of these decks went 3-0.
  • One was so bad I dropped after losing the first match.
    Leave a comment on this post with your predictions for the seven decks! All entries must be commented on this post before 10pm on Thursday the 6th PST time zone.

Updated: Pio correctly guessed all seven entries. Thanks for everyone who entered.

Modernizing the Grind, Digital is the Future

You could say I’ve played a lot of Magic the Gathering in the last few years. Just by the numbers I’ve played 1350~ sanctioned matches at competitive REL, across 102 weekends between the start of 2014 and the end of 2016. This year has been a bit different though. 2017 is a quarter over as I write this and so far I’ve played around 30 sanctioned matches of Magic this year.

So what changed this year to make me go from playing major Magic events every other weekend to barely playing at all? Well, if you have followed me for awhile you know I have been enjoying HexTCG a good deal for the last year. Their constructed formats have been consistently well designed – they have the diversity of Magic’s modern format, without ever having to worry about dying on turn 2 or 3.

Good game play and diverse formats are not enough for me as a competitive player, though. Even though I had been enjoying Hex’s constructed more than Magic for the better part of the last year, my competitive drive kept sending me back to Magic events for the chance to compete in large events.

At the end of last year though Hex started amping up their organized play by adding a $5000 cash event that happens every other month. While that total number pales in comparison to current Magic events, when you factor in the cost of travel and entries fees playing a $5000 cash event from my home is easily higher expected profit. Then this weekend Hex is rolling out the next big expansion to their competitive events I can play from home – weekly, open entry sealed events that pay out $1000 cash plus valuable in game items that are tradable.

I find it much easier to enjoy an event when I am not starting out the weekend down anywhere between $100-$500 due to travel costs. Flying across the country to 2-3 drop an event feels awful while going 2-3 drop from my home allows me to spend the rest of my day with my family or working on other things. TCGs have variance by design, so even though I have a fairly reasonable 65%~ win rate across those 1000+ matches of Magic, I can never expect a return on a given trip.

While I still plan to play local Magic events here and there (in fact, last weekend I won a team constructed event with some friends) I will not be traveling nearly as much this year with all Hex has to offer now. Personally I am excited for what the future of Hex can hold. While other digital card games have high prize events for their top 1% of players, no others that I have played offer consistent regular events that just anyone can play for cash prizes from home.

If you are a TCG player looking for something to scratch that competitive itch for you without the risk / cost associated with traveling for paper TCG events then I would highly recommend giving Hex a try. If you want to read a bit more about Hex and all the events they currently offer check out my post on Hex Primal here.

Draft a Day Week 2 Contest

I am posting a new HexTCG draft video every single day at midnight PST. To make the experience a bit more interactive I’ve added a small contest to the mix.

At the end of each week you can comment on a post like this with the record you think each draft deck performed at. The person who is closest to predicting the record of all 7 decks will earn a free draft set in client (3 packs + 100 plat). If multiple people are closest or exactly correct in a given week a winner will be chosen at random.

This week’s draft videos:

Leave a comment on this post with your predictions for the seven decks! All entries must be commented on this post before 10pm on Thursday the 30th PST time zone.

Results:

#8 – https://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/11114907232042851337
#9 – https://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/8854043270689645746
#10 – https://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/16198934047949389771
#11 – https://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/10009447147288165861
#12 – https://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/5627992530974676405
#13 – https://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/7146170585232453737
#14 – https://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/5964500433559060225

Radbot correctly guessed six this week! Congrats.

Draft a Day Week 1 Contest

Howdy Folks! Seven days ago I started a new feature on my YouTube channel where I am posting a new HexTCG draft video every single day at midnight PST. To make the experience a bit more interactive I wanted to add a small contest to the mix.

At the end of each week you can comment on a post like this with the record you think each draft deck performed at. The person who is closest to predicting the record of all 7 decks will earn a free draft set in client (3 packs + 100 plat). If multiple people are closest or exactly correct in a given week a winner will be chosen at random.

This week’s draft videos:

Leave a comment on this post with your predictions for the seven decks! All entries must be commented on this post before 10pm on Thursday the 23rd PST time zone.

Update: 

The contest for this first week is now closed. Congrats to Nick Ingram for guessing 5 out of 7 record successfully.

If you would like to see the results of each of these decks and what they played against check the links below:

#1: 3-0 http://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/14832361040344954614
#2: 2-1 http://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/9381670620152385841
#3: 1-2 http://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/8625830553173812776
#4: 3-0 http://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/7559767893589314005
#5: 2-1 http://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/4591059468423724429
#6: 3-0 http://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/9052143227406061737
#7: 1-2 http://hexpvptools.net/draft/gauntlet_run/1324013380821767431

Five Things Hex does better than Magic

Ban / Watch List Transparency

Something that I would love to have in Magic is the level of transparency Hex has provided in their non-rotating format “Immortal”. Not only do they provide a reason for the things that they ban, but they let the players know which items are on a “Watch List” for potential bannings in the future. This way when new players are looking to invest in a non-rotating deck they have the knowledge up front if they should be worried about their purchase being banned in the near future.

Better Opening Hands

Hex leverages the fact that it is a digital game to allow everyone to mulligan less. Using a probability distribution Hex takes all of the possible opening hands a given deck can produce and eliminates the 10% most resource light hands and 5% most resource dense hands from being possibilities.

This means a large portion of your hands that would be automatic mulligans simply do not exist. Everyone mulligans less and more actual games are played.

 

Flooding Out Hurts Less

In Hex each player selects a champion when building their deck. Each champion has a power that you can activate after collecting enough “charges”. Each resource you play in Hex provides one of these charges in addition to providing a normal resource / color identity. These powers do everything from drawing cards to impacting the board directly:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Digital Design Space

Because Hex is a digital only card game it is not bound to using game mechanics that are easy to implement in paper / are necessary to ensure people are not cheating. Both of these cards would be difficult to resolve “honestly” in a competitive paper card game:


 

 

 

 

 

Because the computer is tracking things instead of people, cards that get modified can be tracked across zones in Hex. Cards you take control of from your opponent’s board can be put into your discard pile or even shuffled back into your deck. Cards that would create tokens in Magic create actual cards instead. These created cards can be discarded or returned to your hand – instead of just ceasing to exist like a token.


Software

When you hear Magic compared to other digital card games you often hear the defense “Magic is more complicated than other games” for why MTGO is poor software. Hex is easily as complex as Magic is in terms of game play, and while Hex is not perfect, it looks and feels like a modern piece of software.

In addition to having a free to play ladder with competitive match making based on MMR, Hex has regular events that pay out cash prizes that you play from home.

If you want to learn more about how Hex works and the events they have you can check out my intro piece here. If you want to start playing Hex yourself for free you can go download it on Steam now.

Pokemon TCG – The Good, The Odd, The Frustrating

This past weekend I attended my first major Pokemon TCG event. As someone who has played in hundreds of sanctioned Magic events to date, it was an interesting experience for many reasons. Today I am going to write a bit about my experience which was composed of good, strange, and frustrating moments.

Let’s start with the good, shall we?

First of all, Pokemon is an incredibly interesting game. While gameplay is simple to learn the basics of, the average competitive game is fairly complex and most decks contain lots of sequencing decisions every game. The resource management in the game is fairly different coming from other card games like Magic and I am enjoying learning my way around. If you want to learn the basics of getting started check out this video from TCC here.

One of the things I really like about Pokemon’s organized play is that all of their events are broken up into age divisions. This means, unlike at a Magic Grand Prix or Open, you can never play against a small child at a competitive Pokemon event as an adult. Their age brackets are 11 and under, 12-15, and 16+.


The price point of the event was amazing compared to similar Magic events. As someone who was used to paying $50 for an SCG open and who skips Grand Prix that cost $80-100, the $30 entry fee that included a playmat, promo, and lanyard / badge was a great value.

The check-in process for the event was great. Instead of having a player meeting where decklists are collected, players wait in line to check in and turn in their decklists. Before the decklists are collected they are validated that they contain 60 cards that are all legal in the format. While it takes a bit more time, the event had more than adequate staffing and with 20~ people checking decklists everything moved along fairly quickly.


The video coverage of the event was very professional. It was high quality with hand cameras and even cameras under the table to show which cards each player had prized. Seeing it for yourself is better than my explaining it, so check out the archives on their twitch channel here.

Next, let’s talk about some of the oddities of the Pokemon Tournament rules.

First, they do not have a round timer at events. You also cannot find out how much time is remaining in a round by asking a judge. They feel that knowing the amount of time remaining encourages stalling as the round nears its end. The result of this strange rule is that players who know about this bring watches to events and note the time a round starts. This is effectively the same as having a round clock, but only for the players “in the know”.

After hearing the thought process for why there is not a round clock, I was fairly surprised by Pokemon’s slow play rules which allow for legal stalling. You are allowed 30 seconds for every game action in Pokemon before you can get a slow play warning. I watched multiple players over the course of the weekend go from lightning fast play at the start of a game, to taking 30 full seconds for every game action they took in a third game as they started losing to force a draw. Draw your card for the turn? Count to 30. Play a card that draws a few cards? Count to 30. Attach an energy to a Pokemon you control? Count to 30. If you have played Pokemon before you know that you often take many actions in a turn and this allowed for forced draws by taking 5+ minute turns where very little actually happened.

Unlike a priority based game like Magic where you have both players taking actions back and forth fairly quickly, because Pokemon largely has one person playing and then the other I am fairly surprised they do not use chess clocks instead of a single timer. It would be fairly practical and eliminate the idea of slow play all together.

The next thing I found kind of strange is that an event that pays out prizes to the top 64 players only invites the top 32 players back to play on the second day. This means people who could finish higher in the event are removed from play before they have a chance to improve their record. It also means half the people who collect prizes from the event did not even play the entire event.

Some cards in Pokemon involve coin flips. Many players, myself included, use a die roll instead of a coin flip because it is easier to control a die from going off the table than it is a coin. Pokemon has a rule that you are required to use clear dice for any coin flips because they feel it is harder to weight a clear die. No idea if this is true or not, but the rule felt strange.

When playing a game your deck is required to be facing you and your opponent. It cannot be on an angle or facing left / right. The spirit behind this has to do with preventing cheating also and it is not a big deal, but again just felt strange.

With all the rules in place to prevent potential abuse while playing, something that felt truly odd is that “open face” shuffling is something that was common place. Essentially, players shuffled their decks in a manner that allowed them to see which cards were going into which portions of their deck while doing so. When asking a judge about this I was informed it was acceptable since I was allowed to randomize their deck after. Very different from the culture of Magic where the competitive players mostly know to look in the opposite direction of any deck they are shuffling to avoid any abuse while shuffling.

The last rule that caught me by surprise was that you are not allowed to leave your discard pile displayed while playing. Like many TCGs, Pokemon has cards that allow the player to use their discard pile as a resource. When I play a deck like this in Magic, I always leave my discard pile neatly displayed so at a glance both players can see the name of every card in my discard pile. It generally saves time and it gives away less information when I draw a card that cares about my discard pile. Your discard pile needs to be in a single pile with just the top card visible when you are not holding it to look through it.

Finally, I would like to close this piece talking about an unfortunate situation during the last round I played in the event.

I was playing my Rainbow Road deck against an opponent playing M Gard After losing a fairly quick game one we settled for a longer game two. My opponent had a slow time setting up and I was able to put myself into a fairly commanding position. I had just two prizes remaining, meaning I just needed to knock out just one more of their Pokemon, while they still had five prizes.

My opponent played a card that allowed them to search their deck and pulled out a card called Karen that had no impact on the current board where they were going to lose the following turn. My opponent then said “I’ll play first” which is casual language implying a concession that is used on occasion, because the player who lost chooses who goes first in the following game. In fact, it was what I said when I conceded the first game.

Because the language was casual though, I always ask for a confirmation. I asked my opponent:  “That’s the game then?” to which he replied “Yea” and began picking up his cards. As I shuffled up for game three he picked up the match slip and began to fill it out, confused I said “We have a game three still” to which he responded with “No, you conceded.”

Not being a stranger to TCGs, I simply called a judge. The judge came over and my opponent explained what had happened accurately, but said he thought I was conceding the game at the end. He explained that he felt I was conceding to his card that did not impact the board, while he was losing the game on my following turn as the board state was. I felt pretty bad, the kid was, at-most, twenty and it seemed like we just had our communication crossed. I should have been more formal and gotten a full “I concede” from my opponent before moving on.

The judge goes to get the head judge. We both explain what happened again, only this time instead of explaining why I would concede with lethal on board, my opponent embellished his story and says “You said ‘I concede’”. At this point every bit of sympathy drains from my body. This kid likely knew exactly what he was doing. The judges did not care that his story changed from one instance to another.

The result was that since the best they could determine without taking sides was we both conceded, the result was a double game loss that meant the person who won the first game won the match. I was surprised and frustrated by this result. I thought at worst here I was simply going to have to win two more games in this match. In Magic when simultaneous game losses happen they simply cancel each other out as opposed to turning the match into a best of one.

The thing that shocked me the most about the process, though, was we were not informed an investigation was happening as a result of this match. My opponent had flat out lied to a judge and it was not going to be looked into. I wonder how many times my opponent had won the first game in a bad match up and then lied their way into a match win in a similar “miscommunication”.

It really made me appreciate how fair, thorough, and reasonable the Magic judge policies are in most instances.

Wrapping Up

The result of my interactions with the judges at the Pokemon event left me feeling not only frustrated, but more than a little bit disappointed. Pokemon is a truly interesting and fun card game that I was having a good time playing. I had invested not only a few hundred dollars in paper cards, but also another couple hundred dollars and two days of my time to play in this event. The fact that Pokemon’s system allows for such blatant abuse with no repercussion or investigation is truly terrible. While I plan to continue to play online when I want some amusement, the whole experience left me sour to Pokemon’s organized play. Allowing your players the ability to legally stall and lie without repercussion is not something I want from a game I am looking to play competitively.

To close on a good note, I would like to give a shout out to the TO of the event – Yeti Gaming. Their event was well run and they went the extra mile for customer service when I requested a refund of my entry due to my sour interaction with the judges.