Interesting to play against

Eternal has a lot of mechanics.  Some of them are more interesting to play against than others.  I’d like to see Eternal head in a direction where interesting game mechanics get pushed in terms of power level.  Less fun/interesting mechanics should be nerfed and controlled so that they do not see mainstream play- they can add variety to the game without taking a big slice of the metagame.

(Obviously, I do not expect Direwolf Digital to do this, e.g. they introduced Throne Warden.)

Interesting decisions and variance mechanics

Let’s start with a look at variance in games.  There are three main approaches:

  1. No randomness at all, e.g. Chess.
  2. “Bad” variance, e.g. Eternal’s resource system.  It is possible to draw only 2 power (of the wrong influence) and literally be unable to make a single action in the entire game.
  3. “Good” variance, e.g. Siraf.  What comes out of Siraf’s ultimate is very random.  It can be an amazing unit such as Icaria.  Or it can be a terrible unit like Idol of Destran, which will die right away.

It seems obvious to me that the variance from Siraf is much more desirable than the variance from Eternal’s resource system.  While non-games are not that frequent, they are honestly a waste of everybody’s time.  Hearthstone and other CCGs have solved this problem… why non-games exists in Eternal is disappointing.

Too much variance?

I understand that variance is controversial.  Some players, especially highly-skilled competitive players, would prefer lower variance and higher skill caps.  Hearthstone has been criticized for having too much variance and a low skill cap, especially from highly-skilled pros who cannot even qualify for top tournaments.  However, variance is a tool that the designers use to create fun experiences and crazy stories.  Hearthstone does not cater solely to the tiny percentage of its playerbase that operates at the highest skill levels.

Given Hearthstone’s commercial success, I certainly don’t think that their approach is wrong.

However, Eternal does do things that Hearthstone does not.  I stopped playing Hearthstone a long time ago so clearly Eternal is doing something right.

Great mechanics in Eternal

The sweepers in Eternal are examples of good game design.

These sweepers have a lot of strategic depth to them.  The control player has to think about whether it’s worth waiting a turn to try to extract more value out of the sweeper.  The beatdown player has to think about whether or not to commit more units to the board.

Both of these cards are easy for new players to understand.  There are no weird rules interactions.  It’s not like Permafrost where it’s unclear as to how you deal with Permafrost (the silence interaction is not obvious).  The cards have very little text.  It is easy to understand what they do.

They are by no means original designs- Lightning Storm is Pyroclasm and Harsh Rule is an appropriately-costed Wrath of God.  But originality is not important- some people would love to play Magic the Gathering Online with a client that doesn’t suck.  And because MtG has thousands of cards, the game has already covered a huge amount of design space so it’s hard not to repeat something that Magic has done.

Eternal also has some great original mechanics of its own.

icaria2ctheliberator

Icaria is a great finisher.  She is powerful without being an insta-win.  She is beatable, with multiple weaknesses.  Most decks in the current metagame have ways of dealing with her.

The Warcry 5 pushes the game towards a conclusion.  If Icaria doesn’t end the game, the warcried unit or relic weapon will sometimes finish the job.  Unlike Eye of Winter, she does not make the game drag on forever.  And by spreading out her power level onto a card that will come later (via Warcry), the opponent has windows of opportunity for counterplay.

Less interesting mechanics in Eternal

Games aren’t fun when you can’t do anything.  If you are stuck on 2 power and your only option is passing the turn… the game will be miserable.  That is one extreme where you literally cannot do anything.

There are some strategies that opponents use that can take away interesting decisions.  Lock strategies based on Eye of Winter and Stronghold’s Visage tend to take away interesting decisions and make games drag on forever.  Yes, some decks have ways of getting out of the Eye of Winter + piles of answers lock.  But I don’t think it’s particularly fun to play against, especially because the games drag on forever.

Azindel’s Gift, while interesting conceptually, is not particularly fun to play against.  You don’t have many lines of play when you are forced to ditch your hand at the end of the turn.

Cards that add armor occasionally lead to locking out an opponent.  When relic weapons stick around, the Armory player will use the relic weapon to clear the opponent’s board.  (The Armory player generally doesn’t even have a choice in the matter.)  That is why Throne Warden is a mistake- the reason why you would play him is because he will occasionally contribute to a lock situation where the opponent cannot have a board.  His mechanic is (occasionally) creating lock situations.

thronewarden

Personally, Throne Warden is a turnoff.  I’ll probably take another hiatus from Eternal if the developers insist on pushing unfun game mechanics.  DWD can do whatever they want to their game and I can do whatever I want with my time.

Catering to new players

As a high-ranked Eternal player with over a thousand games played, perhaps I lack perspective on the new player experience and what most players experience.  The balance at the highest rungs of ladder is different than the lower levels of play.  It’s possible that some decks (especially ones without tutors) are more powerful at the lower ladder ranks.  As well, highly-skilled players are very sensitive to balance changes relative to new players.  Also, the metagame is presumably different- new players will face off against more jank and bad decks that utilize lock strategies.

It would make sense for DWD to focus more of their balance and design efforts on what most players experience.  But I doubt that they are really doing this.  For example, the Siraf nerf had only a minor effect on constructed play but adds a lot of unnecessary complexity for new players:

The original Siraf did not have the words “and exhaust”.  Unlike Feln Bloodcaster (and Pyroknight), using the unit’s ability will exhaust the unit and make it unable to block.  Another downside is that her exhaust ability creates more board complexity- Siraf doesn’t always generate a blocker because Idol of Destran is a possible hit.  So, her ability has downside unlike the original Siraf- activating her can potentially cause you to lose the game.  Lastly, the nerf makes Siraf’s ability vulnerable to Permafrost, a card that is confusing to new players.  It’s weird that DWD nerfed Withering Witch due to weird rules interactions yet they buffed Permafrost via the Siraf nerf.

DWD is embarking on a strange path where they are introducing more unnecessary complexity to the game without creating more gameplay depth.

Balance is hard

Perhaps I am being unfair to Direwolf Digital- the card pool is very complex.  It took months for people to realize the power of the burn cards Obliterate and Flameblast.  I certainly don’t blame them for missing the power level of the Stonescar burn variants.  Perhaps the Siraf nerf seemed like a good idea at the time.

Still, some of their balance decisions are a little baffling.  Back in closed beta, Champion of Chaos was not considered an overpowered card.  Big Combrei was the “best” deck at the time.  Players weren’t really complaining about ChaCha.

Balance problems emerged when players started running Obliterate and Flameblast in Stonescar aggro.  A perfectly reasonable response would be to nerf the burn spells, since things were fine before Stonescar aggro started playing burn.  It seemed obvious to me that the burn spells should be nerfed over the units since the burn spells aren’t as interesting to play against as unit-based combat.  The Stonescar burn mirror was miserable to play since the burn spells would be used as removal and the mirror mostly came down to the player who drew better.  (The original Stonescar aggro mirrors were actually really interesting to play because both players had a board and was fairly skill-intensive.)

Things were fine before people started playing burn spells.  But… ChaCha was nerfed instead of the burn spells.  So I really don’t understand why DWD leaves unfun mechanics in a Tier 1 deck and decides to nerf aggressive units instead.  Long-term, burn may be difficult to balance since the burn spells synergize with aggressive units.  DWD needs to be careful about making constructed-playable aggressive units in any of the fire faction pairs (or monofire).  It seems simpler to nerf the burn spells that are not interactive and difficult to balance.

My criticism is that DWD makes balance changes without considering whether or not a card is interesting to play against.  Frontier Jito was nerfed even though the problematic cards in Jito were Rally and Bandit Queen (and to a lesser extent Lurking Sanguar).  People disliked Jito because of the Turn 4 kills and the unbeatable god hands.  Jito created a lot of non-games.  It was Rally and Bandit Queen that really enabled those turn 4 kills.  Bandit Queen was the real offender in terms of creating uninteresting games; Rally was something that you could block.

To be clear, my criticism is not related to having an unbalanced meta.  Of the metagames that I played in, only Party Hour and the beginning of Open Beta (Big Burn / aggro) were unbalanced.  I don’t fault them for either metagames being unbalanced.  And while the best decks have constantly been hit with nerfs, I am not calling for constant nerfs for whatever the best deck happens to be.

The best deck / going to valuetown

There will always be a single deck that is more powerful than the rest- I don’t see a way around that problem.  Being difficult to disrupt is a characteristic that makes a deck good.  Unfortunately, a lack of interactivity tends to be “unfun”.  Party Hour had a one-turn kill combo that was difficult to disrupt.  (Though I’m not going to lie… I really enjoyed Party Hour even though it was unbalanced.)  If a deck’s synergies are easy to disrupt, it is unlikely that the deck would emerge as the best deck.

The best that you can hope for is a value-oriented deck being the best deck, such as what happened when Big Combrei was dominant.  Big Combrei doesn’t do anything unfair, didn’t kill you on Turn 4, isn’t a proactive aggro deck like Stonescar Burn, and doesn’t feature a one-turn kill combo.  Big Combrei being the best deck did lead to a diverse and healthy metagame.

The alternative is a rock-paper-scissors metagame with three (or more) different linear decks doing busted things.  However, they happen to have bad matchups against another deck so they never really truly emerge as the best deck.  Armory for example inherently has a rock-paper-scissorsness to it.  I don’t think that this is as healthy since highly-synergistic linear decks can create uninteresting gameplay, such as Armory denying the opponent from having a board.  Another downside to linear decks is that they can be high variance- some decks rely on drawing the right synergy pieces (e.g. all-in Jito Queen).  Lastly, getting the balance right can be very difficult.

So, it’s up to the designers and the balance team to figure out what the end goal should be.  What do they want the best deck to look like?  Do they want a value-oriented deck like Big Combrei?  Do they want a combo deck like Party Hour?  Do they want an aggro-esque deck like Stonescar Burn?

It seems like the way to go is to push reactive midrange value-oriented decks that are interesting to play against.  Big Combrei and the old 4-faction Control resemble such a deck.  Stonescar Midrange, while it was never Tier 1, could also be interesting to play against as a “best” deck.  Of course, it is so difficult to predict what deck will emerge as the best deck.  In practice, you would have to push a few healthy decks as potential contenders for the best deck.  Hopefully, one of them will emerge as the best deck (rather than some degenerate or busted deck like Party Hour).  Linear highly-synergistic decks should be carefully balanced so that their power level is not too high.

Or, you can repeatedly nerf and buff cards to maintain power levels that make sense.  Hearthstone tries to avoid this since it confuses returning players and doesn’t improve the play experience for the majority of Hearthstone players (who aren’t in the top 1% of skill and aren’t that sensitive to minor balance changes).

Closing thoughts

Obviously it is unlikely that Direwolf Digital will suddenly change direction and focus on good gameplay.  They have a history of bizarre game design and balance decisions (along with changes that do make sense).  So, given what’s happened in the past, I would expect more random decisions in the future.

At least with Hearthstone, the design decisions are understandable.  The Hearthstone designers care more about their core playerbase than the very small niche of players who are unusually good at card games.  But I honestly don’t understand what DWD is doing.  Clearly, DWD is trying to cater to both the Hearthstone casual crowd and people who like complex card games like MtG.  But their overall game design decisions are kind of shoddy.  Having the variance of the resource system create non-games is bad game design.

DWD has some great card designers though (I love jank like Clockroaches and Hatchery Raider).  We’ll see if I continue to stick with Eternal.

 

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