Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Learning Duel Masters (2)

I've spent some time learning, reading about and playing Duel Masters and I'm pleased to say that my optimism has been satisfied instead of my skepticism: it really is a great game. I'm not suggesting all you Magic players switch over, because it's a considerably different game and will not likely fill the same needs for you that Magic does, but make no mistake, Duel Masters is very very good. Whether you choose to try it out or not, there are a lot of parallels between DM and Magic and the differences in their execution can inform Magic Design quite a bit.

(Here's part one, if you need the very basic introduction to DM).

For example, Bronze-Arm Tribe is a direct analog to Wood Elves. (Text on DM cards is pretty small; it reads "When you put this creature into the battle zone, put the top card of your deck into your mana zone.") You see this phenomenon a lot in DM: Because every card in your deck can be used like a land as well as being cast as a spell or summoned as a creature, you can just reveal the top card of your deck most places where Magic would require a full search or look/reveal-until algorithm. You really only search when you want to tutor for a specific card. Less shuffling = more playing. Another ramification is that Explosive Revelation effects also become safer since every card has a cost. Oh, and the way costs are expressed in DM means you never need the clunky phrase "converted mana cost" or the (admittedly very easy) math that goes with it.

Every creature's size/prowess is expressed by a single number, Power, that's a multiple of 1000. The exception to this is that the Light civilization has creatures with 1500 power, 2500 power, etc. If you mentally divide all the power stats you see by the common denominator, 500, there is a range of creatures from 1 and up, but only white creatures get odd numbers. That doesn't make much sense. The trick is that the original designers invisibly tucked first strike in as a power boost. If you divide all power stats by 1000 instead, things make more sense. The Bronze-Arm Tribe above is a 1, the Grizzle Bears equivalent is a 2 and so on. In this model, Light has a group of creatures with N.5 power which makes sense when you consider that a 2.5 power creature will always beat a 2 power creature, but still loses to a 3 power creature; exactly what a 2 power first striker in Magic would do. So you've got the first strike ability at a cost of zero words. That's clever.

But I'm not sure it's best. First strike in Magic is an all-upside ability that makes the creature it's on look more appealing. In Duel Masters, 1500 doesn't look any better against 1000 power than it looks worse against 2000 power. It's no longer a fun or flavorful ability, it's completely neutral. Just a quirk of Light creatures. Since there are no words or icons to highlight it, it's not even clear that anything special is happening. There's nothing inherently wrong with half-steps of power, but it's not the kind of thing that should be restricted to a single color/civilization. If the Darkness creature I'm designing is too weak at 4000 and too strong at 5000, should I really prohibited from making it 4500 just because 500 is secretly first strike which is a Light-only ability? I would prefer that 500 be excised completely or used ubiquitously and that first strike become an explicit ability that players can imagine and enjoy.

I wonder if 4100 power would look better. It's still plainly better than 4000, but doesn't really look like it's competing with 5000 at all. It's fascinating how psychology and perception affect functionally identical designs.

The other quirk about having only one combat stat is that you can't have creatures that are tougher or more dangerous in DM. Actually, you can—and do—but that difference is created through special abilities. Power Attacker +N000 boosts a creature's power whenever it attacks. Technically, it's more like +X/+X than +X/+0, but it makes for a more aggressive creature just the same because it lets you kill bigger creatures but doesn't keep smaller creatures from killing you back. It takes some getting used to that a creature's power has no direct impact on how many shields it breaks when it hits a player. A power 9000 creature does exactly as much 'damage' to you as a lowly 1000 power creature does, it's just harder to battle it with your creatures profitably. That's where Double Breaker comes in, allowing your creature to break two shields instead of one when it attacks and isn't blocked. There are bigger multi-breakers too and they're all very dangerous. It's important to remember though, that the game-winning blow must come all on its own, so a Triple-Breaker hitting you when you have one shield is the same as when you have three.

On the flip side, there is the Blocker ability without which your creature can't block. At all. That's a major difference and changes the way the game plays drastically, particularly since the majority of creatures don't have Blocker. I was shocked to learn that two of the five civilizations have no blockers, Fire and Nature. This is good for the game in that it's a very different experience playing with or against these decks, but despite having played enough to know it's very possible to win without blockers, I'm not convinced keeping blocker entirely out of these civilizations is for the best. Part of the motivation for this design choice may have been to make these civilizations easier to play, in the same sense that aggro decks are supposed to be easier than control decks, but in my experience it takes a lot more skill and understanding to win with Fire and Nature than is appropriate for new/young players.

What makes it an interesting conversation is that having no blockers doesn't mean you can't play defense at all. By default, all creatures can attack your opponent's creatures once they're tapped so, rather than crack at my shields, you can send your beefy green monster to hunt down the guy I attacked you with last turn (provided it doesn't have "untap this at EOT"—the vigilance analog). Since blocker is an all-upside ability, creatures with blocker are smaller than creatures without, except the defender-analogs with "this creature can't attack" which tend to be bigger. To help compensate for that, green gets bigger creatures with "this creature can't attack players" meaning it's only good for attacking your opponent's tapped creatures and red gets (smaller) creatures with "this creature can attack untapped creatures" so that you don't have to wait until that big nasty domes you before dealing with it. It's an interesting mix and it provides a lot of interesting gameplay.

There's another reason that Fire and Nature don't get blocker: Flying. There is no flying ability in DM—not explicitly—but while you're making analogies between Magic and DM it becomes evident that fire and nature don't get blocker in the same way that red and green don't (often) get flying in Magic. In effect, all DM creatures have attack-flying (think Canopy Cover or Elven Riders) and only the Light, Water and Darkness creatures (and only some of them) have defense-flying (reach, I suppose). That's clever because they've again recreated a deep and entertaining mechanic with zero words, although this time it comes at the cost of requiring a wordy keyword like Blocker where none is needed in Magic.

That said, it bothers me that Nature doesn't get blocker because green is the king of creature combat. Oops, there I go conflating the Magic color pie with the DM civilization pie. While DM has kept the five colors and they are so similar no one could fail to line all five up one-for-one, they are definitely not identical. For example, Darkness is more tricky than Water which is more meddlesome than Fire. Nature is big on tutoring and Darkness isn't. Most things remain the same, like life gain (which is achieved by adding shields to your shield zone, usually from the top of your deck) is still predominantly Light and Nature.

One last thought about blocker. It might seem like a mistake to not give all/most creatures blocker by default as in Magic, but when you consider that DM adds the ability to attack tapped creatures, allowing the same amount of blocking would make for more complex combat scenarios which is not something we want for this audience (or almost any audience, really). It also plays better in light of the fact that combat is sequential rather than parallel. That is, you don't attack with your entire team at once and get blocked by the defender's entire team at once in DM. You attack with one creature, resolve that attack and then move onto the next. The impetus for that is clearly to break combat down into bit-sized chunks, making the whole thing more straight-forward, but don't mistake it for being simple or uninteresting. When you add in blockers, power attackers, double breakers and shield triggers, finding the optimal play is often as difficult as it is in Magic—sometimes harder. I'll run you through some scenarios to show you how next time. Point is, if every creature could block, the combat step would be just too mentally taxing.

I think that's enough Duel Masters to soak in for today and I've got to get back to M13. We've only got a week left to button up development and there are a lot of great last-minute ideas that need testing.


  1. I just found an official searchable Duel Masters database. Sweet.

  2. I was checking out the Kaijudo site yesterday, seeing if I could find some more info about the rules and such as it comes closer to release. There doesn't seem to be much along those lines yet, but I did find a couple of things that made the time spent worthwhile.

    First, I really like the revamped card faces:

    They're clean, slick, and their bold, bright colors really pop. They're very pleasing to look at, and important information like combat power and casting cost are very easy to read from a distance. The graphical differences between creatures and spells are more subtle than in Duel Masters, but still get the point across (lack of a big Power box in the corner makes things clear either way). I guess that helps them get away with having the card type line as small as it is. The little drop-down symbol indicating a spell with Shield Blast is appealing, too. Reminds me of the Miracle card frame, and it serves basically the same purpose (though this is much more ingrained into core gameplay).

    My other fortunate find was this flash minigame:

    I was initially disappointed to find that it only superficially resembles the actual game of Kaijudo/Duel Masters; rather than a mana system and picking and choosing attacks, it's a much simpler sort of combat game where you're basically stacking up your creatures and trying to get your gang's total power higher than your opponent's to win each round. As I continued playing with it, though, I found that I was actually having quite a bit of fun. The core mechanics are very simple but a bit more nuanced than I first anticipated. I was surprised by how much thought I found myself putting into each move, trying to think ahead and considering the risks and rewards of even seemingly minor decision points. Each of the civilizations has a very unique feel to it as well, having clear strengths and preferred strategies that are presumably reflections of similar themes within the "real" game. I found myself favoring the Darkness deck and easily cleared every challenge presented (removing or mitigating your opponent's support creatures is an extremely potent effect, and found on several cards in that "color," along with forced discard for further resource denial). I cleared with the highly aggressive Fire deck after that, but found myself floundering a bit with the Water deck, whether because of simple bad luck or because I'm just not as good at making use of that civilization's card pool. There aren't Nature or Light decks to play with, at least initially; I believe there are ways to unlock new cards or probably even decks to use.

    I can honestly say that I enjoyed this "Battle Game" enough that I'd be tempted to buy it if it existed in a physical form. It could easily be translated to simple cardboard, the only real speedbump would be tracking effects that modify a creature's power. But even then, I'd be more than happy to have the game around as a fun, quick diversion from time to time. I'm quite impressed with whoever put the game together; it definitely feels far more robust and well-thought-out than similar sorts of tacked-on minigames I've encountered before. This is simply a fun game in its own right.

    1. If the Flash game were designed as a physical product for two or more players, they'd definitely need to remove all the one-sided boardwipes.

    2. Hell, I'd probably still like it with those left in just because I wouldn't have to watch or click through all the animations.

      That one Light guy is pure BS, though. You know the one I mean.

  3. Hey Jay, I've been mulling over this issue for a while now, and I was wondering if you have the perspective to help answer it.

    DM's manabase is mostly automatic; if you have 40% Nature/50% Fire civs, your manabase is pretty much exactly where it needs to be. This is attractive from several standpoints, as you're never stuck with just a land or with another spell when you've got nothing to power it with.

    However, Rosewater has stated on a few occasions that these are good things.
    This is a good example, and I can't find the one where he specifically states that he prefers Magic's Lands over DM's system, but the main ideas are A.) Variance revolving around the luck of the draw B.) You don't have as many unique moving parts in your deck. (MaRo's article labels these two points as #5 and #6.)

    However, I think variance still happens when you pull a card that has a cost either below what would be useful, or higher than you can cast. The second part I think is mitigated through a smaller deck size.

    Another argument is that constructing Magic's manabases has greater control and fine-tuning; splashing in DM requires a little more critical mass, etc. I'm biased because constructing the exact right amount of lands bores the hell out of me, and paying for expensive nonbasics doesn't strike me as "fun" either.

    If you were designing a similar game, would you go with how Magic or Duel Masters does it?

    1. Hey Tigt, great question. So great, it's worth an article all its own. The short answer is that both systems have merit and are mostly just different. That said, I would be inclined to use the DM system before the Magic system for the majority of new games because I believe the niche it fills satisfies more players.