Monday, May 21, 2012

Learning Duel Masters (3) - Combat and Mana

[ Part 1 ][ Part 2 ]

I couldn't decide whether to go in depth into combat or the mana system next so I'm doing them together. That actually works quite well since both will require in-game examples to properly discuss.

Suppose you're running a Nature/Water deck, won the flip and decided to go first. This is your opening hand…

You need to play a card to your mana zone to begin your resource development. You could choose one of the weaker cards but unless you get the pefect storm of mana acceleration, you're probably better off playing some early cards to keep your opponent busy while you work your way up to the big guns. Let's put the Roaring Great-Horn into your mana zone since it costs 7 and won't be helping you for quite some time.

Your opponent draws for the turn and puts a Holy Awe into his mana zone. This spell is a shield trigger. When you break one of your opponent's shields, he normally adds it to his hand. If it's a shield trigger, he can play it immediately at no cost. Holy Awe would keep the rest of your team from finishing him off when it triggers as well as preventing your blockers from stopping his creatures from cracking back. Shield triggers have to cost more than they would without the trigger, so they're never efficient cards to straight up cast. Their effects are often worth it, mind you, but at this stage in the game, your opponent—let's call him Opey—would rather focus on casting more aggressive spells. Opey passes the turn back.

You draw Brain Serum. You need to play a second card to your mana zone so you can cast one of your two-drops. If you use one of your green cards, you'll only be able to play Burning Mane since you won't have the blue mana needed to satisfy Hunter Fish's civilization cost. At this point, you're fine with that because you're not on the defense and could start applying some pressure to Opey. Looking ahead to next turn, you'll want to cast either Aqua Hulcus or Bronze-Arm Tribe to make full use of your mana and get a little card advantage. Your deck often enjoys the mana acceleration of the Tribe, but your hand doesn't really need it this time so you play the Tribe to your mana zone and then summon Burning Mane.

Opey draws, adds another Holy Awe to his mana zone (that's two less shield triggers for you to worry about) and summons Emerald Grass. Dang. So much for attacking. This thing can block your beast folk and win so it looks like we need to build up to some bigger threats or deal with the Grass somehow.

You draw... Saucer-Head Shark. The bad news is, this guy really isn't going to help you much right now (He'd bounce your Mane but not your opponent's blocker and then would merely trade with the blocker next turn when it attacks). The good news is, you need to get a Water card into your mana zone so you can start casting your blue spells anyhow and this card seems more disposable right now than Aqua Hulcus. You do still have the Hunter Fish which you don't have immediate need for though so let's hedge our bets and hold onto the Shark for another turn, putting Hunter Fish into our mana zone instead. With our three mana we cast Aqua Hulcus and draw a card... another Bronze-Arm Tribe. Not ideal, but rarely unwelcome.

Opey draws and adds a new Emerald Grass to his mana zone. Looks like he doesn't feel threatened enough to wall up any further. He summons Iere, Vizier of Bullets. Opey is ready to bring some heat. His new creature may be vanilla, but its 3000 power is enough to let him attack you safely without fear of repercussions.

Luckily for you, you're packing some beefy creatures and sure enough, your draw for the turn yields Forest Hornet, a 4000 power vanilla Nature creature for 4. You gladly pitch your shark to the mana zone and summon Forest Hornet, passing the turn back to Opey with a smile.

Opey draws for the turn, plays a Sonic Wing to his mana zone, doesn't cast anyhing, and attacks you with Iere. None of your creatures have Blocker, so there's nothing you can do to stop it. He breaks one of your shields which turns out to be another Roaring Great-Horn. You add it to your hand and draw a Hunter Fish for your turn.

You choose not to put any cards into your mana zone and summon Bronze-Arm Tribe who randomly flips a Burning Mane from the top of your deck into your mana zone. With your two untapped mana, you summon Hunter Fish. Now for the fun part. You attack Opey's Iere with your Forest Hornet. Remember, you can do that because you can attack tapped creatures. Opey wants to save Iere, though, so he blocks with Emerald Grass. Emerald Grass loses the battle (because 3000 < 4000), so it's destroyed. With delight, you see that Burning Mane is now free to attack safely and so you attack Opey with it. You break one of his shields and he puts into his hand.

Things are looking up for you at the moment. You're both on four shields, but you've got two attackers and a blocker to Opey's sole attacker and your hand is bigger to boot. Just remember that as you press your advantage, Opey will get extra cards from the shields that you break and he could potentially put together a potent combination of attackers and blockers. Light has a lot of creatures like Miele, Vizier of Lightning that could keep your Hunter Fish from blocking and it wouldn't be terribly hard for him to pull out of his weak position and beat you.

The Mana System
Hopefully this short scenario has demonstrated enough of how mana and combat work that we can discuss them now. The mana system eliminates quite a lot of variance relative to Magic's land system. It's impossible to get too little land or too much. You can really only get into trouble when you're running multiple colors and even then you have to draw exactly one card of a civilization for it to be a problem. If you've drawn none, you're not lacking the mana for the spell or vice-versa. If you draw two, you play one as mana and cast the other. It's still very possible to be color-screwed, but it's much less likely unless you're going five-color.

This isn't better or worse than Magic's land system in any absolute sense. Duel Master's system is better for its audience because it's simpler overall [1] and basically eliminates games in which you automatically win or loses purely because of the number of land you or your opponent drew. That's a huge plus for DM; despite defenses for mana screw from R&D, I don't know a single player who would rather keep mana screw in the game if he could be rid of it. Yes, it sometimes lets weak players beat strong players, but not as often as it helps strong players to beat weak players. More importantly, such victories are painfully hollow.

What we lose in this system that I and many other Magic players enjoy, is the added layer of interest that land cards bring. It's fun for me to think about whether my deck would be better off with two colors or three, whether I should run the minimum number or more, whether I should use basics or not, and which non-basics fit my deck best. I love that some lands do things other than produce mana and that so many spells care about lands. I also love the flavor of drawing mana from the land itself.

That doesn't leave DM without interesting interactions with its resources. There are numerous cards that care about the contents of your mana zone. Angler Cluster doubles in size if you go mono-Water. Mana Nexus let's you add a card from your mana zone to your shields (giving you another way to get value out of your shield triggers). Mana Evolution lets you evolve a creature in your mana zone while Fort Energy boosts your creature if you spend mana of the same creature type casting it. Think about that for a moment, every card in your mana zone is a spell or creature, with the costs and other stats those cards have. That opens a world of interesting design space you can tap.

Sometimes, your Magic game is improved by thinking about the order in which you want to play your lands. In Duel Masters, every "land drop" is a relevant choice and some can make or break your game. Do you always drop the card you're furthest from being able to cast or do you play for the long game and drop less powerful creatures even though you could cast them now? When do you stop playing mana? At 6 or 7, the cost of your biggest spell, or do you aim to have enough to cast two smaller spells per turn? This aspect of DM is more skill-intensive than its Magic analog and is one of the reasons you mustn't disregard DM as trivial.

Before I move on to combat, let's discuss variance. Different games require different amounts of variance. Shorter games tend to benefit from more variance where longer games can be hampered by an excess of variance. True card games universally require a minimum of variance to function and Magic and Duel Masters are no exceptions. DM's landless mana system and smaller deck size requirement (40 cards instead of 60) gives it considerably less variance than Magic …which seems counter intuitive: If you were adapting an unknown game popular among adults for a younger audience, you'd likely aim to add variance.

Consider the ratio of luck to strategy in Candy Land versus Monopoly versus Small World. The more decisions in a game, a child's chance to compete with an adult drops exponentially, but in a game without decisions, like War, a kid is as likely to win as an adult would be. One factor here is that the Duel Masters tournament scene is not like the Magic scene. Competitive Magic players always have the exact decklist they want based on the widely observed and discussed metagame and are competing for prizes significant enough to support professional play. I don't know much about the DM scene (so if I misstate something horribly, do let me know) but I'd be shocked if the stakes were as high, the rooms as full, the players as invested, or the decks as perfected. That's not a bad thing; in fact, I love it. People can play the deck they enjoy (rather than the #1 deck according to some online stats) and few decks will be maxed out, creating a more unique and—dare I say—more fun experience. (Again, all speculation: could be crazy wrong.)

The point is, I'm probably not running a deck with 4 copies of each of the absolute ten best cards. The lower competition level, paired with further stratified rarities, means I'm probably running several singleton super-rare creatues, 2-3 of each rare and a fair number of commons and uncommons. My deck isn't going to play out the same way every time, even at 40 cards. DM also adds a neat piece of variance in Shields. You remove five cards from your deck before each game to form your shields, so you can't build a deck relying on drawing one specific card or even five of them since they could easily be locked away from you. You get access to those cards when your shields are broken, but that's not something every deck wants to count on.

The Combat System
My example above was pretty light on combat. While that's not an unusual turn of events, it's certainly not representative of the spectrum. Two decks with blockers play a very different game against each other than two decks without or one with and one without. An aggro deck will aim to play a one-drop (which are fairly infrequent and always limited, due to their enhanced relevance) on turn one and curve out from there, where a control deck will drop blockers and then start earning card advantage. Ramp decks are very real, and tempo, disruption, and midrange strategies are all viable, at least in the abstract.

Another common effect that needs to be illustrated to understand combat is Power Attacker. For the same cost (3) as a 3000 power vanilla, you can also get a 2000 power creature with power attacker +2000 or a 1000 power creature with power attacker +4000. These play an awful lot like 3/3, 4/2 and 5/1 creatures. Golden Wing Striker attacks with 4000 power, which makes blocking it with your 3000 power Emerald Grass a losing proposition. Once it's your turn again, though, your Emerald Grass can attack it and destroy it safely. (Remember you can attack tapped creature. Emerald Grass can't attack players, but that's different from "can't attack.") It's also worth pointing out that my relatively cheap Golden Wing Striker can trade with the beefy Forest Hornet by attacking it once its tapped. With limited removal spells, this kind of creature battle becomes imperative—which is good, since it's also fun.

In the same way that building a curve of common creatures like 2/1, 3/2 and 4/3 keeps Magic games moving better than 1/2, 2/3 and 3/4, power attacker is very good at preserving the game's momentum. Double Breaker also serves a useful role in differentiating creature roles. Since players only start with 5 shields, the ability for a single creature to break two (or more) in one attack is quite significant, which leads its owner to prioritize attacking his opponent over controlling the board by attacking his opponents creatures. At the same time, it gives the defender reason to think about which creatures he wants to block apart from simply comparing powers and seeing how many he can kill and save.

There are two more big ways DM combat is different from Magic combat that we need to cover. The first is that there are no instants in DM and almost no instant effects. Shield Triggers are the only English cards that can spring up during the combat step. At the cost of losing the combat tricks and bluffing that you and I love in Magic, reducing all uncertainty from the combat step is a huge boon for younger players who are so often hesitant to attack for fear of losing their monsters or being tricked with an unexpected instant. Remember the first time you double-blocked a creature only to be two-for-one'd by a Lightning Bolt? You've grown to love that interaction, but that first time was a humbling and frustrating experience. DM does away with that.

The second is the way that combat is resolved sequentially. We've all had overcrowded board states where both sides have a dozen creatures and you have to figure out if any of hundreds of permutations of attacks you could make would actually be profitable against the hundreds of permutations of blocks your opponent could make. That's not entirely eliminated from Duel Masters, but it's definitely much easier. Ignoring the fact that board states never seem to grow that large, the real help is that you attack with one creature at a time and the opponent either takes it or blocks with one creature. When that's done, it happens again.

You still need to figure out things like, do I attack with one of my tiny creatures and let him be eaten by a blocker so that the blocker is tapped and the rest can get through, or do I attack with my big creature knowing my opponent won't block it because then he can keep me from attacking with the rest. There are also tricky chains. If I attack with my medium double-breaker, he should block it with his large blocker to avoid losing two shields and then I can attack his newly-tapped blocker with my largest creature to get rid of it for future turns.

There's still chessy thinking, where you need to plan several steps ahead and accurately predict your opponent's best move, but with no instants, each player has full information (about this turn—who knows what plans lay in hand for later) and with sequential attacks, the number of permutations is much much smaller. It's not trivial (which is why it's still interesting), but it's no longer an NP-hard problem either.

There's no way I'll be able to impress upon you the depth of the DM combat system here without writing out an entire game or three, which isn't going to happen. So I suggest you try it out for yourself.


  1. [1] Duel Masters is simpler than Magic overall. Not in every way, but in most. This is a good thing. As a game designer, I'm hugely impressed that they've made a game with 90% of the interest of Magic using 10% of the rules.

  2. I read an interesting essay about a CCG from a while back - I think it was UFS, but I'm not 100% sure. Anyways, thesis was that the CCG had a mana system very much like duel masters, and that it made the game too skill intensive and contributed in large part to its eventual death.

    Basically, there was so much skill involved in the decisions of when to play what as land that weaker players could almost never beat stronger players. Great for tournaments, but a hard sell for any kind of casual play. You try and learn with a friend who's been playing for years, and you might never get to the point of winning more than 10% of your games.

    1. I think that's a legitimate concern for Duel Masters and I'll be curious to see how true it is and what can be done to alleviate it. It would be a great shame if the only solution is that experienced players need handicaps when ramping up new players. Of course, that applies to Magic too (just somewhat less because of the greater variance).

    2. I personally doubt that that's what killed Duel Masters in the U.S. It certainly didn't kill it in Japan.

  3. Very fascinated by these articles, as this is one TCG that I have zero experience with. (please keep writing them.)

    I'm reminded a lot of the tribal mana you were working on for Muraganda. If you knew DM then the way you do now, do you think you'd've proposed it differently?

    1. Ha. I haven't thought about Muraganda so long, I totally missed that connection. In fact, I have to look it up now to see just how I proposed it...

    2. Looks like I had planned to capitalize on tribal mana (mana produced by a card with a specific creature/tribal subetype) in the second and third sets, so I hadn't worked much on how exactly that would work. Sounds like it would've been pretty similar to Fort Energy. I hadn't been able to find any specific examples of it since it's only Japanese DM cards, but google has come through: Dragon Fighting Hero Naoya and more.

  4. I have four major problems with Duel Masters (which I've only played a handful of times):

    1- I have no idea what the damn thing is about. The flavour of the game is utterly incoherent.

    2- The cards are really, really ugly, busy, and illegible.

    3- The names of the cards and their keyword abilities (and everything seems keyworded) are so poorly chosen I never had any capacity to remember what they did. For example, "Power Attacker" kept confusing me because the keyword was simple, it got a power bonus when it attacked. But the keyword power attacker implied it gained a power when it attacked, so I'd keep thinking, "What did it get?".

    4- Much like the Upper Deck game, by having a guaranteed 'land drop' every turn, the game removes 'mana screw' and replaces it with 'curve screw'. Instead of drawing too many/few resource cards, it's drawing too many/few cards on curve. The is worse for two reasons; firstly, because the window in which you need to hit your curve is far smaller than the window you need your resource, and secondly, because if you miss your curve, the game is unforgiving, and is less and less unforgiving the later in the game this happens, in effect nulling all your previous play decisions. Missing a land drop doesn't wipe out all your previous choices in the same way. Now, to be honest, this was the major problem of the Upper Deck Vs system, and I didn't play Duel Masters enough to make certain it had the same problem, but I recall that we could see it was definitely going to be the case.

    Hope that's of help in your quest to get a job at Wizards. :)

    1. The flavor is one of my biggest complaints too. It seems like each set has no theme apart from the mechanics it features, which makes it dry and actually impedes learning. It's entirely possible that it all makes perfect sense if you followed the tv show, but I can't say. Regardless, I would like to see more recognizable themes from Kaijudo to aid mental bundling (and Vorthos' pleasure).

      The new Kaijudo cards look rather better.

      Thanks, Bass, it can't hurt!

  5. I both agree and disagree with the flavor comments. In some cases, the difference of flavor on English to Japanese cards were changed, with some of the English getting completely new flavor texts on cards that didnt have one, or changed to be "comical".

    I do have somewhat have a general background story on but they arent quite as detailed as even just 1 mtg set.

    Some sets such as DM-04 definitely show a flavor focus on the fight between Light/Darkness and their allied civs, as well as DM-05 showing the arrival of Survivors.

    Later sets show battles between different races like Knights/Samurai, or recently, the Aliens and Hunters, and now also adding Unknown/Unnoise/Zenith to the mix. (Some of this goes untranslated, however).

    Later Japanese sets also have a newcard frame which featured among other things: cleaner-reading power, mana, and manacost numbers; manacost color indicators for all cards; and distinct paneling. (Compare the from DM-06 to DMX-02 for an example, would be another).

    Your #3 is kinda worded weirdly, but I never really saw the keywords as difficult, although a few like Overdrive later on are a little more confusing, but still quite simple compared to (X)(X) converted mana stuff in MtG.

    Might post more later, but a few of us do enjoy reading these. :)

  6. There's another interesting advantage of the Duel Masters mana system: it makes it way easier for people to start playing the game.

    This is a marketing thing, which is a huge factor in a collectable game, but not something most game designers consider. It certainly wasn't one Garfield was thinking about when designing Magic.

    But here's the neat thing about Duel Masters: You can basically play it right out of a pack. There's no need for additional resource cards to necessarily build a deck. That makes it way more accessible for new players, who often start with purchasing just 1-2 boosters to see the cards.

    It also really lowers the price point on starting the game. Magic booster battle packs were $10 and one of the cheapest ways to start playing in a while. You can kind of have a battle with two Duel Master packs for $6. That's huge, and puts the game into the impulse buy range instead of saving allowance range. The vast majority of a CCG's audience spends very little on the game, so insuring that they get an actual game for their money is huge.

    1. The ease of starting play really is a huge factor. Well said, Duncan.

      Magic can be quite intimidating and a lot of prospective players are lost before their second game. Many never even try because of the high cost of entry and what they hear about the game's complexity, the community's attitude and the price of a Magic addiction.

      In addition to being cheaper to start with, DM's quick-start rules blow Magic's out of the water and it's shockingly fast to start your first game right after opening an intro pack.