Saturday, May 26, 2012

Learning Duel Masters (4) - Evolution

[ Part 1 ][ Part 2 ][ Part 3 ]

Evolution is the next big Duel Masters mechanic I'd like to discuss. It wasn't printed until the second set but we know that was intentional because it's mentioned in the rules released with the original set. It adds depth to the game, but it also adds complexity, so saving it until players were accustomed to the core game was pretty wise.

Evolution is similar in concept to Champion. Like Thoughtweft Trio and Kithkin, you can't cast Barkwhip, the Smasher at all unless you already have a Beast Folk in the battle zone. It replaces that creature and acts as an upgrade. Unlike Champion where the creature gets exile and then returns when your champion bites it, an Evolution creature is placed right on top of its beneficiary and if it would ever go to another zone, all the cards in the stack go with it. This is worse when your Barkwhip falls into a Terror Pit, but better when it's caught in a Natural Snare. It's not the worst when it's forced through a Spiral Gate, but it kinda is when Corile puts it on top of your deck.

Evolution creatures are either undercosted for a creature of their size or gifted with exciting abilities you wouldn't see on a normal creature; they're all clear upgrades to the creatures they evolve from, at least the common versions. Getting splashy effects and swingy creatures on a card with a real challenge to use helps add variance to the game which is important since it has less built in than I think it really needs. The tribal requirement does a great job of guiding deck-building without being parasitic.

How Fast?
So you've evolved your Iere, Vizier of Bullets into Sieg Balicula, the Intense. Can you attack with it? Normally, creatures without Speed Attacker have summoning sickness and can't attack the turn you summon them. In a way, though, you haven't played a new creature so much as you've evolved one you already had. If you cast Iere last turn and evolved him this turn, should you be able to attack with him? What if you cast Iere this turn, just before Sieg Balicula?

Wizards' answer is that you can always attack with an Evolution creature the turn you summon it. This is unambiguous and it ensures that you get to use your fancy creature at least once before your opponent can two-for-one you by killing it. That's good. What I don't like about it is that most players wouldn't know that unless they read the rules themselves or were taught the rules by someone very thorough. One of the best parts of Duel Masters is how much of what you need to know to play the games is on the cards and how little you need the rulesbook for, and this detracts from that. It also detracts from the Speed Attacker ability itself.

More keywords belong to a single civilization in Duel Masters than to a single color in Magic. You see 500 (first strike) in Light only, slayer (death touch) in Darkness only and Speed Attacker (haste) in Fire only. Since every civilization gets Evolution (and in equal proportion), giving them all implicit Speed Attacker is real disservice to Fire and its "unique" keyword. The fact that it's not intuitive hurts the most. If I were designing Evolution today, I would make it have no effect on the evolved creatures summoning sickness. If you evolve a creature that could attack this turn, it can still attack. If you evolve one that can't, it still can't. As a side effect, that change would alleviate the Nature-and-Fire-can-never-block problem because you don't have to sit in terror at the prospect that your opponent could play a Aqua Guard and evolve it into Crystal Paladin and swing for the win. Oh, right, that particular combination defeats every player with no shields left regardless of their deck! (See what I did there?)

It's still possible to attack with an Evolution creature the turn you summon it, it's just not automatic anymore. You have to play your evolvee a turn earlier or run actual Speed Attackers. What, more strategy rather than less? How dare I?!

One could argue my solution is also not intuitive. Particularly the part where you play a Speed Attacker, evolve it and get to attack with it even though it no longer shows the text "Speed Attacker." The simplest solution is to add no hidden rules and just stick to the summoning sickness rule. It's not hard to defend the flavor: Don't you think transforming into a new thing should be just as disorienting / time-consuming as being summoned in the first place? What keeps this from being the obvious best solution is the affect on gameplay; it slows things down and reduces the (good) tension caused by not knowing whether your opponent will upgrade his forces after you pass the turn.

Under the Hood
I previously likened Evolution to Champion. It's also somewhat like Offering (as seen on Patron of the Nezumi's cycle) and it would neat to make an Evolution creature whose cost is reduced by the that of the creature it's evolving, if that's not too complicated. The trick is, like so many other invisible adaptations of Magic mechanics, Evolution isn't Champion (though it almost certainly inspired it); it's Enchant Creature. I can say this with certainty because it serves the same role as Auras do, but in simpler way. You can't have a game about awesome creatures without the ability to "build your own monster," but auras like Divine Favor add math to the game that slows things down and leads to on-board play errors, which are always frustrating.

I know, it seems trivial to us, but for an eight-year-old who hasn't mastered the enigma of subtraction yet, addition is still new enough that even though he can do it, it takes enough mental focus to distract him from the rest of the game. Even after he's figured out that his 4000 power creature is really a 6000 power creature because of the aura that grants +2000, he'll have to remember that unprinted value while he works out how big his opponent's two enchanted creatures really are. Right now, the only math required is for Power Attacker which you only have to worry about for the current player's creatures. If you enchanted a creature with Power Attacker, you're now chaining addition. Again, that's not hard, but it's analogous to asking a high school graduate to do algebra just to play Settlers of Catan. Whether they can do it or not, it's unlikely they'll play that game again when they could just play King of Tokyo.

The downside is that you can't really "build your own monster" since you're limited to exactly the cards that are printed. Fortunately, the upgrade still feels like mad science and is similarly rewarding. This is why most Evolution creatures are limited to evolving specific creature types. That added hoop you have to jump through makes you feel a sense of accomplishment when you do manage to jump through it. I questioned that choice when I first saw it, but between this bit of psychology and the implicit deck-building guidance, I'm convinced it's the optimal design. Oh, and it feels unique and really helps sell Duel Masters as its own game.

There are tons of variants of Evolution, and rightly so. There's a lot of interesting design space to expand upon and it's a hugely popular mechanic that almost defines the game. Vortex Evolution (and its offshoots) require you to evolve 2 (or more) creatures, increasing your potential for card disadvantage and thus warranting an even crazier creature. Mana Evolution lets you evolve a creature from your mana zone onto the battle zone, which is an exciting way to reduce the penalty for choosing which cards to play as mana suboptimally. Grave Evolution and Hand Evolution let you evolve creatures from your graveyard/hand to the battle zone. Deck Evolution has you reveal card(s) from the top of your deck to see if there's a valid evolution target. That negates the card disadvantage but adds real risk. Adding variance to the game through cards and mechanics is a wonderful way to alleviate the design's biggest weakness.

There are also unkeyworded variants that let you evolve something other than a race. Victoria, the Pure Princess let's you evolve any creature with Blocker. Amon Bells, Devil Meteor vortex evolves one of your Water and Darkness creatures. Ultimate Evolution lets you evolve any of your Evolution creatures. One of the first designs that came to mind when I learned Evolution was a shapeshifter-type creature that could be evolved as if it were any type and thankfully, it already exists:


  1. I'm surprised you didn't complain about mana/hand/grave evolution detracts from speed attackers more than normal evolutions.

    Also, there is a mechanic where an evolution's cost is reduced by the evolved creatures. It's called soulshift.

    1 Kamigawa mechanic + 1 Kamigawa mechanic name transplanted.

  2. One of the neat ways that evolve simplifies auras is that is takes away the need for an additional card type.

    After all, for most game purposes, Enchant Creatures act WAY more like creatures than they do enchantments. So by this game moving them solidly into the creature sphere, it makes it more grokable about exactly what their doing. It also makes it easier to know how to fight them. A new Magic player loses to a powerful Aura so they bring in Aura destruction when really they should be playing more creature destruction so these cards don't have a target. Dual masters takes away that possibility for error: just kill the creatures.


  3. What about the Cross Gear mechanic, which works almost identically to Equipment? Or was that not part of the English-language game before it was discontinued? I only know it from browsing the Duel Masters wiki.

    1. You can actually see that by seeing the image of the card that if it was there in English Duel Masters or not.

      Anyways as for your question, yes it was not part of the English Duel Masters and was IMO introduced for the older players so to get something new to work on. As for new players they release new sets every once in a while so those players can introduce themselves to the game.