Monday, January 4, 2016

Magic Duels - Love or Hate? It comes down to deckbuilding

note: I had difficulties writing this post is a bit chaotic...

Since quite some time ago I was trying to grasp the reason why people simply hate or love Magic Duels. This time I don't talk about all the competitive players that just often say the game is total crap or casual players that like this game because they can play the game they used to play ages ago for free. This post is about something else completely.

There are many 'arguments' that go like this 'Duels look awesome, modo is still in middle ages', 'Duels is hardly a game of Magic, play on Magic Online'. Even though I could agree with the previous statements none of those are actual arguments for me. Magic Duels and Magic Online are two completely different things and I think that some people need to see that from someone else's point of view. Actually, I would say, just look at it without comparing it with something else - that 'else' being real Magic with the rules we all know (this includes playing using Magic Online client). It is the very same case with Hearthstone vs Magic and randomly generated numbers. The games are similar and both contain RNG, but they have different impact on the game.

There was a long 'discussion' on RNG but many tried to figure out if HS is more affected by that or not. The thing is that both games use random effects and they differ (Magic uses lands that need to be drawn and played, HS for example has many cards with effects like 'At the end of your turn, deal 8 damage to a random enemy.'). The difference is one of the primary reason why some people do not like HS even though many of those people won't be able to explain you the reason why they do not like it and will just say RNG (and vice-versa). Magic Duels is a Magic game, just a different one than some would expect.

Now back to Magic Duels. I spent some time playing Magic Duels in between Magic Online matches just to grind some gold so I could build something I would consider a deck. Because one thing I don't like about TCGs is not being able to play what I want. Grinding wasn't an easy task when the quests looked like 'win 2 games with this or that archetype'. Now when the actual Quest says 'make 15 abilities trigger' it is way easier. At that time I wasn't really paying much attention to the games, all I wanted was a better card pool so I could build something that would be fun to play and would be able to play against other players and not utterly die.

I was actually doing the very same thing in Duels of the Planeswalkers since I bought all the special and premium content. I did not go through all the unlocking of cards for a deck and tweaking it. DotP provided me with nice decks that were fun to play and I could choose a deck to help me win a certain match. In DotP though there wasn't the need to figure out what a field looks like because there were only preconstructed decks. There wasn't much to explore. But it is different in Magic Duels.

Magic Duels is a free to play game. Anything that is 'free' comes with a price though. It usually is 'time'. In this case Magic Duels seems to be a game in which one can get everything quite fast (in a month) but trying to get everything fast can mean less fun since the best way to win fast is to build a fast aggressive deck (unless Wizards of the Coast or whoever is taking care of the game will figure out how to randomize the AI decks more). I put together GW aggro deck to play against the AI on Hard. A fast aggressive deck was the right choice since the AI does not really play much during the first rounds. This was a deck I build just against the AI to win fast and grind some gold. By doing this I did not really have much fun and I also couldn't see what the game has to offer. It was a mistake because the game actually has quite a lot to offer. One needs to abandon the idea of a constructed or limited experience from real life Magic. The thing is that Magic Duels has its own metagame that will change with each set released. To see what certain cards do one can actually try them against the AI first.

All the difference between the 'real Magic' and Magic Duels is the fact that Magic Duels has different deck building limits (if I omit the fact that there are only two sets available and not even all cards from those sets are present). There is no 4 copies limitation that we know from 'real Magic' but rather there are different limits set for each rarity. A deck can contain 1 copy of a Mythic Rare card, 2 copies of a Rare card, 3 copies of an Uncommon card and 4 copies of a Common card. This makes all the decks less powerful than those that can run all the mythics and rares in four copies but also makes them more varied. So in a way it feels more like a drafted deck one could say. Partly yes, because there is focus on commons and uncommons but on the other hand there is normal constructed limitation to the number of cards in one's deck and that is 60. With 60 cards and less powerful cards there is even a bigger difference in the 'strength' of the deck (it is way less consistent). This creates a completely different field. Slower decks can be played. Synergies that hardly work in a game of draft or sealed deck can be viable due to several reasons. Well, in 40 cards deck one can build a pretty fast deck. And from all those packs one cannot simply draft all the cards he or she would want for his or her deck supporting a certain strategy/synergy. 40 cards are usually pretty consistent as there are always ways to get the cards one needs - either by building a deck with a good curve or a deck that simply digs to find its bomb. In a 60 card deck both of these apply but getting the right cards at the right moment is way more improbable. Since the decks are slower in general the decks in Magic Duels can run more colors even though there isn't very good mana fixing (there is, it is just different from Fetchland -> Dual Land). Playing more colors can sometimes allow a player to play a certain card effect in a deck in 4 copies (for example playing Planar Outburst and Languish which can make a total of 4 board wipes - not that I would be fan of WW and BB in the mana cost).

Also in Magic Duels there are not only cards from Magic Origins and Battle for Zendikar. There is a certain pool of cards that is from other sets and some of those cards are pretty powerful compared to ORI and BFZ cards.

The last thing that makes difference and should be noted when building a deck is that in paper Magic tournaments you play a best of three matches. Here you play only one. That is the reason why there should be more emphasis on commons and uncommons and that meta cards have to be included in the deck rather than in sideboard.

My revelation about all this came when I wanted to build a mono blue deck that could win by milling my opponent. I did not want to do this because my pool is very limited and I'm missing many cards I would want to play. That is the reason why I build a very aggressive deck to grind. But that is hardly fun. So I wanted to change that even with those cards I have. So I tried putting together some mono blue mill deck. It was utter crap and I knew it. I was looking at it though with my 'Magic Origins limited experience'. After one not so successful game my flatmate build a similar deck but added some cards that usually end up passed till someone is forced to pick them. I played with that and after a while I realized that these cards actually work and that I just don't need to fear much. The decks are actually relatively slow and there is time to set up the board. So I decided to stick with Sphinx's Tutelage but change it because I wanted to take a different path.

I put all my Sphinx's Tutelages in the deck and wondered what else I could put in there. I had two versions in mind, one being more like a control that would really win by milling primarily (in that case it would be UB) or a UG version running a lot of creatures that would help me (Ingest creatures, Bounding Krasis and Elvish Visionary). After looking for a while at my pool I figured out that UB version won't work because I simply don't have the cards I would want. No Read the Bones, no less than 5 cmc removal, only 1 Languish etc. So I looked at the UG version. Not only my number of Tutelages was not optimal (2 only) but I do not even own Elvish Visionaries and Krasises. So I looked for more disruption spells. What I found where expensive counterspells, 1 Disperse and not much of anything else (and two Claustrophobias). In the end I was so desperate that I put Talent of the Telepath in the deck and you know what? Each time I actually managed to play this card it did exactly what I needed. Any deck runs a certain type of removal and this card usually can hit it. After this I had to think once again about how my deck should look like, because the field in which it would exist is far from Magic Origins from the 'real Magic'. What I had in mind originally was something similar to this (I will try to build that if I manage to open all those cards):

Since I hardly own the cards though I decided to go for an artifact approach because Esperzoa with Aether Vial is a nice draw engine. But is it just fancy or it can actually work in Magic Duels environment? It was time to find out.

I played some ranked matches and was utterly crushed by certain cards rather than decks in general. On the other hand I have to admit that the games were fun. I actually payed way more attention to what was going on and it wasn't just 'tapping my creatures sideways'. I expected to terribly die to some fast decks but in reality I was capable of facing those decks and not utterly die. But I was pitted against decks that seemed way more 'normal' than I would expect. I encountered BG Elves that even though couldn't kill me through combat damage, they still could win via Shaman of the Pack. UR Prowess also gave me a hard time. I could stop the attack but 2x Exquisite Firecraft just killed me because I always had to take some damage. Lastly I played against some ramp deck that killed me with Ulamog (a card that haunts me everywhere be it Vintage Cube, Modern or Standard). But even Rolling Thunder would do the job.

After those games it seems that my deck needs more disruption or ways how to deal with something or be simply faster. No matter what, I could win those games. So even with this pile of cards that does not resemble a deck much it is possible to play interesting games and win.

If I would want to build a safe deck against those decks I encountered in the past few weeks I would build UB Control since this deck can run both counterspells and removal (be it spot removal or global). White has also global removal, spot removal and some nice finishers. But for that I will need to grind A LOT of gold first, but there is already enough cards in my collection from which I can brew some decks that won't be the top decks out there but should be able to withstand those rank 15 I encounter (at rank 1^_^).

Anyway in the last few days I encountered one player and I will use him as an example for my conclusion (rather my flatmate communicates with him and tries to teach him some Magic). He is a new player to Magic and would like to be a competitive player. He told us that for him it is better to play tier 1 decks and see what those decks do rather than figuring out how to build such a deck and why. This was quite shocking to hear because till now I had the impression that all the players starting with Duels of the Planeswalkers/Magic Duels have a very healthy attitude towards the game and they like to build decks and see what works. This person though just wants to skip this and learn in a different way and I really hope there's not so many new players with this attitude. Because with this attitude one does not really need to play Magic Duels but can just start to play the real game.

All those players net decking and not trying to build their own decks will be in disadvantage if they don't go through learning how to build a deck first. I know that this does not really matter nowadays because most people simply don't have the time to brew and just want to win. Learning just how tier 1 decks work in a field of other tier 1 decks is usually enough. Magic Duels and Duels of the Planeswalkers are games that are a good reminder of what Magic used to be about - deck building. When one starts to build decks and test he will truly get the most from the game and he will learn the most. To me this is very important. It used to be very important. So in the end those people that like to explore the game and build decks are those that will most probably like the game. Those that think that building a tier 1 deck and playing with it is the best thing to do won't most probably like Magic Duels.