Friday, March 23, 2018

Magic Arena - March 22 Update

On March 22nd the NDA was lifted which means that we can finally talk, write and stream Magic Arena. The downtime was actually shorter than expected so many of us jumped in to see Arena in a very laggy state similar to what happened with XLN and RIX sets on MODO. It was pretty much unplayable but I still tried to play some games. After few hours this was fixed so I decided to stream few more games even though I knew that I was already half asleep. If you wish you can watch the second stream since after the first stream I managed to find the setting that stores the past broadcasts. I somehow messed up everything else though from sound source, not managing to rename my stream/game etc. Third stream is below or you can check

With this update there was an account wipe and we got new starting collection that contains 10 preconstructed decks (of all color pairs), 3 packs of each set (from AKH to RIX), 1 rare, 2 uncommon and 4 common wildcards.

It means that from this day on we can play with AKH, HOU, XLN and RIX cards. We were playing XLN block constructed and that was very boring format probably due to people copying decks from each other and not playing many brews. Everyone was tired of Merfolk and Dinosaurs. So what kind of decks will emerge now? Ramunap Red and The Scarab God decks? It is up to us to figure that out, it will depend on how fast we can progress.

Magic Arena changed quite a lot visually and that is pretty cool. There is changed layout on the main screen which nicely shows quests and rewards that can still be earned. Visually there is a lot of transparent stuff with some glow and it even looks relatively coherent now. The buttons, especially the PLAY one, are more flashy or also got some transparency. While the Play button changed and it is difficult to miss it this time, it still requires us to click on a deck, choose one and click on play (and play) - meaning requiring us to do more clicks than we would want to. I also noticed that it changes decks once in a while based on random as it seems.

Another thing that I expected to change was the deck builder. It looks fairly different but in terms of function it didn't change at all. It needs to be reworked. We need actual filters on cards in a deck, see the number of types of cards, number of all cards in a deck etc. on that one single screen. We shouldn't need to switch views or show some statistics for this to be available to us (if it is).

Pack layout changed (like Eternal) and it got new animations and such which is cool.

Victory and Defeat screens are in theory better but still look meh. At least we don't need to stare at them for ages anymore.

When I was setting up my stream on the previous version of Arena I really didn't like what I saw in the video feed. So when I viewed my stream from today I was nicely surprised - it looked good so good job, Wizards. If the game will get more and more polished it may one day be cool. We got more and more animations and I'm not a fan of them. The one that I actually like is what happens when you cycle a card - it goes puff and it's gone. Otherwise I wasn't fan of the ones I saw - Glorybringer, Legion Lieutenant, or Embalm/Eternalize. The animations that happen on the stack are also not great when they happen during combat or at the time when the client decides that it is your timer going out while your opponent is trying to do something (this is to be fixed one day). With many triggers in play (even with just few) you can time out because of these triggers and animations even if you are in 'F6 mode'. I saw this happen to my opponent yesterday and it happened to me too on the first day but I thought that it was just due to the lag we were experiencing. Obviously it can happen even without the lag.

The sound got in overall better too. And with better I really mean better. The difference is huge for someone who is hardly a sound expert. After playing Arena before this patch I realized that the sounds I hear and BGM is kind of a mess and I couldn't figure out what is wrong. After reading some posts on the forums though I realized that what I'm looking for is clarity and also being able to distinguish certain sounds for something. For example when playing Hearthstone or Eternal I know cards by the sound or 'quote'. When you play a card and it says 'One shot, one kill' you immediately know what the card is and what it does. Similarly I can distinguish when a player is about to attack since the cards make a sound my brain translates into something I understand. In Arena I don't have that kind of experience and even after playing with the cards for quite a bit. This changed though so it is possible I will eventually assign sounds to cards in a similar way I have that when playing HS or Eternal. For example while I was playing Arena last time and chatting with someone on MODO I heard some strange sounds. It made me curious so I looked at the board state and found two cards that changed. One sound was obviously made by one Vampire and another one by another creature. I know that this is something you won't probably hear in the stream (since I screwed that up), if you will play the game on your computer though, try paying attention to the sounds and see if they are sufficient for you or not. I'd say it needs more voice acting and still more distinct sounds.

BGM is cool, not Heroes of Might and Magic 3 cool but good anyway.

So sound-wise the BGM is nice, the card effects are more audible and more distinguishable but still it hardly matches the clarity of Hearthstone or Eternal.

There are more things that got better in-game. I discovered some during my streams (as well bugs or things that weren't supposed to happen). Some of the things we complained about in the previous versions got fixed. The flow got a bit faster even though it was difficult to see with all the lag we experienced after Arena went live. One of the biggest disappointment is that lands still move around and I still misclick no matter how well I try to click on the land I want. Language support is still obviously not working, instead of blank squares it lists the name of the language your system runs on.

The problematic part though is the economy. Many of us didn't like the economy in the previous iterations and now it got even worse or rather it was nerfed from the previous version. We had some expectations and we thought Wizards would take a certain direction regarding that economy. They didn't though. They even went in the opposite direction. Getting the cards we want in Arena which now contains four sets will be even harder than before. But who knows it may end up being better in the end? I can't compare the two since the one is under NDA.

As someone said getting 225 quests instead of 200 is good. We don't see 300 or 500 quests often though (I still didn't get one even). We get random Mythic in the Vault, less Mythic Wild Cards in general and in total less packs (if we will recalculate everything to packs - now being 14 packs per week, it was higher before). So how is the economy better now? In general we can describe it as #feelsbadman. Many players came back after stopping to play Arena patched with the February patch hoping it would get better. They came to find a worse iteration of the economy, at least that is how we view it. Many left again, others will try to see if by a chance it didn't get better.

Those of us who complain are actually trying to see the big picture. I understand that many people are complaining just because they can and it seems to be the thing to do nowadays. Many people I talked to though considered way more factors and made their own point of view on the economy and found it lacking and slow. Many of those players I talked to play F2P games or are avid competitive players. As for casuals those are so far pretty disappointed, maybe not by the economy, but by the 'hostility' of the environment for them. Precons are a good start but not a little step towards an environment that should cater to different player groups.

I still think that Arena is targeted at casual players and new players but that's exactly what we have no idea how will work out. We have ranked matches, best of 1 and many players that are already invested in Magic. The target audience as I see it just gets crushed. Maybe they will prevail and find that it will be a place for them. What do these players want from a game like Arena? I don't know because they are not vocal enough about that. So far we can see them complain about constantly losing games, but what would make the environment friendly for that? Interaction with players?

I think that the lack of chat is actually a problem since you won't be able to find players you could connect with somehow. I don't know, maybe it is not necessary, but I'd want to find players to play with, talk to and whatnot. How does it work though elsewhere?

Apart from different economy and a lot of work on visuals and sound we didn't get anything new. When we will get Limited? Standard? Best of 3 matches? No one knows but we hope that soon. Limited is very important, without that Arena won't work for the masses, it's also where most of the money lies. I also expect Brawl to show up in Arena sooner or later - that is a new 60 card singleton EDH like format (you can also use planeswalkers as a general). Enough of writing here is me streaming Arena for a bit if interested with some really strange (and bad) decks!

Monday, March 19, 2018

My experience with Masters 25

In the past few weeks I haven't really played much Magic, at least not competitive Magic. The closest I got to competitive Magic was a 6 round Vintage event from which I did not even write a report (I might still do that). The event itself was pretty cool actually. I got to play really nice games, talk about Vintage a bit and play even more games of Vintage and Old School on the train. It also felt very good to play some paper Magic and talk to people actually sitting in front of me.

Monastery Mentor was doing its job, stopping Shops from winning!

Magic somehow did not manage to satisfy me during those few weeks. Rivals of Ixalan (the second worse set ever, after Ixalan) still feels terribly swingy and Arena is still not a great experience either. Standard, at least the one I got to play, is very proactive and forcing players to rather simply curve out into threats and beat their opponents with them. The little control one had over the game turned into 'Here is a threat, deal with it' strategy. I still have no idea what to think about Modern - a format I played the most in those past few weeks. I tried figuring out what the allure of the format is. Diversity? Many people just say it is the greatest format because it is diverse. It may be in terms of the number of decks one can encounter but there are similarities to all those decks. They often force us to play our own game, often ignoring the opponent. Deck that are interactive or try to be struggle in this world and I wonder if there is a way to bring some interaction back. Fortunately Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor were brought back in the format. Playing Jund felt very good for me. Running into Living End, RB Hollow One, Tron etc. didn't feel that well. I also spent some time playing Legacy with UW Stoneblade to see if this deck didn't get better positioned somehow in the sea of all those ultra greedy 4-color decks. It didn't. What I wrote quite a while ago is still true (I didn't finish the article because I figured it is not worthy of publishing. You can read the unfinished version here (including text that was supposed to be deleted) - UW Stoneblade

Masters sets
Masters 25 was coming though and I hoped that it would provide us with a similar experience as previous Masters sets be it the Modern ones, Eternal Masters or even Iconic Masters. I have to say that I liked each Masters set even Iconic Masters which were very different from the MM sets and EMA. IMA provided a totally different experience while the format was very wide open. I had the impression that I could play an old school Magic deck or just jam something like a UW Prowess tempo. When looking at the previous Masters sets we could see that there are draft archetypes from different already existing sets. We could also find new archetypes within the sets but they were all relatively linear - there were cards to support this or that strategy. For example you could see bunch of Faeries, Goblins or Kithkin. There were Domain cards present in the first Modern Masters as well cards with Suspend. Building around these would put you into very specific draft archetypes that often were already known from the sets the mechanics or cards originated from. This way we could know quite precisely how the games would play out (this was very true for EMA too) and right from the start we drafted something very specific.

Drafting anything with Graft on it and cards that do something with counters is very linear.

Iconic Masters was different though. At first we didn't have much information about the cards that would be in the set. They were supposed to be Iconic and many players hoped for cards like Rishadan Port or Mana Drain. Iconic could also mean Channel, Fireball, Serra Angel or Juzam Djinn. Later when the whole set was spoiled we could look at it and wonder how the limited format would look like. I think that each of you who actually looked at the spoiler had a clear idea of what is possible. Some players though could have struggled with the speed of the format. While I knew that Boros Aggro, UW Prowess were viable archetypes I had difficulties figuring out how a gama of IMA limited would actually look like. There were some very powerful cards but also many cards suggested the format would actually be slow. So how did Boros Aggro and UW Prowess fit in there?

If I omit Rivals of Ixalan I had the worst win percentage when playing with this set. It took me a while to slow down, take my time and actually do what I want to do! I could draft UB Mill/Control or RUG Walls. Just sit back and enjoy. When I finally understood the speed of the format IMA became one of the sets I really enjoyed playing. It was a set with many draft archetypes, one could switch to a different archetype easily and there was always plenty of playables. It was a great set. I expected Masters 25 to be similar and that was a mistake. Masters is a high power set as other Masters sets but otherwise it is a totally different beast.

Masters 25
After few events on Magic Online I had seriously no idea what the set was about. My decks were Boros Aggro, Br Suicide, Mono red and UB control. The decks I played against weren't doing anything spectacular or anything that would suggest a certain draft archetype with lots of synergy etc. It was clear that there are traces of old Standard decks but the question was, how to make that work?

This Sunday I went to one of the local games stores to pick up my cards I loaned. I was asked if I came to draft A25. I didn't but if there would be at least 8 people I'd join the draft. Some players came to me to tell me that they opened Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Chalice of the Void, foil Pact of Negation etc. I asked the players what they think about the set. I got mixed answers but neither was particularly positive. When I talked to some people online they told me that they are not really fans of the set and that it feels pretty 'dumb'. I agreed but I also suspected that there had to be something making the set exciting - if I omit opening packs like these.

Um interesting pack...

Then suddenly Petra came to me to tell me how her previous draft went and I asked her the same question. She replied that the set is cool. And she noted that there are cool card combos. I realized that there are indeed cards like Horseshoe Crab, Soulbright Flamekin, Cloudshift or Phyrexian Ghoul which all can end up in a crazy combination.

When we were seated I opened my first pack I seriously didn't like it. There wasn't much of anything I'd want. I could either pick a foil Red Elemental Blast and totally missing my first pick, or pick Murder. I decided to do the latter which obviously made someone happy since the Blast costs like 12USD. I continued drafting black and eventually started picking white cards because I liked Griffin Protector, Savannah Lions, random two drops and Dauntless Cathar. I even managed to get Ordeal of Heliod, Lunarch Mantle and 2 Auramancers which I thought could be sweet. Unfortunately white soon disappeared from the packs and I wasn't really sure if I want to switch in another color. I didn't switch but at least the last picks I got though were always red with occasional Plummet in between.

In the end I decided that my white picks are actually worse than the red cards that were passed to me - no one wanted them! I came up with this deck. I wasn't happy about it but it wasn't as bad as I thought either. It could have been great though if I would have switched in pack 2.

I went to fetch some basic lands and few players came to me showing me their decks. I asked one of the players if he opened Jace, the Mind Sculptor (because we all heard him scream with joy). He did. What he showed me though was Vesuvan Shapeshifter and couple of Brine Elementals. That was a shock for me. Another player was showing everyone Horseshoe Crab with Presence of Gond. When I was walking back to my table I saw someone's deck laid out in front of him. It was a Jeskai deck featuring several Court Hussars, Pyre Hounds and a lot of noncreature spells including 2 Counterspells, 3 Brainstorms, 3 Arcane Denials and some removal. I felt like I totally didn't get what the set is about, just to glance around the room and see that there were four red-black aggro players.

In my first round I played against RGB deck which played some ramp, a lot of removal and good value creatures. I had a cool start but it was stopped by double Lightning Bolt from my opponent which put me in a really bad position. I could still find a way to win but it didn't happen. I won next game swiftly after keeping 2 Vampire Lacerators, Swamp, Mishra's Factory. My opponent didn't have access to black a promptly conceded. The last game was very epic. I had a nice start but unfortunately it was stopped by Ambassador Oak which was probably the only 4-drop I didn't want to see. My hand feature several removal spells but they could deal only with one creature. The problem with the 1/1 Elf was that my opponent also had Pendelhaven in play and that could make the Elf Warrior practically bigger than any of my attackers. The game took a long time because I had some answers to my opponents good cards but I also knew that eventually Stangg or Prossh, Skyraider of Kher could just mean game over. At one point I forced a damage through hoping to get one more through next time at least so I could get my opponent down to two which was the 'burn range' for my deck. I have to say that already two Bloodhunter Bats showed up. The first one died immediately. The second one could in theory win the game. It even got to attack for lethal just to run into Fortune Thief. My opponent was unable to kill me back since I held two creatures in my hand that I could play and block with them (meaning I'd end up down to 1 if he attacked with everything). He needed an answer to my bat or kill me right away. He top decked Prossh and that was the end of it I thought. I still could draw something. I had still two draws to draw Murder, Kindle or another Bloodhunter Bat. I didn't draw any of that and lost to Prossh.

In the next round I played against a mirror match. My opponent started as a blue-black control but shifted into black-red. I was obviously favored in the mirror match since I could block Nezumi Cutthroat easily and I had a black one drop that attacked for 2. Unfortunately post-board my deck seriously struggled against cards like Ghost Ship.

I spend some time watching other games then because I was curious about other decks. I went to check up on the Jeskai player facing BG deck whose pilot terribly flooded. I also watched my BR opponent finally make his dream come true when playing Supernatural Stamina on his blocked morphed Akroma, Angel of Fury. I've also seen a huge attack of Chartooth Cougar which received Trample 3 times and was pumped 8 times with the mana from Soulbright Flamekin (I was also witness of that in the epic game against my Prossh playing opponent).

Non-linear set
When I was on my way to my flat I pondered about Masters 25 once again. At first I was very disappointed with the rares in the format, because those I opened weren't really limited bombs. Those were money cards though and I wondered if that was the sole purpose of the set. I was very glad to find out that it wasn't. At first I also didn't know what to think about the power level. The decks I put together though were very powerful. It reminded me of Vintage Masters. I also saw different card combinations from early Standard and new ones that were often too sweet for showing in a competitive deck. When I saw the players in our LGS draft interesting decks I realized that the set is really about what Petra said to me earlier. It is about crazy combos. It is also about exploring and going through Magic history. When I talked about this set earlier online with some players, they were surprised that I know cards like Horseshoe Crab and were also surprised why I valued this card and Vesuvan Shapeshifter as very high picks. It is because I already have these cards linked with other cards that we can even find in this set. Similarly, I picked Phyrexian Ghoul hoping to draft Promise of Bunrei. My BW deck didn't have an idea with the exception of it being an aggro deck, but I knew which cards I wanted to encounter. My Magic Online opponents obviously didn't have that kind of lines of thought and that is also probably why my initial drafts and experience of Masters 25 were rather meh. When I played with experienced players, current and former Pros, the draft started to look totally different and I realized that everything is possible. I realized that I can explore the format further. With real linear archetypes as we get with regular sets usually, we have to chose our role rather. We want to be the beatdown running a go wide (red) aggro or another fast aggressive deck (more of a suicide deck), be a control deck that can stop either and eventually win, or play the good stuff/ramp deck. Each of this is possible to draft and it is up to us to see what color is open and what part of the cards is open.

Playing in-pod draft was a very good experience and I really miss that on Magic Online. I understand that Leagues the way to go for online play, but it is a very different experience, especially with sets like these. In the end I'd like to say that Masters 25 is actually awesome. It allows for yet another different drafting experience. It is a high power level set as the previous ones, it gives us freedom to choose what we want to draft and how we want to play out games, and is actually rather complex. All this makes it a good set for everyone - be it a player who player for over 2 decades or someone who plays just for a year. There is a lot to explore, one could say the replayability of this set is very high. Old school players may be faster at realizing the two card combos but if you are new to the game, you will see how awesome Magic is and was in the past allowing is do such crazy things as having a 9/9 creature on turn 4. In the past we also had to discover synergies and combos by ourselves and it was one of the coolest things in Magic. A lot of that exploring is lost nowadays, mainly because we have internet and many content about new sets. Masters 25 is a set that succeeded at plunging players into the unknown and letting them explore and for that I'd like to thank those people who designed this set.

If you initial experience with A25 was rather bad, I'd recommend you to give it another chance. You won't regret it. Good luck!

Thank you for reading
S'Tsung (stsung on MODO, follow me on twitter - stsungjp)