Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Case Study: The Design Success of Nights of Reckoning.

I played the Imbued deck described below a couple of weeks ago (making a couple of very minor tweaks.)  It took its table pretty handily.  I never really felt like I wasn't in control of my destiny - despite apparently having "TABLE THREAT" tattoed across my forehead from the moment of my first discard.

Ironically, it wasn't the conceptual twist of manipulating convictions that made the deck strong.  In the end, it was simply intercept, Champion and aggravated damage.
But, this exercise still had merit.    When you look at it from a game design standpoint, Nights of Reckoning was a 60 card expansion that immediately created tournament-viable decks.   No other expansion can claim that success.  Yet Nights is the game's most-reviled expansion.  Hmmmmmmm.

I started to think about this in context of V:EKN's discussion about what might be interesting in a new set.  A few themes leapt to mind that I just wanted to jot down.


In the cases of (original) Anarchs, Bloodlines and Ebony Kingdom, the new themes lacked enough substance to build competitive decks.  Even after addition of a second set supporting each, the comparitively shallow card pool continues to relegate these many of these decks to gimmick status.

The fundamental difficulty in providing immediate impact with new sets was inherently tied to the game's trait-based model.  Disciplines, clans and/or traits like "Black Hand" and "Seraph" drove access to functionality.  Introducing more than one new trait in a set meant that it was difficult to properly support all of those traits in one expansion of fixed (small) size. 

To this day, disciplines existed in 1994's Jyhad base set have significantly more available cards than other disciplines.  Even the least dense original discipline, Protean, has twice as many card options as any discipline introduced after 1996. 

Depth of options for any given trait generally improves playability.  Even if simply because more cards printed statistically dictates a greater number of playable cards.  If you buy into that idea, it is easy to see why new concepts trailed in the power curve.  They just didn't have the depth to be versatile, or to have a significant number of playable cards.

The Imbued received immediate depth in a different way, tied to only one new trait introduced in that set - "Imbued."  The key cards (Convictions, Church of Vindicated Faith, Angel of Berlin) were broadly useable across the entire pool of available minions, instead of being tied to a more restrictive trait like a clan or discipline. 

Upside.....easy access to powerful options available within a compact card base.  Downside.....every Imbued deck starts to look very similar.  Even when I tried to twist the design around some, it ended up being just another wallish Imbued deck with a +1 bleed options.


Bear with me a moment, this gets a little lengthy and introduces a rant that I'll probably expand on more fully at a later date.

V:tES is a card game.  It is supposed to use 3 basic resources for play.  Pool as the global resource, minions to act in one's playspace and library cards to manipulate minions or their abilities..  

Innately tied to that model is a common thread among card games - the random nature of drawing from a face-down deck. 

Recursion from the Ash Heap introduces a 4th resource, one with low development overhead.  Accessing that resource also eliminates the random factors, which are supposed to be closely woven into the fabric of the game. 

In short, significant access to the Ash Heap, where information is complete and random distribution is no longer a factor, breaks the fundamental underpinnings of design for any card game.  From Ashur's Tablets to Sudario Refraction to Sargon Fragment, recursion destroys the reliance on one's library as one of the three primary resources and transfers the focus to "working the Ash Heap."

As an analogy, imagine playing poker and being able to draw cards from the muck (discards of players who folded in that hand).   Immediately, you change the probability of "hitting your raw" into a simple question of having whatever triggers your ability to get the card you want.  The game loses a lot of its appeal and complexity - becoming less random and more an exercise in selecting cards to meet situational need. 

As the ease of use for recursion increases, the mechanic becomes increasingly broken.  Nothing is easier than recursion of Conviction - just stick it on the minion during your untap.  Done, and you get what you need for the upcoming turn.  Pretty broken.

Personally, I find it interesting that a large part of what made Nights tournament-worthy was weaving a broken concept into the design. 


There are really two parts to this.  First is that several existing cards greatly improved the playability of ally-based decks.  In particular, the Unmasking leaps to mind.

Being unaffected by a number of cards further broadens the card base available to the minions from this small set.  From shrugging off the effect of almost every Event card to accessing Tension in the Ranks without risk from going to torpor, the Imbued were immediately able to access a wide base of existing deck tech with comparitely low risk. 

While some of the other small sets had syngery with existing sets (after all, the minions shared core disciplines with other vampires), very few of those cards had such a global effects. In my mind, having cards that read "all your minions with [aus] get +1 intercept forever" is the only close parallel to the power the Imbued recieved, just by being allies instead of vampires.

In hindsight, "Imbued" should have implied "mortal minion" but not "ally" and their life counters should have been called something else.


I'll use a World of Warcraft analogy here.  In Player-Versus-Player (PvP) combat models with 2 players per side, the type of characters on each side of the fight can matter more than anything other factor in the fight.  Players commonly call this situation "a hard counter."

The Imbued are, by and large, a hard counter to a lot of deck designs. 

Combat is often viewed as the best way to deal with the Imbued.  But of the 87 cards that say "enter combat," 63 of them also say "vampire" instead of "minion."   That hamstrings a lot of combat deck designs - including the flavor of the month Deep Song rush decks. 

Even after combat is initiated, there are a lot of combat cards that are unplayable against the Immune - most prominantly all Frenzy cards and Taste of Vitae.  More innate benefit simply from Imbued being "allies" - which never really should have happened.

The Imbued's tendency to develop a lot of standing intercept is also a hard counter against any late-developing deck that can't generate consistent stealth.  Having a backup Champion in play makes lunging at them harder too - so another subset of deck designs is greatly hampered by what seems to be general commonality in their deck designs.


The Imbued permit a disportionately high level of multiaction by rule, without any other prerequisite or resource cost.  Experience has shown that freedom to act repetitively is very powerful - how many people try to play [for] minions just to get at Freak Drive or use Majesty as much for untap as for S:CE?

Perhaps untapping after gaining a Power should have cost the Imbued one of their most precious resources - a Conviction.  Seems roughly analogous to the typical 1 blood cost associated with a vampire using an untap effect.


The new mechanics created an innate complexity at a lot of people just don't care to understand.

This is almost as telling as anything else.  A large fraction of the player population still doesn't understand how to beat them - and might not even understand the cards they play.  Even against seasoned tournament players, I often have to explain what the cards I'm playing do. 

I've even gone so far as to put a die in front of each minion, showing their on-the-table intercept, just so I don't have to keep telling people, sometimes more than once per turn.


All this adds up to one thing......Nights of Reckoning will always be the most-successful, least-loved expansion ever to hit the presses.