Saturday, May 26, 2012

Imperfect Persistence, A Combat Flaw.

One of the conclusions from the last post is

Combat is a tactically superior function,
but suffers from strategic inferiority when used as an ousting strategy.  

This isn't a surprise, Garfield's original vision didn't feature combat as a central offensive function (source needs to be found, I think it was the intro to the original Strategy Guide).  The thinking was that most decks would take unsuccessful actions or block others' actions.  Combat would result.  Therefore, most decks would benefit from having some combat functions for the inevitable result of failed actions.  

Of course, we've seen that is patently untrue.  Large card collections and more stealth options allow players to completely avoid combat within their turns.  But silly us, we saw this tactical function and a few cards intended to enable it - so we built decks around it.  Now, we have to grapple its shortcomings as a viable strategic design (or stop playing combat).

In the "Enkidu SMASH!" case study, part of the endgame combat package I played was "Mantle of the Bestial Majesty."  I like thiscard in a multiaction decks because it's such an efficient way to create aggravated damage across a whole turn.  Playing that card when I did highlighted a problem (not just the strategic one). My combat that lacked persistence.  I sent vampires to torpor with blood.  Counteracting my progress cost cross-table players only actions, nothing else - most of the blood cost was paid by the minions in torpor. 


To play combat decks in competitive environments, 
it must be more difficult to "undo combat" with rescues.

First, we should discount aggravated damage as a stand-alone function for a rush combat deck.  Vampires sitting in torpor with blood is bad.  Progress can be reversed with minimal overhead cost, vampires can self-rescue and we don't prevent our prey's blood-to-pool conversion.  The resulting situation is terrible for an active combat deck - repetitive rushes with no concrete outcome.   For the same reason, we shouldn't be looking at hands-prevent-Disarm as a stand-alone combat design.


That isn't to say aggravated damage is bad - it shines in defensive combat decks.  The card-efficient nature of aggravated damage minimizes hand-jam when we need freely-flowing intercept.  If resulting combats are meaningful, the acting player spends an additional actions rescuing.  Creating a free "null" action effectively doubles the block/action ratio we might otherwise require, even when we don't interfere with the rescue.  That's all good - it's meant to cause delay and deplete the value of assets, not be a complete removal of them.

But we're talking about active (not reactive) combat decks in this blog. When we strip all the blood from opposing minions in combat, at least we're making rescuers spend their own blood.  The rescued minion will be likely be hunting next turn.  We increase the cost of rescuing, which seems good.


It comes with a hidden downside.  Remember when we said combat decks had to fight the clock for game wins?  Combat alone is time-intensive enough.  Now consider:

Every time an empty vampire is rescued cross-table, 
the game is lengthened by 2-3 actions.

Whoa, that's not what we wanted.  Our rush was intended to remove a minion from the ready region.  At least part of the effect was nullified with the rescue.  We might have knocked several beads off the minion and they won't find their way back into a players pool, so the effort had some payoff.  

  • But that minion is still active and we haven't gained an numerical advantage in play space - we'll end up rushing it again.  We can count either the first rush or the second as the lost action - either way, its two functions where we intended one to suffice.
  • The rescue action itself could have been productive offense - a lost opportunity cost.  It's fairly certain the rescuing player didn't really intend to take that action when he constructed his deck, so it's a second effect lost.
  • Even the rescued vampire is a potentially null minion.  It might be lost in hunting next turn or it might block a subsequent rush (either way, a 3rd action lost).  
Obviously, we have to go further in discouraging rescues, simply because we can accept neither unproductive use of our assets nor games lengthed by so many actions.  The question is "How?"

Threaten

I've come to realize that threatening rescuers with rushes is counterproductive - despite the fact that it is the one actionable option we have.  Cross table rescues are often motivated by this very fear of being rushed, making a threat only makes the fear more justifiable.  It creates a downward spiral of endless rescues and unproductive turns.  

Punish

Revenge feels good, but is clearly a bad choice in the 5-player game.  It reinforces someone else's position using our assets and resources, but does nothing to strengthen our position in the process. Even hunting is usually a better option in terms of creating a beneficial outcome (and that's a very low bar).


Discourage (by Increasing Cost)

Hmmm, maybe this is a viable option.  It's kinda of subtle and still allows some choices, but makes other players think twice instead of reflexively rescuing.  And if rescues to ensure, they will be fewer since they require expending more blood.


We've already sworn off aggropoke, because of its minimal opportunity cost.  Extending that logic, how can we make rescuing even more costly? 
  • Carver's Meat Packing Plant:  We only include 1 copy and it isn't universally beneficial.   So it is unreliable, squared - but still almost required for serious combat.
    • That one copy is our contingency against the Breed-Boon vs Combat whack-a-mole contest, a fight we cannot win unless we thin the herd.  
    • It limits the number of chump blockers throwing themselves on grenades for their elder brethren
  • Torpid Blood:  While this feels like a viable inclusion, it's really not.  
    • The -1 hand size (even if temporary) is a significant downside, especially given our deck's near-certain use of Dragonbound as an end-game ousting mechanism (an additional -1 hand size, permanently).  Put simply, trying to run a 5-card rush combat hand usually leads to either hand jam or decking yourself though the insane card flow it requires. 
  • Pulled Fangs:   Why don't we see more use of this card?   
    • It's accessible by any minion and provides synergistic combat damage  
    • It effectively triples the overhead associated with rescuing - 3 actions should be a serious disincentive
    • It shines in the large capacity meta-game, where Blood Doll and Vessel are seen less often. .  
    • This card is now completely restricted to close range (recent errata).  So it's usable by ranged archetypes like [CEL] guns, but they have to be prepared to accept a close-range return strike (or dodge/additional strike).
    • It's important for any deck using this card to also include cards to destroy locations - specifically Hunting Grounds and Heidleburg Castle.  

Eliminate

Aha, not so subtle, but effective.  It tends to raise eyebrows - players might not see torpor as a terrible threat, but they really hate to lose minions for good.  There are a few ways to achieve this, though not all can be applied in typical pure combat decks.
  • Theft:  
    • Graverobbing and Raw Recruit creates a huge, favorable swings in power.  Depriving another player of assets while gaining your own is a game-changing event.  
    • Since these decks have [dom], they have alternate pool damage and defensive options - moving them outside the realm of pure combat into hybrid designs, and different overall requirements result..
  • Diablerie (including Amaranth) and Pillowfacing:  
    • Diablerie is risky for any vampire not immune to blood hunts, which clearly restricts deck parameters.  Pure combat constructs frequent influence 1-2 capacity sidekicks explicitly for this purpose - we trade resources, but hope to net a gain.  
    • Pillowfacing Imbued is relatively risk-free.  With the banning of Edge Explosion, Conviction accumulates so slowly that using them for anything but their text functions (or return from the incapacitated region) is poor play.
  • "Burn" Text: 
    • Gregory Winter is the prototypical culprit, though other options (like Nephandus) exist.  Since Gregory's card text effect is synergistic with combat blood removal, the only obstacles to his inclusion are the pool cost and recruitment action he consumes.   
    • Anathema has a significant overhead - We have to be running a titled Camarilla vote/combat deck, passing votes most people won't want to see successful.  Ugh, near cornercase.  I have been discussing a viable use of this card with a friend - I hope to see the deck at the NAC next week..  
    • Sacrificial Lamb suffers from being associated with [POT][OBF] decks.  Since [POT] tends to empty vampires in the course of sending them to torpor, this card's unrefunded blood cost and extra action requirement seem prohibitive.
    • Vulnerability seems useful, but isn't.  Since we have to wait until our next MPA to use it, we still encounter all the risk of cross-table rescues, the very thing we are trying to eliminate. It is an interesting option for intercept combat wanting to create extra breathing room.  
  • Finishing Moves:  
    • Unhealed aggravated damage.  Working the combination of aggravated and normal damage to ensure that a minion is in torpor for the agg damage can be very challenging.  Generating large chunks of aggravated damage may be even more difficult and/or blood intensive.  Both are "star minion" moves and combat with a star minion is risk intolerant.
    • Decapitate is another card I don't see played enough.  Yes, it is moderately expensive and there is no refund of blood - but this is usually quite playable before/after a reasonably large Taste of Vitae and doesn't require a follow-up action.  It's also usable at long range, which opens the door use in "Flung Junk" decks (ranged [POT] strikes with Increased Strength).  

Survive

Most of the previously posted combat-and-egg analogy was predicated on a single, near-fatal flaw of combat decks.  They usually enter the 3 player game with no VP and must crush the resulting 3 player table to get a game win.

There are a silver linings in the cloud of doom. 


Having reached the 3 player end game,
the incentive for cross-table rescuing is immediately diminished.


Not many people rescue their predator's minions.  If they do undertake a campaign of upstream rescues, they tend to create less offensive pressure.  It's never optimal for a combat deck to see rescues, but at least it is contributing to blood attrition our both our left and right.  The reduced incoming pool damage creates breathing room for us to continue generating pressure and in the long run, this should all be to our benefit.  


Likewise, it's fairly rare for the general populace to rescue their prey's minions in the late game.  Wily players do this in an attempt to "feed their predator to their prey" then win the end game duel, but it's a fairly unusual play.  It requires a specific VP distributions to even consider, tends to create a war of attrition and works best when the combat decks resources are in short supply.


Either way, our combat deck is now in a position where cross-table rescues are the exception, rather than the rule.  This is clearly an improvement - our egg shape is starting to get more circular and our tactical tool is becoming increasingly well-suited as a path to victory.

The changes implied in the 3 player game is a topic for a follow-up post, both in managing the players or positions we see in that sub-game and how the end game is played.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Combat and Eggs, the Breakfast of Champions.

Case Study: Enkidu SMASH!

The other day, I was testing a dedicated rush deck. It's a recycled "proof of concept" deck using a heavy pre-range card module, built to reinforce Enkidu against his innate weaknesses.  I'm very comfortable with the current combat module.  I was testing new sidekicks intended to improved bleed-based ousting power.

The mid-game hit, still with 5 players (maybe turn 5-6).  That's way too early for a combat deck to make big moves, but I really wanted to test those new components. So I fired part of my endgame-level combat package, despite knowing it was an overall strategic mistake.

Enkidu rampaged, my predator's and prey's ready regions emptied.  I was 3 turns from ousting my prey assuming I used all my actions, every turn, solely for bleed.....much longer if I had to take any non-bleed actions.  It's seemingly an eternity at this stage of the game.

By the time my next turn rolled around, all 5 minions I had sent to torpor were back in the ready region.  My grandprey rescued minions for both players.  My grandpredator rescued my prey's vampires.  In my opinion, most of these rescues were strategic mistakes almost as large as mine, but the message here is clear.

Only combat decks play a game permitting card-less interference from all four other seats.
Even relentlessly left-looking combat decks suffer from this weakness.

The Symmetry of Egg Shaped Objects.

Presumably, the mechanics of rush combat are balanced:

A rush deck can enter combat another vampire anywhere on the table.
So........a vampire should be able to rescue another vampire anywhere on the table.  



Symmetry exists inside that mechanic - on tactical level, when we are talking about short-term objectives, the individual assets in combat and rescuing.  Fair enough.

An imbalance occurs an a different axis - in comparing ousting methods, in a strategic view the game as a whole, in reaching the 3-player endgame, in winning it.  It's difficult to describe this imbalance without a ton of extra writing, but I'll try to summarize the thinking without all the proof.




FACT: Two VPs are needed to win any game, 
so "getting a game win" implies having played in the 3-player endgame.

MAXIM: When pure combat survives to the 3 player endgame, 
it usually has no VP.

Pure combat decks seldom oust their first prey quickly.  Some fraction of its available actions are dedicated to survival through back-rushing.  Scattered 1-bleed actions are almost worthless in the early going.  If the deck is tooling up bleed retainers/equipment, it won't even generate 1-bleeds.  All that conspires to making the first oust a time-consuming process.

Here's the ugly truth of reaching a 3 player game with no VP.
  • In a 0-2-0 endgame, a sweep of the remaining table is needed to achieve a 3-2 game win.
  • In a 0-1-1 endgame, getting the minimum 2 VP for a win is a de facto sweep of the remaining table, we get the third VP as last man standing for a 3-1-1 win.
It's important to note that it doesn't matter how the split of those first 2 VP occurs, assuming we don't get one.  Any scenario leaves us needing to clear the table in the 3 player endgame.  Of course, that doesn't take finals seeding into account, but lets get to the finals as the first order of business, OK?  

FACT: Any deck reaching the 3-player stage without a VP 
needs to achieve a sweep of that mini-game to garner a game win. 


FACT: Any deck reaching the 3 player stage without a VP 
cannot win a game reaching the time limit (because it does not sweep the endgame).


MAXIM: Pure combat decks will therefore usually need to sweep the 3 player end game.

Holy High Hurdle, Batman!  

Robin laid an egg?
We have to survive into the 3 player game QUICKLY, then sweep before time expires without our predator self-ousting while we peck at our prey.  Very few deck designs suffer from this weakness.  

All this points to combat being tactically balanced (rush/rescue), but strategically inferior.

Combat is symmetrical on one axis, but not the other - like an egg.  We'll definitely be looking at the ramifications of this in later posts.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Pool Management Part 4: Indirect Pool Generation


This blog entry focuses on the last of the "major" pool generation techniques.  Where the direct tools focus on survival, the indirect tools primarily focus on building the ready region.  Here, we hit a real power play among the tools.

INDIRECT POOL GENERATION (IPG)

Introduction

Definition: The movement of counters from the blood bank to an uncontrolled minion's blood.
Crypt-based Examples:  Malgorzata, Mary Anne Blair, Travis "Travis72" Miller
Library-based Examples: Arcane Library, Govern the Unaligned, Enchant Kindred, Fourth Tradition, Belonging Grants Protection
Limitations:  IPG usually affects younger minions in the uncontrolled region, so the oldest available vampire must be influenced first (and sometimes is subject to combat risk).  If a player needs pool instead of speed and growth in the ready region, they are limited by their available influence-phase transfers, seldom yielding more than 3 pool per turn.

Scaling

We'll continue to use dimensions of scale that are consistent with earlier use.
  • Horizontal:  it depends on the number of minions meeting the relevant criteria, usually granting 1 blood per uncontrolled minion (e.g., Honor the Elders, Unwholesome Bond, Little Mountain Cemetary).
  • Vertical: as before, return is based on some other attribute related to a single minion (e.g., Brutal Influence).  
  • Fixed: the output is independent of any scaling parameter and consistent for each application (e.g.,  Govern the Unaligned, Scouting Mission, Enchant Kindred, Fourth Tradition, Belonging Grants Protection).

IPG vs Hybrid Functions

I'll freely admit it.  I "copped out" and modified my presentation of this content for the reader's sake.   IPG cards which cost blood were going to be introduced as a "hybrid techniques" and I still think about them that way.  

By rule and text, they move X blood from the blood bank and cost Y blood.  But conceptually, the effect is indirect pool generation (creating X-Y blood) and indirect blood conversion (moving the Y blood paid). We do this unconsciously in playing cards like Govern, taking the 1 blood cost, holding it in hand, grabbing 2 more from the bank and dropping them on the uncontrolled minion.  
As I wrote this blog, it became apparent that covering card functions from Enchant Kindred (create 2, no cost) without discussing Govern (create 3, pay 1) would likely lead to immediate confusion and a chorus of comments.  I just didn't want to deal with it.   And lumping the cards together does ensure proper rules adherence for things like the Tomb of Ramses.

Integrating Direct Blood Conversion and Indirect Pool Generation

This combination is the holy grail for tournament play using large capacity minions, 
though in reality the ousting power is mostly derived from IPG.

Minion-based IPG amounts to additional free influence at the cost of an action.  That opportunity cost is offset by the creation of more action in the future (another minion), who is put into play at a without influencing its entire capacity.  The overall effect (entire game time frame) is a net increase in actions at a reduced pool cost.

Earlier, in the DPG discussion, we covered how the bloat actions are actually counterproductive.  Each one taken requires the remaining offensive actions be larger, to make up for the action lost performing the DPG.  This is not the case for IPG actions, since the entire objective is to quickly introduce another minion to replace the lost action without facing the bottleneck of 4 transfers in the influence phase.

This is the heart and sole of why IPG is widely superior to DPG.
The action implies no lost offensive opportunity.

During this activity, DBC grants survivability and minimizes pool investment risk.  When used on partially financed minions (financed with IPG actions), it can represent true pool gain. The biggest difficulty in this integration is accurately forecasting the future blood requirements when using vertically scaling DPG (see part 1 of the series.)

Design Considerations


If a crypt can broadly leverage a permanent Master that 
puts counters from the blood bank on uncontrolled minions
that card should be included in the library.

There aren't a lot of these cards, only about a half dozen.  All of them I'm suggesting to use are clan or sect-based (not Powerbase: Montreal) and I suggest including a only single copies.  Costing 2-3 pool, drawing them within in first 4-5 turns both create acceleration and represents a modest pool creation asset for the late game.  Drawn later, they are often discards.  But the two-part upside is too good to pass up.




If a crypt has broad access to an undirected IPG action with attached bleed function, 
excluding that card from the library is unwise.


I really believe it.  We're really only talking about 7 cards across 2 disciplines here - but they're the big payload disciplines: Dominate and Presence.  


I might suggest that opening statement could read "if a crypt's star minion has acccess to...."  Even dedicated [PRE]-based vote decks can benefit from including Enchant Kindred either leading or follow-up for Majesty S:CE.   By now, everyone knew Govern the Unaligned was good, right? 




In my opinion, the undirected trait is an important aspect of the card type's robustness.  Comparing undirected IPG with directed actions having an IPG kicker (e.g., Public Trust), the independent action
  • creates more blood per action,
  • starts at increased (+1) stealth,
  • is less likely to encounter a block (people block actions more frequently when the actions result in them immediately losing pool)
This class of actions is made even more powerful when stacking multiple IPG actions within the same turn, either in series (one multi-acting minion Governing down, untapping and Scouting down) or more commonly in parallel (2 minions both Governing down).  

These actions beget more actions as more freely financed minions move to the controlled region - creating an increasing advantage in speed and efficiency (capacity per pool) over decks that rely only on transfers for influence.

Contrarian View:

There are specific deck designs which benefit from leveraging directed IPG over undirected IPG, though the components are usually layered for robustness.

I played against Undue Influence decks before the development of Anarch Convert.  It's strange\that this design hasn't been explored more, since the Convert significantly reduces the overhead associated with the entire Anarch mechanic.

This design leverages +1 stealth directed actions for early IPG with offense, but might also layer undirected [PRE] Enchant Kindred for use after blocks.  The entire package can be make free of blood cost with Change of Target, though I would include several copies of Majesty for rush defense and to tap persistent intercept blockers for repetitive Undue Influence.


Now, back to the general concept of IPG

IPG actions with non-bleed ancillary functions 
are still so good that they fit in most decks 
(though in smaller numbers than the bleed + IPG functions.)  


I was openly critical of DPG actions in the last section, especially fixed scale DPG.  IPG is simply that much better.  I'll reiterate:
  • Fixed-scaling DPG actions usually return 2 pool.  
  • Even the worst undirected IPG effectively yields 2 pool (in blood on uncontrolled minions) AND 2 transfers.  
That's half a turn's transfers per action better - in effect circumventing an asset generation constraint..  And there's still some type of potentially useful function for the late game, despite not being efficiently repeatable.

Belonging Grants Protection has an "untap other" parallel function - rarely useful unless a deck is actually designed to leverage it, but it remains an option,.  The parallel text for Inspire (an IPG action for Imbued) is grossly underused, either facilitating conviction-based bleed or to enabling return from the incapacitated region.

These options are just more powerful and flexible than most DPG options..

Even those IPG actions with no other functions 
(e.g., Reunion Kamutthe Call
are usually worth including, but they require care in handling.

The worst part is that they can be dead cards in the end game.  With no uncontrolled miinions, they're literally unplayable.  Even with an uncontrolled minion, potential pool gain is limited.  Drawing a mid-lunge copy of the Call is disheartening at best and game-ending at worst.

This leads to another inevitable conclusion:

The more I see parallel functions that I don't want to play after turn 7, 
the more I need to devise immediate discard options for my IPG.

I was careful to use a couple of phrases in that sentence.  I used "discard options" instead of "card flow."  They're often used in the same way (including my me), but I wanted to be very specific in getting the dead card out of hand.  For instance, I might imply simply play cards "around" the dead card in my hand,and still have "good flow" of what is effectively a 6 card hand.  Good for the short term.

But inevitably, longer time frames and uneven distribution in the library will accumulate the dead IPG cards and lead to stagnant play.  If the parallel function isn't bleed, that card will usually need to get out my hand to ensure late game robustness, and often in numbers greater than the 1 per turn allowed by discard actions.

The other part of that conclusion with which I was careful was including the word "immediate."  If I draw that IPG card replacing a played Master, it can interrupt an entire turn, from start to finish.  It needs to be replaced as soon as possible, not at the end of the turn.

I don't want to drift too far into other topics (specifically card flow), but having only 1 discard phase action is a clear constraint and it's placement at the end of a turn interferes with applying offensive pressure during my turn.

The real hidden risk is the almost unavoidable temptation to flow cards by playing IPG in the late game, as "pool gain" and to "cycle the card."  But in this end-game situation, its even worse than DPG.
  • It's limited in horizontal scale (by the number of transfers) - I can play only 1 "profitably."
  • It incurs the same DPG deficit - all my remaining actions need to generate more offense (or be more numerous) to counteract the lost action.
  • The minion whose action I sacrifice is likely a large minion, the one I should be counting on to generate the most offense.  

The real irony here is that ousting my prey is worth as much pool as 2 of these extraneous actions and 3 turns of transfers to recoup to pool.  If I expect I can survive one more turn, it's often better to create offense (despite forcing my prey into defensive postures).

It's tough for me to put a survival expectation into concrete terms and it's probably a deep enough subject for a whole blog entry.  It's apparent the different players have different baseline risk-acceptance criteria.  I will tell you my risk-reward ratio is more tolerant of failure than many peoples'.  It depends on the time remaining, my knowledge of the players, how the game has progressed, if I already have victory points and even likelihood of reaching the finals based on results in this game.  But in the end, I don't play for mere survival.

Note: we'll discuss the intrinsic strategic conflict of a global play to win rule with a finals-based tournament structure at a later date.  The existing rules system is flawed because it sometimes forces players into behavior that loses them seats at the finals.

Predator/Prey Viewpoint

Here's the rub......people don't want to block actions like Govern down in the early going.  IPG seems to fire off left and right, all at the default 1 stealth.  I'll tell you what, there are few things more worth blocking in the early going, if you can stop it.

Blocking an IPG action in the first few turns
is more than making just that single block.

We're covered, over and over, that IPG is intended to generate a full ready region.  Blocking IPG stops the current action and it prevents some fraction of future actions from uncontrolled minions.

In effect, you are constraining that players influence over new minions.   In the case of Govern, you're pushing a player from the 7 influences he wanted to get, back down to the 4 given him by the rules.  That's right - almost half his planned influence for the turn, crushed.  It's a huge amount of control for a single block.  Imminently worth doing in the early going, every time you can.

If my predator is getting his IPG and I'm not (or its not in my deck), I very definitely feel exposed until I get whatever mojo I have flowing.  I'm always hurrying to find other ways to keep up with my predator's development (or crush his), quickly.

If there's no IPG in my deck, I expect I'll be behind and that makes me include more Wake effects to get a 1-to-many relationship for my blockers (if any).  It's uncomfortable and risky to be down 2:1 when turn 6 hits, so I consciously try to avoid that situation in most decks.

Closing

IPG is the king of speed and perhaps the most versatile tool I can find, at least as it applies in the early game

It's not strictly necessary in a competitive deck, but if you aren't running some kind of IPG, you absolutely need to have a very solid risk mitigation plan (usually redirecting bleeds frequently) because your predator and prey are very likely building faster than you are - and often with bleed disciplines.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Did Mugatu Invent the Ashur Tablet?


Earlier today, I spent some time responding to a statement on the Elder Kindred Network forum.

Izaak wrote:
I have never actually seen a proper argument why they [Ashur Tablets] are broken.
I felt obliged to offer an opinion on the subject, since it's one close to my heart.

On second thought, this topic may be closer to my ass than my heart 
because I think wholesale library recursion is shit as a game mechanic.

At any rate, here is the meat of the post, reformatted in what I hope is a more readable format.

There are 2 related aspects of library recursion that suggest brokenness.

First, V:tES is a card game. Intimately tied to that definition are common threads
  • the random draw of objects from a predefined set and
  •  the imperfect knowledge that results from that action.

Second, V:tES is structured for each player using 3 basic resources for play.
  • pool as the global resource,
  • crypt-based minions to act in one's playspace and
  • library cards to connect resources and manipulate the playspace.

It's time to look at how Ashur Tablets can violate both of those fundamental design properties.

Ashur Tablets accesses a fourth resource, the Ash Heap. This resource is not available to every player by default. It seems reasonable to conclude that any player who gain additional (valuable) resources might have a strategic advantage.

This new resource either develops naturally or can be profitably grown with Liquidation. Beyond the cards used to access this resource, there is no opportunity cost in using it. Arguably, even that cost is offset by the 3 pool gain realized triggering a set of Ashur Tablets.

So far, we've got to free access to a resource not every player has. 
But since we haven't proven that resource is valuable, it is best to continue.

Some might suggest the Ash Heap is not an independent resource, but is completely redundant with the library. True in definition, not in practice.

If Ashur Tablets read "shuffle your Ash Heap. Put 12 random cards from your Ash Heap into your Library, and one into your hand" then it would be truly redundant and I wouldn't be writing this.

Selecting 13 tactically appropriate cards to return is a different matter. It significantly reconstructs a deck at point of use. We're using perfect knowledge of cards in the Ash Heap and reliable information about other player's minions and Ash Heap to rebuild a deck in-game.

Perfect knowledge (and solid inferences) in a game of imperfect knowledge.... 
that seems like a strategic advantage in the hands of any capable player.

Large-scale recursion impacts card drawing probability. As fewer cards reside in the library, the probability of drawing desired cards (the situationally useful ones recurred) grows. Now we have further optimized the deck to any task immediately at hand.

This messes with the random nature of drawing from a predefined set. 
It's not really predefined anymore. 
We're stacking the odds in our favor as the library empties.

Even when a deck is perfectly designed for the task at hand, permutations in draws may affect its ability to perform, either immediately or some point in the future. We call it "clumping."

Recursion can smooth variability in past card draws. Hit too many of card "X" in the first 1/4 of the deck......recur as needed to re-balance the set of available objects again.

The minimizes the effect of unfavorable permutations drawn early in a game.
It creates a new set of a more favorable options for subsequent draws. 
This seems like a double whammy on the whole randomness aspect of the game.

The way I see it, we just ripped the fundamental fabric the game. Two for two now.  In short, hand-selected recursion undermines the reliance on one's library as one of the three primary resources and can smooth variability in draws. In extreme cases, it can transfer the entire focus of card flow into "working the Ash Heap."

As an analogy, imagine playing poker and being able to draw your cards from a face-up muck. Immediately, you transform the probability of "hitting your draw" into a simple function of your ability to reach into the muck for what you need.

As the ease of recursion increases, the mechanic becomes increasingly broken. 

Nothing is easier than Imbued recurring Conviction, which we talked about long ago. Second on the list is Ashur Tablets.  They only consume Master Phase Actions, with no clan or discipline requirement.  It's pretty accessible, though clearly leveraged with multiple MPA.

Derek Zoolander in Jacobim Mugatu's "Derelicte" fashion line
Zoolander, Parmount Films,  2001
As long as this card is on the tournament scene, we'll see players "pulling a Mugatu" by recycling trash, giving it a fancy name like "Girls Wear Derelicte" and trying to profit from the stupidity of others.

Tell them to "Relax" then string them players up by their skinny little  piano key neckties.

If you'll excuse me, I may actually have to go build "Girls Wear Derelicte" now.........

Monday, May 7, 2012

Extending Poker's Fundamental Theorem

Some of you know me personally. Some have played poker with me. For those who found the experience unprofitable, I thank you for your modest contributions to my sizable drinking budget.

My passing familiarity with the theories of poker allows me to extrapolate its concepts into our game.  I'm at it again.

I was writing a tongue-in-cheek blog to get away from the weighty topic of pool management for a day or two.  It was about how I never want to be the "David Sklansky of V:tES."  In short, he's a well-known author of poker books. Despite being well-regarded as a theoretician, he performs poorly on the tournament scene. I don't ever wanna be that guy in our world.

In the course of rambling on about that, I revisited the thing that established Sklansky's reputation.  It's called the Fundamental Theorem of Poker.  Summarized for brevity, it states:

When you play differently than you would have played having seen their cards, 
you lose and others profit. 

My having to summarize this concept speaks volumes, his writings are tedious to read.  Did I mention that I don't ever wanna be that guy in our world?  But I'll give him this, that concept sparked a thought relevant to V:tES.

If playing with imperfect knowledge is sub-optimal,
why don't I play with perfect knowledge more often?

In poker, they call it cheating.  Then they bludgeon you about the head and shoulders.  But it's legal in V:tES - and easy enough to do.

There are 19 crypt cards and 28 library cards that allow us to look at part or all of another player's hand.   Some of them are REALLY bad.  See the example on right.  I love the art so much that I had to include it.  Too bad it's attached to a virtually useless card.

But many cards with "peeking" function are very playable.  They can be devastating at the right time.  I vividly remember the crowd gasping when an [aus] Aura Reading exposed Trey Morita's hand during a NAC Finals.  It was packed full of War Ghouls that immediately became destined for table-wide block attempts.  Trey's predator when on to win the championship.

One of the decks I have slated for Origins has two different mechanisms to look at players' hands, because I already know how powerful those effect can be in planning a turn.

Pushing that thinking even further, one might ask....

If knowing what is in a player's hand is powerful, 
how much more powerful is actually controlling his hand?

Many believe that inferior Revelations is "superior to the superior" largely because it removes a card from hand. I certainly play the inferior level more, even to the point of including it only for the inferior text.

There has been a recent upswing of tournament wins for True Brujah using Vaticination.  It's reliable (3 stealth), predictive for upcoming events, denies the least favorable card available for play from all Methuselah and resides neatly within a multi-action package easily accessible to the clan.

All this points to controlling parts of your predator's or prey's hand being good.  I'll go father to suggest it is theoretically better than than any other action which does not directly lead to your prey's oust that turn.  Properly targeted, its an action you don't have to block, a block you don't have to face, a Master you don't need to counteract and/or a partridge in a pear tree.

I've often said Direct Intervention is broken, in part because it is a golden bullet.  It fixes so many things. How about this?  Broad spectrum "peek and deny" is potentially worse because it:

  • works against any card, simulating the effects of both Sudden Reversal and Direct Intervention in a single effect.
  • prospectively provides the same cancellation effect for actions taken inside your own turn, which you can't do with  Direct Intervention
  • provides bonus knowledge of 6 other cards in a players hand (assuming you didn't have it BEFORE initiating the discard action)
Ummm....wow?  I exploit this effect lightly in a few decks.  Why haven't I pushed the effect to the limit of absurdity, just to see how broken it really is?  There seem to be so many possibilities that my head swims with them.  As always, the working pieces have to be integrated with nominal payload to oust players, but it seems feasible.  That payload can even be lower than normal, if the deck strips a few pool management cards.

You'll see a deck based on this blog from me at the Week of Nightmares.  Maybe a causal deck, I don't know if I'll get it tested to tournament-readiness in 2 weeks.  But it'll be in the box.

Thank you, Fundamental Theorem.  And thank you David Sklansky (now go win a friggin poker tournament, fer Cripe's Sake).

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Pool Management, Part 3: Direct Pool Generation


Parts 1 and 2 of this series hammered home a lot of information around re-using blood from minions in play. Much of that exercise can't be considered "pool gain" until the amount of blood you receive the pool you invested in that minion.

Today, in Part 3, we add a new layer of pool management to the puzzle - Direct Pool Generation.  Welcome to a pool management techniques that really is innate pool gain (or for the crusty old Methesulah, "bloat.")

DIRECT POOL GENERATION (DPG)

Introduction

Definition: The movement of counters from the blood bank directly to one's pool.
Crypt-based Examples: Armin Brenner, Bartholemew, the Unnamed
Library-based Examples: Consanguineous Boon, Art Scam, Kindred Spirits, Voter CaptivationAscendanceFailsafe
Limitations:  Most direct generation of pool is contingent on a successful minion action or a satisfying a specific condition (e.g., having a victory point, having the Edge, discarding or burning cards).

Note: I wanted to use "creation" instead of "generation" - it sounds less pretentious, but the abbreviations DBC and DPC looked so much alike that, even as the author, I was getting confused.  DPG is still similar at a glance, but visually differentiated itself a bit more.

Scaling

Like many of the other pool management effects, the way DPG works can be described with a few familiar terms.
  • Horizontal:  used with the same connotations we had earlier - it depends on the number of minions meeting the relevant criteria (e.g., Consanguineous Boon, Political Stranglehold).
  • Vertical: as before, return is based on some other attribute related to a single minion (e.g., Ancient Influence).  
  • Fixed: their output is independent of any scaling parameter and consistent for each application (e.g., Momentum's Edge, Ascendance, Ashur Tablets, Art Scam).
Aha..... see, we found a way to sneak in that term "fixed" in a less ambiguous way than when apply it to Direct Pool Conversion :)   

Integrating Direct Blood Conversion and Direct Pool Generation

There's no hard and fast design rule for the use of these tools together.  But there are two general trends that seem to apply.

Most Direct Pool Generation is not suited for use in every deck built.


That's sounds like a pretty scathing indictment of the mechanic as a whole.  But it's one that I make having rewritten this post far too many times, because every broad advocacy position rung untrue.  Here's the reasoning:
  • There are only 79 library cards that include the words "gain" and "pool."  
  • Only 19 of those cards use are not contingent on a successful action or advantageous condition - these are the ones that represent true independent bloat actions.  
  • Of that subset, several have strict requirements for use (e.g., you must have fewer than 3 pool).  By the time you can trigger that kind of effect, you have probably already lost.
There are clearly some powerful options in the general category of DPG.  Kindred Spirits and its ilk.  Consanguineous Boon. Ancient Influence. Voter Captivation. Combined Liquidation and Ashur Tablets.  They all fit the defination of DPG pool and are clearly 1st tier cards.  But most require specific deck designs to be effective.

Contrast those with Blood Doll.  Put that thing in any deck and you'll probably find a reasonable use for it.

Second,

The more a deck uses vertical and/or fixed-scale pool creation, 
the more it relies on direct blood conversion.


The more it leverages horizontal scale, 
the less it tends to converts blood back to pool.

The reasons for this are pretty clear.
  • Fixed scale (and most vertical tools) return modest amounts of pool, but still consume MPAs or minion actions.  Since there is no economy of scale (on a per card basis), some recouping of initial pool investments goes a long way towards improving survival.  This is often further leveraged in vote decks by directly linking effects associated with DPG (Voter Captivation) with layered DBC (Minion Tapping the blood-gain kicker)
  • Horizontal scaling is usually blood intensive (as "breeding" consumes blood) but is productive and card efficient in the late game.  Routinely planning to strip blood from crypt-based minions may be counterproductive design.  Horizontal DPG shows some early weakness as a result, but relies on recovering by completing one sizable DPG action to recover from early downward drift in pool.

As for how Conversion and Generation should be woven together, there are two broad approaches I often see.
  • Redundant: to leverage well-developed play space and provide insurance against "hosers."   This approach retains all the other benefits and drawbacks of the fundamental design.   EXAMPLE: layering Tribute to the Master and Consanguineous Boon (both horizontal tools) in the same deck, circumventing risk of catastrophic Delaying Tactics in the typical breed-boon design (though perhaps leading to a long series of Embrace hunts).  
  • Complementary (contrarian approach): to shore up the innate weaknesses of using a single dimension of scale.  EXAMPLE: including a few Villeins/Minion Taps in a breed-boon deck to reinforce the fragile period before economy of scale developed.  Long-term development might be deferred in the process (depending on the depth of the DBC), but this approach offers mid game survival benefits.
Sure, there are plenty of winning examples that don't follow either of those integrated approaches.  Some of them are mine.  But it's my belief that even those winning designs could be inherently more robust if layered pool management were considered - and in certain metagame situations, this might be necessary.

Design Considerations

DPG has an attribute other than scaling dimension - the way it is triggered.
  • Independent: the action itself gains pool, there is no other effect (e.g., Art Scam).
  • Kicker: a successful result also returns pool (e.g., Kindred Spirits, Voter Captivation)
I don't always include independent generation in decks, but there's a pretty high likelihood I'll weave in at least a few kickers where I can.  Getting pool for an action I wanted to take anyway optimizes my action-benefit ratio, even if I don't get the maximum possible payload from that action.

The single overwhelming consideration for independent pool generation is 
"How little pure bloat ensures survival while gaining at least 2 victory points?"  

There is a fine line here and I intentionally used the word "little" instead of "much".

Consider:
  • A player has only a limited number of MPA and minion actions in a game.
  • Actions dedicated only to pool generation don't oust my prey, they only increase my longevity.   

Assuming a consistent ousting threshold, it follows that each pool generation action I take either
  • increases the required payload each remaining actions or
  • must generate a replacement action at the same baseline payload (presumably by financing another minion)

Think about that  for a second.  The real message here is tough to swallow (I can provide supporting math and examples if needed).

The ADVERSE effect of  direct pool generation actions is cumulative.  
Each one makes ousting your prey incrementally more difficult. 
  
There are plenty of exceptions.  If a minion creates offense, untaps, then creates pool; that second action does not change my per-action payload requirements (since that minion got its one offensive action in for that turn).  I'm not sacrificing anything except library space with my DPG. 

But the message is sound.  Taking the minimum number of survival actions between ousts must be the theorically optimal approach, with zero dedicated pool gain actions being the best possible situation.  This "no wasted action" effect is a huge part of why straight-up [DEM] bleed with pool kickers is so good (the other being in-clan availability of bleed redirection).

In the interest of brevity, I skipped the archetype-specific analysis of DPG.  I can post it later if people really want to see it, I have it on file.  The conclusion is that there are four deck properties that really either leverage or require direct pool creation:
  1. The actions can weave pool gain into other profitable effects (free pool kicker)
  2. The deck aas no other recourse against incoming pool damage, especially if it is relatively slow to oust  (required bloat as a key function).  In these cases, the offensive actions must be disproportionately numerous or large to make up for the action count lost bloating.
  3. Significant non-combat multi-action is employed, preferably using permanent effects (actions to spare)
  4. The DPG action is so efficient that it simply demands inclusion (Ancient Influence in a Hardestadt rush deck).

    Benefits and Drawbacks of Direct Pool Generation

    Benefit....ummmm.....pool?  Yeah, that's it.  Lots of pool is the king of survival attributes, the only one that is universally applicable
    • Bleed?  Fine....soak it.
    • Votes?  Fine.....soak it.
    • Combat?  Fine....buy more minions.
    Still more downside:  Other than the likely effects that increase payload, there's a paradoxical, hidden downside.

    In order for "kicker" direct pool gain to function, 
    the deck has to already be working (at least to some minimal extent).

    All the "kicker" pull gain effects are contingent of success - that's why they are "kickers."  Kindred Spirits and Social Charm have to hit a target.  Voter Captivation needs a referendum passing after polling.  Con Boon needs accumulated minions and votes in place to be reliable.  Momentum's Edge requires a victory point, the pinnacle of "look, my deck is cruising!"

    Yup, when each of these pool creation situations works, its is because the deck is at least tactically (action-by-action), if not strategically (ousting you prey) working.  I should already be at least holding my own in the game or my design was flawed from the start (likely to due low theoretical payload).

    That implies the pool creation simply ensures that my engine is running at higher efficiency, with the potential to generate additional offense through horizontal growth.  If the payload feels adequate, the extra counters residing in my pool increase my margin of error and probability of victory.

    All that is great.  But none of these help much when the engine is completely stalled and I want to survive.  Maybe breeding got interrupted, or I lost vote control to a table coalition.  Maybe I've come up against a dedicated wall deck stuffing enough actions that predation is taking it toll.  In all these cases, "kicker" pool creation is probably between nil and squat.  I'm likely nearing depletion of DPC reserves (blood on minions).

    This is where I would love to say including more independant DPG would help.  But the more I tried to find convincing arguments to include contingency direct pool generation, I always found it competing with my primary objective, being prey-focused.

    I'm a pretty offensive player, for better or worse.  If my prey gets a game win, I'm in a sour mood for a while.  I also build slim decks, seldom over the mid-70s in thickness.  So for my deckbuilding style, including extraneous pool gain for worst case contingencies is a bitter pill to swallow.

    This doesn't mean I fold my cards in the face of adversity.  I just try to mitigate risk in the game before it becomes critical.  A lot of this is reflective of play style, experience and metagame.  And......it sometimes fails.....miserably.

    There are others who will advocate defense/bloat until you can't be killed.  Fine....what is your prey doing while all your actions are independent pool gain?  He should be running away with the table, accumulating 2-3 VP before he rounds the corner and fails to oust you.  Survival alone is a hollow victory, at best.

    Predatory Viewpoint

    As a predator of decks using extensive DPG, one needs to assess the way the deck scales.  

    For horizontally designed DPG, interrupting development of the controlled region is critical - the deck needs to be stopped before it creates insane economy of scale.  Attack early and often, while the deck is vulnerable.  Strip pool, make them defensive, get them to burn DPG resources early and small.  Strip blood from breeders.  The key here is to remember that you can't allow horizontal decks to establish the kind of play space that leads to huge upswings in pool in the late game.

    It might not be possible to stop these decks' DBC (if any exists) - but the moment you see a player drain the blood off a minion that is supposed to create Embraces, you know you're making headway (and that he has considered the mid-game weaknesses of his deck archetype - so be careful).

    For vertically-scaled DPC, try to attack linchpins from the library at least as much as you attack the pool or minions.  Can actions that enable card flow be blocked?  Or is there better hope of stealth-locking them>  Can a referendum be subverted, making Voter Cap useless and stuck in-hand?  Can the player's pool simply be bled through over 2 turns?   Mostly, attacking vertical scale is a longer term proposition, and you try to create additional surge offense in those moments when the size of complexity of the library becomes a liability.

    In the rare cases that you find good fixed-scale DPG-based on Masters (Liquidation-Ashur Tablets), it's a pretty tough nut to crack.  The combination of Master-based DPG and on the fly library restructuring can be powerful in the hands of a skilled player.  Ultimately, the best plan is to attack the sources of multiple MPA (with combat, Banishment, etc).  You'll still be dealing with DBC the deck carries, but deep blood conversion only makes incapacitating those minions easier.  Over time, the deck will hand jam without the extra MPA and you create opportunity.

    Closing

    Lots of information for one post, but some of it is applicable to other aspects of play, so I don't begrudge the time spent.  

    The next post will address one of the real power elements of the game - Indirect Pool Generation.

    Thursday, May 3, 2012

    Comment Suppression Corrected :)

    Just a short note here.  Blogspot changed a lot of their templating while I was gone.  A new buried comment suppression was one of those changes.  I've fixed it (again) and you should be able to comment on blog posts.

    I even went back and retroactively fixed the last 3 posts, if there are any burning issues you want to address.

    Thanks.
    Darby

    Pool Management. Part 2: Indirect Blood Conversion

    Part 1 of this series introduced a lot of terminology, building a foundation on which we build for the next few posts.  Hopefully, the new entries will be more digestible as a result.


    INDIRECT BLOOD CONVERSION (IBC)

    Introduction

    Definition: Moving one or more of a minion's blood onto an uncontrolled minion.  Only blood is moved, no additional counters are created in the process.

    Crypt-based Examples: SaulotMeneleAyo Igoli
    Library-based Examples: Grooming the ProtegeBay and HowlSocial Ladder
    Limitations:  Most indirect pool conversion is limited in the amount of blood moved per use.

    Scaling

    The limitation above clearly indicates that this mechanic is of fixed size, usually intended to accelerate or create horizontal growth (more minions).

    When considered as a method to actually manage pool, IBC return is limited by the number of available transfers a player possesses. As such, one expects to yield the 2 pool allowable from the rules-dictated 4 transfers. This aligns well with the card-text size of many effects.  It is possible to increase this available withdrawal from uncontrolled minions through the use of cards like Information Highway or to completely subvert the restriction and dump all the blood into pool with Kaymakli Nightmares.

    Design Considerations

    There are two general philosophies for using IBC, both of which focus horizontal growth.

    1.  Gradual Growth with Fully Financed Sidekicks.

    I believe that the crypt-based effects were originally designed with gradual growth in mind, sometimes seeing the IBC minion as a way of completely paying for new minions.

    These vampires are large, are influenced over several turns, then emptied over several more.  Slow expansion of the controlled region over turns 4-9 turns is a logical result of looking at these vampires with the intention of fully recurring their blood though IBC. Pacing that horizontal growth is independent of emptying or refilling the IBC vampire (e.g., 2 can be moved even if it eventually empties the vampire, or if you're refilling the vampire in the draining process).

    2.  Immediate Growth with Partially Financed Minions

    Decks can also leverage mid to large capacity minions with IBC, but this approach opts for additional speed over the safer recursion of vertical DBC (a risk described in Part 1 of this series).  Decks which rely on IBC over DBC focus on one of the following:
    • committing to overwhelming their prey in the mid game, using mid capacity minions and Grooming the Protege.  This deck thrives with the additional offensive output often required to outrace their predator and/or generates pool as part of the offensive action (e.g., Kindred Spirits stealth-bleed)
    • protecting their pool very effectively, mostly with mid capacity (4-8) minions partially financed with Grooming the Protege to accelerate development.  This design prioritizes additional development of the controlled region over flexibility in pool management.  The defensive expectation that hard-influence transfers could be slowed to make up the survival difference if needed, while the acceleration both counteracts swarm predation and enables opportunity-based lunges (e.g., Stickmen derivatives).  

    Benefits and Drawbacks of Crypt-Based IBC

    The benefits of crypt-based IBC should be clear.  Since one's 12-card crypt is far easier to manage than one's 60-90 card library, the design should consistently establish its set-up conditions.  This is a real strength of the deck - dependable and persistent (though limited) recycling of blood into a pool-surrogate (blood on uncontrolled minions).

    The most apparent drawback is that the IBC minion is clearly influenced first and is a key part of the deck's function.  It therefore comes into play with a large bulls-eye clearly painted on it.

    Now things is where things get a little murkier.

    The perception is that minion-based IBC alone can finance a well-developed controlled region,
    then turn into a perpetual pool machine. 

    Here is the surprise message.  Design conflicts make decks built on that precept so slow and impotent that they are largely untenable in tournament situations.

    • Star vampires (IBC minions) are typically very large - at least 9 capacity, therefore requiring 3 turns to influence.  
      • At face value, there is limited incentive for influence acceleration.  After the star vampire (IBC minion) is influenced, the deck shouldn't be consistently hard-influencing at the inital rate.  
      • Since most of the IBC minions move only 2 blood, the end-game benefit of using permanent influence generators (e.g., Information Highway) is lost. There isn't a 3 blood on the uncontrolled minion to pull back as pool.
    • The deck then tries to catch-up with its predator and prey, while limiting additional expenditures, using its internal IBC.  
      • Without additional acceleration, but still desiring speed, the additional minions in the crypt are 6 capacity or less (IBC for 2 plus 4 transfers).  This suggests the use of high-return vertical DBC cards is less appropriate (again, covered in Part 1), extending the period of vulnerability.   
      • Many IBC decks use a formulaic solution: very small minions as support for the star.  In the end, that creates a play space and deck using a "small minion mentality", only without all the speed advantages derived from simply hard-influencing weenies.
      • True "pool gain" (getting beyond recurring the initial pool investment) doesn't occur until about turn 9.  When you think of it that way, its pretty tough to justify deferring true pool return for this long.
    • If there is any combat  in the meta-game, the star minion must be resilient enough to protect the blood that is intended for uncontrolled minions, especially since that blood will be exposed for several turns.  
      • It's is unlikely that cards included for this purpose will be well-leveraged adequately by weenie "sidekick" minions, creating another situation where the deck works against itself.
    The upshot - most these decks provide the illusion of creating free minions, but its nearly impossible to realize that vision with meaningful minions in a usable time frame.

    Different Perspective: The Prepaid Information Highway


    Perhaps the most interesting use of crypt-based IBC is to completely rethink the intent.  If IBC can become 2nd/3rd turn, prepaid Information Highwway, (not mission-critical independent pool management function), then, it creates a variant on the "Immediate Growth" model proposed above.  Such a deck would be created with the following, counter-intuitive philosophy. 
    • Consider the star minion more expendable than typical IBC decks; 
    • Rely (paradoxically) on vertical DBC as the primary tool for pool recursion; 
    • Play mid to large capacity sidekicks to leverage DBC and the library;
    • Defend pool without resorting to combat, offsetting the modest early development speed;
    • Include traditional influence acceleration to complement the IBC
    • Include layered blood gain for the IBC minion and use its ability for 
      • mid game acceleration (turns 3-6) 
      • late game supplemental pool management (non-rush predation, or any emergency)
      • a dump for any excess blood that is expected to be gained across any turn.
    After I made this list, I looked to see if an example existed in the TWDA.  I found the ingenious Saulot and Nergal Dating deck inspired by Marco Lindroos, designed by Isak Esbj√∂rnsson Bj√§rmark and played by Erik Torstensson.  It clearly conforms to these guidelines.

    Benefits and Drawbacks of Library-Based IBC

    The situation here is much different. There is a single goal of library-based indirect recursion........to generate additional minions quickly.  That means one of three things will result,
    • an action-to-block advantage  (likely used to bleed),
    • a block-count that is comparable to both predator and preys action count (which was possible with reaction cards, even without the extra minion, begging the question of "why so fast").
    • or a combination of both (he'll bleed for 3 as offense, not Freak Drive, but keep an untapped minion with superior Dominate for Deflection or superior Auspex for Telepathic Misdirection and/or blocking). 
    As a predator, you have to decide if limiting growth in the uncontrolled region is critical (knocking counters off minions) or if you can simply take pool counters off the table and generate an oust.  Your own deck archetype will likely influence the decision, but it is important to remember that IBC recurs less pool than other options - so even modest bleeds will often be a better choice than a non-bleed carded action.  

    Conclusion

    We've now discussed how moving blood from a vampire to another in the uncontrolled region is actually a second form of pool management, both in limiting expenditures from influence and from creating a pool resource than can be slowly recurred.   We've also touched on it not being what it seems, some of the common development pitfalls of the mechanic and how to read the intentions of decks that use transient IBC to accelerate mid game growth.  

    All things considered, I generally view the entire mechanism as being inferior to DBC in all but a subset of decks (speed bleed and bounce/bleed wall decks).  The early gains are tenuous and the inability to convert large blocks of blood into pool create dangerous situations that development speed might not offset.  When one is running a high-risk, high-reward deck, fully committing to it is usually the best course.  It's only in those decks that IBC shines.   

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012

    Pool Management, Part 1: Direct Blood Conversion

    Here's the second in of a series of posts in which I tackle pool management mechanics, starting with an effect contained in a large proportion of deck designs.

    DIRECT BLOOD CONVERSION

    Introduction

    Definition: Moving blood from one or more minions in play directly to a player's pool, with no intermediate steps or repositories.

    Crypt-based Example: Ramona (merged)
    Library-based Examples: VilleinMinion TapVesselBlood DollTribute to the Master
    Limitations:  Nearly all direct blood recursion relies on a Master Phase Action (MPA).

    This technique is most people's instinctive choice for "pool gain." In reality, the first application of the mechanic is almost always a simple (and usually incomplete) recouping of an investment - not a gain in any sense of the word.

    Note on Terminology

    I've been struggling with terminology for the last couple of days.  If "recur" means to occur again, then the proper terminology would reference the resource into which objects are recycled.   "Pool recursion" would be moving blood into pool and "library recursion" would be moving cards from the ash heap to the library or hand.  Well and good - I originally called this mechanic "Direct Pool Recursion."

    The catch is those situations in which "pool recursion" tools" return more than the original investment, creating a true gain.  We see this effect in typical "Cap and Tap" designs.  After the blood converted exceeds the vampire's capacity, the pool counters aren't "occuring again" - it's all new blood turning into pool that didn't exist - it's occurring for the first time.  So it's not really "recursion." 

    With this in mind, I changed my terminology to "Direct Blood Conversion" - transforming blood into pool with no intermediate steps.  This namenclature seems to apply in more situations.  Since the terminology is used in a context of pool management, I'm comfortable with the word "pool" not appearing in the description of the mechanic.

    Scaling

    It's time to introduce another term......and this one is just as tricky to name properly the first one.

    I think of a players controlled region growing in one of two ways.

    • Vertically:  a few large minions.  If permanents are being played, they are distributed across only these few minions, so the play space grows upwards from the minion cards.
    • Horizontally:  a lot of smaller minions.  These minions are oriented across the play space, stretching it side-to-side.  Each minion tends to have fewer attached cards, so the general effect is a left-right growth.

    Conceptually, returns from DBC scale the same way.  They are inextricably linked to leveraging the minions in play space.  Conversion is therefore either vertical (one minion converting more than one blood when triggered, as with Villein) or horizontal (each contributing small sums, as with Blood Dool, usually with more than one minions contributing from multiple permanents in play).

    Some might suggest either trickle/bolus (small/large), fixed/variable or transient/permanent as more appropriate functional classifications.  Certainly I could make a case for these being valid designations, especially the transient/permanent one (transient would also imply bolus, a nice side-effect).  But I think horizontal and vertical are less generally ambiguous and more functionally descriptive.  For example:
    • Tribute the the Master is trickle/fixed from a minion's perspective, but is bolus/variable from a Methesulah's perspective.  Since we're talking about pool, I would opt for the Methesulah's viewpoint, but it still feels clunky.  Tribute clearly scales only horizontally (never more than 1 blood per minion, from each minion), so that terminology is unambiguous.
    • Specific deck designs might stack horizontal tools on a single minion, mimicking vertical scaling (or creating a bolus from several trickles, if you prefer).  For example, it is fairly common to see a wall deck with 2 Vessels stacked on a minion targeted by The Rack.  This creates blood conversion which is permanent, variable and situationally either trickle or bolus - so we still can't avoid nomenclature which gets muddy.  Even in this case, I expect these DBC tools to spread horizontally in addition to stacking on a single minion, so the proposed terminology remains accurate more often than not.

    Deck Design Ramifications

    There are three design factors which play into selection of DBC tools used in a given deck.

    1.  Minion Capacity

    In practical use, we see
    • more vertically-scaling DBC with large minions 
    • more horizontally-scaling DBC with mid-cap and small minions. 

    This seems an appropriate design philosophy - one that seems to use the available cards according to their functional strengths.

    When a large expenditure remains invested in a minion, it is not sitting in that player's pool.  This is innately dangerous.  The situation becomes increasingly treacherous the longer the condition persists and as predatory threat grows.  Survival and/or development of one's controlled region usually mandate that a large portion of that blood be returned as pool quickly - vertical (variable-scale) tools are best-suited for this task.

    Small minions deplete one's pool less.  Additional expenditures (influencing the 3rd-5th minions) can be deferred while still having at least a partially developed controlled region, unlike cases when large (capacity 8+ minions are used). So, in general, pool recursion can be more leisurely without incurring a ton of inherent risk.

    It all seems straightforward enough at this stage.

    The typical "cross-over" capacity seems to be around 6. Above that value, the urgency of reclaiming the pool investment increases and the value of moving large chunks of pool is greater, especially if early predation is encountered. Below that capacity of 6 or so, the return on investment can be offset by limiting expenditures, so horizontal tools become more viable. Below 3 or 4, horizontal tools are used almost exclusively (if employed at all).

    2.  Minion Durability

    This is evident for many players in meta-games with a lot of combat.
    • blood from fragile minions should be recurred more quickly with vertical DRC.
    • resilient minions, especially those who can protect one's pool as well, open additional options.  Their blood is better protected and there is a often strategic advantage to adjusting blood and pool totals over the course of a longer timeframe.  

    This consideration can compound with the minion size discussed above.  If your minions are both large and squishy, recurring the initial investment is doubly important.  But Minion Tapping Lazverinus for 9 is typically not optimal because a sizable blood buffer is needed to support combat viability, and he should be very resilient.

    Minion theft trumps all durability considerations.  If you're in a metagame with a lot of Spirit Marionette, Mind Rape and Temptation of Greater Power, immediate blood conversion becomes a survival priority.  

    3.  Speed to Expected Oust (and Innate Pool Defense)

    This is perhaps a less generic design philosophy, but one that I think is equally important to the capacity consideration.
    • fast decks should scale their DBC vertically, regardless of minion size
    • longer-term decks benefit more from persistent, horizontally scaling DBC.

    Decks which create significant, immediate offense and which are intensely prey-focused (e.g., stealth bleed decks) benefit more from the more immediate returns of vertical scale - even if it is for only a portion of their invested cost (e.g., Villein for only 2-3 on a 5-6 capacity minion).  Here are some reasons why:
    • If a speed deck is under immediate pool pressure from its predator, the immediate and variable return from vertical scaling has a survival benefit.    
    • If a speed deck faces combat pressure, pool recursion through vertical DBC is usually preferable to seeing those same counters removed from play through combat.
    • In the absence of virulent predation, faster pool return might finance one additional minion to generate offensive.  Indirect blood conversion tools (discussed in the next post, but like Grooming the Protege) further enhance development speed, though at a potential cost in flexibility for survival.

    The converse rule of thumb: as a deck becomes more focused on blocking; redirecting bleeds; creating combat; surviving combat and generally anything that isn't simply relentlessly trying to oust its prey, it clearly relies less on racing its predator to victory.  It these cases, the requirements for immediate DBC are relaxed and the player might rely more on the utility of persistent (horizontal) DBC tools, even for large minions.  This is especially true for those decks which expect to conserve pool through defense (bleed redirection or blocking,)

    Case Study: Reading a Deck from DRC Inferences

    Experienced players get a feel for the contents of unknown decks based on its DRC cards.

    SITUATION:  An unknown player brings up an 8 capacity Malkavian with [AUS][DEM][OBF].  He plays a Blood Doll during his next turn.  From only that single card, one or more of these inferences might apply:
    • The player with the Malkavian is playing a long-term game.
      • He is using bleed redirection to buffer his pool while he slowly pulls blood off.  Telepathic Misdirection is likely, in relatively high numbers.  
      • Combat defense is likely, as he will need to protect that blood in the interim.  If you're rushing him, expect either Mental Maze or No Trace with some regularity.
      • The deck will sacrifice offensive potential (Kindred Spirits and stealth modifiers) to include these defensive options.  Repeated blocking attempt may prove more fruitful than expected. 
    • The player with the Malkavian will be influencing smaller minions later.  
      • His average minion from here on might be 3-5 - you might be facing some degree of swarm for which horizontal DBC is appropriate.
    • The player has not fully considered how his deck is best constructed, and it therefore less of a threat than top-notch players would be.
      • It's stealth [DEM] stealth bleed and must be handled carefully, but this player (and his deck) may be easier to handle because of his inexperience or sub-optimal deck construction.


    Pool Volatility and Drift

    We can dive into those inferences a bit more here.  When a minion is influenced, pool usually drops to finance it.  The minion then undergoes DBC in some fashion and the players pool increases.  The size of this band around which pool fluctuates is it's recursive pool volatility.

    The more a deck focuses on vertical DBC over horizontal DBC, the more volatility it expects.

    Vertical tools tend to create situations where pool drops a noticeable amount (influencing a big minion), then suddenly spikes back up (recur from that one minion).  Over the course of the game, these spikes usually become less frequent (influencing fewer minions and focusing more on ousting) and smaller (recurring from incompletely full minions already in play).

    This suggests that the moments of weakness from these games are in the later game, especially as a player feels the need to influence "just one more minion" to assist in an oust.  Depending on what other tools (discussed later) the deck is using to manage pool, predators might find it profitable to "stack a hand" for a lunge after some steady pressure.

    Horizontal tools see pool spent differently (influence smaller minions), recover more slowly (trickling recursion at 1 pool per turn per minion), but the total return grows over time (either more numerous persistent tools, or a larger horizontal base) and are usually available without cards from hand.

    This suggests a longer period of middle-game weakness as the horizontal growth occurs and the recursion struggles to finance the growth.  Predators might find it profitable to create more offense early in the game, to limit the horizontal growth in their prey's controlled region, limiting their pool return options and creating opportunities to oust.

    The interesting part of this is that vertical DBC often yields a higher average pool total (less downward drift) than horizontal in the early and mid games, despite the greater volatility.  It seems counter-intuitive, but it is true, because vertical tools return a larger portion of the investment faster.  This is part of what makes early offense on Villein-heavy decks so difficult, there simply hasn't been time for downward pool drift to occur

    All of this is independent of any increase/decrease of blood on minions from play.  Vertical tools really want to reload one large minion with blood.  When they do, pool totals can change quickly and they offset any downward drift in one move.  But then the general trend re-exerts itself.

    The Hidden Risks and Benefits in DRC

    I believe that irreversible decisions around Tap/Villein size often make the difference between winning games and barely missing victory points.  Being able to read a situation, recur enough blood to survive, maintain fully functional minions and accurately account for contingencies is the hallmark of well-played vertical DBC.

    Early-game vertical DBC is clearly more difficult to manage in this sense.  So many things happen over subsequent turns that predicting blood requirements for the large game requires but skill and luck.  Usually, the best one can do is recur too much pool, since blood is usually easier to regenerate than pool.

    Or, you could just get Lilith's Blessing in play, recur everything from each minion, get 3 blood and accept the consequences of decisions the cards make for you.........

    The persistent, horizontal DBC tools (Blood Doll and Vessel) are innately more forgiving of decision-making gone wrong. The ability to "push a blood" instead of "pull X pool" late in the game gives players opportunities to address unforeseen circumstances.  This trait is why I recommend new players start with horizontal tools, until they have learned how to manage their pool and minions.

    A less considered effect of horizontal DBC's permanence is the hidden capacity increase for small minions.  At need, pushing a pool ONTO the minion is almost like having an extra capacity which you can pay for late in the game - at least as far as paying for ephemeral (transient) cards in hard.  You get the benefits of playing more powerful cards late in the game and lower risk associated with blood hanging on a minion.  This can be give that little extra oomph to those middle capacity minions needing a little extra ousting power.

    Conclusion

    We've covered a lot so far - tools, scaling, volatility, inferences about deck designs, points of attack - all really based on only 5 (often-played) library cards.  At this point, I think we've beaten this topic to death and are ready to start considering the next topic in the list, Indirect Blood Conversion.