Smaller and Bigger

I tried the Hearthstone Monster Hunt and completed it with one of the four classes. I may someday bother to complete it, but it is not exactly good or recommended.

Compared to Dungeon Run, there seem to be more occasions for smaller choices in your cards, rather than a few huge, random swings. The Tracker’s hero ability is to pick one of three spells already played. The Cannoneer makes minion placement matter more than usual. The Time-Tinker lets you choose when to reset randomization. There are more effects recycling and Discovering cards, more smaller cards, fewer instant win/lose conditions in your deck.

Compared to Dungeon Run, the boss decks have even more huge, random swings, making all that irrelevant. You will faceroll some, you will get stomped by others, and occasionally all those smaller choices will make the difference. But mostly, it’s Hearthstone, it’s random. Some games would have run from a reputation like that, but Hearthstone runs with it.

: Zubon

Hearthstone Monster Hunt

Hearthstone has a new roguelike mode, “Monster Hunt.” It is basically the same thing as Dungeon Run, with fewer hero options and I haven’t seen yet whether the opponents are more or less unfortunate than Dungeon Run. “A compelling trainwreck of randomness” still feels about right, although less compelling at this point because I have seen the same thing done so much better elsewhere.

Whoever is putting this together is working hard to do interesting things with cards, powers, etc. “Balance” may not be their strong point, but “interesting” is fair. Sadly, they are building it on a base of Hearthstone, so RNG is going to be the dominant factor no matter what they do. Randomly drew a hard counter, bad shuffle, or card buckets that don’t work together? Start over, roll the dice again.

: Zubon

Small Units And a Sense of Success

Slay the Spire and Monster Slayers do well in giving the player a sense of progress and accomplishment within a run, even if you are objectively not any closer to victory than you would be under large units of progress.

Both games take place across three stages. Slay the Spire has a more fixed length, since you will traverse the exact same number of levels each game. Monster Slayers gives a bit more control there, letting you skip some encounters per level and still reach the level cap. Both give minor rewards after each fight.

Monster Slayers fares better on small rewards, in that you skip half the rewards in Slay the Spire but almost always want at least one of the options in Monster Slayers. Monster Slayers offers fewer card rewards, but it offers more rewards that are not cards, which is often what you want. One of the relics I always like in Slay the Spire lets you gain permanent hit points when you skip a card reward.

Contrast with Hearthstone’s dungeon run, with at most eight wins and eleven awards. The first two are free, barring outrageous fortune, so you cannot exactly feel proud of killing a Giant Rat. You also get only so much pride out of a lucky combo that leads to a big win by turn four; you do not have much time to bask in it, and you know very well that it depended on a lucky draw. One way or the other, there are not a lot of games that feel close enough for your skill to make a difference.

Slay the Spire and Monster hunters have lots of little wins. You get to see the results of your deckbuilding repeatedly as you cycle through your deck and see the effects of upgrades. You get to counter enemy attacks and have better or worse turns based on your play (and what gets dealt to you). You can choose to seek or avoid fights, to pursue risk and/or reward. The peaks are smaller, but the troughs are certainly milder, and you still have “win condition” cards that feel like really big rewards even if they are not Hearthstone’s artifacts that can be instant wins.

Losing halfway through the Spire means you beat a boss and a few elites, along with proving your deck against a dozen smaller opponents. Losing halfway through Hearthstone’s dungeon run means you beat two trash mobs, had an easy fight and a fair-ish one, then ran into a bad draw and/or a hard counter to your deck. Hearthstone’s dungeon run feels a lot more epic if you think of it as All Boss Fights!, but after the first few times, it is hard to think of those first few fights as “bosses.” Meanwhile, Monster Slayers starts using what would be boss monsters from its first two maps as regular enemies on the third.

: Zubon

Smaller Units of Randomness

Slay the Spire gives the player many small decisions where Hearthstone’s dungeon run uses a few larger decisions. The big swings are more exciting but ultimately lead to more frustration, as losing one big roll ends your run while you can easily recover from a few bad small rolls.

For deckbuilding in either game, the decision you are making at any given time is about the same: pick one of three. The total amount you are deciding is roughly comparable, a couple dozen cards. Hearthstone groups those into big chunks, where Slay the Spire lets you pick cards individually, or skip if you don’t like those options, or collect gold to shop from larger selection pools, or remove or upgrade cards. You get more options and you feel more in control. I cannot tell you how many times I picked a Hearthstone artifact or card pool and then got almost nothing to go with it.

High stakes are exciting! Talent trees that give you 1% bonuses each level are boring! But small decisions are more impactful when the big decisions are mutable. Adding Arthas to my deck is more exciting than upgrading a card in Slay the Spire, but the choice of whether to pick Arthas is usually overdetermined. Maybe his card pool is clearly the best, or I already have a Cloak of Invisibility so picking a taunt pool is clearly bad… What I am getting at is that there is not much deciding going on, so much as recognizing what works well or badly given what was available/decided previously. You make exactly 11 deckbuilding decisions in a Hearthstone dungeon run, of which maybe 2 or 3 have any tension.

The stack of the deck is another source of randomness. In Hearthstone, you get 1 card per round, and you do not expect to see all your cards in a typical game. If you get your dungeon run artifacts in the first few turns, you win. if they are on the bottom of your deck, they don’t matter at all. You lose to A. F. Kay if you draw the wrong cards. In Slay the Spire, you go through your deck several times per fight. There are lower stakes to the randomization, and you can lower it even further by keeping your deck size small. That shifts importance back towards your decisions, not the luck of the draw.

These two build on each other. That small decision to upgrade a Spire card matters a lot when you play that card several times per fight, versus a few times at all in a Hearthstone dungeon run. Picking your Hearthstone artifacts is the big, exciting decision on getting powerful toys, but the second one happens so late in the dungeon that you use it at most twice and often never, due to the stack of the deck. I upgraded a Spire card just before walking into the final boss fight, and then I played it six times.

High variability with high stakes pushes towards “go big or go home.” But the randomness determines which of those happens.

: Zubon

Higher in the Spire

After many dungeon runs in Hearthstone, I decided that I liked this idea of roguelike deckbuilder games and picked up Slay the Spire. It was exactly what I wanted, and I immediately enjoyed a four-hour binge.

A great virtue of Slay the Spire is that it is designed to be what it is. The Hearthstone dungeon run is grafting the idea onto an existing game, which has been done quite well in Blizzard games (tower defense, DOTA) but ultimately bears its full flower in a dedicated game. Hearthstone’s dungeon run starts with much greater resources in terms of art, already developed cards and mechanics, and a minion-based combat mechanic. Hearthstone’s dungeon run is bigger and bolder, flashier, and more random and frustrating. Bringing along the infrastructure of Hearthstone brings along the baggage of Hearthstone.

Slay the Spire almost certainly must have configurations that are impossible. It is a roguelike still in early release. It seems to have less opportunity to stack perverse randomness on top of more perverse randomness. With practice, I have become rather good at the Hearthstone dungeon run, but I would be surprised if I could sustainably win more than a third of the time. I get the sense that Slay the Spire takes the same idea and gives it a much higher skill cap, along with more manageable randomness.

: Zubon

One Mana Cards

Low cost cards are one of the interesting balance decisions in Hearthstone. The real cost of a card is its mana cost plus any built-in penalties plus the fact that it is a card.

As an example of the first two, Squirming Tentacle is a 2/4 minion with taunt that costs 3 mana, and Vulgar Homunculus is a 2/4 minion with taunt that costs 2 mana and does 2 damage to you when you summon it. There are many ways to have costs, and there is synergy in building decks that avoid costs.

The cost of the card itself is a reason why 1-mana cards are more powerful than you would expect. The mana is less of a cost than the fact that you are using up a card. It is an opportunity cost; those cheap cards are only great in the first few turns or to burn extra mana around your stronger cards. If you have played all your cards by turn 5, drawing a 1-mana card when you have 6 mana available is suboptimal. You get one card per turn, and you have seven spaces for minions on the board.

This means that fast, aggressive (“aggro”) decks will always remain fairly effective, like classic “weenie” decks in Magic the Gathering. There are fairly inexpensive counters to large numbers of cheap cards, but cards that are card-inefficient are likely mana-efficient, or else they are just trash cards you would never use. If I can get a 2/4 minion with a special ability for 3 mana and 1 card, I better do better than a vanilla 1/2 minion for 1 mana and 1 card. The only way to keep cheap cards from being overpowered for their mana value is to make them underpowered for their card value.

The full cost of a card includes the card itself. This adds value back to cards that include a draw, although deck-thinning in that way can be a cost or a benefit depending on the context. In Dominion, cards that provide a card plus an action plus something else are popular because they have no opportunity cost that turn; the card refunds both the card and the action you used to play it. But the “plus something else” is usually pretty small unless the card is expensive, and there is still the opportunity cost that you used up the buy for a turn on that Village, when you could have got a Smithy.

: Zubon

Roguelike Deckbuilding Dungeon Crawls

Does Slay the Spire look like the sort of thing Hearthstone’s dungeon run is trying to do? Both are basically what the title says. Monster Slayers is another that came out last year, which I had not noticed. Guild of Dungeoneering does something similar, although there is limited deckbuilding scope within each dungeon run, and the dungeon opponents are less randomized than is common in roguelikes. (Hand of Fate from that post uses constructed decks, rather than deckbuilding within the dungeon, with a lot of roguelike randomness.)

This could be a new sub-genre.

: Zubon

The Hedgehog and the Fox

Yesterday‘s quote, “luck is where preparation meets opportunity,” is of disputed origin. There are several possible attributions, with an interesting one being a line that Seneca the Younger attributes to Demetrius the Cynic:

“The best wrestler is not he who has learned thoroughly all the tricks and twists of the art, which are seldom met with in actual wrestling, but he who has well and carefully trained himself in one or two of them, and watches keenly for an opportunity of practising them.”

I feel like I could mine that quote for hours.

For reference, consider the hedgehog and the fox. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one important thing. Continue reading The Hedgehog and the Fox

Luck Is Where Preparation Meets Opportunity

I am still indulging in a bit of Hearthstone. I am not interested enough to invest the money it would take to be competitive, so I have mostly played modes where your card collection matters little or not at all: Tavern Brawl and Dungeon Run. (I could also play Arena, but there is a gold cost there.)

In both modes, I must say that the skill ceiling is a little higher than advertised. I would not say a lot higher, but there is clearly better and worse, and you can see worse decisions being made. Tavern Brawl may tend towards very messy randomness, but understanding how to use that randomness can be the difference between winning and losing. I have won several games I should have lost because my opponent kept rolling the dice after reaching a decisive lead. As in, they could win simply by attacking, but instead they triggered a random effect that wiped the board. This is a skill important in many games (and outside them): recognizing that you have already won and taking your victory.

Continue reading Luck Is Where Preparation Meets Opportunity

Gain a Random Card

After completing my set of Hearthstone dungeon runs, I have kept on for more completions and many more attempts. The more I play, the more I see a common problem: overuse of the features that online card games allow.

For folks who did not click through for those old posts, let me summarize. When you take a card game online, you get exciting new options that are difficult or impossible in physical card games, like cloning cards, altering them in a variety of ways, and bringing random cards into the game. Hearthstone has many of this last, especially in the dungeon runs: many cards summon other random cards. And we find that once you can do something, you find lots of reasons and opportunities to do it. A narrow option can take a slippery slope to become a central feature.

In one sense, it is pretty cool to spin the wheel and get a random card. So very much of game monetization plays on our desire to open the box and see what’s inside. That is awesome, especially when it works out for you. And then it keeps happening and becomes the deciding factor of the game. To the extent that your decisions are not deciding the outcome of the game, you are watching it happen rather than playing.

This is bad game design. A bit of randomness adds spice, prevents the game from falling into a single solvable state, and rewards flexibility. A lot of randomness makes the player irrelevant.

Hearthstone does that a lot, and the dungeon run seems built around it. The NPC decks are chock full of cards with “summon a random X” effects. Blackseed upgrades minions randomly. Whompwhisker recruits random minions from each deck. King Togwaggle gets random treasures. Xol gets cards from a small random set of beams. Pathmaker Hamm damages random minions, then plays more minions that damage random characters, and kills himself roughly half the time I encounter him. Several bosses multiply the effects of randomness by multiplying cards: doubled battlecries, deathrattles, or minions in a mode with lots of ‘cries and ‘rattles that summon random minions.

Luck can dominate these fights, and you need only one bad run of luck to end your dungeon run. Sometimes you will crush Whompwhisker quickly because he will recruit your biggest minions or ones with interesting deathrattles; other times, he recruits his biggest minions along with your cheapest or your minions that are only worthwhile for their battlecries (recruiting ignores battlecries). Blackseed’s upgrades might create a minion that hurts him, or maybe something really powerful that is normally balanced by a costly battlecry.

Hearthstone seems to recognize this problem and attempt to mitigate it sometimes with discover and choice effects. Those combine randomness with player choice: pick one of three options. They may all be great or lousy or not fit with your deck, but you get a choice. (That is the current tavern brawl: every card in your deck is “discover a spell or minion.”) The same applies to the deckbuilding aspect of dungeon runs: you pick one of three options, like a permanent “discover” effect. You might pick up a quest and then never get options that complete it, or you might start with doubled battlecries and get jade golem cards every time you pick.

When Hearthstone launched, it quickly developed a reputation for low skill gameplay. There were few interesting choices to make and not a lot to decide on any given turn. Expansions have added more options, but also more randomness. “More” is both more options to introduce randomness and a broader range to draw from when rolling that die. For example, a card that summons a 1-cost minion had a limited number of options when the game launched, and now there are pages of 1-cost minions. Randomness stacked on randomness.

These are not bad features! They can be used well! Half a decade ago, when CCGs were going online and just starting to experiment with these kinds of features, it was a wonderful use of a new medium. But the dose makes the poison, and something that is medicine in small amounts can kill you if you have too much.

: Zubon