Tobold's Blog
Friday, February 24, 2017
Keeping score

A few months ago I watched the HBO series Veep, all of the first 3 seasons I bought together in a box. The series is still going strong, with a 6th season announced for this year. I am wondering how it will be doing this year: The underlying running joke of Veep is the lack of gravitas of Selina Meyer, and at least in the seasons I saw she had actually *more* gravitas than the current president of the United States.

However, if I look at the daily news from America and all the shouting and fighting and excitation going on, I can't help but think that the noise, which is mostly unfavorable to Trump, makes us overlook the underlying shifts in reality. The moment you manage to ignore the noise and the daily "scandals" and protests, you get the impression that where it really counts, Trump is winning.

In part I actually think that Trump is a lot less stupid than people think, at least regarding political strategy, and that some of his actions are designed to lead his opponents into traps. The "transgender use of bathrooms" decision doesn't actually do anything, but it provokes a foreseeable response from liberals about identity politics, which is not a winning strategy for them. The party that wins elections is the party of which the "99%" believe that it is the party that represents their interests against the elite. It is quite an achievement for an administration full of billionaires to make people believe that it is the opposition who represent the elite.

If you want to keep score and see who is actually winning, you need to look at where the USA is really changing: The most conservative Supreme Court in decades. A proposed change to US tax laws which would deal a severe blow to global supply chains and globalisation. An isolationist foreign policy based on nuclear deterrence. Severe restrictions to the free movement of people. There is a lot of stuff going on which could very well mean that the USA will be a very different place in 4 years than it was only one year ago.

One thing that always comes up in political comedies like Veep is how politicians are so worried about who might possibly be offended by anything they say or do that they end up being complete non-entities which say only hollow phrases and never take any decisive decisions. Nobody would accuse Trump of being afraid of offending somebody. And the people who thought that the outrageous things he said during his election campaign would be quickly forgotten once he got elected, now find it is actually his agenda.

A US president who is actually willing to change America as much as possible in 4 years is a lot more dangerous than one who is mostly concerned about his re-election. Even if a "Wall to Mexico" or a "Muslim travel ban" remain rather impractical concepts, getting whatever is actually in the power of the president done in those directions will still have a huge impact on the world. And as long as the opposition concentrates on Trump's personality, moral outrage, and identity politics instead of explaining why the future we are being promised is actually not so bright, Trump remains the most dangerous man on earth.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Magic Duels and random numbers

A mathematician will tell you that computer cannot produce "real" random numbers, from a purely mathematical point of view. However algorithms exist that produce numbers that are so close to perfectly random that they are perfectly viable for even such demanding applications as cryptography. For games such random number generators are more than perfectly adequate.

The second big problem with random numbers is that human brains are so wired for pattern recognition that we see patterns even if there ain't any. A perfectly random sequence of heads and tails coin flips has more long sequences of one side coming up repeatedly than most people would expect. Studies have been performed where test persons were asked to identify sequences as random or not random, and it turned out that people are notoriously bad at that.

In the particular case of Magic the Gathering, an added factor is that some people have experience with physical cards. And most methods of shuffling do not produce a perfectly random sequence. Many people for example take all their lands and "riffle shuffle" them into the other cards. Even some subsequent regular shuffling will not produce a perfectly random sequence, but rather a higher dispersion of land cards in the deck than true randomness. As this is what players want, this is actually a minor form of cheating, but as there are few mathematicians in MtG tournaments, nobody complains.

Having said all that, one could expect that a computer game like Magic Duels has a reasonable random number generator, and that people complaining on forums about bad draws are just sore losers with a limited grasp of mathematics. However after playing thousands of games I am pretty much convinced that the random number generator in Magic Duels is garbage, and produces a statistically significant deviation from randomness, leading to noticeable "lumping" of cards.

A typical Magic deck has about 40% lands, 24 out of 60 cards. Randomness means that it is perfectly possible to draw a hand of 7 cards and find anything between 0 and 7 lands. However the quality of a good random number generator would result in the statistical probability of you drawing 3 lands being the highest, having 2 or 4 lands being less likely, having 1 or 5 lands being even less likely, 0 or 6 lands being very rare, and getting 7 lands being extremely rare.

If you compare that to the actual draws of Magic Duels, you'll quickly notice that less likely outcomes like 1 or 5 lands appear far more frequently than statistics would suggest. Even weirder, mathematics tells you that the statistical probability of drawing another land after your starting hand only depends on the number of remaining lands and cards. So if you have already 5 out of 7 cards being lands in your starting hand, the probability of drawing another land as your next draw is 19/53 or 36%. Curiously in Magic Duels that probability is somehow inverted, and if you drew 5 lands in your starting hand you are more likely than not to draw a 6th land as your next draw.

The particular "lumping" of cards in Magic Duels is also sometimes very visible in other cards than lands. While a Magic deck has usually 60 cards, unless you or your opponent have build their deck around special "milling" or card drawing engines, you probably will only see something like 20 out of the 60 cards in your deck. People put up to 4 copies of the same card in their deck precisely to assure that they have a good chance to see a specific card in that first third of the deck. Finding that card twice is a distinct probability, 3 times should be rare, and 4 times exotic. However in Magic Duels you see the same card 3 or 4 times early in the game far more often than statistically probable.

While I do think the Magic Duels would need a better random number generator, it is doubtful that we'll ever get one. The lumping of cards doesn't make the game unplayable. Especially not against the AI, where you can quickly quit and restart a game where the random number generator swamped you with lands. As a general rule I quit every game in which 7+ out of the first 10 cards are lands. Which statistically shouldn't happen all that often, but in reality it does. Hasbro just announced a new digital version of Magic the Gathering called Magic Digital Next, so hopefully the random number generator of that one is better. However Magic Duels is very player-friendly in limiting the number or legendary and rare cards you can have, making it far easier to achieve a full collection. Unless Magic Digital Next has the same mechanic, I would be loath to switch to a new game and lose all my existing card collection in favor of a game where each expansion would cost much more money.

Sunday, February 19, 2017
Zeitgeist: Digging for Lies - Session 2

In the previous session the constables of the RHC were sent to supervise security at the Kaybeau Arms and Technology Exposition. There they got involved in an incident where a young mage apparently inadvertently had summoned a bunch of extra-terrestrial monsters. This session started in the middle of the fight against those monsters. With a fresh approach the players this time managed to get some movement into the fight, while previously they had been very dispersed. That proved to be a winning strategy, and although the fight was hard, they won it without losses.

During the fight one thing had happened: One of the NPCs helping the constables was Rock Rackus, a "docker" street artist of considerable fame who was trying to shoot the monsters with his diamond-encrusted golden pistol. However he wasn't that good of a shot, and had accidentally struck and killed one innocent bystander. Another NPC ally, dwarf sharpshooter Kvarti Gorbotiy, loudly proclaimed that to arriving local police, who proceeded to arrest Rock Rackus. The constables considered intervening, but the local police claimed that it was their jurisdiction. When the press arrived the group followed the earlier advice of their boss to try to not appear in the papers, and retreated with the young mage who had summoned the monsters into the shooting range tent.

The young mage, Simon Langfield, had apparently started the incident by using his new staff at the shooting range. Every time he used his staff, the staff turned into solid gold and summoned a monster. But as the first monsters had been summoned just outside the tent, he hadn't even noticed before the third monster, and when attacking one with a magic missile from his staff had summoned a fourth. Simon hadn't intended any of this, and showed very remorseful and eager to help the constables. Asked about the staff, he told them that he had received a tip in a tavern that if you went to the trinket stand at the fair and asked for a "anniversary gift for my wife Ethel", you received for a handful of gold pieces a little box containing a paper with instruction where and when to meet a black market arms dealer called Kaja Stewart. That is where he had bought the staff at about 20% rebate from the normal value.

The constables remembered Kaja Stewart from being on the wanted list in connection with their previous case, Kaja having been an employee of Mayor Reed Macbannin. They knew that the mayor had had a large safe with magical protection in his office, which was found empty after the fire in the mansion. The staff might well have come from there. A history check also told them that in pre-historic times a people only known as "the Ancients" had lived, and while they were primitive and used mostly stone tools, they also had a lot of solid gold weapons, with historians unsure of how the Ancients would have crafted those. At the suggestion of the constables, Simon Langfield volunteered to make another trip to the trinket stand and get another rendezvous with Kaja Stewart.

The constables confiscated the staff, and Aria was visibly trying to keep the staff for herself, asking Simon to not mention the confiscation of the staff in his interview at the RHC the next day. However while the constables then went and checked out another clue, on coming back to the gun range they saw Simon talking to a lady dressed in black. Approached, the lady disappeared skillfully into the crowd. Simon said that she was RHC too, having shown him a golden RHC badge (the players only have bronze ones). She had asked him about the staff, and in particular about the confiscation of it. So ultimately the group decided that it was wiser to declare the staff as confiscated good when they got back to the RHC.

At the RHC they were told that the HQ had a visit from Lord Viscount Inspector Nigel Price-Hill, the head of the RHC from the capital, and his entourage. Apparently the lady in black was part of that entourage. Lord Price-Hill was introduced to the group and told them that due to the corruption they had revealed with the mayor, there were now investigations at all levels to see how widespread the corruption was, and that the lord was conducting an audit of the RHC in Flint. That didn't bode well for them, because in their investigation they hadn't always proceeded by the book and had relied on help of several different criminal elements, like the mafia boss Morgan Cippiano or the eco-terrorist Gale. But the constables decided that their best defense was feigning innocence and remaining silent. We'll see how that works out. Aria trying to misappropriate the staff while already being observed by the auditors won't help. :)

The next morning the group was asked to transport the corpses of the monsters to the Battalion, which was not only the place where they had trained to become RHC officers, but also the place that had the cities most knowledgeable experts on exotic monsters. Up to know the origin of the monsters was uncertain, other than they had a connection to the staff, and no similar monsters had ever been reported in history. After this task the group started to prepare for their meeting with Kaja Stewart in the early evening, planning to ambush her. At this point we ended the session.

[DM's note: It's good that we stopped here. The written module presumes that the players would approach Kaja posing as weapon's buyers. But my group often isn't all that subtle. Stopping here gives me the opportunity to plan how the encounter should be set up with this more heavy-handed approach.]


Sunday, February 12, 2017
The Witcher, fast forward

During the course of last week I played the Witcher 1, 2, and 3. I had bought the Witcher 3 at a Steam sale the week before, and then realized that I had never played the first two parts, although I had those in my Steam library from previous sales. So I thought I'd get a better appreciation of number 3 if I had at least a basic familiarity with 1 and 2. That wasn't a bad idea, because while the stories of the three games barely connect, playing the earlier versions gave me a better feeling for the game world as well as some of the game's conventions, e.g. on the concept of toxicity of potions.

The downside of the three-in-one option was that I realized that I am not a big fan of the Witcher series, because I don't like the combat. The Witcher 1 was still closest to what I am willing to play, with a Diablo-style "click on monster" combat. The Witcher 2 changed that to a console style of button-mashing combat, and did that rather badly. The Witcher 3 much improved on the console combat, so it flows much smoother now. I can recommend number 3 to anyone who actually likes fantasy combat with an XBox controller, but personally I don't.

Of course in one week I didn't play any of these games through. I played 8 hours of the Witcher 1, which got me to the end of chapter 1, which gave me a good idea of how that would continue. Number 2 I only played for a bit over 2 hours, because I hated the controls so much. The Witcher 3 I am still playing, or maybe I should say "still watching". For people who are either extremely casual or just don't like button-mashing sword fights like me, The Witcher 3 has the option of setting the difficulty to so ridiculously easy that fights become trivial, and you can enjoy just the story and setting. On that side The Witcher 3 is a really excellent game, with great characters and really good photo-realistic facial animations in the cut-scenes. But having switched combat to trivial it then resembles a movie more than a game, in spite of the excellent open world system. I like The Witcher 3 more than I like Skyrim.

My basic model of what a game is, is one or more repeating parts (e.g. combat) embedded in a non-repeating setting (e.g. story, quests). The non-repeating part usually gets more attention, because it has all the eye-candy. But for my personal enjoyment of a game the repeating part is far more important. I like turn-based combat, or any real-time system in which *what* you decide to do is more important than how fast you react. Especially for role-playing games, although in this time and age pretty much any game has role-playing game elements like character progression. Among real-time systems I like shooting combat better than close combat. In turn-based system I'm open to pretty much anything, including combat by cards or like Puzzle Quest with a match-3 game.

I am sure that in The Witcher 3 there is some effect of my character development and equipment choices on the efficiency of my combat. But in fast, button-mashing combat the connection isn't all that evident. Did I just win over this opponent because of my leet skillz, or did I simply outlevel and outgear him? Slower systems make the connection more evident. Furthermore in fast, close-combat systems the computer frequently chooses targets for you; so you can end up pressing the same button repeatedly, while your character on screen is responding to that by elegant moves from one enemy to the next. Who exactly is playing the game there, the computer or me?

Thursday, February 09, 2017
EU Digital Single Market

There has been a lot of discussion and action last year about people using VPN services to circumvent the geoblocking that video streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime have set up. Some media producers went as far as calling VPN users "pirates", in spite of the fact that a user of Netflix + VPN is paying Netflix no less than somebody who is simply traveling to a different location. As one reader on this site pointed out, using a VPN is more akin to smuggling than to pirating. And as the users of video streaming services point out, the geoblocking is a somewhat unfair practice. Now the European Commission has strongly agreed with the users: Geoblocking in Europe will be illegal from 2018 on.

That is good news for me, as a subscriber of the German version of Amazon Prime. Right now I can only use the service fully when I am in Germany. When I am in Belgium, which is most of the time, I can only see a limited selection of Amazon Prime originals. The European Commission clarifies that me being blocked from content just because I crossed an inner-European border is an unfair practice and will become illegal. The goal is to create an EU-wide Digital Single Market, where me having access to German video streaming services in Belgium is as easy and normal as me ordering physical goods from Germany online. It is the people who are trying to block that who are the "pirates".

Saturday, February 04, 2017
Homo homini lupus est

I was interested in Funcom's new game, Conan Exiles, for about half a minute when I was reading about a survival game with exploration and crafting. Then the interest ended abruptly when I realized that it was yet another PvP game. Free for all PvP games are designed specifically for loser jerks who still live in their mother's basement and who need the success experience of PvP griefing in order to feel better about their pathetic existence. For the developers it is a lot cheaper to have players serve as "content" for each other rather than try to balance decent PvE content. The result is usually pretty much unplayable for normal people, although the sadists appear to enjoy it.

I haven't found a good multiplayer survival game yet which isn't based on PvP griefing as source of content. Probably because it is so difficult to make a good system that isn't overwhelmed by the action of the players. Ultima Online had an artificial life engine that didn't survive the onslaught of the players and was scrapped. In games like A Tale in the Desert you needed to carefully choose the place you wanted to build your house: Too close to the other players meant getting into each other's way, while too far away in the wilderness meant having to run very far for access to necessary common locations like temples.

I do think a good game could be made based on those principles, competition over resources without the easy way out of PvP. The world just has to be large enough so that an accumulation can only lead to a local scarcity of let's say wood when players did fell all trees, and not to a global one. A system in which players can make laws, like in A Tale in the Desert, is much more realistic of human history than a game of anarchic free-for-all PvP.

Sunday, January 29, 2017
Eon Altar

Most consoles have the ability to connect several controllers and play games in local multi-player mode, whether that be co-op or against each other. PC games don't often offer local multi-player modes. Usually there is just one set of keyboard + mouse controls, and that makes everything but "hot seat" multi-player somewhat difficult. Eon Altar is claiming to have found the solution for that: Everybody has a smart phone or tablet anyways, so why not use those as controllers for a local co-op RPG for up to 4 players?

Not only do the mobile devices serve as controllers, but they also allow each player to have secrets like personal quests or personalized thoughts. And only the player in question sees his dialogue options and menus. While other players need to wait for dialogue choices, other character management menus can be used without holding up the rest of the party.

Sounds like a good idea, but in reality there are some flaws in the plan: Console controllers are made in a way that you don't need to look at them while you use them, leaving you free to watch the screen. That doesn't work for touch screens, so in Eon Altar you constantly need to switch between looking at the main screen and looking at your mobile device screen. I tried to play Eon Altar solo and the controls were so awkward that I gave up after half an hour. I don't have a PC connected to a living room TV either, so local multi-player would at most work for two in my little office. Not that I'm sure that 4 people sitting on a couch around a living room screen would want to play an epic, episodic RPG instead of something shorter.

The turn-based combat isn't bad, except for the friendly fire. My crusader had an ability to swing his sword in a circle, damaging everybody around him, including his allies. Either I missed it, or the range of it wasn't clearly displayed, and as players act simultaneously others could easily run into your area effect even if you didn't want to hit them. On the positive side the game is sold in episodes, so buying the first episode and testing it out with your friends to see whether you like it is relatively cheap. The mobile app is free, and only one player needs to buy the game.

Maybe I'm spoiled by having a group of friends for real pen & paper role-playing, but Eon Altar isn't a game I personally need. Uninstalled!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Zeitgeist: Digging for Lies - Session 1

In the previous session the group finished the second adventure of the Zeitgeist adventure path, The Dying Skyseer. So this time we started adventure 3, Digging for Lies. After having arrested Mayor Reed Macbannin, who then committed suicide in custody, the constables were removed from the case by Lady Inspectress Margaret Saxby, who doesn't like other members of the RHC getting too much press. Now they are on duty to supervise the Kaybeau Arms and Technology Exposition (imagine an early World Exposition). While the local police is in charge of pickpockets and drunkards, the RHC is supposed to keep an eye out for more sinister plots, like industrial espionage, or illegal arms trading.

Arriving at the fair they meet their police contact, Sergeant Sara Lockheart. The police is mainly concentrating around the three main pavilions, for military, railway, and industry. The group decides not to have a look around this main area, but heads for the more interesting gun alley stage to the north. Here they find different vendors of classic and futuristic firearms and armor, as well as ammunition, holsters, and other gun related stuff. Famed explorer and musician Rock Rackus also has his tent in this area, preparing a show about his daring travel to the moon. A shooting range is offering people the opportunity to test fire or try out their newly acquired guns.

Somewhat dispersed among these various activities, the constables watch what is going on. A young mage with long, blond hair, carrying a wooden staff, enters the shooting range and negotiates its use for testing out his magical staff. Suddenly, out of nowhere, several strange monsters appear. They are unlike any monsters the group has ever heard of, and they are phasing and insubstantial. Aria the spirit medium, as well as the two psionics James and Artus, are able to identify that as a property called "thoughtform". They believe the monsters have something to do with thought, or could be influenced by thought, but without knowing exactly how. The young mage fires a magic missile from his staff at one of the monsters, but that appears to summon yet another monster next to him. It is also curious that when he uses his staff as an implement, the wooden staff turns into solid gold for a round.

Combat ensues, but in spite of that the constables are able to persuade the mage to stop using his staff. However the already existing monster prove to be very tough, due to their insubstantial trait reducing all damage by half. Artus has a spell that gives all allies around him the ability to hit insubstantial monsters with full damage from melee attacks, but the group is so dispersed that no melee combatant is close to him. For several rounds the group just doesn't move much and each constable hits the monster closest to him. This lack of concentrated fire doesn't make the fight easier or shorter. So because of real life time constraints we had to stop in the middle of the battle and leave the rest of the fight for the next session.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Presidential freedom of speech

Back in 1990 president George H.W. Bush said that he hated broccoli, a statement that led to outrage by the California broccoli industry. Since then the joke has become a staple of every political sitcom: A politician makes a remark that would be considered completely harmless by most people, only to then face a huge backlash, forcing all sorts of funny spin-doctoring. The popular impression is that as a politician you just can't say anything! Obama even got into trouble for saying he liked broccoli.

In that sense the Trump administration is certainly an improvement on presidential freedom of speech. A president should have the same right to an opinion on everyday stuff like broccoli as anybody else, regardless of special interest groups trying to censor him. And as long as he is consistent the president should also be able to say what he thinks about politics, even if much of it is necessarily going to be divisive. Trump, after being elected on a protectionist, anti-globalisation platform can hardly be blamed for now saying (and enacting in the case of the TPP) protectionist stuff against globalisation. I don't think "you can't say that, it would upset somebody" is a viable demand towards politicians. The idea to please every single special interest group out there in order to maximize votes is flawed from the outset, and doesn't lead to anywhere good.

Having said that, words have consequences, even for presidents. Being a straight talker usually isn't helpful in diplomacy. A president should have the right to defend his country against foreign interests in word and deed, but sometimes you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. And if you want to hurt another country, you better consider first how that country might hurt you back. Sometimes you just need to pick your fights, instead of fighting in all directions simultaneously. Why insult Europe needlessly if you are already in a fight with the developing countries that benefited most from globalisation?

And while I do think that the president should have the freedom of speech to say what he thinks (which is much better than forcing him to lie), a president also needs a skin thick enough to deal with the freedom of speech of others. Persecuting others for disagreeing with him is not a good presidential trait. It makes him look like the spoiled brat dictator of Trumpistan instead of the most powerful statesman of the world. Without the use of a Stalinist system of tyranny a politician can never get 99.8% approval rating. And the cost of silencing dissenting voices is far, far higher than the benefit, as every dictator sooner or later learned. Freedom of speech is not just for presidents, it is for everybody.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Apart from other claims to faim, Magic the Gathering might also be the game that invented Pay2Win. There is a cap to it, so tournament play becomes possible because all tournament players have all the cards they need. But for the average player with a small to medium-sized collection, added cards mean more options for deckbuilding and improved chance to win.

As I said, in Magic Duels (iOS) I have all the available cards from the basis set and the 6 expansions. At the start I spent some money on the basis set, but through regular playing I earned so much gold that these days I can buy a complete expansion the day it comes out. Maximum options for deckbuilding, but not a huge challenge. Especially since the PvP system is so bad.

So I started a new project: I started Magic Duels the PC version, available for free on Steam. And I'm playing really for free. I played the story mode enough to buy one booster from each expansion, which also unlocks the starter cards from each of those expansions. So now I have a tiny collection of 197 cards, mostly commons, compared to the 1159 cards I have in the iOS version. And that fundamentally changes the way I build decks.

I don't think I'll play this long enough to get all cards, but right now it is a nice little challenge to try and build some decent decks with such a limited card pool. And when I earn enough gold to buy a booster, it is more exciting to see whether there are cards in it useful for one of my existing decks.

Saturday, January 21, 2017
Aether Revolt color decks

Sorry, second Magic Duels post in a row, and somewhat related to the first one. I used my accumulated gold to buy the whole Aether Revolt expansion in Magic Duels (iOS). Whenever you buy a large number of Magic cards in one go, you need some time to understand what all those cards do. The best way to do so is by playing with them. So I built a rather crazy deck: 20 plains, 4 evolving wilds (for deck thinning and powering revolt abilitities), 1 each of every white card in the Aether Revolt expansion, 1 each of every vehicle card in the Aether Revolt expansion, fill the remaining slots with a second copy of low casting cost white creatures from Aether Revolt.

This is basically building a deck without even looking much at the cards you put in. Which means that it shouldn't work. The surprise is that it does, I'm actually winning a rather good percentage of games against the AI at medium difficulty with it. Well, I did look a bit and saw lots of effects regarding vehicles, which is why I put the vehicles in the deck. But the other cards of the expansion are also all designed to work with each other, as long as you stick to one color.

Of course by having only one or two copies of each card in the deck, it isn't very reliable to produce combos. But sometimes you end up having the one mana vehicle that is very strong but hard to activate, and the enchantment that permanently activates it, and you end up with a huge, flying monstrosity. Some cards are just single-card miracles, like Call for Unity, which makes your creatures stronger every time one of your cards leave the battlefield. Or the enchantment for two mana that you can return to your hand for one mana, and power all those neat new revolt abilities every turn.

By playing the deck repeatedly I have now a rather good idea of the white cards in Aether Revolt. Obvious next step is doing the same with the other 4 colors. Oodles of fun, and I haven't even begun with real deckbuilding.

Thursday, January 19, 2017
The Grizzly Bears deck

I am still playing Magic the Gathering in the form of Magic Duels on iOS every day. Today a new expansion, Aether Revolt, came out and I'm looking forward to playing with the new cards. While I spent some money on Magic Duels at the start, my daily playing gives me enough gold that I can buy a complete new expansion the day it comes out without having to spend any real money. So far, so good.

Like most other games, in Magic Duels I mostly play PvE against the artificial intelligence. I don't know how many people play Magic Duels on the iOS, but if you choose a PvP game you frequently wait a long time before you find an opponent, so long it sometimes even times out. And then you run into the usual problems of PvP, with people throwing games as soon as they run into the first difficulties. So while theoretically a PvP game could give you a much bigger challenge than a PvE game, in practice it frequently doesn't.

So where is the fun in playing against moderately challenging AI opponents? Well, for me Magic the Gathering was never about building the unbeatable deck and refining it to absolute perfection. There are a lot of people on the tournament circuit out there who do that. The result is always the same, an environment in which only a small handful of decks is viable. Many other deck ideas are more fun, but less efficient, and thus get weeded out. By playing against a moderate player in the form of the Magic Duels AI, the fun decks become viable options. So I can amuse myself all day building crazy decks and trying them out.

In the basic set of the early editions of Magic the Gathering there was a creature card called Grizzly Bears. It never was a particularly good card, costing 2 mana for a 2/2 vanilla creature. But it resulted in an interesting thought experiment: What if your opponent was playing a deck consisting of 20 forests and 40 grizzly bears? (Not a tournament legal deck by any standards, it's a thought experiment). What that opponent would play every turn and how he would attack is rather predictable, so you know you would face the first grizzly bear in turn 2, another in turn 3, possibly two more in round 4, etc. The argument of the thought experiment was that if the fanciful combo deck that you just imagined can't beat this imaginary Grizzly Bears deck, you should throw your deck away and try a different idea. The Grizzly Bears deck isn't a real opponent, but it provides a minimum challenge that your deck must be able to beat in order to be not completely ridiculous.

For me the AI decks in Magic Duels are somewhat improved Grizzly Bears decks. They usually are all about playing more and more, bigger and bigger creatures. There is sometimes a bit of removal, but never any mass removal that would completely change the environment. And there are sometimes cute tricks with enchantments and artifacts, but never devastating combos that one-shot kill you. They are far from the decks a tournament player would play, but they provide a good challenge between easy and medium (depending on the difficulty level you choose). And that gives me the perfect environment to try out fun decks.

By the way, even a tournament deck can lose a game against a Grizzly Bears deck, due to the inherent randomness of Magic the Gathering. If you draw only lands, or not enough lands, or lands that don't fit the color of your spells, or any other combination of cards that just don't fit together, even a mediocre AI with a mediocre deck will win the game. In Magic Duels I have some doubts about the random numbers generator, which appears to produce clumping far more often than statistical probability would predict. In any case, a deck I build as a fun idea is far from being an automatic win, even if I win far more than half of my games. There is never "no challenge at all".


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