The Power of the Band
I’ve written before about my enjoyment of Summoner Wars. It’s a delightful little card/war game. Its biggest draw and greatest strength is the simplicity of its mechanics. It’s my gateway drug into more complicated and difficult collectible card games. It’s as far removed from Magic: the Gathering as you could possibly get while still maintaining some of that early interest and enjoyment that I felt when I was young, dumb and had no idea how Magic worked. This was like fifty years ago when Magic only had two colours and everyone gave a handshake at the beginning and end of a match, of course.
Last year, I did my little preview of the upcoming Alliances expansion for Summoner Wars which will nearly double the number of factions I own and the amount of cards with which to play. Up until now, my sister and I have been making do with the Master Set which had been the best bang for our buck. Because it has a limited collectible element to it (thankfully, nowhere near as damn expensive as Magic though it does have its own frustrations), one of the biggest purchasing hurdles was deciding whether we would “reinforce” one of the factions we owned or buy a new one. Almost invariably, the new faction won out. Well, with Alliances, every new deck is a combination of a prior one so the possibilities for deck building will really explode once the damn thing gets off a ship from China and gets to my door.
Seriously, we get flotsam from Japan faster than shipments from China.
Anyway, I digress. The long and short of it is once the Alliances gets into my grubby hands, I can introduce my sister to the more complex elements of these sort of card games: deck building. Thankfully, because of Summoner Wars’ aforementioned simplicity, the deck building will likely be a fairly straight-forward process. What cards do you hate in your current decks? Replace those with some new ones. Boom.
There are more considerations, of course. But these are well beyond our current level of play. One of the trickiest elements of Summoner Wars is managing the economy. Every soldier you can field also serves as the resource required to bring more swords to the battlefield. Every ally which falls to your enemy is more fuel for them to reinforce their side. There’s a limited number of cards in a deck and thus there’s a limited number of things you’ll be able to bring to the board–both physically as you’ll run out of cards and economically in that you’ll run out of magic with which to summon them. Thus, much like Magic, there is the consideration for a good cost spread. You don’t want to throw every expensive unit you have into your deck since you won’t be able to summon most of them. There’s also the wider Summoner Wars meta-game to consider which places greater emphasis on champions over grunt soldiers and its this meta which I want to discuss further.
I’m not unfamiliar with meta-games. Anyone that follows some sort of competitive scene will have a basic understanding of the term. It is the most post-modern kind of consideration. Before you even start playing the game, you must consider the way that people play the game while you play the game. That is to say, there is a discourse which surrounds every competition and that discourse can affect what happens within the competition itself. The most obvious example of this effect in action is Dota 2. In D0ta 2, certain playstyles or heroes will become–inexplicably–popular amongst the competitive teams and that style will feature in near every game. The picks and bans will focus around the heroes of the month as teams try to predict and deny their opponents key players in their strategies. There’s innumerable stories of this effect in action. The rise of Dark Seer in competitive play is one such tale. Dark Seer, for the longest while, had seen absolutely zero picks by teams and, in order to encourage more diversity in team strategies, the hero saw his abilities continually improved patch after patch. Then, Empire (I think, we’re talking like two years ago now) picked up the guy and absolutely dominated their games with him. Dark Seer, ever since, has received nothing but nerfs to his abilities since. Arguably, the hero was well overpowered for the entire time he had been in the game but since the meta-game (specifically the picking and banning) had snubbed him so thoroughly, the hero just kept getting stronger and stronger. Then, of course, there are stories like Dreamhack’s Sven where that hero was picked in nearly every game of the tournament and then just fell off the face of the earth once the month was over.
It’s always humorous watching people try and explain why these things happen. It’s almost entirely armchair analysis, of course: prescriptive thoughts which have no value or weight in either predicting what teams will latch on to or what will be popular for the next big tournament. However, these discussions are important if only for highlighting where the analysts’ attention lies if not pointing out actual design issues that the creator may not have intended.
Summoner Wars has a similar meta-discussion. However, it is focussed almost entirely on defensive, passive play which encourages and promotes stalemates. Unlike Dota 2’s meta-game which mostly directs which heroes will see the lion’s share of attention and its stagnation simply needs a few soft prods from Valve to remind teams that they have a potential pool of 115 heroes to choose, Summoner Wars’ meta-game is sort of a dread whisper amongst paranoid conspirators about some terrible inevitability in the game’s core design. Specifically, the argument entails, the game is irrevocably broken on a design level and that if played to its ultimate competitive conclusion, the game would be a giant snore-fest of players passively passing turns and staring at each other with their tongues stuck out.
The argument is as follows:
There is an inherent advantage to playing defensive in Summoner Wars. All things considered equal, a person who has to defend their self from an aggressor can more easily reinforce their troops and has advantage in maneuvering their units into more advantageous positions. Since every fallen enemy is more power in your pool for summoning, a defender is able to more easily turn an aggressive advance into a crushing loss for his opponent by wiping out his troops and then performing a riposte fueled with more magic and units that his now expended foe can not rebuke. Furthermore, many of the earlier summoners feature special events which carry a specific rider that they must have fewer units than their enemy in order to trigger. Presumably, the design theory was that this would counteract the loss of an aggressive push, however most players now will kill their own units to reduce their numbers and selfishly hoard the magic gained from those deaths for their own use. Thus, they build their magic pool through their own troops, deny their opponent the same magic, then have fewer units in order to trigger these aforementioned “catch-up events” for an even greater advantage. Thus, they’re in a better position from the start, sitting on more resources than their enemy so should they be attacked, it would be inconsequential to win the war.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the only way to counteract this strategy by your opponent is to perform it yourself. There would, thusly, be a race to self-extermination with both players thinning their ranks to the barest of bones then sitting with a huge stack of magic to counter summon against an attack that will never come since their enemy is doing the exact same trick. Thus, by the game’s design itself, the best action to take is inaction and if any player truly desired victory, they must always retreat and hunker on their furthest lines with nary an assistant and wait for their opponent to make the first move.
Queue staring contest.
I am, by no means, a Summoner Wars professional. That said, no one is. Part of the issue surrounding Summoner Wars’ meta-game is the dearth of voices participating in it. There is not the player base for the game like there is for Dota 2. Thus, conversations generally devolve into the same few people shouting the same few arguments again and again. Innovation and development often come not from old guard who have figured the game out in their own eyes but by new blood who approach the game with a different perspective. This, once again, comes up in Dota 2 constantly. Invariably, with the yearly shuffling of teams and players, old dominating teams fall to the wayside and younger teams in the wings rise into prominent spots. Often, these players get an edge over their experienced opponents by utilizing new and surprising strategies. I would use MVP Phoenix as an example. The team from Korea is, in my mind, a rising star on the Dota 2 scene having worked their way to the last International through a very tough qualifying phase. And though their performance at the competition left a little to be desired, they have continued to play and improve posting results over old players that were once top tier. And one of their most famous hero selections is Warlock–a hero that sees just about as much play as Dark Seer did before Empire rode him to the top. Warlock had, for the longest time, been considered a lane support for more important heroes and languished in that role compared to other laning supports. MVP Phoenix, however, play the lovable guy as the actual farming carry–and hold him in the first position for gold and experience acquisition. That’s a far cry from the fifth position most others had seen him. And you know what? MVP Phoenix quite often dominate when they play like this. He’s a first ban in most games against the Korean squad as teams don’t know how to deal with him but neither do they know how to play him.
I feel Summoner Wars biggest issue is that its infusion of new blood is pretty small. I won’t deny the defender’s advantage but I don’t think it’s as dominant a strategy as people bemoan. I think the advantage of fighting on your own side and being able to immediately reinforce a defence serves more like a come-back mechanic or “rubber band effect.” These are usually systems put in place to make sure that an early lead in competitive games does not snowball into an impossible offense. Dota 2 has these mechanics. Heroes that garner kill streaks–many successive enemy kills without dying themselves–gain a larger and larger “death bounty.” That is to say, when this murderous hero finally dies, the reward for killing him is much greater than someone who hasn’t killed anyone in the game. Furthermore, a person that has died multiple times in succession without garnering a kill themselves has a lower and lower “death bounty” generating the murderous team less and less gold and experience for continually picking on the poor soul. Other games have similar systems. League of Legends has their base respawn after a certain amount of time has elapsed since a team destroyed parts of it–turning the improved soldiers for the successful army back to normal so these uncontrolled members of the teams return to an even level.
So, rubber banding isn’t inherently bad. Without some system, games can be determined within the first few minutes of their start. Terra Mystica has no rubber band effect and I suspect within the first few turns, you can probably determine who will win the game. For spectators, this really diffuses excitement. If first blood was the primary determinant of a match, you’d probably see teams play far more passive and defensive, taking less risks and extending the period of time that first blood would occur to try and wrangle themselves the advantage first. You can see in League of Legends how this passiveness can occur. The average game of League will have far less action than the average game of Dota (and no, for fans of either I’m not going to do a dissertation to support this–suffice to say I’ve seen enough of both to know that this generalization is true). Having some mechanic so that a player can come back into the game can keep the action exciting and intense, thus making the game even more enjoyable.
Ultimately, that’s what I think the defender’s advantage is in Summoner Wars. It’s a more subtle effect that insures that whoever takes the first turn and is able to get the first few kills won’t spiral off that early two to three magic advantage into a position that is indefensible. Is the defensive advantage too strong of a rubber band is the real question. I think, with the game’s earlier designed factions, it is. It extended past the point of being a serviceable boost to keep the balance of the game tilting too quickly into one player’s advantage and offers a defensive player too much to discourage anyone from wanting to cross the middle line. However, I feel the main culprit for this is the company’s earlier fear of aggressive play being too powerful. You can see it in some of the earlier factions and how they were “weakened” well beyond the point of balance. For instance, the Jungle Elves first summoner has an event that allows him to move a unit two spaces during the event phase. This, in-of-itself, is a good event but not the best in the game. However, the faction also has a three attack melee unit (the lioneer) which can move seven spaces in a straight line on its movement phase. No doubt in playtesting, the designers found the Jungle Elf player was able to move this unit two spaces and then charge right on the summoner, opening up the possibility of a one or two turn kill depending on dice and the summoner they were attempting to maim. Thus, this Chant of Haste was balanced so that it only worked on units with a summoning cost of two or less.
This is an obvious design element meant to weaken offensive play but nearly all the early offensive decks have examples such as this. The carefulness in overbalancing aggressive play is, in my mind, the true culprit for slowing down Summoner Wars’ larger meta-game. Granted, nothing can be done about these factions now, however I feel this is good news. Since the meta-game has developed into such a defensive and stalling direction, I think the upcoming Alliances is going to introduce factions that are stronger on the attack.
Ultimately, I can understand the hesitation over making attacking too powerful. What the stalemate proponents fail to realize is that you literally can not win Summoner Wars without attacking. The whole “issue” arises because players refuse to attack, trying to force their opponent to do so first so they can utilize the defender’s advantage. For most of us, this sort of mentality won’t be a problem. My sister and I are too aggressive, if we make any sort of mistake. I think this “sit back and wait” mentality would only really crop up in tournaments–as few as they are. And to fix the problem in that setting, I think is relatively easy. Set a maximum game length and, should the game go to clock, both players will have the match considered a loss. This would make the player with the advantage forced to press the issue–the only element which currently is missing from the game. Since, if I’m sitting and “turtling” the best, building up the greater magic pool and holding the best series of events, then waiting until the clock runs out is against my goals. It means that I will definitely lose a game which I currently have the stronger odds for winning. Since there is now an “inevitability” of a loss, I would have to act or–ultimately–get the loss and hurt my overall tournament standings.
Granted, this isn’t the most elegant fix. What I predict is that the Summoner Wars’ meta-game will devolve into picks and counter picks where factions have a disproportionate level of success given their opponents. Thus, the meta-game’s top tier deck could be the Filth as they have the greatest success against other strong decks but the Filth may have incredibly horrible match-ups against the Cave Goblins and Cloaks who, otherwise, may be considered some of the worst. Ideally, you’d want each faction with close to equal chances of winning regardless of the match-up. Though that’s a tall order to fill. Ultimately, I’d rather factions with lots of one-sided matches but with still clear weaknesses that can be exploited by others than a game where two people decide to simply sit across from each other and stare.