The Dust Settles
Alright, world, this is the last Summoner Wars post for some time, I promise. Just bear with me.
After my review of the new Alliance Master Set expansion for Summoner Wars, my sister and I ran a tournament to pit the old against the new. Course, with upwards of twenty different factions, that’s far too many players to do the round-robin format that we’ve been perfecting with the smaller releases. Over time, we’ve accumulated several of the single releases to add to the fourteen decks in the master boxes which leads to quite a bit of variety and a staggering number of potential match-ups.
The original goal of the tournament, aside from getting more games in against each other, was to create a comprehensive “tier list” of the factions fueled by actual tournament results to represent what we felt was a sequential list of the base factions and how strong they were relative to everyone else.
Of the first goal to get more games in, the tournament was a resounding success. We had forty different battles in a double elimination format where the participating decks were seeded based on a loose ranking system estimated from their performances from past tournaments. Our brand spanking new factions, the Cave Goblin Frick, Mercenary Rallul and Jungle Elf Abua Shi were estimated around the middle. This gave as best a randomized format and, with a double elimination arrangement, no one deck would be removed from a single bad match-up. In order to motivate each other to try our best with whoever we used, the winner of the prior round would have first pick of the two scheduled opponents. Naturally, we favoured our favourite factions but it became increasingly clear that the better decision was to try and pick the more powerful faction in a match-up in order to assure the success of our few favourites in later matches.
So, the first issue of the tournament, of course, relies on the fact that my sister and I have different playstyles and prefer different summoners over others. There’s enough variation in Summoner Wars for some factions to perform better with a player that is more inclined to play to their strengths. Vlox, for example, requires knowing all the abilities in your deck and being able to set up scenarios that can prove favourable with a fortunate draw if you can keep careful count of what your deck can do and the probabilities of drawing the card you need to copy next. I enjoy this sort of predictive logic puzzle whereas Kait is far more reactionary and comes up with the best plays based on the cards in her hand on those on the board.
But while our original goal was to find out which faction was truly the strongest, it became rather obvious that this is the wrong way to look at the match-ups. Since our tournament did not allow deck building (for the simplicity of us not owning all the different cards while avoiding the awkwardness that would arise from within faction match-ups and arguments over who gets to draft the elephants), it only took the end of the first loser’s round for us to realize that what a deck was capable of did not matter nearly as much as what a deck was capable of against its current opponent. Some decks are just inherently better geared at beating other decks as could be demonstrated with the match-up between the Demagogue (a slow, late game focused faction based on very powerful but few units) and Frick (a fast, early game focused faction based on a ton of cheap, weak but overwhelming units). The results of our little experiment yielded some rather surprising victors that spurred a number of interesting discussions. Here are our results:
1. The Warden
2. Abua Shi
9. Glurblub, Immortal Elien, Mugglug
12. Demagogue, Marek, Moyra, Tacullu
16. Geirroth, Hogar, Melundak, Sunderved, Vlox
Notes: the order within a “tier” is not indicative of anything, they’re only listed by alphabetic order. Don’t worry too much about the Geirroth entry, it was a custom deck to test some ideas and prove a point.
On one hand, if you’ve read the reviews for the different factions in the Alliances Master Set, it should come as no surprise that The Warden ranks top in our Summoner Wars throw-down. He’s the only faction to go entirely undefeated, though there were a few very close games. What should be more surprising, however, is that fourth place Selundar and third place Krusk. Krusk was ranked eighteenth going into the tournament but my sister apparently had a Renaissance when it came to understanding his deck as she mopped the floor with him in several rather aggravating battles. Selundar is more surprising since, outside of tournaments, any time we play with the deck it always falls apart.
But I think Selundar underscores our dissatisfaction with the whole concept of tier lists for this game. As I’ve mentioned before, the game is very chance dependent. Lucky rolls and lucky draws will determine quite a large portion of a game’s outcome when played between two individuals of matched skill. That might seem intuitively to be obvious–if both players are of equal talent than surely outside factors will decide the outcome of the match. Unfortunately, with Summoner Wars, this isn’t the case. You can be in a very strong and commanding position and have all that taken away because you end up rolling nine misses over two turns while your opponent successfully hits with theirs. Due to the nature of the tournament set-up, Selundar benefited quite strongly from Lady Luck. His first match was against Vlox who, by all accounts, is one of the worst decks in the game and soundly beat him. His next match was against Mugglug, a deck that should have trounced him soundly. However, timely Into Darkness’ cleared the board of pesky and expensive Savagers while Kait’s draws saw most of her Vine Growths stashed at the bottom of her deck. Couple with that some extraordinarily unfortunate turns on her rolling and the Swamp Orcs were sent quickly to the lower bracket. Another set of poor draws saw a very close game against Frick finally go Selundar’s way before his luck ran out and he got eliminated in a hilariously one-sided match against Krusk.
Thus, in order to balance the heavy effect of chance on the game, we would be required to play these tournaments over and over again for results to normalize. Such a thing is not going to happen because we’re only human and time is a limited commodity for us. And even if we were, I still don’t know how valuable the results of a tournament could mean. Whereas Selundar got through on some fortunate rolls and forgiving match-ups, two top contenders in the Demagogue and Tacullu were eliminated rather quickly because they faced much harder opponents. Abua Shi, much like Frick, is very fast and early-mid focused and knocked the Demagogue immediately to the lower bracket. There, the Demagogue faced against Tundle as a showdown between the two late-game heavy-weights. Variance once again struck and Demagogue was eliminated.
Analyzing our results, we debated amongst ourselves how we could organize these games to show who was the strongest and baddest in Summoner Wars. But the more we bickered, the more we realized this was an unhelpful way of viewing the game. While its easy to tease apart the factions that stand at the top and bottom of the list (Warden is obviously stronger than Vlox), there is an issue when you address the vast majority of the decks that reside in the middle. How do you rank Tacullu and Krusk? Going by these results, Krusk is clearly the better deck. However, if we went by our first tournament, Tacullu was head and shoulders above the Sand Goblins. Really, the more helpful discussion was circulated around who does better against who. It’s really self defeating trying to say whether Krusk is #3 in a list or #8. What do those placements mean? Is he just better than all those below him? Would we expect him to dominate the likes of Mugglug, Tundle or Frick? Both Kait and I would argue otherwise.
What seems more helpful is discussing the real culprit of matches–the odds of a faction beating another. That’s what it is ultimately about. If I sit down with Krusk in my hands, it seems more valuable to think and discuss how well his specific match-up is against my opponent’s Mugglug than trying to simply compare ordering on a list. Perhaps Krusk can beat Mugglug a majority of the time but he loses to Abua Shi who in turn loses more often than not to Mugglug. It’s more a game of rock-paper-scissors. It seems silly to try and make a tier list over which is the best choice in that game. Rock isn’t inherently better than both scissors or paper and saying that it’s number one is, ultimately, meaningless in a discussion in that game.
The best these results can do is point out systemic issues in certain decks. Once again, these sort of lists are better at finding the poles–those that do unerringly better than everyone else and those that doing far worse. Vlox, Hogar, Melundak, Marek and Sunderved stand out as consistent underachievers over multiple tournaments. Whereas The Warden seemingly stands above the others. Course, how much is the next pertinent question and that’s one I don’t have an answer. Further testing and analysis would certainly be required. The Warden could simply be marginally better than the top performers. He certainly feels that way. His victories against Endrich in the Alliance tournament and Abua in this one weren’t obvious sweeps. The same can’t be said for those on the bottom.
The nice thing about Summoner Wars, however, is that this isn’t the end of the story. With the potential to deck build–to a limited degree–there’s a possibility that the shortcomings of many factions can be addressed by replacing their lackluster components. After the tournament, we’ve certainly been playing with more crazy decks carrying combinations that seem to make some of them a lot scarier in more match-ups. We’re currently working on a possible custom tournament format to test some of these decks and hopefully we’ll have some more ideas to share on this game in the future.