Thursday, July 17, 2014

Card Level Advantage in Solforge

Hello, my name is Gabriel Moreno though I'm known to the community as Gabo. I'm a video game developer living in Canada and a family man. I used to play paper Magic The Gathering until my life became too busy so I moved into its online counterpart, but then my life grew even more busy and I had to stop. Then I found Solforge which has bite sized games and an awesome and innovative system and so I became addicted.

One very interesting but polarizing aspect of the game is the leveling mechanic. I have been analyzing the random aspects of the leveling mechanic and how players can interact with it and I would like to share my thoughts on the matter. This will be a two part article. The first will focus on explaining everything about how playing more or less leveled cards than your opponent can affect the game. The second part will be an opinion article delving into how this mechanic can affect the enjoyment of the game.

What is Card Level Advantage?

In the game of Solforge players duel each other by drawing 5 cards and playing or discarding 2 of them each turn. Those cards  "level up", that is, they are sent to a discard pile as a more powerful version of themselves. After every 4 turns the players themselves level up and at that point the full deck is reshuffled. During the turns after this, each player will usually draw a mix of leveled up and non-leveled up cards. In most cases, being able to play as many leveled up cards each turn will give an advantage because the cards are more powerful than their unleveled counterparts. Card Level Advantage (CLA), a term coined by Bobby2 in his original analysis can be used to measure this advantage. It is originally defined like this:

Card Level Advantage for a given player is equal the sum of the levels of all cards played by that player minus the sum of the levels of all cards played by that player's opponent.

I'd like to expand the original definition to account for a few gameplay elements. First of all, sometimes it is better to play an underleveled card, but that doesn't mean that the player is at level disadvantage. It also should take into account that there are cards that can make a player draw and play additional cards but those extra cards should be considered as effects of the cards themselves so that also doesn't affect the Card Level Advantage. Therefore, a more accurate definition would be:

Card Level Advantage for a given player is equal to the sum of the levels of the two cards of the highest levels initially drawn by that player each turn minus the sum of the levels of the two cards of the highest levels initially drawn by the opposing player.

In any given game, CLA will usually be going up and down for both players from turn 4 onwards and it is highly unlikely that CLA stays at zero for the whole game.  However, the higher it goes for one player, the less probability there is of it continuing to grow as it means that player has already drawn higher level cards and now the rest of their pool will have fewer of them, while the other player will have not drawn their higher level cards and will have a better chance of drawing them.

There are two other measures that are relevant when discussing CLA and that is the sum of all the levels in a deck and the distribution of these levels among cards. This can be used to calculate the probability of seeing a leveled card in a given turn and the ratio of risk vs reward. A deck with its levels distributed among more cards will have a lower risk of having a big card level disadvantage, but a deck with fewer, higher level cards will have the possibility of a powerful turn with high CLA, but also runs the risk of getting a sequence of turns with low level cards, giving the opponent the advantage.

For example, if two players start a turn and Player A has 16 level 2 cards and no level 3 cards, while player B has 8 level 3 cards but no level 2 cards, the sum of the levels is the same but the number of leveled cards is different. Player A has a higher chance of seeing leveled cards but while Player B has a lower chance of seeing leveled card, there is the possibility of making more powerful plays.

Effects of Card Level Advantage

The effects of CLA will usually be improved board position and/or damage to the opposing player. However, the quality of those effects will depend on the degree of CLA, the number of turns the CLA is maintained and more importantly, the cards themselves and how they are played.

There isn't much that can be done when CLA goes beyond a certain value and due to the random nature of the game this will sometimes happen. However, most of the time, CLA will go back and forth in such a way that a well built and played deck can handle.

There have been a number of informal studies done by members of the Solforge community, looking at the probabilities in a game of going past a certain value of CLA. One of those is the previously mentioned analysis by Bobby2. The other two are by FrostedBacon and QuantumAnalysis. All of these studies focus on CLA independently of the cards in the deck and how they are played. While this simplification is necessary to achieve any concrete probability values, it is important to realize that in practice, the effects of CLA vary tremendously from the cards themselves. Lets look at a simple example to make this clear

If Player A can play two level 3 cards while Player B can only play two level 1 cards, but all the cards are Deepbranch Prowlers (7/7 at level 1 and 9/9 at level 3), there won't be a huge power differential on the board.  This means that it would take a very high value of CLA (multiple turns of player A playing level 3 Prowlers and player B playing level 1 Prowlers) before player A gained a considerable advantage. However, if the cards Player A plays are two Chrogias (40/40 with Breakthrough and Regenerate 5) then with a single turn Player B will be very unlikely to be able to do anything about them and will lose.

In addition to leveling differences in the attack and health stats, there are many cards in Solforge that enhance other cards, which can reduce the power difference on the board regardless of the card level advantage. For example, a level 2 Weirwood Patriarch (7/10) gives all creature with less than 5 power a +3/+3 bonus when it comes into play. So playing a level 1 Weirwood Patriarch (4/7) and then playing a level 2 version, will effectively be equivalent to having played two level 2 Patriarchs because the level 1 version will have its power and toughness increased to 7/10 from the bonus.

The first example shows that the same CLA with different cards can have wildly different effects on the game. The second example shows that even while having a negative CLA, there are cards that can mimic not having a negative CLA at all. These are just two examples of how the card quality and the play decisions have a very big effect on how CLA affects the game. In the section below I will point even more things that players can do to modify how CLA affects the game. The fact that there are so many tools and gameplay elements that allow this is why there is no exact value of CLA that indicates when a given player has too much advantage.

Dealing with Card Level Advantage

Dealing with effectively with CLA variations is one of the most important elements of Solforge and is key to playing it successfully. Doing it effectively means both getting the most out of a positive CLA and mitigating the effects of a negative CLA. This is easier said than done but it can be accomplished by building and playing a deck correctly. I now will go into how specific elements interact with card level advantage.

1) Make the most of positive CLA.

They say the best defence is a good offence and that applies very much to Solforge. In most games you can expect to gain card level advantage at some point and it is vital to winning that you make the most of it. A lot of games end at a point where one player gains CLA and outright wins because the cards involved in that advantage are just too powerful for the opponent to recover from. This can make it seem like the win was solely a consequence of the CLA, but generally its due to the player with the advantage being able to use effectively.

Using CLA effectively involves leveling up cards that become very powerful in their later levels. In the case of draft, these are usually bombs like Scrapforge Titan or Nightgaunt that have bodies that are difficult to deal with. In the case of a constructed it involves creatures that at the higher levels are extremely resilient and have strong abilities like Zimus, the Undying or  Scorchmane Dragon. It also means having creatures that are just all round strong at every level like Ionic Warcharger in draft and Oros, Thundersaur or Darksteel Gargoyle in Constructed.

These are the key cards that should be leveled early so that the deck will have threats that aren't dealt with easily and that will truly create an advantage when drawn against a hand of underleveled cards. Not only will having these cards give you opportunities to finish the game and win, but also to gain enough board position and keep your health up during the mid game so that when you are on the negative end of CLA, you have the time and board presence to recover.

2) Be aggressive

When building a deck for an aggressive strategy you must include cards with powerful level 1 stats and use them to gain board advantage and deal damage early on. It is then possible to force the game to end quickly and therefore minimize the possibility of running into CLA for either player.

But that is not the only way to be aggressive in Solforge. It is also important to know when it is time to become aggressive in any game and to go all in for the win. It is a common mistake to not realize that your opponent is close to losing and play a creature to block another creature instead of putting it in an empty lane. If the creature you are playing is of a high level and the opponent's creature is not, its actually going against point 1 because you are helping your opponent deal with your creature. By placing it in an empty lane you are forcing your opponent to have to deal with the full health of your creature and if they are under the pressure of having low health, their options become limited and any  CLA advantage you get will win you the game.

3) Minimize the effects of underleveled hands with the right cards

Beyond the cards used to finish off the opponent, a good deck also needs to have a mix of cards that work when your draws are underleveled.

High Power Level 1 Cards

The most common way to mitigate level screw in draft is with the use of creatures that have high power at level 1 so that when you play them as underdrops, they still affect the board significantly. Having high power at level 1 allows a creature to still have a significant impact on the board against higher level creatures and that's why they can work well without leveling them up.
I classify these underdrops in 3 categories: Large creatures that level badly, High power, low defense creatures and Large creatures with a drawback.

The large creatures that level badly are the most common of the three and are, for example, Deepbranch Prowler, Storm Caller or Scavenger Scorpion. These creatures have both high power and high defense at level 1 and have a decent body at level 2 but are usually underwhelming at level 3. They are generally better suited for aggressive strategies and unfortunately are the worst tools for mitigating level screw because, by playing them, you are missing out on improving your deck by leveling up a creature with a more impactful higher level.

The second group, creatures with high power but low health, are better suited for underdrops because their leveled versions will usually scale quite well. Examples of these are Grave Geist and Swampmoss Lurker. The fact that they have low health isn't such an issue when playing as an underdrop because a high level creature will likely destroy any underleveled  creature put in front of it. The important thing is that they have enough power to destroy the opposing higher level creature or at least leave it damaged enough so that just one more blow will finish it off.

The last group only has a handful of instances and includes creatures with a large amount of both power and health but that have some kind of draw back. For example Ebonskull Knight dies at the end of a player level and Xithian Rotfiend will get weaker when a creature is placed in front of it. These are excellent creature to have in a deck because they can work well both as underdrops or as aggressive creatures if the situation arises.

Creatures that enhance or are enhanced by other cards

There are creatures that have an effect on existing creatures or that trigger an effect when a new creature comes into play. These are one of the most powerful types of effects in the game and are the best and most consistent at mitigating level screw. Examples of cards like these are Weirwood Patriarch, Battle Techtician, Tarsus Deathweaver and the Shaper cycle. These are usually cards you want to prioritize leveling up because they can greatly mitigate lower level draws with their abilities. For example, If your opponent plays two level 2s: 10/10 and a 9/9 and you play a Darkshaper Savant and a Grave Geist, you can use the Darkshaper's trigger to make the 10/10 a 7/7. Now both of your cards can trade with your opponent's cards so the board is basically at parity even though you played a level 1 and 2 while your opponent played two level 2s.

Cards that affect multiple lanes

The cards referred to in the previous point are usually rare or heroic and are difficult to get in draft. Fortunately there are common options that have a similar effect: cards that affect multiple lanes. These are cards like Matrix Warden, Magma Hounds or Grove Huntress, which place a small creature in one lane and have an effect that can apply to another lane. The reason for why these cards are so effective is because it is very common to require just a little bit more damage to finish off a creature or to avoid getting a creature destroyed and these cards give that extra support. This means that they can increase the gain from a positive CLA by finishing off a creature and letting your threats stand unopposed, but at the same they can also reduce the effect of a negative CLA by allowing you to deal with two leveled cards with just three underleveled cards as opposed to having to use up four, which is usually the case.

Buffing or Debuffing Effects

Some cards have certain abilities like armour, regeneration or mobility, that make them almost immune to small creatures. In those cases having a powerful buff or a debuf spell in your deck is important so that you can combine them with a creature to take down the threat more effectively than continuously blocking it with multiple creatures. This is specially important in draft where there are hard to deal with bombs like Nightgaunt or Scrapforge Titan.

Ungated effects

An ungated effect refers to effects and abilities that can apply to any creature, regardless of their level. There are also soft leveled effects, which refer to cards that can affect a card that is one level higher than their level. These effects are very important because they can allow you to play underleveled cards but have an effect over a higher level creature on the board. There are a number of spells and creatures that have ungated effects, for example Glacial Crush, Shallow Grave, Borean Mystic, Oxidon Spitter, Jet pack, Uranti Icemage, etc. Some of these cards require specific conditions in order to work, like Glacial Crush, and are better suited for constructed where a deck can consistently create those conditions. Others, like Jet Pack, will work fine in any deck and are great in draft.

Synergistic Effects

There are a lot of cards that have powerful effects when used together. These types of cards can be used on level to immediately generate board advantage and to take advantage of positive CLA but they can also be used very effectively to mitigate a negative CLA. For example, Xrath's Will combined with Vyric's Embrace will be able to remove larger creatures and still allow playing a Zombie of any level. This allows a Zombie deck to focus the first few turns on leveling their end game cards like Zimus, the Undying, and still be able to make effective plays in the later turns by combining a Xarth's Will with a Vyric's Embrace.

4) Increase the odds of positive CLA.

Cards that level more cards

One of Alloyin's biggest strengths is access to cards that let you level more than one card when you play them. Examples of these are Technosmith, Metasight, Metatransfer and Synapsis Oracle, among others. The other factions also have cards that allow this, though those cards actually let you play the cards, not just level them so they can also count as part of the group of creatures that are enhanced by lower level cards. Examples of these are Master of Elements, the Frostwild Tracker and Soul Harvest. Obviously leveling up more cards increases the probabilities of seeing leveled up cards at later levels however, it should be noted that if you only level up one or two cards the probabilities don't increase that much so the probability of a bad draw won't go down noticeably unless you have a deck made up of many leveling up cards. The best way to take advantage of such cards is for strategies that want to go into the later levels and so it needs to have other cards that can stall aggressive decks.

Cards that Draw cards

Another Alloyin characteristic is to have cards that draw more cards. Card draw effects usually draw multiple cards and so they can actually give you a better chance of getting a good draw in the short term. Examples of these are Ghox, the Metamind Paragon, Metamind Adept, Metamind Overseer and Energy Surge. Constructed decks that take advantage of card draw always feel very consistent, but they are also slow and usually lack proper removal so they can be susceptible to fast aggression and utility creatures.

5) Be very Careful when playing spells.

Almost all spells in the game depend on at least one specific board condition: having targets. With the right target, a spell can be very powerful and can give immediate board advantage. Unfortunately, playing a spell usually means neglecting to level up another creature and this can mean that in the later turns you draw a spell as your leveled card and may find that you don't have the proper targets for it. This can deny the possible CLA that having an effective leveled up card would give. This also applies to creatures with powerful spell-like abilities but weak bodies.

6) Level the right cards

Knowing what card to play is often a very difficult choice to get right when playing Solforge, but its one of the things that makes a great player. During player level 1 you are given 4 turns to choose a total of 8 cards to level up and they will essentially draw your game plan for the rest of the game as they will usually be your best options to play during player level 2.

Sometimes the choice is clear cut because you can play a card that both levels up into a powerful threat and at the same time gives you a great board position at that moment. Other times you have to chose to take a hit on the board position in exchange for considerably improving your deck in future turns. Keeping a strong board position will give you more time to recover in case of a negative CLA, but leveling up strong threats will allow you to take better advantage of positive CLA so in each game you have to consider how aggressive your opponent's deck is, what cards you have already leveled up, what cards you have seen and won't be able to level up until the next player level, what cards you opponent has leveled up or could level up, etc. The answers to these questions change from deck to deck and even from game to game so I can't answer them here, but know that these are key questions to being able to deal effectively with card level advantage.

This is a good place to point out a common rookie mistake: Blocking with a level 3 card that is going to die when a level 2 card would be just as effective and also levels an additional card. Another related misconception is to be at player level 4 or beyond and end up playing mostly level 3 cards but to have them dealt with efficiently by a mix of level 2 and 3 cards from the opposing player, then enter the next level and find that you are drawing very poorly. In that case, its not bad luck, its the law of probabilities working normally because your opponent having leveled more cards will now be consistently drawing and playing level 3 cards while you won't.

7) Damage or board position?

When all you have is an underleveled hand and you are facing a leveled creature you have to consider two main options: placing your own creatures in other lanes while you wait to draw a hand with a creature that can deal with it and in the meantime take damage or blocking the creature with your weaker creatures to whittle it down and avoid taking while losing board position. If you have a lot of health and know that you are likely to draw a card than can block the threatening creature effectively, it can be convenient to leave the card unblocked and hope to draw better next turn. That also means that you get to block it on its attack, giving you a minor advantage when blocking (in case of pumps). However, if you are low on life or if you think the creature could get out of hand if you don't start blocking right now (or if you know you don't have very high power creatures) it could be better to block it immediately even though you will lose board position.

8) Take into account previously played and unplayed cards

A subtle but important consideration when playing in any given turn is to consider the cards that you have seen both in your hand and on the board. By keeping track of what cards have been in your hand, you know what the odds are of seeing any given future hands within the same player level and can take that into account when leveling. For example if on turn 3 you have card A and B which are both equally convenient to play and level, but you have seen card A twice before in your hand but never played it, then you should play card A because you certainly won't have another chance to level it this player level.

Similarly, by looking at what your opponent has played, you know what threats they have and you know if you need to be leveling up any cards that can deal with those threats or cards that they would have a hard time dealing with, given what they have leveled up. Playing with this information in mind goes a long way to both increase the advantage you can get from a positive CLA and to easily recover in the case of negative CLA.

Closing Comments

As you can see, card level advantage is a key gameplay element of Solforge and defines a large part of how decks are build and played. I also hope that this article has helped people realize just how many tools there are in Solforge to handle the effects of CLA, both positive and negative. I find CLA to be an extremely deep and exciting gameplay element, but its not without its problems; I believe that due to its random nature, it can confuse new player and fool them into thinking that the game is so luck dependent that its not possible to be successful through skill. I also believe that when CLA becomes to high, it causes frustration even among veteran players. In the second part of this article I will be going further into discussing these problems.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

First Blog

This is my blog site. I want to use this space to write about some of the topics that I'm passionate about: video games, board and card games, computers, movies, fatherhood, etc.