Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dominion: World Championships

Earlier this evening I played two games of Dominion (using cards from the new Hinterlands expansion) while watching the Magic: The Gathering World Championships final. Here are some thoughts on Magic, Dominion and the Magic World Championships.

Dominion was the first of the recent trend of deck building games, but it has its roots in games like Magic. Dominion is basically an open draft of cards, using resources and actions from the deck one is actively constructing to best draft the winning deck (with the most victory points). If draft environments create the most even playing fields for similarily-experienced players in Magic, then Dominion is even more fair, as every player is aware of which cards are available at the beginning of each game. However, the metagame of the Magic World Championship is not an even playing field.

Ideally, for constructed play in Magic the metagame should be full of threats, answers to those threats and further answers to those first answers. These threats and answers can be deck archetypes or can be single- or multi-card combinations that can be used in multiple decks. Imagine these threats and answers and answers to answers work something like the game rock-paper-scissors. The key to be successful in a tournament is to figure out the metagame, which can become a matter of trying to outguess what people will be playing. Usually in a given overall metagame (the format of Worlds is standard, so the last two years worth of card sets are playable, over a thousand individual cards) there will be a deck or decks that are particularily strong. Let's say there is one deck and call it "rock." Ideally, in a healthy environment, there will be a solid strategy against rock, embodied in a deck we will call "paper."

Initially with these two decks, deciding on what to play would be determined on what is likely to be played. If the tournament was dominated by rock, then it would be best to play paper. However, as most players know this going in, they may decide to play paper instead of rock. However, if most of them play paper, then playing paper is pointless because it is meant to fight rock. A match of two paper decks would be what is called a mirror match and would be determined more by chance (cards drawn) than anything else. Add to this a deck we will call scissors, which is the answer to paper and the analogy is complete. Scissors will do well against paper, but will not do very well against rock. However, if the pairings are favorable and enough paper decks are played, then scissors may do very well. Add onto this that players have to decide which deck they will play with before entering the tournament and cannot change their mind once they have decided, and you can see how the dynamics in a tournament can work.

Granted, the rock-paper-scissors analogy is overly simplistic. At any given time in an environment there may be multiple decks that could be considered rock (Team Channel-Fireball thought it was Tempered Steel going into Worlds, as four members of the team played exactly the same deck going into the Top 8), and each of those decks may have an answer and each of those decks. . . and so on. The reality of many recent world championships (in Magic and other games) is that there is one dominant deck that really does outperform everything else and does not seemingly have an answer. While that was not the case in this year's Magic World Championships (with the possible exception of Tempered Steel going into the Top 8), it has been true in the past with the Psychatog deck in 2002, Faeries in 2008, and recent world championships for Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer: Invasion.

Even so, the rock-paper-scissors analogy is a good one for what a healthy environment should look like. Variety is good in an environment. It makes things more interesting.

One of the selections of cards that I played with in one of my Dominion: Hinterlands games had an interesting balance of cards. The selection included Trader, a response action that played as an action trashes a card and allows the player to gain a number of Silver equal to the cost of the card trashed. (Silver is a treasure card worth 2 coins, used to buy more cards.) Another card was Noble Brigand, which can effectively steal Silver and Gold (worth 3 coins) off of opponents' decks. Noble Brigand makes buying Silver and Gold undesirable early in the game, while normally getting these two treasure cards is usually a good strategy. However, it turns out that Trader works so quickly, converting other cards into Silver, playing Noble Brigand isn't fast enough to catch up. If we applied the rock-paper-scissors model to this situationl, if buying Silver early in the game is "rock," then Noble Brigand is "paper" and Trader is "scissors." (Trader isn't as good as just buying Silver in many instances, because it requires buying other more expensive cards and converting them to Silver, which takes more time than just buying multiple Silvers early and buying high-victory point cards.)

In the finals of the Magic World Championships, it was clear going in (decklists were available) which player had the strongest deck. (Reflected in the World Champions 3-0 victory in the best of five match.) In my game of Dominion: Hinterlands, my opponent took advantage of the Silver-producing Trader engine, and I tried to counter with Noble Brigand. However, as noted above, Trader outran Noble Brigand and my opponent had a well-earned victory.