Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 : a pair of dirty cheaters

, | Game diaries

I started this article after finally downing Karn (the “final boss” of Duels of the Planeswalkers) for the first time. Karn’s deck is a brutal artifact deck that in the first game wiped my board with Steel Hellkite’s special ability. That was rough, but fair. The second game, Karn used both a Mox Sapphire and a Tinker. And I now had evidence that Karn was cheating.

After the jump, Karn is cheating. But now, so am I?

Both Tinker and Mox Sapphire are on the banned list for any modern format. Both are involved in powerful combos that can bring out huge creatures very early in the game. Wizards of the Coast, realizing that turn one kills are bad for the game, neutered the powerful decks that used these cards. Karn uses both of them to devastating effect, including one combination where he can bring out a Darksteel Collossus (http://gatherer.wizards.com/Pages/Card/Details.aspx?multiverseid=191312) on turn one. It is possible for a game against Karn to be essentially locked down before you ever play a land.

The question of a final boss in a collectible card game is an interesting one from a game design perspective. Given the random elements inherent in a game of Magic (mana screw, lucky draws, etc), how do you ensure that the player’s progression through the game is one of higher and higher challenge, especially considering the player is improving his own decks as he plays through the game?

One option is to seed the opening hands of stronger AI opponents to ensure that they get a good draw and start. While this does ensure a higher difficulty, it’s trivial for a player to notice over repeated matches that the computer is always playing an identical (and optimal) start. The random draw mechanic is one of the core parts of a collectible card game, and letting the computer bypass that handicap seems like breaking the game.

Another strategy is to handicap the AI at the early levels, only unleashing its full abilities when you reach the final bosses. This could work, but a developer runs the risk of the player feeling like they didn’t so much win their first few matches as the computer lost them by repeatedly playing bad card choices.

Stainless Games took a different strategy with Duels of the Planeswalkers. Instead of handicapping their game or their AI, they simply gave the most difficult opponents access to cards that Wizards of the Coast has deemed too dangerous for play by human players. This neatly mitigates the problem of a bad AI draw (if the AI can be back in the game in a single turn, then a bad starting hand is not nearly as troublesome), and allows the AI to be run at full strength. Karn takes advantage of both of these.

But I beat him. I used Gideon Jura’s white equipment deck and managed to pull a Stoneforge Mystic which went into my deck and grabbed my Argentum Armor. The game was mine from that point on. I was prepared to come here, gloat, and say that the only way that Wizards of the Coast could create a boss for this type of game was to have that boss cheat.

Then I read this. My Stoneforge Mystic was now illegal as well…

Karn’s visage taunted me. My victory was as hollow as as my pride. So I eased my conscience te only way I knew how. I went back and beat Karn again, this time with Jace’s blue deck. Counterspell may not be allowed in Standard anymore, but it’s still legal in vintage, and that distinction was enough for me.

Tomorrow, are planeswalkers actually characters?
Click here for the previous Duel of the Planeswalkers entry.

Before his last move, Wader had starter decks for 15 different collectible card games hidden in a box in his closet. After that move, the number is down to 3. He currently lives with his wife and sons in Washington, DC; and is pursuing a doctoral degree in Economics.