Eternal Card Game

The search for a digital card game

I’ve been a long time fan of Magic the Gathering, which is responsible for creating the whole trading card game genre in 1993. It is still the most popular game of it’s kind today, at least in physical paper form.

The online variant of Magic exists but has always been criticized for technical problems, poor interface and costing the same as the paper variant (i.e. a ton of money). It was still considered a success, until Blizzard came along and redefined what successful online collectible card game ment with Hearthstone. It is one of the most streamed game on Twitch, while, in comparison, MtG mostly attracts viewers with weekend paper events. It is also highly profitable.

Hearthstone is so polished and accessible that a lot of people who weren’t into the genre are now playing it every day. However, having given the game a try for a few weeks at multiple occasions, I missed the intricacies of MtG, especially not being able to interact on your opponent’s turn at all.

Since Magic paper events can be complicated to organize and attend, I was looking for a digital alternative. Hearthstone wasn’t cutting it, but its success inspired a lot of other similar games. I tried almost all of them: Pokemon, Solforge,  Magic Duels, The Elder Scrolls Legends (not to be confused with Scrolls, which I also tried), Hex and Faeria. It seemed to me that TES Legends and Faeria showed potential, but not enough to keep me firing the game week after week.

I’d almost given up when someone complaining about Magic Online told word of this game.

The online Magic-like done right

Like many other, Eternal is a mix between Magic and Hearthstone. Unlike the others though, it managed to, in my opinion, keep most of what is great in the two games without much compromise. It essentially plays exactly the same as Magic, almost without any simplification, while being just as streamlined as Hearthstone.

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The interface is essentially the same new simple standard introduced by Blizzard’s game. The gameplay however has most of the elements I love about Magic:

Instants

One of the greatest thing about Magic is the counter-play that occurs when both players have instant speed actions they are holding on because they fear instant speed answers from the opponent, such as when having Giant Growth against a possible Lightning Bolt.

Guess what:

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Fast spells are the equivalent of instants in Eternal. You can even have the exact situation I mentioned, because it seems the developers do not shy away from taking heavy inspiration.

Blocking

Attacks and block works like in Magic, again. You can even double or triple block. Because of this, a bunch of ground creature will lead to ground stall, but Flying, Overwhelm (trample) or combat tricks will get around that.

I much prefer this system to Hearthstone’s because it allows for small utility creatures that won’t immediately die and adds interaction while choosing blockers.

Power

You can play one Power card a turn which can be exhausted each turn to pay for cards. Power cards can give you Influence in a faction (color) and cards have Influence requirements.

The difference in gameplay this entails is that even if you have a single Fire Influence, you can play many cards in the same turn with a single Fire requirement, not just one as in Magic. It also allows for cards such as Sand Warrior, which costs 0 but requires 3 Time Influence, thus not allowing it to be played on turn 1, kinda like Serra Avenger, but without text.

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The use of power cards means that mana screw and mana flood are also a thing in Eternal, which is my main issue with the game right now. This is alleviated by the fact that games are longer and that the single allowed mulligan will always give you at least 2 power cards out of 7. There is also ample mana fixing available but few mana sinks.

Here are a few more differences with MtG:

  • Players start with 25 life.
  • Decks have a minimum of 75 cards.
  • Cards which lose or gain abilities (including stat changes) keep these changes while changing zone.

An accessible first impression

Starting to play Magic has never been so easy. Once you install and start the game, which is free-to-play and available on Steam, you start playing right away, without even creating an account.

The concepts of playing power and unit cards, and attacking with vanilla creatures is introduced in a guided game. Then you play a few more games where abilities such as flying are added, as well as spells. Five games and half an hour later, the Fire deck you’ve been playing has been added to your collection and you are asked to register an account.

Deckbuilding

A deck from all 5 factions can be earned this way by playing the campaign against AI opponents. You are then invited to face a gauntlet of AI opponents with the deck of your choice. I personally made an army of blue and black flyers backed up by stuns and kill spells.Deckbuilder.jpg

Deckbuilding was a bit confusing at first because I didn’t understand how many of each card I owned and I couldn’t adjust my Power cards, especially to add these sweet dual faction powers. By default, the game takes care of power card invisibly, but this can be turned off in the options.

Going through the gauntlet is always free and will give you a few rewards each time, about 1000 coins worth in less than an hour if you win all matches, which will also give you a booster pack.

Monetization

Many rewards are thrown at you as you try all the modes, including cards, decks, boosters, coins and crafting material. From many reports, it seems that the game can be grinded quite fast without paying much, by playing Gauntlet, or being successful in Ranked and Draft modes.

Booster Packs

These are about a dollar each if you want to buy some, but you will open a lot of them whether you pay or not.

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Each pack contains 8 commons (grey), 3 uncommons (green) and a rare or legendary card. Extra copies beyond the 4 cards allowed in a deck can be automatically turned into Shiftstone.

Crafting

To obtain particular rare or legendary cards more efficiently than cracking open tons of packs, the game does not allow you to trade, but rather uses Shiftstone to craft the card you want.

After playing for a long day, I’ve already got over 2000 of it, enough to craft 2 rares (800 each)  or 20 uncommons (100 each). The game indicates that I’ve got 48% of my common playsets and 29% of my uncommon playsets, so I think you can safely keep the recycling material to craft rare and legends while hoping to obtain the less rare cards soon.

Speaking of rarities, it seems that competitive decks include a lot of cheap cards, not just rares. Staple cards are often uncommons, and legendaries fill very small niches. There are even pretty good budget decks consisting of no rares at all.

Conclusion

The gameplay and cards of Eternal already offer a lot of neat interactions with a single set. The design of the interface is very intuitive and effective. It’s truly the Magic clone with a Hearthstone coat I’ve been waiting for. The game won’t ask for all your money and seems to strike a nice balance by offering people with more free time the chance to play for free and for more busy people the option to buy into competitive decks.

It remains to be seen if the game won’t end up collecting dust on my desktop like TES Scrolls and Faeria, but my history with Magic suggests otherwise.

Card images from Numot, which is one of the greatest Eternal ressource.

 

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Building an airplane from scratch

I’ve been watching all of the videos on the Primitive Technology YouTube channel and it made me realize how much we take for granted with all our modern tools and materials.

It turns out cutting wood, boiling water and drilling holes takes a lot of preparation and effort when you are starting from what’s available in the woods. This guy is playing Minecraft in real life and it turns out that punching trees and crafting an axe takes more then just a click.

Right now, he’s up to experimenting with bows and arrows, making charcoal and building his clay hut.

But it made me wonder: how high can you go up the tech tree with modern knowledge but prehistoric means?

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Basically, if you were to be transported to pre-human earth, but with access to the internet, fed and lodged, how far along our technological history would someone be able to get?

There are a lot of miscellaneous technologies that would be challenging to construct, but I am in particular talking about technologies that enable other ones. Transistors and other electronics are powerful, but maybe out of reach. Here’s what would be great challenges:

  • Quality metals from minerals, such as steel. Metalworking seems like an essential building block.
  • Engine, working with steam and combustible at first, maybe oil later on.
  • Electrical circuits with current sources, resistances,etc. Maybe an electric motor, battery or a light bulb. You have to manufacture your own copper cables, wielders and other tools.
  • Explosives require quality chemical processes and can be used in a few applications such as mining. Dangerous though.
  • Low temperature control such as a refrigerator.
  •  Cement to provide good footholds and withstand high temperatures.
  • Rubber for tires and gasket seals.
  • An airplane

The airplane seems like a very good terminal target. Something that can get a person off the flat ground and keep it up there for a few minutes. It requires light but strong materials and energy sources. It is well defined and won’t work if the technology hasn’t reached a threshold. It also seems like something a single person could possibly learn to do and execute, unlike some stuff seen only a little later, such as the atomic bomb.

I can think of a major caveat though. Some natural ressources are do not have the same availability everywhere. Surface coal, oil and minerals would help a lot but are probably rare by now.

Anyhow, seeing how much I learnt just looking at prehistoric tech, it would be amazing to learn all there is to know about enabling technologies up to approximately World War 1. Definitely something that would be worth blogging about.

Even cooler would be a speedrun of being the fastest to build the airplane. If it’s possible, a competition would probably make us learn a lot about efficiency.

Strong AI and biodiversity

Before reading this, you should be familiar with the concept of AI explosion, singularity, ASI, AGI, Strong AI, or whatever you want to name it. Basically, many experts agree that, in the near future, artificial intelligence (AI) will be better then humans at everything.

While this might sound far-fetch, let me emphasis that this is more likely than science-fiction movie makes it sound.

AI is already much better at chess, indexing the internet, and many other task. Yesterday, AI confirmed the world that it has pretty much mastered Go. When the day comes that AI can do anything the human brain does, we will have achieved Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). AGI doesn’t mean it’s as good as an human though. It means I can do everything somewhat as well as humans do or better, and computer are already much better then us in terms of memory and calculation power.

At this point, we might not clearly be the lesser specie. After all we have bodies and the power to unplug the AI, right? But when we hit AGI, that means the AI will be able to write good software, including it’s own. We have a good chance to witness a cycle of software that will rewrite itself to be better at rewriting itself, and so on, until the AI isn’t just human-level at worst, but miles ahead of us in every cognitive domain.

The whole process is explained in detail in Our Final Invention. That book also makes a pretty clear point that sharing the planet with an incredibly more advanced intelligence is a dangerous prospect, even if we are its creator.

The problem is centered about goals. Or, I should say, the goal. In the end, rational beings try to take action towards a central goal, or utility function. We try to get as much utility as possible out of our ressources.

Say you want to win a chess tournament. Everything you do will be centered around this. There is not only the act of playing each game to victory, you’ll also have to practice. You’ll have a new goal before the tournament, to practice as much as possible. This is an instrumental goal. You will focus your ressources on practicing as mush as possible, so long as it doesn’t interfere too much with other instrumental goals, such as staying in healthy bodily shape by eating right and sleeping. You created a web of sub-goals to your big goal in order to better focus and optimize each aspect

In real life, even that big goal of winning the chess tournament is an instrumental goal. You are doing it to gain social recognition, to exert your brain, to prove to yourself that you can become a better person in some aspect. What do you want in the end? You want to pass your genes, or at least, the overall system of evolution creates that objective of passing genes to the next generation. You might not only think about procreating, but that’s what your genes have the pressure to do. Genes influence you to have to will to survive, to reproduce yourself and to help other do the same. All instrumental goals serving the master goal of evolution.

The same goes for AI, but AI has a goal set by the programmer. And for any optimization task, such as collecting many stamps, a general smart AI will probably create these instrumental goals:

  1. Become as good as possible at doing the task, e.i. upgrading it’s intelligence.
  2. Avoid being disabled in some way
  3. Getting access to as much ressources as possible

And it turns out that killing humans is a good way to advance objective #2 and #3, while #1 makes it much more likely to succeed in doing so. With enough forethought, we could give it the double objective of collecting stamps without killing anyone, but AI might behave unpredictably even with this instruction… Nevermind the fact the the army is already killing people with learning drones and that the biggest players on the stock market are advanced self-improving AI, with the objective of maximizing their wallets.

The situation looks dire, but here’s an idea I haven’t heard about.

Instrumental goal: biodiversity

We humans like to protect fellow mammals because they pass our genes in some way, but we like to protect all species for an other good reason: science.

Biodiversity is key for many aspects of research and development. Without this rat, we would have one fewer clues in our fight against cancer. Without any flying animal such as birds, humans probably would have gotten the idea of human flight later. Tons of good idea come from studying nature.

Imagine for an instant that we discover lesser intelligent life on Mars, some kind of martian cavemen, very different from us. These guys would be the most interesting ever to study, and not only their corpses. Some experiments only work if they are alive, in vivo experiments. Moreover, there would be a lot of things to learn from their social behavior, and even more from their civilization. All this knowledge could boost our science advancement a lot. Imagine if they developed an incredibility more efficient language than us to communicate with each other. No matter the subject, studying advanced complexity is a really good way to do science.

Even if these cavemen had nuclear weapons pointed at the Earth, and even if Mars ressources would be very useful, we would think twice before doing great harm to these aliens. No scientist would give up the opportunity to study them further, as long as the risk is worth it.

A strong AI would probably be very scientifically minded, and it turns out we might be the most interesting in the galaxy to study. Then, I would argue that until AI knows everything there is to know about us, it would be very counter-productive for it to harm us.

We are probably a good source of ideas for stamp production.

Creating the best format

Magic the Gathering is a very appealing game, with multiple facets to please multiple demographics. Some like the collectability, some the competition. For others, creating decks is a mean of expression. The social aspect, with the shared experiences and discussions is what many enjoy the most without realizing it. Usually, it’s a mix of all of that.

Magic can also bring a lot of negative emotions. Here are my main gripes, things that push me away from the game periodically:

  1. It’s a quite expensive game, where it’s more likely then not that you won’t be able to play your deck next year for multiple reasons. Standard rotates, modern gets bannings and good luck getting games going in legacy in most locations.
  2. Playing the same deck over and over can get stale, and buying more decks is once again expensive.
  3. Games can be quite non-interactive or very one sided. The issue is compounded by the fact that a game of Magic is quite long. It’s not uncommon to spend almost 2 hours on two rounds where your engagement with the game is at the bottom of the barrel. And don’t forget these “whose turn is it?” moments in multiplayer.
  4. Magic features a game around the game: deckbuilding. Even when you have no one to play with, you can create decks on your own for the next event. Except that netdecks are better then anything you could come up with, only leaving you with the choice of which budget alternative to pick from.

Let me preface by explaining the angle I’ll be covering here. I’m someone mainly interested in playing a strategy game with other people. My time and money are limited, and I realized that the MtG stockmarket isn’t an efficient use of neither my time or money. The fact that some of my cards are very rare or very expensive doesn’t bring me a lot of satisfaction compared to using them in a game and the thought that I’ll be able to use these cards to have a lot of fun for multiple years to come.

So while Magic provides a very good base game with tons of exciting cards, it seems issues are bundled in the package. Let’s discuss these issues one by one, and see if they are impossible to separate from the game:

Price and money

It takes money to create a good game. Wizards of the Coast provided us with thousands of cards over the last decades, and in exchange we gave them lots of dollars. We would like to keep having new cards, and that means the money needs to continue.

However, creating cards is not that expensive, not when you compare to the amount of dedicated players (tens of thousands) and the amount that each of them spends. Hasbro grosses a billion every few years with this franchise, mainly due to the monopolistic nature of patent laws and gaming communities. The point is that, even if there is a huge decrease in spending from the global community, as long as the game is popular, there will always be enough money to keep R&D running.

The real monetary concern is about the local community. The core of most playgroups is a local gaming store (LGS). These local shops provide a few things:

  • A space to play the game
  • A place to buy sealed products and singles
  • A landmark for Magic players to find each other
  • Exposition of the game to non-players
  • Event organisation

All of this requires effort and investment, and decreasing your spending could impact these.

Netdecks and solved metagame

Deckbuilding is a very enjoyable component in most players’ early Magic “career”. However, at some point, one discovers that the internet is a great ressource. Tournaments happen worldwide using the same rules, and many people collectively spend thousands of hours figuring out what are the best decks.

This makes deckbuilding a futile endeavor unless you have the time and experience to effectively be better than the collective, something that’s usually reserved to pro teams and that mostly happens when there is a big shift in the card pool(new set, rotation, banlist update).

The issue here is that while the problem of “figuring out what the best deck is” for a given card pool is a complicated one, it still doesn’t take more than a few million brain*hours. With thousands of brains, the problem is solved within weeks, and the metagame is determined, leaving little space for further exploration of deck ideas. I’d argue that this issue is inherent to any format with a fixed card pool and a large number of players.

Thus, two obvious solutions are to either have a fast changing card pool such as having new sets often or limited formats (draft), or have a local format played by fewer players. Both of these solutions have problematic side-effects: either you can’t play your deck for many event due to a changing pool, or you could have trouble finding someone to play against due to a low number of players. The best of both worlds would be to have a strong local group, and to keep the format to this group.

Non-games, low interactivity and wasted time

You want to play the game. Ideally, you should have some high impact decisions like taking a mulligan, or edging your bets in a game-ending move. You should also have a multiple minor decisions in a long game, like choosing how to scry, choosing to play Urza’s Mine instead of Urza’s Tower first, etc. Most importantly, you should have a high enough density of these decisions. And lastly, we  need to minimize the long periods without any meaningful decision. Multiplayer formats usually mean that your turn comes up less often, and since many decision are in your turn, the decision density is lower.

Most of these parameters are very dependent on the deck you choose, but the goal of a format would be to promote high-decision decks, while keeping some low-decision decks viable. The best cards and decks in the format should promote heavy interaction and nuanced decisions, but easier to play decks are desirable to introduce new players. Top decks should also promote healthy mana-bases, with 2-3 colors and utility lands, to avoid non-games caused by mana screw/flood. Degenerate combos that win 100% of the time, with little decision, when you draw the right cards can be alright, but only when you draw these cards less then 40% of the time, meaning you’d get lucky wins, but would have a hard time winning a tournament.

Goals of the best constructed format

In summary, here are the main things the ideal format would do:

  1. Be cheap in order to avoid having to play the MtG stock market, spending all your time looking for trades, becoming poor; and also be able to afford multiple decks at once.
  2. Be popular only locally in order to be able develop the metagame without the answers always coming from the internet.
  3. Have a card pool that evolves into a mostly balanced and skillful meta.

One format is very close to hitting all these targets: Pauper. It is one of the only format that is relatively cheap, and the meta is quite diverse, especially since Cloud of Faeries has been banned.

However, net decking can still be an issue, it is a well established meta on MTGO. The card pool being all common means that only out of 5 000 out of 15 000 cards are available, somewhat limiting the possibilities, especially when you consider that most of the splashy effects are reserved to higher rarity cards.

Pauper is great, but might be improved. Or at least sidegraded.

In term of card selection, the hardest thing is to only mostly allow cheap cards. Pauper achieves this by only allowing commons, but around 95% of all cards are worth under 10$, and 90% under 5$. Thus, if price is the main goal, let price be the criteria. I propose a format where only cards under X dollars are allowed. If this creates at first a degenerate format, just ban cards until it works, like they did in modern.

While this could potentially create a better cheap format then Pauper, there are 3 main issues, all of them logistical ones.

  1. No one plays that format, you won’t find opponents. You’ll need to convince your playgroup to build decks, only usable with your playgroup. This requires many people to have confidence in the project.
  2. Prices are quite volatile, the list of available cards would change every day.
  3. There is no easy way to know if a card is banned or not. You need to check each price manually or refer to a very long banlist.

There is no easy way around issue #1, you’ll need to put the work and introduce people to your format, planning events and having a lot of available time to make it worth it to people.

Banlist issues are a bit irritating, but nothing that information technologies cannot solve. First, the banlist doesn’t need to be updated every day. An update every few months would allow the format to remain cheap despite price spikes. This low frequency update is required to prevent decklist to shift from legal to illegal every other day.

Second, this means that people can’t simply check vendor websites to figure out legality, you need to provide an easily accessible ban list, locally and online. An online tool to enter a decklist and check the legality would also be nice.

And off I go to check out card prices and construct a banlist!

That concludes my gripe about how expensive MtG is. If you have an idea for an other great format, comment below!

Why are fetchlands so good?

Many Magic the Gathering players ask the question:

What’s so great about fetchlands?

Image of the 5 Khans fetchlands

Standard is more expensive then ever. A big part of this cost is associated with fetchlands, this cycle of rare lands reprinted in Khans of Tarkir. Around 10 to 12 of these are played in each tournament winning decks.

Running 20-30 dollars each, these will set your wallet back about 250$ for your average deck. Many players already invested money in these staples of eternal formats, but others, especially newcomers, face a though choice: pay the money, or find budget substitutes.

The issue compounded by the fact that fetches aren’t too exciting the first time you read them.

“I lose 1 life to get a choice of two lands? How is that card more expensive than Ulamog or Ob Nixilis?”

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So, what is it that makes fetches so much better than run-of-the-mill dual lands?

1. They are untapped mana-sources

There is a clear distinction to be made between lands that enters the battlefield tapped and those who do not.

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Most decks have the game plan of playing something that costs 1 on the first turn, something that costs 2 on the second turn and so on. “Curving out” as some call it. While multi-color lands allow you to play a greater variety of cards, it is almost never worth it to play all your spells one turn behind.

People often play 4 or fewer tapped lands. This allow you to play them when you have an extra mana to spare, which often happens on the first turn or some time in the first few turns. However, you rarely want to be forced to play your high-cost spell a turn later because they are your only land choice, and as such they should be used sparingly.

Many aggressive decks play no tapped lands at all, because they have turn 1 plays and must use their mana very effectively.

Because of all these reasons, tapped lands are very often outclassed by lands that do not enter tapped. They usually are a last resort when no better options are available. In bigger formats, where there is more choice for lands, tapped lands are very rarely used.

2. They can fetch non-basic lands with basic lands types

Fetchlands historically have been very good at getting more than the two colors of mana that we associate them with. When used with the original dual lands or Ravinca shocklands, they can potentially produce mana of any color.

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The new dual lands from Battle for Zendikar can also be fetched. Since only allied color duals are available for now, fetchlands can only get 4 colors. Still very good. It is however a bit complicated to sequence properly when you need two basics.

In terms of color-fixing, fetchlands are almost as good as City of Brass or Mana Confluence in most cases, but much more pain-free, especially in longer games.

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3. They trigger landfall twice

Decks that use the landfall mechanic such as the popular aggro RG landfall list or Bant Tokens with Retreat to Emeria rely on fetchlands to double the effects. These decks are not competitive otherwise.

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4. They fill your graveyard

Some cards want you to have lands in your graveyard. Fetchlands are very easy to put in your graveyard. If your deck has cards like that, you absolutely need fetchlands.

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5. They can shuffle your library

Fetchlands have a very good incidental interaction with cards that allow you to know the top of your library such as Brainstorm, Delver of Secrets and Courser of Kruphix, basically allowing you to scry bad cards to the bottom.

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6. They thin your deck a little bit

I only mention this for the sake of completion, but fetchlands have the potential to draw you an extra spell or two during very long games. This aspect is often overrated, and is mostly a consideration for decks that have nothing to do with more then 3 lands, such as Burn. Nevertheless, is it a nice incidental advantage to draw an extra spell every few games.

Conclusion

Fetchlands are essential when:

  • You are playing 2 colors and they are one of the few untapped lands available (such as BFZ or KTK Standard)
  • You are playing more than 2 colors and fetchable duals are available (such as BFZ standard and all bigger formats)
  • You play with landfall
  • You play with delve or other cards that care about your graveyard being full.

Fetchlands are nice when:

  • You can see the top of your deck (such as any blue Legacy deck since they all play Brainstorm)
  • You don’t mind paying 4 life for, maybe, an extra spell instead of a land (Burn)

I hope this helps you justify paying all this money for boring lands. Bear in mind that if Magic is a long term hobby for you, fetchlands are probably the cards you own that will see the most play.

If you have any question or comments, use the space below.