Hearthstone Arena 3: A priestly taste of frozen thrones

Knights of the Frozen Throne is out, and I tried my hand at Arena for my first two runs.

Both of them were Priest, and I went 3-3 and 1-3, so not a good start. Here´s my first impressions

New cards I played

Necrotic Geist

I played with and against this in 5 games, and in 4 of them it produced major value and board presence. If played into a double trade situation you can basically force your opponent into killing it or face an army of replicating 2/2s. Not bad, but a little clunky.

Devour Mind

A bit weaker version of Cabalist´s Tome. I think it´s weaker because the variance is greater. On the other hand, you learn about 10% of your opponent´s total cards, which is valuable. Write them down, always.

Embrace Darkness

Horrible Card, as expected. The 4 mana discount off of Mind Control is not worth the pile of disadvantages this brings: It does nothing the turn you play it, it can be silenced before it goes off, your opponent can trade the minions away, and when you finally get it, it has summoning sickness. This last one kills the card, and I think you should avoid drafting it.

Tomb Lurker

You will find yourself in a situation where you topdeck this and think “Hmm, which deathrattle guys died this game?”. This is basically a late game card, because on-curve it loses to 2-drops and there is little chance for deathrattlers to die beforehand. Value-wise this should be okay if it triggers, even if you only get a Mistress of Mixtures or something.

Grim Necromancer

Filler card, Pick it if you must, but it´s nothing special. See Dragonling Mechanic

New neutral cards I played against

Bone Mare

A nightmare! This is one of the cards I expected to shake up arena play, and so far I´m not disappointed. 9/9 worth of stats, half of which has Charge and Taunt? Sign me up.

This is very similar to Firelands Portal in terms of value and tempo gained. You can go from one weak minion on the board to two threatening ones with only 7 mana.

Right now, Heartharena is not yet updated, but I suspect this will be above 90 points, which is really high for a neutral common.

Cobalt Dragonscale

5/5 for 5 is always playable, and if this triggers it´s a big pile of stats. And the opponent is forced to trade into the buffed minion. Good card.

Bone Drake

6/5 for 6 and drawing a card seems strong. With this and Cobalt Dragonscale, I am wondering if the dragon density is high enough for the Dragon Gamble  in Priest draft :take a medium strength dragon such as Midnight Drake or Faerie Dragon early in the draft, to try and get Drakonid Operative / Netherspite Historian going.
Just an idea at the moment, probably a bad idea.

By itself, this card is obviously good value.

Mindbreaker

This seems decent and reminds me of Saboteur, 7 worth of stats for 3 mana and locking out the next hero power use of your opponent. Just make sure you can trade it away or work without your own hero power on the next turn.

Corpse Raiser

Also a strong card. This is somewhat similar to giving a minion divine shield before trading it. I think playing this on curve and simply trading 4-mana guys is actually really strong.

Class cards encountered

The class cards I encountered so far were nothing special.

Doomerang seems okay until you realize that you have to play weapon cards, most of which are bad.

Druid Of The Swarm might be good, 1/5 aggro stopper or soft removal in the late game.

Runeforge Haunter seems pointless. Again, do we really want to draft Weapon Rogue? 🙂

Breath of Sindragosa might be strong, it kills many 2- and most 1-drops. Need more data.

First thoughts on the Meta

My first impression of the meta is that again, long term value play is rewarded. Between the Taunts and the new lifesteal mechanic going for an aggressive strategy seems risky.

 

Hearthstone Arena 2: Arcane Intellect is a bad card!

Pyroblast is a real card nowadays.

Last time, I said that I am having more fun and success in Arena since Standard Arena was established, here´s why:

Philosophy: The long game

My favourite win condition is actually Fatigue, it means that I have managed to beat all of the 30 cards in your deck with all of mine.

Assuming that both players survive the early to mid game, let´s say to turn 7. Now it becomes a matter of

  • a) bringing your opponent to 0 with a swift push (this usually means they have run out of answers / have mismatching answers to your threats). It often means that you have to take a risk (but the reward is the game)
  • b) grinding away the card in their hand so that you can leverage inefficient value spending to gain complete board control. At this point, the risk becomes minimized, since you only have to fear their next topdeck card, which often is just a river crocolisk.
  • c) Play the value game to the bitter end. Lure out their answers with your threats. Portion out your threats in a manner that prevents the opponent from gaining too much value, but also try not to get tempo-ed out.

The last one is my favourite style, but it requires careful planning and is not possible with every deck.

For example, if you look at all of your remaining cards, there should be sufficient answers left to deal with multiple big threats (Bog Creeper and similar road blocks.). If you only have one *hard* removal and your opponent has 15 cards left in their deck, chances are that you will have to deal with more than one big threat.

In this case it´s often not wise to enforce the long game.

This is especially true against Priest and Paladin, they have many cards that provide value in addition to being large threats, not so much against Rogue or Mage (Warrior and Druid have lots of fat ones as well, but are currently severely underrepresented).
Against Rogue, going for the option b) is usually the best way, as they often grind down their own life total, and you can find a window of opportunity to just kill them.
Conversely, depending on your own class, Mage can sometimes burn you out over two turns, from life totals as high as 18.
Pyroblast is a real card nowadays.

With the classes I am comfortable with (Paladin, Priest, Mage, Rogue), I will usually try to keep an answer in hand that catches the worst-case card my opponent could have.
For example, keeping a silence effect against Spikeridged Steed, or a hard removal for Mind Control.

Drafting Mage

So what does all of this mean for our draft? Let´s take Mage as an example.

Mage has the most (and sometimes best) removal/answers of all the classes, but it does not have many really good threats in it´s class cards. Water Elemental at common and Steam Surger at rare are the only “win condition” type minions for the class. The rest is removal, decent minions and card generation.

“Win condition”? I consider any minion of 4/5 and above to be a win condition. Smaller minions are usually just ground up in the trenches and seldomly do more than trade 1:1 or chip away 3 HP and then get caught in mass removal.

For our Mage draft, this means that we will have a plethora of removal and we need to get our win conditions from the neutral cards. Sturdy minions like Nesting Roc, Frost Elemental and Sated Threshadon are some of the things that we need.

Any card that doubles as removal and win condition is gold, if we can make it work (in the rare slot, Spiked Hogrider, Servant of Kalimos and Steam Surger are good examples.)

If you can make the Elemental deck work, do it, it´s a good option.

Card draw is bad, card generation is good

And here´s the big one: Card draw is bad. Arcane Intellect is not a good card. I will often pick a supposedly “weaker” card, and am happy with that.

The card does actually nothing. It is negative tempo. It reduces your deck size (fatigue is real), it means that you only have 29 real cards to beat your opponents 30.
So the only effect that it has is providing us with more options.

When playing Mage, I will often have six or more cards in hand. In which situation do we want to play Arcane Intellect (or Acolyte of Pain, or Gnomish Inventor)?

In the early game, when we need the tempo? Can´t afford 3 mana to spin the wheel for random cards.

In the very late game? When we are starting to hover the mouse over both decks to see who will fatigue first?

I would often rather have a vanilla minion than this.

Of course, not all card draw is bad. Excessive, repeatable card draw sometimes provides so many options that we can intentionally bleed value in bad trades because we know that it drains our opponent faster. Cult Master is an example

Card generation on the other hand, is king. Stonehill Defender, even if it only fetches you a mediocre card like Stegodon, provides additional value beyond your 30 cards. (A 1/4 Taunt is the additional value, not the discovered card, because we would not play Silverback Patriarch by itself.). You can also hit the jackpot (Soggoth).

Two more specific exceptions:

Arcanologist

Arcanologist is actually a good card (if we have a secret in the deck), despite what I said above.
On-curve, it provides us a 3-drop (not optimal, but sometimes Mirror Entity is enough). We also know which card we will draw, which is often important when planning mid-game turns. It thins the deck out of secrets so that we have a marginally increased chance to draw answers or threats later.

Bright-Eyed Scout

This is a wonderfully designed card, in what allows you to do:

On turn 4, it is a below-average minion, but it draws you a card that you can play on-curve in turn 5.

On 9&10 mana it guarantees that you draw a card that you are guaranteed to play.

Sometimes it produces a sick tempo advantage for turn 5. The times where you draw a 4 or less cost card are not too bad either. Just imagine that you drew the next card instead, at some point you can just chuck out the bad 5.

Knights of the Frozen Throne

Looking at the currently spoiled cards, Coldwraith seems to be the onlyMage common card yet, its a Spider Tank with upside, so we auto-pick it if no top tier cards are present.

Ice Walker seems like a good rare, it can protect itself and might get out of control.

Cobalt Scalebane (5/5 for 5, at end of turn give a random friendly +3 attack) might be the new best friend of all the good 3- and 4-mana taunts.

Bone Mare (5/5, Battlecry give another minion +4/+4 and Taunt, for 7 mana) seems like a really sick card, and it´s a neutral common. This card will wreck you so many times.

So far, nothing super-fast is spoiled, so for now, the long game might be safe.

Winter is coming in mid-August, brace yourselves. 🙂
– Rane2k out.

Hearthstone Arena Master – Part 1

So, let´s talk about Hearthstone Arena for a bit.
The title is of course a bit tongue-in-cheek, I am not an arena master, but Slightly Above Average does not sound so exciting.
So, “Master” it is. 🙂

In March, Arena was switched from Wild to Standard, and the distribution of draft cards was adjusted (more rares and epics, less neutral basics).

At first, I was skeptical about this change, as I have grown quite fond of some of the older cards, and I do not have the card pool to play Wild in Constructed.
But it turned out to be rather fun, more so than before.
In April, Journey To Un’Goro was released, which rotated out The Grand Tournament, Goblins vs. Gnomes, The League Of Explorers and Blackrock Mountain.

Since then, I have experienced a remarkable rise in success in Arena. Which means I have gained more gold from my Arena runs, which allows me to play more Arena, which gives me opportunity to get better at Arena.

Power is its own reward.

During Mean Streets Of Gadgetzan (Early December to early April), I have managed to get to 12 wins exactly one time (with Warrior). In contrast I managed to crack the 12 wins since the beginning of April seven times by now.

I am sitting on an average of 5 wins per run, which is decent, it allows me to be pseudo-infinite (I can play about X arenas per week, as long as I also complete the quests.)

My personal pick order is this:

  1. Paladin (Easy to play, very strong)
  2. Mage (Medium difficulty, very strong)
  3. Rogue (Hard to play, very strong)
  4. Priest (Easy and fun to play, not as strong)
  5. Shaman/Hunter (Depends on my mood)
  6. Warrior/Druid/Warlock (I have personally given up on these. Maybe next expansion.)
So let met share some of my thoughts on this format, before the next one starts. starting with:

Aggro is dead.

The reason for this is twofold.

For one, many of the good two-drops, as well as some good one-drops (Zombie Chow, Clockwork Gnome) have left the format.

This hit decent neutral minions (Gilbin Stalker, Annoy-O-Tron, Boneguard Lieutenant, Flame Juggler, Haunted Creeper, Huge Toad etc.) as well as several class-minions.

None of these cards is required to make an aggro archetype work, but the sum of available 2-drops has been reduced by a lot.
It is often not possible to fill out a good aggro curve, a critical mass is missing.

This means that it is often hard to make an aggro curve work, where you go 1-drop, 2-drop, 3-drop, Yeti and have almost won.

Some classes are hit harder than others by this. Hunter for example has many good 2-drops left.
But here, we enter the second major change, which might stop you even if you managed to make a nice curve deck:

Taunts

I think this is the most significant change. Many good Taunt cards have been released in the last two sets.

They can be separated into two tiers:
Decent neutral Taunt cards that are available to everyone:

Nesting Roc, Stegodon, Giant Mastodon, Ancient Of Blossoms, Tar Creeper, Stubborn Gastropod, as well as the ones that were available before, Senjin, Bog Creeper, etc.

Then there are the  really good neutral ones:
Stonehill Defender (Especially in Paladin and Shaman decks), and Primordial Drake
And the crazy class cards, Spikeridged Steed, Grimestreet Protector, Tortollan Shellraiser
This means several things. As mentioned above, board centric aggro decks have a hard time.
A turn three Tar Creeper can stop the classic 1-2-3 tempo push within a single card.
Similarly, breaking through a Spikeridged Steed is not impossible, but it´s basically as if your opponent has gained at least 12 HP and dealt a bunch of damage to your guys.

 

Fun and interaction

This creates an interesting interplay between these components: High-HP Taunts, Silences, Poison minions (two relevant ones are new, plus the Adapt cards), Hard removal and mass-trades.

I think this is far more exciting than turn 6 wins via tempo and win-more cards.

I have split this up into multiple parts, as I have a hard time sorting these thoughts into a consistent narrative.
In part two, I will talk a bit about my personal strategy and maybe some of the classes.

 

Sometimes you just have to get lucky ^^
– Rane2k out.

A game that plays itself

First, revivify your brain with some rad video game music, click the little triangle button to make delicious sounds spring forth from your computer´s speakers:

Recently, I pledged towards the kickstarter for the game Blasphemous.
It looks very cool, I love the handmade pixel art.
More importantly, what inspired today´s post is this update the developer, The Game Kitchen posted about some of the technology behind the game:
[…]
Our goal is to create an AI system that is able to deliver powerful, challenging and meaningful opponents for you to fight against. But we’re not stopping there, we also want an AI system that is able to impersonate a human player! “Why?” You’d ask. We want to take advantage of what is know as “automated testing” which is having the game being able to play itself overnight, finding holes in the collisions of the level and other systematic bugs. That would allow us to deliver a better quality game, despite not having key resources (like a dedicated QA department in the studio). 
screenshot15

In my day job, developing online shops, I have worked with automated tests for quite some time now.
It´s considered a best practice to do so, and there are tools that facilitate it.

However, when it comes to video games, there is not too much information about it out there.
I guess this usually happens behind closed doors. Personally, I always assumed that automating tests in video games is very complicated (with exceptions).

What is automated testing?

I will probably write a separate article on this, but the gist of it is:

You have a piece of software, the test subject, and you want to make sure that it acts in a certain way.
A very simple example would be a calculator app that performs multiplication.
It is in it´s default state, the display shows “0
You input the sequence of keys: [6], [*], [9] and [=]
The expected output would be “54“. Any other output would be an error.
Now, for a software project, you would have hundreds, thousands or even more of these test cases, ideally set up in such a way that you can run them all on a single command and see if they all succeed.

Why do automated testing?

So why would you write all these tests? The software works already, all the tests do is say that “Yes, the software works.”, which we already knew?

Software is often subject to change. Development cycles for commercial software (such as games, apps, websites) often are 6 months or more.
During that time, many changes are made to the code base. Each of these changes could affect other parts of the program.

Automated tests help find such cases. Once such a problem has been identified, a developer can check why this is happening, if this is something that should be happening (and then adapt the test) or if this is an error (and then look for an error in the respective code, and adapt or correct that).

In our calculator example, a developer adds new functionality to the program, let´s say the ability to calculate square roots.
They might need to change or add some algorithms, and our multiplication function could be affected.
Now, multiplying six by nine results in 42, which is the wrong answer (in our universe).

How do you find out? Manually test all pre-existing functionality of the calculator? This is fine as long as there are only two features, multiplication and square roots, but look at an actual calculator, nobody actually tests all other functions when they change one, it´s just too tedious:
calculator
The developer happily finished programming the square root function, it seems to work, all is well.
In the meantime, they might have unknowingly broken the multiplication function, but didn´t notice.
Here, automatic testing steps in. After finishing their work, the developer runs all tests available on the calculator app. (Or they run themselves.)
The test for the multiplication function would fail, and the developer would be notified that their changes have broken something.

A calculator is a simple application. I do not know how many lines of code reside in this monster:

Excel

Automated testing in video games

So why did I think that testing video games in an automated manner is too complicated?

Look at this scene, there are only two characters, but still, there is a lot going on:

cf67f10c16409f293d1e7417fff31139_original.gif
The amount of input parameters and variables in video games are staggering, and so is the amount of output that is generated.
Let´s take a fairly simple example:
The original Super Mario Bros.

At any point in the game, there is a multitude of possible game states.

The game keeps track of the level architecture, the enemies, the player, and items. But also the score counter, live counter, coin counter, objects in the game world that can be interacted with (e.g. the blocks which Mario smashes his head against, coins or vines erupt from them… Mario is absurd.).

Each of the objects in the game world can move independently of the others, there are things like collision detection, movement speeds etc. to be taken care of.
Oh, and all of these things happen on a timer, the game world updates 60 times per second.

giphy

To test a very simple game scenario such as this one on the right, very complex input and output scenarios have to be created.The input is not too hard. You can break it down frame by frame. The expected output however?
Very difficult. You would have to specify the expected game states of, at least:

  • the goomba (dead)
  • the 4 question mark blocks (2 are now empty),
  • the 3 bricks
  • the mushroom
  • Mario
  • etc.
Now what would happen if, for example, the developers decided that the wanted a faster game? Let Mario move 10% faster. Or the Goomba is a turtle now.
Our test scenario is broken and needs to be rewritten.

Adding more complexity

Additional difficulty arises when you have to take into account that the game might have to run on different hardware and software configurations (E.g. various versions of windows, different graphics cards, CPU etc.).
The game should also not be silent, so sounds should be played at the correct time, the list goes on.
download

Of course, some games are better suited to automated testing than others.

Turn-based games, and classics like Chess should probably work already.

On the other hand, 3d games, where
the player has six degrees of  freedom of movement, it suddenly becomes very hard.

I wouldn´t know where to start.

Calculations are very good subjects for Unit Tests.
Things like damage calculation in RPGs can be tested with Unit Tests. E.g. a character with fire immunity should never take fire based damage. Stuff like that.

Classic video game testing: Why bother?

So you might ask, why bother?
Couldn´t you just hire a bunch of students, they want to play video games don´t they?

Sure, they do, as do we. But usually, you play a video game until you have finished it, or until you stop having fun with it.
You play it at your own pace, and do the thing that is the most fun/excitement for you?

The reality is different. Game testing is hard, tedious and low paid work, that is apparently also severely “unfun”.

Part of this problem comes from the fact that they have to test stuff that could be tested automatically.
With a shift towards automatic testing, the focus of these test users could go from
“Does it work?” to “Is it fun?”, “Does it look good?”, “Do the controls feel right?” “Is the puzzle in the fourth level too abstract?”, etc.
You know, concentrate on the stuff that humans do better than machines:

Finding the fun in the game, identify bad level desing or missing clues, getting the pacing and “feel” of the game right, finding visual glitches and audio problems.

The Final Form: Tool assissted speedruns

Something I thought of, shortly before hitting the “Publish” button on this article:
This means that tool assisted speedruns (TAS) are basically the final form of testing a game.
A test scenario for one particular version of a game, on one particular difficulty setting, with one specific path throughout the game. (An example.)
If you are interested in this kind of thing, the TASBOT demo at SGDQ 2015 has a good explanation by a nice man named Dwango AC: Youtube

I think The Game Kitchen are going in an interesting direction here.

If they do this right they develop their game AI and ensure a smooth development process with the testing grounds they put up.

I´d love to have a look at this.

A game that learns to plays itself, dreaming of being played.
A simulation of a fantasy scenario, in which a fictional character – controlled by a machine that thinks it is playing a video game –  fights for survival against an equally unconsciously manipulated virtual antagonist.
There is a kernel of weirdness hidden here, I just can´t quite put my finger on it.