Ancient Bonds Design Talk

Howdy gang! Zoochz here. Today I’m going to be talking about Duelyst’s recent expansion, Ancient Bonds. This article isn’t like most review articles however. Instead of focusing on any particular card’s playability, I’m going to talk a little about my thoughts on design, diving into what I thought Counterplay Games did right and what they did wrong.

BEFORE WE GET TO THAT

I have a brief announcement I’d like to make. This Sunday marks the third installment of the exciting Amazyng Race tournament series! If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the long and short is that, unlike most Duelyst events, the object is not to kill your opponent necessarily. Instead, the player whose general touches all four corners first is crowned the victor! You can get more details on the unique event here.  

For those who are on the fence about whether to join this super cool event, let me give you two incredibly “Amazyng” reasons why you should participate.

  • To start, for the first time ever, the Amazyng Race has a cash prize attached to it! That’s right! 9moons (via SleepyDuelyst) is ponying up 300 smackers to be divvied among the top finishers. What better way to spend your Sunday than to enjoy a brisk jaunt around the Duelyst board and winning some cold card cash in the process. For more details on the prize breakdown (and the rules in general), check out the Battlefy page. Don’t forget to sign up!
  • Second–and what is perhaps even more exciting news–The Amazyng Race is going to be broadcast on the Twitch homepage! That’s right, you could see yourself on the big screen battling it out in front of thousands! This is a great opportunity for Duelyst to get some much needed love and I hope we have a huge crowd to support the event. Huge props to Juvey for helping this become a realty!

With that out of the way, I’m going to jump into my Ancient Bonds design review. 

Golems

I love tribal synergies. Before Ancient Bonds was released, golem and arcanyst decks tended to land more on the “meme” side of the “is this deck good?” spectrum. Sure, you could win games with these cards. I’ve walloped more than a few opponents with the help of Stormmetal Golem and Owl Beast Sage. At the end of the day though, these weren’t really top tier playable.

Changing that looks to be CPG’s aim this expansion. Broadly, I like this stance. Like I said, tribes are cool. Unfortunately, I worry that in doing so, they’ve inadvertently undone some of these tribes hallmark characteristics. 

I’m going to go ahead and discuss each tribe separately, starting with golems.

To say I’m disappointed by the golems released would be an overstatement. Many of them are fine as cards in the abstract. I really like Ragebinder! I really like Wind Striker! That said, many (if not all) seem like extreme departures from Duelyst “golemness” and, by extension, they tribal aspect of them feels extremely forced. Why? I’ll elaborate.

Throughout all of Duelyst’s past, golems had a few defining characteristics.

  • They were simple. Golems were defined by their standard-bearing cost-to-stat ratio. Like their folklore inspired namesakes, golems were single minded and simple. When someone said “golem,” you generally knew that they were referring to a big ball of stats with no other relevant text.
  • Of all the previous golems, literally only two of them had any text. In these rare exceptions, the golem “lord” did precisely one thing: benefited golems broadly. Golem Metallurgist made your golems cheaper. Golem Vanquisher gave your golems provoke. Simple.
  • Their names and art screamed “I am a golem.” They looked like golems. They all literally had ‘Golem’ in their name. How could you tell if something was a golem or not? Just read there name aloud; there’s your answer.

Ancient Bonds looks to have thrown this concept largely out the window. These new golems are generally not overstated. Most of them are complex. Sirroco is a 4/3 for 5 mana. That’s a pretty universally understated! She’s got maybe the most text I’ve seen on a Duelyst card to date. While she has some reference to the golem tribe in that she summons her kindred, many do not. What suggests that Dreamshaper ought to be a golem other than the tribal subtype tacked on? Ragebinder is a good card in its own right, but what in the world makes it golem-like? Why is a golem emerging out of an egg? 

While we’re on the subject of irrelevant nit-picky details, what’s with the art and names? All of the pre-Anceint Bonds artwork for golems all seemed thematically related and literally had “golem” right there in big, bold letters. Even if you didn’t know what a card’s name was, you knew it was a golem from the way it looked. With this latest expansion, that’s just not the case at all. Compare Juggernaut with, say, Unstable Leviathan. Compare Sol Pontiff with Ironcliff Guardian. If you were a new player, would you have any idea one was a golem while the other wasn’t? Heck, EMP looks more like a mech than anything else. Maybe I’m fuming at trivial details that no one else cares about, but hey, that’s what I’m here today to do. 

(Yes, I know the golem tribe is apparently thematically tied by a glowing Iron-Man-esque power core in their chests, but it doesn’t seem to be that indicative in my opinion. I’ve been playing this game for over a year and literally just discovered it when trying to divine why they were designed as they were. Maybe I’m dense, idk.)

Here’s what I would’ve liked to see:

  • Lava Ash Golem – 5 mana – 6/5 – Golems you control get +2 attack.
  • Golem Protector – 8 mana – 9/10 – Golems you control get forcefield.
  • Golem Artisan – 6 mana – 7/7 – Opening Gambit: Summon the lowest cost golem from your deck on a nearby space.
  • Powercore Golem – 3 mana -3/4 – Opening Gambit: Golems in your action bar get +2/+2

All of these examples are extremely off-the-cuff, so they could be easily over- or underpowered. I’m just using them to illustrate the overarching point that you can create interesting golems that fit thematically within the previous Duelyst framework.

Does this approach limit design space? Maybe? There’s plenty to work with though within the “Zoochz golem framework” in my opinion though. More importantly, you could always, you know, add additional tribes to the game.

 

There are several Golems that fit into my rubric of what that should entail. Sol Pontiff for sure, even Peacekeeper is arguably “simple” enough to warrant golem-hood. Overall though, this batch evokes the same emotions that the disastrous MtG core set Sliver re-imagining did years ago. It just feels like someone said “lets make this a golem set” and just went about plastering the golem label on already designed minions.

A final nitpick – I really dislike the fact that Lavaslasher has the same cost and stats as Brightmoss Golem. In a game with as small of a card pool as Duelyst, there’s should be plenty of space to make it so that both cards might be potential options for an aspiring Magmar Golem deck. There are so few golems in the game. Why make one obsolete, especially when you’re pushing this pro-golem agenda!? Make it a 4/8 at least.

Sidenote: Lavaslasher is insanely powerful. Rage-inducing even. Omg.

Arcanysts

I’m much more pleased with how Arcanysts ended up, although I imagine that’s more to do with my less rigorous vetting process for them. Unlike golems, arcanysts don’t really have a visual indicator of their tribe; they don’t have “arcanyst” in their name generally. They often have a strong relationship with spells, but not always. See, e.g., Eclipse, Aethermaster, Sun Seer, Moebius. This realization has actually got me wondering “What makes an Arcanyst an Arcanyst then?”

Regardless, the “arcanyst = spell-related” paradigm seems to hold true for Ancient Bonds, an aspect I like. Most have some direct benefit for casting spells which really encourages thoughtful deckbuilding. Even ones that don’t–e.g. Nocturne–seem to encourage the inclusion of spells indirectly.

I’ll highlight here how much I love Trinity Wing. While I fear it may become an “auto-include” in various Arcanyst builds due its incredibly high power, the tribe has been more or less defined by various auto-include cards already like Owl Beast Sage and Prismatic Illutionist. I really like the way Trinity Wing mitigates a lot of the issues with traditional arcanyst decks, providing both spells and a minion in one card. Only time will tell if it’s too good, but I am glad its ability is “Bond” instead of “Opening Gambit” so I don’t have to fear it outside of dedicated Arcanyst decks.

File:Zurael, the Lifegiver.png

Sidenote: Duelyst could really use some consistency when it comes to explaining how a card works. I assume (and have seen second-hand confirmation on reddit) that Death Knell will not revive Prismatic Illutionist tokens. If this is the case, CPG really should make that apparent in the card, especially since there is a card in this very block (The Releaserthat specificies “non-token” not to mention a card that does essentially the exact same thing which was itself errataed to alieviate player confusion

Misunderstanding of a good meme card design

Joseki is really almost a great meme card. It does some random bullshit in a way that can lead to hilarity. Perhaps most importantly, it’s random while clearly being designed such that it’s never going to be of tournament-playable caliber.

The problem is, however, that it’s designed wellllllll below what’s necessary. On the one hand, I don’t blame CPG for taking a cautious approach. After all, folks have been driven into a murderous rage over tournament playable random cards (myself included). The problem here is that this card can’t even be more than “strictly bad.” You’re spending too many resources (mana, a card) for too little in return (a random card) while also directly benefiting your opponent.

Even in a perfect world where your opponent isn’t getting a card (i.e. their hand is full), Joseki still likely isn’t good enough. Just look at Mind Vision from Hearthstone, a card that is literally never played due to its low power level. Here’s a card that’s almost identical (don’t get me started), except which now is even worse since you are giving your opponent free card advantage.

Meme cards are the most enjoyable when they can, in some convoluted way, lead to victory. This feels like the drawbacks are just way too high to justify. Who knows though. I’ll certainly try it, but I could definitely see if as infinitely more “playable” as a zero-mana card, or if it was a two-mana spell that netted you one more card over your opponent.

Not designing cards on the one thing that sets Duelyst apart is a mistake

I’m a little saddened to see so very few design choices that look to capitalize on one of the few things that sets Duelyst apart: the game board. Aside from cards like Sirocco which randomly plop things about, there aren’t really any cards in Ancient Bonds that focus on using the design space of the board. There’s nothing really more to say about this, other than “Gee, maybe next time.” The board is interesting and the movement based aspect of Duelyst has so much potential. Use it!

Some examples (many of these were inspired by suggestions from a contest held in my stream. I don’t recall who suggested what, but just know that most of them stem from other folks’ initial ideas):

  • Guard Dog – 4 Mana – 5/6 – At the end of each turn, if Guard dog is not next to your general, destroy it.
  • Charging Rhino – 3 mana – 1/4 – Rhino may only move in a straight line but may move any number of spaces. Gets +1 attack for each space moved.
  • Bishop – 2 mana – 3/3 – May only attack diagonally
  • Prestochango – 2 mana – Switch positions of both generals

Again, these card may be way too good/bad to be printed as is, but I hope they get my point across. Duelyst has the potential for some really awesome design and it feels wholly ignored at this point.

Some quick final points

I fear I’ve talked too much already, especially since I want to touch on the balance changes from the patch at the end. Here are a couple final, quick and dirty thoughts on design.

The Releaser

Abyssian The Releaser

I love the idea of an artifact with dying wish. I created an entire cycle of them in my design file I posted a long time ago. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about this card, and while I can get behind some of them and think that the non-random design of my original artifact was better (it just summoned a 4/4 Demon), I don’t dislike this randomness nearly as much as I do most RNG. You’re not including this card in your deck unless you’re going to be summoning huge minions from it, so hopefully a lot of the randomness can be mitigated through the deckbuilding process. That having been said, I fear it’s too weak to be remotely good, but I figure I’d share that potentially surprising acceptance of this card.

Lyonar Gold Vitriol

Gold Vitrol: This, on the other hand, is the epitome of obnoxious RNG. People do not like playing with this sort of effect CGP! It’s powerful sure, but it’s also extremely swingy and there’s no way to mitigate its swinginess. This is the exact type of reason Knife Juggler was such a hated card: you could win or lose on the tempo you got from a lucky proc. The issue is even exacerbated in Duelyst since missing an enemy minion means you’re much more likely to have your artifact removed the following turn (you know, when they attack you with the minion you failed to kill).

Archetype support: I want to commend CGP for seemingly going out of their way to provide support for just about every archetype, especially loved ones that have just been a scooch short of playable. Artifact Vetruvian, Eggmar, Vanar Ramp, Backstab Hai–these decks all seemed to have gotten something valuable to add to their deck. Will it be enough to kick the list into tier 1 status? Probably not, but it definitely seemed like CPG listened to its fanbase with some of these design choices.

Neutral EMP

EMP: I, along with many it seems, am not a huge fan of this card for several reasons. While I like the idea of this card in theory, the effect is just so over the top powerful that the extremely high stat line is worrisome. Is this guy going to show up everywhere? I hope not but worry that it will.

Loreweaver: I wish this card didn’t cost 4 mana. Its similarity to Spelljammer is striking, especially since it’s objectively weaker statwise and you’re not guaranteed to net a card like you would with Jammer. Is mana is also a focus point for Arcanysts in some factions (read: Songhai) that it seems highly problematic to include, especially for an effect that you can’t predict. I would’ve prefered to see this with a weaker body and lower cost.

Balance patch changes

I’ll be brief. I’m downright flabbergasted at the balance changes for this patch, more because of what wasn’t addressed rather than what was.

Before I bitch and moan, I’ll say what I did like I suppose. Kara’s BBS, for example, was a long overdue change. Finally, you don’t have this weird problem with cards like Myriad or Firestarter. It was a change I had seen suggested a lot and I’m glad it was made.

I’m also indifferent on Slo’s nerf. Was it really necessary? Rather, is Slo the problem? Or is Holy Immolation? As a Battlepet, Slo was annoying when it enabled a Holy Immolation ahead of schedule and that’s about it. Sure, you could use it to nab a mana tile and play a 4- or 5-drop a little earlier than anticipated, but that came at a cost, namely spending a card for such a small benefit. Slo is, after all, incredibly easy to deal with as a battlepet that it’s hardly worth a card and, in my opinion, was never really that big of a deal to begin with. Now, it’s basically worse than Rock Pulverizer and potentially even Swamp Entangler. I know some people vehemently disagree with this assessment (again though, do you hate Slo or Holy Immo?), so I’m very “whatever” about this change.

I can even (extremely begrudgingly) accept Inner Focus’s fate from a “business” perspective since it was a source of frustration for newer players. Inner Focus may seem broken because it enables immediate interaction that can lead to value/tempo for the Songhai player, but that’s one of Songhai’s few ways to leverage its card base and one of its defining tactics. In reality, you’re paying an entire card to do something that is arguably substantially worse than a card. Unless you’re clearing a minion or using backstab effectively or killing your opponent, Inner Focus is a bad card. Yes, those aforementioned things are what lead to frustration, but that’s how Songhai has to approach winning. Other factions use other tools–Lyonar has big stats; Abyssian has a swarm strategy–but those aren’t frustrating to play against because in general they’re harder to see the advantages manifest or at the very least the advantage doesn’t immediately manifest. Katara is the actual culprit in my opinion. I weep for Songhai.

What riles me, however, is the lack of adjustment on cards that are overpowered, ubiquitous and constantly complained about as a result. I’m referring to Meltdown and Thumping Wave and Holy Immolation in particular. Losing to these cards is so completely frustrating because it’s just so… typical! “Well, if I clear this minion, I lose to double Thumping Wave. Here’s hoping he doesn’t have it.” Duelyst has a real problem of too much burst potential (feel free to call me out on the hypocrisy of disliking the Inner Focus change), and none of these cards have been tweaked at all despite their incredible, overwhelming game-ending abilities. I’ve said my piece of Meltdown, and won’t reiterate it here. To believe that CPG thinks this card represents good game design is baffling though.

Wrap up

Anyway, that’s it for now. Thanks for reading, and let me know in the comments your thoughts.

Zoochz

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