Comprehensive Review of SolForge: Closing Thoughts and Updates


SolForge is an outstanding product for the parts that have been implemented, and a frustrating product for those that have not. Other than the forging system and some main menu interface issues, SolForge gets so many things so very right. It is an impressive bit of software for such a small group. However, the market doesn’t generally grade on the curve — and certainly not for a game that asks so much, financially, from its users.

Overall, SolForge gets a C+ from me but I have hope for its future. I have seen its improvements over the past nine months, and I believe they can continue to improve. I was worried that the new version of the Ascension deck building game, which Stone Blade Entertainemtn was developing themselves, would distract them from continued improvements to SolForge… but that has now been handed over to PlayDek. How will the new Android version of SolForge, recently released, impact the bottom line? Only time will tell. SBE appears to be in good shape, and doesn’t seem to be reaching too-far-too-soon.

Comments welcome. What did you think about this series? If I was unfair, please tell me how. If you want more detail on my next series, please let me know.

Comprehensive Review of SolForge: Organized Play


SolForge has a fantastic screen for their tournaments, but their organized play structure is lacking several key components. Lets start with what they have implemented, which is great stuff.


SolForge Organized PlayThe interface for joining tournaments is clean and simple. You can join a Constructed tournament or a “Draft” tournament. Constructed events cost 3 tickets, “draft” costs 7 tickets; both events have four rounds. A record of 3-1 will give you your entry fee back plus a prize, going 4-0 will give you even more tickets than you used to enter AND a larger prize. No matter what, you will win something — even a 0-4 record gets you a booster pack to keep. In a nifty innovation, you can play each round of the tournament whenever you like, and the system will generally pair you with players with the same win-loss record. All tournament games are played with a 20-minutes-per-player chess clock.



Constructed tournaments are relatively straightforward. Build a deck, play against other people, play four times, better record means better prizes. Unlike Magic Online, there is only one queue for Constructed tournaments, with one format, price structure, and prize structure. While this is easy to understand and lends itself to a fantastic-looking interface, it does cause problems for newer players in my experience.

There are no “low-level” Constructed event with low entry fees and low prizes. This means that it really is incorrect for players to even attempt Constructed tournaments unless they have a “high value” deck with many expensive cards. I think they game could add a “Common and Rares” only format (again, “Rares” in SolForge are uncommons and easy to get), charge silver to enter, and pay out in a booster pack. (This is one example — there are many prize structures one could generate for this format, of course.)



SolForge Draft“Draft” tournaments are played with new cards that you get to keep, meaning you don’t need to have a collection of cards or a great deck to enter. I put the word “draft” in quotes because SolForge uses this word in a way no other TCG has ever used it before. Drafts have consisted of multiple people queuing to draft booster packs. Once you have (usually) eight players, they all open a booster pack, choosing one card and passing the others to the left and receiving unselected cards from the person on their right, and repeating this process until there aren’t any cards left in that booster. Some drafts featured three packs, some more, with players alternating direction between packs. For more than fifteen years, this has been what booster drafts have been.

In SolForge, you “draft” with yourself. Quoting their FAQ:

In a draft tournament, you use a new deck that you build as you go by picking cards from random selections.  In SolForge draft, you will first see a pack of six heroic cards and will choose one of them.  After that, you will see packs of progressively smaller size – five cards, then four, then three, then two, before again seeing a pack of six cards.  You will pick one card from each selection until you have a deck of thirty cards.  Once you pick cards from two separate factions, you will no longer see cards from the other factions.  Once you have finished picking your draft deck of thirty cards, you will be able to start playing your matches.

Drafting in SolForge is a solo activity.  You don’t have to wait on other players to make their picks, and you can draft at any time of day without waiting for an event to fill up.  However, other players’ picks still influence what you see in a draft.  Every pack in draft is generated with six cards, and then cards are removed from it based on an algorithm that takes into account how frequently players take those cards. If you identify an undervalued card amongst the community at large, you can benefit by knowing there is a good chance you will see that card late in a draft.

This process is similar to booster drafts with a new booster being opened, but it is important to note that these aren’t boosters being opened. Heroics and Legendaries generally only appear in the first group of cards, as opposed to “one rare per booster” in traditional drafts in other games. Their description of certain cards appearing later in the draft than others appears true — you will sometimes see low-power Heroics appear in packs four or five.



There are no “major events” in SolForge. There are no Pro Tour Qualifier-level events (from Magic Online) or any other large events for the community to build towards and look forward to. While there are events listed in a forum on their website, none of them are directly supported in the app. They are a fan-driven retrofit of what should be a Version One feature. This is a missed opportunity on several levels.

  • Live-streaming of major events would drive awareness of the game
  • Live-streaming of major events would also drive user retention (c.f. League of Legends pro play)
  • By publishing winning decks, players can learn from existing decks (thus driving card sales)
  • By rewarding champions, players can aspire to greatness (thus driving retention and conversion)



As far as a user can easily tell, there are no ratings and rankings for SolForge. Whatever rating you have is not displayed in the app at all. Again, from the FAQ:

How do random online matches work? Won’t I just lose to more experienced players if I just started playing?

SolForge uses a matchmaking algorithm to pair you against opponents of similar skill level.  When you’re just starting out, you’ll usually get paired with other relatively new players.

This is, in all honesty, an unsatisfying experience. Even a thin rating ladder, similar to one seen in Hearthstone, would be better than “nothing.” There is no climb, no quest, and no goal to reach. You win, you lose, whatever. The games don’t have meaning beyond itself, and I view that to be a missed opportunity.




Tournaments are one click or tap away, and they are on the user’s schedule.

The on-demand, at-your-pace nature of these events were revolutionary when they launched and the industry is following up.


The prizes seem in-line with expectation.

Going 3-1 or 4-0 to get a free entry plus an additional prize is a pay rate above those found in Magic Online, for instance. The prizes are pretty nifty too.


“Draft” is fun.

I have clearly taken issue with the name of the format, but whatever they choose to call it the important thing is the fun. Drafting is fun, and you keep what you draft. Win and win.



There is no ongoing league format for Constructed play.

Because of this, players are trapped losing to high-value decks again and again, and those decks don’t ascend to a rating away from low-spending players. And since that is true, I would guess that the Constructed format is relatively unfun for the majority of players in the game.


There is no public-facing rating or ranking structure.

The lack of “level” for the player means there is no progression and there is no goal to achieve. This probably hurts player retention.


The lack of major events is confusing.

Given the number of Magic Pro Tour Champions involved with SolForge’s design or development, it is surprising to me that there is no competitive dream for players to chase.



None at this time, though in the future partnering with external groups for major events (Major League Gaming?) might help boost brand awareness.



Hearthstone has announced a $250,000 World Championship event.

If I was a competitive online TCG player and I was wondering where to put my time and effort, that amount of money would grab my attention. In fact, it has grabbed my attention, and I am not really competitive in Hearthstone. Yet.



What is the correlation, if any, between someone’s performance in the Draft format and how often they return?

What is the correlation, if any, between someone’s performance in the Constructed format and how often they return?

What is the median / mean number of cards a user must own before they go 3-1 in a Constructed tournament?

What is the median / mean amount of silver earned a user must own before they go 3-1 in a Constructed tournament?

What is the median / mean amount of money spent by a user before they go 3-1 in a Constructed tournament?



The tournaments that have been implemented are outstanding. But there are so many other important aspects to organized play completely unimplemented that what begins as an A+ is dragged all the way down to a C+… and I might be generous.

Comprehensive Review of SolForge: Software & Interface


Solforge MainMAIN SCREEN

There are many aspects to this screen which appear to have been haphazardly-placed. The indication that you are “online” looks like it was placed as an afterthought, as does the question mark in the upper-left corner. (That button gives an overlay of the entire screen, showing you what each part of the interface does.)

My largest concern for this screen is that most buttons do not respond like buttons normally do on iOS – with a “touched” state and some visual cue to show that I’ve touched it. This is particularly noticible when the app first begins, seemingly with some race condition between me wanting to start a game and the server sending existing data to the client.

Notably missing is any way for SBE to communicate to its users. There isn’t even a list of articles on the website, nevermind a real, curated “front page” main menu. There are many interesting articles and discussions, tournaments, and sales that happen that are easily missed unless one already knows where to look.



By default, the Main Menu starts in the Play menu. Options that appear to the right show the games you are playing and it contains an option to start a game. The flow of actually starting a game involves several steps that aren’t intuitive; the header at the top becomes a “start button” even though it doesn’t look like any other button in the app.

Step 1: SolForge Start 1

Step 2: SolForge Start 2

Step 3: SolForge Start 3


SolForge StoreSTORE

The Store also takes place in the Main Menu and not in its own separate page. While this makes checking today’s deals pretty quick, it does mean that the store needs to only take the same amount of space as the Play menu does. I believe this is a major mistake for several reasons: mainly, it makes the store look like an unsorted mess.

The store has several things to purchase — packs, chests, decks, event tickets, alternate art cards, playmats — but they are presented in one seemingly-unsorted list. As an example, the default booster pack appears near the top, while the Forgeborn boosters appear much later, after several unrelated options. Even if the Store wasn’t its own screen, it would still make sense to have the various items appear in a sorted fashion, ideally with quickly-accessible shortcuts for each option.



Inventory is related to the Store. It contains a list of everything you’ve purchased and have unlocked for your account that you haven’t used up. (Your “deck slots” and “skins” last forever, while your boosters are obviously there waiting to be opened and turned into cards.) Not much to do here; it does its job well.


SolForge Tournament ListingTOURNAMENTS

The tournaments screen is outstanding. It shows the events you have entered and can enter, their prizes and costs, and your current standings in each in one simple intuitive interface. (Details about the Tournaments are found in the Organized Play article, coming soon.)


SolForge Buy GoldBUY GOLD

Gold is the main currency for purchases. The prices for gold are identical across platforms, and the bonuses are also identical. Unlike the Store, which appears very disorganized, the Buy Gold popup appears hand-crafted and gets it all right. It shows the amount of gold you are getting, the bonuses you get for higher purchases (including a percentage bonus too — a smart addition). It makes the biggest button the most-expensive purchase, and highlights it with a “Best Value!” bit of text added in. What happens when you click or tap depends on the platform – on iOS you get the standard In-App Purchases popup, on Windows you are taken to the Steam Store.


SolForge User IconUSER ICON

Tapping the user icon in the lower-left corner brings up an overlay of several icons to choose from. However, unlike many other similar popups, this one neither has an “X” to close it nor can you close it by tapping away from the icons. You must always choose an icon to dismiss this overlay, and that is counter-intuitive.

Also, scrolling between icons on iOS is counter-intuitive: swiping to the left or right will scroll the list exactly one icon, regardless as to how far you scroll with your finger. It treats this list as if they were pages in a book to be flipped through, but the visual metaphor does not indicate that sort of user action at all.


SolForge TutorialTUTORIAL

The bottom part of the screen is similar to the how-to-play section of the SolForge website. The “Play Tutorial” button on the top of the screen isn’t obvious that it is a button, in my opinion. Tapping or clicking it will take you into the game with a popup-driven tutorial game. My complaint about the size of the popups apply here. They are all too small and use too-small of a font.

SolForge Deckbuilder SplitDECK BUILDER

The deck builder interface is critical to get correct, and it is the most-difficult. SolForge does a decent job overcoming the iPad’s limitations, but does so at the expense of having a very cramped interface. The interface seems overly tied to the Magic Online model of deckbuilding. The current UI conceit for complex menus is to hide them in a side menu under a “hamburger” icon, and I can imagine a major improvement from moving the menu to the side.

The interface for the PC version has even fewer options than the iPad version, which is something of a shock. I can’t toggle the card levels, which makes deck building with cards I don’t have memorized a bit more difficult.


SolForge ForgingFORGING

The forging system is accessed through the deck builder, which only makes sense if you have played Heartstone. There is no way to “find” forging in the app at all, other than double-tapping on a card. On a PC, you single-click instead. These differences don’t make any sense to me – if you are going to have a different input sequence for the PC, why not use the right-click?

There should be main-menu access to a feature to quickly forge and construct cards. The feature, as it is currently implemented, is barely functional.



The gameplay screen is very economical in its layout, giving high priority to the cards and the battlefield, but this comes at the expense of hiding key features.

This screenshot shows an advanced game state. I have five creatures in play, each with their own effects. Armor looks like a shield, regeneration is the green circled-triangle, the red exclamation point indicates a special ability. The large SolForge symbol on the two creatures on the right side of the screen indicates that those creatures are on the Defensive, and won’t fight this turn. On the bottom of the screen is my hand of cards. On the right is my hit points (39, which means I am in trouble but winning anyways) and my player level (4, which means I can play cards of level 4 or below).

The question mark brings up an overlay describing what things do on the screen. I don’t see this as a useful feature beyond its first or second use; I’d rather a dedicated “game log” button was there instead. The “gear” button in the lower-left of the screen brings up a settings menu and a link to the game log. The gear is flavorful but it barely looks like a button to click or tap.


SolForge iPad Card CloseupDRAFTING

Draft tournaments are a great test of skill with an emphasis on someone’s ability to assemble a great deck through strategic choices, rather than through acquiring the cards for a deck from the store. Players select one of the cards from the right and drag it or double-click it to add it to their draft deck. Those six cards disappear and are replaced with five new ones. Repeat until you have drafted five cards, then a new collection of six cards to pick appear. Repeat until you have a deck of 30 cards, then you go into tournament games. The interface for drafting is a bit plain but it gets the job done.



The gameplay interface is outstanding for new users.

If there is a card you can play, it is highlighted. When you click or tap it, the valid targets become highlighted instead. Multi-target spells work intuitively. Everything is explained using only a few words. And when you might possibly make a mistake (such as, destroying your own creature with a spell) the game asks if you are “absolutely sure you want to hit your own creature with a negative effect?” For the new-user experience, the gameplay interface is the very best in the industry right now.


The top level of the menu structure is clean and obvious.

There are several options from the main menu, with large buttons that are easy to find and click or tap.


The user interface has a consistent, unique, approachable style.

Most of the buttons have a “SolForge” feel to them. The few exceptions really stick out, however. Overall the interface feels consistent… as if you were using some software from within that world, while still able to find what you want in this one.



There is no “News” screen.

The lack of communication between the players and SBE from within the app is a critical mistake, one that can easily get fixed in an upcoming version. There is a lot of time and money being spent on content and promotions that are certainly being missed by many players because of this missing feature.


The game-start process sticks out as a sloppy design.

Creating a game involves clicking several things in several positions on the screen, with no flow from one button to the next. In addition, many labels look like buttons, and many buttons are improperly aligned. This problem isn’t likely to cost SBE too many customers or too much money, but it is possibly hurting them in the conversion of trial users into dedicated users. (Once you are a dedicated user, this problem is probably ignorable.)


Many advanced aspects of the gameplay interface are buried.

Of particular note is the Log feature. It is sometimes critically important to know which cards have been played while you were away or in another match. To find this, you need to click a gear in the lower-left corner of the screen, then click the Log button, then scroll down to the last turn, then after you are done you need to exit the log, then exit the settings screen. Too many taps or click to do a simple thing.


The deck builder interface is very cluttered.

Hearthstone does a remarkable job maximizing available screen space. While I wouldn’t advocate copying its deck building screen, there are important lessons to take from it. Namely – if a card is in a deck, it is assumed the player knows what the card is (and therefore that can take less space on the screen).






SolForge is no longer the only iPad-focused digital TCG. Hearthstone has shipped with a great launch, and others are on the way. What was “good enough” last year will seem tired next year (look at Magic Online and compare it to almost any digital TCG for PC since its release)…



Heat map tracking of player taps and clicks can be implemented to determine which aspects of the interfaces are used the least and the most. The results should guide future development.


INTERFACE SCORE: B- (windows), C+ (ipad)

The Windows version gets a slight bump for interface buttons that are more responsive to clicks than the iPad version is to touches, especially in the main menu.

Comprehensive Review of SolForge: Business Model


SolForge is a “free to play” strategy card game. Most of the standard f2p financial mechanics are present, but how they interact with the cards is interesting and novel, but not fully realized.

First, a word about SolForge’s use of the word “Rare.” The cards they call “Rare” are not actually rare. Using a scale similar to those found in the twenty-year history of trading card games, they are more properly called uncommon. These articles will use their words, but I will draw the distinction when necessary. SolForge is not the only game to do this; Hearthstone uses the word “Rare” in place of “Uncommon” as well.


Card Rarity Structure

Common “Rare” Heroic Legendary
68 40 44 32 Set 1 on release
8 8 4 4 Set 1 “Tarsus” Update
76 48 48 36 Set 1 final
35 28 20 12 Set 2 on release
8 4 4 4 Set 2.1
43 32 24 16 Set 2 currently (as of June 3rd 2014)

There has been a lot of work done to reverse-engineer the rarity structure of SolForge, since SBE doesn’t publish the rate at which each rarity will appear in a pack. The exact breakdown of the rarity structure and its financial implications are beyond the scope of this document — indeed, it would be its own 20-page report! Here are some highlights from the community’s work:

SolForge user jermbug has a fantastic spreadsheet filled with information about his collection and card acquisition. From his data, he describes several rates of booster pack odds:

Common “Rare” Heroic Legendary
71.3% 23.3% 4.5% 0.8% proportion within an average pack across all sets

Assuming that Heroic is 5% and Legendary is 1% (which is giving the benefit of the doubt to SBE in terms of this math), it would take 5200 packs to get one of each Legendary or 15600 packs for a complete playset. Since a pack costs $0.71 on average (see below), a complete playset of the first two sets would cost over $11,000 if paid in cash alone. Of course, due to login bonuses prizes for tournament play, and the ability to get cards using silver, I assume no one has chosen to pay five-digits just so they can build every possible deck.

There is another “pack tracker” spreadsheet that has been posted by another member in the community, with similar results.


Resource Units

Gold is purchased with real money, either through in-app purchases through Steam (for PC) or the App Store (iOS). You can also purchase through the game’s website. Prices are identical across platforms, and anything you buy on one platform is accessible through the others.

Silver is earned through login daily bonuses, and for winning games. With the exception of a special two-week event in May 2014, it cannot be purchased. Silver is also earned through “deconstructing” (selling) cards though the “forging system.”

Event Tickets can be purchased with gold or silver, and are required for entry into any of their tournaments. In addition to buying them, players earn one event ticket through their first online win each day.


Resource Units Analysis: This is a simple system. Unfortunately, the real-money-to-gold calculation is needlessly complex. Purchasing them for $5, you get about 260 gold per dollar. If you spend $100, you get 300 gold per dollar. Based on how they price their items, it appears they are treating the average gold to be worth 280 per dollar. This was likely done to follow the “obfuscation leads to incorrect choices” model of f2p monetization, but this seems like a relic of 2011 product design.


Items For Sale

Event Tickets are used for events. They can be purchased with gold and silver, and are also earned by logging in and winning an online game (once each day). One ticket costs 30000 silver or 200 gold (about $0.71), while a bundle of 10 can be had for 1800 gold ($6.45)

Booster Packs contain randomized collections of cards. There are several different types of packs available, some of which can only be won in events. The default booster, which current contains cards from both sets, costs 5000 silver or 200 gold ($0.71). The Rise of the Forgeborn booster cannot be purchased with Silver, and costs 560 Gold ($2).

Skins change the look of the game interface. These are purchased with 15000 Silver or 280 Gold ($1). Unlike “skins” in many games (like League of Legends), these purchases only impact what the purchaser sees. This doesn’t change anything their opponent sees.

Decks help players get started by providing a deck (rather than requiring players to build a deck to begin). These cost 3600 Gold ($12.85) and in my opinion, are not a good value at all.

Chests are “super boosters.” The Legendary Chest (2500 Gold – $8.90) contains 10 cards including 1 Legendary, 3 Heroic and 3 Rare cards. Interestingly there is a Rise of the Forgeborn chest for only 1750 Gold ($6.25) — usually the Rise content is sold at a premium.

Single Cards are also sold. There is a “card of the day” available for some gold; these are usually not a good value. They also sell Alternate-Art cards, which are also gold-only and give the player a chance to show off their “bling.” Their prices vary and seem to be based on their rarity. You can also purchase (“forge”) cards using Silver from inside the Deck Builder.


Items For Sale Analysis: SolForge goes beyond the simple “cards and decks” that most digital TCGs offer. The only improvement I would suggest is a way for users to express themselves through purchases, either by making their battlefield skins appear to their opponents (maybe just on their side of the screen) or by giving user the ability to enhance / upgrade their player profile picture and frame.


Forging (how to “trade” for individual cards)

It is difficult to call SolForge a trading card game, because you literally cannot trade the cards between players. You can “deconstruct” cards, deleting them from your account, in exchange for silver. You can turn around and use that silver in the store, or in the deck builder to acquire (“forge”) individual cards. In theory, this is a nifty way to bridge the gap between “having no way to get individual cards” and “letting players create a marketplace through trades.” In practice, there are many problems with the feature.


Exchange Rates

The rates of return for selling cards for silver and turning that around into new cards is very, very painful. Obviously trading at a rate of one to one would be too generous, but this chart below shows how cost-prohibitive this system is:

Rarity Silver from selling Silver cost to buy Ratio
Common 5 150 1:30
“Rare” (uncommon) 50 1400 1:28
Heroic (rare) 3550 32500 1:9.15
Legendary (very rare) 32500 142500 1:4.38

The rates for the commons and uncommons (“rares”) are mostly ignorable — players get a couple of thousand silver each day by logging in and winning games online. Trading four legendaries for one new one is very steep — and that steepness is compounded by the fact that you are not allowed to deconstruct a card until you own at least four copies of it.


Can’t Sell Until You Have Four

You must have more than the maximum amount you need for a deck (a “play set”) before you are allowed to cash any in. This is a strange decision — if I don’t want them, I don’t want any of them. Obviously being able to sell “my extras” is a common, and useful, aspect of trading card games. But by forcing me to keep cards I don’t want I feel like SolForge is going out of its way to make it more expensive to create the decks I want to build. Is this good business? I doubt it, though obviously they have the numbers to see. No trading card game has ever worked like this before, and my instinct tells me the money lost by the number of customers turned away by this decision is greater than the money gained by making them wait.


Can’t Easily Sell Your Extras

There is no way to sell (“deconstruct”) all of your extras at once. You need to go into each individual card to do this. With hundreds of commons and uncommons (“rares”), this is a chore. And to do this after each drafting session is an additional chore.


Some Cards Are “Account-Bound” In Nonobvious Fashion

There are other aspects that do not make obvious sense: “Account-Bound” is not adequately explained in the app at all. You need to poke around on the website to learn that cards you get through drafting are “Account-Bound” if you get them through drafts paid for by event tickets which you earned through logging in (and not purchasing). Is that clear? It… really isn’t clear at all. There is no distinction between “gold tickets” (purchased with money) and “silver tickets” (earned through play). This is just some background accounting that Stoneblade is doing, and exposing just a small piece of it through the user interface.

And does any of that Account-Bound stuff matter right now? Not really — it only will matter once trading comes to the game, and while that is scheduled for later this year there are never any guarantees.


Players Are Made To Wait To Forge Cards From New Sets

Players were not allowed to forge cards from the Forgeborn set until about seven weeks after the set had debuted. This meant that players could only get the individual cards they needed by opening packs and/or through their draft format. This made certain high-rarity cards nearly impossible to get without spending large piles of actual money, thereby heightening the “constructed is for big spenders only” problem.


Forging Analysis: The entire forging system appears to have been added in as a reaction to Hearthstone’s forging system. It has many deficiencies in its implementation and its monetization model. The fact that it exists at all is a good thing, but it feels like SBE is leaving lots on the table.




Entry into the system is free and easy.

The client costs $0, and players can get some cards just through playing.


Many varied options for purchases.

This part of the business model should inspire other products’ designs. I think it can even still have more options (see “Weaknesses”).


Purchases are tied to a player and not to a platform.

I have purchased through Steam at my desktop, and have played with the same decks and cards on my iPad. Compared to Magic Online and its complete disconnect from Duels of the Planeswalkers, SolForge gets this right.


There is a system to acquire individual cards.

The forging system has many flaws, in my opinion, but it is better than nothing.


Players have the ability to spend a lot of money.

Epic-spenders have a large collection of cards to collect, and new expansion releases makes this an unending quest for some.


“One free draft each week” gives people incentive to keep logging in and to try out the draft format.

By giving an event ticket for a user’s first online win, users are incentivized to return each day and play. If they do this for a week, they have enough to play in the draft format. It is a way for zero-spenders to be competitive in a format that does not reward owning a large collection.

Draft is also a great way for users to play with cards they don’t already own. Once I drafted my first Grimgaunt Predator I knew I wanted to build a serious Nekrium-based constructed deck…



The costs of making a competitive deck are immense.

There is a fair amount of chatter about this problem on the game’s forums, and it is surprising that this has not been addressed. Adding the forging system helps, but it isn’t enough — and it absolutely is not enough given the way forging has been hamstrung.


Forging is hamstrung.

I detailed the limitations around forging earlier in this section. It would be difficult for me to envision more restrictions and complexities for what should be a relatively-simple system.


There are large gaps in the process for converting a zero-spender into a dedicated player and customer.

There are no constructed formats that reward players for spending $10, for instance. While you can spend money to draft more often, this does nothing to address those who are not good at (or do not enjoy) drafting. SBE should investigate and implement formats that are geared towards those who cannot (or will not) spend $100 or more. Examples:

  • a “Unheroic” format without expensive cards (meaning: no “Legendary” or “Heroic” cards).
  • a “Champion” format with a limited number of expensive cards
  • a “Salary Cap” format where players have 50 points to spend on cards in their decks, with commons costing 0, “rares” costing 1, Heroics costing 3 and Legendaries costing 7. (Those numbers are untested, of course.)


The store does not react to the user’s performance.

Many social games give financial incentives to those who are about to leave to stick around a little bit longer. SolForge can do this. For instance, when a user goes 0-4 or 1-3 in a draft, SBE can give them the option to enter again for only 5 tickets right away (instead of taking a consolation prize).


Users cannot express themselves through purchases.

There is no way for the user to purchase anything, other than alternate-art cards, that allow them to express themselves such that other players can see. Most free-to-play games release ways for users to express themselves through purchases, and release new options often.



SolForge’s engine could be the basis of several licensed card games.

As I mentioned in the Gameplay section, I feel there is a business opportunity for SBE with this engine. Almost any IP with large action and dramatic effects — comic books and the like — could lend itself to a quickly-developed game.



Among digital TCGs, Hearthstone’s business model is much more attractive (for hardcore play).

Blizzard’s TCG based on World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, is relatively-inexpensive to play. Players can earn a free arena play (similar to a “draft”) about once every three days, as opposed to once per seven in SolForge. The cards are also relatively cheaper and the highest rarity does not seem to be as difficult to obtain either in packs or through forging. Blizzard can afford to not make as much money on their product as SBE must, as SBE is a tiny company in comparison. Still, this is a major threat that can’t be ignored.


Among digital strategy card games, Duels of the Planeswalkers is a better value (for casual play).

If you are going to spend $10 on a digital card game, you would get much more value out of the Magic iPad app than you would out of SolForge. Duels of the Planeswalkers is a complete game (which can be expanded) while in SolForge a $10 purchase is only the beginning. While digital Magic products have stumbled over the past decade, Duels still stands out as the better value.



The standard questions about revenue (ARPU, ARPPU and similar) and user acquisition, conversion, and retention (MAU, DAU, and similar) should be asked. There are specific questions that are SolForge-specific:

  • If a user receives a Legendary in a booster, are they statistically more-likely to buy more?
  • If a user doesn’t receive a Legendary in their first 1-3-5-10-20 boosters, are they more-likely to quit and never spend again? (Or never return again?)
  • Are rarities ever skewed on purpose? (Meaning: players are certain to see a Legendary in their first 4 packs, for instance.) If so, why, and does that have an impact on player retention and/or spending?



There are too many ways for people to fall “out of love” with the game as a result of the business model. While the gameplay is quick, fast, clean, and easily-understood, the business model is almost the opposite of that. I don’t have access to SBE’s numbers, but it really feels like most players either spend a ton or nothing at all. While “whales” can drive a product, TCGs that survive only on the whales do not tend to last. Will that be different in digital trading card games? The jury is still out.

The reason I give a C- instead of a D is hope. There are many players that hope to see a change, and there have been some changes over the past six months. (Tickets were never given away initially. Forging didn’t exist at launch.) The fact that there are still many players that are waiting and even more that would return if given a reason to do so gives this game a chance to thrive.

Comprehensive Review of SolForge: Gameplay

This is the first of several articles about SolForge. This series is aimed at designers, producers, and developers in the industry. This specific article is aimed primarily at game designers who have not examined SolForge. Feedback welcome!


SolForge is turn-based, featuring creatures battling against each other in the tradition of Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic the Gathering. Unlike those games, where combat is very free-wheeling (with attacks, blocks, surprises, and spells midcombat), SolForge features a structured playspace. Creatures are played into one of five lanes, and each turn they will battle with the opponent’s creature in that lane. If there isn’t one there, they attack the opposing player instead. Players start at 100 Health; reduce your opponent to 0 and you win the game.

There are only two types of cards in SolForge:

  • Creatures, which battle
  • Spells, which impact creatures and players

Creatures in this game feature much more permanence than in other TCGs:

  • Damage on creatures doesn’t go away each turn.
  • Spells that boost stats and grant abilities are not “enchantments” or similar that can later be removed.
    • Compare to Magic the Gathering, where Creature Enchantments are extremely risky plays because of the “destroy-two-cards-with-one-in-response” problem. Since you can’t play cards during your opponent’s turn, you are certain to get at least *some* value out of your spell before the creature dies.
    • EXAMPLE: Jet Pack gives a combat bonus and some mobility. It looks like “equipment” but it really is just a spell in this game.


Because there are no resource cards in this game, deck building is relatively easy at first. Pick cards you like that might go well together, and go. There are a few restrictions:

  • The deck must contain exactly 30 cards, with no more than 3 copies of any one card.
  • The deck can’t have more than two factions (colors) of cards in the deck.
    • Since there are no land or energy cards in the game, this is the easiest way to enforce some separation of abilities and powers. Without this restriction, the game would likely degenerate into a small handful of decks that take the best cards from each faction.
    • Generally, players play with 16 to 22 creatures and 8 to 14 spells. The selections depend on the style of deck — more creatures for aggressive decks, more spells for the controlling decks.

Game Flow

At the start of the game, each player draws five cards. The turn sequence is pretty simple:


  • “Start of turn” effects happen, including “defensive” creatures no longer being “defensive.”

MAIN – in any order

  • You may play a card.
  • You may play a second card, unless you are the first player and it is your first turn.
  • You may use the “Activate” ability on any of your creatures, but not if they are “defensive.”
  • Initiate Battle. Each creature that is not “defensive” attacks the opposing creature in the same lane.
    • If a creature is attacked, it deals damage back to the opposing creature. (Even the defensive ones.)
    • Damage on creatures carries over from turn to turn, giving your small creatures a chance to whittle away at large opposing enemies.
    • If there isn’t an opposing creature there, they attack the opposing player instead.


  • “End of turn” effects happen.
  • Discard your hand.
  • Every fourth turn you “level up,” reshuffling your deck and discard pile into a new deck. (See below.)
  • Draw five cards.
    • Because your deck is 30 cards and you see five cards a turn, you are very likely to see the cards you need during the course of the game.

What Happens When You Play A Card

If you play a creature, it starts “on the defensive.” That means it won’t attack when you or your opponent click the Battle button. However, if something attacks into it (for instance, an opponent’s creature played on a prior turn) then your creature will still fight back.

If you play a spell, you pay whatever costs and select whatever targets are necessary, then the spell’s effect happens. While there aren’t mana costs in SolForge, some powerful spells require something extra. (For instance, destroying one of your own creatures to destroy one of your opponent’s creatures.)

The Upgrade System

After you play a card, an upgraded version of that card is put into your discard pile. In this way, the cards you play early “level up” so when you draw them again on a future turn they will be stronger than before. This is a major innovation, something that gives a ton of gameplay depth and complexity while not requiring land cards or mana costs.

Some cards are better than normal in their Level 1 forms — a creature with 7 attack and health instead of the normal 4 or 5. To make up for this, the Level 2 or Level 3 versions might not be as good “as normal.” Or a card could have a poor Level 2 and a game-winning Level 3… playing the card means your deck has great late-game potential but it might let you down in the midgame.



This video by Stone Blade Entertainment shows the basics of gameplay. (3 minutes)

This video by a tournament player shows a complex game. (20 minutes)



There are seven keywords that quickly encapsulate many things that can be done to and with creatures. Every keyword is hotlinked for details during game play, but once you get the hang of it things all intermingle quickly and easily.

Armor # prevents the first # damage each turn. Generally found on Alloyin creatures (Forge Guardian Beta) and directly countered by some Nekrium cards through their use of stat reduction.

Mobility # allows a creature to move once during its owner’s turn, turn up to # slots away. Generally found on Tempys (Everflame Phoenix) and Nekrium creatures (Soul Drinker). There are not any direct counters to mobility, other than playing creatures who can block and survive.

Aggressive allows a creature to attack right away, skipping the Defensive state entirely. Generally found on Tempys creatures (Lightning Wyrm), and they usually don’t have much health. A smart answer is to play with cards that spawn additional creatures, even small ones — Uterra has many ways to do this.

Regenerate # allows a creature to regain # health at the start of each turn. (Both players, including at the start of opponent’s turns.) This ability is usually found on Uterra creatures, which also has ways to boost stats over time. Regen creatures are stopped by Nekrium, who has the ability to kill-on-any-damage (Blight Walker) or kill-with-spell (Dreadbolt, Cull the Weak, Death Current)

Breakthrough creatures (Deepbranch Prowler) deal damage to creatures that block them, and then deal damage to the player equal to the amount of extra damage. There aren’t many direct counters to this strategy, other than playing creatures with lots of health (some of the Tempys ones) or cards that reduce power (Nekrium).

Poison # deals # damage to a creature at the start of each turn. (Importantly, regeneration happens first.) This is a negative-keyword, given to opponent’s creatures through your card effects (Cadaverous Thicket). At first, this was a relatively-minor keyword as its effects are usually too slow to matter much, but there have been many cards released that key off of Poison (Dissolve).

Defender creatures (Glacial Colossus) never initiate combat. While they will battle an opposing creature that attacks it, it won’t start that fight. This means it can’t ever attack the opposing player, either. Defenders are not generally worth countering directly, though Tempys has the tools to do so. (And in draft, it is an effective strategy to give your opponent’s creatures the Defender keyword with some cards, which then make those removal spells very efficient!)



Side Note: SWOT Analysis is a method used to describe a series of Strengths and Weaknesses (internal), and Opportunities and Threats (external). More information about SWOT can be found on Wikipedia.


Smart play is rewarded, while not required to begin playing.

The basic structure of a turn is dead-simple. Play two cards, battle when you want, end the turn. However, knowing what to play and when to play it is discovered through play over time. Knowing when to put creatures in the way to fight — and when to choose one card over another for its second- and third-level versions are key.

You see your whole deck.

Because you discard your hand and draw 5 cards every turn, and because you reshuffle every four turns, players will see 66% of their deck within the first four turns of the game and 96% of the deck within length of an average game (12 turns). While you see your whole deck throughout the game, you might not see the cards when you need them most…

Sideboarding happens while you play.

In many trading card games, players build a deck to play and an additional side deck called a “sideboard.” Players swap cards between their main deck and sideboard between games in a tournament match. Sideboards allow players to have answers to deal with problematic cards in the game, while not diluting their main deck too much.

In SolForge, you can put a “counter card” into your deck to stop a strategy while not watering down your own plan. In theory, for a wider array of strategies to develop because players can bring counter cards to beat down the top decks while still pushing their own strategies. In practice, there weren’t many cards in existence for this sort of metagame plan on the game’s release… but they have been adding them over time.

The keyword icon system is simple and intuitive.

Simple keywords used in interesting ways makes for creatures with small amounts of rules text hiding layers of complexity and depth.

Creatures attack every turn – the game feels fast.

Creatures battle. Other than the turn you play them and your opponent’s turn after that, every creature attacks every turn. This game is about creatures battling, and there isn’t much that happens away from that.

The combination of keywords and stats, and how they change per level, make for interesting designs

Commons and uncommons (which this game calls “rare”) are generally boring in most TCGs, mostly to keep complexity down for players’ first experience. By adding the depth of levels and the breadth of the keywords, and with smart design in each of the four colors, there is a wide array of creatures to learn and explore without a large amount of work per card. Most TCGs do not manage to make so many things so interesting with so few moving parts.



Not a lot of “game space.”

The strength of the creatures in the beginning also becomes a weakness in card design long term. There are creatures, and there are spells that impact those creatures. There are extremely few effects that go beyond that. There are a few cards that let you level up a card even though you haven’t played it, and a few cards that make other cards “free” (i.e. you can play it as an additional card beyond your first two) — but that’s about it. In addition, you can’t interact with your opponent’s turn at all — this is a weakness for “interactivity” (while also being a strength for “simplicity”). The game’s limited scope is a potential problem in the medium- and long-term for development.


Winning usually happens by drawing and playing the highest-level cards the most.

While this is not all of it — smart decisions and good deckbuilding both matter — drawing and playing your level 2 and level 3 cards more than your opponent usually means you will win. Since you only see two-thirds of your deck each time you shuffle, and since you can’t be assured of an even distribution of those higher-powered cards throughout the game, luck plays a large role in determining the outcome. Smartly, the luck is hidden behind very skill-intensive game design, but the luck is still very present.

This phenomenon is very present in their “draft” format. There are many cards, particularly spells, that mitigate the issues around underleveling. If you don’t see them in your draft, you can’t include them, and that makes the problem very present. This article by Chad Ellis describes the problem, and some ways to mitigate it.



There are many potential inspirations for SolForge cards. Since the game mythos is unique yet familiar, and since the gameplay features progression in a way that mirrors that of good storytelling, almost any form of mass media could be used as an inspiration for SolForge cards. In fact, a skin of the game could be quickly created to work with existing IPs. (The initial design of Marvel Universe-SolForge almost writes itself.)





Because of the nature of the gameplay, SolForge has the opportunity to track and query player behavior to determine game balance and favored card designs:

  • Which cards, when played, have the highest chance of leading that player to victory?
  • Which cards are included in decks but are played the least?
  • What is the percentage chance that a card is played when it is drawn? (In other words, how often is it chosen to be played over other cards?)
  • Which cards aren’t played in constructed tournaments?
  • Which cards are picked in a draft tournament but never (or rarely) played?
  • What is the average turn a game ends per card? (For instance, in games with decks containing Dreadbolt, when does the game normally end? What about those with both Dreadbolt and Grimgaunt Predator?)



The core game design is outstanding, but its flaws do show up through repeated play. This game takes about two minutes to learn, which is an outstanding quality for a TCG to have. I believe that the “underleveling” problem is one that should be addressed through card design. It could also be addressed with rules changes to mitigate the damage of an underleveled hand. (Compare to “mulligans” in Magic when you have a bad opening hand. Something similar could happen for bad “level two” hands.)

Cloud 9 vs. Fnatic (League of Legends 2013 Worlds)

I wanted to get a full blog post up about this, but too many other things got in the way. The short version:

  • Cloud 9 does a fantastic job of picking apart opposing teams’ picks and bans, while also having a wide range of champions they choose from.
  • C9 is “at home” and has been watching all week while Fnatic ending their second week “on the road.” That stuff matters over time.
  • C9 Meteos’ attack lines, aggressive warding (with backup) and consistently high level of technical play in team fights positions them very well. There was this great feature on the site that talked about how anyone on the team can make a call and they all go for it and that trust has been earned. Meteos is just sick.
  • Fnatic’s jungler, Cyanide, is very good. And against anyone else in the top 8, I would focus on him being a key to victory. But in the end, I’d guess that Meteos is going to try to help the bot as much as he can, especially when they are on the blue side of the map, and that will let them take the early part of the match. If Cyanide also focuses bot I give Fnatic the edge in a 3v3 situation down there, but Meteos (and the rest of C9’s warding plays) should prevent that from happening.

That said, Fnatic is really, really strong and if C9 doesn’t beat them, I have them going all the way.

  • My favorite geeky stat right now is team gold per minute, and Fnatic has been improving over every single game over the group stage — averaging about 1800GPM and almost cracking 2000GPM in their final game. It is about 150GPM more than the other four teams that advanced.

Watch along at today at 3pm EDT. I will be livetweeting charts and stats from my @TechnicalStats twitter account.

It Gets Better When We Make It Better

2013 might be the year that Penny Arcade finally shows everyone who and what they are. Their problems, this year, started when one of the founders said something that was insensitive at least and hurtful at most. It began when some people noticed a particular panel in the upcoming Penny Arcade Expo in Australia (PAX-AUS). The panel, entitled “Why So Serious? Has the Industry Forgotten That Games Are Supposed to Be Fun?” had the following as its original description, with the emphasis added and with the Australian English spelling kept:

Why does the games industry garner such scrutiny from outside sources and within? Every point aberration gets called into question, reviewers are constantly criticised and developers and publishers professionally and personally attacked. Any titillation gets called out as sexist or misogynistic and involve any antagonist race other than Anglo-Saxons and you’re a racist.

It’s gone too far and when will it all end? How can we get off the soapbox and work together to bring a new constructive gaming age into fruition?

Many people complained, and the description was changed. Those changes were still not ideal and people had further complaints. Eventually Mike Krahulik aka “Gabe”, one of the two founders of Penny Arcade, took to Twitter to defend himself. A complete rundown of the events can be found on the Border House blog, including screen captures of some particularly transphobic tweets.

To proactively defend against the obvious responses: No, what Gabe said was not the ugliest thing ever. And no, he doesn’t hate all trans people. But what he said was hurtful, and his doubling-down was predictably painful. However, few saw his “but I have a trans friend” defense coming, and that email exchange shows that while he might be trying, Gabe simply doesn’t get it.

There is a difference between one’s sex, the physical characteristics one is born with and physically express over time, and one’s gender, which is a collection of physical and mental and social aspects that combine to express an identity.

There is a difference between “male” and “man” and a similar difference between “female” and “woman.” Clinically speaking, the body parts and the chromosomes are physical realities. For many those realities are nifty, and for some they are irrelevant. And for others, like me, they are challenges to be overcome. My article is more than a discussion about trans issues – this fantastic writeup closely resembles my opinions on the matter.

Two months ago re/Action posted two articles that spoke to what is happening.  Zoya Street’s “Why Invisibility Isn’t A Superpower” is a timeless work, and his description of shifting between genders in gamerspace should be required reading for people in the industry. In addition, Samantha Allen’s “An Open Letter To Games Media” discusses the problem that happens when the wrong people poison the discussion on gaming websites — and how we can change that. Both of those were written and published before Penny Arcade’s latest misstep. Please allow me to broaden this out:

I believe that Penny Arcade poisons the games industry with not just its transphobia, but also with its continued sexism, misogyny, and general disregard for “other.”

This is not a new thing for them. The “Dickwolves” debacle from the summer of 2010 still stands as the undisputed champion of “disregard for other,” where what began with a lack of comedic judgment descended into problem after problem after omg-what-were-you-thinking. This continued forward with their responses on their blog, making it clear that our objections to their content are our problem and not their problem:

“If jokes about violence, rape, aids, pedophilia, bestiality, drugs, cancer, homosexuality, and religion bother you then I recommend reading a different webcomic.” — Mike Krahulik aka “Gabe”, January 2011

For me, it is this prior posting from immediately after the Dickwolves comic was posted that sums up the entire problem nicely.

What surprised me most about some of the reactions to our Dickwolf joke was not that people were offended. But that this was the comic that offended them. In each case the emails I got started with something like “I’ve been a long time fan” or “Been reading the comic for years…” and then they go into how this particular comic really bothered them.

I just don’t understand that. Did the comics about bestiality, suicide, murder, pedophilia, and torture not bother them? Or how about the fruit fucker? I mean, we have a character who is a literal rapist. What comic strip have they been reading all these years?

For the most part I think that people are perfectly happy to laugh at offensive jokes until the joke offends them. Then it’s not funny anymore.  There is no way we can know what each and every person who reads the comic has decided to find offensive.

In the end I just disagree with these people about what’s funny and that’s perfectly okay.

The part that is not “perfectly okay” is that the industry chose to exalt Penny Arcade before that, and continues to celebrate them now. People have chosen to partner with Penny Arcade repeatedly, making things like Child’s Play and PATV and Penny Arcade Report, and taking a relatively small gaming convention like PAX and blowing it up to the size of E3. Thousands of hours, millions of readers, and an untold epic sum of money have been given over to these people — even after they have made it clear exactly who and what they are. Again, just this past weekend at PAX Prime, Krahulik said that he thought that “pulling the Dickwolves merchandise was a mistake.” (See the video here.)

In their own words, Penny Arcade is a place where “comics about bestiality, suicide, murder, pedophilia, and torture” are funny and normal and allowed and to be expected. Why do we, as an industry, continue to support this?

There are many people and companies in the industry who will passively stand by and mind their own business. For every major publisher that exhibits at PAX there are a few who do not, for instance. That attitude does serve well for the moment but it does not serve gaming’s soul at all. Silence is agreement that the status quo is good enough. Clearly, to me, it is not.

Penny Arcade has done some important things for the industry and beyond. Yes, PAX is a big deal and yes, Child’s Play has improved lives. But at what cost? Should doing great things give you the license to do horrible things as well? I’m not advocating for censorship, of course. They have the right to say almost anything they want. But we, as an industry, have the right to not financially enable this continued abuse of our public square.

Is Penny Arcade “too big to fail”? I very sincerely hope not. We can do better, and we should.

Twenty Young Bodies Hit The Floor. What Do We Do?

Today in Newtown Connecticut, 27 people were killed: 20 children, six adults, and the shooter. This is the largest grade school shooting massacre in American history. Newtown Connecticut is approximately an hour northeast of New York City, it is a well to do medium-size suburb. Something like 25,000 residents. And in that relatively quiet town, a young man, apparently in his early 20s, decided to — according to early reports — go to an elementary school wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying at least one assault rifle. He slaughtered two schoolrooms full of children. There are some initial reports that he had in excess of 500 rounds of ammunition — and these were not just regular everyday small handgun bullets. They were 5 mm rounds; it would only take one shot anywhere near their torso to kill a small child with one of those.

I am blogging this on the afternoon of the shooting. Many of the facts are still not known, but we do know that 20 children are dead. We do know that is traditional in this country to shy away from expressing political opinion in the wake of a tragedy. “It’s too soon.” Unfortunately, the continued frequency of these shootings make it such that it will always be too soon. Today, it was a massacre at an elementary school in Connecticut. Last week, a mass shooting in a mall in Oregon. And before that, the assassination attempt of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords. And before that, the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999. Not to mention the tens of thousands of deaths delivered by guns in this country every single year.

In the 13 years since the Columbine massacre, many things have happened in this country. Many lessons learned, and many changes to the way we view ourselves, our security and safety, and the government’s role in maintaining that. In the past decade, we’ve seen a very large expansion into the daily lives of those who travel by airplane, post online, or use a cell phone. And yet that same choice is not made for those who use guns.

I am not a gun owner; I have never fired a gun. I believe that holding a gun in your hand is putting oneself on the same level as God (or Goddess or deity or whatever term you prefer). A person holding a gun has the ultimate ability to end life. And, therefore, the ultimate responsibility. I don’t believe that it is possible for me to guarantee that I would never make a mistake holding such a thing. I am but one person, able to make mistakes just like anyone else. What happened earlier today was not a mistake — or, rather, if it was a mistake it was not one of the shooter. Everything he did today was planned. The mistake comes from us. The society that allows the conditions under which such an act could take place.

After every single one of these tragedies are always people that ask “why don’t we do something?” The first question gets asked, but the second and third one never seems to get asked or answered. So I will ask them:

  • If these 20 dead children — each of them under the age of 10 — are not reason enough to at least start the conversation about what we can and should do about gun violence in this country, then how many dead children will it take?
  • What if the shooter had killed 30? Or 50? What if the shooter had killed every child in the school? Some initial reports say that he had 500 rounds of ammunition… More than enough to kill every single living being in those buildings.
  • Why is it easier to get a gun than it is to receive mental counceling?
  • Why do we stigmatize those looking for such help?
  • Why is violence so prevalent in our society?
  • Why do we not make the social cost of using a gun take into account the potential for misuse of that gun?

Since 1999, the entire security infrastructure this country has changed completely. Every single time I drive my car, my actions are recorded. Every time I drive through a major intersection, or through a toll booth, or to an airport, or freely on any public street with a security camera, I license plate can be scanned and its location tracked and stored forever.

In most states in this country, every single year every car has to be registered. Every couple of years, everybody’s license needs to be renewed. It is impossible to buy or sell a car without that transaction being noted by the state. It is impossible to get a license without the license being handed to you by the state. We consider these things to be commonsense measures, to ensure everyone safety. I’m not saying that doing this with guns would necessarily solve every problem, but if we’re going to do all of that for cars why can’t we do something for guns?

In more than 30 states, the gun that was probably used and other assault rifles just like it can be purchased without an ID, without a license, and without trace. This can happen at a gun show, or in someone’s private home, or really anywhere at all.

When the assault weapons ban was allowed to expire in 2004, a 10 year experiment of an assault weapons ban came to an end. The results of that experiment? A 66% decrease in crime associated with assault weapons in this country. Is the one directly associated with the other? No one can tell. Banning assault weapons, and banning large capacity ammunition clips, will not stop this from happening again. But it’s still a good idea. Because I’m pretty sure that every mom and every dad, every brother in every sister, every loved one who lost a loved one today… Or really on any day as a result of gun violence… Would love a 66% chance to get those loved ones back.

No, this blog post is not about games. But I had to say something. I’m going to go pick up my daughter now, who will have just gotten out of school an hour ago, and give her a hug. And tell her again, “I love you.”

“I Set The Tempo”, a deck for Magic Standard (Fall 2012)

I do not have enough time to play Magic to take an existing deck and play it better than everyone else playing that deck. Sometimes a deck is so good that you don’t have any choice in the matter — but those are the times I just stop playing a format. Standard Magic right now might be as diverse as I’ve ever seen it.. even though there are some cards that are the tent-poles of the entire format. Unlike the spring of 2010 or 2011, those tent-poles can’t all go into the same one or two decks, which leads us to a great diverse field.

This great article on Star City (Select) describes the current meta: no deck is more than 20% of the field. As a TCG designer, let me say that an environment is doing well when there are at least 5 meaningful choices to bring to a moneyed tournament. Of course, even though there are many different decks, there are some things in common with them. At the end of the day, the decks are either aggro (Zombies, G/W Aggro), midrange (Jund, Junk aka Reanimator, G/W midrange) or control (almost all of them U/W and then either splashing black, red, or nothing). In a healthy meta, game designers prefer to see the classic control beating midrange, midrange beating aggro, aggro beating control triangle… and people who want to win tournaments try to break that triangle wide open.

So, to that end, I present a deck that is designed to win every matchup. To do that, I’ve built a sideboard that is not designed to stop specific cards, but it is designed to allow me to shift my deck into a different role. Presenting: I Set The Tempo.

I Set The Tempo

Stromkirk Noble
Delver of Secrets
Goblin Electromancer
Snapcaster Mage

BURN (14)
Izzet Charm
Brimstone Volley
Pillar of Flame
Searing Spear


LANDS (21)
Sulfur Falls
Steam Vents
Sideboard (15)
Desolate Lighthouse
Izzet Charm
Dungeon Geists
Bonfire of the Damned
Thundermaw Hellkite

What this deck presents in game one is the most tempo-heavy deck-with-counterspells in the format. Your role is to set the tempo. You want to play a creature on turn 1 every single game (unless they play an elf – always shoot the elf). You want to get one creature out there, and then burn their blockers and counter their removal, and win in 5 or 6 turns. How you sideboard depends on the role you choose to play. You need to decide if you are going to shift into being the control deck.

Versus Control:
You love playing against control or other decks that need time to get their plan together, because the majority of those decks can’t deal with a turn 1 creature that gets bigger. Usually either of those creatures will have dealt 6 damage before dealt with — and “one mana, one card, six damage” is a fine ratio. And, if you get a bit lucky with your draw, you can Brimstone Volley at the end of the turn where they do finally deal with your creature, and hit them for five more. You’re more than half-way done.

Don’t counter their card-drawing spells, because them spending mana to draw cards is you gaining even more tempo. When you see that their plan involves winning after turn 5, you should be throwing burn at their head. Every single time they are tapped out throw burn at them, and even sometimes when they aren’t. While sometimes Searing Spear reads “tap three of your opponent’s lands and they discard a card,” that is OK. Push as hard as you can.

Sideboard vs Control:
-2 Izzet Charm
-2 Pillar of Flame
+2 Hellrider
+2 Desolate Lighthouse

Adding the two lands allows you to bring in the Hellriders. Yes, they are probably playing Supreme Judgment after that. Who cares? You just spent 2RR to deal 6 or 7 damage. And now they are tapped out and you can burn them out from there, yah?

There are times when you want to become truly midrange against control… especially if their control involves 1/1 flying Spirit tokens. Bring in all three Lighthouses and all 4 Thundermaw Hellkites at that point. But those Thundermaws aren’t in your sideboard just for that…

Versus Aggro
You love playing against aggro, mostly because your first game is a bit of a coin flip and your sideboarded games are massively in your advantage. You are an aggro deck that can counter their largest threat, no matter what that threat is. If you are playing against zombies, that coin-flip becomes rock-paper-scissors-you-win-ties. Even if they play a Cavern of Souls to ensure their zombie hits the battlefield, that’s fine. Your burn is better than theirs, your creature curve is just as low as theirs (meaning you can block if you must), and you have reach and they don’t. Besides, 12 of their creatures can’t block (Geralf’s Messenger, Gravecrawler, and Diregraf Ghoul) so you have the tempo edge. Beat in early, burn out late.

What is great about playing against Aggro is that you have the easiest time knowing what to bring in:

Sideboard vs Aggro:
+3 Desolate Lighthouse
+1 Izzet Charm
+3 Dungeon Geists
+2 Bonfire of the Damned
+4 Thundermaw Hellkite

-4 Stromkirk Noble
-4 Goblin Electromancer (usually)
-2 Brimstone Volley (usually)
-3 others (depending on the matchup)

Some additional notes:
If they are on the Cavern of Souls plan, remove some counterspells not all of them — because your opponent will have some burn or Rancor or Searing Spear or something else worth countering.

Why bring in the Dungeon Geists? They provide a tempo shift, allow you to trade as necessary, and they kill Spirit tokens (if someone tries that plan again), but most-importantly they draw your opponent’s removal spell. Since you can easily deal 10 to the dome with your burn spells, Delver of Secrets and Dungeon Geists are must-kill creatures. That works out well for you when you drop “Baneslayer Dragon” (Thundermaw Hellkite) soon thereafter.

Why are there only two Bonfires in the sideboard? Your deck has 24 lands post-sideboard, and you really don’t ever want more than 5 of them on the battlefield. You will discard the excess to dig into your deck using Izzet Charm and Desolate Lighthouse. This means two things: you never want to draw a Bonfire early and you won’t have the mana to cast it for more than 2 damage if you don’t use the Miracle cost. At one point I was running 4, then only 3, thinking I could just cycle them away if they came up at the wrong time. That is true… but since we are not a “true” control deck we can’t waste time like that. Cycling cards away is the last thing we want to do, but we will do it if nothing else is available.

Versus Midrange
This is your toughest matchup. Depending on the nature of their plan, you can’t reliably shift up or down. Against a good midrange player, especially one packing Cavern of Souls and Centaur Healer, you are going to have a difficult time winning game one. But all is not lost… Do not try to win this matchup by clearing their blockers, because that isn’t going to happen. You have few ways to deal with 4-toughness. Instear, you win by flying over with a Insectile Aberration and throwing burn spells at their head.

You have to play nearly flawless Magic to win this matchup in game one. Being smart with your countermagic is key. Do not counter their creatures that cost less than 4 mana, unless they can stop your insect. Even then, you would rather spend a burn spell on a blocker and save your counterspells for their removal… but that option is not always available. Also, knowing when to spend that Izzet Charm to get more burn (or to find a Snapcaster Mage, which is basically the same thing in this match) is huge.

There are many flavors of midrange, and you have the tools to deal with almost any of them if you have the experience to know what your opponent is playing. This is the largest hole in my Magic skill set — I can’t get into my opponent’s head like many of the greats can. This is why I complained about this deck on Twitter recently… it seems like if I was better at the game, this deck would take me places. So when one of you pros reading this article cash in using this deck, I’ll take a physical version of Thundermaw Hellkite as a thank you gift. Seems fair, right?

A couple of other obvious notes: the value of your Izzet Charm goes up if they have Cavern of Souls. Cavern determines if you are the aggro or the control deck in the matchup, but it does so in a strange way. If they have Cavern, you are the control deck. Really. this deck uses countermagic to protect your early creature advantage. If they have Cavern, your early creature advantage will be trumped by their midgame Huntmasters and Healers and Angels and, of course, Thragtusks. Instead, you need to shift into being the control deck by relying less on countermagic and more on… control.

Sideboard vs Cavernous Midrange

+3 Desolate Lighthouse
+3 Dungeon Geists
+4 Thundermaw Hellkite
(usually +2 Bonfire of the Damned)

What you drop to make room for those cards is completely based on their deck. Sometimes Pillar of Flame will be of little value. If they are midrange without humans, I will usually drop the Stromkirk Nobles. You can reduce the countermagic too, but don’t overdo it — chances are they will have some spell you’d like to deal with (Rancor, Dreadbore, planeswalkers) which can’t be sheltered by the Cavern.

Dungeon Geists require a special comment here… they turn Thragtusk into “4G, gain 5 life.” Obviously as the aggro player you don’t like that, but as the control player you can live with it. Ideally you are playing them with 6 lands on the battlefield, leaving 2 mana up for Negate or Izzet Charm.

In this matchup, you win by flying over with a creature. Their life total doesn’t matter too much as you have the long-game inevitability. Make that Hellkite and watch it win.

Sideboard vs. non-Cavernous Midrange

+2 Hellrider
+2 Bonfire of the Damned
+2 Desolate Lighthouse
(+1 Izzet Charm?)

In this matchup, you are the aggro player. Your Stromkirks are staying in, and you are trying to win by clearing/countering blockers and countering removal. This is not the best plan, but it is the best way to win in this difficult pairing. You must counter the turn 5 Thragtusk. If this means letting the turn 4 Huntmaster resolve, so be it. If this means not tapping out to play a turn 4 Hellrider going second, so be it.

Cards I tried but had to let go:

Guttersnipe: At the RTR prerelease I killed someone on turn 5 on the power of a turn 3 Guttersnipe, so I had to see if it would work in Standard. The answer is no, not yet, but if you can find a way to make room for it in the sideboard I’d suggest trying it yourself. Resolving it on turn 3 versus control means that you have inevitability — every counterspell dings them for two. That was hilarious.

Nivmagus Elemental: This was replaced by Stromkirk Noble. One huge advantage this has over the Noble is that you can upgrade your Pillar of Flames into +2/+2 against decks without creatures, and that was fantastic. Against decks with creatures, it still isn’t always horrible to make a “turn-one” 3/4. And, of course, versus control this lets you eat each of your spells that won’t resolve.

Think Twice: This deck got much better once I removed the card draw. Do not be tempted to put it back in. Aggro decks don’t want to waste a turn drawing a card fro two mana, and we are trying to be the fastest control deck in the format, so we don’t have the time either. (Izzet Charm can be a damage spell or a counterspell, so it gets played. Desolate Lighthouse is the ideal land for us, too, because we can add them in “for free.”)

Essence Scatter: This was very difficult to cut. On the one hand, it stops Thragtusk and Restoration Angel and other spells trapped in a creature’s body. On the other hand, those midrange creatures shouldn’t matter to us because of the rest of the deck, and the early-game creatures get burned out as necessary. Syncopate replaced the 2 of these I was running; I’d be happy to hear your experiences using it.

Ash Zealot: Clearly a powerful creature, but you’d rather have Goblin Electromancer against an unknown opponent (as it is a better creature every turn other than turn two, because of all of your instants). Sometimes you run into a situation with taking damage yourself from a Snapcaster-flashedback spell, but that is very, very infrequent. And since you aren’t playing, Think Twice, we aren’t flashing back spells much at all… again, maybe I just had bad luck using her. I’d love to hear what others think.

Adding a third color: But “mana is so great right now!” Why not play with a third color? Not worth the tempo loss. This deck is the aggro deck with reach presideboard, or the fastest control deck in the format postsideboard. Adding a third color wrecks that plan.

Izzet Staticaster: This is a very important card for Izzet but there wasn’t sideboard room. Cards like this one really screw with the combat math, and are the perfect tool for making your opponent think before they act. If you can find room to put it into your sideboard, please let me know your results.

In Conclusion
This deck gives me the illusion of control. It lets me minimize the threat of manaflood by running so few in the main deck and having so many card-cycling options in the sideboarded versions. I’ve even won games keeping a one-land six-card hand, because sometimes Delver or Stromkirk Just Gets There.

I’ve posted this deck because I’d love to make an even-better version of it and actually win something with it. Help me get better at this game, would you? Suggestions welcome. PS: You can see a nifty display of this deck on Tapped Out.

Jon Elden Deserves a Lifetime Ban From Magic

At Star City Games Detroit 2012, Jon Elden was playing in the sixth round of the Legacy Open when he was down 1-0 in a best of three match. His U/W Stoneforge Mystic deck served him well so far, but he was not in great shape. He had found a way back into the match with a Stoneforge Mystic getting a Batterskull. His opponent, Samuel Friedman, was playing “good stuff” BUG and was seemingly winning the matchup of two aggro-control decks.

Here is a video of the cheat. Lots happening in a short space of time, so I will break it down action by action. All of the timestamps below imply “08:” hours into the clip, the timestamps are mm:ss format…

10:50 Elden casts Stoneforge Mystic, fetching Batterskull. Passes.

11:00 Friedman Brainstorms, plays a land, passes with 3 mana open.

11:20 Elden untap, draw, passes with 5 mana open.

11:30 Friedman untap, draw, plays 5th land, passes. During Friedman’s end step, Elden activates Stoneforge Mystic, and in response Friedman casts Vendilion Clique. We see Jon Elden’s hand: Batterskull (which was tutored for a moment ago), Sword of Feast and Famine, another Stoneforge Mystic and a Vendilion Clique of his own.

Friedman chooses the Batterskull, which forces it to go to the bottom of the deck at 11:40. Elden draw a card as part of the Clique’s ability too (11:45), and now finally the Stoneforge Mystic ability resolves and Sword of Feast and Famine comes into play. (11:52)

11:57 Elden draws for his turn (forgetting to untap his Stoneforge Mystic, which Friedman does for him). Elden then taps two lands, plays a third one tapped, then plays his own Vendilion Clique (12:04). It is a legend, killing his opponent’s Clique and his own, but first Elden’s Clique’s ability goes off. Friedman’s cards are two Flusterstorms, and they don’t matter.

Here is the setup of the cheat: At 12:10 Elden places his hand of two cards down next to his deck and quickly adjusts his deck. He’s not drawing cards here, but he is sliding the deck towards his hand a bit, then sliding all but the bottom card of his deck slightly back where it was.

The important thing is that while Friedman is putting his hand back down on the table (because Elden was through with his Clique’s ability), it was at that moment (12:12) when Elden cracked his Polluted Delta to search his deck. And when he does, he picks up his entire deck except the bottom card. That bottom card is the Batterskull which was put on the bottom of his deck a moment ago. Notice that the Batterskull is sitting there on the table next to his hand of cards.

This is the moment before the cheat. The card above Elden’s left hand is the Batterskull which should be in his deck, which is being cut by Friedman. Below Elden’s left wrist is his two-card hand. The swipe happens right after this.

Here is the execution of the cheat: At 12:18 he gets the land from the Polluted Delta into play from his deck and he shuffles… at 12:22 he presents his deck to his opponent. Both of his hands are free as his hand of cards is on the table, next to the Batterskull (which by now surely Friedman just thinks is a card from Elden’s hand). In less than one second — while Friedman cuts the deck (at 12:24, to prevent cheating, you know), Elden uses both hands to quickly equip the Sword onto the Mystic and attack. He then uses his right hand to tap the two mana to actually have equipped the sword while using his left hand to touch or adjust his graveyard, which is sitting above where his deck will go.

At 12:25 Friedman has to discard a card (from the Sword’s ability) and while that happens Elden takes his deck back with his left hand, drops it back where it was, while scooping up his hand of cards and the Batterskull which should have been on the bottom of his deck before with his right hand at 12:26.

Elden now slows down his play, untapping all five of his lands (Sword), thinks about playing a card, shuffles his hand a bit, then plays… Batterskull. (12:40) “Wow,” says commentator Adrian Sullivan. “He actually drew the… yah, that’s it” as Friedman then drew a card for his turn, saw he was dead on the board, and conceded.

When I started writing this article, I was also wondering why his opponent didn’t see what happened. I mean, the cheat was not obvious — in the moments before the Batterskull cheat Elden did draw two cards (one for Vendilion Clique, one for the turn) which means it was possible he could have naturally drawn the Batterskull — maybe a second copy was in Elden’s deck or something? Seems plausible. Not likely but plausible.

When I started writing this article, I thought that Elden deserved a one-year ban. But after going through all of the details I have determined that Elden is a master cheat. I recorded the video of the twitch stream I linked above onto my ipad so I could easily rewind the section involved over and over. And only through looking at this 20 second slice of time for an hour can I see all of the little things he does to make this possible:

  • Elden was making little errors to force his opponent to worry about the board more than he should (order of tapping cards, forgetting to untap things)
  • Elden’s placement of his graveyard above his library allowed him to shield the final critical steps of the cheat.
  • Elden’s critical cheating steps all took place during split-seconds of time his opponent would need to be doing something that required any amount of attention. Like revealing his hand, discarding a card, shuffling a deck…
  • Elden’s frequent habit of touching seemingly random things at random times made doing things that would seem like cheating “normal” in the context of the match.
  • And to top it all off: All of this cheat happened in the span of six seconds. He does six things in six seconds with surgical precision — his skill is that of a professional who has spent thousands of hours perfecting his craft. Cheating.

Jon Elden deserves a lifetime ban from Magic. He is a blight on Magic the Gathering’s competitive game scene, and should be removed from it for good. This is clearly not the first time he has cheated — he is far too skilled to have done that only once. Ban him for good.

(This blog post was updated to correct a typo: “but he not in great shape” became “but he was not in great shape”. It was also updated to correct an error: “We see Friedman’s hand” has been corrected to “We see Jon Elden’s hand”.)

One more thing: I obviously cannot verify the accuracy of anyone’s feedback they leave below. I’m approving basically everything that is not a spam link, unless I have reason to suspect otherwise. Thanks.

After more than a week, this conversation continues… but the vast majority of new comments are spam. (Something like 25 to 1 at this point.) So this blog will timeout new comments after 7 days. Great feedback everyone.