Hello and welcome back!
Today I’m going to share another deck list from Gen Con, and (as I am wont to do) I’ll talk about it in the context some early design decisions we made that are highlighted by that deck.
One of the most important aspects of a healthy game (especially a TCG) is diversity. Ideally, every time you play it will be a new experience. There are a couple of ways to measure diversity. One of the most common is deck diversity. Whether you’re playing against a friend, your local store group, or the Energon Invitational, you don’t want to be constantly battling the same deck. Everyone has more fun when you see something different every round. This is important, but arguably even more important is play diversity. You want repeated games of the same matchup to play differently.
How do we do that? There are two main paths, and conveniently, they work hand in hand. We make different decisions viable, and we make the same decision give different results. I’ll start with the second one, because the results you expect have a major impact on the decisions you make.
Imagine that you are William Wellman, our second place finisher, running this deck:
Wheeljack - Cliffjumper - Lionizer
3x Peace Through Tyranny
3x Start Your Engines
2x Press the Advantage
2x Ramming Speed
2x Dampening Field
1x One Shall Stand, One Shall Fall
3x Grenade Launcher
3x Erratic Lightning
1x Enforcement Batons
1x Mounted Missiles
3x Improvised Shield
2x Bashing Shield
2x Force Field
3x Turbo Boosters
Prowl - Character
2x Heat of Battle
2x Energon Axe
1x Enforcement Batons
1x Mounted Missiles
1x Treasure Hunt
1x Photon Bomb
1x One Shall Stand, One Shall Fall
1x Dampening Field
First of all, I want to say congratulations to William for his stellar performance in a well fought tournament. It was a pleasure to get to watch you play over the course of the weekend.
Imagine it’s the second turn of the game. You’ve already attacked with Lionizer and you want to follow up with Wheeljack. You’ve got two upgrades in hand, which do you play?
Grenade Launcher will get you one extra damage right now, but Erratic Lightning will be more valuable if you untap. On the other hand, the -1 armor might be the difference between Wheeljack getting to untap or not.
So, which do you do?
It’s an impossible question, because the answer is entirely dependent on the board state and what deck your opponent is playing. If they’re playing a hyper-aggressive orange deck with big, heavy-hitting characters, you choose Grenade Launcher for the extra damage, knowing that they might be able to KO Wheeljack in one swing anyway. If it’s a grindy defensive team, then the Erratic Lightning looks better. But if it’s a very wide team (maybe a Combiner) where your opponent may be able to attack out with several small characters, that -1 armor on the Erratic Lightning will really add up.
That’s a lot of nuance over some very small damage differences. Why is that?
When you’re plotting out an attack in the Transformers TCG, there’s a lot of known information. Your attack, their defense, their defensive upgrades, and the actions and upgrades you can play this turn. There’s also some unknown information—primarily any Secret Actions they’ve played and what both of your battle flips are going to be. Adding it all up, before you commit to any attack you usually know to within one or two damage how effective your attack will be.
Grossly simplified, our game is about reducing your opponent’s health pool to zero before they do the same to you. Of course, if the game was truly that simple, it would be quite dull. Each game would be a horse race of “my damage exchange is 5% more efficient than yours, so I’m two damage ahead.” To make the game dynamic and viscerally exciting while adding depth and nuance, we needed to introduce non-linearities. The most important one of these is that characters function perfectly until they are KO’d. A character that survives an attack with one or two health either gets an extra swing for a handful of unexpected damage or absorbs a hit that wastes a bunch of “overkill” damage. This damage threshold can amplify small variations, whether they are the result of a fortunate flip or a play that was 10% better than your opponent’s. That’s why the Zap that William is running is the worst card in his deck, except when it’s the best card in his deck.
Non-linearities make the game about more than a pure damage race. They increase the importance of jockeying for position, of bluffing and misdirection, of play and counterplay, and of balancing immediate payoffs vs longer-term rewards. William’s deck has several key non-linear cards, both old and new. Force Field is a classic, the aggro mirror breaker, as is the anti-Force Field, Bashing Shield. A new entry, fantastic against Bold decks, is Dampening field. Peace Through Tyranny is another non-linear card we’ve seen gaining more traction recently. While KO’ing your own character is a high enough price to pay that it’s not worth the extra turn as a baseline, when you can cash in a heavily damage character or a Battle Master, it suddenly shines. Where linear cards have a predictable output, non-linear cards (and game rules) create dramatic swings in value, often from worthless to game-changing.
This all leads into the second part of creating play diversity, multiple viable decisions. We make this possible through multiple axes (not the Energon kind), including role assignment, cards drawn, strategic plans, bluffing, assessment of risk, and responding to unexpected combat results.
There’s a sequence of plays in Game 2 of the finals, starting about 19 minutes in, that illustrate several of these concepts. I’ll call out each fork in the road.
- Fork 1: William’s opponent Kevin plays Reckless Charge hoping to KO Private Lionizer in one swing, but making Red Alert more vulnerable.
- Fork 2: Kevin got an unfortunate flip, getting only one orange battle icon (in a heavy-orange deck) in 6 flips, leaving Lionizer with two health remaining.
- Fork 3: William plays an upgrade, allowing him to draw into Peace Through Tyranny from Wheeljack’s trigger. William plays the PTT on Lionizer, giving him an extra turn and a very powerful upgrade. His first attack with Cliffjumper is able to KO Red Alert due to the Reckless Charge Damage
- Fork 4: On his extra turn, William plays Turbo Boosters on Cliffjumper to untap him. He could send Cliffjumper into his opponent’s damaged Cliffjumper, a nearly guaranteed KO which would also protect his damaged Wheeljack. Instead, he sends Wheeljack into an undamaged Arcee, a riskier attack which could have backfired and left Wheeljack exposed, likely leaving him at a 3-to-1 disadvantage after his opponent’s next turn.
This sequence of forks shows how a risky move that doesn’t pay off creates a key strategic decision point. If William had taken the safe path, he could have gotten the game state to something that was close to even. It would have been two damaged higher star characters vs two undamaged lower star characters. Instead, he recognized that the short-term risk of failing to KO Arcee with his damaged Wheeljack was lower than the long-term risk associated with the above-mentioned “safe play”. This game state could only have happened with this sequence of risk assessments and their corresponding results, but it resulted in one of the most exciting and explosive segments of Transformers I’ve ever witnessed.
I hope this article has helped you appreciate William’s deck design, tournament performance, and the depth of the decision chain involved in piloting what observers might consider to be a “dumb aggro mirror”. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity, I highly recommend you watch the whole top 4 stream.