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A Response to Jorbs, regarding Poker and the Tragedy of the Commons

Last night I saw that Jorbs (the Slay the Spire Streamer and former pro-poker player) posted a video discussing tournament hold ’em and the tragedy of the commons. While Tao isn’t a huge poker player, I’m not entirely without skills. And mixing game theory, poker, and policy design? The kind of catnip topic I haven’t seen in years!

To summarize the video:

  1. In tournament poker (unlike in cash games) not all chips are equal value (the Independent Chip Model)
  2. In the final table of a tournament (for example) this model leads to optimal play often being to wait for you and him to fight. “Going to war” (with random hands) on net costs both players expected value. (I don’t really think you — the average Tao reader, gifted with math knowledge far above average — needs that link. Nor does Jorbs. But maybe I’ll catch some traffic that does).
  3. Jorbs provides the example of a 6 handed table folded to the small blind. In this situation, the SB may just shove all in much more often than optimal (in a cash game), because the clever BB — even if he knows that he SB is bullying — is stuck. Calling with more than the “correct” set of hands (whatever that may be) is just destroying his expected value.
  4. This is a tragedy of the commons, a known problem (Jorbs uses the “picking up trash in a public park” example). (It’s kind of a two player prisoner’s dilemma, with a small blind/big blind, but because it can be repeated with multiple actors, it extends. There are some assumptions buried in there, but for a 20 minute video or a blog post, I think its fine to handwave this).
  5. But — here is the crux of Jorbs’s frustration — Pro Poker players are some of the most strategic thinkers on the earth (in their domain at least) … So, why have they not come up with a solution to this problem via some enforcement strategy?
  6. More frustratingly for Jorbs is that apparently poker players do not apparently acknowledge this problem.

I have many thoughts….

Let’s You and Him Fight

First, this problem is a typical “multi-player wargame” issue. This is the reason 3+ player (non-team) Chess doesn’t work. If A and B trade pawns, C is better off. There’s a reason that Titan is a classic: If A and B fight, C may be the big loser (because fighting has gains and losses …. the fight’s winner can gain points, a recruit, an angel, possibly legion tokens).

In fact, I think Jorb’s simplified model over-stated how negative the EV was of going to war. He just assumed payouts of 6,5,4,3,2,1. But typical tournament payout would be something like 300,150,75,40,25,10 … the values would depend on entries, but winning is ~40% …. Running a full EV calculation is harder then, but my gut feeling is that it lessens the impact of going all, but it would still be a negative EV play. (The calculation is harder b/c the person who doubles up now has a 40% chance of winning the tournament, but also improved chances of 2nd, and reduced chances of 5th, etc. This calculation may be solved, but I don’t know the solution and don’t care to do it now. Perhaps one of my readers knows the answer).

As any bridge player has heard, Matchpoints isn’t real bridge. (See my review of Matchpoints by Kit Woolsey). So, Jorbs feeling that tournament poker has these annoying corner cases makes total sense. You have taken an open-ended cash game (like Bridge, originally) and turned it into a format that can take an arbitrary number of entries and produce a winner in a relatively fixed time frame. Why would you expect that to be a perfect translation?

Perhaps the TL;DR of this essay is “Given that this is a known problem in tons of domains, why would you think Poker is immune?” Again — hardly satisfying. So let’s dive into it in more detail

Enforcers != Enforcement

Jorbs brings up the idea that people should enforce it. Let’s define that. An optimal player in the Big Blind will know the range of hands to calldown with if the Small Blind is playing optimally (even if I don’t). This is likely solved. If the small blind is “stealing” (betting or shoving all in on more hands than is optimal) then the Big Blind can call more aggressively and still be playing optimally (assuming he has a good estimate of how much the small blind is cheating).

We’re still in game theory. But what if the Big Blind decides to change from “optimal” play to an enforcer? Now they will not only call when it is optimal, they will call sometimes when it is sub-optimal, just to hope to catch the small blind and punish them. Something I have said professionally (but not on this blog, apparently) is

“Security is paying a small cost to impose a large cost on your adversary.”

(Me)

So, an enforcer expands their range of plays (possibly to the point of just always calling anyone who appears to be consistently stealing). If all the seats agree to do this, then you have solved the tragedy of the commons, or so the argument goes. Because players see that you are willing to punish defectors

Let’s posit that some players at the final table are just lucky and not up to game theory.

If we go back to our park example. An optimal person will pick up some trash and keep the park clean for everyone (“cooperate” in the prisoner’s dilemma). If they see a defector (someone who walks past a piece of trash without picking it up or even worse tosses some trash on the ground), they will not do anything. But an enforcer will punish the defector. Call them out, shame them, fine them, something. The enforcer takes an additional cost to make things right.

So now our enforcer rushes over to the guy who tossed a soda cup on the ground, harangues them, and then gets their reputation destroyed on social media, gets fired from their job and the litter bug’s Go Fund Me explodes … (Now might be a good time to mention the “Central Park Karen” — I haven’t followed that particular story enough to know who is actually the bad guy here, but this is not a hypothetical).

The obviously true fact is at the poker table, there’s a lot of variance. “Punishing” the defector is probably taking away a couple percent from them in the long run, but in the short run you’ll double them up a fair amount of the time.

And what do the other players see? A way to tilt the enforcer (should they ever be sitting to his right). Because “Enforcer” is another way of saying “Not playing optimally.”

Enforcement may incentivize the behavior you are trying to stop. Particularly for an opponent who recognizes he’s outclassed. (This is another aspect of Matchpoints. When you are inferior to the field you should absolutely not use the exact same bidding system as the field. Why get to the average contract and let the result be decided by technical perfection when the other players are better at it? Better to flip a coin, even if you know the coin is slightly biased against you).

It would be one thing if when you tossed some trash on the ground, enforcers (cops or otherwise) magically appeared and gave you a $50 fine. But if they magically appear and give you a fine 52% of the time and give you a $50 gift card 48% of the time, you are “losing” EV, but it might take a while to catch on.

People play lotteries voluntarily and plenty of criminals risk decades (or life) of jail time because enforcement is haphazard at best, and that’s with paid enforcers.

A minor but related point — If your village has 100 people, the park is probably small but nice. Everyone knows everyone, and if Giselle doesn’t pick up the trash because she thinks its beneath her, people will talk. If your commons are Manhattan’s Central Park …. well, there’s a lot of anonymity in the big city (except for Karen) anyway. Even if you discount the bad incentives and knew that everyone would see what you are doing and react accordingly, it matters if you are playing against the same crowd over and over again (where they will learn you are enforcing) versus some people you’ll likely never see again. (Yes, this might very well be the definition of Tragedy of the Commons, but I wanted to make it explicitly).

The Elephant in the Card Room

One aspect that Jorbs touches on …. there is an enforcer. The Casino. As he mentions, there are rules against collusion. The Casino cares about that, because if word got out that a gang (etc) were colluding in their card room the game (and their sweet, sweet rakes) would dry up. The tournament rules (like raising stakes) also exist for the Casino’s benefit, because they don’t rake each hand (only the fees), so they have incentives to make it fast enough to be profitable, but long enough that players want to play.

And the Casino is a notoriously ruthless enforcer. If I became desperate enough to resort to stealing, I’d go for a waitresses tips before trying to steal chips from an area where all the players had went to the bathroom. Even for non-crime, rules of the game enforcements, casinos are tough to beat. I’ve been called out for string raising because I didn’t know the exact rules of that particular card room (for example), even though I’m usually careful to not string-raise. The dealer is often very sympathetic to me, while rigidly enforcing the rules.

A story I read in a poker book. In one of the early tournaments, a small stack pushed all in under-the-gun. The next person (a medium stack, with several big stacks behind him) pushed all in and flipped over his pair of aces. The logic was impeccable, he was likely to bust out the small stack, but a big stack might think he was also cheating and try to bust him out, and even if he had a hand, ICM theory said it might be right to call. The ace-holder might very well grab a bunch of chips, but it was at a risk and by advertising he was making the safe solid play.

This is another weird Matchpoint-esque situation. Playing for cash you’d be happy to have a bunch of callers.

Now casinos ban players from showing their cards.

Of course, there’s a whole bunch of reasons why Casinos don’t say “No cheating in the final table, tragedy of the commons situation.” How to tell and enforce? Casinos want a bright line rule. But from the Casino’s POV, this is a legitimate angle/shot, all part of the game, and not something that (most) players care about. If players did care, Casinos might try to enforce it, but mostly it takes care of itself. Chip stacks are rarely even and the blinds will increase fast enough that other issues come to the fore.

Part of my wonders if one reason that Pros (in general) don’t care isn’t a lack of awareness, its just that its a small minor corner cases that they get over (“Matchpoints”). And against that small benefit, if they ever decided to band and somehow not have it backfire, they are worried about the casino.

Because if you (and the rest of the Pros) stood up and loudly proclaimed “We will punish defectors” some Average Joe somewhere is going to go to the Casino and say “Aren’t they colluding?” (I don’t really think this is an issue, but its an interesting angle).

Some random other thoughts / Conclusion

I keep thinking back to Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty. For any problem inside an organization or system some people accept it (Loyalty), some complain but try to work within the system (Voice) and some just give up and walk away (Exit). This is obviously a butchering and gross simplification of Hirschman’s book, which I doubt I remember enough to treat well …. Thankfully poker isn’t nearly as important as most tragedies of the commons.

My main response to Jorbs is that I think he’s correct, and I can see why it bother him, but … well, I play a lot of Matchpoints these days. What he’s describing is true, and has no solution that I can see. If it really bothered me, well, I’d be an exit-guy as well. I’m sympathetic. Whaddya going to do? It’s the rules of the game.

PS — For a great article discussing capitalism, evolution, and various tragedies including the prisoner’s dilemma, paperclip maximizers and the race to the bottom — with a stop in Las Vegas — I suggest Scott Alexander’s (very long) essay Meditations on Moloch.

I will now jump from boring game theory stuff to what might be the closest thing to a mystical experience I’ve ever had.

Like all good mystical experiences, it happened in Vegas. I was standing on top of one of their many tall buildings, looking down at the city below, all lit up in the dark. If you’ve never been to Vegas, it is really impressive. Skyscrapers and lights in every variety strange and beautiful all clustered together. And I had two thoughts, crystal clear:

It is glorious that we can create something like this.

It is shameful that we did.

Scott Alexander, Meditations on Moloch

Written by taogaming

August 14, 2021 at 10:07 am

Too Many Words about Slay the Spire, Pt II — The Characters

This article, yada yada yada. See Part I for disclaimer. This covers the basic thoughts for each character, it is not intended to be “card by card complete” or cover all possibilities. Also, while I discuss strategies and archetypes, these are intended as a “Discussion” or suggestions, not as a crutch or exhaustive list. They are just archetypes. For the most part I am not going to get into too many relics in this discussion.

One more definition — A naked pick is picking a card that doesn’t do anything for you yet. (Like taking a Limit Break which doubles your strength bonus, when you as of yet have no way to get a strength bonus). Since this violates the “focus on the near term,” taking a card that is a dead load for the near future and potentially the game indicates that the card has tremendous upside.

And I realize I didn’t really talk about density as clearly as I could. It hurts that there are interrelated concepts, but one idea that a “dense” deck also has is the ability to dump all of its mana into Attack or Defend (as desired). As I mentioned, if you only have strikes or defends (and a five card hand) you will be able to spend three mana on either, but not both. (You may want to split it up, but if you want to go all the way with either, you can’t). If you have only two cost cards, you can (with three mana) only spend two mana. If you have one “attack two” and one “defend two” then its fine that you can’t necessarily play both, because you’ll play the one that matters (and then a one cost card to round it up). Iron Wave gives you attack and defense, but poor ones. Still, with an Iron Wave and two strikes and defends, you have some flexibility. “X cost” cards also let you dump as much as desired into them (with the caveat that it has to be the last card played, mostly).

Also — Something I didn’t mention in the prior article. Sometimes you pick a card knowing that is often dead-weight, but that really helps out in specific fights. Cards may solve a problem. I’ll try to note problems and the counters.

Ironclad

The basic deck is 5x Strikes and 5x Defends. Barely serviceable cards that you should (in general) despise. Ironclad’s bonus card is Bash, which provides two vulnerable and his artifact (Burning Blood) is your healing (at 6 HP/combat). Combined with a nice maximum health, this makes Ironclad a forgiving character. In the early game you block only insofar as you didn’t get any damage, effectively trading HP for murder. Ironclad’s card pool is loaded with big hits — grabbing a quick two-energy front-loaded damage (ideally Carnage) will get you through early Act I. Vulnerable means your attack this turn (and next turn) do 50% more damage, so even with just the starting deck Ironclad can deal out 44 damage in two turns (Bash+Strike/3x strikes) if you draw Bash in your opening hand.

One of Ironclads early problems is the embarrassment of front-loaded damage riches. There are so many decent 2-energy damage cards, you’ll be tempted to load up. But (with only three energy) they’ll simply block each other. (One reason why Ironclad was such a popular “Swap Boss Relic” option for Neow’s gift … Ironclad can exploit the fourth energy, although now with so many damage interactions the original healing relic is also more valuable).

Back before I started tracking, I would often die in late Act I because I’d rely on the healing, get a bit low, hit a bit of bad variance or a rough hallway fight (Gremlin Gang, Slime Gang), and then either die outright or be poorly placed for the boss fight, missing an upgrade or two, and then poof. The classic death spiral. Ironclad can’t totally ignore defense. The healing is a boon, not a crutch.

Once you get past the early game, Ironclad tropes that often work include:

Strength Scaling — Other classes can do this, but Ironclad has numerous ways. New players are enamored of Demon Form (indeed, at low ascensions its an auto-win for me), but the high cost make that suitable for slow fights only. A simple Spot Weakness or semi-scaling like an Inflame or two) is often good enough to handle scaling in Act II. Card coordination (via Headbutt) to re-use a Spot Weakness (or start this and re-use Limit Breaks) can lead to obscene strength. Any “doubling” card can lead to geometric scaling which is why if I lack any strength, I’m still tempted to take a naked Limit Break at the end of Act I, since a single later pick can turn into tremendous upside. With the recent patch, Rupture could be close to Demon Form, because Ironclad has a number of cards that cause damage (such as Combust), and then you also get strength . (Toss in Self-forming Clay and you have the damage synergy archetype). If you have a strength scaling deck, the typical problem is that is is slow (if you are hunting for a specific card, or draw your Limit Break before you have strength) and — particularly in Act III you can be hit very quickly for 40+ damage. You’ll need defense.

The “Infinite” combo — When the opponent is vulnerable, Drop Kick does damage, recovers the mana played and draws a card. It totally replaces itself (a “cantrip”). With a small enough deck, you can draw your entire deck into your hand, then cycle two drop kicks back and forth forever. Especially for slow fights like Champ that give you time to build up, you can take the time to shrink your deck by exhausting cards with Burning Pact or True Grit over a few turns, and then go infinite. (A Flash of Steel doesn’t hurt here, either). “Infinites” have problems with Time Eater and the Heart (who blocks all damage past a certain point on a turn, and has the Beat of Death for each card play) but often you can fall into a real (or semi-) infinite when using exhaust synergies. Infinite Combos are very vulnerable to status being added to the deck, so Evolve/Firebreathing as a counter is reasonable (especially since they don’t take up any space once played).

Exhaust Synergies — Exhausting bad cards is its own reward. You’d like to totally remove them in the shop, but getting rid of a relatively weak card in combat for a long fight is fine. Even better when exhausting a card provides a tangible reward. Compare uncommon power Feel No Pain to Metalicize. If you exhaust one card a turn, they both provide 3 (4 if upgraded) block. But with Corruption the Ironclad can exhaust all his skills the turn he draws them, for free, and provide bonus block. Even without the ability to retain block (see below), a few FNPs may provide 30+ block a turn (particularly against the heart if you can Sever Soul to exhaust the trash the heart gives you). MVP Relic for this is Dead Branch, exhaust, get replacement cards with some of them free! Corruption + Dead Branch is a meme for a reason.

(Sidebar — For a while I had a fear of Dead Branch giving me random bad cards that would clog my deck. I suggest you ignore it, as I learned to. Because the second time through the deck isn’t nearly as important as the first and even without corruption the weight of the misses is more than compensated by the great cards you’ll get. Paul Graham called the Stock Market “Mr. Market” because it would just say “Would you like to Buy X?” and you can always say no. Often Mr. Market offers you trash. “Would you like to buy Pets.com?” but sometimes he offers gold. “Would you like to buy this grossly underpriced commodity?”

The number of times that Dead Branch has a run into a cakewalk — even lacking Corruption — is high, and I don’t recall many fights where it trashed my deck. Obviously with a Runic Pyramid you have to be careful. I’ve bought Dead Branch as a nearly naked artifact, having only my Ascender’s Bane, and then built around it to good effect with all the characters. (That may be overdoing it, but it shows that its possible, even without corruption. With Corruption its gross).

Exhaust strategies are fairly robust, once they get going. But they are slow. Also, since you exhaust cards their is a psychological temptation to take “so-so” cards (because you can exhaust them) and your variance grows…

Status Synergy Evolve draws extra cards for Status, Fire Breathing does damage per status. and then you load up on Wild Strikes, take Mark of Pain, Reckless Charge, use Second Wind to get rid of them all to block. (Everyone like Immolate already, so that’s just a good pick, but this makes it better). This isn’t great and has the typical variance kills, because your deck might clog before you setup.

Block ScalingBlockade (or the Calipers) let you save block between turns. Feel No Pain can easily net you a metric ton of block. Entrench lets you double it. Headbutt lets you then put Entrench back on the top of the deck. Slay the Spire limits you to 999 block, but that’s good enough. (Body Slam does damage equal to your block, but is often not necessary if you can get to hundreds of block. Normally you need it when you have decent blocking that doesn’t carry over, then you use Body Slam/Juggernaut as extra, necessary, damage). You can also toss in Juggernaut to do damage each time you gained block, but again that is not necessary.

Take it then Dish It — Eat some damage setting up your strength scaling, then Reaper later end to recover your lost health. A Feed early in the run to meta-scale your Max HP helps, because you can’t recover from lethal damage. Duel Wield or Exhaust to play multiple Reapers (or just having multiples). This is the only type of deck you can really buy brimstone with, in my experience. Brimstone gives you and your enemies strength each turn. It took me many tries to beat the heart using Brimstone and this strategy, but it usually makes it fairly easy to get to the heart….

Of course, for any given archetype you may mix and match. If you have great block scaling, you don’t need anything. If you have great strength scaling you won’t need to block for long, etc.

The Silent

Silent adds Survivor and Neutralize to her basic deck and draws two extra cards on the first turn. She is much more into counter-punching than Ironclad. Weak isn’t great at the start, but gets better as the run goes on (as it knocks of 25% of the damage and that will grow. The Neutralize saves you ~30 damage against the heart if you’ve upgraded it and hit on T2, assuming you weren’t intangible). Silent has a number of reasonable zero cost cards (like Backstab for front-loaded damage), but still likely wants at least one early big hit card, like Predator, Riddle with Holes or Skewer, or Dash (which also does significant defense). Jorbs had a discussion where he points out that Dash is much better than two Iron Waves, because its density makes it more efficient). You also will need a heavy hitter card against Lagavulin, because many Silent 0 and 1 cost cards lose significant value with even a single strength loss.

The card that is now a near auto-grab is Blade Dance. 12 damage for 1 mana is already excellent (better than Ironclad common attacks!), but the list of relics that Shiv gets bonuses (or greatly improves) by itself is amazing — Kunai, Shuriken, Pen Nib, Nunchaku, Ink Bottle, Ornamental Fan, Dead Branch. (There are others, any strength bonus is great). There are a fights where the 4 tempo to play it are a penalty (Time Eater, the Heart) but by then you may have gotten an Accuracy (or some of those relics) and /or you may have a backup scaling and simply not play the Blade Dance during those fights. An additional use of Shivs is to draw them and then Calculated Gamble them away, trading a mediocre later draw to speed through your deck the first time.

Silent — having less damage than Ironclad — has to take more damage to beat the first boss and must also worry more about the Goblin Nob fight. Many of Silent’s better cards are skills, which trigger Nob’s rage. Poison scaling and defense will usually make the Guardian the easiest first boss (Silent is well placed to simply defend and not attack on any given turn), although doing enough damage to avoid the eating the first Fierce Bash may be a problem.

Silent also has decent card control with Well-Laid Plans to hold a card for the right moment. While Ironclad does have some touchy scaling (Limit Break wants to be last), the Nightmare card can scale whatever card you want, assuming you get them into the same hand.

Silent has the following Archetypes, and typically mixes one of the offensive types with one of the defensive types.

The Shiv Deck — As mentioned above. Finisher and Accuracy (and Phantasmal Killer to double damage) add punch. Ironically, Infinite Blades (a shiv a turn) isn’t a must add. I used to auto-grab it, but there are enough opponents who have thorns or punish tempo that now I consider it more carefully.

The Poison Deck — An early Poison Stab, Deadly Poison or Bouncing Flask can help against the first boss, because they are decent damage even if you only hit them every four turns or so. If you can hit them every three turns (or get out a Noxious Fume) you are scaling hopefully fast enough for Act I. Two decent poison cards are good scaling for Act II, and once you add in a Catalyst or two you can suddenly kill almost anything (if you draw them in the right order and survive). Typically the easiest wins for Silent are those with solid poison and defense to survive. Double Catalyst+ ends fights. (Catalyst is an acceptable naked draw, given the amount of poison commons and uncommons).

The Dex Deck –Stack a few Footworks (Feetwork?), and even plain old defends are large. Dodge and Roll provides block for multiple turns, Blur to carry over block. Cloak and Dagger for block + some small attack (and Shiv synergy). Escape Plan will hit more often than not (particularly if you remove strikes for Poison or Blade Dance) and is free. Even very slow scaling

The Intangible Deck –Any character can get Apparitions from the Council of Ghosts event in Act II, but with Wraith Form (and Nightmare) Silent can load up on Intangible Turns. Which is not to say that you need more. But a dozen+ turns of intangible are usually enough with even the most limited damage production. But Silent can (more so than other characters) use even the three turns that are more routine. Silent has discard for tossing unimproved Apparitions (which are Ethereal) to save them for a later turn. Silent has Burst to double the value of each Apparition, and Well Laid Plans to get the cards in the same hand. Nightmare copies cards (effectively quadrupling them!). Six intangible is usually enough defense against the Heart, although you’ll need block for the multi-attack turns and if you can’t avoid the Dexterity loss from Wraith Form that will be a problem (along with the beat of death).

The Shuffler — The deck uses Acrobatics, Prepared, Backflips, Tools of the Trade and Calculated Gambles to race the deck (discarding curses and trashes, but sometimes also Reflex and Tactician for extra cards/mana). The Shuffler shrinks the deck by skipping over the parts that don’t matter. After Image can provide solid block and free cards (Slice or Deflect) show great value. Sneaky Strike is free-ish once you get a Tools of the Trade in play. (And is a decent early pick before hand, to provide a decent punch to Nob or Lagavulin).

The Defect

Disclaimer — My win rate with defect is something like 30% of the other two classes. And its not that I’m dying late game. I just don’t have a handle on him.

Other classes have scaling. The Defect is scaling … sometimes. Defect wins fights by pressing the “End Turn” button after getting setup. Adding orb slots and focus (even just a bit of each, say one Capacitor+ and one Defragment+) then splitting slots between Lightning and Frost is 15 damage and 12 block a turn. More focus and slots provides full block every turn.

Defect suffers the problem of scaling — spending time setting up. Taking ~10 a fight getting setup wears you down over the act. I win much less with Defect than Ironclad or Silent, and looking up my notes, I see — “no healing,” “not enough fast defense,” “too aggressive in pathing,” and then there’s the “never saw enough scaling.”

Capacitor deserves mention as the only card that adds orb slots (Inserter — a homage to my beloved Factorio — and Runic Cylinder relics also provide them). If you see a Capacitor, its a near automatic take (even on floor 1). The runs you skip it and then never see it again will haunt you. Orb slots do have a downside if you want to play and evoke orbs quickly, but its fairly limited in application.

As with orb slots, “Too much focus” is a phrase rarely uttered. Consume is a reasonable early card (early Act I is the time when ‘less slots’ is usually a plus). Biased Cognition (with no way to remove the “lose one focus a turn”) is still a great card, and its existence makes Core Surge (one artifact charge, to hopefully counter the downside of Biased Cog) and Orange Pellets strong selections, even if you have no immediate use for the artifact. (Typically you skip the Biased Cog until you are setup and then the fight is over before the downside really kicks in. And if you you eventually get driven to zero focus, you probably were losing the fight earlier without it).

You don’t need orb slots, you can pump focus and that works (but that also takes card draws). Similarly, you don’t need focus if you have plenty of (full slots). But getting both has a multiplicative effect (there’s that “doubling” again!). But there are also some oddball plays, although rare. Hyperbeam is a powerful card that costs focus, and Plasma Orbs provide mana and aren’t affected by focus loss. (Even worried about Focus Loss, Hyperbeam and Biased Cog are still worth taking, as they end fights).

Apart from focus/slot scaling, Defect has still more. Loop triggers your first orb multiple times. A great pick because for one card and one mana you get double or triple value out of one orb for the rest of the fight. Echo Form doubles your first card play (the second one doubles your first two card plays). Creative AI is long fight scaling in a can, because the “one power a turn” you get will (eventually) give you other forms of scaling. Amplify doubles powers. Scaling, Scaling, Scaling.

Which can overwhelm the deck and then you die because of a lack of front loaded block. My last run was an early Runic Pyramid, Consume+, sustain with a Self-Repair (heal 7 at the end of combat), and access to Frost and Darkness orbs. Easy boss at Act I, grab a mana relic, and then boom, dead after the first 4 hallway fights when I drew no block against a 24 point attack on Turn 1. Boot Sequence blocks when you are most likely to need it, even though it slows the time to get to your good cards by a draw. As always, there’s a balance.

In reading the above, I suspect that my problem may be the following — I am too focused on the future and not on the next five floors, so I should focus on that and not scaling. And literally after I wrote that sentence, I won by getting — massive scaling. (I also got healing in an early Bird-Faced Urn (heal 2 HP per power) and a Creative AI (one power a turn), so once I set up my frost orbs and focus, I could fully heal). Even then it was touchy, because I decided (rightly or not) to lose half my maximum HP to take the apparitions, which made fights easy when they appeared early and near lethal when they didn’t. (I actually would have lost to Shield and Spear, but I had gotten the Lizard’s Tail, which saves you from dying once). So the lesson is — I don’t know. Sometimes you just get lucky.

The Defect Archetypes

The Thunderer — Lots of lightning orbs. Electrodynamics to handle multiple enemies. Static Discharge to add or cycle the orbs. A lot of my early (pre-ascension) victories used this, but as I increased the difficulty this was too fragile. (Thunder Strike as scaling isn’t really necessary, either, unless you have no focus). But I’ve found it more reliable to …

Mr. Freeze — … load up on Frost Orbs. Any archetype can suffer a bad hit on the first (few) turns, but frost orbs at least limit the damage to that time. You’ll need a way to damage your opponents, but with enough block, cycling through your front loaded damage may be fine (albeit slow), or you can have a single lightning (or darkness) orb.

The Cheapskate — Lots of free cards, some card draw and an All For One to grab the free cards back. Often you back into this with OK cards that help with the relics you’ve got (FTL with Shuriken, a Recycle to thin out a deck) and then get the offer. Hologram — already a reasonable pick to get back a Boot Sequence you don’t need on T1 or a Go for the Eyes for weakness — can be used to redo the All for One.

All The Powers — As mentioned above, Creative AI gets one power a turn. With Heatsinks, those get you cards. With Storm they get you lightning orbs (with Mummified Hand you get discounts). And the powers will get you more stuff. The obvious downside is Awakened One (who gets stronger with each power you play) but with some careful restraint you can setup and scale faster than she can, then wait for her to die before resuming. (And sometimes your combo just goes off, you play 20+ powers, don’t care that she scales, and wins).

The Multi-Darkness — Usually mixed with Frost orbs, you simply sit and wait for a darkness orb to get big, then dual- or multi-cast it (or even single cast).

I’m sure I’m forgetting stuff, but this is already nearly four-thousand words long.

Advice for Watcher — Take some overly powerful cards, do math, make sure you don’t get stuck in Wrath form on a turn you’ll die, win!

Next Time in Part III — The Many Deaths the Spire has to offer!

Written by taogaming

March 13, 2021 at 10:14 am

Too Many Words About Slay the Spire — Part I Introduction

This article covers my (evolving) thoughts about the Slay the Spire videogame. There are (much) better players than me (many can be found on r/slaythespire or on twitch). I’ve watched hundreds of hours of Jorbs (Youtube, Twitch) who is currently tied for the world championship at A20 heart kills. You could get better advice by watching him for a long time and osmosis. But that requires, you know, hundreds of hours. (While there are other good streamers playing, Jorbs’ entire vibe reminds me of my graduate school boardgaming club, so he’s my personal favorite).

I normally play at Ascension 15, because while I can win at Ascension 20 it’s an admittedly rare event and I like having a win rate in the double digits. (With my recent improvement I may up the level a bit). Also, I don’t normally play Watcher that much, which means that there may be some watcher-specific exceptions I don’t mention (and my watcher advice is less trustworthy). I play with the goal of “Killing the Heart.”

As always, I assume you are familiar with the basic mechanisms, rules, etc. Many of these examples will use numbers appropriate for Ascension 15 (enemies values vary based on Ascension Level).

Definitions and concepts

Deck — Often when I say deck, I mean “All your cards plus all your relics and the current potions.” Just assume the latter part.

Position — Deck plus current state (hit points, number on relics that count, etc). “Positioning” means trying to win the fight and also get all of your relics “set up” for the next fight.

Front-loaded damage — “How much damage can I do without setting up a particular combination?” There’s no exact measure of this, but a decent proxy is “How much damage could I do if I played all of my attack cards once?”. Also called “Fast” damage. Front-Loaded block is similar, but just for blocking. Improving your front loaded damage is generally first thing you want to do at the game. There is also front-loaded block.

Scaling damage — “How much damage can I do once I get my combos set up?” If you only have front loaded damage, when you go through your deck a second time, you can only double how much damage you’ve done. After Act I, this isn’t fast enough (typically) to kill the elites and bosses unless you have great scaling block, which lets you chip away slowly. Front loaded damage grows linearly. You do roughly X damage per unit time (turn or deck cycles). Scaling damage grows faster (sometimes only a little faster, sometimes much). The most obvious form of scaling for each character is Strength (Ironclad), Poison (Silent), Orb Slots/Focus (Defect). Typically to improve your scaling damage you are not playing some fast damage in order to setup your scaling.

Meta-scaling — Something that doesn’t scale in this fight, but makes your position better across multiple fights. Things like Feed (which improves Max HP if it strikes the killing blow).

Semi-scaling — A small one-time bump. Inflame (with +2 strength) is semi-scaling. It makes all of your attacks going forward bigger (which is nice) but it will never scale again. (Again, this is my own coinage, but I wanted to be able to differentiate between cards like Inflame and cards like Spot Weakness, which boosts strength and may do so multiple times.

All Out Attack (AOA) — An attack card that damages all enemies (useful for hallway fights that have multiple enemies, or elites that have minions). For some reason this appears to be called “AOE” often, but my blog, my acronym.

Variance — You could have a “good” draw (all the cards in the right order) or a “bad” one. You will hit some good and bad events, relics, etc. Consider the very first fight you might have versus a cultist as Ironclad. Basically, you need to do 50 damage and he attacks for 0,6,11,16, etc. If you get a good draw, you’ll bash+strike (17 damage on T1), 2x strike and defend (18 damage, take 1) on Turn 2, and then on T3, you can either hit for 18 (and kill) or defend x2, strike (6 damage, take 1) and then kill the next turn. You have ended the fight losing 1-2 damage. The worst possible opening is to draw all of your defends on T1, when they are useless. If you draw only strikes (not even your Bash! Its your bottom card) on T2 you do 18 damage and take 6. You will likely take 15+ damage for this fight.

“High-rolling” — “Getting lucky.” Jorb’s speak (and maybe twitch speak). When someone says “Maybe I just have to high-roll this next encounter” they mean “I need something good to happen, therefore I assume it will happen.” Usually this means hitting a good event, getting a good reward, having a great draw for a combat, etc. Bridge players should be familiar with this. Once your deck gets solid you worry about low-rolling (what if the one key card I need is the bottom card of my deck? what is the worst possible elite fight I can face)) Similar to a bridge “safety play.”

Density — If front loaded damage is “how much damage can I do once through the deck” density is that damage divided by number of cards. A “dense” deck is better because you are reducing variance, and on any given turn you will be more likely to be able to have the right cards for what you want to do.

Efficiency — How much damage can you do per mana spent on damage? (OR how much block do you get per mana spent blocking). Scaling damage is often very mana efficient, but slower than a comparable front-loaded card. If you drop a Noxious Fumes, your opponent will take triangular damage (1+2+3+4+…) with no further expenditure.

Conversion — On some turns you don’t get attacked, so you want to sink as much mana as possible into damage dealing (or setting up scaling, etc). Other turns you’ll want to block for as much as possible. If you have the wrong cards (due to variance) you may not be able to convert any mana to attack or defense. A basic deck (with only strikes and defends) will not be able to convert all three of its mana to attack every turn. If you had a card “2 Mana for 12 Damage” that is two strikes, but its denser and also means that (when you draw it) you are much more likely to be able to convert all your mana to damage that turn (and other turns).

Coordination — Some cards require being in your hand at the right time (or in the right order). I’ll call this “coordination.” (There appears to be no standard phrase for this). Watcher (who holds some cards) starts with a bit of coordination, but most decks don’t start with any.

(Density, Efficiency and Conversion are all related, but slightly different. I’m not sure my thoughts on these are clear, but I wanted to define them in case I use them).

Sustain –Another word for Healing. I’ll try to use Healing, but “sustain” appears to be a common phrase in the community.

Why Slay the Spire is addicting. Its not something you notice at first, but the enemies you face in the Spire challenge your deck in multiple ways. There aren’t nearly as many enemies as in (say) Nethack, but each Elite and Boss comes at you in a different way. (Even the later hallways fights). To take a concrete example from Act III — the Giant Head gives you a few turns of relative peace, then starts hitting hard every turn, starting at over 50% of your base health and ramping up from there. He (?) takes 520 points of damage to kill. You simply can’t defeat him without scaling (counting intangible as scaling block). AOA is no better than regular attack.

Compare to The Reptomancer. Her ~200 HP doesn’t need nearly as much scaling, but her minions are going to hit for significant, life ending damage on Turn 2. ~25 points of AOA by the end of Turn 2 are a god send. If not, you’ll need ~60 points of very fast damage or lots of block. The Nemesis is a coordination problem. Some turns damage is nigh-useless. (You can often beat it with scaling block but if your deck is well coordinated, the Nemesis is easy).

Some deck builds plow through one and die to the other. A good deck can reasonably handle either (and some bad luck, as well). Jorbs (in one of his videos I can’t remember) called these various ways the game challenges the deck “orthogonal.” You don’t just need “more” of one strategy to beat both of them. You need different combinations.

General Guidelines

A good deal of getting better at Slay the Spire is just knowing the game. If you know all the possible enemies (and their attack patterns), rewards, events, then you will do much better. Most of really high level play is thinking “well, what is coming up that I am weak against?” and “what events might I see, and do I want them or hallway fights?”

Take as many elite fights as you think you can. They provide relics (and improved card rewards). Also, hallway fights get harder as you go further in the act, but Elites don’t. They are also more predictable (fewer options you can face and they are generally more scripted than hallway fights).

Hit Points are insurance against bad variance. But like any insurance there are good and bad deals. If you have a rest then a boss, being able to model the fight in your head tells you whether you need to rest. What you have (etc) tells roughly how the fight will go. If you are 99% likely to win the fight, then resting is a waste if you could have upgraded (or grabbed the key). If you are only 10% likely to win the fight (but 60% with more HP), resting is great.

Floors are a finite resource. Don’t waste them. Ideally, every floor makes you stronger:

  • Hallway fights offer card rewards. Don’t automatically take them, but you’ll need to see a good number of cards to get offered those that improve your deck. Hallway fights also offer potions (sometimes). Especially in the first three floors of an Act, the hallway fights are “easier.” (But each Act ramps up the difficulty).
  • Elites provide a relic as well as the same rewards a hallway fight can. (And the card rewards are more likely rare cards). But they are difficult. Particularly in Act I an Elite will average 30+ damage against a deck with just a starting relic and a card or two.
  • Campfires let you heal or upgrade a card. In a perfect world, you’ll not need to heal and will upgrade a great card. But often you need to heal either to survive or to take an extra elite fight.
  • Shops let you buy better stuff and/or remove a card from your deck. If you’ve played Dominion (or any deckbuilder) you’ll know that removing a starting card is incredibly powerful, improving density and reducing variance.
  • Treasures (chests) provide relics.
  • The end of act boss will give you a rare card and a boss relic (although not at Act III).
  • Note that to get to the heart you must sacrifice one chest, one campfire and take a ‘super’ elite (who will get either metalicize, strength or regeneration).

Focus on the near term. Can you handle all the potential next elite fights (or most dangerous next elite?) Make your deck ‘good enough’ to deal with it, then turn your gaze to the next problem (the boss, etc).

Good Enough is good enough. Sometimes a weakness can be fixed with a single card, maybe two. Turning a “Good enough” into a strength often weakens other aspects. Adding a scaling card means you’ll draw one less card of some other category that turn. There are lots of areas you’ll need to improve –front loaded damage, front loaded block, all out attack, scaling damage, scaling block, healing, card draw, and mana to pay for all your new cards (Few decks need all, almost no deck needs all equally). Sometimes what’s “good enough” in one Act needs to be buffed again in further acts.

If you have a weakness, the right potion gives you more time to find a card/relic that fixes it. Before I would use potions whenever they seemed to apply, but now … if a potion fixes a key weakness, I hold it until I’m desperate fight or the end of act boss. If the potion is a strength I already have, I’m willing to let it go depending on how much health it saves me and how likely I am to get another potion soon, especially if I am already full.

Skipping cards is not a bad option! Adding a card necessarily increases variance. Take a deck with a nice balance of front-loaded damage, block, scaling damage & block, healing, card draw, etc, and then double it. Still the same balance, but the variance goes way up. (Any Race for the Galaxy Fans will remember the number of explore powers grows in each expansion in the first arc, to help compensate for the increased variance). Card removal is also very good.

Be flexible! I mention archetypes below but when a reward happens, examine what you have and see if there are good/bad interactions. You can’t force the game to give you what you want, so you’ll have to make do. (This is also the “good enough” mantra).

If you are losing, take risks! Hope to high roll, etc. If you are winning, then solidify your position, consider defending against low-rolling, etc.

Of course much of the above advice depends on being able to evaluate your position. Slay the Spire strategy is an evaluation problem. Being able to model (in an intuitive way) the likely outcomes of a deck versus a specific elite fight (average HP loss, variance, etc) is hard. Better players do this much better, and that is hard to teach. You’ll learn by being wildly over- and under-optimistic. This guide can’t really help with that. Only experience can.

The (Basic) Plan

No Plan survives contact with The Spire. Good cards can be bad in the right situation. Vice versa. There are no hard and fast 100% rules. But there are guidelines. Here’s the basic flowchart, focusing on the early game.

  1. You need more front loaded damage. That’s your first weakness to fix. Even early hallway opponents take 50 damage or so to kill. Act I Elite fights take 90+ damage to kill and will deal real damage. Your starting deck does ~18/turn (if you don’t defend and draw smooth). Not enough. In particular, you need a plan to deal with Gremlin Nob who scales his damage for every skill you play (punishing defensive cards). A potion can be a big part of this, particularly if you need to hit an elite on floor 6.
  2. You’ll want some all out attack, particularly before Act II (where two of the elites and many of the hall way fights have multiple targets). But good AOA should be grabbed as early as it shows up, because its also front-loaded damage and the Sentinels elite fight is possible on Act I.
  3. Don’t just grab every single damage card you see. You want efficient cards. If you take five “slightly better strikes” then your deck will bloat and you’ll need to take more cards to block and scale just to be equal. Your variance will shoot through the roof during Act II, and you will die, and your parents will mourn you.
  4. Campfires — Upgrade key cards as possible. Rest if you are likely to die before the next campfire.
  5. Once you have a steady enough source of damage, start improving defense. Ideally this is after Nob. You can start in the middle of Act I, because the early hallway fights in Act II can hit for 20 points on the first turn. Its common to have enough damage to take out the first Boss, get a mediocre card and relic, and then get slammed right away in the first few floors of Act II and be on the ropes heading into your elite fight — a downward spiral that requires a high-roll or you die.
  6. As soon as you can, start removing cards (unless there are better options of course). As I mentioned in a comment on an earlier thread, when I win it seems like I have (on average) removed at least half of the starting strikes and defends from my deck. This reduces variance and improves density (etc).
  7. You need to be able to deal with the first Boss. Obviously which boss you face will determine how much front loaded damage versus block and scaling.
  8. By the end of Act I you should have a vague idea of what your decks strengths and weakness are, and an idea as to which relics/cards/etc “fill in the gaps.” (Your Boss Relic and Rare Card will further define your deck). By the end of Act II you’ll need almost certainly need scaling (either scaling damage or block) to deal with the Boss (and later enemies). Your deck may have an archetype … you shouldn’t force it into those, but as in Chess (or any game), if you recognize a position you will probably play it better. There are plenty of “weird” wins, but — at least for me personally — being able to say “My deck is an X type” lets me easily make the jump to “And when I’ve played X types before, I need to do A/B/C to win”.
  9. In Act II you must pick up scaling (if you don’t already have it, or have some insane front-loaded damage) and generally improve for the Act II Boss. But other weaknesses will become apparent and must be address. (Defect often needs healing by Act II).
  10. By this point you have probably added enough cards that you’ll need some card draw and/or searching to get to key power(s) or any lynch-pin cards you have. Again, you don’t want to overdo it, like the Dominion Village Idiot (the deck that adds a bunch of cantrip card draws, but has nothing really important to do with any of the cards drawn). In Act I you often play your deck a few times (especially in Elite fights) but now in Act II the second time through your deck isn’t nearly as important as the first time. You might get lucky and get all your setup cards on Turn 1, but if you low roll then being able to cycle through the deck the first time is very important.
  11. Act III is more of the same — now hallway fights can hit for 40 and the Elites are tougher, but you should have powered up to compensate. Scaling block (and being able to draw and play more cards than you could in earlier acts) really come into play.
  12. As you have more combos and items, specific circumstances likely dominate general advice. But you fix weaknesses, try to push strengths. Even by the beginning of Act II you’ll (hopefully) have relic combos, so now you are trying to find things that really work well with multiple cards (or across multiple aspects of your deck). The Elites/Boss can still kill you, but now is also the time to figure out how you are going to deal with Act IV (The Shield and Spear and the Heart). If you are doing well you may have “locked in” your potions for the heart fight. If not, you’ll have to use them to survive.
  13. Also in Act III you’ll need to pick up any keys you’ve missed.
  14. Finally, beat the Act III boss, then go onto Act IV. Last chance store for that key missing item or potion.

Pathing

Here’s an great act one path. Three easy hallway fights (to get damage and a potion), an event or two, a campfire to upgrade (or rest), an elite fight, an event, the chest, a rest, an elite fight, a rest, an elite fight, a store (to spend all that money) a rest and then a boss. I’m always looking for campfires and elites, and sometimes stores.

Upgrades are your friend. Need front loaded damage? Upgrade a damage card. Need block? Upgrade a block card. Your variance is never hurt. And by the late part of the act, Elites are often better than hallway fights. Late Act hallway fights may hit for more than elites. They get tougher as the act goes on (and you see more of them). A floor 6 Nob and a Floor 14 Nob hit for the same. A floor 14 hallway fight is more dangerous than a floor 6 hallway fight (and before you hit it, you are less likely to guess what will be there). And of course you want the Elite rewards.

So I simply look for the most campfires and elites. The hard questions are: should I take the super-elite now? Is your deck ready for it? I try to take the super elite as soon as my deck feels like ahead of average, because leaving the super elite for Act III forces you on pathing that may be terrible. Question marks are more random and could still be fights, but could also be a chest or event or store. Events are generally slightly better for you than not (“Spin the Wheel” is 66% good, 33% bad, strictly by outcomes. That’s typical), but can be bad. Hallway fights are more consistent. A lot of whether you want a late hallway fight is “Is your deck ready for the boss?” If not, a hallway fight is a necessary risk to get a good card reward and/or potion. The “Fight vs Question Mark” is definitely an area where knowing all the possible outcomes (and technical details like which events can show up where) and a good evaluation function help.

Coming In Part II, discussion of the main characters, typical deck strategies, and another few thousand words!

Written by taogaming

March 6, 2021 at 3:01 pm

A Practical Test of ‘Gaining the Mental Edge at Bridge’ using … Slay the Spire

One of the most unusual bridge books I’ve read is Kim Frazer’s Gaining the Mental Edge at Bridge. Unlike the vast majority of bridge books, there is practically no advice on bridge. This is all about “how to think” (a topic that I love enough to have a category in this blog for). Bridge forms the majority of the examples here, but apart from that these articles would not be out of place in any coaching symposium.

Kim was an international caliber shooter who took up bridge and later represented Australia in International events, so she has definitely “walked the walk” in two separate sports. There are chapters on focus, positive mindsets, mental preparation, rehearsal, match preparation & fitness, relaxation, goal setting and tracking.

The book itself was interesting — I don’t think much of it will come as a surprise but having it all done in a nicely packaged book (and providing references to sports journals, etc for more information) is good. I’ve started to try and build up a routine for the playing of bridge hands (still more forgotten than observed) so as to reduce the number of stupid errors. In fact, the first night (on BBO) I did it, I think I played well and then I went and forgot to look at the checklist this week, didn’t use it, and had a large number of errors. (The checklist is just a routine to do at the start of each hand …. say “Focus” to start the routine, note the board information (dealer,/vulnerability) count the HCP, decide on my opening bid (should it pass to me), and my likely continuations, responses.

I normally do this (in some shape) on most hands, but not in a formalized way. But (as per the book) I wrote out a checklist and used it, to good results (the times I remembered).

While thinking about this training, I realized that I could run a quick experiment on the chapter on goal setting and tracking using … Slay the Spire. I mean, while this book is aimed at Bridge it is not specifically for it, and right now my StS play is much more prevalent. (And is a solitaire game). Consider it a training run.

So — what are my goals? I’d like to improve my win rate (a win defined as “Beating the corrupt heart at ascension 15” (which is what I normally play at). There is a “Victory?” where you win without getting to the heart, but I consider that a loss. It means I’ve forgotten to claim one of the three keys required to unlock the fourth act.

Control Data

Anyway, the first part of goal setting was to set a record keeping standard. I decided to review the last 50 runs I had for each of the three main characters I played (I do not particularly enjoy playing Watcher, so I rarely do). Fortunately StS keeps a record of runs, so I pulled out some basic information (like which floor I died on) and put them into an excel spreadsheet.

Here are the stats:

Died during….Character — IroncladCharacter — SilentCharacter — Defect
Act I (Exordium)1073
First Boss676
Act II (The City)111621
Second Boss335
Act III (The Beyond)335
Third Boss241
Act IV Elites113
The Corrupt Heart344
Victory!1152
Checksum505050
Not a huge sample size….

It struck me as odd that the Second Boss and Act III numbers matched, but I doubled checked and its just a coincidence.

First thought — I won at a 12% rate, which was lower than I thought (I would have guessed I won at a 20% rate overall), but perhaps I am just deluding myself. I do think I had some bad luck (a certainly have a better than 4% win rate as defect!) so I would expect over the next 150 games to improve the rate in any case. The book states that I should set a goal that seems difficult but achievable. Let’s try for a 25% win rate overall (doubling the control).

I also need to build a checklist for the game, so I did. (Commentary in Italics)

  • Start of Act
    • Examine the floor layout, pick likely path and alternates if I get good/back luck.
    • Note who is the end of act Boss!
    • (Act I only) Decide on Neow’s gift (a special bonus you get at game start), re-evaluate
  • Checklist for each fight/event
    • Upon revealing the enemies, decide on how dangerous this fight will be (win easily, win but take significant damage, likely die, etc).
    • Note relics that I have that may have an interaction
    • Set out my goal for the fight is (Not just winning while taking as little damage as possible, do I want to set up relic counts for the next fight, etc).
    • Decide on general fight strategy …. if I will likely be using a potion(s) (In general the fight strategy will be set by how my deck is built and not change much from floor to floor, but I wanted to explicitly call out this step).
    • Per Turn Checklist:
      • Examine hand, enemy action (if varied)
      • Is my luck good/bad enough to change strategy? (Maybe I’m getting killed an need to drink a potion or assume a good draw next turn….or maybe things have gone well so I can shift from “just win the fight” to “win the fight and set up my relics counts”)
      • Determine candidate plays, pick one (may iterate if plays draw cards).
    • (For events this is basically the same, but simplified since the fight is “picking which event outcome to take”)
  • Post fight analysis
    • Did I accurately judge the fight? Did I miss anything that I could have done better?
  • Post-fight rewards
    • Examine offered rewards
    • State how each option affects my deck. Do I need it to cover a weakness (a specific enemy/elite), or to solve a general problem (front loaded damage/scaling damage/blocking).
    • Double check for good/bad interactions. Look at your deck and relics when deciding!
    • Decide which is best and take it (or skip).
    • Determine a rough “State of the game” (my ‘equity’ in the game). (Don’t need an exact number, but has it gone up or down).
    • Adjust strategy based on state of game. Pick next floor.
  • Post-game analysis.
    • Record tracking information
    • Write up a quick summary as to why I think I won/lost
    • Think of at least one positive and one “need to improve”

Again, I probably did a lot of this automatically, but there are a few things I’m calling out to myself — Making sure to double check potions and relics (because forgetting to use them is a big mistake).

Things to track:

I’ll track everything as before, but also keep track of my mistakes and notes. (For the above, I didn’t show it but I also noted which enemy I died to).

“Oops” Mistakes — Playing too quickly (if I make a move I want to “take back” then that’s a mistake. You can quit a fight and restart, but I’ll only do that if I make an actual misclick. I’ve been somewhat casual about that, but the real goal of this is to slow down and think more — which is the one skill that translates directly to bridge). In order to make this more “Apples to Apples” I’ll divide this by # of floors which isn’t an exact measure since not all floors can have them, but is at least reasonable.

Why did I lose — For my losses, I will categorize them as follows. I’ve decided to assign points to each category, with a total of 10 points.

  1. Too Aggressive — Taking an upgrade when I should have rested, and in general not respecting that.
  2. Too Passive — The downside of that is not recognizing when I’m poorly placed and need to be taking more short term risks to be able to face the next boss, etc. Note that I think I can be too passive and aggressive in the same game (obviously at different times).
  3. Gross Oversights — I missed something and it got me (missed a relic interaction, etc). I’d really like this number to be low … that’s the point of the checklist. These are things that get me killed or a huge chunk of HP.
  4. Math mistakes — Sometimes you have to just run the numbers.
  5. Bad micromanagement of fights — Small errors in fights that cost a HP here and there, missing subtle interactions.
  6. Bad Luck — Sometimes you just don’t get offered great cards, you bottom deck the fights, etc. Things that are outside my control. In theory there should only be points in this category on half (or less) of my games, but sometimes you just lose without doing anything wrong. (Negative Points means I had good luck and wasted it), so if I assign less than 10 points, I’ll dump the rest here.

When I win I will assign a “Good luck” score, how much was it just destined (because I got great cards/relics, etc).

As I normally do, I will rotate characters (Ironclad, then Silent, then Defect), just to match the controls.

Final thoughts (before starting)

Just looking at the stats was useful, because I have noticed a few things:

I play Act I too aggressively as Ironclad. Ironclad’s “schtick” is that he does a lot of damage and heals a bit after fights, and I clearly rely on that too much and end up dying in the first act (or at the first boss) much more so than other characters. My Ironclad win rate is higher (caveat for small sample size), but many of the runs are short, quick deaths.

I may be too passive with the other two characters …. For the silent/watcher (who don’t automatically heal) my play gets through Act I but am not well placed and die in Act II. I suspect I am not taking enough fast damage or all out attack.

I need to respect the Second Act more and start looking “past the first boss” when I think I have it beaten.

Let the games begin.

Update — After thinking about it (and playing a round of games while I was editing this), I think that “Bad Luck” should probably average 3. Jorbs only wins 70% of the games, so assuming that 30% are unwinnable at my level of play seems reasonable. (He’s on a higher ascension, but a better player). I’m not going to agonize over it too much (especially since it would lead to negative thinking, a “no-no” in the book.) I had a few games where things just didn’t seem to line up….

Written by taogaming

January 30, 2021 at 2:59 pm

1846 Strategy by People Smarter than Tao

I have recently taken to playing 1846 online (at board18). I learned 1830 in the 90s by the traditional method: getting repeatedly stomped until I managed to hold my own and — eventually — start competing then winning. I’ve had an OK record in 1846 in games with my local group, but in this online group I am clearly the weak player at the table. (We play on Board18). So I decided to maybe use the newer method of “maybe just learn without losing as much by reading.”

After perusing the strategy articles on BGG I found that most of what was there seemed … merely OK. Well, since I had an online discussion group with people who have play counts in the hundreds, I thought — “Why not just ask them?” So, I lobbed up questions and gathered responses.

A PBEM Game in progress on Board 18 — and some doodling with extra tracks and tokens.

The below has been edited for clarity (and sometimes to turn several fragments into a single sentence or paragraph). So, this should be considered to be paraphrased, instead of exact quotes (though they often are). Occasionally I have re-ordered some comments that had others interspersed because of multiple people typing at once, and removed some examples to specific games, jokes, and ramblings. Mistakes should assumed to be mine (as I also had to untangle a few threads going at the same time).

Also, several people would agree via emoji, so I will just put “(Agreement)” after some statements to indicate these got a thumbs up or two from other participants.

I thank all the participants involved. (Some of whom I do not quote here).

The Participants (I decided to go with first names only, not because I’m trying to hide the full names — most of my readers can identify everyone — but because I don’t put my own name on this blog and it felt odd to do so for other people):

  • Dan did not provide a count of 18xx
  • Discoking7 has around 60 plays of 1846 with approximately 600 plays across 18xx.
  • Eric is a noted ambassador for 1846, posting rules videos, answering questions, and generally exposing the game to the wider community for over a decade. He has played 290 times (at the time this bio was provided) and roughly the same number of 18xx games other than 1846.
  • Jeroen has played 1846 roughly fifty times, and many other 18xx titles.
  • Joe H has played 1846 282 times, and other titles 185 times.
  • Joe R has played 1846 roughly 250 times, and many other titles.
  • Mike has played 1846 roughly 30 times, and the other 18xx titles (combined) slightly less.

Tao — One of my general biases (or learned strategies) from 1830 is to start low, run for a good P/E ratio, loot, then start a second company. I’ve witnessed several people using what I would think of as an “Endgame” strategy right away in 1846, even from OR1. This seems viable. For example, taking the Big 4 and selling it in OR1.1 is a loss, but the speed it gives your company is huge. Some of this is clearly going to be the privates you have access to, but What are your thoughts about the “fast buck” vs “aim for early E-W run” and early PE vs capitalization costs…..

Dan — Running an early company for money and then dumping it for a second company can be viable, with the big caveat that if everyone is running a company early (almost always the case) there are only two extra companies, so you have to make sure you can start one. You have limited control over the priority deal – it’s more viable in a three player game.

Tao — Yes, that is a concern, and one that is structural into the game. Being familiar with Tom (and having recently watched the interview with Tom about 1846 on Wheel Tapping) the company limit and cert limits are clearly designed to make this a tipping point of the game. But, to move from theory to practice — if you somehow magically knew you could get a second company, where would fast buck as a strategy be as compared to others?

Mike — I’ve increasingly gotten the sense that opening a second company in 1846 is a last resort – to be taken by players who are unable to buy up the great paying shares, or who need to help their first company with trains or track to make it good. The companies that open early tend to have the best token infrastructure for the endgame and the late-starting companies are rarely able to catch up.

Dan — I think ‘last resort’ is a little strong, but I agree that the classic way to lose 1846 is to start a second company too early, while there are decent shares to be bought.

Joe R — FWIW, I try to make money early. I do not equate that with “looting the company”, since I assume I will be running the same company for ever. But running well in the beginning means I can invest and invest better, which is the most important thing in 1846.

Tao — Perhaps looting is too strong, since in 1846 you can only sell for face value. It will rarely be terrible for a company to buy out privates, not like selling the Cambden & Amboy for $320. (Note — In 1830 you can sell privates for up to 2x face value).

Dan — yes, another classic way to lose is not buying enough shares early.

Joe H — Or, put another way – getting behind in the share race.

Joe H — The best way to earn money is with a bunch of shares of a company with an earning boost – Meat Packing, Steamboat, or a quick E-W run. The best way to make back your investment in privates is by buying privates with a good P/E ratio. The best way to set up for the mid-game is starting at a high stock price, so that you can get two green trains.

Joe R — When I start a company in the first round, I think of all the things Joe said. And usually I am predicting how many shares I can end up with at the end of Stock Round (SR) 2. Not just SR1. It is not difficult to plan that far ahead.

Dan — Having enough cash going into SR2 is key. (Agreement)

Joe H — Or, put another way, having enough shares leaving SR2. I looked through 18 completed games. The net position of the winner, at the end of Stock Round 2, was a total of 1 more share than the other players. The best position for the winner was +3, the worst was -4.

Tao — You mean that someone was four shares behind the “leader” (of most shares) and won? Presumably that was a fast buck player who went bankrupt (or otherwise took a major hit).

Joe H — Oh, yes – and how are you going to convince others not to buy your stock.

Discoking7— I always play 1846 with the endgame in mind. My decisions are weighted towards the long-term (with the already mentioned caveat of keeping an eye on the share count). This is because of my biased preference for playing this way, but it is also a very successful approach in 1846. I have not seen a looting strategy come to much in this game (you’ve already gotten the details of how such maneuvers are curbed a bit by the rules). To me, the competition in 1846 is on the board and in company financing. Attacks come in tile/tokens and by investing early in other companies.

Eric  — First, I focus on what my stock holdings will look like at the end of SR2. If I have more/less money in privates, I will be able to put less/more money into the corporation in SR1, but after buying in the privates, I’ll have more/less to spend in SR2. So it’s the net of all that that matters.

Second, I’d “prefer” to run only 1 corporation. I did a study at one point to compare the results of 2-presidency players with those of 1-presidency players. In 3- and 4-player games, the 1- and 2- presidency players win about equal number of games. In 5 player games, the winner almost always has only 1 presidency.

Third, our opponents’ ability to and interest in cross-buying into your corporation makes a big difference. One drawback to starting low is people snapping up cheap shares. Sometimes you have to respond to that by dumping the corporation in SR3 (typically.) If you decide after SR2 that this will be your plan, you pay out full in OR2.1 and 2.2 and let someone else worry about the permanent train.

Fourth, The main reasons to launch a second corporation: a) Provide capital to help your lead corporation buy a permanent train (or a second one.) b) Get extra track-laying power to reach an E/W or route around a token-ed out city. c) Spam tokens around to ruin other people’s routes. d) There’s nothing left to buy in the early corporations. In recent months I’ve launched my first corporation as low as 50 and as high as 112. I’ve had success with both approaches. Tom (Lehmann) has explicitly said he wants the choice of starting price to be non-obvious (unlike 1830, where you always start your first company low.) Check the Long View podcast episode with Tom Lehmann

Jeroen — Another obvious question is where is your second permanent train coming from; and the power of half-pays (especially when double-jumping: “Joe’s rule”).

(Joe’s rule is — If you can pay out half your dividends and still double jump your stock value, do it — unless your company no longer needs money).

A five player game, OR 3.2

Tao — For some reason 1846 reminds me of Go. In particular, the initial draft has far reaching consequences that are not always obvious. I am actually wondering if this may be a barrier for entry. In an auction, you can see what everyone is bidding and get an idea after a game or two. But a draft may still be bewildering to new players — even if they can’t shoot themselves in the foot as easily, that’s different from playing well. The only real advice I see is “don’t spend too much” but clearly you can spend $200 and do fine. What thoughts do you have on the draft? What is ‘too much?’

Eric — I really don’t stress over the draft. I don’t see a way to ruin your chances in the draft other than by overspending. And note that it is impossible to spend more than $380 in the draft, even with everyone colluding and playing “double dummy”. But drafting MS, Big 4, Mail, and C&WI for $380 would indeed be ruinous. I don’t think $200 is a hard spending limit; I’ve seen people spend as much as $260 or $280 and do okay. But when I’m giving advice to new players, I warn them against spending more than $200 because it takes skill to manage those situations in which you spend a lot on privates. I will admit you can get good combinations in the draft. I am fond of both the (MS, Steamboat) and the (C&WI, Meat Packing) pairs.

Joe R — FWIW, people often get hung up on some of the privates because they think it dictates what they should do. On the other hand, I will take, e.g., the Michigan Central without ever planning on going to Michigan.

Dan — Yes, the $40/15 privates should certainly not drive strategy. I think the key for beginners in the draft plus SR1 plus planning OR 1.1-2 is “how do I enter SR2 with a decent amount of cash?” (There are) lots of ways to do that but also lots of ways to not do it, e.g. buy one cheap private and then open high, buy a bunch of privates and then don’t capitalize your company enough to buy them, etc.

Tao — The player with the priority has the benefit of knowing he can open whichever company he wants. How do you react as player 4(ish) in the draft, knowing that company choice will be limited? Do you aim for teleporters, independents, huge cash?

Mike  — When I’m in the last seat for SR1, thus the first pick, I prioritize making a pick that either teleports whatever company I get to where the action is (C&WI or MS) or something that is not bound up to tightly on the map (noting that MC and O&I are tied to specific hexes but they provide just good ROI for low cost that I’d happy to take either of them even without the track abilities). That means I’m probably avoiding Meat Packing and Steamboat in that seat, unless they are still in the pack for my 2nd pick

Joe R — Suppose meat and steam boat are in the game and I can choose meat as 4th player in a 4-player game. Then I am happy if I get Big 4, MS, or CWI as my second pick. There is a good chance I will, because one of the three players may pick steamboat, leaving the other three. In addition, for companies, will I be able to get GT or PRR sitting fourth? Those are not prime choices, so the answer may be yes. Either of those can be made to work with meat. Again, I think of all this as I am choosing the first private. FWIW, I would rather go last than first. Company choice is limited, but I have more knowledge as to what to par and what others will likely do.

Dan — I agree that sitting in a later seat has its benefits. For example, in [ a recent game] I would have much preferred to be later so I could see more of the par values. I felt I had to open fairly low sitting in second seat; had I been later I would have opened higher…

Joe H — To run counter to Mike, somewhat – I think Meat Packing and Steamboat are fine choices; Steamboat + B&O is sufficient unto itself to run reasonably, and Meat Packing works well enough with PRR or IC or even GT that I assume some useful company will come my way. (The people in this chat) IMHO, seriously undervalues the Mail Contract. Knowing that, I have intentionally run plans based upon expecting to see the Mail the second or third time around.

Eric — I have put Steamboat in Toledo with NYC or Erie and gotten +20 on three trains. I think of Steamboat as a flexible (and capital friendly) option.

Tao — Its funny that you mention GT as weak, because in my early plays we found the GT very good (and BGG had several forums echoing that), mainly because its so obvious and doesn’t require any thing that goes against 1830 instinct. Just run quickly for money, then go EW in one of the shorter routes. Now that I’m playing more it does appear fragile, but still a reasonable choice.

Eric — GT is like the military strategy in Race For the Galaxy. (Note by Tao — Also designed by Tom Lehmann). It’s obvious and easy to run, so in beginner games it often dominates. Other positions require more expertise to run well. GT suffers from having only 3 tokens. If it can get one special token (ideally C&WI or MS, but even Big 4 gives a base from which to run southern routes,) it’s much better. GT is prone to running well early, having its shares bought out, limping its way to a 5T, and running for revenue in the mid-30s at the end (plus possibly the Mail bonus.)

Eric — Back to the draft. The two private companies I never draft the first time around are the Big 4 and the Mail. It’s not that I don’t like them; it’s rather that they cost a lot of money and thus limit my options so early. You might wonder why this doesn’t apply to the Michigan Southern. The MS is even more expensive, but its station in Detroit and substantial treasury will help you carry out a low capital strategy. Whereas the Big 4 is much less of a help, and the Mail Contract is something that (IMO) doesn’t go well with a low capital strategy. It wants a corporation that’s into green trains asap.

I will take the Lake Shore Line, Michigan Central, or Ohio & Indiana without regard to geography, just for the revenue. Any use of the powers is gravy (and for this purpose I rank them LSL is better than O&I, which is better than  MC.)

(Tao’s Note — The discussion also included a few “surprising maneuvers that have since been copied,” including:

  • Connecting Cairo directly to St. Louis,
  • Buying in the CW&I (in OR1.1) and then driving from Chicago to Detroit,
  • Buying in the Big 4 in OR1.1 (then going to Cincinnati in OR1.1 and Louisville in OR1.2)

Tao — Also, After a few plays with novices, when looking at online shark games, it is astounding how much you can squeeze in OR 1.2 by buying independents (and possibly privates) in OR1.1, sacrificing profit for good company/speed. Any guidelines for newer players? (This is admittedly a more specific “Fast buck vs good company” dichotomy, which may certainly be false).

Mike — I like Eric’s heuristic which is “Buy in Big4 in OR 1.1, and everything else in 1.2, unless you have a good reason to to otherwise” The most common reason I see to buy in C&WI or MS in 1.1 is to use your track lays in that part of the map right away. Sometimes you’re so close to the wire that the extra $10 or $15 in private revenue being in the company lets you lay a track or a token in 1.2 that you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten, but I’m not yet seeing those spots, because most of the time they’re pretty marginal. Hindsight can maybe teach us something on this front – how often do you have an extra $x at the end of SR2, where #x is the revenue of a private you sold to a company in 1.2? Would it have been better if that $x was in the company treasury instead?

Eric — The reason I want to buy in Big 4 early is that the 2T will run much better in OR1.2 in a corporation (usually) than in the Big 4. Plus, you only give up a single track lay. If you buy the Michigan Southern in early (which sometimes makes sense,) you give up a $60 run (you’re probably not going to do much better in a corporation, and you may lose some of it to the pool or cross-investors) and you give up two tile lays in a critical area.

Joe H — $60 or possibly better. If the MS heads west it can frequently upgrade Chicago in OR 1.2.

Eric  — Another issue that’s not separable from this is “what trains are you going to buy in OR1.1 and OR1.2?” You can’t be sure, but you can guess based on what situation your opponents are in. It’s easier late in priority order. I hurt myself last night by buying two 2Ts with IC to go with the Big 4 2T. I should have only bought one.

Joe H — I’ve begun looking at Big4 as a way to get my real company a 2T for $40 of my money. I particularly like the Big4 with a high-cap company, to secure it a 2T – though often that doesn’t suggest an immediate buy-in.

Joe R — Oh, and I still think “Fast buck vs good company” is a false dichotomy. Reminds me of people who would ask me whether I would rather get good grades or learn something. Embrace the power of “and”. Another thing about the draft: I am finally past just doing a greedy algorithm for my choice (“which of these is best”), but starting to think about what others may have chosen, what am I likely to see again, how do those answers affect my choice of major, etc. Asynchronous play and the draftbot have helped a lot.

(Note — Mike A. wrote a discord bot to automate the 1846 draft by IM’ing people their choices and requesting one).

Tao — Switching gear to the endgame….as mentioned above getting a second permanent (or perhaps a ‘better’ permanent) seems to be the key feature of the endgame. Some companies will cap out at $30-40 dividend per OR, so they will not advance as far on the stock track (and may not sell out). But how do you set up for a ‘good’ company? Not having your sells share early (so you have more capital). What else?

Joe H — Building two E/W route possibilities. One of the advantages of the NYC and Erie. It’s not required to make two trains run well late, but it does help.

Eric — Some games end too quickly for the second permanent to be worth it. It all depends on how the group plays. Our group routinely aims for two permanents (perhaps driven by Joe H, who loves to build track and run trains — not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But I wonder whether some people are hurting themselves by supporting the “two permanents” policy.

Dan — it’s also perfectly possible to win by running a 5-share (or less) presidency with one permanent and owing a lot of shares in other companies with two (Mass Agreement).

Joe R — Especially if your company started low and thus is still double jumping with a single train (say with the mail contract).

Tao — Final question. What separates the intermediate 1846 player from the shark? Is it simply experience, or is there an insight that the intermediate is missing? Any final tips?

Joe H — Maybe the shark is simply the person who learns from other’s errors and successes rather than having to try everything out themselves. I, of course, have to try everything out myself, so I’ll never be a shark.

Eric — One thing is that they not only know the standard things to do in various situations, but they know why to do them, and in addition they know when the situation is such that they need to step back and re-think their course of action from first principles. Joe H is especially good at this, and I’d classify him as a (chaotic aligned) shark. Joe has stolen someone’s presidency early in several games I’ve been in when the other player either launched a second corporation or bought a second share in Joe’s (decent) corporation, allowing Joe to dump the corporation not for the usual reasons, but to lock up the other player’s liquidity so they could not defend their first presidency.

The Tao of Gaming thanks everyone for their generous gift of time and knowledge in answering these questions!

 

With careful play, I was able to come in fourth…

 


 

Written by taogaming

July 20, 2020 at 6:46 pm

Posted in 18xx, Strategy

Tagged with ,

Why I wrote Draco Malfoy and the Practice of Rationality; and How I’ve Been Able to Enjoy it Again

(Warning — Non-gaming content. And a narcissism alert. But where else would I post this?)

Like the Starman sings, it’s been Five Years since Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality ended. And five years ago I was wishing there was more.

(This essay could end here. That’s enough of a reason. But that seems a bit short).

Years ago I read James Gleick’s book on Feynman (Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman), and there’s a line I remember (paraphrasing): There are two types of genius in the world. The first type, you look and think ‘If I just studied more, worked harder, applied myself, were a bit more gifted, I could do that.’ And for the second type you are just bewildered. Those geniuses have thoughts and do things that would never occur to you.

Feynman (and Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres, whose exact name I still have to look up to spell correctly despite having written literally over one hundred thousand words in that universe) are the second type of genius. In HPMOR McGonagall (whose exact name I still have to look up….) has this exact thought about one of Harry’s insights. As for Eliezer Yudkowsky (whose exact …), the author, I’m not sure. I’ve never met him. He clearly rates highly on the mathematical aptitude scale, but I myself won the city-wide math prizes in contests (in a city > 1M), so i can see myself aspiring to the levels of math/CS proofs he does.

But never in a thousand years would the thought of writing Harry Potter Fanfiction as a teaching tool occur to me (more prosaically, neither would the existential threat of a non-malevolent AI, or many of the other ideas I saw on Less Wrong). So he certainly may be.

I’ve wanted to be a writer for decades. As a teenager, I took a summer workshop with famed editor David G. Hartwell on “Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy,” at which point I got my first taste of how difficult writing is. Why SF&F? Well, as a reader I have two axis that I’m looking for:

  1. Interesting ideas
  2. Beautiful language

As a teen, I favored the first reason — and SF writing has enough great ideas in the tropes. As to the writing, well, in published SF it was often acceptable. It wasn’t until later in life I started reading for beauty. I don’t find it often. But there are stories (and books, and series) where literally nothing happens (at least, as to plot) but I can remember the small turns of phrase, the tiny scenes.

These books are often filed under “Literature” in book stores. Some are quite good.

Anyway, I was reading “exquisitely written” books (when I read fiction) when I stumbled on HPMOR over a decade ago. (Fan Fiction lists the first chapter as published in Feb 2010 even thought I’m reasonably certain I read Chapter 100 in 2008, but perhaps that’s just FF’s publication date). For interesting ideas, HPMOR was off the charts. The writing was at least as good as the writing I’d put up with — or perpetrated — in SF&F. I was already familiar with some of the lessons (having read LessWrong, etc, as well as my own studies in Cognitive Science, decision making under pressure, etc) but even discounting those I’d found a story overflowing with ideas.

(And do not discount repetition. At least one of the lessons I knew intellectually, but was restated in such forceful and personal language that I re-evaluated some of of my life choices. Sometimes knowing a thing is quite different than understanding it).

HPMOR had a framework of cognitive science, with the fun part of exploring magic, the “aha” of seeing something in a (great) kid’s book being twisted to an unintended use! It had a villain who wasn’t just a story book character acting as a foil, simply feeding the hero to sharks-with-frikkin’ lasers then leaving and assuming the hero would die. And while HPMOR is clearly an “idea” story, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there were beautiful moments and character beats that gave me the shiver up my spine that I associate with moments of true beauty, and that are rare enough that I cherish them, no matter the source. There’s a joy to reading something — almost anything — written with true love. I like baseball; but even if you don’t you can read Bill James (at least, in small doses) because he clearly loves it and thinks about it and it shines through his writing. (Also, Bill James can turn a phrase). And EY had that going, too, but on a topic that I am deeply interested in, much more so than baseball.

And it had Harry Potter. Catnip to me (and so many others). And then …  it went dark for years. I switched jobs (twice by FF’s date, three times by my memory) and was at a new job when it started back up. And unlike so many stories, it seemed to be ending strongly.

Then came the final exam, and I wrote up a quick solution. In an uncharacteristic move I also reached out to some media outlets shopping around an article about the final exam and my theories that he was using this as an actual research experiment. (I reached out to E.Y. for an interview, to no avail). I eventually posted it here, although my premise turned out to be wrong (as I admitted). As the final chapters rolled out over the next two weeks, I rushed home from my career appointed task that gave me no joy to my daily dose of reading, thinking about, arguing online, etc.

And then it was over. But I wasn’t ready to let it go. And I discovered (via r/hpmor) sequels and branching fictions.

Let me be charitable and say that the few I tried were generally uninspired, had too many grating moments, or just felt off. In at least one case I closed the web page after the first sentence. So, I despaired. But, while the thought of writing HPMOR would have never occurred to me, writing a sequel fic seemed do-able. I decided to try it. I was writing it for me.

And — for once when writing fiction (as compared to writing about games) — the words flowed easily. I enjoyed it. I quickly set up some ground rules for myself, because all art is defined by constraints.

Draco would be the main character, because I’m not the second type of genius (or the first, really). I doubted I could plausibly write HJPEV. (Actually, that’s not necessarily true. If I spent a day or week or month coming up with a contrived clever thing, then have my character think of it in a flash, that could work, and I did use that trick). But also because Harry explicitly removes himself from the role of hero at the end of HPMOR. The other (obvious) constraint would be that this was a simple continuation fiction, and HPMOR was canon. And I did not feel that I ‘got’ Hermione. But Draco …. well, my training wasn’t quite as exquisite as his (and was in a vastly different field) but I could work within Draco’s constraints. And let’s put it this way. I’ve been accused of having some  … Slytherin tendencies. A college friend (and still friend) once described me by saying “If [Tao] knew the cure for cancer, he wouldn’t tell anyone until he’d figured out the implications.”

So, Hermione I am not.

DMPOR wasn’t great stylistically but I wrote the first chapters quickly. I didn’t even really bother editing it, I just put down the words (as is obvious from time to time) and fixed gross mistakes. (I did in fact go over each chapter several times, but like many people I mentally autocorrect any writing if I know what the author means, and as the author I always knew what I meant).

It was fun. After all, this was just a lark, my trying to draw out one last hit of my recently cut-off supply, as well as knocking off some cobwebs off a dream discarded years ago. I decided to post the link to my fiction to r/HPMOR and see if anyone else thought it was any good, and got a generally positive response, so I got that little bit of Whuffie and an endorphin rush, kept it up and knocked out the prologue (Ch1-9) in a month or two.

By this point I had decided to continue and also what I wanted my themes to be. One of those themes is a note of mild caution against HPMOR (the story) itself. There are (many) good ideas in there, but as I heard long ago (and the saying is older than that), “there is no difference between theory and practice …. in theory.” I’d had that in mind from the first moment of writing, hence the “practice” of rationality (and the Sorting Hat’s song). One point (that EY made himself, quite forcefully in the final chapter) is that HJPEV isn’t perfect or necessarily even a great role model. He has a very useful skill set, but everyone should be aiming for the type-one genius of Hermione. Work Hard. Be Nice.

But I could never make myself want to be like Hermione. (“A man can do what it wants, but can’t want what he wants.” —  Schopnhauer). I knew I couldn’t capture her point of view, not in the big picture.

I could easily want to be HJPEV (or at least, a more mature version). Or Quirrell. And I’m not alone in that. I had that in the back of my mind from Day 1. And I also had in mind the idea that “every advantage has a corresponding weakness.” If you’ve ever played one of those role playing games where you ‘buy’ a character (X points gets you more skills), you’ve likely been tempted to make yourself.

I’ve wanted to build a game where you can take as many advantages as you want, but each one has a package of disadvantages. Want to be Sherlock Holmes? Fine — because of your acute attention to detail and knowledge you are also easily bored (to the point of doing drugs), irritable, generally unpleasant to be around, unwilling to learn anything that has no practical value, etc. Everyone wants to be Batman, but minus all the dead parents and decade of angst and training.

HJPEV is a great protagonist, yet simultaneously a cautionary tale. DMPOR is both a sequel and also a (gentle) rebuttal, but again no more so than Chapter 122.

While writing the prologue I’d come up with some clever ideas, so I decided to continue but I needed to nail down my theme and general course.

— Broad sweeping Spoilers for DMPOR below but you can skip until the next section —

Continuing the rivalry between the triumvirate seemed obvious, and obvious doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. Within the constraints of the world, it would undeniably happen, and its interesting. Significant Digits (which didn’t exist when I started; if it had I doubt I would have written anything) also latched onto this (in some ways working the opposite of I did, but in others along similar paths that struck me). Both our stories got a sort of ‘first movers’ advantage of premiering so soon after HPMOR ended, but SD is undeniably better written. But back to my story…..

There was not much room for Harry/Hermione antagonism, which led me to the obvious conclusion that Draco/Harry antagonism would work. I remembered the first few episodes of Smallville I only watched two or three before giving up, but I liked the idea of Clark Kent and Lex Luthor growing up together and ending on the opposite sides as adults. (This also echoes The Metropolitan Man by Alexander Wales, which I had read).Yes, its the BigBandFriend trope to have the villain be the guy you were hanging out with, but that works. I mean, if the reveal is that your nemesis is Joe Blow from Accounting. that’s realistic, but hardly dramatic. And this Draco/Harry interaction in many ways mirrored the Harry/QQ interaction (“I don’t have to hate him, I just have to win”). Symmetry is also enjoyable.

But I didn’t want to make Draco the villain. I wanted to make him a tragic heroic figure. In some ways I wanted this to work as a work like a Japanese story, where the heroes often kill themselves because of what they perceive as duty (think of the Forty-seven Ronin). I didn’t have everything plotted out, but by the end of the prologue (where Harry’s slip let’s Draco understand that he spoke with Voldemort extensively). As a sidebar, many readers objected to the Draco’s internal monologue saying that Harry had “chatted” with Voldemort, saying it was imprecise.

Perhaps, but I wanted to draw attention to that fact, and I wanted to draw attention to how Draco viewed that fact.  I’d also foreshadowed how that night would haunt him for years. I decided on the general idea of how Draco would work (self-obliviation with the help of his diary, and his vast resources) and why (including a little nudge from Dumbledore, who may still be operating under prophecy, which I thought would help the readers come to grips with his eventual decision, because even then I recognized that this was not for everyone).

Now I just needed to work out the details.

— End Spoilers —

(Also, I just had to look up how to spell Voldemort. It’s been a while).

Anyway, with the prologue out of the way and the broad strokes as to the “Hows” of the main plot, I went on my merry way. Before starting to write I’d re-read the Chamber of Secrets, which gave me some ideas for twists (such as Draco’s magical diary), red herrings and jokes. I had a goal but no strong urgency to get there, so I could sidebar with whatever interested me, and this let me put in some of my knowledge on Recognition Primed Decision Making, or anything else that held my fancy.

And I made a lot of mistakes. Not just factual mistakes, but story-telling decisions and shortcuts that some readers (and later, myself) disliked. I cut short the battle sequences because having Draco always win would be unrealistic, and he would often be unconscious, and because frankly they didn’t interest me as much. This was called “teasing” and annoying. I wanted to show viscerally the unreasonable effectiveness of ambushes. To call it a theme would be too nice, I had characters come out and say it over and over again. So ambushes would work. (I’ve seen ambushes — social and/or political instead of physical — up close and personal and they are devastatingly effective). So, I tried to have my story show my lessons. Some of this was unconscious but some was decidedly authorial intent.

I put in the”Thirty Four Years Later” epilogue (mirroring the one from Deathly Hallows with Adult Harry and Hermione but not Draco) as foreshadowing and also because I felt it would have more impact there, but that didn’t go over very well.

And then there was ‘the heist.’ The last third of the story.

I’d early on given up on the idea of having a final exam, but I wanted something big and bit off more than I could chew. To say that the last third of DMPOR kept me up at nights is both literally true yet feels like gross understatement. Trying to come up with a plan to achieve what I’d set out to do was hard. I’d built the world up and published mostly as I wrote (I was often 10k words ahead after the prologue, but I knew the ending would take a while. I kept having ideas then — a day or two later — spotting holes. Rationalist fiction has rules and they were liberating: when I wasn’t trying to make an Ocean’s Eleven style show piece.

The structure of the ending annoyed many readers but seemed (to me) fair in the sense that Harry, has to reconstruct it. This let me reveal things in what seemed a better order (instead of strictly temporally ….) and also gave me wiggle room in case I’d overlooked something. It worked (ish), but the last few months were not nearly as enjoyable as the first two thirds of the book.

I can honestly say that If I’d just written whatever came to my mind during my daily commute and breaks and then wrote out would have probably made both myself and the readers happier than the choices I made to make the heist “work.” There were a few chapters in the later parts that really moved me, but overall it was a massive relief to finish. I’d told the story I wanted to tell.

And I got some praise, but also ugly reviews, emails, because many readers did not particularly want to hear a story with. I often use the reviewing phrase of “a noble failure” for a game that tried interesting things but didn’t quite work and I came to the conclusion that DMPOR was a noble failure. I’d tried to tell the story and I thought I had foreshadowed most of the controversial points (excepting the ones that I had to make on the fly, but that also seemed to have a symmetry with HPMOR and regular canon), but the readers were not particularly happy. Or so I thought.

But I was done. A year or two later, while reading the Poems of William Blake I was struck by some lines from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that I felt captured … something of what I was trying to say. The dichotomy between rationality and human interaction. I’d always toyed with the idea of a distant future epilogue which had the symmetry of all three of the triumvirate having an impromptu and unexpected re-union and so I wrote it up (farily quickly), dropped it, then deleted my fan fiction password so I wouldn’t be tempted to read the reviews.

Done and done.

I heard from a few friends who read the story but that I closed the book on that chapter of my life. But at some point after the new year (and new Decade) I was ltaking inventory through my old works (in general) and was wondering about timelines and noticed HPMOR ended five years ago. I re-read a few bits, then  went to fan fiction and re-read DMPOR. It wasn’t bad. I still feel the memories of dread when reading the last third, but it was OK. I realize that some of the themes and things I was working through at the time mirrored what I was working through in Essay form in Thinking About Imperfect Thinking (and if you are here from r/HPMOR, I suggest you read that).

Looking at that article, I see the line–

I never thought “Well, I will become recognized for being a good writer.” So there’s no pressure.

That wasn’t true when I was finishing DMPOR. (At least, for the scale of fan fiction).

But its no longer true, I think. I’ve mostly let it go. Perhaps the last little burden was lifted when I saw a recent thread on r/HPMOR with several people listing it as the best sequel, including a few user names that I respect. (although, in all honesty, I’m not exactly sure why in some cases. I think I’ve chatted with them about other things, but it was years ago). I personally think Significant Digits is better … just because the writing is so much better and the plotting and ideas are great, too. And if his ending felt a bit ungainly, well, I know all about that.

At the time I finished I just wanted to throw my hands in the air and say “Well, if they didn’t get it, oh well.” But certainly its the writer’s fault if things aren’t clear. So I felt that now would be a good time to spell out what I was trying to do at some level. Maybe not exactly, but hopefully (particularly with my last essay) you’d get a feeling about my fascination and unease, both with Harry Potter (etc etc) and myself, and perhaps a little more insight into what I was trying to achieve.

Have I learned any lessons? — I am faster to give praise now, probably improving my rating from “geological time” to “snail” or perhaps even “tortoise.” I never used to comment online (and still don’t), but the experience of writing this affected me. This is one of those things I should have known, and did know intellectually, but I really felt it. A line that hits me every time I read HPMOR is Dumbledore’s line to Hermione ” As you would be kind to others, be kinder to yourself as well.” That is a lesson I’m slowly learning. I don’t consider myself a particularly harsh self critic, but I’ve been dropping things that used to gnaw on me as unimportant.

Now I can add this to the list.

I’d like to find another fiction project that inspired me like the first half of the sequel. I’ve had a number of good ideas (ideas are cheap) and every time I’ve started I just stare at a blank page. The number of times I’ve written anything where it flows I can count on the fingers of maybe two fingers. Maybe one day I’ll get another. I’d like that.

(If you came here from r/HPMOR, this is mostly about boardgames, but feel free to look around).

Written by taogaming

March 10, 2020 at 2:45 pm

Too Many Words about Res Arcana

This article covers my evolving thoughts about Res Arcana. (Admin note — I’ve decided to go ahead and make “Too Many Words” a category as well as a tag, I’ll go back and add the category to the older posts soon). Right now the vast majority of my games have been two player, with all that implies. After our opening burst we converted to Tom’s two player “tightening” variant (where three monuments and a place of power are removed at random at the start of the game). Also, this article was peer reviewed by the TaoLing (and sometimes I have noted when a comment is his versus mine). It may be a slight exaggeration to say the the TaoLing is the world’s second best player in the two player, random deal game in the world (behind Tom Lehmann) because I think there are probably play-testers who have more experience and games.

But he usually beats me.

How to Lose Res Arcana in one easy step

Res Arcana (like many of Tom Lehmann’s games) contains depth that I’m still exploring. But the trap so easy to fall into? You look at your opening hand and see “Ah, if I discard X then I can play Y, pass and take some magic item, then play Z and I’ve got a production engine going.” It’s a strategy as old as gaming: “Early on value money & resources, late game focus on victory points.”

The trap? Res Arcana’s (open) secret is that production doesn’t automatically convert to VPs. Compare with Race for the Galaxy. Earning a hand of cards a turn will see you draw a decent or even great scoring card every turn. (Some will be better than others), or a few worlds and trading can (with the right world) morph into a consume x2 engine. In Res, if you built an engine generating a monstrous twenty mana a turn (four in each color) you could — buy the Coral Castle. That’s three points. Next turn, you could buy … nothing. Now this assumes all the other places of power had been bought, but they will be by the time your nitro-burning-funny-car of mana generation gets going. You can buy whatever artifact you drew from your deck, but those are rarely points.

Most Places of Power (PoP) provide a path to convert mana into points (as well as some points). But spend too long setting up a perfect engine and your converter will be snapped up by an opponent’s “good enough” engine. It’s a short game. You can lose by racing for a PoP without adequate support to produce the mana you’ll need for VP, but most players err far too much in the other direction. I’ve been losing to the TaoLing more often than not, but a few recent games against new players showed that even making multiple lapse-of-attention mistakes while I’m explaining options to others, it was nowhere close, and always for that reason.

Res is about converting whatever you have into ten points, and while you might say “Ooh, I spend these three mana to get two a turn!” that also means “you are down three mana this turn from where you started” and “you could have tossed that card to get two mana or a gold.”

The Time value of mana is huge. If the game ends on turn four, then spending three resources on a “two per turn” card only nets you three resources in the entire game! Games probably average five+ turns, although I haven’t kept notes. And strong play will likely lower that by a bit.

So — to summarize — you lose Res Arcana by just focusing on your cards, building an engine, and ignoring the point conversion for a turn or two longer than your rivals.

As Tom notes, Gold is an easily grasped strategy for new players. Gold has — kind of — a pre-built conversion path in the monument deck (with bonus powers). Particularly in a two player (non-variant) game, a Gold engine almost can’t run out of opportunities before the game ends. (In a recent variant game, the TaoLing and I witnessed a massive gold engine lose when the other player scrounged up enough gold to buy two monuments leaving the gold engine only 8 VPs worth of monuments, four gold, and nothing better to do with it than convert it back to regular mana). If that can happen with gold, imagine how easy it is to wind up with a bunch of extra red, or blue.

Concepts

Timing — Winning the Race

When you first play, you’ll stare at your artifacts. You should stare are the places of power. And watch your opponents. If you focus only on your tableau, you’ll be surprised when you converter gets bought and think “Now what.” Determine what each rival is aiming at. If your opponent has any cards in hand and is only two resources or one gold short of your convertor, take an action that puts you in a position to buy what you need on your next action — even if it may not be optimal. You might decide to risk it (if your plans are flexible enough, or you think your opponent isn’t actually trying for the same goal as you are, or you can read that they aren’t discarding their cards but playing them), but that’s a decision.

Ideally you’d buy an artifact, tap it for mana, then buy a PoP with the resources (so you get the mana next turn as well), but that may be one action too slow.  At times like this, Res Arcana is a short sprint, but overall its 1500m race. There’s a pace. (I guess a better analogy would be a bike race with intermediate sprint bonuses…) If you are close to the (intermediate) finish line — being first to pass or buying X first — you go fast. But if you shoot out when everyone is going slow, you’ll run out of resources and get overtaken by better engines.

Time is a resource, just like any other. I’ve focused on Places of Power, but you sometimes race for a specific magic item. Squeezing every single mana you possible can may not be as important as passing first for the right magic artifact to implement your plan (or victory point!). Especially in a two player game, both players may be trying to get Transmutation, Alchemy or Reanimate on the same turn to (respectively) fix a mana-color problem, get gold for a monument, use an important card twice. (In a three or four player game its much more likely that these will be locked up and you’ll have to dance around to wait at the right time).

Flexibility, Drawing things out and timing

Res Arcana also has zugzwang. (In Chess that means you can’t pass. Here it means, if you pass you are done for the round). Sometimes you’ll have an item your rival wants. That means they will try to wait until you pass. Many games revolve around jockeying for the Reanimate item as it lets you use a single “tap and convert X to VPs” power (or mana generation) twice. If you can take more actions (without destroying your position) and force them to pass before you relinquish it, you deny them that artifact again for another turn. And next turn you may be able to pass fast and grab it! (Again, this is often Transmutation, Alchemy or Reanimate, in my experience).

Many moves can’t be undone (the most drastic being discarding a card, which risks never seeing the card again). This has a number of practical (sometimes contradictory) effects:

  • You want to move towards your goal efficiently,
  • You don’t want to commit to one path/PoP unless you are likely to win (or its flexible).
  • You’d like to not make it blindingly obvious what you are doing, particularly if your opponent(s) can thwart you. If your opponent is convinced you are racing for their goal (when you aren’t) they may forgo some long-term growth to win the race. Particularly if you had no interest in their goal, that’s great.

Cards in hand are amazingly powerful

A thought experiment. You have a starting mage who collects a resource of your choice (but no other power) and three cards, all blank. But you can also can select a magic item. What can you do?

  1. You can discard all three cards for a gold a buy a monument. If you take Alchemy you can also turn four of your resources into two gold. If you bought Solomon’s Mines as the monument, you can then gain a gold this turn and next turn and buy a second monument (and you’ll also have drawn another card!).
  2. Dragon’s Lair costs twelve resources and provides two gold a turn. You can buy it on first turn by chucking cards — assuming your mage generates a mana and you got a mana via a magic item — then buy a monument on second turn (having used it on T1 and T2). If that gives you a few resources you may be able to play a cheap dragon (assuming you drew one) and now start banking two points a turn.
  3. Catacombs of the Dead costs nine black, which is a bit of a stretch …. you’ll need Transmutation to convert some of your other resources (or get the last black from a magic item). But its one point a turn (plus you can buy a few more, but lacking an engine that may be tough).
  4. Alchemist’s tower only costs three gold and provides three resources a turn. Now, it’s not worth any points, but if you can get a fourth resource you can buy them. You start turn two with four resources a blank card, and your next card.

You get the idea. Even with nothing but a single magic item and three blank cards you can get an admittedly ugly engine going on turn one. Cards are powerful. Flexible.

Why are all of those engines ugly? Because they are a single card engine. Imagine that you could pick the card you drew on the second turn (which, with Divination as your magic item, is highly likely). Imagine getting the Alchemist’s Tower and putting down the Elemental Stream on T2. Now you practically generate two points a turn, unless you have something better. Many two-card combos are ridiculously good, and getting them out can mean a fast route to ten points.

(Opening with a first turn Dragon’s Lair has a reasonable amount of success, especially with a Dragon or two waiting to be drawn and the right monument, because the engine isn’t really mana based.  Opening with the Catacombs can work, particularly with the Witch, but takes a bit more. The others need more oomph to accelerate, and are probably better suited to a turn or two later.)

The point is with an opening hand that doesn’t work together, you don’t want to just play random cards. Two (or three) cards that mesh well (one being a place of power) can generate points, while eight random cards often can’t. That’s the first reason you shouldn’t necessarily play many cards.

The other reason slapping down your opening hand isn’t necessarily a great idea? You’ve lost time and your starting supply of resources. Suddenly your opponent can see “Oh, it takes him X moves to be in a position to buy what I want. I’m in no rush, I can do it optimally.” Your opening hand and mana represents about three turns of reserves. (3 cards and 2 mana/turn). You only get to blow them once.

So, using this idea to continue on our list above:

  • Recognize when you are in a race and when you aren’t.
  • When you look at your eight cards, look for a combo. When you draw your opening hand, if you got a card that combines with many other cards (even ones you don’t have yet), its likely the one you want to play (particularly if it provides income while you are digging for the other card). Sometimes you are better off having only one card you want to play early. If you drew all three, what would you chuck to pay for the others.
  • Early gold is reasonable, but not for its own sake. If the monument you buy provides some income (either cards, gold, or resources), that’s at least starting an engine. If its just points, you’ll stall out.
  • If you have an artifact that gives you two or three mana while giving one to each of your rivals, hold off on it as long as you can. Perhaps they will run out of actions and decide to chuck a card for that mana. (“As long as you can” depends on other considerations, of course).
  • The Research magic item (spend a mana for a card draw) can be used to hunt for a card, or to turn one item into two mana or a gold.

Putting it all together — Pressure and Release

So, you want to build an engine fast enough to let you get a place of power (or gold to buy monuments). As Tom L. notes in a question on “changing strategy” experienced players buy places of power on rounds two or three, instead of rounds three through five. He attributes this to “pressuring,” which is a better term than I had. Let me provide an example from last night. I had decided to grab an early monument and leverage its ability into my engine (and gain a point). The TaoLing saw what I was doing and then waited until I’d used alchemy to convert all but one of my resources to three gold (I was planning on tossing a card for the final gold).

He then played an attack card.  (Elvish Bow — which can attack for a single life but has no built in reaction power to defend). I now had a problem. If I discarded a card for one gold, he’d attack and I’d lose my (non-green) resource and a gold. If I discarded the card for a life  plus another, he could make me lose my life or just tap the Bow to draw a card (its other power). The attack wasn’t really that damaging … but the threat was devastating. (“The threat is mightier than the execution” — Grand Master A. Nimzovich).

If the TaoLing had revealed the bow earlier or later, it would be no problem. Earlier, I’d have responded. Later, I’d have spent the gold and simply eaten the other resource loss.  But the pressure of having something big to lose at that time hurt. (As a comment on my play, I was trying to be flexible by not pitching a card until the last minute, since I hadn’t decided what card to keep. Now I know that my flexibility should have been on the side of “which single resource do I want to keep in case I’m attacked” in that situation).

At some point you may have the bright idea of putting down a very early Dragon via the Dragon’s Egg …  and if you do it at a random time you’ll discover its not nearly as good as you’d hoped. You hurt your opponent maybe as much as the time you lose by putting down an attack card. (And if you are really unlucky, they drop something with an ‘ignore’ power). If you could somehow magically start with it (paying all resources) it would only minorly inconvenience your opponent. Drop it at the critical time, when resources are tight? That’s good. An attack for a resource or two isn’t much compared to a threatened attack that delays your opponent by a turn.

A few miscellaneous thoughts before discussing specific cards

  • Collect powers are slightly weaker (in terms of mana) than cards that tap to generate them. You can use the tap cards the turn you drop them, and can re-animate them to use them twice.
  • Against that collect powers don’t take actions and are therefore faster. Faster can be better or worse (on the last turn, usually better….) (The tap cards sometimes give your rivals mana. If you give it to them at the wrong time, that’s not a huge deal).
  • “Check Victory” powers do several things. The biggest is when you can eke out ten points but — were you to wait until the end of the turn — they could get more. Of more interest you can also get a decent victory by passing early the prior turn to grab a point, earn your ninth (permanent) point and then win. (If your opponent recognizes this and passes to grab that, you can probably use the rest of the turn better to out-earn them next turn). Finally, sometimes you just want to wait without passing and that’s a valid “non-move-move.”
  • One gold a turn (starting at turn two or earlier) may not sound like much but its a monument unless someone gold rushes (and by chucking a card at the right time, may be a great monument). Repeatable two gold a turn is good and if your opponent starts doing more than that, grab monuments while you can to deny them. But if you have four gold and no way of generating more wait for the ‘right’ monument (or buy blind) instead of taking the first thing you can.
  • Because you can discard a card for gold, a “Draw a card” power should be considered slower, but otherwise superior, to getting a gold.
  • Cards that give you ‘wild’ (non-gold) mana or let you convert a large quantity of mana can surprise the unwary as to what you are actually doing (or flexibility to shift goals). And lest you say your opponents are always wary — sometimes that flexibility makes them nervous and under-optimize.
  • Having extra card draw (even at the cost of a mana) gives you an advantage at gold rushing, but repeated card draw also lets you be a bit cavalier in your discards and chuck a card you’ll definitely want to play, because the Divination magic item isn’t often contested mid-game in my experience.
  • I’m not sure how to value “ignoring attacks” as the player count increases. My theory is that the value of attacking goes down (as its harder to time a threat against both opponents), but you have more rivals and they may just attack on general principles or they may just attack you because you are a threat or attack your opponent when they are winning and so you get splashed. So my suspicion is that attacking is more often, and therefore the value of ignoring attacks goes up.

Finally, Res Arcana is a card game. You can get bad hands (non-drafting), and there are cards that are much more flexible. If that bothers you, play the drafting variant. Right now I suspect that 10-20% of our games have pretty lopsided battles (good hand versus bad hand). That doesn’t really bother me much, although I’ll likely try drafting at some point.

The Places of Power

Although I do have a mental ranking of these, the fact that they are setup means you have to deal with you see. Often your mage and hand will point to where you’d like to go….

Dragon’s Lair — Two points a turn with a Dragon, which is also a point. And it doesn’t require spending a mana. The big downside is that if you don’t have a Dragon you can never get one. Before you score you get gold, which means this can go pretty fast. Not worth buying if you lack dragons (or Mermaid), excepting perhaps a two player game where you strongly suspect your opponent has no backup plan and hasn’t started anything else. (The TaoLing points out that if you have Witch the lair is a monument a turn for two mana, and better with Reanimate). The lair being makes defense a bit less necessary …. someone with Dragons will likely be using them to power this at least part of the time. (A hit to you would have to be pretty big to be worth more than two points, and even someone with two dragons may be able to untap the lair to use both dragons).

Sorcerer’s Bestiary — The flip side of the Lair gives you one point per creature and two per dragon, which doesn’t require any tapping. Against that, this means that a single Dragon is two points, not two per turn. The ability to take cards out of other people’s discard? I’ve played nearly seventy five games and I’ve never seen it used. That may be due to the (mainly two player nature of my games). The four cost penalty for theft is large.

Alchemist’s Tower — Three gold for three resources a turn is an interesting choice. There’s a monument that does that (but costs four gold). Of course it provides VP without further cost. I’ve seen this bought first turn and I think that is usually a mistake, but an intriguing one. The power (convert one of each non-gold mana to a VP without tapping) gives you a final turn dump but requires more production (4 per point) than most of the PoPs except for Catacombs (which also gets a point per turn by tapping).

Sacred Groove –A point per turn (for turning an animal), but with a kicker of two base points no matter what. The cost at twelve is steeper than the Lair because it’s eight life. I underrated the ability to turn a blue into five green. It has some powerful combos with Ring of Midas, Alchemy, Philospher’s Stone, Athanor, etc. or buying the Coral Castle…)

Coral Castle — Fifteen mana for three VP, period (with a check victory power) makes this a late purchase, but anyone can use it for the final oomph if their engine is running. The ignore power can be worth a little income.

Sunken Reef — Relatively cheap at nine mana, collect a gold a turn, and buy VPs (repeatedly) for two blue and a green makes this an attractive buy. However, I always think I’m going to get one or two VP more than I actually get. Also, this (and the Tower) takes more actions to load the points onto it.

Cursed Forge — This costs a black or turns itself (“Cursed” you say?) but lets you spend two red plus a gold for a point. This isn’t a bargain at nine mana (six red / three black) and you are paying a chunk of what you need. It is worth a base point, though.

Dwarven Mines — A cheap place (four red, two green and a gold) and a gold provider. This lets you convert five red into three gold (and taps) and converts at six mana for two points (but taps). This makes for an intriguing (and likely wrong) rush buy.. With the right mage + starting magic item this could be a “single discard” purchase, but usually you’ll want a red production card or two and buy this on the second or third turn.

Catacombs of the Dead — Nine death/black for one point per turn (via tapping), the ability to buy points at five black per, and one black a turn. There are several “gain death” artifacts including two that give rivals (so that your opponents may get it). Buying this too early means you earn at a steady rate but likely have no growth, but its a solid earner. But we’ve seen multiple games where the turn one Catacombs won.

Sacrificial Pit — You need a big stack of eight red and four black to get this, and then gain points at a three (green) to one, but you have to tap it. To counter that, you get two base points.  One nice thing about this (as compared to the Sunken Reef) is that the mana you use to buy it isn’t the same as the mana you use to power it. So you don’t need a constant red/black engine. The ability to sacrifice a Dragon or Creature gives you a burst of 1-8 gold. (The TaoLing considers this the primary ability, particularly if you have a dragon discount card like the Bridle or Tooth). You buy the dragon cheap, sacrifice it for gold, and try to race an do it again. (This also works with the Crypt to recycle the dead). Eight gold means two monuments (even if you have to scrounge one or two) and that’s points and monument denial (albeit often at the cost of a VP for the poor dragon).

The Monuments

The monuments average 1.6 VP, with three bonus VP available the owner has three spare gold on the relevant turn. (This fact may be useful on a blind draw). Also — unlike the places of power — you don’t know which ones are in the game (if you remove some) or when they’ll be available. Often the two that are visible on setup may determine which mage you select and if you are going to try for a T1 or T2 monument.

Golden Statue (1VP) — Three extra VP for three gold makes this a dense chunk of VPs and a great midgame purchase. Early game you may get as much bang for you buck by getting an ability that you can use right away (‘time value of mana’), late game it depends entirely on if you’ll have the gold available.

Obelisk (1VP) — Six wild mana now can put you back into the race for a place of power or be worth 1-2 VPs by itself.

Hanging Gardens (1VP) — Three mana a turn is great on T2, and on the final turn this is likely the most useless monument. But you knew that.

Library (1VP) — A card is worth at least a gold, and maybe more (albeit slower than the mines)

Solomon’s Mines (1VP) — A gold a turn. Either this or the Library in the opening will start to entice me to a gold rush strategy. With Alchemy you can buy a “tap for mana” card (to also start an engine), tap it, alchemy (to get to three gold) and then discard to four gold and then use this/Library to get a gold on T1 and T2.  Without the mana engine its riskier, but still possible.

Colossus (2VP) — For the extra VP your gold is slower, but still an enticing early monument.

Oracle (2VP) — The ability to look and reorder the monument deck is reasonable. If everyone else is threatening to buy, you can put dreck on top until you have four gold and either time your buy or rearrange again. Looking at your own deck is also fine. (The TaoLing thinks that its only useful if you are gold rushing).

Temple (2VP) — One green a turn and a free “ignore attack” makes this situational.

The Mausoleum (2VP) — Obviously a player gunning for the Catacombs will love the free “convert everything to black” (at a delay). But this is also useful for other players. First, you could be missing black. Second, if you run out of actions and just want to wait to pass, you can slowly convert things to black (and there’s nothing stopping you from converting your existing black first).

The Great Pyramids (3VP) — Points! Is this worth buying as an early monument? As I mentioned in the thesis, there’s not always a path to convert to points, and the calculation for how much your forgone resources (for the other monument) are likely worth. That’s a hard calculation in the best of times

The Mages

You make your decision on mage after you see the Places of Power and two starting monuments (and after you know if you are going first, selecting magic items first, or somewhere in the middle). Of general note the mages that collect an income (most of them) need on less tempo than those that tap to generate it (the Alchemist, Transmuter and Scholar, assuming he just tosses the card). I am roughly ranking these from worst to best, but this order depends so greatly on the other starting conditions that it doesn’t matter much.

Druid — OK, untapping an animal isn’t great, so unless I have the Mermaid in my deck I’m probably starting my other card unless the Sacred Grove is in play (and an animal or two). She may eke out an extra point or two (the turns you can untap the grove) or give you a big mana boost (the turns you can’t). But even then I’d give a hard look at my other mage. Now, with drafting this doesn’t apply, but I’m prefer the “make soup out of lemons” deal and go. Also, you always collect green so no flexibility. (TaoLing sez –the Treant can get you huge amounts of mana and is a creature)

Healer — Ignoring an attack and collect a blue or green. Ignoring an attack has very diminishing returns (because if there are multiple attacks out there you can likely eat most of them or just pass, as long as you can ignore the wrong item/wrong time one). But some flexibility in mana collection and no ability makes him fast, so you can often pass early in the penultimate or final turn.

Seer — Collect blue and reorder a deck. The Seer means that if you are didn’t get it on your opening hand you have a sixty percent shot to get it on turn two (or plan accordingly). Manipulating the monument deck is nice (as discussed under the Library) but if you got the library you likely had a gold engine….

Necromancer — Nekki can net you two mana a turn, but very specifically. (Gain a black and convert two green to a black, delayed a turn). Obviously with the Catacombs, that’s a big deal. With an excess green production that’s also nice. Lacking that, you are better placed for Alchemy, mainly.

Transmuter — Tap to turn two mana into three is flexible, but the price you play is slowness. Still, she’s rarely a bad selection.

Artificer — “Speed is life.” With the right opening hand, this guy is brutal. With the wrong opening hand, he’s pointless. The ability to drop three generators early easily overcomes his lack of income. (I mean, mages that naturally collect one income a turn are likely earning only six over the course of the game, so giving up three income to frontload it is fine). Ideally you’d like to go last on the first turn to pick up a magic item you are short may need two of. But even if you can’t drop your full opening hand, the ability to get two (say) and save your third card for next turn (or just until you need it) may still be worthwhile.

Duelist — Turning a black into a (delayed) gold while still earning a (red) mana is solid. One gold a turn is a monument, and he’s got enough that  you should likely get two (with a few discards) during an average game and the Dwarven Axe in your opening hand gets you to T2 monument without breaking a sweat (since you already have the spare red).

Scholar — At worst, his ability is “Turn a mana into a gold or gain a mana,” because of the value of cards in hand. Since you shouldn’t be playing all your cards anyway, digging through your deck quickly for the cards you want and spending the rest is great. A built in research means you’ll see your entire deck by T3 (and you can still take research). Scholar can turn anything into a slow gold engine (and you can take research as well to speed it up).

Witch — If the Artificer is an early game mage, the Witch is the ultimate end-game specialist. I’ve mentioned that many games are fights for Reanimate, she has it built at (at one greater cost). She likely makes any tapping place of power worth an extra point or two, and spending two to untap an artifact may let you move mana around in the right colors, or build up an artifact that “explodes” (like the Athanor) a turn early. Honestly, if you wanted to rank her highest you might be right, but just for some reason I never seem to get dealt her and I’ve played her much less than the ones I rank higher.

Alchemist — Insanely flexible at tapping for a mana of your choice (when you are short) or converting mana to gold (when you are flush). As mentioned above, he can easily go for a first turn monument (or Alchemist’s Tower) without slowing down, and gold has a path to points (until the monuments run out).

The Magic Items

Reanimate —The king of magic items. Usually this provides a point (at least) in late game each turn you have it, and early game it can often net you two additional mana (with the right artifact) or one mana but moving colors around similar to Transumutation. It may convert a mana into a gold with other artifacts (Vault, etc), or ‘load’ an artifact that takes two or three taps before it becomes effective a turn earlier (Windup Man or Athanor). Sometimes its worth it just to deny your opponent (especially in two player). Early game you are less likely to be able to use it.

Alchemy — Gold usually has a path.

Transmutation — Converting three for three is often enough to get a place of power. Taking this the turn you plan on having enough for one, but may not get it first lets you survive if you miss.

Life/Death and Calm/Elan — extra mana (at no tempo cost) is fine, but these are mainly used early to make sure you can play what you need (particularly if you don’t want to discard a needed card). But often Research provides the same benefit (spend one to gain a card that you chuck for two, or vice versa) and lets you run through your deck a bit faster, or turn that spare card into a gold.  The decision depends on how you want your tempo.

Divination — Dig for a card you need or with a bad opening you take this and mulligan for something better. (A three creature opening, or similar late game cards). I’ve also seen this used to force a reshuffle after the Sorcerer’s Bestiary gets bought, or just recover an early discarded Dragon.

Protection — There’s diminishing returns, but sometimes you just have to take this. Particularly if your rival dropped his attack, hit you and passed. Part of the “pressure”/Nimzovichian element of dropping an attack is to force your opponent to grab protection and effectively denying them the mana gain (etc) from some other magic item. In a three-four player game, this is probably a much better “insurance” play. You have your mana in the right color, aren’t going for gold, Reanimate is gone and just want to make sure you can’t be disrupted. (But I’d still glance at the board again). Also, grabbing a Dragon’s own “ignore” mana via Life/Death or Calm/Elan (instead of protection) has the same effect and the bonus that you get to keep the mana if the attack doesn’t happen.

The Artifacts

Rather than go into each artifact, I’m going to categorize them (with a few exceptions). Some cards fall into two categories because of multiple powers. I don’t think there’s much point in doing a cost/benefit for each one, since the benefit will depend on your conversion plan.

“The Dragons” — Ranging from five to nine mana, the Dragons are mostly late game cards, especially with the Lair. But all of that changes if you have the Dragon Teeth (or Egg, to a lesser extent). Now all of them are potential early cards. Even so you’ll probably need to time it to really cause any pain, excepting if you have a sacrificial card that lets you then get rid of the dragon for mana. The tooth lets you hopefully convert two red to three, then buy a dragon on turn two, attack, then into seven to eleven wild mana. Granted, that’s a three card combo (but one that shows up fairly often, given the number of dragons) and you’ll likely be executing it over two turns, but it overcomes the weakness of the early dragon. As mid- to late- game cards they are worth a point. Their attack will likely be blunted, but an untapped dragon can force your opponent to always keep an extra resource or two, which is pressure.

Dragon support cards have some value even by themselves. The Dragon Egg converts a gold to a point, the Dragon Bridle converts four mana to a point and lets you ignore one attack. The Dragon Teeth let you turn two red into three (next turn). So even without a Dragon all are worth playing (the Teeth likely less so unless you are aiming for the Dwarven Mines or some other card that will consume lots of red.

The Elvish Bow is the other attack card, so it gets lumped in with the Dragons. It’s not worth a point and “only” attacks for one life instead of two, but its power of drawing a card makes it the premier attack card in the deck, and a great turn one buy. Since the threat of attack is often more valuable, dropping the bow may force a change of plans (see above) and then if your opponent defends, you have a great use for the bow …. drawing a card. This effectively puts the Bow as “Threaten an attack, then gain a gold or two resources or flexibility.” Quite the bargain at three mana.

“Tap for Mana. but share the wealth” — Interestingly, there are four of these but two for black (the Hand of Glory and Maltese Falcon Jeweled Statuette) one for green and red (the Tree of Life and Fiery Whip, respectively) and none for blue. I should probably look more into the asymmetries between mana colors, perhaps another time. All but the Hand of Glory gain three mana and give your rivals one (each), and all but the Hand have a secondary power. As mentioned elsewhere, much like attacking the timing of giving out free mana is important. If  you give it out and allow your rival to keep a card or grab a place of power first, that’s no good. But giving it to them after they’ve done it isn’t horrible. The Hand is really an odd card. You break even on your first turn and your rivals gain a black. On the second turn you are now even with them (up two black) and only really start to gain after that. However, with the existence of the the Catacombs and other cards that require a hefty supply of death, there’s always a time for it.

“Tap for Mana, based on a rival’s stash” — The Treant and Hypnotic Basin both collect two mana and can tap to gain mana equal to a rival’s color. (The Treant is also a creature). Sort of an anti-hoarding measure. If you drop this early enough, your rival may decide to change their plan to eliminate/minimize that color. (How quickly they can do that depends on the mage. The Alchemist or Transmuter can shift on a dime). However, in the mid-late game it will often be impossible to switch. The Treant, in particular, keys off black and if the Catacombs are being targetted it will be worth it. In those cases you want to get it out ASAP for the bit of extra mana it will pay back. The Basin keys off of red, which shows up in smaller quantities for the Dwarven Mines or Cursed Forge and a number of high-value artifacts that generate or really want you to have some elan in your pool. And it provides blue (both in collection and copying), which is a somewhat shorter supply than red. In a multiplayer game, these are probably going to be worth dropping quickly. Someone will give you a few mana.

“Convert some mana and gain, possibly delaying a turn” –These are true engine cards, particularly if they don’t tap and you can gain multiple times. The Chalice of Life turns two blue into a blue and a green (and lets you collect a green). Very nice for whoever owns the Sacred Grove (although since you don’t get any blue out of it doesn’t provide compound interest). Often there’s a bit of work involved in managing the colors (such as the Cursed Skull’s green to three non-green or the Fountain of Youth’s two death into two blue and a green), but often they are minimal. The Transmuter, in particular, won’t have much issue with that. A put the Magical Shard in this category, but it really just gives you a wild mana.

“Just collect some mana” — These get a bit less over the course of the game, but they are stable. The often have another power as well (or insane flexibility in the case of the Celestial Horse)

“The Creatures” — these will more matter for the Grove / Bestiary / Druid as they can trigger the effects. If you don’t have those, they are a mixed lot. The Guard Dog has an ignore power, so you’d like to hold it (and some red in reserve) just in case. The Hawk provides a blue and lets you arrange your deck (or the monument) and buys a card at the not-discount price of two blue.  The Nightingale is the cheapest point in the game.

“Slow Gold” — Card like the Vault or Dwarven Axe or Midas Ring get a gold per turn (roughly). (The Ring can speed up). Slow gold heads you down the monument path, but these are all cheap enough that you’ll likely earn two monuments (maybe with a bit of scrounging) over the game. The Vault also generates resources if you don’t take the gold from it every turn (which you likely wont collect until you need it). The Horn of Plenty is sort of an odd card out as it costs you two gold to get, so its one gold a turn isn’t great, but the ability to switch to three resources makes it a great card (and Reanimate target).

“Burst Gold” — The Philosopher’s Stone or Athanor (much like the Sacrificial Pit) can get you a burst of gold. With either one I’ve seen ten+ gold several times (depending on how early you get them set up). The Athanor needs to be played reasonably early, along with a card like Tree of Life to build a stack of Mana. Philosopher’s Stone is a late game pivot (I think it’s produced sixteen gold on turn five or six in one of our games). Burst gold is particularly good when your opponent’s slow gold is at three and you run through the good monuments (or exhaust the deck) the turn before he earns his fourth gold.

“Mana switching” — The Prism lets you move as many items as you want from one color to another. Usually this is done to prepare an Athanor or to buy/load a place of power or to change some or all of the mana you got from a Treant or Hypnotic Basin’s or Sacred Grove’s bounty as a super-transmute.

“Sacrificial Cards” — The Sacrificial Dagger, Corrupt Alter and Fiery Whip all let you destroy/discard a card to gain its cost in wild mana (plus two for all but the Dagger). These are big pressure card (pointed out by the TaoLing, but I knew it) in that you can suddenly burst the last five or more mana for a place of power. (You can sacrifice tapped cards).  As mentioned before with the Sacrificial Altar (which provides gold) you may be able to perform the sacrifices multiple times if you have the Crypt. The Dagger (which gets rid of a card from hand and itself) is a powerful opener if you have a Dragon or Philosopher’s Stone, although you are spending a gold and a black for eight(items) and you could just discard the two cards for four mana and keep the gold. But breakpoints matter.

Great opening cards

Some cards are just better than others. Here are cards the TaoLing and I like to play early. I won’t go and say these are always right (particularly the Athanor), but they often are.

  • Elvish Bow (pressure and then slow gold)
  • Vault or Dwarven Axe (slow gold)
  • Chalice of Fire (two mana and a built in Reanimate!)
  • Celestial Horse
  • Tree of Life (tap mana and repeatable protection)
  • Sacrifical Dagger (assuming you have an expensive card to throw, but it has to be something like Fire Dragon or Philosopher’s Stone).
  • Athanor (burst gold)
  • Horn of Plenty (slow gold or resources. Expensive but flexible)

Summary

You win Res Arcana by building a tight, fast combo. Good cards are certainly better than bad cards, but you need a plan as well as good execution!

Update

Update (5/5) — After proofing and publishing this the TaoLing and I have played another dozen or so games, and we’ve been much more specifically discussing the strategy behind monument rush. And our thoughts are that the first turn Dragon’s Lair is completely viable on T1 even without a Dragon!  Look at it this way, Alchemy converts four mana to two gold. Dragon’s Lair converts twelve mana to four gold by the turn after you buy it — already a better ratio —  which buys a monument that provides gold or cards or resources, and then you will get at least four more gold from the Lair. Plus you deny points (and a discount to Dragon owners).  Frankly we’re beginning to feel that the Lair is under-costed compared to most of the other Places of Power (or rather, the tap for two gold is too good).

T1 Catacombs is viable with a Witch.

Written by taogaming

May 4, 2019 at 1:01 pm

More Shards of Infinity Thoughts

I’ve played 50 more games of Shards since my earlier strategy guide, so more thoughts.

Bloating

If it takes your deck 1-2 more turns to cycle than your opponent, you are losing (ceteris parabus). There are a few reasons.

  1. If you have a great card, you get it less often.
  2. If you have the same number of undergrowth cards, they’ll unify less often.
  3. If you have a dominion effect, it will happen less often and you’ll have a greater variability of draws (assuming you have the same percentage of each of the three clans).
  4. Once you get to 30 mastery, you are waiting for your shard. This is a subset of #1, but it happens surprisingly often.

Note that bigger decks may not cycle slower, due to cantrips, Data Heretics, and what not.

Mastery Explosion

Our games have gotten faster, but the mastery wins have leveled off because we often explode faster. We don’t value Shard Abstractor as much, but Fungal Hermit has grown (because of the healing, a Fungal Hermit will often save you from dying) but also because we build decks that are capable of snapping up any mercenary that gains it and using Omnius, The Architect, Giga Source, etc will be able to grow very quickly. Once you get to 10 mastery, your cache wardens now become cantrips, so they hit more often. Also, at this point you likely know who is goign to win the master race, and it devolved to the “I must win fast” vs “I must survive”. The survivor will often stop purchasing non defense and will get mastery every turn. In fact, when you get to 15 mastery, you can often gain 2-4 a turn. (It’s certainly possible to get 10+ mastery a turn, we’ve done it a few times).

Portal Monk (vs Reactor Drone)

Portal Monk is fine, but I’m definitely on the “it’s OK, don’t need to ban” side. While Portal Monk is fine, earlier on I’d rather take Reactor Drone (which is just $3) because you can burn a mercenary. Portal Monk can grab great cards (Zara Ra, Furrowing Elemental, Venator of the Wastes, Optio Crusher, Crypto Fist, Zeta, Omnius) for less than Reactor Drone, but the mercenary thingis a big deal.

I did mention that purchasing power is great, and bloat) dilutes it. Reactor Drone gives a big boost to power. Sometimes there’s a great $4-7 card and it sits for a few turns until someone can muster it up. Sure, portal monk would grab that card (assuming its not $7), but Reactor Drone also tends to get a decent payoff when it hits.  I do think that this and Kiln Drone are good purchases.

Other Minor Thoughts

  • T1-2 banishing your blaster via one shot instead of buying the banish card seems like a reasonable play.
  • Wraethe Skirmisher ($1 for 2 or 6 damage) is actually a really good early purchase. Undergrowth Aspirant ($1, heal 3 damage 5 with unify) is also good. The TaoLing got 2 each on T1-2 and only a few other cards and that damage (min 7 each time through the deck, but the potential for 21). Even though I got 2 early banish cards I was killed pretty fast.

 

 

Written by taogaming

November 29, 2018 at 7:55 pm

Posted in Strategy

Tagged with

Too Many Words about Shards of Infinity

This article covers my evolving thoughts about Shards of Infinity. No doubt there are better players, but they appear to not be writing, so it falls to me.

Caveats

  1. I have only played two player, and only with the TaoLing. Group think is possible.
  2. This strategy applies primarily tor duels. I suppose for 3 player I’d play the variant where you damage all opponents (to prevent kingmaking) and with four player you could do teams. I have no specific insight into those games.

Definitions

  • Early Game — Until someone has approximately 10 Mastery.
  • Mastery Victory — Winning by doing infinite damage (requires thirty master).
  • The Offering — The cards available to buy.
  • Recover — Put a card from discard into play
  • Unify — An ability that only triggers if you’ve already played another card from the same faction (or can reveal one from your hand). I sometimes refer to this a double-teaming or doubling up.
  • Dominion — A power that can only trigger if you’ve already played (or can reveal) at least one green, brown and purple card. (Only Blue cards have Dominion powers).
  • One-shot — to buy a mercenary for a single immediate use instead of putting it into your deck. (Also “Burned”)
  • Cantrips — Cards that draw a replacement card after playing.
  • The Bonus — A cards secondary ability that only triggers at a certain mastery level.

Healing vs Damage, and the ‘tone’ of the early game

As we’ve gotten better, the game ends earlier. Fewer mastery victories, many more victories when both players were around 10-15 mastery. Initially I felt guided by the Star Realm inspired “Wheel of Dominance,” (healing beats damage, damage beats deck thinning, thinning beats healing), but Shards modifies this in subtle ways.

Healing and Mastery gain beats damage in the long run … negate your opponents attacks and win the race to 30 mastery, then you’ll win. But ….

There’s more damage available than healing. You start with 3 damage per deck cycle, and no healing. Most Wraethe (Purple) cards damage, none heal. Some Homo Deus (Brown) champions damage, none heal. Order (Blue) cards neither damage nor heal. Only Undergrowth (Green) provides healing, but also a fair amount of damage + heal.

Star Realm’s “Wheel” is an unbalanced tire. You do have ‘indirect’ healing. Shields (which Order does provide) block damage, unless you draw them at the wrong time.

Champions also absorb damage, getting killed. (Usually this is the attacker’s choice). There’s a mild negative synergy between them. Shields + Champions can work, but I can track a few shield cards (or the recover a Champion cards) and decide where to assign damage accordingly. (Although sometimes its just a guess).  But the cost is mild. Mostly I try to buy good cards, and ignore the implications.

Given two types of “pseudo-healing” cards you might say healing balances damage, but I just don’t believe it. We’re now quite keen on buying a Nil Assassin (a two cost, five damage Wraethe Mercenary). On the first two turns, that means your deck is now doing 8 damage/cycle and cycling every 2-3 turns. If you just stopped buying cards (and used your money for one-shotting mercenaries), you’d kill your opponent around T13-15. Assuming you didn’t get a second damage card.

Obviously your opponent will try to stop you (or damage faster) but this means that if you see lots of damage on the opening board, you’ll be hard pressed to get to thirty mastery.

If the initial offering shows healing and mastery and banish (and no damage), then you are likely to see a Mastery Victory.

If your opponent ignores damage for healing, try to buy mastery gaining cards (and healing) and only get enough damage to smoke enemy champions. But in general, kill kill!

Some cards swing both ways  (Healing yourself and damaging your opponent). If you are both in the 30-40 range then healing 3 and damage 3 is better than just damaging 4 or 5, and roughly equivalent to damaging six. There are breakpoints, of course. In the very early game healing can be wasted.

Mastery

Apart from mastery victory, bumping up in mastery has a nice bonus in that there a good number of bonuses you can earn. In particular, a fifth point earns another $1 each time through the deck. At ten points there are a fair number of cards that trigger bonus effects. Cards that trigger at higher levels have increasingly good bonuses, such that for many decks getting to 20 mastery is practically as good as 30.

But Mastery isn’t actually required to win. (In particular if your opponent opens with Venator of the Wastes (the only card that “drains” mastery) you can just ignore mastery and try for a fast win. (This happened in my last game. I won with 3 mastery, only because of turns where I had nothing else to do with my spare $1, so I’d buy it every now and then in case I could get to 5 Mastery to earn the extra $ for the Shard Reactor). If you are sure you won’t get to 30 Mastery, it could even be right to banish your Infinity Shard (for a more damaging card, of course).

Take advantage of the free form turn order

One fun aspect of the game is that the turn order is free form. You can sometimes gain a small advantage by buying a card before playing actions (to get it in before the reshuffle, or use a recovery card on it, or to trigger a Unify or Dominion power). Don’t just blindly follow the ABC’s of Dominion. The ability to buy cards before actions means that cards that recover are quite reasonable purchases (if they have OK other powers) even if you don’t currently have any cards worth recovering. On the next time through the deck maybe there will be a card you can buy.

One Shots

The tension of one-shotting is between a single benefit right now and getting that card in your deck forever. Sometimes its obvious because its a break point — you need two mastery now (to trigger a bonus) or a few extra points of damage to nuke an enemy champion or just a bit more life to survive until you draw your shard.

But often there’s no tension because you really don’t want that card in your deck. If your opponent has bought heavy damage to win before your Healing +Mastery Victory, adding damage to your deck is counter productive. It slows down your healing and mastery cards. You want some damage (maybe to kill a champion) and you’d like to deny it to your opponent, so you one-shot it. But you’d buy healing cards.

Similarly, your opponent may one-shot healing cards (to deny you and get a bump without slowing down his faster pussycat strategy).

Deck Size

There’s not much banishing (trashing, etc) in Shards, but plenty of pseudo-banish. Over ten percent of the cards are cantrips, and a quarter to a third are mercenaries (which can be one-shot). You can  power for a mastery (once per turn). Which means that decks can grow slower. Unlike Dominion’s Chapel, most banish cards trash only a single card (in hand or discard pile), but its reasonable (particularly with some offerings) to decline a purchase, because:

  1. It slows your deck down
  2. You risk revealing a great card you can’t afford. Many strong cards cost $3 and if you buy a mediocre card the next player may win the jackpot. (This is my problem with Ascension style games in general, and it bothers me a little in Shards. Since Shards plays much faster, I just label it as ‘strategy’ and move on).
  3. You don’t want to dilute your purchasing power.

Cantrips

Cantrips are almost always worth getting. They don’t take up hand size (since they draw a card afterwards), so they don’t dilute your deck. They make it easier to Unify and reach Dominion. If you always bought available cantrips, you wouldn’t be going far wrong. But there is a downside: Shields. Shields you draw in the middle of your turn are worthless. (However, since most shield cards have another effect or are themselves cantrips, its not a huge loss). If you purchase many shields, its possible that a mining crystal (etc) will hurt your overall chances and cost you 8 points of shield each time through the deck.

But that’s a rare thing. In general, buy them.

Purchasing Power

Your starting cards are the 7 Crystals ($1), The Shard Reactor ($2, increasing to $3/$4 at 5/15 Mastery), the Blaster (1 damage) and the Infinity Shard (2/3/5/∞ damage at 0/10/20/30 Mastery). This means that you have $9 at the start, split 5/4 or 6/3. You’ll probably want to get a little bit more money. If you just buy 4 damage/healing cards (not cantrips) your deck quickly drops from $4.5/turn to  $3.2/ Cards cost 1-7, with a big ‘bulge’ of three cost cards (just under 1/3rd of the cards cost 3). Average $4 a turn, you can get a three cost card and a mastery. With $3, it’s either/or.

Every non-money card cantrip lowers you density. You’ll naturally have variance … the Shard Reactor will be worth $3 pretty fast. And a $1 turn is just a mastery (or one of the rare $1 cards).

It’s possible to go full damage and banish out all your money (possibly keeping the shard reactor) and hope to win by KO. Once your deck falls under the $3 average, that’s not a horrible idea (assuming your opponent isn’t out healing you). Big Money can also work. The $7 cards are a mixed bag, but $7 is also two $3 card plus a mastery.

Unify & Dominion

Technically only the Undergrowth has Unify (as a power that triggers if you’ve played or can reveal an undergrowth card), but the Wraethe and Homo Deus also have some bonuses for other cards.  But the Wraethe/Homo Deus bonuses turn out to be pretty spotty. And the Undergrowth not only has many more Unify cards, but a large percentage of Cantrips. Its much easier to get 2+ undergrowth cards when your hand size is effectively 6 instead of 5. As a practical matter this means that a “mono-green” deck (as much as you are able to purchase) can roughly go up against a mono-purple. Purple has more damage but Green has a high swing.

The Order’s Dominion strategy doesn’t require as much as you might expect. You can easily get a few green cantrips (never bad cards) and pick up some purple for damage and/or banish. a Korvus Legionnaire is Homo Deus card and can recover a champion (which may or may not be H.D.). So you can naturally have a deck with 2-3 good cards of each faction and then possibly get Dominion bonus.

Now — it does require effectively 4 cards (assuming your Dominion card is not a champion), so its going to be tough to do, even with a cantrip or recovery. To really trigger a Dominion effect you are likely going to need to get about 7 cards. That’s not a huge barrier (given cantrips), but its not something to really expect. But, typically you get 2-5 mastery for Dominion, so if you can setup a deck that can reliably hit that (maybe once per cycle) it will speed you towards a mastery victory. But in general I evaluate cards assuming that I won’t earn dominion often. It’s a fluke-y bonus in most decks.

Champions, damage breakpoints, and who to damage

Champions have a lot going for them. If they never die, then they don’t count against your deck size, and they increase your effective hand size (except that previously played champions don’t count for Unify &/or Dominion). All of which means ….

You need to produce enough damage to kill a champion or two every now and then. Three damage is enough to get rid of nuisance champions, but that means getting a bit lucky with your starting cards, so reasonably you’ll want at least one more damage card.

Letting champions live gives your opponent a long term advantage.  Whether to damage your opponents champions or just go for the kill depends on your long term strategy (healing+mastery kills champions). Also consider if your opponent can recover champions, how soon it will be towards the reshuffle, and how many shield cards your opponent has (that you haven’t seen). Sometimes its totally a crapshoot — kill the champion and you’ll find your opponent sitting on his recovery. Don’t kill it? That’s the turn he had a big shield. It’s a card game, but you can play the odds.

Champions defense number is a psuedo-swing value (like a shield that will usually work). Damage they eat is damage you don’t. BUT … if you also have shields then that somewhat cancels out. This is definitely an area that’s fuzzy.

Card by Card

Format: Name ($Cost, #in deck, Ally or Champion (defense)  or Mercenary, which is a one-shottable of ally)  [Effect. #M is a bonus that triggers at a mastery level] — Commentary

The Wraethe

Almost every wraethe card packs a punch, and they also have a monopoly on banishing effects, with a splash of mastery gain.

Wraethe Skirmisher ($1, 3x, Ally)  [Gain 2 damage, or 6 if there is a Wraethe in your discard pile.] — Two damage isn’t great but six is good. This card can often take advantage of turn order to buy a Wraethe card, then hit for six. Will be good in a focused Wraethe deck, obviously, but often a decent finisher card. Buy it, and then buy another wraethe when you use it. If these come up together, purchasing two (or all three) is brutal.

Nil Assassin ($2, 3x, Ally) [5 damage]. — Often burned as a one-shot, but a solid addition to any deck. This is 10% of a KO!

Shadow Apostle ($3, 3x, Ally) [2 damage and banish a card]. — A solid addition to any deck, assuming its early game. Banish and a spot of damage to help with champion-control.

Shadebound Sentry ($3, 2x, Ally) [3 damage and recover a mercenary]. — As mentioned in Recovery, buying this card on T1/T2 is fine, even if there aren’t any mercenaries. Often on a later turn you can buy a good mercenary, then play the Sentry to recover it. There are some great mercenaries in the deck, the ability to use them twice per deck cycle (if a bit lucky) is nice. If you have a really heavy card-throughput deck this won’t be useful (since you don’t discard played cards until the end of the turn) but overall this is usually worth buying.

Umbral Scourage ($3, 3x, Ally) [+1 Mastery and banish a card]. — Did I mention that the 3 cost cards are good? Assuming you don’t suffer an early KO, this will do wonders for your deck, but you’ll have to survive to mid-game.

Li Hin, The Shattered ($3, 1x, Champion(1*))  [Tap for 1 Damage, Li Hin can’t be attacked with damage]. — While not really a cantrip, he effectively doesn’t take much deck space since he’s nigh invulnerable. So you’ll only need to pay him once. Yes, only one damage, but over the course of the game it adds up. And if you get any cards that combo with a champion in play (like a Kiln Drone) it will always trigger.

Aetherbreaker ($4, 2x, Merc)  [4 Damage, 10M: 4 additional]. — Lots of cheaper cards are better (more damage or banish effects), but once you get out of the early game 8 damage is significant.

Fao Cu’tul, The Formless ($4, 1x, Champion (4)) [Tap for 2 Damage, 20M: Double all damage]. — In many decks, Fao makes it possible to KO even a high health opponent at 20 mastery. It’s relatively simple to get 10-15 damage, then double it, which is often a finishing move (or enough damage to get close). (In particular, if your opponent is going heavy healing and mastery, you may be able to drop one or two other damaging champions and have them survive a turn). Two damage a turn isn’t bad, but if its early he’s a six-swing play (assuming your opponent won’t want you pinging him for 2 a turn), so reasonable. And as the game goes on …

Scion of Nothingness ($5, 2x, Merc) [3 Damage + 2 for each Wraethe in your discard pile] — Very underwhelming, even in a focused deck. After a reshuffle this is worse than a Nil Assassin. Often one-shotted at the right time (or to deny an opponent in a big-purple deck).

Zara Ra, Soulflayer ($5, 1x, Merc) [4 damage and 1 mastery, 10M: Banish two cards] — A great card, solid damage, mastery gain and the ability to banish two cards will kick in pretty fast. This hits pretty much everything in the wheel of dominance except healing, so it works in most strategies. Even if you aren’t going pure beatdown, you’ll need some damage to clear out champions.

Zen Chi Set, Godkiller ($7, 1x, Champion(5)) [Tap for 3 damage and recover a Wraethe card] — Expensive but good. Eight swing, and if he stays alive you can recover a card every non-reshuffle turn (and even then you may be able to buy, recover).

The Undergrowth

The Undergrowth have the most unify powers. Sure, some of the Wraethe cards give bonuses for having a wraethe in a discard pile, or recover them, but the undergrowth and chock-a-block with it. They are also helped because they have a fair number of cantrips, which means a mostly-green deck can often play 3-4 greens in a turn. While they don’t have as much damage as the Wraethe, they do have a fair chunk of healing, so are a decent match for an all purple deck. They have good swing,

Undergrowth Aspirant ($1, 3x, Ally) [Heal 3, Unify for 5 damage] — Seriously good for a single dollar. Heal 3 isn’t great, but that stops the starting damage of your opponent once through, but if you unify you also do five points. Not to say this is a great card, but since so many undergrowth cards have unify, this is often worth picking up just to trigger their unify ability …. which means its also an eight point swing for this! Compare it to….

Spore Cleric ($2, 3x, Merc) [Heal 4] — For one more point of healing you lose the possibility of five points of damage. This is often one-shotted. (Sometimes just to trigger a unify/dominion card, with the healing incidental)

Le’shai Knight ($3, 3x, Ally) [3 Damage, Unify for +3 damage] — A solid damage card, but again the Aspirant is any 8 points swing if unified, and this is only 6. Again, often one-shotted.

Thorn Zealot  ($3, 2x, Ally) [3 Shield, Draw a card, unify to destroy an enemy champion] — Three shield is solid, not as good as three healing. This is a decent enough card to get just for the shield, since it’s a cantrip. It effectively means you get an extra chance for the unify power to trigger (for this or another undergrowth). Destroying a champion is a nice unify power.  Which means that even if its very early and the opponent has no champions, its not bad, and it can be monstrously good in a mostly undergrowth deck.

Fungal Hermit ($3, 2x, Merc) [+1 Master, 10M: Heal 5] — If you can survive the early game (and a heavy-green deck has a bit of healing) this can help power you towards a mastery victory.

Shardwood Guardian ($4, 3x, Ally) [2 Damage, draw a card, unify to heal 6] — “Sherwood Forest” is a cantrip for damage, but a swing of 8 (assuming you unify). Great card.

Ojas, Genesis Druid ($4, 1x, Ally) [Copy a non-champion card, 20M: Copy it again] — This can get gross. There are plenty of great cards, and this can be a game breaker. But in a non-banish deck we’ve seen it forced to copy Crystals. A very swingy card but if you have any banish this will likely be great, even before you get to 20 mastery.

Ghostwillow Avenger ($4, 1x, Merc) [4 Damage, 15M: Destroy all enemy champions] — Situational, obviously. A player with lots of champions will likely burn it (if possible).

Additri, Gaiamancer ($5, 1x, Champion(5)) [Tap for 2 Damage + 2 for each other Undergrowth ally played this turn] — Decent. He can have some big turns, which means he’ll get killed fairly often. Since 7 of the 22 undergrowth cards are cantrips, he gets into double digits from time to time. Also, the only undergrowth champion, so if you are looking to go Dominion, snap this up (along with Korvus Legoinnaire) even though he’s low damage.

Furrowing Elemental  ($5, 2x, Ally) [Heal 4, Draw a card, and if you are at 50 life gain six damage] — Basically a 4 healing cantrip. It’s rare that the damage kicks in. This card can be gross if you get it first turn, since you may draw it before an opponent is capable of doing four damage. Unless your opponent has forgone damage, a four healing cantrip. It’s always better than not buying it (actually, that’s not true if you have shields, but usually) but there are often better cards to buy (and gain a mastery with your leftover money).

Root of the Forest, ($7, 1x, Merc) [Heal 10, Unify for 10 damage] — Look, a twenty point swing is big and even if you don’t unify, heal ten! Also, this is one of the reasons that the Shadebound Sentry speculative opening is good.

Homo Deus

Most factions have a champion or three. Homo Deus has nine. For reference, there are 88 cards in the deck, 22 of each faction. They are also the “big money” faction, with over half their cards (12/22) providing money. They have no unify powers, but they do have a few champions that get more valuable with other Homo Deus champions in play.

Kiln Drone ($1, 3x, Ally) [$2, or $4 if you have a champion in play] — $4 is big. With that one card its easy to luck into a $7 card (if one is available) or a solid card + a mastery. If you have a few champions (or Li Hin, or Korvus Legionnaire) you’ll often get the full value for this. But $2 isn’t bad, and this is a $1 card.

Mining Drones ($2, 3x, Ally) [$1 and draw a card] — A cantrip crystal, see above.

Primus Pilus ($2, 1x, Champion(6)) [Tap to draw 2 cards if you have 3+ Homo Deus champions on play] — When he’s big he’s great, but there are only nine H.D. Champions. Often this is just a dead card. But if your opponent has many H.D. champions, you may have to buy this and then hope to banish it.

Korvus Legionnaire ($3, 3x, Ally) [2 Shield, 2 Damage, Recover a champion] — Like Shadebound Sentry, worth getting early because it may let you recover a champion later on. Even if you don’t, two damage and two shield is OK (not great). A swing of four if you didn’t have any other shields. If you happen to get a Wraethe/Undergrowth champion, this card is 2/3rds of the way to Dominion by itself! When your opponent has Legionnaire you should (as a general rule) stop trying to kill champions and just focus on killing them. There’s nothing more annoying than doing 8 damage, using five of it to kill their champion, and then see them flash this to shield two of the remaining three and then return the champion into play. Far better to have just pounded them for six. The Legionnaire is enough of a game changer to make it a decent speculative purchase….

Reactor Drone ($3, 3x, Ally) [$3] — Basically your big money strategy. More stable than a Kiln Drone.

Numeri Drones ($3, 2x, Champion (5)) [Tap for $1 and put the next Homodeus Champion you buy into play] — These are … interesting. They are crystals ($1) …. but they stick around. If your opponent kills them they’ve basically shielded you five damage. And if not, then you get the money multiple turns. The putting a Homodeus champion into play … well, 10% of the deck is H.D. Champions. If your opponent is trying heal/mastery these guys can be amazing, which is why you always want to have at least a little damage.

Venator of the Wastes ($4, 1x, Merc) [4 Damage and your opponent loses 2 mastery if you have a champion in play] — The only card that can reduce mastery in the game. Often this isn’t about the final race, but keeping someone below 10 or 15 for an extra turn, and four damage is a big enough burst to be worthwhile in most cases. Expect this to go pretty fast, or get burned. Ironically if you buy this early your opponent can often recover by just going for a fast beat down and ignoring mastery. A very swingy card who can change the game by appearing at the right/wrong time.

Evokatus ($4, 2x, Champion (2)) [Draw a card when you play this, Tap for 1 Damage per H.D. champion] — He’s fragile, sure, and he doesn’t do much damage or take much to kill. But he’s a cantrip so who cares if he dies? Absolutely don’t target this guy if your opponent has a Korvus Legionnaire….

Optio Crusher ($5, 2x, Champion (4)) [3 Damage, 10M: +2 Damage] — A solid brawler. Usually he’ll eat a Wraethe card for you, so this effectively makes him a seven point swing, nine once you are 10M.  But if you get a lucky turn or two where your opponent only does a few points of damage, he adds up.  And 10 mastery can happen pretty fast. Again, a Korvus helps you out. Your opponent will anguish over killing this or eating 5/turn.

Drakonarius ($6, 1x, Champion (2)) [Tap for 6 damage, cannot be attacked if you have General Decurion in play] — Uh, OK. Six damage is nice, but this guy is a creampuff. (On the other hand, eight swing). Sure if you get another single card in play he’s immune, but that is specific. If you already have Decurion, then he’s an easy purchase (or if you have a Numeri Drone, sure.)

General Decurion ($7, 1x, Champion (7)) [Tap for $3, 20M: Copy the effects of all Homodeus Allies you play or have played this turn] — Look, this guy is $3 that will often attract 7 damage right away. If you get to 20 mastery and can then copy a few Drones for extra money, cards great! The rule for all the $7 cards is “If you can get them, its probably not a bad idea” but this guy is glorified reactor drone. But still, you may get multiple turns, he has synergy with cards, etc. He’s good.

The Order

Look, there’s a reason the Order cards are blue. They are Dominion cards. Metagaming effects. Mastery. They aren’t damage or healing. I keep seeing that they are ‘broken’ but you can load up on too many of them and lose easily enough.

Order Initiate ($2, 3x, Ally) [Gain $2 and 2 mastery if you’ve made Dominion] — These can be great, if you started early banish you’ll want to get these to replace some crystals at extra money. Grab a few cantrips from undergrowth and dominion isn’t that hard. But you have to have it when you play them, which means you can’t use their $2 to one-shot the last thing you need. If you aren’t really threatening Dominion, you’d prefer kiln drones for the shot at $2 extra or the Mining Drones. I do buy these if I have banish effects, because a) I’ll be banishing crystals and need the money b) my deck will be much closer to dominion-density.

Cache Warden ($2, 2x, Merc) [Gain 1 Mastery, 10M: Draw a card] — These get snapped up (or burned, if its early or the buyer is desperate right now) right away. Cantrips starting in the mid game, so good if its a low-damage start. A trap in a high-damage game.

Giga, Source Adept ($2, 1x, Champion (4))  [Draw a card when you play this, Tap for 3 mastery, but you must have dominion to use it.] — (aka “Gigasaurus”) A two cost cantrip that may get you 3 mastery? His only downside is to make your shields slightly worse. This card feels undercosted, and I can see why people complain about the Order. But there’s the opportunity cost of buying him. If you get this and your opponent gets an Umbral Scourge (for example) by the time you are threatening to score a dominion he’s banished 2-3 cards and gotten that much mastery. But if the offering is weak and there’s no opportunity cost, snap him up.

Shard Abstractor ($3, 3x, Mercenary) [+2 Mastery] — This is burned surprisingly often. 2 Mastery is fine, but you won’t get it until your next time through the deck, and banishes or cantrips are fighting for position. But this is a solid opening card, aiming not necessarily for a mastery victory, because even 10M gives you lots of options for cards.

Data Heretic ($3, 3x, Mercenary) [Draw two cards] — A thread on BGG calls this the best card in the game. That may be an overbid, but not a gross one. A six card hand makes unify and mastery easier. It makes a big money turn easier to snatch up a great card. It helps your damage get towards a breakpoint. One standard deck archetype is the small deck that cycle most every turn. Of course it can be wrong to buy it if the game is close to the endgame when you might want to boost your mastery that final oomph or burn that last damage, but as an opener or mid-game card? Great.

Systema A.I. ($3, 1x, Champion (4)) [Tap for 1 Mastery, 20M: Draw two cards] — Certainly great if are at 20+M. Early on. Well, this is basically a half shard abstractor that will soak some damage. Fine. (And yet another reason why Korvus is a great speculative card).

Portal Monk ($3, 2x, Ally) [Recruit a card of cost 1-6 for free, 15M: Put it into hand instead of your discard pile.] — Another card that I see in ‘best card’ lists … but I’m not sure. Deck bloat is a real game killer. Even if you already have 15M, there are times when you just wont want to put a card into your hand. (i.e. The offering doesn’t have a cantrip or anything you like). In those cases, your hand size is negative one. And early on the opportunity cost of getting this, waiting for it to cycle, then getting a card, then waiting for it to cycle … ugh. Sure, this can be great, you could luck into a great draw, and if you got early mastery bonus, it may definitely pay off. But unlike Data Heretic, this is a high variance card.

Command Seer ($4, 2x, Ally) [5 Shield, $2] — Perhaps I’m overly down on this, but we almost never buy it. I think that is wrong. $2 isn’t horrible, and 5 shield is great. But in practice I always want to buy something else, like

Cryptofist Monk ($5, 2x, Ally) [8 Shield, Draw a card] — Now that I think about, the card you will draw will often be a crystal, which means that perhaps I should take the Command Seer more often.

Zetta, The Encryptor ($5, 1x, Champion (5)) [5 Shield, Must be attacked before you and the other champions] — A pure damage sponge. Against a heavy attack deck, he’ll stop 10 damage (five as a shield, and five since he must be attacked first). Against lighter decks that can’t always muster 5 damage, he may keep some of your other wimpy champions alive an extra turn or two. If you are both forgoing damage and are in straight race for a mastery victory, he’ll slow you down. (Cards like this are part of why Thorn Zealot is an OK purchase. A 3 shield cantrip could blossom into a “Oh, let’s kill Zetta” moment … even if you aren’t going to kill your opponent, you slow his deck down].

Omnius, the All-Knowing ($6, 1x, Merc) [Draw two cards, Dominion for 5 mastery] — A Data Heretic that may explode for five mastery. Very good card, but very expensive. (If this is on the board then getting a Portal Monk or a Reactor Drone to try and snag this after your reshuffle is worth contemplating). If you already have a few cantrips and/or banished a few cards this isn’t that difficult to hit Dominion with.

The Grand Architect ($7, 1x, Merc) [Gain 5 Mastery] — Surprisingly, this is often burned, because five mastery now usually trumps 10 mastery later.

Written by taogaming

October 9, 2018 at 6:00 pm

Posted in Strategy

Tagged with ,

Thinking about Imperfect Thinking

Author’s Note — This is long and very self-absorbed, but has been weighing on me for a while.

I’ve wanted to be a Bridge expert since college. Not ‘expert’ in the sense of Life Master or one of the better club players, but “threatening to win a national event” expert. Or better.

In High School I’d expected to conquer chess, but achieved only tournament mediocrity after five years. Possibly — if I’d kept trying — I’d have pulled myself up into barely expert rank through sheer perseverance and the slow accumulation of knowledge. But I felt immensely frustrated, I wanted the fast accumulation of knowledge I’d encountered in so many fields. I can’t ‘see’ positions in my mind. I studied openings and would sometimes remember them, but often not. I studied endgames. I studied and studied but during games minutes would tick by. I would be “thinking,” but haphazardly. Loose thoughts, jumbled together in a tangled mass.

So I read and studied more.

One book gripped my psyche and captivated my thoughts. Kotov’s “Think Like a Grandmaster”. In the introduction Kotov tells about visiting a distant chess club andbeing asked to give an impromptu lecture. The crowd shouted requests, that Kotov review a master game or some new opening theory.

He demurs. “There’s no point in learning details if you can’t learn how to think. Let’s discuss thinking

Kotov sets up a position and turns to his audience, “Let’s imagine you’ve been asked to take over for a player who has fallen ill. It is our move, what shall we do?” The story — omitting much chess analysis — continues:

“There are two obvious moves (a kingside and a queenside move). Let’s try the a kingside attack. Does it work? Hm. …Kotov runs through a few moves… no, that last move seems to stop me. OK. What about a queenside pawn push? Hm … runs a few moves … no, that seems to be losing. It’s too slow. Back to the kingside. What if I prepare the sacrifice with this move? No. Hm. Still doesn’t work. Maybe if I do adjust my queenside pawn push.”

Kotov alternates between the two lines then exclaims Then you look at your clock and think “Oh my god, ten minutes have gone by! How could I have only analyzed two lines in ten minutes? I’m going to lose on time!”

And then Kotov grabs his king and castles, saying “So you just castle, without even thinking about it. Its probably safe enough.”

Kotov’s audience roars with laughter, and applauds. They recognize themselves. And I (a young teenager) recognized myself. Kotov then explained that Grandmasters think through a line only once, because they are sure their analysis is right and if they missed something, they are likely to miss it again. The rest of the book is his instruction on how to think. But I could never absorb the lessons, at least not to the level that satisfied me, and at some point I stopped playing Chess.


As this is ostensibly a blog about games, let me present a hand from a Bracketed Swiss (top bracket). (Skip ahead to the Post Hand Analysis, if you don’t care about the details).

Dummy S:QJx H:AJxxx D:Q98 C:Q9

My Hand S:Tx H:KTx D:KJxx C:K8xx

My RHO opened 1 Club, I passed, LHO responded 1 Spade and my partner doubled. RHO raised to two spades, and I bid 3 Diamonds, ending the auction.

I thought partner’s red suits would be equal (or diamonds longer), and could have bid 2N to let partner pick the suit, and I thought that when dummy came down, but I recognized that I could no longer do anything about that. Partner didn’t expect me to have the World’s Fair and compete to the three level, no doubt. Here’s the auction again:


RHO  Me LHO CHO
--------------
1C   P  1S   X
2S  3D  All Pass

LHO led the club Ten.

After some thought I covered the queen and RHO won the ace. RHO then shifted to a diamond, ducked around to dummy’s nine.

My opponents have a Flight B national championship (I believe); they aren’t bad. Steady players. They make mistakes, but play steadily enough to win a long multi-day event against other Flight Bs.

What play should I make? Here’s my internal monologue:

First things first — Count! Spades are presumably 4-4. With 5-3 I’d have heard a support redouble.The opponents only have 18 points — RHO opened and LHO responded, so it could be 6 (on my left)-12 or 5-13 or 7-11 or maybe something like 4-14. Either opponent could be light. The latter is most likely if LHO has a stiff club, but RHO didn’t return a club.

LHO likely doesn’t have AK of spades, that would be an almost automatic lead.

[Not terribly extensive, but at least I did note those things and counted. That’s better than too many hands. Back to my thoughts…]

I see three options —

  • I could continue with diamonds. This will work spectacularly well if I pick up hearts. But RHO thought pulling trumps was OK. If I lead a trump I risk it going diamond ace and another
  • Or I could lead the 9 of clubs and win the king then ruff, then cross in hearts and ruff another club.
  • Or I could float the 9 of clubs. That 8 of clubs is taunting me.

If LHO led the T of clubs from JT tight (which is the standard lead) the last would be phenomenally bad. Can I tell? I don’t think I can. Restricted choice says its likely Jx, but I don’t know.

I considered the pros and cons of each, but I also spent a fair amount of the time wishing I hadn’t been dealt the 8 of clubs. And considering if I could make inferences from their defense.

In the end, I decided to play the diamond queen (ducked all around), then a diamond to the king (RHO showing out and LHO winning the ace). The opponents cashed their spades (honors split) and put me on the board with a spade (I pitched a club). Thinking again, I decided that

  1. If LHO had the heart queen then he’d be stronger than opener, and
  2. If LHO had the heart queen then from RHO’s point of view hearts were potentially running so a trump shift would be ludicrous.

Given these two data points I finessed against RHO’s heart queen with the ten (winning), pulled LHO’s remaining trump and claimed the rest.

+110, score it up. LHO hissed “Anything but a trump switch” and I looked like a competent bridge player.

I can, in hindsight, say that LHO had 4=3=4=2 shape, but I never found out what LHO’s other club was.

Post Hand Analysis

After the entire hand, I still wasn’t sure whether my play at trick 3 was right. Even analyzing it here, it feels close. Also, I may have played wrong at trick one (although I think I didn’t).

But when I wrote “I decided to play the diamond queen,” I lied.

A more precise description of my mental state: “Being frustrated by not being able to see the correct answer, I eventually just called for the diamond queen to end my indecision.”

Even though it worked, my thinking had stopped. I didn’t call the diamond queen because I knew it to be right (or even right on probability). I didn’t choose it after deciding that my options were too close to call, or a coin flip. I called it out of frustration, before I had finished my analysis.

After the hand I remembered Kotov’s story.


I console myself by remembering that everyone makes mistakes. Here are some I witnessed (or made) in that single day. These players are the best teams of the field. (I am perhaps median in the bracket for strength a few strong players are much stronger than me, but its mostly a bunch of us weak experts).

… Playing in NT with AKQ8x opposite a stiff 9 an expert cashed AKQ and failed to note that the JTx fell on her right, so she called for the low three instead of the high eight.

… Amusingly enough on that hand I (holding 7652) played the 76 on the first two cards and then the 5, because I noted fall of the JTx, so of course assumed the expert would. Given that, I wanted to continue to play my cards top-to-bottom as an unmistakeable signal that I was guarding the upper suit.

After I played the five, I thought “Maybe I should have saved my five because declarer might not have be paying attention.” I decided I was silly, declarer was a solid expert.

When she called for the three I had to sheepishly follow with the deuce. The two of us started laughing and apologizing to our partners.

… I saw an expert make a no hope play that cost a contract. That time I did think “What the hell, its IMPs” and baited her (risking overtricks to offer the failing option). She took it. Dummy instantly noted her mistake.

…(They were also in the wrong contract because she didn’t bid correctly).

… Prosaically — A revoke.

… A few days earlier partner opened 1NT with a singleton because “he had a club mixed in with spades.” We were playing online, the computer sorts the hands. He literally mis-saw a pre-sorted hand.

I’m no better. I chronicled a near-national qualification for Flight A North American Open Pairs and disasters include a hand where I literally could not remember the most basic part of my system. Not obscure, rarely used parts of Polish, mind you. (We all forget the rare stuff from time to time). Bread and butter bidding, in this case — splinters. They show up once a session. (Technically my problem was remembering multiple systems and not being sure which one I played. I was playing standard splinters, and had been for several years at that point).

One partner calls it “Chicken Braining” when you suddenly don’t know things. Where a song name suddenly is gone, or where you can’t remember something until you stop trying. That happens to everyone, I think, but for things like “songs you haven’t heard in a decade,” not “bridge conventions you’ve used for two decades on a weekly basis.”

I remember in college (when I’d been playing for 3 years) making a boneheaded play and my mentor saying “You know better than that.” I remember the shame, because even at that point, I did. I couldn’t explain why I’d done the stupid thing.

I constantly bid or make plays I instantly recognize as mistakes; plays that make me mentally smack my head. I fail to count. I miscount. I can’t tell you the card partner played after the trick is over.

What’s so much worse, is that every once in a while, when I pay attention, I literally mis-see the cards played when I know exactly what I’m looking for.

The funny thing? I’m still a good player. Dangerous … but I rarely win. Too much chicken brain. I can remember the exact details of many of the hands I’ve played in the most recent session. People present me problem hands and I usually get them right. I really am an expert, albeit a weak one.

Kind of where I’d have ended up in Chess. My thinking is just as haphazard as before, but my study of Bridge put my chess study to shame. With so much study I can often recognize the critical point of a position, so I don’t have to think as deeply. It’s like hearing a very complex math puzzle and knowing the answer because I’ve already seen the puzzle solved. Sometimes I just do the obvious things instead of think. But other times hands I’d get right in a puzzle, I miss because I play automatically. Over a full session I’m likely to flub something stupid once or twice (if I’m lucky). Stronger experts don’t flub the easy stuff. And there’s luck … sometimes I can recover or the cards just don’t lie wrong to punish my mistake. (Sometimes my mistake gets lucky and does better than the right play).

At the club I win because the game is loaded with patzers. I won the last club game I played at. But Flight-A events?

I’m too erratic. I can’t really think.


One recent morning I woke up physical refreshed but mentally ambivalent and decided to write the day off. I went back to sleep.

Eventually I got out of bed at a time and sent a note to the office formalizing my status as absent-with-leave. Still feeling a bit groggy and meh, I decided to watch something uplifting and cheery and bright, with songs. (Moana). I felt a bit better, so I grabbed some lunch. Rather, I tried. But my favorite restaurant near my house has a “closed one day a month” policy (and two weeks once a year) that is eminently sensible if you are a restauranteur wishing to retain his sanity, but struck me as a gross injustice when staring at the locked door, craving Thai and only just then remembering their reasonable/infuriating “First Tuesday of the Month” policy.

I’ve had this restaurant be closed a few times in the last year, and each time I thought “Oh, right.”

After a pedestrian, non-Thai lunch I still felt tired, so I napped, and then finally I felt refreshed and OK. I decided to watch a movie that I’d had in my queue — The End of the Tour.

This movie recounts David Lipsky’s interview/road-trip with David Foster Wallace. I haven’t read any of DFW’s fiction, but I enjoy his essays. He writes well (of course), but also takes mundane topics in unexpected directions. And it stars Jason Segel. Now streaming on Netflix. Perfect for a lazy day.

But, much like the green printout sign on the Thai restaurant’s door, I had momentarily forgotten a fact.  David Foster Wallace committed suicide.  (On checking, nearly a decade ago).

The movie is not typical Hollywood. Two hours of writers talking about life, pets, writing, snack food, movies, fame, tobacco, addiction, and writing. It makes me wonder “Who thought this would make a good movie?” But, catnip to me. I routinely turn off movies after a few minutes, but I found this compelling even though nothing much happens.

Good movie. Uplifting it is not. And I had many strange thoughts that tie in with this essay.

(Don’t take this story to mean that I have severe depression. I don’t. But neither do I have the “can-do, turn that frown upside down, let’s face the world with gusty” spirit some people possess. Some days the thought of going out to meet the world fills me with dread. And I have enough resources to simply choose not to face the world, so I sit at home and watch TV, eat Thai food (or not), possibly play computer games or go to the bridge club or write about board games. I relax for one revolution of life’s game clock. This isn’t an “I hate my job” thing, either. I no longer go to the Gathering for ten days because even at five (sometimes less) the noise seems too loud, the colors too bright, and the crowd too maddening. I don’t have depression, so much as a preference for introversion. Perhaps they are related, but depression isn’t a problem for me).

Anyway, the movie is mildly depressing, but also intriguing because DFW spends an equal time contemplating important issues and a similar amount of time caught up with trivia. He describes Infinite Jest as about addiction and the question of “Why do we have so much more than prior generations, but are so much less happy?” (Which makes me want to read that, now). He deals with ethics and philosophy, and comes across as manic-depressive-ish. Not regarding energy, but on the politeness-axis. He is remarkably open in the interview, even dangerously unguarded despite knowing full well that the interviewer can crucify him, then suddenly acts paranoid and terse about letting Lipsky interview others. Wallace freezes up for hours, then suddenly is open and warm beyond measure.

And while I’m not depressed, over the last few years I’ve wondered if I’m losing my mind. Not just normal lapses due to age, or minor facts like the First Tuesday Thai Shortage, or which celebrities are dead. Driving home from a tournament I decided to stop by Trader Joe’s to pick up some things. I’ve been there 50-100 times. I could not remember if it was before or after the highway exit I took. I knew where it was, in the relation to the buildings around it. But not in relation to the exit ramp. Could I get there without turning around?

Didn’t remember.

This is literally two miles from my house, a road I have driven for a decade. A store I’ve been to maybe a few times a month in the years its been open. The exit I take to my house.

Couldn’t remember.

I’m in a meeting meeting where a person says “We’ll agree to do A.” And so I say “OK, we’re doing A.” and the entire meeting says “No, we just agreed to not do A.” I don’t think I mis-heard. These things don’t happen often.

Just enough to make me wonder what’s wrong. I would think it’s normal age related issues, but then I look back on my chess career (as it were) and realize that I’ve always had some problems like this, but I’d just said I’m absent-minded.


Last season of BoJack Horsman featured two episodes (and a few scenes) inside a character’s head, instead of the typical third person POV. One shows Beatrice Horseman (BoJack’s mom) reliving her childhood memories, and also seeing scenes as she seems them now — with dementia.

The people have no faces. She can’t tell them apart.

The other episode was called “Stupid piece of Sh*t” and voices BoJack’s internal monologue: telling himself what to do, to be nice, to not eat food he doesn’t want, to limit himself to one drink.

For all the terrible things he does, he knows better. But he ignores his good intentions. Then he berates himself. (The episode title refers to BoJack calling himself a stupid piece of shit over and over).

It sounded like my internal bridge monologue when I just make a decision without thinking. “Why did I do that? I know better! You stupid *(#&.” Then, in the closing scene, BoJack’s daughter Hollyhock confesses that she has the same internal voice and asks “But, that’s just a stupid teenage girl thing? It will go away, right?”

BoJack assures her it does.

I forced my wife to watch the episode (she hates the show), because I felt like “Finally, someone gets it.” At the time, I felt such elation that one other person …. the writer of some TV show … had the same voice nagging them, berating them.

Thankfully– for me its mostly about being good at games. I’m not driving a Tesla into a swimming pool or getting blackout drunk or driving people away. I’m not suicidal. I’m just annoyed and insulting myself due to avoidable Bridge mistakes. Hooray for the relative unimportance of my terrible decision making!

Every time I sit down to play I tell myself, “this time, I’m going to pay attention, and I’m not going to make a bid or card play and just instantly recognize it as wrong. I’m going to think it through, I’m going to pay attention.”

Sometimes I don’t make it through the first hand.


The End of the Tour conveyed that DFW was self-aware, but not able to improve despite his awareness. (The movie does not touch on his abuse of women). As I said, not uplifting. BoJack suffers the same way.

After my day off I returned to work. Afterwards I swung by the used book store to see what they had and bought several Wallace books. One of them was “This is Water“, a college commencement speech presented in a nice little format and — as such — a ridiculous thing to buy, even used for five dollars.

Wallace talks about compassion, perseverance, and overcoming the problems of mundane existence. It has the following

Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” … It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

(DFW hung himself).

A few days before seeing The End of the Tour I was tinkering with this article (even then several thousand words), struggling to describe my thoughts about being not-as-clever as I wish, feeling stupid about bridge, my patterns of thought. Parts of this essay are nearly a year old. (The parts with DFW are new). Trying to determine how much of this is just:

  • narcissism — I face problems that everyone faces
  • laziness — I don’t work hard enough, and could overcome these issues more effort
  • improper strategy — I have to accept my problems, but find superior work-around to solve them
  • Impossible to fix

I scheduled it to post (again) then pulled it (again) a week before I saw The End of the Tour and picked up the books.

So you’ll understand why another line from This is Water hit so hard.

Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up
feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.


I want to re-iterate, I don’t feel depressed. Maudlin, perhaps. One reason I write about games is that it feels easy. Writing about other issues — I could stare at a blank page for hours and never put words down. I have. Writing on a deadline is one of the most terrifying things I’ve done.

And there is nothing inherently wrong about writing about games, or Baseball, or Harry Potter Fan Fiction, or Movies. Good writing is good writing. I don’t pretend all, or even the majority of my writing, is good. But I’m proud of this blog despite wishing I could get better (and spending some time on the mechanics of the craft). But (unlike Bridge or Chess) I never thought “Well, I will become recognized for being a good writer.” So there’s no pressure. My inner voice has sometimes chided me about writing, but infrequently.  In the movie David Foster Wallace (the character) says something like (Paraphrasing) — “it’s fine, even great that Infinite Jest has become so popular and talked about, but even if it were read by only a handful of people I wouldn’t feel like I’ve wasted years of my life writing it.” I assume that David Foster Wallace (the person) said something similar. That struck me as a remarkably healthy attitude, one I wish to have.

Much of what I’ve written here is ephemeral, but I feel the same way about writing and want to feel the same way about the things my inner critic does nag me about.

I’ve long known about my mental quirks — just as many people take Psychology to try to solve their problems, my interest in Cognitive Science is trying to figure out my patterns of thought. (My interest in Cognitive Biases, Less Wrong, HPMOR are likely influenced the same way). For example, after quitting Chess I discovered studies that some people just don’t have as powerful of “a mind’s eye,” and adjusted my bridge strategy to use more literary memory techniques. I don’t exactly burn the midnight oil keeping up with latest science, but I do pay attention. After all, I’ve been calling myself a stupid piece of shit since I failed to master Chess. I’d like to get over it.

Last year Scott Alexander posted a book review that contains

Unbeknownst to me, over the past decade or so neuroscientists have come up with a real theory of how the brain works – a real unifying framework theory like Darwin’s or Einstein’s – and it’s beautiful and it makes complete sense.

I eagerly read Scott’s post, which is difficult to summarize but says your mind is tries to reconcile top-down predictions against with bottom up sensory data (in a Bayesian framework). It will focus attention, discard data, and modify beliefs to get the best fit. It’s a compelling story (although there are problems).

It felt right (especially the attention focusing and data-ignoring) and explains quite a bit. It provided a framework to handle some (possibly most) of my mental lapses. If you expect to see something, you may see it if the data is only off a bit. (Who hasn’t mistaken a heart for a spade at some point? Just not at the most important tournament of their life….) It’s somewhat comforting.

Sadly, it doesn’t give me any practical advice about my problems, other than not to take bridge too seriously (and general mindfulness).

For all my complaining, my mind is phenomenally sharp. (Another of the reasons I’ve unscheduled versions of this post several times is fear that it reads as a humble-brag). I’ve taken pride over my quick thinking, but then feel ashamed because that’s like taking pride for being tall. Nobody picks their height, and nobody ever said “I thought being dumb seemed like the better choice.”

I can’t say I worked hard at it. It just happened. (I am firmly in the camp that you should praise children for effort, not brains, because people can improve their effort). I’ve developed strategies for maximizing my abilities and hiding my limitations from everyone.

Everyone does. We spend our entire lives working on them.

In terms of raw processing power I was dealt a great hand. I just have trouble focusing it. So, I put myself into projects where my strengths are obvious and my weaknesses are minimized. I spend time “thinking about thinking” because I’ve recognized that I’m good when I can enumerate options and rely on prior analysis, and not nearly so good when I have to do the work ‘at the table.’ (That is true for everyone, of course, but since I have real issues focusing at the table, especially true for me).

For some reason, I don’t mind working through a problem by writing. (Hence this post).

I’m not bad at it, even if I still mumble “Stupid” to myself a few times a session.


One of my bridge partners had a stroke last year.

It affected his game (especially in the first few months of his recovery). His concentration drifted. He got tired quickly. Things you’d expect. Textbook symptoms.

But surprises, too. His bidding became wildly aggressive (he even noted it), and he was not exactly on the low end of the aggression spectrum before. He’d quickly claim the contract when there were obvious plays for overtricks (at matchpoints as well as IMPs).  He’d sometimes notice after the hand (or session). Sometimes not. After a few months of recovery, he’s pretty much back to normal, but I sometimes spot a mistake I think he wouldn’t have made, pre-stroke.

And I have absolutely no problem with that. He’s had a stroke, why would I be annoyed at a lapse? I’m not a monster.

Here’s the first point to this long winded essay: its abundantly clear to me that the stroke is responsible for many of my partner’s mental errors.

I’ve spent 25+ years telling myself “concentrate,” “think clearly,” or “visualize the position in your head,” and not being able to. Telling myself to watch the opening lead and remember it, then forgetting. Falling into the rhythm of the game instead of counting. I spent decades berating myself, and just the last few years wondering … am I just not wired up in a way that lets me get this consistently right?

Is this just the intellectual equivalent of color blindness? There are people with aphasia, autism, who can’t read faces. Am I just missing some component?

I’m beginning to think so.

Sherlock Holmes couldn’t be Sherlock Holmes if he were a friendly guy interested in talking to other people. That’s the literary conceit, anyway … but isn’t it true? I see plenty of people trying to will themselves to be good at something, dedicating years of study to it, and being … mediocre, or worse. They can almost improve, but there are hard limits in many cases. I can’t taste what a super-taster does. That’s just a physical difference.

Ever since grad school I’m haunted, feeling that I’m an intellectual Moses, able to see the promised land but never destined to set foot in it. A lack of focus is fine in High School or College, but in Grad School everyone had my mental power and my inability to focus cost. Hard. I can’t make the cut to true expert…. in pretty much anything. I can get close. I’m not asking to hit the home run in the bottom of the ninth in game seven. I’m the guy toiling in the triple AAA league just hoping to make the big leagues. Crash Davis who hasn’t even achieved 18 days in the show.

“What if I’ve always been wired wrong?” That thought takes the wind out of me. Because if I’m wired wrong it sure looks great from the outside world. If I’m missing one component, I have several others most people lack.

But if I’m missing some block, can’t I just be kinder to myself?

Then I think “That’s an arrogant self-pitying thought, you asshole. You’ve heard lots of praise from people who’ve wished they could trade places with you. Just be better.” And I worry that this feeling (“It’s like colorblindness — unsolvable”) is just wishful thinking. An excuse to not get things right.

If I lost my legs I wouldn’t be surprised that I couldn’t walk (even if I still regretted not being able to). But I want to be able to solve my problem, and if I can I definitely should.

I remember an aphorism that “Sometimes there isn’t a problem to be solved, just facts you have to understand.” But now I’m thinking “Worship your intellect and you will end up feeling stupid” and it’s clearly true. I have. I could have used that advice decades ago. I should be kinder to myself.

Maybe I can find a better strategy to compensate. Perhaps I should meditate. Who knows.

I hope I’d have conquered this one after so many years of trying, across so many domains (not just games), but even trying to not worship my intellect I still naturally want to maximize it.

And now — after spending hours on this essay another quote from This is Water literally woke me up a few mornings ago:

Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the
absolute center of the universe

I’ve seen others’ struggle. Watching BoJack my thought was “Ah, one guy gets it.” Reading HPMOR and the fundamental attribution error and knowing all of this about Cognitive Science and thinking about this since the stroke, and I’m just now entertaining the thought that “Everyone gets it.” (Or, if not everyone, a huge section of the population). And I’m looking back on my essay and re-reading my line about how David Foster Wallace seems self-aware and how that struck me.

Everyone else is self-aware. I’ve known that, of course. (I’m not a monster). But I don’t experience it. It’s the water I swim in. I’ve been struggling with this for decades, and now I wonder just how many people are.

I only noticed that David Foster Wallace was self aware because I can heard it in his voice (technically Jason Segel’s). Even then I had to literally have it spelled out for me in an essay. I hear Wallace … and BoJack  and all of Kotov’s audience and so many other characters who seem more alive than people I deal with because I got a glimpse of their point of view…. struggle with problems they intellectually know how to solve and can’t overcome.

And I see them fail. Kotov didn’t produce a room full of Grandmasters, but his book may have helped us all a bit.

I read David Foster Wallace’s speech about how to live a good life and avoid dying inside before you kill yourself.

But David Foster Wallace killed himself. With all his awareness, his depression wasn’t a problem he could solve.

Before I knew — intellectually — that I wasn’t alone. I’d struggled trying to get my inner critic to quiet down, while still trying to improve, but now I don’t feel alone. That won’t solve my problems, but it makes me feel like I should be kinder to everyone, including myself.

And that’s something.

PS — One of the final reasons I didn’t post this last year is that I felt it would be of no interest to anyone else, which I now see as the exact same lack of empathy as before. You can read This is Water, online.

Written by taogaming

August 12, 2018 at 11:30 am