Monday, May 26, 2014

Drafting in Warmahordes

I love drafting. Doesn't really matter what shape or form it is in, I just think drafting is a great meta-game. Perhaps the greatest metagame. It adds a huge dimension to any complex game.

When I followed NHL hockey, I was a big fan of the pre-reason draft, and the totally heartless denial strategies employed by these equally heartless mega sports franchise organizations, which no longer in any way represent the regions in their name, like they did in the times when the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup every 3rd year.

I also love watching pro DotA, listening to draft analysis and seeing teams organize their skill + items builds to match their team draft and their opponents' team draft. What is also great in DotA drafts is the ban-draft cycle. It greatly increases competitive game balance to allow each team to progressively ban out 5 heroes which they do not want to be involved in the game at all, and how bans play into the draft strategy:

Here is an explanation video of a DotA Captain's Draft from a team captain's perspective (the drafting process has changed slightly since then, for the better):

If you're not familiar with DotA (or its MOBA progeny), the details might be a little confusing, but suffice to say the draft format requires pro DotA players to be quite flexible in playstyle and have a large pool of heroes they can play well, and also requires team captains to be very flexible in terms of overall strategy since the opposing team can always draft hard counters or ban necessary support heroes before you get to pick them. You also have to be really up to date on the current metagame strategies and combinations. A good draft can greatly increase your chances of winning, and a bad one can make life very difficult for you - much like listbuilding in Warmachine or deckbuilding in card games.

The biggest difference of course, is that in games like DotA everyone has access to all the heroes all the time, whereas in Warmachine you are restricted to your faction and your finite wallet (or rather the function of money/time for most gamers). The one exception is the Iron Gauntlet, where you can have lists from different factions, but because of no other restrictions it basically ends up being a dickslapping match between the 10 or so strongest casters in the game and their toughest lists. I am of the opinion that the intention behind the Iron Gauntlet format was to have list construction have as small an impact on the outcome of the game as possible, thereby leaving dice and player skill to be the biggest factors in the game. The reality however, is quite different given the balance issues in the game (1).

DotA has like 105 unique heroes available, but even within the game there is a limited Captains Draft mode where the hero pool is limited to a third of the total, an even more limited individual Single Draft mode where each player only gets 3 randomized heroes to choose from, and even a completely unbalanced but mechanically interesting mode called Ability Draft mode where you get given a hero + their core stats but have to draft your skills alongside the 9 other players! It is basically a draft heaven game.

Drafting is possibly the only part of Magic: the Gathering I find interesting, since deckbuilding Magic is only balanced at the highest levels (which is stupid expensive), or the pre-made starter decks, on account of the rarity/collectible system leading to a huge gap in the power level of individual cards. Drafting leads to some really interesting deck builds, highly unpredictable deck designs and in my opinion a game experience that puts more emphasis on a player's understanding of the game mechanics and play skill than on "deck piloting". My favourite deck building card game, Android:Netrunner as also just introduced a draft format, so looking forward to trying that someday.

What makes draft formats sweet

1) Zero sum game

If you get something, someone else doesn't get it. You not only have to worry about the options you are taking, but the options you are giving to your opponents.

2) Uncertainty

You can't prepare ahead of time as well as you could with a constructed format, because the specific framework and pieces of the game aren't fully determined until the draft is over. However, this uncertainty is still somewhat in the player's control, since decisions during the draft stage affect the final format.

3) Invisible Hand of Balance

It's a bit like cutting a cake. How do you get a cake cut into completely equal pieces? Assuming self interest, you ask someone to cut the cake and tell them they are getting the last piece.

Drafting works a little bit like Adam Smith's free market theory in that way. Assuming every player is trying to win the game, they are trying to get the strongest draft they can, meaning they will take the strongest hand they can, or at least try to make their opponents' hand weaker than theirs. Individual actors following their self interest eventually leads to an equilibrium, which will lead to a state more balanced than if you randomly gave players a bunch of cards/heroes/models/whatever, and assuming balanced inputs, will lead to a pretty balanced outcome (at least relative to the 'core' constructed format).
Due to the ultimately limited pool, there is more potential for abusive combos since certain counters may be absent, leaving OP options unrestrained, but overall the balance issues are not as steep as you'd expect and things run pretty efficiently.

Drafting in Warmahordes

How do you apply this to Warmachine?  

First of all, you have the Spell Draft format that Privateer Press cooked up. That seems about as balanced and fair as the Ability Draft in DotA, which is to say not in the least bit. But it's fun and allows you to look underneath the hood for a bit. Apart from that, a highly limited and very gimmicky mode, good for a laugh and to break your usual thinking patterns for a while.

The last small Who's The Boss/Beermachine event we ran locally in early April had a really cool limited-drafting mechanic which I enjoyed greatly. Here is how it works:
  •  All the available caster cards are shuffled together. The two matched-up players sit down at a table opposite each other, and the TO puts down a caster card in front of each player. 
  • This is repeated three times, so each player has the option of three different casters to take with his list that round.
  • Each player then 'bans' out one caster from his opponent's pool, leaving the choice of two casters. Each player then chooses one of the two for their next game against each other, then you repeat the draft process each round.

That's it. It was a ton of fun and the drafting rounds where probably even more fun that the actual games as everyone trips over themselves trying to give advice to the players and thinking about list combos and all that (2). I found this even better than the standard Who's the Boss wheel, because it has a level of player interaction and choice in it that the spinning wheel doesn't have, not to mention it is WAY easier to implement.

Next time, I'll see how a full-blown army draft goes - including warjacks, warbeasts, units, UA/WAs and solos. I think the best way to do it would be to have all the available cards laid out on a table by category and then use a snake draft system until all players have drawn all cards. You'd probably have to limit the pool in some way so that it doesn't take forever if your playgroup has an asston of models available like mine does.
Each player then puts together a 50 point army list using their selections. After that, you do the warcaster limited draft as mentioned above and go nuts with some really mental lists. 

I don't think competitive WM really lends itself to drafting due to the rather strict army design rules and synergies. Drafting/banning doesn't really make sense, and is pretty unexciting, when you have a only a tiny number of permutations (ie. a handful of fixed list matchups) to work with. Also it's not a zero-sum game. So basically, this post has doesn't really have much to do with SR Warmachine :P


I have a tournament at end of June where I am subbing in for someone else who wisely decided to leave this country for the experience of a lifetime. I will probably play really badly and rage about it/the state of the game, so tune in then to hear more whining and complaining (see footnotes below for an appetizer).

(1) There's an oft-repeated line about Warmachine that says the 'game is balanced'. It isn't. If it were, we would see a much greater diversity in army builds than we currently see. There is a decent amount of diversity, but relatively speaking it is very small. If we want an interesting metagame, someone will always have an advantage in matchups, but that advantage shouldn't be as great within factions as we currently see.
What we should be saying is that out of all the competitive miniature wargames, Warmachine is the most balanced, and is in my opinion the best one. That doesn't mean it can't be better, and there is always room for improvement.

(2) Also because I was feeling pretty low in Warmachine at the time and decided to make a Blindwater list with no Posse. That list sucks cloacas dry btw, never do that to yourself. That and I spent most of my first 1.5 rounds drinking gin&tonics and imported beer, and most of my last 1.5 rounds drinking water, so either way spent more time thinking about my bladder than I did thinking about how utterly shit my lists were.
I still went 2-1 over the 3 rounds since I managed to pick up Kreoss3 in Round 2 (total boss) and Goreshade1 in Round 3 (amazing caster that nobody gives credit to because he is so boring). My first round was Naaresh, who sucks incredibly badly outside Skorne, and sucks normally within Skorne. The design is cute but it's tuned way too loose, making him all limp in the nether regions.


  1. Haven't been reading this for a while, hence the late comment.

    Mobas are living games just like WMH which is why I love them so much and why HoN (prettier DotA) and WMH are pretty much the only two games I play regularly. Living in the sense rules don't get reset every once in a while with existing entities changing (apart from nerfs/buffs when necessary) but rather adding new entities on top of old ones which changes the way old ones play. In example, PoM gets Errants in book one. They're pretty shit. In book 2, Piper comes out and they start making more sense. Then they get UA and Senny and things go through the roof. ''more then the sum of it's parts'' concept. In moba games, this is shown in heroes that haven't been buffed in a long time suddenly see a lot of play time because a new hero is released that synergizes well with them. I love this concept because even if some heroes/units/solos/... are bad in current metagame, a release in the future may change by adding another element in the equation while leaving the original entity untouched. Meaning you can always find a hidden gem by discovering a cool synergy instead of looking at just raw stats.

    But back to drafting. I don't agree there is no drafting in WMH. Whenever you make a list, you effectively 'draft' models into it. In the same way a good moba team will have a carry, initiator, support and so on, you have your tarpit, battlegroup support, heavy hitters,... Then you have to fine tune it in the sense of ''this is my anti cryx list and this anti infantry removal doesn't work against cryx''.

    The other part of drafting is your list selection which more then in 2 list format where you often go ''ok my list 1 is fcked against whatever you pick so I'm playing list 2'' is apparent in masters. I believe 3 lists push this up several notches, not just one and drafting often turns into list chicken. List chicken has been discussed on every podcast and I don't feel like going into it but to offer a parallel with mobas, if you draft a hard carry early opponents will just pick earlygame push lineup and steamroll over you before your carry gets enough farm to be relevant.

    On top of all that there's the concept of metagame in the sense...let's say butcher3 is the most op thing in the game. His flashing blade gives him 2 attacks per focus spent and...his pull thing works so it can pull you through walls and models. I think we'd all agree that would be pretty bonkers. But here's where metagame kicks in because knowing what he does and that everyone and their mom plays him, everyone else would tech against him with Orin and the Book and even the new Menite jack would see lots of play. Butcher3 would then be one of the worst casters you could play, despite his power level being through the roof.

    The concept that THE single most op thing in the game loses 80% of games because of metagame, instead of winning 80% of games because it's just that good (which would happen in most games) makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside and it's in my opinion the best thing that could happen to any game.

    So yeah. Drafting the sense of ''I pick this'' is very present in WMH. We pick models that work well together, we pick which list we wanna play vs who, and in the sense of metagames that develop, we actively chose which things get labeled good and which aren't.

    Hope this makes sense. XD

  2. Is HoN prettier than Dota 2?

    The 'I pick this' aspect might be present in Warmachine, but I wouldn't call it drafting because it's not a zero sum game. You have a limited pool which you can pick multiple copies of a anything non-character thing from for your list, and your opponent can do the exact same thing.

    Also Butcher3, in my experience, usually gets 4-5 attacks per Flashing Blade already, and Cryx is that 80% single most OP thing that loses its games because everyone has to tech against it :) (and even when you do, sometimes you didn't tech hard enough).

  3. Beauty is in the eye of beholder but to my eyes, LoL is absolutely disgusting, I like both DotAs because I've liked W3 so much and HoN is very pretty. Also a lot of attention to detail. Gameplay wise it's a lot like DotA with some improvements and faster gameplay. Most people consider it harder I think. This is quite rude but covers it nicely: ''Dota is the mother, HoN is the smart adult son and LoL is the mentally retarded child.'' I'm very biased so take it with a grain of salt but I am super competitive and I like HoN's utterly cutthroat and almost flame-free environment as opposed to carebears in LoL.

    In moba terms, drafting is not just counterpicking, it's also about synergy in your own team, covering all phases of the game, having enough cc and so on. In fact most drafters I've listened to a lot of times have sort of...templates for making teams which is very similar to how I build WMH armies. I could discuss this at length as I've put a lot of thought in to this both in WMH and HoN but this is not the place. Next time I'm at work I'll open a thread on Star Forge about it.