The First-Confront Rules Change

Hey all!  I hope you’ve seen, we’ve got a significant rules change in the new version of the comp rules posted yesterday (live May 5th).  In case you missed it, you no longer score the bonus points for confronting a problem first.  Instead, you only score them for winning a problem faceoff.

This is a significant change, but we’ve been playing with it for months, so I’m here to talk about some of the implications.

First, two disclaimers.

Disclaimer One: I’ve got some bias here.  While this is a pretty simple rules change to think of and so might have occurred to someone else as well, I’m the first to have proposed it in the playtest group, and we’ve been testing it ourselves on our own time longer than it’s been a considered “official” change.  I’ve done enough game work that I’m confident I’d have thrown it out if play had sucked, but I am doing a bit of the ol’ defending your own stuff.

I won't be writing fifty-one of these, don't worry.
I won’t be writing fifty-one of these, don’t worry.

Disclaimer Two: no matter how much we test something, the real world plays about ten times as many games in the first week as we’ve played in testing.  I’ve likely done close to a hundred games with these rules, but that’s still not a lot compared to how many you guys will collectively get under your belts in short order.  So it’s possible I’ll look stupid in hindsight.  (It certainly wouldn’t be the first time; I did give Crystal Games an 8/10.  Though in my defense the prior set was Canterlot Nights.)

Okay, so let’s get to it.

The Core Issue: The Problematic Math of the Faceoff

First, why the change at all?  One of the long-running difficulties with the MLP rules, at least in my opinion, has been that some of the strategic upshots of how the rules work are arcane, to say the least.  In some cases, that’s okay, of course.  Games benefit from discovery and from decision making opportunities.  But there’s a fine line to walk between providing those and just creating feel-bads when something that seems like it should be cool is instead awful.  In my opinion, and my experience with newbies, problem faceoffs, and especially DFOs, were firmly in the latter category.  It felt like something you should want to do, but outside obscure circumstances, was almost always a bad idea unless it would immediately win you the game.

The core reason for this: you risk a lot when you start a faceoff, and the potential reward is lower than the liability, especially in a DFO.  When I DFO, I get 2 points (from confronting), plus potentially the highest bonus on the board.  Assuming there’s any chance of my opponent returning the DFO on their turn, though, they are assured to get 2+Y+Z points (the bonuses of both the new problems), plus are very likely to win the DFO and score the greater of Y and Z.  Even if no high-point problems are involved, this is a big swing: I get at most 3 points, while my opponent gets at least 5.

And of course if the initial DFO is at all in doubt, it just becomes ruinous – if they steal that point, it’s 2 to 6.  In most Limited or otherwise low powered games (like those played by newer players or those on a budget), a four point swing is close to unbeatable.

For single problem faceoffs, the problem is lessened, but substantively similar: the original rules made the person starting the faceoff actually win to earn the bonus point, while just handing it to their opponent.  It gave the defender in such situations a powerful advantage.  That’s why in most Limited games, especially in the first block, the core strategy was “get ahead so the opponent has to try risky PFOs and DFOs”.

The New Math: How Removing First Confront Changes This

So let’s look at how it works under the new rules.  If I start a DFO, I’m immediately gaining 2 points, plus the higher of the bonuses.  If my opponent DFOs back, they are gaining exactly the same number (depending on problem flips).

This means that now, instead of wanting to avoid DFOs at all costs if I’m ahead, they’re a great way to put the pressure on.  The DFO significantly speeds the clock, adding at least two points per turn.  Now if I want to play aggressively, the game actually rewards me by speeding up the game without making it less likely for me to win.

And of course if my opponent’s deck does stumble and not manage a return DFO, I’m in even better comparative shape.  In the old rules, I’d only be up a single point in most cases, whereas now I’m up at least two.

Bonus Value: Dilemma Play

You probably also saw the new Dilemma cards, a way of creating additional Problems on the board by playing them out of deck.  Though we didn’t know they were coming when we first started testing it, these cards benefit so much from this rules change, I’m not sure they’d be possible without it.

The core issue is that with the first confront bonus, it’s difficult to set a fun bonus value for dilemmas.  At one point, they’d be incredibly powerful just because they’d give you two immediate points (most of the time).  At zero, they’d be frustrating, because one of the best ways to deal with them is to have a PFO, and if the winner doesn’t get any points, it just feels like a pointless exercise resolving the thing.

Now, though, they work great.  You get one extra point for confronting it, but unless you clear it out with an immediate fracas, the opponent has a chance to steal a point by winning the PFO that clears it out.  There’s a lot of tension in that faceoff, and it makes combat tricks more likely to be useful.

Harmony and Block

So, that’s the core reasoning for the change.  It’s a simple way to make DFOs mathematically work the way I suspect we all expected them to when we started playing.  This is a huge benefit to newer players, who I would always see DFOing constantly while ahead, and then wondering how they ended up losing.  It’s also a great benefit to Limited and other lower-power play, where having a method to try to catch up while behind is very welcome, and it’s less likely the opponent can immediately return a DFO.

Of course, most people reading pony articles on the Internet are going to be thinking mostly about serious Harmony and (to a lesser extent) Block play.  I’ve seen a lot of people speculating on what this change will or won’t mean for competitive play.  I don’t have all the answers, of course – see Disclaimer Two above, but I can certainly talk about some of what I consider the major upshots, good, bad, and weird.  (And yes, there’s always some bad – it’s the nature of changes.)

Score Phase Speed Limit

This is something I’ve talked about before, though not directly in an article.  (I kept meaning to but things came up.)  Basically, one fundamental rule of ponies is that the game rules limit the number of points you can get in a turn without getting specific cards involved.  This is a contrast to most other games like Magic, Hearthstone, etc, where you can potentially score as many as you want just by attacking, if you have enough or large enough cards on the board.

Removing the first confront bonus doesn’t remove this speed limit.  (It’s something I’d love to do, but sadly I haven’t come up with a way to do it that’s nearly as elegant as this change is.)  In fact, in some sense, it lowers the speed limit since you can no longer score 2 points and three bonuses in a single turn.

On the other hand, it does address one of the fundamental issues the speed limit creates, which is a difficulty in mounting comebacks in “fair” games (ones where everyone is just confronting problems).  Early on in the game, RTO was so dominant in part because she’d just win almost any matchup where both decks were just planning to confront; even at just +1 point per turn, there wasn’t a very obvious way to get back in it.

As discussed, with this change, you can realistically get +1 or +2 points with PFOs or DFOs, depending on what your opponent’s options are for returning.  So now the game rules give you a way to get points edges even if no one is running cards that provide them.

There aren’t a lot of fair games in Harmony, but there are some in Block, and personally I’m hoping that we’ll see more and more as the game goes on.  These changes make that more likely by making fair games much more interesting, and much less just about getting the first confront off.

Overall Game Speed

The impact of these changes on overall speed is complicated.

On the basic level, the game slows down.  Fewer total points are available, and confronting for the first time no longer immediately gets the game into the 3 AT phase.  So openings slow down a little bit.  Endgames especially slow down a lot, since no one’s going to get one of those double first confront plus faceoff win turns.  (Dream Quest for example loses 2-4 points from ideal combo turns with S&S.)

Of course, this sadly doesn’t change the cheaty combo points decks, like Pile of Presence and other combos.  That said, if they are decks that (like Pile) run a fair number of friends, the impact is a bit more complicated than it at first appears.  Aggressive decks had to be careful about running constant DFOs into a lot of Pile decks, because there was the ever-present risk that they’d DFO with a bunch of DJs and random trash and accelerate their combo turn.  Because you’re no longer taking on liability by creating that situation, you can potentially make up the lost points, or even overcome them.

Of course, completely non-interactive combo decks do pretty much straight up benefit.  Enterplay has been willing to address those as they arise, though, so the solution there will be what it always has been: fix the ones that are egregious.  I still find those kinds of decks tiresome and hope we’ll get to the point where they stop coming up, but in the mean time I’m not going to worry too much about the power levels of decks that slip through the cracks, since it’s not like the old rules stopped that from happening from time to time.  (See: most of the Harmony banned list.)

Frequency of Faceoffs

One of my favorite features of the new rules is that faceoffs happen a lot more often, and they’re (usually) one of the most fun parts of the game.  With PFOs and DFOs no longer discouraged by the rules, and the overall number of points entering the system lower by default, testing has seen the average number of faceoffs per game go up a lot.

In addition to being fun, this also raises the stock of a lot of cards that previously didn’t see much play because they required faceoffs or problem faceoffs to happen.  Everything from Studious to Burst of Speed is at least worth another look in deckbuilding, which I think is really cool.

Of course, when you talk about faceoffs and the importance of winning them, there are a few less-than savory thoughts that probably come to mind immediately.  More on these later, but it is true that while some not so widely used cards benefit from a higher frequency of faceoffs, so do some of the best.

Archetype Relationships

So, with the above in mind, let’s talk about how broad archetypes are impacted by the changes as a whole (introduction of Dilemmas and removal of first confront bonuses).  Overall, one of the things I like is that most deck types get both gains and losses.  Control decks have more time to work with since burst points from Snips and Snails and so forth go down, but they have to be prepared to deal with the possibilities posed by opposing Dilemmas, meaning shutting down two problems isn’t enough any more.  Confront decks are slower on burst, but can more freely cause faceoffs, making their best turns worst, but their medium turns better.

Villain farming decks are most likely to be overall hurt.  While they do have non-confront VP sources, they can’t use their villains to defend first-confront bonuses anymore, and DFOs become a powerful tool their opponents can use to protect from fear bombs without too much liability.  Dilemmas also allow an easy clear of villains via fracas if even one problem on the board is left open.  Of course, as mentioned, Carbo-Loader does gain in power in a world where problem faceoffs are more common, so I’m not confident these changes will kill decks like this.

And finally combo loses nothing, while some of the decks that oppose it suffer in racing with it via loss of the first confront bonus.  This is the one most likely to be a bad scene, but on the plus side, also the one that Enterplay is most historically likely to be willing to correct.

Specific Cards

Finishing up the current impact, let’s talk about something I’ve touched on before: what cards benefit most?

First, I do think a lot of previously borderline cards may become playable or good, particularly those that rely on faceoffs.  Both things that help you win them (double flips, Gotta Go Fast, etc) and things that want you to (Rarity Breezie, Storm of Justice, et al) obviously become more likely to be relevant in any given game.  I expect to have a few fun “oh right that’s a card” moments when my opponents unleash something I’d forgotten about on me.

Second, cards that create or use faceoffs are worth another look when it’s more likely that you’ll build your deck with some tools to win them or benefit from them.  This includes things like Daring Do and the whole suite of Diligent ponies.

So I’d say those are in the “the good” category.  I always like it when I get a chance to go back and change my opinion on older cards.

For “the bad”, we have, of course, what we touched on before: most of the current best cards in the game remain absurd or become potentially even better.  Carbo-Loader now has a chance to make your opponent miserable more frequently per game.  Night Glider is pretty happy with a world where she’s turbo-charging PFOs and DFOs that you want to happen, rather than mitigating the damage caused by ones you don’t.  RTO benefits least, but does benefit from it now being broadly safer to run high point problems.  And Pile and other combo decks benefit from fair points broadly going down while unfair ones do not.

I’m not going to say I’m happy about that part of the situation.  I do want to say two things about it, though.

First, in some cases, the impact isn’t as clear as it seems.  Both Night Glider and Carbo-Loader go primarily in decks that are heavily impacted by the changes in both good and bad ways.  Night Glider herself loves common faceoffs, but the decks she goes in have mixed feelings about losing the first confront points, and if the number of faceoff tricks that see play goes up, she’ll be less confident in getting the big wins she needs.  Carbo-Loader will have more faceoffs to dominate, but the deck that’s used her best is heavily impacted by Dilemmas and generally isn’t a fan of PFOs.  This means the decks that use these cards might still lose power overall or hold even, and of course if the rest of the deck doesn’t change, they are likely to suffer in games where they don’t draw the bomb.

Second, those cards are simply broken in a specific way, which is to say they dominate a major part of the game (score phase and faceoffs).  One of the big problems with those kinds of broken cards is that almost anything you do makes them better.  Printing more cards makes them better, because there are more things to potentially combine with them.  Encouraging people to play the game in a way that’s fun in their absence makes them better, because they dominate the fun parts of the game.  So until they rotate out of Block and get drowned by options in Harmony (or just become what makes that format different), it’s not worth designing around them.  It just can’t be done.  Or at least, anything you do to design around them makes the game worse.

Finally, while how badly you get beaten does matter in terms of enjoyment, and that’s important, these cards are unlikely to actually win very many more games than they already were.  It was already the case that if you were playing a deck that cared about Carbo-Loader, you probably couldn’t win with it on the board.  Being shut out of a larger number of faceoffs feels worse and I want to acknowledge that, but it likely doesn’t matter to the outcome: if your deck cares about Carbo-Loader and she survives, you can’t win.  (That’s why she’s so awful.)  Ditto Night Glider and RTO: in most current games, you remove them or you spoil the confront or they end the game.  More faceoffs or decreased other points sources won’t change that.

Conclusion: Progress and The Future

Having talked about the good and the bad, I hope you’ll see that I’m aware there are some problematic aspects of this change.  That said, I’m confident that it’s a great one for the game overall for two major reasons.

First, it improves many current games, and the ones it doesn’t weren’t going to be good anyway.  We’ve tested with these rules for months, and we’ve tested everything from draft and sealed decks to Dream Quest and Pile of Presents using them.  As noted above, sometimes getting dominated by one of the current best cards feels even worse, but games where they aren’t involved, or are removed, or both players have access to them all play better.  That’s the vast majority of games.  The effects on draft and sealed deck play are even larger – we’ve done a ton of draft games with this rule and it is amazing in that context.  I strongly suggest you try some of those out, they feel like a completely different (and significantly better) experience.

Second, and most importantly, by making faceoffs offer a reasonable risk to reward calculus, this change makes the game far, far better for the future.  There are a lot of good and interesting things about the core experience of playing MLP – that’s why I play, after all.  But this removes a tension that just made the game worse, discouraging players from engaging with one of the most fun parts of the game, and often punishing them if they did.  This in turn meant that cards that wanted to engage with that part of the game were bad and unexciting.  Reversing this opens up a ton of gameplay and card design space that I’m really excited about.  As the game goes on, I hope Enterplay will take full advantage of this, and I plan to do what I can to help.

Thanks for reading.

3 thoughts on “The First-Confront Rules Change”

  1. I’m not sure that I agree that this is a negative change for villain farming decks — I think the slower AT progression helps them considerably, and it makes the aggro/villain match up tougher on aggro than it already is while not impacting villain/combo much.

    That said, I really like how much this frees up potential design space. The 2/2/bonus 2’s seemed to have painted Enterplay into a corner in regards to power level and pacing, and this change should help with that.

    My real concern with these changes is that it seems like it will slow down game play, meaning that it’s more likely that more matches will hit the time limit, and i don’t think that’s a positive change. Playing the clock/losing to time isn’t a good thing.

    Also, I hope that Enterplay takes a much stronger stance on loop combos now. With the game running for more turns due to slower progression, combo will have much more opportunity to soak AT and draw into combo pieces. Until there is a viable, played from the hand counterspell, repeatable loop combos really have no place in this game.

    1. I agree with you that just the first confront change alone is wash to positive for villain farming, though I’m less convinced that it helps them a lot vs. aggro (farming gets plenty of first confronts too). I do think Dilemmas hurt them a lot, though. Farming often spends some time with just one problem locked, and being able to get hit with Dilemma into fracas in that state hurts a lot.

    2. And yeah, I am on the same page with all the loop combos. I hate the stupid things, even if they aren’t broken. They’re just no fun.

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