hello, my name's bones. At the moment of writing this, I have two decks that went the long way from being cool gimmicks to… being cool gimmicks, but with a decent winrate to boot. Currently my favorite thing to play to climb in ranks Legend #70 – #10 of TESL ladder is a Spellsword with Wabbajack, Barbas, Wilds Incarnate and Mudcrab Merchants… but don't lose your cool, it's not an RNG fiesta. Merely a Token Spellsword with my personal touch
It took me about half a year to make this deck and the Crusader deck with triangle of synergies in it. I'll let you readers unpuzzle this one on your own.
At any rate, I did it. Functional homebrew creations, more or less. The Johnny/Spike in me is satisfied… almost. There's just this one feeling that I can't get rid of. The way up wasn't always like this. I wasn't there to experience the original TESL experience more than two years ago at this point, having installed the game around June of 2017, but I did catch a glimpse of what brought eyes, fingers and minds of many to Legends. In order to showcase what I mean, I'd like to direct your attention towards a Meta Snapshot from a good while ago, July of 2017. Practically any class had its spot on the spectrum, but even more importantly, all of the archetypes are represented. Whether you were and Aggro player, a Control player, proactive or reactive, a Midrange player, Token player, Combo player – Spike could take these lists and greatly succeed in tournaments, Johnny could adapt one of the lists to a different class to further explore available mechanics and surprise opponents and Timmy could use that knowledge to make the biggest plays no one expects come true, by attempting to design their deck around a meta. The same thing was reflected in content creation, with Justin Larson and (then also a content creator) CVH making videos for practically two different kinds of people, with some overlap, mostly as an outlook for "the other side".
A year and a half later, only 4 out of 6 of these archetypes are viable on a consistent basis. What was once a fierce fight for top spots of Legend rank became a pretty miserable realization that things just… don't matter. The more competitive you strive to be, the more you notice how inconsequential high rank ladder has become, between half a year of one and the same house being a dominant force, content drought and not much to look forward to, other than Warpmeta and TRS Classic. One could say that "the game can't just have the same meta all the time" and this is completely true. Inevitable new content and balance changes can shake things up and the same happens when one or a few competitive players figure out a deck and find its matchups are, for the most part, favorable. However, before I answer what I feel like is the root of the problem, allow me to present you a hypothetical scenario.
Imagine yourself as our beloved uncle Pete Hines. Pete loves Legends. It's crystal clear between the interviews with him and the way he talks with TESL community members when he gets a chance. People's reactions to the announcement were predictably lukewarm at best – mirrored by the backlash of the Artifact announcement further down the line. Nevertheless, you've got yourself the best card game designers around in Direwolf Digital, amazing artists in charge of card illustrations, including Nuare Studios or Lemon Sky Studio and nearly endless lore to base the way cards work on. And… so far so good! Plenty of people come to play the game and stay because of how easy to pick up it is while offering a lot of complexity for Spikes to cherish. Blackfall, Snaxximan, BradfordLee, TurquoiseLink – the list of people that invested their time to get to know the game better goes on and on.
The game is on its way up. Things go well as the game releases on Steam and the Fall of Dark Brotherhood story expansion shows the care the game gets from all of the people involved in it. But Legends is nowhere near the level of popularity that the top contenders are, especially Hearthstone, and you feel like the game deserves a lot more. The problem is that you are trying to establish a new card game. Had it existed before in paper form, things would be a lot smoother, whether you try to attract as many new people to the game as possible (like MTG Arena) or your client serves essentially as a playtesting ground for real life tournaments (Pokemon TCG Online). But it's relatively new and could use expanding in terms of popularity. So you think how to achieve this and you come up with three relatively logical possibilities:
Marketing – A good ad can do wonders to your product. Had it not been for crazy advertisements with Terry Crews I wouldn't think Old Spice is any better than any other deodorant. With that said, these days most of the people browsing internet have Adblock on and for the, presumably much older, TV audience… well they wouldn't care much about a card game. It would probably result in increased popularity, but would really require a lot of dedication from the team and results of such dedication aren't certain.
A big tournament! – Well… We had this Hand of the Gods thing… It didn't end well.
Porting the game – You could port this on consoles, which is definitely in plans for Legends currently, however… don't you have a phone? Practically everyone has one these days. Anyone can try the game out and determine whether they like what they see or not.
And so, the option three it is. That's where we're going to stop our Pete Hines simulation I'm afraid. I want to talk about it for a little bit.
See, the fact that we had expansion into mobile market carried a few unfortunate consequences. Even if you assume the numbers of mobile TESL players are steadily growing, the number of steam players is on the decline, which means that people playing on phones already make a majority of the playerbase at this point. This seems to be reflected in the way expansions have been designed and the way card balance was done. Everything from Return to Clockwork City is an attempt to, and I apologize for this word, "casualize" the game.
Hallowed Deathpriest is one of the harshest things that TESL experienced, because it's not a good card, but when someone plays it against certain decks, their whole plan perishes. It was an attempt to weaken Paarthurnax loop, despite suggestions made by several community members to change Soul Tear to a more lore-friendly card that banishes creature revived with it when it gets destroyed. And if this wasn't enough, we're getting a version of deathpriest that targets actions in upcoming story expansion, with a similarly bad power level, but also similarly high potential to straight up kill a few decks. These two cards, in the way they were implemented, are similar to a card designer saying "Rather than give you a break from the best deck of the meta by nerfing the deck, so that you could potentially find an archetype or specific deck that is favorable against it, we're going to give you this card to completely de-incentivize any deckbuilding! Just so you know – it won't do anything in half of your games, but hey – don't tell us we didn't listen to you complaining about insert current best deck here"
From that point onward we also had tricolors, insane cycling in both aggro and proactive control (which caused reactive control and midrange to fall from grace) and conscription. The last of which has been commented on by Sparkypants card designers that it's a card they don't dislike. All because it seems to be slowly transforming into what one would expect from a mobile game – faster games, bigger highrolls… conscription… You can see the dent this caused on the ladder right now. It's a ghost town in terms of quality. Every second game you face something that you can't predict, something that is out of place on a fundamentally basic level. Be it aggressive tokens with control cards, orc Redoran that runs all of the orc, even the worst ones, or mono purple. The remaining half is mostly Telvanni which we had for 6 months, some modified versions of aggro hlaalu and around 15% of decks of "average or better quality".
Some of the readers won't see a problem in the randomness on higher ladder. The thing is, with domination of Timmy/Johnny deckbuilding high up, completely content with how the game is right now, we're not going to make progress with the game. The game isn't going to be pushed to its limits, to its best, and we'll continue to accept whatever's thrown at us. People that don't mind the flawed way Telvanni works (being able to answer everything the game has from a very early point of the game with scaling low cost creatures you can tutor directly onto the board with Conscription) are just going to be happy with their singular wins over them with whatever they decide to play.
Like it or not, no progress is made without competitive scene. The less incentive to compete, the more stale the game becomes. You can enjoy new set of cards and one new mechanic once every now and then, but that lasts more or less a month. After that majority of the people rotate out. The reason I posted two of my decklists at the very beginning is to remind people that the creative juices have not been drained out of this game yet – there's still a lot to discover. If any of you want to tackle some of my unfinished ideas, be my guest:
Midrange Assassin with more focus on dragons – I think Assassin's dragons are probably the most universally "alright" all around the board and Woodland Lookout is an absolute mvp of a meta long gone. Assassin also just happens to be really packed with good "reach" creatures, with Cliff Racers, Ancano and Tazkad, so potential to abuse these with Dark Rebirth is definitely here. My list, which definitely could use some modifications here and there
Midrange Sorcerer/Spellsword with Corsair Ship/Divine Fervor and Odirniran Necromancer – Buffs let Necro bring back some dangerous stuff – in Sorcerer it's Supreme Atromancer and in Spellsword… well, if made right, it can be 70% of your deck. I've seen it done here and there, but never to a really big scale. In case of sorcerer, this could be mixed with…
Midrange Sorcerer/Battlemage with Corsair Ship and Voice of Balance – the deck that is always "almost here, but never quite viable".
Midrange Slay… something – also possible to be paired with Voice of Balance (especially in Archer) due to an incredibly cheap support that could be thrown away for a reasonably good instant gain. I thought with Torval Extortionist this would've been one of the first things people try out, but it kinda ended up being "slay once to flood the board" anyways. Nevertheless, possible slow midrange.
The difference between some of these ideas (and many others that people have been trying out during TESL's existence) and something like "Rage Aggro" is that the viability of the unusual decks withstands the "open decks" test, which is to say that they're sound decks that don't rely on element of surprise to score cheap victories on opponents that have played the game for a long while and know that it's a bad idea to include X card in Y deck in the long run, because it will inevitably start losing you games.
but enough about decks. What's the way up?
If we start maintaining the playerbase with mobile market, bringing back slower control decks and various midrange should happen. Improve existing abandoned mechanics over making endless new ones. Give people a reason to improve their game with competitive events and laddering incentives. Make us believe that the future is bright with more than PR talk. The people at Sparkypants are amazing and deserve a lot of praise for rebuilding the client in time this short, but also actively listening to feedback and implementing quality of life changes. Don't waste all their effort of creating a better client by degrading the quality of the game it provides.
As a closing note, I wanted to apologize to every reactive control player I ever faced. I hated your deck back then. I had no idea how much I'd miss playing against good old Control Mage… but I guess that's just our way up for now.
© Post "bones’ impromptu word wall – the way up" for game The Elder Scrolls.
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