Pattern Recognition #202 - Take a Chance

Features Opinion Pattern Recognition


8 July 2021


Hello everyone! This is Pattern Recognition, TappedOut.Net's longest running article series as written by myself, berryjon. I am something of an Old Fogey who has been around the block quite a few times where Magic is concerned, as as such, I use this series to talk about the various aspects of this game, be it deck design, card construction, mechanics chat, in-universe characters and history. Or whatever happens to cross my mind this week. Please, feel free to dissent in the comments below the article, add suggestions or just plain correct me! I am a Smart Ass, so I can take it.

So, welcome back. I should update my intro and outro, but that doesn't seem like the right time to do so. A coin flip told me so. Speaking of, with the advent of the newest set - Adventures in the Forgotten Realms (a set which contains no Adventures, or the Party Mechanic despite being a perfect fit), I think it's time to take another look at random chance in the game, especially with the incorporation of rolling a D20 into the game.

Now, I could have sworn that I talked about random chance in the game before as its own article, but the nearest thing I could find was when I talked about alternate Win Conditions, and Chance Encounter. So, let's start over fresh, shall we?

Randomness is a small, but important part of the game, and it starts with the simple act of shuffling your deck. Randomizing the order of the cards at the start of the game has various knock-on effects in terms of deck building, and the proliferation of the Scry mechanic into something pretty much required nowadays, but I'm not here to talk about that sort of randomness. No, I want to talk about randomess on the cards themselves.

The first 'Flip a Coin' card I can find came from Arabian Nights, and was the Bottle of Suleiman, though there are two others in the same set, Mijae Djinn and Ydwen Efreet. These first was a literal Gamble, where you took your 50/50 chance on either getting a 5/5 Flyer or taking five damage to the face. Honestly, for a lot of decks, this was perfectly viable as the cost of activation was , making it a relatively cheap way to get said flyer into play. The other creatures were cheap for their cost, , but if you lost the flip, they would be removed from combat.

Coin Flipping, due to the randomized nature of it, tends to be in the bulwark of , who already embraces randomness and chaos, with artifacts being a distant second. But in practicality, this split tends to be implemented in a couple of different ways.

The first is when you get the chance to either win the flip, and get an effect that would normally cost more than the cost of the card would normally allow, while if you lose, you wind up with a net negative on the card. Look at Goblin Bangchuckers, a card that can either Shock a target - or kill itself if it doesn't have improved Toughness.

The second is a binary result, where either you get something or you do not. The -7 on Ral Zarek for example, is five castings of Stitch in Time, where you have a 50/50 chance to take an extra turn.

Thirdly, we have the 'Flip until the end' type cards, like Squee's Revenge or Okaun, Eye of Chaos. These are cards that are pretty open-ended in terms of the number of coins you flip, and they tend to end with a large effect, or a linear result based on the number of successful flips.

Of course, my favourite Coin Flipping card of all time is Karplusan Minotaur. This card from Coldsnap has a Cumulative Upkeep of Flipping a coin, and when every you win a flip, and whenever you win the flip, you deal 1 damage to something, while if you lose the flip, an opponent gets to deal 1 damage to any target. Why yes, this does work in multiplayer, why do you ask?

Naturally, we also get a card that lets you modify your coin flips, Krark's Thumb allows you to flip two coins in the place of one, and ignore one of them. This card, mathematically speaking, moves the 50/50 chances into a 75/25 chance in your favor. Which, honestly, if you're doing coin flips in your deck as an actual thing, you'll need this card.

But moving on, we get to the actual subject that caused me to want to write this article. Dice rolling in Adventures. With one of the Commander precons - the one led by Vrondiss, Rage of Ancients using it as a basic mechanic. The die in this set is limited to the classic d20 thanks to the source material, and this choice allows for far finer granularity in terms of effects.

What I mean by that is that when you flip a coin, it's a binary result, you either do or do not. But with dice, you have a range of possible choices or results to end up with. Now, I'm not going to go into the deep math of how dice roll, but what I can tell you is that a single die has a linear probability for everything to happen. That is, if I remember to use my terminology correctly, each possible outcome has an equal chance of happening, be it a 1 or a 20. This means that you can create ranges of possible outcomes and fine tune them to your desire.

In this set, the most common ranges on a card, like with Power of Persuasion is 1-9, 10-19, then 20.

What I find odd, though maybe I shouldn't, and it's just my sense of math and pattern recognition kicking in. But the 'least' result, has a 45% chance of happening, while the 'average' result has a 50% chance of occurring, while the 'best' result is a 5% chance. Though to use the native parlance, it should be 'Fail', 'Success' and 'Critical Success'. Now, obviously, not all the cards use this. Treasure Chest adds a 'Critical Failure' for rolling a 1, while Delina, Wild Mage has a 70/30 split on her two results. Sorry, a 1-14 and a 15-20 split.

This is what I mean by more precision and granularity in the results. You can test and customize the ranges to get what you want without risking much. And in a game like this, 5% isn't that big.

Now, not having seen the cards in action yet, I can't tell you how they will affect gameplay or pacing of the game, but I can tell you a few things right off the bat.

First is that this is a Set Mechanic. This, in no way, is indicative of a chance in the policy of Wizards that randomness like coin flipping is to be minimized and saved for a rainy day when needs to stretch. I want to make it clear that Wizards knows, from experience and history, that such randomness leads to poor response from players who gamble and lose on random cards, rather than going all-in and accepting their luck. Krark, the Thumbless is a card for Commander that embraces this, and playing him means you know what you're doing. And what your opponents can expect.

Second, the choice of the d20 is fueled, as I mentioned earlier, simply the fact that it is the core die of Dungeons and Dragons, the probability that it results in is what the game is built around. You're going to be playing these cards and rolling dice, and honestly, I'm worried how long the animation is going to take on Arena and if there's going to be an option to skip the animations now.

But what I'm trying to get at with this point is that dice rolling takes time. A coin flip is one and done, and yes, I'm aware of how to roll a d2. I've done it. But dice are more... you know, I want to say disruptive. Because I can flip a coin in the air and my hand-eye coordination is good enough to catch it. But a die has to go on a flat surface and move around, and that surface is the table you're playing at. You can hit other things on the table, like the cards, or the die could fall off, and I think it's going to be just a little disruptive on the paper level.

Which brings me to my most serious issue.

Spindown Dice are NOT your Friend

Those d20's that come with the sealed boxes? The ones that you use to track life totals? They are not your friend. They are not random. All the high numbers on the die are grouped to one side, with the middle range as a belt, then the low numbers on the other side of the die. It is quite possible to practice rolling a spin-down d20 to result in a certain range band than not. Now, for 99.9% of all of you, this won't be a problem. You'll, by habit, make the effort to roll the die randomly, not caring about the starting position, or the angle that you throw the die with. It's that 0.1% that I'm worried about.

I'm not saying you should be worried, I'm just saying that the mathematician in my head is screaming about probability matrices and result arrays and maybe I'm just projecting my fears and worries. But hey, as long as I inform the rest of you about this at the same time, I'm golden.

Dice Rolling is going to be a thing in Standard for the next... checks calender 27 months or so. We'd better get used to it. It might find a minor place in larger formats, but I'm not seeing it as anything other than yet another flash-in-the-pan mechanic.

And who knows? I may be wrong entirely.

Thanks for reading this week. Join me next week when I finally get back to my set design and finally do some actual work on it for you all.

Until then please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!

This article is a follow-up to Pattern Recognition #201 - Kismet The next article in this series is Pattern Recognition #203 - A New Set: Bible, Setting and Goals

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