Battlegrounds: Nearing the End

Well, it’s that time of year again: the judging period of IFcomp 2008 is underway. But before I dive into that, I want to wrap up Magic: the Gathering — Battlegrounds, which, when I started it, I honestly expected to have finished by now. Currently, I’m up to the last fight in chapter 5.

Difficulty fluctuates wildly between levels in this game, so it’s hard to predict how long it’ll take to reach the end. The last level I finished wasn’t very hard, but the level before that was a real toughie, even after I had received all the in-game hints. The hints said to summon Carnophages 12/2, does 1 point of damage to caster every time it survives a fight to weaken the opponent’s Gorilla Chieftain 23/3, regenerating, and then cast Infest 3gives -2/-2 to every creature in play to finish it off and prevent it from regenerating. Which is fine as far as it goes, but that only takes you through the very beginning of the battle, and if you try to just repeat the same tactic against subsequent gorillas, you spend mana as fast as you get it, and wind up unprepared for the stronger creatures that follow.

The required spell for that fight — the one that you have to cast at least once for victory to actually count — was Hellfire, which destroys all non-black creatures, but has a large mana cost and damages the caster. By the time your mana pool is large enough to cast it, the opponent can cast Avatar of Might 48/8, trample, which more or less necessitates casting Hellfire immediately. So by that point you have to (a) have enough mana remaining to cast Hellfire, and (b) have enough health left that casting it doesn’t kill you. These requirements are in tension: conserving health means spending mana. The only way I could manage to cast Hellfire soon enough to avoid a devastating blow from the Avatar was to selectively allow the enemy’s creatures to hit me. Add in the blowback from Hellfire and I’m in a grave position from that point on.

The Avatar is the turning point of the duel. If you manage to kill it, you can last indefinitely by playing defensively, and maybe even switch to offense after a while. (But not too soon. That’s the mistake I made the first couple of times I survived past that point.) But you have to kill it right. One of the many big differences between this game and the card game that inspired it is that in Battlegrounds, slain creatures drop mana crystals, in quantities proportional to their casting cost. (Mana crystals partly replenish your mana reserve, but cannot increase it above its maximum.) In a level with lots of big strong creatures like this one, harvesting the dead like this is a more significant source of mana than just letting it regenerate over time. When the enemy summons a powerful creature and sends it toward you, he’s potentially giving you a gift. This mechanic makes the location where a creature dies significant, because the mana crystals go to whoever manages to pick them up first. If you cast Hellfire too soon, the Avatar will die in the opponent’s half of the arena, and he’ll just cast another while you’re depleted. But obviously you don’t want to wait too long and get killed either. But if you get it right, you can tilt the balance of mana toward yourself.

So, that was actually a pretty satisfying level. It actually required nontrivial strategizing, and when I failed, it was generally because I had made a poor decision, not because I had failed to perform my intentions. And, of course, it was satisfying to beat it after failing so many times — I was just about ready to give up and turn the difficulty down when I lived past the Avatar for the first time. I’ve only made a few sallies at the level I’m on, but it seems like it may be similar. This game may finally be hitting its stride. Shame it’s almost over.

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1. 2/2, does 1 point of damage to caster every time it survives a fight
2. 3/3, regenerating
3. gives -2/-2 to every creature in play
4. 8/8, trample

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