Category: Jason Waddell

Pokemon TCG: the budget Vintage you didn’t know existed

by: Jason Waddell

Last month while honeymooning in Japan, I decided I should extend my day-to-day Japanese cultural intake beyond eating westernized sushi, cuddling Rilakkuma pillows and marathoning episodes of Terrace House (konbanwa, btw). For the first part of the trip I thought that, perhaps, I would end my decade-long anime drought. And I don’t know if it was the plethora of Pikachu-themed vending machine, the Squirtle luggage tag or this statue of Pikachu in a Ho-Oh kimono, but something was pulling me to try the Pokemon TCG.


Scratch that. It was this cute set of sleeves I bought myself.


I had known of the card game since its inception, even dabbled in some trading, but had never actually played a single game of it.

Pokemon TCG has an official Free-To-Play digital version structured to slowly ramp you towards constructed play. You begin with underpowered starter decks against annoyingly forgiving AI opponents, then graduate on to playing Theme decks (think Magic’s retail pre-cons) against human opposition. The theme decks are surprisingly well built, and many of them require creative sequencing to properly utilize.

I started with Tropical Takedown, a five-color deck whose primary game plan is to load the graveyard with energies to fuel its main attacker.


Coming from a Magic background, Pokemon’s card economy is rather surprising. You’ll find most Tier 1 competitive decks run nothing but basic energies, and the most powerful spells in the game are given to you in the aforementioned Theme decks.


Even low power-level decks are loaded with Time Spiral effects and conditional tutors. Moreover, there’s no mana system in Pokemon, so all of these effects can be played on Turn 1. The only real restriction is that only one Supporter card can be played per turn. All told, the Theme deck ladder is quite enjoyable until you climb to high ELO, where nearly every player is queuing up with Relentless Flame, a powerful and innevitable deck with a boring, linear gameplan that is boring to play with or against.

At which point you graduate to Standard.

You can’t actually spend money within the Pokemon TCG client. Instead, in each physical Pokemon card back comes a code for a digital card pack. In practice, the way to build a deck is to buy these card codes from the secondary market for 10-25 cents a pop, then trade them through the in-game marketplace for the cards you need. I dropped about 20 euros to build a slightly stripped-down version of a Tier 1 deck. The format’s annual rotation is coming in a number of days, so I passed on trading for any of the soon-to-be-rotated cards. All told, it’s an inexpensive way to buy into a high-powered constructive format. Turns are explosive with the quality of card draw and card search at your disposal, and although luck plays a part as it does in every card game, the decks themselves require skill-intensive piloting. Often when I lose, I have the feeling that a better player would have been able to maneuver their way to victory, which is a pretty good indicator for a game.


Pokemon TCG’s biggest flaw is its card distribution. Almost the entirety of the card base is useless. I don’t mean that strictly in the sense that ‘very few of the cards are competitively viable’, but that whenever you open any given 10-card pack, from the perspective of having a functional deck-building collection, you might as well throw 8 if not all 10 of those cards in the garbage. In Magic, something like a run-of-the-mill 2/2 for 2 french vanilla creature can at least slot into a deck without being overly embarrassing. But in Pokemon, between the 9 energy types, the hundreds of evolutions and shockingly low power level of most commons relative to other cards, even as a beginner you might not be able to use anything.

My account has a couple thousand cards on it, but when the client assigns me a daily challenge pertaining to Steel Pokemon, I can’t even throw together something that feels like a deck.

This problem was further highlighted when I went to a retail prerelease yesterday. For deckbuilding materials, they give you a build-and-battle kit, consisting of two or three complete pokemon evolution lines (from a selection of 6 or so) and nearly a dozen Trainer cards, and four packs of cards. Since the contents of a random pack of cards are so useless, your deck consists almost entirely of those pre-made evolution lines, preselected Trainer cards and some basic energies. You don’t build a deck so much as you sleeve the deck that they give you.

My build-and-battle kit consisted of premade Water and Fighting evolution lines.  I pulled a Rainbow Rare fighting-type Aerodactyl GX from my packs, and while this should have been exciting, without a Unidentified Fossil in the card pool, there was no way to put it onto the battlefield.

Fortunately, the build-and-battle kits are thoughtfully constructed in a way that ensures the games themselves are fun to play, even if the diversity of cards that you play against (the same premade evolution lines over and over) is non-existent.

Pokemon TCG has fun Theme Deck and competitive Constructed format, but the nature of the card pool is not conducive to enjoyable casual or limited deckbuilding.

On Gender and Language

by: Jason Waddell

Recently on the forums there has been a serious discussion on gender and language on the RiptideLab forums. It’s not uncommon that forum threads veer off-topic, but what set this apart from previous occurences was the level of passion being brought to the debate.

First of all, let me state that I want RiptideLab to always be a place where people feel open to share their ideas. We do relatively little moderating here, and for the most part our users steer clear of personal attacks.

Personally, when things have become a bit heated in the past, I have attempted to use humor to de-escalate the arguments, but in this case eventually let things play out. I would like to use this post to find some sort of middle ground. I’d like to tell a story.

I have gay friends, bisexual friends, lesbian friends, but until recently had never known someone who is transgender.

Let me preface by saying that I am not judgmental of anyone based on gender or sexuality. I choose to share this story because I think it helps shine light on an intersection between perspectives.

A couple years ago I met a (female) friend’s boyfriend named “Barry”. Barry was doing a research thesis on game design, so we chatted about that occasionally, but were never that close.

Last year, on my way out to drinks with a friend, she mentioned, “Oh, Barry will be there. Barry’s a woman now. Still ‘Barri’, but now she spells it with an ‘i'”.

The group I was meeting was very progressive, populated mostly by polyamorous people of various sexual orientations, and all knew each other well. I was an outsider to the group, and naturally wanted to avoid stepping on any toes.

At some point in the evening, somebody asked me how I met Barri. “Well I met him…”

…and there was a pause in the air. I didn’t mean any offense by it, had no malice in my heart, but I knew that I had used the incorrect pronoun. It was an honest mistake. When I met her, she was a man, and so my memory of the occasion is of interacting with a man. No harm intended, but a mistake nonetheless.

I corrected myself. “…her…”

And a round of nods went up around the table. I didn’t mean anything wrong by it, but the whole evening I felt a bit on edge, not because I was with a transgendered person, but because I was worried about offending or being perceived as offensive. I no hatred or judgment in my heart, but I still had to be careful with my words. To learn to be comfortable in that context.

I think this can be a point of contention for some people. “If I myself am not hateful, why should I worry about my language offending? There is no hatred behind my words.”

It can certainly feel hostile when you realize you’ve offended someone. But there’s also usually a spirit of forgiveness. I don’t think anybody at the bar held it against me that I used the wrong pronoun, especially once I corrected myself. I think when people complain about so called “social justice warriors”, it’s because of encounters with people lacking this spirit of forgiveness. If you hold no hatred in your heart and are accused of being hateful, one might naturally react negatively.

I think what separates these issues in some regards is their “newness”. We don’t bat an eye when someone tells us to avoid certain hand signals or words that are considered offensive in countries we travel to.

I think there’s always a middle ground to be found.

Personally, I had never considered that the term “manland” might be considered offensive. Some of the posts in the forums opened my eyes to the fact that this does not hold true for everyone. I am willing to make changes to my vocabulary, and appreciate when I am met with a spirit of forgiveness when I use potentially offensive language that had no hatred in intent.

Further, I am pleased to see that the discourse on our forums remained civil, and hope that we can continue to keep RiptideLab as a welcoming environment.

ChannelFireball: Archetype Design

by: Jason Waddell

My latest ChannelFireball article is online!

This article was a difficult one to write, primarily because it’s such a broad topic. My first inclination was to create it as a two-parter, but my initial drafts were too unfocused. Too many side-rants and perhaps some over-explaining of concepts. Eric Chan suggested I try to condense the content into a single article, so I re-wrote and re-wrote the article again. The biggest challenge is that I wasn’t sure what to say. Over the years I have gained some first-hand experience with what works and what doesn’t, design-wise, but to try to package these thoughts proved to be a real challenge.

Moving on, I’m interested in your feedback. Either on the article, or in terms of topics you’d like to see addressed in the next one. Feel free to leave a comment on the ChannelFireball article linked above, or in our forum thread discussing the article.

Thanks for reading!

December 5th 8-man Cube Draft

by: Jason Waddell

Last month purchased its first MTGO cube(s), and while as a community we are still in our infancy in terms of online drafting organization and video content production, things are moving in a positive direction. Community members are firing Grid Drafts a couple times a week, and we’ve organized several 8-man drafts over the course of the last month or so.

My streaming skills are still developing, and this weekend’s drafts were not without its headaches: my internet crashed, computer was straining under the stress of running Skype, MTGO and stream software concurrently, and my draft was a bit of a disaster. Well, a salvageable disaster.

If you want to watch the actual draft portion, replays are available here (part one) and here (part two). The audio levels are a mess (Skype callers are barely audible… my bad), but if you’re so inclined.

(click to enlarge)

What generally turned out better were the matches. Match 1 is still a mess (stream crashed and missed part of Game 1), but Matches 2 and 3 are pretty watchable. Here’s a playlist (below). I’ve started it on Match 2, but feel free to click through and watch the first match (at the end of the playlist).

As mentioned, we’re still new to this, so if you have any comments or suggestions for how to improve the quality of the stream, YouTube channel or commentary, please let us know in the forums.

(Note: a forum member had created a RiptideLab YouTube account for us, but I had to create a new one so that I could complete the verification process and upload videos that were longer than 15 minutes. If you subscribed to the old YouTube channel, please subscribe to this new one)


I’m sick.

It’s been 72 hours or so since I left the house. Stomach pains have kept me pinned in bed. Too sick to work, too sick to cook, and worst of all, too sick to play Rocket League. Boredom never cease.

I found some respite. Here’s a game that was being passed around Reddit. Hex FRVR.



Is this a good game?

That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer. For the uninitiated, Hex FRVR is a game that gives you three pieces at a time to drop onto a hexagonal board. Fill up a complete line or diagonal and those pieces disappear from the board (think Tetris). Color is irrelevant.

The game ends when you can no longer place one of your pieces. Naturally you play for high score.

As a score-tracking, easy to learn web puzzle game, it draws a natural analog to 2048. 2048 was a wonderful journey in discovery. As you played, you refined your mental algorithm. If you reached 2048’s endgame, you discovered an unavoidable truth: that the fun came from refining your mental algorithm, but the actual execution was rather tedious. Once you’ve made an 8192 block or a 16384 block, there’s little reason to ever come back. Tetris has had me returning for decades, but 2048 was fairly disposable as a source of entertainment.

How deep is Hex FRVR?

The fact that I am writing this section within 24 hours of discovering the game is perhaps a bit damning.

When I first played Hex FRVR, my high scores all hit the 10k – 20k range.

“It feels a bit random. I just kind of play for a while and then it’s over”, I told my girlfriend, who seemed to agree while also not really caring.

If you want to figure out the game on your own, I would stop reading here.

My initial strategy? ‘Put the pieces where they fit most naturally’. This had some aesthetic appeal, but it wasn’t really yielding great results. I knew from the developer’s post that the unofficial high score was somewhere around 100,000, so I clearly had improvements to be made.

Second approach: ‘try to set up combos’. Hex FRVR has some built-in system that gives your more points if you clear multiple lines at once. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reward you all that much. It’s rarely worth filling up the board for one big payoff. In fact, my “winning” strategy went in the complete opposite direction…

How to win: 

Current approach: ‘keep the board as clear as possible’.

At the end of the day, Hex FRVR comes down to a rate problem. Every move, you drop about 4 hexes onto the board. That means, on average, you need to be clearing about 4 hexes per move to stay alive. Secondly, since the pieces can’t be rotated, you afford yourself the greatest freedom of movement if you just keep the board very open. There are far more pieces in Hex FRVR than Tetris, so you can’t let the board fill and hope for the “right” piece to come along. The long piece in Tetris was 1 of 7, but a single “L” type piece equivalent in Hex FRVR has 6 non-rotateable orientations.

There are some tricks to keeping the board clear, but eventually you’ll come to the simple conclusion: Hex FRVR does not get more difficult over time. 

Behold, a game at 33k.


And a game at 48k.


As long as I stay the course, there’s really nothing to keep me from hitting 100k.

Except boredom.

The developer mentioned creating a mode for the “10% of people for whom Hex FRVR is too easy”, so I may check in again if/when that happens. I’ll passively try and think of some ways. Currently my only idea is to steal Hexic’s bomb counter mechanic, which places a bomb on a hex that explodes if you don’t clear that hex within a certain number of moves. It would certainly place some new constraints on the gameplay.

As is, Hex FRVR gave me several hours of peaceful entertainment for the low cost of $0. I don’t expect to come back to it for long, but if you’re looking for a pleasant diversion, look no further.

(fun tip: the music is charming for a couple minutes, but grating after that. I replaced it with Spotify’s “Peaceful Piano” playlist)