GB Spartan Thoughts #2: Augments


Written by GB Spartan

I don’t think I mentioned the purpose of these essays in the previous one. I think my goal is to give an analytical voice to the strong emotional reactions that I personally experience when playing or thinking about the game. I’m sure that a lot of players can relate to dealing with frustrations while playing on any given patch or set, but they haven’t bothered to really think about the theory of the game or their own psyche to understand the roots of those frustrations in a concrete way. I’m basically here to do that work for you, because I think writing these is kind of fun.

This is probably going to be a very long one. Not too sure if people will be able to get through in one go, but we’ll see. Honestly if you want to just hear me talking about augments, skip to part 2.

Part 1: Decision Making is Core to Skill Expression

I think we can all agree that the vast majority of the skill expression in TFT is derived from knowledge. Of course, there are some elements of skill expression that are mechanical, E.G. last second positioning, fast roll-downs, etc., but the advantages that these elements provide are way less than those that come from being knowledgeable about the game itself.

Conscious decisions are the medium through which we apply our knowledge to the actual game. When to roll down, what units to buy, what comps to play, how to manage econ, how to position – these are all potentially MEANINGFUL decisions that are directly informed by our pre-existing knowledge of the game. What I mean by “meaningful” is that these decisions can directly impact how well we place in the game and are non-trivial in the sense that the choices that we make should not be completely obvious. When the game introduces more meaningful decisions, the game becomes more skill expressive, since there are more opportunities for the player to be able to apply their knowledge to affect the overall game state. For me, this is where the real excitement of the game comes from – being able to identify where these decisions are and how to evaluate my tradeoffs to figure out what the correct choice is in any given situation.

This is probably where my opinion is going to differ the most from the casual player base, because a lot of people play for the fantasy of a “highroll”. Highrolls are, by definition, a result of chance. In other words, these are events that are almost completely outside of the players control. However, in TFT, decisions and chance aren’t actually completely at odds. Many times, you actually have to have better knowledge of the game to understand that you have highrolled. For example, worse players may get a premium shop but not realize at all, whereas a better player could use that shop to winstreak for 5 rounds straight. I personally love this kind of highrolling, because it takes something that is largely out of the players hands (chance) and it intertwines it with player agency. On the other hand, highrolling is at its worse when the highroll moments are so obvious that it requires essentially no effort or knowledge to realize that you’ve highrolled.

Part 2: Augments in Theory

If we think about a completely balanced game, it’s easy to understand the potential benefits of augments. They introduce a very directed and novel way to add a meaningful decision making to the game. Moreover, since the augments that you will be offered each round are different each time, they add variance from game to game that can keep the experience “fresh”. A good player should be able to take a selection of augments and, after evaluating their current situation within the game, find the best augment that will hopefully net them a better placement. When augments are balanced, the decision to choose between augments is non-trivial and therefore meaningful. They can also do things like promote flexibility by making us adjust our board on the fly to make the most use out of the augment that we have taken.

Part 3: Augments in Practice

The scenario described above is the ideal scenario for augments. They add another layer of meaningful decisions and they add flexibility and variability between games. Realistically speaking, that kind of scenario is not going to happen immediately. Augments add a whole new set of balancing issues to the game, and if not properly addressed, they can actually do more harm to player agency than help. I don’t think there’s a better way to illustrate this point than by looking at prismatic augments.

In my opinion, as they are now, prismatic augments drastically reduce player agency. I have two problems with prismatic augments that are both a result of the following assessment: the power level of PRISMATIC augments is way too high. This results in the following two balancing problems: the balance between augments themselves, and the balance between the “decision” of choosing an augment and the other decisions that are available in the game.

The first problem is something that is bound to happen when you introduce several mechanics that are supposed to be highly impactful to the game, which is that there is more variance in the respective power levels of these mechanics. What that means is that it’s quite difficult to balance one prismatic augment so that it lines up with all the other prismatic augments. Not a very complex observation, but this can be problematic in the sense that the disparity between the best, mediocre, and downright awful prismatic augments is insanely large. This means that if I am offered 3 augments, a lot of the time it is incredibly easy to know what the best choice is because it is far stronger than the other 2.

The second problem is probably something that not many people think about. When the impact of prismatic augments are high, they end up having a disproportionate affect on the player’s end game placement. All things being equal, that means the other decisions that we make, for example choosing a comp given that we have the proper setup, or deciding when to rolldown and stabilize our board, have overall less impact on the outcome.

Let me outline a concrete example so that this idea is easier to understand. Suppose you’re playing the early game and you decide to commit to playing a reroll comp. I have a good amount of the units I need, but I also know that there is somebody in the lobby that is contesting me. That’s fine because I know that I have the better setup, I have more econ, I have more of the unit, and so I’ve made the important decision of evaluating my position and concluding that I have far better odds to hit my units and do well in the lobby. Then on 3-2, the prismatic augment comes along and the chucklefuck contesting me gets High Roller, pops that shit immediately, and all of a sudden, the units that I need are all out of the pool. Leading up to this scenario, I had made what I felt like were meaningful decisions that would put me at an overall advantage. Once the prismatic augment hits, all that decision making goes out the window.

I believe that these two problems are compounded by the fact that your choice of prismatic augments, along with the selections of other players, is largely outside of your control (in any given selection you can see at MAX 6), and it leads to the following dynamic: The power level of prismatic augments is such that we make a low complexity decision that trivializes the other potential decisions you can or have already made during the game. In it’s current state, when I see Cruel Pact, I click Cruel Pact and take my free top 4. Anyone who has played that augment knows how beyond broken it is, so when I choose it, there are no meaningful TRADEOFFS to evaluate. I don’t have to work for anything. The only kind of “skill” that I’ve expressed is knowing that Cruel Pact is broken. Then I just take my + 3 units, carousel priority, and my late game health regen so that I will always be in a better position than the rest of the lobby. I’m not making a complex decision where I evaluate my tradeoffs, and haven’t really put myself in any sort of risk to earn that advantage.

This, at least to me, is what is so frustrating about prismatic augments (and maybe to a lesser extent hero augments). They generate the kind of low effort high roll moments that don’t rely on player agency. They are far more difficult to balance because they are meant to be impactful, and even if they are perfectly balanced, they trivialize the other decisions that we have already made during the game.

Part 3: The Battlegrounds Quest System

To preface this, I AM REALLY BAD AT THIS GAME. I am in no way an expert of Battlegrounds in the slightest. However, when I switched from playing TFT to Battlegrounds for a bit, I experienced something that really helped me to better understand why augments in TFT can feel so frustrating, and how this game might to a better job of addressing those frustrations.

I don’t really care what you think about Blizzard or Hearthstone Battlegrounds or whatever. The only thing that I want to talk about right now is the Battlegrounds Quest mechanic. For those that are unfamiliar with how it works, I’ll give a brief explanation. Partway through the game, Battlegrounds offers you a choice between 3 different quests. Each quest has it’s own specific completion requirements, where you have to play a certain number of cards, or attack x many times, etc. before you can activate the buff that the quest gives you. Think of these as augments that have an activation requirement. Typically, the more powerful the buff, the harder the quest is to complete.

If you just think about the setup, you can see how this mechanic excels at keeping player agency alive while allowing for game-warping buffs. The player has to deliberately evaluate whether the buff that they might receive is worth the activating conditions. Many times, you might choose a quest and die before you can even complete. You might adjust your gameplay so that you can try to complete your quest faster, or you might choose to ignore it for the most part and delay the quest completion. There are so many meaningful decisions that are made here, not just in that first moment where you choose your quest, but also how you decide to complete it, and even how you decide to set yourself up beforehand before the quests are active to potentially make quest completion easier for you.

I think that TFT does a lot of things better than Battlegrounds. Nevertheless, I have given a lot of thought to these two mechanics that serve very similar functions, and I really can’t help but argue in favor of the quest system.

Part 4: Augments in Comp Balance

One final point before I wrap things up – I am really glad that trait-specific augments have been removed from the game. This ties into the idea that it doesn’t feel great when comps are balanced around augments rather than their base power levels and to the idea that our choice of augments are largely outside of our control. For example, in Set 6, you didn’t really have any way of guaranteeing that you will hit the So-Small augment. However, if the So-Small augment is strong, then Yordles have to be balanced according to that augment. If the comp is relatively well balanced on its own, then when you introduce this high-impact augment, it will change the comp from a good comp to a completely broken comp. If you want the comp to be somewhat decent when you do have the augment, then almost certainly it will be trash without it. What we saw with a lot of these augments is the situation that I described above, where several comps felt incredibly bad if you did not have the trait specific augment. If I wanted to play certain comps, there was an element of chance that I had absolutely no control over that would dictate whether or not I could do well with it.

This is a problem that has potential to repeat itself in Hero Augments, but honestly, I think the problem is not nearly as bad as it was with trait-specific augments. Furthermore, we’ve already seen the TFT team completely remove some problematic interactions like with Blue Battery to prevent similar scenarios from happening so props to that.

Part 5: Conclusion

So these are basically my thoughts on augments. To be honest, I’m pretty fine with silver and gold augments, but I absolutely detest prismatic augments. Maybe my outlook on them was better before I played Battlegrounds, but now I know that there are very real solutions to the problems that they create. I don’t think that TFT has to mimic the Quest system, but I do think that there is a lot of wiggle room in terms of things that can be done to improve player agency with regards to this mechanic that are just not there yet.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just spouting a bunch of bullshit. You might completely disagree, and that’s that. Hope this was at least an interesting read.

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