Monday, July 7, 2014

Addicted to Yugioh: Thoughts on Pendulum Summoning

The Pendulums are coming! Like Poe’s inexorable executioner, the first cuts will be minor.  However, within months, the vivisection will be complete and the lifeless remains of our favorite game will be unceremoniously cast aside. 

Psychological aspects of pendulum summoning
Perhaps that’s a bit much, but the Qliphoths are bringing new meaning to the term “power creep”.  The game has long been moving towards an aggressive, uber-summoning style. However, the impetuousness of these monsters makes Sacksworns and Sylvans look downright deliberate. While brokenness is not new to the game, I do have apprehensions about the recklessness the archetype promotes.   

Before I give my concerns about the latest power creep, let me explain why these broken mechanics are so tempting for card designers.  

Konami, like all corporations, wants you to buy more cards. In psychological terms, they want to reinforce your spending behavior.  Any stimulus that leads to an increase in spending is a reinforcement.  Winning is often a positive reinforcement while losing is a negative reinforcement as long as they lead to more card buying.  However, the real dopaminergic-inducing, viscerally-pleasing, and psyche-restoring reinforcement comes with over-whelming your opponent with a fistful of monsters. Come on, admit it – the five monster kill feels good.  

A reinforcement is considered effective if it quickly induces a behavior and then maintains that behavior.  In psychological terms, behaviors that are maintained are said to be “resistant to extinction” even if the stimulus is withdrawn.  I would argue that card designers are trying to imbue the summon-spam-thank-you-ma’am attack with the characteristics of an excellent reinforcement.  If done right, the OTK experience will get a large number of people buying cards long into the future. 

Here are the characteristics of the five-finger kill that make it such a good reinforcement of card buying behavior:

It’s possible by everyone.  The sooner players get a taste of this awesome power, the better. If you want to spend 20 years slaving away at task without much reward, play violin. 

Your opponent shouldn’t matter.  Why would you let a skilled opponent get in the way of this wonderful experience?  We want people to buy cards regardless of who they play.

Its occurrence should be variable.  Ever wonder why people are addicted to golf?  All it takes is one good shot in nine holes to convince someone they have a talent for it.  Yugioh is similar. All you need is one good OTK in a local tournament to get you hooked. This pattern is built into the game.  It’s variable and random, which is the most effective reinforcement schedule.  The game seems inconsistent because inconsistency is built into its design. 

Why it’s a problem
Chutes and Ladders is a beautiful example of a purely random and inconsistent game.  There is no skill, just a dice roll.  Little kids love it because it gives them a chance to defeat the adults in the room.  However, there is no National Chutes & Ladders champion.   

Good players understand that you are going to get sacked every now and then.  It's an inevitable fact of card games.  However, there comes a point where the inconsistencies make the experience too frustrating for senior players.  They'll quit and move on to a game that rewards skill.  When the do, you'll know the game is done.  

Nationals is just around the corner.  While I expect to see a few random names at the top of the list, I will be more comforted if I see the names of some old pros. That's right - I will know the game is in pretty good health if Patrick Hoban gets an invitation to worlds. 


  1. I do have a comment on pendulum summoning! - Dark Bribe is a card and there are troll decks that will bend the space time continuum to make pendulum the most broken idea to ever hit the game. check this video out:

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