Design Proposition for reliable Magic Phase
So I have been brooding on this a long time. I thought I’d be finished with a „complete idea“ at some time, but now I know, this isn’t possible. As the idea involves in my head, I can’t stop thinking about additional improvements and things to do. That is because of all the ideas that I ever came up with for this project: THIS IS THE BEST ONE! Seriously, in my not-so-humble opinion, the RT would be fools to not seriously consider this, that’s how good it is.
This document contains a design proposal for a redesign of the Ninth Age magic phase. The goal is provide many single design ideas that could improve the game, but also ties all those together into a grander picture. Individual point values and attributes are not fixed and probably need adjustment for a balanced play. The main goal is to reduce randomness in the magic phase and thereby increasing the tactical depth of the game. Secondary goals are widening up of the design space for magic, creating the possibility to have a better distinction between the magical capabilities of the different armies.
If you read my 1.2 Dread Elf Review (https://bleaklegion.wordpress.com/2016/11/07/9th-age-1-2-dread-elf-review/) you will notice that I already mentioned some points there.
(If you don’t agree or accept these statement you will most likely not agree with any changes I lay out here)
Progression/history of the magic system
The Stone Age (aka WHFB 8th)
Some key aspects:
- Devastating spells that had to be stopped in many lores
- For every devastating spell, there were two absolutely underpowered ones
- Lores were ‚balanced‘ by having good and bad spells
- Wizard Masters got up to +5 (or +6) to casting and dispelling rolls
- Winds of Magic are totally random and can differ between irrelevant and devastating without much influence from the players, aside from some special rules in some armies.
- Overwhelming Power made spells undispellable, meaning it could be desired to get it.
- Miscast results were totally random, again ranging from irrelevant to devastating.
Let’s iterate where the T9A project drew its inspiration from. The 8th Magic phase was of course inherently broken. Tournaments had to seriously cap the usage of Death Magic, as their „ultimate“ spell the Purple Sun could singlehandedly just win the game at any point. The reaction of players to those rules was of course foreseeable as they had to make due with this incredibly unbalanced and completely random magic phase, were key aspects were not directly controllable.
The first reaction was quite easy: As spell power was so different, the key was to „force“ getting that one sweet spell (for Dark Magic is was Word of Pain), which meant you pretty much needed a Level 4 caster, maybe a Level 2 as well to grab the loser spells you didn’t want on your main caster. This was further cemented by the fact, that the Lord Level caster did get a huge bonus of +4 on casting, essential for casting a lot of spells and having a good magical defense.
As some spells were so ridiculously powerful, six dicing was possible and the miscasts were totally random it was often the right decision to hope on overwhelming power or a high roll with six dice to force through that one Purple Sun, Dwellers or Transformation to practically end the game right there. On the other hand, even a miscast with two dice could end your Wizard right there, so big spells were king. Troublesome as this type of play does not offer any interaction between the two players. The reacting player can basically only sit there and watch, while a single double six, decides the game.
From a game design point of view, which should encourage options, interactivity and balanced gameplay this is horrible. The move of fielding a mage just to „grab loser spells“ is a serious indicator for a bad design.
Middle Ages (aka T9A 1.1)
Some key fixes:
- Spells are now better balanced
- Ultimate spells have been removed or reigned in
- Miscasts scale with amount of dice used
- Bonuses on Wizard Masters were limited
- Overwhelming Power increases the casting roll but leaves the attempt dispellable
A lot of good things going on here. The worst offenders from WHFB were identified and consequently removed. The magic phase became much less hit and miss, as „one big spell“ tactics were severly reigned in. Also the magic setup didn’t have to include a Wizard Master anymore, as Wizard Adepts became much more desirable. This was brought by two factors: First the spell selection roll didn’t matter as much anymore, as the spell balance was greatly improved. Second the Master bonuses became less, so that Masters and Adepts usually use the same amount of dice for a spell or dispel attempt.
However some key weaknesses remained: The spells were still too powerful one by one. So the Dispel Scroll pretty much remained a must have item, as a single lucky roll could still devastate the whole game. Also the magic phase with Magic Flux, casting and dispelling attempts remained the same. The players reacted accordingly. Instead of focusing on one big spell, they overloaded on the one reliable thing: Signature Spells. Those you could always get and with two Adepts you had two tries on most magic phases, meaning you could count on that one „The Beast Within“ or „Fireball“ to actually get through. Most of the spells that were generated randomly were irrelevant. As players could not rely on actually having any spell except the signature, they formed their armies around the signatures only, mainly ignoring all the other spells. If a good spell was rolled during spell generation, it was more or less a little bonus, nothing you can depend on.
The Dark Ages (aka T9A 1.2/1.3)
Some key „fixes“:
- Single spells cannot decide a game anymore
- Paths got significantly reduced
- Signature spam got removed
- Miscasts became much more hurtful, but less random
- Armies without wizards get full magic defense very cheap
- Wizards got very expensive and are highly customizable
So obviously the rules team of T9A looked at the 1.1 version and decided that signature spam was bad. However they failed to see, that the signature spam was not a deliberate „I wanna break the rules“ attempt, but merely the best way to deal with the combination: Magic Flux + Random Spell Selection + Dispel Scroll + Dispel Dice. Their fix was to remove signature spells from many paths and prohibiting multiple iterations of the same spell. I don’t know if they took the mechanics of the magic phase into consideration, especially that now, the key spell can always be dispelled and additionally the magic setup became even more random. On the same account the power level of the spells does not warrant such drastic changes. There is no spell effect that is routinely worth having a miscast. Any miscast will do more damage to you, than to the opponent.
In a parallel move, the dispel scroll got a serious price hike, while Æther icon and Crown of Scorn together cost only 85 points. This is a full magic defense with +2 to dispel and a dispel scroll. As casters got also more expensive, many players abandon magic completely. The best magic army seems to be Beast Herds now, who don’t rely on wizards but bound spells, unaffected by miscasts and the randomness of spell selection. With their low casting values, they are also less affected by magic flux. In all games states, they merely try to get one buff on their units, be it two or twelve dice.
In 1.3 the rules team acknowledged the bad balancing that went into the 1.2 magic phase and slightly increased the power level of some paths. As 1.3 was only a small update the underlying issues could not be resolved. Æther Icon became unavailable for the veteran standard bearer and the Crown of Scorn does not work with bound spells anymore. But the result did not change, instead lists that can be labeled as „abusive“ emerged. Dread Elf lists that rely on five-dicing spells with Dark Acolyte Champions for example. Those found the one „weak spot“ in the miscast rules and are exploiting it to the maximum, while the „normal“ mage bunker is out of question.
Critique on the current magic system
Now that we established how the magic evolved in the past and took a look at how players reacted, the next point is to formulate the shortcomings of the current magic system.
1. Randomness stacked on Randomness
This is such a huge point, it will have to be broken into several topics. So for this point just a list will provide them:
- Spell generation
- Magic Flux
- Casting Roll
- Dispel Roll
- Spell Effect
In the end, this much randomness has many detrimental effects on the game. One is, that players ignore parts of it, as you cannot foresee what happens. This takes away strategic depth of the game. No player can base a decision whether to do something with his units on the magic, as it may be anything from non-existent to devastating in the following phase.
2. Spell Generation
With the spells being more or less balanced and super-spells removed from the game, the spells became less and less relevant. As we saw, the signature spells dominated before 1.2 and nothing dominates in 1.3 except for pre-defined spells (on Wizard Conclaves and bound spells). Despite the fact, that the Rules Team re-designed the paths, made some armies lose access to a specific kind of spell, the effect is negligible. Players just don’t care about the number 5 spell of Alchemy or the number 3 spell of Evocation, as they cannot force to get it.
For list creation this means: Even if there are innovative and fun concepts based around some spells, you will never be able to actually use them, as you cannot guarantee to actually have the spell in the first place.
For game play this means: At a very early point in the game, without the players being able to influence it, the outcome may be severly changed, by getting or not getting the best spell for this matchup. Simple example: Both players have exactly the same army list. One spell of their chosen path is the best for this matchup. Both roll the dice and only one player gets it. How can you ever want the possibility for such a scenario in your rules set?
3. Magic Flux
The magic flux rule is perhaps the most horrendous mistake in the whole game. Basically it creates a magic phase that is either weak or strong on a multitude of 2D6 rolls, which the players cannot influence at all. There are several outcomes of this, all detrimental to the game:
- The magic phase does not scale at all with point size. For games around 4500 points it might be okay, but games much smaller will have more influence by magic and larger games will have less.
- The effect of magic overall in the game is completely decoupled from player decisions in list building. A player can invest heavily in magic, the flux might still only allow a trickle of magic
- Magic can be really strong, even for players with only a token magic presence. So even when the player only has one Wizard Adept with two spells, a 5+5 phase might still see him getting through two five-diced spells which is completely unwarranted for that amount of point investment.
So: Magic can be weak despite heavy investment (even before rolling any towound rolls), Magic can be really strong despite low investment and it doesn’t scale with anything (neither list commitment nor point size of the game). Anybody defending the magic flux rule must first convincingly argue while the plus points are more important than these points, which would not ever be accepted for any other phase and would be regarded as absurd and silly there (imagine a rule: „Movement Flux: At the beginning of your movement phase roll 2D6. Your units in total may move 2D6×10 inches.“)
4. Casting Roll
So after the player fielding a Wizard went through random spell generation, determining what spells are available and magic flux to see how many spells can be attempted, the casting roll adds yet another layer of randomness.
As most Magic Phases are ones, where the caster has one or two more dice than the opponent, missing a single spell might often results in a complete shutdown of the phase. This means the caster needs to make sure, the casting attempt is successful. On the same hand, just adding more dice is not possible as on the other side of the spectrum the increased chance for miscasts looms over the head of the caster. This generates a system that does not allow much choice. For example: A spell that needs a roll of an ‚8‘ has to be cast using three dice. Four dice might increase the chance of succeeding, but the increased chance of a miscast is too dangerous. So first: There is no choice. Second: For some reason, the rules randomly punish the caster with a 15% chance of completely failing and losing their casting bonus on top.
The casting roll by definition is hit/miss. You cannot cast half a spell and you get little bonus for a high roll (except that it is harder to dispel). Strategic choice is low and instead randomly good rolls are rewarded (e.g. using the last two dice on a 9+ roll and succeeding, making a dispel attempt on less than four dice risky as well). If this was the only random element in spell casting, it might be acceptable, but certainly not as the third in a chain that goes even further.
5. Dispel Roll
Basically the reasons from Casting Roll are also true, but to a lesser extend on the Dispel Roll. It’s more tactical as you cannot miscast on dispel and you know the roll from your opponent and the remaining dice. It is not very strategic as many times the players will either use all their dice on a single dispel roll to stop the most crucial spell or they have to wait for a low roll of the opponent. Still it adds to randomness but randomly punishing cautious dispelling players with very low rolls and randomly benefitting reckless dispelling players with an unlikely dispel.
6. Spell Effect
Alas, all these effects do not even make up the complete randomness of the magic phase. After all the spell effects are not fixed on many spells. Basically all damaging spells cause a various number of hits. Some buffs or hexes also have various effects (or none at all, like ‚Portent of Doom‘ from Divination). Pyrostatic Flow (as the basic example for missiles) generates D6, 2D6 or 3D6 number of hits and then has to wound and then armour and saves are still rolled. So a spell effect can vary my a factor of 6! (1 hit versus 6 hits, equally probable). And then there are still towound rolls and saves coming up.
This again has the effect, that games may be decided not on something the players are doing, but on the result of a die roll (often a single one).
7. Randomness removes options
Coming from the direct results of this randomness to the indirect ones.
Any spells concerning the movement of units are severely hindered. Who in their right mind would put a unit into a bad position relying on that movement spell to get it out of it? There are at least three dice rolls before that and any roll might spell disaster for that unit. This is partly a matter of the turn order, with magic coming directly after movement, but also one of reliability. So the option of moving there and then using your movement spells is just not there at all.
The same is true for other spells as well. ‚Portent of Doom‘ is a nice example of a supposed Anti-Deathstar spell. But who would ever rely on the spell being cast (and even if it’s cast, it’s still a very random 100% miss or 100% success kind of thing).
So instead of creating options, new game situations and possibility for creative and innovative play, magic is basically a side thing. Nobody can take it into account to much, as its too random. If you play it, you hope to create some benefit. If you don’t you hope it doesn’t get too much into your way. No player is forced to play around magic (but sometimes you get screwed if you don’t because 6+6 magic phase and 12 hits with 2D6 magic missile). All in all you could just as easily create a random „the weather changes“ rule that makes units slower (strong wind in one direction), decreases shooting efficiency (strong rain) or forces DT for every move (flash ice). It would have the same effect: It is out of the sphere of influence for the players. They will adapt somewhat, but cannot completely anyway and on random occasions will bring an advantage to one player. I would like those weather rules at all, and I don’t think you’d do either.
8. Magic Resistance does close to nothing
Since it only affects damage spells and some of those don’t even allow magic resistance ward saves the role of magic resistance is basically none at all. As magic has been toned down anyway, the missiles are targeted towards chaff and smaller units anyway, making that addition to a big unit even more useless. The current magic system has no way of making magic resistance matter for augment and hex spells and cannot address the weak points in ward save circumvention or target choice in any way.
9. Dispel Scroll and Crown of Scorn
In this whole thing these items are still far too valuable and devastating for the magic user. As most magic phases are +1 (11/36) or +2 (9/36) phases, even a spell cast with only three dice, dispelled by this magic item, usually shuts down the complete magic phase, leaving the defender with more dice than the caster. Again the current system is between a rock and a hard place. There are still spells which can turn over the game. These spells still can be cast by even the lowliest wizard if the flux is beneficial, so the need as a failback is there. The only reason why the scroll is not taken all the time is that many armies do not play magic anymore and the arcane item slot is sometimes used for something else.
10. A Wizard is a Wizard
Basically the wizards throughout 16 army books are all the same. They main difference between a Dread Elf Oracle and a Empire of Sonnstahl Wizard is access to their magic paths, some special rules, access to mounts and access to magic items. The stats are irrelevant. Their magical capability comes from the magic flux anyway. Fundamentally there is no difference, if they both choose Alchemy or Divination they difference is basically zero.
Shouldn’t the wizards be more distinguished? We would never accept all close combat heroes to be so bland. Only to be differentiated in stats that don’t affect combat, some magical items and mounts.
Magic with Points
For better understandability I will use fixed numbers on some things. These numbers are just randomly picked by me and do not represent a balancing on my part. They are just there to make things easier to graps and provide some easy examples.
- Make spells less potent individually, allowing players to cast more spells per phase, but for overall the same effect as in 1.1
- Do not rely on a dispel item as a fail save
- Make the whole phase much less random
- Do not create scenarios where something is hit or miss (achieve casting value: 100%, miss 0%, in between: nothing)
- Create a system, where a Wizard Master has a significant but balanced advantage over Wizard Adepts
- Create a magic system, that allows the same amount of domination if someone invests their points there as it is true for the other phases
- Creating an army with no wizards can be benefical, but should be risky, and certainly not a common valid strategy
- Create strategic possibilities over the course of multiple turns to rewards creative and innovative play
- Maintain a guessing and bluffing component
- Overly aggressive strategies relying on single big spells should be contained
- Overly defensive strategies cheaply denying all magic should be contained
- Min-Maxing strategies should be contained
- Different Wizards of different armies should play and feel very different
The biggest change in my proposal would be magic points for all Wizards/Priests/Dispellers. Every one of those would have a starting magic points pool as well as a rate in which magic points are regenerated. Of course these values would be higher for Wizard Masters, even higher for supreme casters (e.g. Cuatl Lord) and low for very cheap Wizard Adepts or fighter/caster hybrids (e.g. Dryad Matriarchs).
Number example: Wizard Master start with 12 magic points, Adepts with 8 magic points. Both regenerate one point per magic phase.
Instead of randomly generating spells, Wizards choose their spells from their Path at the beginning of the match. This means you can choose the spells after seeing the opponents list. Wizard Adepts need to choose before Wizard Masters. Alternate between multiple casters. Multiple iterations of the same spell are allowed.
Casting a spell
Every spell would have a magic point cost. You select the spell, pay the magic points and it is cast. Any caster may only spent half of their starting magic point pool per phase.
Number example: Wizard Masters can spent up to 6 points per phase, Adepts only four. A simple spell costs one point, a medium spell two points, a large spell three points and a devastating spell four points.
Dispelling a spell
Anyone with magic points may spend the same amount plus one magic points to dispel the spell. The cost must be paid from a single source. To dispel a „Remains in Play“ spell, only the normal amount has to be spent.
Number example: A simple spell (1 point) needs two points to be dispelled.
As some Wizards are more capable of channeling huge amount of magic energy they have difference thresholds for miscast risks. For every point above that threshold the caster adds one to their miscast roll. Miscast is rolled with one D6 and on a result of 7+ a miscast happens.
Number example: Adepts have a threshold of two. Master have a threshold of three. So Adepts risk a miscast with 1/6 if casting a big spell and 1/3 if casting a devastating spell. Masters can cast big spells without miscasting risks.
Forcing a spell
Wizards may put in extra energy into a spell and spend additional magic points to make dispelling harder. This counts towards the Miscast threshold.
Number example: The opponent has five magic points left. The Wizard Master casts a devastating spell and spends another point to force the spell, making dispelling impossible. The Wizard Master has to add two to his miscast roll and will suffer one on 5+.
In addition to granting a ward save, Magic Resistance means, that casters need to spend an additional magic point up front in order to break the resistance. This point does not count towards miscast threshold or dispelling. Note: This does include augmenting your own unit, so MR has a downside as well.
Number example: Casting a medium spell on a unit with MR(1) costs three magic points. It is still save for Wizard Adepts to cast (no miscast possible), but is also dispellable with three points (2+1).
Option to make MR even better: MR breaking counts towards miscast threshold.
Items with Bound Spells are treated as items with a starting magic point capacity. They don’t regenerate magic points. They need to spend magic points the same way as other casters and the spell determines how many points are necessary to cast it.
Number example: Ring of Fireball contains three magic points and contains the minor spell Fireball, which costs one magic point. You can therefore cast it three times throughout the game, but you can’t „force the spell“.
Based on the magic points used in casting the spell the miscast will scale:
Apply the previous miscast modified and roll once for each wound in the caster’s unit: On every 7+ one wound without any saves is dealt to the unit.
Number example: A Wizard Adept casts a devastating spell, the modifier is +2. A miscast happens and the caster’s unit has 18 wounds. 18 dice are rolled and each 5+ results is a wound, decimating 1/3 of the unit on average.
- Player A has a Wizard Master with a minor, two medium and a devastating spell.
- Player B has an Adept with a minor and a medium spell.
- A is more combat oriented and wants to cast his medium buff spells for the close combats. B is more gunline oriented and has two missile spells. His goal is to stop the devastating hero killer spell and decimate A’s troops before they get into combat.
- A starts and casts a minor spell. B does not want to dispel. A then stops casting, as he can regenerate the spell points in the following phase.
- A regenerates his magic point and is at 12 again. B casts both his spells. A stops them both. Leaving A at 7 points and B at 5 points.
- A does not want to risk blowing up his Wizard Master just yet and focuses on defense as shooting from B was quite efficient last turn. Wizards are at A:8 and B:6
- B casts his spells once again, A stops the larger one but is forced to let the smaller one through as he won’t be able to cast much more spells himself. A:6, B:4
- A had some unlucky rolls and didn’t get into close combat. A casts the devastating spell, which B does not dispel. A is lucky and does not get a miscast. He casts a protective medium spell as well, which is dispelled by B.
As you can see, it’s not possible to shut down a smaller mage with your larger mage and still cast spells on your own. Both players have to balance their castings throughout the game and look ahead beyond just the next phase. If you can correctly anticipate the turn in which certain things (e.g. first close combat encounter) to happen you can bait the enemy to spend their magic prematurely and then force your critical spells at the right moment. If your opponent is playing their magic too defensively, you can bait them with cheap and medium spells for which the ratio between casting and dispelling is unfavourable and which are without miscast chances. On the other hand, not casting a spell after a good bluff with the first spell, you can gain small advantages throughout the game.
Alternative: Magic Dice instead of Points
For some players, the difference between my proposal and the current system might be too big. Many dice rolls are removed in my system, what can be viewed as undesired. Luckily my proposal is flexible:
Instead of dealing with Magic Points, you can also continue to deal with Magic Dice. A Wizard then has a starting pool, regenerates those and spends those just like Magic Points before. To cast and dispel however, the mage will not spend a fixed amount of Magic Points but has to decide (just like now) how many dice are used and has to achieve the casting level of the spell. If a magic die is a D6 the current spell values could be taken without modification. If the phase should be more stable a D3 can be used instead, which eliminates extreme values, but then casting values of spells would needs to be reduced.
This alternative has several drawbacks, which I do not like. The „all or nothing“ game in achieving the casting and dispel roll is then present in the game once more and bad planning can be partially offset by good luck, but even with this adaption my proposal is still better than the current system (by a huge margin no less).
More design space for Wizards, Items, Spells and List Building
One of the main benefits of this proposal is the HUGE HUGE HUGE design space, that is opened by it. It creates the possibility for a huge amount of Wizard designs. The Cuatl Lord? Knows five spells and has a huge amount of magic points, regenerates two points per phase and has a threshold of four. The lowly Gobline mage? Just the opposite. Versatile mages (many spells, less points) are possible, just like D&D style sorcerors (less spells, more regeneration). Additionally Wizards could excel at certain kinds of spells or paths to get bonuses if they fit their presentation. So a Highborn Elf Wizard (army with a lot of dispel bonuses), might get a bonus on dispelling, while a Dryad Matriarch regenerates an additional point of magic, if she successfully casts an augment on her own unit (just examples).
There is also the design of hybrid characters, for example a Paladin: Always has the same learned spell (a minor healing spell). Starts with 4 Magic points, does not regenereate magic points and cannot dispel. Hard for the opponent to dispel (needs two points) and does not mess with the dispel mechanic (so you can’t just send four paladins into battle and shut down the enemies magic phase).
As Wizards have to cast and dispel the spells by themselves, the difference between one Wizard Master and two Wizard Adepts becomes meaningful. The Master has more spells and can cast bigger spells more safely and doesn’t have to split magic pools. The Adepts on the other hand can have spells from two paths but cannot combine their points for a dispelling or casting attempt. Another alternative is more drastic: Wizard Adepts just cannot cast devastating spells (those that cost four magic points) at all.
Magic items are really simple to design. Within even thinking:
- Dispel Scroll – contains three magic points, only usable for dispels, may combine with bearer’s magic points
- Dampening Staff – increases the miscast threshold by one for one spell
- Meditation Mat – contains two magic points that can be transferred to the bearer after an own magic phase if the caster did not cast a spell this turn
- Highborn Elves specific anti-magic item – After a dispel, roll D6 on 4+ the caster gets back one magic point
- Dagger of Moraec – Once per own magic phase, deal 2 wound to caster’s unit, caster gets back one magic point
Magic spells as well:
- Steal Magic (hex, medium) – target Wizard loses 2D3 magic points.
- Magical Harmony (augment, rip, large) – Wizard’s on your army get Regeneration+1
- Thin the Veil (hex, medium) – target Wizard get -1 Miscast Threshold until next turn
As my number example used very low numbers, you can obviously not allow casters to get a discount on a spell. Just multiple the numbers by three and you’d be able to allow a Dread Elf oracle to get a discount of one on Hexes, a change Demon to get the same on Thaumaturgy spells and a Orc Shaman on spells from Shamanism.
Albeit these changes are drastic, they would solve nearly all gripes many players have with an overly random magic phase. They bring more depth to the game, as magic has to be carefully planned, across more than one game turn (currently this is not possible, as nobody can foresee the randomness of the magic phase). Spells that affect the movement phase would become better, Wizard profiles would finally mean something outside of access to paths and investing many points in the magic phase would allow players to win games there. Magic would also become a game of „is my spell more important or do I save for dispelling?“ an additional tactical aspect.
Furthermore this also speeds up the magic phase. Instead of rolling dice, then deliberating which spells are now possible in which combination, rolling dice, then deliberating on whether dispelling is a good idea, players can just anounce the spell and anounce the dispel.
For those wanting more dice rolls: The spell effects are still random. Your 2D6 fireball will still be able to do nothing or cause up to twelve wounds, but the chance to actually roll these to wound rolls is more stable.
Another benefit of the system is the easy adaptibility. You can easily remove some options or re-introduce dice rolls: Just make each magic point a dice roll. Rolling dice then needs to either reach the casting value (like before, D6 counting) or you count successes (each roll of X+ on a D6 is a success, spells need X successes to be successfully cast. Miscasts can be determined in another way as well as the result table of miscasts can be done like before.