Does a mode need to offer a special reward as an incentive to play it? Or is playing the mode its own reward?
That's the question I find myself pondering whenever I go into Draft Champions - the mode similar to Hearthstone's Arena that was introduced last year. Superficially, it can be a reasonably fun one-off experience. But even with the better rewards afforded by ranked version - where you have to pay in to play - I don't really feel an incentive to invest a significant amount of time in the mode.
As it's currently constructed, Draft Champions is a mode where you spend 12 rounds choosing one player from a set of three. When you're finished, you then take the resulting team and try to win six games without losing twice if you're playing the ranked version, and four games in a row if you're playing unranked. If you win, you are rewarded Ultimate Team packs and badges, as well as additional tickets.
That's all well and good; but as it stands, Draft Champions is not a particularly viable way to build up your roster in Ultimate Team, where the goal is to grind gold to buy high-level players from an auction house. You don't get any gold from winning in Draft Champions; and if you make it all the way to six wins, you only get two entry level Pro Packs, which rarely contain much, if anything, of value.
The badges you get in Draft Champions are only slightly better. If you make it to six wins, you will get seven badges, which in the grand scheme of things aren't much better than the tickets you win playing skeeball. Yeah, you'll eventually get something worthwhile with them, but you're going to have to play a lot of games for that to happen. In Ultimate Team, the cheapest player you can get costs 50 badges, which means you have to make it all the way through Draft Champions nine times in order to get enough badges. That's a minimum of 54 games, not counting losses.
You can also buy packs, but they aren't much better. A single All-Pro Pack will cost you 23 badges - the equivalent of four runs through Draft Championship. And given the amount of work it takes just to get that many badges, you're better off just sucking it up and getting one of the unique Elite players.
In short, it's not worth it.
Now compare Draft Champions to Hearthstone's Arena. True, winning six games in Hearthstone will get you roughly the same rewards: a card pack and 75-85 gold plus the potential to get a common card, rare card, or another card pack. But Hearthstone's Arena matches also don't take as long to complete as a Draft Champions match - they can take as little as 10 minutes versus the 25 minutes guaranteed of Draft Champions - and Hearthstone has additional ranks to obtain. If you win 12 matches in a row, you can get golden cards and legendaries on top of a nice amount of gold, and that's not counting the Daily Quests you complete as well.
In Hearthstone, a very good Arena player can accrue a lot of great cards in relatively short order. If you're playing Draft Champions, though, you're better off grinding solo challenges and sniping cards in the auction house.
The role of Draft Champions
It's at this point that I'm sure plenty of people will point out that Ultimate Team rewards are secondary in Draft Champions. Its real goal, they will say, is to be Madden's official competitive head-to-head mode. But even in that regard, Draft Champions leaves something to be desired.
One problem is that the player base is once again too small. If you play Draft Champions at launch, you're going to inevitably run into the same legendary again and again because they comprise Ultimate Team's base set. The base will grow as time passes and more players are released, but it's going to take a few months.
The extreme stars and scrubs approach inherent to Draft Champions also makes it frustrating to build a team. By its very nature, football is a game where you're constantly rotating players across different formations and packages; which means that even if you draft Odell Beckham, you're just as likely to find yourself throwing to a nobody like Jarius Wright. While this is true in the real game as well, the extremities are even more noticeable in Draft Champions. I realize that Tiburon has a delicate line to walk in making the choices feel impactful without destroying the balance of the game; but as it is presented now, it feels off. The base players need to be stronger.
Getting back to Hearthstone, it's striking how well Arena fills both of its roles. It offers great rewards for those who just want to grind cards, but it also makes for an interesting change of pace for those who don't care for constructed play. In that, I don't necessarily think that it's a conflict for Draft Champions to have better rewards for Ultimate Team while also nominally being Madden's head-to-head competitive mode. If I'm not that interested in ranking up, I can at least get some nice prizes.
The real problem is that everything in Ultimate Team is a major grind if you're not willing to spend money. There are 96 solo challenges to play, and it's not until the end that they yield anything of appreciable value. Draft Champions is useless. Ranked play has been overhauled, but unless you make it all the way to 10 wins, you won't getting anymore than a handful of gold cards - not especially exciting at this stage of Ultimate Team. In the end, the most efficient way to get money is to try and buy special cards for cheap and sell them when they're in demand. Either that, or hope you get lucky when you open a pack.
Look, Hearthstone isn't exactly blameless either - I've been guilty of dropping $50 on a set of packs during a holiday promotion - but it does a much better job of pacing out its rewards. From Tavern Brawl to Arena to the Daily Quests, you always feel like you're getting something when you play Hearthstone, even if you're not really getting much at all. Monetization still looms large, but the actual game still has plenty of room to breathe - it's not all about ripping bundles and sick pulls. I believe that Ultimate Team can do a better job of striking that kind of balance, and I believe that Draft Champions can help.
Then again, Ultimate Team's economy may just be too different from that of Hearthstone. Ultimate Team's player-driven economy is driven by scarcity, and the thrill of the hunt is ultimately what keeps players trolling the auction house and ripping packs. Hearthstone also has a scarcity component, but you won't find yourself hunting for the ten different variants of Deathwing, nor is there any sort of player economy. The two have wholly different goals: one is a traditional CCG, the other is about collecting for the sake of collecting, with the actual game playing a secondary role.
But that doesn't preclude EA from being a little less tight-fisted with their rewards; and if they're serious about introduced a Ranked Salary Cap mode in the future, they may want to make it a little easier to build up a serious roster. So what can be done? Offer the more lucrative All-Pro Packs as a reward for hitting six wins in Draft Champions and throw in a little extra gold. Introduce Daily Rewards. Introduce a fricking Tavern Brawl. EA's ccountants may complain, but I believe that carrots like these will actually get people even more hooked on Madden Ultimate Team.
And barring that, there's still plenty of work to be done on the competitive side of Draft Champions. At the end of the day, I strongly believe that it can be the kind of centerpiece mode that EA Tiburon wants it to be, and that it can cater to the needs of both the competitive community and Ultimate Team. But as far as it's come since last year, it still has a long way to go. Better rewards are a good starting point.