Now that PokerStars has finally added its new product, Power Up, to the Mac client, I’ve been able to try it out. Like most of my fellow journalists who tried it out when the alpha came out for PC, I have to say that it’s fun and that the powers expand on basic poker strategy without replacing it entirely. It’s much harder to put your opponent on any kind of precise range because there are so many more plans they could have for the hand, but the same intuition for recognizing your opponent’s strength and for identifying good bluffing spots goes a long way.
The Mac release comes along with the game’s upgrade to beta. That includes bug fixes, of course, but also some tweaks to the game’s balance and pacing. Starting stacks have been reduced, blind levels have been sped up, and players now get only one power in the first hand and two in the second, rather than three from the start.
The EMP discount
The most significant change, however, is a reduction in the cost of the EMP card from four energy to three. EMP is the anti-power card, essentially, blocking all players from using any additional powers on the current street. The decision is the result of feedback from players that it didn’t feel very useful, and certainly as useful as other four-cost powers like Scanner (look at the top two cards of the deck and optionally discard them) and Disintegrate (destroy a community card from the current street). It’s not enough for some players, however, who feel the cost should be reduced to two, or even one.
Part of the reason that EMP feels underpowered is simply that it doesn’t directly do anything for the player. The other powers all either improve the player’s chances of winning a showdown, or give them a better sense of their odds of doing so. EMP is only really useful in the situation that one already believes one is ahead.
Of course, the concept of a power to negate other powers is not unique to Power Up; rather, it’s almost an inevitable part of the genre, with many games duplicating or taking inspiration from Magic: the Gathering’s “Counterspell” card. Whereas most implementations of the concept are reactive, however, EMP must be used proactively. That means that the player using it is never sure what they’ve prevented their opponents from doing, or if indeed their opponents were intending to do anything at all. That, no doubt, is one major reason that the card is seen as not being useful.
Power Up’s all-in paradox
In traditional poker, it’s an important principle that one almost always wants to be the player getting the final bet in. This is because of the “gap concept,” that is, that it generally takes a stronger hand to call with than to bet with; as a result, when two players have hands of similar strength, it will usually be the one that makes the final all-in who ends up winning the pot.
Power Up turns this on its head, because of the fact that powers can only be used by a player when the betting action is on them. Therefore, the player who is all-in can no longer use any powers, while their opponents have the option of activating a power before calling. The player can, of course, use a power prior to going all-in, but doesn’t know at that point whether the opponents have any intention of calling, or whether it’s simply a waste of energy. Having the ability to activate a power after the opponent has committed the last of their chips is a position of huge advantage.
There’s a fairly obvious work-around, effective on any street except the river, and which will no doubt become a standard strategy once the game gains in popularity: When a player wants to go all-in, they can instead elect to go almost all-in, just one big blind or even one chip less than their entire stack. Whether the opponent goes all-in or just calls, both players will be committed to the pot, but by holding a few chips back, the player reserves the right to use a power at the same time as they put in those final chips.
EMP: an essential card
Once we recognize the value of that strategy, it’s obvious why EMP is not only not a useless card, but the single card most essential to the game’s proper functioning. The “all-in minus one” strategy is, on its own, so powerful and so lacking in downside as to be mandatory. Going all-in without holding a chip back when able to do so would be a huge mistake, made only by novices. The impact of this would be felt throughout the rest of the game’s betting strategy as well, with bet sizes in large pots chosen so as not to allow the opponent a legal raise less than an all-in, and tedious min-raise wars in small pots early in the game.
The inclusion of EMP provides a crucial downside to holding chips back, and avoids this sort of strategic collapse of the game tree. All-in minus one is still mandatory when no opponent has the requisite 3 energy to play an EMP, but in other cases, the possibility of facing one needs to be considered.
If the player has a power they’d like to use, they’d still prefer to wait until after the opponent is committed in order to do so, but can no longer guarantee themselves the chance to do so by holding chips back. The opponent may well choose to use an EMP prior to going all-in, turning the player’s strategy back on them, leaving them pot committed but without the chance to use the power they were counting on.
Of course, EMP has other uses than just countering the all-in minus one strategy. It can, for instance, be used to make a bluff more likely to succeed, or as part of a crucial late-game blind steal. These are all similar, however, in the sense that they allow a player to enjoy a positional advantage in both betting and power activation, when it’s usually the case in Power Up that leveraging one means giving up the other.
The cost is secondary
All of that is just an argument for EMP’s inclusion in the game, however. There’s still a legitimate question about how much it should cost, but in my opinion, it actually doesn’t matter very much.
The other powers are, as I said, all similar in that they do one of two things, either increasing the relative strength of a player’s hand, or giving them a better idea of where they stand. The costs of those powers have to be set fairly precisely, then, as there is in fact a balance issue present if two powers accomplish similar things but one is simply more cost-effective than the other.
EMP’s unique status in the game’s overall strategy means that it remains a key card regardless of what it costs, within reason. A lot of the time, EMP doesn’t even need to be played to be useful: the implied threat of possibly having it in one’s hand and the energy to play it cramps opponents’ styles by forcing them to play critical powers before committing their chips, rather than after.
It’s therefore possible that we’ll see its cost brought down further, but not because it’s not useful. Rather, the argument for a cheap EMP is that it that the implied threat would be present even when the player is low on energy.
Furthermore, the card would remain balanced at a low energy cost because of the rule that players will never draw duplicate powers. Since much of EMP’s value is in its implied threat, actually playing it has a cost above and beyond the energy spent. It’s unlikely that the player will immediately pick up a new EMP, and couldn’t have had two to begin with, so a player who has just played their EMP is in a vulnerable position in the following hand. Even if EMP cost zero, playing it frivolously would be a huge gift to one’s opponents; by comparison, most of the other cards would be no-brainers in most situations if their energy cost were set too low.
That’s not to say that I think the cost should be zero. Three is probably about right, but dropping it further to two or one would probably not change much. If the card is underused at the moment, that’s because play hasn’t become sophisticated enough yet for players to recognize its importance. Once real money play is rolled out and players begin devoting some serious study to the game, I predict that EMP will take on a more central role, regardless of what it costs.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.