Based on the general mood at the presentation, it’s safe to say that PokerStars believes it has a winner on its hand in Power Up. And from what I saw and heard during the presentation, I can’t say I disagree. Even though it’s still in alpha, the polish of the game is superior to anything I’ve seen, and the game creates a slew of new scenarios that players will have to deal with and solve in real time, which also means there will be some comical mistakes made along the way.
First impressions aside, a few days after returning from the Power Up presentation at the PokerStars Championship Barcelona the game was made available for another play-money alpha test. This latest alpha test lasted less than two weeks, but during that time I managed to play about 100 games of Power Up, and I now have a much better understanding of the game, and can clearly see why the people at PokerStars are so amped about it.
*Editor’s Note. Power Up just announced it’s entered a new stage of play money testing.
Here are my initial thoughts and impressions on Power Up.
Power Up is an extremely skillful poker variant
Professional poker players have been complaining that PokerStars and other online poker operators are moving away from poker’s high-skill roots and towards games with more variance and volatility. With the popularity of Spin & Go’s and other new formats, there’s a lot of truth to this critique.
On that front, Power Up is a completely different animal.
First, Power Up can be more or less skillful than a standard poker game. The skillfulness depends on how the game is structured by PokerStars, and it’s easy to tweak.
As it is presently constituted, Power Up is more skillful than a standard no-limit hold’em match played under the same conditions.
Power Up’s skill can get lost amid all the bells and whistles, but after a few rounds of the game, you’ll quickly realize how complex the game is. The extra game layers are not found in a typical poker game, largely due to the presence of the special power cards.
Special Power Cards require special planning
The special power cards are a game changer. PokerStars isn’t the only company working on a poker game with “powers,” but in my mind, PokerStars is the first to get the balance right. They were able to increase skill without putting poker strategy on the backburner.
The special power deck adds a second level of uncertainty to the game. This deck would normally decrease the amount of skill, but the special power cards are all powerful without being too powerful. The power cards are situational and can be countered by other special powers, and several of the cards divulge information to everyone at the table.
Associate Director, Poker Product, Build & Project Management at PokerStars, Chris Straghalis recently explained to US Poker that because of the special power cards, there are more variables in the hand and more situations players must consider.
“Understanding each of the various powers and planning their costs in line with your existing energy balance, the cap on the number of powers you can have and how the powers interact with each other are all important and new areas of strategy,” Straghalas noted.
The special power cards also increase the skill component in secondary and tertiary ways.
Power Up requires players to learn a new “old” skill
Like stud poker, you need to keep track of discards during a game of Power Up.
There are several situations where you might see a card that ends up in the discard pile or in an opponent’s hand:
- If you use X-Ray and your opponent later discards that card (using Reload or Upgrade)
- When you play Scanner, or when you’re using Intel and your opponent plays Scanner.
- If you’re using Intel and your opponent uses Reload or Upgrade.
- Anytime the Engineer card is played everyone at the table will not only know what the next card off the deck will be, they’ll know two of the discards.
One of the combos I like to play is Scanner, Engineer, Clone, Engineer on the turn when I’m drawing to a nut hand. When this combo is used you can see as many as seven cards off the deck.
Getting the most out of special power cards requires hand shaping
As with my Clone, Engineer, Scanner meld, certain special power cards increase in strength when used in tandem with others.
Intel and Upgrade, or Intel and Reload is another solid combo. Since Intel let’s see you the next card throughout the hand you not only get to see three cards, you can snag one of those cards for yourself if it will improve your hand.
But in order to play either of those combos, you’ll need to shape your hand along the way. While doing this you will need to essentially waste powers you don’t want along the way.
Furthermore, some special power cards gain or lose value at different stages of the tournament.
One example is Disintegrate. This is a pretty strong card earlier in the tournament when deployed properly, but it’s relatively useless during the end game.
When the tournament gets into the push-fold preflop phase Disintegrate is one of the least valuable cards, since you can’t play board altering cards after a player has gone all-in.
As the tournament approaches the push/fold stage it’s important to just dump this card at the first opportunity. Upgrade and Reload are much stronger at that stage of the tournament since everything happens preflop.
A couple things I’ve learned
- Don’t move all-in if you want to play special powers. The better play is to leave a chip or two chips in your stack so you can use special power cards on the flop or if your opponent moves all-in on you. This might be something PokerStars corrects over time as it seems like a loophole.
- A good way to play Clone is to shape your hand for future deals. If someone plays a card you like you can clone it and stash it for later use.
- You can play X-ray to check for flushes and straights in polarized situations.
- It’s very important to pay attention to all info, especially opponents’ card usage and current energy level.
- Attack blinds/short stacks when you have energy + special power advantage. Similarly, attack anyone who just played a critical hand and expended their special powers and/or energy. They’re at a significant disadvantage.
Is Power Up a game changer?
Will Power Up be the next big thing in poker, or is it a good idea that simply fails to gain any traction?
It’s unclear, and unfair to judge based on a play-money alpha test.
A real-money launch (in select regions) is scheduled for Q4. We should have a better idea of Power Up’s appeal at that time, and it will also be interesting to see what kind of resources PokerStars dedicates to promoting Power Up. Based on the mood and energy at the presentation in Barcelona, it could be substantial.