Artifact Embraces Card Balance Changes

Previously: Review: Artifact

Leads to: Card Collection and OwnershipCard Balance and Artifact

Epistemic Status: I’m making a note here. HUGE SUCCESS!

Only a few weeks after the release of Artifact, a patch was released making two huge changes to the game.

The first was to introduce visible player rankings and award progression with free packs, free event tickets and player icons. Having numbers that can go up and a way to feel rewarded for playing was something Artifact clearly needed. This first version, while a work in progress on many levels and carrying economic implications that could be concerning, is far superior to nothing at all. It is a distinct topic, so I won’t say more about it here.

The second change is what I will focus on here. Artifact changed eight cards. Two of them, Axe and Drow Ranger, were the most valuable two cards in the game. They got strictly worse in important ways. One good but hated card, Cheating Death, changed to a different card entirely, whose new power level is a matter of debate. Five unplayable (in constructed) cards got better, at least one of which, Jasper Daggers, is now interesting and potentially important.

I. Philosophical Changes

This represents a wealth of philosophical changes in how cards are created, balanced and modified.

The old philosophy was that cards should be balanced to create a balance between colors and strategies, but not balanced to make all cards or heroes mostly equal.

Axe being the most valuable card and strongest hero was most certainly not an accident or a surprise – when I wrote an analysis of what one might do if a card in Artifact became too expensive – I assumed the card in question was Axe, as there was no question it would be the most expensive hero, and likely the most expensive card overall. If you had told me another hero was more expensive, I would have assumed it was Drow Ranger and green as a color had proven superior to red.

While the ubiquity of Red/Black in queue play was unfortunate before the patch, the deck was easy to beat and in my opinion not even that good. I had it at low tier one, with at least two decks clearly better. Prize tournaments reflected this opinion. The issue was more that Red/Black appears stronger when you first start playing, and most players were starting out.

The new philosophy appears to be that players dislike seeing the same heroes all the time, so weak heroes should be made incrementally stronger, and heroes played all the time made incrementally weaker.

It is not clear if the same approach applies to other card types. Jasper Daggers was likely a special case to provide a universally available answer to (among other things) hero silencing, rather than a card balance issue. The top non-hero cards might be safe for a long time, but the explanations of the philosophical change should give lovers of cards like Annihilation reason to worry.

The old philosophy was that once a card is printed and made available for sale and purchase in the marketplace, the card should only be changed under extreme circumstances. Players need to be confident that their purchases will be usable and that their collections will retain value.

The new philosophy is that such concerns aren’t worthless but most players mostly want the game to be the best it can be, so changes that improve the game happen. Players were given the opportunity, this time, to sell the changed cards back to Valve at their pre-nerf market prices, but the warning seems to be that next time such an option may not be available.

The old philosophy was that Valve was the most patient and long term oriented company in gaming. Valve time is legendary, even more so than Blizzard time. A few weeks of players complaining or disappointing play numbers is nothing to worry about. Players always complain and demand quick action. Their feedback is valuable, but they don’t know what Valve knows. Keep your promises and your vision, and keep improving your customer experience. Huge stuff, like a million dollar first prize tournament, your ranking system and your first expansion set, lie in the future. Things will work out over time.

The new philosophy seems to be that a few weeks of poor performance calls for a change in philosophy, and for promises to be broken. Give the people what they say they want lest you become dead on arrival. Work out later how this impacts the entire business model and economy of the game, and hope that making the cards more balanced is long term good for play.

When I first heard about these changes, I thought they were very bad. Artifact has a well-considered philosophy, and an economy built on promises. It is already too complex and has too many things to remember, with a few top cards being played frequently and without the cards constantly changing. Its balance was crafted over months based on subtle things that the players do not yet have the experience or skill to appreciate.

Changing cards like this threatens to blow up all of that, and didn’t seem to address the game’s actual problems at all. On top of that, by doing this along with a second major crowd-pleasing move, of giving lots of cards away and providing rankings, we’ll never know whether players even liked the new approach to card balancing.

II. Player and Metagame Reaction

The verdict was in quickly. Players loved the changes.

The first response to the Twitter announcement was typical of what was said.

Multiple media sources described Artifact as previously being ‘dead on arrival’ but this being a game saving move. Players who review bombed the game are now talking about how to un-bomb it.

It’s hard to find a negative reaction to the move, or even a mixed reaction.

To the extent that reactions are mixed, the mix is usually of the form ‘it’s too bad you didn’t do this from the start’ or ‘this is a move in the right direction, but more will be needed.’

I have seen concerns over the new card balance, especially players concerned that blue is now too powerful since its rivals got hurt in important ways, but blue was left unharmed. These concerns might well prove right, but there will always be such concerns.

For now, the prize queue has a more diverse mix of decks, with a lot more blue decks.

I have yet to see anyone worry about this not only not addressing the game’s complexity, but likely making it worse.

I have yet to see anyone express concern over long term card value or collectibility, or other implications for the economy. Other than the silly issue of players who paid $30 for Axe because they couldn’t wait a few hours for prices to stabilize, and therefore had paid $30 for a thing now worth $10, and who would now only get $10 in return.

The metagame diversity in the prize queue has improved somewhat, as well. This includes my own play, as I’ve switched primary decks and am quite enjoying the new concoction.

This overwhelmingly positive (short term) reaction has huge implications for the future of collectible card games.

That does not mean the changes worked out. It is too soon to tell, and we will never fully know. The overwhelmingly positive initial reaction, both in steam rank and online reaction, great as they are, are not sufficient. There are lots of long term implications to what happened here, and what data we have is hopelessly confounded.

What we do have are valuable lessons, and lots of paths forward to explore.

The individual questions raised are also interesting out of context, so I split those off and will be posting them on their own. Ideally I’ll then link to them at the bottom here.


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11 Responses to Artifact Embraces Card Balance Changes

  1. scmccarthy says:

    It sure seems like lots of people (including me) love balance changes. Hearthstone has also been (very incrementally) moving towards more aggressively making balance changes over time. When I was working on the low profile digital CCG Plants vs Zombies: Heroes, it also seemed like players loved it when we made balance changes (and we did so quite liberally, even when cards weren’t problems). At least among the engaged portion of the community that posts about the game online, I think people just really want good balance between cards such that many of them are played a medium amount of the time, and tend to think that arguments about how it’s not possible are bullshit.

    Given that companies maintaining digital CCGs have complete data on every game played, it also shouldn’t be that hard to identify cards that are particularly strong or weak. I do think that this kind of “balance” is possible to achieve.

    The one objection I don’t have an answer to is “what about the vast, silent masses who play casually and infrequently?” I think it could be a valid point. For someone who doesn’t follow discussion of the game, and logs in fewer times, it ends up feeling like constant inexplicable changes. However, I’ve only ever witnessed this being a potential problem – I’ve yet to witness actual evidence of players abandoning a game because of too much balance tweaking.

    • TheZvi says:

      Funny that you mention PvZ, I recently tried it and I talk about it in the second part a bit. My basic take is, I suspect a cool game under there, shame you won’t let me play it.

      Good information there, would love to chat with you about your experience on PvZ and elsewhere some time as I’m planning to make a game myself. Will factor this in when I get to it in part 3, which I’m writing out now.

      I think that there’s a coherent strategy where you change cards all the time, and one where you do so almost never, and they imply a bunch of different other things about your game in other places, especially its economics.

      Agreed that if you’re willing to change cards, if you *want* to have a bunch of cards played a medium amount, you can 100% do that, but I do think it’s less than obvious that is the ideal outcome.

      • scmccarthy says:

        I’d be happy to talk with you about that whenever you like. My gmail address is the same as my 10-letter wordpress username.

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