VIII. Card Rebalancing and Gameplay Benefits
Let us presume we’ve gotten economics out of the way. We’ve chosen a model compatible with limited ownership of cards and/or paid the price for not doing so. Most players will have access to whatever level of cards they usually have access to, and at least don’t mind the changes to their cards.
What are the effects on game play? What are the good and bad scenarios?
I’ll lay out the good scenarios and features, and offer eight good reasons to rebalance your cards.
Next time, I’ll lay out the bad scenarios and features, and why it all might be a terrible mistake.
- Changing cards keeps the game fresh and new.
After the most recent set has been released for a while, it is easy for card games to become stale and repetitive. Players know the best decks and strategies, and the same patterns happen repeatedly. Changing a few key cards even in subtle ways can shake that up, as there are often lots of subtle factors determining how decks look and play.
Consider Axe moving from seven power to six power, and from eleven to ten health. This dramatically improved the value of heroes with seven health, which among means Zeus, Ogre Magi, Drow Ranger (although she was nerfed at the same time) and Bounty Hunter. Blue became much stronger, and black decks have reason to pick Bounty Hunter, which is also now a lock to kill Axe by default on the second turn, even if you lose both coin flips. There are also now a lot more scenarios where heroes are left at one health, which also helps Ogre Magi and Zeus, making blue that much more appealing. This isn’t only about Axe doing six on turn one, it is also about him being much worse with Duel and his companion card Berserker’s Rage. It also makes him want a weapon that much more to get back to where he needs to be, making Short Sword, Jasper Daggers and Demagicking Maul more attractive.
Drow Ranger’s change is also transformative. Decks no longer have to worry that green can knock out an entire lane if given initiative, so long as they can put two heroes in non-adjacent locations. This in turn makes it horribly difficult for green to go wide or commit to deep board presence in a lane for fear of Annihilation and other removal. Drow Ranger lost so much power that some green player no longer even use her, making the threat that much more remote. Without a good answer to blue’s mass removal, green can’t pursue its best game plans there, and this has effectively mostly taken green out of play.
As a permanent state of affairs that is very bad. But it need not last long. There can and should always be more changes. Green can be easily brought back to life by strengthening some other green cards in ways that help deal with its issues, or are just generically good enough to make up for them. Blue can in turn be brought down if necessary.
This last week there have been tons of subtle new things to explore as players moved on to new decks and new combinations. There is no reason that can’t happen with many or most similar changes. Subtle is good enough if you choose good targets. Fresh and new is pretty great.
Fresh and new every two weeks would be super awesome.
2. We can give players less of what they dislike and more of what they like.
People hate, hate, hate Cheating Death. They have a religious hatred of the very concept. They see it as capricious, random, dangerously unequal and unfair and a source of inequality, and feel that if you can’t save everyone, then all should suffer and die the same way. They see it being expensive as a scandal, and it being cheap as another different scandal. They rail about its terrible impact on the environment. They fail to see how important it is and how much is lost when it is given up.
They also similarly disliked a green card in Artifact that involves coin flips.
I didn’t at first disagree with them on the card. At the end of my first test session, they asked what card we disliked the most. I said Cheating Death (my favorite card was Enough Magic!). Several others agreed. Making the card worse helped a little, but it remained deeply reviled.
Over time, I saw why Cheating Death exists, that decks needed to be built and played with the card in mind, and why the game benefits from having something fill that role, which the new version is not strong enough to do. But in the end, it does not matter. Players hate the card, and we should not this frequently give players an experience they hate.
It is a huge advantage to be able to notice that something is despised by players, and be able to change it into something else that is not despised in this way.
The mirror of this is to find cards that are fun and popular, but aren’t good enough, and make them good enough. See what happens. If what happens is fun and healthy, keep it. If not, undo the changes, or try a third thing.
The alternative is to require a much longer turnaround time to make this happen, as new cards are printed. It also means printing a new copy of a card similar but superior to another older card, which is not a great place to be. Much better to upgrade Timbersaw now than to print “Timbersaw the Slightly Better” in expansion one, especially if the plan is to do so incrementally.
3. We can take bigger, bolder, better chances. We can avoid missing opportunities.
Playtesting new ideas and breaking cards in half is fun. Don’t hog that fun! Let the players enjoy it too. Nerf no card before its time.
Certain classes of Magic: The Gathering cards are known to be dangerous. They entail some probability that the card and related strategies will get out of hand. Cards with alternate casting costs fall into this category. Alternate win conditions that are interesting count. Anything with the potential to lock your opponent out. Any full combo kill. Massive card drawing on the cheap. Paying life for powerful effects. Effects that shut creatures out entirely. And so on.
Cards that are generically good count too, if pushed far enough.
For a game like Artifact, where the game is poorly understood and wide open, any new type of card that’s priced to be good is going to be dangerous.
All of these cards lead to new deck designs, new problems and interesting games when they first appear. That week when everything is fresh and new is great even if things eventually settle on a best deck and a broken build. The next week is usually good, too. A month later, having oppressive things around cuts off the ability to have fun, kills off diversity and drives people away. Magic has had a large number of holding periods where the game was stuck in a non-fun non-diverse equilibrium but nothing could be done about it until the next banned list announcement. Even then it wasn’t clear the price of banning a card was worth paying, since outright bans are terrible. Riding things out to the next set release becomes a live option. Other times, bans don’t do the job as other cards replace what you ban, but now you don’t have another chance for months.
With continuous card adjustments, the solution is much easier. The card is too good, so make it worse. If that isn’t enough, do it again until it is enough.
This allows us to run experiments at low cost. When we have a fun new idea, we can put it where we know it is at least interesting and might be too good, intending to scale it back if we overshoot the mark. The less cost we attach to such action, the bolder we can be.
By contrast, Wizards often introduces new ideas at pitifully weak power levels, or allows weak but fun ideas to languish. Double strike took years to become a constructed ability because Wizards was understandably terrified it would prove too strong, and started it off at a very weak level. Lots of fun concepts get printed at ‘casual-only’ casting costs, then stay there because there’s much less appetite to print essentially the same card over again but cheaper or bigger, or because the mechanic on the card was tied to its expansion, so it is now too late.
With continuous and frequent card changes, we can introduce new concepts at high power level, fully intending to frequently pull them back after seeing what they can do. Other times, we can notice that players love a card or idea but it isn’t good enough, so we can give it a large boost to make it good, perhaps even too good, then pull it back if we overshoot.
4. Mistakes cost much less.
This is similar to and related to the above, but importantly different.
Sometimes games take a calculated risk. There is a new strategy to be enabled, a new mechanic to introduce at the constructed level. Occasionally, one will make it better than intended, or the answers or competition are worse than intended, or things otherwise end up unbalanced.
Other times, mistakes were made. Things get missed.
Two examples of famous Magic mistakes: Umezawa’s Jitte was created at the last minute and no one realized how straight up bonkers it was. No one at Wizards noticed the combination of Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian ended the game on the spot for a combined seven mana.
You also have cards like Sylvan Library. Green got the ability to look at and draw extra cards in exchange for paying life, which made absolutely zero sense, at a very high power level. To this day in older formats, people splash green in order to pay life to draw cards. That’s kind of insane, and an example worth talking about later in more detail.
These mistakes are great things, if you can then fix them.
One effect of this is terror at making good cards late in the process, which is more about III. This is about, once we do have an oversight, we’d rather not have it ruin the game for a year.
5. We can make new sets exciting by having temporary power creep without permanent power creep.
Hearthstone, when I was playing it, made a habit of periodically nerfing cards in the base set to allow more room for new cards to be good.
Yu-Gi-Oh! kept its new sets exciting by making the numbers in each set bigger than in the last set. Many games embraced pure power creep in similar ways.
Magic defaults to having slow power creep, despite intentions to keep it in check. Periodically, a set pulls the power level back, such as Mercadian Masques, making a short term sacrifice to restore balance.
Continuous adjustments offers the opportunity to start out new sets at high power level, allowing new cards to be everywhere and dominate play. Then, once we’ve had our fun, we can start taking those cards down a notch to restore power level to its previous point. If done correctly, this offers the fun lots-of-great-new-toys moments early and drives card sales, and then you end up in the same place you would have anyway.
There would even be a sense that this new period was a special window to have fun with toys that you wouldn’t get to keep for that long, so take advantage of it while you can. That period of intentional imbalance is one I often look back to as much more fun than other periods, even in other types of games.
As examples, I would point to the excellent games Europa Universalis IV and Civilization IV. Both are great. Both were even better back when there were overpowered loopholes and strategies in the wild to find and exploit. Later, these strategies were scaled back, and I became sad about it. Which makes this a double edged sword we’ll return to in the next section.
6. We can match the flavor to the play.
Decipher created the Star Trek and Star Wars TCGs. The clear intention was for the best cards and strategies to mimic the stars of the original material. The Enterprise bridge crew and ship itself were massively better than alternatives, sporting six abilities where others would have one to three, in a game without a costing mechanism. Light side decks centered on Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Leia, while dark side decks were always led by Darth Vader. If you didn’t have these rare cards, the game didn’t really work right until several expansions in, and not having them still put you at a severe disadvantage.
It was a good thing that Jean-Luc Picard was a better card than Random Unknown Ensign, and players got to play with Picard. Cool things are cool, whether that’s flavor, mechanical or otherwise. The massive overkill Decipher used to get there was unfortunate. It was a presumably combination of making sure to hit players over the head with the need to buy such cards and see their reward, and not wanting to take any chances.
With card tuning, you can ensure that the cards you want to be played, are the cards played. You need not use a giant anvil to do so. You can now either start off with a giant anvil, then scale back once people have ‘had their fun’ with the anvils until things get to the level of imbalance you had in mind, or you can start with the minimum you think will work, and ramp up the good stuff when it misses the mark. Or both.
Artifact has some great flavor, making great use of the world it inherited from DOTA 2. It is a shame to miss out on it because the cards that would trigger it aren’t up to the task, or to be exposed to the same subsection over and over.
7. Players can be forced to explore in interesting ways
Often players all accept a bit of conventional wisdom, or have the intuition that an approach is correct. They end up all playing the same cards, either everywhere or when using a particular deck or color combination.
The catch is, that decision is often wrong. Or at least, there are alternatives worth using at least some of the time. But no one has thought of them.
Looking at the Old School format is one way to see that players spent years missing everything from interesting individual card choices to entire strategies.
A more brazen example? Remember Magic’s Trix deck that used Necropotence, Illusions of Grandeur and Donate? It took over its format completely.
In the first Pro Tour where the deck was legal, zero players played both Necropotence and Donate. My test group didn’t even look at it.
At one point, I won a Grand Prix with a deck called TurboLand. I was the only person in the entire 400+ person field who played it, despite writing about it before the tournament. It then became a first-tier deck for the rest of that season. If I had drawn poorly in one more round in that tournament and finished 23rd, no one would have looked at the deck twice.
There is a phenomenon where sometimes, banning a card makes the deck it was in better, because players then focus on optimizing the deck and finding all their remaining options, and find a better build. If you then put the banned card back, the deck might get better still.
[TODO]The trick is, suppose everyone plays Blink Dagger in every Artifact deck. Which they more or less do. Players get experience playing with Blink Dagger, learning how best to use it. Even if other cards are as good, and sometimes more appropriate, players will never try them out and get that information and experience. If you got rid of (or increased the cost of) Blink Dagger, players would be forced to experiment. Even if you later returned the cost back, players would have learned about other items and how to build their decks and strategies using them. We’d end up with more diversity and more fun.
8. Players feel they have a voice and the game is responding to them
The comments to this series so far only reinforce what the rest of the internet is saying, and has said for a long time. Most players believe that balance is good, and rebalancing is good if it creates more balance. Such policies and actions make them happy.
No matter what other effects rebalancing has, we have proven beyond a doubt that players and potential players of Artifact are thrilled to hear about it. They feel listened to and cared about. They feel like Valve is committed to solving problems and to caring most about the best game play.
That’s a great thing. Even if the changes turn out to ultimately have some nasty side effects, making players happy via their reactions to the announcement is a huge deal. If reaction is this positive, the resulting player love and interaction might dwarf all the other factors straight away.
Done right, card rebalancing offers the opportunity to make a game everything it was intended to be or could be, and more, while keeping it fresh and new for the players. Sounds great.
There are catches. That’s for next time.