Been a little while huh?
Welcome back everyone! There are a few repeated topics that typically come up over and over on my Twitch stream. Some have become recurring memes and others end up being earnest discussions. Sometimes they are both. Today we are going to spend some time talking about my current thoughts on card changes. It’s time to explain my current thoughts on bans, nerf, and general errata in card games.
For the purpose of this discussion you can assume that everything is focused on the world of digital card games with a competitive lean. Maybe not aiming for world champion status, but trying to improve at the very least. Despite the primary nucleus of digital card games, there are of course going to be references to physical card games. In fact that’s actually where things start. The ground rules needs to be laid out so everyone is working with the same terminology and starting point.
Another somewhat meme on the channel is that I just cannot for the life of me find an old Magic: the Gathering article. I would’ve sworn it was on the mothership but I’ve spend a fair amount of time over the years desperately trying to locate it again and have come up empty handed. The contents are actually quite relevant to this discussion. Basically, it was detailing the thoughts on what drove bans in Magic’s “Modern” format, or at least what drove them at the time. Having benchmarks are very important when it comes to sweeping changes like this. It should be obvious but it is exceptionally easy to fall into a trap and not looking at potential modifications objectively. So what’re those rules? Let’s take a peek. Although there were of course a number of Magic specific items, there were essentially 4 pillars that supported an argument for when something had to be done. I am paraphrasing but they were basically this:
- Meta representation
- Winning too much
- Winning too quickly
- “Unfun” or Negative Play Experience (NPE)
Those categories are mostly self explanatory. Of course not the last one, but we’ll get there. I’m going to start at the top and work my way through it explaining how I interpret them.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Meta Representation is basically how much of a given metagame a particular deck has. It’s a moving target given that there are a bunch of humans that are playing the game in question so things will shift as people form opinions or are influenced by…well influencers. However there is a certain point where if “everyone” is playing Deck A then there is an issue. Quotation marks around everyone are there just to illustrate that we of course aren’t talking about every single person. I’ll be dating myself here but anyone remember Lin-Sivvi?
This rebel legend could also double as our example for the next pillar, but we are going to highlight it here. In the major Pro Tour of the time everyone knew rebels was the best deck. Rebels were nearly 60% of the day two field for one event and six of the top eight. Ultimately it didn’t win the event but overall I don’t think any reasonable people are going to look at those numbers and come to to the conclusion “Yup, that’s a totally healthy meta. No problems here!”
The particulars of this card isn’t as relevant as just the sheer numbers for this part. Basically if you have an inordinate number of players all playing the same deck then most people end up not finding those formats enjoyable and it may warrant a change. We can quibble about whether that threshold is 10% or 40% (or 60% as it was then) but there is a line in the sand for this sort of thing.
Don’t misunderstand. Mirrors can be engaging, fun, and thought provoking. Honestly, I find myself having the most fun in settled metas. If you are just rolling dice for what your matchups are it can be intensely frustrating, especially when different opponents may require wildly different cards or play patterns. My expectation though is that most people didn’t sign up to play against the same deck and same cards game in and game out. The variety ensures that people stay invested in the game as they provide varied experiences.
How Much is Too Much?
Next up is another simple one Winning too Much. I doubt I need to really explain this but if a deck is winning way more than everything else, we’re talking 6 out of every top 8 is Deck A, then yeah we probably need to think about how to address it. If a combination or even a single card results in an absurd win percentage for whoever manages to luck out and play it first, some intervention is required. Truly you need to give people time to adapt, but there have been times across a variety of card games where it is immediately recognizable that a given deck is just made different. Just as above there are plenty of debates to be had as to what win rates are reasonable but the general idea should be apparent.
We do need to be careful though. There is a big difference between something being format defining and warping. The former simply means that it is a pillar. Something very strong that people need to respect and pushes evolution. In the case of the latter it either pushes things in an unhealthy direction. Either you have The Card or you lose. Whoever finds The Combo first wins. There aren’t reasonable responses to The Deck, thereby reducing the metagame to either playing The Deck or playing The Anti-Deck. At the macro level this reduces the metagame to an uncomfortable binary (or rock-paper-scissors) scenario that is incredibly reductive for deck-building and in game play alike.
If You’re Not First, You’re Last
Now we are starting to get into things that are more vague. It can be tough to answer the question “when should the game end?” or put another way “how long before you are considered to have really played a game?”. Depending on a wide array of factors this will be very different, even for the same game. Playing classic WoWtcg is very different from Core. In the old VS system, Gold Age and Silver Age are entirely different beasts. Choose any game you enjoy with multiple formats and the differences will be readily apparent.
So what? Well the idea here is that each have their own timeline, a clock that is ticking when the game begins. Naturally every person will have different markers in their head. We can all likely agree though that at some point the game needs to end and there a point where we can say – yes, this was an actual game. Ending the game prior to that point, even if it is effectively ending via a soft-lock rather than a literal end, leaves most people dissatisfied. These games are intended to be a battle of wits, strategy, and tactics. Getting obliterated before even getting your strategy off the ground is miserable.
It’s important to recognize that this isn’t an solely aggro or combo problem. Realistically depending on the matchup and the card pool control decks can easily end the game on very early turns just by virtue of what they. Similarly midrange decks can just position themselves in such a way that the game is decided before you sat down. Granted this is stretching the original intent. Back in the previously referenced Magic article it was the “turn four rule”. If the game didn’t make it to turn four consistently, the deck in question was simply too fast. Remember we are trying to extrapolate things to be broader rules. Admittedly this starts to loop around back to something just being too powerful if you pick apart the guideline this much, so feel free to look at it as just simply a speed thing if you prefer. They all kind of blend together past a certain point as you’ll see next.
The Venn Diagram of Fun and Unfun
Lastly we have the catchall. Really it is actually the root of all the others. They are subsets, elements, factors of this last test. The “unfun” factor is the progenitor, the sire of all the other card game sins so to speak. Something like this is verging on impossible to define, however we all kind of know it when we see it right? If you are playing against the same deck game after game after game after game after game…It gets boring right?
If there’s just nothing you can play to beat a certain deck because the powerlevel is oppressive…
You sit down to play and in the blink of an eye the game is decided and no decisions really mattered?
We could go on for a long time listing a ton of other factors but I think you get the point. Really it comes down to a mismatch of priorities and expectations between two players. This is in conjunction with minimized decision making. Most of us are playing card games because we enjoy the cognitive aspect, in deck building as well as in actual gameplay. Tipping the scales in one direction or the other too far can induce these these negative aspects.
Get to the Point!
Whew. That’s a lot of words and that’s just the pre-amble! We haven’t even gotten to the meat yet, but don’t worry. We’re on it.
Now we can finally talk about digital card games. In general I look at them in much the same way as described above. We do have the added benefit of being able to introduce errata, or as the kids call it: nerfs and buffs. For physical games it’s just naturally more difficult to try and update card text because, well they are printed. Sure you can have websites and rulebooks and other tools, but ultimately you have a physical thing in front of you that says one thing and someone telling you that the governing authority states it’s something else. Digital games can circumvent that, with some caveats, just by their inherent nature. It does not change really change how we should look at them though.
Sometimes mistakes are made that necessitate fixes. Before we move on, this is actually something to consider above and beyond everything else. Developers are human, balance testers are human, everyone involved in making games is a human. Humans sometimes make errors and overall people need to be more accepting of that fact. When those mistakes happen there are a ton of factors outside of the game that affect when or even IF a card can be changed.
With all of that in mind, let’s say that we have identified a card that may need to be addressed. It can’t simply boil down to “I don’t like this!” then stamp your feet and shriek at devs in discord. I mean, we just went through a huge dissertation about just a handful of parameters surrounding balance.
Feel free to insert your baby rage emotes here.
“Well why not? I don’t like the card and it needs to be fixed!” Well hypothetical player who is raging about the injustice of a mildly imbalanced meta, to start: a healthy metagame is generally going to have a much smaller number of viable decks than most people care to admit. It also should include multiple different archtypes. I’m not talking specifically about four different flavors of aggro, but more along the lines of (at least) ONE aggro deck, ONE control deck, ONE midrange, ONE combo, etc. Those archtypes will depend on the game and what a given format will sustain as you’d expect. In my experience if there are more than 3-5 “top tier” decks then something is either wrong or people just haven’t taken the format apart just yet.
Not everything can be top shelf. That’s a topic for another day though.
That may be shocking to a lot of people, but realistically if there are more than that you risk actually introducing problems. Again, an entirely different discussion, but essentially how many people enjoy having a game decided before you sit down? Show of hands please
That’s what I thought. No. Put your hand down clown, you’re just being contrarian. No one likes that.
Anyway, the point is that if we are speaking from the perspective of “I want to win more games than I lose” you’ll be moving towards a settled metagame with expected matchups, known quantities, and the top dogs are going to be in relatively low numbers. It just how it works, at least as a general rule.
Let’s bring things back to fun for a moment, we spent time on unfun after all, it’s only fair. We’re playing card games to have fun and play a game. It’s part of what makes declaring something as unfun so difficult. Everyone has their own definition of fun right? Evaluating at this level requires taking a step back and looking at the forest and not the individual trees. Is this something that is upsetting the individual or the game as a whole? The goal then is to try to get to a reasonable state where decisions are impactful. At the very least within standard deviations of the ideal so as to maximize the positives for as many people as possible.
This is all couched in something important, which I’ll explain via an anecdote. It actually comes up stream pretty frequently. Waaaaay back when I was playing Hearthstone I was on a particular internet forum and a job opening appeared on the Hearthstone team. Naturally this was a big topic of discussion. I had quipped that I’d never get the job because I felt there were a ton of things about the game that needed to change, many at a fundamental level (spoiler: all the usual stuff). A reply came quickly in that forum that yeah, they wouldn’t hire because I didn’t agree with their vision for the game.
It was 100% correct.
Let’s take a step back. The people who design games have an idea for what they want their game to be. Of course it gets molded and shaped by outside forces but they are striving to provide their game, for better or worse. Just because you don’t like something about a game, at any level, doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It doesn’t mean you are wrong.
You just don’t like it.
Here is the mind-blowing part – Are you ready? It’s completely OK if a game decides something is OK and you disagree. Or the reverse for that matter. It just means the game may not be for you. Maybe it’s not for you right now. People’s tastes in things change all the time. Maybe the format will evolve. Maybe it will never click with you. Who knows.
As you can see that there is wide array of factors in determining if something should be done at all, then of course is the colossal task of actually tweaking things. I could go on much longer in even more exhausting detail (and I have elsewhere), but we’ll cut it short here. I’d just ask that you dear reader take a breath when things come up and recognize that there are a lot of things that go into these decisions.
As always thank you for coming by and Black Lives Matter.