As I write this I think there are a half a dozen other articles sitting in my drafts. Each time I start one another “oh yeah, I wanted to talk about that!” pops up either as I am walking the dog, on my Twitch Stream, or elsewhere in real life. One of the more common topics crops up is just simply whether a card or an interaction is too overpowering. Usually the general consensus can agree that something is powerful, possibly even that it is overpowered, but what does it mean to be too powerful in the context of card games?
Before we get into the weeds, it seems prudent at the outset to state for the record that cards are allowed to be good. The flipside of that axiom is that cards are allowed to be bad. Good and bad are relative of course. These physical or digital assets don’t exist in vacuum. It’s entirely possible (and completely expected) that a given card can be good in some circumstances and bad in others.
Wild I know.
Although this is self-evident to the point of almost being physically painful, it’s crucial to the discussion ahead. It’s also imperative to keep in mind when discussing changes to games, even beyond this particular subject. The context of the discussion shapes things such as whether a card is warping a given format or merely defining it. Therefore you could have a card go from being perfectly fine, or even bad to becoming problematic in the span of a single release. as well as he other way around. On the other hand there are cards that will jump up and slap you in the face from the word go screaming about how busted they are.
In determining if something is warping (bad) or defining (OK) it often comes down to some fuzzy concepts. Moving from the realm of quantitative to qualitative. As mentioned in my discussion about Bans, Nerfs, Whatever I laid out some specific numbers, three to five to be exact. It is just a rough approximation based on experience, but it can of course vary across games and even formats within a game. Let’s just assume for the moment that my proposed estimate is true and we can argue about the validity of the statement in another article (already planned). Establishing this sort of underlying basis is important. The reason for that is that we are going to make a somewhat generic statement to explain the difference between warping and defining:
“A defining [entity] will cause a format to care about its existence, whereas a warping [entity] will force a format to revolve entirely around that [entity].”
Entity in this statement is just a blanket moniker for a card, a deck, or an interaction. If you look closely you’ll notice I did not really state much of anything. It is more of an observation than a definition. Here’s another description:
“A warping [thing] will remove more fun from a game than it adds. A defining [thing] will establish boundaries for how fun is to be had within a given game”
What is “care about” and what is “defining fun”? Well, that’s what this entire write-up is trying to explain. We are going to need to come up with a rubric so we can decide which things go into which buckets. As stated above you do need to determine how many decks are reasonable in a given format, but that isn’t the only factor. Although it may boil down to a short question “more fun, or less fun?” the actual judgment is significantly more complex.
Of course this will also vary with play purpose AKA are you playing casually or competitively, ladder or tournament, etc etc. What is the purpose for playing? Aside from fun and entertainment of course. We’re focusing here primarily on competitive play. As always this is an evolving thought process so bear that in mind. Within the confines of a competitive environment you must accept that it tries to be more merit based than casual playstyles, but it is most certainly not more exclusionary.
That’s an entirely different article though.
Paint By Numbers
It isn’t really a secret, people who want to win will gravitate towards strategies that give them the best chance for winning. Duh, right? This drives our point about the quantity of decks home. It also informs the next point. If we accept that there is an upper limit of say five tier one decks (plus or minus some number), we can return to the idea of creating or destroying fun and assign a quantitative value to it. When a new set is released, do the cards introduced bring in more decks, swap around the decks (moving up/downs tiers but the same overall number), or reduce the metagame to less decks? When a change is proposed, what does the environment look like after it is installed? This typically takes a lot of testing and maybe event results, but sometimes it is obvious.
Spoiler alert: it’s rarely obvious.
Either way, this is something that can for the most part be measured. Inevitably there will be debate about various details, but in the grand scheme we can reasonably measure this particular attribute after a time. Part of it is in hindsight and some is more speculative when looking towards the future. Remember we are just talking about sheer quantity at this stage.
Many, probably most, people want to have a varied play experience. They simultaneously want a “balanced” one. “Balance” is a loaded word, but colloquially we can say that whenever anyone sits down to play a game, they want to have a fighting chance relative to their skill. If the other person is 1000 times better than us, sure we expect to lose, but it sucks when things are decided before cards are even shuffled. These two aims are somewhat at odds as a single deck format with identical decks is pretty balanced (ignoring the play/draw piece) but stagnant and not really enjoyable for a lot of people. However, an enormous field of hundreds of “viable” decks leads to the other extreme where many games are decided before you even sat down simply due to the wide array of cards involved. Hitting the sweet spot of goldilocks not-too-hot-not-too-cold is a very difficult moving target.
Naughty or Nice
If it were simply evaluating numbers we could cut it off here but there are also softer examinations to be made. Quantity of tier X decks is a useful measure, it is by no means the only one we have to judge how healthy a card is for a given format. For example, if we have a new set and the number of tier one decks drop from five to four due to the shifting sands of the metagame, that’s absolutely HAS be a worse metagame right?
If you’ve read any of my other work, you should know my rhetorical preferences by now, so clearly the answer is no.
Let’s paint another hypothetical, what if deck numero cinco was actually somewhat oppressive? Granted we were at the magical top end and had five viable decks, but the play patterns provided were less than desirable due to matchups being overly static. This is going about the entire process in a somewhat roundabout fashion. We have to presume that deck number five was actually warping to even get into this position. It does illustrate that it isn’t simply numbers in the end. It is not just rare but, to make a bad tongue-in-cheek joke regarding card games, super rare to have a perfect meta. Usually it can be improved in some way, but not necessarily in the direction or to the degree the community would like. Having that obvious of an example is also uncommon, but it could be a less stark conversion. Maybe it’s just a shifting of play patterns available.
Sometimes less is more. A meta that “only” has three top tier decks isn’t inherently worse than one that has 50. Usually the latter is significantly more miserable to play in than the former. This entire point is about play patterns. While it absolutely spills into other discussions it has a home here as well. From a competitive standpoint it is entirely possible that the smaller meta is more skill testing than a larger one. This goes for both deck building as well as tactical play in game. Sure there are less from a sheer numbers standpoint, but the quality increases as there is more opportunity to demonstrate higher skill either in deck building prowess or through game sense. From a general gameplay standpoint, the smaller meta almost paradoxically allows for quicker understanding but potentially greater depth of gameplay.
That’s NOT What I Meant
The fuzziness doesn’t end there. It’s a veritable tribble disaster up in here.
Sometimes it isn’t even a matter of what decks are being played but instead how the cards are interacting. As a game is designed, usually there are certain tenants put forth to define how the game works. I am not talking about rulesets, those are implied. Instead I am referring to what the gameplay is intended to be. For example some games want to favor combat, smashing monster into monster. Others may be more centered around anticipating your opponent’s actions and successfully countering them. Others still may revolve around who can build the biggest best engine and combine the parts to trigger some heinous chain reaction to seize the day. Each of these, as well as many others, are just a broad statement explaining how the developers want their game to be played.
This portion, similar to the previous veers into “maybe this should be in the ban article” territory. The reason for that is that if a card interaction (or of course deck, etc as well) chafes against what is “supposed to be happening” it can warp a metagame into a shell of itself, turning the game into some damnable amalgamation only slightly resembling its intended purpose.
There are jokes to make here but I’ll let that go for now.
A more important statement to make is, what does this look like? The easy thing to point to is combo in many digital card games. A great number of digital card games eschew the ability to interact on your opponent’s turn. There are positives and negatives to this approach as you’d expect but regardless of which side of the fence you are on, the decision has been made. Many of those games are focused on combat. They want you to advance a board and fight with your enemy over said board until someone is declared the victor. In many scenarios, combo will throw a nasty wrench in those plans since it turns the goals for any given game on its head. If we are supposed to be fighting over the board and you hoard all your tools in hand, only to deploy them in a single turn and end things in one fell swoop it absolutely fits the idea of “destroying more fun than it creates”.
At least for some. More on that shortly.
Warping and defining have a very thin line between then. The former however can be clearly seen when something is twisted and misshapen with respect to the design purpose. The proverbial sore thumb will stick out as it commonly results in something absurdly powerful thereby becoming the target of torches and pitchforks.
A Difference of Opinion
It’s a point that warrants an explicit statement even if it simultaneously obvious and subtly reinforced throughout this and other articles I have written. Underpinning all of this rambling is the fact that if we are basing our entire evaluation process on something as malleable, something as undefinable, as “fun” you must accept some degree of uncertainty. Additionally you must accept that there are going to be disagreements among various parties about whether something is or is not meeting these or some other criteria.
There are sometimes competing or even contradictory goals when designing a game and in
playing games you encounter many of the same issues. Detailing this part is somewhat out of scope for this article but I wanted to mention it simply to get it out there into the universe. Keep an open mind when discussing these sort of topics as there are many perspectives, goals, and desires that all deserve attention.
Whether it is the game developer’s idea of where the game should be, the communities, or drilling all the way down to two individual players, there are going to be different definitions of fun at any given moment in time. The same person is likely to change their mind just on mood alone, let alone anything more solid. That is perfectly fine. You just need to be able to step back and try to assess as many sides as possible when reviewing and assessing.
A Fixed Point in Time and Space
Not unlike many design decisions, you need to accept to some degree that something must be true. It is possible in a “broken clock is right twice a day” sort way that you can keep all the different pieces variable and stumble into something worthwhile. Alternatively you could take a more exacting approach and pin something down so you have a strong foundation to build upon. This is sort of a corollary to earlier statements such as there is an upper limit to top tier decks, or that there are specific goals the game is trying to accomplish such as being about the combat step. In a given format there are going to be specific cards and then by extension decks that are “the best”. Pound-for-pound they do more damage, draw more cards, or open more opportunities than their compatriots. These cards are the bedrock on which the format is constructed.
Establishing what the targets are and then deciding whether they are being met, or where they fall short, is required. How can you tell if something is succeeding or failing if you don’t even know what success looks like? You are asking the impossible in that setup. The question of “what is the format about” is as much an esoteric and lofty design statement as it is a concrete and grounded one. Using the previous example, if a format is “supposed” to be about combat and an interaction exists that completely bypasses it then we can evaluate whether that is warping the format by twisting it away from the planned purpose or is it “cool and fun” because it opens up more possible play patterns. Really it comes back to how rigid the originally formed nucleus is.
Also how receptive everyone playing the game is to new ideas.
It’s a matter of what skills the format is trying to test. Those highlighted cards or decks are the ones that represent the central theme at a given point in time. They provide an attainable and measurable path forward. Defining what the baselines for what X mana gets you, or on Y turn the game is “allowed” to end, or whether Z does [thing] all provide logical and firm gauges rather than seat of your pants replies to a specific incident.
Lots of Words
Much of this was very vague despite the initial goal delineating the criteria for warping vs. defining. That is very much intentional as the scope of these discussions is unique in many respects to the games in question. Keeping things at this more cursory level allows them to be applied to many different topics. Hopefully this will help you make your own decisions about games you are playing. In all likelihood this topic will be revisited in the future, it often is on stream, but that will do it now now.
Thanks for coming by, and Black lives Matter.