Disadvantages of Card Rebalancing

Link post

Pre­vi­ously: Ar­ti­fact Em­braces Card Balance Changes, Card Col­lec­tion and Own­er­ship, Card Balance and Ar­ti­fact, Card Re­bal­anc­ing, Card Over­sup­ply and Eco­nomic Con­sid­er­a­tions in Digi­tal Card Games, Ad­van­tages of Card Rebalancing

This is the last post in this se­quence, al­though we will doubtless re­turn to re­lated top­ics in the fu­ture.

IX. Non-Eco­nomic Disad­van­tages of Card Rebalancing

Last time, I ex­plored eight rea­sons why card re­bal­anc­ing was great. Now it is time to turn those rea­sons on their head, and see how dis­aster might strike.

There are three cen­tral rea­sons why I worry about card re­bal­anc­ing. They are card and game eco­nomics, de­struc­tion of his­tory, work and mem­ory, a de­sire to ‘over­bal­ance,’ and Good­hart’s Law.

Eco­nomics I’ve already con­sid­ered. For con­sid­er­a­tions of card own­er­ship, in-game eco­nomics and re­lated mat­ters, see Card Col­lec­tion and Own­er­ship and Card Re­bal­anc­ing, Card Over­sup­ply and Eco­nomic Con­sid­er­a­tions in Digi­tal Card Games. I won’t con­sider such is­sues here.

Cat­e­gory 1: Destruc­tion of his­tory, work and mem­ory.

1A. Play­ers can­not rely on their knowl­edge of what cards do.

I know the ex­act abil­ities of thou­sands of Magic cards and hun­dreds of Ar­ti­fact cards, plus thou­sands of cards in other games, both col­lectible and oth­er­wise. I know the rules of thou­sands of board games, card games and video games.

Now imag­ine if those abil­ities and rules were con­stantly chang­ing. If ev­ery turn and ev­ery ac­tion I had to worry that the rule wasn’t I thought it was, or the card had differ­ent abil­ities.

Magic play­ers already have a taste of this with the grand crea­ture type up­date. In that case, the prob­lem was re­dou­bled by not be­ing able to know the change by read­ing the card. Play­ers know that look­ing at a suffi­ciently old card’s printed crea­ture type is not a good guide to its ac­tual crea­ture type. It can be ob­vi­ous that Elvish Archers is now an Elf and an Archer, and most other changes are similarly guess­able and log­i­cal.

The good news in a digi­tal game is that one can always read the card, and var­i­ous vi­sual aids can be in­tro­duced to warn a player that a card has changed within some time frame, or since the last time the card was played against them. The other good news is that one pe­ri­od­i­cally ex­pects to face new cards, so fac­ing new vari­a­tions of ex­ist­ing cards is a rea­son­able punch to roll with.

Still, not be­ing able to trust your knowl­edge of a game is off putting at best. When one is keep­ing close track of a game, mak­ing it a pri­mary fo­cus of time, this isn’t a big deal. When one wants to take breaks and re­turn to games later or oc­ca­sion­ally, it is a much big­ger one.

I have always had trou­ble learn­ing for­eign lan­guages. The clos­est I’ve come is be­ing able to learn card games and their as­so­ci­ated vo­cab­u­lary. Not ebing a

1B. Play­ers can­not rely on their knowl­edge of the strate­gic land­scape.

The flip side of keep­ing a game fresh and new all the time, and giv­ing peo­ple new strate­gies to ex­plore, is that you in­val­i­date what ev­ery­one has learned.

I will speak to this is­sue from my ex­pe­rience as a pro­fes­sional com­peti­tor.

When strate­gic situ­a­tions move slowly, or shift pe­ri­od­i­cally with set re­leases, one can make a medium-term in­vest­ment in strate­gic acu­men. Prac­tice and study can be got­ten out of the way, al­low­ing one to be ready for and fo­cus on the game it­self (along with any drafts or sealed deck builds). Once fa­mil­iar with a game and a for­mat, knowl­edge will con­tinue to ad­vance and the meta-game may shift, and there is always room to go deeper and im­prove, but with con­fi­dence that one’s work will con­tinue to have rele­vance, and mostly not go to waste.

When strate­gic situ­a­tions move too fast, tak­ing even a week off of ‘do­ing the work’ gets severely pun­ished. It be­comes im­pos­si­ble to ‘stay in fight­ing shape’ with­out con­tin­u­ous work. Magic, due to Magic On­line and var­i­ous events, even with­out cards chang­ing, has reached a point where you must pre­pare for the con­structed por­tion of events dur­ing the fi­nal week, and you can’t change your list in the last two days, leav­ing a very nar­row win­dow that leaves zero flex­i­bil­ity for play­ers lives. All pre­vi­ous work was nec­es­sary to be in po­si­tion to adapt but still mostly wasted.

This is in sharp con­trast to the old era, when peo­ple pre­pared mostly in pri­vate over the course of a month. Then, I would work hard but of­ten have sev­eral weeks be­tween finish­ing my work and the event it­self.

This is all, of course, the flip side of mak­ing in­no­va­tion and in­ter­est­ing new things pos­si­ble. It’s not like we want a world in which there are not new things. But by effec­tively forc­ing ev­ery­one to con­stantly re­learn things to stay in shape, while hav­ing con­stant in­ter­net sources of ba­sic knowl­edge and strat­egy, you force those look­ing to not fol­low the herd to put in ab­surd amounts of work that won’t last. Cards chang­ing all the time would make this that much worse.

See Mark Cuban’s re­cent notes about why he de­clined to buy an e-sports team. Con­stantly chang­ing rules and el­e­ments force in­sanely long work weeks and lead to player burnout. I speak from ex­pe­rience that burnout is a real prob­lem, and that minor tweaks that wipe out your ex­ist­ing knowl­edge and as­sump­tions are a big con­trib­u­tor to that, in a way that adding ad­di­tional el­e­ments ev­ery so of­ten is dis­tinct from.

What about more ca­sual play­ers? Is this a prob­lem con­fined to a rel­a­tively small per­cent of play­ers at the top? Based on my ex­pe­rience in other games that I was not tak­ing as se­ri­ously, the same prob­lem is real there as well, on longer time scales, and los­ing solidity is a big deal.

Below a cer­tain level of pre­ci­sion and se­ri­ous­ness this should pre­sum­ably fall off in mag­ni­tude. Even bet­ter, for those who only play dur­ing a short win­dow, the changes won’t feel like changes at all, so none of this mat­ters un­less a player stays for a longer time frame. That also makes it difficult to mea­sure the effect.

1C. Destruc­tion of his­tory.

A lot of the joy of Magic lies in its his­tory. We have a quar­ter cen­tury of cards, games, mis­takes, brilli­an­cies, bro­ken ideas, in­no­va­tions, the­o­ries, decks, choices, com­pe­ti­tions, friend­ships, com­mu­ni­ties, ar­gu­ments, for­mats and sto­ries. In­vest­ing in Magic now pays off not only in fun and learn­ing how to think. It pays off in a com­mu­nity, in deep friend­ships and shared sto­ries and ex­pe­riences. It pays off in older decks and for­mats that provide per­ma­nent sources of throw­back fun, that are a much un­der­used source whose sur­face Magic On­line has only be­gun to scratch in its throw­back offer­ings.

When we al­ter things such that this his­tory, our sto­ries and the re­lated for­mats and decks no longer makes sense or func­tion prop­erly, be­cause its com­po­nents have all been changed, we severely dam­age this.

I know this may seem like a spe­cial in­ter­est petty con­cern. I do not think it is, and it and other hard to no­tice risks and costs be­ing com­pletely ig­nored and crushed once Good­hart’s Law con­sid­er­a­tions start op­er­at­ing.

The de­fault of the in­ter­net age is to pe­ri­od­i­cally break or ex­pire ev­ery­thing from the past, such that it ceases to func­tion, in many ways that make me deeply sad. Servers shut down and games be­come un­available, web­sites go silent. Often this could have been avoided at lit­tle cost, but such con­sid­er­a­tions were not taken into ac­count at all, so over time we all get poorer than we could have been.

Get­ting the throw­back NES Clas­sic and SNES Clas­sic con­soles these past few years has been a great joy, and the Playsta­tion Clas­sic and Sega Ge­n­e­sis Clas­sic failed to join them only due to failure of ex­e­cu­tion. I spend a sub­stan­tial por­tion of my gam­ing time on ex­pe­riences cre­ated dur­ing those an­cient times, and vari­a­tions there­from, and if tech­nolog­i­cally eas­ier I would spend more. Re­makes of these ex­pe­riences, or mod­ern takes on those ex­pe­riences that im­pose similar re­stric­tions, I of­ten find to be su­pe­rior. Re­makes can greatly en­hance the ex­pe­rience, by offer­ing qual­ity-of-life im­prove­ments, but can also make difficulty ad­just­ments that de­stroy the real game ex­pe­rience. This brings us to the sec­ond cat­e­gory of con­cerns.

Cat­e­gory 2: Good­hart’s Law considerations

2A. Choices are Bad

When cards can change, there will be higher ex­pec­ta­tions for ev­ery as­pect of them, and more blame when things are not ex­actly to peo­ple’s prefer­ences. Peo­ple will com­pare what ex­ists to what might ex­ist, and not for­give the de­sign­ers their (in the player’s opinion) mis­takes. This will be es­pe­cially bad given that mis­takes are, to an ex­tent, good for a game, as we’ll get to later.

Quirky things will be cries for fixes rather than quirky things to ad­just around. When a player loses to a thing, they will more of­ten cry the thing is un­fair and to nerf it, rather than look­ing around for how to beat it.

There are two big po­ten­tial down­sides here.

The first is that for any given game ex­pe­rience de­liv­ered, play­ers (who care about things enough to think at this level) will be less happy, be­cause they are judg­ing against a differ­ent stan­dard.

The sec­ond is that there will be tremen­dous pres­sure to op­ti­mize a va­ri­ety of met­rics, and to judge changes on short time hori­zons based on suc­cess on these met­rics.

Po­ten­tial tar­gets in­clude num­ber of ac­tive play­ers, time played, card prices, rev­enue, es­ti­mated life­time rev­enue per cus­tomer, re­ported player satis­fac­tion or posted re­views, what peo­ple say on Red­dit or Google News or el­se­where, di­ver­sity of metagame on a va­ri­ety of skill and card ac­cess lev­els, win rates for var­i­ous strate­gies, num­ber of play­ers play­ing a va­ri­ety of decks, or other things I’m not think­ing about right now.

Hello, Good­hart’s Law. Hello, short ter­mism.

2B. Play­ers are wrong about what they want

Peo­ple are very bad at know­ing what they want. They are even worse at figur­ing out what im­pacts changes would have, short term or long term, on a game.

Magic’s player base re­li­ably had too much sup­port, too fast, for bans and emer­gency ac­tions, for decades. This may have even­tu­ally been fixed af­ter decades of ex­pla­na­tions and data, or it might not have been. I would ex­pect this to be the pat­tern for al­most all games, and for bal­ance changes to fol­low the pat­tern even more.

There are lots of other things that are short term pop­u­lar but long term detri­men­tal and not so pop­u­lar. Power creep, and us­ing up more de­sign space, are two easy ex­am­ples. In the in­ter­ests of space and avoid­ing side ar­gu­ments I won’t go fur­ther here.

Magic has man­aged to ed­u­cate its player base to dampen this effect some­what, but only some­what.

2C. Game risks fo­cus­ing de­vel­oper time on the wrong things

Fo­cus risks be­ing on tweak­ing ex­ist­ing things, and mak­ing short term im­prove­ments, rather than on cre­at­ing new things and mak­ing long term im­prove­ments.

When cre­at­ing new cards and for­mats, it will be im­pos­si­ble to plan for them fully in ad­vance, as key el­e­ments already in print will change all the time. The equiv­a­lent of the Magic “Fu­ture Fu­ture League” will give far less valuable data. Se­condary and older for­mats like Vin­tage and Le­gacy (or I sus­pect even Modern) in Magic will not be prop­erly con­sid­ered when changes are made, ei­ther.

2D. Good­hart’s Law hill climbs de­stroy art and end poorly

I strongly be­lieve that Good­hart’s Law prob­lems are get­ting worse ev­ery year, and caus­ing many, per­haps most, of our in­ter­net ex­pe­riences to be­come in­cre­men­tally worse rather than bet­ter, in ways that ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions that do many brilli­ant things have proven un­able to over­come. Some day I want to fo­cus in on Net­flix, and some day I want to spend a ton of time get­ting this case ex­actly right, but for now I want to avoid such side­tracks.

I do not trust any­one, my­self in­cluded, to han­dle this well. Give a per­son enough knobs, and enough im­me­di­ate feed­back that feels im­por­tant, and they will turn those knobs un­til their num­bers go up. Other con­sid­er­a­tions that are harder to mea­sure will be dis­carded. Vi­sions and virtues will be com­pro­mised. Utili­tar­ian, con­se­quen­tial­ist philoso­phies will de facto dom­i­nate the dis­cus­sion.

2E. Old man yells at cloud

I want to stop here to say, yes, I to­tally, to­tally get this is a thing and I might well be do­ing a lot of that thing. And that my in­abil­ity to be more con­vinc­ing, or in places more con­crete, with these ar­gu­ments is a symp­tom that points to that. That I liked things bet­ter back when ev­ery­thing was worse, time has in some ways passed me by, and other such things.

I feel that way about a lot of things, some­times. I get old, same as ev­ery­one. It’s hard to tell how much of this is me get­ting old and set in ways and nos­talgic, ver­sus how much is ac­tual prob­lems and civ­i­liza­tional de­cline and so­cial me­dia and Good­hart’s Law and [other things] de­stroy­ing ev­ery­thing good. How much of this is me hav­ing very strong links to the benefits and deep im­pli­ca­tions of sys­tems that no longer make sense, and mak­ing er­rors in mag­ni­tude? Is this the same im­pulse that leads to NIMBYism and ha­tred of cap­i­tal­ists and cre­ative de­struc­tion ev­ery­where, and is al­most always valid in im­por­tant ways but cen­trally and more im­por­tantly wrong? Is all of my good rea­sons jus­tify­ing it me be­ing too clever for my own good?

I don’t know.

It is also likely that I have undo mo­ti­va­tion to find prob­lems with card re­bal­anc­ing. I have quirky prefer­ences. I think it leads to too much su­perfi­cial bal­ance, largely be­cause play­ers de­mand it, and that this is quite bad, which I’ll dis­cuss in the last sec­tion. Also, I’ll be build­ing a game where easy re­bal­anc­ing is flat out not an op­tion be­cause it will be count­ing on es­tab­lish­ing player trust in its digi­tal ob­jects, and ap­peal­ing to an au­di­ence that highly val­ues what I call card own­er­ship, be­cause it highly val­ues par­allel types of own­er­ship any­where and ev­ery­where.

When I ask my­self what my true, main ob­jec­tion is in all this, I get back two an­swers.

The first is that by do­ing con­stant changes we’re wiping out value and his­tory, but that feels like a valid choice. It will some­times be the right thing to do. If that’s all there is.

The sec­ond is that I be­lieve that given the power and op­por­tu­nity, it will be used wrong, and be used to make the product worse. Good­hart’s Law. When I tun­nel into that, and ask: What is the pri­mary way I ex­pect this to hap­pen?

I get a clear an­swer.


3. Games That Re­bal­ance Will Overbalance

3A. Cards, in­clud­ing many iconic cards that are core to the game, or to fac­tions/​col­ors/​classes, get nerfed.

Games with­out re­bal­anc­ing solve their most ex­treme prob­lems with bans. As the cost of ban­ning cards goes down via re­bal­anc­ing, they use this cheaper form of ban­ning cards more of­ten.

Eter­nal and Hearth­stone rely on re­bal­anc­ing. In both cases, it has been used fre­quently to nerf con­structed cards, re­sult­ing in effec­tive bans.

In both cases, it has not been used fre­quently (if at all) to strengthen cards in a way that re­sulted in the cards gain­ing con­structed level power and ap­pear­ing fre­quently.

See this com­pila­tion of Hearth­stone bal­ance changes, al­most all of which are cost in­creases or effect de­creases. Hearth­stone’s base set has con­tin­u­ously got­ten crap­pier, as its sta­ple cards have been taken out one at a time, to the ex­tent that a sub­stan­tial per­centage of the set has now fallen vic­tim. The rate slowed a lot when the beta ended, but the pat­tern con­tinued.

This is es­pe­cially bad when it tar­gets pow­er­ful cards that rep­re­sent a unique abil­ity of a color or fac­tion. The best ver­sions of these abil­ities need to be very good cards, so the abil­ities will be things worth sac­ri­fic­ing to get. You also don’t want more cards that do the same thing at the same power level, to avoid let­ting play­ers use tons of copies of the card. Red in Ar­ti­fact is bal­anced not around all its heroes be­ing big­ger and stronger than all oth­ers, but around its best heroes be­ing stronger than other col­ors’ best heroes. Hence (pre-patch) Axe and Le­gion Com­man­der, then a drop off. Druid in Heart­stone used to get In­ner­vate and Wild Growth, which bal­anced what other col­ors get, and has now mostly lost both.

Each iconic card that gets weak­ened dou­bly strength­ens the case for weak­en­ing the next one. The re­main­ing cards are com­par­a­tively stronger, and the bar to tak­ing ac­tion has gone down in both rel­a­tive and ab­solute terms.

3B. Cards that are already good will not get better

Ar­ti­fact’s first patch weak­ened or trans­formed two of its best heroes, and strength­ened five oth­ers. None of the five strength­ened heroes were pre­vi­ously playable in con­structed, and at most one of them is at all playable now.

One of its other two moves, the changes to Jasper Dag­gers, did cre­ate a pow­er­ful card with a unique new abil­ity. This was good to see in prin­ci­ple, if a lit­tle odd (and I do in some ways dis­like that you can get out from hav­ing all your heroes silenced, but we learn and adapt), and its pri­mary pur­pose was to serve as an ad­di­tional way to weaken one of the two in­jured heroes, by giv­ing play­ers an an­swer to Gust and thus to Drow Ranger.

Jasper Dag­gers was not an ex­am­ple of ‘we have a card that we’d like to be good enough, but peo­ple aren’t play­ing it, so we’ll push that hard more.’ It was also not an ex­am­ple of, ‘we have a card that peo­ple are play­ing, but we’d like them to play it more, so we’re go­ing to make it bet­ter’ or ‘we have a card peo­ple are play­ing, but we’d like to make the as­so­ci­ated decks stronger, so we’re go­ing to make it bet­ter.’ It was more like ‘we need this card to ex­ist, and can’t wait un­til we have an ex­pan­sion, so we’re go­ing to stick that card (with ag­gres­sive cost­ing) into the slot where we used to have Jasper Dag­gers.’

To pre­serve the fla­vor and con­nec­tion to the origi­nal Jasper Dag­gers, it was al­lowed to keep pierce. But this was much more of a ‘print a new card out of cy­cle’ ac­tion than a bal­ance change.

Eter­nal, un­like Hearth­stone, does of­ten strengthen cards, but like Ar­ti­fact’s hero im­prove­ments, it does so on cards that are not com­pet­i­tive, and does not in do­ing so cre­ate dan­ger­ous new cards. Con­sider the first change log I found on Google search, patch 1.39. That was also the patch that made me say ‘all right, I’m out with (al­most) no re­grets.’ The con­structed sec­tion takes down key long­time sta­ples Chan­nel the Tem­pest and Icaria, the Liber­a­tor, new­comer Auer­lian Mer­chant, and the what-did-I-ever-do-to-you-ex­cept-eat-your-face hid­den gem Preda­tory Carnosaur. Then the draft por­tion offers var­i­ous buffs and nerfs, with more buffs than nerfs, but none of those buffs are im­pact­ful on con­structed play, nor were they in­tended to be.

So in an im­por­tant sense, none of them count.


3C. Card power lev­els will con­verge and cards will be­come redundant

There is a range of sen­si­ble power differ­en­tials be­tween cards. Some­times, this move will be in the right di­rec­tion. For a time. But all slopes are slip­pery and ev­ery­thing is try­ing to kill you, if changes only go in one di­rec­tion.

The rest of this sec­tion risks be­ing some­thing that be­longed in Card Balance and Ar­ti­fact but I re­al­ized that the pre­vi­ous post didn’t re­ally jus­tify why such bal­ance could be a bad thing, so here we are.

Each fac­tion/​color will now have a wide va­ri­ety of op­tions to do each of its core things, within a rel­a­tively nar­row power level. De­ci­sions stop be­ing as in­ter­est­ing.

I like the idea that blue gets a sin­gle copy of a bro­ken counter, Mana Drain, then four copies of one great counter, Coun­ter­spell, then mediocre ones like Power Sink and Spell Blast. Or later, that you get Coun­ter­spell for UU, you get a con­di­tional Mana Leak for 1U, and then if you want more coun­ters like Dis­si­pate you’ll have to pay three mana for them and not get much in ex­change. No mat­ter what you’re look­ing for, you have big ten­sion, as there’s a marginal card that’s there to tempt you.

Or that red gets to play Light­ning Bolt, then it gets to play Chain Light­ning, then it gets to pay up for Fire­ball, or at least Incin­er­ate. Or that Druid in Hearth­stone gets In­ner­vate and Wild Growth, but only gets two of each and no sup­ple­men­tal op­tions half as good.

Magic now has a va­ri­ety of coun­ters available, mostly all the same. You spend three mana, and you get to counter a spell plus a lit­tle some­thing ex­tra, as many times as you want. I tested for the Pro Tour on Magic Arena with Sinister Sab­o­tage in­stead of Ionize, be­cause I didn’t feel like wast­ing rare wild­cards on Ionize. Close enough. Red similarly has a large num­ber of available burn spells at close power lev­els, none of which is a clear big re­ward for splash­ing the color like Light­ning Bolt is in Old School.

In Ar­ti­fact, it is im­por­tant that the fourth red hero is much worse than the sec­ond one. That’s one way you have to sac­ri­fice to get one color decks. Another is that your cards 35-40 are also go­ing to suck, and you’re go­ing to get less of the awe­some. Take those away, and we get a lot of mono-color decks and things are much less in­ter­est­ing. If mono-blue gets too good in Ar­ti­fact, which is easy to imag­ine, the risk is that they tar­get it by do­ing some­thing like push­ing An­nihilate to seven mana, which makes re­wards to di­verse col­ors that much worse rather than bet­ter.

Games also stop be­ing as in­ter­est­ing. We want a di­ver­sity of game ex­pe­riences, and hav­ing all the cards at similar power lev­els makes that much harder, and risks tak­ing out one of the good sources of var­i­ance and luck. Decks should have key cards that they very much want to draw, that games then re­volve around, and to do that those cards need to be big re­wards.

It seems like over time, we learn what play­ers will play and like it be­cause they need the effect in ques­tion, and we give them that, which to me takes the joy away. The cards are less spe­cial, you don’t have that ‘good stuff’ feel­ing that play­ers (and I in par­tic­u­lar) love. That idea that you’re get­ting away with some­thing and min­ing out the pre­mium qual­ity.

The coun­ter­ing force is new cards that re­store the im­bal­ance. As noted in the ad­van­tages sec­tion, re­bal­anc­ing en­ables this to be more ex­treme. That also car­ries its own dan­gers. Colors, and the game, be­come fo­cused each quar­ter on the ‘new hot­ness’ of the lat­est set, dis­en­fran­chis­ing ex­ist­ing cards and strate­gies and forc­ing play­ers to take up the new ones. Ex­ist­ing strate­gies need to get ma­jor help each set as the bal­ance shifts, or they fall away, so di­ver­sity is limited to what an in­di­vi­d­ual set can do. Core abil­ities like coun­ters and burn can’t get such boosts all that of­ten.

3D. Matchups be­come more bal­anced, cards get more com­plex and an­swers stop working

Brad Nel­son re­cently wrote an ar­ti­cle (be­hind the Star City Games pay­wall) where he cel­e­brated that Magic was em­brac­ing cards that could play in all situ­a­tions. He noted that one big ad­van­tage of this was that Arena’s best of one matches would make more sense, as side­boards would be less vi­tal. He also noted how he hates it when side­boards are about jam­ming lots of hate cards in that swing en­tire matchups.

I agree that this is hap­pen­ing. I strongly dis­agree that this is good.

I think Magic’s lack of hate cards, and its print­ing lots of cards (in­clud­ing but not limited to its planeswalk­ers) that have tons of ver­sa­tility and that always play well, as one of its key prob­lems. I think that Modern is great in large part be­cause if you want to beat any given thing, you mostly can do that quite re­li­ably, so things ad­just. It’s a lit­tle heavy handed, sure, but it gets the job done.

Most im­por­tantly, it guards us against mis­takes. If some­thing is out of hand, play­ers can re­spond with the hate un­til it is back in hand. Whereas in Stan­dard, we’ve seen cy­cle af­ter cy­cle where one or two decks proved to ‘play bet­ter Magic’ than oth­ers, once the good builds were found, and sud­denly en­tire col­ors couldn’t beat them no mat­ter how much they cared.

Side­board­ing that is sub­tle and in­volves small strate­gic shifts is su­per in­ter­est­ing, and it’s been great for Brad Nel­son, since he’s per­haps the world’s ex­pert in it. But it’s also highly dan­ger­ous, and I think it be­ing less dra­matic and ob­vi­ous hurts the av­er­age player ex­pe­rience.

Play­ers of­ten com­plain about matchups be­ing ‘too lop­sided’ as if this re­duces skill too much. In ex­tremus it can do that, but hav­ing ev­ery­thing be 55-45 to me is far worse. I much pre­fer things more bold. Not ev­ery good card, or ev­ery good deck, should be good at ev­ery task.

In prac­tice, I be­lieve that more tun­ing will lead to calls to even out these matchups, and for things to more ap­proach the 50-50-for-all world far too of­ten. Which also gets us to the next prob­lem.

3E. Decks be­come scripted and dictated

This is a strange re­sult. It seems back­wards.

One would ex­pect that with­out care­ful bal­ance, what­ever is strongest would emerge as strongest, and force ev­ery­one to use it.

In­stead, what we ac­tu­ally see is that de­vel­op­ment teams effec­tively do things like ‘This is the sec­ond three drop for the U/​G fly­ing deck and that deck needs a lit­tle help there to deal with the three-dam­age mass re­moval spell we used to bal­ance out the R/​G deck, so let’s move it to 34.’

Once the decks peo­ple want to play, slash the game wants to cre­ate, are iden­ti­fied, they are given tools that are fit­ted to an­swer the other fit­ted tools in the other decks. Cards that other sup­ported decks find hard to an­swer are weak­ened, cards that other sup­ported decks are strong against are not.

The idea that ‘these are the things, and they should all be roughly equal’ is a nat­u­ral thing to think, in and out of games. My Google News last week con­tained a Red­dit post on Hearth­stone en­ti­tled ‘we might have a prob­lem’ be­cause in the last week, the au­thor had faced one hero 30% of the time. As con­clu­sive ev­i­dence on its own. Out of nine pos­si­ble! That is a highly toxic thing to con­sider an is­sue. Even in his stats, you could see that the sec­ond most played class was a nat­u­ral an­swer to the most played one. This is one more rea­son to want to tie one’s hands. It’s also one more ex­am­ple of un­bal­anced matchups keep­ing things in check.

The re­sult is that strate­gies end up with more and more clearly cor­rect in­cluded cards, and less room for va­ri­ety and cre­ativity. There might be a lot of these scripted decks (e.g. Eter­nal has a ton of at least tier 2 op­tions be­cause of this) but each in­volves a core that’s been pre-se­lected, then a few choices be­tween similarly strong filler cards slash ad­just­ments to the curve or num­ber of re­moval spells or such, all of which are solid. There is rel­a­tively lit­tle need or temp­ta­tion to splash ad­di­tional col­ors or in­clude con­flict­ing strate­gies to im­prove card qual­ity or shore up weak­nesses.

By con­trast, when decks that are un­ex­pected take the stage, of­ten they have to play awk­ward cards that don’t work right but are nec­es­sary, or fill out re­quire­ments with cards that are out­right bad be­cause the deck wasn’t in­ten­tion­ally rounded out in that spot. Or they don’t have ev­ery­thing they nat­u­rally want so they are tempted to branch out into other col­ors or ac­tions rather than give up card qual­ity or flex­i­bil­ity.

Often those decks are the re­sult of some­one’s heroic effort, and/​or a win­dow where what is be­ing played be­comes un­bal­anced and opens things up to a not-as-nat­u­rally-strong idea. I don’t want to lose that.

When I re­turned to the Pro Tour, I came to Stan­dard with a Blue/​Black Faerie deck. As is strangely of­ten the case, I was a set too early, as Bit­terblos­som was in the next set and did not yet ex­ist. But with the use of Pen­delhaven and a will­ing­ness to play eight 11 high fly­ing one drops, my team had made the deck work, and it did quite well.

Be­fore the tour­na­ment, head de­vel­oper Aaron Forsythe asked to see the deck. I showed him.

When he asked who built the deck, I told him: You did.

There were ex­actly enough playable Faeries to make the deck work, so you played all of them. Then you played the ob­vi­ously best spells to com­ple­ment that. Then you were done. I’d put the deck to­gether, but in a real sense, Aaron dic­tated what it looked like.

I was wrong that day. Wizards had, with the aid of Bit­terblos­som, built a differ­ent and much bet­ter deck. Mine was my own cre­ation, and I came to re­al­ize this – I was mak­ing some­thing where there wasn’t (yet) sup­posed to be any­thing. More and more, though, this has be­come a rar­ity. Which is a shame.

One could flip that on its head, of course. By forc­ing cards to lock in, we might force things to be heavy handed, to make sure the in­tended strate­gies work, whereas with ad­just­ments we can see what peo­ple do and go from there in case we miss (or over­shoot). But then, in the end, it will ab­solutely be the game’s peo­ple choos­ing what the decks look like.

4. Conclusion

How ag­gres­sively and fre­quently should games, es­pe­cially digi­tal card games, re­bal­ance their com­po­nents?

Differ­ent games have differ­ent eco­nomic struc­tures and differ­ent goals, and want differ­ent things. My con­clu­sion, hav­ing looked at this from many an­gles, is that each game should em­brace a pat­tern. That pat­tern should ei­ther strongly fa­vor re­bal­anc­ing, or strongly fa­vor not re­bal­anc­ing. Games in the first sec­tion should use this tool to move their com­po­nents around in in­ter­est­ing ways on a con­tin­u­ous ba­sis. Games in the sec­ond sec­tion should do their best to avoid chang­ing their com­po­nents once they are set, and do so at most in emer­gen­cies where the al­ter­na­tive is a ban.

The biggest key for the first cat­e­gory is to avoid the trap of scal­ing back ev­ery­thing pow­er­ful and cool, and strength­en­ing only things that are still not very good. The other key is to not be afraid to try stuff and be in­con­sis­tent. It’s to­tally fine to change a cast­ing cost from four to six to three and then back to four, if that’s do­ing some­thing in­ter­est­ing. Try stuff. See what hap­pens. Build the ex­pec­ta­tion that play­ers will need to roll with the punches, and that what they’ve learned could prove un­helpful.

The biggest key for the sec­ond cat­e­gory is that you’re op­er­at­ing with­out a net. The benefits are hard to get. If you mess up, the mis­take is for­ever. That makes it hard to do in­ter­est­ing things with­out tak­ing big, real risks. Ro­ta­tion helps, but only goes so far. The idea of a pub­lic re­bal­anc­ing pe­riod, be­fore per­ma­nent own­er­ship of cards (or al­low­ing it, but with the known as­so­ci­ated risks) and dur­ing which cards can be changed, may be a good one – but it also might al­low the same kind of Good­hart’s Law prob­lems dis­cussed here in through the back door.

One can also think of re­bal­anc­ing cards as a type of gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion, with all its ad­van­tages and down­sides. The in­ter­ven­tion will al­most always be well-mean­ing, and seek to re­spond to the needs of the peo­ple. It has a prob­lem it is try­ing to help with. But it threat­ens peo­ple’s rights, prop­erty, and abil­ity to know how things work or pre­dict the fu­ture, and risks mak­ing things too much about what in­ter­ven­tions are cho­sen. Peo­ple fo­cus on the next ac­tion, what it should be, how to in­fluence it. If you do what is pop­u­lar or solves short term con­cerns, too of­ten, the re­sult ends up grad­u­ally be­ing more op­pres­sive in ways that can be hard to see. In­ter­ven­tions tend to be in one di­rec­tion, the gov­ern­ment is loathe to look like an idiot or to con­tra­dict it­self, and its moves be­come difficult to re­verse. On the other hand, there are real prob­lems that won’t solve them­selves, and things that get suffi­ciently out of bal­ance will stay out of bal­ance and make peo­ple un­happy and worse off if not ad­dressed.