Card Balance and Artifact

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Pre­vi­ously: Ar­ti­fact Em­braces Card Balance Changes, Card Col­lec­tion and Ownership


Card Balance

To what ex­tent should cards in a col­lectible card game be in­ten­tion­ally un­bal­anced?

Be­fore Ar­ti­fact’s re­cent changes, it was clear that Axe was the best red hero, and Drow Ranger was the best green hero. Play­ing a red deck with­out Axe, or a green deck with­out Drow Ranger, was not a strate­gic choice. It was a sure sign that the player didn’t own the card in ques­tion.

Is that… bad?

Queens are bet­ter than rooks, which are bet­ter than bishops. On a level play­ing field be­tween play­ers, there’s noth­ing wrong with that.

If ev­ery­one was con­struct­ing a chess deck, and it was always a king and queen, two rooks, two bishops, two knights and eight pawns, some­thing would have gone wrong some­where, even if the game re­mained chess. But what if ev­ery­one who owned them always played a queen and usu­ally two rooks, but dis­agreed about how many bishops and knights to use? That might be fine. Espe­cially if given a few similar other pieces as op­tions.

Colors are bal­anced by giv­ing each uniquely pow­er­ful cards and abil­ities. Decks and strate­gies are cre­ated by giv­ing out pow­er­ful tools to choose be­tween.

The ten­sion be­tween the card that fits your color re­quire­ments, the card that does the thing you want, and the most pow­er­ful cards, is cen­tral to any col­lectible card game.

What ev­ery­one agrees is bad are op­pres­sive decks.

To only a lesser ex­tent is an op­pres­sive color or card an is­sue.

When fields in Magic’s stan­dard for­mat were re­cently over 50% very similar red/​black decks, with noth­ing even the best play­ers could do about it, that was very bad. In that case, it was too late to pull out the ban­ham­mer, so we rode out the dam­age. But there is a clear is­sue that Magic’s stan­dard for­mat seems re­cently to be quite vuln­er­a­ble to hav­ing a Best Deck take over and prov­ing un­able to ad­just to fix it.

If there were eight tier one decks, each with a differ­ent strat­egy, but there was a card that was in all of them, would that be a prob­lem? It would in­di­cate a likely color im­bal­ance. That would be an is­sue. But so long as games were not too of­ten de­ter­mined by who drew this ex­cel­lent card, it would not be a ma­jor con­cern of mine. The more generic the card, the less con­cerned I would be.

Games need build­ing blocks. If cards like Shock, Duress or Can­cel be­came au­to­matic in­cludes for a time, as long there’s still room left for cus­tomiza­tion, it seems mostly fine.

Now re­turn to Axe and Drow Ranger.

From one point of view, pre-change Axe was a key part of What Red Does in Ar­ti­fact, and Drow Ranger was a key part of What Green Does in Ar­ti­fact.

If you play red, you play Axe and Le­gion Com­man­der, then if you have a third hero it was prob­a­bly but not ob­vi­ously Bristle­back. If you wanted five red heroes, you’d have to ac­cept some bench­warm­ers like Beast­mas­ter and Ursa, or now Tim­ber­saw. I have heard talk of Pugna or an oc­ca­sional Sven or Tide­hun­der, even in decks with a sec­ond color.

If you play green, you play Drow Ranger, then you have a sec­ond tier group of Om­niknight, Mag­nus, Trent Pro­tec­tor and Ly­can, and ar­guably Rix, Abad­don and Chen, from which you choose your ad­di­tional heroes ac­cord­ing to what you pre­fer and what your deck is up to. Trent Pro­tec­tor is usu­ally what com­pet­i­tive green wants to be do­ing, so it usu­ally ends up with the two slot.

What about blue and black?

Blue’s best hero is prob­a­bly Kanna, but it’s not ob­vi­ous or uni­ver­sal, fol­lowed by Luna, Zeus and Ogre Magi, then likely Sky­wrath Mage. Spe­cial­ists can get some work out of Prel­lex, Veno­mancer or Crys­tal Maiden.

Black’s best hero is Phan­tom As­sas­sin, which should be all but uni­ver­sal. The sec­ond tier is Bounty Hunter (which is much stronger now that Axe does not kill him in one blow and can’t ever sur­vive two of his), Sorla Kahn, Tinker, Sniper and Lich. I can see ar­gu­ments for any of them. If you run mono-black, Storm Spirit be­comes playable.

Each color has twelve heroes, one of which is the fal­lback free ba­sic hero. Of the 48 heroes, I just named 32 of them. That’s not only a lot of heroes, that’s two thirds of all the heroes in Ar­ti­fact. Each color has a sig­na­ture hero so that hero qual­ity is stronger in decks with ex­tra col­ors, but most heroes have a con­structed pur­pose.

What, then, went wrong? Why was this not ac­cept­able? Here are some the­o­ries, which likely com­bined to cause the is­sue.

  1. The cards in ques­tion, Axe and Drow Ranger, are rare and cost dol­lars.

This is definitely a lot of it. We had head­lines like “The most ex­pen­sive card in Ar­ti­fact costs more than the game” be­ing thrown around, de­spite this re­flect­ing that the game is cheap, and only be­ing true for a day or so due to a much in­flated price.

If the dom­i­nant red hero had been the un­com­mon Le­gion Com­man­der in­stead of Axe, I doubt there would have been half as much com­plain­ing. By defi­ni­tion, if some­thing is rare, it is go­ing to be tough for ev­ery­one to have enough copies of it. The situ­a­tion can be seen as a money grab, where cards that are effec­tively re­quired for play are not suffi­ciently available.

Iron­i­cally, I also be­lieve that if Ar­ti­fact had con­tained mythic rares, but Axe and Drow Ranger had re­mained rares with similar rar­ity per pack, then there would have been far fewer com­plaints about Axe and Drow Ranger.

Magic, on the other hand, kind of jus­tifies need­ing four copies of cards that cost a similar amount and have a similar rar­ity to Axe or Drow Ranger. Even though you also of­ten need four copies of mythic rares, and you need four copies of each card in­stead of one for heroes in Ar­ti­fact.

What is salient, and what is ac­tu­ally go­ing on un­der the hood, are not as linked as one might hope.

For packs to be worth money, some­thing in them needs to gen­er­ate that value. If there are no rares (or mythic rares) to do that, packs won’t be valuable. That has some po­ten­tially quite bad con­se­quences, but that is an­other topic.

2. Heroes in Ar­ti­fact are there ev­ery game and don’t stay dead

It is one thing if ev­ery deck has Axe.

It is an­other thing if ev­ery game starts with Axe in play.

It is a third thing if kil­ling off Axe means he comes back two turns later. Which he does.

If play­ers un­der­stood this as analo­gous to the queen in a chess game (and chess is an in­ter­est­ing metaphor for Ar­ti­fact, more so than it is for Magic), then they might be fine with the idea, but most play­ers didn’t see it that way. And yes, it has to be pretty an­noy­ing when the card you don’t own is there ev­ery game and won’t stay dead.

3. Heroes in Ar­ti­fact de­ter­mine the flavor

Not sure this one was im­por­tant, but I definitely no­ticed it. Ar­ti­fact has a won­der­ful set of voiced lines for its var­i­ous heroes and creeps, de­pend­ing on situ­a­tions and the com­bi­na­tions of cards in play. My fa­vorite mo­ment play­ing is still when Crys­tal Maiden shouted out “I fi­nally get to kill some­one!” If I never get to play Crys­tal Maiden, I miss out on that type of dis­cov­ery. Axe and the other top tier heroes have good lines too, and more of them, but by now I have heard them all.

Play­ers who are com­ing from DOTA 2, and who are more en­gaged with the world, story and char­ac­ters, have even more rea­son to want more va­ri­ety of heroes to be played.

4. Heroes in DOTA 2 are all playable or close to it, and are con­stantly rebalanced

DOTA 2 has an in­sane num­ber of heroes, such that the bar­rier to full en­try is be­yond pro­hibitive. I re­cently saw in my Google news feed a recom­men­da­tion that play­ers who want to be good at the game choose 2-3 heroes and stick to them, so you could fo­cus on other as­pects of the game, but that it was fine to choose any of the dozens and dozens for your spe­cial­iza­tion.

Com­ing from that con­text, even with­out the fla­vor con­sid­er­a­tions, it’s easy to see why one might have oth­er­wise un­re­al­is­tic or un­wise de­mands for heroes to be bal­anced against each other. It’s also easy to see why they think re­bal­anc­ing heroes isn’t an is­sue.

To me, hav­ing some awful choices (also known as ‘skill testers’) is ac­tively great, and not only for limited play, be­cause (among other rea­sons, Mark Rose­wa­ter has writ­ten ex­ten­sively about this) it means some peo­ple can try to make them work for fun, and new play­ers get to learn about what is good by figur­ing out which cards are bad.

5. Com­plex­ity and lack of pro­gres­sion is­sues were misi­den­ti­fied, and play­ers be whining

The play­ers gonna play, play, play, play, play but they also gonna com­plain, com­plain, com­plain, com­plain, com­plain. One of those com­plaints is always that some­thing in a game is too good, or not good enough.

That doesn’t mean their com­plaints are in­valid, but it does mean that even in the best of times the com­plaints ex­ist and ‘have to go some­where.’

In this case, it was not the best of times for other rea­sons. Play­ers lacked any pro­gres­sion or rank­ing sys­tem (other than the mis­named ‘perfect run’ count that pisses me off ev­ery time I go 5-1 and it counts as ‘perfect’). Play­ers were all start­ing from zero in a su­per com­plex and hard to un­der­stand game. Play­ers were start­ing with zero col­lec­tion. Play­ers were com­par­ing the game to the ‘free-to-play’ model purely on cost and look­ing for ways to be frus­trated by the ex­pense, rather than com­par­ing Ar­ti­fact to Magic, or to an AAA soft­ware ti­tle, or think­ing of the game as a $20 un­limited draft­ing ex­pe­rience with an up­side op­tion.

So play­ers be whin­ing more than av­er­age, es­pe­cially about var­i­ous as­pects of the eco­nomic model. This then spilled over into card bal­ance com­plaints be­com­ing louder than they would have oth­er­wise been.

6. Deck bal­ance was hurt by player inexperience

I talked a bit about this in pre­vi­ous posts but I’ll re­it­er­ate a bit.

In the ex­pert (now ‘prize’) con­structed queue, you faced Red/​Black ag­gres­sion a lot, and still do. When one deck dom­i­nates, play­ers see the situ­a­tion as bro­ken and de­mand ac­tion and change.

Those of us who have been around since the Alpha, or play or watch the ma­jor tour­na­ments now, know that Red/​Black was never a prob­lem for ex­perts. It is a low tier one deck, at best fourth strongest. I am always happy to see my op­po­nent play­ing it from a win-ex­pec­ta­tion stand­point. De­spite that, I some­times think ‘again?’ since I am play­ing to have fun and to learn, not to get easy wins or grind out free packs.

Over time, with or with­out the changes, play­ers would de­velop and learn ad­di­tional strong strate­gies, and the new hot­ness would change. The re­sult­ing red decks would have still used Axe, and the green decks would have still used Drow Ranger, but the rest of the decks would have been more di­verse, and that would have taken a lot of the pres­sure off.

7. Play­ers never bought into the eco­nomic model

If you don’t own Axe, Axe be­ing ex­pen­sive looks bad. That is money out of your pocket.

If you own Axe, Axe be­ing ex­pen­sive does not look bad to you. If you own a lot of copies of Axe, it looks mighty fine, thank you very much.

When ev­ery player is start­ing fresh with no col­lec­tion is ex­actly the time for play­ers to hate ev­ery­thing that is ex­pen­sive or nec­es­sary, and want en­try to be cheap. Only later will they re­al­ize the up­side of pre­serv­ing value.

Which is an­other way of say­ing, no, play­ers don’t care about card own­er­ship and value. At least, not yet.

8. Equal­ity and card bal­ance is the level zero instinct

Peo­ple in­stinc­tively hate in­equal­ity (un­less they have the bet­ter deal). Be­cause of rea­sons. Some are even good rea­sons.

The nat­u­ral in­stinct of most play­ers is to want all the cards to be mostly equal. That seems like the most fun and in­ter­est­ing op­tion.

I had that prefer­ence in Magic for years, as a pro­fes­sional whose dream was to work in Magic R&D. It took years of con­ver­sa­tions with those who make the game, and the game’s top play­ers and writ­ers and thinkers, to un­der­stand why this in­stinct was wrong.

Since then, bet­ter ex­pla­na­tions have be­come available, so it is eas­ier to get to where one un­der­stands these is­sues bet­ter and em­braces card in­equal­ity.

Com­pare the situ­a­tion now along all these di­men­sions, with the situ­a­tion when Ar­ti­fact was be­ing tested. The play­ers were more heav­ily in­vested in time and at­ten­tion. They played bet­ter, and fo­cused on differ­ent decks (partly be­cause a few cards were differ­ent, but mostly for other rea­sons). The metagame shifted mul­ti­ple times. They had richer ex­pe­riences with col­lectible card games and their long term needs. They had un­limited card ac­cess for test­ing pur­poses.

I be­lieve strongly that, not only for limited but also con­structed pur­poses, cards should not be of equal power level. There should be sta­ple cards that are in many or most decks of the ap­pro­pri­ate color. There should be very good cards that are difficult to use for var­i­ous rea­sons, from re­quiring other effects to work, to be­ing a myr­iad of col­ors. There should be bad cards that are ex­actly what you need in spe­cial situ­a­tions, and good cards that aren’t what you need as of­ten as you would like or ex­pect. There should be bad cards, and ter­rible cards, to provide skill test­ing and fun quirky ex­pe­riences.

Play­ers should be ex­cited to go out and get bet­ter cards that up­grade their op­tions and power level. Not hav­ing ac­cess to the cards should hurt you, so long as hav­ing full ac­cess is a rea­son­able goal for the se­ri­ous. De­mand should be driven. That’s the point.

Wizards does this con­sciously with Magic: The Gather­ing. They take each set, and they ‘push’ se­lected cards to make them the cream of the crop. Planeswalk­ers fre­quently get the nod, as do many other rares and mythics. They are not sub­tle about this. Their preferred cards will fre­quently hit you over the head with a ‘play this, ev­ery­one!’ They do it more and more ob­vi­ously and dra­mat­i­cally than I would like, but some of it is good to get peo­ple ex­cited and shake things up.

One al­ter­na­tive would be dra­mat­i­cally smaller card sets. If ev­ery card is good enough, then you would want less of them to get the same level of depth, com­plex­ity and choice. You would also want less of them to avoid giv­ing decks with limited col­ors (or similar fac­tions) similar card qual­ity to multi-color decks, and leave peo­ple in­ter­est­ing choices. Rather than think of ‘take these 1000 cards we print each year, and in­stead of 250 of them be­ing vi­able and 50 be­ing the top, make it 750 and 250’ and think in­stead of ‘only print 400 cards.’ Or, hav­ing printed a set, re­bal­ance ex­ist­ing cards pe­ri­od­i­cally and make less new ex­pan­sions over time. Those both seem more like re­duc­ing choice and dis­cov­ery. I don’t think they are bet­ter.

This brings us to the re­lated but dis­tinct ques­tion of card re­bal­anc­ing, which I’ll talk about next time. You can em­brace a goal of cards be­ing bal­anced or un­bal­anced, with­out im­ply­ing a stand about when cards should change.