Card Balance and Artifact


Previously: Artifact Embraces Card Balance ChangesCard 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.