The leaves are turning, the first crisp gusts of winter’s chill are in the air, and we’re in that delicious interval of anticipation between preview season and release day (coming this November 8th, come out to a release event for a sweet promo card).
This is the perfect time to talk about card evaluation and how—when the rubber hits the road—there are bound to be some surprises.
Preview season is one of my favorite times of the year. I love to see all of you reacting to cards I’ve been helping make for the better part of a year. Interestingly, I’ve noted that there tends to be a wee bit of hyperbole in the response. Card evaluations swing from “OMG SO BUSTED!!!” to “UNPLAYABLE!!!” with little space in between. Such is the nature of first impressions, excitement, and the internet. Potential is unlimited, minor imperfections get magnified. The reality, of course, is far more nuanced, but it is true that some cards are (or at least appear to be) better than others, so I’m going to talk about that today. Specifically, I’m going to talk about why “bad” cards happen and the myriad of ways that they are good for the game.
I’m going to begin with two assertions. First, it is impossible to make all cards equally strong. Second, even if we could, we wouldn’t want to.
At the Energon Open, I joked with a player that Primary Laser would be the perfect power level if it gave +2.3 attack. That’s not actually true (it’s close), but it highlights that a theoretically “correct” power level might not be achievable in the game system. Even if it were (and we were willing to make our players do multi-digit tracking and arithmetic) the real power level of a card is dependent on so many other cards that it’s not a quantifiable value. Card power levels are relative and interdependent, and even the simplest of cards is dependent on these interactions and synergies for their effective power level in game. Furthermore, because cards power is relative, if we make one card stronger, we’re effectively making all other cards a little bit weaker.
Good News, Bad News
There are many factors behind both the reality and the perception of a card’s power level and how it can change over the course of design and its time in the real world. I’m going to get into as many as I can fit in this article now. There are a lot, so I’m not going deep on any, but this is fertile ground, so I’ll surely come back to this in the future. I’ll break this up into three broad categories. Design Choices, Shifting Realities, and Humans.
These are deliberate choices we’ve made as a part of our effort to sculpt the play environment.
Focus on the fun – One of the axioms of game design is “Make the good thing fun and the fun thing good”. When we enjoy a mechanic in playtest, we’ll “Push it” – that is, we’ll make it a bit stronger so that it shows up more often and more people get to appreciate it. The more fun something is and the more people we think will like it, the harder we’ll push it. Now, different people like different things, so we’re pushing on many different areas at different levels. On the flip side, some mechanics and strategies provide an important function but aren’t themselves fun. Other strategies are beloved by a small fraction of players but annoying to the rest. In both these cases, there is value to them being represented in the game, but we moderate the power level so you don’t run into them constantly and get frustrated.
Play Formats – To grossly oversimplify, in limited formats individual card power is more important, while in constructed formats synergy is more important. This means that a card can be a powerhouse in one format while being underwhelming in another. A key part of evaluating a card is understand where it’s meant to be played. As an example, Private Greenlight really shines when she has a deck sculpted around her ability, something that’s challenging to do in a limited deck.
Fun when it’s not strong – As I mentioned above, some mechanics are important for balancing the game but become unfun when they are too strong. A classic example of these are cards that keep your opponent from playing the game. We’re very careful to make sure that cards like Jam Signals are strong enough to be situationally impactful without being oppressively powerful.
Deliberate Challenge – Fundamentally, card power comes down to the intersection of two axes: How big is the effect? And how hard is it to use? Sometimes the challenge is the point. Daring Escape was our first alternate win condition. These can be tricky to design. They need to be hard enough to pull off that it feels like a real accomplishment. Also, if we make them too easy, then they completely undermine the primary win condition of the game.
Marquee Characters – We are a part of a decades long franchise with dozens of stories and hundreds (if not thousands) of characters, many of whom are more prominent in the stories than others. Much like we will push mechanics that are fun, we will push characters who are iconic, beloved, and important.
Trading Card Games are not static, they’re in a constant state of flux, both as new cards are released and as players explore the existing cards and develop new decks and new strategies. Often a card isn’t fundamentally strong or weak, it’s just strong or weak at the moment.
Metagame shift – In a healthy metagame, the best decks change from week to week or month to month, and as they do what cards are good also shifts. The game is (within limits) a self-balancing system.
Answer cards – Cards that are designed to answer a specific strategy are deliberately set at a slightly lower base power level. That means that they only really become “playable” when the strategy they fight crosses a threshold of popularity. Hijack, for example, does absolutely nothing unless your opponent walks into it. These cards can seem weak but they’re an essential part of a healthy environment.
Seeds for the future – We have the advantage of foresight, so we like to seed cards in older sets that pay off in newer sets. There’s a great joy in finding an old gem in your collection and realizing that its day has finally come. You’ll find that Devastator really shines now that we have cards like Designated Target, a go-wide reward with two black battle icons. And I think you’ll all really enjoy it when the Siege II card <REDACTED> powers up with the future set <CENSORED>.
Finally, let us remember that despite being a game about giant robots turning into cars and trucks and planes, the Transformers TCG is designed for humans, by humans.
Discovery – Part of the joy of trading card games is the exploration. Being the first in your group to find the underappreciated card and demonstrate its power. We build a rich and complex environment so that you can spend months searching and crafting and tweaking and testing and still being surprised by things you had overlooked or taken for granted.
We’re Human – We work very hard to make the best game possible for you (and I think we’ve done a pretty good job), but we intentionally design our sets to be more complicated than we can completely understand. If we didn’t, the player community would solve the environment a day after the set released. There would be no discovery left. So, we have to trust our experience, our instincts, and our testing, knowing that there will always be something we missed. Normal variation means that some cards will be more powerful than we expected, and some will be less.
You’re Human – Players evaluate cards based on what is more than on what will be. When a new set comes out, people tend to evaluate new cards in the context of old cards, rather than in the context of the other new cards, which can create a skewed perception. It is all but impossible to understand the impacts of an environment until it’s been played. Context is everything.
Process and Risk – We have a fixed amount of time for design before cards have to be sent off to production and we’re “pencils down”. Sometimes you don’t figure out that a card is unprintable until late in the process. When you do, there are a lot of limitations on what can change. Usually art has been commissioned, so any changes you make need to work with the new art. Since there is limited time to test a new design, often the safest choice is to weaken the card until we know it won’t be a problem.
Bad Form? Good Idea.
As I asserted at the beginning, even if we could give all cards the exact same power level, we wouldn’t. Having laid out all the reasons why it’s inevitable, let’s finally turn to why it’s good.
Deck Building – If all the cards were exactly the same power level, then deck building would be irrelevant. Just slap a stack together and start playing. We want you exploring the synergies, trading base power for combo-rific interactions. Tweaking and tuning for specific board states or opposing decks.
Skill Testing – We want your skill at evaluating cards and putting them into decks to matter. If you’re investing time and energy into improving these aspects of the game, we want you to see and feel the impact when you play with more mastery in the game and a higher win rate.
Progression – As you get better, we want you to be able to see your own progress, to look back at a card and understand it in a way that your younger self couldn’t.
Discovery – We want every new set to be the beginning of an adventure, with pitfalls and treasure to be discovered.
Power variance makes all of these things happen.
I hope this article encourages you to look back at spoiler season. See if you’ve fallen into any card evaluation traps. Then, look forward to the War for Cybertron: Siege II release events, starting November 8th.
Let’s see what surprises are in store for everyone.