As many (if not most) of you know, last week we banned the battle card Multi-Mission Gear in order to combat the rise of the Daring Escape combo deck, which could win the game out of nowhere (sometimes even on your opponent’s turn), was very hard to interact with, and was tremendously frustrating to play against.
This announcement was met by you, the community, with reactions ranging from celebration to consternation. We were sorry that the announcement couldn’t have more detail, but due to the proximity to both the Thanksgiving holiday in the US and the Energon Invitational itself, we judged that it was more important to get the message out as fast as possible and save the more detailed explanation for a future article.
That article, as promised, is here. This will be a weighty article, as we will be going into a great deal of detail on a number of topics, including:
- How did the combo work?
- How was the player base supposed to deal with this?
- How does the ban address the problem?
- Why ban now, so close to the invitational?
- What other fixes were tried? Why didn’t we solve the problem <Other way>?
- Why do we ban cards?
- What goes into banning cards?
- How do we know this won’t keep happening?
- You should have seen this coming! AKA, why don’t you design cards better?
Part 1: The Ban
How did the combo work?
There are a number of variants, but generally they worked by assembling a team of specialists and a character that can generate multiple action and/or upgrade plays (like Springer or Cog). You build a board of upgrades, aided by the Specialist upgrades (Multi-Tool, Multi-Mission Gear, and Field Communicator) and the extra Action and Upgrade plays they grant you. Eventually you chain into a massive Equipment Enthusiast to draw a bunch more cards. A Quartermaster with Heavy Defensebreaker Cannon or a Showing Off with Springer lets you keep the chain going. If you ever stall out, Red Heat is one of your specialists, allowing you to tap for a “Swap Parts” effect to kick-start the chain again. Eventually, your entire deck is either in your hand, attached to your characters, or in the Played area, and you play Daring Escape to win the game.
This combo is technically challenging to execute, but is quite reliable, hard to interact with, and much faster than we want to see any combo positioned in the metagame.
What was supposed to happen?
War for Cybertron: Siege II (known internally as simply “Wave 4” when we were designing it) deliberately introduced our first alternate win condition with Daring Escape. We did this for several reasons. It was far enough into the evolution of the game that we wanted to make something that had never been done in our game that the players would find exciting. We wanted to give a fun challenge to rogue deckbuilders. And, it was a perfect expression of the final moment of the War for Cybertron as the Autobots gather as much as they can before leaving their home world forever.
Alt-win conditions are only fun to play with or against when they are hard to pull off. As the person playing them, you need to feel like you accomplished something for them to be rewarding. As a player on the other side of the table, if you see them once in a while, they’re a breath of fresh air that forces you to fight along a different axis than you’re used to. If you have to face them every round of a tournament or every night with your friend group, then they become frustrating and monotonous. For all these reasons, we target these decks to be casually competitive at best, and we design them to have multiple weak points that their opponent’s sideboard cards can attack.
Wave 4 was released with a multitude of answer cards, including Private Turbo Board, Raider Caliburst, Raider Needler, Raider Brunt, Decipher, Hijack, Jam Signals, and Overheat. These cards (and others) were included to fight a number of potentially problematic decks (including the Daring Escape deck). They are tools for the players to sculpt their own decks to counter the metagame environment. If draw decks become too strong, then more people play Hijack to fight them, and the draw decks become consequently weaker. When all cards are “in-bounds” and the right tools are available, the environment is self-balancing.
Daring Escape was intended to be a slow deck. Over the course of several turns, you would accumulate cards in your hand and on your characters, while playing Daring Escape to slim down your deck. Eventually, after many turns, you’ve reduced your deck enough that you can play Daring Escape one more time for the win. You can fight that version of the deck by racing if your deck is sufficiently aggressive, or you can fight your opponent’s hand size and card draw with cards like Hijack, System Reboot, and Fog of War, or you can fight Daring Escape itself with a well-timed Espionage or Jam Signals. We expected that one or two people (people who like to bring something spicy to a tournament) would play it at the Energon Invitational, and that if they played very well and got a little lucky, one of them might be in contention for top 8.
What Went Wrong
I am confident that version of Daring Escape is totally fine. The problem (which I will discuss in more detail below) occurred when it met up with the remnants of the Swap Parts/Specialist Combo deck. In fact, calling this deck a Daring Escape deck belies the problem. It’s blaming a nail for the 80-pound sledgehammer behind it. We should call it the Specialist Combo Deck. Once the engine gets going, it generates so much value that you just need a spout to direct it through. Back in the late spring, we had a version of Specialist Combo that won by taking infinite turns and casting Plasma Burst enough times to win, but we never called it a Plasma Burst deck.
As we were becoming aware of the Daring Escape incarnation of the Specialist Combo deck first internally and then watching it percolate through the community, we were testing and assessing whether the safeguards we had put into place would be sufficient to contain the threat. At that time, our evaluation was that the combo was too strong, but the available tools (especially Turbo Board) could keep it in check. We were expecting the majority of players to be aware of the combo and be running Turbo Board (or a suite of other sideboard options), and that would be enough to keep the combo deck from running the tables. That wasn’t an ideal situation, because having a single deck tax people’s sideboards that much really distorts metagames and keeps people from being able to tune their decks the way they want. We didn’t like it, but there is a high bar for banning a card, and we believed that the problem would be contained.
We remained concerned, though, and continued testing, checking tournament results and reports, and watching as the community expressed their concerns. There was no one thing that drove us to this action: a preponderance of evidence everywhere we looked.
Having decided that the problem was significant enough to merit action, we needed to come to a course of action that would ensure that the Energon Invitational (and future tournament play) was a positive experience. For clarity’s sake, I will focus on the banning of Multi-Mission Gear here. I will go much deeper on other options we considered later in this article.
While we did consider just banning Daring Escape, we recognized that the real villain was the Specialist Combo engine that drove it. If we had gone through with that plan, the combo would just be out there lurking, waiting for another seemingly benign card to turn into a monster. We had to attack the root of the combo.
Most combo decks break down into two fundamental parts. A resource accumulator and a conversion engine. In Specialist Combo, the resource accumulator is the card draw from cards like Equipment Enthusiast, Heavy Defensebreaker Cannon, Springer, and Drill Arms, and the engine is the Specialist Equipment (Multi-Tool, Multi-Mission Gear, and Field Communicator), Heavy Defensebreaker Cannon, Springer, and (by extension) Red Heat and Quartermaster. You can turn cards into extra plays (Action and Upgrade plays) and then turn plays into more cards. If you are net positive on the loop, then you can chain indefinitely. We needed to find a way to disrupt this loop and (even more importantly) ensure that we didn’t accidentally enable it in the future by printing new cards.
The good thing about breaking a loop is that you can break it anywhere, so you can pick the spot that is the easiest to disrupt. The challenging thing is that this combo is not a single loop but rather dozens of overlapping loops. We needed to find the common point, the linchpin that could stop or slow down all the loops.
The core of the combo engine is repeatedly attaching multiple equipment to characters to generate many simultaneous extra Action and Upgrade plays. We realized that the only card that could reliably generate more action plays was Multi-Mission Gear. This was borne out by our testing. It’s clear when you play the deck that the turning point of executing the combo is when you get the Multi-Mission gear trigger with large hand and you can start sculpting the rest of your plays. Being able to (for example) Brainstorm into Equipment Enthusiast into Confidence into Quartermaster all but guarantees that you are going to chain into a win.
We have multiple Actions that let you play more Actions and also multiple Actions that let you play more Upgrades. Similarly, we have multiple Upgrades that let you play more Upgrades, but through no great plan (only just how the card designs have fallen), there is only one Upgrade that lets you play an Action without being limited by a timing window (I’ll get to how that’s important later). Removing that one card from the environment severs the loop after one iteration and keeps the upgrade swapping from leading to more actions (other than Field Communicator, which is too inconsistent to be relied on).
Further, Multi-Mission Gear is even more critical for the versions of the deck that can go off on your opponent’s turn, which also dodge Turbo Board, the strongest hate card against the combo deck.
Banning Multi-Mission Gear still allows you to get a lot of value out of this engine, it just keeps the engine from running indefinitely. For all these reasons, it was the clear choice.
Why take this action so close to the Energon Invitational?
As I mentioned above, there is a high bar for banning a card. No one likes to be told that they can’t play with one of their cards. We don’t like to do it unless it will dramatically improve a play environment. This becomes complicated the closer we are to a major event. We recognize that people go through a lot of time and effort to find the cards to play in a deck and then to build and tune that deck. We don’t want to undo all of that work. But, we also recognize that a major event like the Energon Invitational is very important to our players. Some people are driving thousands of miles or crossing the ocean to attend. It’s a celebration of the first year (and change) of the game with the coveted prize of getting the opportunity to contribute in a very tangible way to the future of Transformers TCG. We don’t want an event that’s a mix of one-sided blowouts and combo mirror matches. Nobody would enjoy that, and nobody would feel like they were able to show that they were the best. We (and you) want a dynamic event with a healthy variety of decks, fast, fun, and interactive play, and the opportunity for each of you to have all of your practice and deck tuning make a difference.
Whenever we make a ban decision, we’re weighing whether we are improving the health of the environment more than we’re inconveniencing our players. In this case, it absolutely is.
We explored a number of other alternatives to banning Multi-Mission Gear. I’ll go into more detail on those here, as well as several that members of the community have suggested or asked about.
Ban Equipment Enthusiast
We gave serious thought to banning Equipment Enthusiast as our solution. It is by far the most powerful card draw in the deck. The problem is twofold. First, we couldn’t be sure that it would be enough. There is other card draw in the deck and other card draw in the environment that could replace it, and while it will be less efficient, the difference might not be sufficient to kill the combo. Furthermore, card draw is a simple and useful piece of design space that can be strong in a lot of decks. We knew that whatever part of the loop we tried to cut out would introduce a design constraint for a long period of time, if not the lifetime of the game. If we introduced that constraint on something as ubiquitous and fundamental as card draw, that would prevent us from making dozens, if not hundreds of future cards.
Ban Daring Escape
As I mentioned above, we did consider banning Daring Escape, but while that might have been a short-term solution, it would leave future versions of Specialist Combo lurking as a potential hazard in perpetuity. We felt that it was better to address the problem head on. Also, Daring Escape is a unique, flavorful, and exciting card, with the potential to create a whole (fair) deck around it, and we didn’t want to lose that if possible.
Add a new rule to the game
We discussed adding a new rule to the game, such as having a hard hand limit of 7 cards, in order to make it harder to accumulate enough cards in hand to effectively Daring Escape. This had a multitude of issues:
- Any time you add a new rule to the game, it increases the complexity, which makes the game harder to play and raises the barrier to entry, making it harder for new people to get in. Each individual step might not seem like a lot, but those costs are with us forever, so we have to be very careful about paying them.
- Normally, hand limits are implemented with an end-of-turn discard, but that wouldn’t work in this case, as the combo completes in the middle of the turn. We would have to have an awkward rule like “Whenever you draw a card while you have 7 or more cards in hand, scrap cards in your hand until you have 7 cards in hand.” We also have to be careful with rules like this because they can burn us with unintended consequences in unforeseen ways down the line.
- It’s not clear that this would do enough to slow down the combo. Once you get the engine going, it tends to generate enough fuel to keep going. With a few more cycles, you might be able to get to a similar win state with fewer cards in hand and more in the played area. It might be more likely to peter out, but we needed a solution we could have confidence in.
- Once again, this wasn’t addressing the root of the problem (Specialist Combo), it was a bandage applied to the output of the combo.
“Change the rules for upgrades attaching to new characters in the battlefield”
We see and hear this one a lot in discussions of this issue, so I want to address it here.
First of all, there is a bit of a misconception inherent in this suggestion. This is not asking for a rules change, it’s asking for a card text change. The relevant ability reads “When you put this on a Specialist…”. That’s pretty unambiguous. We templated the cards this way because it was simple, clear, and understandable, and we value the design space of being able to re-trigger the abilities when you moved them around. This is a request for card errata, and that is a major undertaking. We would be effectively telling people to not believe the cards. “Oh, that thing that the card says? That’s not what it says at all.”
We do issue errata from time to time. Broadly speaking, there are three categories of errata. Non-functional errata are usually a case of “We found a better way to phrase this that’s less confusing and doesn’t change how the card plays.”, the new card text would be included on future printings of the card. Functional errata tend to be fixing editing and printing mistakes. If card text is ambiguous or non-sensical, we will issue errata to clarify the card and ensure that everyone plays it consistently. One of the litmus tests of functional errata is that when you show a player both the card text and the errata-ed text their reaction is “of course”. Power level errata are a subset of functional errata where the motivation is not an unclear or non-functioning card but rather an attempt to balance the card after the fact.
Let’s entertain this suggestion for a moment to illustrate the challenges associated with power level errata. Imagine that we chose to errata the specialist equipment to all read “When you put this on a Specialist from your hand…”. First, we are asking players to constantly remember invisible text on their cards. Second, there are a lot of cards with very similar templates, so do we invisible change to dozens of cards? Or do we create an invisible rule for an invisible change on a subset of those cards? Either way, it’s an additional burden on players. Next, how do we communicate this change? We can’t just post an article as the majority of our players never read articles or interact with us directly. They’re just happy to collect cards and play games with their friends. If we create a rule that is communicated to the enfranchised player base, but can’t be communicated to everyone else, suddenly people are playing two different versions of the game. And, the instant those two populations meet you have unending awkwardness, as one player says, “this is what the card does” and another says, “No, trust me, there’s a website that says it’s this other thing. Want to check it out on my phone?”
A Ban with a Plan
Banning a card is never a great thing. It can be the “least bad” solution. It’s cleaner than errata, more sustainable than rules changes, and better than leaving an unhealthy metagame untended, disappointing players and driving people away from the game.
All that being said, being willing to ban cards is a GREAT thing. If we weren’t it would mean we had to be super conservative in all of our card designs. We wouldn’t be able to take any risks, which would make all of our cards less exciting.
We do want to provide a bit more insight into our thought process for bannings.
- Without allowing ourselves to be afraid of banning, we want there to be a high bar for stepping in to ban a card. We trust the players to find the cards in the environment that help regulate a problem. It’s only when those regulatory cards don’t exist or the problem can’t be reliably answered by cards that we want to step in.
- It is critical to understand the nature of the problem we are trying to solve, otherwise we’re just deferring the problem. This is what happened with our ban of Swap Parts. We thought we understood what the true culprit was, but now that we and the game have had time to grow and evolve a bit, we realized that initially, we didn’t identify the underlying cause.
- Usually, it’s the intersection between multiple cards that causes ban-worthy problems, so there are often multiple candidates to choose from. Where possible:
- We prefer to ban the narrower card, since that will impact fewer decks and cut off less design space.
- We prefer to ban cards that have the potential to be problematic in the future, so we don’t have to repeat the process
- We prefer to ban cards that have “fair” equivalents, so that people who have built non-problematic decks around those cards have an alternative to turn to.
- We prefer to ban the older card, as that card has already had its time in the sun. Though, I should note that this is at most a tiebreaker if all other considerations are equal.
Part 2: Next steps
I hope that that has answered at least a few of your questions. The question now is “what happens next?”
As we were designing Wave 2, we had to decide whether it was more fun to have strong card draw or to have strong bonus play cards. We went with stronger card draw because the game naturally runs out of cards in hand without it and having a progressive increase of options through the game tends to be more enjoyable. Multi-Mission Gear and Multi-Tool refund their play cost (with some nuance), but not their card cost. Consequently, they became a better and better deal as card draw got stronger.
With far more understanding of Multi-Mission Gear’s position in the environment and its contribution to loop decks than we had when we designed it over a year and a half ago, we have implemented a new internal design rule that prohibits upgrades that generate unconstrained action plays. This doesn’t mean there will never be a way to chain upgrades into actions, just that they need to be constrained by timing (like Anticipation Engine) so they can trigger once per turn and not an unlimited number of times, or they need to be unreliable (like Field Communicator).
Similarly, while we are keeping an eye on cards like Brainstorm that can let you branch into multiple actions, we believe that they can safely exist because once again they are a one-shot effect, not one that can be easily and repeatably triggered.
As I mentioned above, we now believe that Multi-Mission Gear was a more problematic part of the “Swap Parts Deck” than Swap Parts was. Swap Parts is still a very powerful card, but we will be investigating (in the future, certainly not this week) whether we can safely unban Swap Parts.
We believe that combo decks (at an appropriate power level and speed) are an important part of a healthy metagame. Combo decks, by virtue of their non-standard path to victory are a strong metagame answer that helps prevent the rise of ultra-defensive decks that prevent all damage and/or repair damage faster than can be dealt. Beyond that, they provide the kernels for deck brewers to get creative, lead to exciting moments in play, and can force people to reevaluate the game under a wholly new paradigm, sometimes on the fly. These are all net positives for the game. They are also inevitable in any complex system, so we will continue to design both intentional and unintentional combo cards.
I hope that we the team have addressed your questions and concerns. We will be actively monitoring the comments on this article and may jump in to answer additional questions.
For everyone who is going to the Energon Invitational this weekend, we wish you safe travels and a thrilling weekend of Transformers TCG action!