What’s up designers, and welcome back to Rempton Games. When designing a trading card game it’s important to be able to design fun, powerful cards – but equally important is knowing what types of cards NOT to design. In today’s TCG Design Academy we are going to be looking at some of the most broken cards, decks, and combos from various trading card games to see what makes them tick and why they are so broken, and also look at how you can learn from these examples to avoid making the same mistakes when designing your trading card game.
Really quickly, before we look at what makes a card broken, let’s answer a simpler question – what does being broken even mean? Broken cards tend to be extremely powerful, but it’s more than that. When something is “broken”, it means that it warps the entire metagame around it. A broken deck might be so much stronger than the alternatives that it makes all other decks obsolete, and a broken card might require every other deck to specifically plan around it if they don’t want to be easily defeated. Broken things also tend to be un-fun, promoting degenerate, boring, or un-interactive play. There is nothing wrong with powerful cards, but a truly broken card can damage the health of an entire game, and typically requires the makers of the game to intervene by banning or modifying the cards.
While it’s not always possible, it’s usually best to try and catch as many broken cards as possible BEFORE they go out into the wild. Luckily, broken cards tend to fit into a handful of categories, which we will be looking at in order from least dangerous to most threatening.
The first category is “Raw Power”. Simply put, raw power is when a card simply does MORE than other cards at a similar cost, whether that be more damage, drawing more cards, more destruction, etc. A good example of this is Ancestral Recall from Magic: The Gathering Alpha. It’s one blue mana to draw three cards. Typically drawing 3 cards will cost you around four or five mana, so getting that same effect for only one is super powerful.
The thing about Raw Power is that it’s actually probably the least dangerous category of broken cards, as well as the easiest to avoid. Simply by comparing a card to other similar cards at the same cost, it’s usually pretty easy to tell when you are getting too much value for the price. In addition, while these tend to be very powerful individual cards, they tend not to warp entire formats in the same way as other categories on this list. Getting higher numbers is nice, but typically isn’t enough to win the game by itself.
The next category is the infinite combo, which is when a handful of cards work together to create an infinite loop that wins the game. One example is the Copycat combo, which involves the Planeswalker Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian. Saheeli has the power to copy any artifact or creature until the end of the turn. Felidar Guardian causes a card to “blink” – to disappear and reappear instantly. You start the combo by playing Saheeli and Felidar Guardian, and using Saheeli’s ability to copy the guardian. The new copy then “blinks” Saheeli, which allows her to use her ability again. This combination can potentially go on forever, and because the copies have haste you can attack that turn for potentially infinite damage. This combo was efficient enough that Wizards of the Coast ended up putting out an emergency ban on Felidar Guardian – something that they’ve only done a handful of times in Magic’s history.
To prevent this type of situation, you should try to identify possible combo pieces, and ask yourself what would be required for this to go infinite. For example, suppose you are designing a creature has the ability to summon itself from the graveyard. All we need is a way to repeatedly get that creature from the field to the graveyard again, and we can go infinite. If we have a way to benefit from this (such as an ability that triggers when the creature dies, or when it comes back to the field) we can quickly win the game. Because of the sheer number of possible interactions between cards in a TCG, it’s probably impossible to catch every infinite loop combo before it happens, and here’s the secret – that’s totally fine! Most tcgs have potential infinite loops built into them, but the majority are too complicated, expensive, or inefficient to really be a problem. It can be fun to slowly build your rube-goldberg machine of cards, but decks built around these combos are usually pretty fragile and don’t have much effect on the metagame. The main goal is to prevent the combo from being too easy or consistent to pull off. If you think a particular combo card is too dangerous, you can always limit the effect in some way – perhaps the effect can only activate once per turn, or maybe it requires additional resources to activate that can make it more difficult to go infinite.
The third category, engines, are cards that convert one in-game resource (such as life, mana, cards, creatures, etc) into another. For example, a card might allow you to draw a card every time you gain life, or allow you to sacrifice a creature to do damage. Engines tend to be vital components of infinite loops, but these types of cards can also be pretty broken all by themselves. One example is Necropotence, a Magic card that probably doesn’t actually seem that strong at first. It prevents you from from drawing cards normally, but allows you draw cards at the end of your turn by paying 1 life per card. It turns out, 1 life per card is an EXTREMELY efficient rate – it makes any deck more consistent by allowing them to find the cards they need, but is especially effective in combo decks by letting you quickly locate all of the pieces of your combos. Because of this, Necropotence is banned in numerous formats, and is considered one of the most powerful cards in any format where it is legal.
Engine cards are pretty easy to identify, but can be tricky to balance. They may seem pretty balanced when considering the average-case scenario, but you need to keep in mind that players are going to figure out how to squeeze the maximum value possible, so really you need to look at the worst-case scenario. For Necropotence, the worst-case scenario is a player spending almost all of their life to draw through most of their deck in one turn for no extra mana, which is definitely overpowered. On the other hand, there are plenty of engine cards that don’t cause problems. The most important thing to keep an eye on is the exchange rate from one resource to another. It’s basically impossible to get a perfectly equal exchange rate, and if the player is able to get more than they are paying for every time they activate the card’s effect it can potentially turn into an infinite value machine. If in doubt, err on the side of giving players a bit less than they are paying for – because the engine can be used infinitely, it can afford to be less efficient than other options.
Now we are starting to get to the more dangerous stuff. Lockdowns are cards, combos, or decks that are designed to prevent your opponent from taking certain actions in the game. In any case, lockdown cards should be designed sparingly, because – surprise! – your players tend to actually want to play the game, and preventing them from playing tends to be very un-fun. A total lockdown – one that prevents your players from taking any game actions – can completely take the fun out of the game for the player on the receiving end, and if these types of lockdowns become too prevalent they can be very damaging to the health of the game. Furthermore, because the lockdown prevents counterplay by its very nature, the only way to combat a lockdown deck that becomes too popular is by banning cards.
One example of a very broken lockdown combo is the infamous “Yata-Lock” from Yu-Gi-Oh. This lock used the effect of Chaos Emperor Dragon to destroy all cards on the field, and discard all cards from both player’s hands. That’s already a pretty broken effect, but it was used in combination with a monster, such as Sangan, that allowed the player to search their deck for a creature card when it was destroyed. The player searched for Yata-Garasu, which prevents the opponent from drawing cards if they take damage from it. Because the opponent has no way to stop them, the player can just keep attacking with Yata-Garasu turn after turn until their life points are completely gone. This lockdown is particularly brutal because Yata-Garasu has extremely low attack points, so actually defeating the opponent using this method can take quite a while (if they don’t simply forfeit first).
The Yata-Lock was so prevalent and degenerate that not only were all of the major cards involved banned, but it might actually be responsible for the very existence of Yu-Gi-Oh’s banned list in the first place.
When it comes to balancing lockdowns, there honestly isn’t much to do. I would NEVER advise intentionally designing a total lockdown, and if you are able to identify one ahead of time I would take it very seriously. Much like an infinite loop, it might be fine to allow SOME lockdowns to happen, as long as they are sufficiently difficult to pull off, but unlike a loop that kills the opponent instantly a lockdown can result in a slow, miserable defeat, so I would recommend adding limitations to prevent the lockdown from being complete.
One of the only cards to ever be banned in Hearthstone’s “Wild” format, Stealer of Souls, is a cost avoidance card. It has the ability to change the cost of any card you draw to require health instead of mana. Now every draw spell basically becomes an engine that turns life into free cards! It’s not a Necropotence – it’s a card that creates Necropotences. However, in Hearthstone there were actually ways to prevent loss of life, which basically let players play every card they drew FOR FREE. Now that’s what I call busted.
Similarly, the point of the Vintage format in Magic is to grant players access to ALL of the cards, and even cards typically considered bah-roken, like Ancestral Recall and Black Lotus, are allowed in the format. The only card to ever be banned in the format purely for power-level reasons was Lurrus of the Dream Den, which avoids costs in two different ways. First, the card itself allowed players to play cards with a cost of 2 or less from their graveyard each turn for free. However, the more insidious thing was the fact that it circumvented one of the most fundamental costs of any Magic card – you must have the card in your deck in order to play it. The entire Companion mechanic allowed players to play the card from their side-board, rather than their deck, as long as their decks met certain conditions. The condition for Lurrus was that every permanent card in your deck must have a converted mana cost of 2 or less – a condition that a large portion of Vintage decks already met. This allowed them to basically add the card to their hands for free without even having it in their deck!
This category is possibly the most dangerous of all. Most trading card games have some form of resource system, and this system is the most fundamental tool that the game designers have to balance their cards. Therefore it’s no surprise that cards that avoid costs tend to be extremely unbalanced, because they are literally avoiding the very thing designed to keep them balanced in the first place! This is one category of cards that is not only unbalanced, but potentially UNBALANCEABLE.
If you insist upon designing and printing these sorts of cards, just be very sure that the alternate cost is sufficient, that it cannot be easily avoided, and try to learn from your mistake when you inevitably turn out to be wrong.
Now that we have looked at what I consider to be the 5 most common categories of broken cards, I want to get your opinion. Is there a broken card or strategy that I missed? Are there better ways of detecting or balancing these cards? Let me know in the comments down below.
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