What’s up, designers, and welcome back to Rempton Games. If you’ve played trading card games for a while, you’ve probably seen an overpowered new card burst onto the scene and totally wreck the entire meta, to the point where it seems like everybody is using it. On the other hand, you’ve probably opened entire packs of cards and felt like every single one of them was worthless trash that nobody would ever play. Why can’t trading card designers just design balanced cards, without some being broken or terrible? The short answer is that, depending on how you define “balance”, it can be a literally impossible task. In today’s episode of TCG Design Academy we’ll find out WHY it’s impossible, why that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and how you can design your game to at least make it easier to get kinda close to being balanced, most of the time.
The first, and most important, reason why it’s impossible to balance a trading card game is basically a mathematical one. Most trading card games release hundreds of new cards per year, and while some of these might be reprints the majority are going to be completely new cards with new stats, abilities, etc, and some of these abilities aren’t going to be directly comparable to each other. Let’s take two abilities that are extremely common in all sorts of TCGs – drawing cards, and dealing damage to your opponent. Assuming that the two cards cost the same amount of in-game resources, how do you determine the right amount of cards to draw and damage to deal so that the two abilities are equally powerful?
Through trial and error, playtesting and experience you might get close, but you will never find the perfect exact balance. Even if you had a magical computer that could spit out the perfect ratio between damage and cards drawn, the odds of that ratio containing whole numbers is basically zero. Hypothetically, suppose that the magic computer determined that drawing two cards is equal to dealing 3.568 damage. Unless you want your players to have to keep track of those decimals (which you don’t), you will have to round the damage to either 3 or 4. However, three damage might mean that the card is considered weak, while four might make it a bit too strong.
This same thing can happen with resource costs, deckbuilding points, etc. – your ability to balance will always be limited by the aspects of each card that you can actually adjust. Even resource systems have this problem. Suppose you’ve decided that your card that draws 2 other cards should cost 3 resources. In reality, the value of any particular ability is never going to be a perfectly even number – maybe the actual value is 2.7, or 3.1 – as a designer, the best you can do is get as close as possible.
The small differences in power level caused by this kind of rounding might seem unimportant – as long as the cards have costs and abilities that are “close enough” to their ideal values, you might be willing to call that balanced. In reality, however, ANY difference in power level, no matter how small, will be sought out and exploited by optimizers and tournament players (also known as Spikes). Even if balance was the developer’s only goal, and they were as close to perfect as possible, there would still be a gradient of power that would inevitably lead to some cards being categorized as “good”, and others as “bad”.
The second factor here is that design space is not an infinite resource. Along with the difficulty of balancing disparate effects, you will often have to make cards with abilities that are similar to other cards that already exist, which will naturally put these cards in direct competition with each other. If you only make a few cards that deal damage, players might be willing to use them all in their “direct damage” decks. However, as you keep releasing cards you will eventually cross a threshold where players don’t have room to play every direct damage card, and will have to make decisions about which to drop and which to keep.
What this means is that there will always be a ceiling to the number of cards that are “playable” in any particular format. What this exact number is is impossible to calculate and varies from game to game, but looking at the number of individual cards that show up at various tournaments, I think it tends to be around 3-400 cards. Because of this, you could theoretically limit a format to only the 3-400 “good cards”, and make an environment where every card is playable. However, this is not only impractical, but unmaintainable.
Unfortunately, even this much is based on a flawed assumption – the idea that any individual card even has a single “power level”. This is far from the truth – in fact, every card’s power level varies depending on context.This can play out in a few different ways. First, format matters – some cards might not be worthy of being played in a constructed environment where players can carefully craft their decks, and meticulously consider each and every card that they include. However, that same card might actually be very strong in a draft, where you are building your deck from a more limited selection. The opposite can also be true – some cards require more work to bring out their full potential, requiring specific combos or even building your entire deck around them to make them good. Take the Dark Magician, for example. Konami keeps pumping out a steady stream of cards that are specifically designed to summon, enhance, and support this single monster, and those decks are constantly cycling in and out of competitive relevance. However, the Dark Magician would be a terrible card to get in a draft, because it doesn’t do anything on its own, it’s hard to summon, and its stats aren’t even very good. Some cards might be better in multiplayer formats than in single player, or shine in formats with a larger card pool, and so on.
That brings us to a different kind of context – the other cards in the environment. Suppose we had 2 green Magic Creatures that were identical in pretty much every way – same cost, same stats, same ability to give +2 power to all other creatures with a particular creature type, the only difference is which creature type is affected. One boosts elves, and the other boosts Aurochs. Which is stronger? The one that boosts elves, because elves are a much more common creature type in Magic. Although these cards are nearly identical, one might be seen as pretty good while the other would be basically useless, due to the history and context of the game.
New cards being released can also change a card’s value, up or down. Suppose you have a Togetic card, but nothing good to evolve it into – its value is probably pretty low. However, if the next set releases a really powerful Togekiss card, all of a sudden that Togetic is looking a lot better. A card’s value can even change from one game to the next based on what deck your opponent is playing, which is why sideboards exist.
Another reason why cards aren’t always balanced, and this one might be tough to hear, is because the designers are only human. And I don’t just mean they screw up and make mistakes, although that can happen, I mean that even the best and most dedicated designers and playtesters have a limit on how much they can actually balance the cards due to time, manpower, and resource limitations. Your average trading card game probably doesn’t have that big of a team – even Magic only has maybe a couple dozen people making cards at any given time, and most other teams are a lot smaller than that. The players, on the other hand, can number in the millions. This means that the collective playerbase will get more experience playing with new cards in the first day than the design team will in a year. Once a card gets into the hands of the players, it might turn out to be a lot stronger or weaker than they had originally intended. This is especially true for open-ended cards that create a lot of possibilities – it’s possible for players to find an overpowered use for these cards that the developers didn’t intend, and which completely breaks the card.
In addition, designing a trading card game is a moving target. Once the cards are actually released, the context for each card is more static, and it becomes possible to evaluate it in its final state. However, as mentioned earlier, a card’s power level depends on its environment, and nowhere is that environment less stable than during development. Not only is the card itself probably going through changes, but every other card in the set is changing as well. This chaotic environment can make it much more difficult to accurately balance cards, because every little change will have a ripple effect that shifts the balance of different cards up and down.
The difficulty of the design process is especially relevant when the designers are trying new mechanics and types of cards, because they don’t have any context for them. It’s much easier to balance cards that are similar to other cards that already exist, because you can use your experience with those cards to guide you, but when you are trying something really new it can be a lot harder to judge. Combine this with the fact that games should basically ALWAYS be trying new things, and some things are always going to be a bit off in power level.
Everything we’ve been talking about so far has been under the assumption that balance is the number one goal of the designers, but this isn’t really the case. A designer’s primary goal should always be to make the game fun to play. Balance can be a part of this – players don’t tend to have fun playing a game that is completely unbalanced – but it is far from the only part.
Balance matters to designers because it matters to players, but it doesn’t matter to all players equally. It matters the most to Spikes, who are primarily concerned with winning and optimizing their decks. However, this only represents a small subset of players – there are other players that play for other reasons, and for many of them balance is less of a concern. Just like some cards are designed to be tournament staples, some cards might seem “weak” or “bad” because they are simply designed for a different purpose, and to appeal to a different kind of player. For example, some cards have very open-ended combo potential that might make a certain type of player’s mind race with the possibilities, even if none of those possibilities are quite as good as the “meta” decks. Or a card might appeal to certain types of players just because it has high stats or can do cool things, even if those cards are too impractical or unreliable to actually be used competitively. Tournament players might look down on these types of cards, but there is a portion of the audience that really enjoys them, which makes these cards good for the game overall.
Some cards might actually be intentionally designed to be underpowered, because it could be bad for the game if they were too good. Cards that have an element of randomness to them often fall into this category – while they can be fun to play, and make cool things happen, I don’t think many competitive players would be pleased if tournaments were being decided by dice rolling and coin flipping. Another example is cards that have a fun “quirk” or minigame component to them, such as “Goblin Game”. These types of cards are interesting and can be fun every now and then, but would get very tiring very fast and slow down the game. These cards tend to be designed so that they are fun to play for the players that enjoy them, but weak enough that tournament players don’t feel compelled to use them.
The final reason why trading card games aren’t balanced is because having cards with a range of power levels is good for the game. For one thing, You can’t have the excitement of drawing a really cool, powerful card unless there are less powerful cards to contrast it with. In addition, being able to determine which cards are good and which are bad is one of the fundamental skills that comes with playing a trading card game, and is one of the main ways that you can improve and grow as a player. This is especially true when drafting – a huge part of drafting is the challenge of having to create a playable deck from a very limited pool of cards, and being able to make good decisions about which cards to choose is one of the main things that sets good drafters apart from bad ones.
Finally, having a range of power levels allows players to discover “hidden gems” – cards that seem bad at first, but are actually very good. It can feel good to recognize the potential hidden within a card that everybody else thinks is bad, and this is only possible if some of the cards are ACTUALLY bad.
Although perfectly balancing a TCG is impossible, and isn’t even desirable, this doesn’t mean that we can ignore balance altogether. Unbalanced, overpowered cards can have a very negative effect on a TCG – and I’ve actually made a whole video on how to spot some of the most common forms of broken cards, which you can check out after this video if you are interested. In general, however, there are a few key ways that we can design a TCG to be more balanceable, and therefore avoid major balance mistakes.
The first is by making sure that your game has enough “levers” that can be changed to adjust the power level of a card. The most common example of this is a resource cost to play the card, or a deck-building cost to include the card in your deck – you can adjust the cost to roughly match the power level of the card. Some other examples include making a card more difficult to summon in Yu-Gi-Oh, determining where a spell should be an instant or sorcery in Magic: The Gathering, adjusting the amount of energy that a Pokemon requires to use its abilities in Pokemon, or changing a card’s strength points in Gwent. If a game isn’t designed with enough of these levers, it will severely limit the amount of cards that can be designed without introducing power creep.
Another way to balance these games is to introduce “answer cards”, which are cards that can be used to keep the power level of other cards in check. For example, suppose you are introducing a new faction of cards into your game, and you are worried they might be too overpowered. You could introduce another card (or handful of cards) that have an advantage against your new faction, to keep them from becoming too powerful. The key with these “answer” cards is to make them weak enough that they don’t completely shut down the other decks, or prevent people from playing them entirely. They shouldn’t be a 1-card instant win condition against a particular card or deck – but they should give players a way to compete if it turns out to be too good.
Finally, make sure you see the forest for the trees. Cards in a TCG aren’t played alone – they are played as part of a deck, and that deck is part of a larger metagame. Balancing isn’t something you do once and are done with – it’s a continuous process that requires constantly reacting to changes in the game and player base. Suppose you release a new set that you thought was balanced, but it turns out that a particular faction was underpowered – you might need to intentionally give that faction a bit of a boost in the next set, to make it competitive with the other factions in your game.
Finally, balancing cards – much like making a youtube channel – is all about listening and responding to feedback. You can give me your feedback in the comments down below, and if you liked the video you can also give it a like and subscribe to the channel so you don’t miss more videos like this in the future. If you did enjoy this video, make sure to checkout the previous entries in my “TCG Design Academy” series, which should be linked onscreen. And join me next time for my ultimate Risk strategy guide. Until then, thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you all next time.
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