My criticism of Eternal’s balance and card design

First off, let me say that the metagame just before the wipe was insanely good.  It was extremely diverse and many decks were viable. The really interesting thing is that many Masters players would intentionally play underpowered jank (e.g. dark Clockroaches) on ladder.  Everybody knows that Clockroaches isn’t tier 1 (probably tier 3 or 4).  But Clockroaches made up several percent of the metagame that I faced because it was fun.  It is wonderful that people are having fun in this game.

What that being said, let me get into why some of the post-wipe changes strike me as mistakes.  Cabal Countess is the most questionable decision:

  1. She moves the metagame into the wrong direction.  Ideally, jank like Clockroaches should be semi-competitive- not too good but not too awful.  Cabal Countess widens the power gap between tier 1 and fun jank. She will likely harm metagame diversity.
  2. She has less strategic depth and interesting gameplay than Shadowlands Guide.
  3. From a card design perspective, she has unnecessary complexity.  This makes the card more difficult for new players to grok.

cabal-countess

Metagame balance- why nerf control?

Cabal Countess’ ambush ability means that she is highly effective against sweeper-based strategies and relic weapons.  She’s really good against control decks.  More importantly, she attacks control decks from a completely different angle.

This all leads back to control’s dilemma (discussed by myself here and by NeonBlonde here).  Control decks need answers against the various aggressive or proactive decks in the metagame:

  1. Aegis-abusing aggro like Rakano and monojustice.
  2. Flying-based aggro like monojustice (and to some degree Rakano with Elder’s feather).
  3. Go-wide aggro like Bandit Queen.
  4. Aggressive strategies supplemented with burn, e.g. Burn Queen and Weiseguy’s Rakano burn.
  5. Relic weapon oriented decks like Rakano removal armory.
  6. (Efficient creature aggro.)

Competitive answers to these strategies tend to be narrow.  Lightning Storm is the answer to go-wide strategies, but doesn’t really do much against the other aggro strategies.  Eilyn’s favor is good against burn, but hopeless against everything else.  If there is diversity in aggressive decks, then control decks will get pushed down in power level.  There comes a point where they don’t have enough card slots for answers and their own win conditions.  Creating new angles of attack makes control worse.

*Technically, ambush creatures with high attack isn’t a new thing since Hunting Pteriax exists.  However, Elysian doesn’t have a competitive aggro archetype so Hunting Pteriax never made aggro ambush part of the metagame.

Creating a new competitive aggro mechanic is something that should be done carefully, since it essentially ‘nerfs’ control archetypes.  If the competitive balance is to remain the same, then answers need to get better (e.g. less narrow) or all of the aggro archetypes need to be watered down.

Secondly, the new aggro mechanic should lead to interesting gameplay.  Cabal Countess does not fit that bill.  Opponents often cannot play around her.  Sometimes the control player needs to cast a Harsh Rule.  However, the control player typically has no power open after casting Harsh Rule.  In that situation, there is no way to play around a Cabal Countess being flashed in on the end of the turn.  If the control player is being beaten down by an Argenport Instigator, it does not make sense to save Torch and hold Torch power open for a future Cabal Countess.  The control player has to deal with the present problem.

Pre-wipe, Finkel’s 4-faction control created interesting gameplay.  You had to figure out the right strategy against it and it wasn’t obvious what the right strategy was.  I played a deck with Rise to the Challenge.  Should I tutor for Auric Runehammer, Icaria, or Starsteel Daisho?  The answer isn’t obvious.  Originally, the correct play was usually to tutor for Auric Runehammer.  As 4-faction added Decay to deal with Azindel’s Gift in the mirror (and Sword of the Sky King), there was a case to be made for fetching Icaria with Rise to the Challenge because she doesn’t die to decay.  The fact that the metagame was shifting led to more interesting gameplay.

Unfortunately, the wipe essentially killed 4-faction control.

Mind the power gap

Janky decks should be given a chance.  Let people have their fun every once in a while.  If clockroaches have an extremely low chance of going off against Burn Queen, then it’s not an interesting play experience.

In a slower metagame, Clockroaches actually has some favorable matchups against tier 1 decks like 4-faction control.  My fear is that Cabal Countess will push out many midrange and control decks, creating a fast aggro-oriented metagame where Clockroaches lacks favorable matchups.

If the metagame is oppressive towards fun decks, then the people who enjoy jank will stop playing it.  This will make it harder for new players to get easy wins, creating an environment where new players end up facing a lot of tier 1 decks and getting crushed.  If a new player scrapes together a budget deck like Rakano Pants and faces people messing around with brews or jank, then they will win every once in a while.  This will lead to a better new player experience.

Strategic depth

My post on post-wipe Bandit Queen covers the interesting gameplay created by Shadowlands Guide.  It would make sense to nerf the less interesting parts of Bandit Queen and to buff the parts of it that led to interesting gameplay.

Complexity and the new player experience

shadowlands20guidecabal-countessashara20the20deadshot

Cabal Countess has unnecessary complexity.  In some ways, it’s a needlessly complex version of Ashara Deadshot.  Cabal Countess and Ashara share some Vorthos-ness in terms of 6 corresponding to the number of bullets in a typical revolver.  However, with Cabal Countess, the parts have no connection.  Why does her ultimate turn her into a gunslinger, as if she wasn’t one before?  And what is the connection or synergy between ambush and her ultimate?

The card is harder to grok because of the dis-synergy between ambush and her ultimate.  If you play her on an opponent’s turn, you cannot ultimate her and block with the full 6 attack.  You have to play her on your own turn without the surprise element.  The card has a lot of overt complexity that runs counter to lenticular design.  Shadowlands Guide has more gameplay depth but lower apparent complexity.

Buffing Shadowlands Guide would have led to more interesting gameplay.  The “or less” part of Shadownlands Guide could have been removed to prevent Lurking Sanguar shenanigans, reducing the card’s complexity and nerfing the least interactive Bandit Queen variant (the Frontier Jito version).  Granted, my suggested buff (give the returned creature +2/+1 permanently) would increase the card’s complexity in terms of grokability.  Still, it would be easier to understand than Cabal Countess and its dis-synergies.

Shadownlands Guide is clearly a better designed card due to medium apparent complexity and high gameplay value.  Cabal Countess has high apparent complexity and medium gameplay value.  Development should be buffing/pushing the cards with low apparent complexity and high gameplay value.

Siraf Nerf- unnecessary complexity

siraf20crownwatch20heronew-siraf

I don’t think that adding words (“and exhaust”) to Siraf was necessary.  I would first look at removing her Overwhelm ability.  In constructed play, her Overwhelm is irrelevant except in the aegis-abusing aggro version of Combrei.  Removing it doesn’t change too much, other than nerfing a deck that players aren’t attached to.

The additional words can lead to a “gotcha” moment in the Combrei mirror since the activation has a downside of removing Siraf as a potential blocker.  The added board complexity may be un-fun for new Combrei pilots.

Outside of the Combrei mirror, the nerf makes Siraf vulnerable to Permafrost and Eye of Winter.  I think that Eye of Winter occasionally leads to horrible gameplay when it shuts down unit-based strategies.  In constructed, it will clearly be used to hose unit-based strategies.  (Thankfully it’s not as good as some Icaria Blue pilots think.)  Lock strategies and prison strategies are bad game design if the goal is mainstream appeal and commercial success.  Old Siraf could beat Eye of Winter and was therefore an out for the Combrei player.  Buffing Eye of Winter seems dubious.

Permafrost is a card that’s confusing to new players.  The Siraf nerf makes the comprehension issues a little worse.

The obvious nerf to Combrei would be to do something about Boardstall Titan, which creates insane amounts of board complexity.  It is also an incidental hate card that completely shuts down certain decks (flying-based aggro and Haunting Scream).

Influence screw – why make it worse?

Eternal’s resource system is my greatest disappointment with the game’s design.  Most contemporary card games like Hearthstone simply don’t have influence screw or mana screw.  Mana screw leads to horribly un-interactive games that waste people’s time.  (There are some griefers that enjoy seeing their opponents get screwed.  I don’t think that catering to that crowd would improve commercial success.)  Having randomness exist in the resource system is a major downside to Eternal.  It makes more sense to have the randomness exist elsewhere- Hearthstone does this much better as its randomness creates interesting stories.  Getting power or influence screwed does not create interesting stories.

The pre-wipe Secret Pages used to solve many influence and power screw issues.  Post-wipe Secret Pages does not do that.

secret20pages

Secondly, the lack of mana fixing continues to be an issue in constructed and in draft.  Some decks need more mana fixing, even if that resource is slow and comes into play depleted.

  • Diplomatic Seal actively promotes aggressive influence bases and makes the influence screw problem worse.  Spikes realize that the optimal resource base is to live life on the edge, finding the right balance between influence screw and having power be available immediately.  The optimal level of influence screw will be some non-zero amount of influence screw, which means that influence screw will exist.
  • Seek Power makes power flood worse, since it’s possible to mulligan to a hand with 5 power and 2 Seek Powers.
  • The seats and banners are needlessly complicated.  They create lines of play in power sequencing that slow down the game and make players wait longer before it’s their turn.

Combrei being the “best” deck

I’ll disagree with other Eternal players by saying that it’s not an issue.  There will always be a best deck.  After keeping track of Burn Queen data, I’m not sure if Combrei really was the best deck.  Regardless, I’m not sure that the minor nerfs to Combrei (Siraf, Marshal, Secret Pages) were really necessary.  The metagame was extremely healthy.

My issue with Combrei was that it had little character of its own.  Granted… fixing that does not seem easy.  Awakened Student, Obelisk, Siraf, Stand Together, and Desert Marshal lead to interesting gameplay.  In comparison, other Combrei units had a “big dumb dudes” feeling to them in tier 1 constructed play (e.g. Mystic Ascendant, Sandstorm Titan, etc.).  I would have looked at nerfing Sandstorm Titan, which was not fun to play against in some situations (he would sometimes shut down flying-based aggro and Haunting Scream).

The reason why Titan would stall the board was because its ability would continually stop flying.  I think that a better design would be to make its ability a one-time Summon effect that only affects opponents’ flying units.  This would stop the ‘recurring hate’ issue that shuts down flying-based aggro and Haunting Scream.

Gilded Glaive nerf

I think that the real problem was with Silverwing Familiar.  Aegis is inherently non-interactive for some decks.  Some decks like Rakano Pants/Warcry can’t deal with aegis very well.  Having a aegis creature with flying makes aegis less answerable.  Having that same creature have lifesteal makes Silverwing very difficult to race and therefore powerful enough to see constructed play.

Crownwatch Paladin, while pushed, was more interactive because she could be chump blocked.  The long-term solution would be to avoid non-interactive abilities like flying on aegis creatures unless they had a really high cost (having powerful finishers is fine… at 7+ power, it’s time for the game to end).

Silverwing Familiar seems like something that should be nerfed.

Draft balance

A number of changes were presumably made to improve draft balance.  I think that the gameplay in draft is hurt by a few issues:

  1. Economy.  The economics of draft are tied to constructed.  If somebody is really into draft, they have to grind through constructed ladder or gauntlet so that they can draft more.
  2. Economy- keeping cards that you draft.  “Money drafting” puts new players at a disadvantage if they are trying to build their collection.
  3. Constructed balance.  Because draft and constructed share the same card pool, it is more difficult to keep draft balanced and interesting.
  4. Constructed card pool is too large.  Having more cards reduces depth because linear archetypes like Clockroaches will rarely come together in draft.  The draft metagame has low deck diversity compared to constructed.  Hearthstone has this same problem- players avoid linear archetypes like pirates since it’s unlikely that there will be enough pirates to make the deck remotely competitive.  Over time, the size of the card pool will grow and grow… making this problem worse.  Secondly, draft will be daunting to new players due to the complexity of having to read and understand so many different cards.

I suspect that phantom drafting like Hearthstone would solve #1 and #2.  MtGO has phantom drafts- that format works and people pay money for it.  MtGO also has draft formats that are solely designed for draft such as unpowered cube.  That also works.

In paper magic, many players create their own draft cubes and remove overpowered and underpowered rares from the draft cube (e.g. Drana from Rise of the Eldrazi).  Having a set balanced solely for draft is generally considered to be a better play experience.

Lastly, Magic the Gathering has been moving to improve the new/returning player experience and to lower the barriers to entry.  For a new player, having to read and understand 15 cards in the first pack is somewhat daunting.  MtG tries to mitigate this with “signpost” uncommons- these are uncommon cards that are very powerful and try to highlight an archetype in a color pair.

voltaic-brawlerwindshaperruthless20stranger

It doesn’t actually matter whether or not the archetype is good.  The idea is to give new players a direction to go into so that they understand a drafting strategy.  It’s there to help new players understand the archetypes and synergies in a draft, regardless of whether or not that archetype is powerful.

Having signposts appear very early in the draft would be helpful to new players.  Because Eternal is a digital card game, it is possible to play around with the distribution of the cards so that signposts appear early in the draft.

As well, the developers could replace a color pairing’s archetypes with a tribal synergy.  Tribal is a linear strategy that is very easy for new players to understand.  The current stranger tribal is not ideal since:

  1. Multi-faction in draft can be a huge trap.
  2. Opponents occasionally play strangers for influence fixing, leading to incidental hate and feelbad moments.

Rarity changes

I thought that shifting Bandit Queen to legendary made sense.  Direwolf Digital has to make money.  Having the tier 1 try-hard cards at legendary creates pay-to-win incentives.  It also tones down the power level at lower levels of the ladder.

What I found strange was shifting Crown of Possibilities to legendary.  That card was fun and lowered the power level of ladder.  It was fun in both constructed and in draft.  I don’t think that many players will blow shiftstone on it.  Bumping it to legendary seems like it will reduce fun, increase the power level of ladder, and decrease metagame diversity.  If anything, I would have made the premium/foil cost on specific cards like Crown much higher.  Pay-for-bling is a healthy business model that a lot of people would agree with.

Champion of Cunning + Witching Hour

In the past, “Party Hour” was a deck.  The deck featured a one-turn-kill combo with Champion of Cunning and either Scouting Party or The Witching Hour.  The Witching Hour would create four 4/4 units, each with their own keyword (killer, lifesteal, flying, and deadly).

scouting20partychampion20of20cunningthe-witching-hour-1-279x439

The combination of Champion plus The Witching Hour would create five 6/6 flying charge units, leading to 30 points of damage.  The combo was difficult to interact with since the opponent needed a fast spell or ambush unit to kill Champion of Cunning.

Most people thought that Champion’s charge-granting ability was the problem.  It struck many as a dangerous ability that enabled uninteractive one-turn kills.  However, at the time, The Witching Hour was nerfed instead of Champion.

Now, Champion of Cunning seems to be receiving a pre-emptive nerf to its charge-granting ability.  (Scouting Party is also receiving a pre-emptive nerf, even though the card was not excessively powerful in tier 1 constructed play.)  It strikes me as weird that Direwolf Digital didn’t simply nerf Champion of Cunning’s charge-granting ability in the first place.  The Witching Hour, while complex, was generally considered to be an extremely flavorful card design.  I thought that it led to interesting gameplay- the card was strong but didn’t always win the game on its own.  So some weird things are going on at Direwolf.

Closing thoughts- issues at Direwolf Digital

Eternal has far less of the unnecessary complexity that you find in MtGO.  There are some card designers and developers at Direwolf Digital who clearly “get it”.  Shadowlands Guide, Ashara, Clockroaches, and many other cards are wonderful designs.  The way that the Eternal client is streamlined relative to MtGO is a wonderful design.  Having Harsh Rule cost 5 instead of 4 is an excellent development choice.  The narrow answers that lead to a self-balancing metagame was an excellent development decision.  Yet some faction at DWD has been taking steps to add unnecessary complexity to the game, e.g. the additional wordiness on Siraf.

And then there’s mediocrity like Cabal Countess.  There are existing card designs that are better than Cabal Countess.  From a development perspective, she is potentially damaging to the diversity and jank level of the metagame.  Introducing Cabal Countess threatens to make the game worse, not better.

shadowlands20guidecabal-countessashara20the20deadshot

And I’m sure that there is at least one employee at Direwolf Digital that knows better.

To the management of Direwolf Digital: some of your employees are really, really good at what they do.  I suspect that your internal politics are stifling their work.  Figure out who your star employees are (the people who designed The Witching Hour, Clockroaches, Hatchery Raider, Shadowlands Guide, A New Tomorrow, etc. etc.).  Let them make the key decisions.  The people who allowed Cabal Countess to get past card design and to get past development are not your star employees.  The developers who nerfed Secret Pages and Siraf are not your star employees.  The developers who didn’t want to nerf Silverwing Familiar are not your star employees.  Please figure it out, because I liked this game enough to spend money on it.

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