Many people confuse complexity with depth. For example, take a look at sweeper cards like Lightning Storm and Harsh Rule.
Both cards have very little text on them. New players don’t have to read a novel to understand these cards. At the same time, they offer a lot of gameplay depth. If you are the control player, sometimes it makes sense to wait another turn before casting it (especially when playing the old Jito Queen decks). When playing against Lightning Storm, you have to be careful not to overextend or underextend (as I discussed in my patient Bandit Queen article).
From a game design perspective, good card designs lead to interesting gameplay and have low apparent complexity to new players.
Interesting gameplay versus uninteresting gameplay
The least interesting games are ones where there is only one extremely obvious line of play. Azindel’s Gift generally creates these gamestates on a recurring basis. If you draw one card a turn and must discard it at the end of your turn, there are no interesting sequencing decisions to make. You almost always play that single card that you draw.
The card is higher in terms of complexity (there are three lines of text) but does not offer good gameplay. But Azindel’s Gift is not the worst offender in terms of gameplay. The most uninteresting gameplay in Eternal would be decks that are prison-like and shut down opposing decks. The old Stronghold’s Visage + Eye of Winter control decks would do this (Visage used to cost 4). Those decks would stall out the game, gain life to drag it out, and play sweepers and various other defensive cards. Virtually every card slot was dedicated to a reactive strategy to prevent the opponent from winning.
There are other interesting card designs that unfortunately don’t lead to interesting gameplay.
The old Jito Queen and Bandit Queen decks have always been a little polarizing. Many games depend on luck. If the Queen player drew a god hand, the game would be fairly uninteractive as the game would end with a turn 4 kill that the opponent couldn’t do anything about. Or, a turn 2/3 Lightning Storm would effectively crush the Queen deck. Part of the god hand problem has to do with Lurking Sanguar, which makes games incredibly swingy. Sanguar doesn’t lead to healthy play patterns and doesn’t lead to interesting decisions. The correct decision for the Bandit Queen player is to (almost always) barf out every Sanguar, leaving them vulnerable to a Lightning Storm. The lines of play from both sides are fairly obvious.
As a card, Bandit Queen has a tendency to lead to non-interactive combat steps. Sometimes the quickdraw and +1 attack makes all blocks unprofitable, so the defending player doesn’t really have great decisions to make. Perhaps Bandit Queen can be toned down to give Poison instead of Quickdraw… that would lead to more interactive combat. The second issue with Bandit Queen is that she is swingy and can lead to turn 4 kills. Comparing her to Rally, Rally is a more interesting card as the defending player has some agency in the outcome of the game.
Overall I think that Stonescar aggro has some interesting play patterns to it that people overlook. The Bandit Queen mirror was actually really interesting as long as it didn’t involve somebody playing Bandit Queen and hitting A + space. The decisions surrounding the combat trick (Rapid Shot), Torch, and protecting pre-nerf Champion of Chaos were all really interesting. With the old ChaCha, playing her as a 4/4 or 5/5 would protect her from Torch and suffocate.
From a constructed perspective, skillful piloting of Stonescar Aggro against sweeper-based control decks was interesting to me… hence my article on the patient version of Bandit Queen.
Stonescar Aggro also has interesting stuff like Ticking Grenadin + Shadowlands Guide that creates interesting bluff attacks. Blocking a Ticking Grenadin could be dangerous as Shadowlands Guide could recur it. This creates reasons not to block Ticking Grenadin, making it possible for the attacking player to bluff having Shadowlands Guide in hand. However, that combination has virtually disappeared from constructed play. (Uh… I am one of the people who enjoyed the Party Hour meta when Stonescar Aggro faced off against Party Hour decks.)
Lowering apparent complexity
Some cards could use less text. Why does Siraf need Overwhelm? The Overwhelm has nothing to do with the rest of the card, making the overall card harder to grok. Cards are easier to understand when the abilities are related.
Secondly, the “and exhaust Siraf” clause isn’t needed. While Siraf was extremely powerful before her nerf, it never felt oppressive playing against her. The “and exhaust Siraf” nerf was fairly unnecessary.
Eternal could retain the same depth by removing text from the card rather than adding it. The Overwhelm ability was rarely relevant. Ironically, the “and exhaust Siraf” nerf incentivizes Primal decks to run Permafrost (and to a lesser extent, un-fun cards like Eye of Winter). Permafrost is a card that is fairly confusing to new players… it’s not obvious that you can silence your own units to get rid of abilities of the attachments on that unit.
Exploring the digital possibilities of the client
There used to be a time in Eternal when the cards in an opponent’s hand wasn’t randomized. In my opinion, this adds gameplay depth because a skilled player could potentially derive information based on what cards get moused over and what topdecked cards were played.
This would have absolutely no effect on the new player experience. This nuance is something that new players wouldn’t notice at all. The new player can’t be overwhelmed by a mechanic that they don’t notice.
Perhaps Direwolf Digital can further explore the digital space where client imposes information leakage in a way that streamlines the game. This would be similar to how the current priority system add layers to the game because you can sequence your plays to avoid information leakage (my article, Finkel’s article, Peppr’s article, etc.).
One area that can be explored is having a different warcry animation if it hits the top card of a deck. This would create interactions with cards that affect or care about the top cards of a deck (or even tutor cards like Rise to the Challenge).
The resource system
Imagine a game where each player would roll a pair of dice at the end of each turn. Any player who rolls two 1s loses the game. I would consider this to be “bad” variance. It is the least interesting kind of variance that you can introduce to a game.
“Good” variance is something like Siraf’s ability. She adds variety to games as she introduces cards not normally found in constructed play. This creates novel situations where skilled players can potentially gain an edge, especially if they understand unusual interactions between cards.
Eternal’s resource system is what I would consider to be bad variance… not much different than rolling dice at the end of every turn and randomly losing. For high-level play, it introduces a frustrating level of random variance. For new players, it can be equally frustrating. It is not particularly gratifying for new players to win a game simply because the opponent got stuck on 2 power.
While Hearthstone may have gone a little overboard on variance, their developers did understand the difference between good variance and bad variance. There is no variance from power screw/flood in Hearthstone.
I don’t have high hopes for Eternal
This is clearly my opinion, but the developers have missed the game design innovations that have occurred since Richard Garfield invented Magic the Gathering. MtG has an antiquated resource system and Eternal has copied many of its worst aspects. Eternal even found “innovative” ways of introducing bad variance via cards like Diplomatic Seal. The nerfing of the old Secret Pages is another bizarre move. Re-introducing bad variance to discourage multi-faction decks is lazy and sloppy. The proper way to penalize multi-faction good stuff is to slow down the influence base… which I suppose they recognize now that they reintroduced Secret Pages via Find the Way.
The way in which Siraf was nerfed is bad game design. They introduced complexity without adding depth.
There are some really talented people who work at Direwolf Digital. Some of the card designs like Clockroaches + Crown of Possibilities are excellent. But somehow DWD constantly finds ways of nerfing good card designs and pushing the power level on bad ones (Throne Warden, Cabal Countess, etc. etc.).