Untapped Potential in Card Games: Deck-Building Point Costs

Two game genres commonly deal with players assembling a collection of units. One is familiar to any player of Magic: the Gathering, Hearthstone or any other card battler. The other is the miniature war game genre.

Both games have a lot in common, as is made more evident by games like Summoner Wars and even Faeria. However, when the genres mix there is generally a focus on the common card game resource systems. I believe this is a missed opportunity.

Unlike card games, miniature war games generally begin with all their units already on the field. This means that the common method of balancing the units is to assign them a point cost, then give players a point budget to build their army with. For example, the elegant Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game gives players 100 squad points. You can use these points to purchase multiple weaker ships or a few stronger ships. Below you can see the weaker Tie Fighter contrasted against an X-Wing. Their point cost is in the bottom right corner of their cards. The Tie Fighter costs only 12 points, while the stronger X-Wing costs 21.

Image result for x-wing card

This is a versatile system of costing, with a lot of granularity. You could easily imagine something similar being used in card battlers like Hearthstone. Example: “Your 30 card deck can have 300 army points, the average card costs 10 army points.”

Point-Based Deckbuilding would open up a huge amount of feel-good design space. Front-loading costs into deckbuilding tricks our brains into thinking of the cards as “free” once we draw them. This is why people much prefer buying access to a month of unlimited cable TV rather than being charged for every minute they watch.

Here’s just one example: Draw triggers. Imagine a creature with the ability, “When you draw this card, you gain 3 health.” In classic card battlers this is not a feasible design because you’re getting the effect for free. You didn’t pay anything for that health, you just drew the card.

Unfortunately, asking players to pay for the effect makes it feel much less satisfying. You have to decide whether to pay for it immediately in the window when you draw the card, which means you have to plan out your whole turn. At this point you might as well just make the creature gain you 3 life when you play it. It’s a more elegant design. It also misses the point entirely of getting a little bonus just for drawing the card.

Point-based deckbuilding could solve this problem. By increasing the card’s point cost during deckbuilding, we pay for the card’s effect before the game even begins. During actual gameplay it just feels free and fun.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The use of the wildly popular Conspiracies in MTG is another mechanic that could benefit from a point-based deckbuilding system. Conspiracy cards are not included in a player’s decks, players start the game with access to each of their conspiracies. These cards help the player in various ways. For example, a player with the Power Play conspiracy will always go first.

Image result for conspiracy MTGImage result for backup plan conspiracyImage result for conspiracy MTG brago's favor

Sadly, Conspiracy cards only exist in a particular draft format. This is because they’re free benefits once you have access to them, so you naturally need to pay some cost to gain access to them. Draft formats require players to pick cards for their deck from a limited pool of cards, meaning if you choose a Conspiracy with one of your picks you will not get access to another strong card for your deck. They’re balanced through this deckbuilding cost. Sound familiar?

So why don’t card battlers use point-based deckbuilding? There’s actually a pretty good reason. When both players start with all their units on the field, both players are guaranteed access to all of their squad points. In a card battler like hearthstone where you draw only a portion of your deck each game, investing most of your points in a few stronger cards would produce massively swingy games. Asking players to pay a cost upon playing the card, as most card battlers do, solves this issue. You only pay for what you play.

This reasoning has prevented most designers from exploring point-based deckbuilding. Until today.

Several innovations in the genre are questioning classic assumptions about how card battlers work. When these assumptions are questioned the reasons not to use point-based deckbuilding start to melt away. Here are just a few examples.

1) Games like Star Wars: Destiny, Gwent and Solforge are demonstrating that you can feasibly create titles in which you cycle through most of your deck over the course of a game. Yes Solforge has problems, but seeing a majority of your deck each game isn’t one of them.

2) Many games are ridding themselves of classic costs-when-played systems, meaning other forms of balance are important. Gwent is a good example of this, as it uses 3 “tiers” of cards. These are bronze, silver and gold. You can only have a certain number of gold cards in your deck and the same goes for silver. Gold cards are better than silver, which are better than bronze. This is effectively a point-based system.

3) You don’t need to make your point costs for cards as extreme as a war game’s spread of army costs. Many units in war games are 4 or 5 times more efficient than a collection of other available units. Sometimes the spread is even larger. War Games can get away with this because they don’t need to shuffle their army, but card games want to be a bit narrower.

4) Co-Op card games, like the new Arkham Horror LCG or the classic Lord of the Rings LCG (both from Fantasy Flight Games), tend to thrive on RNG. Increased variety in player decks isn’t a problem in these genres, it’s a feature.

5) Digital-focused card games are getting more and more attention. Digital games can easily track point systems and make even better use of the mechanic. For example, allowing you to use war-game-like upgrades to specific cards by paying a bit more in order to give a unit some specific equipment during the deckbuilding phase. This dramatically expands a player’s deckbuilding space, and the options can be customized on a unit-by-unit level (unlike the Conspiracy variation of this via Brago’s Favor in which upgrades to specific cards need to be much broader).

I am not saying that every card battler needs to start using deckbuilding point costs. That would be absurd. It’s obvious that you don’t need to use that system to have a satisfying game, and whenever you can cut extraneous complexity from your title you usually should.

However, point-based deckbuilding is definitely worth exploring. I know I’ll be tinkering with it a lot going forward.

2 thoughts on “Untapped Potential in Card Games: Deck-Building Point Costs

  1. I think the way SW: Destiny does it is interesting. Your character cards are the entire point set and their colours dictate what you colored cards you can include freely in your deck. It’s interesting because you can only fit two or three characters in your deck, rather than lots of smaller units.

    Something sort of similar (but not) is FFG’s Star Wars: The Card Game. The objective sets lock you into taking blocks of 5 (?) cards together in your deck with no flexibility of adding or subtracting cards from that closed set. I like the way this balances strong cards by watering down your deck with weaker/more situational cards so the balance comes from that as well as the card’s individual cost. I’m working on a game that uses a variation of this, where all cards are free to play, but they come locked into sets of 8 when added into your deck (5 characters each contributing 8 cards into your 40-card deck).

  2. It may be my small mindedness (and lack of experience with war games), but I do see some issues with this, which might end up hampering such a game, especially if it attemted to reach such a massive scope as Magic does.

    If the game is to exist in paper, just checking validity of a deck would be a nightmare. This is probably alleviated in the wargame space, because (I assume) there are fewer “pieces” in a “deck”. Checking validity (counting cards) in a Commander deck is already a tedious excercise, imagine having to sum up point costs of all the cards as well.

    There is a Magic format called Canadian Highlander where each deck is allowed to have 10 points of cards, with only the most powerful cards being pointed – they replaced the idea of a band list with this, For example an irredeemably broken card like Black Lotus is worth 7 points, while a “merely powerful” card like Treasure Cruise is worth 1 point.

    Similarly, in Magic, there are much more total pieces than there are in wargame (or in those smaller card games). There being 20000 different cards would put an immense strain on the points system. There is much greater space for synergy. What should Lantern of Insight be pointed as? It is an unplayable draft uncommon. Perhaps a cute casual card (I assume looking at what your opponent is drawing pleasures some newer players). But if you combine it with critical mass of similar effects as well effects that allow you to mill your opponent (another extremely underpowered effect as well), you get a deck that is on the verge of being banned in modern. Total “naive points cost” of such a deck would be a fraction of points cost of your regular “jund” goodstuff deck, which just plays the best available cards at each role and mana cost slot.

    Formally (and generally) stated, the points costs would have follow the following unequality, for each set of cards:

    TOTAL POINTS COST (A, B, … X) >= TOTAL POWER (A, B, … X)

    So if two cards do nothing on their own, but they instantly win the game when combined together, they would have to be pointed as “game winning combination” among the two of them. And that goes for sets of three, sets of four…etc. Each card would have to be pointed in consideration of the most powerful context in which it may be played. How the hell do you even do that in a game that is comparable to Magic in scope?

    I’m not saying it is a bad idea and that games like that shouldn’t be explored, I just think having a points based deckbuilding system essentially puts a hard limit on how much the game can grow.

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