WOTC R&D: This is safe to read. There are no custom card designs in this article.
Magic: the Gathering is in the midst of what seems to be a downward spiral for the game’s diversity and balance in its Standard Format. Players are complaining and the recent standard bannings, which haven’t had to happen in years, seem to have done little for format diversity. This is nowhere near as bad as it sounds. R&D likes taking risks and every game is going to have its peaks and valleys. Wizards of the Coast, the company that makes Magic: the Gathering, is going to learn from these mistakes. However, the mistake was NOT one of accidentally making a few cards too strong. What we’ve got here is a core flaw in MTG’s current balancing philosophy.
As always, MTG has pushed a small number of cards far above the average power level. This is fine. As long as they go in a variety of different decks they can inspire fascinating and diverse metagames. They’re also exciting for players to open.
However, this time these extremely powerful cards have completely warped the format. This has reduced diversity significantly, both in the number of playable strategies and in the variety of gameplay experiences within those strategies (lowering the format’s replayability).
Why the Mistake was Made
For several years MTG design has been putting additional power into threats (cards that can kill your opponent) while weakening the power of answers (cards that can stop your opponent’s threats). This has the effect of neutering classic “just say no” control strategies, which are fun killers for a large portion of the player base. Most players, particularly casual players, don’t like games in which their opponent stops them from doing anything. They want to smash monsters into one another and throw gigantic spells onto the board. “Skip a turn” mechanics have been largely banished from tabletop games. Weakening reactive tools fits this philosophy.
There are several other reasons behind this shift toward powerhouse threats and weaker answers. Fast, powerful threats create a natural check on crazy and inconsistent combo decks. You simply don’t have much time to mess around. The Kaladesh block contains many exciting synergies and combo pieces that are risky to print. Normally “just say no” answers from control decks can rip combo apart, but without these efficient and versatile answers in the metagame other forces were needed. I could also point to other reasons, including the fact that high-powered threats are generally the most exciting style of card to casual players. MTG naturally wants to reward players for what they already enjoy doing.
What’s Going Wrong
WOTC’s plan worked too well. The format’s powerhouse cards are killing deck diversity, because the best answer to the format’s top threats is to run threats of comparable power yourself. You can’t defend yourself effectively against the format’s diverse powerful threats, you have to out-value or out-rush them. This means that the strictly-best threats at each stage of the game are dominating the top decks.
Many players are advocating for a return to previous MTG formats full of strong, diverse answers to threats. This is natural. Whenever a change seems to make things worse, the impulse is to revert back to the previous version. However, that would not suit WOTC’s current design goals. There is another way.
Vintage is another MTG format. It features the most powerful cards in the game’s history and generally has an extremely diverse metagame. There are several reasons for this, but one in particular stands out.
The best cards in Vintage are not threats, they are enablers.
Most MTG players have heard of the “Power Nine”. These are a collection of the 9 strongest cards in MTG’s history (though there is some dispute about whether Timetwister still deserves a spot). Here they are:
If you aren’t familiar with MTG, no worries. I’ll explain. Every one of these cards either gives you an extremely efficient boost of mana (the game’s core resource), cards (the game’s second resource) or a free turn (both).
This works wonders for format diversity. While every deck in Vintage runs a good portion of the power 9, these cards cannot actually kill your opponent. They are open-ended enablers that can power a huge variety of strategies.
It’s the difference between giving your players a beautifully crafted katana worth $500 (a powerful threat) and giving someone a $500 check. They can spend it on a katana if they want, but they can also do a lot of other things with it.
I should note that Vintage also includes extremely powerful answers to the format’s diverse threats, but that’s a detail. It’s required because the format’s enablers and combos are actually too strong. Turn 1 and 2 kills are possible, meaning you need a lot of free cards you can play off-turn to disrupt your opponent. A game built with a more steady pace and more reasonable enablers than the Power 9 would not require the same level of answers.
It’s also worth noting that when Vintage has gained access to threats that were stronger than the enablers, the format diversity shriveled overnight. It wasn’t long ago that a turn-1 Lodestone Golem was dominating the universe. This high-powered card increased the cost of your opponent’s key spells, effectively counteracting their own economic boosts. Being played on turn 1 could lock the opponent out of options and kill them in 4 turns. Once Lodestone Golem was restricted the metagame flourished once more.
This Seems Counter-Intuitive
It seems counter-intuitive to provide powerful economy boosts and similar enablers to your players. If everyone is going to include these cards, why design them in the first place? There’s an easy answer: Vintage is just an example. Just as MTG currently features a diverse set of powerhouse cards, ensuring no deck can include all the best threats, they should also design powerhouse enablers the same way. The enablers for one strategy should be very different than another.
An Added Benefit
Players tend to remember the last thing that happened to them in a game the most strongly. When a powerhouse card kills them directly, like one of MTG’s currently pushed threats, it draws their focus. Because these cards are intentional powerhouses, their undercosted nature makes the ending of the game feel more unfair than otherwise. Powerful enablers often misdirect the player’s focus like a stage magician. This is one reason that Jace, the Mind Sculptor (one of the most powerful cards in history) at first appeared much more reasonable to casual players than Baneslayer Angel (a much fairer card overall, but often seemed to end the game on its own).
Every design principle is context-dependent. Water is necessary for survival, but I doubt a doctor would recommend it to someone drowning. Here are a few examples of situations in which you can sidestep this advice.
1) Your game is full of easily accessible answers to the overpowered threats. This isn’t what WOTC wants to do, but it might be what you want to do. When players have ways to defend themselves efficiently against any threat, you can feel free to make those threats absurd. This can be achieved through absurdly strong and versatile answers, or else through core mechanics that allow players to respond to any situation. For example, Poker gives players the options to bluff with a weak hand or else to minimize their losses by folding early. Poker is played over a large number of rounds, so the game is truly about maximizing the value you can extract from each situation (or minimizing the loss). It’s not just about winning one particular hand.
2) The threat requires significant deck-building limitations. Often the best way to efficiently expand a format’s diversity is to reward players for playing a subset of less efficient cards. You can often make archetype-specific-enablers (like Vintage’s Mishra’s Workshop and Metalworker) but sometimes it’s just more efficient to design a powerhouse threat if the deck has other vulnerabilities.
3) More efficient enablers will simply break your game. Some games are tightly tuned on a system of core mechanics where enablers can enable other enablers and spiral completely out of control. Games like Netrunner block this problem by limiting the number of actions a player can take in a turn. Without this limitation, Netrunner decks could easily built to play their whole deck in a single turn. It’s also worth noting that because enablers are so much more flexible, they can also be harder to balance. You can understand the options of a threat far more easily than the many options of an enabler.
4) You need powerhouse threats for some other reason. For example, some games require game-ending cards to push things to a conclusion.
I’m not suggesting Wizards of the Coast print the power 9 in Standard. I am also not suggesting that your own games, my fellow designers, should look like the Vintage format in MTG. Finally, I’m not claiming that powerhouse enablers always make formats better.
However, in your own designs I would strongly advocate exploring shifting the power in your game content from the threats to the enablers. Players can still play giant dragons, daring heroes and explosive spells. They’ll just have more flexibility about which they choose and how to counter the meta’s most popular choices.