Silver Bullets, Rock Salt, and Dead Man’s Blood: On Tech.

Recently on Realms, there was a discussion about the Banned list. One specific argument caught my attention, and I filed it away in the back of my head to write a post about it.

The specific argument is this: That a feasible alternative to banning cards is to print effective countermeasures to that card or strategy. (The corollary of this being that effective countermeasures to certain currently banned cards now exist, thus allowing them to be unbanned.)

The printing of countermeasure cards is a path frought with peril and potentially bad consequences.

As a general design goal for a balanced game, you want as many strategies as possible to be equally playable at high levels. Unfortunately, as diversity increases, balance decreases, as the potential for something to be abusable increases. On of the ways in which Vs compensates for the possibility of a particular strategy becoming abusable is the printing of “tech” cards – cards that specifically hinder certain card types or strategies, meaning that if they become too powerful, people playing other strategies can simply pack the hate and level the playing field.

If you frame it a certain way, the interaction of the three main archetypes (Curve, Aggro, Control) is a continual interaction of rock/paper/scissors countermeasures. You could frame aggressively statted characters and attack pumps as “countermeasures” to control, as they allow you to win before they lock you in. But that’s all part of the basic balance of the game, the yin/yang/third thing of CCG strategies on the macro level.

What I’m talking about here are the very specific countermeasures. The ones that would specifically hose those banworthy cards and thus protect us from them. There is one great example of a failed countermeasure from the games early history. I’m sure most of you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The infamous Overload.

Overload was designed a narrow countermeasure to highly aggressive decks. There was clearly some concern on the part of the design team that very fast decks would dominate from the outset. But Overload succeeded far to well in its goal – because of overload’s existence, the “aggro” archetype could never truly grow.  Aggro off curve was doomed from the outset.

At this point, R&D have two options

1) Remove Overload, thus giving off curve and aggro in general room to grow.

2) Power up aggro massively, allowing it to win even with Overload in the mix.

The second option is clearly not good. It means that in any matchup where the opponent is not playing Overload, the aggro player will steamroller them completely. Further, even if they are playing Overload, they’re going to need to draw into it just to break even. The tech card becomes the focal point of the entire metagame, and most matchups will be determined by who draws it. Even as people are drawn onto the aggro bandwagon, they’re going to be packing Overload for the mirror, and who draws overload, or how many, will be the deciding factor. This reduces player skill as a factor, and increases luck as a factor. Overload is a random “x factor” which will randomly explode into play distorting the matchup entirely.

Overload is an extreme example because of its massive power level. But the same consideration applies to designing any tech card. If it is too powerful, it will restrict the growth of an archetype, or neccesitate that archetype/ card type being powered up significantly.

That is the balancing act inherent in designing tech – you want an archetype to be powerful, yet you want effective controls for it. As you power up a card type or strategy, the need for effective countermeasures to prevent its abuse increases. This can be seen with equipment, which got gradually more powerful as the game went on, resulting in an increase in equipment hate cards and their power levels. The danger is an eternal cycle of overcompensation, where one set powers up something, the next set has tech that sinks it entirely, so the next set powers it up some more…

As power levels rise, so does the neccesity of including reactive countermeasures in ones deck. The increase in out of combat stuns and other powerful targetted effects in MUN has increased the value of Pathetic Attempt.

To return to the original argument after some illustrative meandering – if R&D was to react to very powerful cards with targetted countermeasures, it would necessitate everyone including that card in their decks – because the card being targetted for countermeasures is so abusively powerful, it would still see play, since only this one countermeasure, that still needs to be drawn into, will stop it. So we find ourselves in the “x factor” situation again, where drawing the tech card defines the entire metagame and player skill becomes moot.

Further, suitably effective countermeasures would have other knock on effects, unless they were very very narrow countermeasures. You know, with the broken card’s name on the tech card. (“KO target quicksilver. This  may ignore the effect of equipment which prevents targetting”) Any powerful countermeasure will effect the growth of archetypes similar to, but not as abusive as, the one being targetted.

And lets not forget the fact that having to include narrow reactive cards in your decks sucks, because it takes up slots that you could be using to actually do what your deck does.

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~ by Anthony on September 8, 2008.

One Response to “Silver Bullets, Rock Salt, and Dead Man’s Blood: On Tech.”

  1. Amen.

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