Spikes, Variance, and Indiana Jones - Neon
This article was originally published September 2017
I think about game design and card design a lot. In fact, it is one of the main reasons I play games. I love trying to tease apart the intricacies of what makes a game tick, and what makes it fun or interesting. A topic that I often think about is the differences between how gamers see games and how game designers see games. It seems as if many people to not understand the job of game developers at a fundamental level. I have seen this in a variety of comments and discussion in the Eternal community, but one recent topic of discussion has really made me want to write about this: the change of Inspire from 1 to 2 power. This change made a lot of sense to me once I saw it, but there was a surprisingly strong reaction from the community. Not only was this reaction out of proportion relative to the severity of the nerf, the reasoning people used was puzzling. “Why would you ever increase the variance of your game? Shouldn’t you be trying to always reduce variance?” I seemed to me like people just didn’t understand the role of game designers or the fundamentals of what makes games fun. So, in today’s article, I am going to cover a few things. First, I am going to outline the fundamental different incentives between gamers and developers, and then I will take a deep dive on the specifics of randomness and variance in card games, and what it adds to games.
Before going any further, I want to make clear that this article is full-on hardcore game design theory stuff. Even some of my theory heavy articles are laced with things like decklists, but today is just designer talk. I will also remind people that these views are my own, and are not officially endorsed by DWD. I have had more direct interaction with DWD than most, but that doesn’t mean they agree with my particular understanding of game design. I am just a game design enthusiast that is trying to make sense of things using my logic and intuition.
Let’s start by talking about Joffrey.
Game (Design) of Thrones
So what are game designers? Are they like product designers at the companies we use every day? Are they service providers? Not really. These jobs are about identifying what their target audience wants and just giving it to them. Lets take the “Head Product Developer” at McDonald’s (I have no idea if that is the real name of this position, but you get the idea). They are trying to figure out which flavors/foods are the most popular right now and how to prepare them in a “McDonald’s style” package. They are trying to give consumers exactly what they want and expect. If the consumers say “We are really into spicy chicken” they are going to research making a new spicy chicken burger. Obviously it is not trivial to figure out what the consumer wants, nor is it easy to delivery on that, but the fundamental nature of this task is to just give the audience exactly what they ask for.
Game designers are not product designers at their heart. In fact, they are closer to artists, and sometimes art is about not giving the audience what they want. Let’s compare being a product designer to being the writer of a show like Game of Thrones. I have literally never watched a single episode of GoT, but I know things like Joffrey was hated with a fiery passion, Jon Snow’s ancestry is a secret, and no one knows who ends up on the Iron Throne at the end. Much of the audience wanted Joffrey killed almost immediately, as well as knowing the answers to these and other questions. Did the writers give that to people? Nope! Joffrey doesn’t die until season 4, and the other questions are still unresolved after 7 seasons. Why didn’t the writers just give everyone these things when they wanted them? Is there a real barrier to killing off Joffrey or giving out secrets? Not really (let’s leave aside canonical fidelity, which isn’t exactly a hard restriction). The writers held these things back because it created emotion and experience. Joffrey is the kind of character that people love to hate, or love to root against, so by leaving him around, you get a big payoff when he is finally killed. If you had asked audience members at the end of season 1 “do you want to know who sits on the Iron Throne at the end of the series?” I expect lots of people would have said “yes” even though they would know they would enjoy the series less. A bizarre tension exists with art, where the audience may want something that would actively make them enjoy the art less, but it is the job of artists to know what to give away and what to hold back.
This tension is fairly obvious in screenwriting, but is used in any form of art. Many paintings will deliberately use negative space or asymmetry to create emotion in their work. Musicians use an intentionally slow build up before a climax to generate anticipation. Game design actually shows this very clearly. Remember back in the day when all the games had cheat codes that gave you infinite life, money and weapons? Playing with all the cheats turned on made the game intensely fun for like 2 hours, while beating the game under the normal settings could entertain you for days. I very distinctly remember playing Grand Theft Auto with all the cheat codes active where I was having a blast stealing tanks and shooting bazookas, but suddenly realized that nothing was a challenge. What was the point? Art of every form would suffer if artists just gave the audience what they wanted.
So, the point that I wanted to get across here is there is a difference between what audiences want and what is actually best for the art. Holding things back is an inherent part of creating emotional investment and engaging experiences. Let’s talk next about what this tension actually entails for the relationship between designers and gamers.
Gamers versus Designers
Game designers understand that there is a difference between what the players want and what is actually good for the game. Unlike McDonald’s, game designers understand that to make good games they can’t just give people what they want. This is extremely obvious in the world of card games like Eternal. To explore the structure of this tension, let’s compare the desires/incentives of a card game designers (in this case DWD) against the desires/incentives of a certain kind of player – Spikes. This is a concept derived from the “player psychographics” described by Mark Rosewater (initially in this article). For those that don’t know, a “Spike” is the type of player that is more focused on winning and competing than anything else and plays largely for the purpose of proving their own skill and ability. They derive “fun” from mastery and dominance rather than just doing cool things.
Before I go on, I want to make something clear. I don’t see game designers as in competition with Spikes, or that designers are somehow “better than” gamers. All gamers have a specific set of incentives and goals, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, Spikes are a critical part of making any game a long-term success. I am a Spike! The issue is when Spikes only see things from their own narrow perspective and loses sight of the long-term health of the game for their own short-term pleasure. In this particular exercise I am going to be using something of a caricature of a Spike, draining any basic humanity or other characteristics. So what does a Spike want versus DWD? What are their incentives and preferences? Let’s take a look.
BETTER PLAYER ALWAYS WINS VERSUS USUALLY WINS.
Given that Spikes are focused on the competitive side of game, it is important that games be decided by skill. Not only should they be decided by skill, but the better player should alwayswin. Designers, on the other hand, don’t have such a clear incentive. If bad players win sometimes over better players it will expand the audience for the game as well as create more drama and excitement. In fact, if you think about many successful board games (e.g. Monopoly, Risk, Catan, etc.) it is clear that you don’t need the better player to always win to have a successful game. Obviously if you want to cater to the hardcore gamer crowd you do want to make the game very skill testing, but you will have the chance to alienate newer and less enfranchised players.
Games are supposed to be fun, but that doesn’t really matter to a Spike. “Fun” is a very difficult word to handle because it is tied up with subjectivity and preference, but Spikes don’t really care about any of that. Winning is where the fun is! Does it matter if this is through interaction and ingenuity or degenerate combos and hard locks? Not really, as long as they are able to prove that they were superior to their opponent. Fun is treated as a “net zero” by ultra-Spike. Designers think about this totally differently. They spend a huge amount of energy trying to find cards and mechanics that are fun, skill testing, but not overly complicated. In fact, the key challenge for designers is to find a way to make games fun even when you lose. That is extremely difficult to do, and requires hard work and keen insight to what the average player actually considers “fun”. This is a very involved topic that I will write about one day, but you should be aware that “what is fun” is a core question that game designers think about a lot, while Spike is more focused on strategic purity and improving their own win rate.
Every game needs a constant flow of new players to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Some players will inevitably leave, so if you are not taking in new players at all times you will soon find the game is dying. Game designers think about this a lot, but Spikes…. not so much. I think Spikes would rather more players in the game so there are more people to battle against, but sacrificing any strategic purity for the sake of player acquisition seems blasphemous. Design choice that leads to higher player acquisition but lowers the experienced player advantage is viewed as a betrayal by the developers (“DWD/WotC/Blizzard is selling out!”). Carried to the extreme, a “strategic puritan” would rather play a game doomed to death/obscurity than compromise on complexity or intuitiveness.
In order for a game to be enjoyable to play again and again you need to have your individual games actually feel different. As a game designer, you really want to work so that you actually get a variety of game experiences, and each deck has its own characteristics and style. Not only that, you want the same match up to play out differently. This is a very difficult balance to achieve, given that you are trying to create this variance in experience using the same game pieces, and you don’t want to alienate your experienced players by introducing too much randomness. On the flip side, Spikes are a lot more comfortable with repetition. Obviously there is a limit, but playing the same match up hundreds of times is not that bad if you can win over 90% of the time. On this topic, there is very much a tension between Spikes and Timmys/Tammys (a group of players that are most interested in emotional impact, and tend to be attracted to dramatic swingy effects). When games are all decided by the same kinds of cards Timmy/Tammy gets turned off pretty quickly since they are no longer getting an emotional hit. In fact, this might end up being one of those self-defeating moments for Spike, as they will claim they are OK with effects that lower variance, but then complain when the format gets stale.
POWER OF TUTORS AND DRAW SPELLS
Tutors and draw spells, especially when they are powerful greatly reduce the variance of a deck. Need a specific card to win a given match up? Just search it up! Powerful 2-card combo? Put in extra copies! A lot of problems can also just be solved by raw card advantage. As a result, Spikes really tend to like powerful tutor and draw effects. Designers, on the other hand, understand that these effects can be dangerous if pushed too far. Tutor and draw spells greatly increase the repetitiveness of games, and have the potential to be much more powerful than they look. Tutors and draw spells are also not a particularly exciting to place to “put your power”. Icaria is a sweet card, while Rise to the Challenge is pretty unsexy, but if both are too efficient Rakano based decks become oppressive. The game will be more fun if power is invested in the baller Angel, while keeping the dorky tutor somewhat inefficient. I will return to this idea later.
Players and designers have very different relationships with power level. At the beginning of this section I spelled out that Spikes and Designers are not actually in some sort of competition, but here is where it looks a little like that. Gamers – and especially Spikes – basically want as much power as possible. On the other hand, designers want to be much more controlled in giving out power since too much will lead to degenerate formats with unfun play patterns or overly swingy games, but still want to give enough power to excite the players. Think of this like little kids and parents arguing about what to have for dinner. The kid just wants ice cream and candy no matter what! Their incentives are pretty clear, even though they are somewhat perverse. The parents are the ones that actually have an interesting problem to solve. On the one hand they want to feed their kids the healthiest food they can, but on the other hand they know if they just serve up raw kale and multivitamins the kids won’t touch it. Parents must take what they know about cooking, nutrition, and their kids to make something that suits their taste, while also not just being a repeat of last night’s meal. I actually think this analogy is very helpful. Game designers have a very hard job, weighing the concerns of balance at every skill level, player acquisition, implementation in the client, forward and backward compatibility, limited, constructed, and aesthetics. Players just want more power and more cards, and they don’t really care what the consequences are. Too much power leads to degenerate formats, which are not nearly as fun or replayable.
So, just because Spike wants something doesn’t mean it is actually healthy for the game. There is nothing wrong with wanting more power, less variance, and greater strategic purity, but these things can be toxic if they are applied and implemented without care. In fact, holding these things back tends to help improve the emotional impact of when they are given, which is the “art” side of game design. It is not the job of the designer to just give the players what they want, because that will often lead to bad gameplay. While Spike needs to be patient in understanding the challenge designers face, designers on the other hand have the task of listening to the feedback of players like Spikes and develop a game that is as strategically interesting and emotionally engaging as possible, while hitting a whole assortment of other objectives. Game designers have many levers and knobs to use to achieve this goal, and one of the most important is adjusting the level of variance. Let’s talk about why variance, when implemented properly, can be good for games, even if Spikes doesn’t really like it.
Luck versus Skill
Many players strongly believe variance in games is a bad thing and that it undermines the skill of the game. In fact, things are much more complicated. This is a topic that has been discussed at length by others, so I am going to start off this section by pointing to some content that others have produced. First, I am going to be sharing an article by Mark Rosewater (lead designer of Magic) and then go through a video by Richard Garfield (creator of Magic). Both are extremelyaccomplished individuals, who are held in very high regard within the game design community. For each piece, I am going to do a TLDR summary, and then spend a little while riffing on concepts that I thought were interesting.
KIND ACTS OF RANDOMNESS – MARK ROSEWATER
The article can be found here.
TLDR – MaRo thinks randomness is a powerful force in game design, which needs to be used responsibly. Advantages of randomness include allowing games to play out differently and create surprise (which is fun). Importantly, it forces players to react, requiring players to reassess the value of different resources, which is interesting strategically. That being said, he acknowledges there are downsides. It can create repetition and frustration, as well as keeping the game from advancing. One of the most important downsides is that the better player can occasionally lose. This last one is an important tension, which we are going to return to in the Richard Garfield talk. MaRo gives a number of useful suggestions about implementing randomness in a way that gamers like it more, but that isn’t as relevant to what we are looking to discuss.
This article felt like a good place to start this conversation because it introduces some of the fundamentals of randomness from the perspective of the game designer. The basic building blocks as MaRo lays them out are pretty useful. The one point that he makes that I want to dwell on relates to reaction and interaction. This is extremely important, as it really attacks the idea that the “better player is disadvantaged by randomness”. Take for example the following Eternal format: both players are dropped into a game where they start with 25 life, 10 power, and only Knucklebones in hand. These games are going to be exceptionally random, but I think the best players will have a strong win rate even though the cards are totally random. Why? They are good at devising game plans in unusual situations, reshaping card evaluation given that game plan, as well as identifying their opponent’s game plan given unusual situations. That is incredibly skill intensive! Obviously this “Knucklebones Format” is going to be swingy, and an opponent that rips Icaria + Slay on turn 1 is going to win basically 100% of the time against a draw like Decay + Spur On. It is hard to guess how much a skilled player’s win rate would differ from pure 50/50 right now, but I think someone like LSV would have a very solid advantage against the average Eternal player.
Getting away from the hyper-random “Knucklebones Format”, draft is in some ways a toned down version of this. By the end of a draft you get a somewhat random set of cards with very uneven power levels. Good players are able to see through this randomness and identify what matters, and adjust their card evaluation as things evolve. Magic pros generally say that draft is a more skill-testing format than constructed, and that is partly because they can use their mastery of managing randomness to win over opponents that cannot process bizarre situations. Draft certainly has the same problem as the Knucklbones format where your opponent can have an unbeatable bomb that can solo your entire deck, but that is a smaller part of the experience than most people realize.
LUCK VERSUS SKILL – DR. RICHARD GARFIELD
The video can be found here.
TLDW – Players often think of a dichotomy of “luck versus skill”, but Dr. Garfield rejects this thinking. Rather, the variables of luck and skill are actually independent, with luck on one axis and skill on another, and games fall somewhere in this zone. Below is a diagram similar to one presented, though I have added in where I imagine Eternal would fall (which is roughly the same region as Magic and Hearthstone).
Another topic that Dr. Garfield discusses in detail is the downside of luck from the perspective of experienced players. More adept players tend to want to reduce variance so as to increase their chance of winning over a less skilled player. As a result games tend to mature in a direction where the variance is reduced. A flip side of this is that randomness protects ego. Loses feel much better when you can tell yourself you drew poorly, rather than needing to face the hard truth that you might just be bad. Another element that he hit on that is quite neat relates to audience range, where adding luck/randomness to the game allows you to play against wider field. In a game like chess an intermediate player will basically always beat a novice, and basically always lose to an advanced player, so for both players to have a satisfying game they must be very close in skill. In a game with a significant random element this range widens significantly because skill differential isn’t as definitive.
The core thesis of this presentation is basically the following: luck and randomness in games can be good for a game, and are not in conflict with games being high skill. In fact, there are a number of ways to introduce variance into games to make them more skill testing! One of the particular examples that he brought up that I thought was rad was an RTS where the cost of technologies was random. Although experienced players would push back on that being introduced retroactively, it still seems like a very interesting and challenging game (though figuring out how to balance this game seems near impossible).
Dr. Garfield brings up a very important tension: what do enfranchised gamers want? Well, they generally want lower variance, even if it makes the game less accessible to new players, or less fun. As I explained above (and is discussed in Dr. Garfield’s presentation) this can be in conflict with the experience of new players and player acquisition. Experienced and enfranchised players will always prefer rules that benefit themselves, even if that is not really what is best in the big picture.
Variance in Eternal
Now that we have gone through this great long path we finally get to talk about Eternal specifically. Dr. Garfield and MaRo did a pretty great job explaining the general advantages of randomness and luck in games as a whole, but there are a few things to say related to Eternal in specific. First I will talk about allocating “power points”, then variance in reducing repetitiveness, and then poor variance as a cause for emotional investment.
POWER POINT ALLOCATION
I discussed this a little bit in the “Power of Tutors and Draw Spells” section, but I think it is worth expanding on. “Power points” is a useful concept for understanding balance. Let’s imagine that Eternal only had 5 mono-faction decks, and you were trying to balance the game. In order for the game to be balanced, you want to spend roughly the same amount of power in each of the different factions. The “metric” of power can be called “power points”. It is fine if the power is spent in different places for the different factions, as long as they all have roughly the same amount in total. In fact, by putting the power of one faction (lets say Fire) into one area (aggression and burn) and in another faction (Time) in another area (big units and ramp) it allows every deck to feel different. I talk more about the concept of pushed cards and the specific example of Sandstorm Titan in some other articles that you should check out if you haven’t already.
There are two challenges in the power point allocation problem. The first is allocating the power points so that they are distributed roughly evenly. This is an obvious problem in that most people can identify that this is one of the jobs of a game designer. The other less obvious challenge is allocating these power points in the manner that is most interesting and the most fun. For example, it is possible to make Shadow good at power disruption. A card like “4SS opponent loses 1 influence of your choice” is probably not too powerful, so it passes the “balance” side of the equation. On the other hand, stopping your opponent from playing the game, and locking them out of meaningful interaction is unlikely to lead to fun games, so it is not a good place to allocate power points, even if there is nothing unbalanced about it. There is a limited amount of power points for each faction, so they should be organized in a fashion to generate the most fun.
Card draw and tutor effects are one possible area that power points can be allocated, but designers are hesitant to spend much power there. Why? Well, on the one hand, these cards are often deceptively powerful. Take a card like Ponder from Magic the Gathering. You wouldn’t know it by looking at the card, but it is outrageously powerful. As a designer, the more power points you spend on a card like this then you get to spend less power on flashy legendary units, or cool spells. The connection is very obvious if you think about it. If you spend power points on draw spells it means that flashy legends are drawn and played with greater frequency, so they need to be powered down. If the draw and tutor effects are low power then the flashy legends can be more powerful because they are drawn and played with lower frequency. Though the effect is fairly difficult to account for, Wisdom of the Elders being the most powerful draw spell in the game is an extremely important factor in holding back the power of many other Primal cards. The power of draw and tutor spells are kind of a function of the power level of the rest of your deck. You either keep these variance reducing cards at an acceptable power level, or you need to nerf basically every other card in the deck to compensate for the frequency that they come up.
Now that we have identified the balance problem of draw spells, lets think about the fun aspect. Would you rather live in a world where all of the draw spells and tutor spells are extremely good, but the actual action cards are extremely underpowered? Don’t you think that it is cooler that the units and weapons are powerful? Obviously different people have different levels of interest in different aspects of the game, but I sincerely think most people would have more fun playing the format balanced around interesting units and weapons than tutor effects and draw spells.
Some may respond to this by saying “why don’t we just have both? Can’t you just turn up the volume on everything and that will be fine”, that isn’t quite how things work. If a format is hyper-charged with power there is a whole host of issues that can come as a result, like being harder to balance, having too few interaction points before games are decided, and repetitive game states. Lets dive into one of the particular challenges: repetition.
One of the main attractions of card games is that every individual game is unique. The cards never come off the deck in the same order, so every game is at least a little different, but it is easy for things to feel pretty similar after hundreds or thousands of matches. If every game is decided by the same collection of cards the format will quickly become stale, and your players will get bored. Imagine if Eternal’s constructed format had a 45 card limit rather than 75 cards. Nut draws like Oni Ronin into Instigator into Champion of Chaos become much more common. Games would be more often decided by who missed the perfect card first, or who went first. Playing with 75 card decks greatly increases the variance of the draws so things don’t play out the exact same as often. Draws with double or triple Harsh Rule become much less common, which decreases the frustration of getting blown out by the same card over and over again. Larger deck size also just forces players to look deeper into the card pool to fill out their deck. Even lists that have been around for a very long time like big Combrei and Rakano aggro still tend to be 5-10 cards different from one another since the last few slots are hard to “solve”.
Cards like Inspire lower the functional deck size and therefore tend to make games play out the same more often. Pre-nerf Armory was actually surprisingly bad for that. Inspire, Quarry and Rise to the Challenge means that you are probably a favorite to see important cards by the mid game, as well as the power to cast them. Harsh Rule is an important card to have in the game, but if players can always just “have it” it would be a major pressure on any midrange deck, as well as being boring. Games are more interesting when you need to carefully weigh probabilities as well as pros and cons, rather than your opponents always “having it” due to low variance.
I feel like Eternal players (like any gamers) tend to focus much more on what they want then what they have. DWD has actually put an incredible amount of work into controlling the variance of the game. The redraw system of Eternal is incredibly forgiving and powerful leading to flood and screw to be much less common than in Magic the Gathering. The collection of power cards (Seats, Banners, Sigils, Seals and Monuments) leads to very smooth power for 2 faction decks, and reasonably stable influence for 3 faction decks. Seek Power and the Favor cycle are also tremendous for reducing variance. Redundancy also helps to lower variance, like the 1 drops in Fire or the volume of removal spells in Shadow. Or there is the “look at your top card” common cycle, the Ring cycle, the “5 cost activation” uncommon cycle, and the “Ultimate Legends” cycle that came out in Omens of the Past. People talk like DWD is making no effort to reduce the variance of the game, but all these inclusions have greatly reduced the chance of games being decided entirely by who is luckier. I understand that human psychology biases people to focus on the bad and take the good for granted, but let’s try and be serious about all the measures that have been taken by DWD to reduce variance, since it is quite a lot!
Still, there are games that are decided by flood or screw or drawing the wrong half of your deck. I would never say otherwise, and in fact, I think it is a good thing that this happens sometimes. Why is that? Well…
THE GOOD SIDE OF RUNNING BAD
There are tons of ways DWD could reduce the variance of the Eternal. I am sure Patrick Chapin and Conley Woods could literally come up with a hundred if they sat down together for an afternoon. Introduce 3 faction Seats. Allow for a second redraw. Relax minimum power fraction to be 25% or 30%. Add a bunch of powerful transmute cards. Generate some algorithm that decreases your chance to draw power as your max power increases. Start the game with a Cobalt Ring in play. It is not hard to do if they wanted to, so why don’t they do it? Aside from most solutions being inelegant, there is also an issue of variance moving target. As soon as you reduce the chance of flood and screw you will have people complaining that they got unlucky given the new boundaries that you set. Hearthstone is a game with no faction or power screw, but people get really annoyed when they cannot spend all their mana every turn. This phenomenon is an aspect of human nature that can’t really be helped, but that is less important that another point – maybe having the possibility of running bad is just good for the game?
Ever watch Die Hard? Or Speed? Indiana Jones? Although these movies are fun, I have got to say that they lack the same appeal that they did when I was a kid. This isn’t some aspect of not holding up to present production standards, but is much more tied to just maturing. If the good guy always wins, why do I care? I always know how the film is going to end, so where is the drama? Recent cinema and literature have tried to push back on this troupe, ensuring that there are fewer “safe” characters, but when there is nothing at stake in the story, isn’t it kind of dull? Part of what makes card games fun and exciting is you don’t know how they are going to end. We have all had those games where we miss our third power, make due functioning on low resources, and then finally draw out of it at the last possible turn to win at 2 life. And then there are the games where we draw twice as much power as our opponent going long, but play tight and find a path to victory with the few action cards we do draw. Games like these are by far the most satisfying, and part of the reason why is that you know things could have gone badly! You know the crushing feeling of dying with 2 power in play and all action in hand, or pulling 6 Sigils in a row off the top of your deck while taking 20 damage from a single unit. Part of the exhilaration we feel when pulling off a win in a tight game comes from the knowledge that things could have gone differently. Obviously I hope that most games are decided by meaningful interaction over the course of the game, but knowing that unwinnable games exist makes it all the sweeter when you find victory in a game that looked unwinnable. I will also remind people that the way memory works exaggerates the probability of games were “unwinnable and uninteresting”. They hurt a lot, but probably make up a smaller percentage of games than you realize.
There are other advantages that having the opportunity to run bad offers. It punishes bad and undisciplined deckbuilding while rewarding focused deckbuilders. It allows player to trade between consistency and power, which helps create churn in the metagame. It provides a chance for worse players to play against better players and have a chance to win. It helps maintain definition and identity for different archetypes by keeping people from playing anything they want. Though I understand why players want this problem to just be “solved”, you would be surprised how much damage “solving” this problem could cause. I expect we will continue to see cards that act to reduce this variance in different ways (like the “look at the top card of you deck” cycle), but DWD is never going to try and remove all the variance from the game.
I actually think the designers at DWD have found themselves in a particularly difficult spot to appease the audience, possibly more so then almost any other card game. The vast majority of Eternal (and The Elder Scroll Legends) players have experience with other card games, and are coming with relatively deep knowledge about gaming in general. If you started playing Eternal because LSV mentioned it on Limited Resources or because Brian Kibler streamed the game, you are already in a fairly select group of people, and are not just the kitchen-table-EDH ultra casual crowd. In addition, digital card games have a lot more freedom to change cards and rules than paper card games. Take for example the redraw rule in Eternal. This is actually very complicated and difficult to implement in a paper game, but is basically trivial to implement in Eternal. As a result, players can actually make requests to make changes to the redraw system, and DWD has to somehow justify their position (at least to themselves). Changing the mulligan rule in Magic is incredibly difficult, and any exotic system of exceptions is totally untenable. Similarly, Magic has very little they can do with balance once a card is in the wild. Either they ban it if there is a massive problem or they let it stay as is. DWD is sort of “on-the-hook” for every stat point, influence pip, and ability on every card in the game forever, and I expect many of us will continue to question those decisions continually. I obviously think they are doing a tremendous job, but it is pretty easy to lose sight of how difficult their task really is. Hopefully this article has helped give some insight into the complexity of their task, as well as reasoning why DWD lets bad things happen to good players.
Once again, the purpose of this article is not to try to argue that “Designers > Players” or dissuade players from making posts about what they do and don’t like. There is nothing wrong with wanting more power, less variance, or explanations for changes, but it is short-sighted to think DWD holds these things back because they are mean, out-of-touch, or incompetent. It is worth spending the time to really think through why they do the things they do with the expectation that they are really trying to make the game better.
I hope you have all enjoyed reading this as much as I have enjoyed writing it. I am sure I will be hearing from many of you in the Reddit thread. The important thing to remember here is that the choices game designers make is not about just giving you what you want, but making a game that is more fun to play in the big picture. The job they do is tough, with a lot more nuance and challenge than it looks.