Why is balancing (and maintaining balance) in competitive card games so hard?

This is a follow-up to the article I wrote 2 weeks ago about competitive balance in Hearthstone and Magic, and each of the unique challenges in those systems. This week, I want to pull back another layer and focus on the concept of CCG/LCG/TCG (whatever you want to call it) as a whole and talk about the challenges therein, compared with other popular competitive formats.

The main comparison I want to make here is to MOBAs. This is in part because I just have more experience with the MOBA genre, but also because customization of character types provides a more clear comparison to the CCG genre. MOBAs are also well known for the constant balance patches and adjustments as devs create a tuned competitive environment. The question I’ve heard is, what’s the problem with doing similar things with CCGs? Ignoring magic (which is still a physical game), other card games theoretically have the opportunity to release frequent quality of life changes to cards to change their potential.

Economics and Player Perception

Let’s start with the big one. Card games exist on the back of an economic system which creates relatively valued card by releasing them into the broader ecosystem at different rates. Players save up and purchase or craft unique and rarer cards by investing larger amounts of money in the system or by getting lucky with the small amount of money that they have invested.

In addition, the rarer cards are designed to be more powerful and impacting so as to provide a “reason” for why they have the higher rarity. Often decks can hinge on 2-3 especially powerful rare cards. Players compete with each other by building decks of these cards, and its certain decks (and interactions) which define the metagame. To compare this to a MOBA, players invest in single characters and can own a roster of characters for roughly the same financial investment as owning a single powerful deck in a CCG.

If a MOBA designer wants to nerf a specific character, they can reduce stats on certain abilities without impacting the overall play style of that character. Let’s say a damage dealer deals too much damage effectively. They might reduce the rate of damage, but not to the point where they become a less effectively damage dealer. Recently in Hearthstone, the “Rogue Quest” card got a change from requiring 4 duplicates to 5 in order to complete its ability. This minor change requires completely rethinking the type of deck that it can thrive in, moving it from an aggressive combo to more of a controlling combo that has to have more protection in the early game.

All of these changes have huge impacts on how players interact with the game, because often players will invest in a single deck (or maybe two) over the course of season or set, and having their favorite card get nerfed can mean not getting to interact in the format in the same way. Unlike in a MOBA where players can easily own 5+ characters (cheaply), having a single character nerfed creates disappointment more than frustration as they can simply move to a different character.

This mean balance changes end up happening pre-release (or in dire scenarios) instead of the iterative ones you might see over the course of a season.

Working with Integers

Card games, unlike MOBAs, exist in discrete integers 1, 2, 3 etc., whereas MOBAs can use very precise numbers to create character types. A character might have an ability that lasts for .5 seconds because that’s the tuned amount that designers found. Whereas for example in magic the rough “fair” cost of a Counterspell would be about 2.5 mana, but designers cannot print a card for that amount. So they must print a weakened version at 2 mana or a strong version at 3 mana. The discrete amounts means balancing is just much harder, and a lot more rests on changes in integer values.

Because developers can’t release the “optimal version” of a card or even the closed to optimal version (assuming optimal is roughly impossible), means that small changes can have massive ripple effects. One Magic theorist argued that when playing cards on curve, each increase cost of a magic card 1 -> 2 , 2 -> 3, 3 -> 4, etc. roughly doubled the effective cost of that card, because of factors like tempo, challenges drawing and playing lands, and the game state as it exists. While other games don’t rely on lands like Magic does, similar tempo concerns tend to exist, which means changing the cost by a single mana could mean dropping the card from competitive play entirely.

Discrete Effects and Intuition

You might say that this viewpoint is too limited. Only changing things like cost, or effective “strength” is unnecessarily hamstringing potential balance patches. You could rework an entire card if necessary, to keep a format balanced. As long as the rough power level` effect stayed the same, there wouldn’t be many player complaints because cards wouldn’t increase or decrease in value.

Assuming this were even possible (which I would have serious doubts about), players would still have trouble understanding and categorizing the cards they own in a consistent way. If you made a card called “Fireball” which dealt 6 damage to a creature or player for 4 mana. And then discovered “Fireball” is it existed were too powerful, but you couldn’t increase its cost or decrease its damage without completely changing the face of the card, and instead decide to make it a 6/1 creature with charge, you’re faced with players no longer understanding (or necessarily trusting) the cards as they are released.

Even assuming the deck it belonged in got to roughly stay the same, every time you went to play “Fireball” you would have to reconsider and remember what type of card it was and what it did, instead of being able to effectively chunk that information and move through potential lines of play. This would ultimately decrease player trust in designers that the cards they are purchasing do the things they expect.

Hearthstone has done this previously, with Warsong Commander, where it basically completely revised its ability to keep the “heart” but remove the negative impact, but they did so very cautiously and haven’t really made a similar change since.

Timeliness + Experience

Another special differentiation between MOBAs and card games is that MOBAs happen in real time and card games happen in chunks. This means that lines of play are more easily replicable by newer players. For example let’s say I’m watching a MOBA and I see an experienced team execute an intricate line of play to execution, I can try to practice to accomplish this, but I cannot immediately replicate it in practice because of challenges like reflexes, team coordination, and timely recognition.

However, if I see a game state that a pro is in and successfully executes a line of play, I can more easily replicate that line of play in my own games. This is not out-and-out a negative. It makes playing CCGs a lot more relatable because you can act on the knowledge you learn. However, it means that over time as a format becomes solved, the “solution” doesn’t exist on the learning curve, the same way it might in a MOBA. Once a person sees a solution in a CCG, they can execute it themselves. Now, there might be certain intricacies to the recognition of that line of play, that result in changes in probabilities and win-rates up the skill ladder, but the broad strokes of a play environment trickles down much quicker in a CCG than in a MOBA.

Conclusion

Where does this leave us?  I think it means the outcome of balance in card games requires a different lens than with other competitive games.  Either designers have to consider a different economic structure where rarity and power aren’t closely associated so that they can balance individual cards with tuning and tweaks more easily.  But even that wouldn’t solve other problems like “net-decking” that allows the quick dissemination of popular strategies.  Rather than focusing only on creating a wide-range of viable deck archetypes, designers should make sure that individual decks have a wide variety of parts that they can tune to fit a specific environment.

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