Balancing for Fun

Posted in Latest Developments on May 3, 2013

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

It's the week after the Prerelease and I hope everyone made time to get out to a local game store and experience what the set has to offer. Now that we are hitting the release weekend, though, I want to talk a bit about developing cards for Constructed, and more specifically, Standard. This week I want to talk about a card that existed in our Dragon's Maze file for a little over a month. You may recognize it:

Lightning Helix
Lightning Helix deals 3 damage to target creature or player. You gain 3 life.

One of the things we wanted to do with Dragon's Maze (and really the entire Return to Ravnica block) was call back to as many of the old favorite cards from the original Ravnica block as possible. Putrefy, of course, came back in its original form. Wurm Ambush and Armada Wurm both summon a Siege Wurm. Breaking of Breaking & Entering is a slightly smaller version of Glimpse the Unthinkable. Boros Battleshaper casts a mini-version of Master Warcraft every turn. Ral Zarek ultimates into casting five Stitch in Times (who out there caught that one?). This is only a small selection of the similar callbacks in Return to Ravnica. It is pretty hard to find someone in the Pit who wouldn't identify the original Ravnica as one of their favorite blocks of all time.

Boros Battleshaper

The thing we knew going into Dragon's Maze development was that Lightning Helix was a little undercosted at . Chances are, if we were printing the card for the first time today, we would start the cost for it at . Still, you have to take a few risks whenever you print a set, and Lightning Helix had more than enough cachet to be worth it for testing purposes. We put the card in the set and even went as far as commissioning it art before we finally got to putting it into the Future Future League. As it turns out, none of our aggro decks were able to get very close to winning after turn-two Lightning Helix followed by Augur of Bolas, another Helix, or a turn-four Snapcaster flashing back Lightning Helix. Frown.

I know a lot of people were sad to see that Lightning Helix wasn't reprinted, and I want to make it clear that we didn't make the decision lightly. We really did hope we would be able to get Lightning Helix into the set, and it is a card we would be willing to try again in the future when we have another set where it might be a good fit. It's easy to peg developers as the guys whose job it is to make sure that nobody has any fun, but that's really not true. We want to make sure everyone has as much fun as possible, and some of that means making hard decisions in terms of which cards get printed and which don't. Often, in order for several fun cards to not only see print but have a chance to see play, several other cards have to go to the chopping block. We do a lot in R&D to separate the concepts of power and fun

Moving away from Lightning Helix for now, let's talk about a new card in Dragon's MazeDeadbridge Chant. I find Deadbridge Chant to be a very fun card. You may not, but not every card is designed for every person. I find there is an enjoyable amount of randomness, as well as a clear reward for both having large creatures to reanimate and for being able to remove enough cards in my graveyard to get back what I want to turn after turn. I played quite a few decks based around this card in the Future Future League and generally found it to be in a good spot. It rewarded me for deck building but wasn't a card that was impossible for my opponents to beat when I did build around it. While it may or may not see much Constructed play in the real world, we were satisfied by how the card turned out.

Deadbridge Chant

Would the card be more fun at five mana? It would be more powerful, for sure, but I don't know that it would really be any more fun. Cards don't need to be powerful to be fun—power helps to win games. Winning games is, in general, more fun than losing games, but we hope the cards and the interactions between decks will let both players have fun no matter what the result. We try to get the fun cards we are aiming at competitive Standard to be within a power range that we believe the cards could see play, but could imagine them not seeing play. If the half-dozen Magic developers were able to solve the metagame in the amount of time the set spends in development, then it would have no chance of surviving the pressures of the real-world player base.

The secret is that making cards more powerful is easy—just keep charging less mana or increasing the numbers (fusing the two halves of this equation works too). The hard part is finding the numbers that best balance the potential for fun for the card itself without making the other cards in the game less fun as a result.

One of the first things I had to wrap my head around when I became a developer was that the numbers we were working on were all mutable. When you look at a printed Magic card, sometimes you might say to yourself "I wish that cost just one mana less" or "I wish that it drew three cards instead of two." Well, that is the somewhat unique super power that the Magic development team has. We get to lock those numbers in. We get to try out different things and get an idea of what the best numbers are. Sometimes, the original stabs that design takes are correct, and sometimes there are numbers that work better with the card. It's more than just adding or subtracting mana; sometimes we get to double the mana for triple the effect, and that is just what makes the card the version we want in a set. Sometimes we remove mana and add a condition or drawback. Other times, we blow up all of the numbers on the card and find something that fits a similar role, but does so in a way we think will be more important for the set.

Deadbridge Chant | Art by Zoltan Boros

All of these changes generally fit into one major concepts we talk about in the pit, which is net fun. To elaborate, if we assume that having the most fun humanly possible is a 1, 0 is neutral, and -1 is having the worst time humanly imaginable, we aim to get the combined score between two people playing a game of Magic to be as close to 2 as possible. Hitting that number is obviously not a totally reasonable goal, but hopefully it illustrates some of the decisions that development makes beyond simply making sure that cards are balanced. Magic isn't by its nature a zero-sum game in terms of fun. People can and should have fun doing things other than simply winning, and we need to give players the opportunity to both play their own games and interact with their opponents in ways that are both meaningful and enjoyable.

There are many cards we generally print less of at competitive tournament power levels (like land destruction or other lock-out types of effects) because they reduce the net fun of the game significantly. I won't make the claim that there aren't plenty of players who enjoy playing these types of cards, but I have found very few people who particularly enjoy the games where they have no opportunity to meaningfully interact because they have no mana to cast their own spells. While some amount of this game play is inherent within the design of Magic due to mana screw and mana flood, it is less than ideal if the interactions we put forward for players to compete with only further those frustrations. It doesn't matter how balanced the game is mechanically if nobody enjoys it.

There are times where we do take risks on cards because we believe the game will be more fun if the card exists, but more often than not, we end up making individual cards less powerful for the greater good of the game. In the example of Deadbridge Chant, we could've kept cutting down the mana cost of Deadbridge Chant until it was zero, or even negative (and please don't let Matt Tabak know I proposed that mechanic), but the end result is that the game is just less fun as a whole. And really, if Deadbridge Chant was a zero-mana single-sided Howling Mine, who wouldn't be playing four in every deck?

Getting back to the original card in question—Lightning Helix—cards are often too powerful in early testing. That's why development has a job, and the process doesn't stop with design. We are here to make sure things are both fun and fair. In situations where a card is blocking off an entire strategy from existing, development basically has two options: (1) power up all of the cards around the offending card so the set (and Standard) are balanced or (2) figure out a way to tweak the offending card so it isn't warping the format around it.

While we really wanted to put Lightning Helix in the set, there was just no way we could try and balance all of Standard around that card. Zac Hill made the decision during a Future Future League meeting to kill the card and find another design that could use the existing art, at the same time calling back to the original card in Ravnica: City of Guilds. We knew that no matter what happened, Snapcaster Mage would push the card above two mana. Snapcastering charms was strong enough, and there wasn't much need for those decks to have even more targets. We discussed briefly taking Char and changing the lose 2 life to gain 2 life, but instead ended up with this version for testing:

Helix of Lightning
Deal 4 damage to target creature or player and gain 4 life.

This was tested for a few days, and we decided it was still having the same problem of locking the aggro decks out of the format by being too efficient. The next step was to try and find a cost that was more awkward to cast on turns three and five, therefore having a larger impact on the power of flashing back the spell with Snapcaster Mage.

Helix of Lightning
Deal 4 damage to target creature or player and gain 4 life.

Alas, the mana fixing in Standard was more than strong enough to handle even the most awkward mana costs we could throw at it at three mana. It's possible that this would've worked in another set, but not in Return to Ravnica block.

Warleader's Helix
Deal 4 damage to target creature or player and gain 4 life.

Warleader's Helix

This was the card that we finally settled on for the set. We found it was still strong against the aggressive and midrange decks but cost enough mana that it wasn't preventing those decks from existing. A deck running Warleader's Helix, Supreme Verdict, and Sphinx's Revelation would often find itself with too much to do at high mana costs, and not enough at the low ones, meaning players would have to make some interesting decisions as to how many of each to include in their decks, which is a place we find to be much more fun than having a card that is an auto-four-of at all times.

We don't claim to know how each card will hit every person, or that every card will make every person happy. There are tradeoffs that happen everywhere during the development of a set, but I think we have developed a good process for making the game as fun for as many people as possible. We're not going to get every card right, but hopefully we can get the broad strokes to where we want them to be.


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