Balancing for Limited

Posted in Play Design on August 25, 2017

By Melissa DeTora

Melissa is a former Magic pro player and strategy writer who is now working in R&D on the Play Design team.

Welcome back to Play Design. Today we're going to be talking about how we balance a set for Limited, specifically Draft. There are lots of tools we use for balance, and today I'm going to discuss our general structure for playtesting and feedback.

Step 1: Quickpointing

"Quickpointing" is a term we use that refers to grouping cards into "buckets" based on their power level. Sam Stoddard explained it in a little more detail here. Like the name says, quickpointing is quick. We don't spend a ton of time discussing and evaluating the cards and making sure everyone agrees on how strong or weak a specific card is. Cards change very frequently, usually daily, and assigning power-level values to cards on a daily basis is not an efficient use of our time. Quickpointing meets our goal much more quickly, and with a team of Play Designers all participating in the exercise, our evaluations and results are accurate enough that we can get the set to a point where it's ready to playtest.

So how does quickpointing work? Generally, three to four play designers will assign values to cards based on how strong or weak they think the cards are. Then we average out all the values and we compare the colors to each other. We have targets for how many cards of each power level should exist at each rarity, and rules for how strong cards can be at each rarity. For example, a card like Sandwurm Convergence is not an appropriate uncommon. It's a very swingy and powerful effect and not fun if it shows up too frequently. Another example is Sand Strangler, which has a very strong effect for Limited, and if it was a common, it would make red much more desirable to draft than the other colors.

Another thing that quickpointing does is it makes sure that cards have a variety of power levels. If the power level of all the cards were flat, drafting would be very difficult, especially for inexperienced players. Having cards of varying power levels helps give players direction in a draft. There will be some cards of similar power level of course, and player skill and card synergy help keep drafts fresh and interesting.

Once we have our card values assigned, the next step is to sit in a meeting room and crunch the numbers. For example, if we have too many strong cards in blue, we'll weaken some. And if a color looks too weak, we'll strengthen it in some way. The goal is for each color to have the same number of cards at each of our assigned power levels. Once each color meets our targets, we're ready to draft.

Step 2: Drafting

Playtest drafts are the most important aspect of Limited balance. The set could look great on paper as far as power level evaluations go, but we'll never know if the set is fun or synergistic if we don't get the cards into play. We usually draft a set at least once a week, have meetings to talk about what we learned in the draft, and make changes based on the players' recommendations.

We do a few different kinds of drafts. There are many different types of Magic players, and it's important to get perspectives from people outside of the Play Design team. If all our playtests were done by competitive players, there could be some problems. The set would be hard to draft, Spikey, and very complex. We want all players to experience a set in their own way, so getting R&D members from design or creative teams is important. We also open up playtests to people from outside of R&D. Having Magic Online developers in playtests gives us a unique "new player" perspective (they are usually seeing the set for the first time) and can also bring any potential digital problems to our attention. We also open playtests to other teams at Wizards, like the Customer Support, Brand, and Community teams. While these players are not necessarily game designers, having them in our playtest helps us with things like complexity checks and making sure the mechanics and themes are working.

In these drafts, play designers are not necessarily trying to win. Our goal is to try things out and make sure everything is working. For example, I might first-pick a weird build-around card and go all-in on it just to see if it works. If it doesn't work but the deck was fun, I would suggest adding more support for that strategy. I also might try out a color combination that was underperforming to get a sense of how it plays and what it needs to succeed. Winning is not important in these drafts; we are trying to learn as much about the set as we can so we can properly balance it and make sure it's fun to play.

Another type of draft we do is our "off-site" draft. These drafts are done very late in the process by members of the Play Design team. These are our last drafts right before the set gets handed off to be finalized. These drafts are a final balance check, and the goal is to make sure every color combination is competitive. We call them off-site drafts because we literally go off-site to a nearby hotel and rent out a conference room. We don't want any distractions during these drafts, and we take them very seriously. We try to replicate professional-level events such as the Pro Tour or Day Two of a Grand Prix. The goal of these drafts is to draft the best deck and win.

Step 3: Feedback

After each of our drafts, the players write up any feedback they have and post it on our internal wiki. We look for a lot of types of feedback. Some examples include:

  • Did you have fun?
  • What did you think of the mechanics?
  • What did you draft? Did your deck work? Was it missing anything?
  • Did any cards feel too strong or too weak?
  • Any notes on individual cards?

Once everyone has written their feedback, the Set Design team holds a meeting to discuss the feedback and make changes to the cards based on what was said. Here's an actual write-up I did for Hour of Devastation:

  • I drafted black-red midrange. My deck didn't have much synergy, but was just a mix of creatures and removal. It looked very much like a generic black-red Draft deck. Overall, I found drafting not too difficult and my draft and games were fun.
  • Red still felt too weak to me. I think another creature needs to be improved. Khenra Scrapper still felt weak, but I actually put it in my deck this time! I wasn't impressed with it though. It was just a Riot Devils.
  • I played an above-average number of Amonkhet cards. I think it was because red is weak and my deck needed help once we got to AKH. I could be wrong.
  • The black-green aftermath rare did not look like a rare to me; I think it needs to be spiced up a bit. It looked very much like an uncommon.
  • I liked the change we made to Shirking Slug (CB08). I played two and had a bunch of ways to give -1/-1 counters in my deck. I never actually triggered the Slug because it was always killed immediately, but if I ever untapped with it, I could have gained 6–9 life on my turn. I think it's in a good spot for now. [Note: This card eventually became Scrounger of Souls. At the time of this playtest, it gained you life whenever you put a -1/-1 counter on anything.]
  • Ramunap Ruins is strong. I don't think it's too strong, but it's something to keep an eye on. I have seen this card do 6 damage multiple times. May want to consider changing the activation cost.
  • I have been enjoying afflict. Encourages attacking and makes combat interesting.

Just like with Standard, we iterate on the Draft format a lot. We make changes to cards based on this feedback. For example, after this particular feedback we realized that red was too weak, so we made some improvements to red common creatures. We also determined that Deserts were too strong and hard to interact with, so we changed those up a bit as well.

After this round of changes, we draft again and repeat the process. Once a significant amount of changes have been made, we do another round of quickpointing to make sure things are balanced and nothing is out of whack, then draft and repeat the process again. We finalize Limited by holding our off-site drafts, and once those are done, we are extra careful about any future changes we make that could affect Limited.

Ideally, when we finish our Limited balance, we want the set to present interesting choices during the draft. We don't want players to just pick their bomb rare and force that color. We want strong commons and uncommons that players can build around. We want cards that have a variety of power levels so that players can feel like they have important decisions while drafting. We also want enough strong, appealing cards so that newer players can have some direction while drafting.

That's it for this week! Thanks for reading.

Until next time,

Melissa DeTora
@MelissaDeTora

Play Design Story of the Week

This week's story was written by Paul Cheon.

Two months ago, I made the decision to give up the life of a streamer and become a member of the Wizards of the Coast Play Design team. It was a difficult decision, as I had been a full-time Magic streamer for three years and loved every aspect of it. I got to make my own hours, play Magic every day, and interact with a ton of awesome people who also loved Magic. However, Wizards (via Dan Burdick) sold me on the vision of what they wanted Magic to be, and I didn't want to give up the opportunity to be a part of it.

I didn't realize just how much I would miss streaming until the moment I hit that "stop streaming" button on my last day. That was it . . . it was over. This was something that had been an incredible part of my life for the past few years, and suddenly I was moving on. All kinds of questions started popping in my head: Would I ever stream again? Are the Chlogs over? Am I still in the Top 10 Cheons?

Well, it turns out I can have my cake and eat it too. After a series of meetings with some very amazing people (Thanks Trick, Kayla, Sean, and Dan!), we were able to launch our very first employee stream. As I sat there with a setup ten times fancier than what I had at home, I couldn't believe it. I was actually streaming Magic: The Gathering from Wizards headquarters!

The stream was a total blast, as I got to battle various coworkers in Hour of Devastation Limited, Vintage, and Modern (using tier 3 decks). The highlight of the stream was casting Cruel Ultimatum four times in a match against Andrew Brown. It was good to reconnect with the viewers who I used to interact with on a daily basis. They were basically my coworkers and friends while I sat there streaming alone in my chair for 8 hours a day. It made me realize that this was truly the thing I missed the most. For all the viewers who have shown support in the past, thank you.

So now that the first Wizards employee stream is in the books, what's next? More streams of course! We're working making this a more regular thing while trying to feature many different members of R&D. My personal plan is to continue tricking them into thinking I'm "working" by streaming, when in reality I'll mostly be goofing around. Looking forward to seeing you all in the next stream!

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