Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Really bad cards

One of my posts last week was about the struggles inherent in balancing new and bizarre effects really bad in games.  The prime example was Sideshow Spelleater, who is absolute junk and will not be played.  Except, I suppose, by some reluctant players who get him in Arena and have two other even more wretched options at their disposal.

Naked Man dropped a comment on the post asking about why I felt this way about bad cards.  He sent a link to an old Making Magic post by Mark Rosewater outlining why bad cards exist and why they *must* exist.

This is a good point, but isn't exactly what I meant to convey.  Bad cards have to exist.  For one, having variability in card power is important for the company's bottom line and collectability.  For two, this actually allows better players to win matches more easily.  If cards were all balanced on a razor's edge the game would be a lot more random and that isn't necessarily a good thing.

However!  There is a difference between a bad card made with little resources, and a bad card that takes a lot to build and gives nothing in return.  As an example, Magma Rager is a terrible card.

This card is SO bad.  But it cost very little to make.  There is no possibility of it generating buggy behaviour, the coding required to make it functional once the game is working is nonexistent, and it does not confuse players.  It is easy to make and so it being bad isn't really costing much.  It is actually a great example of a card that might well look fantastic to a new player (It beats down *really* hard!) but eventually people realize that a 3 drop that is trivially killed by any 1 or 2 drop and also dies to hero powers and AOE is TERRIBLE.  This card is a nice addition to the learning curve and aside from the art costs virtually nothing to make.

Sideshow Spelleater isn't like that.  It is in an expansion so people will be getting it as a card from packs they bought.  It is obviously bad, which can be fine if there is something deeper to it, but on further inspection it is still just bad.  The cost of making a unique ability in a computer game is a lot of coding and rewiring and bug checking and problems (plenty of people are or did complain about it being buggy and not working properly) and that is a waste if it could have been used on a card that actually would see play.  This issue of buggy behaviour is less of a problem in Magic because people can usually just read cards and figure them out and even if a card does something totally new it doesn't require much effort to write that down.

It isn't that bad cards shouldn't exist, it is that if a company is going to be a lot of development time into a concept and sink coding hours into making a new thing work smoothly they ought to make sure that it is actually going to be used and that there will be a good return on investment for that effort.  The players appreciate it when their interesting cards are usable and the games are more fun.  People aren't sad that their Magma Ragers are staying benched forever, but when they open a new pack to an exciting card with an effect that they have never used before and immediately ignore it that is a real lost opportunity.


  1. I can assure you that WotC puts a lot of time into testing the bad cards with unusual/novel abilities. And sometimes they do waste interesting abilities on bad cards (sometimes because they're too powerful on good cards, sometimes because they mis-estimate the metagame/environment).

    I see your point - if you're going to try something new, make it occasionally playable so as to justify the effort. Mostly that makes sense.

    But not always. There's a demographic that wants interesting. There's a demographic that wants under-appreciated cards. There's a demographic that wants randomness.

    There's a demographic that will see this card and think it's better than it is (or cooler than it is) and want to play it. It's not "obviously" bad to everyone. There may even be skill to playing it - your opponent will not expect the non-Mage to to suddenly be able to do damage every turn.

    If they made a 3/3 for 6 that wiped out your own board when it hit play, that would be a complete waste - new players won't think it's good and neither will bad players (unless, of course, that's the point - maybe it's intended to make you wonder, "when would this be good?" and you realize that in this set wiping out your board is something you want to do for some reason). But this card isn't *that* bad.

    And maybe it's controlled playtesting. Have it on a bad card to see what happens and get rid of bugs, and then maybe put it on a good card later. Or maybe the next set will do something that will make this card better (seems unlikely given the lack of sideboarding - but maybe they are planning on switching to best 2 of 3!).

    You could be right - bad decision to waste energy on an effect that will see minimal play. But I think you're rushing to that conclusion.

  2. This isn't the worst! It's the perfect (class-neutral) count to JARAXUS! Jackpot!
    (How does this interact with minions that affect my hero power? Eg: If I have a minion out that reduces the cost of my hero power, and another that lets me use it multiple times, and my opponent copies my hero power, does it copy with those modifications on it? If Yes, that's another possible niche for this card)

  3. @Robb

    The spelleater will steal your opponent's hero power modifications that are permanent. For example, the 6/3 minion that empowers your hero power (usually doubles) gets copied because it lasts all game. The minions in play that temporarily modify it do not get copied. So in this case the Spelleater is an extremely weak counter to a card nobody plays because it is also complete trash. ;P

    Your point about Jaraxxus stands. In the all Jaraxxus all the time metagame, this card totally does something!

  4. Is Sideshow Spelleater very useful for the Heroic NPC adventures? I.e. Maexxna's power that for 0 mana to return two enemy's to your opponents hand, is much better than most hero powers.

  5. No, the Spelleater would trivialize many or most of the solo adventures so it is disabled and does not function in those situations.

    Thaurissan's "Do 30 damage" ability would be pretty good too!

  6. It's entirely possible a deck that is strong against everything except handlock would want this to have a way to fight them on the card advantage front. More likely in a sideboarding format, but in some of the constructed tournament formats there is a spot for niche cards.

    It's also not bad in draft. The 6/7 for 6 common is an almost auto-draft. There are very few commons that I'd ever take over it in most decks. Knocking 2 health off sure makes it worse, but it still has more than 4 health so it's not bad. And in a class that has a subpar hero power replacing with a 'random' one is actively good. The warlock, priest, and mage hero powers are so far ahead of the rest in terms of power in draft that any other class would be happy to swap into them.