Monday, November 12, 2012

Card Design Story #1: Infinite Sleep

In this series, I am going to talk about some of the cards of Mage Tower and their journey from being created to the final version.  Today I'm going to talk about the card Infinite Sleep, which doesn't have a super turbulent history but is one of the oldest cards and taught me a few lessons about Mage Tower design.

The original version of Infinite Sleep:

The idea with Infinite Sleep is that you're betting that the game is going to last very long, and if it does then you get a huge advantage.  This version of the card, while pretty similar to the final version, has basically a million problems:

Drawing it early mattered more than the game lasting long
If you got this first turn, it'd usually go off.  If you got it seventh turn it probably wouldn't.  The pattern here is that when you drew it mattered more than anything else.  It might as well have been a card where you rolled dice and if the correct number came up you gained 10 life.

There wasn't a way to control game length yet
There were some Attack cards that would make the game end faster (by focusing resources on hurting the opponent instead of defending yourself), but there weren't any Boon cards yet. Boon cards make the game end more slowly because they help all players.  Without a way to make the game longer, I guess you'd just try to draft this if there weren't many attacks in the game?  But it still mostly depended on when you drew it.  So the only way to synergize with this card was to try to draw it as quickly as possible, which was okay, but still kind of luck-based and it missed the point of the card.

It was way too big of a life swing
Gaining 10 life is HUGE.  In other types of games gaining life is a stall tactic you use to give you time to do things that actually end the game.  In Mage Tower the goal of the game is entirely to keep your life total above zero, so life gain is a lot better than in other games and not just a tertiary effect that does nothing in the long run.  I'll get into this more later, but basically if this card "went off" you won the game, and if you didn't you were at a disadvantage.  It was luck-based and un-fun.

The First Iteration

Okay so the first thing I fixed here was making the life gain less devastating.  Now whether or not Infinite Sleep went off wasn't what decided the entire game.  So you could invest in Infinite Sleep if you got it early, try to use Boon cards to slow the game down (they existed now), and try to use card drawing to get it as early as possible.

The problem here, obviously, is that it still takes a ton of counters to get it to go off.  Why did I only lower the counters to 9?  Well I didn't want the card to become boring.  The whole point of the card is that it gives you a big pay-off but it takes a REALLY long time to happen.  I know to new players 7 life doesn't look super great, but that's 1/3rd of your starting life, so basically by spending half your energy on one turn you've saved 1/3rd of your life from the *entire game*.  The game just has to last long enough for this to work.

But yeah, it still wasn't based around drafting and playing smartly, it was just based around whether you drew it early or not.  Lowering the life gained and adding boon cards helped it out, but this iteration was still just weird and swingy.  And even though 7 life is good, it didn't "feel" good enough to spend 4 energy and wait 9 turns for.  So much could happen in 9 turns.  This version mostly felt like a liability unless you randomly got it in your starting hand.

The Second Iteration i.e. Removing The Card From Mage Tower

Okay so at one point the game had too many cards and I needed to remove some, so I did a quick run through the card file and made a list of every card I thought I might remove.  The main things I was looking for were:

-Cards that did something other cards did, making their design feel redundant and a waste of space.
-Cards that had plain effects but were needlessly hard to explain or figure out how to play optimally.
-Cards whose intention did not meet expectations (this is where Infinite Sleep was.)

Infinite Sleep wasn't actually chosen, but it was close.  My primary design goal in Mage Tower was to explore as many corners of design space as possible.  So I felt like it would be dumb to just say "there's no way to do a card that has to be in play for most of the game to work."  It seemed like a card should and could be able to accomplish this.  So...

The Final Version

Okay so obviously Infinite Sleep's problem in the fun department was that it took forever to work.  But if I increased its payoff the whole game would revolve around it, and if I lowered the turns required it would just feel like a boring middle of the road card that took a few turns to work.  So why did I lower its counters and its effect??

Now that I had a better idea of game length, lowering its counters was fine
Games generally last from 8-12 turns, with the high and low ends of that spectrum being less likely.  Back when the original Infinite Sleep was made, there were a few things that made the games longer.  For one, Warlocks were 1/2s instead of 2/2s (I'll save that story for another day).  Secondly and more importantly, there were a few cards that were still very imbalanced.  When these cards came up, the games would last longer because killing monsters was easier.

With 170+ cards to test and some cards being more subtle about their power, it took a while to root out the overpowered cards.  But in more recent development with a lot more stable power level, you generally don't get those 18 turn games that result from both players having some overpowered cards.

With a more stable idea of the amount of turns in the game, spending 7 out of the 8-12 turns on Infinite Sleep (not including the turn you play it) is pretty much at the upper limit of counters you could require while keeping it reasonable.  In playtesting it certainly still felt like an eternity (in a good way, I guess you could say), so yeah removing two counters was fine

The reward of 6 life is low but still doesn't make it feel like a mid-range card
Six life is exactly the right number to make the card as powerful as possible but not make the game feel like it revolves around Infinite Sleep.  I'll admit- the card ended up slightly more mid-rangey than I would have liked (by that I mean it's not an enormously powerful effect, just a very very good one).  But you really can't increase this number without making it feel like you're playing a game called "See If Infinite Sleep Goes Off" rather than "Mage Tower".  It's easy to forget that there are 12 other cards in your deck and that you can't have one single card decide everything, because then the entire game is based around whether other abilities can interact with it.

If Infinite Sleep simply gave you 6 life for 4 energy, it would be the very overpowered.  However if you get some card drawing, card searching, or game-lengthening Boon cards you can certainly make Infinite Sleep functionally a 6 life for 4 energy card.  In the end while it isn't the most game-warping card out there, Infinite Sleep is a flavorful, strategic card.  But it's still more game-warping than most cards, and it's always exciting when you and your opponent are almost dead but you need just a little longer for Infinite Sleep to go off...

Strategy Tips

Infinite Sleep is best with cards that can search it up so you can play it within the first few turns.  Cards like Juggle, Recant, or Combination are great for this.  Cards that draw cards like Inspiration or Skeletal Apprentice can quickly dig through your deck to let you get to Infinite Sleep ASAP.  If you see a lot of Boon cards in the game, or have ways to play your own Boon cards many times, you won't need to worry about searching up Infinite Sleep right away because the game will last long enough for it to "go off" even if you don't play it until fifth turn.  Watch out for Attack cards that will make the game shorter, though.

Cards that shuffle your discard into your deck or put Confusions in your deck will slow your drawing down- keep that in mind when deciding if your deck would benefit from Infinite Sleep

Infinite Sleep usually only needs one or two synergistic cards to make it worthwhile, so don't spend all your draft picks trying to enhance it.  If you draft a bunch of card drawers and boon cards just for Infinite Sleep you might find it works but that the 6 life bonus isn't worth the rest of your deck not having another solid synergistic game plan.

During gameplay it's important to recognize when it's too late to play Infinite Sleep.  The latest you want to play it is probably fifth turn, or earlier if there are attacks that make the game shorter.  You may want to buy Intellects to get through your deck a little faster, making it more likely you'll draw Infinite Sleep or a card that synergizes with it.

In the end you really want a deck that can easily make use of Infinite Sleep without going too much out of its way to do so.  Infinite Sleep isn't a card you draft first pick and build an entire deck around, it's a card you smartly add to the right deck to get a great benefit for little cost.

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