Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Card Design Story #3: Hell Axe

Okay so today's design story is about Hell Axe, the only "Equipment - Attack" card in the game!  Let's look at the original version of the card, which has the same concept as the current version but works much differently:

Okay, so first of all let me answer the obvious/not-obvious question "Why is Hell Axe the only Equipment - Attack card in the game??"  Well, to be perfectly honest there just isn't a lot that Equipment can do to make Attacks more interesting. The main thing an Equipment can do is make the attack repeatable by letting you do it every time the Defender attacks.  You could do a one-time effect when the Equipment enters play or when the Defender dies but that's really just tacking something on without using the Equipment card type to add anything.

BUT, there is room for an Equipment with a one-time effect that changes based on the Defender's stats.  Basing anything on another card's stats is sticky territory though, and that gets us into why I started with this design!  The reason Hell Axe set the Defender's attack value to 3 is because otherwise it could scale way too well with certain Defenders.  Put it on a Knight and you'll maybe get 6 damage out of it.  Put it on a Whispers of Legend and you could easily get 24 damage out of it for the same 3 energy cost!!!  AHHH!!!

This is a design lesson- having abilities that directly scale off an attribute from another unknown card can get messy fast.  You'll often have some card out there that is fairly costed but has that particular attribute hiked all the way up, and suddenly you have a deadly combo that randomly ruins games.  This is why Hell Axe had to set the Defender's attack value to 3.  Letting it get boosted by other Equipment generally produced predictable results since there are only 11 Equipment cards so it wasn't something I was worried about.

After Some Playtesting

Here are some notes I made after a playtest with this version:

Hell Axe - This card was pretty dang good, I think it dealt like 9 damage for 4 energy?  But that's a pretty conditional 9 damage.  Gonna put this one on the watch list but I'm not really confident in raising its cost just yet.  Spending 5 for almost no damage increase would hurt.  Also I've got to remember I used Heal to get extra mileage out of it sooo maybe it is fine...

So yeah, in a game I managed to deal 9 damage with this.  However it was bolstered by the fact I had a card called Heal that made Defenders live longer.  (I removed Heal from the game when I realized there were like 6 too-similar low cost cards that made Defenders live longer.)  So anyways this wasn't quite the "perfect storm" I thought it might be- on basically any big Defender or with any Defender-healing card it seemed Hell Axe could do 6 or 9 or 12 damage too easily.  Doing 6 damage for 4 energy is fine if you have to work for it, but when that 6 damage turns to 9 or 12 with a little more work things start to get bad.  It scaled too greatly when you enhanced it with other cards.

Segway time- obviously Hell Axe was RIDICULOUS with Giant Turtle which is a 1/10.  It made the turtle a 3/10 and since the Turtle lived forever, it was virtually guaranteed to be able to do 9+ damage.  I distinctly knew when I made Giant Turtle that it would close off some potential card designs.  For example, imagine a card that costs 4 energy that says "Discard a Defender to deal damage equal to its health to each opponent." Most of the time this would be mediocre or okay but with Giant Turtle, 4 energy for 10 damage is way too good.  BUT, I knew that this would close off some design space, but not a lot, so I was fine with it.  I haven't found any cards I've been super excited about that it inhibited, so I am 500% happy about creating Giant Turtle.

So How Did I Fix That

Okay here's the next (and final) version of Hell Axe:

WUT?  So now it costs one less energy, but always makes the Defender a little worse and always deals a flat 2 damage (whereas before it essentially dealt a flat 3 damage).  Why did I make these changes?

Okay, so first of all I said part of the problem with the original version was the scaling.  You had to work to deal 6 damage.  But if you could attack again, it went up to 9.  Then up to 12.  By lowering the damage per turn to 2 it scaled way slower obviously.  By the time you're attacking three times you've only dealt 6 damage instead of 9, then dealing 8 damage instead of 12 is still really awesome for three energy but not like ridiculously overpowered like 12 was.

So quick note- the whole "dealing damage equal to the attack value" and still getting enhanced by equipment was all a bunch of unneeded jargon for something that dealt a flat amount of damage 99% of the time.  That's why it just says "deal 2 damage to the opponent" now.

The -1/-0 was mostly a jab at Giant Turtle (and it helps it not to be overpowered with other cards like Medium which is a 1/6).  You can't have Hell Axe go on a Giant Turtle and deal 10 damage to the opponent while Giant Turtle keeps hitting your monsters.  This nerf sounds ridiculous, but it's actually a laser strike to the root of the issue.  The only cards that can have astronomical health are ones with 1 attack, because by making it 2 attack you've doubled their damage.  And if you can keep something alive forever with a Hell Axe on it, you can't have it dealing its full damage and have Hell Axe going off because it's too much scaling. So overall the -1/-0 does exactly what we need it to.

So How DO You Use Hell Axe (STRATEGY TIME)

First of all, recognize that Hell Axe is a tool that makes games end quickly by letting you invest resources into directly hurting the opponent.  If you're going for a long-game prize card or gold strategy then Hell Axe isn't going to help you very much, but if your opponent is you'll be able to make the game end faster.  Cards that help you in the short term like Lost at Sea, Murder, Black Blade of Death, Hire Mercenaries, and Brocky Noble Mercenary are all great.  If you stay ahead long enough to kill your opponent then it doesn't matter that you blew all your resources.

Furthermore, opponents that are investing for the long-term with cards like Infinite Sleep or Death Ray will probably be a little behind, and that's when you Hell Axe them.  If they're trying to fill your decks with Confusions you also probably want to Hell Axe them.

Okay, if you want to get full use out of Hell Axe you'll have to be CAREFUL.  Sure, it's called Hell Axe but that doesn't mean you just attack recklessly.  Your goal is to attack as many times as possible, and take the least amount of damage each time you attack.  Generally you're aiming to take 2 damage when you attack.  If you can attack a Hellhound which will rarely happen, that's even better.

If you just throw Hell Axe on a Knight, you'll likely get 4 damage out of it and lower the Knight's total damage output by 2.  Spending 3 energy and a 2 damage reduction for 4 damage to the opponent is not optimal, but in some games any kind of pressure on the opponent is deadly to them.

Recognize when a Hell Axe strategy is not the way to go, and use its Equipment special ability to pay 2 energy and discard it to draw a card.

COMBOS.  Hell Axe on a Giant Turtle can easily deal 10 damage to the opponent for a 6 energy investment on your part.  Look out for other high-health Defenders like Royal Guard or Medium.  Iron Armor (+0/+4) is a good boost and can often add an extra 4 damage to the opponent for a 1 energy investment.  Healing Flask (heals a Defender to full health at once or 1 damage/turn) can be aaaaweeesome with a high-health Defender.  Giant Turtle + Healing Flask + Hell Axe is pretty much a godly combo that your opponent probably won't let you draft, but would come close to doubling the damage Hell Axe deals.

SO, bottom line- Hell Axe is a tool and not a blunt object to toss on any Defender and throw around.  It lets you be the one to decide how long or short the game is, and that ability is deceptively powerful.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Card Design Story #2: Unicorn

Today I'm going to talk about the card Unicorn!  Let's get right down to it, here's the original version of the card:

Unicorn (Original Version)

In other games I've always loved cards and abilities that you can use over and over again, giving you a long term advantage from using the same resource multiple times.  It really makes the card matter in your deck instead of just being a one-shot like most cards.  Also it's fun building up your other resources while your re-usable card supports you.

I knew I wanted Unicorn to feel special and magical, so why not have it be an immortal Defender that's always by your side?  Sounds awesome right?  You'll always have a Defender to equip and you'll never be empty-handed.

So the first problem (of many) was that it was a 1/2.  If something is reusable, it has to be weaker than normal, otherwise it's just too good.  The problem was that this was horrible, even with equipment, spending 2 energy for a 1/2 was nearly always not what you want to be doing.  So the second rule of being reusable is that you have to want to reuse it!  So I made it a 2/2, making it not super powerful, but worth reusing as it could convert energy into damage over and over and over and over:

So I started testing it and here are my playtesting notes from that era:

Unicorn - Seems fine.  Fun card.  Needs more playtesting overall though.

At this point I have tested the new Unicorn but I don't get that warm fuzzy feeling that everything is alright, so I note that it needs more playtesting.  And it DOES.

Unicorn - This card might be a little OP.  It's like a Circus Bear that you don't need to work for.

In this round of playtesting I note that Unicorn feels a lot like Circus Bear (which at this point was a 3/3 for 2 energy that returned to your hand at end of turn if it lives).  Both are reusable Defenders, but Circus Bear was a little bigger and you needed to make sure it didn't die.  So since Unicorn dealt less damage than Circus Bear maybe it was fine?  I figured out the answer in a later playtest:

Hellfeast/Silver Axe/Unicorn/Circus Bear - Okay, turning energy to damage on a 1 to 1 ratio and getting to keep the card is just too good.  Theoretically dealing 7 damage a turn shouldn't be that great, but in reality it just makes sure you can always buy Summoning and never run out of cards and never have unused energy.

Here I have figured out that even though I noted that the reusable cards were not terribly efficient, the fact that they let you use all your energy and never worry about running out of cards made them too good. The problem runs a little deeper than that though...

Reusable Cards In Mage Tower Compared To Other Games

Okay so the thing about Mage Tower is that the ever-present consistent threat of monsters are always there, and you always have 7 energy to deal with them, and you always want to deal with them as efficiently as possible.  This puts reusable cards in an awkward place.  In other games, generally you are only threatened by what the opponent has, and you may have cards you can put into play that protect you for several turns, or efficiently deal with an opponent's threat (making you safe for a while).  In other games delaying the opponent and killing them (usually the goal) are two separate things.  So there may be cards that delay them which give you time to do other things.

In Mage Tower though, I can't make cards that delay the monster board, because that's the whole point of the game, so there's no room to make a card that's better at that than other cards (it would just be overpowered!)  With this ever-present threat, there's really no "breathing room" to use inefficient reusable cards over and over, because you want to be efficient!  So if the reusable cards are efficient they'd be overpowered, but if they're not efficient, you'd basically never want to play them (yes I've circled around to the same problem as earlier).

SO, the design space of "cards you can use inefficiently when you open up opportunities to" is basically not a thing in Mage Tower.  The best way to think of the reusable cards in Mage Tower is that they let you draw a card when you use them, but the card you draw is itself.  Overall this isn't as exciting as if the previous option was available.  Doing the same thing every turn when the same amount of monsters come out every turn is a boring boring boring way to play the game.  So the result is that I didn't want a lot of these cards so I cut Silver Axe, changed Hellfeast, kept Circus Bear (but raised the cost), and changed Unicorn completely.  This leads us to the final version...

The Last Unicorn

I hemmed and hawed trying to figure out something that felt really unique and special (as I felt the Unicorn should be because hey it's a frigging Unicorn).  I finally decided on this version, word for word.  Previously I knew that I wanted to make a card that you got to start the game with, and Unicorn seemed like the perfect card for this because it made it feel special.

The shuffle effect lets you keep getting your Unicorn back just a little more often.  Interesting note- I was originally going to have Unicorn have a different card back (with a large Unicorn picture on it)!  Since it starts in your hand and you get it back whenever you shuffle, it technically would never need to be inside the deck.  The reasons I didn't do this were... threefold: It made it stand out in the Draft Deck and while drafting, it made taking it out of your deck when shuffling mandatory but it was easy to forget, and there probably are or will be reasons it gets put inside the deck one way or another anyways.  Also it's a little confusing, and makes the print files a more awkward.  Thinking it over again though- it would have been cool!

So why is it 1 for a 2/3?  Since it's reusable, but you have to work to do so, I really want you to be rewarded for putting in the effort (and to be happy that it's in your starting hand!).  That's why it's an extremely efficient 1 energy for a 2/3.  The thing is that both its abilities don't increase its damage, and 1-cost (and zero cost) cards are allowed to be the most efficient in the game, so really it's not near being game-breakingly powerful.  It is cool that it has synergy with an unusual subset of cards- any shuffling card becomes a Free Unicorn card!

In the end Unicorn is a nifty, unique card.  It has synergy with Equipment and shuffling effects so it doesn't just exist in a vacuum, and it has cool mechanics that don't exist in many other games!  As for the other reusable Mage Tower cards, Hellfeast is now a limited use card that can give you a ton of Defenders if you're into that, and Circus Bear is a card I love because it's truly reusable but you have to be careful with it and hedge your bets on how long you want to use it to try to build up more cards.  It's important to recognize that not every mechanic from other games fits into your game, but that you can usually adapt something fun in one way or another.

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.