What should the Design Team strive for in terms of balance? Do you want each archetype to have the same overall winrate (RPS) or that each archetype has a 50ish winrate against every other archetype (RTS)?
The first case is akin to Rock-Paper-Scissors. You could argue that it is a perfectly balanced game since each move has a theoretically equal chance to win – they all have one auto-win and one auto-loss. The outcome of a match is decided solely by your pregame choice.
The most successful players will be those that read the metagame better.
In Shadow Era terms, that would be like a Rush Eladawen beats Allied Moonstalker beats Solo Gwen beats Rush Eladwen metagame.
The second type of balance is what good Real Time Strategy games strive for. Your faction choice does not matter much but your in game decisions will. This does not necessarily imply that each faction/hero is the same but rather that you need to know your metagame and the timing of turning points and when to get offensive/defensive and what risks are worth taking.
The original Company of Heroes is a classic example of this. The Americans had the early game infantry advantage and were expected to but the pressure on the Wehrmacht MG42s. The US player had to control more than half the map coming out of Tier 1 to have any chance to compete against the superior German late game. As the Wehrmacht, you had to assess the situation after the first big American attack. If you did well, you jumped straight to early mid-level vehicles and ran over US infantry but if the Americans had captured enough resource points, you had to go more defensive and to try to bait the opponent into traps while waiting for your late game tanks to be available while the US tried to find cracks in your armor. Rushing as the Wehrmacht or turtling as the US rarely, if ever, worked. Two very different factions, a very balanced matchup that offered a lot of different type of games.
The better players will be those who recognize and take advantage of ingame opportunities.
What does this mean for TCGs?
Well, TCGs have, in my opinion, a bit of both and that’s part of the fun. You have to pick a deck that’s right for the metagame and then you have to actually win the match.
TCGs have complex metagames with a lot of potential matchups and decks can be rated along a number of axis that range from win condition (damage, mill, combo) to means (dudes, items, burn, resource destruction, discard, life gain, stall, mill, card advantage, etc.) to specific strength (vs dudes, vs burn, vs control, etc.) to speed (rush, midrange, control – the most important in my mind).
tl;dr – You need both RPS and RTS skills to succeed.
What does this mean for players?
In writing this, I am going to assume that you are a player that wants to win (see the definition of the Spike player type).
As a player, you should try to abuse the Rock-Paper-Scissors part of the game balance.
Historically, Shadow Era’s two most successful Quickmatch decks (since the full release of Call of the Crystals) have been it’s fastest (rush Eladwen – dudes + burn) and it’s slowest (Millstalker – life gain + stall). They win by making your cards irrelevant. You super fatties and Spelleater Bands won’t even have a chance to hit the board before Eladwen burns your face off and your carefully constructed ally curve will barely get any chance to swing at Moonstalker’s smelly hide before they’re ground into dust. If you play these decks in the right metagame you can utterly dominate. It’s like playing rock when everyone is playing scissors. You’re simply outside the metagame.
Yet, running Eladwen in the Season 8 top 100 ladder race was akin to rating suicide. All you’d meet was Amber, Banebow, Baduruu and Millstalker. These decks would make Eladwen’s burn and small dudes irrelevant with their great healing and ally control. That doesn’t make Eladwen bad, it just makes her a bad choice for the metagame. She could still rack up a couple of wins with her great rush starts but she wouldn’t take you to the top.
If you take out the extremes of the speed spectrum and focus on midrange decks (anything from rushish Amber to slower Zhanna), then the focus switches to damage source or specific strengths. Lance, Zhanna, Portal Majiya and midrange Zaladar and even much narrower decks like solo Gwen, allied Moonstalker or solo Darkclaw have all dominated the metagame at certain points. You just have to recognize the opportunities.
Your goal is to make your current opponent irrelevant.
As a player you should throw changups.
The legendary (and short lived) tier 0 Gravebone proves that, to dominate a given metagame, you don’t need an absolutely broken deck that redefines it: you can also abuse your opponents RTS shortcomings by showing them things they don’t expect or have never seen. On the final Call of the Crystals Test Server, some players (Wtzky?) made Gravebone insanely popular for 10 days until people found a way to deal with the constant Gragoyle and Molten Destroyer stream backed by Supernova and Dagger of Unmaking. The same happened with Lance and his Anklebreaker around the same time. These episodes thought us, Shadow Era players, how to deal with these decks, but those who were at the right place at the right times reaped the rewards.
A similar thing happens during a player’s learning curve. At some point, you’ll face things (Mind Control, Retreat, Tidal Wave and what not) that you believe to be overpowered. They’re not, you just need to learn to play against them.
As a player, you should know yourself and know your enemy.
Once the dice has been cast and you find yourself in an even matchup, the age old adage holds true. The better you know both yours and your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, the better your odds are. This is the RTS part of the game. This is all your run-of-the-mills Lance vs Amber, Zaladar vs Majiya, Zhanna vs Boris and what not. Know when to strike and when to bend. Take appropriate risks.
You also need to understand the format you’re playing. Start order? Skill-based matchmaking? Deck lock? Hero lock? Sideboards? Bans? Etc.
This all comes with experience (playing and reading).
This also means you should play a deck you can play. Don’t try to rush or play Millstaker or Lance or Amber if you can’t even if that’s what the meta calls for (I couldn’t beat solo Elemantalis with Portal Majiya if my life depended on it). Cut your losses and play something viable.
tl;dr – Help yourself! Play a deck you can play! Play a deck that can win! Don’t make dumb plays!
What does this mean for the Design Team?
I think that a good TCG should aim to have a healthy number of playable archetype at any given point of the win condition/means/strengths and speed spectrums. This will let the players, rather than the card pool, dictate the metagame and allow for fluctuations.
Since Dark Prophecies was released, Shadow Era is in rather good shape in that regard. The limited card pool somewhat hampers the spread but it’s quite acceptable. The only glaring outsiders are Eladwen and Millstaker. I see three reasons for this: 1 – they can beat their would-be hard counters (Eladwen can beat Hunters with a simply above average hand) 2 – most of their hardest matchups are too narrow (solo Gwen can’t beat much more than Mages and the odd Zaladar and Jericho wasn’t lucky in the tier drawing hat), 3 – they’re alone at their ends of the speed spectrum (nobody comes close to rushing like Eladwen – Millstaker is an even matchup for other stallers (Zaladar, Ter Adun) but he’s much better than they are against the rest of field).
Rather than releasing narrow cards like Nowhere to Hide, I’d rather have the DT come up with other effective stallers and rushers. This would prevent decks from remaining constantly outside the metagame and gives opportunities to both good RPS and good RTS players to shine. Given a stable metagame, good RPS players will identify its weakness and exploit it, after a time the mass of players will move towards this newly shifted metagame and people will play similar decks allowing good RTS players to take advantage until the cycle starts again.
tl;dr – Balanced matchups are fun! Breaking the meta is fun! MOAR CARDS!!! 😛
*Originally posted by FDL at shadowera.com
Haha. Thanks for featuring this.
Readers should note this was written not long after Dark Prophecies was released if I recall correctly, so some examples could use updating.
The current SE metagame is in the best shape it’s ever been IMO. There are a good number of playable and competitive decks and style. Good luck breaking it!
Good write up well done bro good key points
FDL – You made a recommendation at the end for more stall / rush options. And now-several years later, we’ve got effective rush decks for many heroes and most of the mages. In addition, there are at least 3 effective stall heroes. I agree with you that the metagame is the best it’s been – and I’m not a fan of those extreme decks, but I am a fan of everything in-between. I’m curious, how do you think we got here? And how could the metagame continue to improve now?