Bad Game Design That Leads To Immortality.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Magic: the Gathering was a horribly unbalanced game from the outset.  Part of that was not the game designers’ fault.
Nobody expected Magic to be as popular as it got, so with this new collectible card game designed in the days before eBay, the designers (sanely) assumed that nobody would buy enough cards to collect all of them.  They assumed most people would buy a few packs and play games with the handful of cards they had, which was inherently safe.  Maybe it would be nigh-impossible to beat someone if he got ten of all the best cards… but what were the odds on that?
But more importantly, the designers didn’t understand how powerful some effects were – a decision that warped Magic for years.  They didn’t understand that “drawing cards” and “mana for free” were actually so powerful that anyone who harnessed these strategies for cheap was effectively unbeatable.  So cards like Black Lotus and Ancestral Recall, which seemed so impotent to beginning players that many of them actually traded them away as crap cards, turned out to be so ridiculously strong that today they’re worth… well, click the links if you wanna see what they’re worth.
Which meant that the early days of Magic play often consisted of hunting down these overpowered cards, jamming them all into a deck, and making a deck literally unbeatable by poorer and less-devoted players.
Was that a mistake?
I was pondering that while I walked Shasta the other day, because early D&D seems terrible and overpowered, too.  Wizards were glass cannons at the early levels – “Cast your Magic Missile and fall asleep” – and then effectively unbeatable at higher levels.  Meanwhile, boring old fighters kept leveling up and doing the same things over and over again.
Plus – and this is a huge design flaw – Wizards can do pretty much anything except heal people.  What can’t a spell do?  The slate’s almost unlimited.  There’s no actual thematic feel to what a “Wizard” spell feels like, aside from being cast by a guy in a robe, which means that of course the characters are going to be imbalanced when there’s nothing a spellslinger is incapable of, given a high enough level and a thick enough spellbook.  If the D&D game had said that Wizards were masters of elemental energy, or controlled the mind, then Wizards would have been a lot narrower and given others room to grow… but as it is, you get to ninth level and getcher hands on Time Stop or Wish (Time Stop is better), and it’s game over.
Except as little Ferrett, ten-year-old boy, those ridiculous levels of spells were what entranced me about the game.
I loved living out my little power trips in my head.  I figured out exactly what spells I’d be kitted with on any given day, obsessed over which spells would be most useful in the greatest variety of situations, imagined the potency of a Time Stop at the right moment.  And talking to some of my old buddies, I’m not alone; in real life, people often played fighters or thieves, but I’m pretty sure that when lonely little kids were imagining the fun of campaigns, it’s Wizards who got played inside their heads.
If the early rules had been more balanced, I don’t think I’d be a D&D fan today.  Some of what made it fun was that overpowered nature – and while I acknowledge that as a game, it’s far better if all the classes are mostly equally useful at every level (or, at least, you’re open about some character classes flat-out being inferior like Ars Magica), for purposes of popularity I think it was the right move to have those ridiculously overpowered and all-encompassing spells.
We can fix the game balance in future editions.  But without future editions, we don’t have a game.
Likewise, I know a lot of the dorks in Magic who were thrilled when they discovered that shit, that useless-looking Mox Sapphire was actually really overpowered, and the chase to find those literal gems in trade bins was what got their juices flowing.  Yes, some cards were too strong.  But they weren’t obviously strong, and I think a large part of what leveraged Magic up to the next level of popularity was discovering that hell, these bleah cards were actually so good that you had to have them, and then a certain portion of high-profile fans got off on collecting the rarest cards and building unbeatable decks.  Their energy, their commitment, towards making the “twenty Black Lotuses, twenty Ancestral Recalls, twenty Fireball” deck made Magic spread further than it would have if all the cards were roughly equal.
So is that bad game design?  Or is it inadvertently brilliant game design?
I can’t decide.


  1. Leah Miller
    Sep 27, 2013

    I once heard a talk by Richard Garfield about how game design that is balanced, clever, and strategic isn’t necessarily what becomes popular. It also examined what “bad” parts of certain games made them cult classics.
    In a much bigger room, at a much more expensive conference, I heard one of the earliest magic designers who is still in the biz talk about overpowered cards. He told a story the “black summer,” when for an entire summer, the only decks that were viable were Necropotence decks and anti-Necropotence decks. You might think that, with such a rigid and uncreative structure where you could not play unless you had one particular stinkin’ card, that they would have shown a dip in sales during black summer.
    Sales actually went up. He chalked it up, in part, to players “knowing what they were looking for.” Normally, buying a pack is like a scratch ticket where you have to pull out a Scrye to know whether you won anything. Now you’re buying a lotto ticket and it’s obvious whether or not you won. Players also knew what they were looking for in another way… the Necropotence deck was functionally the first “net deck” before net decks were a thing. People knew how to make a deck that was unquestionably good, and so they wanted to. And they did. And they bought a ton of magic to do it.
    Flaws are weird. So are humans.

    • TheFerrett
      Sep 27, 2013

      That’s fascinating. But it doesn’t surprise me. At all.

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