Custom Card Game Design

Variance or Why Gatecrash is bad

I generally don’t like aggressive formats. That should be pretty obvious to someone who has taken a look at my sets. However, my complaints about Gatecrash aren’t limited to ‘Why can’t we just play Rise of the Eldrazi instead?’ Many people like to play aggressive formats and they should get their turn, too. In fact, I enjoy just beating the hell out of each other once in a while; but not like This.

Excessive Variance

My biggest complaint about Gatecrash limited is its excessive variance. You stumble, you die. Even if it’s just for one turn. This is exaggerated by the fact that Gatecrash is a multicolored set with almost no (playable) mana fixing.

In a normal monocolor limited set, say Innistrad or Scars of Mirrodin, you can play a two-color deck and unless the deck is as clunky as a truck you can play an entire draft and mulligan maybe only once or twice. Let’s say you draw the following hand:

  • 2 Swamps
  • 3 black spells
  • 2 blue spells

If the spells are reasonable, you can keep this hand. Say you can play two of the black spells, the third if you draw any land, and once you draw a single Island you’re golden. And if the format isn’t too aggressive, you’ll have enough time to get there. And even if you don’t, half of your spells in the deck are live draws.

In Gatecrash, your hand won’t look like that. It will look more like this:

  • 2 Swamps
  • 2 black spells
  • 1 blue spell
  • 2 multicolor spells

You can’t keep this hand. Not only can you play one less spell, a larger percentage of your draws are dead. In my experience, a common draft deck has an even split of cards of color A, cards of color B and multicolor cards. This means that in Gatecrash you can’t keep hands that are missing a color. A small calculation shows that the chance of having a reasonable starting hand (2 to 5 lands) with both colors is roughly 50%. Add to that the about 20% chance that you have to mulligan your hand because your spells aren’t what you’re looking for, and you’ll be mulliganing 60% of your starting hands.

But that means you can’t mulligan this hand, because who guarantees that your six is any better? You can only keep the hand and pray to hit your Island in the first couple draws. At least that’s what I resigned to. Of course, most of the time you get your dreams crushed as you topdeck another multicolor card while your opponent plays Burning-Tree into Disciple on turn 1.

I know some people will argue that mana screw is a part of Magic and is what makes the game unique. That’s a knockout argument you can’t really argue against. It’s a part of magic, but that doesn’t mean it’s something positive. No matter how you design the game, there will be some situations that are completely non-interactive in one way or the other. Sure! ‘Turn 4 Ulamog’s Crusher? Yeah, I guess I’m dead.’ isn’t much different. However, the design team should take reasonable steps to reduce the frequency of those situations.

Shaky mana, overly aggressive format, what else? Many of the mechanics and cards of the set are ‘win more’. Let’s say you design a set that’s nothing but Grizzly Bears. Given that you are able to assemble two lands, the power of what you do is directly proportional to how many bears you draw. We can all agree that that’s a pretty boring format. That’s why cards have synergies. A combination of two cards is more powerful than the sum of those two cards. As a result, the power of what you do exponentially increases with how good you draw.

Grizzlies vs. the World

Synergies make a format much more interesting, but also make above curve steeper. If the curve gets too steep, variance gains the upper hand in deciding the outcome of the game. The design goal should be to find mechanics that have synergy and make deck building interesting, but don’t punish bad draws too harshly or help players out in smoothing out their draws. For example, all mana sinks are awesome mechanics because they can get you out of land floods. Massive Raid on the other hand is terrible at it.

Let’s take a look at the Gatecrash mechanics:

  • Battalion: It rewards you to play many creatures but doesn’t do anything if you don’t draw the creatures you need and it doesn’t help you to get there.
  • Evolve: Probably the most curve-dependent mechanic. Evolve adds an additional factor into deck creation; trying to figure out how to best evolve all your creatures fast enough. That’s great! But it’s again another mechanic that increases the power of good draws and makes bad draws much weaker.
  • Extort: Though I dislike this mechanic because it’s repetitive and the constant writing down of life totals is annoying, it helps reduce variance since it’s a mana sink mechanic.
  • Bloodrush: This mechanic neither increases nor reduces variance, but it’s also not a synergy mechanic.
  • Cipher: This mechanic is only powerful when you can get an evasive guy out. It’s a synergy mechanic: It increases variance, but every synergy mechanic does.

Battalion and Evolve are the biggest offenders. While I can still get behind Evolve because it’s really cool, Battalion just seems like an unnecessary ‘win more’ mechanic.

All cool cards suck

One of the main goals of the ‘New World Order’ was to make cards that look cool actually good. Patrick Chapin talks about this on the 2012 Magic Cruise. You can check it out here, it’s really worth the watch!

I guess everyone has a different opinion on what cards are cool, but I don’t see this philosophy being applied in Gatecrash:

Some players have the ability to remain focused and build very efficient decks and other players are adept at thinking outside the box and finding ways to make certain strategies work. Both sets of skills should be equally rewarded in a good limited format, but going deep will never be a competitive strategy in a format as fast as Gatecrash. Maybe there’s a way to design an aggressive set where players can pull of whacky combos to smack the opponent’s face in a very creative way? It seems difficult, as aggressive sets are all about being efficient and consistent.

What do you think?


One response to “Variance or Why Gatecrash is bad

  1. Matt Limoges May 11, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Having missed Gatecrash I unfortunately can’t speak per experience, but I’ve found that Return to Ravnica’s color fixing to be subpar and games of Gatecrash that I did see often won simply by whoever got the most creatures down and attacking.

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