Custom Card Game Design
I have been testing a bit of Esparand block Constructed lately, and made changes to the sets accordingly. I focused a lot on testing and tuning the different planeswalkers. I am always eager to ramble on about planeswalker design, so eager that I have to split this into two parts or this post would be excessively long. Here are two of the planeswalkers from the Esparand block. I look at how they started, how they changed over time, and the lessons I learned from them.
This Chandra is the result of my eternal quest to find the “perfect” red three-mana planeswalker. The original design was a Goblin planeswalker from Paiura:
There were a lot of things wrong with it. There was no reason for him to be black, and the abilities felt a bit off just to justify the additional color. Nowadays, I would not be comfortable with “Destroy target creature” on such a low cost planeswalker either. However, the plus-ability played very well and turned out to be a great choice for a three-mana planeswalker. So, Jukjuk inspired a new mono-red version of this idea, now a Chandra summoning her trademark phoenix. With the additional power gained from having a flying token, I decided to put the ability on a zero-activation instead and gave her a new plus-ability. I like the choice between aggro and control options in her first two abilities. However, good planeswalkers can all cash-in right away for a more powerful effect (see Ajani Vengeant or Jace, Architect of Thought), so that you do not feel quite as sad if it gets killed on the next turn for free. So, I could not give her an ultimate as her last ability.
The different abilities and loyalty costs went through innumerable changes. Some early testing showed that the original version was not able to protect herself quite enough, and her X-ability was not able to kill something most of the time either, and she always just died for free. That led me to change her phoenix to be sacrificed on upkeep, so it could be used defensively for a turn. Later, I increased her starting loyalty to 3, but that turned out to be too much as she would make 1-toughness creatures unplayable in every format she would be in. Revoking that change was necessary, but she did not have enough ‘oomph’ anymore: I changed the phoenix summoning to a +1 because activating the loot ability was almost always superior. And if she was not powerful enough already, I buffed her -X ability again by adding the X>=5 condition you see now. The problem was that she often sat at 6 or 7 loyalty and the opponent would not care as there would be no creatures worth killing. Now, once Chandra is at a high loyalty, you enter the ‘Super-Chandra’ mode, where she can kill everything off or deal large chunks of damage to the opponent without losing any loyalty.
It is nice that there are so many free parameters with her design, which makes fine-tuning that much easier. I am very happy how she turned out and how she plays. Now, Chandra is a planeswalker that is very, very pushed, but hopefully in the right way, just like Liliana of the Veil.
Liliana, the Tomb Raider
Speaking of Lilianas, there is also one in Esparand. I wanted her to be the flagship for a graveyard-centric set, so she is also very graveyard-based. In the early design phase of the set, I intended to have -1/-1 counters in Esparand, which resulted in her initial plus-ability. Chandra, the Firebrand is one of my favorite planeswalkers, but the ping ability is just not very good. But what if you would get to place a -1/-1 counter instead? A planeswalker with such a plus-ability would be playable because you could kill any creature, eventually. I never tested this version of Liliana, but now I am convinced that this is a very bad idea, as it could be very oppressive. So I gave her a new plus-ability:
Draining for 1 is not the most spectacular effect, but you want to play her for her reanimation ability. She received an extra loyalty so that you could make use of that ability even better. I also gave her a completely new ultimate, one that is not graveyard-related. The reason is that, although she is supposed to be very graveyard-centric, you do not want your planeswalker to be completely shut down by graveyard-hate such as Rest in Peace. That would not make for great gameplay. Some testing showed that she needed an ultimate that goes over the top of other grindy midrange decks, so I chose Army of the Damned as the effect. Such an ultimate is usually not very good versus control decks, but continuously reanimating your best creatures should grind them out well enough. The ultimate needs to go over the top of decks that try to do exactly the same thing.
Fine-tuning the ability of planeswalkers to protect themselves is the most important aspect of balancing them. Chandra has her phoenix that can be put on defense, Liliana tanks with her face. Having a way to get immediate value out of a planeswalker if protection cannot be provided for him or her is also a big plus. Beyond that, a planeswalker that has built up his or her loyalty must be a massive threat and not make the opponent shrug in disinterest. This is not a balance concern though, but a gameplay concern. For all intents and purposes, Ajani, Mentor of Heroes does not have an ultimate. That made the Pro Tour games in which he was featured in a bit more boring to watch.
Next time, more planeswalkers will be tuned. Until then!