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Card Game Balance

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Tbone's picture
Joined: 02/18/2013

Trading card games and card games in general just get me going for some reason. I love the secrecy and strategy of withholding information from the enemy just in time to catch them off guard or to preform a combo that will send you into victory. I just love it.

Though, while developing said games can be hard. I want to delve a little bit deeper into card balance. What makes a card balanced? Can a card be better than another and still be balanced? Is sinergy between cards "balanced"? what parameters must the card meet in order to be balanced?

It's daunting to think about really. Does four damage really equate to 3 cost? What if you could negate it? How easily is it negated? You can see where it can get overwhelming...

I'm developing a game that goes a long way in describing the card. From allaince(Good, Evil, Neutral), Type(Event, Attachment, Unit), Subtype(Being, Vehicle, Structure), Kind(Creature, Human, Alien), and Form(Flesh, Elemental, Mechanical). You might say... really? What could you possibly need all those for?

To mirror reality really. I always hated giving a Drake in MTG a weapon or enchantment of some kimd that just didn't make sense. I want people to play the game and make sense with it (I know MTG is fantasy but... come on... can a leviathan really get entangled?)

So I guess my question is... how the heck do you decide when a card is balanced and is it possible to create a game that conserves said balance without having to expell cards?

Sliverik's picture
Joined: 02/27/2015
I am working on a trading

I am working on a trading card game, and balancing is by far my favourite part of it. It implies equations on an excel sheet I did, where I enter the numerical variables and see the equivalent cost for it to be balanced.
The problem, of course, is that the excel sheet only accounts for "basic" effects and abilities, and when a card becomes more situational or difficult to play, it will be harder to balance.
Basicly, you have a few common rules about balancing:

-Everything that is good about a card should be equal to everything that is bad about it. That is balancing. For example, if your system says that a card that does four damage for a cost of three is balanced, you can set:
*Good: 4 damages delt
*Bad: Cost of 3
*Bad: Play the card (often forgoten cost for all cards...)

-Make everything come back to a single ressource. It may be life points, casting ressource, cards in hand... anything, but convert it. With the card we saw (4 damages), you could say that approximatively, 1 damage = drawing 1 card = cost of 1. Of course, it cannot be sure, since there are three variables. You should add more cards with more effects you find balanced to bring enough equations to the system.

-When a balanced card is better than another balanced card, it's due to situation. For example, a card that deals 5 damage to an alien, but only 2 damage to anything else for a cost of 3 is better than the card we know against aliens, but not in any case. If a card is stricly superior to another card that you find balanced, even if you consider costs and bad sides, it is obviously not balanced:
Let B1 and G1 be the bad and good parts of card 1:
B1 = G1 (We said it is balanced)
Let B2 and G2 be the bad and good parts of card 2:
G2 - B2 > G1 - B1 (We said the card is better than the first one)
As we know, B1 = G1, so:
G2 - B2 > 0
which brings:
G2 > B2,
the definition of an unbalanced, over the line card
The real issue is that you will always have cards that will be slightly over or under the balance, since it is really hard to equilibrate descrete values. (You can draw 2 or 3 cards for a given cost, and it may be too good or not good enough, because the balance would ask you to draw 2.468 cards... which is impossible.) In this kind of situation, the usual choice is to make your card a bit weaker than the balance.
Why so? Because you would better see noone use a card than everyone playing it to an extent that it defines the metagame. Of course, when a card is underpowered, people can still use it if they find a new combo with it, or something.

-When you have a card that seems under-powered, you can basicly add to it a small effect that brings it back. For example, in Magic, a lot of cards have a "Draw a card." effect added to them, because they would simply be too weak if they didn't have it, even if it's not the point of the card.

I used to read a series of articles about game balancing (on any game, but an article was using MtG cards as examples for balancing equations). If I find the link, I'll post it here, but I hope I helped a bit.

Soulfinger's picture
Joined: 01/06/2015
Not really addressing your question, but . . .

The thing is, a nonsensical weapon or enchantment are applied to a Drake in MtG just as a matter of simplification for the sake of the average player. Games like Magic owe their success to balancing mechanics so that a preteen can pick up the game while it remains engaging for more mature players. There is a point though where a game can incorporate too many subtypes, too much lingo, and require too much referencing. The sad truth is that games are designed to accommodate a segment of players who are not nearly as savvy as the typical game designer. Heap on the mechanics and terminology and you shrink your player base. Like a quality automobile, a good game runs smoothly with most of the workings out of sight beneath the shiny veneer of the hood.

I came to embrace the concept of abstraction while playing tabletop wargames. I realized that the tiny little men I controlled were not concrete placeholders but abstract representations who didn't necessarily occupy the exact space where the game figures stood. Each die didn't exactly equal a bullet. There didn't need to be a wholly logical interpretation of what was going on, but much of the nonsense could be contextualized as the greater narrative of the game unfolded. The same is true in games like D&D, where being at half hit points doesn't necessarily reflect any substantial injury. Likewise, the same is true of Magic. Sure, a leviathan could be entangled -- maybe it is by a patch of seaweed the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or maybe something more subtle, like a ring of kelp that the creature finds repellant, which reorients itself each time that the monster escapes its confines. It is a fantasy game of high magic after all, played in extremely abstract terms, so the justifications are as limitless as your imagination. A drake with a sword? Sure, it eats the sword to gain the magical properties. Its claws are coated with the melted down sword. Some dude named Jerry is riding on its back, wielding the sword. The rules don't explicitly mention Jerry, but they also fail to mention Hervé Villechaize, who lives on the first island I draw in any game.

So, what I'm getting at is that "to mirror reality" isn't a good justification for piling on details. We don't play these games for reality. If MtG mirrored reality then I'd be playing more cards about changing poopie diapers and alcohol abuse. I like to take a break from the former when I game. Look up The Campaign for North Africa if you want an example of a game that takes no breaks from reality and would make you say, "Maybe I should be working on my taxes," and take a look on Bell of Lost Souls if you want to see the lengths to which fans will go to justify inane game details. "This doesn't make sense" is rarely so great an obstacle as "This is confusing" for most players, as suspension of disbelief is easier to manage than compiling and clarifying rules. So, make sure that any details you add are really necessary and not just baggage that will be viewed as a liability by the many players for whom games are kept streamlined.

The Professor
The Professor's picture
Joined: 10/25/2014
Campaign of North Africa


Not only do I believe that know that game, but they're working on updating it...if it's the same one I'm thinking about, you, as the operational commander must concern yourself, in addition to supplying your fighting forces and crafting a decent strategy to defeat the enemy, with possible flat tires and sand in the engines.

Yes, some of the war games, especially at the tactical level are incredibly painful because the designer wants to imbue it with so much realism that, as one writer put it referring to the classic Advanced Third Reich, "you don't play, as much as you enlist."


Soulfinger's picture
Joined: 01/06/2015
The Professor wrote:Not only

The Professor wrote:
Not only do I believe that know that game, but they're working on updating it...if it's the same one I'm thinking about, you, as the operational commander must concern yourself, in addition to supplying your fighting forces and crafting a decent strategy to defeat the enemy, with possible flat tires and sand in the engines.

I wonder who picked it up from SPI. As I understand it, there are rules for keeping track of water for the Italian army's pasta ration, although that may be hyperbole. It is supposed to be the most complicated game ever actually produced. It's a true shame that Mayfair Games' two KS attempts to produce The Cones of Dunshire failed (probably on account of the cost of $400/copy). If it had been anything like the game described in Parks and Recreation, their love letter game would have been nearly unplayable for all its complexity.

Joined: 03/27/2015
I'm also designing a card game these days

For me, balancing cards must be done by intuition. I've seen often people putting values for card abilities and characteristics. The result was : They were perfectly balancing the cards that are easy to balance, and completely screwing with the cards that are hard to balance ^^

Let's take examples. I'll use Magic as an example as it's well known.
A 2/2 creature for 3, it's quite bad.
A 2/2 creature for 2, it's quite good. Balancing by intuition works fine.
Now, a 2/2 creature that allows you to draw a card when the opponent plays a sorcery... You can try to put a value on its ability, or on the whole creature. As the ability is unique, it's the same work.
Also, the same ability on a 6/6 creature would be worse. Mainly because a 6/6 creature has a main role, and the ability doesn't add to it's role. For example, trample would had far more to the same 6/6 creature, as it's in the direction of it's main ability. On the opposite, trample on the 2/2 creature would be half useless.

Then, there are combos. Let's say that you have a card that doubles the attack value of a creature. It's quite useless on a 2/2 creature, and excellent on a 6/6 creature. But, as 6/6 creatures are already expensive, they will be the main limitation of your card that doubles attack value. Whatever its price, the player will have to wait first for his 6/6 creature. So, you can put any price, as long as it's not overexpensive (more than the 6/6 creature) or really so low that everyone would want one in his deck, and it'll be balanced. The card that you will have to balance is the 6/6 one.

Then, there's balancing between attack and defense. Do you want your game to be attack focused or defense focused? If you put the same value to creatures attack skill and defense skill, your game will be attack focused. Because defense is often passive, you need it to be cheaper than attack.
If, on the opposite, you put very low values to defense, your game will be quiet, as everyone will put defense cards. The goal, for the players, will be to find a breach in enemy's armor. For me, the better combination is to have cheap defenses, but with limitations. That way, all players will play defense cards, but they can't block the game with them.
For example (not very good, but it gives you the idea) let say that counterspells can only be used on the first card a player plays. Even if you make them cost 1 Mana, they won't block the game. Very powerful but limited defenses work quite well.

You also have to take in consideration the concept of 'communicating vessels'. If, for examples, creatures are more powerful than sorceries, players will often put cards to counter creatures. That will raise the values of sorceries, as your opponent will more rarely have cards to counter them. This can be used only to a lesser extent. If creatures are really too powerful, sorceries will be too weak to be used.

To finish, you have to consider the cards that you want players to play. In Magic, creatures are very interesting. If you remove them, the game loses most of it's interest, as you will just play against opponents hit point pool more than against him. So, you can balance things by making them slightly superior to, say, enchantments. So, you know that there will be creatures in both decks most of the time. And everyone will put cards to kill and counter creatures.
To avoid enchantment to be disregarded, you can put on enchantments effects that you will never see on creatures. That way, people will play enchantments to get these special effects.

So, at that stage, you must be as lost as me (I'm in the middle of the same work).
But, I think I can find a few axes:
- Put very good defenses, but limited in the number you can play, to avoid blocking the game to easily.
- To balance combos, always consider the price of the combo is the price of the most expensive card (or group of cards if some cards have to be played at the same time).
- Be careful with cards that add resources. If you look at it, the best cards ever in Magic enter in 2 domains : The ones that add Mana, the ones that add cards (to a lesser extent, the ones that remove Mana and cards to the opponent). Take lots of care about these ones.
- Limit certain abilities or mechanics to certain type of cards.
- Preferably balance combos between multiple type of cards, so the enemy has more potential defenses to counter the combo.
- Don't hesitate to have a type of card that is slighty superior to others as long as it's the one adding the best mechanics to the game.
- Encourage combos. Players love combos. But put big limitations in accessing them. For example, an artifact can be played by any type of deck. If you create an artifact with a strange effect, you have to check combos with all the cards in your game. If it's a blue card, you have far less potential combos.
- Be careful with double combos. Either you want to encourage them or not. If a card enters in multiple combos, players can play a deck with multiple combos. It can end up quite deadly.
- Play a lot, and let hardcore gamer play. They will quickly isolate the best deck combinations.
- Release cards one by one. If you have 5 cards making the opponent discard, you have to balance them. If you have only 1, and add them 1 by 1, you will just have to stop as soon as you see discard decks appearing: You know that there are just enough of them.

Hope it'll help :)

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
I look at it differently

My position is that what you need to do is setup "rules" for the game. Like say an "Attack" can be at most 6 points. Once you do this it opens up the game to cards that "break the rules". So say a "+2 Attack" card makes it that your "Attack" is now 8 points...

This is a pretty simple rule. I wanted something to illustrate the point. So TBone was talking in another thread about limiting movement (based on positions in a uniform formation), such that a "card" could prevent a unit to move into that specific position. In his example, it was position #6 and the effect that this does is FORCE a NEGATIVE attack modifier - making it harder to defeat your opponent's FIRST card (in his formation).

That type of card (prevent to move into position X) is an example of a rule that was broken. The original game rule was, units move in formation and can interchange positions. His "exception" (break the rule) was an event card which would prevent any unit for interchanging with position #6. And another "exception" card would be: "Cannot play 6 units". This of course prevents interchange because you can't deploy a sixth unit...

And of course I did not happily discover this "rule breaking" concept, it was brought to my attention by another designer ("larienna"). My feeling is this kind of rule/rule breaking design pattern goes a long way in helping define how a game can be improved (especially duels)!

Update: I used this pattern when designing my Tactic cards. These cards break all the fundamental rules of the game. There are no +X cards in the game, but you will find several +X cards in the Tactics deck (for example).

Tbone's picture
Joined: 02/18/2013
Course Balance vs. Fine Balance

I find relief when balancing if there are different ways to "pay" for cards. It might increase the complexity of the game but it allows me to pick the best payment in balancing cards.

For example:

Card 1: 2/2 Creature


Card 2: 2/2 Creature w/ ability: Can give your Human cards +1 attack


Card 3: 2/2 Creature w/ ability: Can give your Human cards +2 attack

Depending on how many humans there are in circulation you would then find some sort of value to price these cards.

Lets just say there are very few Human cards. The difference between Card 1 and Card 2 is too small to give Card 1 a cost of 3 and Card 2 a cost of 4.

This is similar between Card 2 and Card 3. So the problem is, how do you value Card 2 if Card 1 = 3 and Card 2 = 4?

Well you could add something like...

Card 2: 2/2 Creature w/ ability: Can give your Human cards +1 attack and -1 defense

But what if I'm stingy and only want the +1 attack?

Well I would have to add a "fine" adjustment to the cost. Something like...

3 Resources/2 Discards


3 Resources/Sacrifice a Creature


3 Resources/2 half to be Blue Resources (Spoils Balance)


3 Resources/Tap one creature


Joined: 11/12/2012
The only way to get close to

The only way to get close to balance is tons and tons of play testing in my opinion. Sure you can and should try to get to some kind of theoretical balance when you are designing the game but in the end how you value each ability is just an estimate. Even the very experienced design team of Magic screws up every once in a while and releases a card that is unbalanced.

I would say not to spend too much time trying to balance on paper and just get a prototype going and test test test. :)

X3M's picture
Joined: 10/28/2013
Starting with blind play

Starting with blind play testing is not an option. Never ever think of cards and simply start play testing.

Take Notes.
Cannot press enough on this one.

Design your set of cards with a clear mind. Set up rules in how the balance should be, not just each card individual. Make note of these rules as well. How many cards are involved and how strong they are plus the costs.

You need to lay out a plan for your tests. Set up some rules in what you want to test.
You take note of the "imbalances" and you counter these by:
- Making a counter a bit less/better.
- Making the card that is to strong/weak, weaker/stronger.
Take notes in what you change, and WHY?! Sometimes you decide in going back, only to fall back in an old problem.

If done right, you only have to play test like 3 to 5 times yourself.
Then it is time to test the game with new players.
And repeat the sequence.
If after 3 to 5 groups of people, still show imbalances in the game. And you have no idea in how to deal with them. You obviously are doing something wrong (visit this forum). Or you are "orbiting" the centre of balance (3 to cheap, 4 to expensive). Sometimes Math might show that you are searching the balance until the end of times.
Of course I can say that if you still seek the balance after 3 to 5 groups, yet you do know the path. You only need to play test some more. But not 100 times.

If sharing a problem. Be very specific in the problem.
TLDR posts are often not read. Keep the rules separated, in a blog if you like. And keep track of the link to this blog. Just post the link, no retelling parts of the rules. Unless a certain part needs to be changed and you seek advice.
If it is a math problem, ignore those who say that you "only" need to play test (a topic killer too). Clearly the math problem comes after the play test (or on before hand when you see it coming).

Well, there are my 2 cents. Good luck.

Joined: 04/16/2015
Card Balance is Key.

Interestingly, I think that card balance is key in any card based game, regardless of what the theme or goal is.

When we were creating our kids educational game, Snapshots Across America, we wanted to have a "gotcha factor". In the game, players travel across a gameboard map of the United States to "visit" actual tourist attractions from all 50 states (like the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate Bridge, Cedar Point, Mt. Rushmore, Lincoln Memorial, etc.). However, "Beware of Bad Weather" because a tornado, hurricane, Blizzard, Thunderstorm, etc, where opponants can play a bad weather card to "spoil" your vacation. We also have transportation cards where instead of just "driving" one state at a time, players may also travel by Train, Boat or Plane. When we first came up with those concepts, we did a lot of play testing with numerous people to get the card balance right. While it is still random shuffled, we basically came up with a mathmatical formula that achieved a fairly good balance. So basic probability comes up with a fairly good balance of cards.

I would say that while theory and formulas are very important in that equation, play testing and experimenting with different ratios is key to coming up with a good balance of cards.

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