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CCG Card Balance

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Joined: 12/31/1969

So, I've been working on a stand-alone card game, but have been harboring thoughts of turning it into a CCG instead. I've only played magic to a limited extent, but I've picked up that there are certain formulas for game balance that a card must have.

My game is particularly tricky, because it doesn't have much in the way of limiting resources (i.e. mana cost), you are only really limited by the number of cards you can have in play at a time. I can see how in Magic, the mana cost required to play a card is the easy way to balance it: better cards cost more mana. My game lacks that ability.

For anyone whos made a CCG, how do you balance cards? Do you have a formulaic method (1 damage is equal to discarding 1 card is equal to 1 mana, etc.), or do you just playtest things unitl they work?

Joined: 12/31/1969
CCG Card Balance


First of all, don't think of Magic as being perfectly balanced. Virtually every release has at least one card that's "broken"/unbalanced, sometimes to such an extent that it ends up being banned. (though they're getting better, compare Black Lotus to later broken cards like Skullclamp)

Anyway, methods of balancing cards:

* better cards are rarer than other cards
* better cards have an additional drawback
* better cards can't be used as long
* better cards are restricted(i.e. 1 per deck, whereas others might be 4)
* better cards require other cards to be useful
* cards that are stronger are easier to destroy/counter
* cards that are weaker are harder to destroy/counter

Also, you didn't mention if your game had different sides/factions/colors....if so, these need to be approximately the same power level and competitive against each other.


Joined: 12/31/1969
CCG Card Balance

Another possibility is having better cards take longer to "activate". It would be easy to track up to four turns from the point of playing a card until it is ready to be used:

Turn 1 - Play the card face down
Turn 2 - Turn it face up, upside down
Turn 3 - Turn it sideways
Turn 4 - Turn it right side up, ready to be used

Four turns is a long time in a card game, and I would think should be enough to account for the power of any card that is within reason.

Jeff K.

Joined: 12/31/1969
CCG Card Balance

You can also make the more powerful cards damaging to the owner as well as the opponent. This concept is used in a lot of the Black cards in M:tG where you have to sacrifice creatures, land, or your own life to activate them.

Hedge-o-Matic's picture
Joined: 07/30/2008
CCG Card Balance

You can also give cards a value, and build decks based on the card's total values. So if a deck could have 40 points worth of cards, you could have 20 1-pointers, 5 2-pointers, and 2 5-pointers, or any other combination you wanted. That way, you could state in the rules that all deck had to be 40-point decks, and have some idea of how many 1-, 2-, and 3-point cards players are likely to add.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
CCG Card Balance

Blancing a CCG with rarity is not a good idea because the player who invest the highest amount of money in the game wins. On my point a view, a CCG should be balanced as "You pay for what you get". So if your card have a cool or strong ability, you must invest more ressources to pay for this ability.

Most CCG made by WotC ignore the concept of game balance. Generally, their cards becomes stronger from collection to collection making old cards obsolete. I have experienced this in duel masters. Sometime, like in duel master, they make cards pay for the strength of other cards. For example, all darkness creature are weaker and the only reason I could find is that there are some darkness spell that can kill a creature instantly whatever it's strength.

Joined: 12/31/1969
CCG Card Balance

As a playtester for the Redemption CCG, I can give a little insight into the kind of things we look for these days.

Cost has already been mentioned here, but I think it needs to be emphasized that this is a must for nearly any CCG on the market. I don't play Yu-Gi-Oh but my understanding from limited exposure is that their monsters have a cost incurred before they can be played on the table. Higher-level monsters actually require you to sacrifice low-level monsters in order to achieve the necessary cost to spawn them. As mentioned before, black MtG cards have a cost that directly translates to harm inflicted on the user. Redemption utilizes a similar mechanic, we have many cards with "Discard X to Utilize Y" type effects. Other cards affect all of a certain card type in the field of play, regardless of the owner, so a mass-nuke card can also be devestating to your side of the table. Even a card that only has a single target can bite you in the backside, if you happen to be the only player in the game with that kind of card.

Cards with particularly strong effects, or which can be utilized in hard-to-stop ways, can be limited in the number of uses per game, or the kinds of cards they can target. This is especially true for card types that remain in play and have an effect which is either ongoing or activates each turn.

One good way to keep a card from getting too crazy is to have its effect only happen when certain conditions are met. In fact, this is a good example of how a great CCG almost got broken, and could have been broken in the opposite direction if not properly fixed.

In 1999, the third expansion of Redemption introduced a number of characters and support cards that basically cancelled the effects of card texts, making the battle "fight by the numbers", resolving battles with only the numerical offense/defense values on the card. The result was a hammer that beat down all other deck strategies because they would be cancelled out by these characters. You either played fight-by-numbers or you lost the tournament. It's only been in the last three years or so that the balance has returned to the point where FBN is not the single dominant strategy in deck-building.

One solution to the problem was to make cards with effects that could not be negated. The inherent problem is that FBN is built into the general mechanic for negating effects, so just making a bunch of effects that cannot be negated would make them essentially unstoppable. One way to keep that from happening has been to make cards so that they only could not be negated in certain circumstances, or that they only applied to certain abilities. For example, if a New Testament Hero is in play, then effects played on this character cannot be negated. Or, effects that take characters prisoner cannot be negated. That sort of thing. This allows a way around the FBN mechanic, while preserving the ability of players to still be able to play regular negate cards as counters to other cards.

Speaking of counters, this is such a basic premise of many CCGs that maybe I should have mentioned it already. One of the simplest ways to balance a card is to make another card that stops it. This can be done in a number of ways, either by cancelling the effects of the card, or by targeting certain cards and unleashing bad news on them, or by protecting your cards from the effects of your opponent's cards. In fact, a compact version of rock-paper-scissors has broken out in Redemption, whereby we have effects that negate other cards, bested by cards that cannot be negated, bested by cards which protect you from effect, such that your cards are not harmed whether or not you are able to cancel out the effect. And to bring it full circle, protection can be negated.

One thing to watch out for, though, is over-specifying with your counters. One of our bigger characters is Saul of Tarsus, who when converted becomes Paul the Apostle, reflecting the historical account of his experience on Damascus Road. Now, there are a few cards in the game that specifically target Saul for conversion, but those are very rarely used, because there are general conversion cards which do the exact same thing, but can be applied to the hundreds of human evil characters that are NOT Saul. So be careful how specific you get, just like I warned you earlier about having abilities apply too broadly.

Having restrictions on how a deck can be built is a good way to balance out a deck. You can have minimum/maximum requirements, you can have restrictions based on different card types, you can have a point-based maximum as mentioned above, wherein you determine the distribution, you can even have certain cards with a required ratio.

Not only can you limit the number of times any one card appears in a deck, but restrictions for various card types can also go to determining how you want new effects to appear in a game. A powerful effect that is difficult to counter might be better assigned a card type that has higher restrictions, whereas an effect that is needed to enhance or counter a particular strategy might be incorporated into a card you're allowed to have multiple times.

In Redemption, the object of the game is to redeem Lost Souls. As such, every deck of cards must have a minimum of 50 cards and 7 Lost Souls. For every 7 cards you add to your deck beyond that, 6 can be any of your choice and the 7th must be another Lost Soul. So after 56 cards, #57 must be a Lost Soul, and then you can have 8 Lost Souls up through 63 cards, etc. The cost here is that with restrictions on your other card types, this means your statistical odds of drawing them at any time continue to decrease as your deck grows larger, but the odds of drawing a Lost Soul remain essentially the same, around 1:7.

Rarity is another way to achieve balance, but as mentioned in other posts above, it just shifts the balance of power to those with disposable income. We generally assign rarity based not so much on the power of the card, as "does it do something really cool". That cool thing might still be easily countered, or it might be of a limited benefit, but rarity is only one of several ways to mitigate the potential for a card to "break" the game.

I mentioned earlier that fight-by-numbers cards have not been as dominant in recent years. Only part of that can be attributed to our attempts to nerf the strategy. The other part of it is building up other strategies so that they have a comparable amount of power. So if you can devise several different strategies for a CCG, to generalize, let's say a fight-by-numbers mechanic and a draw-your-whole-deck-in-four-turns mechanic and a discard-your-opponent's-draw-pile mechanic and a lock-out-your-opponent-from-scoring-points mechanic, and make them all powerful enough that any of them could win, then you gain several benefits from this.

First of all, strategies that are strong in certian areas will be weak in other areas. In Redemption, for example, you can build a defense that will stop human characters, but then you would get run over by somebody playing angels. Secondly, the more winning strategies there are, the harder it will be to construct a deck that counters everything. You can plan for one strategy, or 2 or 3 or even 4, but if there are 8 different ways you can get beat, eventually you have to just decide to build the best deck you can and take your chances against the cards you don't plan for. Lastly, having a lot of different options will encourage players to experiment with different kinds of decks, increasing replay value considerably. So sometimes you can balance a strategy by nerfing it, and sometimes you can balance a strategy by making the other ones around it more effective.

These are some pretty broad-based ideas, but they are the kind of things we've been kicking around in the time since I've become a playtester for our own CCG. I hope that at the least, I've helped demonstrate there are a lot of ways that you can incorporate risk-reward concepts into a CCG. For us, it has meant 11 years of success with zero banned cards.

Joined: 12/31/1969
CCG Card Balance

I think the best thing to do is track and rank your cards as you make them. Compare them to other cards in the game, especially those of similar cost.

Richard Garfield said that having sub-optimal cards are a good idea for CCG's because it helps players cross one of their first hurdles... realizing when something is better. Even a simple comparison of a gray ogre (2R for a 2/2) to a hurloon minotaur (1RR for a 2/3) in an all red deck can give a sense of accomplishment.

He also said that 1 banned card every two years or so is good because that generates excitement in the tournament.

Lastly, make sure you look for combos that could become broken or overly strong... that may force you to weigh the card a bit more heavily.

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