Creating and managing a game is extremely difficult. Past that, it’s extremely difficult to do well. There are a lot of different variables and moving pieces in play that you need to be able to compare and contrast and evaluate, which takes days upon days of play testing to get to the point where an aspect of the game both fits in thematically, and is fun mechanically. Balancing is perhaps the most difficult aspect of game design, and a lot of games handle balancing in different ways.
Take for example Magic: the Gathering, a physical card game like Magic can’t really change the rules of a card once it’s been printed. Sure, there are erratas to some cards that have been printed, some of them even happening more recently in the case of Hostage Taker and the infamous misprint of Corpse Knight, but these are small mistakes that are largely corrected or understood. When the metagame of a format becomes imbalanced, they don’t errata cards that are breaking it, they simply ban or restrict certain cards in the format necessary.
Not all games handle balancing issues this way, Hearthstone being an excellent example. In Hearthstone, a digital card game, balancing can be made a bit easier. Instead of outright banning a card so it can’t be played in a specific format anymore, they nerf cards, altering the mechanical functionality of it so it no longer does what made it imbalanced. An example of this is the card Shudderwock.
Shudderwock has a very interesting design mechanic that can really only happen in a digital card game like Hearthstone where every action is tracked by the internal game engine. Shudderwock seems like a cool and fun card, but when every card has a 3-5 second animation upon triggering it’s Battlecry, resolving a Shudderwock properly could result in the game ending, but not before both players sit and watch repetitive animations play themselves for three minutes. This got very old, very quickly. Blizzard eventually released a patch that doubled the speed of the animations for Shudderwock’s Battlecry ability, as well as put a cap of 20 Battlecries on him as a nerf, in an attempt to re-balance the format, as opposed to banning the card outright.
This raises the question I am now at an impasse for; is it ethical to change the functionality of a product like this? And if not, does the company owe the people who initially purchased their product some form of compensation for these alterations?
Re-balancing in Warhammer
This discussion came to me after all the new announcements for the changes coming to the Seraphon faction in Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. I bought into Seraphon back in November, and have thoroughly enjoyed playing them. With the new Battletome releasing soon however, a lot of changes are coming with it. And by a lot of changes, I mean literally nothing is staying the same. Their entire play style is changing, all previous army strategies are gone, every single model in the faction will now function differently than before.
Some of these changes are nerfs while others are buffs, but one thing is certain; the product that I purchased no longer functions the way I knew it would when I initially purchased it. However, though the rules have updated, you can still play with the old rules in casual games with friends if you would like. Especially if you already own all of the previously required rules, and can’t afford to buy the books necessary for the new rules, these casual games with the old rules can easily take place.
Before I go any further, I do want to say that I am not upset about these rule updates coming for Seraphon. While I am for sure going to miss how they played before this update, I am also quite excited for these new rules to be available to me, which is my first point of argument; if the overall change is a net positive to the owners of the product, not only does the company not owe any compensation, but I believe the changes to be ethical.
Classifying a change as dramatic is this is difficult to diverge as a net positive or negative in terms of game play mechanics. I’m sure that these changes came with a lot of testing and tweaking from the game designers, and these changes were not made just for fun. I truly believe these are re-balancing rule updates for the faction that brings a new excitement to them, as well as brings them up to date with the current rules and meta for the game. Because the old rules can still be obtained for their old functionality, and the changes are not a net negative, I believe this to be an ethical form of balancing, and players are not owed compensation.
Re-balancing in Hearthstone
Hearthstone balance changes happen similarly to Warhammer. They don’t ban cards that become too oppressive or obnoxious to play against, they release patches that nerf them. This is a completely different beast than the changes made in Warhammer for a few different reasons.
First off, once a card becomes nerfed, you can no longer play with it’s previous version. All copies of the card in your collection are updated to reflect the new rules automatically, and it will never function the same again, even if just playing a casual game. In Hearthstone, the cards are permanently altered so as to never function with the old rules again.
In order for players to stay competitive in Hearthstone, they need to keep their decks up to date and as efficient as possible. This requires spending exuberant amounts of money to open booster packs, and then ‘dusting’ their collection in exchange for the cards they need. If a nerf happens to a card they had purchased, the product they bought no longer functions the way they intended it to upon purchase. In some cases, this can cause players to leave the game.
The biggest point for me is the fact that once a card is nerfed, there’s no going back for anyone who owns the card. Because you can never again use it for its intended function upon purchase, and the change is an overall net negative, I believe this is an unethical form of balancing, and players should be given compensation.
Re-balancing in Magic: the Gathering
Magic: the Gathering takes a very different stance on the issue of balancing. They do not errata or nerf cards when they become too good or too oppressive in a format. They cannot issue a recall on all copies of cards after an errata or nerf, nor do they even try to do this once a card has been balanced. They ban a card once a deck becomes too good in a format, and they move on.
What are the pros and cons for this type of system? The biggest con is the loss of monetary value. After a ban, the banned cards typically lose value. Not all value, but certainly a large amount, especially if the deck that the card was featured in was performing at the top of the metagame, which it typically is. The key components of the top performing decks of a format will always be expensive, and after a ban, it will plummet in value. The wound in it’s value will never heal entirely, and it will bare the scar for the rest of its life.
The largest pro I can see to this, is after the card is banned, people still own it, and it still functions the way it was intended to upon purchase. Mox Opal may not be playable in Modern anymore, but it is an auto-include in any kind of artifact Commander deck. The same can be said for most cards banned, save for the ones banned in multiple formats. Even then however, Skullclamp, being the card banned in the most formats (Singleton, Standard, Mirrodin Block, Modern, Extended, and Legacy) is still a Commander staple.
With this system of re-balancing, not only can cards retain their value, but they can be played as originally intended upon purchase, albeit in a different deck than it may have been intended for. What about compensation then? Well, Wizards of the Coast has actually begun to take steps towards compensation without anyone asking. In Magic Arena, cards banned will often be refunded to you if you had the card in your collection after spending Wild Cards to obtain them. Nobody rose up and demanded that they do this, Wizards just offered it as a consolidation because they know how bad of a feeling a banning can leave people with.
Because banned cards maintain their original functionality, and can even still be used in the game, I believe this is an ethical form of balancing, and players are not owed compensation, even though it is, in some circumstances, given.
This has been a really fun topic to dive into for myself. A thought experiment that I didn’t know I wanted to take a part of. Though there are dozens of different ways to re-balance games, I wanted to touch on these three forms, as they are the ones I have had the most experience with. Please, join in on the discussion and let me know what balancing systems you’ve had experience with, what you’ve liked about them, and what you’ve disliked about them.
There is no great way to re-balance a game. Some people are always going to be upset, no matter how you go about it. What’s important is finding the best middle ground to fall into, so as to please the most amount of people, while disappointing the least amount.