Today, I'm going to be talking about a couple abstract concepts. First and foremost, I'll be making some Magic: the Gathering references, as it's quite simply the quintessential CCG. No other CCG has ever come close to what M:tG has done. And a lot of the thought-processing that has gone on this week has been in M:tG terms, so forgive me if you are not a player. This week, I've been working on Siege set 2 a lot - The factions and contents of which we'll reveal in due time (Read: soon), and I've had a bit of a revelation. I don't have revelations all that often, but when I do, they're quite powerful and altering - and this particular revelation... Well, it's kind of a crazy one, so buckle your bootstraps; Siege has near-unlimited design space.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, design space is the sum of all of the possible ideas that can exist within a given system. For instance, you can have a 1/1/1 Army, a 1/1/2 Army, a 1/1/3 Army, a 2/1/1 Army, and so on. You can give them abilities, you can give them salary, give them different costs, different Logistics and Command ratings, name them different things, and so on. As I've been working, I've figured that there's really nothing that we can't represent via the Siege platform that would break the system. Which, in a grand sense, means that we really can't make anything 'Broken'. And I suppose I don't mean that in the sense that you're probably taking it. I'm certain that there are cards that we can make with an impact so deep that it changes the face of the game. For instance, we could potentially make an army that's 7/4/5, which is a ridiculously large card, but there are two main things preventing something like that from being broken - First and foremost, that single card can only attack a single army. It can't split its damage amongst multiple sources. Which seems like an enormous hindrance, and in some ways, it is. However, the big thing that makes that card not broken is that you can't pump it that much. Even if you can, attack isn't a timer for your opponent's life total. In Magic: the Gathering, a 20-attack creature gives your opponent one turn to live. You can then do a number of things with that creature to end the game immediately. Fling it at your opponent. Make the critter unblockable. Kill all of your opponent's creatures. Drop a 7/4/5 in Siege, and it might be six or seven turns before it has an impact, if it has an impact at all. A horde of 1-strength weenies could hold that thing off pretty much indefinitely. But in either case, that's a really strong army, and would have an enormous, irreparable impact upon the game - And that's where flavor enters the mechanics game. If Cretan Archers are a 2/1/2, what does 7/4/5 represent? Larger humans? Humans with rocket sleds? There's just not that much room in history for that much variation. Of course, stone-age barbarians with rocks are no match for Teutonic Knights on horseback, so there will be room for things like that. But what I'm mostly referring to in terms of us not making anything 'broken' are bans and restrictions. I made a vow a few years ago to never ban or restrict a card. This may or may not hold up, but as it stands, I can never see a card bad enough to warrant restricting or banning. Mostly because of the engine and the platform that Siege runs off of.
As a result, there is an exponential amount of more player-based interactions on the levels that matter, and much, much less on the levels that don't. For instance, playing a structure is a single-player action. You may want to glance over and see what it is that your opponent is playing, but beyond that, you're not going to be too overly concerned with it. Armies marching towards you, however, are gigantic, glaring problems that you need to pay attention to. Never in Siege will you see an opponent "Combo Out" and go off on you without a single piece of your interaction. I can think of 120 decks extant in Mt:G that herald little to no opponent interaction. Not only that, but most of those combos are set up so that your opponent just scoops their cards at the onset, knowing what's coming. But more than that, there's a huge, huge spike of things like that in M:tG. I remember Astral Slide decks back in the day. You'd drop a morphed Exalted Angel on turn three, flip it turn four, and every turn thereafter, if someone wanted to kill it, you'd have instant-speed, uncounterable ways to tell your opponent to suck it, because there was nothing they could do. More recently, Jund decks made use of the Cascade keyword (A bone which I will pick shortly), at which you could massacre everything in play with relative impunity, swing for huge numbers quite early, and there wasn't much an opposing deck could do about it. Which I disliked. I've always run 'rogue' decks at M:tG tournaments, and I've always been disappointed. Mostly because the 'competitive' field only catered to two or three very narrow deck archetypes at a time. These are the best decks in the current field, period. And that's it. If you don't run X card or Y card, you just straight-up lose.
And the conclusion I drew from that was "this is wrong". I came to this conclusion after designing the newest two factions - I wanted a simple, executable keyword that could work on multiple levels for multiple factions. Ones that wouldn't wreck the game or imbalance the extant power levels beyond a certain parameter (Or set thereof). Twelve ideas later, I realized that I had seven or eight more readily available for other factions, and my brain's gears started turning counter-clockwise, thinking of different cards that could be made, different modes that could be played, and so on. And this is my normal modus operandi for Siege - I've got more ideas in my back pocket than in my front, so to speak.
I've been down this road before, it's a familiar place, and I love it. I love getting elbow-deep into these unexplored reaches of game design - I've done it all my life, and it's where I'm at my most stimulated as a human. I've had visions as to where I want to take the game in the future, and I've had moments where the entirety of gameplay just opens like a flower in spring - I'll come up with three or four hundred ideas in one sitting, and then I won't touch the sets again for a few weeks, my brain completely spent for a bit. But something special happened the other night, and I don't think I quite grasp the ramifications of it yet. We know we have a fantastic game here, and we know that there's demand out there for it.
Everyone who has played the game has been drawn in, and there have been shockingly few complaints - Of course, those who played a while ago may want to get back into it, because as I alluded to last week, there have been a ton of changes since last we did a closed beta. And as we went through what we were planning on releasing for set 2, I realize how horrendously outdated everything was - We've changed costs, we've updated abilities, fleshed out rarities more, gotten power levels fixed, made changes to the number of armies, tactics, structures, and the like... Pretty much everything has changed since the early days of beta-testing. And of course, nothing will be perfect - We are humans, and we will make mistakes, but I think we've gotten the Siege platform to a point where there's a ton of wiggle room, and most of that wiggle room is fun, flavorful, and easy to monitor.
But in either case, as I was working on Set 2, I started digging into scholarly texts and contacting scholars who know far more about the era than I do, and everything that I found sparked an idea in my head. And it hit me - the types of keywords that we can have, the things that they represent, and the ways that they can interact with other cards is absolutely obscene. This is perhaps my proudest "innovation" with Siege - the expansiveness keeps the game fresh. And freshness, to me, is key. I purposefully did not attend the Gatecrash prerelease this past weekend, and there are some very specific reasons why. After nearly two decades of playing the game (And trust me, I loved the game for much of that time), I looked at what decks I was making in my spare time from my casual collection - And the entirety of them were my old decks - Turbo-Stasis, Channelball, Prosbloom, AlkaSeltzer, Goblins, Domain... I could go on, but I won't. But seemingly, all of my decks have stagnated into the same 100 decks or so. Yes, 100 (I have a bit of a CCG problem). But in the course of recent deckbuilding, I realized something - I haven't really made a deck using new cards in nearly ten years.
Now, I'll stop there and clarify - some of that is because I don't have as much access to new cards as those that I already have, of course. I've made decks with new cards, yes. And, of course, I've put new cards into old decks. Hell, Frozen Aether went straight into Turbo-Stasis, and the deck turned mono-blue from that point forward. I've made Type II decks (Which are now just called Standard or Modern or whatever the Hell), I've made decks for pre-releases (I went to Return to Ravnica, and hated it), but my point is this - I haven't actually used any of the new keywords. I don't care about any of the new mechanics. I don't have fun making decks with new cards. I haven't made any decks with new concepts. I've tried - Good God, I've tried. I loved the Original Ravnica block. Hated this one. Multi-Colored blocks like Invasion and Ravnica are amazing to me. I'm amazing at drafting them and playing them, and they (used to) make me happy. But not anymore.
So what changed? Magic just got old to me. I still play from time to time, mostly because my old decks are so old that new players (Which most of them are) don't recognize them at all. Which is thoroughly enjoyable. But beyond that, if people ask me, I respond with an "I don't play anymore". So, to tie this in, I realized why I don't play Magic anymore, and why all of my decks are "Old School" decks (Legacy or Type I or whatever they're calling it now). Beyond the whinging and complaining about Planeswalkers being overpowered and overcosted (Of which I am a partial subscriber to both camps), I came to this revelation that I've been blathering on about this whole time. And the revelation is about CCG design in general - I realized that there's nothing *interesting* about the game anymore. I took a look at the cards, and I was able to compare every single one to a card that already existed. Sure, there are new cards, and there are new keywords, and there are new abilities and costs and all that. And I'll admit that each card is technically different, but if you really get into the bread-and-butter of it, nothing is *new*. Nothing is wow-worthy. The new card frames weren't bad, but they weren't wow-worthy. They were a gimmick. When I saw Platinum Angel, I didn't say "Wow." I thought immediately, "Iridescent Angel." When I saw Darksteel Colossus, I didn't say "Wow," I thought about Polar Kraken. When I saw the card "Rakdos Shred-Freak," I slapped my forehead. It's just been this awful progression of less and less innovation with each set. And sure, some of the newer cards are pretty okay, but as time has gone on, the game has just gotten less fun. Nothing makes me say "Wow". Perhaps it's me and my seen-it-all, curmudgeony nature, but it's a problem. They've lost their entire customer base a few times over because the game can't stay fresh. Perhaps this is the doom of CCGs.
This isn't an M:tG hate-party, but everything about it these days is lacking. The names are awful, the lore is wanting, the mechanics and keywords are miserable and stretched beyond compare, and all they're doing is a formulaic rehashing of what's come before, recycling it, and throwing it back up for the baby birds who haven't gotten a chance to experience. Which is cool - They need to stay in business, and the new kids haven't gotten what we got. Their marketing is trying to keep them above water. And I respect that. This is their livelihood. And I would likely do the same in their position. But what we had was special, way back when. And I wanted very much to recreate that with Siege. So much so, that I've purposefully held tricks back from the launch just so that they can be debuted later and keep the game fresh. And as a result of this, I have learned. I have become a better developer because of M:tG's mistakes, if you can call them that.
But that doesn't answer why I kept making the same decks, but the answer is quite simple - Because since I'm no longer competitive, I no longer have a reason to make anything but "my" decks. And my decks are complete. They don't need innovation. They operate the way they operate, and there's not much that they could release that could replace cards in these decks. I don't want to build a deck around "Battalion" or Gates or "Evolve" or "Cipher" or any of that. There's nothing fun in those keywords. There's nothing fun about the mechanics or the concepts. The creatures aren't fun, they're not interesting, they're not unique. All of the keywords, there's nothing like Cumulative Upkeep anymore - They're all power keywords. There's nothing that shakes the game up in a fun way anymore. There's nothing for the casual player. And that's a loss for them. A huge one. I didn't bail when all of the other players did - I stuck it out. "It'll get better," I said. And it never did. There were moments, of course, just like everything, but as time went on, all my mind screamed was "Gimmick!" and "Cop-Out!"
But what does all this M:tG banter have to do with Siege? Well, quite a bit. I don't want Siege to be that game. I specifically don't want Siege to be that game. We've made it so that Siege is necessarily not that game. Pretty much every mechanic and system that we've designed, the first question we've asked ourselves is, "Can this survive the long-haul? Can we make something fun and flavorful and not obsolete ourselves after five sets?" And the answer is both yes and no. The 'Yes' part of that answer is that in some ways, Siege can go on forever. In another way, of course, people will get sick of it eventually. That's kinda the nature of the beast with CCGs. But it's my job to make sure that it can go on for as long as humanly possible, affect as many people as possible, and really - make life fun for some people. At the end of the day, isn't that what it's about? Fun? Getting away? And I'll tell you, just like I've said before, Brad and I have more fun playing the game than testing and building. And while that's bad for the game in some ways, it also assures me that what we're doing is going to be fun and interesting for you guys.
So, at the end of the day, I can see why M:tG is where it's at right now. And it's unfair of me to expect them to be where they were at twenty years ago, to an extent. But it's currently the benchmark by which every CCG is judged, and as the creator of a CCG myself, I have to make mine better. I have to rise above and view the silly stuff that they do and fix it. That's what I do for a living - I fix things. And I can only hope that I do a good enough job with Siege to inspire someone to do better than I did - to show everyone that it is possible to have a dream, pursue it, and succeed at it. Because I'm the proof. Next week, I may just go into that - Give you guys a bit of backstory behind me. Until then, keep your eyes open for updates!