Written by: Jesse Bergman

Welcome back to Designing a Card Game. Welcome to part three and the final article on this topic. If you haven't been reading the series up to this point, I highly recommend you head back to part one and two before jumping into this article.

To briefly summarize the past two articles, we've created a game loop, we've discussed faction design/color pie design, and we've talked about the statistical weighting of our cards.

Let's jump into the third and final installment in the series.

At this point, you've assigned numerical values to the back end formula for every card you are designing. We've acknowledged that some of your cards statistically will be off, simply because the qualitative nature of the design is unclear at this stage in the process.

Before I jump into card rarity, uniqueness, and power creep, I want to offer a small suggestion here. Identify cards that are in that qualitative design space in some way. These cards need to be considered carefully in your playtesting and need to be part of your overall playtest strategy. One word of advice is to make sure your base statistical weighting is performing accurately, so while you want to stay focused on qualitative cards in playtesting, your first few tests should remain concentrated on game length and overall feel. After those are nailed down, you can dive into the qualitative cards.


Now I've already talked most of you out of making a trading card game right? If not, don't make a trading card game!! There, I've said my peace, now let's move forward. I hear the cry's of the internet now:

"But Jesse, if I'm not making a trading card game then there is no card rarity!"

Not so fast, my friend! Even ECG's can have card rarity. I highly recommend it. We see it also in deckbuilding games like Star Realms and Shards of Infinity. In those, games in a box, the number of individual cards is reduced to increase scarcity and rarity. Thus it can impact the power of the card in some fashion.

Now its a bit of a trickier proposition in an ECG because what we don't want is to release rare cards as a one of in the box unless we are going to have specific uniqueness rules that impact the rarity. So how do we make rare cards that are impactful yet still become challenged by "common" cards in players lists?

In Battle for Sularia: The Card Game, we took a three-pronged approach to this problem.

Step 1 – Increase cards statistical value based on rarity. Statistically, our uncommon, rare, and super rare cards are all more powerful than their common brethren. However, if this were the only approach, then we'd be left with a bunch of cards that are just superior to a common in every way. The extra two steps below will help highlight how to solve this issue.

One thing of note is that Card Rarity doesn't have to be solely dependent on stats. One design standard that I like to employ is related to the perceived complexity of the card. A more complex card can carry a higher rarity in a set. These rare cards have much deeper interaction potential in this design space, and can they will create more exciting gameplay.

Ajani Goldmane, a Legendary Planeswalker in Magic The Gathering Copyright Wizards of the Coast

Ajani Goldmane, a Legendary Planeswalker in Magic The Gathering Copyright Wizards of the Coast

Step 2 – Create card uniqueness rules that either impact how cards are played in a game or how players choose cards for their decks. Both of these limiters serve a function very well. For example, in Magic, The Gathering designers create legendary cards. These legendary cards are unique in such a way that once a player has a single copy of the card, and future copies of the card can replace the existing copy or itself when being played. This theoretically means that for each additional copy of the card in the deck the second, third, and fourth copies of the card are mostly blank unless an opponent removes the map from the game.

In Battle for Sularia: The Card Game we implemented the legendary rule one step further and created Card Type: Card Type's in Sularia can be anywhere from Type 1 to Type 4. The Type rules control the number of copies on the Battlefield. So a Type 1 can only have one copy on the Battlefield, a Type 4 can have the full complete playset of cards in play at once. However, one problem I always felt with MtG was that issue as mentioned earlier of the extra copies being mostly worthless. In Sularia, we aimed to correct that with our base resource system Influence. Those other Type 1 copies make great influence cards. This way, there is still a proactive plan for those extra copies in a deck.

Step 3 – Deck Construction Rules can control the impact of a card on a game. Early in our development, we wanted to balance the cards as much as possible using zero deck construction limiters. I think this was a right approach out of the gate but is also cost us significant time in the Redesign phases later in the development cycle. My goals are to try and help you avoid some of these disastrous pitfalls and get your game to the world more quickly.

As I stated before I was playing a bit of Android: Netrunner at the time I started working on Battle for Sularia. In Netrunner, players could play across different factions using cards from other factions that had Influence cost. You were only allowed to play so many cards that were identified with Influence cost. It was a pretty elegant way to handle the design. In Sularia, we set a new unique system called the 60/90 Construction System. 60/90 represents the number of cards at minimum players must run; in this case, 60. It also set the maximum point value of 90 for all the cards in the deck. We then added a construction point cost to each card.

The 60/90 System is one that has been well received by our player base. It is one of the most talked about parts of the game and one that encourages deck building and players branching out. In development, it had some unintended consequences, particularly in our tactic and condition card designs. We quietly dubbed some cards in our test environment as power one cards. We also learned a lot about how one point cards were mainly free cards. Which meant that they needed to consider as staples, while the point costing cards required to be considered the seasoning to the deck.

We debated if we should remove the 1 point cards and make them free and clear up the deck building rules to allow up to 30 points. We would then bump the 2, 3, and four cost cards down by one point so they would be 1, 2, or 3. We ultimately landed on that this particular system as it left us more room for potentially designing cards that were zero or even negative points than if we printed the commons at zero. Did we make the right choice? We still don't know and probably never will. That's design for you; games are never perfect for us designers, we always have to think critically about what works and doesn't work in the design and then make a choice, whether its right, wrong or indifferent.

Power Creep

At the start of this series, I mentioned how Trading Card Games have limited formats such as sealed and draft. These formats allow the design teams to fill some part of the set up with staple cards. In our team, we called this the Grizzly Bear Syndrome. The Grizzly Bear is reprinted countlessly in MtG sets.

Grizzly Bears Copyright Wizards of the Coast

Grizzly Bears Copyright Wizards of the Coast

So why can't we release Grizzly Bears over and over again? We can up to a point. In an expandable card game, when designing new sets, you have to consider why someone would want to buy your pack or why they would want a new card that is essentially the same as the card they already want to have. Consistency of that card in play is a factor that can be used to create some redundancy, but eventually, in Expandable Card Games, you can't reprint 2/2 Grizzly Bears.

One task expansions are supposed to fill in this genre is to refresh and change up the meta. Reprinting the same cards over and over again doesn't fulfill that task. Which begs the question how are we going to do that?

It requires a careful analysis to understand what's going on, but I'm here to argue to some degree that power creep isn't the negative we all want to believe it is. It's not a great, and it's certainly a challenge. But power creep helps us keep the meta going and keep it from becoming stagnant.

Even though I think power creep is okay, we should be trying our best to minimize the creep as much as possible. But I'm not also strictly afraid of it. I feel like I've done my job well as a designer of a card game, if by the end of cycle/block expansion, players go, man things are crazy, but they are also fun. So we can creep the power provided that the expansion enriches the gameplay experience.

Set Rotation

Set rotation is another way to reset the power and make sure that a game stays on a relatively simple curve. A word of caution here. I've seen many card game communities torn asunder by rotation. In fact, in our relatively modest community of gamers, I've discussed rotation only a few times, and the reality is that is is extremely polarizing. Many fall on the fence of it being good, but many others feel cheated and think it is terrible.

It is essential to understand why it is good for the game company and the community and why it's also tough on the existing player base.

First, it is good for the company and the community as eventually, if your game is successful enough, the barrier of entry for players to enter the game elevates too high in costs. If you have 20 $15 Expansions, and one $50 core experience, players are now spending $350 to own all of your products, which may be needed to build competitive decks at their local communities. Rotation allows the game to continue to grow and add new players. It also allows individual problematic cards to leave the meta and create a new fresh meta. Rotations affect the overall balance of your game by keeping it new.

Additionally, rotation is tough on an existing player base who has invested $100's of dollars into current cards to find out they can no longer play a game with that investment. This also becomes a challenge for a game creator as you now have to potentially support multiple tournament formats, which can divide a player base and cause individual events to have less participation. It is essential to understand these challenges and consider how you might solve them in the future for your game and keep that in mind when designing your core sets.

Phew, I think that wraps up our designing a card game series. It turned into a pretty lengthy and in-depth article on game design for this kind of game. While I touch a bit on development in this series, game development deserves its own series to uncover the pitfalls and strategies. If you have enjoyed this article, please drop us a heart below, feel free to comment, or join us on discord to discuss.

Otherwise, until next time!