fredag 4 januari 2013

Eternal Problems

One of my great hobbies is card games. I mainly play Yu-Gi-Oh! and World of Warcraft TCG, but I know the rules for a lot of them. And today I want to talk about one of the greatest problem that many of these games suffer from or will suffer from, regardless of resource system, country of origin, or whatever.

In my definition, an "Eternal format" is a format where all cards ever printed in the game are legal. Some games, such as Yu-Gi-Oh!, only have this kind of format. Magic: The Gathering has rotation, and several formats such as Standard, Modern, Legacy, Vintage, and so forth which all have different cards pools (I know that Legacy and Vintage actually have the same pools, just different restrictions)

To understand what I want to say, you first have to understand how the games work. When you print a card, you are basically setting the standard for the rest of the cards. This means that Strip Mine is strictly better than Wasteland. 

And here comes the (obvious) kicker: In an Eternal format, these cards will always be at your disposal. Strip Mine will forever be a better card than Wasteland, while Wasteland will forever be doomed to rot in a box of cards that are outclassed. 
Why would the card game companies ever print cards that outclass older cards? (or as in the case of Strip-Waste, are watered down versions of older cards)
A plethora of reasons are available. The cards might have been too powerful or conversely too weak, or a card might be not strictly better but simply effectively better, such as Mystical Space Typhoon being the best single-target spell/trap removal Yu-Gi-Oh! has ever seen, and that card was first printed 9 years ago.
When you have rotation, you have an incentive to not print a card again (reprint) since you might want a card that fills the same purpose the original card was intended to fill, but at a different power level. This is also a major reason Yu-Gi-Oh! uses archetypes to the extent it does, since they won't have the same competition since they can be individually weaker than generic cards while conversely being stronger together.
But as a general rule, cards that outclass other cards are a bad thing, but not necessarily. And before you ask, I won't let this slide over into a discussion about power creep. That is another topic for another day and another article.

The whole point of the overly long segment is to state the obvious: every card has to compete against the best cards in an Eternal format. This means that even from an extremely large card pool, well over 50% of all the cards (and possibly as high as a around 70-80%) are unplayable. Yes, unplayable. Not marginal. Unplayable. This is especially true for games with high power creep, like Pokémon.

This is a very negative effect in two ways: The first is obvious and that is that strictly or technically worse cards become unplayable. The second is that mistake cards become to polarizing, and if you can't compete with them you can't win, by extension. This has shown itself especially in World of Warcraft, where cards like Blizzard, Eye of Kilrogg, Undercity and Death Wish have negative effects on deck building, while simultaneously being hard to answer. The kicker? You can't win unless you have an answer to them.

And this leads to the third and most important topic: availability.

Card games are a hobby that costs money and time. While not as expensive nor time consuming as some other hobbies, nor as dangerous as smoking, it is a caveat that is inherent in the game. I don't think that picking up 4 of a new card for $5-6 is a major issue. The problem arises when a card is old, powerful, impossible to reprint, and has no replacement. The perfect example should already have manifested itself in the Legacy/Vintage MTG player's mind: the original Dual Lands.

These cards are essential in constructing an optimized deck, are scarce and will only continue to get more expensive as the formats grow. Having a monetary barrier is obviously very discouraging, and while there are options they aren't necessarily as good (playing Shock Lands) or even necessarily cheaper (Mishra's Workshop) you are basically handicapping yourself because you can't afford to play the top notch cards. And while cards available in non-Eternal formats might be expensive, they are literally nothing compared to what some Eternal staples cash in at.
And since we are talking Eternal here, the end line is the same as always: the cards will forever and ever remain at their status, until they are either dethroned (unlikely if they are overpowered) or banned (which no one likes).

So as to recap, Eternal formats suffer from two major issues:

1. Cards outclassing other cards, making for a smaller pool of playable cards

2. Availability makes the format to expensive

3. Cards limiting deck creativity by being too powerful

These issues overlap closely with each other as well. When you played Vintage 2007, and decided to play blue, you first added the jewelry, then the blue staples, then 4 Brainstorm, 4 Gush, 4 Force of Will, some black and green goodies, and suddenly around 20-30 cards had placed themselves in your deck. After adding some land, you didn't have much of room left for deck building, since you basically just decided you wanted to run Gush then added all the cards that had to be added. All while you had to run expensive cards like Black Lotus, Moxen, dual lands and Force of Will. 
In Yu-Gi-Oh!, this means that cards like the earlier mentioned Mystical Space Typhoon and cards like Solemn Judgment will be played indefinitely, until they either are replaced or banned. And since there are no alternative format in Yu-Gi-Oh!, this would mean newer players either had no chance or had to pick up Metal Raiders for some happy booster cracking. Konami however decided that everyone should be given a chance to get the pricey cards, once the pricey cards aren't pricey anymore, reprinting them at far lower rarities. The values of the original cards then drop.
Other companies like Wizard have a tougher nut to crack. They can't exactly reprint cards like Force of Will in basic sets since they would impact formats like Standard too much, and even created a special list called the Reserved List since some butthurt collector in the nineties got mad when his cards dropped in value, explicitly preventing them from reprinting aforementioned cards. As of now that policy isn't abandoned yet, but hopefully soon will be, considering several of the cards have been reprinted in various ways such as premium cards. 

As a player enjoying almost exclusively Eternal formats, I take all of these issues seriously. Are there even solutions?
When it comes to expensive cards, I honestly think that reprinting the cards are the one solution. Whether that means we'll see Bayou in Magic 2014 or not is irrelevant to my point, I'm simply stating the obvious when the card game price issue arises. Polarizing card would have to be banned or hurt in some way if they are too overwhelming, but this is the one issue in which players can interact easily. WoW TCG's Eternal format Classic has been dominated by Warlock, which attacks the hand, and has extremely efficient and borderline broken mid-range tools, and Mage, which has control cards and powerful burn effects, and those two have essentially been the top dogs, forever. But then Master Sniper Simon McKey decided that he would show them who the boss actually was, utilizing allies resistant to Mage in various ways (Abberration, Ferocity, etc), using deck redundancy to avoid the Warlock targeted discard, and speed to win before the mid-range cards can begin to deliver what they should.
As for the last issue, I have no actual answer. As long as "the best" cards are legal, they are going to be top dogs. You can gun for them, but being better is an inherent advantage and broken usually trump countering something broken. The biggest problem is that if you decide that Force of Will is too good and take it out of Legacy, something like Daze would be the best counterspell instead, and if you take that away, Spell Pierce, and so forth. When it comes to "the best" cards, a successor is always to waiting to be crowned.

In conclusion, keep playing Eternal formats in card games because they rule.