Monday, April 27, 2015

Why Magic is Fun: Tempo vs. Card Advantage

A few days ago, Jay Treat asked the following question on twitter:

In the ensuing conversation, I claimed:

Jay asked me to elaborate on this point in an article, so here we are!

First, some background. If you haven't already seen them, have a look at Reid Duke’s excellent articles on tempo, card advantage, and how they interact. In the last, he writes:
Part of the problem is that tempo and card advantage frequently compete with one another. You make sacrifices in tempo to gain card advantage, or you make sacrifices in card advantage (or card quality) to gain tempo. These tradeoffs can stem from either the way you build your deck or the way you play the games.
In other words, the twin constraints of mana and cards create natural decision points. You can cast Divination to win the card advantage battle, or Wind Drake to win the tempo battle, but not both. This fundamental tension between accumulating resources and deploying them against your opponent appears in many other popular games.

  • In Hearthstone, you can draw a card with your Warlock power, or summon a Knife Juggler.
  • In Starcraft II, you build a third Hatchery, or hit your opponent with a Roach all-in.
  • In League of Legends, you can farm jungle passively, or gank lanes to get your carries snowballing.

The reason this tension shows up in so many places is that it creates a plethora of desirable effects. I’ll talk about these all in the context of Magic, but it’s worthwhile to consider how they apply in other games as well.

First, it creates meaningful decision points in the game: if you choose to durdle and draw cards while your opponent is smashing your face, you’re gonna lose. If you throw away three creatures on an alpha strike that brings your opponent to ten life, you’re gonna lose.

It offers non-obvious choices. Sure, you’ll always cast Wind Drake instead of Divination on turn three, but what if it’s turn ten? Or, once you’ve hit a board stall, should you Doom Blade that Pillarfield Ox and swing for the fences, or save your removal for better value? The correct play in each case will depend on the board state, life totals, and the cards in each player’s hand and deck. Players who have the skill to evaluate these situations accurately will be rewarded. On the flip side, LSPs will be penalized, but often invisibly so; they’re more likely to think, “She had a Baneslayer Angel, so I lost,” than, “I should have sandbagged that Doom Blade!”

It creates strategic diversity. The entire aggro-midrange-control continuum is based on this dichotomy. If decks weren’t constrained by how many cards they could draw, we’d all be playing burn. If there were no limits on mana, we’d run nothing but giant threats, card draw, and counterspells. Having two axes of gameplay forces each deck to put appropriate weights on the different approaches, or even rely on being able to switch focus mid-game.

It allows players to pick their own play style. A player who enjoys winning via tempo can choose a deck that suits him, and go for the exciting all-in YOLO plays. A different player can go 3-0 after drafting a deck with four Divinations.

It gives built-in weaknesses to powerful cards. A long time ago, R&D was terrified of printing 2/1 creatures for a single mana. (Look at Randy Buehler’s commentary on an old Vapor Ops test!) However, despite being extremely powerful on the tempo axis, such creatures are so crummy in terms of card advantage that they’re quite safe to print. Similarly, expensive planeswalkers like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon are monstrous card advantage machines, but lousy tempo plays, and can easily be punished. Note that most major development mistakes are strong tempo plays that also create card advantage, such as Bloodbraid Elf and Stoneforge Mystic.

It allows designers to shift environments between the two modes. Tempo-focused mechanics such as Landfall and Bloodthirst lead to fast limited environments like Zendikar and M12. On the flip side, there are sets like Invasion where card advantage was much more important. It is absolutely vital for Magic not to feel too much the same from year to year, and the freedom to tweak this balance is an important tool for creating variety.

Perhaps most importantly, it creates a built-in negative feedback system which leads to more satisfying games. Because the mana system requires tension between spell cost and power, the player who is winning on the tempo axis is often not the same player who is winning the card advantage battle. Thus, even a game that is clearly won by one side feels like it was a worthwhile struggle. A player who lost on tempo says, “I killed all her threats and had Frost Titan in hand, but she was able to burn me out.” A player who lost on card advantage says, “I had him down to three life, but then he cast a big blocker.” Both of them feel like they were close to winning, and in a sense, they were.

(Tangentially, this is why I think Hearthstone is much less fun than Magic: there’s too much of a positive feedback loop. The player who is behind in tempo is forced into worse trades, and rapidly falls behind in card advantage as well. Losing in Hearthstone sucks!)

What should we take from this as designers? I’d say the most important lesson is carefully balancing these two priorities, so that both axes come into play in any limited environment you create. Many mechanics naturally push in one direction or another, and awareness of those tendencies will help you decide which mechanics belong in your set. Furthermore, each color also needs some amount of each, although the precise balance point will vary. (Much of my beef about Red came from the fact that constructed-quality red cards used to be all tempo, with little potential for card advantage.)


  1. Thanks for writing this up! Jay challenged both of us and now I don't have to! I think a lot of aspiring designers would benefit greatly from a really deep and rich understanding of this stuff.

    1. If you have any additional thoughts on the subject, don't hesitate to add them here.

  2. Thanks, Havelock, this is helpful. Designers frequently figure things out and ingrain the idea so deeply they forget others haven't come to the same conclusions. Designers also internalize notions subconsciously, and putting them to words can help crystallize or clarify an idea immensely. Your assertion on twitter didn't feel wrong to me, but it wasn't something I'd ever considered on a conscious level, so hearing your explanation was great.

    1. This is very enlightening to me! We must be playing very different games!

    2. Designers also internalize notions subconsciously, and putting them to words can help crystallize or clarify an idea immensely.

      Very true. Articulating the points in this article made it much clearer to me why the tension is so fundamental.

  3. My original question was prompted by Marshal Sutcliffe's exploit article.
    Seeing Palace Familiar, Jeskai Sage, Dutiful Attendant and Sultai Emissary all in one place made me realize that Magic allows more card advantage at common than I'd previously thought they were comfortable with.

    The cards we traditionally think of as 2-for-1s often cause a significant swing in the game state, so one can imagine a format full of such moments would have a lot of exciting games, and that would be fun. Also, when we draw more cards, we get more of the cards we need and fewer games are lost to bad draws. So I wondered what a set full of 2-for-1s would be like. Or, more precisely, if we couldn't increase the amount of card advantage at lower rarities for some blocks.

    Jonathan Woodward noted that Modern Masters 2013 had a lot of card advantage and Kirblar024 mentioned that Invasion did too, and is one of his favorite Limited environments of all time. So it seems like it is possible, though MM being the only example in years reinforces the idea that such environments are more skill testing and thus more appropriate for 'Masters' products and less for sets we mean to sell as widely as possible.

    Havelock's explanation also clarifies what makes those four Sultai commons reasonable for DTK: While they're all creatures with built-in card advantage, none of them are strong tempo plays. (And, as I alluded above, the card advantage from drawing an extra card is not the same as the card advantage from killing two creatures with a single removal spell.)

    1. I think counting Dutiful Attendant as card advantage is taking the term very loosely. Sure you are in heaven if you trade it with a Dromoka Warrior, but more often you'll be tacking it on with your 2/1 to trade with your opponent's 3/3. Ditto the other examples you said. Flametongue Kavu these are not.

      For what its worth, I think Invasion style card advantage is absolute misery. For what its worth, Hearthstone designers really seem to like it!

    2. Much of this was already known to me from a player's perspective, but it's interesting to see a designer's take on it!

      Jay raises a good point about "card advantage formats" tending toward skill-testing and less LSP friendly. That's probably one of the reasons why variant formats created by long-time invested players, such as Battle Box, Cube, and EDH, tend much more toward rewarding maximizing card advantage as opposed to tempo. I mean yes, you can in theory play a mono-red burn deck, but I'm hard-pressed to see why someone whose favorite archetype is Burn wouldn't just play Standard or Modern instead.

      FWIW, I naturally gravitate toward tempo-oriented archetypes, so I loved Zendikar and M12, was lukewarm on Invasion, and didn't like Alara, Khans, or DGM. This is probably also why I like UW in draft (Wind Drake! Unsummon! All the Wind Drakes!) much more than in Constructed (card draw counterspell card draw counterspell stupidly overcosted creature ZZZZZ), U/W Heroic notwithstanding.

  4. Well written, clear, concise, and knowledgeable. I expect to be referring lots of designers to this piece!

  5. Fantastic article, and super helpful to keep in mind, even for the design of other games. Thanks for it!

  6. I should mention, by the way, that I think the most surprising game that features the trade off between Tempo and Card Advantage is Red7, which is basically an Uno variant.

    As I mentioned to Jay on twitter, despite being a total board game junkie (check out my BGG page if you want to feel better about your board game collection) I know almost no modern games that feature this rich and interesting mechanism except those which are direct imitations of Magic (that is, fantasy based card battle games).

    The "draw one card per turn" rule is one of the rules new designers are most inclined to try to fix (I may have been guilty of this) to make sure players don't run out of options, but I think it does so much good for the game (as much, I argued on twitter, as any of the Golden Trifecta).

    1. Another card game that does this extremely well is Race for the Galaxy.

    2. I agree Race for the Galaxy has a small amount of this flavor (as does its inspiration San Juan, and a host of other games in the genre) but I don't consider it the same. In RftG cards are your resource, so every strategy will be required to find a way to generate extra cards (although there are a variety of ways to do this, and some strategies will require more extra cards than others).

      In short, I agree that RftG has a fast vs. slow feel that is similar to MTG's Tempo (nooo, he can't be building a 12th building already!) but I don't think RftG really has the concept of card advantage, since the best thing you can do with a lot of cards is play one expensive card. The hard limit on the number of cards you can play per turn means that "have a bunch of cards" is not a viable axis to win the game on (though, as mentioned, it is something everyone has to do).

      Sorry if this comes across as nitpicky, I'm just trying to explain why I don't see it as the same thing!

    3. (And I should note, I like Race for the Galaxy, I don't think not capturing the same two axis battle system of Magic is a fault. I think Roll for the Galaxy might be even better!)

    4. The axes along which victory can be approached in RftG are certainly more numerous than those in Magic, and the flow of cards is much more complicated, but I still see card advantage as a meaningful way to win. The choice to consume a good for x2 VP or trade it for cards is a pretty strong analogue of the Wind Drake / Divination choice: do I get ahead right now, or give myself gas for later?

    5. To me that is one axis: Will I go fast or slow, built an engine or blitz for the finish, etc. That is certainly ubiquitous in eurogames.

      But I certainly respect your view that I'm being overly narrow!

  7. Thank you! That makes so much sense.