What Do I Mean by Balance?

There are games of skill and games of chance, and a lot of middle-ground in between. Most games have varying degrees of imbalance. Generally, games that are more heavily weighted toward skill have more balance, whereas the chance games tend to have more imbalance. Not always, but generally.

Chess is a game of skill. The game is balanced in the sense that both players have equal access to the same pieces and information on the board.

In theory, sports tend to be games of skill where both teams and players have equal access to the same resources and play by the same rules (as a Detroit Lions fan, I can’t help but smirk at that idea). At least in theory, games that fall on the skill side of the spectrum are heavily predicated on creating balance.

Uno is more of a game of chance. Players draw from a random deck of cards where the power level of the cards vary. A “Wild Draw 4” or even a “Skip” is a considerably better draw than a random number card.

Poker is similar to Uno in the sense that the face cards are considerably better in most scenarios than the lower number cards.

In Uno or poker, the individual cards within the deck are not all equal in terms of how valuable they are during game play. But players each have an equal opportunity to draw the marquee cards.

Also, it is important to establish that many games of chance can require tremendous skill. The cards, coin flips, and/or die rolls matter, but they are not the only things that matter.

In games of chance, the inequality or variance is part of the fun of the game because it creates excitement and uncertainty.

What does this have to do with Magic: The Gathering?

Magic Is Imbalanced on Purpose

One thing I’ve noticed when thinking about Magic in relation to other games is how much variance is present when you play the game: Did you draw enough lands? Did you draw too many lands? Did you have favorable matchups? Did you draw your most important cards? Did you mulligan?

In that sense, Magic is more like poker than it is like chess. You are never at risk of not drawing your queen. If your queen gets captured, well, it was a result of choices you made in the match.

For a long time I’ve operated under the assumption that Magic is supposed to be balanced. I now think that was an incorrect assumption.

The part of my brain that seeks to find order in the world wants Magic to be balanced. I want to believe that formats ought to have lots of viable options and all of those options are equal by design. Thinking about it now, it makes a lot of sense to me that this idea was always wishful thinking and has literally never been true dating all the way back to the genesis of the game.

To heck with power creep—in the beginning there was actual Power.

Magic cards have never been designed and created to be equal. Not now—not ever. Certain cards are just better than other cards. Everything is of course contextual, but in most contexts Ancestral Recall is better than most other cards.

I’m sure you can think of a hundred examples of cards with similar costs where one has significantly better stats:

These are basically the same card, right?

It is of course also worth noting that we don’t play with just 1 card. We play with 75-card decks that include a 15-card sideboard. Essentially, when we select a deck, we are selecting a strategy that comprises 75 individual components. A good deck capitalizes on not only individually powerful cards but also synergy between those cards. The “best deck” would therefore have a high threshold of individually powerful cards and synergistic interactions.

In the age of information it is not difficult to ascertain which are the best decks in a given format. The best decks put up the results and are more widely played than the weaker options. Only the strong survive.

The Metagame Is What Balances the Imbalance

I’ve always assumed that design was responsible for balancing decks, cards, and formats, and to some extent I still believe that is true. It is not by accident that Wizards hasn’t printed another card that says “Draw three cards” for a single mana.

Design is conscious of balance and imbalance, but not beholden to them. I used to assume that the most important responsibility of R&D was to create balance within the game, whereas now I believe their most important job is to create excitement (often at the expense of balance).

The excitement is what allows the game to continue on. The excitement is what sells packs. The excitement is what motivates 2,000 people to travel across the country to attend a Grand Prix.

It seems like an impossibly large task to design sets with the intention of balanced formats in mind. There are simply too many variables to account for. Often, the best way to ensure some semblance of balance is simply to create more imbalance. At least if there are many broken cards spread across all the colors, there is less opportunity for one deck to run away with the show.

One of the coolest things about tournament Magic is that much of the balance that occurs in a format is dictated by the players themselves in the form of the metagame.

Once it is discovered that certain strategies or cards are significantly above the standard deviation, two things happen:

  • More people will gravitate toward that strategy.
  • More people will focus on devising counter-strategies to the best decks.

Here is a great example of what I’m talking about crystallized:

I used to play a ton of Vintage. Control Slaver was my jam. At one point while deck building, I put together a Fish deck that was super hateful. Null Rods, Chalice of the Voids, Meddling Mages— Vintage Hatebears.

I played the Hatebears deck in a local Vintage tournament and won the whole thing. As an aside, I played my Vintage Hatebears deck against a Standard Cruel Ultimatum deck and literally couldn’t win a single game.

Context is everything.

Most of the cards in the deck were chosen to interact in a purely Vintage context (probably a useful context for a Vintage deck). Null Rod and Chalice of the Void were not very good against a “fair” Standard deck.

The power of the Vintage Hatebears deck was derived strictly from the way it was able to exploit the known context, i.e., the decks that were commonly played in Vintage. The deck was very good at fighting specific cards, but very bad at facing cards that strayed too far from that beaten path.

The Hatebears deck may not have been inherently “powerful,” but it was contextually powerful, which is how metagames often work.

Mono-White Vampires

Wilson Hunter, Top 25 at PT Ixalan

You can see the same phenomenon played out in Standard at Pro Tour Ixalan with the Mono-White Vampires deck.

At a glance, the deck doesn’t really blow your doors off. But when you realize that the deck is constructed to beat up on Energy decks up and down the curve it starts looking pretty spicy. The various flavors of Energy midrange made up a dominant percentage of the Pro Tour Ixalan metagame.

Even if your deck wasn’t great against much other than Energy, it was still a great choice for that tournament because roughly half the field showed up on that deck.

What Happens When the Metagame Cannot Negate the Imbalance?

We’ve seen more bannings across formats over the past few years than I’ve ever seen in my time playing Magic. I had taken a break from the game during Urza’s block, so I didn’t actually experience those dark times.

The fact is that sometimes the players cannot metagame their way out of the hole that the cards create. The best deck(s) are too good and appropriate countermeasures simply do not exist to offset the problem.

These are the moments when people get very frustrated with Magic and often result in some bannings to break the stalemate.

Standard Energy is an interesting situation because it has already resulted in two bannings over the past year:

The combo was the problem, right?

The assumption was always that the “win the game combos” were the problem and the reason the metagame couldn’t balance itself out. Well, the combos are gone and the deck hasn’t relenquished its stranglehold on Standard. It was a ridiculous percentage of the metagame and performed well overall.

Everybody knew going into the tournament that Energy was the deck to beat. Most people either played the deck tuned to beat the mirror or played a deck that was inherently strong against the archetype, and still the deck prevailed.

Lay of the Land—too strong.

Perhaps the problem was never really the combo, but the shell. In particular, the innocuous 1-drop mana fixer that gives the deck a nice boost and ensures that it can curve out with ease. Perhaps if Attune had been the first card banned there wouldn’t have been a need to ban Marvel or Felidar Guardian at all.

To be fair, hindsight is 20/20. I was all about banning Marvel and Felidar Guardian simply because I felt they created miserable and stale gameplay. Nonetheless, with Energy continuing to dominate Standard, maybe Attune would have been the more precise choice.

The Takeaway

Why does any of this matter? Well, for a couple of reasons.

First, it has changed my perspective about the role design. If all things were equal, the game wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. As it stands, players need to make assessments and choices about what they will play and how they will seek to mitigate these above average cards and decks.

Second, it actually puts greater emphasis on the individual choices that you make when selecting decks and cards. The cards and decks are not equal. They were never meant to be equal. You are rewarded for understanding what the strongest options are and executing them.

Third, now that I have actually forced myself to think my way through the problem I believe that the idea of balanced formats is wishful thinking. Most players would consider a format with lots of viable decks to be fairly balanced. Is it really? Modern has 30 playable decks, but when has it ever been balanced? There are always 4 or 5 decks that are pretty clearly ahead of the pack for a given tournament. Just because you have viable options doesn’t mean that those options are equal, all things considered.

Lastly, I believe that working my way through these themes has given me a newfound respect for how difficult a task it is to design sets and formats of Magic. It is possible that Attune with Aether has been the single card most responsible for the dominance of the Energy archetype over the past year. How could anybody have realistically predicted that years ahead of schedule during design?

It is possible to make mistakes in design. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that two-card combos that win the game are bad for Standard for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, I also understand that in order for Magic to be exciting and fun that design needs to push the limits and imagine new space for the game. It is a mistake for R&D not to take risks even if that means sometimes individual cards will ultimately facilitate stale formats.

From a player perspective I find it empowering to think of Magic as a game that is fundamentally unbalanced because it puts the burden of judgement on me to decide what to play and how to build my decks in the future. If you make smart choices, given the assumption that the game and the cardpool are imbalanced, then you have a decisive edge over everybody who made even slightly less accurate choices.

Magic has never been balanced. Magic will never be balanced. Magic is about understanding where the imbalance lies and seizing the moment.