What makes a card good or bad? Ideally, you’d like to be able to figure this out before getting smacked by them in the game or wasting time and effort trying to make a subpar minion work in your latest homebrew.
As it turns out, this is not quite as easy as it may seem at first and half the fun of card games comes from the experimentation process – however, there are a few tried and tested card evaluation methods which can help you go a long way in trying to figure out which Genesis cards are worth their price when the marketplace opens at launch.
Raw stats – the “Vanilla Test”
The Vanilla Test is one of the classic card evaluation tools, and like so many other core elements of the TCG genre, it originates from Magic: The Gathering. The idea is to look at the card and pretend it has no special abilities (ergo as if its text box were completely blank), which will give you a basic understanding of how much it has to compensate for its base stats – hence the term “vanilla”.
So what kind of stats (as in health and attack) should you expect from a minion? Well, the rule of thumb is that an x mana card meets the requirements of the Vanilla Test if it has (2x+1) stat points and a fairly balanced distribution to them. For instance, a 4-mana card without text is expected to have 9 stats (for instance, 5 health and 4 attack) to be worth considering even without an ability.
Extreme stat distributions are rarely a positive: a minion with 8 attack and 1 health dies too easily and a minion with 1 attack and 8 health almost never does anything without external support. From the Vanilla Test’s perspective, a 4/5 is preferable to both.
Anything below that has to have some sort of a fancy stat to compensate for being so brittle on the board – because it likely won’t stick around, and in fact, it’s quite likely to be killed for free by a minion that survives the engagement – the effect of its card text has to be good enough to make up for this loss of value. (It’s not necessarily just a value loss, it can be a tempo consideration as well: if a faster deck’s 1-mana minion can take out your 5-mana card, it better do something amazing before it’s removed by something that only cost 20% of its price!)
The inverse of this is that if a card has more stats than it should for the price, there’s likely a drawback to playing it – therefore it will only find a home in decks which can mitigate (or outright make use of) this particular downside.
The Vanilla Test tells us that a 1 mana 10/10 is a broken card – and one which would be featured in every single deck regardless of archetype or strategy – and that a 10 mana 1/1 is absolutely unplayable. At least that’s the case before we take card text into consideration.
A 1 mana 10/10 that says “Roar: your hero takes 1000 damage” is a lot less impressive than its ability-free counterpart. Similarly, a 10 mana 1/1 that says “whenever you draw this card, win the game” easily makes up for its failure on the Vanilla Test.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Vanilla Test becomes less and less relevant as the cost of the card in question goes up and basically fizzles out at six mana. At that point in the game, game states become so advanced that instant impact is required to meaningfully alter it, and a simple pile of stats will no longer become a desirable option.
The environment – the format and the other cards
Of course, card abilities are never quite so extreme. Still, they are usually what make or break a card: since you have the ability to build your own deck and specifically select which cards should go together, their synergistic nature has a greater effect on their competitive viability than their raw numbers. In draft formats, where you don’t have such complete control over which cards appear alongside one another, this equation slightly shifts.
Still, generalized “good but not great” minions like a textless 6 mana 6/7 will likely not make it into any constructed format but they can be very good in draft-based game modes where the mere fact that they can free-kill your fancy 6/6 with a situational ability will regularly come into play.
So now you have a baseline understanding of what makes a card good or bad: does it have a reasonable amount of stats to begin with, and if not, is its ability strong enough (and does it have enough synergy across the other available cards) to make up for it?
This is basically all you’ve got to work with when you’re trying to evaluate cards in a vacuum, but new content releases don’t just drop into the ether: there’s always the existing metagame to consider…
Post-launch and beyond
There are specific archetypes floating around at any given time, some of which will be rendered extinct by the new releases and others will be lifted up to the top of the charts by them. Trying to figure out their effect on different deck types in the wider context of the game is also a useful, if difficult way to gauge the strength levels of new cards.
Does this card fit into an existing strategy? – While the goal of every new content release is the shake up the current play environment, the best decks and archetypes before a release have a head start on everything else. A niche tool that fits perfectly into an already powerful strategy will likely be played even if it has a very narrow application.
Does this card help an archetype which was held back by a dominant deck? – In a way, this is the opposite of the previous point. In some cases, you can very clearly identify that a strategy was rendered unviable by a specific popular hard counter or a very small set of omnipresent cards it just couldn’t deal with. If a new release can alleviate these concerns, it may find a home in decks you wouldn’t have considered viable in a previous gameplay environment.
Does this card enable a brand new archetype? – This is simultaneously the simplest and hardest point to evaluate. While it’s fairly easy to figure out whether a card is part of a potential new archetype, the question is whether it will become viable going forward. Even experts and pro players can have trouble figuring this one out, so treat any confident evaluation of this aspect of a card with a grain of salt.
Of course, don’t expect to simply go through this checklist and nail every card evaluation. While the developers usually have a fairly good understanding of the individual power levels of different cards – after all, it’s mostly math – there’s no team of testers that can replicate the combined brain power of the entire player base simultaneously crunching away at different deck permutations once the new content goes live. There are always going to be surprises, overrated minions and unexpectedly strong spells. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun if it were so simple.
Why there will always be bad cards
Based on all this, you may wonder about the existence of some obviously bad cards. Why are those in the game, what purpose could they possibly serve? There are multiple reasons for this. Not only do these duds serve as learning tools for newcomers, Well, for starters, “bad” is always going to be a relative metric. If you create 100 blatantly overpowered cards for a new set, the ten weakest will not see competitive play, even if they would otherwise be game-breaking in the Genesis set. There’s only so much room to go around.
There’s also more to cards than just their power level. Apart from being viable learning tools, they can have different applications across a variety of game formats. They can also appeal to players who enjoy something else about the game than striving for maximum efficiency. It could enable a flashy combo or could just have an exciting effect. Not every card is for everyone and not every minion in meant to be in a game-winning deck – however, if those are the ones you’re looking for, the tips above should help you figure out the basics needed to identify them in the crowd!
Credit – Luci Kelemen