Game Concepts -Deck Building

June 13, 2016

This is the first in a series of posts I’m going to write about concepts in game design. This isn’t just going to be about any particular kind of game, either – this week it’s card games, whether digital or paper, but future weeks will explore video games, board games, roleplaying games, and possibly even children’s games. As I said last week, games to me represent a very important element of the human experience. They teach empathy, problem solving, resource management, and extensive planning among other things.

So today, we’re talking about deck building. Not just in the concept of something like Hearthstone or Magic the Gathering where you’re attempting to construct a winning deck before a game is even played but also games where deck construction is a part of the process, like Dominion, Ascension, limited environment Magic the Gathering, Hearthstone’s Arena, and games like Hand of Fate and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (the original release on the Game Boy Advance, not the remastered versions released on Playstation platforms later). Deck building is a great mechanism for teaching planning through interactions in the rules, statistical modeling, and resource allocation in an intuitive manner.

So lets get down to exploring why.

The first thing we need to do is define what a deck is. It isn’t just a pile of cards used in a game – that includes things like the Chance cards in Monopoly, which definitely aren’t constructed – and it isn’t necessarily cards at all. While cards are the normal mechanism because of evolution from playing card games, the deck concept of limited space of similar resources can also be used to explain party structure in roleplaying games (like Pokemon, Final Fantasy, or World of Warcraft), army construction in games like Warhammer and Warmachine, and even build priorities in real time strategy games and turn based strategy games. Each of these has additional elements that create different contexts, but the base ideas in deck construction can help in a variety of ways in each of these environments. So, in a general sense I’d define a “deck” in a game sense as a limited resource structure that is arranged by pre-defined rules. Or, in other words, it’s a set of game resources that has to be designed according to a set of rules on what can be in the set. I’m pretty sure I could word that more simply, but I can’t figure it out right now.

What’s more important is discussing the skills involved in deck construction and the skills that it teaches to build decks for any game that uses them. Before even getting into tropes and systems that define the genre, I think the beneficial element is an important thing to think on first.

The most important thing taught by good deck building games is resource allocation. What am I going to need to do in the game? What enables me to do that more often? How can I work towards winning faster, or losing slower? What do I need in order to use the cards that help and prevent my opponents from using cards that hurt my strategy? While it’s very important that the rules be very clear on how cards interact (which is not just rule design but also art design; a good example of this is the change in Magic the Gathering mana cards to just show the kind of mana they provide when used rather than having rules text explaining how to use it), it’s also important to make it clear how cards interact with each other. The worst part about learning to play a game like Dominion is seeing all of the keywords and abilities on the cards but not knowing how they interact with each other.The first thing that undermines the skills learned from games is poor design that shuts good play behind unintuitive decision making.

Let me repeat that; the first thing that undermines learning from game is design that undermines decision making.

The more unintuitive a game is, the worse the game is for teaching new skills. It may still be a good game from a gameplay perspective, but it’s not a good game for learning and teaching new skills. Or even honing existing skills.

This is why deck building is a good place to start this discussion. It’s not just a good example of skills that can be learned, it’s a good example of how to ruin that learning process. To return to a common theme in this post already, lets talk about Magic the Gathering again. One of the hardest things to do in Magic is build a good Standard deck. This is the regular game, the collectible card game as it was originally released. Two players with sixty card decks face off according to the regular rules of the game using only cards released in the most recent expansions. The rules are pretty simple; you win when your opponent reaches 0 Life or they cannot draw their next card because their deck is empty. How you get there, though, is incredibly complex. There are six (that I can think of) types of cards, with a variety of sub-types within those types, that all do a variety of things from deal damage, summon creatures, force you or your opponent to draw or discard cards, change certain basic rules of the game (like only being able to play one land per turn or even losing the game at certain points, temporarily, for the rest of the game, or while it’s in play), change how certain cards interact, and even return cards to the deck from play areas. 

Take all of that together with the fact that the rules on the cards are more important than the rules in the little book that comes with them (and involve even more complicated rules that Judges have to know as well as possible), the structure of the decision process is nebulous and unintuitive. The best cards in the game may not actually be that good in play if there’s a counter to them. The community in magic even has a word for this – the “meta”, or the meta-game. That is, the current environment that game play takes place in makes certain decisions better or worse independent of the rules themselves. If everyone is playing the Best Card, but there’s a counter to it that always works against that one card but isn’t so good about other cards, a lot more decks will run the “bad” card because it counters the win condition of everyone else’s deck. While this makes for a very healthy, very competitive game it’s not so good for a game that is great for teaching new skills or for getting people to play if they haven’t tried it before.

This is getting a lot longer than I thought it would. Lets continue it on Wednesday.


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One Response to “Game Concepts -Deck Building”

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