(Metagame Archive) Design Vs. Errata

By Danny Mandel

It’s Thursday night as I begin writing this article. The announcement about the new Modern Age formats has just been made. With all the excitement acting as a distraction, I figure this is a perfect time to sneak in an article about one of the uglier features of making a TCG. Yes, if you’ve read the title of this article, you know I’m talking about errata.

Everyone knows the negative aspect of errata—the text written on your card no longer matches what the card does. Today I’d like to talk about our philosophy on errata as well as go over in detail the reasoning behind the batch of errata that accompanied the Marvel Knights release.

Before we get started, here’s a link to the rules update document that includes all of the new errata. (It’s after all the new rules stuff, so you’ll have to scroll down.)

Warning: This article is kinda long and pretty rules intensive.

First, let’s clarify some stuff about errata.

1. We do not errata cards in order the change their power levels.
Some players feel that if a card is too weak or too strong, we should errata it to “correct” its power level. This line of thinking is flawed for three reasons.

One, it assumes that there’s a correct and absolute power level for a card, when in fact, a card’s power level is only ever relative to other cards. And since new cards are constantly added to the mix, relative values automatically change over time. We’re very comfortable allowing a shifting metagame and new cards to curtail or augment an existing card’s strength.

Two, it assumes that all cards are created equal. Actually, we have certain and specific goals for every card we create. Some cards are intended to be stars, some are intended to fill out the meat and potatoes of a deck, and some are intended to be highly draftable but only so-so in Constructed. Of course, quite often a card transcends the goals we originally set for it, but that’s all part of the fluid and evolving nature of the TCG experience.

And three . . . well three is an important enough reason to warrant it’s own bullet point—

2. We do not errata cards frivolously.

While errata can be a necessary evil (which I’ll go into detail on in a moment), it is not something we approach in a haphazard way. We take it very seriously. And as you’d expect, when we make a decision as serious as issuing errata for a card, it is always with the long-term health of the game in mind.

The reasons we errata a card are:

A. To make the card operate as the designers originally intended (note: I said “as the designers intended,” which implies card function, as opposed to “as the developers intended,” which implies card power level.)

B. To make the card operate correctly within the confines of the rules and rules interactions.

3. From a player perspective there are two types of errata: Cosmetic and Functional.

Cosmetic errata is just that, a simple wording change that most players would never even notice. This is the “good” kind of errata. It fixes a rules idiosyncrasy or cleans up an outmoded template. It keeps the card working the way a player thinks it works. A good example of cosmetic errata is Werewolf by Night.

Here’s his old text (well, minus the concealed keyword):

At the start of the combat phase, if you control the initiative, Werewolf by Night gets +1 ATK and +1 DEF this turn. Otherwise, put the top card of your deck into your KO’d pile.

So what’s wrong here? Any guesses?

This text is called “a conditional triggered power.” What that means is, when the trigger event occurs (at the start of the combat phase), if the condition is met (you control the initiative), the effect goes on the chain (Werewolf by Night gets +1 ATK and +1 DEF this turn. Otherwise, put the top card of your deck into your KO’d pile).

The condition is checked again when the effect resolves, but that’s not important here. The problem is, as worded above, the “otherwise” clause is included in the body of the effect. This means that if you don’t control the initiative at the start of the combat phase (that is, if the condition is negative), you don’t get any part of the effect, including the “otherwise” clause.

Needless to say, this is not how the designers originally intended this card to work. Here’s the fix:

At the start of the combat phase, Werewolf by Night gets +1 ATK and +1 DEF this turn if you have the initiative. Otherwise, put the top card of your deck into your KO’d pile.

While it’s only a subtle change, moving the “if” clause to the end of the first sentence means that the trigger is no longer conditional—it will happen at the start of the combat phase regardless of whether you have the initiative. Essentially, only the effect itself is contingent on your controlling the initiative—the trigger is not. Now, just as was originally intended, if you do have the initiative Werewolf by Night gets the stat bonus, and if not, you simply follow the otherwise clause.

Let me show you the two versions of his text again side by side:

Old Text:

At the start of the combat phase, if you control the initiative, Werewolf by Night gets +1 ATK and +1 DEF this turn. Otherwise, put the top card of your deck into your KO’d pile.:

New Text:

At the start of the combat phase, Werewolf by Night gets +1 ATK and +1 DEF this turn if you have the initiative. Otherwise, put the top card of your deck into your KO’d pile.

How many players do you think would notice the difference between these templates on their own? A better question, using the old (and incorrect) wording, how many players do you think would ignore the otherwise clause if they didn’t have the initiative?

That’s my point about this being cosmetic errata. While the machine language* aspect of the template has been altered to make the card work as intended, most players won’t think twice or have to use up any brainpower on the new wording. Instead, they can concentrate their neurons on the combat phase.

Functional errata is the “bad” kind of errata. This is the errata that’s in your face and obvious. A good example of functional errata is Stilt-Man. For those of you out of the loop** here’s a tall tale***:

If two different players each control a Stilt-Man, and a character comes into play with a counter (for example, a boosted Stilt-Man), each Stilt-Man will trigger and resolve, which causes the other Stilt-Man to trigger and resolve, and so on and so forth until you end up with an infinite loop of ever-growing Stilt-Men which, unless a player is able to break the loop, will result in a drawn game. Yikes!

Ultimately, Stilt-Man received this correct but silly-sounding errata:

Whenever a character an opponent controls gains one or more counters or comes into play with one or more counters, if that character is not named Stilt-Man, put a +1 ATK/+1 DEF counter on Stilt-Man.

In truth, classifying errata as cosmetic or functional doesn’t really make sense, as all errata is functional (unless it’s really just cleaning up a template for player clarity). It’s just that from a player perspective, most would argue that Werewolf by Night’s errata doesn’t actually change the card, whereas Stilt-Man’s does. Thus, cosmetic versus functional . . .

Okay, so I’ve talked about some of our philosophies regarding errata, and I’ve explained about “good” and “bad” errata. It’s about time to talk about what leads to our needing to errata cards.

I’ve classified the “why” into three categories. (I’m sure there are other ways to divide things up, but as usual, I’m presenting my perspective.)

1. A rules change occurs.

Just as the metagame of Vs. System evolves, the rules must evolve with it. Occasionally an updated rule leads to cards requiring a new template. For example, Mephisto, Father of Lies originally had this text:

You cannot lose the game.”

Now he has this text:

“You cannot lose the game, and your opponents cannot win the game.”

When Mepshisto weas first templated, “you cannot lose the game” essentially included the idea that your opponents couldn’t win. Or at least that’s what we thought—it turns out the rules were a little fuzzy on that point. So once the rules team solidified that aspect of the rules, we needed to clarify exactly how Mephisto worked. This led to his text getting changed. Unfortunately, this change took place after the time when the Marvel Knights card file went to print, meaning that we missed our window to change the print text and had to settle for errata, instead. The good news is that while Mephisto’s erratum is functional (as technically almost all errata is), it comes off as cosmetic to most players.

As an aside, here’s another important note about Mephisto that involves a rules update (though fortunately it doesn’t require errata). There was some debate over the following situation:

During the “check to see if a player gets knocked out of the game” part of the wrap-up,

Player A has -100 endurance and Mephisto (who says Player A cannot lose the game), and

Player B has -5 endurance.

Clearly Player A should not be knocked out of the game because Mephisto says so. The question is, should Player B get knocked out of the game? One the one hand, he has 0 or less endurance, which means he’s supposed to lose, right? On the other hand, the game rules state that if all players have 0 or less endurance, the player with the highest endurance (which in this case is Player B) doesn’t get knocked out.

This debate led to an update to the comprehensive rules:

408.2a All players with 0 or less endurance lose the game. If this would leave no players still in the game, the player(s) that have or share the highest endurance total do not lose, rather than losing. A player that loses the game is removed from the game (see rule 102.3).

Notice with the rules update, the game will force both players A and B to lose the game. Of course, Player A has Mephisto, so he can’t lose. Then, once Player B loses the game, Player A is the last player left, so he wins. Yay!

The bottom line is that if every player hits 0 or less on the same turn, the player with Mephisto wins. (And, of course, if more than one player controls a Mephisto, they both go on to the next turn.)

Okay, enough about that. Let’s get back to what leads to errata.

2. A template change occurs

One of the goals of a TCG is to foster a “rules on cards” model. We want a player to be able to pick up the game and start playing with minimal rules investment. One of the ways we encourage this is by presenting card templates (or wordings) that are as clean and clear as possible. But, similar to many aspects of Vs. System evolution, as time passes, we learn more and more about our players, what they like or dislike, what works for them, and what doesn’t.

An example of a new template that led to errata on several cards is the phrase “is attacked.” For example, the original template for Beast Boy reads:

“Whenever Beast Boy attacks or is attacked, put a +1 ATK/+1 DEF counter on him.”

In most cases, this card is as clear as day. But what happens when Beast Boy is team attacked? Let’s say there are three team attackers. How many counters should Beast Boy get? I’m sure many of you know that the answer is three, but is there any way to come to that conclusion based strictly on the card’s template? Not really. R&D intended for Beast Boy to get three counters, and after double-checking the rest of the cards with the “is attacked” template, we decided to just define “is attacked” as triggering once for each attacker.

But the bottom line is that it’s simply not intuitive for a player to figure that out on his or her own. So with the release of the Marvel Knights set, we’ve moved to a more intuitive template: “becomes a defender.”

I believe most players would agree that no matter how many different team attackers are involved, Beast Boy only “becomes a defender” once. Of course if we simply change Beast Boy’s template to the following:

“Whenever Beast Boy attacks or becomes a defender, put a +1 ATK/+1 DEF counter on him.”

He would only get one counter even in the event of a team attack. This led us to create the following template:

Whenever Beast Boy attacks, put a +1 ATK/+1 DEF counter on him.

Whenever Beast Boy becomes a defender, put a +1 ATK/+1 DEF counter on him for each attacker.

Yes, we’ve divided his power into two separate sentences, but now we’ve adequately simulated his pre-errata power. (It’s not precisely the same, as, in a team attack, the old Beast Boy would trigger separately for each attacker, whereas the new Beast Boy only triggers once but still receives a counter for each attacker.)

3. “We” miss something.

By “we,” I’m pretty much talking about R&D and the rules and editing teams—the teams that work together to create the card file that goes to print. Though I’m loathe to admit it, sometimes we screw up. It most often happens from an over-familiarity with a card file we’ve been working with for months.

Does this ever happen to you? You start playing with some cards from a new expansion. At first, you’re reading every card over and over because it’s all new information. But after a while you’ve gotten used to what the cards do. So much so, even, that you only need to read the name or glance at the art to pull the card’s function out of your brain. You know what I’m talking about. You do this all the time. And then one day—BAM! You make a mistake. You miss an important line of text. “Waitaminute, I didn’t know the card did that, too!”

If that’s ever happened to you, then you know what I’m talking about when I say, “over-familiarity.” A good example of a result of over-familiarity is Blackheart:

Discard an Underworld character card >>> Blackheart cannot be stunned while attacking a character with cost 4 or less or while defending against a character with cost 4 or less.

So what’s wrong? If you read it too fast, you might have missed the same thing we did: his power has no printed duration. So if you discard an Underworld character, does that mean Blackheart cannot be stunned by little dudes forever?

The card is supposed to look like this:

Discard an Underworld character card >>> Blackheart cannot be stunned while attacking a character with cost 4 or less this turn or while defending against a character with cost 4 or less this turn.

Ah, much better.

4. “They” miss something

By “they,” I mean everyone involved in the process that do not actually work on the game part of the game. I’m talking about stuff like printing, collation, translation, and so on. You see, at some point R&D (and editing and the rules team) sign off on the card file. At this point, we expect no further changes to be made. For the most part everything goes okay; however, every one in a while you get a common Unstable Molecules printed with a gold set number (falsely indicating that the card is rare) or a Scarlet Spider whose text box got altered because of a licensor miscommunication. Here’s how that particular story went down:

When Scarlet Spider ◊ Spider-Man left R&D’s protective little hands, his text looked like this:

Whenever a character named Spider-Man comes into play under your control, you may move it to your hidden area.

You see, he was designed to allow the Spider-Man clone deck to interact with the hidden area. Unfortunately, when Marvel first saw the card they were confused and dismayed by the title line’s including both the monikers “Scarlet Spider” and “Spider-Man.” Once our guys explained to their guys how our name/identity rules setup worked, they came around. Unfortunately, during the back and forth between our product managers and theirs, the name Spider-Man got swapped out of the text box for the name Scarlet Spider. Of course, this means nothing to someone who doesn’t play the game, but it means the world to us. To make matters worse, the switcheroo was printed in several different languages as this:

Whenever a character named Scarlet Spider comes into play under your control, you may move it to your hidden area.

Yikes and double yikes!

So yeah, that’s not cool. Hence our errata, which brings him back to what he was intended to be.

Okay, I think I’m finished going over the basic issues connected to errata. I’m going to spend the rest of his article going over the rationale behind the specific errata accompanying the MMK set.

State-Triggered Powers

There are two types of triggered powers: event-triggers and state-triggers. An event triggers triggers whenever its event occurs. An event trigger almost always starts with “whenever,” “when,” or “at the start of.”

A state-trigger is a bit more complicated. Essentially, a state-trigger is constantly checking the state of the game to see if its trigger condition is met. There have been four cards with state-triggered powers: Xavier’s Dream, which triggers whenever the card has three or more dream counters; Clench Virus, which triggers when a character has plague counters greater than its cost; The Joker, Emperor Joker, who triggers when a player has no cards left in his or her deck; and Daredevil, Guardian Devil, who trigggers when you have 10 or less endurance.

The problem with state-triggered powers is that, since the effect connected to a state-trigger is intended to change the state of the game that triggered it (because if it didn’t the state-trigger would trigger over and over forever), if there’s a modifier in play that prevents the state from changing, the game goes into an infinite loop. Okay, that was confusing. Let me explain.

Let’s say you control Emperor Joker, and I have no cards left in my deck. EJ triggers, trying to make me lose the game. But fortunately for me, I’ve got Mephisto, Father of Lies, who (as we all know) doesn’t allow me to lose the game. Okay, so EJ’s power resolves, but nothing happens. What next? Well, I still have no cards left in my deck, so EJ triggers again. And nothing happens. Over. And over . . .

While that situation might not come up that often, there’s always the inherent danger of a loop when you screw around with state-based triggers. Another example is when you use Clench Virus to put a lethal plague counter on a stunned character that currently can’t be KO’d because of something like Lazarus Pit. Also, there’s a card coming out in the Green Lantern set that can create an infinite loop with Daredevil, Guardian Devil (it’s up to you to figure out why). While I know these are rare cases the game is better of without them just the same.

Phasing out state-triggered powers from the game was a two-step process. One, we had to agree to never make any more of them. (This meant removing the three we had at the time in Green Lantern, and forging a death pact that involved sacrificing Dave Humpherys.) Two, we had to convert the existing state-triggered powers into functionally similar event-triggered ones. Fortunately, we were able to do so successfully. Unfortunately, the new card templates are a fair bit longer than the originals.

“First attack this turn”

Four cards in the Marvel Knights set use this phrase: “Play <this card> only during your first attack this turn,” Advanced Recon, Black Magic, Head Shot, and Never Give Up. While pretty much everyone knows the “correct” way to play these cards, there is a rules idiosyncrasy that actually messes with them. If a player proposes an attack, that attack can be made illegal before it begins (for example, if the proposed attacker becomes exhausted by a Mystical Paralysis). In this case, the game still goes through an “empty” attack sub-step without any attackers or defenders. Of course when you’re actually playing the game, you can pretty much just skip these empty attacks. However, the game knows they’re there.

To fix this little problem we simply added a few words to the phrase, making it “Play <this card> only during your first attack this turn in which you control an attacker.” No, it isn’t pretty, but it gets the job done.

Blob and My Hero

This one’s very interesting, as it’s a special case that doesn’t really fit into the overall errata paradigm. As some of you might have figured out, if Blob or the character chosen for My Hero ends up in the hidden area, it can lock out an opponent’s ability to attack. Sure, there are ways around it, such as stunning the characer or moving the character back to the visible area, but it’s still a pretty unbalanced situation for us to allow into the game. So both Blob and My Hero were given errata requiring the character to be visible for the power to be “turned on.”

What makes this case interesting (to me anyway) is that from the moment we started testing hidden characters, we knew we needed to errata those cards. Dave Humpherys (a forest gnome who wandered into UDE one snowy evening and, after offering us berries and dewdrop wine, was offered a development position) did a comprehensive search looking for cards that interacted unfavorably with the hidden area. Fortunately, he only found two. Unfortunately, we had to errata them.

Okay, that’s all I got on this messy topic. Now for something completely different.

Every once in a while I like to post and answer an email I’ve received. I like to call this:

“Danny Posts and Answers an Email He Received”

I’m genuinely curious as to R&D’s approach to the new set, which seems almost entirely focused on the four new teams. There are very few generic plot twists and equipment, even with the expanded 220 cards for the set. My question is, why? A big part of the fun of new expansions, for me anyway, has always been to see what new tricks the old teams are going to get. Web of Spider-Man gave everyone a lot of new goodies to make use of, and while Man of Steel had comparatively less for the old teams, they still each received a few cards (about half of which were excellent cards—look at My Beloved‘s victory!). So why the change with Marvel Knights? I was really looking forward to what new X-Men you guys would give us mutant freaks, or the new plot twist schemes Doom would get. Instead, we got another Professor X (not complaining, he’s very good), and nothing for Doom except Diplomatic Immunity and Valeria Richards, both of which are very tough to use outside of Common Enemy decks.

This also makes me a bit apprehensive about future sets. Can we expect more of the same from Green Lantern, Avengers, and JLA? Are you planning on reducing the roles of older teams to make room for the new guys? If so, I personally believe that’s a mistake. I’d rather see you guys finish out the year, leaving us with a wide variety of teams to play, and spend the next year vastly reducing the number of new teams and giving us lots of tools to improve older ones.

—Richard Banegas (Wrathraven on vsrealms)

Great question, Richard. There are two points I’d like to make here. One, your question ties into the “something for everyone” aspect of set design. Just as some players desperately want tons of cool new content for the older teams, other players want everything in a set to revolve around the new teams. Our current model is to give the lion’s share of the cards in a set to the new teams, while including at least a few cards for each of the older teams. Of course, the exact number of cards each of the older teams receives will vary based on several factors, not the least of which are which of those teams needs the most help (at least in R&D opinion) and how recently we’ve featured the various teams. So yeah, I guess my point is that while there are certain fundamental game design principles we adhere to, it’s incredibly important to us to keep players happy (you guys are the lifeblood of the game, after all), and if over time we learn that players want more older content (or no older content), we will adjust accordingly.

My second point is in response to the question of our pace of introducing new teams. While I can’t go into details, I will put forth that we have every intention of doing pretty much every comic character we can. If this means featuring the X-Men or Arkham Inmates again, we will do so in order to fill out their rosters. (Plus, there are infinite ways to do different versions of characters we’ve already done.) What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t be surprised if older teams get the spotlight again.

Of course, I’m very interested to hear everyone’s opinions on this topic. Let me know what you think. Send questions or comments to dmandel@metagame.com.

And come back next week for a (hopefully) much shorter article.

*An ideal card template satisfies two criteria. While it should be clear and intuitive for a player to understand simply by reading it, it also must have a certain mathematical grammar. Essentially, templates should be so consistent as to be able to be understood by a computer.

**No pun intended.

***Pun intended.


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