(Metagame Archive) How to Make a Vs. System Expansion in Nine Easy Steps – Part 8: Constructed Play Development

By Mike Hummel

Bet you didn’t see this coming. We’re two weeks out from the start of the Infinite Crisis previews, and I found myself putting a lot of thought into the topics for my final two X-Men articles. Making fun of Danny Mandel for writing the first seven articles in this series, then dropping the ball on the last two, is a running gag around the office. It came up just last week over lunch, and after laughing at Danny, I was suddenly inspired to complete the series.

While picking on Danny is a source of endless entertainment,* it didn’t seem fair that the readers were left hanging for the last eight months. So I went back and reviewed his first seven articles and asked him what topics he wanted covered in the final two. While this article can stand on its own as an overview of the Constructed X-Men development process, I highly recommend taking the time to read Danny’s first seven in the series. They can be found here.

Danny and I have different writing styles, but I will try to stick as closely as possible to his original formatting. This means that I will make fun of Dave Humpherys at least once in each of these articles and include as many robot and dog references as possible. The biggest change will be using the X-Men set for specific examples instead of the Green Lantern set that Danny used in his articles.

Reviewing his last article, it looks like I need an opening story about real-life events that transitions into the relevance of why Constructed play and its development process are important to players.

Our story opens with Stan Brown and his quest to find the perfect pet. Stan manages the creative content and editing groups for UDE, and he’s come to the realization that his perfect pet is a robot dog. Specifically, an ERS-7M3 Aibo. Sadly, they no longer produce Aibo robotic dogs, and the remaining models are very expensive. Not having the immediate funds to outright buy the dog of his dreams on the secondary market, Stan had to explore alternate ways of reaching his goal.

He was inspired by another gentleman who was on his own personal quest. Kyle MacDonald wanted a house but was unable to afford it. So Kyle determined that the key to owning the house of his dreams was to trade for it. All Kyle had to start with was one red paperclip. Over the last nine months, Kyle has made several trades and has worked his way up from the initial paperclip to a recording contract. (For the full story, check out Kyle’s webpage at http://web.archive.org/web/20070415072702/http://www.oneredpaperclip.com/.)

Using the same principle, Stan embarked on a trading mission of his own. You can track Stan’s progress on his website, http://web.archive.org/web/20070415072702/http://www.onerobotdog.com/.

When players evaluate a new card, the first question that typically pops into their heads is, “What impact will this card have in Constructed play?” In other words, “How good is this card?” The quest then becomes the process of building a perfect deck from the one starting card that inspired the player. While one red paperclip could ultimately gain someone a house, one card could enable a player to construct a PC-winning deck. It’s R&D’s responsibility—through testing, balancing, and a deep understanding of the Constructed environment—to ensure that each card we make has that potential.

OK, so I’ve made a bit of a logical leap, but it does fill this article’s quota for robots and dogs.

Design Bible Part Eight: Constructed Play Development




In this part, R&D tests Constructed decks in order to balance cards against the power levels of similar effects from previous sets and to ensure each team can contribute to the Constructed environment.

Questions on Constructed Development


* How does each team in the set compare against each other in Constructed play?

* How does each team in the set compare against other previously released teams in the Modern, Silver, and Golden Age formats?

* For re-released teams, how are the new cards contributing to the themes and power levels of the old cards in Golden Age, and vice versa?

* Will cards from this set contribute to existing Constructed decks outside of mono-team builds?

* Will teams or cards from this set shake up the metagame?

* Are we having fun?

Thoughts on Constructed Play Development

Constructed Testing Within the Set

By this time, a good deal of Draft testing has contributed to balancing each of the teams within the set in terms of overall power, play consistency, and win/loss ratios. The next step for the developers is to build the power decks for each of the teams without the card pool limitations that are found in Draft environments. The big question at this step is, “What does four of everything mean?” At this stage, developers also get to add in cards from all previously released sets within a given format, which can drastically alter the strength of a team in Constructed play.

Modern, Silver, and Golden Age Testing

Overall, Constructed testing is the single longest time component for R&D when creating a new set. The developers spend countless hours testing every single deck they can imagine in an effort to both provide options to players with new Constructed decks and to ensure that no new cards adversely affect a tournament environment.

During this period, the lead developer typically hands out deckbuilding homework assignments. The goal here is to give as many different types of decks as possible (i.e., anything a player can dream up) to an internal developer to create and test. Each tester provides feedback to the lead developer, who spends most of the time updating the file and ensuring that any Constructed changes do not negatively affect balance levels that were established during Draft testing.

When the lead designer is not busy testing, his spends the majority of his time creating new card effects as development feedback alters the file. Sometimes an existing effect cannot be fixed by simply altering the numbers on the card. In that case, the designer needs to submit a new mechanic.

New Vs. Old

This step was introduced to the process for the first time during development on The X-Men. For the X-Men and Brotherhood teams, not only did the developers test builds from the current set, but they also had to evaluate the power level of the cards when mixed with cards from the Marvel Origins set. For the Modern and Silver Ages, we had to ensure that these two teams could compete at the highest levels without needing content from Marvel Origins. In Golden Age, we also wanted each of the repeat teams to complement their earlier incarnations, with cards naturally finding homes in either build.

Grab-Bag Decks

While mono-team decks are powerhouses in the Constructed environment, hybrid team affiliation decks have the potential to become the most dangerous decks in a given format. They are also the most challenging decks to test during Constructed development. This is where the developers really need to look at the file the same way a player would. It’s their responsibility to evaluate every card in the file and determine if a combo deck could be built with a power level outside the acceptable balance range.

As you can imagine, this becomes more and more difficult with each passing set due to the sheer number of cards that could go into a deck. One of the more enjoyable parts of the process comes when a developer tries to a break an open-ended card. Typically it falls in line with other established decks, but occasionally, the testers will identify broken interactions with cards from previous sets. Then Dave Humpherys breaks out with the Nerf bat, and everyone dives for cover.

Shaking the Meta-Tree

Every tester worth his or her salt keeps a constant lookout for straight power creep. We want to avoid putting out new teams or decks that completely trump previous decks in the formats. Instead, we look for interesting matchups that provide a deep metagame, and try to create viable multiple builds in a given format.

Fun for Everyone

The most important question we ask ourselves with any Constructed deck build is the one that no design bible, no matter how comprehensive or exhaustive, can answer: Are we having fun? Fun means different things to different people, but the developers always need to know whether they enjoy building and playing a given deck. We know we’re on the right track when a tester goes back and constantly wants to rebuild the deck because he knows he can make it even better than its current incarnation. If we see a developer adding a role-playing component when he plays a certain card or pulls off a certain combo, we can tell he’s having fun.

Finally, while our better angels would believe otherwise, winning is also fun.

Q & A

In this section, Danny typically answered player-submitted questions about specific cards from the set. I don’t have any prepared for this week, so instead I’ll answer the only question that really matters:

Why is Dave Humpherys so tall?

When we refer to Dave in these articles, we’re actually mis-crediting him. Officially, he’s Dr. David Humpherys. He has a PhD in Biology. His thesis was on cloning technology. The only way we can release a Vs. set every three months is to make Dave work in the office ’round the clock every day of the week. Unfortunately, a human body can only stand that much pressure for about 2.3 sets before it burns out. Dave’s been cloning himself new bodies. He’s currently on his fifth clone. The process isn’t perfected yet, and each new body grows roughly one inch from the one before it. This explains why he is very tall.

Well, that’s it for this installment. Check back next week for the ninth and final article in the series: How to Make a Vs. System Expansion in Nine Easy Steps – Part 9: Everything Else.

* While it’s fun to abuse Danny and call him a slacker for never finishing the last two articles in the series, the reality is that he’s been very busy these last eight months working on the World of Warcraft TCG. Danny is currently on his third cloned body, but interestingly enough, his clones shrink one inch each time.


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