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Breaking the Rules: An Examination of Game-Breaking Mechanics in Top Decks

Originally, I had begun this essay to vent off some frustration that had developed from playing ladder. Blaming cards for their brokenness, I wanted to excise all of it into a well thought out and rationalized analysis of why said cards, that I had thought broken, were indeed broken. In the end, I didn’t want this opus to be about how certain cards ought to be changed, I really can’t judge on that level. Instead I just wanted to share my insight into the very foundation of how cards created value. I wanted to express the power in a descriptive way, so that in case someone else wanted to understand how these cards worked and why these cards feel so frustrating to play against, they can read this essay, and hopefully understand what it is that is happening. And maybe feel a little less frustrated.

The three cards I felt the most frustration playing against were Unstoppable Rage, Soul Tear, and Ulfric’s Housecarl. But having performed my analysis and sinking my thoughts into the matter, I can only say that unstoppable rage and ramp are broken mechanics. And by broken I mean, literally, break the normal confines of the game space. I do not mean overpowered. I think Ulfric’s Housecarl is overpowered, but it is not game breaking. These game breaking mechanics do something very special. They create a lot of value. And it is because they create so much value that they are difficult to fight against, and perhaps why I was so frustrated playing against them. Moreover, the value they offer to players is so high that executing their card mechanics in the game downplays a lot of value derived from play skill.

Identifying Value

Value begins with counting. In TESL we count a few things. We count life totals, we count available magicka each turn, and we count cards. We derive value from a card when it influences these numbers in a positive way. A 4/4 for 2 magicka with a last gasp drawback is a lot of board value while being extremely magicka efficient. A 4 magicka action that draws 3 random cards offers a lot of card count value, but doesn’t affect the board in any way. A 1 magicka card that deals 5 to the face at the beginning of your turn offers a lot of life count value, but it can’t do so punctually and is extremely vulnerable to removal. As you can see, value counts of different types can’t be compared to each other, since two of these cards are almost unplayable, while one of them is an archetype staple. This value type is the most important value in the game. It is tempo. It is the very core of the game. How many stats you have on the board influences the potential life total of your opponent, while being the relevant form of card advantage. I say this because the number of cards in hand only influences the potential board state, and life total is irrelevant to the game state until it reaches 0. They are value types of secondary interest. The primary interest is board state.

The cards that offer the most tempo value on the board are the cards that are most played, and by that I mean they are the cards that are featured most in winning decks. Cards like mournhold traitor and hive defender, goblin skulk, earth bone spinners, belligerent giants, eclipse baroness, daggerfall mage and lightning bolt. Wait what? Lightning bolt? There is no card advantage to be derived from lightning bolt. That’s true. But there is something else to be said for stat versatility and magicka efficiency. Lightning bolt is the most versatile 4 magicka in the game. And 4 is the magic number in tesl. From magicka costs 1 through 6 the most powerful non legendary creatures in the game have no more than 4 health. This was certainly more true pre HoS, I feel like DWD broke that code quite a bit with HoS. Needless to say, almost every card is balanced around its effect for its magicka cost. Mournhold traitor is a 4/4, but if you subtract the a 2/1 it gives the opponent on last gasp, the mournhold traitor is kind of like vanilla 2/3 for 2. Shearpoint dragon, a 4/4 that gives -2/-2, is kind of like a 6/6 for 6 with a special ability. Skaven pyromancer, a 2/3 that deals 1 damage, is kind of like a 3/3 for 3. Shadowfen priest, a 4/4 for 5 that silences something, is like suppress for 0 and a 4/4 body. That’s actually card efficient but cost inefficient compared to its parts. Earthbone spinner is kind of like a 4/4 for 4 that silences something for -0/-2 and pings something for -1/-0. Stormcloak vanguard and stormcloak battalion really just add up to a 6/6 for 6. By partitioning the raw stats of the cards in TESL, Dire Wolf Digital (DWD) has created a beautiful game that allows for fun interaction by allowing players to maximize value from partitioned stat clauses, all the while being balanced at its core. If TESL creatures were just vanilla and raw stats, it would be balanced just the same, but far less interesting.

There are exceptions, of course. Blood dragon, for example, has +2 health and a special ability compared to his bristleback cousin. A lot of endurance cards break the 4 health rule. But the real exceptions come from unique legendaries. Legendaries do something above and beyond their epic and rare cousins. While some epics offer strict 3 for 1 value, the point I want to make is the special place that these 3-1 cards have in the game. In Magic the Gathering (MTG) there was a very special 3-1 card. It was blue and it cost 1 (“u” technically speaking). I’m talking about ancestral recall. There’s actually an aphorism that says: when you resolve ancestral recall you win the game. This is what most fights in TESL are about. Creating value and “outplaying” your opponent. And this is where I’d like to illustrate some examples of what TESL skill is really about. For example, Ice Storm does 3 damage to every creature on the board. If a player isn’t careful, he’ll unload his whole hand full of 2 and 3 drops and have them all die to a timely icestorm, an easy 3-1 or more for his opponent. A smarter player will play a 2 drop and a 4 drop and slow play his creatures to deny his opponent such an efficient clear. This was a skillful part of aggro vs control games. Similar playskill is required against cards like dawn’s wrath or skaven pyromancer. Other cards like daggerfall mage (DFM) are so powerful because they offer a similar 3-1 potential. If DFM trades her ward into an x/2 and kills it, then uses the tome of alteration on a creature to make an otherwise even trade favorable while also drawing a card, that’s drawing a card and killing two creatures and there is still a 2/2 to show for it. That is 3-1 advantage, but it was super interactive with lots of opportunities for both sides to outplay. For example, the opposing player can be mindful of the tome and preemptively force the DFM to tome itself on his own turn to avoid a disadvantageous trade. Or run to the shadow lane so that the DFM doesn’t get direct value. Not until it’s silenced or executed and can be safely contested later. DFM is a super powerful card for this reason. Field lane control or 3-1 value.

Other cards also offer 3-1s. Eclipse baroness is 8 for a 5/5 that draws a card on summon and draws a card on last gasp. There’s much less interactivity behind this 3-1. It’s her 8 magicka investment into a 5/5 with no board effect that makes her balanced, although, if you consider the 4 magicka reduction in the cards she draws as “tempo” investment she’s kind of like an unconditional 5/5 triumphant jarl for 4 magicka – aka super strong, hence her staple presence in all green late game decks. Miraak is another easy 3-1, you get two creatures while your opponent loses one from a single card. Ungolim, tazkad etc. all offer 3-1 potential with some room for counter play. And that is why the best cards in the game are unique legendaries. Gortwog offers endless value if you don’t kill him, Red Bramman is like 4x suppress and a giant snake rolled into a 5/5 body. Now I know you’re thinking that it’s the uniqueness of the abilities that make them legendary. Like Garnag and his 7 magicka cap. While he’s on board he can easily make 3 cards in the opponent’s’ hand unplayable. And until he’s silenced or removed from the board he’s actually more like a time walk (another restricted card from vintage MTG).

But you didn’t come here to read me theorycraft value counts. No, the point I’m trying to make is that TESL is full of 3-1s. The best cards in the game offer 3-1s and winning decks use them judiciously. What’s important to note is how some of these 3-1s are situational. Like Nahagliiv soaking up three bodies because he’s relatively hard to remove. But there are many answers to him where he doesn’t 3-1. Some 3-1s are hard coded and much less conditional like paarthurnax. He literally draws three cards and his removal probably costs a card at the very least. And lots of these 3-1s are unique legendaries. Effects so powerful you can only play 1 in a deck because playing more than 1 in a deck would be oppressive. Obviously I’m building up to soul tear, and I’m going to really try and nail the feelsbadman part about it. But first, I need to explain why a card or combo makes you feel bad.

The feelsbadman feeling comes from powerlessness. It’s why activists get angry when rights are taken away. It’s why we get salty when we lose to meta decks. When you have a fair fight you can credit your loss to yourself. Owning up to your own misplays empowers you. I lost this game fair and square is an important part of competition. I could race my car faster if I had handled it better. I could have avoided checkmate if I had read the position better. I could have won that match if I had served more aces and less out of bounds. I could have won that game if I had anticipated that defender better before i shot at the net. These same things translate to the best parts of TESL. I could have won that game if I had saved my execute for the daggerfall Mage instead of using it preemptively on the wind keep spellsword. I could have won that game if I had played candlehearth brawler instead of orc clan captain and raiding party->double firebrand into turn 6 icestorm. I could have won that game if I had split lanes before dawn’s wrath or mantikora. There is an important part of play skill involved here called interactivity: being able to make different decisions that improve your chance of winning. The feelsbadman feeling is when situations arise that you can’t outplay. My opponent played back to back to back eclipse baroness turn 8 9 and 10 isn’t something any control deck comes back from easily. But that’s a level of variance that’s quite extreme. The cards I want to talk about I consider broken because they create unfair value, not only with poor counter play, but also with incredibly consistency.

Unstoppable Rage

I want to start with unstoppable rage. This card has some of the highest potential swing in the game. It can clear an opposing lethal lane into a favourable 16+ health life swing, or worse, 30 health life deficit for the opponent. It’s situational of course, completely dependent on what creature is targeted and the opposing board. At first glance, it doesn’t seem too different from another single lane clear action: dawn’s wrath (actually, how could I forget nest of vipers?! And that baby costs 10 magicka). They have similar costs and similar effects. Full clearing a lane for 7 and 8 magicka respectively. Sort of. Forget about assigning numerical value counts of the keywords triggering from unstoppable rage. Dawn’s wrath does not change life totals. That means one way to play around Dawn’s wrath is to threaten lethal in both lanes. Nor does dawn’s wrath instant KO you because you stacked lane and he had a breakthrough creature. The existence of keyword magnification creates game ending value. If there was a 10 or 12 magicka card that said, if your opponents lane is full, destroy all of your opponents creatures in that lane and heal for 30 life deal and/or deal 20 damage to your opponent it would be broken. Alduin costs 20 magicka and doesn’t offer instant kill or full life recovery. And he’s a unique legendary, unlike rage and it’s plethora of viable rage targets. When a rage combo is successful, the value created is far beyond a 3-1. The keyword magnification offers so much value it’s practically uncountable. Gaining 20 life is like 4 healing salves in addition to the lane clear. An instant kill from a breakthrough setup is similar to a 50 card combo deck. Unstoppable rage gives the player access to both levels of power in addition to a full lane clear without requiring astringent deck building. Every late game red deck has unstoppable rage. It’s not an “auto include” for every red deck but currently there is no late game red deck that doesn’t run unstoppable rage.

But that’s not even my argument. Yes its potential card advantage/tempo swing power level is incomparable. Resolving a strong unstoppable rage basically wins the game. That’s fine. So does Odahviing right? Similar enough right? Well no, playing around Odahviing doesn’t happen until 12 magicka. Playing around rage happens around turn 7. That’s 5 fewer turns for faster decks to try and race. Odahviing is a unique legendary. You don’t need to play around it nearly as often, because he’s not a common on curve play. I want to share two things that make unstoppable rage much more difficult to play around. Two things that promote a game swinging combo from really strong to broken. The first is that the mere threat of unstoppable rage makes contesting a potential rage target suicide. Say your opponent plays undying dragon or some other keyword imbued fatty. If you don’t have removal you can still load some creatures into that lane and contest it. So what if the dragon eats a creature of yours and lives to tell the tale. Your opponent got himself a healing salve and eats two creatures. That’s a 3-1. It’s fine. It hurts but it’s fightable. You can still stack more damage onto the board and continue racing. If you’ve accumulated a lot of advantage up until then, you could even just swallow the loss and keep snowballing. There’s still lots of room for counter play and interactivity. But with unstoppable rage? No contest. If you contest a creature and they have rage? Game over. Not just 3-1 value, but game over. Ridiculous number count key word triggering game over. That’s not fun or interactive. So not only is this combo an easy 3-1, but it’s a back breaking one. One where even though you did your best, it automatically wins the game.

Unstoppable rage makes contesting a creature suicide. Consequently, it makes all those great contesting plays we have like guards and shackle effects punishable and irrelevant. It does all that and then something even worse. It controls the shadow lane unlike anything else. When the aggressive deck loses the field lane, as it inevitably will against the control player, he loads up his creatures into the shadow lane to finish the job there. But unstoppable rage prevents this. Any rage worthy target in the shadow lane means the aggressive deck can not play there at all. Well, it could play there and pray the control deck doesn’t have a rage in hand. But then it would lose if he does have rage. Did he lose the game before that point? Maybe. But it’s a well enjoyed part of TESL that there is a shadow lane, so that aggro decks who’ve lost control of the board can move to the shadow lane to continue fighting for a victory. Does it always happen? No. But the existence of unstoppable rage means that all controlling red decks can punish you for that gameplan. Unstoppable rage isn’t just a game winning 7 magicka bomb that outright wins the game if successfully employed. It’s also a control card that makes contesting creatures and playing in the shadow lane game losing mistakes. Therefore the card is broken. I think unstoppable rage would be fairer if it did one or the other, but not both.

Magicka Ramp

After much thought, I have concluded that soul tear is not the reason ramp decks are broken. Win rate and popularity are irrelevant, I’m not arguing that anything in the meta is overpowered. I’m strictly interested in the objective analysis of the mechanics behind the meta decks. At first I thought that maybe it was the infinite value chain of paarthurnax into repeated soul tears. But it’s not. Paarthurnax into repeated soul tear is as broken as night to remember on your paarthurnax. There’s enough value in that two card combo to win the game. Is it paarthurnax that is broken? He’s really strong, especially if he draws you your upgraded shouts. But soul tear on eclipse baroness or blood magic lord or any unique legendary multiple times will win you the game too. Well, maybe it is the tool box effect of soul tear to gather the tactically best 3-1s for the situation. It’s a really useful effect. But riften pickpocket and merchant camel do something very similar, but with an extra body for 1 extra magicka. Those cards aren’t broken. Well what about drain vitality? That’s a feelsbadman for aggro decks. Modern scout runs 6 true cantrips, along with the 7-8 card word wall+night to remember+greybeard mentor combo, in addition to the 3 natural drain vitalities, modern scout is incredibly consistent at clearing the board in a punctual manner. I think that is what makes ramp scout viable in the meta, and isn’t really too broken – at least no more than Ice Storm has ever been. Well, level 3 drain vitality is a lot stronger and more consistent than Ice Storm, and while the value it offers is pretty high, it’s not the core of the frustration. Nobody complains about control monk decks that do the exact same thing.

What is unfair about ramp decks is ramp itself. Being able to spend more magicka than your opponent is guaranteed to give you an advantage. Remember how I described the way TESL cards could be simplified to x/x bodies of x magicka cost? It’s balanced as long as both players are spending the same amount of magicka every turn. If the cards in TESL are balanced properly, then however much magicka is spent should create a corresponding amount of value on the board. While both players are spending an equal amount of magicka each turn then the board state should be relatively equal. Differences are created by playskill. If the cards are all balanced in power level, then only by making better decisions can a player outplay someone else. And that is why ramp is broken. Ramping to higher magicka availability breaks the balance of value. The player with more available magicka can create more board value. So it’s not playing paarthurnax that’s broken. It’s playing paarthurnax on turn 8 while your opponent’s best play costs 4 magicka less. What 12 magicka play it is doesn’t actually matter. Any 12 magicka play will be 50% more powerful than an 8 magicka play.

This is why playing against ramp scout feels so frustrating. The big power plays of ramp scout are made ahead of curve. Every single time a deck increases its max magicka artificially, it creates the potential for compound tempo gains. It’s like a bonus ring of magicka. And then each further increase is an additional ring of magicka – a ring of magicka with infinite charges. When two non ramp decks play against each other, they spend each turn putting equal amount of value on the board. Turn 4 plays meet 4 magicka answers like 4-stat creatures against lightning bolts or devours. But against a ramp deck, a turn 4 play might meet a turn 5 magicka answer. So the ramp player accumulates tempo advantage that turn. This extra tempo compounds theoretically. Turn 5 you play a 5 magicka threat, and the ramp player plays a 6 magicka answer. He now has residual power on the board from two turns. The next turn he accumulates more power. And then he can afford to ramp again. Spending extra magicka every turn means he’s adding an extra magicka worth of value to the board every turn. This means that every turn his opponent has a harder and harder time fighting back for the board. If you’ve ever known the feeling of being snowballed by a faster deck with the ring, it is very similar to a ramp deck ramping and then out-valuing you as they spend more magicka each turn. If a ramp deck can answer the board and put more threats in it faster than his opponent it’s inevitable that he will win. The value he creates for himself is beyond anything that can be accrued from play skill. No amount of playskill can overcome the power deficit of fighting cards that cost more magicka with cards that cost less magicka. In other words, control scout would be perfectly balanced if it didn’t have game breaking ramp mechanics to do it all ahead of curve.

When you have game breaking mechanics in a game, they may be overpowered. In theory, ramp rage warrior should the most broken deck in the game. That may be so, but it’s certainly not the most powerful deck in the format. The real problem to having these broken mechanics is that they compromise the integrity of a match. Broken play mechanics that diminish counter play, as I have argued with both unstoppable rage and ramp, detract from the outplay potential that makes TESL such a rewarding skill based game. Over the course of a match, players do their best to outplay their opponents by accumulating advantages through better decision making. But if it’s impossible to win through skill against the execution of the broken mechanic, because the mechanic creates an overwhelming amount of value, then winning the game is no longer about making better decisions, and instead becomes playing the most broken cards. At the moment, unstoppable rage archer and ramp scout sit in tier 1 according to high legend players, as they are certainly very strong. Playing against these mechanics and losing to them can feel very frustrating, but they aren’t so overpowered that they overwhelm the ladder and many other decks remain viable.

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About RockstarCowboy (1 Article)
I’m a stay at home dad, part time chess instructor. I spend a lot of my time playing games with my children, and teaching games for work. In my time off, I enjoy playing games for myself and, recently, I’ve been interested in writing about it.

2 Comments on Breaking the Rules: An Examination of Game-Breaking Mechanics in Top Decks

  1. I thought a picture of beta Ancestral Recall next to the ancestral recall paragraph would have been fitting. 🙂 thanks for sharing this on your website, CVH.

    Like

  2. “Ramp is broken” can be translated to “Ramp is the only other reliable deck that doesn’t feature Strength as an attribute”
    And THAT is the problem. Ramp is tempo loss now for board presence later, Child of Hircine, on the other hand, is broken.

    Like

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