Learning to Love the Bad Cards
There truly are few feelings greater than ripping the plastic off of a new set of player cards, drinking in that smell of glorious printed cardboard before delving into the new treasures. Your excitement grows as you marvel at the power of that shiny new ally or deadly new weapon. Then it happens. Like a discordant note in a musical performance or a belly laugh during Schindler’s List, the next card you uncover stands out for all the wrong reasons. Simply put, it’s crap. For a day or two, you spiral into self-doubt, as you question whether you have misjudged the worth of the card, but no, it is indeed crap. You are thus left with an unavoidable question: why would the designers waste space and energy on a card that is useless?
This is certainly an issue that emerged during the heyday of the CCG (Collectible Card Game), and has continued into the LCG (Living Card Game) model as well. The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game has certainly not been immune to this phenomenon, and if you spend any time perusing the blogs, forums, videos and podcasts related to it, then you will quickly notice that some cards are trashed with a consistency that seems to place their value beyond subjective opinion. Even this blog assigns cards the “coaster” tag on a regular basis. So why, especially in a cooperative LCG, would the designers create cards that have limited value? Surely, when so few player cards are released with each pack, this is a result of poor design decisions, right? Quite the contrary. I am going to argue that the coasters are as essential a part of the game as the gems.
First off, I should say that I have no special insight into the thought process of the designers of this game, nor do I claim to know the “real reason” why bad cards exist in the card pool. Rather, I want to explore in-depth the intriguing article written by Mark Rosewater, one of the senior designers on the venerable Magic: The Gathering team, entitled “When Cards Go Bad”. In this article, Rosewater provided compelling reasons why designers of card games with ever-expanding pools might purposely design cards of limited power and value. Since I don’t want to spend my time re-writing an article that already exists, my purpose here is to attempt to apply the lessons contained in them to LOTR LCG specifically, seeking to determine how each is applicable. With the necessary introduction and caveats out of the way, let’s get started, as I wade through the reasons provided by Rosewater one by one.
1) All The Cards Cannot Be Good
“Yes, in theory, we could design a 330 card set where every card sees play. But what about the next set? Would anyone buy the next small expansion if none of the cards were tournament worthy? Of course not. The only way to then make the next set have tournament-worthy cards is to increase the power level. The new more powerful cards would then displace some of the cards from the first set. Unfortunately, this solution would ultimately destroy the game as the power level would keep increasing until it spun madly out of control.”
To paraphrase Rosewater’s argument, designing cards that are always good would lead to the power level of a game quickly getting out of hand. Imagine if every card in the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle had been as strong as an Unexpected Courage or Feint? How much design space would be left available by the time the game reached the Against the Shadow cycle? In order to keep up with such a power curve, the designers would have to simply print new cards that are stronger and cheaper than older versions of the same effect, basically rendering whole portions of the card pool obsolete over time.
When designing a new card, a designer basically has two choices: create a new version of an existing effect or come up with something that hasn’t been addressed yet. Within either of those options, a designer then has to determine the power level of the effect. The higher the power level, which is determined by scope, cost, and limitations, the less room for design is left for future effects of that same type.
Let’s take the example of Ranger Spikes. Previously, there was only one card available in the card pool, Fresh Tracks, which allowed a player to stop an enemy from making engagement checks. Fresh Tracks is a moderately powerful card, as it is relatively cheap and also has the bonus of dealing 1 damage to a particular enemy. It has the drawback of being temporary, as it only stops the chosen enemy from engaging for one turn. In designing Ranger Spikes, the designers had to make a choice to make this effect more powerful, less powerful, or equivalent to Fresh Tracks. I would argue that Ranger Spikes is more powerful, because it permanently prevents an enemy from engaging and reduces its threat by 2, negating one of the main drawbacks of keeping an enemy trapped in the staging area. On the other hand, it does have significant limitations that provide opportunities for a stronger card in the future. It has a moderate cost of 2, and unlike Fresh Tracks, it has to be set up in advance, meaning that you can’t choose which enemy it ends up targeting (barring the use of scrying effects). If Ranger Spikes had allowed players to choose which enemy was trapped, this would have been extremely powerful and left little room for other effects in this same area, as they couldn’t have much hope of displacing it in player’s decks.
Of course, Ranger Spikes is not a “bad card” by any stretch of the imagination, but this example shows why throwing in weak cards helps to prolong the life of the game and preserve design space. One possible counter to this argument, as it applies to LOTR LCG specifically, is that far fewer player cards are released with each cycle then with most CCG’s/LCG’s, as some space in each pack is taken up by encounter cards. The designers could therefore have more wiggle room and potentially less need for “bad cards” than is true for other similar games. However, this logic, while sound, does not entirely negate the validity of the argument altogether, especially when considering the long-term picture. One final note on the above example before I move on: the division of player cards into spheres is an important aid to the designers. Two cards that do roughly the same thing at roughly the same power level works if they are placed in different spheres, and an extremely powerful card in the Spirit sphere, for example, doesn’t necessarily prevent less powerful cards from being useful if they are placed in other spheres.
2) Different Cards Appeal To Different Players
“We make some cards for the multi-player crowd. We make cards for the flavor crowd. We make cards for the silly crowd. We make the big creatures and spells for “Timmy.” We make the combo cards for “Johnny.” We take each different group of Magic players and throw some cards their way.”
This reason doesn’t have as much to do with why “bad cards” exist, but rather why some cards are thought of erroneously as “bad”. Simply put, each card often appeals to a different type of player, whether a combo master, theme fiend, or power gamer, and if you don’t happen to be that type of player, then you’ll probably think it’s trash.
The recently released Trained For War is a good example. Many players immediately dismissed this card’s effect as too limited because it doesn’t fit their particular play style, however a player like Landroval, who recently wrote a guest article investigating the powerful uses of Trained For War, is able to see the value because it facilitates his penchant for experimentation and trailblazing.
Using myself as an example, Gildor’s Counsel is one of my favorite cards of all time, as I tend to love cards that allow me to manipulate the encounter deck and rob it of its power. However, there are many players who wouldn’t save Gildor’s Counsel from a spilled glass of acid. Maybe they only ever play with one deck, and so Gildor’s Counsel is useless for them. Maybe they feel that revealing one less card from the encounter deck ruins some of the fun of the game, and thus it doesn’t appeal to them on that level. Maybe they prefer to build up their own forces rather than mess with the encounter deck. The point is that a card can only truly be called “bad” if it does not appeal to any type of player, and that list of cards is actually quite small (if there’s anyone out there who likes Power in the Earth, let me know!).
3) Diversity of Card Powers is Key to Discovery
“The next reason “bad” cards exist goes to the heart of what makes a trading card game tick. Trading card games, and Magic in particular, are very much about discovery. When you play Uno, for example, you don’t have to know that “Draw Four” is better than a blue 6. All the cards are shuffled together and you play what you get. But in Magic, you pick and choose which cards you use. That makes the ability to differentiate between cards very important. As you grow as a player, you get better at determining a card’s potential. This ongoing challenge is an important part of what keeps Magic fresh.”
As Rosewater argues, CCG’s are all about discovery, and this is one of the main aspects that differentiates them from a standard card game like Uno. I would argue the same is true of LCG’s. In a regular, self-contained card game (such as Uno), you get the cards you get, and you don’t have to differentiate between cards because you don’t get to select your cards (of course, there are exceptions out there). This also means that usually the good cards are obviously good, and the bad cards are obviously bad.
However, generally what distinguishes LCG’s and CCG’s is the need for players to build their own decks, and this means they must be able to decide which cards are “good” and which are “bad” if they are to be successful. Advanced players have acquired a more highly honed sense of what makes a “bad card” for their own particular game, while beginning players may not. If all cards were designed to be “good” and powerful, this sense of discovery for new players, as they gradually learn to sift through the card pool with purpose and discernment, would be completely absent.
In my own experience, although I played CCGs in the 1990’s (mostly Star Wars, Star Trek, and Middle-Earth), when I picked up LOTR LCG, it had been more than a decade since I had tackled deck building in earnest. In many ways, it was like learning everything all over again. The prospect of deck building seemed overwhelming, even with just the Core Set, and this only grew with the addition of the first few Adventure Packs. It was only by throwing myself into the process and being willing to make stupid mistakes that I was able to quickly grow as a player. Discovery meant getting my brain smashed into paste by the trolls of the Carrock, as I learned that Stand Together, which seemed more sexy on the surface, was inferior to a simple card draw effect, like Gleowine. Trial and error, and discovering what makes a bad card in this game, is absolutely essential to player growth, and ultimately player interest. Figuring out and being able to delineate the realm of the marginal, where cards are “useful” but have effects that do not justify a place ahead of other choices, is what this process is all about.
4) Power Levels Are Relative
“One of the things R&D does to throw monkey wrenches into the above slope of discovery is to purposefully design cards that are hard to instantly analyze. A lot of these types of cards have a very narrow function that are either “good” or “bad” depending on whether there exists a deck that can use them.”
This is one that I think most players understand, which is that the power of a card is relative, and can change in an instant depending on the other cards and quest mechanics that emerge. A card that is bad now may become quite useful in the future, and thus our valuations are never set in stone, or at least they shouldn’t be. A classic example is Dark Knowledge, a Core Set attachment that allows a player to look at one shadow card dealt to an enemy. In the beginning of this game, this was a generally useful card, as it was one of the few means of dealing with shadows available in the game. However, the release of A Burning Brand in only the second Adventure Pack, which is in the same sphere and cancels shadows outright, relegated Dark Knowledge to the refuse pile. This seemed to be the end of the story, but now Dark Knowledge is making a resurgence. On the one hand, Small Target has been released, which rewards you for knowing the content of a shadow card, rather than cancelling it. On the other, recent quests have often emphasized shadow effects that punish a player if the defending character is destroyed. This means of hurting players if they choose to use a chump blocker makes Dark Knowledge useful again, as it gives you the means to decide when to use a chump blocker and when to use a more sturdy defender.
Power levels are thus heavily tied to what else exists in the card pool at a given moment. They also are strongly connected to what other similar effects exist (as explored in point #1). Spare Hood and Cloak, for example, would be seen as much more powerful card if more powerful readying effects, like Unexpected Courage and Light of Valinor, didn’t exist in the same sphere. On the other hand, while Minas Tirith Lampwright has been derided by many, the fact that it is the only player card that can currently cancel “surge” dramatically improves its power level from what it would be otherwise. The point is that power levels constantly fluctuate, at least for some cards, meaning that a card that looks like junk when you first take it out of the package may either end up having value later on or have more value than is apparent at first glance when you take the time to analyze its status in relation to the rest of the card pool (which itself can change). Sometimes this fluctuation in power level over time is by design, and sometimes this just occurs as a part of the organic development of the game.
5) Diversity of Power Rewards the More Skilled Player
“Mostly up to now I’ve explained why “bad cards” have to exist. I also want to point out that “bad cards” have some good effects on the game. I think the best reason to have a diversity of card power is it increases the skill in the game.”
According to this theory propounded by Rosewater, varying the power level of cards rewards more experienced and skill players. They are better able to separate the good from the bad, and thus will have an advantage over new and inexperienced players. If all cards were powerful, then skill would not have as much of an impact. Since a card game is naturally based on some level of randomness, especially when you have to draw certain cards into your hand to use them, having a diversity of power levels brings skill back into the equation.
Now this definitely is important for a competitive game like Magic, but is it useful at all for a cooperative game like LOTR LCG? I would argue that it is just as important, even in this much different context. No player (or at least few players) want to invest time and energy into a game that is pure chance and luck. Players want to feel like they can get better at a game and demonstrate their skill, even just to themselves. Mixing things up so that there are bad and good cards allows players to hone their senses and determine the outcome of games by their ability to select the best cards for each situation. Without this, there would be nothing separating beginning and advanced players, at least in terms of their deck building. This would actually remove a great deal of joy from the process, as I feel players really develop an attachment to a game to the degree that they feel they can grow as a player and actually have an impact on victory based on skill.
To be crystal clear, this is not about an elitist need to have a means of separating the “pros” from the “noobs”. It’s about building in another level of depth to the game. There are two places where a player of LOTR LCG can demonstrate their skill: deck building and decision-making during actual game play. Both are vital, and both have an impact, but if only the latter existed, there would be an important dimension to the game missing. While some players absolutely abhor deck building and may always do so at some level, a substantial portion of the player base is attracted to the game precisely because it allows for the display of creativity and skill through selecting one’s player cards (the recently concluded Create A Unique Deck contest on this site is a prime example of this phenomenon). And to emphasize Rosewater’s point, bad cards allow deck building to flourish as a meaningful skill rather than a rote exercise.
6) People Like Finding “Hidden Gems” “
One of the joys of Magic is discovering the card that everyone else has dismissed. In order to allow rogue deck builders to do this, R&D has to create some “good” cards that seem “bad.””
To understand this point, look no further than the Card Spotlight series on this very blog. This is one of the most popular features on TftC, mainly because people love debating the worth of a card and trying to figure out if it is a gem or simply unplayable. If all cards were strong, this series simply couldn’t exist. There are cards in this game that are truly garbage. However, there are others that look like it upon first glance but turn out to be quite useful. If all cards were powerful, this sense of discovery would be sorely missing, as we would automatically know that there must be some use for every card.
This process also encourages players to latch onto certain cards as being “theirs”. I can’t really claim A Test of Will or Feint as “mine”, because everyone loves those cards and knows they are powerful. There’s no sense of ownership. By contrast, I have great pride in claiming the previously mentioned Gildor’s Counsel as “mine”. That’s not to say that other people don’t recognize the value of this card and that somehow I am the first or only person to recognize its utility. It just means that it is not as obviously powerful as other effects and is the subject of some debate as to its worth. This makes me feel a sense of ownership over it that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s very similar to my old punk rock days in high school, when I felt a far greater sense of attachment to those underground bands that no one knew about than to the ones played on the radio or getting TV exposure. Of course, this can be taken to obnoxious levels sometimes, but it is an important psychological effect that designers need to take into account.
It is also something that can lead to players having a greater sense of attachment to the game as a whole. If there is nothing to discover, and nothing that really feels like yours, then it is harder to develop that deep passion for a game that leads to lasting success. It is for this reason that “hidden gems” are essential to the long-term health of LOTR LCG, and keeping real trash cards around in the card pool to hide them is essential.
7) R&D is Only Human
“Some “bad” cards are cards we thought would be better and just aren’t. But as a trade-off some cards are better than we expect, so I like to think it all averages out in the end.”
The term “R & D” is specific to Magic, but the simple point here is that the designers of a game are human, and sometimes make mistakes. There may be cases where they design a card like Zigil Miner, thinking that it will be a fairly useful card and balance well with other existing effects. Then suddenly players take it in an unexpected direction and basically break the game (for newer players, Zigil Miner originally granted a number of resources equal to the cost of the top 2 cards you discarded from the top of your deck; this allowed you to gain an absurd amount of resources by manipulating the cost of the cards in your deck and using scrying allies like Imladris Stargazer and Gildor Inglorion to make sure the effect always “hit”).
In other cases, the designers may create a card that seems decent at first, but after players get a hold of it, it turns out to be far less useful than originally expected, for a variety of reasons. These are the “accidentally” bad cards, and while this is unavoidable to a certain degree, it is probably less common than the other 6 reasons listed here.
All of this is not to say that criticism of the game and the design choices made as it evolves is somehow not acceptable or useful. Providing feedback is surely a useful process for the designers, as long as it is constructive, rather than destructive. Rather, the broader purpose of this article is to spark a discussion of the role of bad and/or marginal cards in prolonging and maintaining the overall health of the game. This is a conversation that has occurred in the context of other LCG’s/CCG’s, but it has not arisen much in regards to LOTR LCG, perhaps because it has such a different model than competitive games. We can debate over whether there are too many or too few bad cards, but eliminating them altogether would actually be quite harmful. So the next time you are ready to use that new card for frisbee practice, perhaps consider giving it a little hug instead before you file it away into the nether regions of your card collection, as it has sacrificed itself for the good of the game.
This one’s for you, Power In The Earth!