Prime Design: Perfect Imbalance

By Samuel Cahill

At a competitive level, a designer wants all strategies in their game to be viable. This ensures the most cards see play, and that players can play any strategies they want. A player should be able to play the strategy they are most attached to, and be able to win with that strategy, so why is it that almost no games allow this? Transformers included, playing a bot like wave 1 Deadlock, compared to playing wave 1 Barrage, it’s not even close. One of the bots is clearly superior from a competitive standpoint. So why does Deadlock even exist?

The answer is a trick question. The first sentence of this article was a fallacy. Even though it seems like common sense that designers would want players to play whatever strategy they want, certain strategies NEED to be more powerful than others. For the integrity of a game, more powerful strategies need to be frontrunners so that there is a baseline and the game will progress at a pace that the designers intend. This concept is known as “Perfect Imbalance,” and it is an important concept to understand as we head into the topic of black pips. Imagine a world where fully healing your bots every turn were just as viable as, say, orange bugs. In this world, it’s possible a healing deck would exist that would heal most of the damage dealt to it every single turn. If two healing decks ever matched up against each other, the game could stall indefinitely until the timer counts down to time. Therefore, stall decks should not be nearly as powerful as strategies that actively attempt to kill the opponent. Cards that support the strategy should be less powerful to avoid two stall decks ever meeting in a game.

Perfect imbalance is important for much more than just this one example. It means that strategies are defined in different ways. For example, what constitutes a powerful effect? Currently most people would look at a card like Grenade Launcher and say “Yes, that card is powerful. It deals four damage.” When we look at cards that deal damage it's pretty easy to mathematically compare them to each other to define just how powerful the card is. However, when a card like Disruptive Entrance is printed, it’s much more difficult to equate how powerful of an effect of “Look at your opponent’s hand, discard an action from it” in terms of damage. It’s fundamentally a different strategy, and muddies the definition of powerful. I could make an argument that Disruptive Entrance is powerful, but someone might disagree because it doesn’t kill my opponent any faster. The best part is neither of us would be objectively correct.

In wave 1, the game was designed in such a way that blue and orange decks were relatively even. Orange decks had an edge, but most people would say the double primes list was the best deck of wave 1, despite the prevalence of Orange bugs and Orange dinobots. I’ve heard an argument in the community that orange decks tend to have an edge, since bots tend to have more attack than defense. There is some truth to this, however what really matters is the differential between cards with high attack values and cards with high defense values. For example, imagine if all of the bots had 1 more attack than their defense. Grimlock now has 5 defense, Optimus Prime Battlefield Legend? 7 defense. In this world, even though attack values are higher than defense values, I would be willing to bet money that only blue decks would exist.The reason is in a blue vs orange deck, under even circumstances, a blue deck would be taking an average of 1 damage a turn. Blue decks, would be dealing more than that with cards like marksmanship, and armed hovercraft, and therefore would make it to KO’s much quicker. This means what actually matters is the average amount of damage taken each attack.

When designing the game, I would bet that the designers had set baselines for designing stats. Bots with 4 defense were incredibly rare, only existing on Darkmount in alt mode, Demolisher in bot mode, and Bombshell in alt mode. The reason for this is the designers wanted low star count bots to still be able to push damage against higher star count bots. If a higher star count meant more defense, then higher star bots would be vastly superior to lower star bots. This allowed the designers to print increasingly more powerful abilities on bots with higher star counts, instead of only printing increasing stats. Abilities scale much more with star count than the numbers, which made higher star bots more exciting to build around.

Returning to the topic of Deadlock, it seems clear that the designers did not want him to see play. But, why? Why would you take a bot that people probably have attachments to and make him so obviously bad? There’s a number of reasons we could have ended up with the Deadlock we got. First of all, it’s likely Deadlock was put in the set to be a trap card. Traps are often designed into core sets to show players why strategies they use in other games won’t work here. The common trap used in gaming is a card that draws two or more cards. Traditionally, this effect has proven to be extremely powerful in notable card games. A player coming in from those types of games may gravitate towards this effect, and will be punished for their behavior. Additionally, in the first set, designers often feel out what effects are powerful. It’s possible he’s undertuned because they thought drawing two cards would be more powerful than it actually turned out to be. I think it’s likely a combination of these two reasons. The developers probably wanted a trap that showed that this game was more about its action economy than its card economy, but also they probably gave him worse stats than he needed to ensure he didn’t see play.

Imbalance is one of the most important topics for competitive game design. As a player, we think we want all of our favorite cards to be balanced so that they can be played. In actuality this is not the case. We want every card to feel unique and for it to carve out a niche, so that it may be played in some of the decks. As a result, we want the cards to be imbalanced, but perfectly so that they see play in different situations, countering other cards that also see play. What’s important is that the cards feel different to play. Even wave 1 Deadlock feels like a mercenary. Getting the trigger feels rewarding, and that’s what’s important.