• John Tatta

Game Design Theory: How to use an errata to take the “training wheels” off Heightened Evolution SS3

Article written by KTM Pro Team member Richard Zapp

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to discuss the argument on the pros and cons of erratas compared to banning or other forms of balancing. This article attempts to answer the question “If Heightened Evolution SS3 Son Goku was to receive an errata that would allow it to maintain some competitive value while still fulfilling its intended purpose, what would be the healthiest long-term way to balance the card.” While I do also believe factors such as keeping the effect as similar as possible for clarity’s sake are very important to ensure casual players understand the errata, I am going to refrain for discussing those values for sake of length.

You’ve heard these names before. You probably shun people that use whichever name you don’t. For sake of simplicity, I will use SS3 Goku throughout this article. As many players know, this card has become an increasing discussion point of the health of current and previous formats. This tension escalated in mid-July 2018, where Bandai included the card on the watch list, stating the following. “. . . Its inclusion rate has exceeded expectations, and it appears that this will only continue in the post-season 4 environment. The card’s strengths include being able to play many cards, awaken, draw cards, and repeatedly attack during the early game, but we expect many decks will be able to counter it in the series 4 meta. Though we’re not concerned about the environment stagnating, it’s possible SS3 Son Goku will cause a dangerous overall acceleration of the game.” Bandai has implied that by putting the card on the “watch list” that Bandai may proactively modify the card’s playability through an errata or ban depending on how the format develops. Naturally, many players have begun to chime in their input on how to properly address the card; I do not believe many of these suggestions consider every component of why the card’s power is so high. As such, I am going to attempt to address these concerns in 4 steps: 1.) Discuss what I believe the cards intended design was and why that card is being used in ways past that intention. 2.) Create a fundamental statement to define what an appropriate errata to SS3 should accomplish. 3.) Highlight commonly suggested errats that I see made for SS3 Goku and identify flaws in those suggestions. 4.) Propose how I would errata the card. Step 1: Dissection Before discussing the problems and solutions SS3 Goku is creating, it’s important to consider why the card was initially designed the way it was. Let’s break the card down step-by-step to try to unravel that question. While I cannot speak on Bandai’s intent specifically, I will try to provide evidence to support my beliefs not only as someone with R&D experience, but someone that has played multiple card games competitively over the last 13 years. Activate Main: Place 1 card form your hand in the Drop Area: If you have no energy, choose 2 cards in your life and add them to your energy” The discard aims to simulate the minus one most decks would take from charging a card at the beginning of their turn. Fairly straightforward. “If you have no energy” Seems like a statement very specifically designed to interact with BT3-034 Ultimate Spirit Bomb Son Goku (Note that SS3 Goku is BT3-032). The implication here was that a player would protect their life for 2-4 turns until the player could EX-Evolve into Ultimate Spirit Bomb Goku, use his effect to put all 5 Energy into the Combo area, and then trigger the Leader ability a second time in order to regain 2 energy, and then awaken. This theory is reinforced by by the fact that the card numbered in between the two (BT3-003 Ultra Instinct -Sign- Son Goku) costs 2 blue energy in order to play. This synergy between EX-Evolve is evident throughout the set, and is an important thing to keep in mind moving forward. I think the design team then assumed SS3 Goku would only be played as a mono-blue deck because of how important players believed playing 4 Super Combos were. “Choose 2 cards in your life and add them to your energy” Feel like an attempt to balance the leader by randomizing the number of colors a deck can play alongside this leader and consistently hit the lines of play they are shooting for. We see this limitations heavily impacting deck design today; I think it’s ingenious. If we look at the theoretical line of play Bandai was envisioning above, demanding 2 blue cards to complete the Ultra Instinct play shows that the leader was intended to be played in a mono-colored deck.

Permanent: You may only place up to 6 energy As we will discuss shortly with the ramp effect, I believe the intention behind this leader aimed to mitigate the powerful acceleration to mid-game (turn 4-5 in Bandai’s eyes at the time of development) by not allowing the leader to have as powerful of a late game (turn 6-7 during development. The concept behind this balancing makes sense; what becomes problematic is that through the last few formats, most “mid games” are around turns 3 and 4, while “late games” are 5 and 6. Ultimately, this means that this limitation is rarely coming up. I do not expect games to intentionally slow down at any point to where being able to hit 7 energy is imperative to the format; games that consistently take that long would lower the viability of a best-of-three matches taking 60 minutes or less. Awaken: When your life is at 4 or less : You may draw 2 cards and flip this card over. It is interesting that they choose for the leader to awaken after only taking two damage; I think this is because of a difference of perception the game designers had compared to the average player in which the development team heavily valued their “life” as staying “healthy” is a goal in most aspects of life; but the competitive players found opportunities to use self-damaging effects as a way to accrue cards quickly. I personally believe that if they realized how the average player views life during the early game later in development, this card would not have awakened after only two damage. Auto: At the end of your turn, choose up to 3 of your energy and switch them to Active Mode. If we continue to go on the assumption that the Leader was designed to be in a mono-colored deck, this effect may have been given more reasonable reward given the investment needed of cutting back to 1 color. I theorize that the development team believed the unawakened ability to randomly determine your energy was impactful enough that players would automatically assume to never play multiple colors in the deck; however players taking that “risk” of including a second color meant players were rewarded this powerful effect unconditionally. I suspect when building this mono-blue SS3 deck during development, the team asked themself “How can we set SS3 Goku apart from Soul Striker Goku?” Believing that both leaders needed to be mono-blue decks to be successful, I imagine the conversation went something like this: “How can we make Awakened SS3 Goku different than Soul Striker despite both being blue decks?” “What if SS3 untapped 3 instead of 2?” <tests SS3 Untapping 3 and it is much better than Soul Striker> “That’s too powerful. What can we do that’s in between?” “What if it gets all three energy, but can only during the opponent’s turn?” “Boo-yah!” So to summarize, I think SS3 Heightened Evolution Son Goku was intended to: 1.) Be a leader that you could only utilize by playing mono-colored decks, preferably mono-blue, and by punishing players that ran multiple colors with the leader 2.) Designed to be able to quickly accelerate to a mid-game without having a strong early game, and then consequently have a weaker late-game than most decks. 3.) Heavily utilize 4 and 5 cost cards as a win condition, and compliment those cards through EX Evolves And as to where I think Bandai went wrong: 1.) Assuming players would only play the leader in mono-colored decks because of the randomness involved in flipping your initial life - this was less of a detriment to players than I believe they intended. 2.) Not considering that by awakening early, the leader will get more draws over the course of the game, improving the quality of it’s early game. 3.) Assuming being able to activate 3 energy at the end of the turn was a powerful effect to reward players for playing mono-colored decks; there was not enough of a deterrent to playing multiple colors and the ability became very powerful given how little it is regulated. Step 2: The Solution and Implications to Gameplay After considering what I firmly believe was the intent of SS3 Goku, I believe an appropriate errata to SS3 needs to consider the following mission statement “To revise SS3 Goku to be a fair, yet playable leader, the leader shot strive to be facilitate gameplay that rewards players for devoting to one color (primarily or entirely) and strives to maintain a variety of powerful mid-game strategy while limiting his ability to excel at the beginning or end of the game.”

Step 3: Refuting Common Errata Suggestions 1.) “Errata SS3 so he only untaps Blue cards” While I do believe that this is a solution that limits the impact of the leader, only nerfing the defensive capabilities of the leader does not address our chief concern limiting his ability to excel out of the gate. Using Bandai’s phrasing, this does not help with the concern of “. . .being able to play many cards, awaken, draw cards, and repeatedly attack during the early game.” Part of the caveat of using an errata like this is that it forces the design of every low-costed blue Battle card for the rest of the game existence. I’m concerned that if we limit that design space, blue will continue to fall off. Think about the most commonly played Blue cards right now - Unyielding Spirit Trunks, Raging Spirit Son Gohan, The Legendary Flute, Jaco, Senzu Bean, Coercion. Most of these cards do not even demand a blue energy to utilize, and the ones that do primarily are used to buff other non-blue cards (like Coercion to activate a Toppo, or Senzu Bean to replay red Battle Cards in the aggro RB decks. In a world where other colors have cards like Bardock the Progenitor and Sayian Cabba, what sort of Blue Battle cards can you introduce to the format that are compatible in impact without overpowering SS3 with the above errata? 2 “Errata SS3 so the first two energy come in tapped” Slightly slowing down the impact of this leader’s early game, it’s not rare for the SS3 Goku player to pass on playing cards turn 1 - especially on the play. While this does impact the deck’s early game ceiling, it does nothing to force the player to work harder or dedicate to a single color to get the value out of the leader. 3 “Have the Leader awaken at 2 life instead of 4” This has been the suggested modification that I have seen multiple times that makes the most sense to me. For the same reasons that most leaders deserve to take 4 damage before awakening, it could be argued that awakening at 2 life puts SS3 in line with other leaders. While this change does alleviate the aforementioned early game issues, we see the same issue as errata #2 in which it doesn’t punish players enough for moving away from the mono-color paradigm we are assuming the leader was designed to do. Step 4: Suggested Errata, Reasoning, and Implications If you haven’t read the last 2000 words and are looking for the TL;DR, here is the errata that I believe balances SS3 Goku while still enabling the diversity and archetypes I believe the leader was intended to support. Unawakened Permanent: You can only place up to 6 energy. Activate: Main: Place 1 card form your hand in the Drop Area: If you have (exactly) 2 energy, and have not placed a card in your Energy area during your charge phase this turn, choose 2 cards in your life and add them to your energy. Awaken When your life is at 4 or less: You may draw 2 cards and flip this card over. Awakened Permanent You can only place up to 6 energy. Auto At the end of your turn, if you have at least 3 energy of the same color, choose up to 3 of your energy of the same color and switch them to Active Mode. Auto When this card attacks, draw 1 card. The rationale behind the unawakened errata is to negate the 0-2 ramp the leader currently enables, but still offer the leader the ability to quickly accelerate to the mid-game by ramping from 2-4. Not only does this facilitate the mid-game strategies we discussed, but it also allows for counter play. By having to give your opponent two of their turns before you have the ability to use your energy ramp ability, they have a chance to aggressively pressure you. If you take two leader hits and a swing from a 10-15k 2 drop, you may already be at 4-5 life at the beginning of you third turn (the turn that you start with 2 energy to trigger your ability). If you didn’t defend yourself, you now have to consider if cutting yourself from 5 to 3, or from 4 to 2, is a healthy decision. On the Awakened side, this modification not only further promotes dedicating to 1 color (while not entirely forbidding a player from running 50 cards of the same color) it also makes the leader’s early game slightly weaker, shall they choose to awaken before having three cards in energy. While the RNG punishment the leader currently possesses is still an issue, a player can choose to mitigate this risk by simply never trigger the unawakened ability. Making the decision to not trigger the unawakened ability can be a difficult one where a player needs to determine the risk/reward of having an extra energy versus not having their Awakened ability activated right away. This type of interactions not only rewards deck building, but demanding a skillful consideration of the pros and cons of using your leader effect based on the pressure your opponent has delivered. These types of interactions and counterplay are incredibly healthy for the game, and I can only hope we start to see more interactions like the proposed errata here. I close this piece by referring back to my disclaimer. There are many trains of thought as to if an errata is the correct decision on how to issue problem cards, or if another approach is more valid for the health of this game. While I am not here to advocate for addressing other cards being discussed in the community as troublesome (cough cough, The Legendary Flute should have the requirement “If it is the beginning of your Main Phase. . .”, let me know in the comments if you want to me to write another piece on why),I think it is just as important that we not only publicize our frustrations, but attempt to offer solutions as well. Just remember that those solutions need to consider every market, the casual players, the semi-competitive players, the store owners, the sales team at Bandai, as well as the top-tier players that I expect will primarily read this. To be successful in game design, you must know how to both cater to all of these audiences, and understand how certain factors may positively influence one party while ostracizing another.

-Richard Zapp