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In The Cards: It's About the Text, Volume I

by Michael Shea, Designer

19th August 2020

Recently, some cards spoiled for All Our Yesterdays prompted a discussion about the "ideal" number of lines of text on a card. To be sure, this is not a new discussion. Most designers recognize that brevity on a card can make for a better card, all things being equal (never design a card with six lines of text when you could accomplish the same thing in three). However, given the constraints of "2e Speak" sometimes what a designer wants to accomplish on a card can't be done in only a couple of lines. What then is a designer to do? It has been suggested, for example, that if a designer can't accomplish what he or she wants in three lines of text or less, then they "shouldn't make the card". For the sake of this argument, let's call this the "Rule of Three." In this article, I'd like to explore that idea. For those reading along, or for those contemplating responding to this article once you've read, I hope you'll agree along with me to the following basic assumptions:

  1. Designers want to make good cards.
  2. Players want to get good cards.
  3. Designers are players too.
  4. What constitutes a good card is both contextual and subjective.

These assumptions are important to any discussion on card quality or in any attempt to evaluate design's work.

First, we assume designers want to make good cards. No designer likes to see their card poorly received (to the extent than any card is the work of one designer). So, if we begin with the assumption that a designer spends months working on what he or she thinks will be a good card, it helps us view the work more charitably.

Second, we assume players want good cards. Players want cards that are fun and exciting to play, and if cards aren't exciting and fun to play, players end up disappointed. So, if we begin with the assumption that when a player complains about a card being too long or a Wall of Text, it's because that player genuinely thinks the card won't be fun or exciting to play, it helps us view the complaint more charitably.

Third, we assume that designers are players too. When a designer gets an idea of a card, that idea usually comes from lived experience during game-play. This experience can be the designer's own, or it can be something the designer perceives due to information he or she gets from the TrekCC forums or The Dojo's Discord Channel or from observing other players in face-to-face or online events. So, if we begin with the assumption that ideas for cards tend to come out of some perceived need, it helps us to try to imagine what a design team might have been trying to accomplish in a card.

Finally, we assume that what constitutes a good card is contextual and subjective. Now, this doesn't mean we can't engage in analysis or arrive at intelligent qualitative assessments of a card. But, it does mean that very few cards are either universally loved or universally loathed. A card that experienced, competitive players view as good may be viewed as confusing or complex or even unpleasant by new players. Cards may be popular in some metas but not in others. The point is that if a card survives months of brainstorming sessions, and then months of testing and review, then it stands to reason that at least some players other than the designer thought the card would be good. So, if we begin with that assumption, it helps us to try to view cards from multiple perspectives, and not just from our own.

So, with that, for the next several weeks I'll be looking at some the game's most popular cards as well as cards that are essential to even the most conservative definition of interaction. I'll engage in some thought experiments and analysis to see how well the "Rule of Three" can be applied to each - or even if it should be. My hope is that this analysis will lead to thoughtful - and even impassioned - discussion on design philosophy that designers and non-designer players alike will find helpful. Since the overall creative theme for 2020 was intended to be "interaction", many of the cards I'll be looking at will fall into one of the categories of interaction described in the release article for All Our Yesterdays. But, I'll also be looking at cards that aren't typically thought of as interactive as well. And that brings us to this installment's two cards, Emergency Transport Unit and Code of the Ushaan.

Emergency Transport Unit

The Emergency Transport Unit (ETU) is a staple card in 2e. It's been around since Necessary Evil in 2004, and it's currently reported as having been included in 2,469 decks - 295 of them in the last three years alone. The text of the card is pretty simple. The text reads: When your personnel present is about to be killed, you may return this equipment to its owner's hand to place that personnel on your ship at this mission instead. He or she is stopped. So, this is kill prevention for a single personnel, and it works while facing dilemmas, in combat or engagements, or even to prevent death due to an ability. In fact, a neat trick for a long time was to use the text on Ikat'ika, Honorable Warrior to get the attribute pump and then use the ETU to prevent the kill text in the ability from resolving. That interaction is why the card received errata in 2014 - prior to that errata the attribute pump was permanent and so this "pump and save" routine could be done turn after turn until you had something like a bona fide 16 - 13 - 17 demigod on your hands. While the notion of a "good card" is subjective, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a player that calls ETU a bad card. It's clean. It's simple to understand. It's balanced in that the equipment saves only one personnel, that personnel is stopped, and it returns to hand and must be played again to be used again. However, it doesn't pass the Rule of Three. But, could it? Let's assume that matters and see if we can make it work.

I can imagine this card reading When your personnel present is about to be killed, you may return this equipment to its owner's hand to place that personnel on your ship here instead. He or she is stopped. There is precedent for using the word "here" to substitute for "at this mission" in the interest of saving space - from a game-play perspective both mean the same thing. However, even with that change, the word "stopped" in the text drops to the fourth line, so we're still in violation. What if we removed the phrase "He or she is stopped." from the text? It would now definitely comply with the Rule of Three but it would be much more powerful. Not having access to the Sacred Costing Texts I don't know if this means the card would be more expensive - zombie Keevan costs two as well and it can prevent any number of kills present, but it also goes to the opponent after use so not only can it possibly be used only once per copy, but the opponent may also use it to prevent their own kills. Also one may not use this card and also use Keevan, Conniving Liar or Keevan, Pragmatic Captor in the same deck without running the real risk of not being able to play one of them when you need it because you command the other already. But, let's assume the ETU would cost three counters instead of two if it didn't stop the saved personnel. It's now a cost three equipment with three lines of text that reads: When your personnel present is about to be killed, you may return this equipment to its owner's hand to place that personnel on your ship here instead. It's now even cleaner. It's still simple to understand. It costs one more and still returns to hand requiring it to be played again, but it no longer stops who it saves. And it now conforms to the Rule of Three. But, is it now too good? We could make it unique and that might make up for the loss of the stop text, but it also might make it a less effective defense against a dedicated kill pile. And, in a meta in which zombie Keevan also exists, I can imagine a unique three-cost ETU might see less play, even considerably less play. Then again in a meta with a non-unique version of the ETU as a kill prevention equipment that didn't stop the save, maybe zombie Keevan would never have been made. The real question is, would ETU be better if it had only three lines of text, max? Maybe. Maybe not. It's unclear. It's also hard to argue that exceeding three lines makes this card bad.

Divisive Patron

Code of the Ushaan made big waves when it was released as part of Sacrifice of Angels. Some heralded the card as a long-needed balance to At What Cost or Common Purpose or even Surprise Party. Others decried the card as a heretical violation of the fundamentals of the game, and one so egregious as to almost be worth quitting over. So, this is probably one of the best examples of our fourth assumption, good is contextual and subjective, I can think of. The card is very straightforward and easy to understand, and the operative text is only two lines long: Plays in your core. Each player cannot spend more than seven counters during their Play and Draw Cards segments. But, with the Ritual keyword reminder text, this card goes to four full lines of text and so also violates the Rule of Three. But, we do have a couple of options to get this card down to two lines. However, one of them is the kind of decision a designer - or even a design team - cannot make unilaterally. Let's deal with that option first.

We could remove the "Ritual" reminder text. Then, if you wanted to know what "Ritual" meant as a keyword, you'd have to look it up. This would accomplish our goal of bringing the card in line with the Rule of Three, but this is the kind of decision a designer isn't empowered to make on their own. So, a designer determined to make this card as a Ritual would have to resign themselves to violating the Rule of Three and just live with it. Does that make it a bad card? I don't think so, but again this is subjective and text-line fanatics may disagree.

Alternatively, we could just design this card as not a Ritual but keep the same operative text. Designers can do that. However, that makes this card occupy a completely different design space - it becomes much less of a meta balance and more of a control card. Personally, I would just put my hypothetical non-Ritual Code of the Ushaan into a Terok Nor control deck and choke-off my opponent's ability to play extra counters until I was ready to play my copy of New Power Rising and then I'd simply use my Dukat, Cardassian Representative to get rid of the offending event. Now, this card would be a two-lines-of-text card and would be simple and clean, but I am not sure it would be better. In fact, as a meta control card it would quite obviously be inferior as the card's owner could simply shut it off whenever needed. But, as a control card it could be quite effective, especially if one finds oneself in a meta dominated by DS9 Rainbow Dash decks or similar counter-barf builds. So, in this case, making a Rule of Three compliant version of this card actually changes the nature of the card altogether.

Or, we could design the card as not a Ritual and keep the operative text as is and simply add in the text Cards you own cannot destroy this event. That would bring back the meta balance flavor of the card and keep it the closest to the design intent. The card now complies with the Rule of Three and is closest to its original form. However, players would probably find it odd that Ritual reminder text was incorporated into the operative text of the card without it being a Ritual. It would also take away from the uniqueness of Rituals as cards. And the card would no longer be downloadable with Kreetassa, Perform Intricate Ritual. Maybe that's good. Maybe it's not.

So, we've seen that Emergency Transport Unit and Code of the Ushaan could exist as versions with three lines of text or less. Does this make the cards, as they exist, bad cards? Should they have been designed differently? Should designers have chosen to design them in ways that would have complied with the Rule of Three or not design them at all? I hope the above has made you think about those questions. Next week, I'll be looking at two popular, classically interactive cards, Point Blank Strike and Ensnared, as well as a newcomer to the classically interactive scene, Stunning Reversal. All of these cards violate the Rule of Three. Does this make them the kinds of cards that should never have been made? Can we imagine versions of these cards that employ three lines of text or less and still do the same things? Or, are they still good cards even though they have six, six, and five lines of text each - or are each, in other words, Wall of Text cards? We'll be considering answers to those questions next week.

Until then, Live Long and Prosper!


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