A lot of good points were brought up in the replies to my last post on drawbacks. I delved too far into semantics and didn’t spend enough time nurturing what I really wanted to say. This post is going to look at drawbacks from the angle I should have focused more on in the first place.

The idea that “everything has a drawback” is something I put too much emphasis on in that post and ended up distracting from the main idea. Part of what I really wanted to get at is something Dom Camus got at with his reply. Here’s some of what Dom had to say:

“When drawing with a pencil, an artist spends time adding shadows. But in the context of the object depicted, a shadow is just an absence of light.

As such, the design weakness you refer to isn’t so much making drawbacks too obvious as making cards too obvious. Or, as we might more naturally put it, too easy to evaluate.”

Let’s look at Abyssal Persecutor again.

As I mentioned last time, when you look at Abyssal Persecutor you immediately figure out what the card is doing. You see the offer that wily demon is tempting you with: an above average creature in exchange for a pretty significant drawback. The riddle quickly becomes, “how do I get rid of this guy?” The card itself is obvious. (Though figuring out how to remove it might not always be.)

Now look at Pyromancer’s Ascension.

Ascension isn’t nearly as obvious. It’s a card that has no real defined routes except you need to play with a bunch of instants and sorceries with the same name. Obviously there are optimal ways to play it, but you don’t have to. I’m sure there are plenty of kitchen table players who have tried putting it into decks simply for value and the great feeling of when it actually works.

Pyromancer’s Ascension might technically have a drawback, but that’s not what’s important about the card. When you look at the card and “chunk” it in your mental inventory, you don’t think, “It’s a card that copies all of my spells but has a drawback.” You think, “If I can figure out how to jump through some hoops, all of my spells are copied.”

Similarly, when you look at a 5/5 flier for six, you don’t think, “This card has the drawback of costing six.” You think, “A 5/5 flier for six is appropriate for the cost and rarity, but might be outclassed by other options.” Okay, so maybe that’s an overly spikey viewpoint, but the point is you certainly don’t think of it as having a drawback.   Compare that back to Persecutor, where you clearly group the demon in the drawback category.

So what’s the takeaway here? If a card costs less than normal it needs to have a drawback to compensate? (“Well, that’s certainly obvious,” you might be thinking.) No. I think the takeaway is that to keep any game fresh you don’t want to make the pieces and interactions too obvious. You want players to have that joy of innovation and figuring out how one piece works into a larger puzzle. Drawbacks that are spelled out can pose interesting challenges (“How do I remove this?” in the case of Persecutor) but can also lead to problems if done too often because it really constricts whatever you are trying to do, therefore making the game less fun.

It’s more interesting to hide your drawbacks in ways that the mind doesn’t think of them as drawbacks at all, like on Pyromancer’s Ascension. Ascension is considered a very fun card despite the fact that it has a gigantic, fundamental drawback. Persecutor, by comparison, is considered a risky card despite being fairly straightforward. What’s the difference?

I think two different kind of drawbacks can be defined. I’m sure there are plenty of cards that fit into neither category, but I see two different general realms of drawbacks: downside drawbacks and upside drawbacks. I feel like most players are naturally afraid of the former and enjoy playing with the latter. (Partially because it gives them goals – but once again, that’s for another blog post.)

Abyssal Persecutor has a downside drawback. It restricts you from winning the game and makes you feel scared. There are a lot of times when you won’t want to play one.

On the other hand, Pyromancer’s Ascension has an upside drawback. It doesn’t do anything until you meet pretty tough conditions, but then it turns on and gives you a bonus. A seven mana vanilla 5/5 also has an upside drawback. It has the drawback of costing seven for a 5/5, but once you’ve put it into play then you receive its upside.

Where downside drawbacks effect you immediately as the cost for something you shouldn’t have otherwise, upside drawbacks are things you have to build up to. It might be interesting to look down a list of cards with some kind of drawback and see which don’t fit into either category.

Of course, you have interesting middle cards like Glint Hawk. The Hawk is great design because to a new player it has a downside drawback, but to an experienced player it has an upside drawback. Card’s that can change like that depending on whose hands they’re in, because both new and old players feel like they understand them and are happy with them.

Anyway, let me know what you think and I’d be happy to respond some more. Talking about this with you has made for a great discussion. Thanks for all of the excellent feedback so far!

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