Rebellions are built on hope

TVboy’s Designer Diaries: Increasing Player Agency Through Hate Cards

When it comes to competitive asynchronous games where players are able to pre-build their army and deck that they bring to each game, players like to know that they have options. Specifically, when a player comes up against a strategy that they have a really tough time beating with their normal tactics, it feels good to know that if they wanted to, they have options available that will significantly improve their odds against that particular strategy or tactic. Even if they never actually decide to go out of their way to include that card in their next game, just knowing that the option is available to them is a good feeling because it means they get to be the one to choose if they want to pack that silver bullet in their next game or not.

Hate cards are cards designed to be particularly strong at dealing with a certain strategy or mechanic that is otherwise difficult to interact with. Hate cards are really important to include in an asymmetrical game like Imperial Assault skirmish, where players select cards and components to play with before they sit down with an opponent. One reason is for competitive balance, to make sure there are ways for players to deal with a strategy if it turned out to be too strong. But the more important reason in my opinion, is to allow players to take control of their fate and arm themselves against the things that they fear or despise playing against.

Even if a player doesn’t include a hate card in their deck for whatever reason, just knowing that it’s available should they ever change their mind, offers a lot of security. It’s comforting to know that if things ever got bad enough to require drastic actions, that you could at least reach for that card that hates on the strategy you’re struggling with and slot it into your deck if you needed it to.

Of course, hate cards existing for a strategy is not an excuse to let that strategy be too powerful. If that happens, then the metagame will devolve into everyone playing that dominant strategy while also including the hate cards for that strategy in their deck as well. The goal is to make sure that every strategy has some way for players to interact with it if they really want to, without accidentally making too easy to completely shut that strategy down and make it no longer competitively viable as a result. It’s not fun for the opponent to run into a card that just single-handedly shuts down your strategy full-stop. And of course, it’s also no fun if you put a card in your deck that’s only useful against 1 strategy, and you end up drawing it when you’re not playing against that particular strategy.

The way we try to make this work is to make hate cards that can shunt particular strategies up to a certain point, but are limited by how much they can stop a certain strategy from working. These are what are commonly called soft-counters, as opposed to hard counters which basically make it impossible to for the opponent to win by employing the strategy that is being countered. This gives the opponent being countered a decent chance to try and play around or fight through the hate card, though it will be an uphill battle for them.

Then, we also try to add an extra effect, or design the primary effect, so that the card does something against a generic opponent not using the cards to be countered, so that the player using it doesn’t feel like they included a blank card in their deck if they get the wrong matchup. That generic effect should be worth less on its own than the cost of the card, but then once you do face off against that particular strategy, the power of your hate card should feel much higher than a normal card’s power to cost balance. If the generic effect of a hate card is worth the cost of admission all on its own, then there is no decision that needs to be made, players will just put that card in all of their decks, knowing that they won’t ever get punished, and as a result that strategy will become much less viable in the metagame as everyone will be automatically packing hate cards for it.

Let’s look at some pre-IACP hate cards that have been included in the game by FFG to see how they’ve handled designing them, and then we can look at some of the hate cards that IACP has put into the game and the hated strategies we’ve felt players would want to have more options available to interact with them.

Negation

Since day 1, Take Initiative has been one of the strongest command cards in the game, offering a massive tempo advantage to the player that is able to play it to get the jump on their opponent by activating earlier than expected. And in a game with so many cheap support activations in each list, exhausting a deployment card was a much less steep cost than the developers were probably expecting it to be.

As a result, Negation was created to give players the chance to foil their opponent’s Take Initiative. And it had the added utility of being able to counter any 0 point card, which often comes in handy against powerful 0 point cards like Urgency, Celebration, and later Rebel Graffiti, but the reason you put this in your deck is so you have an answer to Take Initiative. This is a good example of a card being too powerful and thus everyone running the powerful card and the card that counters it in every deck, however these two cards exist as a necessary evil in the game, reducing everyone’s command deck to 13 cards effectively, because of how they create a dynamic non-deterministic initiative system that keeps the flow of skirmish games from becoming too predictable and stale, so these are allowed to exist.

Strategic Shift

One of the interesting quirks about Imperial Assault skirmish is that there is no intrinsic cost or resource system that must be paid to play a Command card once it’s been drawn into your hand. As a result, cards that allow you to draw more than your normal 3-card starting hand +2 cards per turn with a terminal are very very powerful in Imperial Assault skirmish. It’s possible for many lists to be able to draw 1, 2, even 3 extra cards each round and have a massive hand of command cards available by the 2nd round of the game.

Strategic Shift was very clearly designed to punish these sorts of strategies. While it can be useful if drawn and played at the start of round 2 against an “honest” opponent that has only drawn 5 cards by round 2, it’s at its most devastating against a player that has dedicated multiple resources into filling up their hand quickly. But if a player can play out their hand quickly early in the game before this gets drawn, or save their card draw abilities for later in the game to be used after this card gets played against them to refill their hand, the effects of this card can often be mitigated through smart play.

Tough Luck

Todd Michlitsch used to say that his favorite mechanic to add to cards was a reroll because of how eminently fair and difficult to abuse it was. Rerolls are still subject to chance, and they don’t let you increase the parameters of your dice above their already existing threshold.

However it seems that FFG was not above making rerolls a target for this hate card, which offers the chance to cancel an attack or defense die’s results for just 1 point, an effect that usually costs 2 or more points and is limited only to certain traits. It might seem like this card doesn’t do anything against an opponent that isn’t using many rerolls, but actually this card combos quite well with cards that force the opponent to reroll, so as a result it becomes a valid combo piece for some lists, and a hate-card for other decks that don’t include ways to synergize with it.

Doubt

Released in the final FFG expansion in 2018, Doubt was clearly designed to punish strategies that relied on the Focus condition and early defensive positioning to slowly build up an advantage over the opponent, a strategy that had become quite ubiquitous among Rebel and Scum lists by that time. Upon it’s reveal before its release, many players thought that this card would single-handedly make Rebels non-viable as a faction, as Scum could push through it by combining Jabba with the Rebel Care Package, and the Empire was mostly unaffected, however the power of Spectre Cell released in the same expansion rendered the entire thing rather moot.

Now Doubt is a card that you see in lists every now and then, though it’s effectiveness at dealing with Focus can be played around by a smart opponent. What really makes it strong is its ability to transform the aforementioned Tough Luck into a 1 point Run for Cover for any figure, which is quite strong on its own.

IACP Hate Cards

So now that we’ve seen some of the things that FFG has thought necessary to design hate cards for, let’s take a look at some of the things the IACP Steering Committee has create hate cards for and how we designed them.

Rest in Peace

So this is the card that really inspired this entire article through its tortured design process and its final form. This was the card that really forced us as a committee to nail down how and why we should design hate cards, and many of the conclusions we came to have now been presented to you all in this article.

Very early after the first release of Season 4, we knew that cards that could be replayed from the discard pile like Shared Experience, Targeting Network, and the IACP version of Knowledge and Defense had the potential to very powerful and there was very little players could do to interact with these cards, as negating or discarding them had little impact on their replayability. Fool Me Once did exist but it was far too narrow and was too much of a dead card for non-Spy lists. We also knew that Doctor Aphra was eventually coming down the pipe in Season 5, and we wanted to make sure that players had an option available to interact with all of these discard based effects, which would also allow us to design more discard based effect in the future knowing that this safety valve existed.

The two big challenges with this card were to design it so that all of the major offenders would be covered by the effect, including cards that don’t even stay in the discard pile like Rebel Graffiti, and to add a generic ability that was good enough to make it not feel like you got horribly punished if you didn’t get to use the main ability, but not strong enough that it would just become an automatic staple in every list at 0 points. And all of this had to fit into the text box of a Command card.

We found that having it simply draw a card when you played it made it too “free” and an auto-include, but by delaying the draw for 1 round, there was definitely a cost to playing it in your deck if you weren’t benefitting from its main effect. Having the effect last for the entire round made it so we were able to catch the widest variety of timing instances for cards that worked from or on the discard pile. And by limiting the main effect to just 1 round, we made it so that discard pile strategies would be hampered significantly for 1 round, but not the entire game, and would be able to still fight through the effect.

ISB Infiltrators

Retooled for re-release in Season 4 after a lukewarm performance in Season 3, we knew we needed a killer ability to give to these figures that would make them have a bigger impact on the games they were used in and a better reason for players to want to include them in their lists over something like elite Jet Troopers, but without resorting to straight up power creep. Something that we noticed was getting very popular in Season 3 competitive were defensive command cards like Iron Will, Get Behind Me, Parry, and Knowledge and Defense, in addition to already standout defensive cards like On the Lam, Run for Cover, and Brace for Impact.

While workshopping the ISBs with the rest of the SC and the community, I remembered an ability I had put on a fan version of Zuckuss I had designed before I joined the IACP project that prevented the opponent from playing command cards on defense and thought it would be perfect for the ISBs. It was a great fit with the updated version of Raid we had created which allowed them to give attacks to other 4 point figures outside of their group, as well as with their Spy trait which is all about messing with opponent’s ability to use their Command cards, and it would be a great tool for Imperial Players to have against all of the defensive Command cards that were at the time being spammed by Guardians, Smugglers and Force Users in competitive play. We actually found that it was so incredibly effective against Force Users and Smugglers that we had to remove their Deadly surge ability to cancel dodges, otherwise it felt too oppressive against those types of white dice figures to not be able to play command cards or even hope for a lucky dodge to save them from an ISB triple-tap.

The trade-off here is that the ability is only active while the ISBs are activating, meaning the opponent can still play their defensive cards when a non-ISB figure is attacking them. It’s not very difficult to kill off ISBs, even though they did get a Health bump in IACP, they are still a 7 health figure with only a white die for defense, which isn’t that great at stopping damage in combination with Zillo Technique, so a defensive player can switch-up their tactics and play more aggressively to beat the ISB player.

Overwhelming Impact

This was another card that was originally designed as a hate card against defense stacking, which had become very popular in competitive play in season 3 and a little bit in Season 4. At its baseline against a 1-die defense figure with no modifiers, it added an extra damage and surge to the attack. But against a figure rolling more than the average number of defense dice, or against a figure trying to stack up lots of defensive modifiers, Overwhelming Impact punishes them very hard. I actually recently had a game where I forgot about this card and made the mistake of spending a power token and playing Knowledge and Defense on my Ezra against a Rebel Saboteur attack, which ended up getting my Ezra killed as a result.

It turned out that defensive modifiers are just so common in IA now that it’s just not difficult for this card to find scenarios in a game where it’s adding 3 or more damage to an attack, so it had to be upgraded to 3 points from 2 in a recent balance update. However it still does a great job of giving players a way to mitigate the power of defense stacking against a single attack at least.

Feint

Finally, Feint was a card that we wanted to create in order to expand access in the game to more traits being able to deal with the dodge result on white defense dice. Obviously it’s not as powerful as Heightened Reflexes, but we felt there was a decent trade-off here for a 1 point card, where if it gets played against a dodge result, it should result in a big damage increase, just from the attack no longer dealing 0 damage. We found that generally the floor of the card when playing against non-white defense dice was adding 1 damage to an attack by sacrificing a 1-symbol attack dice to cancel their 2 symbol defense dice etc, which we found as an acceptable floor for a 1 point card. Feint is a card that was pointed out by the community for seeming to be not especially powerful in a vacuum, but that was pretty much the point, it was perfectly fine at doing what it was mainly designed to do, which is mitigate dodges, and we knew that there were enough players out there that hated dodges and the white die enough to possibly include this card in their command deck. Had we made it more powerful, it would have likely made Vader too strong as he was already a major force in the meta to be reckoned with when this card was being designed.

For a while the card was actually 2 points and could be used on defense as well, but we found this to be way too strong when used with Vader, and also just not a lot of fun to play against when a Brawler is able to easily cancel their defense die to make a ranged attack miss completely against them.


Let me know in the comments, what types of strategies or mechanics that you’ve faced in Imperial Assault skirmish do you think needs more hate cards made to deal with them?

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