Critical Play: Is this game balanced? – Magic Awakened

One game that I love to play is Harry Potter Magic Awakened, a Harry Potter themed mobile game co-developed by Warner Bros. Games and NetEase Games under the Portkey Games label. It is only supported for mobile devices such as phones or smart pads, and is available on Google Play and Apple Store. Currently this game is publicly released in certain Asia areas only and will be released world wide in the recent future. The target audience for Magic Awakened is people from the age 12 and up.

Magic Awakened is a multiplayer meta game that includes several smaller games (some designed for player vs. player play, some for player vs. game, and some for team play). Since there are too many sub-games included, I will focus on only one of the most major one — dueling. There are two types of dueling: single player duels (1 player vs. 1 player), and pair duels (2 players vs. 2 players). Both modes have the objective of outwitting and beating the opponent using card collections. While Magic Awakened as a whole support various fun types such as fantasy and narrative (through its RPG story lines), the dueling game mainly focuses on the challenge fun type, alongside with fellowship (for 2 vs. 2 duels). While I love playing Magic Awakened since it gives me a chance to visit Hogwarts and has a lot of fun subgames, there are some glaring balance issues which are gaining complaints from players.

Since the duels in Magic Awakened is card-based, one of the first balance issue a player may face is the asymmetry duel starting positions in the early stages of getting in the game, when they may have not collected all of the cards yet. There are currently more than 80 cards available. They can be categorized into three main card types: Creature, Spell, and Companion (disclainer: I do not know the official English translations of these card types or rather anything in the game). The cards are also ranked from Normal, Rare, Gold, and Radiant, in ascending order of collect difficulty and theoretically how powerful they are. Since cards are collected mainly through random drawing, at the early stages of the game, players who were lucky and collect more powerful cards have an unfair advantage over players who did not collect as many powerful cards. This asymmetry balance issue actually is more troublesome in some of the other sub-games, such as the Forbidden Forest, where some levels unfairly requires some specific cards. However, as players play the game longer, they eventually will collect all the cards and even out the playground. The bigger balance issue in my opinion lies in the balance of strategies and game objects.

In duels, each player create a deck of 12 cards (8 Creatures and Spells cards, and 3 Companion cards) to use. In addition to cards, players are also equipped with one Memory, which basically gives the player some special power. For example, if you choose to use the Memory of Hermione Granger, one of the smartest witch of her age, the Spell card with the highest cost currently in your hand will have its cost reduced by half every 3 Spell cards you use. With more than 80 cards and a dozen Memory types available, there are many possible strategies (each Memory type has at least 2 decent strategies possible based on the pairing with different card decks). Though the developer team frequently tries to calibrate the specs of the cards and Memory types to balance the game, it is common that with each revision of the game, there are only 2 to 3 dominant strategies that obviously have an advantage over all the other dozens of strategies out there. For example, in the current ongoing Magic Frenzy duel tournament, one of the dominant strategies is using hyper aggressive Erumpents, which, used with the right supporting cards, can stun the victim and make them unable to even play a single card for half a minute. With Magic Awakened being a mass multiplayer game, it gets really frustrating when you lose many times in a row only to realize almost everyone else is using the same strategy that can beat all your other strategies. It also gets boring for people using the same strategy, because most often when the same strategies are used on both sides, the duel result boils down to luck.

Snapshot of two Erumpents charging my opponents
After my opponents has been stunned by the Erumpents

While the strategy balance issue is about how certain card combinations and ways to play are too dominant, there are also game object balance issues among the cards themselves. Each Spell and Creature card has a cost and specs on how much damage they can do, as well as various other characteristics. These characteristics are so different in nature that there is no simple transitive relationship between the cards. However, based on these characteristics, there are intransitive relationships between many of the cards. In the simple case, we would expect a card with a certain cost can be countered by another card with the same cost and the right intransitive relationship. However, when Memory types also come into play, the relationship between cards and Memory types are now more fruity. This leads to some imbalance issues that resulted in certain Memory types being abandoned by the majority in each revision. In the current one, the Memory of Neville Longbottom doesn’t really stand a chance against players with almost any other Memory type. Players of Neville Longbottom usually play high cost Creature cards that have high attack potential but also need time to either grow up(Norweigian Egg needs to hatch before the dragon can attack) or heal. The Memory of Neville Longbottom gives the player the ability to heal creatures near them. However, it’s not enough to just heal them. The players also need to play other cards to protect the creatures. The accumulation of costs needed is very high, but players of other Memory types usually can easily destroy the creatures using standard Spell cards that cost much less in total.

Overall, this game has been through a lot of turbulence in regards to game balance in not only the duel game but other sub games as well. I believe that the card system is just too complex to identify precise math formulas for balancing the cards so most of the balancing work depends on playtesting. The developers are constantly collecting data on duels and playtesting adjustments for the cards but we have yet to see a revision where there is really good balance.

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