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"Strictly Better" -- A Concept Every Game Developer Should Know

My first encounter with “strictly better” was in Magic the Gathering. The term arose in that game because new cards would come out that were identical in every aspect except one, in which the newer released card was strictly better than the previous version.

For instance, in Magic the Gathering, the cards Shard Volley and Lightning Bolt are both 1 Red Mana Instants that deal 3 damage to a target creature or player. However, Shard Volley forces you to also sacrifice a land to play it. Now there are some very weird synergies (like Countryside Crusher which looks for cards going into the graveyard) where you might want to be able to sacrifice a land, and Lightning Bolt wouldn’t let you do that. But those are cases where the cards aren’t being compared to each other, instead, Lightning Bolt would be being compared to Shard Volley + Countryside Crusher, which is why “strictly better” has to exist in a vacuum.

Strictly better crops up all the time in games, and it’s usually the result of designers trying to entice players by dangling carrots in front of them with the same content, just slightly better. This gives players content that they are familiar with and that they like, but it also gets them to “purchase” it again because it’s “new.”

One of the most obvious examples of “strictly better” in Gems of War is when the new positive effect Bless came out:

Blessed cleanses the affected Troop and makes it temporarily immune to all status effects, Devour and Mana Burn. It also blocks Mana Drain.

Now you might be thinking “How is Bless strictly better than Cleanse – Cleanse isn’t even a status effect!” You’re right, it’s not. For instance, a target can have “Blessed” on them and be Dispelled, and they also lose Blessed when they are either Cursed or they Attack or use an Ability. Obviously none of that applies to Cleanse… but that doesn’t matter in the slightest.

Cleanse isn’t a status effect, it’s more like something that “happens” from certain abilities, traits, or from cumulative chances from negative effects wearing off. For instance, two very popular Empowered (start battles with full mana) troops are Sister Superior and Mercy. Their Ability performs a Cleanse All Allies in addition to other things.

Cleanse “Removes negative effects from a troop.” It doesn’t “exist” on the troop, it just sort of “resets” the troop back to good. Voice of Orpheus for instance Cleanses all allies when matching yellow gems.

Bless, however, is strictly better, because not only does Bless put a status effect on a troop that makes them immune to all status effects, devour, mana burn, and mana drain (but not lethal damage, because lethal damage dispels first), it also cleanses before it applies that.

Bless just happens to be less prevalent than Cleanse. There are no Empowered troops, for instance, that “Bless all allies.” But in events when you’re purchasing tiers, Tier 5 gives you Potion of Blessing, so that all troops start with Blessed. If you were playing against an enemy that Entangles your first troop, you might run an empowered troop that cleanses all. You don’t need that though with Potion of Blessing, because Bless does a Cleanse first.

Bless is literally strictly better than Cleanse.

It wouldn’t be strictly better if it didn’t cleanse first. If that was the case, any existing negative effects would still remain on you, you would just be immune to any future ones.

What else is strictly better in Gems of War?

Destroy vs Remove Gems

Now, clearly one of these is more powerful. Destroy grants you the full mana (but not mana surges or any bonuses) from each destroyed gem. Remove performs the exact same thing as far as the state of the board is concerned, but you get absolutely none of the mana. For instance, there are two troops in the game that “Remove all Green Gems.” They are Glade Warden and Leshy. Glade Warden removes all Green Gems and deals damage to an enemy troop, boosted by the number of gems removed. Leshy destroys all green gems and then entangles everyone.

It’s obvious why they gave Destroy to Leshy and Remove to Glade Warden though. Leshy is Brown and can’t benefit from the green mana. Glade Warden is Green though and if he Destroyed green gems he would be a looping machine.

…but that doesn’t mean “Destroy” isn’t strictly better than “Remove,” just because of balancing issues with individual troops. Like the example from Magic the Gathering, there are situations of synergy that have to be taken into account. For instance, if Glade Warden wasn’t green, there wouldn’t be the balancing issue with him being able to destroy green gems, just like Leshy does.

Now it’s very evident why “Remove all” in some cases isn’t “Destroy all.” For instance, Abhorath would be an absolute Top Tier S++ troop if he “Destroyed all Gems. Heal back to full, and gain X Attack.” He’d be netting 64 max mana for the entire team every cast. There’s no other troop in the game that can do that sort of thing… oh wait, Marilith can do that, and Angry Mob, and Egg Thief, and Thrall, and Bogstrider, okay, except for them, no other troops can destroy the entire board.

So you see, when new troops come out like Mecha Rat which have abilities like “Remove all Brown Gems,” it makes us players cry, because we’d rather have the strictly better version: “Destroy all Brown Gems,” and it’s up to developers to figure out how to make that work, never mind the fact that Mecha Rat uses Yellow and Green mana, not Brown…

3 Likes

This has me so interested (I never use Abhorath, and I think it’s a darn shame). His spell is called “Devour the World”, after all, not “Excavate the World”.

I can agree that Mecha Rat doesn’t thrill me, but there’s a lot of hate for it atm, so I’m determined to find a way to make it work :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes: (edit: actually – if it’s designed to be useful later on, after other things are released, almost like Sister Superior, I’ll probably be annoyed, tbh).

I think the balancing reasoning can still apply here, since Gold is received instead of Mana.

1 Like

There are certain moments where Cleanse is better than Bless, mainly interactions with Curse. When Curse is applied with other status effects, if Bless gets used, only the Curse is removed, leaving all other negative effects still on that troop until it gets Blessed a second time. Cleanse wipes it all out in one go.

Try Bless vs Essence of Evil.

There’s many cards that are “strictly worse” in MtG as well.

Honestly, even if the Mecha Rat had Destroy all Brown Gems, no one would still use it willingly.

5 Likes

I like the effort you’ve put into it, but “strictly worse” is also a frequently exercised concept in MtG. Not every card’s a winner.

If the only tools were “new”, “functional reprint”, and “strictly better”, the game would be more bland. “Strictly worse” has a design purpose too.

To me the stupid part is your power in GoW is directly tied to “number of troops owned”, so even if a “strictly worse” troop is complete garbage, you must get it to mythic eventually. It’s like if the only way to get Pro Points from sanctioned MtG events was to first prove you’d collected a full playset.