Howdy folks, and welcome to the Crystarium! Today I wanted to talk about a trend I’ve seen online a lot lately. Having played MTG for twenty years, it’s a trend I’m pretty used to, but since FFTCG is a much newer game, this trend is starting to become a reality in this community as well. Spoiler season is very exciting for me. I love seeing new cards, thinking about how the limited environment is going to look, exploring how new cards slot into existing decks, and theorycrafting new archetypes to support the new design space. Many times, when I see a particularly spicy card, perhaps one that feels like the developers pushed its power level, I come across someone citing it as an example of “power creep.” The implication here is usually that power creep is something that is bad, something to be avoided, and despite everything I’m about to say I can absolutely understand. When a new card is printed and it is a better version of an old card, the old card is now useless. It hurts to have cards that you own, maybe even love, become unplayable. On top of that, many TCGs historically have handled power creep poorly, with each new set wildly invalidating everything that came before it. Many people coming to Final Fantasy from those games understandably have a traumatic history with power creep, as they’ve seen cards with real monetary value become worthless in an instant. While these are real worries that need to be respected, I’d like to discuss the other side of the coin: the inevitable necessity and inherent value of power creep.
Since FFTCG has pulled a lot of newcomers to TCGs, I’m going to assume at least some percentage of you reading this are wondering what exactly power creep is, so let’s begin by defining our terms. Power creep is the tendency for new cards to be better than older cards. As new sets come out, many new cards in that set are better options than previous cards. Let’s look at Black Belt and compare it to Wol. Both cost 4 Earth CP, both have 8000 power, but Wol has a bevy of abilities, whereas Black Belt is vanilla, which means it has no text. Now you can say “Black Belt can be played in multiples, and has Standard Unit synergy!” and both those things are true. However, Wol has Warrior of Light synergy, which historically has been stronger, and it’s reasonably rare that a forward being playable in multiples is a relevant characteristic. Considering all this, it can be said that Wol is a power crept Black Belt.
Power creep is most obvious when a new card is Strictly Better than an existing card. Consider Ifrit 1-004C versus Ifrit 11-001R. O11 does more damage off the bat, AND has additional upside (and is from a better game, fight me.) o11 Ifrit is superior in all but the most remote of circumstances, for example you are looking to deal exactly 4k to a damaged o4 Shantotto so that your 10k forward barely survives her punish. For the most part, FFTCG manages to avoid printing cards that are Strictly Better. Most new cards either are conditional, omit/alter a relevant Job or Category, or have some deckbuilding requirement. As more and more cards are printed, we will very likely see an increase in Strictly Better cards. This is inevitable, and we will explore why in detail later, but I do want to mention now that very few cards have been completely invalidated like o1 Ifrit has been, which I think is pretty commendable when compared to other TCGs.
Power creep doesn’t need to be so 1:1, however. Consider Selphie 2R. There was a time when Selphie was a staple. She was a 2cp backup who slotted into your early development nicely, she had an ability that was a decent threat on attack, and if you didn’t end up needing her ability during combat you could still use her CP in Main 2. She didn’t excel, but she did her job well enough. There’s no card that came out and straight invalidated her, but the ever increasing average strength of backups has simply left her in the dust. Even though a card may not be directly improved upon, it can still be power crept out of playability.
So now that we’re all comfortable with what power creep means, I’d like to talk about its benefits and its necessity. Firstly, lets focus on the emotional impact. One of the most important aspects of any physical card game is the satisfaction of cracking packs. Even many digital card games, which have the ability to eschew packs altogether, have tried to emulate the excitement of opening a fresh pack of cards. So lets say you’ve just made purchase a brand new box of the latest set and you rip open your first pack only to find the first card staring back at you is a common that is literally useless. Even if the rest of the pack is cool, this is going to be a mildly disheartening experience. By utilizing power creep, the development team can ensure no card in a new set is strictly worse than previous options. It may hurt to have your favorite card be worse than a new option, but consider how much more hurtful it is to get excited for a new printing of your favorite character, only to realize that it is a lesser version of an existing option.
If power creep didn’t exist, it follows that every set would be at a roughly equal power level. If a new set doesn’t offer cards that are stronger than existing options, the only other way to create cards strong enough to drive interest is to create alternate options. We can see this to a lesser degree in effects like Jornee and Regis, who give existing options to new Categories and Elements, and to a greater degree in cards like Braska’s Final Aeon and Barthandelus, who provide functionality that did not exist previously in the game, and who can give birth to whole new archetypes. Ideally, every card would be like this, but that would require an unreasonable time investment on the part of the development team. Given their need to spend time on other considerations like production, the limited environment, and testing, only so much effort can be given to design, and the bulk of that is relegated to Heroes and Legends.
Given that these time constraints, coupled with the idea that there is only a limited amount of design space, put a limit on how much diversity of content can be put into a set, the developers still have to make the set interesting enough to purchase. We can see that H and L cards get the most attention, leaving C and R behind. With only so much time to pour into these cards, one of the easiest ways to make them desirable is to push their strength. Whereas in o1 being “on curve” alone was nearly enough to make a card playable, these days we have so many “on curve” options that a 4cp 8k has almost no chance of making it into a competitive deck, not without some incredibly enticing ability. As the card pool increases, so does the competition. A card needs to truly shine for it to stand worthy of competitive consideration. Without power creep, this is next to impossible with the limited effort the developers can put into the commons and rares.
Next I’d like to talk about how power creep can preserve game balance. Lets say that a card is printed that is pushed a little too hard. As an example, lets look at Diabolos. Diabolos is one of the most efficient pieces of removal printed to date, and it’s been around for over half the lifetime of the game. Due to its ability to effortlessly take down any forward that costs 5 or more, whenever it was widely present in the metagame, playing 5cp forwards became a risky prospect. You could get around that by playing forwards with strong ETFs, like Cecil 5L or Veritas, so that even if they get removed you’re not down that much. You could get around it by not playing 5cp forwards at all. You could get around it by playing forwards that are resistant to it, like Delita 3L or Ardyn 8L. Despite this, it can still hit forwards smaller than 5, though it needs a little boost from another effect. This meant that no matter how hard you worked to get around it, it could always find value, outside of getting countered by Y’shtola, Mist Dragon, or the like.
When a card becomes too dominant, action needs to be taken. As this is a print TCG, the cards cannot be altered. They already exist. This is an advantage that electronic only games, like Hearthstone and Runeterra enjoy, the ability to alter cards by patching the game files. However, clearly SE can’t come into our house and adjust the text on our cards. Errata can be issued if there is a serious need, but it’s very awkward to play with a card when you know it is different than what is printed. The dominant card can be banned, but this should be a last resort. It hurts to not be able to play the cards you like, and a ban completely removes the ability to play that card, whereas power creep only makes the card less optimal, a softer approach.
Power creep helps to deal with overtuned cards like this. We’ve already explored how Ardyn, Veritas, and Mist Dragon helped to lessen Diabolos’ iron grip on the meta, but we’ve also seen Feolthanos act as a powerful limiter, seen Yiazmat act as an alternative 5cp hate card with other modes and EX Burst, and seen Unsaganashi act as a cheaper Y’shtola. By creating new and more powerful options, the developers can diminish the strength of cards that many in the community may be sick of, or view as oppressive. This ties in to my next point, which is that power creep helps to move along the metagame.
As stronger options enter the card pool, new avenues of play open up. A deck that may have terrorized the community for an entire opus can be pushed out of playability. This provides for a natural flow of the metagame, making it so that decks enter and leave over time, and preventing the game from getting stale. I know that I personally was exhausted of the o10 meta by the end of it, and was chomping at the bit for o11 to come out and shake things up (and then coronavirus ruined that for me anyways.) When new cards aren’t pushed enough to oust older cards and archetypes, we end up with things like Wind/Water being a contender for basically the entirety of the game. By creating crept cards for archetypes with a lower play rate, those archetypes can get the tools they need to compete with the top of the tiers.
While FFTCG certainly creeps slower than some TCGs, one thing that forces FFTCG to creep at a faster rate than say MTG is the nature of an eternal card set vs a rotating format. In Magic, the most popular format by far is Standard, which encompasses all the sets within a given time period. Standard has been as few as five sets and as many as nine. Because sets are only legal for a given time, the developers can pull back power in certain areas and make cards that, while weaker than cards that have rotated out of standard, are still the best options available. It’s possible we may see this design philosophy implemented with an eye towards L3, but as it stands, our Standard contains all sets, meaning that a new card that is weaker than existing options has little to no chance of seeing play. Only by constantly pushing the envelope can the developers print cards we’re interested in sleeving up.
And speaking of pushing the envelope, many of the cards that were originally printed in early Opuses were intentionally weak. This is the second iteration of the Final Fantasy TCG, and the first version, the JP only Chapters series, wound up with many wildly degenerate cards. During the transition to the Opus series, the developers were very careful about card balance, leaving many effects weaker than they needed to be. The idea was that it’s better to exercise restraint, to start under the target and work up, than to overshoot and have to ban cards immediately. A card that is too weak is much less harmful to the game than one that is too strong. Now that the game has been out for 3+ years, the developers have a much clearer grasp of how all the parts of the environment work with each other, and can more easily create cards that are right at the target power level. With this will come stronger versions of these cards that were intentionally weak at the beginning of the game.
So now we can see that power creep is a useful tool, both for driving sales of new sets, and for guiding deck construction in new and interesting directions. It provides for exciting moments as new cards are spoiled, and a fluid metagame. As long as FFTCG continues to keep its power creep at a relatively low rate, we can expect to enjoy the game for a long time to come. Hopefully I’ve managed to convince you that power creep is a healthy and necessary part of any TCG, but even if not I hope you at least walk away with some appreciation of its positive qualities. Thank you for taking the time to listen to my thoughts, and I hope to see you again here at the Crystarium.