The decisions made by the design team at Hobby Japan to ban Dadaluma at the start of Opus IX and Rikku midway through were met with relatively mixed feelings; some people think that these cards got what was coming to them, while others don’t find them to be the root of problems and would prefer other cards such as Locke or Veritas of the Dark to be hit instead. I had originally written this article just before the banning of Dadaluma went into effect, with the intent to release it after the ban and shortly after the official set release of Opus IX. However, not long into my Opus IX testing (which started before the official release of the set) I had crafted a new deck that would go on to seemingly prove the antithesis of everything I’m about to say in this article. Now that Rikku has joined the still (thankfully) short list of banned cards, I think it is safe to say that the reason these two cards in particular bit the bullet are a reflection of the game’s design philosophy, which will be our topic of discussion today. In the following short article, I will try and provide a bit of insight into the design of the game that is often overlooked by competitive players to try understand how HJ arrived at their banning decisions (or lack thereof) and provide expectations for the future.
What Kind of TCG is Final Fantasy?
First, I think it’s important to talk a little bit about what kind of game the Final Fantasy TCG is. Parallels are often drawn between this game and MTG (and other similar mana-based TCGs), but I am of the opinion that these comparisons fall just short of the truth. Speaking from a strictly mechanical perspective Backups are lands, Forwards are creatures, Summons are instants and Monsters are artifacts most of the time, sure, but on a fundamental level this game is much closer to a game like Weiss Schwarz. At its core, Opus series FF-TCG is a game about characters, and most aspects of gameplay are balanced around this fact: summons are generally expensive and mostly clunky, you draw 2 cards a turn (meaning you see more individual characters), cantripping not attached to a body (be that Forward or Backup) isn’t a particularly effective use of CP, negate spells are nearly non-existent, AOE is rare and usually attached to huge costs, removal is very hard to break even, and so on. Like Weiss Schwarz, Final Fantasy is designed such that players get to play with the characters from the series that they want. It is almost certainly not the reason that we (the competitive audience) are playing, but it is a primary draw of the game if not the reason the game received standing in the global franchise in the first place. Not coincidentally, removal being strong, AOE prevalence, and summons being generally advantageous removal trades were all common complaints during Chapters.
The reason that Rikku and Dadaluma (as opposed to other core cards of their respective decks) bit the bullet in the end is that they are two cards that actively promote playing a game with fewer characters. Rikku performs this by acting as a way to win the game (by virtue of not losing when decks run dry) without having to do damage, and consequently without having to play characters (mostly in the way of Forwards) in a majority of games. Dadaluma performed a similar job punishing Forwards by removing Forwards at unparalleled CP efficiency with Cactuar pings. Though objectively speaking not a win condition all by itself, when removal is that efficient your opponent essentially doesn’t get to play a game with their characters, and the characters you use to actually win the game basically don’t matter (and are some of the most often bitched about cards in the game, including Veritas of the Dark and Zidane).
Now, why were the cards banned as opposed to some other form of adjustment? in terms of game balance, the following tools are the most popular among TCGs:
- Banning cards
By far the most popular option across other TCGs, but mostly definitely not ideal as it tends to frustrate players who own the card (whether for monetary or sentimental reasons) and often only bandages problems rather than fixing them at the root.
- Nerfing cards
Normally not a feasible option for physical TCGs as it leads to cards not doing what they have written on them, increasing the burden of knowledge for players. Notably Yu-Gi-Oh! has taken this approach with old banned cards being nerfed and coming back as limited.
- Set Rotation
Another popular option that normally takes up in a game after a certain amount of sets have been released. The biggest problem with this option is splitting up the playerbase between multiple formats with little to no overlap. This tends to be a popular option among competitive players and those that have migrated from long-term MTG play, but is understandably a very difficult thing to implement with such a small playerbase already, ignoring other factors such as the difficulty of designing around yet another (a fourth!) competitive format in mind.
- Power Creep
The most volatile option on the list from a design perspective. A lot of games crumble from not knowing how to dial this knob properly, but when used properly can be one of the most powerful tools available by allowing players more freedom in how they choose to play the game via healthy and consistent injections of new combos, archetypes, and playstyles.
In most cases we see a mix of these tools being applied to try and appease as many parts of the playerbase as possible. Hearthstone uses both set rotation and nerfing cards (recently buffing as well), Weiss Schwarz uses power creep and banning en masse, and MTG uses set rotation, banning, and limiting depending on the format. So, why did HJ end up using bans to fix the Rikku and Dadaluma problems? If you remember our “character game philosophy”, it seems clear that banning as few cards as possible (in this case a single card) and power creep are basically the only decent options.
Nerfing cards, while great from a gameplay balance perspective in theory, is an absolute practical nightmare because of how much confusion and cheating (both unintentional and intentional) it causes. Set rotation will move a good chunk of your playable characters out of the game and isolate the players who are only interested because they wanna play their Cloud deck. Power creep is another option, but after the rampant power creep from Chapters it seems that the dev team is reluctant to release more than a few good cards at a time, which may change as the team as a whole matures (as opposed to only Shota and Kageyama). Banning a handful of cards at once would certainly stir up the metagame, but also not a great options as more characters (in this case maybe Y’shtola, beloved by so many) may eat the bullet and detract players from being able to play the ones they like.
This is all to say that simply, the reason that bans are implemented the way they are is that, under current constraints, this is the only way that HJ can realistically make any changes on the game’s metagame balance without setting an alarming precedent for casual and casual-competitive players. The primary draw of the game is at odds with most of the tools that the developers have to interact with the metagame directly, and that’s why changes tend to be few and far between as well as why even the smallest changes result in direct mini-apologies from Kageyama on Twitter. I too hope for the day that Final Fantasy has a playerbase large and dedicated enough to support the incidental damage caused by large, sweeping changes such as stricter bannings and set rotation, but I’m not holding my breath, and I wouldn’t advise you to either.