“Empower: When your opponent takes damage, effect increases for the turn.”
Sometimes the search for the right mechanic begins with the needs of another one. The story of the Aldmeri Dominion’s Empower mechanic starts with the context created by the Alliance War’s first designed mechanic, the Guildsworn’s Expertise:
“Expertise: Bonus effect at the end of your turn if you played an action, item or support.”
One of the first jumping off points was to look at the card types that fueled Expertise and see how the set would handle them. We thought, ideally the triads in the set that shared classes with the Guildsworn (Strength/Intelligence/Willpower) should also be triggering Expertise on a regular basis. Wouldn’t it be nice if the mechanics themselves played well together?
The Daggerfall Covenant (Strength/Intelligence/Endurance) which shares Battlemage (Strength/Intelligence) with the Guildsworn felt like a natural place to try an Item mechanic (which became Mobilize). The Aldmeri Dominion (Intelligence/Willpower/Agility) which shares the Mage class (Intellgence/Willpower) with the Guildsworn began with a general exploration of actions and ultimately became Empower.
“Actions” as a design goal was a pretty wide net. Certainly we were going to include actions anyway, so how would this help our search for the Dominion mechanic? The next step was to make some constraints and examine how actions are already used in the game.
One Mage triad already existed from Houses of Morrowind. The “good stuff” version Tribunal has a reputation for providing reactive and removal-heavy gameplay. We had already played enough general games with the new triads to see what a “good stuff” version of the Dominion might be regardless of our new mechanic. How could this new Mage triad engage with actions without feeding into more of the same? Could we provide incentives for more proactive play patterns?
We shifted within the triad to emphasize Assassin (Intelligence/Agility) and Monk (Agility/Willpower) more than Mage. We examined the more aggressive elements; dealing damage - often with creatures, sometimes directly. We also looked at the groups that make up the Aldmeri Dominion for inspiration, especially the High Elves and Khajiit (less so the Wood Elves, which seem to be a bit more reactive).
Some early concepts lived in the 0-cost action space, using trinkety spells like Completed Contracts and Curses. Unfortunately, nothing we designed there really struck our fancy. Next, we looked at the typically-Khajiit mechanic Pilfer. In what space does Pilfer play with actions?
A promising early prototype for the action mechanic included actions that could attach to creatures (at a higher alternative cost) like a custom Pilfer ability. With each instance of future damage from that creature, that action could be played again and again. It had potential, but once the designs went from paper to our test games we immediately found a big problem (other than Lillandril Hexmage infinite loops).
The new mechanic created a constant stream of undesirable snowball effects and mini-games where removing and protecting the build-a-Pilfer creature became the only thing that mattered. This was especially true of sticky creatures, of creatures in lanes that were abandoned and of weak creatures that now needed premium removal to stop them. It was difficult to find reasonable and appealing recurring effects that didn’t completely warp the game. We wanted the mechanic to affect the game, certainly, but we didn’t want it to define every game. Back to the drawing board.
A breakthrough came when we transferred the spirit of Pilfer from the creature to the action itself. What if instead of making the creature better with the action, we made the action better with the creature? Another important breakthrough came when we stripped the necessity of creatures from the equation entirely. The mechanic expanding to any damage brought a lot more cards into the discussion. This felt like a great place to explore! Off to the races!
The next challenge was: if we wanted the actions to be variable, what should those variables be?
Some early card pitches for Empower proved to be perfect matches. Spoils of War and Channeled Storm, using fairly common knobs as variables, were pitched in the first few hours of the discussion and remained unchanged throughout testing.
Beyond cost and damage, other effects didn’t play as well with our new mechanic. Here are some examples of the problem cases we ran into:
Attack sequencing: Imagine a simple action that gives all of your existing creatures +1/+1 with Empower: +1/+1. With this action, it becomes very difficult to sequence, since it tells you to attack with lots of your creatures to increase the Empower total, but not all of them. You’d want to hold back a few attackers to have them use the benefit this turn. This led to very complicated situations, especially when boards got wide. When we narrowed the stat increase to one creature, the card ended up being too burst-y, almost like one large direct damage action. Result: not great.
Natural limitations on variables: Imagine another action that summons a 1/1 creature with Empower: +1 additional creature. This action would immediately be limited by the space available in your lanes. This could be really frustrating if you were triggering Empower with lots of small creatures; if you lived the dream for a really high Empower number, you often got less output, not more. That’s not living the dream at all. We also tried putting the output creatures in your hand instead, but then we ran into the hand limit! Results: again, not great.
One of the most appealing things we found about Empower was living that dream. You want to see that number growing. You want to make it get as high as possible and scream from the top of Chalman Keep, “ta-da, I did it!” In game design circles, that is sometimes referred to as a Fiero moment. Anything that fought against that feeling was kind of a bummer.
We ultimately found several variables that we thought turned out great! And even though Empower proved to be one of the more difficult mechanics to design around in the set, we think it gave us both the rewarding play pattern and the link to the other Alliance War mechanics that we were after.
The real test will be how it plays in the real world. I’m excited to hear from the players as to which Empower cards you like best. How big of a creature were you able to Wish for? How many swings did you get with Volendrung because of Alchemy? Also, what types of Empower variables would you like to see in the future? We value your Expertise.