Variance and You

zack hine"Variance is good."

Wizards of the Coast staffers made known their love of cards like [ccProd]Bottle of Wishes[/ccProd] in no uncertain terms during the Q&A Session at the first Kaijudo Championship. The designers and developers that work tirelessly to bring us this great game all agree that "luck based" cards are essential to Kaijudo, provided that they are fun.

Oh boy. That wasn't what a lot of top players wanted to hear.

Bad beat stories abound. Competitors could find no solace but to throw their hands in the air and attempt to mock Wizards' position on the matter. Audible screams of "variance!" broke out whenever a [ccProd]Bottle of Wishes[/ccProd] revealed itself in shields. Some were even incensed that their "once great game" was being polluted by such nonsense as a turn 2 [ccProd]Infernus the Awakened[/ccProd]!

Is our game irreparably damaged until WotC changes its position on this matter?

Of course not.

Why Variance Is Necessary

Variance is good because variance is what makes TCGs...well, TCGs.

Many of us are drawn to games like Kaijudo because we revel in the opportunity to be able to achieve instant gratification for our creativity. We want to play with an understood set of rules and guidelines, but do things differently than our opponents. We want to pull off moves others can't even attempt. We want to be recognized for our innovation! And yeah, sure, we also like the over-the-top pictures of giant angry monsters.

These are all reasons why we're playing TCGs and not chess. In chess, there's no variance at all. In TCGs, there are "optimal plays," but the optimal play is often obfuscated behind a cloud of variance.

Variance is necessary because players can't arrive at any sort of satisfaction with their deckbuilding or playstyle unless they assume the risks associated with TCGs. If you want to beat your opponent in a way their deck isn't equipped to deal with, then you also better be ready to navigate the murky waters when your randomized pile decides to brick. 

Why Variance Is Good

Sometimes you'll draw your perfect curve and have an impenetrable row of shield blasts. Sometimes you'll lose a duel before you're even able to get on the board. Such is the nature of TCGs. The ultimate goal for any player, then, knowing that he or she can never guarantee arrival at the former extreme, is to mitigate the eventuality of the latter extreme as much as humanly possible. 

We choose to play a game with hundreds (or even thousands) of unique pieces. We hand pick a small subset of these available pieces, and then attempt to arrive at a winning result more consistently than our opponents, who are also playing a subset of pieces that we can only speculate about. Everything we do -- from deckbuilding philosophies, to metagame calls, to tech choices, to playstyle -- is an attempt to make some sort of sense out of this chaos. Anyone who has played TCGs for an extended period of time will take this as a no-brainer.

The issue that plagues a lot of talented players, though, is something that they don't want to face: for a TCG to be successful, a talented player will need to lose to a less talented player at times, through no fault of their own. If being a self-appointed "tournament player" meant that you were impervious to the beating that Red Rush can dish out, then we'd see rapidly dwindling attendance at KMCs. Budget players and casual players will lose to tournament players by a staggering margin over an extended period of time, but in a given best-of-one game? Those "lesser" players should have a shot in the dark at pulling out a W.

Consider how popular Texas Hold'Em is. Consider how many recognizable faces there are at the top tables time after time, making a consistent profit. Now consider how many times those same pros have lost to strictly inferior players who runner-runnered the nuts. Do those Poker pros bash the game and give up? No. They keep grinding, knowing that if they do the right thing a large enough percentage of the time, they will be rewarded over the long stretch.

Why Variance (Can Be) Fun 

Reminisce about your most memorable TCG story. Whatever comes off the top of your head.

I'm willing to bet it wasn't the time you slowly ground out advantage over the course of two or three turns. Or the time that sneaky two-for-one you sprang allowed you to take control four turns later.

No, the best TCG stories are the times you topdecked the one silver bullet in your deck that allowed you to pull off a spectacular comeback. Or the time your opponent had one out left in their deck and robbed you of a surefire victory. These wins and losses are burned into your brain because of their sheer improbability! These games elicit cheers from spectators! These games get brand new players to take a look at the game to see what all the fuss is about!

These stories will echo through the halls of game stores for years, essentially becoming tall tales.

Take this classic video for example:

You don't need to know what those cards do (or even how to play Magic) to find that outcome exhilarating. TCGs need moments like this to be possible.

Bottle of Wishes Is An Extreme Case

Brian Durkin won his round one in the Kaijudo Championship because his last remaining Bottle in shields flipped his last remaining [ccProd]Squillace Scourge[/ccProd] off the top of the deck, and then his opponent whiffed twice with two [ccProd]Feral Scaradorable[/ccProd] flips! The sheer audacity, right? I mean, Brian had no business winning that game, right?

Of course he did. It was in the late game. The threat of drawing Scourge was there for a number of turns, and he could have done that and won in a "legitimate" way. Instead, [ccProd]Bottle of Wishes[/ccProd] allowed the game to arrive at a plausible conclusion through implausible means. Brian proceeded to tell the story to multiple players over the course of the day, and each person was in disbelief. This is a prime example as to how [ccProd]Bottle of Wishes[/ccProd] can be one of the most fun cards in the game. It was a beating for his opponent, sure, but all it did was allow a card known for hosing slow decks to do its thing at an appropriately late time in the game.

Zachary Mirman tore through the swiss rounds of the Championship with Drakons, but in the top 8, he cracked a Bottle on his first attack and [ccProd]Infernus the Awakened[/ccProd] flipped off the top. Did Zach deserve to lose that game? Was this a "fair" outcome? Again, I say yes, but for a different reason. Given the very nature of Kaijudo and the way shield blasts work, if you sleeve up a rush deck, you know going in that you might get wrecked by the right blasts at the right time. Now, Bottle into Awakened or Andromeda on the first break is an extreme example of this kind of beating that essentially ends the game the second it happens, but the fact remains that there will always be combinations of blasts that can drop rush dead in their tracks. Bottle just happens to be very on-the-nose about it.

Please take note: this article is NOT an argument for [ccProd]Bottle of Wishes[/ccProd] as a "healthy" competitive card. If Wizards starts designing a slew of cards that can swing the game as wildly as Bottle, then we have a problem. It's a shame that their first real foray into creating a competitive card with a lot of variance was one as blunt as [ccProd]Bottle of Wishes[/ccProd], because it has people thinking about variance the wrong way. Trust me -- if you lost a game you had in the bag in the top 4 of a KMC because of a bogus Bottle, I feel for you. If Wizards of the Coast were to take an extreme stance and forbid [ccProd]Bottle of Wishes[/ccProd] from tournament play, I wouldn't be opposed.

That being said, the spirit of design that led to Bottle's creation is very much a positive thing for Kaijudo. Maybe there should have been a cap on creature level. Maybe it shouldn't have been a shield blast. Those things don't matter at this point. Step away from the bad beat stories and the salt for a second.

Yeah, Bottle is a maddening card, but I'm seeing people lamenting the design behind cards like [ccProd]Kurrugar of the Hordes[/ccProd] and even the newly-spoiled Borran, the Reality Shaper, and it's ridiculous. The next time someone dismissively utters "variance is good," be sure to give them a high five.

Variance isn't synonymous with [ccProd]Bottle of Wishes[/ccProd]. 

Variance isn't a dirty word.

It's inherent in TCGs, and it's a necessary component in the type of excitement that they can provide.


The inaugural ARG Circuit Series in Fort Worth, Texas is fast approaching! Get your travel plans lined up now, because this event is going to be insane! A full weekend of top-level Yu-Gi-Oh! and Kaijudo action! A Kaijudo open event with a $1000 prize purse! What are you waiting for? Click here for more information on this great event.

Until next time, Play Hard or Go Home!