Even in my absence through most of the last Guild Wars 2 beta weekend event, I still lurked on plenty of community sites where I could. The two most prominent complaints I saw were about progression, namely weapon skill unlocking and major trait tiers. We’ve already covered weapon skill unlocks, and I think the most elegant change would be to change it to skill usage instead of critter death. It will be interesting to see the iteration that Jon Peters, ArenaNet dev, hints at. So, that leaves us with major trait tiers.
ArenaNet already put forth a pretty solid argument on why this current iteration is necessary. What I find interesting is that now traits mirror skills a whole lot more. There are 5-basic skills, 3 more complex, more powerful utility skills, and 1 elite skill, and there are 6 basic traits, 4 mid-level traits, and 2 “elite” traits. Also at the top end only one elite skill or elite trait can be slotted.
Long ago in the days of Guild Wars 1, it was stated many times that Magic the Gathering was a guide to how the skill system was designed. They brought up the collectible aspect many times as well as the need to build a skill deck with only a few of many possibilities. While the Guild Wars 2 system is farther away in terms of build creation in that a large portion of the deck is built for the player with weapon skills, it is much closer in terms of rarity.
Rarity in Magic the Gathering is not simply a way to get more money from the addictive gambling aspect of opening up booster packs of random cards. There is significant design involved in placing the correct cards with the correct power in each tier of rarity. Check out the uncommon Serra Angel versus the mythic rare Baneslayer Angel. They cost the same to cast, but the rarer card is way more powerful in numbers and amount of techincal words. There is a game design reason for this.
The first, as ArenaNet mentioned, is opportunity cost. In Limited formats for Magic the Gathering, players only get a pool of cards from booster packs. They will only get to slot so many higher rarity cards in their decks, and it is critical to make the correct decision. If no card had a rarity this opportunity cost would be replaced with a huge reliance on player knowledge. It is easy to understand why higher rarity cards are usually more powerful because they are balanced by opportunity cost. In other words, opportunity cost provides guidance. It also provides balance.
My favorite Magic the Gathering article ever is on the balance of tiered rarities in cards. Yet this balance is not so brutal as the difference between a Serra Angel and a Baneslayer Angel. It is actually requires elegant design. Commons are the lifeblood of the design. They are simple and reinforce the base concepts of the color and set theme. Uncommons build on the base that commons have provided by creating more complexity and synergy. Finally the rares are the big bombs that are exciting to play. Without the parsing by rarity, it would be a nightmare for a designer to reinforce these concepts. The baseline for all cards would just above mediocrity since great cards would become statistical fliers.
ArenaNet also mentioned the slope of downward excitement to 30. At 10 points, it is most exciting because players get the most powerful trait. At 30 points it becomes more of a decision of which trait does the player have to choose. It would be like opening a booster and seeing the rare card on top. The other 14 cards can immediately become as exciting as garbage. There is a reason Wizards of the Coast puts the rare card near the bottom.
I wonder about players demanding unrestricted traits. Do they not remember the plethora of orphaned skills in Guild Wars 1 that were simply not good enough? Wizards of the Coast has refined a tiered design structure to a science, and applying a similar structure to the traits of Guild Wars 2 seems preferable to me. I think that the design of traits in Guild Wars 2 could really benefit from this structure.