Acts of Terrorism – Build Around Me

Acts of Terrorism – Build Around Me

Hello one, hello all, I welcome you to another week of my award-winning column that hasn’t actually won any awards: Acts of Terrorism. Now while you’re all doped up on turkey juice from your Thanksgiving (provided you acknowledge this holiday), sit back and let the smooth sounds of your thought-voice empower your thinking. This week shall be a bit of a light topic that isn’t as crucial to game design as some of my previous ones. This week, I tackle the “build around me” strategies, and why you might want to make use of them.


Yes. Yes you are.

Now before we continue, I need to explain exactly what “build around me” strategies are. Well, it’s as simple as it sounds. Literally, it’s a strategy that you build around. That is, you take one part of a strategy and add parts to it that complement it and drag out its full potential. Think of it as getting an engine to a car, and then building a car around that engine. Now that you have the definition down, let me make it clearer through my legendary patent-pending example usage:

Take this Magic: The Gathering card.


On its own, it’s not very good. There’s cards for the same mana cost cheaper than that which are more powerful, and thus better to use. Just not a remarkable card… that is, until you remove my edit from it.


Now it has Storm. An ability that gets stronger as you play more cards each turn. If you’ve been following my column, you know how mana works by now, so you know there’s naturally a limited amount of spells you can cast each turn. Instantly upon reading and comprehending this card, if your interest is piqued you’re thinking of how to maximize this card’s power. The obvious answer is to fill your deck with cheap cards so you can play many each turn, right? Well your intuition is right for the most part.

Allow me to share with you the typical Grapeshot strategy:



Gitaxian Probe, with its Phyrexian mana, gets around the weakness inherent in your strategy since you don’t need mana to use it, and it allows you to dig into your deck as well as add to the count of how many spells you played in a given turn. Manamorphose addresses the concern of limited mana by adding more mana to your limited mana pool, whilst also replacing itself with a new card you can cast. Pyromancer Ascension and Past in Flames share the same purpose of upping the number of spells you cast each turn, as well as recycling their abilities so you can add more mana and draw more cards.

All of this builds into Grapeshot. You speed through the deck so you can draw it, while giving yourself enough mana and spells cast in a turn so you can hopefully defeat your opponent in one shot. That’s a build around me strategy. Notice how those cards, while good, aren’t great without Grapeshot, and that Grapeshot is equally mundane without those cards.

Now, what does this mean for game design? Well, that’s why I’m here.


Yes it is.

Well it’s obvious, isn’t it? As a game designer, when you create aspects of a game that are innocuous on their own, but can become true monsters when combined with other cards in the right manner, you’re doing two things:

  1. You’re selling future product. Maybe part of a strategy is in the first, and the other part is in the next expansion. People that got the first part of the strategy, driven by a need for completion, will buy the second.
  2. You’re giving players a sense of achievement. In a game, when players can feel like they figured out something that you, the game designer, may not have intended, they get a sense of accomplishment because they feel like they cracked a secret code. A feeling of euphoria is something you want your game to give people that invest time and money into it, both for the players’ happiness and for your game’s future.

Now obviously, that applies to only unnamed strategies. What I mean by that is cards coming together that don’t seem like they were made to be together. For example, note how none of the cards in the aforementioned Grapeshot combo mention “Grapeshot” in any way or in any way reference the art. That makes players feel like they figured out something, as opposed to you simply creating “Grapeshot Probe,” or “Grapeshot Manamorphose,” or “Past in Grapeshot,” or “Grapeshot Ascension.”

Let’s continue to the real meat of this write-up: bosses. Central pieces, or bosses, are the core piece of the strategy that tie it all together. Grapeshot, for example, is the boss of its combo. It takes work, time and effort to bring Grapeshot out to its full potential. The deck would be soulless and far too powerful if Grapeshot was easily called to your hand and thrown around. Indeed, most players don’t even use Grapeshot until they can do 20 damage in one hit. If you could cast it as many times as you’d want, then you’d just do incremental damage, right? Yes, I’m setting us up for when “build around me” cards aren’t done well.

This usually comes in two varieties: the “build around me” isn’t powerful enough to be viable or the “build around me” is too powerful so you don’t actually need to build around it. Let’s start with the easier one.


The only place this jet brings you to is Planet Loser

That card requires you to build your deck around it in including Esper Star Sparrow, Puma, Gairuda and Ironhammer the Giant in your deck. Firstly, D.D. Jet Iron isn’t a powerful card by any stretch of the imagination in a vacuum. Now, when you weigh the cost of playing it, that is, having to use the aforementioned four monsters (who themselves aren’t easily summoned), the payoff just isn’t there. This fails as a build around me card and as a boss.


The first in the new wave of boss monsters.

This is the second kind. As you can see, it requires only that your deck be about machines. Since there are a myriad of powerful Machine-focused decks in Yu-Gi-Oh, you end up with a case where this card is just thoughtlessly thrown into any deck that uses Machines because it is such a powerful and recurring card. There is no cost associated with playing it, which undersells its value as a boss and leads to repetitive, monotonous gameplay. A video game equivalent would be giving a player a rocket launcher in a first-person shooter with infinite ammo while everyone else is running around with dedicated peashooters, but to use the rocket launcher you have to wear brown pants. Why brown pants? Because it’s irrelevant, much like this card’s “cost”.


As you can see, that’s two panels from the original Yu-Gi-Oh manga, on which Konami’s game is based. You see, Marik built his deck entirely around sending Ra to the Graveyard and then reviving it with Monster Reborn. To that end, he filled his deck with cards that made him: draw (so he could find Ra or Monster Reborn), discard cards from his hand or deck (so he could get Ra into the graveyard) and cards that returned Monster Reborn to his hand. Ra’s abilities worked best when it was revived from the Graveyard, and provided powerful effects so you were being rewarded for dedicating your deck to summoning it from there. Yugi and Kaiba each wielded their own Gods, Sky Dragon of Osiris and God of Obelisk, respectively. Comparative to Ra, both of those gods were easily included in any deck, and from a game design perspective, that’s why they’re weaker than Ra. Ra needs you to build a deck around it, and that’s a good way to make a boss.

This isn’t even a design principle exclusive to the original manga. It’s also a concept in the spinoff mangas, where characters will often devote entire strategies to making use of a specific central card in their deck, like this example. It is a wonder, then, that Konami has designed away from this where every boss monster is just a big creature you summon again and again and whose deck can often be used without them.

So what can we take away from all this? Well:

  1. “Build around me” cards help players feel like they’re figuring out game secrets and like their ingenuity matters. Good for your game.
  2. “Build around me” cards can be done wrong really easily when you, the designer, make them too obvious and too powerful.


Yes, all that just for two points. Now go work that Thanksgiving feast out of your body and visit here next week for more from your king.


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