I’ve seen an unfortunate trend start to pop up in collectible games recently: rarity indicating balance. Many collectible games are trying to establish the trend that more rare options (whether they are cards, heroes, or anything else) can, and sometimes even should, be more powerful than their more common counterparts. This is a damaging idea that I’d like to address. Rarity should be independent of balance.
For the sake of this article, I’m going to refer to the collectible component of the game as cards, as that is the most common media. However, realize that anything with a similar collectible component falls under the arguments I present. I’m also going to assume that there is some kind of competitive multiplayer component to the game, as almost every collectible game has such.
First, let’s break down exactly what rarity does in a game. The point of rarity is to provide that feeling of excitement to players when they acquire it. When you have a variation of rarity, you make it more exciting for rarer cards to be acquired. It also serves to artificially inflate the amount of resources that a player has to spend collecting cards in the game. These are good things, as they keep player interest longer. Even from a player’s perspective they can be good, as they keep the player excited and give them something more to strive for in your game.
However, what is also important is a healthy metagame. At the end of the day, multiplayer is one of (if not the) best option to provide a game with long life. Multiplayer will keep player interest far beyond what single player options will. In order for this multiplayer to retain players, it must be perceived as fair.
And therein lies the rub. If a game employs a collectible component, and the rarer components are simply more powerful, it breaks that core fairness component. Obviously this is a spectrum, rather than a simple yes/no flag. But the more powerful the rarer cards are, the more pay to win the game is going to be. The more dramatic the effect, the more damaging it will be to the game.
If it shouldn’t be related to balance, what should rarity do? Complexity. Cards that introduce new mechanics, or break core mechanics, are perfect candidates for being more rare. The more game-breaking (as in, different from the norm, not power) they are, the more rare they should be. This serves two purposes. One, it gates newer players away from more complicated mechanics. This provides a more natural learning curve for the players. Two, it provides an excitement to gain new mechanics as you collect more cards, giving you more options and breathing fresh life into the game.