Design: An interview with AceJon

Today on echobase we have an interview with fellow Brit AceJon who has been a part of the ARH design team for the latest release High Stakes. We ask a few questions. He answers in depth. Let’s delve into the design process:

echo3
How did you get involved in the design team? Once in the team were you delegated a focus? Faction/characters/events etc.? Talk us through how you became a member of ARH.

AceJon
So that’s actually an interesting question. I think most of the design team joined back when ARH started. There was an application process, you had to send off some spec designs, talk about your most favourite and least favourite FFG cards, and so on. My wife was pregnant at the time so I kind of just assumed I would be too busy, and I didn’t apply.
When ARH‘s first set Faltering Allegiances was released, I found myself with more time for projects than I realised. The influx of card designs inspired me and I quickly decided I wanted to have a go. Over the course of around 2 days, I made a tribute fan set, Unfaltering Allegiances, with around 100 cards. Both the speed and apparent quality caught the eye of Agent of Zion and a few others on the team, and I was approached to join the design team and work on the third set – this was around the time Redemption was being spoiled.

A selection of cards from acejon’s Unfaltering Allegiances fan set.


Once on the team, myself and the others picked for ARH3 were briefed by aaronchpmn with goals for the set, a loose skeleton for the cards including particular characters that should be made, and were asked to claim two “factions” to head up. I threw my hat in for Blue Hero and Gray Hero/Neutral/Villain. Heading up those factions just meant taking responsibility for it; anyone could pitch a card for any faction and the whole team would discuss all card ideas.
As well as my factions, I had an idea of getting some cute, simple plots and battlefields into the mix, which aaronchpmn immediately picked up on and told me to run with. One of the reasons I was asked to join the team was my eye for keeping cards simple, so plots and battlefields were a great design space to explore.

examples of simple and effective plots from High Stakes

echo3
When designing a character, do you start with the name of the character, dice, health, points, ability?
What’s the typical philosophy and order of process?

AceJon
For card approach, it’s a mixed bag. For Blue Hero, we knew we wanted Ahsoka, and possibly Grogu if we could make it work. aaronchpmn also asked for Ki-Adi-Mundi. After that, we knew we wanted to play with the Renew mechanic, and in the set skeleton there was a slot for a non-unique Blue Hero character. So some of the cards started as “let’s make Ahsoka”, and some of them started as “what’s an interesting Renew card? How can we play with that mechanic?” It was similar for the other factions, with characters like Din on the docket and “blanks matter” for Blue Villain.

Grogu & Ahsoka final character iterations – characters that we’re predestined to be included within High Stakes

Each card began as a forum post, with a pitch of a completed or mostly completed card design. Then, others on the team would come in with questions, suggestions or challenges. Some cards had more than one pitch (forum post), the most heavily debated card being Grogu. Some cards didn’t make the cut, and a few were pushed forward for a future set. Other cards would appear as a forum post, and get quick approval – “great design, send it to playtest”. This was rare!
Ki-Adi-Mundi was my pitch, and I mentioned to aaronchpmn ahead of time that I thought he’d be a great character to play with the Renew mechanic – he told me he was thinking the same thing! He was also part of a totally broken combo I’d missed that the playtesters found – his original Power Action would get any Blue upgrade from the discard. This meant with Grogu, you could tutor any Blue ability and discard it, then fish it out with KAM round 1. Whoops! aaronchpmn shared the playtesters’ catch with me privately, and we came up with a solution together, which is how KAM is printed now

Ki-Adi-Mundi & Dissuade.

echo3
There’s a very clear and new faction identity to Hero Force within High Stakes. That identity is with the keyword Renew (I know there’s a neutral blue event in Makashi Riposte but the rest are only found in hero). Renew only appearing on Force cards – was this a decision made up front that it would be exclusive to Force?

AceJon
So with Renew, that was part of aaronchpmn’s original skeleton for the set. We knew from the off that it would be tied to factions, at least for this set – let’s not rule anything out in the future. The original idea was that Blue Hero would have it, representing the patience of the light side, “no one’s ever really gone”, etc.
Renew was also going to be found in Red Villain, as a way for the calculating Empire or First Order to salvage vehicles or surprise opponents with a trap, but as the set began to shape up, we went in a different direction for that faction. Some of those “discard matters” ideas stuck around in cards like Danger Close, Rewritten History and Intel Breach. Moff Gideon and Dr Pershing also follow in the theme of putting cards into play in unusual ways.

echo3
There’s also another new identity to hero blue: a collective reward for discarding cards from top of deck or hand. Prime example here is with the support Renewal which works beautifully with Seeing Stone, Grogu, I Sense a Trap and Forest Clearing – the other reward from such cards include gaining shields. Talk us through the decision making in creating these new synergies between these cards?

AceJon
“Self-mill” is a natural mechanical partner to Renew, as one fills the discard while the other plays from it. It’s been a lot of fun coming up with card combinations using those mechanics, and with the mill archetype still a good distance from the “meta”, this set has been a great place to experiment with it.

Synergies – Renewal triggers with Seeing Stone, I Sense A Trap, Grogu & Forest Clearing


My approach to design has always been “how can we capture our intent in the simplest way?” and that’s what you see with cards like Renewal and Seeing Stone. Renewal itself is great for the work of simplifying self-mill cards, and it’s an easy design (it’s Scrap Heap, in reverse!). If a player includes Renewal, we know they will want to include cards like Seeing Stone or I Sense a Trap. Because the benefit comes from Renewal, we don’t have to write in extra benefits on the other cards
.

echo3
When do you realize that a card isn’t quite right? Does that come from playtesting?

AceJon
Some cards don’t hit the mark, and it can be caught anywhere in the pipeline. There was a Blue Hero healing event with Renew that didn’t make the cut because of how much healing is already accessible in Blue. There were some great cards, especially in Yellow Hero, that couldn’t fit because we needed to fill slots with more “Mandalorian” content. Cards like that get pushed forward for the design team of the next set to consider.
Other cards are caught in playtesting, like you suggest – either they’re too weak or strong to be easily amended, or more likely, just not exciting to put into a deck. You can make a perfectly balanced card that nobody wants to play, and playtesting catches those pretty well.
Catching these cards, as well as amending ones that do make it into the set, highlight how much of a team effort it is. As cards were being spoiled over the past month or so, I was reminded of the discussions the design team had, what the original pitch of each card was, and how it changed after playtesting, too. A lot of the resource costs and dice values of the cards I pitched were changed – getting those numerical values down to the right spot in terms of balance is definitely my personal weak point, so I’m glad I can kind of leave those discussions to the people with the brains for that.

echo3
We’ve seen an influx in ‘corresponding dice’ (Ahsoka Tano, Gamorreans, Grand Inquisitor’s Lightsaber, Force Crush, Han Solo with Veteran Stormtrooper dice & Darksaber). Is this a decision that is made prior to character or upgrade design, so you’re challenged with ‘Here’s the die sides, what can the card do?’. Or is it a decision made after card design and it’s a case of ‘We could use the Corresponding die for that’?

AceJon
Really, it follows from the card idea first – so for instance, when I’m coming up with an idea for Ahsoka, part of that decision making is “we have an out-of-rotation Ahsoka, can I use that die?”. We want to respect people’s collections, so when we can find an existing die that fits in terms of power and art (as it can confusing if the art isn’t similar), we try to use that. As far as I’m aware, no design has started with “how can we use this die”, but dice considerations are all part of that first-stage pitch. It’s probably not surprising to say that Ahsoka’s Lightsaber started as a parallel die from the old Shoto Lightsaber, but the team found the Shoto sides underwhelming in today’s meta for a 2-cost upgrade.

echo3
Talk to me about the Falcon – it’s Blue. So this falls in your remit…

AceJon
The Falcon was indeed my pitch; of course, others had critique and help refine the design. Where we landed, it’s clearly not a meta-shaking card, but that’s a really fun space to come into, design-wise. Personally I think it’s got just as much right to be Blue as R2-D2 did in terms of theme, and right now I’d call this a “theme” card. The fun comes when designers of a future set come to make something that could interact with it. A new Rey? More support for rainbow vehicles? One or two new cards could suddenly make this a contender. But as it stands now, I’m happy where it is – not every new die card should be pushing the meta. I’m glad that we can have cards that aren’t immediately seen in top decks – especially in a time where people aren’t opening individual booster packs and hoping to get maximum value there.

echo3
Whats your favourite card you’ve designed so far?

AceJon
So I’ve mentioned this before and I will say it again, the whole design process is extremely collaborative, so it’s a bit of a misnomer to call any card “my” design. Even though some cards remained effectively unchanged from pitch to print, it still had to be considered by the rest of the design team, tested by the play testers, edited by Gandork and paired with evocative art from the production & art teams.
With all that said, I think my favourite pitched card has been our set-title plot, High Stakes. Like the Falcon, it’s probably not going to see much action at the top tables, but it’s such an exciting card to bring to the table – especially if it’s on your opponent’s side! It’s 9 words long, can fit into any 29 point deck running Yellow, and warps the mulligan and first round in a fascinating way. For me, it’s the epitome of casual play.

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