Imbroglio’s Izu Mode is the way forward for deckbuilding

Deckbuilding games have a long and successful history. People love customizing their experience and trying to find the best possible deck. If you look at the most popular strategy games today, a huge portion have customization. The best, in my mind, is Imbroglio’s Izu mode.

As most game designers know, the “classic” MTG model has a large weakness in the post-internet era. Players copy other players’ decks, making small improvements. This iterative process from the “hive-mind”  rapidly solves a format, to the point that a game like Magic needs incredible amounts of content to stay fresh. Even with hundreds and hundreds of new cards being printed, formats still get noticeably stale in between releases.

Not everyone can afford to vomit content in the same way that Wizards of the Coast does to maintain Magic. Designers wanting to create smaller customize-able games need more economical solutions. One solution, of course, is to simply refuse to create customizable games. Depending on your taste, this is perfectly valid! But for people that enjoy the process of fine-tuning a “deck”, what’s the best way forward?

A major breakthrough was made in 2008 with Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion. It randomized a “bank” of available cards, then had players build a deck from this limited subset. This approach has been tremendously popular, and is on the right track. Unfortunately, it had some basic flaws that prevented it from obsoleting the MTG model in the way Vaccarino had intended:

  1. Everyone started with the same boring deck. Boring!
  2. Making customization in-game limited how different final decks could end up. In Dominion, your final deck ended up being maybe 20 cards, with a few cards different from your opponents. This is a far cry from the level of customization available in a game like MTG, where two players can start turn 1 with completely different 60-card decks.
  3. Part of the fun of a customizable game is discussing “builds” among players. When the bank is randomized each game, it’s hard for a community to build around the game to talk about building things together. Usually at most you could only talk about general power levels, which isn’t as fun as showing off a cool deck you just made.

A great compromise I’ve found has been Imbroglio’s Izu mode. It’s the way forward for customizable games.

Michael Brough’s Imbroglio released to some fanfare last year. In it, players would construct “boards” to take into battle and compete on a global leaderboard. Unfortunately, it suffered the same problem as most customizable games. People iterated on each other’s boards and quickly arrived at working “solutions”, and soon mostly identical boards were populating the top of the leaderboard. The fact that the game released with 8 different characters helped with this somewhat, but within a month or two, every character had a working solution. At this point, there wasn’t much reason to try innovating, and players lost interest.

As a result, it’s sad but perhaps understandable that a comparatively smaller amount of attention was paid to Imbroglio’s follow-up expansion, Ossuary. In it, Brough added “Izu mode”, which has considerably helped with the game’s longevity.

Izu mode works as a sort of hybrid between the Dominion and MTG models. Every 4 days, a new “bank” of available options is generated from a larger pool of tiles for players to construct boards with. They then compete for highscores, which also reset every 4 days. This provides a good compromise of providing customization while still ensuring that the game remains relatively unsolved. It does not take long to find the best board with a given amount of options. However, it takes considerably longer to find the best board for every subset of options, and Izu mode exploits this well.

At the beginning of the period, several viable decks are tried out, and you can see a number of different approaches at the top of the leaderboard. At the end, a specific variant has been found to be the best, and users start adopting this board more and more. Fortunately, this is right around the time when the mode gets reset and players must reoptimize.

Usually, there’s a tension in games between “variety” and “quality”. Do you give a lot of low-quality content to improve variety, or do you add a small amount of quality content, but settle for low variety? Imbroglio finds a healthy mix of letting its “quality-minded” content go far in terms of providing the player with a large variety of game states.

It’s easy to see how a MTG-style game could benefit from taking a similar approach. Rather than trying to race player tendency to solve formats with more and more content, simply randomizing a “bank” of cards for players to construct decks in a given week would allow for a “customizable” game to go farther on a much smaller amount of content.


2 thoughts on “Imbroglio’s Izu Mode is the way forward for deckbuilding

  1. Interesting discussion. But I felt it was worth pointing out that the idea of playing with decks made from limited pools predates Dominion, and not by some obscure game but by Magic The Gathering itself.
    While most players play the casual 60 card decks “format”, “limited” formats (ones where you improvise a deck from limited pools) are some of the most popular sanctioned event formats, with most MTG-event hosting game stores having at least one of such type of event each week and is often their most consistently offered event type. It is even common for major competitive events to be in a limited format. This has been going on since the 90s, and the vast majority of MTG sets ever designed have been designed with enjoyable limited play being a major consideration. However in MTG all these formats have deck-building as a sort of pregame phase, and then you play your matches, where to my understanding Dominion has it as an on-going process. I actually find that this segregation in MTG is a little annoying because I found deckbuilding a much more strategically hard task than actually playing with your now built deck. I’d go into these events enjoying the start but often found myself getting bored of the actual matches which were generally 3 best-of-3s so you’d generally spend like 2 hours all up on all your matches. These matches are often very samey since MTG encourages decks to be made to have one plan because decks with multiple paths to victory are generally just not as consistent or as fast as decks that go all-in on one idea. So I actually find the idea of customisation happening during the course of the game itself more interesting than having it all upfront. I could ramble about MTG and my issues with it for hours but I’ll stop there. I hope this was a somewhat informative or an interesting perspective regardless of agreement.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember an old MMO called Guild Wars. To some degree the design was inspired mostly by card games; you had a number of skills you knew, but could only slot a bar of 8 at a time. Given this, people would make their own game modes, doing things like picking specific bars (and items/etc) to play games. So the devs sometimes made them into minigames or pvp modes.

    One mode, which came about from people playing sealed, was a mode called Codex ( Every day, a new subset of the skills were made available to players, along with a small number of core skills. I loved playing it, it had so much more variety, and players who weren’t into the most competitive formats could really enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

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