Choose Your Allegiance: The Power of Factions in Card Games

As I’ve talked about in the past, balancing games is really hard. And while that’s true for all games, card games in particular are very tricky to balance. Often cards games will feature dozens if not hundreds of unique cards, all of which could have unintended game-breaking interactions with one another. As a designer, you need a way to keep specific cards separated while still providing players with the freedom to make whatever decks they want to play. Thankfully, there’s a simple design trick that does just that: factions!

What Are Factions?


Source.Source.

Put simply, a Faction is an identifier used to distinguish, separate, and/or organize different cards from one another. Usually, factions will have their own unique strengths, weaknesses, mechanics, and/or resources. Some examples of factions include Magic: the Gathering’s colors, Hearthstone’s classes, and the Pokémon TCG’s energy types. A game can have any number of factions, but the sweet spot for most games tends to be around 3-8.

There can be many benefits to using factions in your game, but the key ones are..

  • Improved Balance: If multiple cards would have game-breaking interactions with one another, you can split them up between multiple factions so that they can’t be easily used together.

  • Clearer Deckbuilding: Asking a new player to build a deck out of only 1-3 factions is much less intimidating than asking them to build a deck from every single card in the game.

  • Distinct Strategies: By restricting certain mechanics to only specific factions, you can carve our distinct identities for each of them. For example, one faction could have mostly small cheap cards, while another has mostly big expensive cards.

  • Increased Variety: Restricting which factions players can use forces them to pick a wider range of cards within those factions, rather than just taking the objectively strongest cards in the game and putting them all into the same deck.

What Is Faction Mixing?

Once you’ve split your cards up between multiple factions you need to decide what restrictions you want them to have. Specifically, Faction Mixing refers to how multiple factions can or cannot be used together within the same deck. In general, there are three main ways that you can do this…

Option 1: Unrestricted Mixing
(e.g. Magic: the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokémon TCG, Dominion, Ascension)


Photo by  Ryan Quintal  on  UnsplashPhoto by  Ryan Quintal  on  Unsplash

First we have unrestricted mixing. Unrestricted Mixing refers to when any number of factions can be used freely in the same deck. Players could make a deck using only a single faction, or they could make a deck using ALL THE FACTIONS!!! This type of mixing is best for promoting deckbuilding, as players are given free reign to make their decks using whatever cards they want. To help balance this method, many games with unrestricted mixing will require players to spend faction-specific resources to play cards from that faction (e.g. Blue mana vs. Red mana in Magic: the Gathering). This helps tone down the consistency of multi-faction decks while still allowing Johnnies to pull off their cool combos.

Option 2: Limited Mixing
(e.g. Legends of Runeterra, Arkham Horror LCG)


Screenshot+%285%29.jpgScreenshot+%285%29.jpg

Limited Mixing is when players can combine multiple factions together in the same deck, but there are limitations on how or which factions can be used together. For example, Legends of Runeterra allows players to use a maximum of two regions in their deck, but players can choose whichever two factions they want. While this doesn’t give the same amount of freedom as unrestricted mixing, it still gives players plenty of opportunities to make unique and creative decks. Though you will need to keep a close eye on balance when limited mixing, thankfully you only need to focus on a few multi-faction combinations rather than all of them.

Option 3: Restricted Mixing
(e.g. Hearthstone, Slay the Spire)


Hearthstone+Screenshot+12-22-20+19.14.20.jpgHearthstone+Screenshot+12-22-20+19.14.20.jpg

Finally we have Restricted Mixing, which is when cards from different factions cannot be used in the same deck at all. In terms of balance this method is by far the safest, as you never need to worry about multi-faction interactions. The drawback is that this method is very restrictive on deckbuilding and risks making each faction’s decks feel very similar to each other. To give players more options, many games with restricted mixing will feature a “neutral” or “factionless” set of cards which can be combined with any faction. This gives players a little bit more freedom as well as access to some fundamental card effects they might want in their deck regardless of faction (e.g. card draw).

Each method of faction mixing comes with its own pros and cons, so there’s not really a right way to do it. There are many games that have been successful using any of these methods. At the end of the day, which method is best for you depends on what kind of game you want. If you want your players to be as free as possible, maybe go with unrestricted mixing. If balance is your main concern, considering going for a more conservative approach and adding in some limitations. At the end of the day, focus on what’s going to be best for your players and the rest will follow. Good luck!

Thanks for reading! If you wanna learn more about the card game we’re designing, come join our Discord to get early access to our secret playtests. If you want to read more about games, check out the rest of our blog!

Latest posts