Blessing of Kings took a look at another game design recently, that of Magic the Gathering, and more specifically the posts by Mark Rosewater, a game designer and importantly a player. Firstly I suppose I should explain Magic, basically its a card game with a very strict set of rules, with layers of interaction between the mechanics, but everything is well known. On top of this rules foundation each expansion adds a few new abilities to the cards, such as flying (which lets you only be attacked by other flyers) or other abilities to counter this such as ones to let you block flyers. Again all of the mechanics are known to both players at the start of the game. There is a very active tournament scene, with different types of play environment, the very structured "Standard" where only the last few expansions are allowed to be played (to basically give newer players a chance, and also to stop certain very powerful card interactions / give a theme), extending back to open formats where first turn kills are very certainly possible.
Despite being completely open and literally in many cases being able to tell what is in your opponent's deck from the first card they play the game still falls heavily to chance (though there are mechanics to help mitigate this such as searching for cards in your deck), and knowledge of the rules interactions, yet on the simplest level its a fun game as well, you bring a deck, your opponent does and the best player should stand the best chance of winning. Blizzard got a lot of this in World of Warcraft, the game is fun from the point you start to play, you don't need to know about crushing blows and hit rating, or indeed what your stats mean to level and have fun, once you get to the end game its a lot more important to have a sound foundation of these concepts though, and those that understand them are likely to have a better chance to succeed and progress compared to those who just believe it to be random luck.
The issue then becomes the openness, Magic the Gathering is a closed game, its publishers make the decisions and they are applied, there is a ruling body that makes alterations to cards (and the have rules on what they can and cannot errata, so players can look and see if something is likely to get changed if they want to) and most importantly there is feedback. Its not like the Beta testing we get in WoW, Mark Rosewater keeps a series of articles about the game, its mechanics and the development and life-cycle of the game. This adds very little to the core of the game itself, after all if we don't like it we don't have to play, what it does add however is knowledge that the rules designers are looking at the game and trying to make it fair, to allow multiple archetypes of deck to be viable, and to allow the different formats of tournament a fair shot. Best of all, it means players at the top end of the game know exactly the rules of the world they play within and can use and abuse these in any way they can to win, in Magic there are basically no rules exploits, strange card interactions occasionally but overall if its possible its both legal and fair to do it, and the best bit is, there is often a counter to it.
This is where Blizzard misses out, firstly is the core mechanics of the game, ok they might not want to publish everything and make it quite as clear as Magic, however looking at Elitist Jerks or Maintankadin people theorycraft heavily, run experiments and create working (and mostly accurate) theories about the underlying game mechanics. Each change to the game that is made causes the theorycrafters to run out and start testing, to determine what changed and more importantly what effect this will have on the potential of their characters. In many way Blizzard added a whole other game to the game, trying to work it out.
By not letting us know the rules of the world we work within our chances to be truly effective within it become reduced, and while that doesn't worry your average gamer, those that take an interest, and especially the top end gamers for whom world firsts and server firsts are something that is fun do care do worry. Its not fun getting killed due to a strange mechanic you can't predict would exist, and its especially not fun to get randomly killed even when doing everything right. The suggested removal of crushing blows from WoTLK makes this clear, Blizzard is trying to make the game more tuneable and a more stable environment. Yet is this really productive, we still don't know the underlying mechanics fully and so we are still making best guess theories about things, players don't mind randomness and luck, what they do object to is setting up a winning hand, then failing when the rules get in the way of a logical progression. Making an example, if your tank is at full health on Teron, has his shield block up, and the constructs are far from the raid you don't suddenly expect him to turn round and kill your healers, the rules here are threat, crushing blows, avoidance, mitigation, healing potential... once you set up the blocks in the right places, barring someone doing something wrong they should fall as expected.
This leads into the second major issue with secrecy, every patch is seen as a nerf, every update leads to calls for buffs and nerfs to everyone's favourite classes, yet not knowing the true core mechanics and the overall role and position of classes leads us to react on gut instinct. Warlock fears are over powered, they make us run away and have diminishing returns, yet is it truly overpowered because a warlock lacks any form of avoidance, they can't ice block, or blink, they can't suppress pain, they could sacrifice their pet, or fear you, but that is it, that is their mechanic. Yet no developer for Warlocks ever sat down and told us their plan, where warlocks fit in the Damage / Avoidance / Resistance / Utility spectrum or what we can expect from them. Looking at Magic (barring a few sets where the mechanic was out of colour spells) there is a colour wheel, 5 colours, White, Black, Red, Green, Blue, Red for example is direct damage and hasted creatures, tending towards light and fast in comparison to Greens big and tough, Black allows you to reduce the effectiveness of other creatures, to convert your life to additional cards or resources, and blue is control. The spectrum is understood, and the players accept it because anything out with that wheel will likely get an article or two explaining the balance and reasoning behind it, its always open to the players, and they know what to understand.
I post as a Paladin with a Warlock alt, my Paladin is a tank, and often has to fight the concept of "Warrior = Tank, Paladin = Healer", my Warlock (Despite not being good in arena) gets me complaints of being overpowered and winning due to "lol-2 button class ftw", never mind the fact that the few arena wins I made with her were more due to my opponents mistakes than my greatness. People see a closed system, and they see it as being something against them, any active developer comments are jumped on and used for bad or good.
Kalgan, the lead developer for WoW plays a Warrior, and various comments he has made or stories about him lead to the idea that Kalgan dislikes Paladins and that Warriors need buffs, doesn't matter if he makes a joke about Paladins then improves us slightly the whole community will jump on him because of his reputation. If it was more open I think the community would benefit, developers will always have a focus, but with openness and testing I think the game would be a much better place, maybe still unbalanced due to the nature of a complex game, but at least unbalanced in cycles so everyone gets a chance. We don't need to know the exact mechanics of the game provided we have a good working theory towards it that lets us play to our best and not be artificially limited by the environment.