Dead CCGs – Ultimate Combat!

By dead CCG, I mean one that doesn’t see any new cards printed.

What is it?

Released in 1995, Ultimate Combat! was a shameless mechanical ripoff of Magic: The Gathering. The theme was wild martial arts with a core of real world martial arts. Intentional humor is obvious with cards like Bad Sushi and Body Odor.

What was wrong with it?

Most of the art (all of the technique that I can recall) was of real people.  Little of the rest of the art was appealing.  UC! came out about the same time as Shadowfist, which also had a wild martial arts theme (among others).  The two games were often confused even though they are completely different mechanically and have significant differences thematically.

But, the biggest problem was being a Magic clone without a hook that could compete with Magic.  If it survived longer, it would have fallen under Magic’s patent.  Nevermind that the designers couldn’t think of what else to design after the first expansion.  Should have asked me.

So, what was it good for?

I have tremendous respect for Magic.  I realize it’s human nature, but all of the haters who are playing some other CCG should realize that Magic is why other CCGs exist.  I have even more respect for Magic’s management, design, and development.  I have only one major problem with Magic – I don’t enjoy playing it.

Ultimate Combat! is missing many of the good things about Magic – great art, clever mechanics, variety.  Where UC! wins is that it’s fun to play.  Sure, I’ve had good games of Magic – I figure about 20% of the time.  And, I’ve had bad games of UC! – harder to get a sense of a number.  But, my sense is that more than half of my games of UC! were fun.  That may sound like a low number, but actually, that’s quite high with CCGs in my experience.  I estimate that a typical CCG one enjoys has about a one-third fun to two-thirds not fun rate for games. 

People who think the number is higher, in my view, are just forgetting the many, many bad games they play.  That bad games are more likely to get ended prematurely certainly has a factor in that.  To throw other “who knows?” numbers out there, I’ve explained the difference in playing Magic to UC! as:  in Magic, if I’m losing, I’ll end up conceding 90% of the time; in UC!, if I’m losing, I’ll end up conceding 10% of the time.

Given that UC! rips off most of its mechanics from Magic – I tell people that UC! is 75% Magic – how does UC! end up being more fun?  The core interaction in Magic is creature combat.  The core interaction in UC! is using techniques to attack and block with.  In Magic, creatures are permanents, may have wildly differing abilities, and creature removal is rampant.  In UC!, techniques are one shot, didn’t do anything special until the expansion, and technique removal is scarce. 

It’s very easy for Magic to get away from its core mechanic in constructed play.  Combo decks are common.  Creatureless decks are easy and sometimes highly effective.  Creature combat is rare in constructed play.  UC! has a harder time getting away from the basics of bashing people with technique.  There are so many more angles of attack in Magic, that it’s not difficult to have poor interaction.  Rarely in UC!, do I find poor interaction.  For all that technique are usually just an attack number and a defense number, it’s very important to know how to play and use technique.

In Magic, single cards and card combos are often heinously powerful.  UC! has powercards.  Shake Up can devastate a board.  Mental Domination existed long before Magic’s Mindslaver and Mental Dom is far more brutal in certain ways.  But, as an example, in Magic, if you can get one card to stick, say an early Hypnotic Specter, you can ride that to victory.  In UC!, there are very swingy cards but there’s little of the inevitability that one feels in Magic, whether because one card can’t be dealt with or because some combo locks you out of the game.

Both games have similar issues with resources.  In Magic, it’s called lands/mana, in UC!, it’s called foundation/power, but they work the same – even more so now that Magic is eliminating mana burn.  Mana screw is a huge feature to Magic.  It’s not all bad for reasons that would take too long to explain in this post, but it’s the number one complaint heard.  Power screw exists in UC!, too.  But, where Magic has no built in mechanism for getting a player out of mana screw once the game begins, UC! took Magic’s “lay one land a turn” rule and changed it to “play one foundation or discard any number of cards and draw that many cards” which enables someone to find foundation when needed but also has tremendous tactical importance later in games when you don’t need foundation or when you need a specific card.

It’s a good time to mention that Magic’s card drawing mechanic is one a turn where UC!’s is to refill the hand to 10 every turn (or draw 1 if at 10 or more).  I’m not bothered by the importance of card advantage in Magic.  I’m bothered by how often you can’t recover or have to play off the top of your deck in Magic where UC! has a good balance of what you do mattering while having strong recovery potential.  By the way, my problem with Shadowfist and similar games is that I don’t see where what you do matters a whole lot because removal and recovery is too easy.

War stories.

UC! is the first CCG I ever played.  Really.  I don’t think many people in the world can say that.  I was in a game convention volunteer phase of my life when I heard about a convention I had never been to before and decided to sign on as a volunteer.  I didn’t realize until later it was a CCG only convention, a type of gaming I avoided as it sounded faddish and too popular for the likes of me.  It didn’t take too long for me to break down and actually try a CCG, so I played in an UC! sealed deck tournament.

UC! plays just fine starter vs. starter.  Every limited event I ever played of it was just starter vs. starter.  I do so want to draft one of these days.

I learned several things.  I learned why CCGs are awesome.  I thought it was kind of weird when the judge went over to his buds and talked about how I did 19 damage in my (first) attack, leaving my opponent at 1.  I learned that strategy and tactics matter in good games … my opponent ended up winning that game.  I learned the addictive nature of CCGs when I went on to play in a constructed event with my virtually nonexistent collection and got annihilated by real decks but wanted to buy/play more anyway.

I could talk about my other CCG experiences at that con, but I think I’ll save those.

I went on to become a sanctioned UC! referee.  That’s not too exciting – somebody had to given that the game survived long enough to have an expansion.  It’s still the only CCG where I had to take an oral exam to be a judge.  I so wish that I had e-mails and documents from those days like I do with other CCGs as I can’t remotely remember the rules questions I asked and the answers I got.

The only tournament I ever won was sealed deck.  I had a strong defensive deck.  I was a much, much smarter player by then, so I knew how to play the deck properly.  My biggest scare was an opponent who had Speed X, a disgustingly powerful card in limited play.  How did I deal with one of the game’s equivalents to Fireball?  How did I deal with it when he got it back with another powercard? 

Banana Peel.  May not come as a shock that Banana Peel’s effect is to turn a Speed bonus into a penalty, so that +12 or whatever becomes a -12.  Also, conservative play.  I decked three opponents on my way to tournament victory.  I got three of the best prizes I’ve ever received for a CCG event:  pewter damage tracker that eventually broke; playmat which I still use; real black belt which I still have.

The biggest event I ever played was a San Jose one where the game company’s president was my first opponent.  He wrecked me.  My second game is one I often use as an example of what UC! is often like.  My deck was too slow.  I learned that in my first game.  My opponent came out and kept beating me down.  I had no recourse but to throw any technique I put out in front of his attacks.  I built up my power generation and put some power talismans into play, but it looked like I was toast before I could ever get an attack off.  I had to blow my Bear’s Jaw – one of the most sought after cards in the game – for hit points just to keep playing.  I finally got an attack off … and won.  My one and only attack was for 26 damage, even with a bit of defense, it did the necessary 20 to knock my opponent out.

There was the tournament that my father drove me to New Jersey (from Virginia) to play in.  I played a techniqueless deck designed to deck my opponents with Bad Sushi, Mental Domination, and support.  I had to dig deep to get my Mental Dom off before my opponent got his off and I ended up decking first.  I played another game with a more standard Adrenaline, Dragon’s Fire deck and crushed my opponent.  I traded for Amulet of Kwai Chang, the Speed counterpart to Dragon Fire’s Strength doubling ability.

I still have decks built.  In fact, they are decks I made pretty much after I stopped playing.  I tried running some events at local cons in recent years because I badly miss playing a two-player CCG.  I think the game is not as balanced as I used to think it was, but I still haven’t found a CCG as balanced.  Of course, given how unbalanced the popular two-player CCGs are, being balanced probably only hurts the game’s appeal.

I’ve been thinking about the game recently because the next local convention has the game’s top player running CCG events and we always talk about bringing cards.  I still have a ton of unopened product, including the much more important starters, that I can try to infect some people as a nonserious side activity.  It would be the giant pineapple in the sky if I played enough to rebuild my Earthquake deck or to find the next “Ax Kick” deck.

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7 Responses to Dead CCGs – Ultimate Combat!

  1. Azel says:

    that actually sounded fun enough to play. ’tis a pity i’m still overseas. :)

  2. Kevin O'Hare says:

    Ian,

    Great write-up. I forgot that I too was a judge and I won my UC league that first year which garnered me my UC Black Belt Card. As I know the designers I too have lots of extra cards and unopened boxes. I was shipping booster cases for the cost of shipment a few years after UC stopped operations.

    Last year’s PacifiCon in Santa Clara had UC designer Dave Long in attendance and we got to play a few games of one on one and 3 handed. It was a blast as usual. My White Belt deck still has a punch to it…

  3. Chuck says:

    I was just searching the web to see what is still out there on UC! and came across your post.

    I have a HUGE collection from when I was living in California and was director of my Sensei’s karate dojo.

    We played all the time, had tournaments, etc. I ended up becoming friends with Dave Long and still keep in touch with him.

    I ended up buying up a bunch of cards (tons actually) and selling them at my dojo when I moved home.

    I also have all the other stuff like the Reaper Miniatures, Tatami Mats, etc.

    I am now selling the entire collection. I know you are not interested in buying me out but I thought you might like to view my website which lists everything I have on UC!

    Here’s the link:

    http://www.ultimatecombatccg.com/

    Always nice to see a fellow fan of the game.

  4. jemurr says:

    I remember seeing this game in stores. You should do a series on Dead CCGs. I played WCW’s (Wrestling) Nitro game. It was simple but fun. I also played the X-men game that came out when the first movie did. Didn’t like that one. Had a few other obscure ones that I never played, Looney Tunes, Tomb Raider, and Hercules (TV show) Ever play those?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Is there anybody out there with uc! Rules available? I found some booster packs, but I don’t know how to play.
    Thanx!

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