The Magic of CCGs

A trend started a few years back is to eschew the CCG model and go with a LCG model of fixed sets of cards for a given product.  Obviously, there was an economic reason for this.  The CCG industry didn’t just have a shakeout to where you no longer saw the ridiculous CCG of the Month launch situation but an environment where only a couple of handfuls of CCGs could even be considered surviving.

I’ve talked before about what a huge investment a CCG is … of time and thought.  I’d also add finding opponents for niche CCGs.  Certainly, the model of having regular releases of hundreds of new game components puts a great deal of pressure on the customer base.  Even putting aside any needs to remain competitive by acquiring either considerable cards for each release or very specific cards that everyone else would likely be interested in as well, a very real reality for most CCGs, there’s the ballooning of collections and mechanics/rules.

I’ve also mentioned how mechanics bloat ends up being a problem, the greatest being that the barrier of entry to new players keeps getting greater and greater over time.  But, even the constant and significant increase in how many cards someone owns becomes a downer.  I have boxes lying around of various CCGs that were never integrated into my collections’ organizations – Crusade for B5, Sword of Caine for V:TES, Visions for Magic are just some examples.

Without critical player mass and some selling point that keeps a player committed, it’s easy for someone to leave a CCG.  It may be easy to return, as Magic and V:TES often see, but if there’s nothing to return to because the playerbase crumbled away, then the game is essentially dead.

Not being a LCGer, I can’t say how the model in general or the marketing plan for specific games has panned out or will likely pan out.  While the perception that a game is no longer a treadmill may be strong enough to get someone to buy in to a LCG, how does the game not retain the longer term problems that CCGs have had?  New cards still means more things to remember, whether text or mechanics/rules, more things to store, more components to use for a game that someone may not have time for.

It’s not like you stop at just one set.  After all, that doesn’t make more money.  Dominion is a good example of how boardgame-cardgames can steal from the CCG model and keep putting out expansions.  The speed of those expansions as well as the importance of them is quite different, which is likely how they get away with it.  While my original Jyhad group didn’t allow expansions, believing there was sufficient variety already in the game and that expansions would only reduce the awesome, far more CCG players I’ve run across desperately want new cards on some sort of regular basis.

In this way, I think CCGs have “won” in a perception sense for their marketing strategy.  The CCG model is predicated on the idea that there must always be something new that shakes up the play environment, even though the play environment for CCGs often is far more diverse with premier sets or few expansions than people think, since the number of possible decks with 300 unique cards is effectively infinite.  Sure, some strategies will dominate and many cards are chaff, but there is often really interesting metagaming that can occur with limited options, and there’s always the option of playing different formats that limit what cards can be used or that have special rules that change the metagame.  For instance, with V:TES, if you never had anything past Sabbat, but you had storyline events like Eye of Hazimel, you wouldn’t need to ever print new sets.

If there’s one thing about Magic, from a marketing standpoint, that I would say it has annihilated most, possibly even all, of the competition at, it’s that the game is awesome for limited play (even taking into account my views on the funness of playing Magic).  If niche CCGs had anything even 10% as good as Magic for limited play, maybe they wouldn’t be niche and maybe they’d still be “alive”.

This is another area where I’m struggling to see the advantage of a LCG.  Sure, it’s possible to have some sort of limited format, even do some sort of randomization in special products to enable sealed/draft environments like those seen for CCGs, but this does kind of contradict the nature of LCGs.

So, what prompted my writing about this now?

I played some Legacy format Magic recently.  I could probably write a great deal more about this, but one of the main things that came away from my trying to build decks was that I have a large, disorganized, incomplete Magic collection.  A key card I couldn’t find was a common from a set I had cards from*, a card reprinted a decent number of times.  Do I feel bad about the limitations of my collection?  Sure, I was never competitive in constructed because there were virtually no tournament decks I could ever build.  But, I also find it interesting.  I find the completely imbalanced quantities of which sets I own tell a story of my participation in the game.

*  Back in the day, one of the local cons had a free sealed deck tournament.  Though it was like 8AM on a Monday, people were obviously going to show up for free Magic cards.  One year, it was Urza’s Saga, and I thought I was going to be done quickly to do stuff with people I knew.  In one of my few Magic successes, I played for like 9 hours, coming in second in the tournament, not only getting a couple of starters and some boosters for the sealed portion but a bit more as prizes.  I don’t know if I ever bought any Saga outside of that.

More important, at least to what I’m writing about today, is that I have some unopened product lying around that was meant to be used for Type P decks, and I opened a couple of boosters from Guildpact and, after playing, Dissension.  The idea was that I could not only get inspired for some additional Legacy decks but that newer cards are more powerful on average than older and maybe I’d crack some constructed worthy cards.

I hate opening boosters most of the time.  Why?  Because I buy enough for games I’m invested in to have everything and it’s just a matter of making sure I’m getting my fair share and cataloguing my quantities of chase cards to figure out what to trade for.  So, every pack is just an accounting exercise.  Good rare?  k, that’s what I’m looking for.  Bad rare?  Sucks to be me, hope the box gets better.

Magic isn’t like that, for me.  I’m never going to have everything.  There has never been a set that I bought enough of to have four-ofs of every card I care about.  This is what it’s supposed to be like for all CCGs.  The gambling element of whether you get good cards or bad cards is a huge part of the card crack addiction.

I might consider launching a CCG these days even with the huge hurdles of marketing and distribution because I think the CCG magic is still possible for a CCG besides the current crop that have proved themselves fit enough to survive.  An awesome limited environment is what I would focus on because the number of benefits limited provides a game from a marketing standpoint are just so great, including the lack of need for people to hop on a treadmill and invest in every set ever.  Of course, some CCG (Spoils?) took this approach and it didn’t work, so it’s not like this is the magic bullet of how to publish rather than perish.

It’s just amazingly frustrating to still enjoy opening Magic packs and thinking about how cool the cards are and how they could be used, when I don’t even want to play the game.  Why can’t other CCGs capture that magic?  (Part of it is that Magic actually has a really high coolness factor, what with awesome art, better new mechanics, etc.)

I’ve missed having a two-player CCG for quite some time, for those times when I didn’t want to care about table politics.  I’m now getting to the point of missing cracking packs to see what random cardboard I may never play with.  I have no idea how LCGs and boardgame-cardgames compete with that.  That they do suggests, yet again, that maybe I fall into a category of gamer too small to support the games that interest me.

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