So, I was reading Starcitygames.com’s front page, free section. (All the articles in this section are Magic related.) One person’s post talked about what he enjoyed in Magic. What prompted the thought for him, Matt Elias, is interesting in other ways since it was a game Matt played where his opponent played a land and a one-drop, Matt won on turn two, and his opponent asked him if he enjoyed playing decks like the one he was playing. Matt goes on to explain that the answer was “yes” because he enjoys drawing lots of cards and not, assumedly, because he likes having games that don’t qualify as being an actual game.
When it comes to Magic, I also like drawing cards, though it’s probably not as important to me. The reason why card drawing is important to me has more to do with how I believe Magic’s greatest problem is the draw one card a turn mechanic.
Anyway, I want to talk about more than Magic. I want to think about what I enjoy most in the CCGs I have played or have been most invested in. I’m going to try to go in order of what I’ve played the most.
Vampire: The Eternal Struggle
I’m sure I’ve spent more time playing this than anything else, perhaps as much time playing this as all other CCGs combined due to longevity of play and relative consistency of play. It’s also my largest CCG collection from a straight card quantity metric.
What do I enjoy most about V:TES?
Not deck construction. I may be prolific, but I dislike many of my decks, certainly don’t have the same attachments as I’ve had with decks for other CCGs. I don’t even consider deck construction all that important.
Not the source material. I was once fond of Vampire: The Masquerade, back before I played much of it. I have some connection to the source material, I guess. Though, I’ve always had separate interests. For instance, I actually enjoyed playing cards that require Dominate for many years whereas … to give an idea how little interest I had in Dominate in the RPG, my two main characters were a Tremere and a Ventrue – neither had any dots in Dominate. I could go on about the differences, but there are so many examples that it would likely just be tedious.
Not the politics. Funny thing is that politics was far less important in my early years of play – 1996 (when I started) to maybe 2002. People were much more focused on either the player to the left or the right and doing what their decks did, which was often lots of bleeding. My style of play, which is far more concerned with what the crazy people across the table are doing than with my natural partners to the left and right, developed in reaction to that. Now, of course, I often lament how much table management is a consideration over having people get ousted. I have a basic view that any table can be talked to victory, and that’s just annoying. What interests me the most seems to be …
Card interactions? I stress context. For everything. There is no meaning without context, an argument I remember making in a college philosophy course. Card interactions, in and of themselves, probably don’t do it for me. I think it’s because games, more so with some CCGs than with other CCGs or other games, have a feature to them besides just the numerical values of the components. I’ll come back to this when I get to Babylon 5. But, as a V:TES example, I find it hilarious to Shattering Blow someone’s Assault Rifle in constructed play. It’s not so much the flavor, it’s that there’s a game context that Shattering Blow is a bad card and that the odds of being at close range against someone with an Assault Rifle are negligible, after all, the odds of even playing against someone with an Assault Rifle while running Shattering Blow are minute. It’s these sorts of odd/surprising card interactions, where odd/surprising is determined within the context of how a game plays, that floats my boat. Because they are so much more varied in CCGs than in other games is likely why I value CCGs so highly.
What about on a more tree level than forest level?
I enjoy having lots of minions, though I seem to forget this a lot. I enjoy being successful at actions. I enjoy surviving when survival seems implausible. I enjoy guessing at what is in my opponents’ hands at any given time. I enjoy discarding master cards to Pariah. I enjoy lots of sound and fury signifying nothing – lots of cards played with little of consequence occurring, to an extent, anyway. Far more than other CCGs, V:TES is the game where I can accomplish the least in results and still be enjoying playing.
For a game that I didn’t start playing until the year after it came out (1997) and which I haven’t played in nearly a decade(?) at this point, I sure did play a lot once upon a time. Once our group started playtesting, it was crazy how much we had to switch between living in the future and going back to what was already in print.
Far more so than V:TES for me, Babylon 5 was about the connection to the source material. I didn’t start out a B5 fan. I was far more interested in Deep Space 9 as the look of season one and the terrible acting of Sinclair were so offputting. I only saw a couple of season one episodes and gave up on the show. Then, I saw season two, and I became a fan.
Where V:TES is much more a “game” CCG, B5 was definitely a “genre” CCG. You were required to play with main characters and numerous cards were recognizable, obviously virtually all of the character cards. For me, this was an opportunity to mess with people’s expectations, a common theme throughout my gaming. I think the first tournament I ever won was with a Centauri Diplomacy deck, pumping B5 influence. That would have been the Fall of 1998, just a tad (3 sets) before Centauri Diplomacy was legit. I played Minbari Intrigue before Shadows. Londo got Vorlon Marks. Sheridan, Shadow Marks. I often played Centauri Military, in part to counteract obnoxious Narn war decks, but also because … well, there were a number of reasons, so maybe not a great example.
Some characters I liked better than others. I kept trying to get a Walker Smith card created, including when I was working on the Anla’shok design team. Again, the point is that B5 was a CCG that lived within the context of the flavor of the show.
Other things I enjoyed: Non-player influence, especially B5 influence – Shadow and Vorlon influence could get annoying due to the major agenda, but even so, to me, the best part of the show was the Shadow War. Marks – I loved me my marks, even Conspiracy Marks, even Doom Marks after they became far harder to convert to Destiny Marks and Seizing Advantage got rewritten. I loved me my hyperspeed, especially hyperspeed military – unlike the V:TES players who virtually always see me screw around, my Spike-ness came through with trying to win major victories in 20 minutes with Conscription openings, even though it was incredibly unfun to play against.
Which brings up something deserving of its own paragraph. Precedence CCGs allowed you to choose your opening hands. This was huge, potentially large. Choosing optimal opening hands was its own subgame. I agonized about it more with Wheel of Time, but I spent more time (because I played more) on it with B5. The Great Machine openings, Military Build-Up openings, Gambling Londo being all about not having an opening hand – I think it was a major fun factor to these games that one had so much control *and* so much variety with how to play the early game. Of course, as B5’s early game was often anti-fun to play, it was likely essential to have something fun about it. Also, this would be why any sort of aggro opening, like Conscription, was so much more fun – avoid the tedious building actions and taking entire turns just sponsoring or promoting someone.
Magic: The Gathering
I’m not so clear what the order should be after B5. I think this is where Magic falls in how much I played a particular CCG, though with all of the playtesting we used to do for Precedence games, it’s hard to be sure how much Wheel of Time I actually played.
What do I enjoy about Magic? This would seem to be yet another opening for me to rant about how frustrating it is that I don’t enjoy the game more, but that’s not the spirit of this post.
I enjoy building limited decks. I hate building constructed decks for Magic as there are simply too many options. Yes, the complaint that I’ve seen by others for various CCGs I’ve played where I built tons of decks of it being too hard to complete one deck without thinking of a bunch of others is exactly the problem I have with Magic constructed. But, limited doesn’t have that issue.
Similarly, I enjoy drafting. I don’t love it. But, having a plan for what sort of limited deck to build is interesting. Drafting Magic is a lot more interesting than drafting V:TES since Magic is designed to be drafted and may be the only good CCG for drafting.
I like burn. I especially like burn that can go to the dome or nuke critters. I very quickly developed a distaste for creatures given how easy it was for one to die to Terror, Lightning Bolt, Swords to Plowshares, or whatever. On the other hand, Spitting Earth doesn’t kill your opponent.
I like multicolor cards and non-basic lands. A lot of this might just be aesthetic appeal due to coloration and layout, but for some reason, I’ve always been attracted to lands that didn’t just tap for mana or that tapped for multiple colors of mana. I think it’s because basic land is the most boring part of Magic. Similarly, multicolor cards are rarer, thus more exotic.
I enjoy the ability to come out of nowhere for unexpected victory. Pretty much the only thing I ever enjoy about a game of chess is when I make some unexpected sudden win move. It’s a bit more likely in Magic. I was playing Zak Dolan, that would be Magic’s first world champion, with sealed Tempest product when I had him shut down offensively with Humility, but I had to jump through a bunch of hoops with Capsize with buyback and pinging until I could get enough land in play with the last card in my deck to burn him out with Rolling Thunder for exactly how many life points he had left. The game was dumb for him for quite a while as it looked like I’d just deck with the board choked with creatures, but I knew that the game was winnable for me.
I enjoy thinking about all of the various card combos. Well, not all, I’m not that Johnny. Some, with cards I think are cool. And, that’s the thing. Magic has so many cool cards. In a more general sense, I enjoy thinking about deck archetypes and how to win the metagame. I hate how Magic relies on hosers and I’m no fan of sideboards, but sideboards do enable vastly more metagame choices.
Magic, more than V:TES, where I don’t think it matters, more than Babylon 5, which is more about doing “what if” riffs on the show, is a CCG that appeals to my sense of efficiency and effectiveness. Now, for two others.
I’ve probably played more Wheel of Time than Ultimate Combat!, but UC! is more important to me, and it makes sense to put it next to Magic, considering that it’s basically Magic, with the awesome flavor and variety of Magic replaced with fun game play.
I feel compelled to mention, yet again, that UC! was the first CCG I ever played. My first game turned out to be frustrating after the fact, but it’s quite possible that failing to win that game after taking away 19 of my opponent’s 20 hit points in one turn motivated me to learn more about the game.
It’s an impossible sell. For those who like UC!, it’s preaching to the converted. For everyone else, can’t get past the art, the theme, and/or the card names. Nevertheless, UC! is the most fun CCG to play.
Well, what makes games fun to play?
I’m fairly sure that the single most important thing to a game being enjoyable is closeness of result. In other words, that every player had a good chance at winning the game. A huge turnoff to me is when I feel like a game is unwinnable, including for an opponent. Similarly, the sporting events I find most compelling are the ones where the winner barely wins.
This is why Magic is a vastly inferior game to UC!. Sure, there are blowouts in UC!. There are games where you can get a lock. They are rare. Or, at least, they are so much rarer than other games that I always think of UC! as the game where “if I don’t get you this turn, you win next turn”.
UC! is the CCG where games play fast, players get beat down hard, and both players are always in danger of losing. It’s also a game where tight play and subtle moves matter. Deciding whether to throw a Speed/Strength in defense may determine the game. May deck one turn before putting an opponent away (decking is easy and has the same result as it does in Magic).
As for the limited variety that comes with only having two sets, I still believe that there are plenty of decks for me to build. Sure, some day, the variety won’t be there not just because of the small card pool but because so many cards are functionally the same, but it’s sad that the game was never given a chance to be played out to that level.
Wheel of Time
A strange entry in that it was never particularly popular, I only had two regular opponents, and it didn’t last that long, but I was incredibly invested in the game. Can I call myself a designer? Maybe not. I’m in the game credits as of the second expansion, but whether that’s because I helped enough with design or whether it was because I was doing things like art requests, I’m not so sure.
B5 introduced me to the awesomeness of choosing an opening hand for a CCG. Wheel of Time was where I spent hours deciding on an opening hand for one deck. While the dice mechanic was full of problems, some of which were fixed with the expansions, the probability calculations and permutations of results meant that a tremendous amount of analysis could be built just around the first few turns of the game. This for a two-player game that often took us two hours.
I enjoyed the brokenness. Typically, I get tired of brokenness quickly, but WoT was different in that it embraced brokenness to where it was the norm rather than the exception. Okay, admittedly, a couple of card drawing cards got fixed as they were absurd, but the game was always a battle of broken card drawing, searching, and discard. I really liked the different starting character possibilities. Yes, this is just a subset of opening hand, but I became highly knowledgeable about the source material and the Forsaken options were particularly flavorful.
On a more general level, I can probably say that Wheel of Time was the one CCG I took seriously (most of the time) and really put my analytical skills and interest in efficiency/value to the test. I can’t say I was a great player. The one major I played in, I was screwed in the one game I lost because I was playing with a proxy, but I also didn’t feel like a great player during the event. I was never top 10 in the world like I was with three other CCGs. But, our playtesting was by far the best playtesting I’ve ever seen. I still can picture sitting in Dave’s apartment, proving to ourselves that Forsaken.dec had no game against Maidens. The level of analysis I read about with Magic is the level of analysis we were doing for WoT.
Yes, Tomb Raider. What’s interesting here is that almost all of my Tomb Raider play was playtesting or demos. I just really wasn’t that into the game. So, why bother bringing it up?
I’ve defended Tomb Raider a lot. I’m not an art guy when it comes to CCGs. I appreciate great art, but it doesn’t determine whether I enjoy playing a game or not. So, it’s hard for me to relate to people who will only get into a game that appeals visually, even if I did pass on checking out Magi-Nation because of aesthetics. In terms of game play, Tomb Raider is not a strong CCG. It’s not even that much of a CCG. It’s really more of a boardgame with CCG elements.
Sure, I thought about opening hands with Tomb Raider. My best recollection of one was running two copies of the “draw two cards” card. And, I’m sure the CCG elements were important to having the game be something more than just a boardgame. But, I think the main takeaway from my experiences with the CCG is that it could be a fun boardgame that could handle a range of players that, with a different genre (or much hotter Lara Croft art), could have been something as appealing as the HeroQuest boardgame, which I see similarities between.
I had a Netrunner collection once upon a time. I could include Dragon Dice. And, so forth. But, really, this has gone on long enough and none of these were comparable to the above (except, maybe, Tomb Raider).