Finish Line

Have watched a bit of the cold Olympics, aka the better Olympics, but haven’t come up with my Olympic themed post, yet.

Had a conversation yesterday, during a V:TES day, about the struggles of building decks, in particular, completing them and playing them.  I can’t really relate to this for V:TES or any other CCG I’ve been fully invested in.  Sure, I write up lots of V:TES decks I never pull the cards for, but that doesn’t stop me from having an average of greater than one new deck per session.  Sure, that’s way down from that year in which I had over a 100 new decks in the calendar year, but I was kind of jobfree that year.

As much as I just want to beat people over the head with the comment “Just build more decks and stop thinking about it so much.”  That’s not the purpose of this post.

One thing I find interesting is that this problem seems far more common with V:TES than with other CCGs.  If you buy into the idea, like I do, that deck construction isn’t that important to success, that could be a reason why some folks just don’t get into it.  In other words, if your deck was very important and you didn’t want to lose all of the time and you wanted to play the game, you would be highly motivated to build better decks.  Admittedly, that’s not the same as new decks.

After all, if a game is stale, whether due to lack of new cards or because new cards aren’t impactful, a game may feel solved.  While this could be a reason that current players feel unmotivated, I’ve found pretty much throughout the game’s history that it was common for players to feel unmotivated to build decks.

So, what is it?  Why this game and why an issue for multiple groups across the history of the game?

Deckbuilding for V:TES can be or, at least, seem harder than for other CCGs.  Now, sure, V:TES today has a vast amount of cards that many CCGs have never had, and it’s much easier for someone like me to process the card pool as I was building Jyhad only decks in 1996 and Sabbat only decks in something like 1997.

What makes building decks harder, besides larger card pool?

No card limits.  Whatever the arguments for not playing with card limits in a CCG not designed for them, I would never design a CCG with no card limits.  While deckbuilding difficulties isn’t at the top of my list, it’s one reason.  The top of my list, by the way, would be to make trading and other aspects of collection control vastly easier (I have experience that backs up my belief that trading is vastly harder for V:TES than for the card limit CCGs I traded).  Number two would be making playtesting much easier, I suppose.

With card limited CCGs, there’s a lot of x3 of this or x3 of that (or whatever limit the game uses, I hear some use x5 or even, get this, x4).  V:TES limits card use in other ways than card limits – no same action modifer or reaction, etc.  That doesn’t necessarily help someone when it comes to building decks.  “Okay, I can run 90 copies of the same card, but I’m also supposed to diversify?”

That the game also doesn’t have a clear optimal deck size adds a factor that some CCGs don’t have.  Magic is all about 60.  WoT was also a minimum = optimal.  On the other hand, Babylon 5 decks could be fat and Shadowfist is something I’m tempted to run in the 40ish card range, though smaller or bigger are options.  Ninety used to be most common, but a lot of us have been moving smaller.  Still, I’m not particularly likely to run 60.  Not that my situation matters that much.  The lack of knowing that you never go above 60 doesn’t help.

Then, so many cards in V:TES do such similar things that the differences can be too subtle to process.  Should I run Flash or Pursuit?  Form of Mist or Earth Meld?  Faceless Night, Elder Impersonation, or Swallowed by the Night as my primary stealth card?  Do I even have a primary stealth card given the numerous options available?  Again, card limits would vastly reduce the decisionmaking in that you just run two copies of both Form of Mist and Earth Meld.  By the way, compare Obfuscate stealth to Thaumaturgy stealth, not in terms of usefulness but in terms of decisionmaking.  Kind of different.

There is a CCG I’ve had difficulty building constructed decks for – Magic.  There’s a reason I said “fully invested” above.  While Magic is one of the CCGs I have 10,000+ cards for, I was never deeply invested, except, arguably, one limited format.  Could my lack of enjoying Magic more be due to not having happy times building decks?  Well, of course.  If deckbuilding were fun for constructed like it was for sealed (draft was not as much my thing), I would have been far more into the game.  Even the play of the game would have been more interesting.

This is another key facet of CCGs that drives interest – it’s not just building decks, it’s building decks to produce a particular play experience.  One of the more common types of V:TES decks I write up but never play are concept decks that are really brutal bleeders.  Been there, done that.  That’s the opposite side of this facet, though.  It’s the “I was trying to build a deck to do ABC and it did AF.” that can be bothersome if it happens a lot, in theory.  In practice, I don’t find myself with this problem.  If I build Minbari Intrigue, it’s going to do Intrigue stuff … very badly (talking about pre-Shadows, here, folks).

I guess, for folks who care more about success, lack of a deck concept turning into a successful concept can be frustrating.  I just tend to see the infinite variety that leads to building decks around other concepts, instead.  Rather than beat my head against a wall trying to get !Salubri melee weapon to work, which I don’t even care about in the first place, I’ll play a much cooler Fortitude Dagger deck or a Laibon grinder with Kerries.

Another aspect of V:TES not shared by many other CCGs is length of games.  The longer games are, the fewer you play, the fewer experiences you have to try different things.  For me, that’s not a problem as I mostly want to try different decks every game, which is great when you play like three games a session.  For those into tuning decks, as deranged as such folks are, not only do you have to deal with multiplayer play making any sort of results kind of sketchy to base decisions upon but also that you saw only a few games with the same deck.  I actually haven’t played a lot of Ultimate Combat! in my life in absolute terms because there weren’t exactly a lot of opponents or regular events, but I played Instant Replay-Shoulder Throw decks enough to know when a modification was going to doom the deck (well, maybe).

Then, when you get ousted, it’s not like you start another game right away to try the deck again or a different deck.  Each V:TES game is so much more of an investment than other CCGs.

Because multiplayer CCGs are just different from two-player CCGs in terms of group commitment, I think I have been trained to focus on the micro-interactions of multiplayer CCGs and not on results.  That’s not for everyone.  I may have craved a two-player CCG after Wheel of Time went away, but that was largely to get the politics and kingmaking out of the experience, not because of the greater relationship between deck strength and result.

Speaking of multiplayer, a lot of CCGs have been based off of strong IPs – Star Wars, Star Trek, Middle Earth, etc.  Of the games intended to be multiplayer, the ones that had a more flavorful property than Vampire: The Masquerade probably incentivized more deckbuilding.  I would spoof on Babylon 5 all of the time – Londo gets Vorlon Rescued, Elric gets Vorlon Rescued, Mr. Morden gets Vorlon Rescued.  Having the cards be more than just mechanics helped with identifying things to do, and the subgame of having a deck do what it’s supposed to do rather than just try to win was more direct.  One element of this is that doing certain thematic things required very specific card choices that limited the number of decisions that would be made by forcing devotion to a certain number of slots for the subgame.

There are common reasons for deckbuilding ennui across CCGs, especially multiplayer CCGs, but to summarize a bit for why V:TES might have even more of that, we get:

  1. No card limits
  2. No clearly optimal deck size
  3. Lots of similar effects make for more decisions
  4. Little impact of deck on result
  5. Few opportunities to gauge deck construction
  6. Few must haves

So, does any of this help?  Not really.  There aren’t solutions, here.  I tried solutions for getting ideas before.  For executing on ideas, it’s hard not to just say “Build more decks and stop thinking about it so much.”  Agonizing over deck builds is the province of CCGs like Wheel of Time, where I spent hours deciding on the opening hand (four cards) of one deck.  That was possum.


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