I need to tell you about a dark chapter of my life. Back in the 1990s I suffered with an addiction. It was not drugs, sex or gambling, it was something far more shameful than that (well, far more uncool anyway) – I was addicted to collecting Magic: The Gathering cards. And there were no support groups to help me through it.
In case you aren’t familiar with it, Magic: The Gathering was, and still is, a Collectible Card Game (or CCG) created by Richard Garfield, representing a duel between two wizards. The game has a relatively simple set of base rules, but a huge assortment of cards each having characteristics that contradict or supplement the base rules. Each card played is either a spell, or a land from which the wizard can draw the power he needs to cast a spell. Some spells summon monsters or warriors, and these duke it out in the central play area. Spells can be cast on these creatures too, to help or hinder either side. Other spells can affect an opponent directly – Fireball, Drain Life, Hurricane…
The interesting thing about Magic: The Gathering is that each player has his/her own deck that they bring to the game – a deck that they have created at home beforehand, from cards in their collection. Creating a deck that works efficiently is a large part of the game.
I was hooked from the very first time I played, back in the 1990s. I had bought some cards from my local comic shop, and my sister and I started to play that evening, and we just kept on going until the early hours of the morning, neither of us wanting to stop playing and go to bed. A day or two later, I noticed I had bruises just above my knees, and I could not figure out where they had come from. It took me a while to realize that they were from resting my elbows on my legs as we played Magic for seven hours.
Within a few days, I had identified all the other Magic players at my work (it wasn’t difficult to be honest – they played in the staff canteen at lunchtimes) and joined a local league. I subscribed to Duelist magazine, and started putting decks together based on suggestions for themes that the magazine gave me.
Of all the decks that I ever created, my favourite was one which included a lot of cards (Stone Rain, Blight, Strip Mine) that destroyed my opponents’ land cards. I called the deck Bulldozer. In theory, once the lands were destroyed, my opponents would not be able to cast any spells. Then, I would then play artefact cards that did damage to them according to how many cards they had in their hand. The damage should be a lot, because they could not actually play any of their cards. Clever, eh? Well, yes, except, most of the time I found I did not draw the artefact cards when I needed them, despite it being statistically very improbable that this would be the case.
When it did work as planned, though, it was a gloriously satisfying thing!
So what was the problem?
The fact that Magic is such a great game is not the reason it is addictive.
The reason Magic is so addictive (and potentially so expensive) is that to improve your deck, you need to buy better cards. Cards are sold randomly in small packs (called “booster packs”), a bit like Panini stickers, so getting the best cards and combinations of cards that you need for your deck is not an easy task – you just have to hope you get the powerful rare cards in the ‘booster’ packs, or you must trade with other players to get what you need, often paying high prices on the secondary market.
Collecting can bring out obsessive behaviour in some people – people like me. I found that the game was taking over my thoughts, and I was spending a huge proportion of my time, and disposable income, trying to make my decks (I had three or four on the go at any one time) slightly better. I realize now, looking back, that every time I bought a booster pack, I was getting the same buzz that a gambling addict gets – handing over my money to the retailer, then opening the pack while thinking “will I get the card I want, this time?”
Eventually though, after several lost years of hoarding and planning, punctuated intermittently by disappointing performances in tournaments in provincial town halls, I managed to kick the habit, through force of will (that’s a little Magic pun there. You’re welcome), and took control of my life again.
Okay – I am exaggerating a little – but just a little.
Magic: The Gathering is still going strong today. The game itself has changed a lot from when I used to play, but it still follows the same business model of encouraging its players to constantly buy more and more cards. Its main tactic, in this regard, is to regularly release new cards, and change the list of what is allowed for tournament play.
The game’s publishers have been forced to put foil holograms on a lot of their cards now, because obsessive collectors (and at least one dodgy hedge-fund manager) drove up the price of rare cards to such an extent that Chinese counterfeiters noticed, and flooded the market with fakes!
Over the years, many other games have appeared (and most of them have since disappeared), trying to emulate the success of Magic – with themes as diverse as James Bond, The Simpsons, My Little Pony, and “Bible Battles”. The most successful rival though, has been the Pokemon Trading Card Game, which was just as addictive as Magic, but aimed at children!
I should stress, at this point, that it is entirely possible to play a CCG with family or friends, without spending a fortune on cards. That very first time I played with my sister, for example, we only had about £10 of cards between us, and that was one of the most fun gaming sessions I have ever had, before or since. Many CCGs (including Magic) have starter sets, or pre-built decks, that you can have a great time playing with, without ever getting drawn into the collecting side of the game. I have also, very recently, discovered an effective way of playing with a fixed supply of cards (such as my old cards from the 1990s), using a rules variation called Battlebox, where all players draw cards from a common pool.
Nevertheless, I know that I am not alone in finding the idea of starting to play a CCG off-putting. There are a lot of potential gamers out there who want to play a deliciously complex card game, but don’t want to have to take out a second mortgage in order to play the game the way it was intended.
For the benefit of such players, a new business model has arisen in recent years – the Living Card Game (LCG).
Like CCGs, LCGs give each player a huge choice of cards from which to build a deck. The difference is that instead of randomized starter decks and booster packs, LCGs are sold in big boxes of predetermined base cards for both players, and regular expansions also with fixed cards for both players. With LCGs there is no advantage to the player who owns the most cards. This business model has proved popular with players as it is not necessary to spend a huge amount of money buying enough cards to fill a suitcase to do well, and it is easier for new players to get into playing.
Some of the most popular LCGs to date have been Android Netrunner (with a computer hacking theme), Doomtown Reloaded (with western theme, and a great combat mechanic where you make poker hands from the cards you are holding), and Thunderstone (fantasy).
Also, Arkham Horror – the card game is an interesting variation – mechanically it is an LCG, but it is actually a co-operative game that has an excellent story-telling and role-playing element that makes it feel very different to any of the other games mentioned so far.
Despite the less aggressive business model, however, for a lot of LCGs, keeping up with all the many expansions (which you would have to do if you wanted to play competitively) was still costly.
Another variation on the business model came out in 2018, with the card game Keyforge, by the creator of Magic: The Gathering. In this game, decks are sold prebuilt, and every deck is different. You are not allowed to swap cards between decks, so I guess the creators are hoping that fans will go out and buy many decks, so that they can experience all the game has to offer.
If you are looking for a more casual card game that feels a little bit like a CCG or LCG, but won’t bankrupt you or make you go crazy, the genre I would point you towards is called ‘deck-building’.
I am sorry if this is a bit confusing, because, as I have said, building a deck is very important for both CCGs and LCGs, but a DBG (actually, nobody calls them that) is different, in that you build the deck as you play the game.
Some of the best DBGs (yes, I am going to stick with that, for now) include Arctic Scavengers, Clank, Star Realms, and Paperback.
However, I am going to talk about the first ever DGB, which is still the most popular today, invented by Donald X. Vaccarino. The game he invented was Dominion.
Dominion was a very different animal to the card games that came before it. Instead of having to buy hundreds of little packs of cards and select a tiny fraction of them to use, you just buy one big box of cards, and it has everything you need, and all the players use them all together. There are expansions, it’s true. However, you really do not need to buy them to enjoy the game.
In a deck-building game, each player starts with an identical small deck of cards containing little of any use. There is usually an in-game currency to enable buying and selling, and the focus of the gameplay is to improve that deck by using what little you do have to obtain better cards from a common pool.
Some cards have actions on them, which either improve the efficiency of your own deck or hamper an opponent’s improvement efforts.
Each turn, players try to either improve their deck, or earn victory points. Victory points are crucial, because earning them is how you win the game, but there is a downside – having victory point cards in your deck actually makes it perform inefficiently. If you get too many, too soon, your deck will slow down, and your opponents will overtake you. It is all about timing.
Does that sound like fun? Well, of course these things never sound like fun when you just describe the rules in a paragraph. It took me a while to get my head around how it worked. It was not until I bought it and played it through (yes, I played against myself) that the penny dropped, and I saw the beauty of it.
It is actually a bit like a really satisfying game of patience, or at least it is when you first start learning the game anyway. As a beginner you tend to focus on your own deck, finding ways to improve it, and being pleased with yourself when you stumble across an impressive combo. When you are a more experienced player though, you don’t just look at your own deck, you watch what your opponents are doing, spot their weaknesses, and devise strategies to beat them.
Dominion won the Spiel des Jahres award in 2009, beating Pandemic, and at last the USA had a 21st century American winner!
I don’t know why I am getting so excited, I am not even American.