Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Magic the Gathering

I finally got to try Magic the Gathering. Magic, as it is often called, is a revolutionary game, which created the CCG (Collectible Card Game) genre, and got many many people into this hobby, and made them spend a lot of money. When you get into a CCG, you start with buying a starter set of cards, the minimum required to start playing. After that you buy booster packs. These have 10 cards each, and the cards are random. You need more cards to customise and improve your deck. So people buy and buy and buy to collect the cards and hope to get the rare cards. I have never gotten into CCG's, and do not intend to. But I am curious about Magic the Gathering, because of how it single-handedly created this craze.

It was by chance that I got myself a starter pack. I visited Hong Kong in Nov 2008, and bought Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries at the Wargames Club at 8/F, 678, Nathan Road (I can never forget this address, even if I try to). They had a promotion, and I could select up to HKD100 worth of products from a special section and get them for free. Most were CCG booster packs, and these were probably the slow-moving stock. I don't play CCG's, so there was no point in getting booster packs. So I asked the shopkeeper which ones are complete playable games. And this starter set was one of them.

This is a special version of Magic the Gathering. It is a Chinese version, with a Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国志) theme. It comes with two pre-constructed decks of 30 cards each. After reading the rules, I find that the basic gameplay is actually quite simple. It is like Blue Moon, where the basic structure is quite simple, but the strategies and variation will come from special powers of the cards and values of the cards. In fact, I think Magic's basic game rules are even simpler than Blue Moon. You have 3 types of cards. Land cards (I'm not sure of the standard English terminology, since the version I have is Chinese) are used to summon creatures or to cast magic spells. Creature cards are soldiers or animals which you can use for attacking your opponent or for protecting yourself from attacks. Magic cards are one-time-use cards that have effects benefiting yourself or hurting your opponent (or both). Both you and your opponent have 20 life points at the start of the game. You lose life points when you are attacked and you cannot or will not defend yourself. You lose the game if you run out of life points. You also lose the game if you need to draw a card, but you have no more cards to draw. There are some more rules about attacking and defending, e.g. if you have used a creature for attack, then it cannot be used for defending when you are counter-attacked (which reminds me of Lightning Midway, another card game), but these are the basics. Pretty simple.

The box front of the starter set.

It is probably old stock. The box is not exactly in good condition. It looks like it has been squashed before. Look at the white creases.

Some of the components of the game. It comes with two player mats printed on colourful but thin paper. You can place your draw deck and discard pile on the player mat. I used a white Go piece to mark my life points, at 12. The cards on top are the creature cards, which are mostly different types of soldiers here. The cards are the bottom are the land cards.

A close-up of two of the cards. The one on the left is a magic card, or one-time-use special power card. This one says "Return to the battlefield" (top left corner). The skull on the top right is the cost to play this card, i.e. you need to tilt a skull/swamp land card. The text on the middle left is the card type, i.e. "magic". The icon/text on the middle right is an indicator that this card belongs to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms version. The bold text in the big box is the special effects / abilities. The italic text is flavour text. On the bottom left is the artist name. The card on the right is one of the most powerful cards in this starter set, attack value of four and defense value of five, in the lower right corner.

I convinced Michelle to try it with me. After she played it (and won), she flatly said she didn't like it. This is the same fate as Blue Moon. She just doesn't like this kind of game, and I think it is because it is too directly confrontational. You need to hurt your opponent in order to win, be it fighting over dragons or taking life points away. She enjoys Race for the Galaxy and also finds Dominion likeable, because these are victory points gathering games, and are thus not so confrontational. Strangely she didn't seem to dislike Lightning Midway as much as Magic or Blue Moon. Maybe she won a bit too many of that (and I didn't try to let her win).

I am lukewarm about this Romance of the Three Kingdom starter set, but I see now how Magic can be very interesting. There are five elements in the game corresponding to the five land types, and creatures and magics corresponding to these five elements have different characteristics. There is so much freedom for the game designers to create interesting cards, and there can be many interesting combinations of cards. For this starter set, I think I can still play it for a few more times to learn the strategies, but unfortunately I don't think Michelle will want to play this again.

I still don't think I will get into Magic or any CCG. I don't like the blind collecting aspect. I have pre-ordered the A Game of Thrones LCG (living card game), which is a new format from its previous CCG format. This will be more like Blue Moon, where you can decide exactly what expansion to buy (there will still be many, I predict) and you'll know exactly what's in each expansion pack. No lucky draw and no chasing for rare cards. Now I need to find an alternative way to introduce A Game of Thrones to Michelle so that she doesn't dislike it from the start. Can I sell it as "just a little variation of Race for the Galaxy"?


Aik Yong said...

Magic the Gathering is definately more complex than what the basic set introduce. It's the deck building aspect that turns people on and there are even theories that expound upon the different type of deck builders.

There are the 'efficiency' engine maximiser, the 'combo' engine manipulator. I would say that Dominion is a more closer approximation than RftG.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I continue to play Dominion, but still don't quite feel I am learning the deck-building aspect well yet. Got to play more.

James said...

I agree with you. The blind collecting aspect of the game really turned me off. That and the sheer amount of money and time it costs to become an effective player and to own effective cards. Rare was the time when I received an important card from a blind-bought starter or booster pack. I think the best card I got was a Jester's Cap, from Ice Age. (long time ago).

wankongyew said...

The random distribution aspect is really a downer, but Magic really is quite a good game if you can get around that problem. Many CCGs are really innovative as well and I would imagine would appeal to many boardgamers.

Netrunner for example is an asymmetric CCG with two completely different types of decks in a duel. One plays a hacker and the other the corporation. The hacker must steal enough data from the corporation to win. The corporation must protect its data long enough for its agenda to be completed.

Another good example is Vampire which is one of the rare CCGs optimized for more than two players. Each player is an Elder Vampire. The player to your left is your prey while the player to your right is your predator. Whoever kills his prey first wins. This creates many interesting dynamics as I'm sure you can see.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

From my limited plays of Magic the Gathering (and a themed, pre-constructed deck), I can see how there are many opportunities for variability and interesting mechanics / strategies. The only reason I avoid CCG's is I don't want to go into a collector mode.

I tried A Game of Thrones LCG, a new format that Fantasty Flight Games came up for the AGOT CCG. Unfortunately I found that I didn't really like it very much. Maybe I haven't been able to fully appreciate it.

I recently played a lot of Blue Moon, and quite enjoyed it. I own all 8 races and the three other expansions (which actually adds up to a not small amount). I feel I have a better grasp of Blue Moon now, and I quite like it.

Maybe one way to get into some CCG is to buy old sets of cards off eBay on the cheap. It's just that I've been a lazy bum and never got around to it. Too many new games coming out all the time catching my attention. :-)