Since I’ll be reviewing a great deal of online collectible card games (or CCGs) over the coming weeks, I thought I’d start off with a brief overview of the gameplay mechanics involved. As we’re basically dealing with shuffled decks of cards, luck will always be a factor, but we’re a far cry from the “Pitifall” mini-game in Mario Party 6. Any good CCG will give you the tools and opportunity to mitigate the effects of falling into some “bad luck of the draw”, and what you do from there can define your entire gaming experience.
All right, so what happens if you get a terrible starting hand? Should you immediately concede and start anew? Many CCGs have a mulligan rule that allows you to redraw because no one likes to struggle with a subpar starting hand. Of course, these usually come with some penalty. Either you get fewer cards, or your opponent draws an extra one. Hearthstone adds an interesting twist to the mulligan rule, allowing each player to change as many cards in their hand as they want. The long and short of it is that you’ve got to judge carefully whether a redraw is to your advantage.
Streaks of bad luck can also happen in the middle of the game. These usually can’t be avoided, but their impact can be lessened by clever deck building. Including cards with multiple purposes, as opposed to ones with a very specific use, will reduce the amount of useless junk in your hand. Cards that allow you to draw more or search your deck are also deemed extremely powerful. However, they usually don’t inflict damage on your opponent, so having too many can backfire. To reach a good balance, you’ll need to play a few games and fine tune your deck.
Not all cards are created equal, you see. Some are powerful; some are weak; some are very situational; and some make for great combos together. Acquiring the right cards is usually half the fun of a CCG. In almost every game I’ve tried, the easiest way to build a killer deck is to purchase the cards your heart desires. If you don’t want to spend real money on virtual cards, you can, in most cases, slowly accumulate better cards by playing a lot and winning in-game currency. Often, the simple act of logging in every day earns you a reward.
If you’re a cheapskate like me, you’ll want to check what kind of cards you can get for free. If the best cards are only available for real money or if they take months of gameplay to obtain, I recommend you simply move on to another CCG. The pay-to-win model typically makes for a poor gaming experience. Still, if you’re willing to cough up the cash, make sure to compare the price of the virtual cards with that of real ones. Take, for instance, the booster packs for the eight edition of Magic: The Gathering. They amount to about three dollars for fifteen cards. Knowing this, you should figure out how much money you’re willing to pay for equivalent cards that you won’t be able to sell or trade.
Okay, you’ve invested all the time and money you’re ever going to on building the perfect deck. Now it’s time to play. Going first gives you the advantage, right? Not necessarily, as many CCGs have rules to handicap player number one: he or she can’t draw a card on the first turn; his or her creatures can’t attack, making them sitting ducks; or a small penalty is incurred in mana. Some of these go a little too far in the second player’s favour, so knowing the benefits and drawbacks of the starting order can give you an edge.
Mind you, an edge can only carry you so far if you don’t manage your resources properly. To the untrained eye, the person with the most life points may seem the obvious frontrunner, but there are other factors at play, such as the cards in your hand, your capacity to play them, and the creatures you have on the field. For example, let’s say Player A in Magic: The Gathering has all of his or her health but no cards in hand, no monster on the board, and no capacity to create mana. Player B has one measly life point left, five cards in hand, three nasty monsters ready to attack, and a full helping of mana. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Player B any day of the week.
Think of it as a race. It doesn’t matter that Player A is ahead at the halfway mark. The victor is whoever reaches the finish line first. You have to use your resources wisely and control your pace. CCGs are the same. Often, new players believe defending their life points is the only thing that matters, so they sacrifice powerful cards to protect themselves from weaker creatures and eventually run out of steam. This is not to say you should never defend yourself, but it’s crucial that you understand the value of your resources with respect to your life points.
That should about cover the basics. The rest, you’ll have to learn with experience, and, trust me, you wouldn’t want it any other way. The true pleasure of any collectible card game is derived from learning the ropes, formulating new strategies, and testing them out against an opponent who’s pretty much doing the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Solforge, Bloodrealm, or 7 Wonders, the fun isn’t in the card you draw but what you do with it.