Wednesday, November 16, 2011

If I Can Only Have Three Copies of Each Card, Why Do I Have Four Copies of Some? (And Other Changes)

I've recently been looking through my Call of Cthulhu cards. Going through decks that I haven't looked at in a while, I began realizing that there were four copies of some of some cards. Isn't there a limit of three copies per card, I thought. The current rulebook clearly states that the limit is three copies of a single named card. Had I been cheating with all of these decks when I played with them? Finally I dug out a rule sheet from the last base set of the game while it was a CCG and was relieved to learn that the limit had been four copies of a card. Which brings me to my topic for tonight, changes that have been made to CCGs that have been successful and not so successful.

Restrictions, Bannings and Reservations

By the time I got into Magic: The Gathering, it had a restricted list. Cards (only released a short year before I started playing) that were so powerful that only one copy was allowed in constructed decks. Many of these cards were already insanely expensive. With changing formats, some of these cards became banned, not allowed at all in constructed decks. Most of these restrictions and banning did not affect any of us in my play group, as we didn't have very large card pools (yet) and most of us missed those early days of the game.

For games that have new parts being added constantly and an ever changing overall metagame, it is necessary for certain cards to be somehow restricted from competitive (read: non-casual) play. Despite inherent balances being intially designed into games, with growth comes new strategies that dominate the field. And as variety is one important element of a healthy environment, if there is no immediate in-game solution, then restriction of the cards that make the strategy dominant must be restricted somehow. If players at a major tournament are all playing the same deck and what decides whether they win or lose a match is determined by who wins a coin toss to go first or who draws a key card first, they may as well be flipping coins, because that is how exciting the game will be.

Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), which is one of the oldest still-surviving card games, had a famous ad celebrating that the game had 0 banned cards and 0 restricted cards, an obvious poke at Magic. In time though, it had its own list of banned cards. While nobody enjoys buying a pack of cards and getting cards that can't be played with, but it is important for the overall health of the game to have this control. In fact, I think it is inevitable now for any game that has an organized play system to end up with some type of restrictions on certain cards.

Changing Card Backs

It turns out that the International Olympic Committee has trademarked any logo with interlocking rings. This was not good news for L5R, whose card backs had the game's distinctive logo, five inter-locking rings with "Legend of the Five Rings" written overtop. If players are upset about restrictions on which cards they own that they can use to play, having the backs of cards change is even more trouble-causing. Playing with cards that can be easily identifed from their backs is an obvious problem, and although card sleeves were added in starters of the first expansion affected, it was a bad move (if necessary).

Of course, as mentioned above, L5R is still going fairly strong, so whatever effect the change to the card backs had, it obviously didn't kill off the game. When Call of Cthulhu moved from being a CCG to an Living Card Game (LCG), the backs (which had "Collectible Card Game" on them) also changed. However, between the change in L5R (in 2000) and the change in Call of Cthulhu (in 2008), the use of card sleeves increased. As well, while Spirit Wars, the first expansion for L5R that featured the new card backs, was a direct continuation of L5R, the LCG Core Set, which introduced the new Call of Cthulhu card backs, was a re-launch of the game after it had all but died.

Fantasy Flight Game's introduction of the Living Card Game

I've spent a lot of money on CCGs through the years. A lot of money. Collectible card games are not a cheap hobby. By the time Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) introduced the LCG model I was buying two boxes of each expansion, sometimes more of the base sets. I was actively playing two games at the time (A Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu), both made by FFG. This was the amount of booster packs that I had to buy to get a good playset for each expansion, and at that, rarely a full playset (3x or 4x of each card). The days of having incomplete playsets, focused playsets on certain factions, or buying expansions a booster pack at a time were long over.

The LCG model released the expansions in full play sets (with 40 cards per pack -- with 3x10 cards and 1x10; later revised to 60 cards per pack with 3x20 cards). I loved it. It meant a huge cost savings for me. However, one of the members of my playgroup didn't like the change. He preferred the randomness of the CCG model and having an unequal number of copies of the cards. While I undestand he misses the excitement of opening a booster pack not knowing what cards he would get, I think the days of not being able to build any deck that we wanted because we were missing cards were long over by then.

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