Note: I tried my best to make sure that you can read this article without knowing much about TCGs. If you have some idea of what “creatures”, “lands”, and “the graveyard” mean, you should be fine.
Though I only started getting into tabletop games in earnest in the past few years, Magic: the Gathering has been a passion of mine for almost half my life. From my early years in high school making complete garbage 115-card casual decks to my vain attempt at a Grand Prix last year, Magic has been a presence in my life – sometimes weaker, sometimes stronger, but always there.
I also hang out with a lot of anime fans, so I’ve gained some familiarity with other modern TCGs like Yu-Gi-Oh and Cardfight!! Vanguard. The strategy can be pretty dense if you don’t play yourself, but most of these games have a handy companion show to teach you the basics and help you understand what’s going on at the higher levels.
TCGs boast a huge amount of strategic depth and are wildly popular – Yu-Gi-Oh has sold tens of billions of cards around the world. So why don’t game designers talk about them as much as they do standalone board games?
Okay, that rhetorical question is a little “gotcha”-y. It makes sense why tabletop designers don’t talk about them, because there’s no point in designing them. TCGs require an audience that will continually pay you for more cards, tournament structure, prize support, and a gigantic budget. I would be surprised if anyone who doesn’t have big brand backing has released a surviving TCG in the last ten years.
(There’s also the question of whether Living Card Games like Netrunner are viable for the indie designer, to which I answer: It’s tricky, but doable.)
But just because designing a TCG is a bad idea doesn’t mean that using TCG design in your tabletop game is bad. TCGs have to be designed and balanced in peculiar ways, and if we look at it the right way we can learn a lot of lessons for any game.
What Gets Played
If you pour water into a container, it expands to fill the space; similarly, if you pour players into a game, they’ll unconsciously try the best strategy to win. Anyone who’s run a playtest can tell you stories of players who destroyed their entire prototype because they refused to play “properly” and instead took the optimal path. Most games, especially Euro-style cube pushers, constrain this by rigidly defining a few imperfect strategies through which players can win.
However, TCGs as a genre promise an immense amount of freedom for players to construct whatever strategy they want. This creates the risk of some of these strategies being too powerful or uninteractive to be fun to play against, but also provides room for creative and bizarre victories. These decks are crafted using different thinking than how designers look at a game, and as such can be valuable sources of inspiration for standalone tabletop games.
Let’s look at Magic for some examples. Basic Magic strategy, as the designers themselves describe to beginners, is something like this:
- Play lands to create mana, your main resource.
- Use this mana to cast spells.
- If you reduce your opponent to 0 life, you win.
Now let’s look at some ways players have, at a competitive level, blown these assumptions out of the water. In italics next to these are potential design questions you could draw from them.
- “I don’t need lands at all! I’ll dump a bunch of cards into the graveyard and get powerful effects that way!” Deck size as a resource! This has use in several games, but I could especially see it in deckbuilding games where a player’s deck size naturally increases over the course of the game.
- “I don’t need spells at all! I’ll just play two specific lands that create a monster that can win the game in one turn!” How heart-set are you on players using every mechanic in your game to win? Should your game encourage super-specialization (7 Wonders) or super-generalization (Agricola)?
- “I don’t need to damage my opponent at all! If I can stop them from playing anything relevant for the entire game, they will lose by drawing from an empty deck!” At what point does turtling become an unstoppable strategy? Is there a way to create extreme defense as a strategy in my game while still making it interactive?
None of these strategies were intentionally created by the designers, but they display a breadth of mechanical insights to those willing to put in the effort and study them.
What Gets Banned
TCGs, more than any other genre of game, encourage creative deckbuilding. So what does it mean when they have to step in and stop people from playing certain cards.
A ban is serious business – it’s effectively the designers admitting they screwed up and personally intervening, instead of passive-aggressively fixing problems through the next set release. They’re also messy and can invalidate decks into which people have sunk a lot of time and money. So if a design team bans a card, it means that it was so threatening to the welfare of the game as a whole that it was necessary to make some kind of sacrifice. From here, we can identify the difference between a strategy changing a game and ruining it, and apply these lessons to our own designs.
As an example, I want to bring up the banning of the Magic card “Second Sunrise”. It was the cornerstone of the “Eggs” deck, the strategy of which is too complicated for me to describe in this article but generally involved accruing tiny amounts of resources over and over again in a single turn before blowing out your opponent.
Eggs was a powerful deck, but it had counters and didn’t dominate the metagame like some of the more infamous decks of times past. No, the primary reason Eggs was dismantled was because it was powerful and boring.
Games would slow to a crawl when someone was playing an Eggs deck, especially someone inexperienced with the deck’s mind-meltingly complex workings. The deck also packed enough defense that opponents could frequently do nothing to stop an Eggs player’s 30-minute turn. Players started to leave the table during big tournaments because there was nothing else they could do.
From the standpoint of cold strategy, the Eggs ban was unnecessary in a reasonably diverse format. But the vast majority of games – and I hope your game is one of them – are designed so players can have fun. Knowing where to draw the line between “better game design” and “happy players” is a sacrifice every designer has to make eventually, and hopefully one that is made for the better health of the game.
How Things Get Fixed
Okay, now let’s get serious. Let’s talk about Yu-Gi-Oh.
Duel Monsters (the actual name of the game they play in Yu-Gi-Oh) was originally created as an off-brand Magic by manga artist Kazuki Takahashi. From the beginning, it was designed more to create situations in which the characters could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat than as a viable real-life card game. It was a natural decision to make a Duel Monsters you could play in real life as the manga became more popular.
Early Yu-Gi-Oh was, to be frank, a mess. One of the major rules when designing a TCG is to make sure to have some limitation on what cards you can put into a deck (like the color pie in Magic or the classes in Hearthstone) so players can’t just take the 50 best cards in the game and smash them together. Yu-Gi-Oh…didn’t have that, beyond a half-hearted “tribute” rule. And nothing in the rules could really justify introducing something like that, either. The worst offender cards were banned, of course, but no matter how low the power level was turned it didn’t stop this fundamental issue.
So the designers did something very clever: They started introducing more powerful cards. However, these cards had strict limitations in the form of deck archetypes. “Gem-Knight Fusion”, for example, is a strict upgrade to the standard “Polymerization”…provided your deck has nothing but Gem-Knights in it. These Gem-Knights, in turn, were powerful enough on their own that the restriction on Fusion meant very little.
It was a heavy-handed fix, but it did provide competitive Yu-Gi-Oh with the competitive diversity it needed to still be popular to this day. Japanese TCGs made later, notably Cardfight!! Vanguard, adopted the archetype system as part of their core designs, showing that not only did archetypes help fix Duel Monsters, they came up with a viable new way to approach the genre as a whole.
No game is without its issues, but with TCGs, we can publicly observe those issues being fixed (or made worse). Some of these fixes can be very clever, and having more ways to improve our games during playtesting in our toolbox can only be good. TCG designers frequently don’t have the time or resources to fix things the “right” way, and the practical solutions they invent when under pressure can be made to work for a lot of other games.
Artists and designers stagnate when they only look within their own community for inspiration, and I fear that’s what may be happening with tabletop games. Without observing our compatriots through the looking glass, tabletop games may become the equivalent of the hundreds of books about English professors considering affairs. Shake off the chains that restrict you to only one path and look around. Even if you aren’t interested in playing a certain genre of game, look at its history and strategy to learn from it.
But above all, what I want to stress is this: Any game that doesn’t have Outstanding Dog Marron in it is a pile of garbage.