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It's Your Move
07.20.11

It's Your Move

Every year the National Football League uses the draft method for recruiting new players to its teams. What that means is that teams take turns picking players from a pool. Whoever has first dibs gets the best player. Everybody takes turns until they've got all the rookies they need for the next season. The process is so dramatic and compelling that the event is televised, and fans simulate drafts in their fantasy football leagues.

Most tabletop gamers know the drafting mechanic from Magic: The Gathering. The collectible-card game is best known as a deck-building game—players customize their “libraries” from a pool of thousands of cards. The idea is to stack your deck with cards that mesh together, and to test your design against another player in a battle to the death. But the contest to build the deadliest deck becomes something of an arms race. That was the whole point of collectible-card games: players were compelled by the nastiness of their opponents’ decks to buy more cards. Though Magic: The Gathering takes wits to play, the benefits of an expensive, well-stocked deck were enough to discourage casual players.

Booster drafts emerged as a way to even the playing field. Participants in this particular kind of Magic tournament would show up with three “booster packs”—sealed packages of 15 random cards. Everybody would sit around a table, open one package, and pick what they thought was the best card in it. They'd pass the remaining cards to the next player and in return get a picked-over package from the player on their other side. The process continued until each player had cobbled together a deck to the best of their abilities. One could say the fun began when the players broke to test their decks out. But it turns out that the process of drafting is compelling on its own.

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7 Wonders, winner of this year's Spiel des Jahres Kennerspiel award, leverages the drafting process to help players construct architectural marvels, earn gold, and battle their neighbors. Players start each of the game's three rounds with a hand of seven cards granting resources, victory points, military power, or a variety of other perks. They take one, play it, and pass the rest around the table. By the end of the round each player will have selected and played six cards—discarding the last. Their individual wonders, like the Colossus of Rhodes or the Pyramids of Giza, gradually grow, gaining the goods needed for building, the arms required to fend off neighbors’ attacks, and potential points bonuses for the end of the game.

7 Wonders encourages players to be nosy neighbors. Smart card-drafting decisions are made not only by keeping the growth of your own wonder in mind, but by denying your neighbors the cards they need to flourish. This cutthroat approach is not unheard of among Magic: The Gathering drafters. If you don't want to face down a particularly nasty card in a draft tournament, you take it for your deck. Of course, this approach has the potential downside of reducing the efficiency of your deck. 7 Wonders: Leaders expands the game this month, adding an additional phase each round where players draft leaders, such as Midas or Ramses, to help them erect their marvel. That means more tough, delicious decisions to make when it comes time to pick one card and pass the rest.

One could say the fun began when the players broke to test their decks out. But it turns out that the process of drafting is compelling on its own.

2009's Spiel des Jahres winner Dominion enjoys its fifth expansion this month. And it too is about expanding options. In Donald X. Vaccarino’s clever deck-building game, players draft cards and simultaneously play the deck they're building. Part of the brilliance of Dominion is that the pool of cards players are drafting from changes from game to game. Players pick the 10 cards they'll be competing for, and no two plays of the game are quite the same. Hence the eager anticipation Dominion junkies feel before each expansion. This year’s Dominion: Cornucopia helps grow the pool of potential cards to hundreds. With a loose theme of “plenty,” the aim of this particular expansion is to encourage variety in drafting. One viable approach to Dominion is to buy up one or two types of cards that work well together and hammer on your streamlined deck until you win. New cards like “Hunting Party”—which allows you to fish through your deck for a card you don't already have in your hand—rewards players for building a varied deck.

Ascension: Chronicles of the Godslayer, designed by a team of pro Magic players, is one of many Dominion-like card games which have cropped up since 2008. But it is the first to make it to the iOS platform. And the download proves this particular kind of card game is suited to the format—the automation of deck dealing and shuffling makes the game move quickly, and reduces the possibility for player error (or cheating) when acquiring new cards. Here two players vie to gain cards from a shared deck—the top six cards are revealed and available to gain or attack. Each player begins with a thin deck, slowly building it to potency.

The interesting twist here is the dual resource pools. Cards with runes tend toward magic, allowing players to purchase more cards. Cards with power are straight brawn—they have little or no purchasing power, but can defeat monsters for victory-point gain and other benefits. Much of the fun in the quick game is dancing the line between the runes and power, and adapting your strategy as new cards fill the public pool. To belabor the metaphor, electing one approach or the other is like deciding whether to run the ball or throw. Ascension's transition to the screen isn't pretty—the interface is a gaudy mess of symbols, numbers, and questionable graphic-design flourishes. And online play isn't half as streamlined as in Carcassonne. But the quick, clever card game beneath survives all that. With only a single deck to play, though, a downloadable expansion will be needed sooner than later.

It's not about the strength of your cards or linemen, but how wisely you wield them.

But if there's one game that has demonstrated that this kind of card game can work on the screen, it's Magic: The Gathering. Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is the second adaptation of the collectible-card game for the PC, PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live Arcade. Both are notable for backing away from customization. Players don't build decks, but rather play with one of several pre-built libraries. The devoted may balk at this hobbling move; it seems to go against the spirit of the original game. But the removal of in-depth customization forces the player to focus more intently on the game's core mechanic of strategic troop deployment, smart resource management and smartly timed attacking. 

Imagine a National Football League where every coach could choose which of the organization's 32 teams they were going to field against the opposing coach. It's not about the strength of your cards or linemen, but how wisely you wield them. Once you learn the balanced decks that come in the Planeswalker games, your opponent can never blindside you with a card. As a nod to the tweakers, the latest edition allows players to thin unwanted cards from their decks—creating their own streamlined customizations. As it stands, either of the Planeswalker games is the best-possible introduction to the now-classic collectible-card game. And much of this is because customization is kept to a minimum. The cards you have are all you're ever going to get. 

It’s Your Move is a column covering the latest in card games, boardgames, and their frequent adaptation to digital. Gus Mastrapa writes primarily about videogames for places like The A.V. Club and EGM. Follow him at twitter.com/Triphiban.

Illustration by Michael Rapa