“I wouldn’t say that they’re competitors,” European community manager Dan Barrett told me. He’s showing me the latest build of Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015, the digital version of Wizards of the Coasts Collectible Card Game, Magic: The Gathering. “Hearthstone is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s what I would call an Action Trading Card Game whereas Magic is more of a Strategy TCG.”
Hearthstone has made major waves since it was released earlier this year, introducing thousands of players to the genre, a genre created by Magic: The Gathering more than 20 years ago.
“Action TCGs are play on your own turn, you don’t interact on your opponent’s turn, as you do in Magic with instants,” Barrett said. In Magic turns are broken down into phases, your moves can be countered by your opponent, and you can try and counter those countermoves by playing cards that bestow an instant effect on your monsters, buffing its strength, for instance.
“You’re typically using smaller decks, quicker games,” Barrett continues. “They’re generally a lighter experience. They’re very character focussed. In Magic it’s about the open-ended ability to build any combination of cards in your deck.”
When I met Cory Jones, Cryptozoic’s creative director and the main driving force behind Hex: Shards of Fate, a CCG with a ruleset that mirrors Magic: The Gatherings, he said that one of the advantages Hex had was it began as a digital game.
“A lot of conventional TCGs are painting on a canvas which is 10 inches by 10 inches,” Cory said of physical TCGs. “We have a whole roll of canvas. The amount of innovation and design space available because of the digital piece, it’s not like ten times the space, it’s 1,000 times the space.” He pauses. “It’s crazy.”
“Restrictions breed creativity,” he says. “The fact that our cards are, for the most part, represented in paper means there are certain restrictions on what can and can’t be done with them. However, that means you can be creative with what you do in that medium.
“One of the things the lead designers on Magic have said is that they will run out of themes for new cards, sets, and blocks before they run out of new ideas. When you see a new set of cards, which has got 150 new cards in it, to get to that 150 new cards they will have gone through several hundred more, or even thousands more ideas and iterations. There will be entire mechanics that have been set aside for potential future use. I’m not worried in any way that they’ll run out of ideas or the ability to create new cards.
“To explore this idea a little bit more, there are things that were previously said to be impossible and they found a way to do it. For instance, in the Innistrad block a couple of years ago, they introduced cards with two faces on them. Every other Magic card has the card art on the front and the back it’s the same back. In Innistrad we introduced double-faced cards, cards with a card on one side and a card on the other with various different mechanics for how to transition from this card to this card. When you’re playing with a shuffled deck of cards they all have to have the same back so they had to invent the idea of a checklist card to get around it.”
Basically, you’d have your double-backed card separate from your deck and your checklist card shuffled into the deck. When you drew that checklist card, if you met the play conditions of the double-backed card, then you could now play your fancy pants double-sided card.
“Each new set and each new block introduces new mechanics that change the game in ways like this,” Barrett said. “There are hundreds of them and hundreds more to come.”
Whatever the case, whether a game is an Action TCG or a Strategy TCG, Barrett doesn’t shy away from them: “If there are new people coming to this world of games via things other than Magic, that’s great. There’s a chance they might find they want to play a game with more strategic depth.”
We’ll have our preview of Duels of the Planewalkers 2015 up soon. Hint: Wizards of the Coast have reason to be confident.