Quick! Finish that sentence! “Party”? “Die”? “Get funky”? “Duel”? If that last one was your response, then you get a gold star. What else do you think Asian kids ages 9-14 like doing if it’s not video games or anything physical? In the infinite forms of cardboard crack we consumed as either kids or adults, which ones give the best fix and which ones would we rather be paid to play?
So yeah, yours truly has a guilty pleasure. No, it’s not “Strike Witches is a great and excellent anime”, that’s for another day; it’s card games. Maybe it’s the sheer absurdity of saving the world by playing a children’s card game or maybe it’s my family’s love of gambling crossed with my love of geeky things, but either way, nothing beats cracking a booster pack on the way home. So that’s why I’ve set up this analysis of card games. What’s hot here and what’s hot in Japan in no particular order.
1. Magic the Gathering
The draw: The great grandaddy of card games itself, Magic is the first “board game” that was “bigger than the box it came in.” Since its inception, its legacy has lived on decades later. You’ll even meet a few duelists who duel with their own parents’ decks! The aim is simple: reduce your opponent’s life points to zero by summoning creatures, casting sorcery, and other helpful things. The player is known as a Planeswalker, a powerful mage who can warp between planes of reality with a wide breadth of skills at his or her disposal.
The gameplay: Players can’t do anything without mana. Players get mana by playing land cards. By tapping (turning sideways) a land card, you get one unit of that color of mana and exhaust that land card until it becomes your turn again. Bigger and better cards typically cost more mana, but you can only play one land card a turn. That way you can’t just run out of the gate with your best cards on turn one. Moreover, cards come in one of five colors (and sometimes multicolor); you’ll need the right color(s) in order to play them. This keeps players from making the most broken combinations of cards and parcels different strategies into different colors. It’s a great resource system, even with the prospect of drawing too many lands or not drawing enough of them.
As the oldest trading card game still going, Magic may have a barrier of entry for new duelists. Case in point, pick up a pack of the “Time Spiral” block and give it to a newbie; seeing all the weird rules and mechanics would be dizzying. Even I have to stop a beat when dueling with a real old-school duelist to understand what some cards do. Some folks may find this frustrating, or it could be “tapping into” an arcane knowledge depending on how your look at it. Or, it could just be a big headache. The rules are really simple, but sometimes the interactions of weird rules make for very complex situations. The rulebook itself is a several hundred page textbook. As long as you have someone who has been around the block, it shouldn’t be a problem though.
The flavor: Magic‘s world, it’s multiverse, is built through the flavor text on cards primarily and then through comics and fantasy novels. Each new block of sets has a new world with a new story to explore, making each experience a fresh start. Not all of the greatest duelists are keen on the storyline, but it has been a recent development in Wizards of the Coast’s R&D department to further link gameplay and story together. To figure out how some stories end, one would need to hunt down a novel or two. No cartoon or regular comic book to help it out. The card art though is gorgeous, made by many artists all over. You can even meet some artists at conventions or tournaments and get your favorite cards signed or the print for your favorite card art. Because who wouldn’t want City of Brass hanging in the living room?
The meta: Duelists will familiarize themselves with the Standard format, a format where only the most recent cards may be used in a tournament. Game balance is much easier but also quickly makes cards obsolete. Bigger formats that let you use older cards do exist though, and the biggest ones have rare cards that cost several hundreds of dollars. Competitively, some colors have a bigger edge in the game, especially with last year’s Standard favoring similar strategies. Secondary market is very big here in the States, but overseas it can be quite pricey. With Magic you will find all kinds of ages, from beginning duelists in high school to seasoned veterans that are working men and women. It takes you places.
The draw: With a legacy steadily approaching that of Magic, simulate the video game in offline card form.
The gameplay: The duelist is known as a trainer and must defeat six of the enemy’s Pokemon or until he or she has no Pokemon on the field, whichever comes first. To attack and deplete the enemy Pokemon’s HP, the Pokemon need Energy cards, which are like mana in Magic, that fulfill the attack’s Energy requirement. Pokemon square off one-on-one like in the games with ally Pokemon sitting on the bench to power up until they are called on. Pokemon may only be summoned if they are in their basic, unevolved, forms. When you have an evolved form, you stack it on top of the previous form and get new attacks and more HP. The big power cards are Trainer cards, which are like your spell cards but can for the most part be played en masse.
It’s a simple game really. Most attacks and effects rely on coin flips, which can be aggravating when you weigh odds for certain attacks. None of the cards, bar perhaps two, ever have actions during your opponent’s turn, no Instants or Trap cards. Resource management is a bigger deal since Energy attached to one Pokemon may not be sent to another unless via card effect. To track damage, damage counters are used, be they stones, paper, or dice. Progress is tracked by setting aside six unknown cards from your deck face down as prize cards, so you don’t know if that one card set as a prize is the one card you need. Since the only format is the Standard format, you don’t see many odd cards from the past making ambiguous rules situations with newer cards. And giving a rules rundown on how to handle EX-Pokemon, Level X Pokemon, Delta Species, and so on are simple to grasp, even in the heat of a duel. Though when multiple generations collide, there’s no real set-in-stone way to figure out if say Fossil Set Muk’s Toxic Gas Pokemon Power should have the ability to shut down Emboar’s Inferno Fandango Ability.
The flavor: The TCG plays second fiddle to the video game at large with most cards reflecting Pokemon, events, and locales from the Pokemon video games. Occasionally the card game will take up its own flavor like with the Delta Species sets. Sadly, there’s not much going on here. You won’t find amazing prints at cons or anything.
The meta: As the card game of my childhood, I will boast that I was the one person at school who knew how to duel and could do it well. For every hundred or so kids you saw cracking boosters, you could only really guess that a fifth of them had a deck or even knew the rules. Cards naturally grow obsolete through power creep, but even if the Pokemon of today weren’t as powerful as the Pokemon of yesterday, there are no formats played competitively outside of standard. The other consequence of this is that when a rotation ends, arguably not nearly as often as a rotation’s end in Magic, one will need to prepare to sell the outdated parts of one’s deck off quickly. This means that the only older cards that fetch well on the secondary market are the ultra-rare binder candy cards or rares and misprints from Base Set. Naturally the best decks will run Pokemon with beneficial abilities on the bench, powerful attacks when active, and with as few coin flips as possible. When it comes to Pokemon, you will also find duelists all across the age spectrum, especially dads and moms who have taken up their decks to make any duel a parent-child bonding event. And you thought the Poke-fan trainers only existed in the games.
The draw: Play the same game of Duel Monsters as the anime, though with much less cheating and no saving the world.
The gameplay: Players deplete life points by summoning monsters, playing spells, and setting traps. Unlike all the other card games in this article, Yu-Gi-Oh has no resource system barring sacrificing your own monsters as Tributes. More powerful monsters are summoned by paying Tributes and whereas Spell cards are strong, the stronger Trap cards may not be used the turn they are Set. Outside of your garden variety Normal monsters and Effect monsters, there exist lots of other monsters with their own summoning requirements. Fusion monsters need special requirements and the Polymerization card, Synchro monsters need a Tuner monster and other monsters to add their levels together, and the new Xyz (pronounced like “exceed”) monsters need you to stack multiple monsters of the same level. With all these card types, the first timer or returning player won’t have reminder text handy like in Pokemon or Magic.
Yu-Gi-Oh uses speed as a control mechanism when resources don’t really limit what cards you can play. Spells, traps, and monster effects have spell speeds that tell you what cards are allowed to be played in response to what. In comparison to Magic and Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh lets players a bit more involvement during their opponent’s turns, so you’re not a sitting duck when he or she says, “my move!”. However, this doesn’t stop rules ambiguities, and most of the time it’s a judge call of “because Konami says so.” Even if you know the ins and outs of how to play a card, card complexity takes its toll when you have to stop and read a decent paragraph about what a card does. Only recently did terms like “piercing battle damage” and “banish” enter the lexicon.
The flavor: There’s the usual anime providing backstory and flavor for most cards. Though some cards have their own stories not featured in the anime like the Duel Terminal planet. Card ideas are outta this world. Mystic Tomato, anyone? Or how about death by Wind-Up toys? Though you probably won’t find these crazy ideas in professional artist prints either. Even if you did find print-worthy pics, chances are Konami has edited card art to hell and back for the US release (for this I weep because we do not get Dark Magican Girl’s powered-up form as Kazuki Takahashi refused to let Konami edit her in the US release).
The meta: Yu-Gi-Oh has no rotating list like Magic does and nowhere near as heavy with rotations as Pokemon. Instead, Yu-Gi-Oh has an ever-changing banned list. Every six months certain decks and playstyles get hit by the ban list while others are freed from its clutches. Many veteran duelists have had the experience of having their favorite championship deck be wiped off the face of the planet by the ban list. Secondary markets for Yu-Gi-Oh can soar with card prices entering the high 70s and low 100s. Transactions run rampant all over Chinatown, even in the legit stores. You’ll need good street smarts to survive in this game.
4. Cardfight Vanguard
The draw: A new game on the block that has folks that helmed Yu-Gi-Oh at one point and is set to learn from its predecessors.
The gameplay: You have your Vanguard, an avatar representing you, and five other rear guards. First to deal 6 damage to the enemy vanguard wins. Your units are directly used as your resource. You cannot play higher grade units unless you first perform a “rise” on your vanguard by stacking a higher grade unit on top. And in every duel you have to start with a grade 0 unit. There are no spells or traps, and all your effects are tied to your units. To use effects of your units, you can tap like in Magic (called resting). Whenever your vanguard is attacked or attacks, you do a “Drive Check” where you look at the top card of your deck to invoke extra effects, kind of like critical hits in RPGs. As such, the element of top-decking saving the day is strong. There are lots of symbols to memorize and initial lexicon is a bit difficult, but for the most part it’s useful to save card text space. Some mechanics are also a bit arcane or not initially intuitive, such as the vanguard’s “Soul”, the cards underneath your current vanguard. Though to those that play for a bit, I suppose it will come.
The flavor: The cards themselves have professional manga-ka and artists for the art. It seems to have the professionalism of Magic’s art with the wackiness of Duel Monsters (e.g Oracle Think Tank is a corporation led by the goddess Amaterasu, it’s high-rankers are predominately female and very moe), the best of both worlds in my humble opinion. Best of all, the card art is not edited in the English release (that isn’t the case for Korean release though). The game also has an anime, but it’s actually about playing a card game…and it is about as interesting as watching two people play a card game in a hobby shop every episode…
The meta: To be honest, I can’t say much here. It’s a young game and plenty of card shops around Chinatown have been stocking it up; though investment worthy, I cannot say at the moment. Right now it’s a cheap game you can pick up for kicks, and chances are you can make the deck you like without breaking the bank. I literally found out about it when the card shop I visited one day filled a quarter-run hand crank machine full of CFV cards instead of YGO cards.
Art by 雨林
Barring the initial inception of Vanguard, I have had much experience with children’s card games. Many card games are out there, but not all of them make it. I still hold Magic as the most refined card game, being a strong influence not only in the US but even in Japan, especially in Japan. Perhaps, it’s the legacy of MtG that spurs Japan’s fascination with card games.
Pokemon is like a simpler version of Magic and is perhaps the easiest to pick up. It’s not as complex, but it’s rather balanced and like baseball to me. I don’t really enjoy it as much these days because I’m sitting on the side when it’s my opponent’s turn, like when they’re not at bat you just stick it out until it’s your turn again. But also like baseball, it was a pastime for me. Deck building in both games is very open-ended and lets the duelist find combos.
As for Yu-Gi-Oh, I won’t figure it nearly as balanced with the rotating ban list, but I enjoy its ideas. Just go wild with anything because anything can be card, even fearsome rabbit dragon hybrids. Building decks here is more restrained as most decks require specific other cards, so the decks spell themselves out more often (ex: Judgment Dragon needs other Lightsworn monsters in the deck, and lots of them). Then it’s just finding the deck you think is most broken. Where Magic is more of the gentry and Pokemon is more civilized, Yu-Gi-Oh is more street so to speak with a new broken combo of the week and everything up to 11.
Cardfight Vanguard is perhaps the most arcane but seems more balanced because it has a resource system like Magic and Pokemon. Deck construction tends to lead towards same-clan syndrome like in Yu-Gi-Oh, but that won’t hinder deck building if there are much more members of each clan to come or if two or more clans can feasibly work together in a deck. The top-deck mechanic focus can be off-putting but it’s novel, though I enjoy its art and concepts up there with Magic.
So that’s my opinion piece on current card games. It’s a form of socializing beyond your headset, and if you know what cards are big on the market, perhaps you could “confiscate” your students’ cards for a profit. Kidding of course. Join me next time where I will save the world by advertising a bag of marbles.
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