I would never claim to be a pro, but I’ve played my fair share of collectible card games. In some ways, I think we are in a golden age of the CCG. Designers now understand the ‘magic’ that Magic: The Gathering brought to the game industry better than ever. Players bases and enthusiasm seem large and passionate both online and in person. In this article I discuss Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone, and Star Wars: Destiny, based on a few criteria and draw conclusions based on my experience and preferences. I also assume some familiarity with CCGs and Magic (as to not waste time restating a rulebook). I value simplicity in explanation over giving a completely accurate summary of all the different possible scenarios that could unfold.
All of these games experience randomization and luck based on drawing cards from a deck. Magic uses 60 card decks with a maximum of 4 copies of non-basic lands. Compared to 30 card deck Destiny and Hearthstone uses (that allow up to a two of a card or one in some cases), there’s still the same ratio (15:1 odds, at best, of drawing a four of card at the start of the game). Without getting into math, it does mean that Magic has more variance in expected draw. In Magic and Hearthstone have less variance in the cards drawn and fewer choices to be made when building decks.
Ultimately, most CCG players do not seek a pure skill test game (such as chess) without the customization elements of deckbuilding. To create the type of gameplay, there has to be some kind of extra variance, but each game goes about it a vastly different way.
Magic: The Gathering
Variance: Mana, the primary resource in Magic, is acquired by drawing and playing lands that generate it. Typically, lands can make up 35-40% of your deck. If you draw the mana you need then you can cast the spells you want. Sometimes, decks with perfect mana bases just crap out. It’s a frustrating experience to draw no resources or all resources. Ultimately, this is the major source of luck and randomization distinct from the other games compared here.
Gameplay: Resources are generated from lands which lets you cast creatures and spells. Typically, creatures are the way to generate board presence. However, these creatures only interact with special abilities or by the defending player’s creatures blocking the attacking player’s creatures. This interaction feels like a ‘joust’ where creatures effectively volley back and forth between players making tilts. There are different phases of play, timing rules, and game states that make the game unintuitive in hedge cases. Overall, gameplay is fun, but board interaction often comes from one-off spells or limited arenas of allowed interaction. Games are typically won by dealing fatal damage to your opponent.
Limited: There are plenty of other options, but drafting it the king of Magic’s limited format offerings, and perhaps the unrivaled best limited play option in the genre. A pod of players constructs deck on the fly as they simultaneously open sealed boosters. Players have access to information on what other cards are available/desirable as they pass some on to their future opponents. Magic’s limited format removes much of the burden of constructed deck design (both cost and the baggage of poor metagames) and replaces with countless of critical decisions that pay off in the deck you are left to play games with. Drafting has its own metagame based on the card sets as well, so it does reward understanding the format, but does so as a skill test instead of a pure cost investment.
Variance: In Hearthstone, you gain resources each turn without any card draw. Some cards can mortgage your resources and others can increase them. With that in mind, Hearthstone needs an extra source of unpredictability. Enter the Random Number Generator. Hearthstone embraces its digitization and pulls out card lists, random targets, and random numbers. Hundreds of results are possible when you play some cards. Some of them can single-handedly save or doom a player. The RNG is inescapable as some powerful cards rely on the luck element baked in the game. Even if this variance is anathema, you can’t control your opponent’s card choices. Hearthstone favor stable resource curves and supplies the variance demanded for a compelling game experience with its random results of card play.
Gameplay: Hearthstone is similar to Magic wherein creatures (minions) act as the basic building block of board state. Where it differs, is the default interaction. In Magic, creatures need ‘help’ to interact. In Hearthstone, creatures can attack one another or the player. The default is increased interaction between the various components that make up the game state. Games are won by dealing damage to your opponent.
Limited: The Arena format is draft-lite. Gone is the shared pool of cards, inferences about other’s decks, and the shared player pool. Instead, you choose one of three classes offered and then one of three cards offered until you build a thirty card deck. There are massive gulfs between the quality of the cards seen pool to pool and a weak card selection can doom you before you begin moreso than in Magic’s draft. However, the format feels more fungible and accessible than Magic’s drafting (which has a $10 price range, typically). Ultimately, it scratches a limited itch without offering the same sophistication of a true drafting format.
Star Wars: Destiny
Variance: Destiny gives you set resources each turn in addition to the possibility of rolling dice for more. Destiny does not have the digital random number + database combination that Hearthstone does. It relies on variance by including dice. Certain cards roll out six sided dice when activated, with random results. These results are the primary source of damage, they generate extra resources, they hinder your opponent’s resources and force opponents to discard at random, and more. Other cards and abilities allow you to manipulate and reroll these dice. You may need a single damage to put away a game, and whiff, or you could roll out the only winning combination possible on a set of dice. Either way, this is the means by which extra variance is injected into gameplay. This luck is curbed by the card economy. Cards can be played for their written effects or discarded to reroll whatever dice you want in the face of an undesirable roll.
Gameplay: Rather than a static life total, players buy a starting squad of characters that make up their initial board and life total. Players add upgrades to their characters or play additional support cards to further the board state. Characters, upgrades, and supports roll custom dice that deal damage, allow special actions, assist the character’s owner or hinder their opponent. Damage is done to the characters and when characters take lethal damage they and their upgrades are lost. Each player takes one action a time, leaving little time for idleness. Either player can stop taking actions to ‘claim’ the battlefield to gain an in-game effect and initiative in the next round. Games end upon the elimination of all of one player’s characters or when a player has no cards in their hand or deck.
Limited: The biggest downfall of Destiny right now is lack of a limited format. With deckbuilding restrictions coming across a few restrictive axes, its currently set up better as a cube than a true ‘crack a pack’ setup. If the game wants to attract new players, or appeal for a weekly kind of gaming experience, some kind of limited solution would help immensely.
I enjoy all of the games immensely. For me, Hearthstone offers the most convenient way to scratch the CCG itch. I enjoy its interactivity and variance philosophy moreso than Magic. However, its Arena format pales in comparison to Magic’s drafting. Star Wars: Destiny offers the most sleek and well-conceived gameplay experience of all three. The connectivity between the characters and other dice-supplying cards in the game, the cards in your hand, the damage to deal and survival of your own characters is connected. Its game economy feels succinct and utterly complete. However, there’s no way to dip your toes into Destiny. It completely favors the completionist and collector and offers no structured limited option. For me, playing all three has been a great experience. Right now, I’m most excited about Star Wars: Destiny. A fresh game, with a wide open metagame, with slick interactions and compelling choices I think the future of my CCG play lies with more Star Wars: Destiny.