Why the metagame is the best (and worst) thing about CCGs

Lately I’ve been thinking about CCGs.

For those of you who don’t know, a CCG is a collectible card game. Magic: The Gathering is the most famous example. In a CCG, instead of everyone sharing a common deck of cards, each player plays the game using his own deck of cards. The cards are sold in randomized packs, just like baseball cards, and you never know what’s in the pack before you open it. Each player uses the cards in their collection to build his deck before the game starts, carefully choosing each card going into it for its particular strength at a given strategy. The process of building a collection and creating decks from it is known as the metagame, and it is what separates CCGs from all other card games. A few CCGs have a market for individual cards, which fetch different prices based on rarity and game function.

It is precisely the metagame that’s on my mind. When Ian returned from a game convention in Laurel, he came back with a few thousand assorted cards for four such CCGs: On The Edge, X-Files, Jyhad, and Arcadia. These games were published 1994-1996, and died during the Great CCG Purge of ’97. Unlike Magic, these CCGs are no longer in print and are worthless. This is why Ian was able to get these cards for free. (I, on the other hand, returned from the same convention with an armload of old wargames.)

Ian and I have played and enjoyed CCGs for years. My first CCG was actually a dice game, Dragon Dice, which I learned back when the game debuted in 1995. I learned Magic the following year, and kept up with that game for most of the next decade. I never played Magic on the tournament level, only just casually, but I did keep up with the game’s hectic release schedule for several years. I later discovered other CCGs: Sim City, Doomtown, Netrunner, Pirates CSG… some of which were dead when I found them. I still play Doomtown and Netrunner frequently, and Magic from time to time. Ian and I have sat down to learn Mythos, 7th Sea, and Shadowrun before, and now we had four more to try out.

It was while playing around with the On The Edge collection, trying to both learn the game and build playable decks with it, that I came to an important realization about the metagame. I hate the metagame! I should be more specific though. Those who know me well should understand that I do enjoy the process of sorting and organizing things, and doing so with a big pile of CCG cards is no exception. What I hate about the metagame is that it turns a thirty-minute game into a six-hour game. I count the time commitment of a CCG in terms of how many other games could I have played with this time. This didn’t bother me when I was a teenager or in college, but as a bill-paying grown-up homeowner, someone who mows lawns not for allowance payouts but because it has to be done and I have to do it, the time commitment deducts away from things I’d rather be doing. (This is also why I’ve stopped watching television.) When I play a game, I want to jump right in and play. I don’t want to spend hours in advance preparing to play. I’m an adult… time is more valuable than money. If I have six hours to spend on gaming, I want to spend it maximizing my gaming variety, not sinking all that time into prep work. Spending hours preparing for a twenty minute game is like driving across three states to eat at Burger King. For this much effort, I could have gone to a steakhouse.

But the metagame is more complicated than that, more than just counting the hours and sorting cards. There is something really cool about playing a game using your own strategy. It works like Odyssey of the Mind, one of those academic contests where contestants build a machine to do a specific task. How exactly your machine does that task is up to you, within the constraints of the competition rules. Building a CCG deck is like designing a battle robot, and playing with that deck is like taking it into competition against other robots. Most of the work of winning is done before you arrive for competition. There is a lot of creativity and variety in machine design, and you can see some very novel approaches to problem solving. The beauty of CCG metagaming is the academic pursuit of building the perfect robot for a task, finding the most elegant and efficient robot for victory, of scientifically designing, building, and debugging a hypothesis. A CCG is an intellectual sport that taps into the same skillsets used in science, engineering, and programming.

So I love the scientific build and test part of the metagame, but I hate how much time that eats up. I suppose this explains why I like drafting rather than straight deckbuilding. But that brings me to my final insight about the metagame. The enjoyment of the metagame is directly proportional to the amount of experience I have with the game itself. Magic decks are fun to build because I really grok Magic. On The Edge decks are a chore to build because I don’t grok On The Edge. This finally explains why CCGs have always been such a small subset of gaming in general. If you don’t take the time to understand a CCG, to learn its nuances and strategies, to really and thoroughly grok it, the metagame will not be a pleasant experience but rather a chore. To extend my Odyssey of the Mind analogy to this point, this is how a liberal arts major feels when they try to design a robot. Only when you truly understand the principles behind the game does the metagame become fun and exciting. The tricky part is that the metagame is a fundamental part of playing the game, as essential as knowing the phase order of a turn or how many cards are in the starting deal. Sure, you can learn a CCG using somebody else’s deck, but then you miss out on the science fun of metagaming, and thus the most rewarding part of a CCG is avoided and you might as well be playing Fluxx. One cannot merely dabble in a CCG… you must either study it or drop it.

This also explains why the CCG market is so fundamentally singular. The metagame creates a high attention barrier against entry. Magic is a lifestyle game, like Chess or poker. Those who like to play it play little else (compared to eurogamers who play a wide variety of games only a few times each). They devote large amounts of time to it, and this leaves little time for the pursuit of other games. It’s true… when I played Magic, I played little else, and when I started playing other games, my interest in Magic waned away. This applies to other CCGs too. It is difficult to divide one’s intellectual focus amongst several CCGs. The subset of multi-CCG players is smaller still than singular CCG players. CCG connoisseurs are rare; it takes a unique and special mind to be able to study, play, and enjoy the pursuit of multiple CCGs. And that, ultimately, is why the CCG market has had so many terminal crashes over the years. The market gets oversaturated with CCGs, and then a great extinction event occurs. In 1997, hundreds of CCGs died like pre-Cambrian trilobites, their fossils remain buried in shoeboxes in closets and in game store bargain bins. The gaming market can only bear so many CCGs, and that number is small, perhaps no more than five. Unless a CCG can gain enough traction to cultivate its own following of lifestyle devotees, it will fail, because the CCG market is zero-sum and there are only so many CCG-gamer brain cells to go around. Malthus was right… about CCGs.

So here I sit, surrounded by CCG cards, able to look back on a transformative era in gaming that is fifteen (nearly twenty) years behind us, and reflect on it with the clarity of hindsight. Publishers keep making new CCGs, and I hope they aren’t surprised when those CCGs die. Such is the nature of the business plan. I look upon Fantasy Flight’s new direction, the LCG, with interest, as maybe it will keep the game format alive. FF’s "living card game" plan realizes that a CCG can be played with any big pile of cards, not just one mountain of randomized booster packs per player. Sell enough fixed non-random card packs to one gamer, and he and his buddies will have enough to perform metagame science with. This does nothing to alleviate the time commitment of the metagame, but at least you can still draft with an LCG collection. All these On The Edge cards came in one big box for me, already transmuted into LCG form, and I can’t tell nor care to determine which cards are collectible. All I see is a sandbox full of cardstock.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a hypothesis to test.

Nifty Wikipedia Thing: The Great Paris Exhibition Telescope of 1900

Movies I’ve Seen:

Death Race 2000 (1975) ~ I found Frankenstein’s stoicism intriguing

Star Crash (1979) ~ Star Wars rip-off goes whoosh

Shock Treatment (1981) ~ Rocky Horror "sequel" insufficiently abstract

Lair of the White Worm (1988) ~ More movies should deliver expository dialogue through Scottish drinking songs

Kick-Ass (2010) ~ Don’t be a hero, dude!

What I’m Reading:

"Tender is the Night" by F. Scott Fitzgerald


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